In all twelve-step programs, one of the steps is to take a personal inventory, which means taking an honest look at ourselves and confronting ideas and behaviors that cause us problems. These include all the ways we prevent ourselves from being the people we want to be, and seeing ourselves as our best selves. These are also the behaviors that can bring us into conflict with the people we care about most, and that may also hold us back from being most effective at the work we want to do. If you think about it, learning to identify and acknowledge our weaknesses is a critical aspect of radical self-love, an ongoing process of being aware of who we are in the world, and how our choices and behaviors affect those around us – whether or not we realize it.
It’s important to emphasize right from the start that what I’m not talking about here is making a list of all the ways we screw things up and using that as an excuse to beat ourselves up. Doing that is like trying to drive a car with the parking brake on and having the car in neutral. You’ll make a lot of noise but you won’t go anywhere, or, as a friend of mine used to say, lots of heat but no light.
The oldest cliché in the world is “no one is perfect” and yet somehow, we all spend a lot of time expecting ourselves to be the exception. We also live in a society and under a political system that assures everyone is in a constant state of intense stress; this has intensified under our current political regime to such an extreme level that even if we don’t consciously feel it all the time, our bodies and psyches do. This is obvious but still true: stress does not bring out the best in most people. This reality is something we all need to be aware of so that we can recognize when we are acting in ways that bring to the surface and perpetuate old habits and problematic issues.
I recently had a serious “wake-up call” that forced me to look at my own behavior very critically and think about what it was in my thinking and attitudes that translated into the situation in which I found myself. An allegation of racism – eventually dismissed – was made against me by a student who felt diminished by something I said to her. It didn’t matter to me that I knew the student had not understood what our conversation had been about; what mattered was that she felt diminished and that was what was important.
I had to confront the fact that I had been guilty of an excess of pride and unwarranted self-confidence which led me right into the arms of arrogance. I was so anxious to do a good job and so sure that my intent would be perfectly clear that I jumped in way over my head. I was inexperienced, in an unfamiliar region of the country with a different culture; I made assumptions based on a belief that I understood things I didn’t and on my eagerness to create a welcoming environment. To make matters worse, I found I had been tone-deaf and naïve about how others were seeing me.
In the end, the result was the polar opposite of what I set out to accomplish; I was ashamed and felt I had humiliated myself completely.
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I look at it now and see all the mistakes I made, and how and why I made them. I can’t say I won’t make any of them ever again, but it’s unlikely it will be in the same way and in the same kind of setting. I can also acknowledge where I did well in the classroom, and where others bear a part of the responsibility for what happened. I didn’t spend a lot of time beating myself up for it, because there was no point – I couldn’t undo it; which isn’t to say it wasn’t a horrible and painful experience. I definitely learned from it, however.
The hard reality is there will always be problematic parts of our personalities that cause us struggle in our lives.
Our weaknesses are often the dark twin of our strengths
One of my favorite poems by Adrienne Rich is called “Power.” It is about Marie Curie, the two-time Nobel Prize winner who died from radium sickness after discovering the elements polonium and radium. The last lines of the poem are about how Curie died denying that: “her wounds came from the same source as her power.”
Understanding that the source of our weaknesses is often the same as our greatest strengths and power is a profound truth that Rich shows us beautifully in this poem. I know it is inevitably my over-reactions stemming from passion that get me in trouble, lead me to act, speak or send an email before I’ve had a chance to think about whether that is really what I want to do, or say and when I want to do or say it.
I recently almost got myself evicted from my apartment because of my big mouth – I managed to talk the landlord out of it, but realized I had reacted really stupidly to a manageable problem with an unexpected rent surcharge. My problems are always the result of letting my passion getting the better of me, of getting over-confident, arrogant and all the other unattractive and unproductive aspects that go along.
Yet, the same passion, anger, and indignation when things aren’t right are what drive me and make me successful as an activist, writer and speaker. As I got older and more experienced, as I learned to listen better and control my passion, I learned to use that passion to my advantage, and it is also my greatest strength. The better I got at my work, the more confident I got. By the last several years before I retired, I was fearless when I spoke up, but I also knew when not to bother to say anything. Unfortunately, those skills don’t always transfer over into my everyday life.
Let the people you love be there to support you and love you back.
Something I had to remember was to let my friends support me. I didn’t do that for weeks. I didn’t tell anyone what I was going through, I was too ashamed. None of my friends are nearby because I don’t live at home anymore. Finally, weeks after the fact, I started telling a few people, then a few more, and then I started to remember that I do have friends who love me and care about me, they’re just not here where I live now. I started getting support and caring and reinforcement that I was a good person in spite of the mistakes I’d made. I’m someone who tends to isolate and cocoon when I get depressed or feel attacked or things aren’t going well. It’s not a good strategy, take my word for it. Letting others in is letting the light in, and we all need the light to grow.
Who are we? vs. Who we are vs.
Who we want to be . . .
It’s back to the same cliché as I called on before – none of us is perfect, we’re all human, we all struggle. Sometimes we do better than others. We will definitely screw up, bomb out, hurt people we love, hurt ourselves. And then, if we take advantage of the tools of radical self-love to help us put ourselves in perspective in the larger scope of things, we pick ourselves up, allow ourselves to grieve the pain we caused to ourselves or others, give, ask for, and allow ourselves to receive forgiveness (because we all, yes, all of us, deserve forgiveness), try to learn from what happened, and keep moving on.
It helps to remember there is a larger world around us.
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In the end, it’s helpful, if not at some point necessary, to figure out who or what we want ourselves to be.
My perception of myself was seriously shaken by the situation in which I found myself earlier this year; I was forced to reexamine how I was seen by others and compare it to who I believe myself to be. It was like watching a movie where the frames are out of sync. Hard as that was, it was an opportunity to work at putting them back in sync and to reaffirm my confidence in what I want myself to be.
I think it is one of the biggest challenges we have to deal with when confronting our problematic selves – being confident of who we are and what part of ourselves the problematic she is, and to what extent we must embrace her in the struggle to find our authentic selves.[Feature Image: A group of diverse people are walking down the street. Pexels.com]