When I stand up for myself I feel…

The Supermom action figure: She does everything, but nothing well

…selfish, self righteous, wrong, scared, intimidated, unworthy, alone, untethered. I don’t like to stand up for myself.

Funny, I spent years working as an anti-bullying trainer to teach students and teachers to stand up for themselves. I’m finally facing my own ugly truth. I can’t do it for myself. I can’t even return things I buy that I ultimately decide I don’t want.

I’m not kidding. I never take anything back. I throw out moldy Trader Joe’s produce. I donate defective electronic equipment with tags still intact. I won’t even return clothes that don’t fit me.

I’ve made progress lately though. And I owe it all to Zappos. Somehow the anonymity of mail order allows me to order heaps of different foot wear options and, through an ardent process of desensitization, I’ve conditioned myself to send back every pair that doesn’t suit me. This is a big step in the right direction (pun intended.)

The problem isn’t knowing where I stand. I stand up for myself plenty, in private. I even know I’m right most of the time. I just lack the capacity to share that information with anyone else for fear that I may upset or disappoint them. So I opt instead for always being wrong. I’m so neurotically aware of every tiny thing I do wrong and I focus on it until it seems like I just don’t ever do anything right.

I remember the first time I learned that being self-deprecating could work in your favor. I was 7 or 8 and I’d done something minimally wrong at my grandparents house. I worked myself into a frenzy, crying hysterically, nearly hyper-ventilating. Then I ran into the dining room, where the grown-ups were enjoying the final tasty morsels of sour cream cake and coffee, and I told them all what a horrible, worthless cretin I was. I explained that I’d done something so heinous I could never be forgiven, that saying I’m sorry would be an absurdly insufficient act. They stared at me, jaws down to their knees. “Come now,” they each began, “nothing could be that terrible. Surely we can make this better. Just tell us what happened.” It was fairly a no-brainer. The harder I was on myself, the easier the rest of the world was on me.

I don’t think I did it consciously. But from that point on, I rode myself hard. Anything short of perfection necessitated a staunch personal rebuke. I was merciless. If I got a B on a test, I was an imbecile and banished myself to my room to study for hours on end. If I left my sack lunch at home, I deserved not to eat (for several days). If I disappointed my parents, I’d pack my little suitcase and honestly convince myself that I needed to leave in order to save my family from any additional horror and disappointment. (I remember doing that once or twice in the beginning of my marriage. It didn’t go over well with my husband.)

The sad thing is is that I am now a middle-aged woman, still living in this ancient model of self-reproach. I still cannot tolerate disappointing anyone. I used to stay in relationships forever because I couldn’t bear to be the one to end something and hurt someone else’s feelings. I remember going on a first date with this man who told me he’d recently left a relationship. I asked him, in all sincerity, if his ex knew about his departure or if it was still sort of unclear. He thought I was insane. I couldn’t really explain that I’d ended many relationships in my mind only to get home to my apartment and find dozens of sunflowers or roses and a card thanking me for being such a committed, loving partner.

It’s like the fear of disappointing anyone is my prime motivating factor in life. That’s not healthy. That’s why no matter what I do for my family, I chide myself that it’s not enough. If I force myself to spend a day doing mindless, depressing domestic duties, all I can see is the myriad of other tasks I’ll never manage to get to. When I spend money, I chastise myself for spending too much. When I crave attention from my husband, I berate my status as needy, dependent housemate. When I devote all of my energy to creative tasks that fulfill my soul, I feel guilty and evil that I’m not there for my kids. I basically have created a lose- lose situation in every arena of my life.

Being able to consciously see this pattern is kind of amazing for me, and baffling. Why would someone do this to themselves? Find themselves so faulty and guilt-ridden over every choice they make, they end up wildly pinging like a pinball between selfish needy people who continually ask for more and are never satisfied. The more I give, the more people want and the more I see how I’m always falling short of meeting their needs.

Yikes, this is way more revealing than I ever intended. Guess I was wrong to share it.

The maternal myth

My mother wasn’t into mothering. It’s not that she didn’t love me and my sister. I truly believe that she did…er…does. It’s just that care-taking wasn’t her bag. She’s not a nurturing, selfless kind of person. I’ve accepted that. I’ve moved on to bigger and better psychological traumas. I’m not bitter, really. I understand my mother’s limitations.

My mom did the best she could with what she had. (My husband says that too often I forgive major personality flaws using this line of reasoning.) But it’s really true. We’re all out there trying to do the right thing, trying to love our kids, manage our families, support our spouses, earn a living. It’s not easy. And we all excel at different tasks. My mother’s talent wasn’t mothering. In fact, she never kept a common house plant alive for more than ten days. But she’s great fun at a party. She’s charming and bright, and although she claims not to clamor for the limelight, she’s a source of unending drama and Lucy-like antics for all of her friends and family.

I realized something today though that I think can change me forever. You see, I walk around in the story that I’m her. I live in the myth that I’m not a good mother, just like my mom. I tell myself I don’t give enough, love enough, sacrifice enough. Ironically I only figured this out because of our new puppy. I mean I always feel loads of self-disappointment when it comes to parenting. I’m like a petri dish full of rapidly reproducing guilt particles. But I saw something today that was rather stunning.

I’ve never had a pet. (Big surprise, mom never wanted the mess or hassle). So in my never ending quest not to be her, we adopted this 3 month old pup who I feel more responsible for than both my 6 and 9 year old sons put together. I can’t seem to leave her alone for more than an hour during the day. This makes living my life more than difficult. So some days, like today, I take her with me all day. We go to the doctor, the therapist, the theatre. She sits through rehearsals, meetings, karate classes. And by the end of the day we’re both exhausted.

Tonight I went to take a bath and unwind and I felt this horrible guilt. I wasn’t spending the evening totally with her. Maybe she was let down. Maybe she was disappointed. Maybe she needed me and I was selfishly soaking in a tub of hot lavender water. Suddenly it hit me. This message of “you’re not giving enough” is the loudest, most consistent loop that plays on incessantly in my head. I hear it with regards to my kids, my husband, my work, and now my dog.

Maybe that idea of always falling short comes from the reality I experience in relationship to my mother. She has truly never been enough for me. My model of maternity is one that is always lacking, always just a few cards short of a full deck, a few fries short of a happy meal, a can short of a six-pack…well, you get the idea. But just because that’s what I know doesn’t mean that’s what I have to live.

I do a lot for my kids. I love them immensely. I play with them. I laugh with them. I spend time with them. But there’s always more time, more energy, more effort. If I keep focused on the time I’m not with them, I’m doing myself a disservice. It’s the same with Maggie, (the puppy.) She knows she’s loved. And my job isn’t to be everything to her at every moment of every day.

Maybe my mom wasn’t enough for me. Maybe her limitations taught me more about how to disappoint than how to meet expectations. But I’m a grown up now. And it’s up to me to decide where I choose to focus my energy and efforts. I can look at the kids and think, “I wasn’t with them from 8 to 4 today.” Or I can sweep them into my arms when I pick them up at school and love them more than I’ve ever loved them. What’s disappointing about that?