"You deit have to prove yourself every second of every day. you are already enough"
When I was younger, I was a great orator. I began what became a very popular speaking tour independently, at the age of 17. What can I say? I had that entrepreneurial spirit; I knew what the people wanted and I served it up to them with enthusiasm. My lectures and monologues were filled with delightful digressions and absurd asides. Sometimes I’d throw in a little mime or some interpretative dance – my audiences always appreciated these randomly injected bits of flair. They would laugh or gawk or roll their eyes, but their envy and delight was obvious.
I knew at a young age that I had to work hard to be loved or appreciated or even seen. I was a girl, after all, and girls were, generally speaking, silly and boring. We didn’t lead nations forward or write the laws. We used our looks and our wits to charm in the boudoir. But I was determined to be better than the other girls. I wanted a concert hall filled with men, chuckling appreciatively, shaking their heads at my stunning insights into the universe. I knew that I was just attractive enough to be visible, but not attractive enough to simply exist. All I needed was a few glasses of wine to get started, and then, from my mouth flowed a steady stream of what amounted to marketing propaganda: blustery pronouncements, smart-ass observations, pointed insults,
mocking, faintly emotional statements of purpose, idealistic rambling, harsh impersonations. Something told me I’d better outperform the competition or I’d be left in the dust, alone.
And what was worse than being alone? Nothing. My father’s steady stream of girlfriends were a testament to that. ‘Find some great guy when you’re young,’ one of them told me when I was just 19 years old. ‘Don’t wait.’ I didn’t want to screw up and find myself single past the age of 30, but that meant being adored not just by one man, but roundly admired by a whole room full of men. Who could trust their superior product to a target demographic of one? It was clear I’d need a few backup clients in case my original customer base fell through.
Even though my giddy speeches and improv comedy shows slowed down as I grew older, my unpaid freelance speaking career still hinged on one idea: that I wasn’t good enough the way I was. I had to be making jokes or telling stories. But I also had to be attractive, like any good spokesmodel, forever on my way to beautiful but never quite reaching that end point. I had to be slim and fit. I had to be productive and upbeat. But not only that, I had to anticipate how other people saw me, address and rebut those perceptions, and redirect their focus towards my strengths. I couldn’t just entertain and delight and inform, I had to debate. I had to ward off criticism and actively fight against naysayers. I had to sniff out traitors and betrayers and address them directly, and change their minds.
Not surprisingly, when I was in a bad mood or a little bit quiet or not quite up for tap dancing on top of every table, I experienced it as a kind of moral failure on my part. I was furious at myself. I was like a bad mother, telling her fragile child, ‘Now no one will ever love you!’ I didn’t know that it was okay to be a vulnerable human being with flaws and no prepared defence.
I didn’t know how to stand still.
The ramifications of this are so plentiful I don’t know if I can list them all, but let’s start here: I only felt worthy when I had a boyfriend and a few backup boyfriends waiting in the wings. I undervalued my friendships with women. I had trouble focusing on my career, because I never wanted anything for my own satisfaction. I didn’t know how to feel good about myself in a vacuum. I mostly saw my career as a way to ensure that men would always be interested in me. In some ways, I had faith in my talent. But I also believed that if I gained weight or became unemployed or got ugly or had nothing to say, I would be worth nothing. This wasn’t a conscious belief, but it lurked under the surface of everything I did. Fear guided my decisions. But this also meant that I didn’t value human beings who had gained weight or become unemployed or weren’t adequately attractive. I didn’t value myself beyond some imaginary person I might become. I didn’t value connection. I just wanted to feel safe.
So this is what I wish I knew when I was 20: I wish I knew I could just exist instead of always working so hard, and I would still be good enough. I wish I knew that once I retired my fabulous speaking tour, not only would everything get easier, but everything would seem brighter, more colourful, more alive. When you know how to value your own experience, alone in the world, a path opens up in front of you. Every breath feels like a gift. You can walk outside and stretch your hands up to the sky and feel grateful and thrilled to be here. You can see other people on the street clearly, and empathise with them. You know they’re not more or less than you. Human beings matter, period. When you finally understand that you don’t have to prove your worth every second of every day, mostly to audiences who you now see were pretty ambivalent about your performance to begin with, your real life begins. You don’t have to overexplain or debate. And for the first time, you have rights. You don’t have to prove that someone else is bad in order for you to be good. You can protect yourself and treat yourself with care. You can treat others with care. And you can want things for yourself without shame. You don’t have to justify your own heart. You don’t require illusion or escape to survive. You can live in reality.
It’s hard to be happy until you realise, in your heart, that you are enough right now, exactly the way you are. It’s hard not to be happy once you do.
‘YOU DON’T HAVE TO JUSTIFY YOUR OWN HEART’
‘I didn’t know it was okay to be vulnerable’