I am one of those semi-freaks you hear about who’s infinitely more afraid of success than failure. For me, failure has always been comfortable, mainly because it was familiar. There’s a reliability in failing: you don’t get what you want (which you knew all along you weren’t deserving of anyway) and you disappoint the people closest to you. It’s an all-around good time, failing. There’s something comforting about it – and hey, it’s universal. It’s something we all do at one time or another. (Except for Jesus.) I always thought of myself as a failure, and the cool thing about it was, I was probably better at it than you were. BOOM – I win at failing.
But when my ass got sober, it was probably the first time in my life that it truly occurred to me that I could do something right. That I had some sort of say-so in whether or not things turned out my way. It’s an extremely simple theory — that you can take charge of your destiny — but nevertheless, one that seems incredibly hard to grasp. So when I got sober (and I’ve managed to not fuck that up for seventeen months & six days) it occurred to me that maybe there was some other shit I could do successfully. That maybe my tendency to always fail wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Maybe.
I haven’t known what to do with success though. For all of my desire to achieve it, I haven’t the foggiest goddamned notion of what to do once I get there. I am uncomfortable with succeeding. I am the JD Salinger of the general public: if I do something noteworthy and astonishing, and receive accolades, I almost immediately contract paralysis-by-analysis and crawl back into the hole I came from, not to be heard from again, because I don’t know what to do with myself.
For one thing, I detest praise. Well, let me clarify: I love attention…I just don’t know what to do when someone starts heaping praise on me. I automatically think they’re shitting me, number one. (After all, I’ve been known to blow smoke up people’s asses on occasion, so what’s to say I’m not on the receiving end of that myself?) Number two, I feel unworthy of it, like it’s being wasted on me. And number three, it instantly goes to my head. I used to beg a tennis instructor of mine not to use positive reinforcement with me.
“What do you want me to say, then?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I said. “You say nothing.”
Because almost as soon as he uttered a, “Wow, that was a beautiful backhand!” I’d get giddy, lose my focus and boof the next shot. Praise was a bad omen.
Maybe it stems from not coming from one of those gooey, “we know you did your best, sweetie and we love you so much anyway” types of households.
If I messed up, I absolutely was going to hear about it. Criticism was meant to *do* something — wear you down, humiliate you, put you in your place, bring you down to size, trip your inner resolve, whatever. Soft-spoken praise was somewhat rare and seen mostly as superfluous. You made good grades? Goddamn right you did; that’s what you were supposed to do anyway. What, do you want a cookie? Actually, scratch that, you don’t need a cookie — it’ll make you fat.
And after 18 years of that, I of course decided to enter the creative writing realm of higher education, thereby subjecting myself to seven consecutive years of workshops, where if someone was feeling a bit asshole-ish that day, you and your precious darling of a story could get eaten and shit out sideways.
You learned to toughen the fuck up or pretend like you had.
Conversely, for as much as I don’t deal well with praise, I haven’t exactly developed a thick skin after all this time, either. I am one of those infuriatingly empathic, sensitive types, and I take everything personally. (Because hey, everything is about me. Because hey, alcoholic.) Maybe because they’re kissing cousins, but being rejected feels as normal to me as failing at some endeavor. I sometimes don’t know how to let people love me. And if they tell me they do love me, and even show me, I am still in a constant state of suspension, where I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. (Yes, it’s as exhausting as you think it is.) Alex, who is so sweet and so attentive and so demonstrative with his feelings for me, has gotten a taste of this trait of mine. Yet somehow, maybe because of who he is or what he’s dealt with in his life, I think he understands this side of me. Instead of chiding me for it, he just sticks around and keeps loving me.
I guess the good news is, I’m aware that it’s there, this hypersensitivity, this expectation of future rejection. And even better news, I am trying to remedy it. (Reading a super book called Unworthy by Anneli Rufus, which bears the tagline: What would you do today if you didn’t despise yourself? Go get this. Read it. Grow. Heal.) It’s become clear to me that my self-esteem is for shit. When and how that started seems less important than reversing it as best I can. Like all personal and spiritual challenges, the remedy will not be simple or easy. But a remedy does exist, and I’ve chosen to (try to) take it.
I mention all of this shit because of my weight loss. Since I’ve been sober, I’ve lost 65 lbs, 25 of which has come after my surgery in April. People at work are noticing. (I have noticed only in that my clothes fit better. I still look at myself in the mirror and sigh.) The thing is, though, that I’m forever comparing myself to someone else’s progress. I have a friend who lost 50 lbs in her first three months after surgery; I will be hard-pressed to be down 35 in that same time frame.
Friends are telling me what I already know but need to hear anyway: stop comparing yourself to what everyone else is doing. You’ve lost 65 fucking pounds, and you’re going to continue losing. You are doing what you need to do to feel better, get around better, have more energy, sleep better, look better, work better and live better. Your weight loss, they tell me, is a success.
Eeesh. There’s that word again.
Because yes, I have a fear about weight loss, which is a sought-after success of mine. My fear about it is deep, and not spoken of much, but it goes something like this: what if I lose weight and it’s not enough? What if people still don’t want me around them? What if I’m still not desirable or good enough? Because then it’s never been about what I look like, like I thought it was; it’s who I am that is, in and of itself, undesirable. *I* am undesirable. Me, at my core. Who I am…is unwanted. That’s a bitch of a message to receive. Talk about taking a toll.
The adult in me understands that I am not, nor will I ever be, for everyone. No matter what you do, there’s some (to utilize a common colloquialism of the younger crowd) hater out there who won’t like you regardless. The guys who think Kate Upton is fat. Or that Mark Zuckerberg is a dumb dipshit. Or that Malala Yousafzai really should pluck her brows. You can’t worry about your detractors, because you’re going to have them. It’s a fact. There will forever be at least one person out there who would get in line to tell the world what a seething shitbag you are, whether they even know you or not. Because this phenomenon seems hellish to some (*raises hand*), there are those (*hand again*) who then spend an inordinate amount of time in overdrive mode to prevent this very fact of life. And that, my friends, is an absolute exercise in futility if one ever existed.
I have always secretly admired the women who did what they wanted, how they wanted, and if someone didn’t like it, they’d hurl a big fat, “Fuck you, then!” and go about their business as usual. Haters? Poof, begone.
To me, it’s always been more inspiring to see a woman do this than a man, since — let’s face it — women tend to get shit from all directions: each other, males and society in general. Anyway, while walking my neighbor’s dog the other night, a gust of wind came by and blew up the corner of my new summery dress. I caught a reflection of my chubby knee in a glass window and winced. Immediately, my mother’s voice came into my head: That dress is a little short, JP. I don’t think I’d wear that again. Or maybe her go-to favorite: Too clingy. But just as quickly as that voice piped up, I heard another. I’m not sure whose it was, but it said, “Fuck it. It’s summer, it’s hot, and I’ll wear what I want. I’ve lost 25 pounds and I look cute as hell.”
That, in a nutshell, has been my battle: to quiet that shitty inner-voice that is actually heavily influenced by the voices of others. (It’s not even my voice. I’m not even sure what that would sound like, actually.) To feel deserving of success, love, praise, affection, admiration and compliments. To acknowledge my accomplishments for what they are. To be proud of my progress. To not feel like one kind word will over-inflate my ego and cause some sort of mass casualty. Honestly, you couldn’t over-inflate my ego if you had a fucking air pump the size of the Chrysler Building.
I don’t want to get stuck because of success (Oh, I’ve arrived! Now I’m done!) but I am tired of being railroaded by doubt and failure, too. Spiritually, mentally, emotionally, I will have to work on a happy medium. I know one exists. I know it’s possible for me to start undoing 30 years of horseshit — possible but not easy.
Awwww. Look at your little Arrogant Ass blogger, folks. She’s growing up so fast.