It takes hard work to say, “This is how I am,” in a calm voice, without anxiously addressing how you should be. It takes work to shift your focus from the smudges on the window to the view outside. It requires conscious effort not to waste your life swimming furiously against the tide, toward some imaginary future that will never make you happy anyway.
— Heather Havrilesky, What If This Were Enough?
Not too long ago, I had a bizarre conversation with a middle-aged man while I was at work. It started off normal, but then the fact that I have a B.A. in creative writing came up, and—out of nowhere—he started name dropping. (He told me he knew someone who’d won an academy award; that he’d recently met an eighteen-year-old who was making 165K a year; about how some female relation of his had just been accepted into multiple ivy league universities, etc.)
What any of this had to do with my creative writing degree—I have no clue. Though, buried beneath what he was saying, whether it was being implied, or whether I was inferring it all myself, the message seemed to be loud and clear: I’m not doing enough.
I don’t know what it is but, in the past year and a half, I’ve felt more judged than ever in terms of where I’m at in life. I’ve felt—however mildly—combative in the face of questions and comments, like: Why haven’t you moved to a bigger city? (As if that’s anyone else’s business.) What are you going to do though—like, for money? (As if I don’t have a full-time job that is—clearly—paying my bills.) She lived with her parents until she was 26! ~gasps~ (As if that isn’t the circumstance of many millennials who came of age post recession.)
Maybe I wouldn’t feel so prickly about all of this if I wasn’t also bombarded with similar, passive-aggressive, “boss babe” rhetoric every time I opened up the Instagram app. (Some examples: “There are only two options: Make progress or make excuses.” // “If you have time to scroll through social media, you have time to join my team.” // “AVERAGE people give shit advice. If you want to make money, listen to MILLIONAIRES.”)
It’s everywhere. All around us and in the air! Just like that silly Christmas song at the beginning of Love Actually: I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes. I feel absolutely bombarded by the message that nothing anyone does is good enough. And then, on top of all that—it seems—to admit some variation of this sentiment—aloud—wouldn’t even warrant an empathetic response. (If anything it’d just cue some psycho, wearing LuLaRue leggings, to crawl out of the woodwork, saying with all the canned optimism of a Wal-Mart smiley face: “Maybe you feel that way because you should! Make the change today!”)
Work more. Smile more. Love yourself more. Buy this, or you’re not loving yourself enough.
Like, damn—average people might “give shit advice,” but when did it become such a personal failure to be content with being average? To want to just sit and reflect on what’s actually right in front of you—and maybe even find the audacity to enjoy it? (No side hustles. No gains. No self-imposed deadlines, or promotions.)
Clearly, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Mostly because, over the past few years, I’ve been forced to reckon with how I’ve never really experienced myself as enough—sometimes to a point where I considered myself non-existent. (Sometimes I still sift through painful memories, trying to find the source for this chronic sense of not enough-ness—like how dismissive my family could often be when it came to my thoughts and opinions; or how my grade school teachers often pushed me into the fringes of their classrooms, under the assumption that I’d never be intellectually capable of keeping up with the “normal” kids; or how a majority of the guys I’ve ever felt close to all eventually called me crazy, and minimized the extent of their relationships with me, etc. And none of it has ever added up to anything particularly unusual, or life changing.)
I guess, my point is: when you experience rejection so intensely and consistently, and you finally realize you’ve never felt like enough (for yourself) as a result, you’re suddenly faced with the very difficult task of re-writing your own narrative in a way that doesn’t echo all the negative criticism you’ve internalized about yourself. (This is exactly what I’ve been trying to do in recent months, and—in doing so—have started to consider that, maybe, this general not-enough feeling is more cultural and social than it is personal.)
When that man came at me with all those acquaintances of his, who had such concrete markers of success (an academy award, a 165K salary at eighteen, multiple ivy league acceptances), I’d be lying to you if I said those accolades meant nothing to me. I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t feel a tinge of resentment, or that I didn’t resist the urge to snap at him like: Why are you telling me this? (It’s not as if reconsidering how we measure success, or trying to remain compassionate toward my own limits, has suddenly rendered me completely immune to desire or envy.)
However, I will say, before I could judge myself—based on whatever it was he seemed to be implying, or whatever my old narrative of rejection was trying to infer—I took a deep breath and reminded myself: None of these accomplishments are his. And I listened without judging him, or myself, to the best of my ability.
The modern world is always calling us to prove ourselves and—as a result—we ask everyone around us—both consciously and unconsciously—to prove themselves too. We project our own standards onto others, and then feel gypped, or perhaps a little jealous, when we see someone at ease; someone who doesn’t appear to feel so personally or professionally obligated to sacrifice x in order to accomplish y; who doesn’t seem to be affected by this intense pressure—all around us—to maintain some image of ambition and control; who is happy, without validation or witnesses.
Yes, I’ve felt combative in the face of questions, like: “Why haven’t you moved to a bigger city?” But, more and more, I hear myself drawing a boundary when these kinds of conversations arise. (The kind in which the pressure the other person is putting on me is more about the pressure they are putting on themselves.) I hear myself saying, with more and more certainty: “I’m not you.” And, every time, it’s so empowering. Every time, I feel a little more at ease.
Maybe, someday, I’ll get out of here. Maybe, someday, I’ll publish something big and realize my dream of being a writer in the most official sense. Or maybe I won’t. But, either way, that man’s voice—reading from his list of things I don’t have—is going to keep on going in one ear and out the other.
I’m done comparing myself to someone else’s highlight reel.