Now for the harder, more honest question: Have you ever lost yourself?
I’d speculate that if you’re reading this your answer is “yes.” I mean, haven’t we all at one point or another questioned our existence? But I think when you throw parenthood into the mix, facing this existential question is guaranteed. Because while being a parent is great, it is also really hard on so many levels and our world really is no longer just ours. Maybe you were ready for it, or maybe it hit you like the ton of bricks that everyone warned you about, but you never really took seriously until the day you’re staring at that tiny, beautiful little face you need to keep alive.
For me, I was surprised, yet not. Because this internal unknowingness is not unfamiliar. Parenthood just exaggerated the issue and brought me to a tipping point.
There I was, in cliche fashion, looking at my thirty-something face, recognizing how it’s changed over the years. But the physical changes of my reflection are not what bothered me the most. What really hit me to my core was that I struggled to know who I was looking at, which is very unnerving. I didn’t know me! How could this have happened? I should have this figured out by now. But nothing bubbles things to the surface like a good life challenge, and with three kids piled on top of the everyday battles I was already facing, I was certainly being challenged.
All of a sudden I was flooded with emotion, disappointment and shame. I realized I drifted so quickly from one life milestone to the next, never able to stop, listen to myself and live life for me. Ever.
Because you see it’s never just been me on this journey. I’ve had an unwanted “friend” along the way since I was nine. She wasn’t really my friend, but rather an annoying enemy and she goes by one name: anxiety. I hear she gets around.
For me she showed up at the worst times: around friends, family, people I didn’t know, in class, literally in any social situation. She never left me alone. Her presence made me feel small, inadequate, worthless and often her overpowering personality would stifle my tongue. She even let me have it when we were alone, mocking my words and putting me down. I let her take over. Because with a voice that loud, she must know what she’s doing right?
I started to avoid activities, events I deep down wanted to participate in, speaking up when I should speak up, spending time with family and friends, and the list goes on, from adolescence into adulthood. We were really getting into a groove now, albeit a dysfunctional one. It was the anxiety show and I was just along for the ride year after year. I was living life for her, not me.
But I was no stranger to trying to “fix” this problem and send my unwelcome life guest forever packing. I voraciously consumed self-help books, podcasts and documentaries. I tried any technique, from hypnosis to sound therapy and I forced myself into uncomfortable situations — all in an attempt to eliminate her. I have to say, all of those things did get me to a better place. But there was still a part of her that lingered with every move I’d make and on every word I’d say. I knew it because there I was, staring into a mirror questioning every fiber of my being. “So here we are; me and you, anxiety. What’s it going to be?” I decided I needed someone who could give it to her straight. Therapy, here I come.
We learned a lot from our therapist; good tips, information and practices. But one thing impacted me the most and helped guide me into the next part of this journey — self love. I know, buzz word, right? But I’m not talking about self love for me per se, but rather for anxiety. Because whether I like or not, it turns out, she is a part of me. A scared and hurt part of me that was lashing out. And you know what? Loving her felt good. Really good. As I settled into embracing my lifelong friend instead of pushing her away, I felt a weight lift.
There was no more trying to shove her out the door or having internal fist fights with my anxiety. I hugged her and welcomed her on this journey. This, this it what I needed. Just feeling the heaviness of my arms, hang at my sides because there was no longer a battle to fight. Letting go made way for the energy that I needed to allow myself to get to a place where I could push on and truly begin to feel good in my skin. It made way for the part of me that I thought I lost. Turns out, it was there. In fact, it was there all along. Anxiety is a part of me and you know what, that’s okay.
I think all of us face internal battles with unwanted life guests like anxiety at some point, and parenthood has a way of sparking these battles or exaggerating them. It’s easy to surrender ourselves to these, allowing them to shape our thoughts and decisions and opening the door to feelings of shame, guilt and vulnerability. We fight, trying to abolish them at all costs, burying and ignoring them.
But maybe that’s not the answer.
Maybe if we just ease up a bit, embrace our internal enemies, hug them and love them, we can work together. Things might become clearer and life, well, a bit easier. When you love yourself, and I mean ALL of you — even the you that yells at your kids out of exhausted frustration, even the you who might not have the answer or has the wrong answer, and even the you who beats yourself up — maybe that’s when we’re really able to find our way.