I went on a hike and I learned something
No, it wasn’t that the state tree of New Jersey is a Northern Red Oak.
It wasn’t — upon observing it in its natural habitat — that the state bird is in fact the American Goldfinch, either.
The woods and waterfalls of Norvin Green State Park were the mere backdrop to which the learning took place.
What I learned is that we’re really fucking hard on ourselves.
That people are people and there are no trails and we’re all just kind of fumbling around, bumping into trees (maybe Red Oaks), spraining our ankles against poorly-situated rocks, and perpetually offering up our flesh to ravenous mosquitoes and the possibility of ticks.
Because perhaps a human isn’t more vulnerable than when they are in the company of another human, alone together in nature where only the black bears and the moss, which apparently grows on the northern side of trees, can hear their secrets.
There is something about the mountain air that causes people to get deep and real and messy and vulnerable. Post that on your trail entrance bulletin board.
CAUTION: SUPREME FRESHNESS OF AIR WILL LIKELY CAUSE INEVITABLE SHARING OF FEELINGS. TEARS MAY BE SHED.
I don’t think I knew that beforehand.
The morning of le hike, I slipped into gray leggings, except that the slipping verb felt more like a wriggling or struggling verb and I tried not to notice in my floor-length mirror just how snug they looked against the curve of my thighs. I layered a tank top over my sports bra and then a long-sleeved shirt over that, but not before noticing both times just how untoned my triceps looked. I saw the flab. I saw the thigh fat. But I got dressed for the hike, swallowed hard, and pretended it didn’t bother me.
I fought the urge to curl my eye lashes and apply just enough mascara to get away with looking “natural.” Maybe I should just contour my whole face real quick-like? Lemme just get the bronzer… No, no, no. No makeup today. I was H-I-K-I-N-G. There is no need for a contoured face in the woods.
So I fought my inner demons with every step away from the makeup bag. Every step away from the mirror. Every step toward the car. Every step up the mountain. Every bite of a bagel with cream cheese. With every inhalation of fresh air.
My hiking partner is a male whose six-year relationship recently ended with a called-off engagement and an ex-fiancée moving out of their shared apartment.
This drastic life change propelled my friend into a transformative period in which he now works out with a trainer three times a week, meal preps, and sometimes spends Sunday mornings on 9-mile hikes with me. He spoke of his breakup and his lifestyle change assuredly and robustly. His vulnerability was immeasurable, his confidence palpable.
When you’re the least confident person in the room, you very easily recognize that trait in others.
Since I am almost always that person in said godforsaken room, I know a lot about this.
As our conversation started winding deeper and deeper into the real nitty-gritty hard stuff, I told him, “Hey, you’re like, very confident and that’s an admirable quality.”
But herein lies the problem: He didn’t think he was confident at all.
“I am not confident,” he said. “In fact, I am so self-conscious in nearly every area of my life, it’s not even believable.”
He goes on to say that one of the hardest parts of this break-up is knowing that his ex will have “no problem at all” transitioning into the dating sphere again and finding a boyfriend/someone to love her. For him, he says, it’s much harder because:
I’m fat. I’m not as attractive. I’m not as smart. I’m not as motivated. I have insecurities about my family life. I’m not as confident.
Subtract the “as” and it turns into:
I’m fat. I’m not attractive. I’m not smart. I’m not motivated. I have insecurities about my family life. I’m not confident.
As I was boring my eyes into the mirror this morning, pretending I couldn’t see the ferocity with which my leggings clung to my every hated curve, these are the exact sentences that ran through my mind as if plastered on a marquee.
When a gorgeous boy with a really big heart sat in the front seat of my car, confessing he wants to be in a relationship with me — long-distance or short-distance or whatever distance — these are the sentences I thought.
But I’m fat. I’m not attractive. I’m not smart. I’m not motivated. I have insecurities about my family life. I’m not confident.
So why would you love me? Why would you choose me?
Because choosing me is choosing fat, unattractive, unintelligent, unmotivated, and insecure.
And who would choose that?
I asked my hiking partner, “So what do you think of me?”
“I think you’re thin and pretty and have a good body and you’re obviously really smart and know how to craft a sentence and you’re self-aware and motivated and confident and a good fucking person.”
Wow... So I can see all the things he is great at and he can see all the ways in which I’m good. But each of us can’t see those very things within ourselves.
I enlighten him to what I’m thinking: That I have the same insecurities as he does, though I look different, am a woman, and have experienced a different narrative than he has.
But the differences in our narratives aren’t what is important. Despite being able to spot the redeeming qualities in each other, we each see ourselves in the worst light possible. We’re operating the same way. For every 20 ways we are different, it all comes down to the one destructive way in which we are alike.
There is no number or logic to feeling inadequate. There is no magic line that must be crossed to feel self-conscious. You can be 100 pounds or 150 or 200. You can be pretty or ugly. You can be successful or a failure. Or you can fall somewhere on that spectrum somewhere in the middle.
It’s not a matter of the adjective; it’s whether you feel like you’re enough of the adjective. Thin enough. Pretty enough. Successful enough.
To him, I am a well-spoken, able-bodied hot girl who would probably have no problem procuring a date in a heavily-populated bar.
To me, that very thought pumps panic and anxiety through veins which should be pumping blood and oxygen.
I feel just as small and squat and incapable as he does. He feels every bit of self-conscious as I do.
And it all stems from feeling like we’re not good enough. Good enough for parents. Good enough for teachers. Good enough for friends. Good enough for romantic partners. Good enough for God. Good enough for bosses. Good enough for fiancés. Good enough for ourselves.
The same demons can wear different faces. Two very different people can struggle with the same hooded figures.
And while we’re quick to point out, “Oh, well she can’t be self-conscious because she’s thin and pretty” or “He can’t be self-conscious because he recently lost weight,” we’re even quicker to point out all the ways in which we, ourselves, are perpetually horrible and forever coming up short.
I can tell you why you’re great and I’m horrible. But I probably can’t tell you why you’re horrible and I’m great.
That’s a much harder request to fulfill. That’s a much harder mindset to cultivate.
Unlike Norvin Green State Park, life doesn’t have a welcome center on which park rangers pin bulletins about best practices when coming in contact with a bear or how to most easily identify poison oak. It also doesn’t come with a map. You can’t read it and pinpoint which color trail to take in order to get to whichever high point you intend to Instagram the view from (#blessed).
You just kind of have to like, figure it out as you go along.
Life is a mapless, faceless thing. Life might be a trail that’s been strewn with so many leaves and acorns, it’s unrecognizable. Life might be a trail that’s overgrown fourteen or fifteen times over.
But when a trail in the woods throws us for a curve, we tend to accept that curve. I’ve never encountered a fallen tree laden over my intended trail and cursed God for shitting on my life plans. I’ve never been pissed when suddenly the previously smooth path I had been hiking abruptly turns to moderate-to-hard rock climbing.
In those situations, you just accept that this is the trail, that it’s changed, and you continue along it.
So why can’t we do that in our lives? Why do I cut myself slack on the trail but not on the day-to-day?
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Stephanie is a social media editor in the magazine industry and blogs about all things lifestyle at StephOsmanski.com. Her words have been featured onSeventeen, USA Today, Parents, J-14, HelloFlo, Hollywood, and more.