Standing Still

If you watched the Democratic Convention last week, at some point you may have felt completely overwhelmed by the breadth of Hillary Clinton’s biography. And if you’re anything like me, perhaps you were wound up at 11pm Thursday night, ready to go fill a giant binder full of life goals and opportunities for public service.



I love being inspired by women. I wrote an entire book about it. It is perhaps my favorite hobby after maniacally hunting down antique brooches on eBay. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how there is such a very fine line between inspiration and self-loathing. Between being inspired by the Leslie Knopes of the world and realizing that trying to be Leslie Knope is actually really fucking exhausting.

I am a grower. It is my resting state, or lack thereof. Motivation is easy for me, largely because my mother never gave me any other option. So whenever I look at myself in the mirror, I see someone who is unfinished. A very rough draft. Someone who should put on nicer clothes, and enunciate, and write 5000 words a day. I see someone who could be a dragon lady at 50 if she really wanted it. But how do I balance that “unfinishedness” with loving myself exactly as I am, right now, on the couch, wet hair, no makeup, holding the third cup of coffee my dentist will bitch about? She’s just so. . .not. . .compelling.

My dilemma is one I come across time and time again in my work as a counselor. How do you grow and simply be at the same time? How do you practice self-compassion when you secretly know deep down that you’re motivated by guilt and by “should be’s?” Take away that kick in the ass, and what’s left?

I cry a lot about real and fictional women I admire. Women I want to be like when I’m 40, 50, and beyond. But what about the Kathleen who’s right here, right now? Do I love her? What’s she about? Can I even find her under all the layers of expectations and guidelines for success? Under all the fictional women who’ve dictated how she should walk and talk and read and be?

I spent the first 30 years of my life trying to run fast enough to finally catch up with the hypothetical version of myself. I ignored the fact that I was still carrying the baton, and that there was little chance of me ever passing it off to her. So I read every novel I could. I studied classic rock like it was my job. I shopped at stores I couldn’t afford. I took an opera class at Harvard because hey, that’s what fancy people do, right? People who weren’t born in the Mule Capital of the World and know every lyric to every Gaither Family gospel song and what bait to use for what fish.

This chameleon lifestyle lasted through much of my 20s. I enjoyed putting on personalities and trying them out. I desperately tried earning the love of others by being Quiet Kathleen. Endearing Kathleen. Crusading Kathleen. But there was no place for me in that unruly collage of personas. It became impossible to tease apart the person I wanted to be and the person I thought I should be, given the circumstances.

My dreams are different now than when I was kid, or even when I was 25. Slowly, oh so slowly, I am inviting all my wayward selves I cast out because they weren’t compelling to me. My goofy self. My small town self. The sleepy self that chooses eights hours of unconsciousness over any accomplishment. The self that doesn’t understand French phrases in novels and gives zero fucks. One day I hope that I can throw a giant party and invite all the versions of myself I never appreciated. I have no fatted calf to slaughter for my prodigal Kathleen's, but I do have an expired tub of vanilla frosting and Battlestar Galactica DVDs.

I have a friend whose wife is a writer with Stage 4 breast cancer. In her book on self-compassion, she talks about how she had to come to terms with the reality that the version of herself who was a mother would probably never exist.

I thought that clinging to my dreams was the right thing to do, but in reality, it felt like drinking poison. It meant that the purpose and worth of my life relied on something that didn’t yet exist, which in turn meant that my life in its current form was fundamentally flawed.

When I read those words a few weeks ago, my brain lit up like a pinball machine. I realized that this was how I functioned. I thought I had been drinking a magical potion that would turn me into Kathleen 2.0, but it was mostly poison. My self-worth hinged entirely on future or hypothetical versions of myself. On day dream Kathleen who always said the right thing, who never stopped working, and who belonged entirely to the realm of fiction.

I have no plans to stop growing, to stop pausing the TV and taking notes when a woman does something remarkable. But despite the temptation, I’m not going to hold a yardstick up to Hillary Clinton’s bio and realize I’m too short to go on that ride. Instead, I’m going to look closely and see a woman who is finally at peace with every wayward daughter in herself, for better or worse. And I’m going to take the time to root for all of those pieces of me. To welcome them to the table, even when they’re unruly, and hear what they have to say about today’s version of myself. I expect they will be kinder and more forgiving than my hypothetical self.

In my family therapy class Thursday night, we talked about how focusing on how giving compliments can help a client focus on what they have achieved instead of the problem at hand. I showed my students a video of a famous therapist who listened to a couple take small but shaky steps towards resolution.

“Wow!” the therapist exclaimed, leaning forward on her elbows. “How did you manage that?”

Those five words leap past the doom and negativity and “should be’s,” and they grabbed ahold of hope. They teach us that we can reserve awe for the here and now. I want to live this question in my bones. I want to look in the mirror, and say, “Wow, Kathleen. How did you manage that?” Not “What if?” Not “How long until?”

I will never stop growing. But sometimes, growing is about standing still in the sun and loving who you are, right here, right now.