Should happens

Handfuls of mostly-formed posts sit unpublished, waiting for me to put finishing touches on them. Multiple times a day, I mentally poke myself with scathing shame for my seeming inability to keep up with All the Things, one of which is this website. The very outlet that was meant to offset my anxiety has become a drop in the ocean of pressure in which I seem to be drowning.

Perhaps it is grief, or stress, or some combination thereof, or maybe it is related to not sleeping (which, honestly, is just a byproduct of the grief), but Shame has become my new home. I reside there. I find new and creative ways to tear myself down and remind myself of the myriad shortcomings that are sure to alienate me from the rest of the world one of these days.

My associate’s degree is in Psychology. I have read many self-help books. I am a self-aware individual. This is self-talk for which I would pummel anyone else – not only people I care about, but literally anyone else. It is destructive, unproductive, wrong. I know better than this. And yet, but still, and somehow…

Don’t we all know better than this as human beings? Don’t we do it anyway? Don’t we chant mantras of self-love and self-kindness, plastering social media with words of inspiration against backdrops of universally accepted beauty like crisp-looking mountain ranges and bright sandy beaches? And don’t we lift each other up as high as our feeble arms will allow, all while seething through clenched teeth whispers of inadequacy to our own delicate souls?

A couple of years ago, I was bellied up to the bar of a local restaurant where I love to eat, a place I worked briefly. They are known for their mouth-watering Nuevo Latino cuisine, and at least half the dishes are served with avocado.

To my left was my dear friend Nora. Ours was a friendship that we accidentally stumbled upon, but one of those relationships where you’re certain your souls must have hiked trails and sipped wine and watched sunsets in a former life, because we were almost instantly just there. Life hands you these effortless relationships sometimes, and it’s always a humbling reminder of the splendor of this human existence when it happens.

In this particular case, I was blessed not only with the immediately-cozy dynamic of a sudden best friend. I also managed to squeeze a perfectly wonderful rapport with her mother Vivian out of the deal as well. Through a mutual relationship with a guy who neither Nora nor I keeps in touch with much these days, my life was graced with two beautiful, strong, and talented women. A funny thing, the unfolding of the universe.

It was a late-summer evening, and we sat bare-armed in the cool darkness of the bar area with the sun casting a deep orange glow on the city outside, me sandwiched between a girl and her mother. The tall south-facing windows were to our back while we were laughing loudly and sharing stories, bantering about the trappings of womanhood. We sipped cocktails and psychoanalyzed the men in our lives, past and present, and mused about the difficulties of being a person. Nora was about to go away to graduate school, and she was fretting over a man who was largely undeserving of any of her attention, a man who certainly had no right to the anxiety with which she was riddled over the way he was(n’t) treating her.

She had “battled” her weight in the same way that so many gorgeous women in our culture “battle” their weight. The tan, waif-thin ideal tricks our vulnerable adolescent-girl brains into spiraling downward in shame over our lack of a thigh-gap, our too-frizzy hair, our too-flat chests, our dimpled butts, our crooked teeth, our squishy tummies. And we hardly grow out of it. Instead, by the time we’re grown, we’ve usually waged an all-out war against ourselves not only for our physical appearance, but for every aspect of our humanness. Mentally, physically, emotionally, we fail to live up to the mythological ideal that exists only in the ethereal nonworld constructed by a calculating and cynical industry designed specifically to undermine our confidence so that we’ll purchase goods and services.

Nora picked at a salad, eating only the least-caloric components, trying not to over-consume the dressing, and scooting the avocado off to the side of the plate.

Don’t you like avocado? I asked.

When you become fast friends with a person through a deep connection that is not bound by the traditional practices of friendship, you can miss the details of a person’s preferences. We routinely bore our souls to one another about the struggles of humanity, but I had genuinely no idea whether she liked avocado, though it surprised me that she might not, given that she’d never struck me as picky.

No, I… I do, it’s just… I’ve been working out a lot and there’s a TON of fat in avocado. She knew logically that she deserved the avocado, and the way she hesitated suggested that maybe she expected us to shame her for shaming herself.

Her mom shook her head slightly and said, Don’t should on yourself, kid.

She’d heard the phrase from somewhere, maybe Oprah had said it or it had been on a television show or in a self-help book. It sounded like something Oprah would say. Though I was sure I mostly knew, I asked her to explain what she meant.

You know, just – we’re always telling ourselves that we should do this or we should do that. It’s shameful and what we should do is cut it out. She glanced at her daughter. Eat the avocado, she said. You can run tomorrow.

This was one of the characteristics of Vivian that I found so endearing, her straightforward and even pushy way of expressing care and love. Sometimes it made Nora roll her eyes the way young women do at their mothers who have the audacity to care about us.

Huh. I said. What a concept. It was so simple, and I was so guilty of it. My life was a carefully constructed house of cards predicated upon words and phrases like should and ought to and I’d better ___ and I have to ___ and I need to ___. 

I reached my fork over to the plate Nora had pushed out in front of her so she could rest her arms on the bar. I stabbed a piece of avocado, ran it through the cilantro lime dressing, and popped it into my mouth. She sideways glanced at me, sort of like, eat some more of my avocado and I will end you. She scooted the plate back to where it was in front of her, and ate the rest of it.

We’ve never talked about it again, but that night and that advice both have sat in my brain, a reminder to be gentle with myself. We must be compassionate to ourselves, and I know this. The thing is, knowing this is wonderful, but when it comes to implementing it, well… it’s more complex. Sitting in a warm bar that is glowing at sunset, surrounded by strong and encouraging friends who use their energy to lift us up, it’s easy to implement this authentic and transformative knowledge.

But it is perhaps twice as important and a dozen times as difficult when we get out into the world where there is a veritable obstacle course of people who are doing it more right than we, people who are put together. Being alone with ourselves is dangerous, a space where our self-humiliation can go unchecked. And I struggle with this more than I can express, being kind to myself despite the ruthless perfectionist who lives inside my brain and raps my knuckles until they bleed for not being smart enough, productive enough, kind enough, witty enough, thoughtful enough, accomplished enough, attractive enough, thin enough, good enough. I would say that I should work on that, but…

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