Not One of the “Pretty Girls”

Ann is the cute one. Claire is the creative one. I am the smart one.

Ann is the funny one. Claire is the strong one. I am the responsible one.

Ann is the social one. Claire is the gifted one. I am the quiet one.

The quiet one? Ugh.

First of all, I am not quiet. I never have been. I have, however, felt silenced much of my life. Even though I’ve never been fully silent, I have felt the burden of the expectation. Worse, I always knew my sisters were just as smart if not smarter than I was. And I am responsible, yes, but what choice did I have? Who wants to be defined by a necessity? I want to be defined by my spirit, my mark on the world, my soul song.

For decades, though, I have felt defined not by my authentic self, but in comparison to others. In my social group, I heard echoes of my parents’ characterizations of me. Sarah was the smart one, the responsible one, the quiet one. Why couldn’t I be cute? Fashionable? Fabulous? And why do so few people realize how funny I am?

I’m a natural leader. I get things done. I’m successful. Why not be known for those things? And aren’t I talented, a gifted singer and strong athlete? I can hold my own in just about any circumstance, and people usually like me once the get to know me. How can I make people understand I’m so much more than the labels of my youth?

More importantly, how I can stop hearing those labels in my own internal dialog with myself?

 

“I’d like us to be more understanding with Paulina, more inclusive,” I coached. “I think it must be hard to be one of the beautiful people.”

“Oh, right!” my colleague burst out. “Let’s all feel sorry for the pretty girl. Sorry, I can’t do it.”

We both laughed. Neither of us had ever been known as “pretty girls.” We had both been raised by struggling families, developing more scrappiness than poise we felt. We talked about this often. We’d grown increasingly assertive in our years. We knew how to fight for what we wanted. And, right or wrong, we assumed Paulina had just always been given what she wanted. In fact, my concern for her feelings, and my belief we should be more understanding came from a very conscious belief that she did not know how to handle NOT getting what she wanted because she’d been so privileged in her life as a 5’11”, built like a ballerina, blonde, blue-eyed, upper-middle class, ice princess. And, my colleague was right, no one is or should feel sorry for that.

The real problem is that no one, not Paulina, not anyone, is defined by those first impressions. But we’re all judged by them. Whether fighting the label “smart one” or “pretty one” or any other social short hand derived avoid actually learning about and understanding others and, instead, classify them into manageable data points in our schema, we are all limited by the labels assigned to us.

In the best case scenario, we acknowledge that these classifications are short cuts we are all prone to take but also acknowledge that they are not pathways to understanding–and then allow people and our relationships to grow beyond those classifications. This needs to start with ourselves, though. Because, the worst case scenario is we that we limit ourselves to those classifications and allow ourselves to be constrained and defined by them. They then become more than labels but fully developed stories we tell ourselves. Like these:

 

I am smart. I should do better in math because I am smart. Smart people are quiet and read a lot and stay home on Friday nights and do well in school. Smart is not popular. Smart is not pretty. Smart is not athletic. Smart is not funny. And I can’t do anything that makes me look stupid or that I might not be good at. People might think I’m not smart. And smart and Sarah are synonymous.

I am responsible. I can’t go out and have fun or take a day off. I don’t dare use all my vacation days when I have so much responsibility at work. I need to put the needs of others first, always, and make sure everyone is taken care of before I take care of myself. That’s the responsible thing. Because some people aren’t responsible. I need to be responsible. For everyone. That’s how responsible people live and happiness only comes from knowing I am seen as responsible and everyone feels taken care of. That’s how I’ll fulfill my role.

 

Narratives like this pervade our minds. They’re not all bad. They’re not particularly inspiring either. And they deny so much of who I am and what I can contribute and the countless other gifts I’ve been given by the universe. Isn’t the truly responsible thing to do to maximize all of my god-given strengths and skills? Isn’t that just smart? Isn’t it also fun, creative, and adventurous? I am fun, creative, and adventurous!

So why to I have to remind myself this almost daily in order to honor my impulses and desires and objectives of joy in this life? And why is my dear sister with social anxiety still trying to live up to being the funny social one? And when will Claire and I realize our own beauty and cuteness? And how can Paulina break free of the narratives we have attached to her in all of her beauty?

I’m fortunate to have friends I can be and usually am my truest best self around who remind me, “you know you want to go on this adventure, Sarah!” or “you’re gorgeous!” or “your laugh makes you who you are!” We should all be so fortunate.

They hold me to being my best self and not subjugating myself to others, to my labels past or present, or to the narratives I told myself all those years in order to be who my labels told me I should be. I think, as women, we are particularly vulnerable to these types of narratives and, thankfully, particularly watchful of them in what my friends and I call, our soul sisters. In fact, it seems we are better at seeing the tell-tale signs in one another hiding our light and falling prey to the dark shadow of our old narratives than we at feeling the shadow we hide ourselves in.

I am learning to longer feel bad about about that, to longer judge myself for falling into old patterns that lead, per my narratives, to enabling others even martyring myself and holding back my humor and energy and adventure and silliness. I accept that I am simply in the process of rewiring my brain, carving new neural pathways in an effort to avoid those that have been so well worn. This is going to take time and it’s time beautifully spent asking myself daily how I honored my truest authentic best self and what I can learn from the day’s successes and struggles.

Living mindfully and giving myself permission to be myself and to be imperfect even at being myself–which used to seem like something I should just be naturally good at–is harder than following the old narratives. It just is. But it’s liberating too. And every day I feel more and more joy and more and more in love with the world. Who’d have thought a girl who used to cry herself to sleep riddled with anxiety as young as six could feel this way and have this much confidence? But I do because as hard as it is to be mindful, it was starting to hurt to be otherwise.

I even wonder how much of the stress I put on my heart, mind, body, and soul contributed not only to the anxieties I developed but to the lesions on my spine associated with the most pervasive narrative I fight–a woman living with MS. But just as I am learning to no longer define myself as just smart and responsible and quiet. So I definitely will not be defined by MS. I am so much more than this or any label and its associated narrative.

MS did make me face this struggle with my labels head on though. Overnight, following a terrifying and numbing flare up, I had to redefine who I was and what I said about myself as well as what others said about me. This was no longer a choice. My old narrative no longer were enough. Can you be the responsible one if you know someone might have to take care of you some day? Can the smart one also have cognitive fog? Oh, and I was so done being quiet. Who knew how much time I had to say what I wanted to say?

Challenge accepted. Project redefining Sarah, also known as acknowledging and becoming my true self, was set in irreversible motion.

I now hope to be defined by my authentic self, deep and complicated and full of life in a way that defies labels. I hope I can help all the “pretty girls” and the “smart girls” and “funny girls” learn that maybe they are all of these and none of these all at once. We are women who break through labels and refuse to accept the old narratives of those labels and, instead, create our own narratives of complicated, messy, beautiful lives. After all, why settle for a narrative, a work of fiction, when one can have a reality and make a real mark on this world?

The world deserves this contribution, not just another false narrative. So, are you ready to shed your labels with me Ann, Claire? Paulina? What about You?

 

 

My Soul Song: Look Up

You seek answers.

You seek healing.

You pray for hope, for signs to follow.

 
Stop crying for your angels.

Stop begging for mercy.

Stop looking where you’ve already been.

 
Just look up.

There it is.

The light of God is already there.

 
Receive the warmth.

Receive the glory.

Receive this new day as a gift for the taking.

 
Be assured.

Be thankful.

Be one who stays in the light.

 
Just look up.

There it is.

The light of God is already there.

My Soul Songs: Not Unlike a RoseĀ 

MS is invisible even as it unfolds. 

Fighting MS is completely an inside job. You might never see what’s deep inside my soul as we laugh and go about our days like nothing’s wrong. 

And, like a rose, I will blossom. Like a rose with its thorns, I am beautiful and protected in my frailty. I might not have thorns but I sure do have plenty of fight. And I require plenty of care. 

Consider yourself warned. And appreciated. 

My Boy

I would give you everything.

For you, I would do anything.

I have lived for your every potentiality.

I have vowed to be available to you for all time and eternity. 

Even though you no longer need me, I need you to love me. 

And I’m so thankful that you do. 

You will always be my boy. 

The Queen of Making Due

My brain has always always defaulted to the “glad game,” not just gratitude but looking for any little spark of good. This is a gift and a curse, as you can imagine. I am blessed to rarely feel defeated. I always find something to hold on to and some way to make the best of my situation. I am also cursed to find myself comfortable making due, making the most of a bad situation.

The faucet is broken? Well, don’t we have other faucets in our home? It’s fine. I don’t need to worry about that now. Besides we’re lucky to even have running water. A lot of people don’t.

My hamstring is torn? Well, I can still walk so it can’t be that bad. I’ll just keep going as best as I can… until I can’t. I mean, I’m so fortunate it’s just a tear; I don’t want to be a baby about it just sit around and get sad about it, for heaven’s sake.

My glasses are obviously the wrong prescription and are giving me a headache? Well, it’s better than not having glasses at all, and, maybe I’ll get used to them; after all, my left is isn’t even that bad. And if I sort of tip my head just right I think I can make it work. I’ll just be really careful driving for a while.

Oh? I have MS? Well, at least I have health insurance and can afford my medication. And it’s not like everyone doesn’t have their own problems. At least it’s me and not someone who could never be tough enough for this challenge!

And these are just some mild examples. I won’t get into all the truly horrible things I’ve put up with, allowed, accepted as just part of life. And I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one who does this sort of bright-side justification. I think a lot of women are prone to this, in fact. I just happen to have made it a way of life.

Most people would be surprised about this because I’m far from being weak or a doormat. I’m an advocate, an activist even. I don’t believe people should make due with bad circumstances. I think we all need to make the most of a situation and simultaneously work to improve the situation–unless it’s something in my personal life.

I’ve been telling myself since age nine that “I’m the queen of making due.” The simple little phrase came to me as I ran out of my house one crazy, angry morning eager to head to school and leave all the tension and pain behind.

“At least at school no one knows what my life is really like,” I thought. “So I’m going to be okay.” I set my jaw and grabbed my bag and threw open the door to seek asylum in the outside world. “I can make due as long as I have my friends. Ha! In fact,” I cheered myself, “I can be the queen of making due!”

My mom had always cautioned me against just looking for the silver lining. But I didn’t know how else to survive. I couldn’t control so much of my young life. But I could control if I let it upset me or not. So I became numb to it and became expert at finding any hint of any reason to make due. And I always found plenty.

The old adage, if you expect nothing you’ll never be disappointed, was my mantra. I knew I was tough and I didn’t need much. So I never asked for much. I wouldn’t say I’ve settled for my life. I have worked hard and found a way to access and receive so many blessings. But I have limited myself, my aspirations; and I’ve allowed myself to be unfulfilled–even to accept putting my passions and energies second to others and telling myself it’s good enough.

That’s what hurts. I chose to limit myself, my joy. Why would I do that? Why do I still find myself falling into that pattern? I know who I am. I know what makes me happy. I know my potential is unlimited. I don’t have to make due. Not anymore.

I’m no longer that scared little girl who lacks the ability to control her environment. I can still find reasons to be grateful that things aren’t worse. But I don’t have to stop there. I can also be grateful that I have the power, at this point in my life, to make things better. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

Can I end these false choices? Can I turn off my default switch and push beyond making due? Can I become, instead, the queen of making my world a better place?

I believe I can. I don’t have to settle for “not bad” or even “good enough.” Goodbye Queen of Making Due. Thank you for the solace you provided me all those years, but I’m ready for a new title. It won’t earn a new title overnight though. So, until then, I can make due with doing my best to become something greater. After all, each new breath is a chance to be reborn.

Here’s to new life.

 

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