I am one of the most blessed people on the planet. Truly. I’m not a millionaire and may never be, but I’m infinitely rich. I wouldn’t trade the wonderful people I know personally and on-line for anything. This is a tough post to write because it’s vulnerable. But I know that all of us struggle and fail and fall and often what keeps us pressing is to know others have been a mess (or still are one). It’s why I’ve branded everything I do under We Are Not Alone.
I have a confession. I am a Recovered (Recovering?) Jerk. It would be nice to lie to you and tell you I never have my moments, but I do. Thankfully, they are much rarer than they used to be. Today, I’d like to talk about some of my Jerk Reformation. It could be a BOOK…okay a SERIES of books, but we will touch on the highlights.
And I realize all of you are kind and sweet and don’t need this for you, but maybe it can help with someone you know ;) .
I used to be highly critical of everyone and everything, including myself. The last part was likely what others never saw. I led those around me to believe they never measured up, but the truth was, I never measured up. I came from a highly dysfunctional and chaotic home. I knew nothing of peace. I only knew control. Granted, in my mind I was helping. Yet, I’ve learned over the years that people need love more than “help.”
I was fraud.
On the outside my clothes were perfect, my hair perfect, my house perfect, but truth was? I was falling apart. I felt that showing any weakness was bad, that it made me a failure. This made me prideful and afraid to ask for help. Others didn’t see I needed help because, “Well, Kristen is ‘perfect'” *rolls eyes* Granted, others probably sensed I was a mess so my “perfect” facade simply generated more resentment.
People aren’t fond of phonies. Imagine that?
Life popped me on the snoot and opened my eyes to my character (or lack thereof), my poor attitude, my judgmental ways and my impossible (and stupid) standards. I couldn’t give away what I didn’t have. I had no grace for myself, so how could I give that to others?
I was white-knuckled-terrified of failure, of not knowing ALL the answers or being *gasp* WRONG. Every quiet moment was a montage in my mind of how I sucked, how I’d screwed up, how I should’ve could’ve would’ve….
I refused to cry, to let others know I was a mess. I bottled it up—the fear, the disappointment, the feelings of inadequacy.
What I’ve come to understand is that failure is the tuition we pay for success (Yes, I’ve been using that phrase a lot lately). Failure is vital. Failure is an event, not a state of being. Failure is to be celebrated, because it means we’re being brave. We’re trying. We’re daring to do something remarkable. As I began to give myself permission to fall on my face and laugh it off, I realized I needed to do that with others.
We don’t need critics who point out we fell and draw a diagram of our stupidity and how “they would have done it better.” Likely they wouldn’t have done it any better and even if they did? Who cares? What we need is a hand helping us up, patting us on the back and then high-fiving us for daring to TRY.
An ugly stepchild of perfectionism is pride. As I mentioned earlier I was prideful. I knew better, did it better and life was all a competition because 2nd place was the first loser.
Dumb, dumb, dumbditty-dumb-dumb.
Yes, I know. I had something to prove but was too foolish to realize there is nothing in life TO PROVE. Good people don’t judge us by our resume or our lists of accomplishments or rows of trophies. Others won’t remember our designer handbag, our perfect house, our fancy car. They will remember and respond to how we made them feel when they were in our company.
In the United States, the average household has SEVEN credit cards. Out of your hundred closest neighbors, four homes are on the verge of being foreclosed upon. How many of us buy into the lie that others care that much? We run and scramble to keep up with the Joneses when we aren’t seeing the Joneses are BROKE, hurting and miserable.
I worked a job for years that I loathed because the pay was good and the title “impressive.” But, I longed to write. Oh, but writing meant I might have to shop at Walmart or thrift stores instead of fancy boutiques. I might have to drive an old car and clip coupons. THE HORROR! What would others THINK?
Probably nothing, LOL.
The funny thing was all those people who were my friends when I could pick up the tab or take them shopping vanished when the money ran out. I learned the hard way that real friends aren’t for sale ;) .
Pride created other problems. Because I was too afraid to admit I wasn’t the All-Knowing-Oracle-Perfect-At-All-Things, I was an unteachable @$$. This left me to relying on luck and resenting others who were successful. Tearing others down to make myself feel better.
Oh, sure, SHE’S a successful writer. If I had a more supportive family, a better computer, a magic pad of FLOWER POST-ITS I could be there too. WHAAAAAHH!
Stupid, I know.
But when I let down my guard and began to admit that perhaps-maybe-kinda-sorta that I didn’t precisely-specifically-exactly KNOW EVERYTHING I began to grow. I could take advice and even *gasp* criticism. I could separate my work from ME. Mentors, critique partners, etc. were pointing out problems in a story or a situation, not ME. Wow! Who knew?
These were baby steps to learning that my work could be flawed and I’d live and even improve. The next step? I could be flawed in my character, behavior, or attitudes and would live to tell the tale! I might even…improve.
Boundaries, Anger, Forgiveness
For a long time I suffered with an anger problem. I’d love to lie to you guys and tell you I’m perfect and cured but I hear thunder rumbling outside and don’t want to push my luck :D . When I grew to a point that I could accept increasing layers of critique/criticism with my writing, I was more open to others pointing out my personal flaws.
I was a people-pleaser and said yes to everything. Then I’d get overloaded, stressed, angry and lash out. I’m still working on not overextending. I love to help. This is a great character trait, but it needs balance. One of the reasons I’d lash out in anger is I was realllllly bad at putting down boundaries, communicating them and sticking to them in a loving way. I’d back up and back up and back up and say, “Oh, it’s okay” when it wasn’t.
Three of my best friends, Ingrid Schaffenburg, Jay Donovan and Piper Bayard pointed this out (among other things). It hurt. I defended. I railed against the unfairness…then realized *sigh* they were correct.
What I’ve learned is that boundaries are part of all healthy relationships. I heard this metaphor and love it. Your life, MY life is like a beautiful garden (which likely needs a lot of weeding but that’s another post). Frequently we buy into the lie that fences are bad. People should be free to come in and out of our lives. This is true, which is why all good fences have a GATE.
We need to let people in and out and through, but this doesn’t mean we offer them permission to dump old tires and toxic waste into our space. I was letting others bring in junk and saying, “Oh, it’s okay, set the rusted emotional refrigerator there…but next time.” No, it isn’t okay. It wasn’t okay. This led to anger, resentment and then an outburst.
I’d explode, then justify. Then talk about it over and over and over as if this replay made me being an angry jerk okay (Hint: It didn’t). And then I’d think about it over and over and that’s when anger had a chance to take root. I didn’t know how to forgive, thus adding to my Supreme Jerk Status.
Are We Ringing the Bell?
I used to believe that forgiving others gave them a pass, that they were somehow “getting away” with something. Unbelievably, I’d somehow forget about all the times I’d shown MY butt and wanted grace. I was wanting from others what I was unwilling to give in return.
Then I heard another story and it changed me (because I dig anecdotes).
There once was a young monk who’d been terribly wronged by another. He prayed and prayed but the anger never went away. He could not forgive no matter how hard he tried. So, he went to the old parish priest and asked for advice. The older priest knew the young man was in charge of ringing the bells for service. He said to the young man, “When you pull the rope to ring the bell, does it only sound once?”
The young monk replied, “Well, no, it keeps ringing.”
“But the ringing eventually gets softer then fades and finally stops. Correct?”
“My son, anger and forgiveness is the ringing of the bell. The pain will be deafening at first and will take time to fade. Our job is to not continue to pull the rope.”
I used to believe that if I forgave, that magically-mystically the pain would go away. It doesn’t. It takes time. This is why my family was so angry (and many still are). They are still talking about when Such-and-Such did this or that and how awful they were and GOOD GRIEF that person has been DEAD for 15 years! Enough already!
Maybe some of you have relationships where you aren’t in trouble for something you just did, you are still getting hammered with how you failed a month ago, a year ago, or when you were FIVE.
And the bells still ring.
I didn’t realize I was doing that to others. To make my poor behavior somehow better, I’d talk about how Thus-And-Such did this or that and HOW AWFUL and poor ME. Then, I was oblivious to why I couldn’t have solid relationships.
Here’s the hard news. All of us will be hurt and all of us will hurt others. It’s life. With some, we need to stop ringing bells. I was terribly abused by certain people and I had to discipline myself to let it go. I was letting someone rent space in my head for free. Failing to forgive was like drinking poison and hoping the other person would drop dead.
And this is why the gate is vital. We need to forgive. Forgiveness is for US. This doesn’t, however, mean we allow the person free reign to trample though our garden. Some people might never get to come through the gate. This doesn’t mean we haven’t forgiven or are still angry, it means we are setting a BOUNDARY.
For instance, I have a family member who is like living with Mt. Vesuvius. Everything has to be HER way and she looks for opportunities to create strife. I recall the family throwing a birthday party and, as par for the course, this person arrived and within minutes, the conflict began.
In the old days, I would have bitten. It would have become a Jersey-Shores-Jerry-Springer-Argument over who’d done what or worse or whatever. We’d have fought over a list of wrongs reaching back to the 80s.
This time? I didn’t. I calmly said, “I understand you’re upset. Please go take ten minutes to cool off. But, we are here for a birthday celebration and we still want to be. But, if you are going to act this way, then I’m afraid we will have to leave. I hope you choose to let it go and enjoy the fun we’ve prepared.” And the difference this time was I was calm, but I was also FULLY prepared to leave.
As a recovering jerk, I was unwilling to take the bait. I’d learned that if I maintained peace, the offender would be the only jerk left standing. Jerks can be like a hurricane. They NEED that hot-moist air to fuel their raw powers of destruction. If we refuse to fuel them, they fizzle.
The same applied to ME. The perfectionism, pride, back-biting, resentment, jealousy, anger, false pretenses were fuel that kept me in the destructive cycle of being a jerk. To change, I needed to learn to love others where they are. Love myself where I am. Perfection is a lie. Pride is a poison.
We Are All Works in Progress
We all have good days, bad days and days we wish we could erase completely. Most people are not sitting up all night thinking of ways to make others miserable (Some do, so don’t let them through that gate until they knock it off). We screw up and always will.
But the good news is we can learn, grow and become better. We can discipline ourselves to look for the good in ourselves and others, because it takes no great talent to be critical. And the beautiful thing is when we learn to give ourselves permission to be imperfect, we get better at extending that grace to others.
If we only want to be around “perfect” people, life will get really lonely. Also, good fence-building is a skill that takes time.
I love this blog and adore all of you. Honestly. I love how you guys talk about your struggles and lift one another up. I’m inspired by your generosity, your honesty, your newness, your authenticity, your brokenness, your flaws, your weakness, your strengths and all of it makes me better every day. I might still be a jerk without you :D .
What are your thoughts? Shocked I am a Recovering Jerk? Hey, we jerks need friends too. Do you struggle with perfectionism? Do you find yourself holding others to super high standards because you do it to yourself? Are you afraid of being you? Afraid if people knew your house was loaded with laundry they might not like you?
Do you deal with family who tramples through your heart and home? Are you learning about how to put up good fences too? Are you afraid if you cry you might never stop? Are you a Recovering Jerk too? What did you learn?
I love hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of March, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
For a LONG-TERM plan for a fit, healthy platform, please check out my latest book Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World.