Whatever It Takes

There are a set of social norms, the spoken and unspoken rules of acceptable behavior within a society, that influence essentially all of our decisions and behavior in conscious and subconscious ways. Social norms guide things as simple as how we dress and what we eat, but they also influence bigger things like who we choose as a life partner, how we parent, and what we do for our life’s work. These social norms aren’t necessarily bad things- they often help keep us safe, allow us to have happy and healthy relationships, and provide stability and predictability in our lives. The problem is that we often allow these social norms to guide our lives without a second thought, leaving us sort of aimlessly going through the motions, or worse, continuing to engage in something that is no longer healthy simply because it is what is expected of us. Here’s the deal, you should never be ashamed of doing whatever it takes to save your own life, even if it flies in the face of what society tells us we should be doing. Sometimes we need to go against the social norms to literally save our lives, sometimes we need to challenge them in an effort to live a life that excites us, and sometimes we find that they are just not for us.

There is such a stigma in our society about asking for help. As Americans we tend to place a high value on independence and self-sufficiency. We generally like for things to go smoothly and when they don’t, we expect people to be able to pick themselves back up with little to no assistance. In my years working with families in crisis, I can’t tell you how many families ended up in a struggle by absolutely no fault of their own- an illness or disability bankrupted them leaving them homeless, a woman fleeing violence with her children who is expected to put her life back together with nothing but the clothes on her back, a sexual assault survivor who shouldn’t have been that drunk or worn that outfit, somebody suffering with mental illness who just should try to be happier or trust God more. We put a significant amount of effort into either blaming the victim for the circumstance they are in or shaming them for being unable to get out of the situation on their own. In light of these norms that place such a high value on of self-reliance, I think people who are struggling often fail to reach out for the help that could literally save their life. It feels shameful to ask for help. It’s scary to admit that things have gotten bad and to consider that they may not get better anytime soon. It’s hard to admit you can’t do it alone. But if reaching out for help- from a  crisis center, from a mental health institution, from a suicide hotline, from a social service agency, from a friend, from literally anywhere- is the thing that could save your life, there should be no shame in that.

Challenging the social norms doesn’t always have to be about literally saving your life, sometimes doing something “outside the box” allows us to live a life that excites us. I have recently been afforded an opportunity to step outside of the traditional working world. Part of what motivated this shift is a need within my family for me to focus more of my energy on some things happening in our little world, but part of it is an opportunity for me to really do some soul searching and hustling to find out how it is I want to make my livelihood. As full time working people, we spend the vast majority of our waking hours working. It makes little to no sense to me to spend that time doing anything other than something that sets me on fire. I realize that’s not an opportunity that everyone is afforded, but I think too many people just go through the motions of working for a paycheck without considering if there is an alternative or if they are just settling for the thing that just happens to be right in front of them. It doesn’t make a ton of sense for me to step outside of the traditional working world and it’s definitely not the most “responsible” decision I’ve ever made. I make the higher salary, my job provides our health insurance, and we have a kid with needs that costs us an arm and a leg. We will likely have to tap into savings to cover some of our bills for the next couple of months. Despite all of these potential challenges and knowing that it would just be easier to keep doing what we were doing, we were able to come up with a plan and hustle to make and save some money so that I could take this leap without it having too much of an impact on our day to day. And you know what? If we find that it isn’t working for us, I can always go find a job. Nothing is forever.  When I think about people asking “What do you do?” over the next few months, I can’t wait to tell them that I took a leap. It may not last forever and there will be new and different challenges in my new normal, but I believe this soul-searching is good important work that I need to do.

Finally, sometimes, the social norms are just not for us. By the time I was in my mid-teens, I knew that I never wanted to have biological children. It wasn’t that motherhood itself didn’t appeal to me, or that I had a medical reason I was unable to conceive or carry a child, it just very simply wasn’t a life experience that interested me at all.  I didn’t talk about this this idea with really anyone other than my husband until the past few years mostly because it’s not the “norm”. The vast majority of people become parents by getting pregnant and birthing a child. The vast majority of families I knew who only had adopted children (and no bio kids) chose adoption after discovering a medical reason they could not conceive. Nothing is wrong with either of these approaches to expanding a family, they just weren’t for me and weren’t reflective of my desires or experience. Being a happily married twenty something woman who wanted to be a mom but just didn’t want to have a baby was definitely not the norm. Because of this “norm” and my reluctance to follow it, I have often wondered if I am “broken” in some way. What’s wrong with me that I have zero desire to birth a child? It seems like in our culture and in the media that every woman who desires motherhood would be thrilled to get pregnant. What I have come to believe is that there should be no shame in choosing an alternate route, that if a common cultural experience is “not for you” it’s okay. Expectations about who you should be, what you should do, how you should navigate your life should never be the only reason you follow through with something. As long as your desires are safe and healthy for you and others, throw the set of social norms out the window and do what is best for you.

When we really consider our deepest desires and needs, sometimes it means we have to go against the grain. I’ve watched too many people stay in toxic relationships, soul-sucking jobs, mental health battles, and a slew of other things, hanging on for dear life simply because doing what they want and need seems abnormal or scary or shameful. Perhaps worse, I’ve watched too many others (myself included), stifle their light because it seems too big and too unreal and too unattainable.  Settling for what you have because the alternative seems too hard or too scary is not okay. Never, and I mean NEVER, be ashamed of doing whatever it takes to save your own life, or to chase the desires of your heart.

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Own Your Light

A recent research study found that girls begin doubting their brilliance at around age six. The article didn't say when girls stop doubting their brilliance, likely because the answer to that question is "never", which is so unfortunate. I often wonder how many incredibly talented and wonderful people are holding back because they worry that they are not enough and what they have to offer just isn't that important or good. I wonder because I often find myself holding back and I know I can't be alone in that experience. Anytime I am about to "put myself out there", I often pause to think about how there are so many people who are more talented, more qualified, more engaging, and more dedicated than me. Sometimes I let those thoughts keep me from stepping out, but almost always I let those thoughts "dim my light". I rarely do anything as boldly or as excitedly as perhaps I should because somewhere along the way I have come to believe that what I have to offer just isn't that great. 

When did we begin to believe that we aren't all that special? Small children inherently believe that they are super awesome. They don't stop before trying something new to think "What if I'm just not that good at this?". They don't waste time comparing themselves to their peers, constantly racking and stacking, trying to sort out where they fall...."Man, Sally is so good at tying her shoes, I'll never be as good as she is so I just probably shouldn't even try". But then, somewhere in our early childhood, we learn shame. We start holding back from trying things that seem like they might be too hard. We look around the room, reading reactions, trying to assess how bad a mis-step really was. The things we thought we were good at come into question when we find that somebody else is good at the same thing. We spend significant effort trying to cover up small mistakes here and there, hoping nobody will notice. We try to make ourselves small and minimize our accomplishments to avoid the critics. Eventually, we end up so far down the rabbit hole of self doubt that we aren't able to find our way back out. It becomes our way of life, our normal. 

I just don't believe we have to spend the rest of our lives as slaves to our self-doubt and shame. I'm not saying we should all become massive narcissists, but I think we all could use the occasional reminder of our value. 

Here's what I know---

  • You and I have something incredibly unique to offer the world. In all of human history, there will never be another person who has your exact personality, skills, experiences, passions, and opportunities. Stop acting like you are not that special....you are it. There will never be another you and if you push your unique contributions aside, assuming they don't matter all that much, then you are depriving the world of the one shot they have to experience you and the light you've been given to shine. 
  • You don't have to be the best to be valuable. There will always be somebody better than you and more successful than you. That is not for you to worry about. Start where you are with what you have and do your thing. Revel in the things that fill you up and let go of the weight of comparison. It doesn't serve you. 
  • Most people don't even notice the "mistakes" you spend so much time trying to hide and minimize. We are at the center of our own experience so it's hard to remember that people are often so busy doing their own thing that they just aren't that concerned about so closely analyzing our lives and our work, looking for something to criticize. 
  • Life is short. We get one shot at this thing and we can either spend it anxiously trying to avoid any attention and failure or we can spend it doing what we love, unconcerned with what others think. You will not be for everyone and that's okay. They can move along. Life is way too short to spend any time or energy trying to convince other people that you are good- as a person or at the thing you love to do.  

We will likely never learn to shake self-doubt and shame entirely, but I hope we can all learn to live a little more unencumbered, a little freer. I hope we can all be a little braver and a little more willing to put ourselves out there. I hope that when we fail, because we will, that we will hop back up, dust ourselves off, and keep moving forward.  I hope that we can all begin to see the light within ourselves shining a little brighter and start to share it with the world a little more freely.