I will never forget the moment in Grade 11 Chemistry class when my lab partner accidently knocked against my face, scraping away the carefully applied makeup and messing up my face. He laughed and went on with our experiment.
I felt exposed, revealed and ashamed. He had uncovered a piece of the real me that I meticulously tried to hide every morning before leaving the house.
I was good at ‘putting on a face’. I was always nice, helpful and strived for perfection in everything I did and the world supported it and rewarded me for it. Until I couldn’t anymore.
Even as I began drinking and partying way past acceptable hours, I kept a smile on my face.
Even as I sunk into the depths of an eating disorder, I kept a smile on my face. I didn’t know how to be otherwise. But I did know that if I kept up an outside appearance of everything being perfect, then it was. Until it wasn’t.
Nothing seemed to be right. I wasn’t thin enough, I wasn’t smart enough, I wasn’t fit enough, I wasn’t enough. But my mask presented something very different.
Then began the never-ending search for ‘if only…’. If only I was thin like the girl sitting in front of me, or the one in the movies, then I would be happy. If only I knew what I wanted to do with my life, then I would be happy.
My small self searched and searched for the answer outside. The next diet, the next life goal, the next plan. She dyed her hair, dying to be liked and approved of, and accepted by an outside world that kept wanting more, and telling her that she needed more.
Do you know that feeling? Looking for approval from some unnamed source?
I dieted, binged, purged and kept a secret behind my smile. I was completely disconnected from my body and lived in a world of ‘shoulds’ to the point where these thoughts had actually distorted what I saw in the mirror.
I strived to look like the stars on the front cover of Tiger Beat magazine, and if you are my age you will remember that magazine at the check-out stand. Back then there was only really one teen girl magazine.
All of this effort and energy wanting to be someone I saw outside of myself brought me farther from who I really was as a struggling teenager and solidified a false self. All it got me was isolation, fear, and not one ounce of the happiness it had promised me. In fact, it just gave me more reasons to hide and cover up and tell the worried people around me that I was ok. Their feelings became more important than my own.
Of course this was all I knew at the time. I didn’t realize that I felt the real me was defective and needed to be hidden. My false self gave me a project: me. This was a diversion from all the feelings of guilt and shame, self-doubt and confusion that I felt were unmanageable. I was unmanageable.
In truth, my false self took control masterfully. She got in, cleaned things up and focussed on what she could control, the scale, when the world seemed out of control. I didn’t know what I would do after highschool, I wasn’t sure what to focus on to gain clarity and confidence.
My parents didn’t talk about feelings, let alone feel and show them. Naturally this was from their own upbringing.
My mom came from England and as an artist in a middle-class conservative household, I’m sure she also learned early that is survive was to stifle her expression and creativity. My father as an only child to older parents became a mathematician who strictly stuck to numbers until my mother passed away in 2010 at which time I think every feeling, every anxiety he ever had exploded to the surface for the last 7 years of his life.
As I look back I can see how subconsciously I was struggling to be myself in a world that told me that I wasn’t ok. I wasn’t enough just as I was and there wasn’t really any evidence to contradict it. The natural step for the small self is to sidestep herself, and abdicate her true self for a world that rewarded appearance.
And so began the massive self-improvement search that we call life. I moved through university with an incredible amount of anxiety, but learned how to help others without truly connecting with myself.
I ended up with a huge tool box of skills for how to improve defected selves that need to be fixed and live a happy life. I taught so many techniques and programs and found relief in all of them myself- albeit temporary.
I was constantly learning, moving, riding one challenge after another. But I was unsettled and each stage wasn’t enough. My small self was desperately escaping criticism by moving, excelling and being nice.
The perfection that I strived for was nothing compared to the pressure young girls experience today through social media. In retrospect, what if I had just sat, for a minute with my anxiety, and knew that anxiety was ok, that it was natural and human and I didn’t have to fight against it so fiercely?
I became exhausted from time to time with yet another program that lost it’s magic. Until one day I finally a thought came to me that said “What if there is nothing wrong with me”, “What if everything is in fact, ok?” “What if I don’t actually need to improve anything?”
My practice of mindfulness and yoga had brought me to a place where I could calm my body and mind just long enough to see that this might be true.
I didn’t explore this idea, work on it, or try to expand it. I just accepted it as a possibility.
I asked “Who knows that?” “Who is watching that?”.
I see now that it was my true self, my real self. Not the one I had made up in Grade 11 as a mask I put on. Not the one that needed effort to improve, to reach goals to be good and acceptable, the small self that yearned to feel good enough.
The true self didn’t need to be searched for. She was already here waiting to be allowed and embraced. She didn’t need anything as she already knew she was enough just as she is.
All the times I had read ‘embrace your authentic self’, ‘you are enough’, ‘be in the present moment’ now made sense. Before it just made me try harder to get somewhere. All the self-help and improvement schemes seemed like a game, because it was the small self trying to improve herself. The true self already knew.
She saw all the ways I hid parts of myself, made myself small and invisible physically and emotionally, and abdicated to others.
As I look back from where I am now, I can see 2 major misunderstandings that almost killed me.
They sound very simple, but in practice are life changing. They can also be difficult to unhook from. My mindfulness practice allowed me the space to make these discoveries.
They are this:
In order to truly embrace our true self, we need to see where the small self shows up in anxiety, avoidance and being out of integrity with ourselves.
How do we do this? We can begin by seeing our cracks, our vulnerabilities and where we tense and contract against life in our breath, body and thoughts. These are the doorways to freedom from the small self.
Here are 3 places to start with mindfulness:
Breath: Deep belly breathing is great, but it can be helpful to see where in your day you hold your breath or your breath becomes shallow. What might be there? Try staying present to see what happens in the cracks.
Body: Muscle relaxation is essential for health, but again.. where and when do your muscles tighten and resist? Is it with certain people, places or in certain roles? What would come up if you relaxed into those cracks?
Thoughts: Positive thoughts are great and necessary to feel good, but where do you get worried thoughts? Where do you get worried and fearful? Notice if you ruminate about what others think of you, achieving your goals or any other area of your life. Fearful thoughts are from the small self trying to keep you safe and unhurt. Remind yourself that you are safe and there is no real danger.
It is ok to feel anxious. It’s ok to have conflict. It is a part of life that we don’t need to be rescued from or rescue our children from.
When we can hold ourselves in a warm embrace of love and self-compassion, we hold our cracks, our imperfections and our sadness as well. We can accept the whole perfect package that we were born to be before the world told us who to be.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our Light, not our Darkness, that most frightens us.”
Our cracks, the places where we get anxious and hide, are filled with gold. Notice the places you hide and move slowly, carefully and lovingly towards them. The unbelievable truth is that you are far more powerful and limitless than you will ever know.
Love and acceptance are not out there. There’s nowhere to go. They are in you.
When we see and embrace our cracks, we see the light.
Worth is what you are. You are already enough.
“Imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we’re all in this together.”
Madeleine Eames, MSW, RYT can be found at mindfullivingnow.com
Madeleine is a therapist and yoga teacher dedicated to healing fear and living from truth. Watch her free videos on ‘The Truth About Anxiety’ here. Her online course From Fear to Freedom helps people accept and move through the anxiety that keeps them small. Stay tuned for “From Fear to Love: Reclaim the True Self” course coming out soon!
The Truth About Anxiety: https://mindfullivingnow.mykajabi.com/truth-about-anxiety
From Fear to Freedom: https://mindfullivingnow.mykajabi.com/from-fear-to-freedom