“Waking up to who you are requires letting go of who you imagine yourself to be.” ~Alan Watts
When I was in third grade, I loved to hang upside down on the monkey bars on the playground of my all-girls school in Philadelphia.
I would lock my little pale knees over the gray steel rods and then carefully let my hands go to swing upside down, like a pendulum in a pleated skirt.
This meant I had to bravely trust that my normally feeble strength would be sufficient to suspend me.
It was always a victorious feeling when the backs of my knees started to burn. This meant it was time to carefully return to earth on own my terms.
Alix – 1, Gravity – 0!
One day, a clump of dead grass attached itself to the sole of my Stride Rite. As I was flipping off the bars, it dropped into my mouth. I hit the ground gagging and spewing, completely grossed out.
Doubled-over and hacking out the grass was not a little noisy. I made quite the scene; however, it failed to attract the attention of my teachers.
They didn’t rush to my side to see why I was, for all intents and purposes, throwing up.
“Throwing up” was a golden ticket to go home from school and I wanted to cash in.
This is because I spent the first third of my life believing that in order to be validated, something needed to be physically wrong with me.
The only attention I felt worthy of was sympathy. I thought ailments made me interesting.
I was the kid who wanted a sprained ankle so I could get crutches. Do you know what the attention-getting street value of crutches is in kid world? It’s like friggin’ crack!
And a broken leg? Think of the signatures!
I wanted poison ivy so I could have bandages, “to keep from scratching.”
The concerned questions were like gold: “Oh no! Are you okay?”
I wasn’t going to let the fact that I am not allergic to poison ivy stop me from tapping into this potential cache of boo-boo love.
One summer evening with the aid of red and orange magic markers, I drew a mock rash on my arm.
Then I test-drove it with my family, who didn’t buy it. Thankfully, this ridiculous bit never made it out of R&D.
To be clear, I got plenty of positive reinforcement at home. I was supported from dawn ‘til dusk by my loving family, for which I am intensely grateful. But I never felt like it really counted. In my kid’s mind, I reasoned that they had signed on to love me, and were biased.
Plus, I was just one of those souls who required validation from the outside world.
I felt that once I left the confines of my nest, that unless I was limping or retching, I was otherwise invisible. I needed to be a victim of something in order to matter.
That day on the playground when my teachers ignored my blatant—and legitimate!—dead grass upset, I felt even more unseen which I didn’t even think was possible.
Aren’t these paid-professional grown-ups supposed to acknowledge me when I’m in distress?
Since I no doubt possessed a Chicken Little-esque flair for drama, they had probably grown immune to my antics by this juncture.
I would cling to any and all ideas of pain in order to get the symp-attention that I craved.
When I look back at this period in my childhood I just have to laugh at myself. Not only was I highly theatrical, but my level of insecurity was semie-staggering.
Clearly, I did not think I was enough. In fact, it’s taken me the better part of three decades to make peace with the idea that I am not only enough, but that I am exactly who I am supposed to be.
Growing up in the seventies and eighties I had all of these notions, largely fed by TV, pop culture, and my peers, about who I was supposed to be:
The Breck Girl, a Charlie’s Angel, Wonder Woman (but I’d be happy to be Lynda Carter), and a career-bound (not a stay-at-home) Barbie.
As I matured into my teens, I began to shed this billboard perception about life.
My head was turned less by action-hero ladies with perfect hair and more by, well, if I’m being completely honest, cute boys who listened to the “right” music and wore Polo cologne.
Now eager for their approval, I shaped myself into who I thought they wanted me to be: The girl in The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?” video.
This only got me so far.
When I graduated from high school, I moved to New York to model for a large agency. This was a dream come true.
Before long, I was trying to figure out who the modeling industry wanted me to be: Edgy? Sexy? Wholesome? Commercial? Editorial? There were so many options and would never be a clear answer.
Having looked at my life from the outside in for so many years was a hard habit to break.
I was like a junkie for other people’s approval, permission, information, and maps.
I thought everyone except me was issued a handbook about life.
They seemed to “get it” while I was constantly scrambling to find my place in their world.
Of course, I was laboring under a massive illusion that I was the only one who felt this way.
Again, I have to look back and laugh.
One day during my early twenties, the universe let me look under the hood and I was let in on a cosmic secret: tons of other people feel like they’re living without a manual. Lots of us are winging it, and being a little lost is how we actually come to find ourselves.
This epiphany was such a relief that I stopped trying to be what I thought others wanted and started getting really good at being me.
I would love to say that this powerful shift happened overnight, but no.
The “just being me” remained a nuanced confidence-building process for a few more years (ten?) until I was able fully step into who I am in the world today.
The wonder of it all—and another cosmic gut-buster—is that the more I align with my whole self, the more the world rushes into to meet me where I am.
I venture that if there actually were a handbook issued at birth, it might go a little like this:
1. You are a miracle. Never forget this fact. Just the science alone is mind blowing.
2. You are unique. No one will ever be as good at being you as you are. Seriously.
3. You are enough. Always. Never doubt this. There is nothing to add, but feel free to expand.
4. There is always more to learn, but that is not failure; it's a gift. It can be fun too.
5. Every obstacle is an opportunity to fall further into the miracle that is you.
6. Commit to being the best version of you every day. Recalibrate definition of “best” as needed.
7. Leave room for others when they fall off the wagon of their own miracle.
8. Forgive. Forgive. Forgive. Forgive every which way. Forgive him. Forgive her. Forgive you.
9. Compassion is the key to forgiveness. Compassion means you feel the humanity in others.
10.The more you forgive, the more you’ll enjoy being you, because the lighter your load will be.
11. In the end, as in the beginning: You. Are. Amazing.
Photo by Emilian Robert Vicol