Lessons from the (Emotional) Arctic Tundra
Have you ever struggled with a weighty sense of failure, a belief that no matter what you try, you’ll make the wrong move?
Have you ever found yourself feeling uncomfortable in a group, thinking: I don’t belong with all these happy people. I’d like to cheer up, but I’m just tense and miserable. Wish I could be like them … ?
If so, dear friend, you are not alone.
I could talk about our current survey all day — 58 of you have filled it out as of this writing! — but I’ll just share these findings:
53 out of 58 respondents (91%) report measuring their self-worth by their productivity and accomplishments (or lack thereof) on any given day.
And 46 out of 58 respondents (79%) report considering their mistakes or misunderstandings not as learning experiences, but as indications of their failure as people.
So many of us are walking around with a judge and jury in our heads. We’re not resting in a sense of sufficiency, in the belief that we’re enough as we are. Instead, we’re putting ourselves on trial, everywhere we go.
And the ‘verdicts’ often leave us feeling unworthy and alone.
Once upon a time, I struggled with feeling a pervasive sense of disconnection at church. Every few Sundays, the feeling would descend without warning. I’d sit there wishing that I could go home, or that I hadn’t come at all.
The core of what I felt was alone. There in church, surrounded by friends, I found myself on an emotional Arctic tundra: frozen, lonely, and potentially lethal.
Needless to say, this was troubling. I really like the small church I attend. The people radiate love and acceptance. There’s a sense of fun and inclusion, and everyone’s participation is valued. People drum, dance, and tell their stories, and it is beautiful.
So why the sense of doomed separation?
One Sunday, I came home and heard myself say to my husband, “I can’t do this anymore.” I didn’t want to give up on church, but I didn’t want to keep feeling horrible either.
So I did what we perfectionists do as a last resort: I asked for help. It would be great if we could get off our emotional Arctic tundras by ourselves, but in my experience, it doesn’t work that way. I usually have to admit that I’m lost to get found.
Reluctantly, I described the problem to my counselor. She asked helpful questions. Slowly, a picture began to emerge.
It was a picture of a young woman who was taught to sing without moving, to keep her hands by her sides. Someone who wanted the freedom and spontaneous praise she saw in others, even as she believed that it could never belong to her.
My counselor asked, “In church, do you feel like you have permission to do what feels right for you? That you can choose to clap or not clap, to stay or to leave, if that’s what you need to do?”
There was only one answer that felt true.
“No,” I said. “No, I don’t feel like I have permission to do any of that.”
Words started spilling out.
“If everyone is clapping and dancing, then it seems wrong, disloyal for me not to join. But sometimes I feel guilty about joining, because it doesn’t feel authentic. I end up thinking I’m the problem.”
“So you feel that you have to do what everyone else does, in that context, and there’s something wrong with you if you don’t,” she said.
“Yes!” I said. “And I feel self-conscious because I don’t know what I’m ‘supposed to’ do. The assignment is, ‘Go with the flow,’ and I’m thinking, ‘Where are the rules? Can I get a checklist?’”
“Do you think that this may have to do with past experiences?” she asked.
“I think so. When I was young, I didn’t learn to be spontaneous and playful in church. Instead, I learned to act grown-up and self-contained, the same as others. So now … I guess I’m trying to do both. I’m trying to be authentic and the same as. And I just end up feeling lost.”
Until that day, I didn’t realize how much of my identity was wrapped up in spiritual achievement.
I’ve been ‘good at’ going to church all my life. I filled out every Bible coloring book in children’s church, and I could be counted on for answers to thorny doctrinal questions in youth group. I was the first of my friends to be baptized, and I never missed a day of devotionals. Then came leadership positions, scholarships … the list goes on. In other words, “Hi, my name is Caroline, and I’m a religious performance addict.”
So when I came to a place that encouraged me to let all that go and just be myself — the place I’d always secretly longed for — I didn’t know how to handle it.
“You know,” my counselor said, gently, “Growth is not a strictly linear process. Just because you don’t want to clap on a given day doesn’t mean you’re somehow failing spiritually.”
I thought of a brave post I’d read recently, “The Path Out of Perfectionism.” It was written by Nicole Antoinette, a runner who thought she had to set a new personal record each time she raced.
When I read her story, I thought, Wow, what a great post! But part of me was astonished, thinking: Nicole thought she had to set a PR in every race? Dang. She’s really a perfectionist!
Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. While Nicole had been thinking that she needed to surpass her PR in every race, I’d been thinking that I needed to get more ‘happy-clappy’ with each church service.
So where does that leave us, we who measure our self-worth by our accomplishments? What do we do when we’re stuck on that emotional Arctic tundra, swept away by self-blame?
The first thing to do is to bring our hidden rules to light. If we don’t recognize or acknowledge them, we can’t see how they’re impacting our lives. Ask yourself: do any of these statements ring (uncomfortably) true?
If I spend time with this group, I really have to have my ‘act’ together.
If I show up for this event, I have to be at my best – that is, superhuman.
If I attend church, I have to act exactly like everyone else.
Once you see your hidden rules for what they are, have the courage to ask: is this really how I want to live?
But what happens when we embrace our freedom, even though we’re afraid? It’s revolutionary. As Anne Lamott writes in Operating Instructions, “[We] decided that the most subversive, revolutionary thing I could do was to show up for my life and not be ashamed.”
Can we show up for our lives and not be ashamed? I believe that we can. It will take some work and some help from our friends, but it’s possible. That’s why I took a risk and told this story at a recent church service. Instead of pretending to have it all together, I told my friends the truth. And guess what? They didn’t reject me. Instead, they laughed and cried and held me close. Thanks to them, I know that recovery is possible.
It’s possible to step out of the cold and into the warmth … the warmth of waiting arms.
Do you struggle to believe in your own worth? Join the conversation in the comments!
Today’s the day! At noon CST, I’ll be contacting the randomly-winner of our survey contest. Missed it? Don’t worry, the survey form is still open, and I welcome your response. I’ll close entries at noon CST tomorrow, Tuesday, July 1.
Finally, A Wish Come Clear will be taking a brief 4th of July holiday hiatus, returning with a new story on Monday, July 14. Until then, dear friends!