Ending the year in Ocean Grove
2014 was a hard year for me. I knew that it would be, going in, which is why my one word for 2014 was strong.
I didn’t feel very strong. I didn’t relish the choice of word, nor did I feel excited about facing the challenges in my life. It was a hard slog, making it through the year, week by week, day by day, even hour by hour at times.
But I learned a lot. Oh yes, I learned many things, unexpected things, insights emerging in surprising places and at surprising times.
I am a peacemaker. An Enneagram Type 9, in fact. I am constantly oriented towards resolving the conflict and tension in my internal and external worlds. This isn’t necessarily about resolving it in a mature and healthy way. For example, sometimes my way of responding to tension is to retreat into another world (like fiction, or YouTube webseries), or avoid the conflict (like skipping church when I can’t make sense of my beliefs). At other times, it is carefully approaching a potentially tense situation with diplomatic words and an eagerness to smooth things over, so that the conflict can be resolved as soon as possible – which is often a blessing.
As a peacemaker, my main struggle is with inertia, or sloth. It was helpful to realise that my lack of motivation to exercise and my procrastination struggles are particularly difficult for a Type 9. That’s strangely empowering, because rather than thinking I am just worse at those things than everyone else, I now know that it is my next area of personal growth.
That’s what I love about the Enneagram personality theory – it encourages growth and development. My weaknesses as a Type 9, when I am aware of them, do not need to drive my behaviour and my life.
I tend to avoid true vulnerability and intimacy. As I wrote when I had my vulnerability hangover, Brené Brown defines vulnerability as emotional risk. I have always thought of myself as vulnerable, and it seemed like no big deal. But I learned that it wasn’t a big deal because I wasn’t taking any true risks. I am very careful about who I speak to on certain topics. I avoid opening a topic with a person whom I believe might challenge my thoughts, causing me to become defensive and too paralysed to choose the words to back up my perspective. This is even to the point where, with my closest friend, I won’t raise even the slightest disagreement on the finer points of anything we discuss. Also, when I do approach a vulnerable topic, I do it so carefully and diplomatically that the risk is nearly eliminated. With my most vulnerable self, I write here, to the whole wide internet instead – and even then I am careful about what I publish. (It may not seem like it, but I am.)
Through discussing all of this with a counsellor, I discovered that true vulnerability and emotional intimacy require me to take down the last of the walls I have up around me. Those walls only serve to keep me isolated, even while it looks like I am opening up to everyone. I am frankly terrified of facing these final frontiers in my vulnerability, but I know I need to.
I don’t need to take conflict personally. These are all related points that I learned at different times throughout the year. When a new person came into my life with a tendency to be brusque and pepper her conversation with more corrections than affirmations, I bristled and thought I would never survive it. Then I realised that it was just the way she operated. And if it was just her style, then I didn’t need to take it personally. So I don’t go into our conversations with my shield and sword at the ready. I know that she just wants to say her bit and move on. And it’s fine. It’s really, truly fine. It feels so different to not be defensive or afraid. And because I am not paralysed in the face of the ‘conflict’, I feel more empowered to respond calmly and maturely as the situation requires.
I am a social worker because I want to see the moment of insight. A while ago I would have given you some other reason for doing this work – because God calls me to the margins of society, for example. But when I really thought about it, this was the answer. It is critical for me to be there with a client when they gain a new insight – and I want to be the reason for that insight, too. I love seeing how our conversation can help them learn something new, realise a truth, uncover what is really behind things, let go of old baggage, and take a baby step forward. With adults, it can take a long time for them to see it, but when it happens, I can feel the shift. With children, it’s less obvious – they might be mulling it over while they play, or they might have pushed it from their minds – but usually a shift in behaviour emerges after a while, which I get to see. It’s amazing and it keeps me going.
I got sunburnt on the last day of the year. Screw you, 2014.
I don’t need to do everything. I had already learned this at some levels, owing chiefly to the theology of grace from my faith. But there are two areas of my life where I needed this lesson: the internet, and social expectations.
The internet is such a valuable tool to me, and I love being a part of my little corner of it. But it gives me way more than I can keep up with. By being on Goodreads and tweeting about books, I have uncovered more book recommendations than I can possibly read. By following the makers, characters and fans of my favourite YouTube webseries on Twitter and Instagram and everywhere, there is often more story and excitement than I can possibly keep track of in my daily life. By seeing my RL friends and internet friends document their lives in really cool ways on Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, YouTube, blogs, I feel the pressure of documenting to a similar standard across just as many platforms for, like, everything.
So here is where I have given myself permission to let go: I do not need to stay ‘up-to-date’ on any social media, for anything (even for my favourite webseries). I do not need to document everything in my life for social media (or even for myself). I do not need to blog regularly here unless I want to. I do not need to read every book that I might enjoy or that someone else enjoyed, especially not with the main purpose of documenting it on Goodreads and Twitter.
Then the social side of things. When my father-in-law was dying, I had a good excuse for not meeting social expectations. We put everything on hold. I didn’t have to say yes to the party invitations. I didn’t have to arrange to catch up with a friend. I didn’t have to return a favour, or organise that long-overdue dinner, or email anyone.
After we returned to ‘normal’ life (which took a few months of adjusting), I learned that most of those social expectations were in my head. You know what? I was getting anxious over my own perceived social obligations, and they weren’t even real. So why am I still holding onto them? I’m not any more. If I somehow do mess up on someone else’s expectation of me, there might be some kind of conflict, and I’m not so scared of that any more, either.
Ideally, the people worth having in my social circle will make their expectations clear (not that it means I have to meet them, but at least I’ll know), and will be mature enough to raise their concerns with me, and willing to accept an apology and repair the relationship. There is no point worrying myself about it until that happens. And if it’s not that big a deal, just something where they might disapprove of me, why would I base my choices around 30 seconds of their disapproval anyway?
What I eat doesn’t need a name. I kept thinking my food choices would get easier when I found The Perfect Diet (and by that I mean a collection of food choices for health, not a weight loss tool). I quit sugar, and went paleo, and did detoxes, and had more of this and less of that, and went off gluten completely, and tried a little bit of gluten, and went overboard with too much gluten, and found myself back at the beginning.
I strongly believe in bio-individuality when it comes to food – our bodies are all different and we need to learn what’s right for us. That means what I eat might not fit the name of a prescriptive diet. And it doesn’t need to.
But it also means I don’t have to stick to anything too firmly. Sometimes I wish I could – I am an abstainer, not a moderator, after all – but there is no point, really. I don’t have an autoimmune disease that requires a specific diet, nor a diagnosed intolerance, nor a firm set of symptoms related to any particular food. All I can say is that I’ve learned to have more of this and less of that. More vegetables, less gluten and sugar. But on any given day, I might have some gluten or sugar anyway. And it might be fine. Or it might not be – I’ll get a sore throat, feel run-down, get tired, wake up sluggish the next day – so I’ll avoid it again. I’ll listen to my own body, stock my kitchen with food my body loves, and adjust on a daily and hourly basis. It’s okay to figure it out as I go.
(I acknowledge that this sucks for friends and family who feed me regularly and would probably find it easier if I consistently ate or didn’t eat particular things. I try to keep them updated on my preferences, provide my own food when necessary, and for the rest of the time just go with the flow. I don’t want to ask too much of people when I make my own slip-ups from time to time anyway.)
I am stronger than I even know. Stronger than I thought I was. Stronger than I felt (you don’t need to feel strong to be strong). I went through some hard times but they did not break me and I have emerged, gasping for breath but braced for new challenges.
Goodbye, 2014. So long to the hardest year of my life. But – thank you. I learned so much from you.