By Jen Butler
I’ve spent so much of my life doing things to make other people see me a certain way. I talk about my accomplishments or my wounds, depending on the conversation and the crowd and which topic I intuit will most impress. I’ve observed people, learned their likes and their humor, and then adjusted to fit in.
Perhaps this is part of being human. A desire for connection, for a tribe. A desire to be liked.
But I wondered tonight, while folding super comfy pajama pants I normally wear with mis-matched socks and an old lady sweater (but only alone, in the privacy of my own home), “What if people would have liked me anyway? If I hadn’t have tried to be a certain way. If I didn’t exhaust myself with witty banter or getting the last word. What would be different?”
Perhaps nothing would be different. Maybe the same people would be my friends and colleagues.
Or maybe, just maybe, my life would be a little different.
Maybe if I reallocated my credits of “care” toward being myself, standing up for myself, and saying what I wanted to say rather than what I thought would be most popular… Maybe I’d have smile lines instead of the crinkle in between my eyebrows from a near-perpetual furrowed brow.
I stress myself out. And I say that in the most loving way possible. I stress myself out, recognize that I’m stressing myself out, decide to worry less and relax more, then share this awareness with those close to me, all of whom are like: “Yea duh. You didn’t realize you were a bit high strung and super hard on yourself? Glad you’re learning to take it easy.”
And I’m like: OH. I’M DOING SOMETHING THEY AGREE WITH AND LIKE. I SHOULD DO MORE OF THIS.
And so, naturally, I then dive into a very dedicated and regimented plan on how to be the most relaxed person I can be.
I’ve always been irritated by the people who say, “This is just how I am. I can’t change.”
But I realize I’ve been camping out on the other end of that extreme: “I can change everything about myself until I become the exact person I want to be.”
Spoiler alert: the “exact person I want to be” is a moving target, it’s not at all a quantifiable goal, and the comparison between myself and that dream version of me results in my feeling left behind, left out, and generally like a failure.
But it’s not that I feel I’m failing my parents or friends. I feel I’m failing myself.
I feel a compulsive need to be “good” and think only good thoughts, say only good words, and take only good action. And any time something goes poorly in my life, I tell myself I wasn’t good enough and I must have manifested it with some sort of negative thinking, and I must do better.
While walking my dog today, I marveled at the white fabric peeking out from my shoes and the fact that this was the first time I’d gone in public without no-show socks. I was wearing the “wrong” socks for the shoe choice. This would have been debilitating to me in the past. (+1 point for progress, Jen!) (But -1 for poor style, which could fall under the genre of poor self-care.) (Net zero. Try better next time. Do not pass go, do not collect $200.)
I smiled at the socks, and continued the self-analysis work I’d been doing all day (and most days). I was scanning my brain for limiting beliefs and negative thoughts so I could eradicate them all with my laser beam vision, which stems from perfectionism, which stems from seeing myself negatively rather than lovingly. I was trying to stop negativity with something that is, by its very nature, negative. Trying to fix my thoughts with my thoughts.
I then had the thought pop in my head of “restriction,” and I remembered my relationship with food when I struggled with disordered eating.
I obsessively labeled foods as good and bad, shaming myself if I ate or craved a bad food, and feeling a temporary relief (combined with a bit of elitism) upon consumption of good foods. I knew there was factual evidence backing up certain foods being healthy and others being unhealthy. This was the perfect thing for me to control! I will be the healthiest eater ever!
Until I realized that food itself stressed me out, no matter the type. And consistent stress is far more harmful than occasionally eating a bowl of Life cereal.
I removed the labels of good and bad around food and instead re-learned how to trust my body and its signals.
My relationship with food and my body are both healthier than they’ve ever been. It’s not perfect. I sometimes still stress out over end-of-the-world stuff, like running out of vegetable juice, and then my boyfriend talks me back to earth. Overall, it’s much better and life feels easier.
Today, I realized I’ve been treating my thoughts and self-work the same way. I’ve found a new application for perfectionism and obsessive compulsion: monitoring and judging my thoughts and words.
It’s like a proofreader’s dream: “Your job is to tell me what’s wrong with everything I’m thinking, saying, and doing.”
I’ve rarely ended a day without a needs improvement stamped on my forehead, in the shape of a deepening brow crease. If I feel accomplished on any given day, I feel relief rather than celebration. “No negative points today, Jen. Now just do every day like today except a little bit better and then you’ll be positive and get everything you desire.”
Is anyone else stressed out reading this? I’m stressed out writing it, while also feeling so fucking free for owning how I feel and how I experience life.
Yes, I believe it is true that our thoughts and feelings and actions and words create our reality.
It is also true that we are here to have a human experience, which is imperfect in its very nature, and I personally think it’s far healthier for me to let the fuck go and allow for a natural progression of life than to try and control every word, thought, and step.
Because even if I say everything positively and in alignment with my positive new belief system, I’m still doing it from a place of fear. And stress. And furrowed brow-ness.
What’s in between “This is just how I am; I can’t change” and “I’m gonna’ change everything so I can be perfect.”?
I don’t know. I’m thinking it’ll find me. And I’m thinking it starts with removing the labels of “good” and “bad”.
Did you know I lost the extra fat on my body when I removed labels on food, even though I increased the “bad” foods and decreased the “good” ones? It’s because I stopped giving them so much power. I learned what it felt like to feel actual hunger rather than approaching diet analytically as if I was a research project.
If my brain is ever like, “OH NO YOU SHOULD GO EXERCISE OR YOU’LL GET FAT,” I will march my happy ass into the kitchen and eat a “bad” food and be like, “I refuse to exercise with that mindset or to be held captive by it. So this chocolate is code for FUCK YOU.”
And then I eat it.
And then the thoughts shut up because they don’t know what to do with their hands. And the stress immediately leaves.
And do I get fat? Nope. I’m the fittest I’ve ever been. Truly.
I’m not sure what the equivalent will be for the self-help, self-analysis stuff. Maybe it’s as simple as removing the labels and seeing what happens next. Maybe if I find myself being all like, “Oh that thought was bad, -2 points, and now you’ll attract negative things from the Universe” I can respond with something like “Gosh I sure hope my head falls off” or “Fingers crossed for food poisoning!” or “I sure like the word ‘c*nt’ even though it pisses people off.”
It’s the same approach recommended for people to escape other perfectionistic or anxiety-ridden tendencies. For instance, folks who nervously sweat can start being like, “I’m going to sweat more than I ever have today. Gallons of it. GALLONS!” And, in time? The nervous sweats stop.
Yea, seriously. It’s real.
So, while all y’all Love and Light Brigaders are telling your clients that the reason their lives are the way they are is because they need to eat clean and that their thoughts aren’t perfect enough, I’m going to be eating chocolate and exclaiming “CU*NT!” from my basement apartment while wearing a grandma sweater and mis-matched socks.
Maybe it won’t get me out of my apartment. Maybe it won’t bring me abundance. Maybe after a surprising unexplainable beheading you can be like, “I knew Jen before her head fell off.”
But, in the meantime, it’ll be a helluva lot more fun. And maybe, in the process, I’ll gain some smile lines.
Jen Butler is a comedic real-talk writer and artist in recovery from alcoholism, addiction, self-harm, disordered eating, cancer, Breast Implant Illness, and a weird period of time when she only listened to dubstep. Her passion is helping people feel less crazy and alone by openly sharing her own experience, strength, and hope. Her portfolio, books, and one video with a flamingo puppet can be found at www.jenniferannbutler.com.
THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND