Not being an international diplomat of any ranking, I’ve never attended a round table peace summit. I’ve watched President Bartlet broker a peace deal on The West Wing, and over the years I’ve tried to talk a few friends down from dissolving a friendship over a misunderstanding, but peace talks aren’t really in my skill set. Or so I thought.
A while ago, I think it was in a conversation on Facebook, I was chatting with some people about self-esteem and I was saying that I’m not a slave to negative self-talk. Someone in the conversation said they’d like to hear more about how I got from where I was – fearful, full of angst, and struggling against crushing negativity and diatribes of worthlessness reverberating around my skull – to where I am today – no longer really bothered by a negative internal narrator.
Could I explain the way things changed? Do I even know how or when it happened?
It’s been the subject of much reflection, not because I think there’s a six-step e-book on overcoming negativity in my future, but because I believe it is absolutely VITAL for our well-being, individually and collectively, that we shake off the crippling doubts and self-loathing a lot of us seem to battle with.
Here’s the one thing I know for sure about it – it is a long process. For me, the road has been winding and often arduous. I didn’t go to bed one night berating myself and wake up the next day an entirely different creature. Anyone who promises you that is bullshitting you. And themselves.
As I’ve reflected on getting from there to here, I have been genuinely surprised by remembering some of the signposts and milestones along the way. It seems so strange to really have to dig around to unearth things that seemed so epic and life changing when I was going through them. There’s good news there – things that feel huge and insurmountable in your life now may one day be all but forgotten.
So, how did I change?
I held peace talks, for one.
This was no well-catered weekend at Camp David – my peace talks were ongoing, undignified, dehydrating, and scary as hell.
Honestly, I cannot articulate the sheer terror I felt as my greatest fears demanded my attention. It was primal, guttural and something I couldn’t speak about at the time, or for a long time afterwards.
The key thing that I believe allowed me to come through this season, which lasted for several years (there go my quick fix six-step e-book sales down the toilet), was that I gave myself permission to bring the dark unspeakable “truths” I’d been tormented by into the light. I wouldn’t say I rolled out the red carpet for them, because there was still a shitload of resistance as I came undone, but somehow I was ready to question things I’d always believed.
I was prepared, tremblingly, to entertain the idea that perhaps I’d been wrong about the life sentence I’d convinced myself I was under – a sentence which I believed I “deserved”.
I guess in the simplest terms, I allowed myself to ask “what if?”.
What if I was wrong about the harsh, demanding expectations I had of myself?
What if I was someone who wasn’t broken beyond repair?
What if I could think differently about my experience? Could I redeem any of it?
What if I didn’t need to get over it, but to embrace it?
What if I could stop feeling lost, or like damaged goods?
What would that look like?
What might that feel like?
My name tag for the peace talks says Annette/Sara, Adoptee.
I was born to an unmarried teenager in the late 1960s. I was put up for adoption under circumstances I know little about. Strike that, I know nothing about them. Not a thing.
Until I was in my late 20s I didn’t even know my mother’s name. I still don’t know my father’s.
Being an adoptee isn’t rare; thousands upon thousands of other people share that fate, especially in the era I was born in. Being an adoptee isn’t something I have ever been ashamed of, though I know it feels shameful to others. I have always known, it’s not a secret in my family.
I grew up in easy breezy 70s suburbia, so I have no complaints there. Actually having to write “no complaints there” is the kind of thing that pisses me off most about writing about adoption. Saying anything other than that I’m grateful or that adoption is such a selfless gift or any of the myriad of ‘always look on the bright side’ clichés people espouse, often isn’t well received. I feel like I need to defend my position from the get go. I don’t, I know. But I want to be understood.
Adoption is the Ground Zero of my wounds.
We all have our own obstacles to overcome. The things I have faced (and continue to face) may not be the same as the things you’re facing, but I believe the root of most of our struggles are variations on some common themes. We feel damaged. Broken. Stained. Unworthy.
People we love and trust may tell us these things are true of us.
We may tell ourselves they’re true.
More insidiously, we may receive these messages without anyone ever saying a word.
Some of us can’t recall ever feeling anything but a sense of not measuring up, or the pressure of nagging perfectionism, which can never be satisfied, no matter what we do.
For some, there’s a moment in time where things shifted, and the battle began.
We can’t become what we imagine is acceptable. We try. We fail. We berate ourselves. We try again. We fall down. It’s a vicious, exhausting, demoralising hamster wheel.
When that struggle begins with questions about who you are, and whether you deserve to be here at all, well, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re fucked.
By the time I was willing to pin on my name tag and sit down to ongoing peace talks with myself, I had been keeping company of people who were showing me what an examined life looked like, and I didn’t even realise it.
Until that Facebook conversation I mentioned earlier started me thinking about how I got from there to here, I had completely forgotten that my initial and excruciatingly painful forays into examining my wounds happened in the same building where I’d been shown what living a radically honest life looked like – in AA/recovery meetings.
Funnily enough, those meetings were held in the church I attended at the time, but they had a totally different candour about them than anything I’d ever known. I loved them.
I can count the number of times I have felt truly at home with a group of people on one hand, and those meetings were one of those times.
Something about that ethos of recovery, of fearless and frank self-examination, must have sunk in, because what I do remember is a shockingly seismic shift in my thinking about how adoption had marked my life.
Looking back, I can see now that the pain of that season was as much about reframing my mindset, as it was about dealing with the tentacles of adoption. I was lost and overwhelmed by the conflict I was in. I oscillated between feeling grateful, broken, chosen, and rejected. I was in hell.
I had been absolutely, steadfastly determined to “get over it”. I mean, I was an adult, adoption was something that happened to me so long ago – there was no way I should still feel all the things I felt about it. It was kind of pathetic wasn’t it? At the same time, I felt broken in half by it, and totally incapable of recovering. My mantra was: suck it up, get over yourself, move on. Don’t cause (more) trouble. I was horrendously insensitive, even cruel, to myself.
I slowly, slowly came to understand that I didn’t have to “get over it”, I didn’t need to move on or suck it up. I needed to embrace that adoption had marked me, but it couldn’t define or destroy me without my permission. It happened to me. It is a fact of my life that I cannot change, that I didn’t choose or cause and which I don’t have to shy away from or sugar coat the impact of.
So how did I overcome my obstacles?
I started by giving myself permission to feel whatever came up.
Slowly. So very slowly.
Then I started responding to my feelings. Out loud.
Whenever I would berate myself, or demand something ridiculous of myself, I got into the habit of rebutting whatever accusation or insult was being hurled. Out loud.
I would say something like “I am allowed to feel sad/angry/bruised by this. I am allowed to express that. I choose to show myself kindness. That’s okay.”
Whether I felt angry, sad, misunderstood, or heartbroken – I told myself that was permissible. I didn’t believe myself for a while, but I just kept saying it.
Sometimes that felt utterly ridiculous, and it was two steps forward, two steps back in the early days. Reprogramming a critical narrator takes a lot of time and energy.
So I practiced – I practiced compassion and kindness towards myself. It’s sad that it took me so long to discover that compassion can be directed internally as well as outwardly, but what a gift that discovery has been.
Life changing, perhaps even life saving.
I also realised I was grieving. That one took a while to swallow. Quite a while.
I would (and still) often tell myself “You’re alright. You’ll be okay Nettie. Be kind to yourself.”
And I will. I am.
I don’t know what obstacles you are facing, what burdens you’re carrying, or how they got there.
I do know they are heavy and exhausting.
Your lot in life is not to spend your days apologising for the space you take up, or trying to make yourself invisible. There’s no external, standardised measure of being “good enough” for the inner critic, and there’s certainly no such thing as perfection.
What there is, for all of us, is compassion.
You’re probably already someone who practices compassion for others. That’s a generous choice.
The truly radical choice is to offer that same compassion to yourself.
Can you see your name tag?
Are you ready to attend your own peace talks, for one?
I hope so.
Good luck, friend.
I’m no expert in any of this, I’m just telling my story. If this post raises difficult issues for you, please, talk to a trusted friend, your GP or call one of the many services that exists to help people through difficult circumstances. LifeLine 13 11 14.