We are greatly shaped by the stories that we have been told, by the stories we tell ourselves, and by those that others tell about us. For years, I was told stories about needing to “be good enough,” about needing to earn rest, respect, or love. I told myself those stories too, even when I knew they weren’t true. For a long time, I felt pressure to be nice, to answer every question about my gender or sexuality or hairstyle or anything else, because how else would people learn? When I was growing up, people widely shared some statistics about how just 10 nice encounters with a gay person made people less homophobic, which everyone translated to mean that gay people just had to be nice all the time or else homophobia was our fault. This story and others like it taught me I was to blame for people not respecting me. If I didn’t correct them when they misgendered me in just the right way, just the most patient and understanding way, the story went – then it was my fault they weren’t changing. No one ever told me though how long was I supposed to be patient for. “Please be patient with me” people would say, ten years after I told them to use they/them pronouns. I know now that everyone should have their pronouns, names, lives respected – whether they are patient or not! Yet, the story got so deep into me that I still feel the need to reassure whoever reads this, that I am in fact patient, extremely patient.
A few years ago, I was helping out with a youth conference. One of my colleagues was so excited to introduce me to the teens that she worked with. One nonbinary teen had never met a genderqueer adult. I was anxious. I thought to myself: I’m not cool. I’m scruffy, have no sense of fashion, I’m fat (totally a great thing, but something I’m well aware people judge me for), I spend a lot of time doing weird nonprofit paperwork, and I read more books than anyone I personally know. I was convinced that I was not a role model. I couldn’t be someone that would inspire trans teenagers to believe there’s life as a trans adult and that life is great.
I knew, even as I was filled with doubt, that I disagreed with myself. I love my fatness and the fatness of others. I love being visibly weird without being visibly cool. I like my life. But I let perfection get in the way. I was too anxious to know what to say to someone who quite possibly was also anxious. We talked for a minute or two and that was it. I wish I could have been more present.
Stories about needing to earn the right to respect, about needing to be perfect are still in my head. They are hard to completely get rid of. I will go back to them again and again. AND I have new stories for myself. I get to be me. Other people’s bias is not my fault. I can make choices in how I respond. I can choose to move towards community, and I can pay attention to who is interested in moving with me.
Moving towards community has been especially important in the past year. In June 2022, I got sick in a way that led to having a disability. A disability that has dramatically changed the way I live my life. There are days I can’t remember how life used to be and other days when I remember but have a hard time believing that was possible. Before I got sick, I really thought that I was doing a good job of unlearning the perfectionism I have been taught to believe in all my life. I was constantly thinking about how to learn to ask for help, how to be okay with not being that good at something, and how to not center my worth around my productivity.
Then I stopped being able to be the kind of productive I used to be, and I realized I had a lot of learning left to do. I knew in my head that everyone has the right to rest, that everyone has the right to compassion, that no one can do all the things all the time. But I wasn’t letting myself believe that of me. Like many people, this wasn’t just about me though. This was about the work environment I was in (and had been in most of my working life). This was about school and family and acquaintances and what I learned from TV. This was about the rising cost of living and the fear of losing jobs, of not having enough to get by.
The environments we are in shape us and impact our lives. At the same time we get to interpret those environments. We get to tell ourselves stories about the environment and change the way they might shape us. For example, right now, my floor is covered in torn apart dog toys, fluff everywhere like a cloudy sky. I used to tell myself that I was messy and irresponsible. I can’t even clean up a small area of the floor! What a failure.
I’m not perfect. Sometimes I still tell a story that says I’m a mess. It’s old. I’m used to it. It’s hard to get rid of all the way. I also have a new story that I can tell. My dog is loved and happy. This debris is evidence of the fun she had tearing up toys. When/if I do clean it, the floor is going to look so good that I will delight in it. Then it will be messy again an hour later. That’s okay. I get my moment of delight. My dog gets her moments of delight.
The biggest shift in thinking that I have been able to make is best explained by laundry (because that’s how it was explained to me). I used to measure success by the laundry being done – no more dirty clothes, everything was clean, dry, folded, and put away. Now I measure success by whether or not I have clean clothes to wear. The laundry doesn’t all need to be done. It doesn’t all need to be done at the same time. It doesn’t need to be done in a way that is pretty or stylish. I do need (sometimes) to have clean clothes to wear.
I also need to eat. I need to know that I am loved. I need my friends to know I love them. The dog needs to poop, and the plants need water.
I do not need every meal to be from a cool new Instagram recipe made with locally sourced vegetables. I do not need to spend hours on dates or hanging out with people. I do not need to take a five mile walk for the dog to poop or have a garden to rival the best garden ever. The fact is that I literally cannot do any of those things anymore. I couldn’t do several of them before I got sick. But I tried, and I measured my success by an idea of perfection and independence that I knew I could never attain.
What new stories can I tell myself about the outside world? My well-being is shaped not just by my home, but by the community I live in, by the government, by the stories told about people like me and people like my loved ones. How do I affirm my own gender, knowing that few others in my county are going to do that for me? How do I ensure that I am acting in line with my values?
By asking these questions and telling myself new stories, I get to be me. I get to learn about who I am. I still see who I think that other people think I should be (who knows what they actually think), but more and more, I can sort through that and decide what to keep and what to pass by. By realizing that there are so many stories out there, I can learn to listen to the ones that are good for my soul. I can tell others where they can find those stories. I can leave the harmful stories. I can realize that there is enough to go around, and I don’t have to compete with others. I don’t have to be the best.
The goal of laundry is to have clean clothes, not to never have dirty clothes. The goal of life is to live it, not to have been all things to all people all of the time. Sometimes I have to joke with myself, “What can I do worse at today?”
So what’s your laundry? What’s your perfect that is getting in the way of presence? How can you be messier? How can you be you?