I think I was 20 or so when I first thought to myself, “The first step in growing up is realizing that you’re still a kid” or something like that.
Even at the time, that seemed very obviously like a Step Zero kind of idea: like, not even Step One in the actual program of working on the thing, but the step that makes you realize there’s a thing to maybe work on in the first place.
- … Though, in fact, I’m not at all enamoured with the idea of growing up for its own sake, and never have been. More on that later, ! maybe?
At the time I was still rather blindly invested in the idea of myself as being mature-beyond-my-years. That was a problem because, in fact, I wasn’t so much preternaturally mature as developmentally delayed in a way that completely hoses up the cultural signals of maturity.
Like: it’s hard to get in trouble by doing stupid things with your friends when you don’t have any friends. Not getting in trouble can make it seem like you’re making good choices, when in fact you just haven’t had to make those choices in the first place.
It’s easy to follow the rules when you’re developmentally still at a stage in which you actually really like rules. This can make it seem like you’re a mature and prudent individual with clear foresight when, once again, you might not actually be equipped to make prudent decisions or be at all good at figuring out how your immediate actions might impact your long-term outcomes.
It’s easy to sound like an old soul when you basically learned how humans talk by reading books written by people who died a hundred years ago (and let’s not forget the social weirdness of growing up in the ur-nerdy, monomaniacal worlds of ballet and classical music, in which children tend to behave almost as if they come from another time, because the culture of the artform selects for a kind of old-world obedience). None of those things mean you have any idea how to have adult relationships.
When an actual 8- or 10-year old comes across that way, we assume that—appearances notwithstanding—they’re still not yet in a place, developmentally, that qualifies them to march forth into the adult world and, like, provide for themselves, navigate complex adult relationships, and … all that stuff.
When someone who’s 18 or 20 comes across that way, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Things Aren’t Always As They Appear. Instead, we congratulate them for their apparent maturity and are then flabbergasted when they make a disastrous hash of actually Adulting.
This can be just as true when the person in question is yourself. It can be hard to see our own deficiencies. We are, by nature, standing too close, so to speak.
Which brings me to The Obvious, Not-Obvious Thing.
I have spent a huge chunk of my life trying to prove that I could Live A Normal Life Despite My Differences/Disabilities, without understanding that simply acting as if they didn’t exist was, perhaps, not the best strategy. (Okay, full disclosure: I still do this on the regs. Long-established habits take time to change.)
As a result, I’ve basically lived a life in which I’m constantly angry at myself for the mentaphorical equivalent of failing to make it up the stairs in a wheelchair when there’s a ramp RIGHT HECKING THERE, for G-d’s sake. Or, at least, there’s an easy enough way to add one.
- Caveat: there are, of course, still many, many situations in which there is neither a literal nor a metaphorical ramp. The fact that the culture at large behaves as if people with disabilities are failures in those situations is another post entirely, and one that lots of people have written better than I might. Likewise, deciding to climb the stairs in your wheelchair because you actually want to is a totally valid pursuit.
Anyway, lately (and belatedly, given that anyone who’s spent more than two minutes around Buddhism should hecking well know better, but there I go becoming attached to a concept again—specifically one about how I should or shouldn’t learn, which seems hilariously apropos), it has begun to occur to me to forgive myself, as it were, for being what I am.
Like … I might be able, with immense effort, to change some of these things to some extent—but why do that when there are other ways to reach the same goals? And why be mad at myself when I struggle? It’s not like being mad actually helps (in this circumstance).
In other words, it has begun to occur to me that instead of continuing to ram my metaphorical wheelchair into the stairs and be angry at myself for failing to climb, I can accept the metaphorical wheelchair situation and, like, add metaphorical ramps instead. (This seems relevant to this year’s intention, “Ask for help.”)
It has begun to occur to me that instead of fighting to change some of the limitations (for lack of a better word) that my brain imposes, I can accept that they’re there and figure out how to work with them—to harness them where it’s possible and to accommodate them where it’s not.
I guess I used to assume (albeit unconsciously) that I would “grow out of” things—that one day I’d learn how to do things the “normal” way (which is difficult enough for “normal” people, come to think of it) and … that would be that, I guess?
It’s not an unreasonable hypothesis—after all, at one point, I didn’t know how to tie my shoes, and then I figured it out and now it’s automatic.
It is, however, an incomplete hypothesis, or maybe a complete one that I’ve overgeneralized. (Teaching has been helpful, I think: it’s made the idea of different people having different strengths and weaknesses real to me in a way that it wasn’t before.)
In the past, for example, whenever I figured out a way to actually get myself to sleep in an almost-normal pattern, I I would simultaneously feel pleased with myself (This is it! I’m finally doing it!) and incredibly anxious (But what if something happens and I can’t sustain it?). I would cling white-knuckled to the System I’d devised. Then I’d be terribly disappointed when, inevitably, something interrupted the System and my brain happily reverted to its night-owl default because, yooooo, chronotypes are a thing.
I felt this way despite understanding that last point (chronotypes are a thing, though they tend to wander a bit over the course of our lives and we can force ourselves, with effort and routine, to live contrarily to them).
It takes several weeks to condition myself to sleep on a different cycle than the one my brain wants, but only about two nights off-pattern to reset back to square one. This is frustrating, obviously—but it doesn’t have to feel like a disaster.
I can remind myself that stressing out about it only makes things harder, and that while more than a few nights in a row of sleep deprivation can have dangerous consequences for my mental health, I now know how to combine a handful of tools (strict sleep hygiene, medication, and sheer physical exhaustion) to make myself sleep. Ideally, I should actually apply them before sleep-deprivation-induced mania takes hold, but even if it reaches that point, I now have the safety nets in place to prevent actual disaster.
In short, I’ve learned to tell myself, “It’s going to be okay” and believe it.
And though I’ve been reading and hearing about it for years, only recently did I develop the ability to apply a measure of radical acceptance. Like, how hard can it be to say, “Ah! I’ve managed to get to sleep by 1 AM and wake up by 9 AM for three days running. That’s convenient,” without feeling like THIS IS IT! I’M FINALLY DOING IT! or freaking out when, inevitably, I don’t get to sleep until 4 AM at some point?
Really hard, apparently.
But I’m learning to both say and feel, “It was handy to be awake by 9 AM and well-rested for a few days, but it’s no big deal that it didn’t work out today.” (Admittedly, it would be harder to do that if the company weren’t on hiatus. But we are, so I might as well work on developing this skill while sleep-scheduling demands are still on easy mode.)
I can also be fine with understanding, for example, that I’m not good at the kind of abstract planning that Adulting requires, or at managing money (or literally anything else) unless I keep things very simple, or at making phone calls (I joke about this all the time, but I also spend a lot of time being annoyed with myself about it). And being fine with understanding those things could help a lot.
Like, it turns out that when you stop being mad at yourself, it actually really is easier to start looking for ways to approach problems and get stuff done, just like everybody has been saying since forever.
So, basically, my current hypothesis is this:
Why not accept that what I am and where I am right now and begin working on building ramps so I can live without constantly feeling like I’m fighting an uphill battle?
I’ve also only just kind of realized that “accepting what I am right now” is different than “clinging to an idea of What I Am.” The first option leaves room for change and, frankly, for just being wrong. I might not actually understand all that well “what I am right now,” but if I accept that I can try different strategies until I find one that works, then it doesn’t really matter that much anyway.
If I can fail without getting angry at myself—that is, without judging myself—it’s not actually that hard to try again, or try something else, or to allow myself to rest before trying something else, or, you know, whatever.
And maybe I can even learn that it’s okay to fail. We can’t all be great at everything, and the world would be boring (and I wouldn’t have a job as a dancer, probably) if we were.