Letting Go of the Identities We Don't Need

I recently had a week where I couldn’t do anything right. I won’t bore you with the gory details, but if there was a deadline, I missed it. Someone depending on me for something? I forgot it. Something the kids needed for school? I didn’t pack it.

Any one of these mistakes would have been manageable, something I could shrug off. But the accumulation of them, hour by hour, and in every corner of my life, was relentless. My apologies couldn’t keep pace.

The week culminated in a huge “F — — You.” Literally. As I was sitting in my car that Friday morning, a perfectly ordinary-looking man walked out of a side street, looked straight at me, screamed “F — YOU!” and gave me the finger.

By then, it was feeling downright existential. Yes, “F — Me.” He’d said out loud what everything and everyone seemed to be screaming at me. “You’re not fooling anyone. You’re not a good mother. You’re not even a good person. You are failing at your work. Something is wrong with you, and even this total stranger can see it.”

My mind could have come up with a hundred rational things to say, but in that moment all I wanted was to crawl out of my skin and run. Anything to get away from being such a mess.

Running away would have been a familiar thing to do, my go-to hiding places being Netflix, potato chips, or just generally shutting down.

But these days, wholeness is what I’m after. What if I could stay with this? What if this could be an opening to be more at home with myself, with this life?

So, I stayed. As I picked up the kids and carried on with what needed to be done, I stayed. Practices I’d learned through meditation, like allowing emotions and thoughts to emerge without judgment, helped immensely. When I couldn’t stand to be with myself for another second, I called a friend, and she gave me compassion I wasn’t able to give myself.

When the worst of the emotions ran their course, I saw how hard I’d been clinging to the identities that made me feel I was a good person — the good mother, the perfectly caring friend and family member, the successful coach. These identities reassured me that I was beyond reproach, and thus worthy of respect and acceptance.

And I could also see how brittle this all was. One wrong move, and these shiny identities fell apart. There was no room for life — for taking risks, for making myself vulnerable, for feeling part of the world around me.

As my wise friend said when I called her, “Yes, you’re human, just like the rest of us.” Damn. I thought I’d already learned that. I’d forgotten.

The gift of that week of screw-ups, was space to remember, again. I’d gotten so attached to those identities that it took a relentless onslaught of screw-ups, and a stranger screaming in my face, to rip them away from me. It wasn’t pretty. But after the emotional kicking and screaming subsided, there was the blessed simplicity of being human, and room to remember the truths that are always here.

That we are whole already. Love is already here, and has been with us all the time. Our fallibility is what makes us open enough, human enough, to feel our own lives and our connection to the world around us.

Emerging from that week, there was a lightness I hadn’t felt in a while. I had to organize an event for my daughter’s school. Various details didn’t work out, but it didn’t matter. People gathered. We got some stuff done and had a good time. There was room for fun. There was softness around the edges in spending time with friends and family. More room simply to enjoy being with them. When I let go of the burden of having to be “successful” in my work, there was renewed energy for projects I’d been sitting on. They felt like opportunities to try and learn, rather than potential failures to avoid.

I imagine I’ll forget again. My default mode seems to be to shore up the defenses, like work that’s happening in the background while I’m not paying attention.

But I’ll always have the screw-ups to help me remember. The next time hopefully it won’t take quite so many for me to wake up, let go, and come back — to the liberating lightness of knowing the important stuff is already here, all the time.