Who I Used to Be, and The Tension of Change


I’m not the person that I was five years ago. I’m certainly not the person that I used to be ten years ago. It’s funny, because when I bring up who I used to be, people who have known me over time tend to express the sentiment that I’ve gotten better. Heck, even I do that: I’ve been really fucked up at a lot of points in my life, and with an assload of therapy and work, I’ve been able to identify many of the tendencies and traits that got me to that “very fucked up” stage, and tweak them.

Most of this makes a lot of sense to me: I used to be an intense perfectionist with incredibly black and white thinking. I used to struggle a lot with being competitive and overly ambitious. I used to have an intense drive to understand what my purpose in life is, and to find a way to act out that purpose by living my values and making the world a better place…which combined with the perfectionism meant that I thought I had to save the world.

I’ve grown into someone who still has high expectations for myself, but who tries to be gentle, someone who still loves to compete but tries not to take it too seriously. I’ve questioned a lot of the values that I used to have: constant self-improvement and having everyone like me, and being really smart, and never making mistakes…

All of this sounds good right? I’ve improved! I’m less miserable! I’ve seen where problems are and solved them!

Well sort of. Because it makes my life easier to be judgmental about those traits that made my life hell in the past. It’s easy to hate my intensity and my drive and my ambition. The problem of course is that I haven’t suddenly become easy-going and laid back and un-ambitious. I still have all of those traits. Now it just feels like they’re at war with the rest of me all the time.

I’ve been feeling a lot of this tension lately. There’s a version of myself that I aspire to be: someone who is content to work a job that won’t ever change the world, someone who is ok with making mistakes and knows that sometimes they have to just rest and veg out. This is the one who’s had a lot of therapy and whose values revolve mostly around kindness and compassion.

But it’s not like the other parts of me just disappeared. I still want to be the best at absolutely everything. I still feel like someone dropped a lead balloon down my throat if I notice I’ve made a mistake. I still have a deep emotional pull to the values of my past: wanting to know everything and be absolutely right, wanting to never mess up, wanting to make other people happy even when I don’t have that power.

And I end up shit-talking myself quite a bit because of it. “Past me was such a dumpster fire”. “I used to be awful.” “I was so fucked up.” I understand why I do this. I want to recognize the progress I’ve made and the massive amounts of work that I’ve put in to not feeling miserable every second of every day. I want to be realistic with myself about the things that made my life really bad in the past. In some ways it’s even a coping mechanism: thinking about how bad I felt all the time is not pleasant, and adding some humor to the situation makes it easier to look at.

But if I stop for a hot second and think about it, I am still the same. I’m more. Some things have changed. But I still have all of that dumpster fire inside of me, burning quite merrily. So in many ways, I’m just shit-talking ME. I’m looking at very strong impulses in my personality, impulses that have persisted over time and that I suspect are pretty hard wired into me, and saying “that’s bad and unhealthy and shitty.”

And this is where I find myself lost. I don’t think I’m the only person who has this impulse, to separate out the elements of myself that have been a challenge in the past and label them. Some people do it by personifying an eating disorder or their alcoholism. Some people do it by thinking of “fighting” their depression. But it’s impossible to excise entire chunks of yourself, and I wish that there was a way to be kinder or gentler to those parts of me that say “you’re never ok unless you’re perfect.” I don’t want to spend my whole life fighting that, telling myself not to act on that impulse.

Some day I would love to feel as if there aren’t two entire brains that live inside me and just spend all day bickering about what is ethically appropriate. I want to make a decision like choosing to sleep in without feeling fraught and worried and overwhelmed, and having to make a fucking pro and con chart. But I don’t think that will ever happen by simply pretending the worry doesn’t exist or is just wrong.

I think I’m being repetitive. But my life is just a repetition of the same thing: trying to be kind, pushing myself too hard, fighting with myself (can I take this afternoon off? When will I get all of this done? I’m so tired, will everything fall apart if I just rest?), and beating down the voice that loses until I feel confident in my choice. And the point of it is that the solutions most readily available, to simply decide that one half of you is the bad part, are not helpful.

I keep telling myself that there’s a way to be accepting of my all or nothing, wildly demanding side. I tell myself that there’s a way to fold it in to a healthier self-understanding. Maybe I can find some kind of balance.

But as many times as I imagine some sort of radical acceptance of my anxiety, that doesn’t give me a path forward.

So I continue living in tension, and trying to change, and trying to be at peace.

One thought on “Who I Used to Be, and The Tension of Change

  1. I’m much older, so I’ve had time to see how some natural tendencies persist and some shift, with hormones, experience, and things within and without our control.

    I do feel there’s value in giving ourselves time to be in our natural states, whether that’s hyper-focused, hypo-focused, hyper-productive or hypo-productive. However you are is OK, and if you express all traits in a healthy manner, all can be accepted and loved. There’s room for all of you. All of you is welcome here.

    Liked by 1 person

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