I don't know about you, but I am pretty tired of trying to live up to expectations. They come from everywhere: public opinion, social media, our friends and families, and ourselves. When I say this, it does not mean that I am lazy, nor does it mean that I intend to sell all my worldly possessions to move to an ashram. (Not that I haven't thought about that. I have. Regularly.) What it means is that I have spent almost my entire life trying to be the person I think I am supposed to be with very little concern for who I actually am. And you know what? I'm OVER IT.
When my husband Patrick passed away, I found myself smack dab in the middle of a scene from "Runaway Bride." In that movie, Julia Roberts plays Maggie Carpenter, a lost, chameleon-like woman who has no trouble finding a man to marry her, but repeatedly dashes away from the aisle at the last minute. Richard Gere's character, Ike Graham, is a reporter who is doing an up close and personal deep dive into her character after being fired for writing about her without any actual investigative facts to back up his claims. In getting to know Maggie, Ike interviews all her ex-fiances about who she is and immediately recognizes a distinct pattern: Maggie morphs herself into whoever she thinks her partner-du-jour wants her to be. An example of this is the fact that when Ike asks each of the former flames about how Maggie prefers her eggs prepared, every one of them answers that her favorite is the same as their own, which of course are all different. Finally, Ike confronts Maggie, and shouts in exasperation "You don't even know what kind of eggs you like!" Maggie sets out on her journey of self-discovery and tries all different kinds of eggs before settling on which is her favorite. Just like any good rom-com, Maggie triumphantly announces her selection to Ike, and they live happily ever after.
If only finding out who you are were as simple as sampling six different plates of eggs. Sigh.
I have often used this silly but useful story to explain what it was like for me after Patrick was gone. We had become such an "us" that my individuality was all but completely absorbed into a life of "we." When he died, it didn't just feel like I lost my husband, best friend, lover, and confidante. It felt like I died as well, because it appeared that without "us," I was nothing. I wished over and over that God would take me quickly so we could be reunited, not just because I loved and missed him, but because I needed him for my life to be meaningful.
I had nothing but the best intentions when I poured myself into our love story. I was single for a long time before we got together and I had worked HARD to find self-love and acceptance. When we started dating, I did not even see those bits and pieces of "me" fading into "us." I have always worn my heart on my sleeve and prided myself on being devoted and loyal, so neglecting my individuality in favor of defining myself by the love of someone else felt natural. There were times when I realized we had become so intertwined that perhaps we were pushing the co-dependent barrier, but I was too happy to have finally found my person to care. It never once crossed my mind what I would do if suddenly he was gone, whether it be by death, break-up or otherwise, and I was left with just me again.
All of this might sound sweet, romantic even. It did to me. But the truth of it was that it was not healthy, and when that abrupt end came, I was totally screwed.
It wasn't just my relationship with Patrick that defined me, though being loved by someone certainly felt like the most tangible evidence that I was enough. It was my career as an attorney. If I am being honest, I went to law school because I thought I was stupid my entire life. I was diagnosed with a severe learning disability when I was 19 years old, during my sophomore year in college. I had been able to compensate during my adolescence (because, it turns out, I actually am pretty smart!) but I always felt that I had to work so much harder than everyone else just to keep up. I did horribly on standardized tests because I always ran out of time and got confused. So, when the opportunity came to attend law school, it fit really well into my quest for external validation. I thought if I just had the right job title, with the right initials after my name, then I would no longer feel that way about myself.
It turns out that my ingenious plan for overcoming my academic insecurities did not work. I graduated second in my class from law school, but I was always convinced that it had somehow been a mistake. When I struggled to find a job, it did not occur to me that perhaps it was because it was 2009 and the economy had completely tanked - no, it was because I did not go to the right school, or because people could tell that I was not as intelligent as my transcripts might suggest.
Aside from romance and academic prowess, I was definitely defined by how physically fit I was (or, more accurately, how I perceived I wasn't - even when I had the makings of six-pack abs!) I could go on about this one forever, but if you want more detail, take a look at my last post called "When Your Inner Child Is an Asshole." The point is, no matter how many of my goals I attained, or how much outside confirmation was thrown my way, it was never enough. I still constantly compared myself to my loved ones, and don't even get me started on what I would see on TV and social media. I saw my friends getting married, having babies, getting promotions, buying houses, and doing all the things that our culture suggests are essential landmarks. By those standards, I was an abject failure.
Within a couple of years of Patrick's death, I began to realize just how deeply rooted my feelings of inadequacy were. They controlled everything I did. They kept me in a job I hated. They kept me living in a geographic area that made me feel like I was drowning in concrete. I was surrounded by similarly exhausted people who seemed to be living miserably in order to have the "American Dream." It felt like a nightmare to me.
I find that my greatest spiritual and emotional growth is always ignited by serious pain. I was in some real, dark, might-not-make-it-out-alive discomfort. Finally, instead of berating myself for all the ways my checklist looked incomplete, I was led to ask a different question: What if we measured our worth not by our achievements, but by our willingness to live outside of society's mandated list of "accomplishments?" What if instead of checking off the boxes - go to college, get married, have children, etc. - we actually took the time to get to know ourselves well enough to decide whether the items next to those boxes were what we actually wanted? If that is what society valued, I hardly think that I would stay in a situation that left me waking up daily with a sense of impending doom.
It was through a massive leveling of the ego that real change started to happen in my life. I let go of the career that might have made it acceptable for me not to have the marriage/babies/white picket fence. I moved home with my parents. I stopped treating the meals I ate like some sort of emotional reward, and conversely every workout like a punishment. I surrendered to the fact that I could no longer forcefully use my will to make my life look like what it "should." I started to see that, for whatever reason, my soul has different things to accomplish in this life than those around me. I began repeating a mantra given to me by one of my many spiritual guides who said "God's first priority is your healing and progression, not your resume."
The second I stopped depending on people, places and things to be "okay," life began to look a little brighter. I started to feel like I was able to get small breaths above water. I began to plug into the energy of the Universe to guide me, and let me tell you, it is showing up for me in ways that leave my mind boggled. I am doing things that I never thought I could because of fear of judgment by the world, including writing this blog and teaching my first spin class yesterday. For the time being at least, I am no longer motivated by the need to control my destiny and check the right boxes. There is so much freedom in letting go of what others, or even that scared little girl in my head, might think.
I realize now that I am not on a journey to get back to who I was before "I" became "us" with Patrick. It is so much bigger than that. I am discovering who I am and what I want for the very first time. I am laying a foundation of being grounded in the seat of my higher self instead of being crushed under the weight of that inner asshole who tells me I alone am not enough.
Whether or not I am ever led to a loving partner again is not my primary concern. Neither is my job title, my address, or the number on the scale. What matters is that I know how I like my eggs. And this time, I won't forget it.
Lisa O'Leary is a lawyer, cat mom, widow, sports enthusiast, truth seeker, soul searcher, meditator, and consciousness practitioner who is actively engaged in quieting down the mind to allow the song to play.