Last year, I wrote about how I lived a life of should—doing what I should do and being who I should be. Trying to be what other people expected and wanted of me impacted every aspect of my life and made me miserable. When I finally decided to come out of the closet of should to be my true self, my entire life improved tremendously. And it’s still getting better. For 2019, I’m explaining how I did it, and I’ll share the lessons I learned through the process.
The first step away from a life of should is to admit and accept the emotional pain that we suffer as should-ers. This is a lot harder than it sounds because healing from emotional pain is more complicated than healing from physical pain. Our bodies make sure that we feel and repair physical pain while our brains often try to push aside and avoid emotional pain. It’s still there, but most of us don’t allow ourselves to acknowledge and work through the emotional hurt we feel. From early on, society trains us to bury those feelings and press on because we should be strong and resilient. But we all have emotional pain, and it can’t heal correctly if we don’t recognize and treat it properly.
In the same way we have to admit to a problem before we can solve it, we must admit to emotional hurt before we can heal. But our brainwashing gets in the way because we’re conditioned to believe that admitting emotional anguish means that we’re vulnerable and weak. I know this all too well. For me, playing the role of the strong person I should be for 20 years prevented me from facing the fact that I’d been raped when I was 14. Although the assault influenced much of my behavior and life decisions, I never talked about it. I never dealt with it. Even worse, I blamed myself for it. Lifting the veil of shame I wore for all that time was difficult, and at times it seemed impossible. Once it was gone, though, I was able to acknowledge what my assailant did to me, and, for the very first time, genuinely understand that it wasn’t my fault and I didn’t deserve it. From there, healing became possible.
That experience empowered me to acknowledge and accept emotional pain that I suffered in other areas of my life, including my family, my first marriage, and my professional endeavors. For example, my experience with my dad growing up was a difficult one. Despite my various and extreme efforts to please my father, I could never seem to do anything right in his eyes, and I had internalized his ongoing comments that I wasn’t worthy of love. To realize I was worthy of love and that my dad’s treatment was hurtful and destructive was difficult to come to terms with, but doing so allowed me to let go of those ideas about myself so I could heal. That meant also letting go of the fable I had written that someday, if I was only able to prove myself to him, my dad would appreciate me and I would then feel the love I had always yearned for from him. Gulp. That was a difficult, but necessary realization.
That led me to realize the other comments and relationships in my life that were informing my low self-esteem and self-worth. With each acknowledgement of the hurt I felt, came the ability to reveal my true self and my own self-worth. Like a muscle that gets strengthened with each flex, I found that I was setting myself free from being a slave to what others thought of me in a variety of contexts, including work and friend relationships.
Acknowledging hurt is the first step to healing. Accepting your vulnerability is not only part of the process of healing, it’s one of the truest demonstrations of strength. Like a bone that heals to become stronger than it was before, our emotional well-being improves with proper attention and care. When we process and heal, we learn to do better in the future. Instead of repeating unhealthy patterns (i.e. dating the same kinds of toxic people or working in oppressive environments), we recognize problems and take action to address them.
In the next segments, we will be looking at letting go of hurt and forgiveness, which are big issues for all of us. So take a deep breath—think about what has happened to you. Sit with the hurt for a bit and realize that it’s there. In that vulnerability lies the opportunity to heal and become stronger. Search for the stories you have written to protect that hurt; they’re there. This process of self-discovery is difficult, but it’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself. There’s a famous saying: pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. From personal experience, I can tell you it’s true. Let’s all choose not to suffer.
Sandy Eichel is a happy ex-should-er.