"It is said that there are only ten plots in all of fiction, but I believe there is only one: Who am I?"
The tears flow freely, in great racking sobs, as I sit on the edge of my bed one Saturday morning and contemplate everything I'm supposed to do that day. Josh sits next to me, an arm around my shoulder, reminding me to take deep breaths as I begin to slip into erratic fits of hyperventilation. Easier said than done, I think to myself. From the stake activity I'm supposed to go to with my daughter to the adult prom I've talked myself (and my sister) into attending at the last minute, I know--I just KNOW--that somewhere in there I am going to make a mistake. That I'm going to let someone down. That somewhere along the way I have set some unspoken or unrealistic expectation that I can't or won't fulfill. And I'm going to have to deal with the repercussions of it. I would have been better off staying in bed, I scream inside my head.
But I know I'm wrong.
As I have gone from the extremes of maximum overdrive to full-on hermitiness, I have discovered one thing: I love people. I mean really love them. Maybe a little too much, at times. Despite my overwhelming fear of not living up to others' expectations--despite my caring so deeply about someone else that I stop caring about myself--I don't really want to be a hermit any more than I wanted to slam full-steam into a brick wall. Though I tried to convince myself that I was more satisfied with my life than I had ever been before, there was just something about spending all day in bed and binge watching Netflix that wasn't quite right inside. That just wasn't quite enough. So if being a rock star leaves me hospitalized in hyperventilation, and shutting myself off from the world throws me into the deepest throws of irrational despair, then what the heck am I supposed to do?
The problem is, anyone who knows me well knows I don't "do" moderation. For me there is no in-between. Either I'm going to do it right or not at all. Go big or go home. And therein lies the problem.
"Maybe that's why you get so irritated at anything that involves NOT being a hermit," said one of my closest friends and all-around life coaches. "You make it into too big of a production in your mind."
You feel powerless, knowing full well there is no way you can ever accomplish that "big production" you painted such a pretty picture of in your mind. (Especially since you procrastinated the entire thing until the last minute--because you didn't really want to do it in the first place, or you refused to ask for or accept help because you were completely determined you could do it on your own, or both--to the point where even the smallest hiccup in execution now throws you into a total meltdown.)
So you do nothing. You give up. You call in sick. You come up with an excuse. You cancel the whole thing and you crawl into bed. And then you lie there and stare at the ceiling and do what? That's right, you feel guilty. And the cycle starts all over again.
But do you know what the beauty of being stuck in a cycle is? At any point you can get off.
And the whole thing will stop.
What's the best way to do that? What's the best way to stop trying so hard to live up to expectations, or panicking and feeling powerless when you can't?
Insert infamous life-coach advice here:
"Just be who you are... I know who I am. I'm comfortable with me. I know what's expected of me and for the most part I'm aware of my deficiencies... I still act in many ways based on others' expectations, but typically it is people with higher priority now."
That's great, but how do I do that? How do I go about finding "me"? And doesn't my "me" change over time? And what if my "me" doesn't fit into what other people think my "me" should be?
Finding My "Me" (and the expectations that go with it)
After a few (sometimes painfully introspective) conversations with a couple different personal life coaches, our Bishop, and my number 1 counselor, Josh, I came up with a game plan for how I was going to answer those questions: An entire "week of introspection" (which originally would have included a weekend-long camping trip if not for the seemingly erroneous 3-day-straight thunder storm warnings), where I would cut off nearly all connection to the outside world and ponder a barrage of different sources of guidance and direction.
And I had some amazingly insightful results.
1. Go to the Temple:
My greatest source of guidance, there was no place better to more deeply and soulfully find the answers to "Who am I?" and "What is expected of me?" than within the sacred walls of the holy temple. In the space of only a few hours I was able to find inspiration and insight which I had been desperately searching for for months. I'd like to be able to say the whole experience was a pleasant one, but I'm afraid it was quite the opposite. Thanks to the now-too-small-to-zip-up dress I hadn't put on in years and the debauchery that was loosing my proxy name card--to feeling the incredible weight of chastisement upon my shoulders at the realization that I, in fact, had not been keeping my covenants at all (seriously, no wonder I was struggling so badly) and the difficult conversation with my companion that ensued because of it--my feelings of utter inadequacy were best described in the concerned expression of the sweet sister worker who obviously could sense my uneasiness as I stepped out the door. "Please come back again," she sincerely pleaded. I smiled and nodded politely, though at the time I had absolutely no intention to. Ever.
"Who am I?" I think to myself as I stare out the passenger side window at the endless waves of rolling pastures between the temple and my house. "Entirely too far gone, it would seem."
But by the end of the day, after a two-hour dinner and a four-hour drive (along with a six-hour conversation), I realized I had a choice. I could either woefully accept that my "me" was terminally flawed, hopelessly hardened, and invariably screwed. Or I could force aside my fear, doubt, and despair, embrace the fullness of the grace and healing power of the Atonement, and actively work towards the "me" I was always meant to be. The "me" that I had chosen to be.
Fortunately despite my pride and lack of enthusiasm at the thought of all the work involved with the latter, I deemed the consequences of the first option to be overwhelmingly depressing.
And downright scary.
2. My Patriarchal Blessing:
I can still remember the day I received my patriarchal blessing. At 14 years old, I sat through the sacrament meeting with my father, glancing every few minutes at the man who sat up on the stand in my tiny branch next to the branch president. We hadn't heard his introduction nor had we been informed that the patriarch would be visiting from the stake on that particular Sunday, but I knew exactly who he was. I found out later he had picked me out of the small crowd as well, also "recognizing" me without need for introduction, and knowing full-well that I was the young woman for whom he had made the over hour-long drive.
I remember being disappointed at what I had heard that day. Not so much at what I heard, as what I hadn't. Earlier that summer there were so many things that had drastically changed--so many things that had drastically changed me--and like most who receive their patriarchal blessing I walked into that room desperately hoping that it would answer many of my questions about who I was and what I was supposed to do. It would be decades before I realized that the blessings I received that Sunday afternoon were exactly what I would need to answer those very questions. Questions I would struggle with for most of my life.
"Patriarchal blessings help us understand our identity," said Robert S. Patterson. "By declaring our place in the family of Israel, our Heavenly Father informs us who we are. We need not consider ourselves subject to the ephemeral, material, and superficial images promoted by the world. Through a simple statement of lineage, we are given a message of profound significance. Our sights are elevated, our vision is expanded, and our understanding is deepened. We are helped to see ourselves in noble and powerful terms. Those who enjoy the status of membership in Israel should know that they have distinguished themselves in the pre-mortal existence. They reveal the uniqueness of each of us, and they highlight the fact that God sees in us what we do not see in one another or in ourselves."
Of course, being the princess of pragmatic that I am, just rereading my patriarchal blessing wasn't enough. I had to study it. To break it down into digestible chunks which would allow me to better understand (and more practically apply) the guidance and principles it was meant to impart upon me. So I divided a sheet of paper into 3 sections, labelled them "Characteristics," "Callings (To-Dos)," and "Blessings," and then poured through the pages of my patriarchal blessing, ultimately jotting down another entire page-full of notes. Suddenly the guidance and direction I had read dozens of times, such as praying night and day and seeking counsel from the worthy priesthood holders in my life, made sense to me in a way it never had before. It was guidance and direction personalized and unique to me and me alone. And it was guidance and direction that ultimately could have saved me quite a bit of heartache.
If only I'd known this stuff 20 years ago, right?
3. Words of the Living Prophets, and Such:
compared to a rain cloud, which continually pours down upon us if we would but put aside our umbrellas of fear, doubt, and sin. Deep in the throws of a bout of hermitiness at the time, I originally had no desire whatsoever to attend this FHE but was very much prompted to do so. I didn't quite understand what the message was trying to tell me, so I decided to go ahead and watch President Uchtdorf's full talk. Surely, there was something more I was supposed to get out of this, I thought. No other message had touched me so deeply or perfectly as this message had in the very moment I needed it the most. It was as if it had been prepared just for me.
I enjoyed and got so much out of President Uchtdorf's October 2014 talk, I began to search for other sources from the general authorities of the Church to read and ponder during my introspection. I stumbled upon additional conference talks by President Monson and President Uchtdorf, as well as a beloved gift book, given to me years ago, which contains 3 of Elder Ballard's classic messages about the role women play in the kingdom of God. So much I learned through and loved about these messages that I cannot even begin to list here. One thing that I will mention is how surprised I was at the difference between my interpretation of stories that I had read or heard of years before. The same portions of Elder Ballard's talk which I had once internalized to mean that I was more than just a mom, that I had unique talents and characteristics to share, now meant to me that my children would only be with me for a short time and therefore needed my focus most of all. A story from President Monson's talk, about a mother who had lost all four of her children while making the long journey from East Prussia to West Germany on foot after World War II, suddenly changed from one of insurmountable heartache and loss to one of indescribable hope and faith.
Other words of living prophets and overall Church teachings I consulted to better learn who I was and what was really expected of me included Chapter 10 of Daughters in My Kingdom: Live Up to Your Privilege and Chapter 6 of Preach My Gospel: How Do I Develop Christlike Attributes?. I'm sure there are many, many more that I haven't even discovered yet, but these were a fantastic start!
4. The Experiences of Others:
Of course, you don't have to be a general authority, or even a member, to share personal insights that can be ground-breakingly inspiring and uplifting to others. Some of my favorite writings on topics that have better helped me understand who I am and the roles I play or have encouraged me to hang-in-there (no matter how much I didn't want to) include Mary, Martha, and Me by Camile Fronk Olson, Weakness is Not Sin by Wendy Ulrich, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People as well as Highly Effective Families and Highly Effective Marriages by Stephen R. Covey, Becoming Celestial Soul Mates by Trafford R. Cole, Strangling Your Husband is Not an Option by Merrilee Browne Boyack, and the quirky but motivating musings of Al Fox Carraway and Marla Ciley.
5. Additional Tools of Self-Reflection:
As you begin to discover who you are, not only as a Child of God but as an individual as well, you will also begin to discover your strengths and weaknesses. The incredible importance of self-awareness is often missed, but one simply cannot understand who they are or what they can become without first recognizing their talents and faults. My dear companion is perhaps better at this than anyone I know. Working for a Fortune 500 company which thrives on personal development, he graciously purchased additional copies of the books he had been presented with to allow him personal insights, in order that I might learn my own as well. These books, Emotional Intelligence 2.0 and Strengths Finder 2.0, guided me through short but thorough online quizzes which not only revealed my own strengths or weaknesses, but also gave me very specific guidance on how to cultivate or improve them.
Even the Church has its own personal development programs. Though many of them are geared toward the youth, they too can be invaluable to your own personal insight and development, no matter your age. Whether it be through the Young Women's Personal Progress or the missionary program's Preach My Gospel, there are countless tools available on LDS.org and through your local stake, ward, or branch.
Just keep your covenants, and everything will be alright.
So in the end, what did I learn most through this "week of introspection"? Well, for one thing, you can't always trust the weather guy. (Seriously, would have been perfect camping weather, I tell you. Perfect!) And second, just keep your covenants and everything will be alright. The one theme that played over and over again through every conversation, every step of the endowment session, every line of my patriarchal blessing, and every general conference talk I read or listened to this week was the importance of knowing and keeping your covenants. I know that there are so many things as members--so many "basic gospel principles"--that we hear over and over again. So much so perhaps that they become commonplace and invariably tuned-out in our every day lives. But there is a reason we hear them over and over and over again. It is because they warrant repeating over and over again! It is because through these small and simple principles we can be strengthened, we can be uplifted, we can be edified, we can be comforted, we can be reassured, we can be reminded.
And we can know and become who we were always meant to be.
Why I Left the Church
The Importance of Friendship
Secrets to Staying Sane
Fighting the Rain