Who Am I If There’s Nothing Wrong With Me?
My belief that I’m fundamentally flawed is so deeply held, I’m not sure who I’d be without it
Here is a non-exhaustive list of things that I believe are wrong with me:
- I am lazy and I procrastinate.
- I genuinely love food, more than one should, and I eat too much.
- I have failed to achieve the appropriate professional success for someone of my age and intelligence.
- I am weird in social situations and I don’t know how or when to talk to people.
- I am not particularly kind or warm, even with my closest friends and family.
- I get annoyed easily and have little patience for people’s failures and shortcomings, even ones I share.
- I have a perpetually stupid, slack-jawed look on my face unless I’m actively trying not to.
I could go on and I will: Despite many attempts and downloaded apps, I have not been able to develop a consistent meditation practice. My mind wanders, I think too much, and I have perfected the art of watching two screens at once without really paying attention to either. Although I’d like to file meditation under “great for others, but just not for me,’’ the scientifically-backed benefits of meditation appear to be customized for my particular disposition, making it difficult to abandon the pursuit entirely.
Being hard on myself is my life’s work, and it’s a project that was assigned to me at an early age.
In my attempt to find a meditation practice that worked for me, I discovered Tara Brach’s podcast. Tara Brach, PhD is a meditation teacher and author, and her eponymous podcast is a mix of inspirational talks, mindfulness, and guided meditations. Because I’m new to Dr. Brach’s podcast, I have three years of back catalog to explore. I’ve been listening to any episode with a title that describes a message I need to hear: “Realizing Your Deepest Intention?” Sign me up. “Without Anxiety About Imperfection?” That would be nice. “Spiritual Reparenting?” Get it into my ears, whatever it is.
One of the talks I listened to recently was “The Answer is Love: Evolving Out of ‘Bad Other.’” It was the first of a two-part series from August 2019. I expected that this topic would explore the persistent “othering” or demonizing of people who look or think differently from us. And it did explore this, up to a point. Then Dr. Brach pivoted to a surprising assumption: We don’t just demonize others, we demonize ourselves.
I’ve been demonizing myself for years — maybe for the majority of my years — but I thought this was a good thing. I push myself hard toward perfection and when I fall short (which I often do), I’m rightly disappointed in myself. I can usually diagnose the causes of my failure from the list above: I’m lazy. I lack ambition. I don’t know how to talk to people. I procrastinated when I should have been working. I got distracted too easily.
If not myself, who would push me towards perfection and hold me accountable?
Being hard on myself is my life’s work and it’s a project that was assigned to me at a young age. Early on, my parents instilled in me the feeling that I was a natural screw-up, organically pulled in directions meant to enrage and perplex them. This feeling of being essentially wrong, in defiance of the people I loved most, propelled me toward an elusive perfection that I assumed would finally win my parents’ unconditional approval.
Mitigate the wrongs, deny your natural laziness and weirdness, and get as close to perfection as possible. This was my project because, in my family, perfection is expected — you just have to stop being so wrong to get there. If not myself, who would push me towards perfection and hold me accountable? Someone’s gotta do it.
About 27 minutes in, Dr. Brach gets to the line that caused me to pause and write it down: “Who are you if there is nothing wrong with you?”
It’s such an interesting and fanciful question, akin to asking me: “Who would you be if you had a billion dollars?” Or, “If you could personally fly, how might that affect your life?” It’s fun to imagine for a moment but, given the preposterous premise (I guess I’m more likely to become a billionaire than to sprout wings, but only slightly), there doesn’t seem to be much point in entertaining the notion for long. I feel that I’m terminally wrong. I always have been wrong, and always will be. What’s the point in imagining that I’m not?
This line is delivered as a challenge, as though Dr. Brach is daring me to give up on my life-long devotion to self-doubt and self-loathing. And there is a kind of comfort, or at least familiarity, in believing that I am fundamentally, congenitally wrong. It’s a convenient explanation when things don’t go according to plan: I’m wrong, I did something wrong, and this is all my fault. And it’s the way I was treated consistently by my parents, teachers, society, and other wielders of authority throughout most of my life.
The concept that I am irredeemably wrong is rooted in many examples of being in some kind of vague, mysterious “trouble” as a child. Growing up, many of my thoughts and actions were treated as completely, exceptionally wrong. The reasons why were almost never presented. Logically, my wrongness then had to be so innate that an explanation or exploration would have been a complete waste of time; my inability to understand what, exactly, was wrong about my thinking was another failure of mine. The idea that I might learn or improve was never introduced.
When I was nine years old, my parents abruptly divorced. I understood the basics of divorce — specifically, that my dad would no longer be living with us in our family home — but the intricacies of how my life would change were never discussed. When I refused to spend the first weekend at my dad’s new post-divorce home, my mom stayed neutrally silent. My dad screamed at me, citing my selfishness, cruelty, and stupidity. (Remember that obscene tirade Alec Baldwin left on his daughter’s voicemail years ago? Celebrities — they’re just like us!) His sister, my aunt, confronted me about how what I had done was “shitty,” which I remember in part because it was one of the first times an adult had cursed at me.
The downside to being treated like a little mind reader is that, rather than making you hyper-competent, you become hyper-critical and doubt your every move.
I was confused — hurting my dad wasn’t my intention — but it might come as no surprise that my dad wasn’t my favorite person to hang out with at the time. He was suffering from mental illness, which was the main catalyst for the divorce; he was also deep in the normal post-divorce dad depression, complete with a bleak and austere newly single bachelor pad. Spending time with him could be downright distressing, and I naively thought the choice was mine to make.
I also didn’t have all the information. I didn’t know what shared custody was, and I didn’t know that it was my new way of life. As the first of my friends to have divorced parents, I had no concept of court-arranged visitation schedules. I was expected to be all-knowing and wise beyond my years. Any adult — my mom, aunt, or dad — could’ve tried to see the situation from my point of view. Any of them could have explained the situation to me and I’m not sure why they didn’t, other than that they had probably been treated like little mind readers themselves.
The downside to being treated like a little mind reader is that, rather than making you hypercompetent, you become hypercritical and doubt your every move. You feel like your impulses and intuitions are wrong. My desire to avoid my dad at a time in which he was unwell, erratic, and sad was instinctual self-preservation. Thus, being ordered to subvert my instincts taught me a lot: It taught me to doubt myself. It taught me to put others’ needs over my own. It taught me that I was a shitty person, no matter the situation or my motives. It taught me that if I didn’t get something right the first time, it was because I was selfish, cruel, or stupid. It taught me that I was wrong, even if I didn’t feel wrong.
Is it any wonder that I now treat my wrongs as irredeemable, irreparable defects? When I accuse myself of being socially weird and unable to read social cues, or I look back on my unremarkable professional accomplishments with shame, it is with the assumption that there is one way to be right, and that I’ve chosen wrong because I am wrong.
It’s taken a lot of work as an adult to not always treat people the way I was treated as a child. I have to remind myself that people don’t always have all the information, or that they may not understand the situation fully. I constantly have to ask myself to look at things from their perspective: Are they acting with malice deserving of scorn? Are they deliberately hurting me? Could a small amount of patience or understanding on my part make this situation better? Could some level of communication improve these circumstances? The answers usually save me from yelling: “What is wrong with you? Are you stupid?” with my intonation (and sometimes my words).
I know I’m not the only person that barely manages an apprehensive, clumsy “hi” to a passing coworker they don’t know well.
Treating myself with this kind of compassion and understanding is more difficult. Seeing things from my own perspective should be easy, even the default, but I often still look at myself through the lens of those adults: I’m cruel, selfish, and stupid. I have one chance to do the right thing, and failure to do so perfectly isn’t just negligence — it’s deliberate malfeasance. I’m undeserving of understanding or patience; I’m certainly far below forgiveness. Regardless of the circumstances, I am wrong and deserving of scorn.
After an awkward encounter with a stranger, I never examine the situation and find that maybe the other party was at fault. Of course the fault lies with the historically wrong party (me). And yet I know that I can’t be the only person out there who confidently says “You too!” when someone asks me to enjoy the meal they’re serving. I can’t be the only one who laughs like a maniac when a stranger makes a bad joke. I know I’m not the only person who barely manages an apprehensive, clumsy “hi” to a passing coworker they don’t know well. I know there are others like me out there — but their proximity to perfection is none of my business. Maybe they were given a different set of rules. Maybe it’s charming when they do it. But when I do it — I’m a fucking idiot.
I’ve attempted to think differently about tiny faux pas like these, in the hopes that one day I can apply the same logic to my bigger existential flaws. It goes like this: There is no absolutely right way to greet a co-worker. There is no officially-correct response to a stranger’s unfunny joke, and there’s no reward for perfectly preserving both their pride and your dignity. You’re allowed to screw up something as minor as a greeting and move on. But since we’re on the subject, if you didn’t like the way you acted this time, maybe try something different next time? Mix it up, see what works! You’re not hopelessly wrong; you can change, if you want to!
So who would I be if there was nothing really wrong with me? I’ll let you know when I find out. As Dr. Brach says in her podcast, there’s so much more space and freedom in the world once you give up the belief that you are wrong or bad. And I can feel both the space and the freedom in this idea: space to change, grow, and make mistakes. Freedom from my life-long quest for perfection and the self-blame when I fall short. I’m still skeptical that this person can exist — a person that looks like me, acts like me, and talks like me, but is nevertheless not inherently wrong. But I like the idea of her, so I’ll keep trying.