It’s been just over a year since my dad died. I feel like I’ve already spent all the words I can to describe much he meant to me, how integral he’s been to my point of view. And while I know he was proud that I was an attorney, that I was righting some wrongs out there in the world, he also cared deeply about whether I was happy and satisfied with my life. In fact, his dying wish was for me to be done with the shame and insecurity he was never able to fully eliminate in himself.
While he loved being a psychologist, I know that he often questioned his bigger role in life. It was one of the few things he told me he envied about me: I had a vision that gifted me with a purpose and direction, while he felt like he was following a distant call in the woods somewhere. And as I stood by his bedside, his organs failing one at a time, as the moments of lucidity started diminishing slowly, I think he finally understood that the same lost feeling he had – of wandering in the woods toward some vague goal of “good” – is exactly what it’s been for me took even if it didn’t seem so on the surface.
In his dying hours, now understanding that the shame he carried, rattled in my bones too, my dad asked me to rid myself and my kid of the shame that we hold. His death (and that of my grandfather as well) sent a shock wave of change throughout my life, loosening the locks of terror and self-pity I’ve held within my body for far too long.
I started embracing my inner brujera and sanctifying my outer goddess self. My kid suddenly felt free to transform into who she really was all along. And it wasn’t that my dad was holding us back, but it was recognizing in his final hours just how much of himself he dimmed in order to fit in, how much we had dimmed ourselves from his example, that we were felt a wave of release, permission to let go of this toxic family tradition.
It was a sacred charge that became the building blocks of my future.
The inevitable burdens of shame
I was trained by my trauma to carry my shame like a scratchy survival blanket, riddled with moth holes of guilt and dried sobs of remorse. I learned that people wouldn’t hurt me as much if they saw me consumed by this raw, gnarled excuse for a shield. Sometimes they even backed off or at least were more gentle than they might be with anyone else. This was my survival mechanism, a form of the fawn response. My self-pity security blanket reminded me of how unworthy I felt, scratching me horribly if I ever dared to think of having something like self-esteem. It was my comfort – because if I could pretend it was all my fault, I could justify all the bad things happening to me, never holding anyone accountable for the ways they disappointed, hurt, or judged me.
And while some things, like being raped, were clearly not my fault, in the end when I said yes to my calling, I said with my arms wide open in trust, “Thy will be done.” So, in my mind, that meant I accepted whatever happened to me from that point on. And for a long time, I had a remarkable ability to channel all of that hurt and pain into healing for others. But too much trauma put stress on these once-reliable coping mechanisms until it snapped my confidence in half.
My 30’s were defined by dunking that self-pity blanket in gasoline, wrapping it around my shoulders and tossing in a match to see if I will finally burn away all my sins. And yet, I’m not the only one who will do this. We’ll even turn our successes into failures. We corrupt ourselves from within. Our doubt turns to denial, that turns to resentment, that turns to indifference and apathy. We punsih ourselves, sometimes just to make sure we feel anything.
When I left my job in 2019, I couldn’t feel anything anymore. I couldn’t feel happy for my dad’s birthday or sad when I lost a girlfriend. I had stopped dreaming, I had stopped seeing what lay beyond, I couldn’t see the next ten steps ahead like I once had. I stopped being able to discern paranoia from reality, nor was I able to fully escape into fantasy, even for the momentary release of my creativity. I was more stuck, alone and afraid than I had ever been in my life. And while I’m grateful I took that opportunity to heal, insecurity told me I wasn’t worth it.
So I had to trust in others. Had to trust my partners reminding me that I was valuable, trust my employees that they didn’t hate me, trust my dad that he didn’t find me a giant disappointment.
And as I took those first tentative steps of getting more food and sleep, one of the first messages that finally came through was that I needed to write the book that had been playing out in my head. I needed to move forward and start plotting out the narrative I most needed to tell. The only problem was that I felt an equally strong call to serve people by teaching trauma-informed care principles, suddenly so many roads were now open to me that I wasn’t sure which to choose. And how would those choices be impacted by my shame? Would I choose a path just because I felt unworthy of the other?
A pandemic gave me escape from indecision by calling forth my intuitive gifts, unearthing them, and summoning me into a different kind of spiritual service than I had considered before. I had been invited to share my story, which at first felt flattering. But when I did, I noticed that the story become more about me than about the message, at least in my own head. Then, like a lightning bolt to one of my most sacred towers, I had an emotional breakdown over a case in mid- 2020 that made me choose to leave the practice of law entirely. Six months later I had lost five family members and would lose a lot of friends 6 months after that.
Like taking off a heavy set of iron chains forged from shame and insecurity from around my neck, it took everything falling apart before I could finally breathe again. The universe had to push me into finally moving on with my life.
I catch myself still reacting to the phantom weight of that responsibility and burden, I can easily remind myself that I can truly let it go. As we see more and more systems around us show signs of wear and tear, cracking under the surface, I am as lost in the woods as I ever have been. Hoping that my heart will guide me to the right place.
Insecurity corrodes how we see our value
Over the past year since my dad passed, I started seeing more and more signals that I had no choice but to write my book. The signs were all there. In mediation, I kept hearing this persistent message about how badly this story in my heart needed to be told. And when my husband, a man I chose because of his gift for words, was telling me that I am “a writer”, at some point I needed to start acting like it.
But there was a lot of insecurity and reluctance around accepting that title of “writer” for myself. And while some have given me recognition for what I write here, fiction is a whole different animal that I didn’t feel worthy to tackle. And living with a writer who constructs such amazing stories, how can I possibly ever be as good as the amazing man I married?
My husband and I talk about the inherent insecurities of writing. Even in our video-driven, click-bait landscape, the written word still holds so much weight and value. And there is soooo much content out there. How could I ensure that what I contribute would even be unique much less accepted or even, dare I say, liked and praised? Or would I fall flat on my face with this endeavor? Time and again, my husband has told me that writing will always have insecurity, but the best writers channel that insecurity to create deeper characters, more meaningful messages.
And if there was anything I’m good at, it’s channeling pain into beauty, channeling hurt into healing. Could I do the same with a book? At that, could I do that with a celebratory queer historical fiction, mythical urban fantasy loosely derived from my life, vision, and dreams?
The only way I truly ever see my own value is when I pull off the impossible – when I do what others can’t or won’t. I’ve done it public policy. I’ve done it in my spiritual life. Did I have the balls to pull off an impossible dream that no prior version of Janet would have dared to try?
I’m a Sagittarius, ruled by the gas giant Jupiter – we either go big or we go home. If insecurity is the name of the game, then I’m going to master the wild, frenetic energy of insecurity and make it work for me, not against me.
In one year, I’ve written over 135k words of that novel which has now grown into a larger overarching series of 7 separate but intertwined stories. It is my pride and joy. I want to get through more of it before I start sharing it on a bigger level, but what once felt impossible is now amazingly possible.
The Magic of trusting ourselves instead?
I started calling myself a writer a few weeks after my dad passed as I was going through is desk and found scraps of stories my dad had been writing about “Sparky” the political dog. He wrote his own comic about a cute, innocent and rather logical dog learning about ethics and governance through his adventures through town. It’s so adorable and clever. But he never believed in himself enough to make it a reality or to start bugging my husband (comic writer) and kids (artists and letterers) into making it his reality.
The sorrow I bear for dreams he never realized is what ultimately made me call myself a writer, since he obviously never felt like he could do the same.
I have found ample advice for writers out there. More advice than I need since a lot of it is just subjective panicky “one size fits all” dicta. But it’s hard to start an endeavor like this and not have that niggling question in the back of my brain “maybe I should do all the things they say. After all, they know better and who am I to question it?”
But I’ve also realized this year that this is the precise decision-point where insecurity steps in like a con-man, bringing shame as a dinner guest. It is the moment when we start to question our own wisdom and judgment, where we stop discerning information against a set of values and instead become more easily manipulated by superficial help. When we let these two malcontent emotions bury the authentic connection we have to our own purpose and vision we give others and their judgments more power over us.
Insecurity needs us to doubt and question. It needs me to be so rattled with indecision that I fail to see that I’ve written over 100k words. I couldn’t have done that if I didn’t believe in my own wisdom on some level. So why should I suddenly abandon it now?
After all, I’ve had to truly carve my path out of the dense and dangerous jungle of obstructive naysayers and hidden traps of ego before. I am evidence that despite haltingly paranoid insecurities, I have conquered my goals before and I can do it again. I have to trust that I’m telling the story I want to tell, not the one that others think will make audiences happy. I have to trust that because my motivation is to challenge our ideas while reflecting back the best of humanity, that I’m guided by a deep desire for my work to connect my heart to others’.
I want my work, no matter where I am, what I’m doing, to inspire us to dig deep and reach out to connect. This time, I’m not fixing the world we have (it frankly needs more than I can do alone), I am building a narrative world that offers others a glimpse through the lens I use when I see the uncontainable courage and potential of humanity.
And to do this at all, even in those darkest years, I had to believe and trust in myself. This has been my way for over 30 years. It’s the special sauce that all magic needs = at least a dash of faith.
This is how I’ve pulled off the impossible. All I need to do is…remember and honor it.
Faith to see ourselves through a lens of compassionate truth
That’s hard to do when we’re worn down by existential stressors. But this is where insecurity creeps in and takes up residence in our consciousness. Life has given us truly ground-shaking experiences which leave us feeling the reverberations even when we’re solidly supported. All it takes is a small hint of doubt to creep into the back of the brain, to gnaw at every interaction, even signal that something isn’t safe. Soon, we’re jumping at shadows for no other reason than because someone said we should. This is when we cling hardest to the maladaptive coping mechanisms, that give us the illusion of control (such as when I absorb the blame for others’ failures).
I like thinking of my dad as a force ghost these days, like Obi-Wan Kenobi, walking a few yards ahead of me, picking out a path for me to follow behind, just like we did on our summer hikes around the cabin, “my meadow”. He’d instruct me where to step and what to watch for with my footing. And while I set the direction and the goals, he scouts ahead to remove obstacles that might be blocking my path – old temptations that I don’t want, old attitudes that won’t serve. He pushes them out of the way so I have less to stumble on as I bring my vision to life. He helps me describe with words what the true interconnectedness of humanity could look like.
I can’t say that 2021 was kind to me, but it was a lesson in restoring the core of my confidence, the core of my calling and purpose: thy will be done. I stood in the middle of the 2021 tempest of anxiety, rage, fear, jealousy, and pride swirling around me and I dared it to take me down, dared it to give me all that it was worth. And it came for me, but only so I could finally remember how powerful I truly am. Because despite all the loss, all the hardship, all the disappointment, and frustration, I believed in myself enough to try.
How many of us see ourselves through a lens of shame? A filter that captures all we’ve done wrong, all that we regret we said or didn’t say. It shows us only the worst of who we think we are. But the lens is a distortion, meant to work in conjunction with a lens of compassion that shows us our highest selves that have been there all along.
There are many many things I have to be thankful for, not the least of which is the wisdom I gained when my dad died. He chose those moments to give me the most precious gift of all: empowering me to rid myself of shame and allow the joys of life to permeate the blanketed armor of my trauma. He gave me permission to let go of shame and believe in myself again.