I’m typically the last person I think of when it comes to being an expert on anything. I’ve gone a pretty long time assuming everyone else is the authority on love, family, taste, emotions, work, and even me. By default, my brain defers to a long list of people who must know better than I do about many subjects, including the following:
- Hairdresser, on what color I should get.
- Manicurist, on filing my nails round or square.
- Waiter, on what I should eat.
- Doctor, on my entire flesh blob.
Relationships with people such as those listed above should be two-way streets. Instead, I’ve given over the whole road, like, “Take the wheel, buddy! You’re the driver! Swerve.” An attitude of “You know best!” doesn’t really help either person in these situations—especially not me.
For instance: I went to a chiropractor because (well, I had a Groupon, but anyway) my back was feeling off. I’d started a new exercise regimen that was making it tense up, and it didn’t seem safe to keep doing the workouts without a little adjustment, or at some least advice. Nothing invalid about that! Consulting a professional is a smart thing to do in such cases.
As I told the chiropractor, an older male practitioner, about the discomfort that had been bothering me for weeks, it all of a sudden felt so…minor. I thought, This guy has probably seen it all! How could I know what I’m talking about when it comes to my spine? (Even though I kind of feel something here, and a little over there, too.) What’s worse is that I condescended to myself before giving him a chance to condescend to me, which he didn’t—he was earnestly trying to help me and my back feel tip-top. I diminished every reason I’d gone in there with disclaimers like, “It’s no big deal,” and “It’s not really pain, per se, I just…never mind, I’m actually pretty fine overall,” and then waited for him to give me the Official Answer on what I needed. I should not have been surprised when the Official Answer was a question: “So, why did you come in here, anyhow?”
I got the routine spinal adjustment I had come in for but walked away with an embarrassing realization: If I don’t start taking ownership of my experiences, I’ll be missing a crucial block in the Jenga tower of becoming a mature person who looks out for herself. Without it, I have a very wobbly Jenga tower. With very wobbly convictions. Handing over my confidence to a third party digs out my self-trust. It establishes a pattern of surrender. As if there’s some authority on myself outside me. A chiropractor may know more about the Spine than I do, but they can’t know how mine feels.
When it comes to matters of the heart, I’ve often adopted an equally self-dismissive stance. Any time I’m hurting, I tell myself I’m probably fine because everyone else has either gone through something like this or worse, or is a much more important person than I am, with more important feelings. Whatever’s going on in my life can’t be a big deal, because What do I know?
There was a time when I was throwing up from sadness. I had never reached this level of melancholy before, and I was missing classes because of it. I knew it had to do with a boy—one I’d seen a lot of angel-like things in and had talked to in an unusually important-feeling way—and the fact that he’d dropped me like a hat (a really ugly, all-of-a-sudden-out-of-fashion hat, or maybe one a bird had pooped upon). My limbs physically hurt, and my eyes were swollen from all the saltwater constantly streaming out of them. My body, for the first time I could remember, was miming the pain my brain was grappling with. It was very, very yucky. The obvious signs might be blinking at you, but I had a hard time accepting, HEY…I might be heartbroken.
My sadness didn’t fit the narrative of what heartbreak should look like, which, by my decree, was defined by literally anyone (aside from me) who had dated a person before. I grilled myself with doubtful questions:
How could I have gotten my heart broken in such a short period of time?
How could I have a broken heart over someone who wasn’t my exclusive partner?
When my friend had her heart broken, it was because her *real* boyfriend cheated on her—that’s not what happened to me, so what’s my problem?
It didn’t click that I had felt ACTUAL LOVE. (Who would’ve thought? Hint: Not me!) I remember going to a friend during this time and asking, “I think my heart is broken, but I have no idea how to know for sure? How do you know?” Hindsight-me is like, “Um, MAYBE THE BARFING AND CRYING SHOULD HAVE BEEN A CLUE.” Assuming I didn’t know what I was talking about in Matters of the Boy damaged the relationship between my logical mind and my feelings. It set them up to contest and detest each other, like bickering siblings, and only compounded my pain.
So why do I keep doing this? It feels childish to admit that I don’t trust myself to know what’s best for me. Or to give credence to my own brain in what it’s thinking, or my gut or heart in what they’re feeling. Deep down, I have the answers, but I’m afraid of being wrong—or sounding dumb in front of someone who I presume knows better. That’s not me being modest, though; that’s me being passive. And the thing is: There is no “wrong” when talking about your personal experience. In that case, the only wrong thing is to believe your experience isn’t real, or that you aren’t the authority on that subject.
I design and accumulate my own life expertise—not by surrendering to others’ influences, but by absorbing and collecting them while hearing my inner voice, above all. I can trust a doctor to determine what’s going on in my body, but I need to trust myself in understanding and articulating how my body feels. I can trust my friend’s insights on relationships because she has dated piles and piles of people, but just because I’ve been romantically involved with a smaller batch, it doesn’t mean my opinion isn’t legitimate. (I also need to tell every hairdresser for the rest of time, “OMBRE. I WANT OMBRE. IT LOOKS GOOD ON ME AND I KNOW IT,” instead of, “I don’t know, maybe, maybe some blonder parts here, what do you think? I trust you, just do whatever.”)
Sometimes, when I’ve handed authority over my life to other people, I’ve caught myself rationalizing it by thinking, “Well, I’m not the Relationships Person anyway,” or, “I’m not, like, a Body Expert here.” That’s funny, because, WHAT? It’s like saying, “You tell me when to breathe—I’m not the Oxygen Guy.” How could I demote myself to novice status for something as completely individual and fundamental as, like, having a body and feelings? All humans are BODY AND FEELINGS PEOPLE, geez! We are all seasoned authorities on our selfhood. No one knows how I feel or what I want better than I do. The same is true for you. (I know ’cause I’m an expert.) ♦