A few years ago, an ex texted me on my birthday, after a lengthy, loaded silence between us. A text may not sound like a big deal, but hearing from him threw me off course. A madcap montage of the New York City summer we shared came to mind. His captivating, capricious persona had hit me like a silver lightning bolt when we met; before that summer was over, it made me feel like I was on a noxious see-saw.
I re-read the text as my new partner summoned me to cut my birthday cake in the other room. I motioned for him to wait and watched the fall leaves swirling outside the window. I recalled reading aloud to my ex from my favorite choreo-poem, Ntozake Shange’s For colored girls who have considered suicide/When the rainbow is enuf, and reciting “my love is too magic to have it thrown back on my face.” It hurt when he’d recklessly flung my love back at me, and being reminded of that pain made my stomach clench. After a big exhalation, I texted back: “Thanks. The leaves are changing, just like our lives.”
For months after I sent that message, I felt a sense of remorse. The rawness of my emotions informed my reply, which was firm but…gentle. Tepid, even. Logically, I knew I didn’t have to say thank you, or text back at all. The “good girl” values I’d adopted through years of Sunday School, and the Southern politesse of my upbringing, almost surely would have nagged at me if I hadn’t, though. My note about the “changing” we were both going through hinted at a truth I needed to speak: that I had moved on. It stopped short of saying that I didn’t want to be his friend, or even that friendly with him, because he had treated me in such a callous way. Even though I didn’t trust this person with the generosity of my heart, I felt genuine goodwill toward him—enough to spare his feelings by not expressing mine. I still cared, and I hated myself for it.
I share this story because it is only one example of my struggle to trust my own indignation for fear of seeming immature, or being deemed insensitive or rude. Over the years—at work, with friends, and with love—I’ve grown accustomed to saying or acting like I’m OK when I’m far from it. I can’t pinpoint the first time it happened, but like many women and girls, especially women and girls of color, I have been conditioned by dominant culture to dilute or de-prioritize my emotional needs in order to protect, forgive, or support people with more power and privilege than myself—in my case, men and white people.
As I unpacked why one seemingly minor text bothered me so much, I realized that this sort of internalized oppression deploys its stronghold in strange, unexpected ways. This re-initiation of contact brought back the feelings of disappointment, sadness, and anger I felt when someone who once felt like a best friend treated me like I was disposable. My response to his virtual olive branch came from a desire to draw a boundary and cut a psychic cord without doing harm—but that exact action made me uncomfortable because it showed I cared, that what happened mattered, and that something had hardened in me as a result—and honestly, I didn’t want to give him that.
I know my own worth, intrinsically, but there’s an inner dialogue that second-guesses my expressions of personal truth. It repeats on a loop in my head more often than I’d like to admit, like when I’ve drawn lines with difficult colleagues, friends who have offended me with their actions or words, or family members I’ve been in conflict with.
I was reflecting on this pattern during a training I participated in for work last month at a leadership institute. The curriculum devotes significant time to helping nonprofits and other social-change leaders navigate the art of “courageous conversations.” For hours, we practiced how to navigate the difficult conversations we often avoid having because of the discomfort they conjure up. Throughout the experience, I kept wondering about self-care for someone like myself, who is able to have these conversations but regularly feels badly about potentially hurting other people’s feelings or alienating them when I speak my truth. The tension between my need to speak freely and honestly, and my hyper-vigilance in wanting everyone to feel heard and seen (even when they are being hurtful), and to also practice the kind of compassion I want to see in the world, is palpable.
When I read this month’s email from Cassandra in New York about her experiences with “the politics of respectability,” and feeling conflicted about prioritizing her needs over pressures from friends, I knew that I was not alone in my struggle—and consequently, neither is she.
I’m a black first-gen lady, with parents from Haiti. Whenever I let my friends down (when I breach their trust in some way, or I drop the ball on something they really care about because I need to make some boundaries around my own self-care), it exacerbates my depression, and I can find it hard to be motivated to take care of myself. It has been easier for me to be direct with my friends about what is wrong and resolving our issues out in the open (in private messages), but when it comes to following up with an in-person meeting to apologize, they usually don’t have time.
I have come to expect that we may not have the time to make for in-person apologies, and [that we] take it on faith that our online communications can suffice. But when my friendships feel like they are in limbo like this, I can feel really scared, like the friendship is over and [my friends] are sick of me. During those periods, I can feel like it’s not worth it to take care of myself, and I can’t bring myself to eat or exercise. It can confirm my feelings of worthlessness.
Throughout my teen years, I haven’t felt comfortable getting close to people because I was scared they would find out I was a horrible person and leave. These thoughts are very endemic of my depression, which went undiagnosed until [recently]. I assumed I couldn’t hang out with people regularly, and could only see them once in a while, because they would get tired of me. I feel like that mentality, which was informed by the politics of respectability, and placing schoolwork before friendship, has carried over into my early adulthood.
So I wonder: How can I feel like I’m not irredeemable in these moments? How can I forgive myself, and believe my friends will come around on me? How can I trust that they will like being around me, even if I’ve done something wrong? How can I not take this as an insurmountable character flaw when I let them down?
When I read Cassandra’s note, my first reaction was admiration for her thoughtfulness for the people in her life. I thought about the power of her magical love for them, and how much of it I wanted shone back at herself. That’s why I wrote this response:
Thanks for letting me witness the beauty of your life in all of its twists, turns, and triumphs. Caring for yourself is not a “character flaw,” it is a healthy practice, and a sign that you’re resilient. You know best about what you need to lead a sustainable life. Congrats on putting your oxygen mask on first—that’s an important step.
I don’t like to tell folks what to do, but I’m going to take that liberty here: Give yourself permission to forgive yourself for being the complex, curious, and complicated gorgeousness that you are, because you are human.
Because I know first hand that self-forgiveness is easier said than done, I recommend that you check out my friend Gabby Bernstein’s self-forgiveness meditation and do some journaling afterward. I listen to it often on the train, before bed, and anytime I need a reminder about how I would forgive myself easily and gently if I could see or talk to my five-year-old girl-child self. If you can’t forgive yourself, find your inner girl-child and talk to her with love.
As I navigate my own struggles with transitions and sadness about how all of this stress impacts how I show up in the world, I often refer to Maya Angelou’s wisdom. She said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
The mandate now is to know that all you have done is exactly where it needs to be, in the past. As you move forward, try to put your focus on what’s next and how you want to be and feel. This doesn’t mean that you’re going to brush off depression, or that it is something that you should be ashamed of. It just means that depression or the feelings of unworthiness you mentioned do not define who you are.
It sounds like you may be carrying around a lot of heavy feelings without being able to fully discuss them with your friends and family in real time. I recommend taking some time to reflect about who you trust enough to have a “courageous conversation“ with, about exactly what you told me in your letter. I recently engaged in one of these with a friend who I felt I let down due to stress, anxiety, and a fear of vulnerability. When I received a positive response, I wished that I had done this much sooner.
One of the things leadership training has taught me is how to assess the risks and the rewards of having these challenging conversations. Ask yourself what the real threats are in telling your friends your truth, and then take some time to think about some of the potential opportunities that may emerge if you ask your friends for more support in your quest for self-care and speak openly about your desire for forgiveness.
Write these down and see if the rewards outweigh the risks, and then I urge you to take a bold step and try to arrange at least one of these conversations. I have a feeling that the people who really love you value you for who you are more than what you have done for them. Your love is magic, and one thing I know for sure is that support and being held by my beloved community has been a helpful, healing elixir in my life.
You deserve support. If you find yourself feeling depressed or getting triggered during this process (or any other time) contact crisistextline.org or text “START” to 741-741 to talk to a trained counselor.
I’m rooting for you, because, just like the leaves, our lives are changing—and for you my dear, I hope the leaves turn golden. ♦
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