The impact books have on our lives is not limited to the words written between the covers. Some books inspire new thoughts and send us to unexpected places. Follow me down the rabbit hole in this recurring segment.
I was sitting in a salon chair facing the mirror, talking to the stylist’s reflection. I had just shown her a number of pictures on my phone, trying explain the ‘look’ I was hoping she would accomplish. I was finally doing it – cutting my long hair into a very short and, possibly chic cut. There was an electricity in the room, every stylist and patron piqued by my imminent transformation, a combination of excitement, apprehension, and curiosity lingered in the air, as I took them all along for the ride.
How many of them had, like me, fantasized about a big change and had yet to take the plunge?
For most of my life I had worn my hair long, often down to my waist, and had been toying with the idea of shaving it off completely since I was 17 years old. Now, about to turn 40, I had yet to do it. For two decades I was too scared to cut my hair, something that would grow back, just in case it didn’t look good. It felt like a metaphor; for what I did not yet know.
I was ultimately inspired by my daughter. At two years old she started asking for a buzz cut, eventually asking for even shorter. For two whole years I gently nudged her toward choosing slightly more feminine, slightly longer haircuts, under the guise of protection. I reasoned that she lacked experience, and ultimately would be unhappy until she grew it out again. This didn’t sway her. Through her persistence and relentless certainty, it finally hit me: this had nothing to do with her and everything to do with me. She knew what she wanted, asked for it loud and clear, and only my own fear was getting in the way. We finally went to the hairdresser and ordered the buzz cut. I’m embarrassed to say, that even then I deceived her. I showed her hairdresser a slightly longer buzz cut picture. Within the week, she took matters and scissors into her own hands and cut her hair down to the scalp. She emerged from the bathroom triumphant, proud of her handiwork, and finally donning the haircut she’d long pined for. She knew what she liked and didn’t care what anyone else thought. She was an inspiration. So, after hesitating for over 20 years, I shared with my hairdresser something personal about myself that I hoped would convince her of my sincerity in awarding her creative license. It is a truth about myself that explains many fashion, pastime, and friendship decisions throughout the years: I’d rather feel cool than look good.
I was immensely pleased with my cut. Five months later, I went one step further. Together with delighted children, helpful husband, hair clippers, and a #8 attachment, we (yes, the two- and four-year-old helped) buzzed it off. Turns out I had nothing to fear but fear itself. I had finally freed myself from my self-constructed prison, looked my vanity in the eye and refused to be controlled by it. A small victory, sure, but exhilarating none-the-less.
The head shaving was captured in a fun family video, and circulated to bring a smile to loved ones amid the stress of pandemic. There is where I left it. That is, until Untamed by Glennon Doyle, a book of stories and metaphors, brought me back to it.
Early in the book, Doyle reveals a deep, dark secret she’s been keeping since high school. She lays her shame out, exposing not only a bygone fraud but also the deepest, desperate desires of her youth. Her candid and public confession produced in me a strong, empathetic reaction. My heart pounded, my shoulders tensed, there was a lump in my throat. As I took an exaggerated inhale, I realized that I had been holding my breath. My awareness moved inside in me.
Her story was uncomfortably human. If you’re up to it, I ask you to explore your humanity with me. Take a moment to think back. Think of a time when you, yourself, felt shame. Did if arise from something you did or didn’t do, say or didn’t say? Or perhaps it started from outside you? Perhaps another projected their insecurities onto you, transforming them into shame? Did you act? Did you tell someone? Did you hold your breath?
Shame is not merely a feeling. It is a spotlight. It shines a light into our dark corners, revealing parts of ourselves that even we don’t approve of. It is also the canary in a coal mine. It alerts us to something toxic. Maybe that’s why secret shame feels so suffocating.
And yet, many hold on to secrets such as these. They hold on to them out of fear. Fear of judgment, fear of loss, fear of consequences, fear of exile. Ultimately, I think it all comes down the need to feel loved. Over time that fear can fester into self-loathing, a self-fulfilling prophecy, because it’s hard to love someone who doesn’t love themselves.
Why is that? Let’s consider one scenario. A person discards their uniqueness striving for a glorified ideal. This is the common Rom-Com scenario where the nerdy/artsy/quirky/opinionated character throws away their glasses and is given a painstakingly thorough make-over, resulting in the eventual conquering of the love interest. They finally hear the words they’ve been dreaming about: I love you.
This is an example of conditional love. It stifles two key ingredients of intimate connection, namely honesty and a safe place to be vulnerable. It may come with affection, but it also comes with the threat of punishment. It’s called behaviourism. Do this, and receive a reward. Do that, and receive a punishment. In the short term, this strategy is a great manipulator. Unfortunately, it separates self-worth from the self, and puts it in the hands of another. Eventually, it can erode away the sense of who we are and why we do things. In North America behaviourism is so engrained it is assumed effective independent results. If you don’t believe me, start paying attention to the number of times you hear someone exclaim “good job!” for something trivial. It has roots in the self-esteem movement, and is mainly done to kids. Ironically, it robs the child of experiencing pride independently, and sends the message that they are constantly being judged. The next time you hear this, imagine how you’d feel if another adult said the same thing to you in the same situation. I find it particularly cringe worthy when a kid is playing, motivated purely by fun, only to have their joy one-upped by another. Good job! Good job, you went down the slide! Down the slide? It comes off as patronizing, especially since gravity did most of the work. The intention is good, but unfortunately has the opposite effect. For a more in-depth discussion check out Five Reasons to Stop Saying "Good Job!" by Alfie Kohn.
Ok, let’s all take a breath, because things are getting heated. I’ve basically just lumped unconditional praise in with conditional love, and a statement like this can illicit an explosive defense from a parent. Most parents truly love their kids unconditionally. It’s what we’re wired to do. This is not a parenting blog, and I’m not telling people how to raise their kids. This is merely one stop on my way back to the salon, a stream of thoughts that progressed as I read Untamed. I hope you’ll hang on for the rest of the journey.
The point I’m getting at is, regardless of the intention, outside judgement can be interpreted as a stipulation on affection. Imagine this: a child is praised for her beautiful hair, showered with affection. She cuts it off in the name of science (childhood is just one long experiment, isn’t it?). She is scorned and maybe even punished. What has she learned? She may have learned not to cut her own hair, but also that her body isn’t her own to make decisions about, and she must be beautiful to be loved. It’s like I said a couple weeks ago in A Small Spark Can Light The Way– Just Don’t Over Think It, any content we subject ourselves to can have an influence on our perception of what is normal and acceptable. Behaviourism normalizes the idea that we must bury our individuality in order to be loved. The mystery of love is distilled down to a list of rules that, if followed, promises happiness. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons transformative Rom-Com movies are so popular.
Having a rule book to life is quite enticing. Unfortunately, individuality and standardization are not compatible. Throwing away the rule book seems like a paradigm shift, except for that nagging voice deep inside us all that loathes being manipulated and wants to be treated with respect. Luckily, there are lots of other books out there that invite the reader to be introspective, and unearth what’s been buried. Untamed by Glennon Doyle is a memoir documenting one woman’s journey. In Dark Horse, Todd Rose and Ogi Ogas offer an alternative mind set that focusses on individuality, introducing the idea of micro-motivations as the keys to fulfillment. In Punished by Rewards Alfie Kohn exposes the damaging effects of behaviourism in parenting, education, and the workplace, and offers an alternative. Kohn’s book Unconditional Parenting is even more in-depth, and challenges parents to take the long view of parenting, moving away from manipulation and toward reason and love.
To see this in action, look no further than Fred Rogers, known best for his children’s program Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. He understood that each of us needs love, and told us,” People can like you exactly as you are”. Powerful words. Strangely, I didn’t fully appreciate Fred Rogers until I was a parent, and not just for my kids’ sake. The spin-off program Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood really helped me with making mistakes. Perfectionism is a form of self-loathing. The inability to accept mistakes is a way of expressing that same fear that we aren’t good enough and can’t be loved. Sometimes all we really need is someone to say (or sing), it’s okay to make a mistake. Mister Rogers deeply understood children and in doing so, really understood humans on a fundamental level. Because we all need the same things. The difference is that children are not as good at hiding it, not as good at faking it, and not as good at lying to themselves.
Adults, on the other hand, are experts in deceiving themselves. In Untamed, Doyle tells us, “We forgot how to know when we learned how to please.” She’s talking about forgetting how to hear her own voice. In many ways, her memoir is a love story. In it, she relearns how to love and respect herself. Luckily, with bravery and work, this kind of life-long love affair is possible for everyone. It can be a hard journey for some. Trauma has a particularly stubborn and persistent impact. The person who respects themselves enough to be themselves welcomes others to love them genuinely. In order to accept that love in return, we also need to do away with the deification of love. Mister Rogers puts it superbly, saying "Love isn't a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” That includes ourselves.
Those who know me would be somewhat surprised by me drawing parallels between Doyle’s adolescent experiences and my own. I am a person long in touch with my inner voice and disinclined to bow to the social norms that would have me modify my outward self to be accepted. I learned early that conditional friendships are toxic and end in heartbreak and loneliness. Luckily, by my mid-teens I was fortunate enough to form healthy friendships with people that liked me for what, who, and how I was. We were free to celebrate each other’s differences without the film of anxiety that clouds happiness when fitting-in is prioritized above all. I listened and questioned and trusted myself. I enjoyed my own company, and spent a lot of time with myself. Even so, we all have our little insecurities, and they present themselves unexpectedly sometimes. Like while looking at a bald and beaming four-year-old amid a mess of hair clippings.
Unconditional love means loving someone for who they are deep down, through mistakes, misjudgments, and even bad haircuts. I knew there was a metaphor in there somewhere. The eventual shaving of my head was an assertion to myself, that I could love myself and be loved regardless of how I looked. It was rejecting a lie I had told myself for years.
I know what you’re thinking. Didn’t she say earlier that she’d rather feel cool than look good? Doesn’t that mean that she wants to be cool? Doesn’t that include trying fit it? She’s changing her story here, and I don’t quite like it.
The devil is in the details, or course. What I really mean is that I would prefer to feel comfortable in my own skin than try to fit in that of another. In a small way, I was finally listening to my voice through all the noise of my conditioning. We need others, but we also need ourselves. It is up to us to decide when and how to please without losing ourselves along the way. In this case, I prioritized how I felt over how I looked. In retrospect, it might have had something to do with buying the album It's Such A Good Feeling: The Best of Mister Rogers. His song It's You I Like is simultaneously an elixir of love and antidote to self-doubt.
We covered a lot of ground today! It’s always gratifying when thinking about the person I was teaches me about the person I am. Join me next week as I take you further down the rabbit hole with Untamed by Glennon Doyle.
How about you? Are you caged by shame or fear? Will you muster the courage to reveal the truth to yourself, and forgive? What holds you back from listening to your inner voice and loving yourself? Can you turn that feeling around and into something you’d be proud of?
Normally, I would invite you to comment below or connect with us by email. That said, putting vulnerabilities into words and sending them out into the world isn’t for everyone, so I won’t push it. Instead, I invite you to connect with yourself.
Book Interrupted is a podcast that follows six women as they talk, rant, cry, laugh, and connect through books. Down the Rabbit Hole is a weekly blog series influenced by the books featured on the podcast. To learn more visit www.bookinterrupted.com, a book club for busy people to connect and one that celebrates life’s interruptions.