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Talking to ourselves

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AUGUST 17, 2020

Sonnet: One of my least favorite things about myself is my neurotic completionism. Pushing beyond perfectionism, it’s a compulsion not only to get everything right, but also to test every possibility along the way. You could call me a tryhard (and people have). 

I’ve been trying, for a long time, to learn to settle, to avert disappointment and stop burning myself out in circuitous pursuit. Still, this trait is frequently the ammunition I use in picking fights with myself, in reinforcing a conception of myself as stunted or naive or incompetent. 

But I’m also working on not calling myself stunted or naive or incompetent in my head. On trying to go with the grain of who I am instead of fighting interminably against it.  

One recent weekend, I came up against this thing I hate about myself on a drive along the Sonoma coast, in search of my Goldilocks beach: broad, safely empty, with waves big enough to bodysurf in.

Tracing the coast, I found myself detouring at every possible juncture, letting time move in the strange slip-slidey way it does when you’re driving by yourself. Beach after beach I passed fell short of my expectations, so that eventually I was making the 45-minute trek out to the National Seashore just as the day’s visitors were starting to head home. I toggled inwardly between exasperation and amusement with myself. I didn’t have anywhere else to be, and I didn’t have anyone with me to be annoyed, as people often are, by my obsessive optimizing. I tried just to let myself do my (maddening, control-hungry) thing.  

It was 7 o’clock when I finally parked at Kehoe Beach. It was getting cold, and very windy. I put on my swimsuit anyway and hiked the half-mile out to the wind-swept coast, past all the signs warning that the surf was too dangerous for swimming. 

And you know what? It was perfect. Like being at the very outer edge of California. Or, maybe more accurately: Regardless of where I’d ended up, having exhausted all the options and given in to that infuriating part of me in a way that is so rarely possible, the arrival felt delicious, truly earned.

I threw myself (cautiously, keeping my feet under me) into the waves, whooping with relief. Splashing and jumping and shrieking at the perfection of it, at my own ridiculousness.

I didn’t stay long. It was cold and very windy. The sun was setting unceremoniously into diffuse fog. So I splashed around once more and retraced my steps to the car. I felt, for the first time in a long time, completely and unabashedly at peace with myself. It was, plainly, an unusual privilege to have a whole day alone to romp at my whim. And really only luck that my obsessive completionism landed me where I was trying to go with (just) enough time to enjoy it. Which is to say, making a habit of indulging that part of me is not an effective long-term coping strategy. But the excursion was a lesson, in giving myself more patience than I could ever expect anyone else to, in deciding actively not to judge a part of myself that I usually struggle angrily to suppress. And, paradoxically, proving to myself that the trait can sometimes yield fruit has made it easier to settle, in other scenarios, for outcomes that are imperfect but ultimately wonderful. 

Madeleine: That part of Sonnet — the one that can never settle for what is until she has seen all that might be — is beautiful, and just as maddening as she thinks it is. It makes her perennially late and occasionally flaky. Which is hard for me. But, alone on that beach, she can give herself something that no one else can: full, unjudging acceptance. 

Acceptance has, miraculously, been a fairly abundant resource in my life, particularly in the past few years. Still, the mere presence of others can incite self-judgment, impose self-control. My self-suppression — which a friend recently dubbed “anti-social delayed processing” — looks like this: I tame any jolting emotions into one flat line of mostly happiness. This stability feels good, for the most part. I like it, think it makes me good to friends, pleasant to strangers and dedicated to work.

So I try to preserve it, to stay level even as the jolts accumulate and compress me into apathy, as work begins to lose its meaning and conversations shrink and harden, as I sleep longer and longer and still yawn through my third cup of coffee.

Feeling this way felt shameful in Berkeley, set against that thick sunlight and my high-functioning housemates. When the emotional mess inside me grew overwhelming, I couldn’t face them: I hid in my room, didn’t eat, slept a lot, scribbled angsty journal entries and ignored their knocks and texts and attempts at conversation. I know that my withdrawals confused and even hurt them. 

And I know that they’d try to understand, if I tried to explain. But I don’t want to explain. I just want to be alone.

Now, back in the seclusion of my small Massachusetts hometown, I have a lot more space to watch myself think. In my first week back, I was still exerting all that emotional control, white-knuckling my way through the tumult of an unplanned cross-country move in the first month of a new job, moving out of my college home and into remote work, an unceremonious graduation and a too-quick goodbye to a place I loved very much. 

And then I felt it start to build. I felt lonely, isolated by the blue glare of my laptop. I felt fearful, doubt trickling into every assurance I had about myself. 

Then, this past week, my family went out of town, leaving me completely alone. I could test the theory, finally, that in solitude I would be able to handle the tangle I make of my mind. The first night, after hours working at my desk, I took an edible and binge-watched “Euphoria,” lying on my bed too high, my eyes raw from all the screen time. 

After the finale, I stared out the cracked-open window, watching leaves shift in the breeze, the day shift into darkness. I didn’t attend to whatever my phone was buzzing about. Without worrying about running into another (potentially judging) human, I roamed about the house. I listened to screamy music and munched grapes in the kitchen. I tended to all the animals left behind, talking to myself as I stood, soles bared against browning grass, filling a strange water-bearing contraption for a chicken in a newly constructed coop.

This felt good, all alone, and the next day I felt brighter, lighter. It felt like purging my emotional cache. I could return to stability renewed, not resentful. 


Here at the end of a chapter, we’re both figuring out how to disentangle our self-worth from institutional frameworks, to value ourselves beyond who we can please and what we can produce. 

In fact, as much of the external structure of everyone’s lives crumbles, we’re all trying to figure out — through gardening, crafting, solo-road-tripping, TV-bingeing — how to make being alive inside our homes, in these human bodies, bearable. The threat of illness reminds us that we are human, and the resulting isolation forces us to confront our humanity alone. To understand ourselves as living things with particular sets of idiosyncrasies that we can choose either to embrace or spend a lifetime chafing against. 

The rhetoric of self-love generally says, talk to yourself as you would a friend. Would you be so judgmental, so critical of someone else? And certainly, other people have played a role in teaching each of us what there is to love, even in parts that feel challenging. But the pandemic is reminding us that it’s ultimately our own job to get along with ourselves. In that, maybe we can give ourselves more grace than anyone else ever could. 

In other words, drink Corona Extra. Find your beach.

Sonnet Phelps and Madeleine Gregory co-write the Monday column on kinds of love. Contact them at [email protected].

SEPTEMBER 01, 2020

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