For the Girl Who Doesn’t Listen to Herself (Eight Steps of Self-Actualization)

I am not afraid that he will happen
again, but that I inevitably will.
My biggest fear is the belief that
I am and always will be rotten, right
down to my blueprints, unworthy
of love, even one as sickly as this.
To forgive oneself is not only to
admit fault, to recognize what land
you tilled to grow here, but to
also say (and somehow believe)
I did not deserve this. Neither did he.

 —Sierra DeMulder, “And if I am to Forgive Myself”

  1. Self-Denial

In high school, you trained yourself to take your coffee black. It was a gradual process that started out with two creams and two sugars. Then one cream and one sugar. Until you were down to just cream—which eventually turned to black. You forced yourself to acquire a taste for bitterness. Not because you wanted the guise of sophistication, but because: No calories, cheap energy. You knew about the studies that said drinking coffee this way was bad for your bones, bad for your teeth. But at the time, those things weren’t important. You convinced yourself that this was what you wanted; this was how your taste buds were supposed to react.

  1. Self-Doubt

The other day you said to one of your very best friends, without much certainty, “Like, I’m pretty easygoing. Right?” And she responded without even thinking, “You’re the most easygoing person I know.” You laugh, uncomfortably. “Maybe that’s why this always happens to me.” I’ll go along with anything. Sometimes you fear your being “easygoing” is just another way of saying you can’t make distinctions. Another way of saying you don’t trust your own perceptions, so you’ll take anything at face value. That even once the bitter truth is spelled out, you’ll still try to work with it. Oh shit, this is gin and not water? Guess I’m getting drunk tonight! No situation is too much to handle because once it’s over—it doesn’t matter. Namaste. Your needs can always come later, later, later, later… Meanwhile you don’t notice that someone’s been waning you off the cream and sugar. You wonder why you feel like you’re running on empty. You wonder why you feel like you’re nothing. You wonder, you wonder…

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  1. Self-Neglect

The human brain can only prioritize x amount of things. This fact makes you anxious because—what gets lost when we prioritize the wrong things? What kind of potential is smothered when one has to prioritize mere survival, a basic sense of worth and emotional safety? Lately your mantra has been: This love doesn’t hurt. This love doesn’t hurt. This love doesn’t hurt… You forget your bills. It takes 45 minutes to muster the energy to go to work. Once a month, you just don’t go and you can’t explain why. You’ve missed all your appointments with your therapist, who you actually really liked. The boss-bitch in your head cuts through the bullshit: Do you really hate yourself this much? You shut her up, you tell her: Later! Your priorities involve getting through the day and convincing yourself you’re okay. You don’t have time for her

  1. Self-Care

Capitalism says you should buy things because it’ll bring you closer to a better version of yourself. You once spent $8—that you didn’t have—on lipstick, thinking it might transform you into the kind of girl a very specific person would love. And you resent that needy girl in you—always pining for validation—to the point of reckless abandon. How many times have you led her out into the forest of your past, like a jealous stepmother, just to leave her stranded? How many times have you sat by idly as she was enchanted by the gingerbread house, knowing exactly what kind of horrors were inside? How many times has she come back, crying? Saying, “It’s so lonely out there”? How many times did you send her right back? Demanded, “Come back when you are better”? That vulnerable, desperate, creature… You should be gentle with her. Gentle, but assertive. You should tell her “No” to the lipstick. You should explain, “You need to understand why you want the lipstick and decide whether or not it’s worth it—for yourself.” And if she cries about being lonely, you should tell her, “It’s not your fault.” You should line her eyes with glitter, and braid her hair with forget-me-nots. Make sure she finishes the grilled cheese. Crown her queen of scribbled-stars, drawn in the margins of ruled notebooks everywhere. Take her to the safety of the moon. Point back at planet Earth and explain, “You have allowed the voices of others to replace the one you were born with for too long…”

  1. Self-Reflection

Un-denying yourself means sitting down and accepting your ugliest parts. And yes, often you are ugly. Sometimes you sit around eyebrow-less, with stress-grease accumulating on your forehead. All your memories look like the party scenes in Palo Alto. You eat the grilled cheese and feel it settle in your stomach like cement. You Google the criteria for emotional abuse, at least once a week. One night the noise in your head is so loud you go out by yourself, and it feels like everyone is looking at you sideways. You look in the mirror and accept that this is the price you pay for passion: I look crazy, more often than not. You think about how in September of last year, when work was scarce and you were constantly fretting about money, your best friend from college drunk texted you to tell you that she thought you were “brave”. You felt like a total fraud. You felt like texting back, “No, I’m not. My mom is paying all my bills right now and I’m worried I’m diagnosably horrible.” You think about what society tells us is correct behavior: Be punctual. Be organized. Smile! Be selfless. We’re a team! Doesn’t it bother you that your mascara’s smeared and you’re at work? You realize what your friend meant was that the world can tell you a thousand times over that emotion is not reality, and all you’ll ever have to say to that is: And neither is ‘normality’. You don’t have time to wipe away your mascara. You’re starving for truth to the point where you’d throw everything you knew into the fire, and that’s the shit that gets your heart broken. All the flames from those bridges, burning—reflected in the tears streaming down your face. You might not feel brave, peeking out from between your fingers. But that’s not the point. Bravery comes after, when you make that blind promise to yourself: I will make all this failure worthwhile…

  1. Self-Preservation

“Women’s safety is more important than men’s feelings.” You read this and remember how he slammed the steering wheel when you started talking about sexual assault. A ploy to make you stop, for reasons you still don’t understand. Did I say something wrong? You explained, “I guess my way of coping with these things is to study what assault looks like—what abusers look like—so I can spot it. So I can help other people understand how to spot, and stop it.” He has nothing to say to that. So you smile, change the subject. Two months later, you’re crying at a Sheryl Crow concert because she just quoted Walt Whitman. She says, “If you ever feel unseen…” All the women dancing in the stage lights look ageless. You remember an interview with Lana del Rey and how the reporter said, “Your past albums often presented a claustrophobic universe made up of just you and one other person, but all of a sudden it’s like you’ve got your eyes wide open and you’re looking at the world around you.” One hour into the future, you’re riding on the back of a motorcycle and the moon is full and Lana del Rey is singing in your head: Doesn’t matter if I’m not enough / for the future or for things to come… Despite what many feminists say, you think Lana is brave. You saw her for the first time when you were 20, projected on a wall. Your universe was claustrophobic, and she understood about loving darkness when all you want is light. Two hours backward, you’re still at the Sheryl Crow concert and everyone’s singing “If it Makes You Happy” with her. You believe it’s the most enlightening sound in the world. You remember how John Mayer tried shutting Taylor Swift up when “Dear John” came out. He said it was “embarrassing”. Meanwhile stadiums of people were still singing: But I took your matches before fire could catch me… and there was nothing he could do about it. You saw a video clip of Lana del Rey, with her face leaned up against a microphone, wiping away tears as the crowd sang “Video Games” in its entirety. You imagined the man she was singing to, shrinking in the background. Watching as the whole world opened up around her. You saw in her eyes that she was crying because this was a sense of release she had always dreamed of. Women’s safety is more important than men’s feelings…

  1. Self-Worth

A number of people have expressed that they believe Thirteen Reasons Why’s Hannah Baker would’ve been “too narcissistic” to kill herself in real life. Though you agree that the show’s writers didn’t do their heavy content justice—though you found it disgusting how they used rape and harassment as a platform for teen melodrama—this common conclusion about Hannah’s character really, really, bothers you. You can’t articulate why, so you write it down on a piece of receipt paper: We often shame women for having any clarity about their experiences at all. Hannah wouldn’t have killed herself in real life because Hannah had self-worth, which usually translates as “narcissism”—especially when it comes to women. You don’t know what it is, but something about this realization causes you to internalize the notion that how you view the world is who you really are. Suddenly these months spent believing you were un-hearing, “preachy”, loveless and incapable of giving, seem so ridiculous. You remember the six-word autobiography you wrote for your first creative writing class: I found beauty in ugly places. How your message was cheesy, but sincere. And that was all that mattered to you. Admit it: You are not a mere flower, poking out from between concrete. You are a house, surrounded by wild life. You are elbows on the table and cats walking across the mantle—hydrangeas spilling over to reclaim the backyard. You are coffee splattered on the white carpet, a girl observing from a bird’s eye view, “I think the stain adds character.” Accept it: Your love is as easygoing as otters. It’s not “wrong” to float around boulders, though they serve their purposes too. Accept it: You need someone with a Gatsby-smile, who always sees people as they would like to be seen. Accept it: You need love that believes in abstract shapes. Patient and free as the snail-shaped cloud, gliding across her blue canvas…

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  1. Selflessness

You are sorry, though, for saying his best wasn’t enough. It wasn’t your most graceful moment, not even close. (A comedian on TV is making fun of women and their “massive egos”.) Your ego is not what’s preventing you from reaching out, but a learned response: Vulnerability, with him, is like an invitation to get burned… You think of that storm quote (“he just can’t handle a storm like you”) that is posted on the IG of every straight girl, from the east to west coast. You think: I am not a storm, and I don’t want to be. I don’t want to be idealized, or constantly admired; I just want to be with someone who understands himself, deeply. You miss him. You never won’t miss him because that’s who you are. You never grew tired of how he smelled like a clean aquarium filled with woodchips. And you can’t say he taught you nothing. You can’t say the certainty of his breathing didn’t restore your faith in yin and yang; how two forces, colliding, is what makes this flawed world go round. You can’t say you didn’t love every second you held your breath, trapped inside that fishbowl. It was real, and wonderful as it was terrible. You don’t blame him. You don’t blame yourself. You don’t blame anyone. It’s not that either of you deserve “more” or “better”, but that you both deserve what you need. And the whole world opens at this exit. At this private act of surrender: Wishing the most for him, in spite of all these locked doors and lost dreams…

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