We have a great question in the line-up this week, readers. But first I hope you will indulge a personal note. There’s a profile of me up this week at CNN.com. It includes a story from my book The Book of Mormon Girl about the 2008 Proposition 8 campaign, when, in a moment of emotion, I destroyed some Yes on 8 campaign materials. In the book, I tried to make it clear that I acted out of anger, and that I’m not proud of it. Let me reiterate that here for folks who just read the profile: I don’t look on what I did that day as one of my finest moments, and I apologize. The fact that I was not able to support Proposition 8 does not mean that I disrespect those who did out of conviction or obligation.
And now, on to this week’s question.
Growing up in an orthodox Mormon home, it was important for me, the oldest and the only girl, to be nice and compromise. Usually that meant self sacrificing. While I know that everyone has their own perspective, and everyone deserves to own that, it doesn’t mean that I have to get taken advantage of. In the fine art of learning to stand up for yourself, how do I figure out how to do that? How do I figure out which battles are worth fighting?
Stiffening Spine in LA
Dear Stiffening Spine:
I belong to a group of Mormon women—most of us 40 and older–who converse regularly on-line, and the questions you’re asking right now regularly bubble up to the surface of our conversations. How was it we learned over the years to give away so much ground? How do we unplug all those learned habits that mean we are always deferring, always smiling, and yet—whether we like to admit it or not—often feeling bruised, spent, lost, or angry inside.
And it’s not just women in Mormonism. Oh, no. I see plenty of self-sacrificing men in the world of Mormonism too. I see plenty of self-sacrificing people in the wide, wide world who would, I suspect, be better served and better capable of serving others if they would learn to respect and protect themselves.
But how, how to begin?
I wish I had a clear five-step process for you. I’m sure the local library has a shelf full of self-help books with glossy, airbrushed author photos and clear five-step processes laid out in bullet points.
What I have instead is an actual, messy life, with lots of missteps and things I wished I’d done differently (note above) as I’ve learned what my work in this world is and how to get it done.
One thing that has helped has been trying to discern what my work in this world it. Have you started started a dialogue with yourself about what your work in this world is? Try to discern what really matters to you, what brings you the most joy. It may not be just one thing. It may be many things at once, and it may include helping other people. But it does not mean accommodating everyone who asks for something just because they ask. To illustrate the concept, I’ll use the old Mormon pioneer hymn, “Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel.” The song says, “Put your shoulder to the wheel, push along, do your duty with a heart full of song, we all have work, let no one shirk, put your shoulder to the wheel.” Now, imagine—lots of wheels on the big wagon of creation. God put you in front of a specific wheel. It does not help the big wagon of creation roll along when you ditch your wheel and run to push along someone else’s wheel just because they’re fussing about it. You can be kind and encouraging, but you are here to do the work God sent you to do. If you know what that work is and feel a sense of sacred purpose in it, you can and will be less available to every one who comes to you feeling entitled to take a little piece of you.
Similarly, I’ve learned that it’s okay not to give away your words, feelings, thoughts, heart, soul to just anyone who asks. You do not need to explain yourself, give yourself, or apologize to everyone who stops by. It’s okay to know your own mind, hold your own feelings close, and maintain your boundaries when you are dealing with people who you don’t know well enough to trust, or with people who don’t appear to be wiling to enter into a respectful dialogue of equals. A healthy reserve fosters dignity, and dignity is a form of power. You decide when to enter the conversation, and how to participate. If you find yourself in a situation where the game is set up against you—where you’re pretty sure your voice will not be valued—you don’t need to play. This may sound like contradictory advice—how can I be assertive if I remain quiet? There is a difference, though, between the quiet that is afraid to speak and the quiet that knows better than to speak where the voice will not be valued.
Along the way, I’ve also learned to face my own perfectionism. From one oldest daughter to another, sounds like you’re a perfectionist too. Gently remind yourself that it is not the end of the world to be wrong. Everyone has been wrong sometimes. I sure have—see above, for just one of many examples. Everyone makes mistakes and everyone deserves room to learn from them, including you. When you make a mistake, you can apologize, but you must not treasure it up as evidence against yourself. God loves you. Your nearest and dearest love you. And you know I’ll still love you. It’s Mormon doctrine that we come to this world to gain experience—and not only through perfection or the pretense of perfection, but through choices, better and worse. When you give yourself permission to make mistakes and learn from them, you give yourself permission to extend yourself into new situations and new, growthful challenges.
Just as you will be wrong sometimes, you will be afraid sometimes. I am afraid sometimes. Okay, let’s revise that. I am afraid more than sometimes. I am afraid for reasons I can’t fully explain. But as long as I am doing my work, I am willing to be afraid. There are lots of scriptures I recite to myself about how “God has not given us the spirit of fear.” And I love as well this advice from the African-American poet Audre Lorde: “We can learn to work through fear the same way we can learn to work when we are tired.” I have learned to work when and even though I am afraid. When I am afraid, I reach out to trusted friends and share my feelings. I pray. I clean my house—yes, housecleaning can be a meditative practice. I go to yoga (which is very good for the spine, by the way). Then, I start again. Whenever you are afraid because you are doing your work, remember that you are in good company.
For I would rather have my shoulder to the wheel in the mud with all of the other women and men who make mistakes and are afraid sometimes. We want you with us too, Sister Spine-builder. We miss you. We need you. The world needs you to do the work you came here to do.
Can I get an amen, readers? A word of support for Sister Spinebuilder? Who else has spine-building wisdom to share?
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