“It is not the critic who counts”. How many times have I read those words from Theodore Roosevelt? How many times have I repeated them?
And yet, recently I’d found myself listening to those very same critics. Intently.
My self discovery journey began seven years ago when I decided to forget who they’d told me to be and started exploring who I really was. I’d had an attack of pancreatitis back in 2008. It came out of the blue and I was hospitalized and kept on a drip for days.
There’s nothing like a health scare to bring clarity at lightning speed.
The hospital was full to bursting and I was moved to a ward that was primarily for elderly people. Very, very ill elderly people. I remember being taken to the bathroom one evening, my drip stand pulled along beside me, looking at the faces that occupied the rows of beds.
I saw shriveled sallow skin. I saw oxygen masks. I saw eyes that held nothing but fading light. I saw lone souls that probably weren’t going to make it out of that ward.
I made a promise to myself there and then that from that moment forward I would live. And I would feel. I would really feel. I wouldn’t mask anymore, I wouldn’t suppress and I wouldn’t wait for a better moment. There, on that ward, amongst the frail, tired shadows I decided to accept the gift of my life. I decided to do it my way.
I reclaimed my health and left my job, embarking on a six month trip to India and Bali. I volunteered at shelters, I practiced yoga at the foothills of the Himalayas, and I worked through some of the emotional baggage that I’d accumulated. That baggage looked like divorce and bulimia. It looked like self doubt and low self esteem. There was a lot to let go of.
I’m not going to tell you that I suddenly had an epiphany in downward dog or that I felt blissed out for hours after meditation. Mostly I was hot and pissed off. Traveling solo can be the most amazing adventure but it can also be grueling.
I wasn’t trying to find myself. I was trying to remember myself. And I was judged for it.
I found myself explaining to people why I was taking time out to travel. I sometimes saw the sneers behind the smiles, the barbed comments dressed up as something else.
I presented my choices to people in a way that I hoped would be acceptable to them rather than meaningful to me.
It was the first time that I became conscious of what it was to feel simultaneously high and low. High, because my choices felt completely authentic. Low, because my choices weren’t deemed appropriate to others.
On my return to England I decided that, following my divorce, it was time to change my last name. But my maiden name didn’t feel like a fit for me anymore. I wasn’t her. I wanted to move forward, not back. So I chose a whole new last name. And then realizing that, actually, I could do whatever the f*ck I wanted, I changed my first name, too.
Cue, disbelief and ridicule from the masses. Again, the simultaneous high and low.
Apparently, Real People had Real Jobs and didn’t change their names. They didn’t explore and experiment. They didn’t say no to careers and yes to photography courses. They didn’t leave Good Husbands and split up with Nice Boyfriends. They didn’t train to be a yoga teacher and then decide not to be a yoga teacher.
And blah, blah, bloody blah.
In the words of Ash Ambirge: Make your own rules or make your own grave.
So, there I was. New name and no idea of what exactly I was doing with my life, other than running wildly in the opposite direction of all the things I knew I most definitely wasn’t interested in.
And before I knew it, I’d run all the way to New York (with a little help from a Boeing 747) and I’d taken one of my explorations, namely writing, and I started to get published and for the first time ever in my life, I was doing something I really, really loved. And I was good at it.
Cue, the critics.
(Did you think they’d gone to sleep? Oh no, they’re right there. Watching. Waiting. Whispering.)
“Everyone thinks they’re a writer these days”.
“Most of these bloggers don’t even know what an adjective is”.
You’ve gotta love social media. At some point we stopped using status updates to tell the world we were at the gym and we began using them to tell painstakingly point out the flaws in the lives of others.
Classy move, world.
Suddenly I started to realize how regularly my news feeds were filled with people sharing articles, not because they wanted to applaud them, but because they wanted to attack them.
Too many people were talking too loudly and too often about everything they hated. And I was listening to them.
Empowerment suddenly seemed to be a dirty word. I began thinking that perhaps I’d better not use that word anymore because maybe I’d be ridiculed. Another one to add to The Ridicule List.
I panicked, thinking that perhaps I needed to re-strategize. Empowerment was out, and I daren’t use the word warrior because that was on The Ridicule List, too. So was poetry. And anything organic. Yoga was scoffed at and I could literally see eyes rolling at any reference to goddess.
I thought that maybe the critics knew that I didn’t have a college or university degree, that I’d dropped out of the only writing course I’d ever taken after just a few sessions. Who did I think I was, trying to pull off this life anyway?
But whilst having this period of self doubt of everything I was doing, I noticed something else – I felt flat. As in, depressed and dispirited kinda flat.
I was taking such big steps back from my own authentic message, and with every single pace I felt more and more disconnected. I realized that I’d lost My Way and I was getting swallowed up in Their Way.
So, I walked myself back to a place where the real me was last seen. I reminded myself I’d rather live in a brave yard than die in a graveyard. And I remembered some truths:
1. People will tear down anything and they will do so for a multitude of reasons. Fear and envy usually come tops.
2. Adopting Brené Brown’s practice of writing (and keeping) a list of the people whose opinions you truly care about is a game changer. Trust me, it will be a smaller list than you think.
3. Living your life to please other people is both illogical and impossible. No need to even set foot on that pointless path.
4. Scrolling endlessly on social media is a sure fire way to lose both time and confidence. I’ve limited my scrolling time to 20 minutes a day. Whenever I worry about what I might be missing, I remind myself what I’m actually gaining.
5. Having a degree does not equate to being a Real Writer. Being able to use words to connect with people and spark something inside of them, does.
6. Anyone who makes a mockery of someone else’s words, work or worth in order to elevate themselves is best kept at a distance. Of several miles.
7. It’s ok to have critics. It’s just not ok to allow them to direct your next move. They’re on the sidelines for a reason.
And most of all. Most of all…
I’m remembering the woman in that hospital ward. The one who was so sick that she couldn’t make it to the bathroom on her own. I’m remembering the strained faces in the other beds near hers. The ones who weren’t going to make it.
Above all, I’m remembering the promise she made to herself. That no matter what challenges might come, no matter what judgments might be made, she would be true to herself. She would live with fierce authenticity and keep forging forward. She would do it her way.
And as wine is my witness, I will.