Radical Self-Care Changes Everything
Tami Simon: Welcome to Insights at the Edge, produced by Sounds True. My name is Tami Simon. I’m the founder of Sounds True, and I’d love to take a moment to introduce you to the new Sounds True Foundation.
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You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today is a rebroadcast of one of my favorite episodes. I hope you enjoy.
You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is Anne Lamott. Anne is the acclaimed author of more than a dozen books of fiction, nonfiction, and collected essays, known for her honest, insightful, and humorous approach to subjects such as faith, loss, and the creative process. She’s the author of Help, Thanks, Wow; Stitches; Bird by Bird; and Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy, where she argues that kindness towards others, beginning with myself, buys us a shot at a warm and generous heart, the greatest prize of all.
This is a special episode of Insights at the Edge in which we are broadcasting Anne Lamott’s session that was originally parts of Sounds True’s Self-Acceptance Summit. In this episode, Anne and I spoke about what she refers to as radical self-care and how it is the foundation of all true health and healing. We also talked about her own challenges with self-esteem and issues related to body image, and what it’s taken for her to develop a sense of true belonging in which she’s able to welcome all of herself and others and receive such welcoming in return. We also talked about how women are trained to put other people first, and how self-acceptance is actually a feminist issue and a prerequisite for truly being there for others. Here’s my conversation with Annie Lamott.
I wanted to start by talking about something that you’ve been writing about of late, which is the topic of, you call it radical self-care, this idea of self-care, and what that means to you and why, for some of us, it’s so hard. Also, something like self-care, I think some people might think, “Oh, come on. Isn’t this just self-indulgent? Do we really need more? Anne Lamott’s talking about self-care? Isn’t this just one other way that we cocoon in on ourselves?”
AL: No. I think it’s the opposite. I think it’s the beginning of all healing and health. The reason it’s so hard is because we often grew up around alcoholic or mentally ill or very unhappy people. Especially, girls learn to get their self-esteem and their sense of purpose and meaning on this life by taking care of everybody else.
I’ve written before that I was like a little flight attendant to the family. I was mixing drinks, blender drinks, at seven. In the ‘50s, when I was coming up, people said, “Oh, he’s so full of himself. Oh, she’s so full of herself.” This was a criticism, and you learned not be full of yourself. You learned to be a person for others. But that meant coming from an empty glass instead of a glass that was bubbling over with love and excitement and enthusiasm for life and curiosity. It meant that you were pretty much depleted all the time by having first taken care of the other people in the family, especially the parents.
To start doing radical care means that A) you’re your own parent, and B) you’re going to get that radical care because you’re going to be providing it. I don’t mean anything narcissistic; I mean being with yourself the way that you would be with somebody you love, or even somebody you had just met who was in anxiety or worry. You would say, “Can I get you a cup of tea?” automatically. We developed the habit of saying to ourselves, “Can I get you a cup of tea?” If you knew the person a little better, you would say, “Can I make you a bath? Can I make you a bath with bubbles and Epsom salts?”
We learn to do that with ourselves. We learn to come from a place of abundance, for lack of a better word, or of having filled up so that we can offer that freely without going into depletion and the ensuing cellular anxiety that that caused, and caused us as very little children—which is where all of the harshness with ourself begins; it’s depriving ourself of what we need because we weren’t able to get it from these very distracted and often mentally unhealthy parents.
TS: Tell me a little bit more about that, how you see the roots of our lack of self-acceptance coming from our early childhood environment and experience. I think part of what, in this series on self-acceptance, people are really questioning is, in their own experience—where were the roots for each one of us, of how it became so hard just to do simple, kind things for ourselves like you’re describing, making time for a bath, whatever it might be?
AL: Well, if you grew up around alcoholism or mental illness as a small child, you agreed not to see what was going on because it made everything worse for the parents to be observed, and what they were relying on was smoke and mirrors and the shades being drawn. Some of us signed a contract at about four years old, metaphorically, that we would agree not to see what was going on, and we would work with whatever version of reality they fed us. We lost that ability to be trusted narrators of our own reality and our own story, so that we learned to walk on eggshells and to sort of suss things out vibrationally.
When I was a kid, everybody, mostly men and boys, wanted you to play that game where you put your hand on top of theirs and they slap you. You could be a five- or six-year-old child, you could weigh 40 pounds, and you’re getting slapped because you’re not vibrationally prepared for an attack. So, you learn to be. You develop the skill of hypervigilance, which takes us away from our own truths, our own core, our own essence, or soul, or spirit. You learn to help people, grown-ups mostly. I won’t name names, but you learn to help them feel about the catastrophic behavior that they are inflicting on their marriage and on their children, and you help them by kind of cooing, and you learn to suck it down.
When I was a child, there was a book out called The Highly Sensitive Child, and I bet you were diagnosed as such also, although I think I’m a little older than you are. I’m 62 right now. If you were a highly sensitive child, you were shamed for this, which is to say shamed for being open and permeable and receptive, all the things that Sounds True is actually helping people learn to recover. You try to develop slightly thicker skin. Parents roll their eyes at you and they say, “Oh, for Pete’s sake, now what?” because you’re sad, because you’re noticing the cover of the National Geographic which has children from India on it who are emaciated, or you have been to the pound and you can see that a lot of the animals aren’t going to get homes, and it grieves you. It’s not convenient for the parents to have such a sensitive child if they’re slightly crazy or if they’re completely faking it and trying to hold unhealthy marriages together.
For me, that’s where it begins, is in denying reality as I alone, uniquely, could film it from behind my eyes. I saw it and I said, “I must be wrong.” My parents would explain that I was wrong, and they were actually very happy, and that Dad wasn’t passing out on the couch; Dad was taking naps after dinner, or this or that. Whatever it was, you were corrected. Getting back that ability to care for yourself means being able to trust that what you see is really going on. When people who are writing memoirs or writing anything, really, say to me that something happened, I believe them, and their parents and their families and their aunts and uncles didn’t. When they said that this uncle was doing this to them, people shamed them for that—and I believe them. When we can see that this stuff really happened and really hurt and damaged us and pretzelized us, we can begin to have that deep and abiding compassion that is where all healing begins.
TS: I want to underscore just for one more moment this note that we started on about radical care, because you said, Annie, that this is, in some ways, I don’t know if you used the word “lever,” but it’s this critical need, this critical turning point. I’m curious, in your own development and evolution, was there a certain point where you recognized, “Oh, you know, this is something I’m going to have to give to myself. I’m going to have to do this”? I say this because I was somebody who just soldiered on for so long. You mentioned your age. I’m 54 now. It’s only in the past decade that I got it, that I had to really take good care of myself, that I couldn’t just be the indomitable warrior at all times without stopping, and I needed to be the one to take this good care.
AL: Yes, or you didn’t have to, but then you would become less and less authentic and less and less vital and plugged in umbilically to the energy and the beauty of the universe. It’s really a decision and a choice, I think.
I can say that I first found salvation when the first issue of Ms. magazine came out when I was 16. I remember. I was just talking to my partner about this, that my best friend Pammy, who I’ve written about so much, was an emancipated minor in San Francisco, where we were going to high school, and we opened it. I know you did this with your cousins—when you were little when you’d get a Sears catalog, you’d spread it out over both your laps, and you’d turn the pages; and everything on your side was stuff you could have, or then you’re jealous that they had something cooler on their side, and blah, blah, blah. We sat side-by-side with Ms. spread out on our laps, and we read it that way, and we went, “Oh my God,” and a switch was thrown.
I remember her apartment. I remember what we were eating. We were eating salami and Hershey bars. That was the moment when I knew that I was going to be able to find a place for myself in the world, that women were saying, “We’re here. We’re angry. We’re going to tell the truth. We’re going to tell you our stories, and we want to hear yours.” It was like sitting next to a Buddhist gong. It was like being in a foreign country, in Morocco or something, where I could suddenly hear an English-language station.
TS: Oh my. It’s so interesting because I think you’re the first person who’s really placing in this conversation series radical care, self-care, as a feminist issue.
AL: Yes. Oh, absolutely. But again, it goes back to the times I was raised in—the ‘50s and Eisenhower in the post-war and whatnot, where women were a certain way, and what that meant was that you were the flight attendant and you hustled around. Girls were raised to say to men, “Oh, can I get you a plate?” like the men couldn’t walk to the buffet and get their own plate because they were talking about such lofty and life-changing, world-changing subjects. We bustled around like little geishas and got men platters of food, and then it made them so happy, if they even noticed. Sometimes they took the plate without even acknowledging it. And as you said, you soldiered on.
For me, it was definitely one of the crippling experiences of being raised in the ‘50s and the early ‘60s before the women’s movement, was the sense that you brought men food and they might not even notice you standing there, that you picked up after them, that you helped them feel better about what they had said to their wife, your mother, or what your mother had said or done to all of you the night before. You cooed them. You enabled them. You patted them. You became the mother. This is what girls did. You mothered your mother, and you were the wife to your father. It’s very, very hard to have authentic self-esteem when it is so dependent on pleasing sick people.
When feminism came along—let’s see, I was born in ‘54, so ‘67, Summer of Love, is coinciding with a really burgeoning awareness of the movement. These writers, including people like Nora Dunn and Gloria Steinem, who are my two heroes, Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath, everybody we were reading, little by little, they were telling you that the way home was going to be in telling this kind of truth you’d never been allowed to tell before, and in noticing that you were very, very depleted by all the life force and energy in you going out to others, to the professors, to the male teachers, to the authority figures, to the government. It was all men. They said, “Well, it has been.”
They taught us to sit together. They taught us to listen. What they taught us to do is to listen to other women and girls and to hear that we were all in the same boat, that this was an institutionalized oppression against power, the terrifying power of women. When I was learning how to care for other girls and women by listening, by getting them cups of tea, by sitting with them, with no plan and maybe a bowl of black bean soup or some odd hippie food, and telling them my truth as a form of love and as a form of empowerment, little by little, we, I think collectively, began to get that the buck stopped with us and that we couldn’t do it without having it.
TS: When you’re talking about these feminist heroes, I’m thinking of the kind of bravery that’s required to really stand up in any generation and be a truth-teller, especially if it’s not matching with whatever the collective norms are. I’d love to know more how you see the connection between inner bravery, and it could be in really small acts, and self-acceptance.
AL: Well, that’s a really interesting question. I feel like I could write about it after thinking about it for some time. The culture, the books, and the movies when I was coming up, were all about the bravery of men. The bravery was actually about war and aggression and protecting the womenfolk and the children. It was all associated with physical power and elitist positions from which you might bend down to help the people that you are responsible for, because women weren’t responsible for themselves.
With bravery, it’s funny, because as a girl who wanted to be a writer—and I had a gift. It was pretty clear I was a good storyteller, and because I was a frightened child in a crazy household, I was really paying attention. That was so important to being a writer, was to be somebody, like Henry James said, on whom nothing is lost.
But when I started to read the women who, in a literary way, mothered the movement, and they were saying stuff that you just couldn’t say, like Sylvia Plath or—my mind will go blank now, but they were saying stuff that you weren’t supposed to—Nora Ephron. It was life-giving. It was exhilarating—you introduced me with, one of the words you used, was “confessional.”
Virginia Woolf’s journals, which I read from the age of about 18 until 21, I read every word of her journals and I read every word of her letters, of the collected letters, and that she would say the truth of how terrifying it was to even be here, to be a really highly intelligent and sensitive woman with mental illness in a man’s world, and in such an esteemed and exacting and pressurized world of Bloomsbury, say, in Virginia Woolf’s case. When she would tell the truth, when I read Mrs. Dalloway, when I read how hard it was for these women who looked so great or who had achieved so much, that’s what gave me the courage to think that maybe I had a story to tell.
Of course, another thing is, I think this ties in, Tami, that one of the things that happens when you’re young and you want something really badly, like to be an artist, is that you love other people’s voices so much—and no one likes the sound of their own voice. I thank God I’m not going to have to listen to this recording we’re doing today because I don’t love to hear the sound of my own voice. But you hear Ann Beattie or you hear Denise Levertov or Isabel Allende, or whoever, and you think that that’s how you hope to sound. You really can’t tell the truth in somebody else’s voice, which is just so horrible, but you can only tell the truth in your voice, whether or not you fictionalize it as being a person with a different dialect or whatever.
Women telling the truth, both genders telling the truth, marginalized people saying how enraged they were at their treatment, at the way their children were treated, at the way their old and invisible parents were treated and warehoused, gave me the belief in myself that the most precious thing you had was your own truth, and at the same time, the most extraordinary thing you had to share was your version of things.
TS: Beautiful. Thank you. The connection between truth-telling and the bravery it takes to do that, and how that is a kind of self-acceptance in and of itself, you’re accepting yourself to be confessional and speak out.
AL: Yes. Also, you find that it’s so life-giving when other people do and they make you laugh, like Lorrie Moore, for instance, when I first read some of her books, and they were so vulnerable but laugh-out-loud funny. I always tell my writing students, “Write what you’d like to come upon.” For me, to read somebody who’s telling the absolute down-and-dirty, your-best-girlfriend truth and making it funny, it’s chemotherapy. It is so exhilarating, and it’s a form of salvation.
I’ve talked often about how, for a lot of us that were shy and very odd, bright kids, the first salvation—as much as Jesus or Buddha, or whoever it might be—was in the written word; and that when we were four and five and six, and discovering that out of these flat, two-dimensional pages these entire worlds were created into which we could enter and get very lost and then get very found, that was when we had an inkling that we were going to be semi-OK. Of course, I was reading all the—I bet I read about the same girls you did. I read Little Women and Little Men. When I was young, people read Robert Louis Stevenson a lot to their kids, it was funny, and Jack London. I read Pippi Longstocking when I was six, and Beezus and Ramona, and A Wrinkle in Time, and all these hero girls.
We found these books, whereas on the bookshelves in our classrooms, if there was a collection of biographies, 25 great Americans, they were all men. Four or five of them were women, Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt and Madame Curie. If you went by what the culture was telling you to read, it was all these heroic men and their accomplishments and their achievements. If you found the books that other girls and teachers were thrusting at you, there were these amazing girls.
Pippi Longstocking, I can absolutely say, gave me life; it was powerful—I was not brave like she was. She had one brown sock, one black sock, and she had these kind of nerdly little neighbors, Annika, and I can’t remember the boy’s names. They were just scared to death, which was more how I was, and kind of am still on some days. She would just talk them out of that and convince them to come along and do some great adventure with her that might involve moving the horse out onto the porch, or deciding not to bring Mr. Nelson the monkey at the last minute. But she could, because of her power and her confidence in it all, which I think would be a great title for a book, by the way, you should commission it—“It All”—she convinced other people to be braver and to be bigger than they were without her, and to have bigger and bigger boundaries, margins, and peripheries, and to go a couple more concentric circles out into the world and the mystery than they would have been otherwise.
I kind of forgot what the question was.
TS: Well, I want to pick up on a thread, because you said when you’re afraid still some days, that that happens. Sometimes you are afraid. I’m curious how you bring an attitude of self-acceptance to being afraid and, even more so, self-care when you feel afraid. How do you treat yourself in those situations?
AL: Well, I think it all ties in with what we were talking about earlier about sitting down with women and girls, and trusted and beloved men, and finding out that we’re all in the same boat, that we all have scary thoughts, we all have judgmental thoughts. This system works for two reasons, one, that we’re not all crazy on the same day, and that our minds don’t have PA systems. It turns out, if I’ve written and presented something for publication, it means that I know damn well that it’s universal. Once you realize that everybody is struggling with scary things, like being here and having a terrifying new president, or the beauty and the vulnerability of falling in love or becoming a mother or an aunt or an uncle or a father. This stuff is so scary. It’s not like it is on TV. It’s not like it is in the movies. It’s rough and it’s messy, and beautiful and blessed, and it’s all swirled in together.
Because I have a little OCD, I would like things to be organized like in a silverware drawer, where you had everything kind of messy over where the forks are, and you had everything exhilarating where the knives are, and then the soup spoons would be like very touching, tender spiritual stuff, and then whatever. But it’s not like that. So, when you talk to people and they’re saying the magic words, which is, “Me too. I know exactly what you’re saying,” and you can hardly breathe when you’re 15 and 16 years old, or 45 or 62, with the relief that you’re not crazy. You’re laughing, and it’s a communion. You could cry because of the relief and the union. When you get there, you get to the place of tenderness towards your own self because you’re completely acceptable.
I’ve sat with you. I was telling my boyfriend, Neil, about sitting with you at the Jack Kornfield talk where he had us look into each other’s eyes for five or ten minutes, and I felt that we were basically the same person, that any division between us was gone in the pools of our loving eyes on each other, because I don’t look at you and think, “I wonder if she could do something about that,” or “Boy, those are the most lesbianic shoes I’ve ever seen,” or whatever. I just think that I fall into you. Because you would hold space for me to fall into you, and you were falling into me, then I can fall into me, and you can fall into you. Then I realized there’s not a huge amount of difference in any way but time and space, which have never been my strong suits anyway, that there is not really a difference or a chasm between us.
Once I can have that with you, I can have it with me. You, or the women and the safe men I’ve been with, have been like training wheels for me to fall into myself that way, and just feel so gentle and tenderhearted and to smile. If you told me something just ghastly that you had thought earlier today on your way to work, I wouldn’t go, “Oh my God. I had no idea that Tami Simon would think that. That’s so unevolved.” I would laugh, and it would probably make my day, and I would say the magic words, “God, me too.”
That makes it possible for me to have this really rich tenderness for the predicament that we share, which is being spiritual beings in these bodies that, at some point—of course, you’re a mere slip of a girl—but at some point, they begin to fail. They change. They’re disappointing. Your feet hurt a lot, and your vision goes. I can have this really deep tenderness for it because of other people’s deep tenderness for me.
Also, another thing is, as a kind of ersatz missionary in the world, for me to be able to say to people, “I know exactly what you’re talking about. I used to be there too,” I don’t do that anymore. I, who have a really severe cellulite disorder, swim at the drop of a hat in front of anyone, anywhere, because I don’t want to wake up at 85 and not have swum in pools and warm waters and beaches all over the world and in everybody’s backyard because I felt shy about my thighs.
People go, “Yeah, I know, but—yeah, I know, but it’s this. You’re thin,” and this and that. And I go, “I know. You want to see my thighs?” And then we laugh. Then I show them what radical self-care would look like, which is to rub lotion on them as a laying on of hands to my own self, or to put a tattoo on them or a decal, to put some lotion, and some delicious-smelling lotion, and a decal on my thighs and to say, “I insist, as a radical act, on the right to swim every day, if I want, in front of everyone for the rest of my life.”
I’ve written that I wouldn’t swim with a man on our first date, but I would on our second. You know what? If he’s got a problem with my thighs, I can’t do anything about that, but A) this one doesn’t, and B) I no longer do. I think, “Hit me with your best shot.” Mostly at beaches are these horrible, firm, young people. You know what? They’re like a different species for me. I think those are beautiful gazelle, and I’m more like a wildebeest. We do not need to be compared.
But that took a lifetime of body work and therapy and this commitment to revolutionary self-acceptance. That wasn’t some code in my mind that I broke, whereas I come from a family that worshiped the mind and the code-breaking and the figuring it out. It turns out “figure it out” is not a good slogan. It didn’t come from something in my brain that I suddenly grokked. It came from you take the action and then the insight follows.
A lot of lotion, a lot of decals, a lot of girlfriends who look pretty much like me, which is to say, “62, and I forgot to go to the gym after I had a child, and I certainly meant to 27 years ago and still haven’t.” We go together. We stick together, and we don’t live in what our thighs or our tummies look like. We live in our hearts. We live in our spirits. We live in our love for each other. We live in the glory of the ocean and the sea and a swimming pool. It’s partly a decision, and it’s often—what are the actions you could take that would lead to the insight that bodies are beautiful, and all bodies are heroic?
Feet, which are maybe one of our homeliest parts, are such heroes, to carry us around this earth, and to carry us in protest marches, and to have us standing up rocking children to sleep for hours. I had a colicky baby. That’s the insight and the action. The action might be toenail [polish]. I don’t know if you can see this on the camera, but for the Women’s March the day after inauguration, I got this incredibly beautiful confetti on my fingernails, this confetti polish, because that’s an action I can take that is like, “Let there be light, and let it begin with me.” I look at them, and they make me laugh because they look like what spiritual truth is, which is it’s all good or it’s all a trip. It’s all beautiful.
I got them because of another woman who was a stranger who was sitting next to me at the salon. She was just enormous, and she was a dance teacher. She had these terrible glasses on, and I just fell in love with her on the spot. She was getting this polish, and I said, “Are you going to the Women’s March on Saturday?” She said, “No, but I just want to be prepared that whatever happens on Friday,” which was the inauguration, “I am going to look beautiful, and I am going to dance.” So I got this confetti polish, and I’m going to keep getting it so that I’ll remember, no matter what happens, I am going to feel beautiful and I’m going to dance.
TS: Annie, I’m glad you brought up the issue of body image and body weight. In your writing, you use a lot of humor when you talk about your own body and the process you’ve been in to accept and love and go out to the beach. I’m curious, do you think that humor helps with self-acceptance related to body image, or is it actually covering a lot of more painful issues, or both?
AL: Well, I’ve written a lot about the painful issues too. I try to be very, very honest about how excruciating it was to be born a little girl in this culture that, before I knew it, was all Jean Shrimpton and long, straight hair, which I was never going to have. I was a child who was bullied really savagely, mostly by boys, about having kinky hair. I weighed no pounds—at ten, I weighed about 15 pounds. My mom was very short and very heavy, and my father was tall and skinny and had a terrible contempt for my mother and her weight. It was a huge thing in our family, and so I grew up in this kind of state of held breath of A) don’t let that happen to me, and B) don’t let me stay like this.
I have tried to be as honest and as unfunny as I can about the soul death that it causes to be judged, and even to be looked at in a certain way. It’s funny, because you’ve seen me address a thousand people with a pretty amazing level of comfort, and at the same time, I am so shy, and I don’t like people to look at me. I don’t do crowds, and I don’t eat with people I don’t know. Like all truth, it’s a paradox.
I have had a tremendous number of voices in my history telling me that I was simply not OK because of the way I looked. I internalized them, and it took probably 50—no, it took longer than that. I can remember just being shamed as a little child for the way I looked, and my parents’ anguish, my mother’s anguish that I had such frizzy hair, and her efforts to tame it, and getting it straightened, and the smell of the chemicals. And then my internalized terror of weather, because if you had hair like mine, you could mousse it into submission, but if there was weather, if there was fog—I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, rain, drizzle, anything, swimming—it all reverted to its very, very, very curly self.
I also had migraines as a little girl. I started getting them when I was five, and so that was another thing. And I was just emaciated. I was probably just a thin child, but I was referred to in this way, where strangers who felt confident to stop parents and comment on their children. [They] would say, “Do you feed her?” and stuff like that. Besides having a very, very thin frame and this curly hair, I was also having to lie on the floor of bathrooms to cool down the migraine because there was really no medicine. Of course, other girls would come into the bathrooms.
I grew up with such deep shame about my physical self. The self-acceptance is about both the way that you are seen and the way that you are looking out at and terrorized and trying to come up with an explanation for why everybody is so unhappy and mentally ill, and why your parents have such huge problems. The only way to do that as a child is to think that it’s you, that there’s something defective in you, there’s something annoying in you. And you know this probably before five or six, but I’m aware of it by then. Then you start to do the only option you have, which is to try to correct yourself or squelch yourself because it seems to be annoying, or it could cause problems.
My parents couldn’t stand that I was so sensitive. It drove them crazy. They said, “Oh, for Christ’s sake.” I can remember crying when my baby brother came home from the hospital as a baby, and when I was holding him, my brother and I were having our pictures taken by a friend of my parents, and I was weeping because I understood that this baby, this infant, was doomed, that the family was crazy, that my mother was so heavy and my father drank, that they hated each other in a very polite, sort of Harold Pinter way. When I started to cry while the pictures were taken, my father said that was fine, but I had to go get a clean artichoke heart from the kitchen and cry into that, and that was called the tear bottle. If I wanted to cry because I was terrified about a baby being destroyed, then I needed to direct my tears into an empty bottle.
It leads to not the fear that there’s something deeply wrong with you, but the understanding that there’s something so defective about you that, first of all, you must keep this and almost everything else a secret, and that 2) you must correct it. It’s pretty hard. It’s taken almost my whole life to get to the acceptance of the beauty and wildness of my soul and my brain, and the gratitude for this brain that has actually been, oftentimes, like having kind of a crazy roommate, like having Michael Keaton up there.
Little by little, and with endless birth coaching from other sources, and women, and literature, and safe men, and other cultures, and my church—I know I’ve said this in front of you before, and I’ve written about it, but my Jesuit friend Tom Weston said the five rules of being a grown-up American are that, 1) you must not have anything wrong with you or different about you; 2) if you do, you really have to get over it or correct it as quickly as possible. The third rule is that, if you can’t correct it or get over it, you have to pretend that you have so that you can pass. The fourth rule is that if you can’t do any of this, you should at least pretend that it’s no longer an issue for you. Maybe it used to be, but it’s not an issue. And you should not show up, though, because it’s very painful for us because we could see right through you. The fifth rule is that is you’re going to insist on the right to show up, you should have the decency to be ashamed. I think that that, from a very early age, is what we’re up against, that we have the decency as good little boys and girls, good little children, to be ashamed of the fact that we had obviously destroyed our parents with our neediness and our damagedness.
That was why I think that when the women’s movement came along and everybody said, “Oh, no, we all have that. That’s sort of ground zero. Yes, that’s where we’re going to start from, and little by little, we’re going to stick together and we’re going to take tiny little segments of your own emotional acre. You, they forgot to mention, get to have your own emotional acre, and you get to garden it or not garden it as you choose, and people don’t get to burst through the gates anymore and insist on you doing it their way. You get to do it your way, and however you see it, however you see you, however you see the earth on which you stand, that’s how we’re going to do it,” that’s what radical self-acceptance means to me, is saying, “OK, I’m going to stop trying to help other people with their emotional acre. I’m going to stop trying to get them to plant vegetables because I’m convinced that would make them happy. I’m going to stop trying to get them to do anything because I believe that my ideas are good ideas.”
You learn eventually, I think in your teens, that your help is really not very helpful and that it can actually be pretty toxic for people. You certainly learn, as a parent, that, first of all, your help is not helpful, and second of all, as they grow into teens and adults, you can no longer run along beside them with your juice boxes and Chapstick trying to coach them into doing what you’re sure would be helpful. But that begins with doing that, originally, for your own self. You’re not going to try to get better at doing what made everybody else so happy. You’re not going to keep getting better and better at what made your family feel better about itself. You’re going to close the gate on your acre, and you’re going to relax your shoulders and you’re going to squiggle and get comfortable, and then you’re going to start with what’s right in front of you that you believe you’re a truthful and accurate narrator of.
TS: OK, Annie, just two more things. One small, but it’s about this issue of someone’s own experience of their body. You write that it’s OK to pray for an awakening of acceptance around your body. I’m wondering if you can give people some pointers on that, someone, let’s say, who’s listening, who’s hearing everything you’re saying, but still just feels terrible about some aspect of their own physical self.
AL: Well, it’s a huge issue, and obviously, it has been for me. One thing I believe is that the willingness only comes from the pain, and the willingness to change or to go very, very deeply into the wound and to be available for the really perfect healing that is out there and within comes from getting to the point where you don’t care what anyone else thinks, or if they stay with you or they leave or they never want to see you again. You’re done. You’re done with the shaming. It’s a graft rejection when you aren’t kind to your body, when you’re not kind to your inside body.
When you get there, then again, back to what I was saying, is you start to take the action even if you don’t really have a conviction that it will ever help and change. For me, prayer is anything. You can pray about anything, and my belief is that you’re heard and that something that I would call God, for shorthand, draws nearer and nods, like Mary. Mother Mary I love so much. She goes, “Yes,” and listens, and so you to take the action.
Well, for me, I’ve had quite a lot of heavier women at my church who have wanted some help around this, and I’ve always said, “Well, if you invited our pastor Veronica, who we all adore, over for lunch, would you say to her, ‘Well, I don’t have that much time. Let’s stand in the kitchen. I got us each a tube of Pringles. I hope you like the barbecued ones’? You wouldn’t feed her standing up in the kitchen from a tube of Pringles. Even if you had 45 minutes, you would have put beautiful food that you had washed, if it needed to be washed, and that you had cooked or arranged on a plate for her.”
It might be very simple food, which is what I like, but it might have several colors, because you love her so much. So you put some grapes and some plum tomatoes, a couple different kinds. You put some butternut squash that has parsley on it, that you actually went to the trouble of taking 30 seconds to mince up some parsley to sprinkle on the butter. And you put a little bit of butter on it, and you made a little dressing on the side.
You get a really cool, cold, fresh glass of water in your favorite glass. You don’t get her the jelly glass. You don’t get her an old mug with a chip on the handle. You get her a beautiful mug, and you get her a cup of tea. You get her a fresh glass of water in your best glass. Maybe you only have one of them, and you give it to her. You sit down at the table, and you have a really pretty napkin there for her. Then you bless the food, and you bless the companionship.
That’s what we need to learn to do to ourselves, is we make those kinds of plates of food for ourself, that we get the one really, really good glass, that we make ourselves a lovely cup of tea in a really pretty mug. Little by little, I think the message becomes that we’re worthy of that and we’re deserving of that. We start to notice the softening inside of us, of being loved and nurtured by our own selves. You think, “Oh, it’s just by yourself. It’s just you,” but you learn that that’s where it’s going to come from, that’s where the mothering is going to come from, is from you.
You know another thing? I’m sure this is true for you, Tami, too, is that when you’re a girl and maybe your mother had tiny problems with how you were turning out, but your two best friends had mothers that just got you and they were not like the other mothers, and people would say, “Oh, that Leah’s her other mother.” That was where I got a lot of my mothering from. My own mother was very worried about who I was in the world and being accepted and stuff, and the other mothers got me. They got that my hair was platinum blonde like Marilyn Monroe. One of them said, “Any woman on the peninsula would die to have hair your color,” which hadn’t really occurred to my mother.
Through those other mothers, you learn that that’s where the mothering is going to come from. I think this huge step in the process of self-acceptance, self-love, self-nurture, comes from being your own other mother, being the mother that can see that your hair is actually really beautiful, being the mother that can see that, yes, maybe you should be walking or could be walking a little bit more, and you’d probably feel better in about ten different ways if you did, but for right now, you and she are going to go out and have a treat somewhere together, and you are going to damn well enjoy it. That other mother, I’ve written about it somewhere, but that’s been very, very important to me, was to have had three other mothers. And I’m an other mother now too.
TS: Which is where, actually, I’d like to end, in this note of offering welcome to other people. In your book Small Victories, you have a chapter called “The Book of Welcome.” I thought, in many ways, this is a key to self-acceptance for ourselves and others, this idea of offering welcome to others and receiving welcome from others. I wonder if we could end, if you could talk, what would that mean for someone listening, how they could offer a sense of welcome to someone else and also receive welcome, maybe even from an unlikely place?
AL: And extend welcome to their own mixed bag of radiant, confused, nervous, exuberant self. “The Book of Welcome”—I haven’t thought of that, but welcome is the great shalom. If you grew up in certain families with alcoholism or mental illness or extremely high standards of intellectual achievement, it was all pretty conditional, that if you were doing things a certain way and at a certain level, then the welcome was extended. If you weren’t having a lot of needs or feelings, then you were really welcome at the dinner table. If you were having needs or feelings, then it was a problem. I grew up in a generation where kids were sent to their room without eating. What a coincidence that I developed a tiny 30-year eating disorder.
You’ve published so much about the subject of unconditional love, but I know both of my parents really loved me, and the love was so often conditioned on my having done as well as they hoped I would do, or as well as anyone could possibly ever do in the history of all of life. When we brought home B+’s, it was a problem. I wrote in Operating Instructions that I was 35 when I discovered that a B+ was a good grade. It hadn’t come up. If I got a B+, it was like, “Well, I don’t understand why this isn’t an A-. Do you still have time, or can you do the report over?” If you got an A-, it was just a trick anyway because then it still wasn’t an A. It’s back to having understood that there was something defective to be corrected about yourself.
The welcome begins with understanding that it was a very crazy, sick system, and that your survival depended on playing by those rules, and your survival doesn’t depend on that anymore. It’s a new world, and you’re a new you every day. Every day, like Augustine said, we wake up and we have to redo the union with God. There’s no bank account. You start over, and you start over with you, and you do a little better. You do a little sweeter. You do a little bit more gently. You put a couple more colors on the plate. Then buckle up, because it is going to change every single thing about the world.
TS: Annie, thank you, honey.
AL: You’re welcome.
TS: Thank you. I know you love this quote from Ram Dass, “We’re each just walking each other home.” I feel like you being part of our Self-Acceptance Summit is an act of generosity on your part to help walk with all of us, and so I thank you. Thank you so much.
AL: You’re welcome. I love you, Tami.
TS: I love you too. Thank you.
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