One of the most profound quotes I’ve found in my recovery journey is an excerpt from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:
Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.–Walt Whitman
The reason this quote resonates so much with me is that I have a very difficult time accepting the contradictions within myself. I’ve had a clear image of the kind of person I *should* be, the kind of person that is *good*, and I’ve believed that being the opposite of any of these traits makes me inherently bad.
My unrealistic expectation is that I can/should be generous, compassionate, considerate, happy, thankful, selfless and wantless ALL the time and that these things determine my goodness and worth. Meanwhile, occasional selfishness, intolerance, sadness, anger, resentment, neediness, carelessness and such mean that my attempted goodness is fake and that I am in fact deeply flawed and I AM all of the other negative things I’ve believed about myself for most of my life. If you are familiar with cognitive distortions, you might recognize this as “all or nothing” or “black and white” thinking. (Fun fact, I just went to look for the post on cognitive distortions, to link back to it, and apparently I never finished/posted it. HA. Well, I guess that’ll be up
I’ve also convinced myself that, while it is OK to make mistakes occasionally, it is NOT OK to make the same (or similar) mistake twice, because it means that I don’t learn. Repeating mistakes means I knew better and did it anyway; I am careless. It means that it wasn’t just a lapse, but is in fact *who I am*. Incidentally, this is the key difference between guilt (I did something bad) and shame (I am bad).
It’s not that I believe nobody should ever make mistakes, or that it is never OK to make mistakes; after all, Alexander Pope says “to err is human.” Of course humans should be allowed to make mistakes; in fact, lots of amazing things have been invented and developed because humans make mistakes. BUT (and I don’t intend for this to come across as grandiosity, because that couldn’t be much further from my reality), at some point in my life I learned that I am supposed to be able to be better than that. Better than “merely human”… When I made mistakes or did stupid things my father would say “it’s OK for so-and-so, but I expect you to be better than this” or “you are too smart to do something so stupid” or “you KNOW better, you just don’t WANT to do better.” (This last one has been particularly prevalent in my diet history: I KNOW what to eat/do, I must just not want it badly enough, because I can do anything I put my mind to/where there is a will… etc. instead of recognizing that it’s a disease, not a willpower issue.)
The reality is that multitudes, contradictions, imperfection, THESE are the things that make me human and my humanity is something to be celebrated, not condemned. Selfishness is sometimes necessary for self preservation. Anger is an indicator that my boundaries have been breached and resentment is a sign that I have not addressed the breach, but allowed it to fester. Some things should not be tolerated. And the fact that I spend this much time WORRYING about carelessness, well, that’s basically the antithesis of carelessness in and of itself.
These days, when I meet myself with judgement about mistakes or contradictions, I channel my inner Whitman. I say to myself: very well then, this is how I am. I am human. I CONTAIN MULTITUDES. I can be generous and selfish. Both of these things can be true. I can be happy and I can be sad. I can contain courage and fear. I can love people and also enjoy being alone. Just because I am not ALWAYS one way or the other, does not mean I can NEVER claim the other side. I also don’t have to label these two sides of myself as good or bad; they just are. I don’t have to keep trying to attain this unrealistic expectation. Instead, I can accept myself in all of my humanity and contradictions and multitudes.