A couple of years ago I spent months “working the program.” No. Not AA or NA. (Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous). Mine was a business coaching program called the 30 Day Reboot. I also worked with a very nice financial therapist (yes, there is such a thing) to try to understand the “issues” that kept getting in the way of me being successful.
Recently I read parts of the journal I kept at that time and realized the amount of work I did back then. It was good work. Honest. Deep. Some of it even things I hadn’t thought of before. And given how much time I’ve spent in my life thinking about “my issues,” that’s saying a great deal.
The program, the work, should have been useful.
Instead, I’ve stopped the major part of it, and more importantly, I haven’t significantly changed. I still start things with a lot of enthusiasm and then stop at some point before I finish.
Why? What’s wrong with me? Don’t I want to succeed? I thought I did. I think I do.
I know this issue is important. Yet still it turns out to be hard to focus. I can tell I both want, and don’t want, to think about this.
I spend some time wondering if what is holding me back is that I just don’t “know” if I am smart enough or talented enough to succeed. How do you really know? It’s always possible you’re deluding yourself. I’ve known people who had those delusions.
But I also know some pretty smart people. If I compare myself to them as objectively as I can manage, I think I’ve been able to understand most of them, most of the time. (Subject dependent, of course. I listened to someone talk about calculus recently and was totally clueless.) Still, in a general sort of way, I think I estimate my “smart” at about what it actually is.
So smart – OK.
And, as far as talent, I thought that if I got something published, I would “know” I could write. I’m blessed to have had several “somethings” published online. People even compliment me on my writing. And while that makes me uncomfortable, on some level I do know I can write. I even sometimes let myself think: I’m a good writer.
So talented – OK.
It is clear those things aren’t “the” issue. The main issue, whatever it is, keeps slipping away. But I make myself go back to thinking about it.
Back, it turns out, is the significant word. Because it does go back… to my mother.
An amazing teacher, Rebbetzin Lori Palatnik, talks about the importance of knowing what your Yetza Hara is.
People sometimes use the image that everyone has a good angel and an evil angel, one sitting on each shoulder. The Yetza Hara is the evil one. Except evil isn’t the right word. It’s just doing its job.
Unfortunately, its job is to get you to do things that will cause you unhappiness. Things that are self destructive. Things that cause you to get in your own way. Or (if you are religiously inclined) things that keep you from moving closer to G-d.
It can be very hard to figure out exactly what your personal evil angel is. Every person’s is different, specific to them, created out of their life’s story.
I never saw it, but there was a movie called I Can Do Bad All by Myself. A memorable line but not entirely true. You can’t, or at least, you don’t, do it all by yourself. It’s your personal evil angel that knows exactly the right button to push to get you to “do bad.”
You need to know what your angel is so you can make more conscious, and hopefully better, choices for yourself.
Rebbetzin Palatnik was the one who pinpointed what mine is: a report card with one “B” on it. I imagine my angel as a folded piece of paper with two tiny wings, hovering over my right shoulder.
Unsurprisingly, it was my mother, the biggest influence on everything in my life, who was the major actor in the moment that created my paper angel. In a general sort of way, I was aware of what happened. But in the midst of exploring the why of my success issues, that awareness moved from being a minor moment in an early act of my life’s play to being a fully realized play of its own.
I wasn’t a bad student, but I normally got B’s and C’s in school. Truthfully, it’s what I could do without much effort. And my grades didn’t matter to me. As long as I didn’t get D’s or F’s I was good. This was true, even though I knew from my earliest years that my mother’s dream was for me to go to college.
She had to drop out of high school to go to work to help support her family. And just about the time she’d saved up enough money to go back, her husband drank it all up. And since that husband was my father, and she’d been pregnant with me at the time, obviously it was somehow my fault that she hadn’t ever achieved her Great Dream.
It was, therefore, on me to do it for her. So my grades, while they might not matter to me, did matter a great deal to my mother.
One semester when I was 9 or 10, I decided I would get all A’s… for her.
I worked hard. I put my very best effort into it. When I got my report card, I was so proud. I was grinning, singing, and even dancing a little, as I walked home.
I handed it to her, waiting expectantly for… I’m not sure exactly what now. She barely glanced at it before tossing it aside and saying dismissively: “You got a B.”
21 A’s, and 1 B. And that B was in Phys Ed for Pete’s sake! I was a fat, uncoordinated little kid. I worked my butt off for that B! I even did my upmost and got an A in math, a subject that’s difficult for me to this day. Note the comment above about calculus.
And all she saw, all she said was: “You got a B.”
I’m crying. Over six decades later and just sitting here writing this… I’m crying.
Because the thing I’ve refused to be aware of, the thing my paper angel whispers softly to me is this:
“You will always get that one B you know. No matter what you accomplish, after the long walk home everything you do will just be… dismissed. She’ll never see. She’ll never care.
And she still won’t love you.
No matter how much effort. No matter how much energy. No matter how hard you try.
YOUR MOTHER… WILL NEVER… LOVE YOU.
So give up now. What’s the point of trying at all?”
I imagine it preening, looking pleased with itself, knowing I’ve always accepted what it says as truth. Knowing that it has done its job. Because this “truth” is the foundation of my persistent inability to let myself succeed: What IS the point of trying? Why NOT just give up now?
At the time, the little girl didn’t understand what had happened. She didn’t know the angel would forever be there. She didn’t think about it. She just tucked the scene away somewhere deep under her heart and… she did give up.
She never did it again. Her grades were never that good again.
And the adult me never did it again either. All these years I’ve kept that scene securely tucked away in its little space under my heart. I was willing to do anything, or not do anything, to make certain I never felt that soul-rending pain again.
Amazingly enough, despite all that, I have managed to do a lot in my life. Some of it interesting, exciting, daring, generous. But I always held something back. I never again tried for all A’s.
After all, I have that little paper angel to remind me that my mother will continue to dismiss everything I do as casually – with the same unthinking cruelty – as she did to the happy little girl with her best ever report card.
And I would like to damn her for it. I can’t even express how much I would like to damn her for it.
But what I know now, although it has taken me all these years to figure it out, is that she did love me. She just had absolutely no idea how to show it. I knew my grandmother, and my great-grandmother. And I know, with complete certainty, they never showed her how to do that, because they didn’t know how.
I don’t know how many generations of good women there were in my family who didn’t know how to show their children they loved them. My mother only passed on what had been passed on to her. And thus she broke me in some fairly serious ways: distilled down into its most toxic expression in that one scene with the report card.
So that’s it, I guess. Seen. Admitted. Written in words. My own personal Yetza Hara.
Regardless of what Freudian therapists think, even though I’ve had this “breakthrough,” I’m still just as broken. Naming the pain my angel whispers both helps… and it doesn’t.
It’s only my opinion, of course, but I pretty much think broken people CAN’T be fixed. But I also think you DON’T have to be. What may help is to figure out a way to get around the broken bits; those deep, forever pains we hide under our hearts.
Bridges. Gates. Doors. Any of them can work.
For me it will likely be a door, since it’s a door that is so important in the story of my life. The one I see myself walking through after trying to kill myself. Because after I walked through that door suicide was never again an option. To be honest, I don’t know why that worked for me.
But since it did, I think I’ll try to find another door that I can walk through. One that will allow me to again put my best effort into things I care about.
So even though the angel will continue to whisper: “You mother says what you just did isn’t good enough. You got another B.” That will be OK.
I probably won’t ever know exactly why walking through this new door will allow that to happen, but I have faith that it will.
My angel will continue to replay that scene to me, but when it does, I will know that what happened, happened a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… no, wait… different story.
What I WILL know is that the scene played out between my mother and me was no more true than that story set in a galaxy far, far away. And the conclusions that little girl drew from it? They were no more true than what happened in that other story (as great as it was).
And if her conclusions were not the truth then, they certainly are not the truth now.
Even so, every time I put maximum effort into a new project or challenge, I have no doubt my angel will make sure I still see and hear my mother say: “You got a B.”
Much as I wish it was different, allowing myself do my best will NEVER be easy. But at least now it’s again a possibility.
I just have to go find that door!
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P.S. Every time I read through this, I cried.
This is one of the Great Secrets of my life. Something I’ve barely admitted to myself, much less talked about.
So why am I sharing it now so publicly? I hope that someone reading this may learn that, while your little angel will always be with you, it is possible to figure out a way around the negative messages it tells you. I’m doing this to encourage you to look for the door, or gate, or bridge around your own broken bits, so that you can accomplish whatever your own Great Dream may be, even though you may still occasionally set your own tail on fire.
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Photo by Jessica Felicio on Unsplash (In case anyone is wondering that beautiful child in the leading image is not me. But I did create the embroidered dragon, although it was a long time ago, and I don’t remember who designed the pattern.)