Emerson called to me on a balmy afternoon. We reunited in the shade of a café awning, where I read his essay “Self-Reliance” for the first time since college. And for the first time, I felt less inspired, more affirmed.
Lately I am surrounded by a cacophony of voices. The bolder my decisions, the louder the voices become. Some express love, others enthusiasm, or judgement, or perplexity. They advise and chastise, they caution, they praise. They are voices of family, friends, acquaintances, and even perfect strangers.
So I listen, as I always have. I know better than to disregard advice—especially from those older and wiser, or those who care for my well-being. Most of my life I tried hard to appease all the voices. I did okay for a while, too; I practiced and excelled at the art of people-pleasing. I wanted to be Good Enough.
Here’s the thing, though: being Good Enough is just not sustainable. In fact, the desire to be Good Enough almost killed me.
See above. In that moment, I was on top of the world. I was studying abroad in Europe, accruing valuable experience, making friends, and writing poetry. I was exploring London and hiking in Scotland and picnicking in Paris and biking through Salzburg. I was accepted into a Creative Writing program at a school back home. I was learning and doing things I had never dreamed possible.
I was also starving, quite literally.
My hunger for validation morphed into a physical, self-imposed hunger. I turned inward. You are inadequate. You are a fraud. This is the only way to be Good Enough, said the loudest voice of all. Soon this is the only way to be became you will never be, and my quest for control spiraled out of control. I had only one goal, so deep-seated I was hardly aware of it: shrink until I disappear.
I retreated to the Arizona desert for eight weeks, where I rose at dawn in a white robe, where wispy girls downed chalk-flavored calorie cocktails and sobbed over scrambled eggs at breakfast, where nurses pinned you with their eyes, where the rhythmic click of a machine pumping cool, concentrated nutrients through my nostrils lulled me to sleep each night. That time was my chrysalis. I sweated and clenched and endured the pain of new growth, until one day—one hour, one minute?—I emerged slick-skinned, wobbly, and new.
Now life is a constant exercise in self-reliance. It began four years ago, when I stepped off a plane on New Year’s Eve, fresh out of the desert. I dove into decisions, instead of dipping my toes. I dared to speak. I dared to consume, to produce, and to take up space. I dared to be. I dared to dare.
Am I wholly changed? Hardly. The work continues. Still, I can live in a city where new acquaintances shake hands and ask, “What do you do?”rather than “How do you do?—and I can keep breathing. I can tune out the discordant voices, and tune up the voices worth heeding. As Emerson wrote, “Trust thyself; every heart vibrates to that iron string.” Self-reliance, I find, does not mean selfishness. It means that, above all, I must be good and true to myself if I ever want to be good and true to others. No validation required.