How Capitalist Spirituality and Self-Help Will Warp Your Thinking

Speaking as a spiritual person who regularly converses with angels, I appreciate the vast quantity of spiritual information that is now generally available to seekers. That’s not a bad thing. Nor do I doubt the good intentions of many spiritual and self-help advisers in the world. Most of them are doing good work; some, no doubt, are not. But in general, I think most of them, including myself, are trying to be “Helpers.” I don’t have a problem with that, or charging money for a service.

The problem that I see, which arises from our current system, is that Helpers often end up commodifying spirituality. I’m not complaining about Doreen Virtue or Tony Robbins selling a book or a seminar, but rather the reduction of spirituality to commercially viable memes and pithy slogans. You know what I mean. You can’t swing a dead transcendentalist without hitting a million of these, arranged with curly fonts on heavenly backgrounds, all over Facebook, Twitter, Instagram…

 

The problem is not with the Buddha’s words, Jesus’ words, or Deepak’s words, or whoever’s words. The problem is that the words have become a soundbite, and the soundbite creates a false sense of spirituality that has no meaning. The mind reads it, acknowledges it (“So true!”), and then promptly discards it to the dustbin. Memes and quotes of the day never change behavior. I would argue that using a quote as a mantra is also unlikely to change behavior because the quote is operating at a mental level, not a spiritual one. The ego brain is never going to make you more spiritual.

My mother is extremely good at memorizing pithy sayings, but as a clinical narcissist, she uses them to clobber other people over the head with, much like Evangelicals use the words of the Bible to clobber everyone else. Nothing spiritual about that. But for people who don’t have personality disorders, that “spiritual/self-help” quote often becomes a means of clobbering themselves over the head, because they can’t “get it right.” In both of these cases, the soundbite is operating in the mental sphere.

When I wrote my book, Discovering Your Inner Child: Transforming Toxic Patterns and Finding Your Joy, I was aware that my words would either a) be meaningless for some people, much like the soundbite, or b) guide them on their own, individual spiritual quest of self-discovery. Because the truth about spirituality, self-help, or emotional healing is that it cannot be done at an intellectual/mental level. In order for the miracle to occur, the individual must allow themselves to be present with their emotions and open themselves to a spiritual awakening that is uniquely their own. Emotional awakening, for many, means allowing themselves to feel things that they have avoided for a long time: sadness, grief, anxiety, fear, and anger, to name a few. At this level, true spirituality and true healing can become a scary and intimidating process.

Repeating soundbites, reading countless books (w0rds), no matter how wise, can produce the opposite effect of what is intended: self-reproach and feelings of failure. The message of “positive thinking will heal your life” is overly simplistic and doomed to fail, because in order to slog through your emotions, you must experience the negative thoughts and feelings you have avoided. No one, no matter how evolved, has avoided negative thinking. Negative thoughts happen, but when the soundbite echoes in your ears, you conclude that you have failed, yet again, to be “positive.” Positive thinking in itself, then, is a bad goal.

My primary advice to anyone who is seeking to heal themselves or find their spirituality is to meditate daily. There is nothing that I or the greatest yogis can say to you that will impact your life the way your own spiritual experience can. It is your spirituality, and you must seek it out. You must experience it, and in the end, you must become your own teacher. When it happens for you, it will be very emotional, very spiritual, and your intellect and ego will have nothing to do with it. But once you have experienced it, you will never again be the same, and you will find that your words are inadequate for the task of trying to describe it. Welcome to the club.

Who’s Middle Aged? Oh, I Guess That Would Be Me

 

I ran toward the target, preparing to kick it across the room if I could. I turned to make the kick, and suddenly I found myself crashing hard to the floor on my ass. What the heck? I thought, as my foot began to throb. Embarrassed, I got to my feet and limped into position, changing places so that the back and forth could continue. One of the instructors called me on it, and made me sit out the rest of class. I was not happy, but this too shall pass, I thought.

My foot swelled two sizes, and I google-diagnosed a strained ligament. No worry, I’ll just rest, ice it, take ibuprofen. I’ll be back to the Taekwondo in a matter of weeks. I limped around the grocery store the next day and limped around the neighborhood in the rain two nights later, because it was Halloween, and the kids can’t be disappointed. I ended up limping around for about six months.

During that time, my workout took a beating, as did my Taekwondo. One of the few things I could still do well was lift weights, though. And then my shoulder began to hurt in midwinter. Having learned my lesson from my still-recovering foot, I went to the doctor, who diagnosed bursitis. Bursitis. Isn’t that something that old people get? What’s next? Arthritis? Hip surgery?

Having hit my apex of physical fitness in my early 40s, I wasn’t ready to concede my age. I would continue, dammit. I would persevere. And I did. And so did my foot injury.

In addition to my physical problems, I decided to try a change in my antianxiety medication. I had put on more weight than I was comfortable with. There had to be a better way, I thought. I tried Wellbutrin, which was a lot like going from marijuana to cocaine. Oh, I have energy again! Hallelujah! Except that it didn’t really do anything for my anxiety, which came creeping back in until I had a fantastically ginormous panic attack that put me in urgent care. Yay. Now I’m on Cymbalta, which seems to work just fine, although I haven’t lost a pound. But I did gain perspective:  I can be skinny with panic attacks, or I can be heavier and feel good. Point taken.

I mentioned all of this to a good friend of mine, and her primary comment was, “I thought you looked pretty good, actually.” Huh. Was I being just too hard on myself? Was I using an erroneous lens? Was I seeing a fat person because that’s what my mother would see? I was beginning to understand how an anorexic can look in the mirror and see something completely divorced from reality. I started to observe other women my age and older. I saw all body types, but one thing I noticed for certain is that none of them were “perfect.” I figured out, finally, that I have to change my opinion about what I’m looking at when I look in the mirror.

Some people may, possibly, have used the word “stubborn” when describing me. I always say I’m 21 in my head, and most people probably think that way. In fact, I’ve noticed that 99% of women tend to keep the same hairstyle they had in high school. Then I noticed that I was one of those. Oops. But I still saw myself as young and vivacious and carefree. I’m still vivacious and carefree, but not so young. My foot is not healed. It probably never will be, quite. I could be stubborn and continue, or… I could be a bit more sensible and quit the Taekwondo. The bursitis went away when I stopped doing my rather extensive bicep routine with the free weights. My body was talking, and it was time to listen.

All right, I’m middle aged. If I live another 47 years, I’ll be 94. Fine. I have to accept some new limitations, in a way. On the other hand, I feel less limited in other ways. I got my tattoo four years ago. And I finally got up the courage to do what I would’ve liked to have done with my hair in high school:  I cut it, and then I colored it. I’m a real blue-hair now!

asha_blue2

All right, some of it’s washed out in this picture. But I have more dye! I just have to do the kids’ hair first.

It’s true that I can’t quite do everything I used to be able to do. I wish I could’ve done Taekwondo when I was in my 20s. On the other hand, it’s true that you cease to care about what other people think about you as you get older. And that is freedom, my friends. Who was it who said that youth is wasted on the young? I think that’s what they mean. Go out there and live loud, ya’ll, no matter how old (or young) you are.

11 Signs of a Narcissistic or Borderline Personality

A scene from "Gaslight" about a narcissist's sadistic manipulation of his wife

A scene from “Gaslight,” a film about a narcissist’s sadistic manipulation of his wife

There will come a time, most likely, when you come face to face with someone who has a personality disorder, or many traits thereof. These people will boggle all logic and confuse you emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, leaving you feeling unsure of yourself at every turn. If allowed to persist, this person will deprive you of your self-esteem and happiness while you practically beg your abuser to do it some more. Until, that is, you figure them out.

In this article, I’m mostly focusing on narcissistic and borderline personality disorders. There is some overlap in the traits between the two, and without a professional diagnosis, you may never know for sure which one applies, but at least you can figure out whom to avoid.

It is important to understand that people who are diagnosed with these disorders are mentally ill. Even if they seek out professional treatment, however, they will not be cured. These disorders are incurable, but therapy can help them to cope. It is also important to understand that these people actually suffer a lot, so try to have compassion for that. Of course, have compassion for yourself, too, and do whatever is necessary to protect yourself from them. But you can hold compassion from afar.

1.  Their reality is not your reality

Corollaries:  Their truth is not your truth. Their memories are not your memories.

The narcissist/borderline (n/b for short) has a strange relationship with reality. They inhabit their own. Most healthy people walk around with at least a similar idea of reality, of history, and of shared memory. We don’t always agree on the details, but in general, we agree. The narcissist/borderline, however, creates their own, and it can change from minute to minute.

Let’s say you remember a past incident that the n/b shares with you. Chances are high that you will not only remember it differently, but the details may change radically with time, particularly if the memory is of something that the n/b does not want to acknowledge or deal with. In some cases, the n/b may deny that it happened at all. This is because the n/b occupies a fantasy world of their own making. In the case of a narcissist, reality must conform to their expectations of being adored and valued. Anything that conflicts with this fantasy must either be changed or deleted. For a borderline, the situation is similar, in that their fantasy world must protect them from criticism at all costs. Anything that detracts from their own elevated view of themselves (the person they try to project to the world) must go.

For example, if you point out that the n/b hurt you in the past, they are likely to change their memory of the incident to deny what you say, or to deny any memory of it at all. This feels like lying, but the n/b actually believes it. Your accusation is so damaging to their sense of self (and self-esteem), that they simply rewire their brain to remember it in a way that conforms to their image of themselves. This is important to understand. You can argue until you’re blue in the face, but you will never convince them that anything except their fantasy is the truth.

2.  They exaggerate their accomplishments

Corollary:  They are perfect, and they are always right.

Speaking of fantasy, the n/b has unconsciously created a “perfect persona” that they show to the world, and they expect to be congratulated for it. This persona is more stable in a narcissist, while the borderline’s may change depending on whom they’re with. The borderline has no real sense of self, so they change their personality to conform to the current crowd and situation, hoping to maximize the validation they receive from those around them. The narcissist can also be flexible with the crowd, but in their case, they are working to find the best way to manipulate those around them.

Elements of the perfect persona may be real (“I graduated from high school”), but some elements may be fabrications (“I graduated from Yale”). Without background knowledge or a little digging, you may not know the difference—until it matters. If you’re an employer, you may have hired a charming new employee with a great resume, but if they’re narcissist or borderline, there may be a good deal of inflation involved. Unfortunately, you won’t find out until it’s too late.

For example, I know a n/b who is essentially a technician, but who routinely passes himself off as a “scientist” and “physicist.” The person in question does not even hold a college degree. It’s no different than a car mechanic claiming to be an electrical engineer.

In politics, claiming that you make more than you actually do, or making a statement like, “I alone can fix it,” is without a doubt a sign of a n/b.

3.  They can be very charming

Corollary:  If they seem like the perfect [X], they probably aren’t.

Unless you are in a fairly close relationship with a n/b, you will probably find them utterly charming, helpful, courteous, and dear. They may go out of their way to help you out. They may be completely agreeable in every way. But there is always a price.

The narcissist demands to be adored and revered. As long as you serve this need, they will do anything for you. They will be your best ally. But God help you if you cross them. Unfortunately, you may not intend or know that you have until it’s too late. A crossed narcissist is an ugly thing, and they will make you pay, socially, in your career, in your relationships—even physically.

The borderline needs to be adored and revered. They cannot function without it, so they will bend over backwards to impress you with what a great person they are. But they can’t maintain it indefinitely.

4.  They are master manipulators

Corollary:  They are addicted to power and the need to control you and the world.

Neither the narcissist or borderline can maintain the fictional Superperson facade forever, so they are extremely good at finding what makes you tick. If you’re an empathic, compassionate person, then they will show you a vulnerable side that makes you feel sorry for them and want to help them. If you feel vulnerable or lack confidence in an area, they will seek to exacerbate your lack of confidence. If you’re good at something, they will work to knock you off the pedestal of your competence.

The n/b lures you in with too-good-to-be true behavior, literally bowling you over with their wonderfulness. (If you feel swept off your feet, run.) This first stage is a honeymoon, in which they are perfect, you are adored as perfect, and there are no problems whatsoever. This feels too good to be true because it is. Once you get suckered in by their awesome behavior, and they know that you are emotionally invested, they begin to throw curveballs.

5.  They are highly critical

Corollary:  You will never be good enough.

If you are entwined with a n/b, then you become part of their sphere, so you begin to reflect on them. That is, you are now an extension of them, and you are expected to maintain the perfect persona of their fantasy. And you can’t. “How it looks” now matters a great deal.

Although in the honeymoon phase you could do no wrong, they begin to point out your flaws. Maybe little things, like, you don’t load the dishwasher properly, or you don’t get the right brand of soup. After awhile, they move on to more personal critiques:  the way you look, the way you act, the things you like to do, the people you hang out with, the way you do practically anything. Now you’re feeling less happy and kind of bugged, so you mention it, only to be met with something like, “I’m only telling you this because I care about you” or “I’m just trying to help; stop being so defensive” or even “I’m concerned about your health.” In other words, you are the one with the problem, not them.

The n/b will continue to undermine your self-esteem until you start to believe that you’re the lucky one because they picked you. As you continue to fall under this manipulative spell, the n/b will try to control more and more about you:  what you’re allowed to do and how and whom you’re allowed to see. They may employ gaslighting techniques, which make you doubt your own mind and senses. They may also become physically abusive if you offer them any resistance to their control.

If you have dealings with a n/b (at work, for example), they may not have the emotional hook to control you, so if you resist them, they may resort to stabbing you in the back and talking about you to others to cast you in a bad light. Some n/b personalities have a hard time keeping a job as a result of their desire to “stir the pot.” If the n/b feels unappreciated at work, you can expect high drama to ensue. I know several borderlines who kept getting fired as a result of their illness. On the other hand, if the n/b is the boss, it’s time to find a new job.

6.  They’re emotionally unstable

Corollary:  You walk on eggshells constantly.

Because the n/b reality/fantasy is not your own, you’re never quite sure where you will meet the n/b. Will it be a good day, or a bad day? Will this be a good thing, or a bad thing? Will you be praised, or will you suffer the wrath of the Great God/dess? Did you give the right answer? Are you wearing the right thing?

An angry n/b is not a pretty sight, and it can be quite scary, particularly if you’re not prepared. If you threaten to leave the n/b, they may beg your forgiveness and swear it won’t happen again. But it always does. As a result, you will either actually leave, or you will become used to walking on eggshells around the sleeping dragon.

7.  They  never apologize

Corollaries:  They never take responsibility for their feelings and actions. A counterattack always beats an attack.

The n/b can never really apologize. If cornered, they may attempt some verbal acrobatics to avoid taking responsibility for hurting you, but rest assured that it is really your fault. For example, the n/b may say that they didn’t intend to hurt you, so it can’t really hurt you. Or they may attack you for being too “sensitive.” Or they may offer “a good reason” why they did it, so you shouldn’t be bothered.

In short, when confronted with an unpleasant truth, the n/b will respond with a vast array of counterattacks to prove that they are in the clear, and that the problem is entirely yours. You can never win an argument with a narcissist or borderline. They will fight you to the death to preserve their view of themselves.

And, of course, the n/b refuses to apologize because they’re never wrong. (But you are.) Being wrong is the worst thing that can happen to a n/b because it means they are flawed. This is not permitted in their fantasy view of themselves. The perfect example here, of course, is Donald Trump, who is constitutionally incapable of apologizing.

8.  They have no empathy or compassion for others

Corollary:  The world is black and white, good or bad, and you’re either for me or against me.

The n/b views the world through a lens that is their (fantasy) view of themselves. This fantasy may change with the circumstances or company (particularly for the borderline), but that is the only way in which they can view the world. If you validate their view of themselves (you’re “on their side”), then you become an extension of their ego, flattering them with your positive affirmation. If you do not validate their view of themselves (you’re “against them”) and basically notice that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, they will attack you mercilessly.

The n/b is incapable of empathy because everything is about them. It has nothing to do with you. You suffer? No, they suffer, and they will tell you how in great detail. They only care about how you make them feel. Your feelings are irrelevant.

The psychological term for the “all good” or “all bad” behavior is splitting. The narcissist has a long memory of grudges, and once they’ve decided you’re in the “all bad” category, you’re toast. They will gladly throw you under the bus in a heartbeat. They don’t mind torturing you forever if need be. The borderline, however, only has a grudge memory of a few seconds. Whatever you’re doing to them right now defines whether you are good or bad. So if you’ve had it out with a borderline, they can quickly forget it and act as though nothing has happened. You may remember, but as long as you’re being agreeable in the present moment, then it doesn’t matter to them. This behavior is confusing and may cause you to believe the borderline when they tell you that you’re making mountains out of mole hills. Again, it’s your problem. They may even (subconsciously) decide to forget that it ever happened, leaving you with the memory that they now deny.

If you’re unfortunate enough to have a family member who is a n/b, you may have grown up believing that this crazy-making behavior is “normal,” and it can be really hard to understand that you were never the one with the problem. While the n/b expects endless empathy and compassion from you, you’re never on the receiving end. Trying to please someone who can never be pleased can cause great harm to your self-esteem, particularly if the person in question is your parent.

9.  They often have addictions

Corollary: They are needy.

When we talk about addiction, we tend to think first about drugs and alcohol. While these are certainly avenues of addiction that the n/b may pursue, there are other, more subtle addictions that may come into play. Here are just a few possibilities:

  • Food
  • Sex
  • Pornography
  • Coffee/caffeine
  • Working out
  • Drama
  • Money

The point of an addiction is to provide comfort and the feeling of power. The n/b craves power over others because it gives them a sense of control in an out-of-control world. Sex, pornography, working out, and money all give a sense of personal power and power over others. One n/b once said that “eating was the only time he felt relaxed.” This same person was also very money-focused. Everything was about money, and it was his primary means of controlling and manipulating others. In the honeymoon stage, this individual would shower people with lavish gifts, but then later he would use these gifts as an excuse to call in favors or get you to do what he wanted—even resorting to threats. There is no such thing as a “free” gift from a n/b. There are always strings attached.

Sometimes the n/b requires “negative attention.” The borderline, in particular, may find themselves bored by a happy status quo and decide to “stir the pot” and make life interesting for them. They may do so by dropping a verbal or emotional bomb on you right before they leave the house. Or they may decide to open an issue that they already know is sure to instigate a fight or hard feelings. However they do it, drama is the cure to their boredom—and another way to manipulate you.

Not every n/b has the money or station in life to exert the kind of control that they would like, so they are very creative at finding ways to manipulate others. They are actually incredibly needy and require constant validation. If a n/b cannot manipulate those around them, however, they are likely to become even more angry and desperate in their attempts to do so. It’s not unusual for the n/b to get worse with age, particularly if they are unemployed or retired and the opportunities for “fresh meat” dry up.

On the other hand, if a n/b actually does have power and money, look out. They can leave a lot of damage in their wake.

10. They have no self-esteem

Corollary: They are thin-skinned and cannot abide any criticism of themselves.

It seems counterintuitive to say that a narcissist, in particular, has no self-esteem, but this is actually the case. The grand facade of their mental fantasy is a bulwark against their own inner feelings of self-doubt and insecurity. They need constant validation to reassure them that they are powerful, relevant human beings. It doesn’t matter if they heard this a mere five minutes ago; they need to hear it again now.

People who are not “on their side” present a direct threat to the n/b’s fantasy world. The n/b greatly fears anyone who sees the truth about them, so their immediate response is to extinguish the truth-teller. They may do so in the form of character assassination, deceit and outright lies, or even physical violence (there is a spectrum of narcissism, with sociopathic killers being on the far end of it).

In essence, the n/b would ideally like to sit on a golden throne while everyone else sings their praises. This isn’t the way the world works, but it’s what they crave in order to feel good about themselves. When your self-esteem is that low, it takes a great deal to raise it to an adequate height.

11.  They cannot “get better”

If you are in any kind of a relationship with a n/b, know that they cannot get better. The n/b is unlikely to seek out therapy because they are unlikely to admit (because of their disorder) to the problem. Consider:  it’s like asking them to admit that they are flawed. That is a difficult proposition.

Even with therapy, they cannot be cured. Therapy can help them find ways to cope so that they sabotage themselves less, but they are always going to be who they are. Most borderlines suffered a traumatic childhood, which wired their brain. It’s very difficult to undo that kind of damage. Narcissists are even less likely to admit to the problem than borderlines are.

How you continue to deal (or not) with a n/b depends on what you want from the relationship. If you want to be loved, valued, and respected for who you are, that’s probably never going to happen. If they are really abusive, you may need to leave the relationship altogether, for your own sake. Whatever you do, you need to have realistic expectations. The promises of a n/b to reform or change are unlikely to materialize.

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Darth Vader’s Daughter

My kids doing a little cosplay.

My kids doing a little cosplay

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, we have the story of a young girl who fought against a repressive and cruel empirical government. In the process, her home world was destroyed, and she was held prisoner and tortured by a man who (she would later discover) was her birth father.

When her father was young, he suffered a great deal, including the killing of his mother. He was plucked out of his impoverished upbringing and told he was The Chosen One, a boy with an awesome power that he must learn to use. The boy became arrogant with time, but he also fell in love. When he began to have nightmares of losing this love, fear began to take hold of him. Could he not control this destiny? If he was all-powerful, what could he not control? Thus began the transformation of the young man into the embodiment of all that is evil.

If you’ve never seen Star Wars, the Sith lord who would be Emperor plays on the arrogance and fears of the young man, ultimately turning him to his will by convincing him that yes, these things can be controlled, and he, the Emperor, was the only one who could teach him how. Like Milton’s Lucifer, the young boy begins his descent into hell, becoming convinced that the ends justify the dark means.

I can’t help but think of how Princess Leia must have felt to learn that such a man was her father. In the movies, Darth Vader is ultimately saved and returned to the Light before his death, but this is, after all, fiction. An Ebenezer Scrooge-like ending is always hoped for, but seldom occurs.

As I watch the current American political process, I see Donald Trump exhibiting similar arrogance and belief that he can, in fact, control the world. I have no doubt that he, like Darth Vader, believes it. I have seen this before. I have seen it in narcissistic and borderline personalities many times. I have seen it in my own father.

While growing up, my father always believed that he, with his superior intellect, knew all the answers. He told me that he had thought over all of the political issues and had arrived at the only correct conclusion. He was, he said, a Goldwater Republican. I had no idea what that meant at the time. But he has remained true to far-right conservative principles his entire life. And he used to say, more times than I can count, that if he were put in charge of the country, he would have everything straightened out in two weeks. And he believed it. Now, if you’re like me, you have to wonder at this. “Straightening everything out” in two weeks would assume that 1) there was no opposition, or that if there were, they could be silenced on demand, 2) he had ultimate power, and everyone would have no choice but to do his bidding. The definition of authoritarian is “favoring or enforcing strict obedience to authority, especially that of the government, at the expense of personal freedom.” My father would have no problem with sacrificing the personal freedom of others to accomplish what he felt was best for them. There is no difference between him and Donald Trump, other dictators, or Darth Vader at that point.

The Mayo Clinic defines narcissistic personality disorder as follows:

  • Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
  • Exaggerating your achievements and talents
  • Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
  • Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
  • Requiring constant admiration
  • Having a sense of entitlement
  • Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
  • Taking advantage of others to get what you want
  • Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
  • Being envious of others and believing others envy you
  • Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner

My father’s delusions of grandeur have only increased with time, I am sad to say. He has not achieved mastery of the universe, but he does lie about his qualifications. My father has a high school diploma, and he spent a career in the military. While in the military, he was trained to do technical maintenance on nuclear weapons. He didn’t design the bombs, but like an auto mechanic, he kept them in good working order. Over the years, he has referred to himself as “a scientist,” “a physicist,” and a “nuclear physicist.” He is none of these. So why do this? Because he wants to present himself as more knowledgeable than he is so that he can better argue his point.

Of course, many people argue their points in reasonable and calm ways, but not my father. He uses a sledgehammer. He has no problem with belittling other ideas, calling those who disagree with him an idiot or delusional, and he has no problem with assassinating the character of those who disagree. Sound familiar? My father was an Internet troll before there was an Internet. God help those who comment on a thread with him now.

When I was a kid, I would watch “All in the Family” with my father, and I thought the show was about how stupid and ignorant Archie Bunker was. My father watched the same show and admired Archie Bunker’s plain talk. Over the years, my father’s racism and homophobia has not decreased; if anything, the reverse is true. I’m married to a woman, and my parents treated her like shit, I have to say. They treated me with disdain. I wouldn’t “behave.” If they were still in my life, it would be so much worse now.

When I was little, my father once bellowed at me, “I don’t just ask for respect, by God, I DEMAND IT!” (Dad talks and writes in all caps frequently.) I thought to myself, “No, you must earn it.” He never did.

My dad is an old man now. He’s retired, fired from his last two jobs, essentially. Not an easy man to work with in the private sector where you can’t just order people around. Trump can order people around because it’s his company. Dad was at the mercy of bosses higher up than he was. You can only talk to people like they’re an idiot for so long before they’ve had enough. Still, Dad is looking for ways to be relevant. To endow the ungrateful world with his superior intellect and revel in the admiration of those who agree with him. It’s sad. The deep, dark secret of the narcissist is that they actually have no real self-esteem. The only way they can feel good about themselves is to get other people to tell them how wonderful they are. Or to feel superior, because of their skin color or politics or heterosexual relationship. But it doesn’t really work. So they get angrier with age… the echo chamber of far-right propaganda fuels the rage and the sense of being “on the right side.” There is no gray area for a narcissist.

Sometimes I wonder how I managed to come out of my parents. How did I survive, first of all. But how did I manage to be… me? Perhaps I saw the example, and simply rejected it. I do believe that our past lives play a role; it’s not like we came out of a vacuum. Still. Princess Leia’s father was Darth Vader. She inherited his talent, but not his closed heart. Sometimes the fruit falls far from the tree. Thank heavens.

Who Gets to Speak?

600px-Two-people-talking-logoIn this summer of violence, anger is everywhere. The voters are angry, in America and in Europe. The lower classes are angry, because the government(s) and economy is leaving them behind, making it harder and harder to make a living. The citizens of nations at war are angry, because their cities have been reduced to rubble, and life is precarious and difficult. People of color are angry, because a broken taillight might mean a death sentence.

Anger is a natural result of feeling powerless in a world that is out of control. Conservative voices believe that the seeming chaos can be tamed by returning to a world that never really existed. Liberal voices believe that the seeming chaos can be tamed by equality of opportunity, which never really gets defined. The truth, as always, is that no one is control.

It bears repeating that we as human beings only control the following:  our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and reactions to the world around us. That is it. Everything else is out of our control.

In speaking with people, some believe that we have the ultimate control over our destinies. To the extent that you can shape the four things listed above, that is true. But then there is the outer world to contend with. It is the wildcard, the Joker in the pack. It is dealt at random, without malice or love, and we must play the hand we are dealt to the best of our abilities. As a forty-seven-year-old white woman, I would never expect to be killed at a traffic stop. It could happen, but Chance is far more likely to deal me a different chaos card. Whenever I die, it might be due to illness, accident, or a crime. Who knows? But I probably won’t get shot by a rattled police officer.

Everyone is so angry. I believe the reason is because they feel unheard. When I was a kid, I often felt unheard. I would say something like, “I feel this way.” My parents would dismiss my feelings and say, “No, you can’t possibly feel that way.” There were millions of ways in which my feelings were downplayed or dismissed. They didn’t want to hear me. I had no voice. I was powerless to advocate for myself. This made me seethingly angry. It took me several decades to figure this out.

The people are angry because their elected officials have not heard them. Their institutions have not heard them. They can’t even get someone at the cable company to hear them. “Press 1 for your billing information; press 2 for technical support…” And minorities have practically no voice at all. This is a toxic brew.

White people are angry at the Black Lives Matter movement for being disruptive. They are angry that police officers were needlessly slain. Black Lives Matter protesters are angry that white people never seem to hear them. Hispanics, LGBTQ groups, and others have the same anger. By definition, marginalized voices belong to those that the powerful voices ignore.

One can argue that much of our social struggle over the last few American centuries has been one of determining who gets a voice. When our country was founded, the only people granted a voice were white landowners, who were the only group allowed to vote. Eventually, the vote and the voice was extended to all white men. When the slaves were freed and made citizens of the republic, their former masters had no intention of letting them have a voice. The denial of that voice was institutionalized in ways that still reverberate to this day. And Native Americans, forgotten on their reservations, have even less of a voice. Some voices, to this day, are deemed so “dangerous” that they are imprisoned.

If you have a voice in our society, you have power. Sadly, we have not yet reached the level of maturity as a race (the human race) that we gladly share power. Power is hoarded and only doled out in small amounts to those who pose no threat to the powerful. Power is rank, and rank is privilege and self-esteem. Those who have more power than someone else get a psychological lift. Unfortunately, this means that someone else must have less power.

There is enough for everyone: enough food, shelter, clothing. There is also enough power for everyone, though few realize this. Power comes from within, not from validation from external sources. Another’s voice is no threat to mine. But the belief that a different voice is a threat is the greatest threat of all:  it leads to suppression, anger, and the desire to extinguish.

Everyone says that we should have honest dialogue. Everyone says that we should work out our differences. But I still see that some voices matter more than others. Nothing will be resolved if that remains true. Who gets to speak? Whose speech is shut down? Ironically, almost everyone feels like this, regardless of race or creed or orientation. There is a hierarchy of power and voice that trickles down, with the poor on the bottom. This allows the people in the middle the illusion of having a voice, yet they, too, are unheard by those above. So almost everyone is angry and unheard, and the violence continues until, one day, we decide we’ve had enough. Until, one day, we allow everyone to truly have a voice.

The Worries of Children

"This is what Trump looks like!"

“This is what Trump looks like!”

My children have been talking about Donald Trump a lot lately. It’s not because they’re hearing a lot about him at home; we seldom talk about politics around them. They’re hearing about him at school, where roughly one quarter of his classmates are Latino. Another way of putting this is that one quarter of his friends are Latino and worried that they or their family members might be deported if Trump becomes president. Many of these children hold US citizenship, but their parents and siblings may not. They are faced with the terror of the breakup of their family. My children are faced with the loss of their friends to horrible circumstances.

But can’t they go around?
~Harry, referring to Trump’s proposed wall

When I was growing up in the 1970s, I had two big worries. My first worry was that my dad, who was in the army, would be sent to Vietnam. In those days, the war was featured every night on the news, in all its horror, not as sanitized as it is today. My father laughed and assured me that he would not be sent to the war. He could be certain of this because of his specialty, which brings me to big worry number two.

My father had been trained to maintain and build nuclear weapons. Later, he would instruct national guardsmen in their use. No, they would not invest in these skills to make him cannon fodder in the Asian theater. Dad was very proud of his technical acumen, and as a result, our house featured some unusual artwork:  nuclear mushroom clouds. These were photos of real nuclear blasts. I looked at them daily. They scared the shit out of me.

In the 1970s, it was a given that the Soviets would one day, in their communist madness, blow us all to smithereens. And we would respond, making the earth completely uninhabitable. I once voiced my fear about this to my father. He told me not to worry. He knew how to survive a nuclear holocaust. This didn’t help, because I didn’t want to survive a nuclear holocaust. I didn’t want there to be a nuclear holocaust.

I used to have nightmares about Mechagodzilla. I had seen ads for the movie on TV, and this metal beast, belching fire and duking it out with Godzilla, scared me pretty badly. In a way, he neatly encapsulated my fears of manmade global devastation:  the machine, without conscience, consuming all in its path.

Of course, I grew up, and with Glasnost and the demise of the Soviet Union, my generation breathed a temporary sigh of relief. The wall fell in Germany, Europe united, and we could forget our childhood fears for awhile.

But in reality, the sources of our fears did not go away. Many nations, not just two, have nuclear weapons. Terrorist groups could acquire them. The war in Vietnam has been superceded by the war in the Middle East, which is consuming countless lives daily. My childhood fears now seem trite compared with the reality experienced by children in Syria and other countries. Death, destruction, and terror fill their lives with real horrors—no need to imagine them or dream about giant Japanese lizards. Many children in Africa and Honduras are no longer allowed childhoods, as fundamentalist armies and drug gangs seek to recruit them at ever younger ages. Their choice is to join or die. The nightmare is real.

Too often, adults laugh at so-called childish fears. “There’s no monster underneath the bed,” we assure them. And they grow up and learn to accept that what they fear is “normal:”  we will always have nukes, we will always have war, it’s either us or them. Talk about love and peace is all unicorns and pixie dust. It can never be any other way. Be realistic. Be a grown-up about it.

I don’t believe that my neighbors’ children should have to accept that dividing their families is somehow “normal” or “how it has to be.” I don’t believe that perpetual war is a given, either. I have yet to see democracy at gunpoint or bombing people into submission work. Violence begets more violence. There is always another choice. A harder choice, perhaps. But the only one that will save us and this most precious resource, our planet and all life upon it.

The worries of children should be the worries of adults. Instead of offering our children platitudes, we should offer them something of more substance:  peaceful action.

There is no way to peace; peace is the way.
~ A. J. Muste

Our childhood fears pave the road for our adult fears. At 5, I feared Mechagodzilla and all it represented. At 25, I feared being able to support myself. At 35, I feared terrorists and more war. At 45, I am learning to fear fear. All hate is founded on the bedrock of fear. All anger, all conflict starts with fear. Our society and our world reflects our fears back to us:  look in this mirror and see what we have wrought. It’s time to change what we see.

How To Be a Decent Parent

Mom and Wren

In one of my interviews for my book, Discovering the Inner Child, the interviewer asked me how an adult child can come to forgive their parents. It was one of the first questions. He was a parent himself, so I know that what he was really asking is, “Will my children forgive me for my mistakes?”

The title of this post is how to be a decent parent, not a great parent, the best parent ever, or a perfect parent. Because perfect parents don’t exist. All parents make mistakes and do stupid things that they may regret later. So the goal should be, how can I be the best parent that I can be? In short, how can you be good enough?

There are millions of books out there with the goal of persuading you that if you follow their advice, you will be a superstar parent. Your kids won’t need psychotherapy! “Here’s how you do it right,” they say. Mostly what these books accomplish, however, is to make you doubt yourself at every turn. Some days, it seems like the entire world is judging your skills as a parent.

The truth is that being a decent parent isn’t that hard as long as you put forth the effort in a few key areas.

Meet Their Needs

This should be a no-brainer, but… Feed your kids, preferably on a predictable schedule so that they don’t have to wonder when their needs will be met. Buy appropriate clothing. Keep appropriate clothing clean. For lower-income families, I know that this can be tough. I’ve shopped garage sales for my kids’ clothing, too, so I get it. Ask for help if you need it, but provide the basic necessities of life.

Notice that I said “needs,” not wants. If you can give your kid some wants, then that’s okay. But don’t give them their every want. It won’t serve them. Few things are as unattractive as an entitled adult. So don’t make one. Saying “no” when it’s appropriate will make you a decent parent, not a mean parent. Remember, your kids will love you if you love them. You don’t have to purchase it.

Be Present for Part of the Day

In our crazy go-go society, it’s hard to be completely present 24/7, so make a concerted effort to be present for your children at some points during the day. What does this mean? It means talking to your children, and then listening to what they have to say. It means asking them about their day, their worries, their dreams. It means listening to the gossip about the other kids in their class. It means hearing the same silly jokes you heard as a kid, over and over again. It means looking in their eyes and hugging them on your lap.

My kids understand which parts of the day are “me” time. After breakfast, I drink coffee, read the paper, and basically wake up. It’s not my best talking time and never has been. After school time, driving to Taekwondo time, and the very sacred dinner time, where we all sit and talk to one another make up for this. Identify which points in your day offer the best times to interact and be present with your kids, and then make the most of it. If you know you need an hour to recover after work, then that’s not a good time. But after that hour, you should be able to interact with your kids at some point.

Show Up

Showing up when it matters to your kids is one of the most important aspects of being a decent parent. If you say you’ll pick them up at 4pm, don’t show up at 5pm. If you know that they’re in the school play, you’d better show up and applaud. If they’re in the middle of a recital or belt test, turn off your cell phone—never get up in the middle of something like this to answer a phone call. Your kid will notice, and they will believe that you value that phone call more than you value them. And never, ever show up late for a performance. I saw the tears of a classmate when her father showed up after her performance was over. He’d missed it. And he’ll never get it back.

Showing up also means being available when your child wants to share something important with you. If they’ve practiced a little play all day and want you to come watch them, then take the time to do. Show up for their play. Look at their artistic masterpiece. Listen to them play that new song on the piano.

Showing up means you value them. Not showing up means you don’t really care. My cousin was crushed when his alcoholic mother didn’t show up for his high school graduation. It’s not that he was surprised, exactly. But he had hoped that this time, she would make an effort. For him. And she didn’t.

My own parents didn’t show up to my second wedding. There were lame excuses:  they wanted to replace their roof. Wanted to, not needed to. “Your wedding isn’t at a convenient time for us,” they said. It was four months away, not four days away. I’m not a fool. I understood that they did not see this as a “real” wedding, since I was marrying a woman, and at that time it wasn’t even “legal” yet! And I’m sure my mother thought that if she wasn’t there, it simply couldn’t occur. If a same-sex couple gets married and a mother isn’t there to see it, does it exist? I’ve written a lot about my mother’s mental illness, and I get it rationally, but it still hurts. If I look back, this was breaking point number one. So the moral is, don’t provide your kids with breaking points. Suck it up and BE THERE FOR THEM, even if you disagree with their choices.

Say “I’m Sorry”

You are going to screw up. Your choices are to screw up and say nothing, which teaches your children that your feelings are more important than everyone else’s, or you can screw up and say, “Dang, I screwed up. I’m sorry.” The latter teaches your children to take responsibility for their actions.

Other good things to say are “Thank you” and “Please.” I get that as the parent, you’re the person in authority, and you may feel that saying these things will undermine your authority. But if you want to be a decent parent, you will be a benevolent authority and not a dictator. Good manners go a long way. Would you prefer working for a boss who said “please” and “thank you” or a boss who barked orders at you? Love and gentleness will help you cultivate an ongoing friendship with your kids. Fear, on the other hand, will only cultivate enemies.

The truth is, your kids are going to know when you screw up. And they will know that you know that you screwed up. So take some responsibility for yourself and apologize when it’s called for. It’s the adult thing to do.

Love Them Unconditionally

Recognize that your children are not you. They are not you, and they will never be you, no matter what beliefs and ideals you try to instill in them. Some of this will take, if done with love, and some may not. Your job is to love your children regardless of this fact.

You will not always like your children’s behavior, their choices, their hairstyle, their beliefs, their politics, or their choice of mates. But you can always choose to like them, and to love them, no matter what.

I always say to my kids, “There is nothing you can do, feel, say, or think that will make me not love you.” And I mean it. Sometimes they piss me off. They’re supposed to do that. But I still love them completely. In some ways, they’re like me. In many ways, they’re not. That’s okay. I just want them to be themselves, to explore themselves, to live up to their full potential, whatever that may look like. I just want them to be happy, and I’m not the best judge of that. They are.

Forget Those Abusive New Year’s Resolutions

Joan Crawford in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?"

A new year, a new you, right? Time to lose weight, get fit, change your diet, stop yelling at your kids, love your spouse oh so perfectly, and basically be glowingly nice to everyone all the time. The only problem, of course, is that this is not only bullshit, but it’s the worst form of self-abuse.

Implied in all these resolutions is that as of December 31st of any given year, you notice that you suck. You just aren’t good enough. Buck up. Get with the program. You can do better than this! And by the third week of January, when you have failed in 90% of your aspirations, you feel even worse about yourself, because if you weren’t a TOTAL LOSER, you would’ve been able to stick it out and make it happen. This is yet another verse in the song, “I can’t be happy now, but I’ll be happy ONE DAY when I’ve fixed all my problems.”

Inevitably, some of my Facebook friends posted their resolutions. And it’s not that they’re all bad, mind. If you can make healthier choices, then make them! There’s nothing wrong with fitness, healthy food, or a genuine desire to be a good person. The problem is when you decide that you aren’t good enough today, but there’s that BETTER you out there in the future, waiting to be born. This is a myth, of course. You are the best you that you can be, right this very minute. Abusing yourself with the notion that you haven’t really tried in all the years of your life, due to some innate failing on your part, is not healthy.

A group of women at my gym started a new year’s cleanse for three weeks. The idea is to detox after a holiday season full of rich food. I have no problem with this, since I personally don’t want to see either cream or sugary treats for quite a while. Most of the time, I eat whole, unprocessed foods. As I was reading the rules of engagement, one of the big ones was no alcohol. The other was black coffee. Well, I put coconut milk in my coffee, and I’m still going to do that. But no evening cocktail? Seriously? As things progressed, many of these women were opting to eat smoothies for breakfast and salads for dinner. Now, I already eat salad for lunch every day. Not because I feel I should, but because I genuinely enjoy it. And a part of me naturally rebels at the thought of drinking my breakfast. (Unless it’s coffee, of course.) This was no longer sounding like a simple, fun cleanse. What was next, a fast? I could feel my resolve slipping away…

A meme on social media. Author unknown

A meme on social media. Author unknown

I’m officially now at the age (older than the wonderful cat above) that I will do what I please and not worry what the rest of the world thinks about it. And it may be that this kind of wisdom is one you have to earn with years. Many of the people who seem to suffer the most with new year’s resolutions are younger and in their 20s-30s. They’re still not sure if they’re good enough, so they seek validation from the world around them. Women, in particular, struggle with acceptance of their physical presence on the earth. It doesn’t help that so many businesses’ profits depend on us feeling bad about ourselves.

S0, what to do? The big key is acceptance. Accept who you are, right now. Embrace that person. No one ever said you had to be perfect. No one ever was perfect. No one. So what makes you think you will be any different? You are the product of your history, your genes, your society, and your self-regard. That last one is kind of important, because it’s the only one that you control. If you continuously think you suck, it’s going to have a negative effect on your life. You’re going to stress out about how not to suck, which is a moving target that you will never achieve because you will continue to think that you suck, even when you don’t. And if you are certain you suck, no one can tell you otherwise.

So acceptance is step one, and choosing to like yourself as you are is another.

I have known many people who believe that liking themselves, much less loving themselves, is some sort of Herculean task that they will never, ever attain. It’s too hard, they say. Well, believing that certainly makes it so. You’ve given up at the starting gate. Those other horses are definitely going to win…

Self-regard is something that you cultivate, like a garden. You clear the weeds, you plant seeds, and then you mulch, water, and fertilize. It’s a process, not a sudden, overnight change between December 31 and January 1. When I plant my seeds, I believe that my garden will grow. You must also believe in your garden and in your inherent self-worth right now. Tomorrow doesn’t exist. You only have this moment. Use it and forget about fixing what isn’t really broken at all.

Comic relief

If you’re still having a hard time accepting and liking yourself, well… JUST STOP IT. Bob Newhart will show you how. It’s hilarious because it’s true.

(Recovering From) Obsessive-Compulsive Body Shame

My grandmother, who did not have time to be obsessed with her weight

My grandmother, who did not have time to be obsessed with her weight

I have often said that I’m a recovering control freak, with an emphasis on recovering. I’m much better at handling chaos in my order now; being a parent will help with that. And changes to my routine are welcome and can be quite fulfilling. I still struggle with the apparent demise of the Oxford comma, but one thing at a time…

Of course, I still harbor one gargantuan area of control freakishness that, I realize, is also obsessive compulsive, and I now tend to think that they are basically the same thing. I am obsessive compulsive about my diet and weight, which is ironic and not at all surprising, given that my mother was, too. I touched on that in these articles:

But wait, there’s more evidence of my obsession on our web site, The Abundant Home™. In order of appearance:

Yes, five articles detailing my adventures with different ways of eating in order to attempt to maintain some sort of ideal state of health, fitness, body image, what have you. I am aware of myself, and being aware is a bit like observing two different people. First, there is the rational grown-up who is laughing at herself and saying, “Sweetheart, you’re forty-something, bore two children, and who gives a rat’s ass what your size or weight is.” And I know this. But I also observe that there’s this other person, a veritable Pavlov’s dog who has been trained to respond to the seeming “authority” of the male view, which basically says that if you’re attractive enough to sleep with, then you have a value, but if you’re not, then you are the object of ridicule. And that attitude really pisses me off. And yet, it’s in there, like a time bomb, ready to explode the moment swimsuits appear in the stores.

I used to go to the movies once a week with my ex and friends. Bear with me, this really is relevant. One week, the movie available was “Shallow Hal.” I wasn’t sure I wanted to see this film, because I was afraid that it would be 90 minutes of fat jokes. But I was pleasantly surprised, and I really liked what the movie had to say about judging people based on their appearances. After the movie, we adjourned with our friend to the coffee shop across the way and discussed the movie. This friend was a twenty-something, unmarried fellow who worked with  my ex. When asked whether he liked the movie, he said no. He was hoping it would have more fat jokes in it, and he was disappointed by the feel-good message. Thank you, Shallow “Hank,” for your honesty. If only overweight women would stick to being the butts of jokes instead of having feelings.

The world has plenty of Shallow Hals, alas, but there also plenty of good guys out there with realistic expectations. Men are not the issue here. That voice inside my head that judges what it sees in the mirror and coaxes me toward obsessive-compulsive craziness is the issue here. I wasn’t born with that voice. It came from many sources, including my mother and other family members, the media, and yes, society. But at this point, that voice is my concern, and I’m the one who has to silence it. I will not lie and say it’s easy. It’s not.

I’m not the only one with this compulsion, though. I fancy I’m not as far over the edge as, say, Gwyneth Paltrow, but what if I have been? Or still am?

“I would rather die than let my kid eat Cup-a-Soup.”
~ Gwyneth Paltrow

Okay, I’m probably not that bad. My kids eat Goldfish, candy, and potato chips, for crying out loud. Whew! Poor Gwyneth… Let me just say that while I have tried many different diets, I have not tried Gwyneth’s personally. I also have never been a raw vegan, because I hate to be hungry.

I ordered a swimsuit this weekend. It’s not a bikini. I’ve never worn a bikini, even when I was relatively skinny (for me). No, I ordered a pretty polka-dot swimdress. I think I’m going to like it. I’m going to put it on and stand in front of the mirror and say loving things to myself. No, really. I’ve started saying loving things to myself every time I look in the mirror. I’m beautiful, and the rational grown-up me knows it. The inner child who absorbed all that crap about not being worthwhile if she didn’t look a certain way needs to come along now. (Sadly, I see all too easily how some women become anorexic or bulimic.)

I’ve been thinking about my mother’s mother. She was not skinny, except for the last time I saw her. She was skinny then because she was sick. She would be dead not long after that. I remember my grandmother as being big and beautiful and fat and loving her food. She had 11 children and spent most of her life cooking for them. I doubt that she cared one whit about her weight. I’ll bet she never looked at herself and thought, “Gee, Ivory, you should lose a few pounds before swimsuit season arrives!” I’m pretty sure she never owned a swimsuit. I’m pretty sure she couldn’t swim. The rooster’s crowing. Better get up and start cooking breakfast. Then lunch and dinner. And after that, there’s the gardening to do. Diet books did not figure into her daily routine. Having enough food of any kind in the house to feed 11 kids did.

I can’t promise I’ll never write about diet again (is this number 8?), but my task now is to obsess less and enjoy more. It’s also to accept myself, particularly as I move into the middle years. Most of the women I’ve known who were my age or older did not look like their twenty-something selves, and why should they? Whom are we trying to please? The answer should be, ourselves.

Self-awareness brings great responsibility. Seeing myself, if I don’t change, then it’s my responsibility that I didn’t change. I’m not going to let me down. Bring on the swimsuits!

My Body Is Not Your Concern

Asha at age 12

Asha at age 12

It’s Throwback Thursday, so today I did something I rarely do:  I looked at pictures of myself in my “fat” middle school years. I have instinctively avoided looking at these pictures for a long time, because they have historically made me feel now just like I did then. Fat. Ugly. Worthless. Unlovable. As a result, I hated myself in these pictures.

But today, I wanted to look. 1982, then 1981. 1980. As I looked at my 10-, 11-, and 12-year-old self, I was no longer disgusted by what I saw. This little girl had a little extra weight, yes. She was not skinny. She was plump. But she was not this horrible creature that lived in my emotional memory. In reality, this child was not really all that heavy. Not really ugly. And I wondered, as I revisited the pictures, just how much less I should have weighed in order to shut up the huge number of critics who felt that they had a right to say something about my body, even then.

My mother always criticized my weight and often spoke about me in the third person when I was right there in the room. “Such a pretty face,” my aunts and grandmother would lament, as though my face were somehow wasted on my unpleasant body. My classmates let me know on a daily basis just how fat I was, and I resented having a birth name that rhymed with “jelly” and “belly.” One boy called me a fat slob every day, until I got tired of it and fired back an epithet that I knew would wound, and it did. I was sorry to hurt him, but then again, I wasn’t. He had hurt me every day.

The apparently hideous extra pounds came off naturally when I was in high school, as though Nature knew what she was doing all along (what a thought!), but even then, I was still a big girl, of Viking and northern European descent, and I was never going to be skinny. When I was in college (and working out), one of my male “friends” helpfully pointed out that when I sat down, my thighs spread out a little, so maybe I should lose some weight. Ouch!

Asha at age 21

It didn’t occur to me, at 19, to wonder what gave this or any other person the right to comment on my body. After all, it had been happening to me for years. This is just what people did! Critique my body! Sometimes daily! I spent years cursing the genetics that gave me big thighs and wondering how my body could ever be considered beautiful.

In my twenties, I was (by my standards) thin and fit, which resulted in men hitting on me. A lot. And in ugly ways. One guy stared at me when I was in the coffee shop with my boyfriend. The entire time. Glaring back at him did not change this. Finally, I asked to leave. My boyfriend got in his face about it, but the result was the same:  we left.

Men invaded my personal space. They leaned in. They cornered me at the bookstore where I worked, a captive audience. They made suggestions. Once, when walking with my boyfriend and some other friends, two guys circled back after asking for a cigarette. One put his arm around me and asked me why I was hanging out with my boyfriend (with whom I was holding hands). He was insistent. My boyfriend told him to knock it off. “Oh, you want a piece of me?” And he has a gun in pants. Holy shit! He has a gun in his pants! We just kept walking. We don’t want any trouble. We’re almost to the apartment. Keep going. Dear God, these two guys followed us to the door. They eventually left, but we were shaken.

I learned that there was a price to be paid for being too attractive, too fit. A few years after I married, I put on weight again. I think I wanted to protect myself from the gaze of men.

Asha at 37

Asha at age 37

After I had my children, I decided that I wanted to lose weight. Not that I needed to lose weight, or that everybody else thought I should lose weight (though, no question, some did). I wanted to. Me. The person whose opinion on this mattered. And I did lose weight, and I eventually started to work out again and change a few things about the way I ate. I did this in order to feel good, physically and emotionally.

My weight is reasonably stable, but it still goes up and down. I don’t want to be a control freak about it, so I have my share of snacks and goodies. I try to make good choices, but live and enjoy myself. I had to start taking an antianxiety medication last fall—truly, it was not a choice and panic attacks are not fun—which may be affecting my weight upward a little. I’m going to live with it, because I feel better and, to hell with it, I’m nearly 46 and who the heck cares? Whose business is it but my own?

And that’s the point, really. Whether I weigh 120, 180, or 240 pounds, what’s it to anyone but me? I’m allowed to take up space on the planet. Oh, I know. The judgers still judge. The critics really feel that they must say something, because, you know, they care about your health. I don’t believe that, actually. I’ve been on the receiving end of that kind of “love” long enough to know that what people are really saying is, “I find you repulsive the way you are.” Because the fashion magazines say so. Because Hollywood says so. Because the Photoshopped and airbrushed images oppress our minds and spirits and reduce us to mere flesh and fat, and there’s nothing else you have to offer the world if it’s not perfectly packaged.

Asha at age 44

Asha at age 44

No one has the right to comment on my body, whether you think it’s ugly or beautiful. I didn’t ask for an opinion, so keep it to yourself. No woman asks for an opinion, but she gets it daily, anyway. Let me explain something. If you decide that a woman is overweight, telling her so, however “kindly” you think you said it, will not induce her to lose weight. You don’t think she didn’t hear that same suggestion yesterday? And the day before? Did she miraculously take a pill, go on a diet, or apply for “The Biggest Loser,” where they will criticize and judge her and run her ragged “professionally” on national TV and make tons of money off her humiliation in the process? No, she didn’t, and your comments aren’t helpful.

I can finally, finally, finally look at my middle school pictures without hating myself. That has been a long slog. I am now wise enough to know that the only person who can validate me is me. I am now wise enough to know that I am more than my body. I am now wise enough to accept my big thighs, the belly that came with two babies, the wrinkles that are appearing on my face, and whatever the hell else my body wants or needs to do. It’s a great body. It’s healthy. It lets me do things I want to do. I really love my body. And if you don’t, well, that’s not my problem.