When virtues lead us astray
Most of us can scrape together two or three virtues when asked what characteristics or behaviors make us proud of who we are. We recite our answers in job interviews, in performance reviews, maybe before the mirror when we need a little pep talk. In therapy sessions, even.
We recite until these virtues stick, until we no longer have to think when asked to share what they are. We double down on them when faced with obstacles preventing us from achieving our goals. We believe in these virtues—wield them with pride. After all, they’ve enabled us to survive until this point. But chances are, someone else first drilled them into our formative, young minds. Or perpetuated them, rather.
Have you ever stopped to consider whether your virtues are the very things holding you back from actually thriving?
Identifying when virtues are preventing you from growth
I write this exactly one month before my 37th birthday, a pattern I seem to have fallen into—or traversed, really—ever since my 20s came and went with all the elegance of a baby elephant (which is to say, none whatsoever).
But this pattern—what started as an overwhelming dread (a tightness in my chest that wouldn’t let up until July was pinned several pages back in my wall calendar), has since transformed into a calm resolve, one acknowledging that the niggling insecurities of my past will rise to the surface every single year, now until I die, before it collects those destabilizing emotions, magnifies them under a microscope, then gently cleans them off the slide.
Observe the emotions. Let them go.
It was one year ago when I had just begun to question the feasibility of my virtues—barely started pulling at a loose thread. I was having a conversation about my inability to accept charity, and it seemed to tie back to one of my father’s favorite pieces of advice to bestow upon me: don’t depend on anyone for anything, Sandra, especially a man.
Independence—a virtue I’d touted like a trophy ever since childhood, when my entire world had fallen apart.
When two parents engage in interactions with their child that are predominantly steeped in either frustration or absenteeism, that child can quickly learn to make itself small and to just take care of itself. Fantastic for survival mode. Not so much when adulthood arrives and demands something more than basic survival.
Never Broken by Jewel
I recently came across a passage in Jewel’s book, Never Broken, that suddenly made things click regarding that conversation I was having a year ago. The one that revealed the loose thread. In Jewel’s autobiography, she discusses trauma and how, as children, our innocence isn’t so much as lost as it is transformed into wisdom.
She articulates the idea so beautifully I was compelled to reflect deeply about it and divulge my thoughts here. She discusses how as children, we develop this wisdom—these innate gifts—that help us survive, and how over the course of our lives, these gifts are exploited (by parents, colleagues, friends—you name it), eventually no longer serving their original purpose. At least in a way that helps us grow as happy people.
You’re likely familiar with the term defense mechanism—some behavior or belief we adopt to avoid physical or psychological harm. Jewel calls it our “brilliant resilience,” sharing her own experience with independence and how it evolved as an adult:
From a very young age, I made it work for me. It made me feel safe, and in many ways it kept me safe. But after a time, I didn’t learn how to accept help. After a while it was isolating. My independence got me to safety but it didn’t teach me to connect once I was there.
She goes on to say:
I realized that often we get into relationships we are historically familiar with. I wanted to be self-reliant, and so I ended up in a relationship with someone who needed me to be also. This felt comfortable. I didn’t know the side effect of this meant that intimacy was impossible. For it to be possible, two people have to be willing to be vulnerable in order to connect…I am worthy of being cared for.
I had never understood how my perceived need for independence had been blocking me from ever truly being intimate and connected with others. Of feeling like I was worthy of being cared for.
Cue my tearing up a little.
I finally understood what was happening all my life with all these relationships that came and inevitably went. And not just romantic relationships, but all relationships.
All these relationships that had ultimately failed—were they, at least in part, due to my obsession with being independent? Had my conditioning been so thorough and seamless it had created an inability to connect, and that’s why I found myself in these horrible patterns of the same failing, derivative relationships?
I know in my heart it’s true.
Not only did it make me more susceptible to harmful relationships, but when a relationship came my way that was actually pure and good and nourished me, I didn’t know how to navigate the raw intensity of it. It was completely foreign, and that unfamiliarity caused me to lose confidence. Anything that broke the pattern deemed unsafe. Dangerous. Risky. STOP. DO NOT PROCEED. The call for vulnerability was so painful to me that I fought to cling to what was familiar. Security. Control. Myself.
Or at least who I thought I was.
Someone once posited that maybe I‘m not the introverted or asocial person I’ve always believed I am. And like many things, I’m just now understanding the full breadth of what he‘d been trying to tell me. For I’ve been working on myself, embracing my feelings and identifying them before letting them go. I’ve become lighter and changed somehow. Freer. More fluid.
I have slowly been making my way through an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) book that was recommended to me. It’s helped me step outside my brain to recognize what’s happening deeper within. Made me receptive in a way that when I come across different things, whether it be a book or a film or a song—anything that challenges me to step outside myself—it’s like I’m constantly discovering little pieces of my long-ago self, finding that they fit together to create a more whole person. A more complete me. A truer me.
In a way, I feel infinite.
That my growth as a human being will be limitless and exponential.
The elephant in the room
You’ve heard the generalization that an elephant never forgets.
Now imagine you are the elephant. The real you. The one that’s been dismissed and shoved aside by different people with different motives, that’s been conditioned to think and behave and be a certain way.
Years pass. Maybe decades.
That clumsy, little elephant has never left the room. It’s still there where it stands forgotten, quiet, observing, eternally patient. It has witnessed everything you’ve ever gone through—every failure, every sadness, every loss—its growth in size proportionate to the weight of all the baggage you’ve ever borne and never asked for.
The elephant has grown so large now that it takes up nearly the entire room. So much space it appears a coarse, gray wall.
But can’t you feel how crowded everything has become? How the room seems to press in on you each time you take a breath?
It’s time to acknowledge it exists. To finally rehabilitate the brilliant, resilient elephant in the room that has been waiting there all along.
Because it remembers.
It remembers a time when you were in your natural state, your beautiful form, before everything and everyone took a small piece for themselves.
And it wants nothing more than to help remake the parts of yourself you’ve forgotten existed. Make you whole again.
Worthy of being cared for.
Worthy of being loved.
Worthy of being happy.