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When who we are is how we are supposed to be

Last week I received the latest episode in my ongoing series, “Lessons in Loss and Grief.” A close, dear friend died after suffering the hell of pancreatic cancer.

Because I had worked hard last year through the “Beginning Grief” lessons, I thought I was prepared. Appreciating the power of tears, I’d cried many times through my friend’s journey. When she died, I was relieved that she would be out of pain. (How mature of me…)

However, when I panicked driving through a Seattle tunnel the day after her death, I realized I wasn’t as chill as I thought. Then, on day four, my spirits crashed.

I felt lost, unfocused, lethargic, and unable to “accomplish” much of anything. I felt like a slow-motion version of a chicken with her head cut off. Even after working the grief rodeo before, I wasn’t prepared.

I knew that tears were OK. But my lack of being able to accomplish simple tasks? Not so good.

I judged myself for feeling like a slacker, a label I would never put on a friend. Needing to coach myself, I tried channeling what I thought my dear friend and peer coach, Lori, might say to me:

  • Have compassion for yourself. Your loss hurts.
  • Grief looks the way it looks. It doesn’t play by the rules or care about your expectations. Go with it.
  • The process of grieving will take as long as it takes.
  • Don’t judge yourself.

The last point was the hardest for me to get. I kept judging myself for being unmotivated while succumbing to unreal expectations of “how to do grief.”

“You are normal”

Coincidentally, I was reading a book, which also spoke of the dangers of judging ourselves when we don’t meet the cultural norms we were taught to believe.

The brilliant book, Come as You Are, by Emily Nagoski, PhD, presents the science of female sexuality while busting up many popular myths. She criticizes a culture that feeds us misperceptions about what is healthy, sometimes leading to devastating consequences for women who believe that they are broken and incapable of meeting society’s standards for satisfying sex.

From the first pages, Nagoskis delivers a forceful, compassionate, healing message: You are normal and don’t let the culture tell you that you are not.

I took a big breath of compassion reading her words.

Nagoski uses medical science and psychology to show how the cultural “rules,” mores, expectations, and principles we have been taught are not to be trusted. Often they came out of a different historical context or from those who believed:

  • Female sexuality was dangerous or evil.
  • Women could be controlled by taking away their rights to and understanding of their bodies (sound eerily familiar?).
  • Women’s sexual response should mirror men’s.
  • All bodies should behave in similar ways.
  • Other sinister stuff…

You wouldn’t think we’d believe such crap, except when it’s mirrored in the movies, media, pornography, books, and outdated research. 

Nagoski knows her subject. As a sex educator, she’s worked with thousands of women, helping them understand recent scientific findings and appreciate that a lot of information they were fed was never true. Without being polemic, she cuts to the chase:

A lot of what we have been taught about female sexuality is just wrong. It was the product of a patriarchy that wanted to stay in power. Full stop.

This book isn’t about positions or ten ways to tease one’s partner. It’s about self-worth. It’s about honoring our differences and calling ourselves normal, knowing that a failure to fit false cultural norms doesn’t mean that we’re broken, defective, or diminished. It’s about trusting what our bodies know.

And it’s about letting go of self-judgment and pursuing our individual pleasure. How I wish this book had been available 50 years ago when I was struggling, in the dark, for answers. And how glad I am to know that the book is helping women stop shaming themselves.

New hope

As I reflected on Nagoski’s book and my grieving process, I couldn’t help wondering how many hidden, ill-informed, and false cultural beliefs still shape my worldview—probably more than I’ll ever know.

But there’s hope.

Even when politicians and pundits continue gaslighting the public, our bodies and souls know the truth.

When I want to know what is true for me, I can turn to an inner knowing. When I think that I “should” be doing life differently, (especially when it’s difficult), I can start:

  • Practicing compassion for myself and others. We didn’t ask for the societal misconceptions we have been given.
  • Trusting in my experience and what my body knows.
  • Loosening, if not letting go entirely, of the self-judgment.
  • Honoring my differences of mind, body, emotions, and preferences when I don’t think I “fit the norm.”
  • Finding what fills my heart and gives me pleasure—in grief, sex, and in the always-to-be-treasured present moment.

I think again of my friend who so treasured life. She would have given the world for a few more joyful, heart-filled moments. In her honor, I am going to explore what will make my spirits sing today, my way.

3 Responses

  1. So sorry to hear about your friend’s difficult final path.

    On cultural expectations, I think the first challenge is even noticing them. I am writing a book these days, and this morning I could not get my mind in gear. My usual busy brain had nothing to say. At the keyboard, I found no words; at the journal page, all I could do was complain that I had nothing to write today. My “to edit” list drained my spirit just looking at it.

    Then I read this blog, and realized that even after all these years of being self-employed (since 1968!) I still have a 9-5 “should” mindset. If I’m not “being productive” today, something is ‘wrong’. Never mind that sometimes the muse dictates 3000 words in one evening, and I can work till 2a.m. with great energy.

    Of course the “write a best-seller in 90 days” emails still arrive. And of course my erratic sleep patterns don’t help. And of course it is reasonable to want my book published before I turn 90. yada yada

    Nevertheless, I suspect that if I could somehow lighten up on myself about work habits, the muse might get through a little easier. So even Noticing that I am *imposing* a 9-5 work ethic on myself is a great start.

    On a slightly different subject, I heard last week: “Worrying is just pre-ordering your suffering.”

    Sun-greetings from Santa Fe,

    1. thanks Marie. I love the wisdom in your comments — and I identify with what you are saying in my daily practice as well.

  2. Sally. I’m so sorry about the loss of your friend. I feel, now, at 71, that this is the work of my life….to be with the very real presence of death. I don’t know if I told you but my brother is dying with ALS – he’s progressing more rapidly than I expected. I would love to have a conversation with you about what being with someone who is dying asks of us. If you would welcome that conversation, I’m available Thursday morning at 10. I have other times during the week but that’s the way that came to mind. Let me know.

    Text me at 425-289-8810. That’s the easiest way to reach me. ❤️

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