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In Need

I don’t like the word needy. I much prefer the word crazy to needy.  Crazy can have many meanings, and not all of them are negative.  Sometimes crazy can be a compliment.  At least that’s how I interpret it when I’m feeling good about myself.  Neediness, on the other hand, is never a compliment.

I admit I am sensitive to the word because I have been accused of being too needy, too demanding.  I have tried to correct for this, but I don’t know how to distinguish my unreasonable demands from my needs.

I’ve tried to deal with it by giving my partner the benefit of the doubt.  If he couldn’t give me what I needed, then perhaps it was a demand that I mistook for a need.  How important is meaningful conversation anyway, really?  How much contact is actually necessary for the survival of the relationship?

This approach hasn’t gotten me very far.  I seem to have overshot my mark.  My therapist tells me that I cannot disavow my needs in order to make my relationships work.  Sounds good to me.  But how do you separate the needs that are necessary for survival from the ones that make people accuse you of being needy?

Let’s say that you came across a boy who you met in the woods while hiking one day, like the wild boy of Aveyron.  You feel bad for him so you invite him over for dinner.  But he’s really hungry, so he eats all the food in your house and still wants more.  Obviously, you wouldn’t blame the kid for this.  You wouldn’t accuse him of being too hungry, because it’s not his fault he was abandoned in the woods to fend for himself.

Psychological needs are no different.  Neediness is the product of prolonged emotional starvation.  You may not be able to give the person what they need to feel satisfied, but that’s not their fault.  It’s not yours, either.

But it feels like it should be someone’s fault, doesn’t it?  Someone should take the blame!

I prefer to reframe a needy person as someone who is in need.  Perhaps their needs are so great that I can’t help them.  That’s OK; I don’t have to be able to help everyone–although I do still try.

I am trying to think of myself as someone in need, too.  I am just learning what these needs are, because I’ve spent my life focusing on other people.  There are a lot of them, and they have gone unfulfilled for a long time.  I’m not blaming anyone for this, but I’m trying not to blame myself, either.

I’m just trying to make my way out of the woods.

Wants and Needs

The other day I had a session where I was talking to a client about wants and needs.  She said that she knows that she needs to allow herself to be taken care of, but she doesn’t want to do it.  I thought that was interesting.  How can you not want what you need?  But then after I thought about it some more, I realized that there are all kinds of things that people don’t want to need.  They are usually the things that bring people to therapy.

Most people don’t want to need other people.  That would make them dependent, and dependency is bad.  It’s a sign of weakness.  There is even a diagnosis called dependent personality disorder.  Excessive independence, however, is not considered a problem.  In our culture, you can never be too self-reliant.

While I have certainly seen clients who depend too much on others, more frequently I see people who are afraid to rely on anyone, like this client.  Which is strange, because in the animal kingdom, humans have the longest period of dependence on their parents.  And even as independent adults, we still need other people to have babies, to have jobs, and to survive.  Even hunters and gatherers relied on one another.  I don’t think anyone would consider them weak.

Despite this knowledge, I have to admit, I don’t like to rely on other people, either.  I don’t ask for help unless absolutely necessary.  And the flaw that I am most of ashamed of is my need to be in a relationship.  That’s why I’m so proud of myself right now for being alone.  But the truth is, while I’m not in a romantic relationship, I’m not really alone.

The other thing that people don’t want is to feel.  Usually they come to therapy with the hope that I can help them stop feeling.  This includes the feelings that accompany disorders like anxiety and depression, as well as normal feelings like sadness after a breakup or loneliness–because that makes you weak.

Like dependency, feelings are also necessary for survival.  Without feelings, we would have no signal to figure out what is causing us pain.  Without feelings, we aren’t able to empathize with other people.  Without feelings, we would be classified as reptiles in the animal kingdom.

I don’t want to be a reptile, but I do get frustrated with the intensity of my feelings.  Sometimes they reach the level of depression and anxiety.  And then I feel other people’s feelings, too.  That’s a lot of feeling for one person to tolerate.  And some people do find my feelings overwhelming.  I’m too needy. Too sensitive. Too much.

Or maybe they were too reptilian to be able to empathize with me.

I often have to tell clients up front that if what they want is to stop needing and feeling, I can’t help them.  Sometimes they transfer to other therapists, which I understand.  Who wants to be told that they have to accept being human?  But most people stay.  When I point out that only robots have the luxury of not needing or feeling, they acknowledge that they don’t want to be a robot.

But it’s surprisingly hard work, this being human stuff.  It requires a lot of self-compassion, self-acceptance.

Which is why I started this blog.

It Matters to Me

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Last week in our body image support group, every single client prefaced an anecdote about something that upset them with a disclaimer about how it’s not that big of a deal. This thing that bothered them enough to bring it up. Not important at all, in the grand scheme of things.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Trivialize our feelings? I do it all the time, but it’s more noticeable when other people do it because it sounds so mean.

For example, if I tell my opponents before a tennis match not to be alarmed if I throw up, I feel like I’m just trying to get attention. Because I secretly enjoy telling them about my GERD/asthma/allergies and listing all the drugs I take for each of these conditions. And if they make some comment about what a trooper I am for continuing to play, I feel guilty. Am I misleading them into thinking that I am strong? Maybe I’m exaggerating how bad it is.

I get it that this is a defense mechanism. I am going to beat you to the punch. I am going to say upfront that I know this thing I am about to tell you is trivial so that you can’t hurt me by not caring about it. I am going to shame myself out of being upset to try to make the feeling go away. I am going to compare my pain to other people who are suffering more than I am so that I will feel guilty and stop complaining. I’m going to repeat to myself how stupid it is to be upset every day, hundreds of times a day, until the pain goes away.

Except it doesn’t make the pain go away. So we just end up invalidating our feelings hundreds of times a day, every day. Or, if you’re successful in being able to cut yourself off from your feelings, then you end up invalidating other people’s feelings, too. Which is why they preface all of their comments to you with a disclaimer about how what they are about to tell you is not that big of a deal.

Even though I am now aware of the harm I am doing to myself with these comments, it is effortful and time-consuming to come up with something nicer to say. Which is a bit disconcerting, that being kind to myself would be so difficult.

It was even more difficult for those clients, who did not even realize they were invalidating their feelings until I brought it to their attention. They sat in silence for a few minutes, straining their brains to come up with something they could say to themselves that would be more compassionate.

Which is exactly why we need to practice.

That’s why I help clients come up with mantras in advance to counteract their inner demons; it saves time and energy. So if you are in need of something to say, here’s one you can use: it matters to me, and that’s all that matters.

Friendship

Last night we had our 2nd Annual Charlie Brown Christmas Party.  The party was named after last year’s tree, which looked like this:
 
 
This year the tree was more normal looking but my friends were more comedic, as you can see in this picture:

We even had prizes for Christmas attire:  Ugliest sweater, Most Festive, and Prettiest Sweater.  Guess which person won each prize from the picture below:

I am so thankful to have such good friends.

In my first marriage my husband and I were everything to each other–just like in love songs and romantic movies–but we didn’t have many friends.  Perhaps at some level we feared that if we told people what our relationship was really like, they would see how fragile our marriage was.

I believe that lessons are often learned from tragedy, pain, and hardship–particularly lessons you don’t want to learn.  What I learned from that relationship is that no single person can be everything you need.  And when you lose that person who has tried to be your everything, you are left with nothing. 

So I vowed never to allow myself to be that socially isolated again, and I have done a pretty good job of honoring that commitment.  In addition to playing and captaining all of those tennis teams, I also organize most of our social events and play the MC at the parties, making sure that our time is evenly spent between eating, singing karaoke, and playing board games. 

However, I am still more inclined to play the role of therapist with my friends than friend in need.  And I use all the same excuses that my clients use for not asking for help:  I am a burden, a broken record, a person whose feelings may be too much for other people to handle.  A person who is too needy, too demanding.

I’ve spent today the way I spend most Saturdays–tired and alone.  I did text a few friends.  And I talked to my brother.  And I’m writing this blog post.  So I’m trying to reach out.  But it will always be more natural for me to help than to be helped.

Perhaps whenever I have doubts about whether my friends want to be there for me, I can look at the deranged elf pictured above and remind myself that only someone who cared deeply about me would pose for a picture that can be posted for all the world to see.

Meet the Drill Sergeant

I am now about to introduce you to one of my most challenging parts.  I call this part the drill sergeant.  Many of you may have a similar part.  My drill sergeant demands productivity at all costs, and not in a nice way.

I am not a morning person, as I indicated in my first post.  The drill sergeant doesn’t give a crap.  He (I think of it as a he) doesn’t give a crap if it’s a weekend, either; he still wants me to get up.  I don’t listen to him, of course, but I pay the price.  For every extra hour of sleep I try to get, the drill sergeant yells at me, telling me how other people are up doing normal people productive things, while I am lying in bed wasting my life away. 

It doesn’t matter if I don’t have anything pressing to do.  The drill sergeant will make up random to do lists as though these things are of the utmost importance.  You need to wash those bath mats! There are scraps of paper all over the house that need to be put in the recycling!  I’m pretty sure there’s a mug in the sink that needs to be washed!  Get up!

I have been sick for the last few days, which is very frustrating for the drill sergeant.  I always get sick at this time of the year because, despite my best attempts to manage the stress of my job, I still get exhausted and can’t function.  The drill sergeant is frustrated because I was just two days from making it to Thanksgiving break, but I had to miss a day of work, anyway.  And I have to say, that frustrates me, too.  But what can I do?  I don’t even feel like playing tennis.  Or eating!  If you know me, you know that’s bad.

In my efforts to practice self-acceptance, I’m trying to get to know the drill sergeant better, understand his point of view.  I can see how he’s trying to prevent me from a life of sloth-hood.  And I do have to wake up early to get to work.  And sometimes you really do need your drill sergeant, like when you have to channel your inner warrior on the tennis court.

So I’ve struck a deal with my drill sergeant.  As long as I am waking up when I need to, fulfilling my obligations, and being a productive member of society, he can be at ease.  But I have promised to call upon him when I am in need of some ass-kicking motivation. 

So far, it seems to be working.

This doodle reflects my less positive emotional state at the moment.  I think it looks like some kind of scary octopus with floating eyeballs, albeit in pretty colors.

Solitude

I am about to share with you my most shameful flaw so please don’t judge me.  And this post isn’t that funny.  (Although I always think I’m kind of funny, even when I’m being serious).  But it’s the truth, so I have to say it.

I have been in a relationship non-stop since I was 14.  That’s 30 years of relationships, and not just to one person.  So no pearls for me. ( That’s the 30 year anniversary gift, in case you didn’t know.  I just looked it up.)  And sometimes the relationships were slightly overlapping towards the end.  And often they were not very good relationships.  And I knew this at the time, but I stayed in them, anyway.

In my defense, the marriages were both relationships with two very good guys, but that doesn’t guarantee that a relationship will work, as I indicated in my previous blog.  But most of the other relationships were not very good.   I stayed in them because 1) I’m drawn to guys who need psychological help and 2) I am terrified of being alone and am in need of psychological help myself.  My attitude was that something was better than nothing.  I didn’t have any empirical evidence to support this, but that’s how fear is:  it feels true, even when it’s not.

So in addition to channeling all of my energy into my long-standing dream of becoming a writer, I have also decided to be alone for the first time. 

A lot of my married friends say, oh I would love to be alone.  I look forward to the times when my husband and kids are not in the house.  I, too, appreciated my alone time when I was in a relationship.  But it’s different when you go home and no one will be there, and you don’t know if or when someone will ever be there.

It’s different when you could fall and hurt your back and not be able to reach your phone and call for help and people might not notice that you haven’t been around until you stop showing up to work for a few days.  Then they would have to send someone down to find you because you’re not answering your phone.  That’s not the same thing as having a break from your husband and kids at all.

Last night I tried to change one of the flood lights in my bedroom, but I couldn’t reach it.  I tried to use that thingy that allows you to reach light bulbs that are really high up but the floodlight was too big.  I probably wouldn’t have been able to get the thingy to work, anyway.  I considered getting out the ladder but that would definitely result in bodily injury and/or death.  I don’t want to call one of my guy friends and ask them to come over and change one light bulb, so I’ll probably have to wait until several bulbs burn out and exist in semi-darkness in the meantime.

Don’t get me wrong–I know that in the grand scheme of things, I’m a very lucky person.  I have a loving family and a great group of friends, I can support myself and I love my job, I have a nice place, and I am hopeful that at some point another relationship opportunity will present itself.  Still, there’s no amount of self-talk that can change the fact that sometimes it sucks to be alone.

I’m a big proponent of learning how to sit with negative feelings.  This is what I tell my clients all the time.  I’m often amazed that they start doing it because I tell them to.  Sometimes they’re better at it than I am.  I’m amazed that I can give them the courage to break up with their boyfriend or girlfriend, even though they were terrified of doing so.  At those times I think, why is it that I can help them do it but not myself?  It doesn’t work to be your own therapist, apparently.

But now I’m ready.  I’m going to face sadness and loneliness and fear if it kills me.  I am going to find out whether or not it’s true that it’s better to be in a bad relationship than none at all.  Obviously it’s not true, but like I said, fear is not always logical. 

And it’s going OK so far.  Sometimes it does suck, but it’s not as bad as I thought it would be.  Because when I was in a bad relationship, I still felt sad and lonely and afraid, but I also beat myself up for staying in a relationship just because I was afraid of being alone.  It’s much better without that last part.

The thing I miss the most is having someone to talk to–someone to share how my day went, to talk about the book I’m reading, or to share any deep and meaningful revelations I’ve had.  But now that I have this blog, I have all of you to listen to me.  And that helps a lot. 

And you know what else?  My neighbor called me this morning to check on me because she hadn’t seen me in awhile and wanted to make sure I was OK.  I was afraid she was going to tell me she hit my car or accidentally opened my mail again or try to get me to come to church with her, because those are reasons she has called in the past.  But no.  She was checking on me.

I take that as a sign that God is looking out for me.

I read this blog that said that if you want to get people to read your blog you should have photos to keep it interesting and not to use other people’s work.  I’m not sure how you take a picture of solitude, so I thought I would post one of my doodles from last night.  Please don’t judge my drawing, either.

Housekeeper for a Day

I can see why parents say that having kids provides hours of entertainment–expensive entertainment if you ask me–but entertainment nonetheless.  That’s one advantage of being an aunt: you get the entertainment for free.  Or at least at a reduced rate.

When my niece Sadie came up to visit last weekend she was obsessed about raising money for this school project in which her class was going to make a donation to some place in Africa so that they could build a well and have fresh water.  At first I thought she said a whale and I couldn’t figure out how a whale could survive on fresh water in Africa, even with the most generous donations.

Rather than the usual route of selling candles and tin cans of popcorn, the kids are supposed to earn the money through performing chores, so Sadie was anxious to get back to my place and clean. In fact, she was so exited that she followed me into the bathroom when we got back, asking me for assignments.

So first I asked her to water the plants. I had to show her where the watering can was and she asked her dad to fill it with water and then I had to show her where all the plants were.

It took her less than a minute to water them.

Sadie:  What else can I do?

Me: You’re done already?

Sadie: Yes.

Me:  Did you get the plants on the other wall?  (My brother points out the wall.)

Sadie:  Of course!  Now what can I do?  (I make a mental note to water the plants tomorrow.)

Me:  Why don’t you put these magazines in the recycling bin? (I show her where the bags are and her dad shows her where the recycling bin is.)

Me:  You forgot a magazine.

Sadie:  I’ll just stick it back in the magazine rack.

Me:  That’s not really helping me.

Sadie:  I’m afraid to go in the garage.  It’s dark and scary.  (I walk with her to the garage and turn on the light.)

Sadie:  Now what can I do?

By this point I realize that whatever task I give her is going to mean work for me so I’m reluctant to give her any more assignments.

Sadie:  I can cook you something.

Me:  What can you make?

Sadie:  I can get you a bowl of cereal.

Me:  That’s ok. I’m not hungry.

Sadie:  I can vacuum.

The rug does need to be vacuumed.  But then I envision having to get the vacuum out, move the furniture, show her how to turn the vacuum on, help her push it, and then put everything back in its original place.  I’m too tired to vacuum so I hand her the Swiffer instead.

It takes her a minute to do my entire place.

Me:  Are you sure you got every room?

Sadie: Yes.

Me: What about this room, and this room?

Sadie:  Of course!

I’m not convinced she actually cleaned anything so she sweeps the living room again. She takes her time and does a better job.

Me:  You seem to be enjoying yourself.

Sadie:  Well I have to raise money for the poor!  Is there anything else I can do? This is fun.

By now I’m tired of cleaning so I give her the $5 and commend her for her noble goal. She runs to her dad and excitedly gives him the bill for safe keeping.  He is on Skype with his wife so Sadie tells her mom that she just raised money for building a well in Africa so that they can have fresh water.

I enjoyed being a part of her first lesson in being helpful to people in need and admired how she really took it to heart.  It was definitely entertaining, as well as good exercise.  And the memory of the housekeeping incident will keep me entertained until I see her again. All for the bargain price of $5.

Happiness is…

Sectionals

It’s been a year since my brother got out of the hospital and I invited him to live with me. The past week has been a series of anniversaries of traumatic events, and in that series, today was the worst day.

A year later, I am having a stellar beginning to my academic year. Further proof of the benefits of practicing mindfulness–the reminder that all things pass, and ultimately you will be OK. I have also learned how to look for happiness when it seems as though there’s nothing to be happy about, and how to savor it when I experience it.

This year began with my tennis team advancing to sectionals. If you don’t know anything about league tennis, this is a big deal. It’s sort of like advancing to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Basketball Tournament. And if you don’t watch basketball, then just think of it as a once in a lifetime experience.

One of the lessons on happiness that I often write about is that you never know how you will feel about something until you get there. I had always imagined that advancing to sectionals would be a joyful thing. And it was joyful, but it was many other things, too. That seems to be the general rule–we never feel just one thing. Instead, we feel multiple, often contradictory things. I was happy we won but it didn’t make me a happier person in general. I still worried about the same things, had the same insecurities. Winning didn’t make me less neurotic, and it didn’t change my life for the better. It was a reminder that, because all things pass, happiness is also fleeting.

During the weekend of the tournament I had the opportunity to get to know two players who I had never spoken to before beyond saying hello. Although they barely knew me, when I needed a place to stay, they invited me to stay in their room on the spot–which helped tremendously with my obsessing about money. Many of my friends helped in whatever way they could–negotiated a lower rate for my room, shared their food with me. It was a reminder that making meaningful connections with other people is the thing that brings me the greatest happiness. It’s why I have the job that I do. Why I captain so many teams. Why I want everyone go out to dinner after our matches.

In a few weeks, we will be off to sectionals, and I am excited about the chance to advance to nationals. I will enjoy the challenge. I will channel my inner warrior. I will go all out to win. But win, lose, or draw, I know that the time off court with friends old and new will give me plenty to be happy about. And after the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat fades, the friendships will still remain.

Love and Hate

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Last summer I was on a spiritual quest to figure out how we are supposed to strive to be good, knowing that we are going to fail at times. I know God doesn’t expect us to be perfect, but what would a passing grade be, exactly? Would a D- be enough to get us into heaven? Because that’s all you need to get in a Pass/Fail class. My guess is no. You have to do better than that.

In case you didn’t read that post, I’ll tell you what the conclusion was from my research. Our task in life is not to be good; it is to know ourselves. By knowing ourselves, I don’t mean “finding ourselves.” It’s more along the lines of what twelve step programs call a personal inventory of our character defects. Being honest with ourselves about the things we are ashamed of. Our sins, basically.

Because this is what leads to addiction. This is what makes us deny, distort, and avoid reality. What leads us to hurt other people, even. We want to believe we are good people. We don’t want to be anything like those murderers, adulterers, terrorists, Republicans, or Democrats. Those people are a totally different breed.

When we are willing to be honest with ourselves, we will find that we are capable of being all things–the heroes and the villains, the victims and the perpetrators. This is what it means to be human. This realization can release us from self-hated and hatred of others. Who am I to judge you, when I have darkness inside me, as well?

I’m reading Small Great Things for our next book club. It’s a great book, and particularly exceptional in terms of its exploration of racism. There is a character that represents every opinion on the spectrum, from angry black person to white supremacist.

There’s a minor character in the book who explains why he gave up being a white supremacist once he had a daughter. He realized that all of the hatred that he felt towards other people was a way of keeping him from realizing how much he hated himself. He felt bad all the time, and he couldn’t beat up enough people to make that feeling go away. He realized that he didn’t want his daughter to grow up feeling that way. He wanted her to feel good about herself.

A year and even more books later, I would refine my answer to how we are supposed to be good, knowing that we are inherently flawed. Our task is first to know ourselves. Once we are able to forgive ourselves for all of the unpleasant aspects of being human, then our goal is to be loving–to ourselves, to others, and to God. Not because a failing grade will keep us out of heaven, but because being loving helps us to feel better about ourselves and others right here and now, while we are on earth.

I admit, it is not an easy task. I mentioned in my last post that I can’t watch the news anymore. I can’t even read what’s trending on Facebook, because even that small dose of negativity causes me distress. Sometimes being loving to myself means walking away when people start talking about politics. Sometimes being loving to others means reminding myself that we can see things differently and still all be good people. Sometimes being loving to God means accepting that experiencing self-hatred and hatred of others is also a part of the human condition.

It’s a challenge, but it makes me feel a lot better about myself to think about how I can be more loving than to feel like I’m failing at being good enough.

It’s OK to Be Insane

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Remember how I did that self-compassion retreat a few years ago? I’m sure you do, since you’ve been a loyal reader all of these years. Which I greatly appreciate, if I haven’t told you lately. If you don’t remember, you can check out that post and see what it was all about, if you’re interested.

Anyhoo, now I’m doing a mindfulness educational retreat in Cape Cod. All of the Cape Cod conferences are designed to give you a chance to get your continuing education credits while going on an expensive vacation. Which means that, compared to the other one, there isn’t as much meditation and the accommodations and excursions are much better. But, even though it was in the middle of nowhere and you slept in something the size of a closet at the self-compassion retreat, they had awesome food. Organic, locally grown, and all that California stuff. And you could sit or lie down on the floor if you wanted to. So everything has its pros and cons.

Because I like you so much, I thought I’d give a rundown of what I have learned on the very first day as a thank you for reading my blog. Plus, this is a way to remind myself what I learned in the future, since I will put these notes in a filing cabinet and never read them again. Here are the lessons from today:

  1. We spend most of our lives wishing it away because we’re trying to get to the good stuff. The Netflix binge at the end of the day. The house you’ve been saving up for. Retirement, so you can finally relax. And as soon as we get to the place we were anticipating, we immediately look for the next thing. This actually happened to me last night while I was watching the replay of the Federer match. My mind kept wandering, thinking random stuff about what I needed to do to get ready for bed after it was over. I had to be like, pay attention! Federer is about to make grand slam history! In my most compassionate voice, of course. (Not.) The goal, then, is to develop equanimity, which I also discussed in a previous post: may we all except things as they are.
  2. Training the mind is a lot like training a puppy. When you look at your puppy, you think that it’s still lovable and cute, even when it pees and poops when it’s not supposed to and doesn’t listen to what you tell it to do. Well, the mind also pees and poops when it’s not supposed to, and I know mine hardly ever responds to what I tell it to do. Like, right before a point I’ll be like, watch the ball. And then sometimes I’ll swing and miss the ball altogether. Which means there is no possible way I could have been watching the ball. So then I’ll be like, I just told you to watch the ball! But if I had a puppy, I probably wouldn’t be like, why can’t you watch the ball? while we were playing fetch. I’d just throw the ball again.
  3. It’s OK to be insane. When you first learn to mediate, you realize how much random stuff goes through your mind all the time. Usually obsessing about the past, planning for the future, and lots and lots of self-criticism and judgment. You’re feelings will go from one extreme to the other for no apparent reason. You can make up elaborate theories about how someone doesn’t like you based on the smallest piece of information. But guess what? We all do this! We’re all insane. So that crazy thought, that deep, dark secret, that split personality that you thought only you possessed is nothing to be ashamed of. It just means you’re human.

But here’s where I get stuck. Yes, we’re all crazy, but some people are actually mentally ill. In fact, the last time I saw Ron Siegel at a conference a few years ago, he warned against going to a week-long silent mediation retreat if you have a mental illness because it really destabilizes you. Which means, I better not go on one of those. Perhaps ever.

But I guess mental illness is also something I can approach with equanimity and think of it as a part of me that I can learn to accept, just as it is.