By Annie Wittenberg, Alsana Alumnus
Subtext: I Don’t Always Have to Have an Answer… (And that is such a relief!)
“I don’t know!!!” I said vehemently. “What is it you don’t know?” Laura Wood asked, after the second expressive session of alumni weekend. “I don’t know what I don’t know!” I exclaimed frustrated with myself. I was hoping Laura was about to give me homework that would clarify my confusion. Laura smiled and told me my “homework” for the night was to listen to the Beatles’ song Let it Be. I was like seriously Laura?! That’s my homework? (I may or may not have actually responded with those exact words in a sassy tone). I wanted “real” homework: a prompt that I could write about, a conversation that I was instructed to have with someone, etc. With tasks like those, I can impress. I can be validated with phrases like, “you did a really good job with that” or “wow, what powerful words; you really went deep with that assignment”. I strive for that kind of feedback from others because then I can tell myself, “See, I am okay. I must be okay because this person said I did a great job. Maybe I’m not as bad, or as worthless as I think I am.”
I have this overwhelming urge/part to receive validation from others, to do tasks perfectly, and to constantly act like a performer: someone who is always smiley and friendly to others with the hopes that they will want to be around me. Because of this, I was purposely not given homework that would be reinforcing to this part. The red-pants-wearing leader of the weekend knew that this “needing to know/have an answer for everything” part is what I am constantly trying to work on in therapy, and in Expressive. So at the end of the day, I was left with a Beatles’ song and a building intensity of my fears of inadequacy. My fears that I am not enough, and at the same time that I am too much; my fear that I am bad and thus constantly need reassurance from others to be okay with myself.
What I am beginning to understand about this “need to know/have the right answer” part is that it keeps me stuck in a place of being inauthentic with myself and with others. It also keeps me in a rigid, serious-all-the-time head space that doesn’t allow for fun, relaxation or freedom. Being bombarded daily, even hourly, with thoughts such as, “I need to know what to do (or say) in this situation and it has to be exactly the right thing or I’m a failure and I will be abandoned by those around me” is absolutely exhausting, and terrifying. It’s not reassuring to constantly have a voice inside my head that says, “You have to know exactly what you are doing today, tomorrow, and in the future or you’re going to fall apart”. Thoughts like these only increase my anxiety and rigidity.
Even when it came down to the first two Expressives of the weekend, I became so stuck in my head with thoughts like “Okay Annie, Laura said to pick a part to work on. So now you need to pick the “right” part, it needs to be entertaining for the group, and it needs to be deep and meaningful. You need to do a good job with it and the only way to properly assess if you met these essential objectives adequately is if the group gives you positive feedback that you interpret as genuine”. When I read these thoughts back to myself in written form, I’m like ‘Oh my gosh! This is crazy! How can anyone hold themselves to such standards? No wonder I feel trapped. No wonder I was so hesitant to participate in Expressive!’ In fact, I didn’t really participate in the first two Expressives other than giving some feedback from time-to-time to others, who were being vulnerable with the group. This vulnerability was something I deeply wanted to express, but had too many “rules” set around what I could/was allowed to do in Expressive to protect the beliefs of this part. My “need to know” part had come in so strong that I wasn’t able to be the real, authentic person that I am! And that phenomena doesn’t occur exclusively during Expressive- that’s what happens in my everyday life that keeps me from fully connecting to myself and others!
So during the third and final expressive of the weekend, I chose to address this “need to know” part that I struggle with. I admitted to the other alumni witnesses that I don’t always know the answer! It was uncomfortable to admit. I then admitted verbally that it was uncomfortable to say that I don’t always know the answer, and I reflected this uncomfortability in my body language. The witnesses reflected back to me that they don’t always know the answer either. (This is genuine feedback of course, because no one always knows!) And then Laura told me, and the witnesses, again and again, “It’s okay to not know! It’s okay not to know!” I then said this with her, as we joined hands and danced around a bit, in a silly, fun way that my “needing to know” part would not typically allow. It was a powerful moment for me, and I hope the other witnesses as well, because it was a moment in which I was overcome with the realization that it really is okay to not know the answer! It’s okay to not know what to say or do! It’s okay to not know what is coming next! It’s okay to not know how to control everything in my life! It’s okay to be confused! It’s okay to let go of trying to attain perfection! It’s okay to just go with the flow! And wow, there is a relief in not always needing to know.
And when the broken hearted people, living in the world agree, there will be an answer,
Let it be.. Let it Be..
Whisper words of wisdom, Let it be.
~ Paul McCartney
*Thank you to Deanna for a hosting an amazing alumni weekend and to Laura Wood for leading the Expressive groups.You two are a dream to work with as always.