In the summer of 2015, Jess (my female adventure buddy) and I, were readying ourselves to spend 30 days on the Appalachian trail. The night before setting off, we sat at her aunt’s house in Hagerstown, MD and chatted around a bottle of wine. I started to explain what I had been up to, and as usual I was making excuses: “well you know, right now I’m just working part-time in retail, but it’s okay because the standard of living in Boone is really low, and you know…the opportunities in Boone are not the best. I really should be doing more but…I mean, I’m hoping to take classes in the fall…that will steer me in the right direction.”
Jess’s aunt looked at me concerned. “You need to stop apologizing for your life.” This struck me. I wasn’t sure exactly what she meant, but it made me feel small. In that moment I was nothing, and even worse, the moment held validity.
On day 21 of our 32 day hike, Jess and I decided to take a day off. We hitched into town and scuffed up to a pavilion designated for hikers. A hiker, who ironically garnered the name “Hero,” was sitting at one of the picnic tables. Almost immediately, Hero, Jess and I entered into the typical adventure comparative. I was confused because it seemed like Hero thought we were mad that he was talking to us. He kept apologizing for everything he said. Literally, everything. I think at one point he told us that he decided to swap out the mustard packets he had been carrying with a jar of peanut butter. He apologized as if this decision affected us at all. I couldn’t understand why he felt so self-conscious all the time–we spent almost 36 full hours with Hero and he still didn’t realize how much we appreciated his company. I wanted to shake him and say “YOU’RE A FUN PERSON, WE LIKE YOU, STOP APOLOGIZING.” I started writing about Hero almost immediately after leaving the trail, but I could never pinpoint exactly what I wanted to SAY about him. Every time I thought I might have a point, the Caitlin sitting next to me, who is always glaring at me with an unamused expressionless face, said “that’s….stupid.” It wasn’t until much later, when I decided to stare at the paragraphs about Hero for the umpteenth time, that I realized, I am Hero.
Backpacking for an entire month left me feeling like a bright shiny light. I was motivated, ecstatic, confident, and independent among many other wonderful things. Six months after leaving the trail, I could still touch those feelings and roll them around in my fingers, but they were no longer taking hold of me on their own. It took work. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what it was that changed me so drastically, and searching for a way to make it come back to me.
Someone who I mostly know as a Facebook friend, but who is an amazing, bright shiny light of her own, recommended a book called “You are a Badass” written by Jen Sincero. What I have loved most about this book is that she speaks my language–she’s down to earth, she has struggled but she doesn’t focus on it, and she knows her stuff. In the aptly named chapter, “Millions of Mirrors,” she claims that the personality traits in other people that resonate with us the most are the ones that we currently, or will one day possess ourselves. So if your co-worker drives you crazy because she is a know-it-all, then probably, you are in some way a know-it-all.
So yes, I can still picture Hero, out there in the world somewhere, probably opening a door for the person behind him…and apologizing for it. Granted, he is an extreme case of what I am now calling PSC (Personality Self-Consciousness), but, I’ve been there. I used to spend all of my time worrying about what people might think of what I do. It was to the point where I did nothing because I was stalled by the fear of making a mistake or not being good enough. I worried about what people would think of my employment situation so I made excuses and found ways of making it sound respectable. I almost always said that my most recent circumstances were only temporary and that I was planning something big in the future even though in reality I was too stalled with fear to go after my passion. I made excuses. I made them to myself and to everyone around me all day, everyday.
For me, it seemed to boil down to confidence. In the past, I have typically related confidence to appearances. When I felt like I looked good, I felt confident. When I thought I looked like I got run over by a truck, I got clammy. I wish I could say that my criticism was directed solely at myself, but it’s not true. I have had a terrible habit of applying my unrealistic expectations to every female I pass on the street. I made comparisons on comparisons on comparisons. I’m tempted to admit that I was shallow, but that’s not really it. I never judged men based on their physique, hair, complexion, etc–I honestly don’t focus on a man’s appearance at all. I also don’t make choices about my friends based on their appearance, but I DO compare myself to them and use these comparisons to either make myself feel good or make myself feel like crap. It’s beyond embarrassing to say out loud, but it’s true.
One thing that Jen Sincero begs her readers to do is love themselves. She even gives 8 or so strategies that will help change your opinion of yourself, and she basically says that if you love yourself and you know what you want, you will have it. Jen also claims that the subconscious thoughts that you have about yourself and the world are typically developed when you are very young, before your conscious mind has a chance to decide what it actually thinks about these things. So no matter how many times you look in the mirror and think logically, I am a fit, attractive person, if you don’t recognize and shut down your subconscious voice in the background yelling “YOU ARE OVERWEIGHT AND NO ONE LIKES YOU,” it will win every time.
When I read Jen Sincero’s claims, I took them on fully. She says that my negative traits are being reflected back at me and my negative traits have been learned from my parents (who they are and how they have raised me). In that moment, I began approached the healing process like a newly assigned research project. When I noticed something I didn’t like in other people, I would instinctively turn the mirror inward. “OH, MAN. I’M THAT WAY TO!” I couldn’t possibly take any responsibility for this way of being so I turned directly to my parents. “Hmmm…how do they fit into this equation.”
So, my mother’s insecurities about her appearance and my father’s lack of confidence in himself and his work became the reasons for my pain. I collected evidence for why it was their fault and I went on like this for two years. One of my therapists helped me remember the time when I wet the bed and my mom slept through the entire thing. I made that mean that my mother wasn’t there for me when I needed her most. I also collected the time when I came home embarrassed about my awful report card. To my surprise, my dad congratulated me for the B’s and C’s I had received: “man, don’t we have smart kids, hon?” he said. I made this to mean that my parents had low expectations for my future. I’m not proud of the list I collected, but I promise you, it’s long.
Shockingly…….blaming my parents didn’t help. I was left standing there in the middle of a world of self hatred and insecurities with a PHd in my problems (I don’t think this is what Jen Sincero was recommending). I took every opportunity to tell people about my thoroughly researched excuses. Not only was it an extremely ugly way to live, I also took the two people who love me most in this world and actively pushed them away.
It’s no secret that my boyfriend Kyle and I spend almost every weekend in the woods. We don’t miss an opportunity to sleep outside and when we can’t sleep outside we spend at least a majority of the day running or hiking on whatever trail we can get to. In the Catskills, there is one secret campsite that we frequent. There are no trails to this campsite. It seems as if we are the only people who use it. The forest floor is littered in fallen branches and trees that crack loudly beneath our feet. In your living room, this degree of clutter would be overwhelming, but in the woods there is something wonderful about how untouched the space remains. The last time we were there, I turned to Kyle and I said, “why do you like being out here so much?” He thought for a moment and after a little conversation he settled on this: “I just like being away from everything. We remove ourselves from the world and the only thing to worry about is right now.”
For me, there are a lot of THINGS about backpacking. Here are two of those things:
- There aren’t any mirrors in the woods. I don’t know about anyone else, but I have spent a lot of time looking in the mirror. I get pretty pissed if the restaurant bathroom is sans mirrors. How am I supposed to fix my hair? When you’re in the woods, for however long, there is no sense in caring about your appearance. Even if you just showered, pretty soon you’re going to be dirty. You wouldn’t dream of carrying make-up or hair products, everyone else also looks pretty gnarly, and you don’t have a mirror to look in anyways, so what’s the point? Before Jess and I left for our hike on the Appalachian trail, I cut off all of my hair in this edgy, undercut sort of pixie style. I had almost no time to get used to it before we left, and it didn’t look that great when it WAS styled. In Caitlin’s real world, this is a travesty. In the woods, it doesn’t matter. For the first time ever I wasn’t staring in the mirror, frustrated about how to fix my hair and my body and my face before leaving the house. You don’t realize how badly you make yourself feel when you stand in front of a mirror until you don’t do it for awhile. And THEN, when you do happen upon a mirror, you end up forgetting to look, because again, what’s the point?I want to feel this way all the time.
- Everything is extremely simple. When you’re long distance hiking you wake up, pack all of your things into your backpack, eat breakfast, brush your teeth, and hike. Everything happens in reverse whenever you get to your daily destination and…that. is. it. You work towards your goal of reaching whatever mileage or town that you’ve decided on and you bear the elements, exhaustion and mild injuries. A lot of people out on the trail are there because they need time away (from their job, spouse, divorce, parents, grief, etc.). They’re there to cope, but they’re also there to just feel each day come and go in all of it’s simplicity. It’s like being on a beach vacation–for the first few days you just bask in the lack of responsibility. The difference is, when you hike, there are no phones or calendars or books or tvs to remind you of what is actually happening on the periphery of your vacation. If you’ve committed to a weekend, a week or a month on the trail, you would be a fool to waste time worrying about what you can’t change and honestly, survival mode becomes a real thing. When I am backpacking I realize that my life is small and the universe is super-sized.
I have spent a large portion of the last 20 years in confusing amounts of pain. Every day I grappled with the “why?” Why do I feel this way? Why am I being punished? Why is everything so hard? I have applied a revolving door of coping mechanisms that have allowed me a relative amount of sanity, but overall, I was just waiting and hoping that there was something else that would come later: “There has to be something else to this life.”
It wasn’t until very recently that I started taking responsibility for my way of being and acting. Up until this point I have left it up to someone else: it was the universe’s fault, or God’s, or my parent’s, or my teachers’, or my friends’. I was never confused about my morals or beliefs. I know what I want and who I want to be, but I never gave myself the opportunity to be true to that person. I was too busy blaming others for the lack of success in every part of my life (in emotions, in career, in finances, in relationships, etc.).
What I’ve realized is that the only person responsible for the way that I FEEL is ME! How crazy is it to leave that up to someone or something else? When I started to take responsibility for myself (the way I feel and the actions I take) I also realized that right now, the future is an empty space, open for whatever feelings or actions I want to create. Once I started making decisions based on who I want to be and the life I want to live, I stopped needing to apologize so much (poor Hero, I wish I had a way of contacting him). I love hiking, it helps me to feel confident and present, but I don’t necessarily need it in order to be that way. I also know that my parents did and continue to do their absolute best–lucky for me, their absolute best is some of the finest parenting in the world. It’s a revelation! The way that I act and the way I feel is my choice! It’s my choice…and I choose to be a bright shiny light.