Welcome to Empathy Bound’s three-part self-compassion series! This first post mentions eating disorder behaviors as well as suicide. Please consider waiting for our next article if you feel uncomfortable with or triggered by these topics. For support with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
The other day I was writing my obituary. It’s weird, I know, but it was an assignment for my “death and dying” class. When I started writing, it looked a lot like a resume´. I listed awards, schools, and even added a scattering of words like “driven” and “hard-working” for flavor. Then, I paused. Is this actually the entirety of how I want to be remembered?
From the time I was a kid, I thrived off of others seeing me as a strong person, a powerhouse, and most importantly, a success. This model lent itself well to achieving goals and meeting high standards, but it didn’t nurture a good self-image and left little space for human failure. A weird paradox arises when this happens: Suddenly, when you feel you can’t persevere, there is no reason to exist.
For me, the internal pressure began to erupt at a young age.
When I was in third grade, I got a D on a test, and found myself kneeling on the floor of the bathroom, praying I would throw up so I could go home sick. My worth was my grades. How could I lose that? I would be nothing.
When I was in middle school, I had a heated argument with a family member. Afterward, I self-harmed for the first time, so angry with myself for upsetting someone dear to me. I was what people thought of me. If I was angering people, I would be nothing.
When I was in 8th grade, my aunt died, and I decided that I was going to get rid of any feelings about her passing so I wouldn’t worry people. I was my ability to be okay. If I looked damaged, I would be nothing.
During my first year of high school, I attempted suicide. Within hours of getting home from the hospital, I was scrolling through social media, trying to catch up on what I had missed. I was how included I felt. If people forgot about me, I would be nothing.
From ages 14-19, I was diagnosed with a half dozen mental disorders. I would settle into a diagnosis for a month or two, trying to convince myself that this one’s treatments would fix me, before quickly spiraling back into mood swings from hell. Before I was 20, I had been admitted to the hospital 5 times for suicidal ideation. I had tried countless programs, worked with dozens of therapists, and taken many medications. I increasingly confused “failed treatments” with being a “failed person.” Unable to break this rigidity, the smallest things controlled me. I couldn't make a mistake in front of people without obsessing on it for months. I lived in fear of losing control, and for almost half a decade, I refused to walk the shorter loop in my neighborhood out of fear I wouldn't burn enough calories.
In all of this pain, I couldn't see that maybe, there was a better life—a different way to approach myself. Maybe, just maybe, I was sprinting this marathon so fast, that I was missing the experience of being truly alive. Instead, I felt like nothing.
I now recognize that this feeling of “nothingness” is a hallmark of my experience with a highly internalized type of borderline personality disorder that’s been co-existing with an eating disorder. A struggle deeply rooted in what researchers call “overcontrol,” this instability has led to incredible loss, but also has introduced me to some major insights. Most notably: Even when I feel like I am accomplishing nothing, I am not nothing. We live in a society that says the more you master and the busier you are, the more valuable you are—the more worthy you are of respect. We are all worthy of respect regardless of how productive or “successful” we are.
This is not to say it isn’t good to seek improvement, to achieve, or to work hard. Yes, there are times when we must make sacrifices and work harder to meet important goals. But we must be wary of believing that these times of striving are what make us who we are. We will not become lesser when we are doing less.
Recently, I asked myself, “What would you seek in a true friend?” Would you look for the person who throws everything else away to meet a goal, who is well-known for their achievements but risked their life to have them, and who values being successful above being happy? Or would you seek the person who makes you feel alive when you are with them, who loves deeply, and who includes others in their success? I want to be close with the latter. I want to BE the latter— for myself and others.
So, like any journey, I am taking one step at a time. Last week, while out walking my route around the neighborhood, I walked that shorter loop. It felt good. When I got home and finished my obituary, it was significantly different than the first draft. Yes, there were still many achievements, but there were also relationships. There were dreams of happy children and a long marriage. There were moments of empathy and moments of struggle. Most notably, in place of nothingness, there was self-compassion. There was a life worth living.