Failure to Adult

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I was “bequeathed” a few of my father’s writings, which are precious artifacts to me. Some were written for publication; others are more personal. One of the more personal ones dealt with a simple home improvement project that went wrong. In addition to feeling frustrated, my dad began hearing his own father’s voice in his head, berating him for not knowing how to do something so simple. The louder the voice got, the more my dad tried to hammer away at the problem, making it worse and worse, literally knocking holes in the wall in his shame. No matter how he tried, he could not silence the voice: You should know how to do this. What kind of man are you?

The people involved are all deceased, which is one reason I feel I can share those bare-bones details. The other reason is this: Don’t most of us struggle with shame scripts from time to time? Brené Brown wouldn’t be a bestselling author if we didn’t.

Even if your parent didn’t speak this language, you have probably picked up some of the basic messages of shame. Brené articulates them as:
Not good enough.
Who do you think you are? 

Robert and I have been slowly making headway on some long pending home projects. (Long pending.) Sunday morning I went on a long run and when I got back I decided to take advantage of my already-sweaty status and tackle the garage. Over the next several hours I sorted a bunch of items for donation, boxed up little-kid toys for the attic, and collected all the outdoor toys into a single place in the garage. As I left for Goodwill with the back of the van piled high with stuff, I proudly announced to Robert that we were probably one weekend away from being able to park our van in the garage for the first time in James’s life.

It was an amazing feeling.

Late in the afternoon Robert and I set about putting the boxes of Christmas decorations back in the attic. (Yes, mid-April… and that’s not even our record. June 25 is the magic day on which the next Christmas is closer than the previous one, so why bother putting the boxes away?)

As I started to hand up boxes of ornaments and ceramic figurines, I heard him say “Umm… hold up a second. Yeah, stand back.”

Then down through the hole came a shower of debris: empty box after empty box, large styrofoam pieces–old storage for computer monitors, desktops and other household appliances we don’t even own anymore.

I began to hyperventilate, and it wasn’t from the dust.

Here I had spent the entire day getting the garage in order, and we were trashing it out again! This wasn’t a rational response, of course. I knew intellectually that one trip to the recycling center would do it–and that’s exactly what happened. And it’s great to have more space in the attic.

But with each cascade of boxes came this voice in my head: You call yourself a competent adult? Look at this stuff you haven’t dealt with… for years! You will never conquer the chaos and clutter in your life. There will always be more–more than you can ever handle. 

I realized that keeping up with the Joneses can take many forms. Some people are lured by the Joneses’ shiny new toys, or the Jones children’s impeccable manners and shelf full of trophies.

My trigger is competence. I often feel like there’s this body of knowledge about adulthood that I somehow missed. Our dishwasher recently started leaking and it turns out we needed to clean the seal from time to time. Where in the heck were we supposed to pick up this information?

As the Internet leaves its infancy and adolescence, we’re seeing more and more studies on the effect of social media on happiness. I’ve read a lot of it and it’s a mixed bag–there are net positives and net negatives. But I do know that Facebook and other sites have given us insidious new ways of comparing every one else’s outsides to our insides, which is never a formula for a wholehearted life. Our real-life messiness will always lose out to everyone else’s carefully curated personas. Blessed be those who will post the graphic like the one above. Blessed be the pockets of radical honesty where a super capable person I know can say, “It’s April 18 and my taxes are a mess. I have done nothing. Help.”

I talk to many friends and colleagues recently who struggle with some version of impostor syndrome: If people found out how screwed up I was, I’d be fired/ridiculed/judged. A woman and pastor colleague who serves a large church told me several years ago, “I feel like I’m always fifteen minutes away from complete embarrassment.”

Not good enough.
Who do you think you are?

As I continue to reflect on Sunday’s experience of cascading boxes, I’m trying to confront those messages in my head as the shame-poisoned lie that they are. Yeah, life is chaotic, and I’ll never have it figured out. But I’m trying to practice radical kindness toward myself in the process.

Last week at The Well, one of my colleagues quoted that beautiful line from Ram Dass: We’re all just walking each other home. That’s what I’ve been trying to hear over the din of not good enough.

These conversations need to leave the quiet moments behind closed doors. I hate that our culture doesn’t reward this kind of truth telling. But you know what? We are culture. We have the power to move toward greater authenticity with one another. I hope we will.


This one’s for KB.


9 thoughts on “Failure to Adult

  1. Bob Braxton

    one small step toward adult-ing for us at age 71 and 70 is re-purposing construction timbers (outdoors) to craft “new” firewood storage solution(s) that we trust will last yet another quarter century (aging in place) as has the original firewood storage racks built around the time we became parents of college / university graduate, circa 1993.

  2. Mindy

    Yesterday, I was walking the dog and feeling every bit like you did when the boxes came tumbling down from the attic – “It’s too much! I can’t do it!” As I walked along, I heard a little boy, about 4-5 years-old, start screaming at his parents, “I don’t want to! I can’t! It’s too hard! I can’t do it!” As he screamed I thought, “That’s it! That’s what I want to do! I just want to have a little tantrum right here and scream about why it is all too much for anyone to possibly manage!”
    I didn’t have that tantrum, of course, at least not outside where everyone could see! And a long walk later that night with my husband brought me back to myself again. I was grateful that he was there to walk me home. Thanks so much for this, MaryAnn.

  3. Mitch Teemley

    Love the Ram Dass quote. We’re all amateurs at life. Just when you figure out how to be 19, you’re 20, and then you’re 40, 50, etc. And we only get practice dying once too.

  4. Mamala

    At the time when your dad and I split up, I remember the reaction of more than one AA/AlAnon friend upon me telling them about how unhappy our marriage had evolved and the response they gave back to me (with a look of utter shock and surprise) was”you were always smiling/always the one who smiled.”

  5. anne

    just taking a break from packing boxes for moving from our too-bigness to our right-sizedness. this was a lovely piece to read as i’ve said unkind words to myself about why i bought so much of this or that and why i don’t clean out spaces regularly.

    i have noticed, though, that when i only clean things out every 10 years (we moved here 10 years ago), it’s easier to know what is old trash and what is old treasure.

  6. Ted Fulmer

    I’m just catching up with things from last week and read this today. I actually got goose bumps when I read “No matter how he tried, he could not silence the voice: You should know how to do this.” I hear Hank’s voice saying that a lot. In fact, as a kid I actually heard that when he would have me “help” him on a project – I’d struggle with something fundamental, like say, driving a nail into a board and he’d watch me struggle and then say “Don’t you know how to do that?”. I’m sure he did not mean it to sound as critical as it did to me – some years later I was with my uncle Clare Burwell and he saw me fumbling with a battery tester and he said “You’ve almost got it – let me show you a short-cut” and he proceeded to teach me in the most positive way how I was doing it wrong. I remember thinking “I wish I had grown up near this man”. My point (beside the self-therapy) is that in the intervening years I’ve become convinced that most sons grow up with fathers with “that voice”. Breaking *that* cycle is tough work. “You’ve almost got it…” – I can’t tell you how many times I used that – I hope a lot of times.

  7. Joe

    Thank you for this. I’m just going to go ahead and print it out and put it in my desk so I can pull it out when I’m feeling this way — which is pretty much thrice a week on a good week.

  8. Pingback: Mothers’ Day Monday (Let’s Make a Week Out of It*) | achurchforstarvingartists

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