23 Things I Wish I'd Known: #22: Forgive Yourself
At age 22, I started stripping. For the next fifteen years I worked off and on as a dominatrix, porn actress, and escort.
Now I’m 49.
Here are 23 things I know now that I wished I’d known then:
#22 Forgive Yourself
I used to hammer away at myself when I worked. The slightest little mix-up or error, and I would beat myself up mercilessly for days. There were a bunch of reasons why this was. On the one hand, the sex industry is all about selling fantasy. I internalized the idea that it was my job to be flawless, so I would agonize over all of my imperfections, physical and performative, unable to recognizes that nobody is perfect, and mere mortals do the work every day.
Another factor was stigma. As a sex worker, I was desperate to never fall into the stereotype about being flaky, stupid, lazy, good-for-nothing. If I screwed up for any reason—getting caught in a lie, or getting shortchanged, or revealing something about myself that I shouldn’t have, I would plunge into a shame spiral: I’m so dumb, I’m so stupid, I’m so worthless.
There was another reason I was so cruel to myself: I thought it made me a better person. If I went easy on myself, or reached out for comfort when I was feeling devastated, I was letting the world down somehow.
I look back now with so much sadness and compassion. I can see how exhausting it was, keeping me ever-vigilant for disaster, certain that some day I would make some truly colossal error, and my life would be ruined. I demanded excellence—anything less was unacceptable. I see how it dampened my ability to take any pleasure in my successes, self-sabotaging by focusing only on my screw-ups.
I know I’m not alone in my perfectionism. The book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Dr. Kristin Neff, talks about this common dynamic in our culture: we absorb the message that the only people who deserve to feel good about themselves are exceptional. You need to be “The Best”—the richest, the prettiest, the smartest, the most successful. Settling for being merely above average at something or—heaven forfend—below average—is shameful, lazy, almost disgusting, and you deserve to feel inadequate and ashamed.
The repercussions of this syndrome are hugely damaging, and you can see them everywhere in our society. We puff ourselves up in order to avoid that excruciating sensation of not being good enough. All the while, by definition, half of us are not above average at most things, so we suffer from hidden shame. Any time we struggle or fail, as we must inevitably, as the flawed human beings we all are, we are destroyed by feelings—not of disappointment or defeat, but utter worthlessness.
Dr. Neff writes about the Buddhist practice of self-acceptance, which is often seen as self-indulgent and infantile in Western culture. It is not. Instead, it's a deeply adult commitment to making peace with things as they truly are. It involves the simple practice of seeing yourself as human—nothing more and nothing less. Good at some stuff, average at most, and truly terrible at a handful of things, just like everyone else alive. It means comforting yourself when you are suffering from sorrow or disgrace. The ability to simply detach from needing to be perfect and prove our worth at every turn, is a powerful technique that allows us to appreciate ourselves as we truly are. What an incredible gift to give to yourself.
I have much more to say about techniques of self-acceptance and kindness in my book Thriving in Sex Work: Heartfelt Advice for Staying Sane in the Sex Industry, out now as a paperback and in ebook format.
Until next time, be sweet to yourself—
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