Some of my favorite recovery meetings are attended entirely by women. This isn’t to say I haven’t heard resonant truths from men, too, but in women’s meetings I speak more openly. Topics like relationships, self-esteem, and body image come up. And if you've read my blog, you know that's kinda my jam.
Last week in an all-women meeting, the topic of self-worth came up. As a connoisseur of the self-help world, I’ve heard it all when it comes to self-worth. Today’s topic wasn’t exactly novel; we discussed the futility of looking to others to feel better about ourselves. On one hand, this idea is as worn-out and wrinkly as the inside of a Dove Chocolate wrapper. On the other hand, for all its popularity, few people have really mastered it. Maybe Dove ought to expand its marketing to billboards.
In the first year of sobriety, I often sought to replace the comfort of alcohol with other sources of external validation. In the context dating, I hoped a first date or a first kiss - hell, even just a first look - would yield the same momentary escape as that first sip. I'd jeopardize my limited serenity for this small hit of affirmation. But here's the thing: it didn't work. And although attention-seeking is distinctly different from picking up a drink, for me it functions much like a “Wrong Way” sign: even if I haven't crashed yet, I'm definitely headed in the wrong direction.
This isn’t really about the “male gaze.” Absent alcohol, I am also guilty of looking for affirmation in salary, status, and the size of my clothing too. I look for solutions in face masks, special vitamins, or a flattering picture. And to those that disparage face masks, the “deeper” things can be deceptively shallow too: For me, “good enough” has also meant smart enough, successful enough, hardworking enough. I’ve looked to all of that and more to feel bigger and better than my essential self.
The very act of looking for self-worth in these external sources is a "tell." It means I haven’t found it internally. We don’t look for things we’ve already found.
This isn’t a problem unique to alcoholic women, or alcoholics, or women. It might even be universal. (Although claims like that are usually wrong.)
How do we stop? If we’re driving the wrong way down a one way, where’s the closest and safest place to pull over and turn around?
(One time driving back from Ohio, I pulled over in Gary, Indiana just to reorient myself. That was a miss. The third Google result for Gary says it "lies in ruins," and the fourth renames it "Scary, Indiana." No kidding.)
Anyway: I’m not sure where we find self-worth, but I think it’s safe to cross Gary off the list. I'm comfortable nixing all other people, places, and things, too. It might even be that all that is left is something like higher power. Something like God.
Wince. I know. When I was younger, I partook in a lot of Christian summer camps. There were always a few campers and counselors who, in the middle of the worship service, would find themselves particularly impressed by the feeling of God’s love. They felt “overwhelmed” or “enveloped” by it. They felt it in their bones.
That does not work for me. I have never felt that. I would stare over from what I thought was my very open, exceptionally holy criss-cross-applesauce stance, mystified. Am I doing it wrong, or are they bluffing? (Not a day goes by where I don't ask myself that selfsame question.)
So God's love is a little tough to nail down. (Too early for Easter jokes? Ok, I'll leave.) But here’s what I have felt: more okay when I am doing my best, and paying little attention to the outcome. More okay when I am building others up, rather than tearing them down. More okay when I am loving more openly, more honestly, rather than hiding in cynicism and isolation. It isn’t a solution, per se - but neither is a face mask. One costs $2.99, and the other just takes practice. Like, the clear-your-schedule, cancel-your-plans type of practice. And your girl never misses an opportunity to cancel plans - so I'm all in.