I lost my grip on reality for a time this week. My inner sense of balance went out of kilter and for a while I was caught between two worlds – that of the adult that I purport to be and that of the child I wish I could be again.
Sometimes it all gets too much. First world problems, all of them, but the responsibility that comes with being an adult, with being grown up, with being sensible and decisive can bring me to my knees; I want to sit down and cry until someone comes along, gives me a hug, and tells me everything will be alright, just as they did when I was a child.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing very attractive about a 40-something-year-old behaving like she was five. That child-like refusal to see the obvious, believing that if I ignore it, it will cease to exist, simply doesn’t work. The five-year-old who still lives inside me wants to believe that everything is possible, that life really is a fairy tale, and that ice cream and chocolate will provide all the nutrition I need without adding poundage. The adult me knows better.
A chorus of ‘it’s just not fair’ bounced around in my brain for most of the week, sung in the same tuneless voice I used to sing Óró sé de bheatha abhaile in school – now there’s a song I haven’t thought of in years.
The shift to this child-like state started innocuously enough when my personal trainer (how posh do I sound?) told me that he was very proud of me, proud that I was sticking with the programme and getting results. Fair enough. I’m proud of me, too. So why was that so unsettling?
I can’t remember the last time someone told me they were proud of me. It’s not really something you say to adults, is it? I know that the few occasions on which I have said this to friends and colleagues resulted in a distinctly uncomfortable feeling as I felt I might be misunderstood as patronising and they didn’t quite know quite what to do with the compliment. Hearing it myself triggered something in me that saw me revert to when I was child and my parents or an aunt or uncle, or a teacher took pride in something I had done. I know on a rational, adult level, that I don’t need anyone’s approval to verify who I am; I know that I don’t need praising or plámásing to make me feel good about myself; and I’m fully aware of the danger of depending on other people’s validation.
And yet, when a few days later, my writing coach told me he was proud of my progress, too, I felt like my heart would burst. I was five again, opening my homework and seeing the gold star and feeling the intensity of emotion resulting from my teacher’s approbation. What was I like?
Is it a zero-sum game? With each positive emotion is there a negative one, too? With each empowering emotional high is there a corresponding disempowering low? It certainly felt like it. For no sooner had I dressed myself in the warm glow of accomplishment, the doubts set in. They didn’t in any way relate to my muscles or my essays though, but had more to do with my ability to cope. It was as if I’d become a child again and had lost that independent self-reliance that so many associate with me and never question. I became needy, a tad truculent, and more than a little dramatic. And I threw a tantrum or three.
So what, you may ask, do I find to be grateful about this week? Well, I’ve learned that no matter how old I am, I will never be too old for compliments. I’ve learned that no matter how independent and self-sufficient I might seem (even to myself) there is a part of me that needs to be looked after. And I’ve learned that we, as adults, are really just children trying to cope with the responsibility that comes with age. And occasionally, we should give the child within us permission to play. As someone more quotable than I once said – Only some of us can learn from other people’s mistakes; the rest of us have to be those other people. For these lessons, and for those who were instrumental in their teaching, I am truly grateful.