My Most Cringey Mistake
How I disguised a form of emotional self-injury in a spiritual warrior costume.
Today, I’m marinating in my mistakes.
Like you, I’ve made many mistakes in my life. And until now, I’ve been in the revel-in-your-mistakes camp. In fact, I’ve used this column and my Editor’s Letters of yesteryear to almost show off my mistakes. Think of the tag line to this Substack: I learn everything the hard way, so you don’t have to! But could there be a downside to leaning into our mistakes? Let’s journey.
My children recently asked me the origin of the passcode for our storage unit. It took me by surprise, honestly, because I hadn’t opened the unit for almost a year. I was about to tell them it was random, but in the end, I chose to be honest instead because it’s rooted in one of my most barfy mistakes.
Let’s time travel back to my first semester freshman year at Barnard.
My boyfriend was a sophomore at Columbia. Let’s call him “W.” It wasn’t a particularly deep relationship. He was fun. I was fun. We had fun…until my sorority winter formal when I drank way too much at the pre-party. Before I even walked into the Ballroom of the Marriot Marquis in Times Square, I high-tailed it to the bathroom…and barfed my brains out. I never actually made it inside to attend my first sorority formal. (Yes, I was a light weight.) “W” took me back to my dorm room, gently placed me in my bed, moved the trash can next to me…and never spoke to me again. But that wasn’t the barfy mistake…although plenty of barfing happened that night. The barfy mistake came in the days after the formal.
I was sort of hurt and confused that “W” ghosted me. I wanted to understand what was going on with him. So…I checked his voicemail…a lot. I had his passcode because he would ask me to check it for him sometimes when we were dating. And to be clear, I knew this behavior was wrong. I certainly didn’t want him to know I was doing it. And yet…I did it…again and again.It almost became a habit. Kind of like how you reflexively check your Instagram in the morning. I would just check his voicemail. I have no idea what I was looking for. If I psychologically squinted to figure out why I was doing it, maybe it was a way to still be in connection with him since we didn’t have proper closure. That’s being generous to me considering what a boundary violation it was for him. But on some level, I wanted to be caught because I told a mutual guy friend of ours…who told his friend and I still remember the hearing the voicemail she left on his machine, “Call me back…you’re never going to believe what I have to tell you.” Busted.
I’ve been using “W’s” voicemail passcode at every hotel safe for the past 30+ years.
I’m sitting with the fact that I unconsciously wanted to remind myself of that teenage lapse in judgement for the rest of my adult life. A jab at every single hotel stay, including my honeymoon. A jab every time I needed something from our storage unit. A reminder of how pathetic I was. Why did I need to remind myself of how pathetic I was? Because it was a reminder of how pathetic I am: My subconscious belief about myself. That passcode was the dial-in number to what Buddhist teacher, Tara Brach, calls my trance of unworthiness. This little, insidious way of always reminding myself of the desperate girl with terrible judgment and the boy who considered me unworthy of even a breakup. Don’t get too big for your britches, Atoosa. Remember who you really are…
The Bear expressed surprise and curiosity when he found out why this was my go-to code last year when we were away together. I stopped using it immediately…but mostly because I felt ashamed to have this weird thing from my past in my present. It took me almost a year to really process what that whole thing was about for me.
I think this is bubbling up for me today because my lifelong trance of unworthiness is beginning to dissolve with my consistent practice of self-love. As a confident and successful adult, for years I’d managed to spiritually by-pass this trance by essentially blaming myself for negative patterns in my relationships in the name of taking personal responsibility for my mistakes. For instance, in “Season One” of my relationship with The Bear, I completely shouldered the blame for our breakup. During one big fight, I walked out, which he interpreted as abandonment… and kinda never forgave me. I carried the burden of this for months. But instead of just moving on (me) or recovering and repairing (him), we assumed this pattern of my constantly trying to prove my commitment…and his ambivalence. This dance hooked into my unworthiness. If I valued myself more, I would have simply said, I’m sorry I hurt you. Let me know if you want to try again. And if not, we move on with a note to self that our sensitivities weren’t aligned. But instead, Season Two was like a non-stop audition. (Not his fault, btw. He was being true to his feelings. It’s how I showed up in response that I am observing. I was auditioning for a spot in my own life!) But unworthiness is so tricky. It doesn’t necessarily look like some insecure person begging for scraps. In my case, I had assumed a very sanctimonious posture: This spiritual warrior woman who is unafraid of owning her role in conflict…who can hold space and have compassion for this complex man’s sensitivities. But what I wasn’t holding space for was myself. My needs. My feelings. My need for reciprocity. By vowing not to abandon him again, I was abandoning myself. I had created this entire beautiful spiritual structure to hold my trance of unworthiness.
And it took one simple phrase quietly uttered by my best friend during a you’ll-never-believe what-he-did-THIS-time catch up to snap me out of the trance: “You don’t deserve this.” Perhaps because of all self-love work. Perhaps because as I leave my 26-year relationship and peel layer after layer of how-did-I-get-here and examine it, these are just the kinds of revelations that happen. Perhaps because it was just time. But it happened. I don’t deserve this.
I deserve better. I deserve better. I deserve better.
I sit with this revelation quietly and alone for now. I deserve better. I don’t feel the need to act. I deserve better. I just want it to really sink in and populate my insides. I deserve better.
And so do you, my sister, so do you. I hope you already know that. I hope this was just my lesson to learn. But if not, you know where I am 24/7, as always at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The soundtrack of my 🤍🖤❤: