A covid lesson: who am I when I'm stripped back?

April 15, 2020

"You are more than what you do, produce, or achieve. Don’t believe for a second that your output and your income dictate your worth. They don’t." ~ Lori Deschene

Welcome to Part II of my two-part post sharing what I've learnt during the coronavirus pandemic. In Part I, which you can read here, I discussed how slowing down to reflect on what matters most to me helped facilitate positive changes in my life. And the realisation that I can keep these changes for good.

In Part II, I'll be exploring something else I've noticed during this time that led me to ask some deeper questions about myself.

In the first week of the UK lockdown, I hurriedly set up my online Zoom piano lessons so I could continue working. Instead of being caught up on my career choices, life direction or relationship, the anxiety inside me pounced on its new obsession of choice with a quick stream of what-ifs. What if I lose work and can't pay the bills? What if I'm forced to move back home and endure the difficult relationship with my family? What if my loved ones become seriously ill, or even worse, die? I felt a deep sadness and came close to tears as I imagined a much-loved granddad dying alone on a hospital bed. In other words, my anxiety had shifted its focus - unsurprisingly - to the awful, awful situation. But at the same time, I noticed something else change within me.

My constant striving for perfection, along with the extremely high standards I'd been holding myself to, eased. I'd let myself off the hook because I knew everyone was in the same boat, frantically scrambling to adjust to their new and unusual lifestyle. I felt a weight lift inside me. I still felt stressed and anxious, but for once, I wasn't obsessing over what direction I'm taking with my life or piling on the pressure. The whole world was in chaos, so it was OK if I was too.

The following week, once I had everything a bit more organised, I noticed the anxiety seeping back in. The constant pressure I put on myself had returned and the highly critical voice slowly but surely emerged from the dark corners inside of me.

I caught myself.

When I knew the rest of the UK had put their lives on hold, I cared way less about my future and released a lot of pressure from myself. The conditions of the pandemic had changed my perspective only just last week, so why did it feel like I was back to square one again? Surely I shouldn't need a catastrophic situation to be kinder to myself. Why did I have to wait until everyone had basically stopped achieving and progressing to do it myself?

Then something clicked.

The only person who continuously puts pressure on themselves is me. When I knew others could no longer - or much less easily - make progress or be 'successful', it didn't matter if I wasn't either. I use my success as a measure-stick of my own self-worth. I'm living my life according to someone else's agenda or pretending to be a version of myself I think they want me to be. Who was it though? Where was that critical voice inside me coming from? Was it society, a parent or past teacher? Whoever it was, it is clear that I'm not living my life for me. I'm not being truly myself.

One of the things I notice when trapped inside this high-pressured, anxiety-driven, always-striving-for-more mode, is that I really struggle to relax or take any time out of my day. From the minute I open my eyes I am brimming with anxiety, a tight ball in my chest too stubborn to shake. It’s like I’m wired, buzzing, always-on, never resting. An overwhelming and extreme need to be productive in some way, any way. My harsh critic convinces me to either work on my goals, research a career change, get more promotional materials, finish my to-do list... there's no wonder after a few weeks or months of treating myself like a slave, I crash and burn and re-evaluate everything in a crumpled heap on the floor. So why did I have so much shame over my lack of productivity?

I've figured out that, like most things in life, there's no simple answer to this question. Through exploring it with my therapist, it's likely a combination of factors including my past experiences, unhelpful thinking patterns and subconscious beliefs I hold about myself. As a classical musician, I naturally but ever-so-wrongly beat myself up over every single mistake I make, scrutinising each practice session and performance under a microscope. It hurts to be a perfectionist but it’s a part of me I hope I can tame and find a healthy use for overtime.

Deep down underneath it all, when peeling back the layers, is a belief that I am nothing, a nobody, even worthless, without being productive, successful or achieving something. The belief that I'm not good enough, not successful enough. I'm not enough just as I am.

I’ve realised I need to come face-to-face with some deeper questions to help me get to the bottom of this swirling pit of anxiety, shame and not-enoughness.

Who am I without relying on productivity to feel good enough?

Who am I when I'm not striving, bettering or improving?

Who am I when I'm stripped back? 

When I reflect on the questions above, I often find myself lost for words for who I am without my musical success or musician identity, the flimsy definition of my own self-worth clearly revealed. With the help of my partner, family and friends, I've begun to open my heart to my unique innate qualities that are not dependent on external success, validation or achievement. I’ve also discovered my personal values. One of my biggest realisations is that I feel I was put on this earth to help others, share my message, and experience the intense, deep and meaningful in every sphere of my life. I’ve since fallen back in love with writing and started this blog.

Truthfully, figuring out who I am without being reliant on external validation is an ongoing process of self-discovery and reflection. In fact, I have so much I want to say I'll be writing a lot more on themes around self-worth and identity very soon.

Sending you all my strength and love during these challenging times.

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