Finding Balance With Outside Affirmation Part 1

"Christ in the House of Mary and Martha" by Vincenzo Campi, c.1580, oil on canvas, Galleria Estense

"Christ in the House of Mary and Martha" by Vincenzo Campi, c.1580, oil on canvas, Galleria Estense

There's a phrase that haunts my professional life these days. During my first year of teaching special education, our school leader led the staff through an exercise where we talked about our organization's culture. Part of that was identifying what our "organic" culture was - what attitudes, values, and actions--positive or negative--had become hallmarks of our group without any conscious effort on our part? Someone quipped, "Alcoholism and martydom", and although we all laughed at the joke, we instantly felt the truth at the core of it. We were a group of deeply overworked people, coasting through the weeks on the fumes of Friday night's happy hour and the dwindling energy of our mid-twenties. We worked with an under-served population in a system with incredibly limited resources, and work/life balance was nonexistent. To come in at 6 A.M and leave when the building closed at 6 P.M. was hailed as showing perseverance. To work school events on Saturday and lesson plan all day Sunday was routine.

I had never encountered a job that asked so much of me, both explicitly and implied, and I had never been in a position where I couldn't meet the demands of my workplace. But this time I had a one-year-old adorable little productivity-killer who was going to show me that I was not in fucking Kansas anymore. My work life was going to change as a parent whether I liked it or not, and to weather it I was going to have to sacrifice a big ole chunk of my identity: my need to be the Hardest Working Person In The Room, and more importantly, my need to be seen as such. 

When I say that I struggle with needing affirmation from others, it's sometimes met with surprise because most of the people in my life think of me as someone who "does her own thing," which is a polite way to say that I wore polka dot skirts over Jnco jeans in middle school and took a female date to homecoming and buzzed half my head in college and lived in a Christian commune and stopped shaving my armpits. Very few people were affirming those decisions and I seemed to have no trouble making them. 

What they don't realize is that affirmation can be compartmentalized. I've written before about how my Evangelical background influenced the way I viewed romantic attraction, and in a similar way it defined which parts of myself I needed to subject to the judgement of others. So while I've never cared much what people think about how I look, I care very much whether or not they think I'm a Good Person. More specifically, I want them to think I'm a Hardworking Good Person. My role models growing up were literal martyrs--people who poured their entire heart, soul, and body into their life's work and spiritual calling. Nothing was impossible for them because "I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me." (Philippians 4:13) Being hardworking was also woven into the fabric of how I defined love. When I read the story of Mary and Martha hosting Jesus, I always  secretly identified with Martha even though I knew we were supposed to like lazy-ass Mary. There Martha was doing the cooking and cleaning and washing all those dirty dishes. What is that if not devotion?

Looking externally for affirmation isn't inherently bad--I believe it serves a very valuable social function of creating shared values in communities and creates a fail-safe for all our shittiest impulses. We'd all be running around doing a lot more selfish, stupid things if we truly didn't care what anyone thought of us. But what do you do when your need for affirmation gets out of hand, or when a life event (read: tiny humans) renders it impossible for you to get that affirmation the way you used to?

The past four years have been a long, hard lesson in finding out.

(...to be continued...)