I had a professor in college who told me to overcome myself – he said it to everyone, not just me, and he quoted Nietzsche, so he wouldn’t have to completely own the harshness of the directive himself (it wasn’t me, it was that Nietzsche guy, blame him). It was one of his mantras, and he believed it would work for everyone the way it seemed to work for him: overcome your needs, desires, limits, weaknesses, hurts, hunger, pain, exhaustion, opinions – in the service of becoming – what? He never said.
My sense was that my professor had a very clear idea – from his family, community, religion, or whoever else – of who he was supposed to become, and therefore all he had to do was to make his own internal voices shut the fuck up so he could go ahead and live up to all of those expectations. And he expected me to be able to do the same – except, I didn’t have as clear an idea of who I was supposed to become, and even more importantly, I really didn’t have the skills at self-abnegation that he had.
I was, predictably, obsessed with him. I still lived at home, with my father sleeping in the bedroom next door, and I saw this professor as the ideal replacement father, and love interest, at the same time; not that I could articulate that thought out loud. If I’d been able to think those thoughts consciously I would have melted into a puddle of shame, but I can be more compassionate with my younger self, now, and understand that incest leaves marks on your brain that are hard to recognize and harder to remove.
I’ve been thinking about this professor lately, maybe because of my father’s death last fall, but also because my attempts to figure out how to set my boundaries with other people, and to advocate for myself when my boundaries have been crossed, haven’t been going very well, and I wanted to understand why.
The dictum – to overcome myself – resonated so strongly with me in college because it was what I’d been hearing my whole life up to that point: overcome hunger (anorexia – check!), overcome your body (over-exercising to the point of injury over and over again – check!), get all of your work done no matter what else is going on (can’t sleep at night but go to school anyway – check!).
But none of those behaviors worked for me long term; because my self, whoever that was, refused to be overcome. When I found books, a few years later, by Geneen Roth, Natalie Goldberg, and Anne Lamott – all encouraging me to listen to those internal voices no matter what the outside world was trying to tell me – I was finally able imagine a path forward that might actually work for me.
In a way, I’ve learned that what works best for me is the opposite of overcoming myself. I’ve learned that what I really need is to have compassion for myself as I am right now, to sit with the pain, or frustration or failure, and offer kindness to myself, instead of impatience and criticism.
But it’s so hard to give up the habit of self-criticism, especially when frustration and failure and pain are such regular experiences in my life. I’ve always been warned that self-pity, or self-indulgence, or being self-centered or selfish is dangerous, and therefore, self-compassion, which is another one of those self-things, seems like a slippery slope. I was taught to believe that criticism is the ultimate motivator to help you to become your best self, but it’s never been a successful tactic for me. I respond much better to encouragement and validation and support than to criticism, but criticism still feels much more familiar. Kindness is hard to get used to.
The thing about that professor, looking back, is that he didn’t actually live up to his own mantra. He had a reputation, despite being “happily married,” of having affairs with his female graduate students. I don’t know if those rumors were true, but there was something about his belief that he should be able to overcome himself, and his endlessly imperfect efforts to make it happen, that made it possible for me to see his hypocrisy more clearly than I could see it in my father. I also found out that I could disagree with my professor without putting my life at risk, which didn’t feel true with my father, and that gave me the freedom to start moving away from my father’s world and see the possibility of a different future.
I think I’ve been struggling with setting, and even understanding, boundaries because it’s a more complicated journey than the literature suggests. I can’t overcome other people any more than I can overcome myself, as if it’s just a snap of the fingers and all of the healthy boundaries are in place and consistent and as visible as neon lights.
But just like I learned how to argue with my professor, and then to argue with my father, in real life and in my own head (where his voice was loud and persistent), I know I can learn how to argue with the voices around me telling me to accept treatment I don’t want to accept. It will just take longer than I want it to, like everything else. And it helps to know that I’ve been on this journey for a long time, and that I’ve made a lot of progress, at my own pace.
I think I even said to my professor, though I probably only imagined saying it, that I disagreed with Nietzsche, because it made no sense to me that we should overcome ourselves, as if our real selves are, by definition, bad, lying, and unreliable things, when actually these are the only selves we will ever have. And, given that, shouldn’t these selves be precious, at least to us, and to the people who care about us?
Yeah, I probably didn’t say that out loud when I was twenty. But I thought it, which was a good place to start.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?