Trigger Warning: This essay includes discussion of depression and suicidal thoughts.
In my basement, I have a bicycle on which the handlebars have been swapped out for a flat desk. My aspirational self begged and begged for it — more on her in a moment — and I folded like a two-star hotel towel, about this time of year. I’ve probably ridden it for 20 total hours in my life, mostly because it hurts my butt, and I can’t type when I’m moving that much. Yet there it is, the weird desk-bike thing, unused and yet unlisted on Facebook Marketplace.
Let me tell you about my aspirational self — that’s the name my therapist calls her, and I like it. You’ve never met a pitchwoman like my aspirational self. If she can make me believe that paying several hundred dollars for the privilege of exercising while I work, like buying a VIP ticket to Black Mirror: The Ride, is better than three days on a mid-shelf cruise ship, imagine the vast vision board of bullshit she could sell you on.
I used to revel in the lore of what my life would look like when we achieved singularity. “Someday Sarah” can do anything. Sarah with the salad? Sarah, whose picture is on the wall at Orange Theory? In the size six jeans, with the clean car, drinking the green smoothie? She’s on it like a Jane Austin bonnet, no matter the task. She can throw a baby shower on Sunday and do a standing ovation presentation on Monday. ROI, revenue, accounts payable, business, etcetera.
This was her favorite season — a prime victory lap opportunity for any aspirational self if there ever was one. Reading each missed mark aloud, she declared each year a failure, and dangled the carrot in front of me yet again. She was like my devil and angel on my shoulder, except she was just one, bad person, and she stood on my neck, and she was a huge bitch.
She pinched and poked at the softest spots on my body. She took my vacation money and spent it on a label maker and plastic containers, promising to pay me back when my new organizational skills somehow yielded me a promotion at work. She wouldn’t let me fill my plate at Christmas parties, guarding the cookie tray like an NBA center.
She was my internal mean friend. Every woman has one in her lifetime. It used to be a mystery to me, how these friendships formed, but now I know they’re an entanglement of two people’s aspirational selves. My mean friend belittled my ideas, told me I was being too emotional, and often undercut my excitement about wins by pointing out the micro-losses of which every win is an amalgamation — exactly, excruciatingly, like I talked to myself in my head. Worse, it’s not even in an explicitly mean voice, which somehow makes it all the more brutal. Every person assigned female at birth has felt the sickening burn of this “benevolent bullying” from someone:
“I think that would be really cute on you once you lose those last five pounds.”
“I bet he was just grossed out by your acne, but that’s his problem!”
“Wow, I’m really impressed with how well you did given how bad you are at this!”
It’s bullying with a sugar coating, offered in like a gift — the easiest poison to swallow. Just as starvation con artists and fake herb salesmen run parallel to well-meaning and helpful health advice, our aspirational selves are often self-loathing in improvement’s clothes.
Therapistagram, as I call it, along with the “empowered,” pink-washed meme world has trained us to not be explicitly mean to ourselves; but upon examination, we may find a thin veneer of frank-speaking, calm-voiced inner bully overlaying what looks very much like self-acceptance.
Mine said things like, “Yeah, he ghosted you and that sucks, but you haven’t been to the gym in like a month so I’m not sure who would want to date a person who doesn’t take care of themselves.” Two truths and a gut punch, a game you play with yourself and everyone loses.
The more “real” life became, the more mean Someday Sarah became, and the farther down I got, the harder she kicked.
“You’ll never make anything of yourself. You can’t even get out of bed. Look at how disgusting and fat and ugly you are. You’ll never be successful. Kill yourself. Kill yourself now and save yourself the humiliation of more failure. You’ll never be me.”
She was lying, of course. She was always lying, all along, but she said she was there to help and I had never questioned her. She was pretending, because she was a mirage, as was the perfect, organized body, mind, and life she bragged about having when we were together.
How could she make the time when she spent all of hers bothering me? And how could I make anything of my life if I spent it standing on dry, brown grass, watering her Astroturf with my obsession?
This liar had me contemplating ending my life because it didn’t resemble something my insecurities painted on a flimsy set in my mind. A few therapy sessions and antidepressant titrations later, and she visited less and less.
Let me tell you about my aspirational self — that’s the name my therapist calls her, and I like it.
Life without her constant comparisons did in fact yield some great successes. The central thesis of her argument was that I was nothing if I wasn’t her, and I could hold up those receipts to a hissing retreat like a crucifix to a vampire.
It felt like a breakup, in the way that some breakups hurt because that person was obviously bad for you, but you ignored all the red flags and wasted a lot of time and tears because they lent you some temporary, intoxicating feeling. She lent me the promise of an “easy” path. Screw self-actualization, all I had to do to make my life perfect was set out in three to five easy steps:
- Become thin through creative starvation, drugs, or magic
- Channel all my “hanger” into sorting, alphabetizing, and color coding everything I own
- Profit, romance, self-love, success, happiness. Modeling? Record deal? Who knows! Anything was possible in Tidy Thin World! I’d find it when I got there.
But I always got stuck at #1, and was therefore convinced for years that with the right application of gulag-style fitness routines, supplements, and denying myself most of my favorite bodily pleasures, I could achieve total happiness eventually. Any lack of success meant I needed to alchemize enlightenment through a new and different combo of [insert fitness trend] with [insert crash diet] and [insert Dr. Oz scam capsule]. Week after week, feeding my coins into the misery slots, and I never felt luckier all year than I did in the week between Christmas and New Years.
That was a lot of sunk cost to let go of, both in time and cash spent on DVDs and “slimming” teas that, spoiler alert, just make you poop forever.
I am still freeing myself of the detritus from hope-ium fueled, fatphobic impulse spending, done by a person deeply and sadly indoctrinated by diet culture. When I went full Konmari on my own ass, I found that, once I’d jettisoned all the clothes I’d wear “someday,” and all the fitness, organizational, and other hoarded objects for a life beyond the opaque partition of “good enough,” there wasn’t much stuff of mine that did indeed “spark joy.”
Week after week, feeding my coins into the misery slots, and I never felt luckier all year than I did in the week between Christmas and New Years.
For some of us, that aspirational self is nearly as old as we are, arriving early in life and hanging so close, they feel like a conjoined twin. That’s how I felt about letting her go: self-improvement (and the ideal life that followed) was so conjoined to my experience of life itself that I wasn’t sure what to do with my brain.
I was a dung beetle without a ball of shit to push around, and I never knew any different than shit pushing.
“Good enough, right now” felt like an identity assigned to me by the Witness Protection Program, as silly and comically artificial as declaring bankruptcy using the Michael Scott method.
But reader, let me let you in on a secret: it actually does work like that, in this case. Maybe with meds or therapy or maybe not, but believing it is all it takes to make it true. It’s a spell you can cast in silence or shout it out your window at midnight, sounding your barbaric, disorganized, imperfect, size whatever, clear, and loud yawp over the rooftops of an equally imperfect and forgiving world.
So there is good news and there is bad news waiting on the other side of this divorce from your aspirational self.
The good news is that trying to be a better person is still a good and noble goal. Keep going there. The bad news is that becoming a better person is infinitely more complicated than logging miles with perky cycling instructors and has more to do with big, ugly, monolithic struggles of the human condition: making a more just world, caring for your community, and tending the fires of hope in downpours of grief and loss. Reader, it will require you to eat and rest. It’s bleak out there, but you’re the perfect person for the job, and you got here just in time.
Perfect is a myth. Good enough is real, and that’s what you are right now: real and good enough, no accessories needed.
Well, maybe a bike desk. I got a line on one in great shape. Barely used.
Happy New Year to the same you, from the same me.
Sarah Murrell is a badass.
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