In early May, I attended a symposium in New York City put on by my friend Dawn of She Recovers. On Saturday night of the conference, I sat among five hundred other women in recovery listening to a keynote speech by one of my first teachers and a woman who is also in recovery, Gabby Bernstein. As I listened to her tell a room full of women - most of whom are in the earliest stages of recovery, most of whom are still on their knees - that we needed to remember humility, that three or four years in recovery is no time at all, that we still know nothing, that to heal we need to get over ourselves EVEN MORE, that we need to get more RIGHT-SIZED than we already are, to mind those egos of ours that are out-of-control and ever-scheming, that we needed to BE HUMBLE IN OUR RECOVERY - I had to do everything in my power not to stand up and scream my fucking face off.
I don't know how you came to recovery, but if you're a woman, you most likely did not come in with an ego that couldn't fit through the door or a pathological lack of humility. If you're anything like me, you didn't need to be told what right-sized was because you'd been trying your whole life to be impossibly small. You didn't need to figure out what the hell a character defect was because you were already the QUEEN of cataloguing all the shit wrong with you - just ask your diary, your mom, any ex-boyfriend, your boss, therapist, friends, and cat. And asking God to take it all away? Nope, you did that too. Every day of your life you asked God to not be what you were, to be different, to be perfect, because ever since age five you've been told you were wrong. You didn't need to be told not to trust yourself because you'd always been told not to trust yourself. You didn't need to be told how to apologize because you'd already been apologizing for everything you are and everything you do to everyone forever. You didn't come in too-big and too-proud, you came in cratered, and you didn't need to be broken the fuck down because you were already broken the fuck down.
Prior to 2012, which is when I started to stop drinking, I had never been explicitly warned - or typically thought - that I needed to fear my ego. That was probably the one thing about myself I had failed to hate, and I don’t think I could have defined ego properly if you'd asked me to. That all changed, and immediately so, upon deciding that I'd need to ditch alcohol. It wasn't because some welcome committee showed up at my door the second I decided on sobriety with some literature on me and my ego. It was more like this: The very fact that I wasn't calling myself an alcoholic and was "doing it on my own" opened some sort vault of doubt I hadn't known existed until that moment, and I was all the sudden very aware of our societal pact that says people who can't drink are inherently ego-inflated, prone to fooling themselves, and not to be trusted. In retrospect I can see that it wasn't only that I was afraid I had a problem with alcohol -it was that I was terrified of what having a problem with alcohol meant in terms of who I was (and wasn't). I was no longer just a fucking mess of a woman struggling in 21st century America. I was a mess of a woman struggling in 21st century America who was also now a verifiable ego-centric liar.
It wasn't as if up to that point I hadn't been told what was wrong with me - for over three thousand years women havebeen assaulted with the ideas of what we are not and what we shouldn't be. It was more like this: Now that I had admitted to this thing, people had even less of a problem telling me what I should do, and what would happen if I didn't do it.
As I continued on my journey, refusing to partake in the traditional means to wellness that one who struggles with alcohol is expected to partake, the voices got louder from the inside, and audible on the outside. I was explicitly told time and again that "my ego was talking," "my ego was running the show," I was fucked up and would always be fucked up, I was fooling myself and those around me, I needed "real help" and I would drink again if I didn't get "real help," I was in denial if I didn’t submit to a program that I saw as oppressive.
In other words - my personal rejection of the "normal way" - and to be explicit I mean my opposition to attend AA, work the twelve steps, and hesitation / eventual refusal to call myself an alcoholic - was seen to be a further indication of my defect of character. That I wouldn't submit was only further proof of my sickness and proof that my ego was running the show.
"Over the years, every conceivable deviation from our Twelve Steps and Traditions has been tried. That was to be sure, since we are so largely a band of ego-driven individualists." | Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions
"By every form of self-deception and experimentation, they will try to prove themselves exceptions to the rule, therefore nonalcoholic." | Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, The Big Book
In 2012, when I finally fell to my knees and asked for help, it is fair to say I didn't know who I was, or how powerful I was. I had learned at a very young age that I wasn't okay. By age five I knew that my emotions were all wrong - I had temper tantrums, had to be held down during teeth brushings, and my parents often reminded me that I was just like The Little Girl With A Curl (when I was good I was very, very good, and when I was bad I was horrid). By the time I was 11 I had cellulite on my stomach and had accumulated such nicknames as Big Butt and Cottage Cheese Stomach (BB and CC for short). I was too energetic for most people, especially my family and teachers, and I was often punished, reprimanded, and tempered. I had a reputation for being a slut by the time I was 16, in college I picked up the nickname Holly Drama, and in my early career I was I often told that I was too aggressive, emotional, and unpredictable - and that I would not advance if I didn't get these parts of me under control. One review literally said "unlikeable." Most of my romantic relationships ended with a list of things inherent to my character that were seen as deal breakers; too much of this, not enough of that, close but no cigar.
I took people at their word, I took all of it as evidence.
With every single instance of being told I was not enough, too much, gross, fat, dumb, loud, and wrong, I shut a door within myself. This is not acceptable, that is not acceptable, all these things are not acceptable, so you must close the door on them, suppress them, murder those parts. I went around the house that is Holly and I closed off all the doors to the places of me that were wrong. Soon enough there were so many closed doors, so many places I couldn't go or let other people see, that there was no where for me to live. So I left. I went somewhere else. The home that was me was no longer habitable, no longer safe.
By the time I got to 2012, I didn't have a God-sized hole. I just had a fucking hole and it was the size of everything I'd ever been told not to be. It was a hole with manicured nails and flat-ironed curly hair that wore good jeans and it was a hole that I filled with as much food, booze, drugs, cigarettes, work, shopping and men as I could, and constantly.
By the time I got to 2012, I couldn't meet my own gaze in a mirror.
"It is suggested that we ought to become entirely willing to aim toward perfection." | Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions
Let's talk for a minute about the ego. In the most simplest terms, without confusing it with a bunch of either psychological or spiritual milieu, there are two of us. There is the Higher Self, the You with a big Y; and there is the lower more human self, the physical self, or the you with a little y.
The Higher Self, the You with the big Y, is all knowing, all perceiving. It is the part of you that will go on forever, the witness, the truth. The You is connected to all beings and to Source, and it does not understand separations or competition. It is pure and it is always intact because it cannot be destroyed (though it can be ignored).
The lower self, or the you with the little y, is the human you. It is the earthly, human part - the one that is separate and has a specific and distinct and perfectly unique identity. It is made of impressions and characteristics and beliefs and preferences. The you that is you, the little you, is the ego. It is the part of you that lives in this world, in this reality. It is the thing that gets you up in the morning, makes your coffee the way you like it (if it happens to like coffee), and gets you to work.
Humans are the only creatures on this planet that have access to both the Higher Self - the You - and the lower self - the you. In other words, humans are the only things that have a concept of - and access to - a physical thinking separate self (the ego, or "mind and body", or "identity") as well as an all knowing connected spirit self (the spirit or soul).
According to Mirriam-Webster, the ego can be defined as "The self especially as contrasted with another self or the world," "A reasonable or justifiable sense of one's worth or importance," or simply as "Self-esteem," and is synonymous with the words pride, self-esteem, self-regard, and self-respect. Even more interesting is the list of antonyms, which include: dis-esteem, disgrace, humility, meekness, shyness, timidity, demureness, and modesty.
"All of A.A.'s Twelve Steps ask us to go contrary to our natural desires…they all deflate our egos." | Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions
"A masculine-identified individual will have different needs than a feminine-identified individual. One of the critiques of Alcoholics Anonymous, and one I feel is justified to some extent, is that successful white males designed AA. 1 This is seen clearly in AA's Twelve Steps; almost every step in some way involves ego deflation, which is a great need for the ego-inflated masculine alcoholic. If, however, we are treating a crack-addicted prostitute from the streets, there will probably be very little ego left intact, and what is left certainly does not need to be deflated, but supported and held in compassion." | John Dupuy, Integral Recovery
"Now, I've got nothing against egos, broadly speaking. We all have one. (Some of us might even have two.) Just as you need your fear for basic human survival, you also need your ego to provide you with the fundamental outlines of selfhood - to help you proclaim your individuality, define your desires, understand your preferences, and defend your borders. Your ego, simply put, is what makes you who you are. Without one, you're nothing but an amorphous blog." | Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic
The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous says "The alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot, though he usually doesn't think so. Above everything - we alcoholics must be rid of this selfishness. We must, or it kills us! God makes that possible. And there often seems no way of entirely getting rid of self without His aid." It suggests, literally, to get rid of the self - which is another word for ego. The idea inherent is not just ego-deflation - it's ego annihilation.
In 2013, I set out to write out a list of all my fears as part of a process I was doing, Gabby Bernstein's May Cause Miracles. I came up with 43 distinct fears that I had at the time, which can be summed up into one sentence: I fucking hate my self.
There's that word again, self.
Do you know what I did with that broken girl back in 2013? The one who had been attempting to destroy every single defect of character for as long as she could remember, the one who was already in advanced talks with a God she didn't believe in to "just take it away," the one who had no idea of self beyond what was wrapped into the life she thought presented well, men who abused her, friends she didn't like and a career that ate her? The one who couldn't look at herself in a mirror?
I started to love her.
I began telling her she was okay and that she was loved and that nothing was wrong with her. I told her she wasn't fucked up beyond repair. I let her know we had lost our way a little bit, that we'd shut some doors along the way, and that I was going to stand next to her while we went around the house and reclaimed those disowned parts ("Especially the ugly ones," I told her).
I didn't tell her that she was wrong to put herself first. I didn't tell her that she was selfish or warn her that her "self-will had run riot." I didn't tell her not to trust herself, or that she was wrong, or that she was deluded. I didn't tell her those things because if I had, I would have just been doing what I'd been doing to her the last 30 years. I told her to save her life at all costs, to put on her own oxygen mask and to put it on first. And when other people told her she was wrong, she couldn't trust herself, she was selfish and deluded - I told her to fuck them.
I took her to yoga and meditation and massage and therapy. I danced her little body around her living room and I wrote her a million affirmations that I taped around her apartment. "You are beautiful." "You are perfect as you are." "Nothing is wrong with you." "You have nothing to fear." "You are loved." I took her to beautiful places, on walks in the park, on runs along the water. I held her when she threw temper tantrums and I reinforced her when she said no. I inflated her when she needed inflating, I lifted her up when she needed lifting up. I was patient.
I didn't tell her to do MORE of the flaying of self. I didn't tell her to surgically remove her parts, ask God to take away even more of her, pray that she was someone different, or urge her to get smaller. I didn't humiliate her any more than she had already been, I didn't terrify her into thinking her ego had stolen the show, or that her growing self-importance, self-esteem, self-centeredness, self-regard, self-respect, selfishness, or pride was a sure sign she was on a bus to drinking hell.
I told her "Thank GOD we finally have those things." I told her "Thank God this earthly house we've chosen to live in finally feels like home instead of a war zone."
Now onto that other favorite word, humble.
Humility wasn't a huge part of the early picture. I don't remember being told about it often, or having it weaponized in any way. But recently that's changed. The louder, more self-confident, and bolder I become, the more I hear that word.
Where is your humility?
Show some humility.
Do you even know what the word humility means?
I hope some humility plays a role in your messages some day.
Whatever works for you is fine, but I prefer a more humble approach.
I don't know about you but I prefer to mind my humility.
What about humility? Where is that in here?
What's wrong with humility?
The above are just a sampling of comments I've received - and lately - about my work and message. I guess right around the time in May, listening to Gabby emphatically say HUM-BULLLLL over and again, was around the time that I started to see it and hear it everywhere. Which makes sense. It pricked me, and the wound didn't close. I had a humble wound.
Walking around Paris a few weeks ago, I mentioned to my friend Catherine "I really fucking hate the word humble." She asked me why, and I couldn't really explain it. All I could say is I suppose because it's one of those words we use on women to keep them in their place.
According to Mirriam-Webster, humility can be defined as "A modest or low view of one's own importance," and is synonymous with the words demureness, down-to-earthness, lowliness, meekness and modesty. Related words include compliance, deference, passivity, resignedness, submission, submissiveness, naivete, mousiness, reserve, quietness, timidity. The list of antonyms include: aggressiveness, assertiveness, attitude, audaciousness, boldness, brashness, overconfidence, swagger, nerve, sauciness, self-centeredness, self-importance, self-opinion, arrogance, egoism, huffiness, loftiness, pride.
Recently, I got cut into pieces by a reader. She, of course, referenced my lack of humility. I felt quartered, and rightly so. It went straight to my oldest wound, and when I mean oldest wound, I mean the wound passed down to me through generations of oppressed women. We might not tie aggressive, assertive, audacious, bold, brash, overconfident, nervy, saucy, self-centered, self-important, self-opinionated, arrogant, egoic, huffy, lofty and prideful women to the stake anymore, we might not stick them in gossip's bridles or bleed them; but we do slay them with our words and disapproval and shame.
As far as I am concerned, a woman isn't told to "Be more humble" out of love. She is told to be humble out of intolerance and anger, and therefore a more appropriate thing to ask her is "Where is your shame?"
"We know what the world wants from us. We know we must decide whether to stay small, quiet, and uncomplicated or allow ourselves to grow as big, loud, and complex as we were made to be. Every girl must decide whether to be true to herself or true to the world." | Glennon Doyle
I'm in my fourth year of recovery, or barely even anywhere going by Miss Bernstein's clock. But in my mind, it's a lifetime. What worked for me in recovery was not murdering what little was left of me. There is a Mary Oliver poem that says "You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting."
The funny thing is that when I didn't impress on myself the need to be less - when I allowed myself the freedom to be selfish, self-centered, egoic, flawed, and self-willed - I still ended up on my knees, in the ever-so-impressed-upon-the-alcoholic state of surrender: to what is, to what I didn't have control over, to what I did have control over. And while my first prayers might have echoed some of what step seven begs, Please make me good, the prayers quickly became about something far more than me: Help me do good. Put me in service.
With time and the development of a sense of self that I could live with - with the building of an ego - I became not a person who couldn't fit through the door; I became a person who could walk through the door with her head held high; a girl who doesn't need to be reminded of her place, but rather a girl who has claimed her place - a seat at the table.
When people actually literally tell me to be humble, I have to wonder - does humility scream at another to be humble? Or is humility born of a human that has made peace between the part of them that is divine, and the part of them that is human? Is it that we need to fall prostrate, and walk on our knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting, or is it more that we need to build enough of a human home (of self) to let the divine do it's anything but humble work?
If you are reading this, you live in a country that is dominated by a patriarchal misogynist agenda, one that has kept women down and in their place for millennia. If you want to know why I drank, why I lost myself, why I needed to escape this world, look no further than what is around you. This is a world created by men and for men. This is a world where a woman's worth is wrapped up in her looks, politeness and service. Women are not taught to be loud, proud, assertive, aggressive, self-centered, arrogant, bold, brash, and nervy. Women aren't taught to swagger. Women are told to shut the fuck up, be humble, know their place, and act like a lady. We drill into them demureness, down-to-earthness, lowliness, meekness and modesty, compliance, deference, passivity, resignedness, submission, submissiveness, naivete, mousiness, reserve, quietness, and timidity.
Recovery - for me - was not more of the same bullshit I'd been fed my whole life. Recovery - for me - looked a lot like building an ego. Not so I could compete with men, or become more like a man, or because I think we need to fit into this world as it is, (because seriously who would want to fit into this world as it is?). But so that I could create not only a woman capable of knowing and holding her worth, but a woman who now has an earthly body and sense of self - aka an ego - to go forth and carry out the divine work she's been called here to do.
Note 1. I need to be clear, this piece isn't meant to bash, discredit, or otherwise attack Alcoholics Anonymous. But the reality is that 80% of treatment options in the United States are 12-step based, and Alcoholics Anonymous logic is so prolific and entrenched that almost all individuals - whether they drink or not, have a drinking problem or not - have an idea of what alcohol addiction is through the lens of AA. When we talk about how we view alcohol addiction (in America) we are talking about how we view alcohol addiction according to the tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous. Anything else - such as my work- is often seen as a departure from prevailing thought. Therefore, to make sense of why we think about the ego the way we do when it comes to alcohol addiction, we must look at the source of why - which is primarily the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, and the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. I personally can question certain things in this way, and at the same time have great respect for an organization that has, indeed, saved many people's lives, and at it's core aims to do nothing more than what I am trying to do in my work.
Note 2. I am not absolutely asserting something that applies only to women; all humans, regardless of what gender they identify as, have both a masculine and feminine. Depending on the person, some of these parts will be out of balance. The likelihood is that for men, the masculine is over-developed or the feminine is under-developed, and vice-versa (as in my case). There are, of course, parts of this that speak only to women - as a man, you do not face the same experience as women do, just as as a white woman, I will never be able to understand what a black man or black woman faces in American society, or the world as it is. I am speaking not just to women, but on behalf of my own independently formed opinion, and as a woman, which regardless of your gender identity, you may or may not agree with.