This is how I got out
This article is cross-posted from my weekly newsletter, The Sunday Soother, a newsletter about clarity, intention, and useful tips for creating more meaning in your life that goes out every Sunday morning. Subscribe here. I am also a coach who works with sensitive people so they can stop second-guessing, make decisions confidently and live the life they’ve always dreamed of. You can learn more about working with me here.
I was a princess in a tower for most of my life, and I never even knew it.
One day a few weeks ago I was browsing through Medium, as I am wont to do, trying to find a good piece to read amongst the endless lifehack-y articles about how to retrain your brain or why what everything I know about [insert random topic] is wrong.
[you can listen to this essay as audio here]
I found a piece titled “8 Life Lessons I’ve Learned at 40-Something That I Wish I’d Known at 20-Something” and started reading. Normally, I’m a bit skeptical of X things learned by X age (of course, excepting my brilliant compendium of 40 things I learned by 40, I’m totally different, of course), but something about this piece rang true, so I kept reading.
All of the advice in there is good, but the #7 in the list really hit me in the solar plexus: Nobody’s coming to save you from yourself or your life.
Shannon Hilson, the author, writes:
Like a lot of very shy young girls, I spent a lot more time reading books and watching movies than I did having real-life experiences and meaningful interactions with other people. That gave me the impression that my life was eventually going to play out like the stories I loved so much and that I wouldn’t have to do anything special to help it happen.
My life was legitimately hard for me when I was young for lots of reasons, but it never occurred to me to try to rise above it so I’d be able to build myself a better one eventually. Instead, I fantasized about the day someone else would love me enough to do it for me.
I thought one day my emotionally unavailable parents would suddenly become different people and want to help me out in life the way my friends’ parents helped them. Or that whenever that perfect partner finally materialized he’d take care of me and provide for me. That way I’d never have to step out of my comfort zone, try anything scary or new, and figure out life for myself.
Hilson goes on to refer to this behavior as “princess-in-a-tower-disease,” and when I read that, I did one of those weird laugh-cringes. Because for most of my life, that was me.
I think if we dismissively refer to women as princesses, we’re condescending about the concepts of focusing on looks, clothing, appearance, being put on a pedestal.
But when I look back on my life as a princess in a tower, it wasn’t that at all.
It may not be so clear now, but I used to be cripplingly shy as a child, timid as a teen, and over-cautious as I grew into my 20s and 30s. I wouldn’t try anything I didn’t already know how to do; I rarely spoke up in work meetings; I only participated in situations and groups where I felt completely comfortable and assured. I constantly second-guessed myself and all I did.
Meanwhile, I dreamed.
I dreamed about the day some literary agent would pluck me out of obscurity and declare my genius to the world. I dreamed about the day some guy I’d been crushing on would magically notice me (though we’d never exchanged words?) and feel mysteriously drawn to me and pursue me. When I had an engagement in my early 30s start to fall apart, I dreamed of somebody coming in and magically repairing the relationship, or, absent that, telling everybody that we had broken up so I wouldn’t have to deal with the fallout. When I began thinking about working for myself and starting a business, I dreamed about a mentor showing up and telling me exactly everything I needed to do to succeed.
And while I was doing all this dreaming, I was also… waiting.
Some of you may recall the stories I’ve told about my life coach training and archetypal narratives, where my coach said I’ve been living life as the Quintessential Librarian, and she encouraged me to try the narrative of the Water Sprite.
Before that, in a different coaching session nearly two years ago, one of my peers and I were practicing the coaching technique with one another. After she heard my stories, my struggles, my way of framing and seeing the world, she returned a few hours later with her narratives for me.
“You’re currently the Princess in a Tower,” she said. “I want you to be Wonder Woman. You’ve been sitting around waiting for somebody to save you. But you don’t realize you can save yourself — and others, too.”
Today, I live by that concept. I still dream, but this time it doesn’t involve other people doing the work for me. I look out the window of the tower, and I plan. I google the steps to start braiding bedsheets, or how to make a ladder. I test it out, gently, apprehensively. I can’t guarantee they’ll hold, but I feel pretty sure. I step my leg over the window.
And then I go.