Keeping up Appearances

Life is funny. With it’s milestones and events and markers. And what people think and choose to say to you when you reach any given one of them – graduating, getting engaged or married, having a baby, losing weight, buying a house, getting a job – take your pick. Any one of the previous accomplishments is usually met with many a congratulatory statement, silent envy, or the assumption that that person “has it all together.”

The real funny thing I guess, is not life; it’s people’s perceptions, and the measuring sticks they choose to measure success with. How external markers and accomplishments have become the signs that someone has arrived, that they are not only doing ok, but are somehow thriving.

As someone who as experienced a couple of these things over the past couple of years, I guess I find myself thinking about this more often. And who really defines what “success” is anyway? Is owning a house/having a good job/great kids/a nice body/insert desired/strived for trait here really the be all end all? Who said?

But more than that, I’ve been struck lately at just how external all of these measurements are. How they look great on the outside, but all of these so-called signs of success could really just be masks for a sad, lonely, struggling person to wear.

I can only speak from my own experience (which is all any of us can do). This fall, I purchased and moved into my first house. Friends, family, acquaintances and coworkers alike have all been very kind, offering affirmations and words of congratulations. People have celebrated with me and brought me generous gifts (I now have plants in every room and all the wine I can drink).

And, I have to say, I am proud and happy to be a homeowner. I couldn’t have gotten here by myself by any means, but owing my home does feel good. And yet…

And yet, those are just the externals. Behind the happy, cliche new homeowner shot is where the anxieties and insecurities lie.

The smiling photo does’t show the part of story where I spend many nights lying awake at night asking myself what I had done. Of the utter thrill of finally owning my own home but the utter terror of doing it myself. Of the girl who was frantically trying to juggle a job that all of a sudden felt like more that she could handle while sending countless emails, making copies and getting this or that paper to the agent/broker/lawyer. Of the anxiety that comes in waves that makes me second guess and assume I’ve made the wrong decision every time I am confronted with something in my new home that is less than ideal.

I don’t want to paint a desperate picture, or to make it seem like my house is a mask for a terrible life. I truly am happy. I feel blessed to be where I am. But I haven’t gotten here without my struggles, and just because I am a single, young professional who happens to own a house doesn’t mean these struggles go away.

Here’s me owning a house. That must mean I’ve made it in life, right?

I am grateful now to be in a place that even when in I am in the midst of one of these bouts of insecurity and anxiety, I am now aware of what’s happening. I might not be able to instantly pull myself out; but I can recognize the feelings for what they are – reach out and ask for help and prayer; and know that I am strong enough to make it through.

Beyond an anxiety perspective, the problem with using real estate as a marker on the external success-o-meter, is that one never really knows the full story. It’s easy to be jealous, to draw your own conclusions, but I’m guessing that unless you are very intimately acquainted with the person you are envying, you probably don’t know the whole story. Did they come into a lot of money unexpectedly? Was a wealthy relative able to help them out? Or maybe they barely cobbled together a mortgage, are stretching themselves precariously thin, and have no business owning a home in the first place.

Whatever the case, it’s not worth deciding that someone else has “made it” (or that you haven’t) when you don’t even have all the facts. Being content in your beautiful, rented apartment and knowing that you have all your finances in order is “making it” too, just FYI.

And just as people celebrate and congratulate when it comes to real estate; people are just as eager to do the same if you lose weight (how’s that for the rhymes?). I find this whole process to be somewhat amusing actually. Some people are afraid to comment at all, and then you end up hearing things from the most random of people.

The older I get, the more I find that ideal weight/body shape and size are pretty arbitrary measures. Even as my own body has changed, I’ve found that what I perceive as my “ideal” has changed from what it used to be.

Beyond that though, what does one have to do to get to such an ideal? You may externally look great, and even convince yourself that you feel great, but do you really? Are you really happy with what you’re doing to achieve and maintain a certain aesthetic? And, long term, is it really healthy for your body?

I hinted at it previously, and thankfully, I haven’t veered into any scarily unhealthy territory; but I do think that earlier this year, I dipped below where my body was meant to be. Nobody will ever call me scary skinny (follow me on instagram and you’ll see I love ice cream far too much for that). But if I look back, I was ignoring a few red flags and warning signals from my body that were telling me I maybe needed to put on the brakes.

Crazy thing is though, I was getting so much external validation. That’s what made it so easy to ignore the things my own body was trying to tell me. And you know you worked so hard for what you see in the mirror, and genuinely like what you see, it’s hard to accept that maybe your body isn’t meant to look that way long term; that maybe it’s not safe or healthy.

People assume that looking a certain way means you have your act together. I know the old me would have. I would’ve looked at people the way some people may look at me with envy and assume that they had some sort of genetic advantage or crazy discipline I was incapable of ever possessing.

On the flip side, it’s easy to judge people that don’t look the way we espouse as ideal and assume that they have issues. That they have failed in some way because they don’t look the way society has told them they should. That taking up more space is a bad thing so they are obviously not living their best life.

As author Roxane Gay puts it in her gripping memoir Hunger which I am currently reading, “What does it say about our culture that weight loss is considered a default feature of womanhood?”

And yes, maybe they do have issues, but they are just unfortunate enough that their issues just happen to be externally displayed. Or maybe they just have different priorities. That they are doing awesome and the best they can, and they are choosing not to try to alter their appearance to cater to society’s norms.

Maybe the very people we are judging are actually the brave ones, as they are daring to defy that “default feature.” And just because someone else’s issues might seem more externally evident, it doesn’t mean we don’t need to stop and deal with our own.

There’s a lot to unpack in this post. As always, I don’t share personal details to boast or brag. I believe in sharing stories. And if my stories can help you or someone you know on your journey, or to spark conversation, or even just make you think about things you haven’t before, then I’m accomplishing my goals.

So, next time someone you know achieves some sort of milestone in life; congratulate them, because it really is awesome. But don’t make assumptions. And don’t be afraid to ask them how they are; really.

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