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Stepping Out of My Own Way

Many years ago, I was asked to sit on a panel with three other freelance writers at a conference for college journalists. Our task was to talk about the life of a freelancer with an emphasis on the obstacles we’d faced in this line of work. We introduced ourselves and then each took a turn talking about what had been tough about working on our own. I was the last to speak.

The first woman talked about how hard it was to get an editor to see the beauty of a story idea and then not edit it to pieces. The next speaker pointed to his sources as the trickiest part of freelancing, describing how difficult it was to reach them and then get them to answer questions accurately and thoroughly. I was beginning to get nervous. These were two of the primary barriers I’d faced and I had definitely planned to talk about them. When the third speaker pointed to time management as one of his major impediments, my heart sank. Of course I was going to talk about that, as well.

But then, just in time for my turn, I remembered my biggest problem as a freelancer: me. Freelancing required me to be disciplined, organized, brave, extroverted, creative, ambitious, and flexible, and getting myself to be those things on a regular basis, without letting my own anxiety and self-doubt take over, was a much larger problem than any editor or source could ever be. Turns out I face the obstacle of “me” in everything I do.

I was thinking about that panel one morning this week when I was pushing myself to go out for a run and then, for the whole four miles, my brain was pinging from one idea to the next. If I’d just been thinking creative thoughts that would have been great, but I was instead engaged in a back and forth battle about what I needed to do next and what I wanted to do instead. This is a regular pattern for me, resulting in the same kind of strict, anxious environment I felt when I was freelancing.

I’m weary of the energy it takes to stand so vigilantly at attention, and more than just a little bored with the incessant voice of the watcher at the gate.

No matter how old I get or how much experience I glean, I still consistently get in my own way. With my combination of rules, fears, feelings of self-consciousness, and worries about what people think of me, my weight, my wrinkles, whether I’ll ever be a “success,” and how much money I can save in a year and still get to travel, I have become a master at making most endeavors pretty darned tense for myself. Looking back, it’s no wonder I gave up freelance writing early on and settled for the much more “routine” routine of teaching other people to write.

But, knowing as fully as I do how often I stand in my own way of feeling really good about myself, trying some new things, asking for help, risking public embarrassment and discovering all that’s out there in the world to enjoy, it’s a little hard to face. I’ve lived plenty long and have had enough therapy to understand why I tend to stand back and restrict myself as much as I do, but it’s been a hard way to live for all of these years. Still, it’s hard like any bad habit—I’m almost more comfortable keeping myself in check than grabbing all the gusto because it’s what I know and probably, on some sad level, what I think I deserve.

I also get it that this isn’t something I can change overnight. I’m pretty practiced at coming up with all of the reasons why I can’t just cruise through life and enjoy myself. But if I listed ways I’d like my life to be different in this final 30-year (let’s hope!) span, it would be that I would cut myself some slack, give myself some room, let myself be braver and more open and flexible. I would pay money, I think, to be able to sit back and relax—for longer than an evening. It’s a complex mechanism I’ve created and I know that taking it apart and rebuilding it so it works better for me at this point in my life will not be easy. And, knowing me, if I think too much about it, I’ll create a list of rules a mile long that will take the fun out of it before the fun even starts.

But turning 65 next month needs to be marked in some way, if only by an experiment in which I challenge myself to get out of my own way when I can remember to do it. For those of you for whom life feels light and easy and as if you always feel free to do whatever you you want to do, this all probably sounds crazy. But if you’re like me, you know the torture that this kind of self-imposed thought can produce. I know it’s mostly in my own head and that my hardest conversations have to be held there. But I’m weary of the energy it takes to stand so vigilantly at attention, and more than just a little bored with the incessant voice of the watcher at the gate.

So here’s to stepping out of my own way, if only occasionally. I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

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