5 Steps to Owning Your Part

By Claire Rudy Foster 11/23/16

If I paused to consider the fact that I was a human, a three-dimensional physical form that other people could see and touch and talk to, I panicked.

5 Steps to Owning Your Part

When I got sober, I stopped wearing makeup because I was incapable of looking closely in the mirror. My eyebrows went unplucked, and instead of spending a few minutes to paint my face, I only splashed cold water on my bare skin, washing the sleep out of my eyes. When I caught a glimpse of my reflection, I saw a pale oval, a ghost. I didn’t want to look. The sound of my voice grated on me, so I stopped listening to what I had to say. I’d never been so uncomfortably self-aware before.

I used yoga, therapy, and basic self-care for the first few years, and my body recovered quickly. I ate vegan. I did backbends. But I couldn’t sit still yet, and if I paused to consider the fact that I was a human, a three-dimensional physical form that other people could see and touch and talk to, I panicked. I still wanted to be invisible. I had no idea who I was, because I refused to examine the person I was becoming.

Then, in my fifth year, two things happened. I was laid off from a job unexpectedly, and I started working with a sponsor in AA who was serious about Step 10: Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it. Those two events gave me a crash course in self-awareness—and a five-point practice for checking myself, at any time of day.

Being stuck with myself—no job to go to, nobody to please—was incredibly challenging. At first, I ran from commitment to commitment, trying to keep busy. I applied to 10 jobs a day, went to multiple AA meetings, and made new friends to spend time with. Distracting myself worked for a while, but eventually I ran out of steam.

“I’m bored,” I told my sponsor, expecting her to suggest more volunteer work, or another AA commitment.

“Maybe you should do less,” she said.

“How could I do less? I don’t have a job!”

“Maybe there’s a reason you don’t have a job right now. Have you tried just sitting still?”

I had not. That was the last thing I wanted to do. But her other suggestions had yielded great results, so why not?

Daily meditation helped me get used to wearing the itchy sweater of my body. My self-awareness moved inward, until I felt like I was sitting in a huge, empty amphitheater, listening to the rattles and echoes of the world around me. I heard the words coming out of my mouth and wondered who was writing these lines.

“I’m so annoying,” I told my sponsor.

She laughed.

“I’m serious! How do I shut this off? I’m sick of myself.”

She told me it was simple, and laid out the basics for me. All I had to do, she said, was practice.

  1. Pause.

When I start to feel agitated, I need to press the pause button. Stop talking, stop fidgeting, and take a breath. Self reflection, for me, is more productive if I take a minute to think instead of just trying to power through a difficult moment. In the beginning, this meant many bathroom breaks so I could hide in a stall for a few minutes and wait for my heart rate to go back to normal.

  1. Listen.

Or, replay the tape to see what happened. Listening closely to what I’d said, or looking at my actions objectively, usually showed me where I’d gone wrong. My tone might have been sharp when I should have spoken more kindly. If I was stressed that I wasn’t getting anything done, it probably meant I should have done my chores first instead of heading to the gym. Reviewing my choices made it easier to see where I’d taken a wrong turn, and how to avoid those mistakes in the future.

  1. Check in.

My sponsor always asked me, “What’s your motive?” At first, this was a hard one to answer. I didn’t like thinking of myself as manipulative, or as having an ulterior motive, but the more I looked at myself, the better I was at identifying the emotions driving my actions. For me, it was usually one form of fear or another. My worry, especially about finances and finding a new job, made me reactive. Instead of taking time to find work that was valuable to me and had long-term potential, I jumped at short-term opportunities that petered out quickly or failed to materialize. These character defects, especially jealousy and insecurity, still make me act like a jerk sometimes. The difference is that now, I can prevent them by taking care of myself and working on acceptance instead of wishing the world would just be a pain-free zone.

  1. Ask for guidance.

In the beginning, the answers to my fears were not readily available. I wasn’t equipped to help myself, so I reached out to learn what to say or do when a situation perplexed me. I got really good at texting or calling other sober women. I prayed, asking for my Higher Power to provide some inspiration or a clue of what the best possible course of action might be. This was a good practice because it taught me that introspection doesn’t always yield immediate results, nor is it necessarily self guided. I learned a lot by waiting for other people to respond, and practiced being patient. I also got used to the idea that there isn’t necessarily one perfect answer to my problems; perfectionism is an illusion. Often, by hearing from others, I could figure out what I wanted to do, and proceed in a way that felt authentic and true to me.

  1. Take correct action.

“There’s love, and there’s fear,” a friend told me once. “They can’t coexist in the same moment.” When I paused, reviewed my actions, and looked at my motives, I could change my course and act from a place of love instead of fear. I asked myself, What would a courageous person do in this situation? I used the Golden Rule and started treating others with the kindness I wished to receive. Although it was daunting at times to feel like I didn’t have a road map or basic instructions to guide me through the day, I did the best with what I had. I practiced trusting myself in the moment, and I was pleasantly surprised when I noticed myself growing. I changed.

This approach didn’t necessarily guarantee the outcome that I wanted—I stayed unemployed for close to a year—but it altered my approach to life. Instead of a prickly, angry person, I became a little more patient, a little more compassionate. My ability to contend with my feelings as they arose helped me stay calm and clearheaded in moments of panic. I never reviewed my day and thought, Wow, I should have been much more impulsive. I was learning to be happy with who I was, where I was.

And after some time, my reflection didn’t bother me as much. I had become someone who even I could love—a work in progress, messy in places, but always evolving, growing, and trying again.

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Claire Rudy Foster is an author living in Portland, OR. Her fiction, interviews, book reviews, reporting, essays, and other writing can be found in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Catapult, McSweeney's, The Rumpus, Electric Lit, Ravishly, TheGuardian, Reed Magazine, Vice, ForeWord Magazine, Glamour, The Huffington Post, and The Hill. Find Claire on Linkedin or Twitter.