When I was 19, I got a tattoo. Chinese symbols had been all the rage, but a tabloid headline gave me pause: Rumor had it that Britney Spears had the symbol for strange inked on her hip. She’d asked for the word mysterious.
Thus, I opted for Latin—I figured it was still adequately cryptic and deep, but less culturally obscure. The word I chose to have needled into the skin of my right foot? Infragilis, which translates to unbreakable or strong.
You see, these were adjectives I so badly wanted to describe me. I valued strength, rationality, and composure. I listened to Eminem, Dr. Dre, and their G-Unit friends. I kick-boxed, drank 151, and punctuated my sentences with profanity and sarcasm. I only permitted myself two emotions: happiness and anger. I thought those were what unbreakable people felt and that the cursive on my foot would be a helpful reminder to stay hardened when faced with emotion.
Of course, I wasn’t unbreakable. Inside, I was wounded and weeping. I constantly criticized every aspect of my being, striving to meet my inflexibly high expectations. Then, I tortured myself further by criticizing the weeping and the wounds. In my mind, crying made me a coward, and feelings made me fatally flawed.
I carried on with that mentality for many years, assuming that being inured to whatever life brought me was the route to happiness.
In college, I got a psychology degree, but I still couldn’t fix what felt wrong. I went on to do my master’s, thinking I might find the solution there. I got my personal training certification. I took up running. I gave up flour and sugar. I lost 30 pounds. I asked my partner to tell me he loved me more.
But I still felt broken. And I still hated myself.
Then in June of 2011, I got dumped. Those hairline cracks of doubt that had spider-webbed through me shattered. The breakup left me feeling irreparable.
As long as I could remember, I had thought that the way to love and happiness was to appear perfect, only engaging in activities in which I was certain I could succeed.
Yet I had done all those things, and here I was: without a boyfriend, without a roommate, and struggling to find a job, despite seven years of post-secondary education. I lay on the floor (My ex-roommate took the couch), nauseously aware that everything I’d believed about the way the world worked until this point was wrong.
“They lied,” I thought.
I spent a great deal of time on that floor over the next few months. I was in pain because of my hurting heart, but also because I was beating myself up for being in pain. Then, abruptly, everything changed.
One morning I woke up, and like a stray cat I’d been trying to keep out of my house, I let the sadness inside. I gave it a name. I told it, “Fine. I don’t mind if you stick around for a bit. Maybe I won’t like you or want you to stick around, but I am going to let you in because clearly my efforts to block you out aren’t working.”
When I did this, I realized that much of my pain was coming from my own self-judgement—judgment for feeling what I was feeling, judgment for having been rejected, judgment for being broken.
So I called upon the lessons I’d previously ignored and I attempted to be kind to myself. It felt uncomfortable at first, like a new pair of shoes I knew I had to break in.
I began to make space for grief, guilt, humiliation, anxiety, longing, and denial. I allowed myself to fail at feeling good. I allowed myself to be imperfect, and to be aware that many of the imperfections had been there all along. I allowed myself be broken and scared.
Slowly, I began to let myself do other things I had been afraid to do. I started to reconnect socially, despite the discomfort it stirred. I worked the front desk at a yoga studio for $12 an hour, despite pride telling me I had a master’s and should do better. I joined a soccer team after not playing for almost a decade, and rode my bike even though it terrified me. I travelled on my own, flying for the first time without relying on anxiety pills to abate my fear. I replaced the gym with yoga, and allowed myself to forget how to count calories.
I gained back those 30 pounds. I started wearing my hair down with my clients. With every step outside my comfort zone, I grew stronger, more resilient, and more empowered.
Today, infragilis has a different meaning to me. I now move closer to being unbreakable by being vulnerable, by experiencing hurt, fear, and feeling. I now realize that allowing myself to be breakable is what keeps me strong. Now when I look at my foot, instead of being reminded to be hardened and emotionless, I’m reminded to be vulnerable and compassionate, because that is the true path to strength.
Photo Credit: Tina Leigh
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