Discover more from Human Stuff from Lisa Olivera
The grief of the right choice
... and the willingness to make it anyway
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A song I’m loving:
A bit of a continuation of last week’s letter
Four years ago, I was featured in the New York Times in an article titled, Instagram Therapists Are the New Instagram Poets. It was around the time my work started being widely seen— a few months after I got a book deal — thousands of new people swarming to my page daily. I was posting multiple times per day, lots of graphics and meme-able quotes and tips and lists, all things the algorithm apparently loved at the time. There were only a handful of therapists on Instagram when I started my account in 2017. I “got in” at the right time and I was at a juncture where I could have taken the Therapist Influencer thing far, or slowed it down. Then, the article came out. I read it from the couch in my office at the time in Berkeley, and immediately started full-on sobbing, snot and everything, wrecked by being so seen in that way for reasons I wouldn’t understand for a while. A week or so later, I was featured on Good Morning America in a manner that quietly felt deeply misaligned and, frankly, made me question everything.
I remember thinking, “I don’t want to become well-known for being an “Insta-Therapist”. I’m not meant for this. I want to be known for being a writer. I’m trapped now.” It was the first time I ever admitted to myself I didn’t want to be a “popular” therapist — that I didn’t want to stay on the track of becoming one of the world’s big social media guides — that I wanted something different. I didn’t want to get pigeonholed into this niche at all, let alone publicly. I didn’t want people to see me as a therapist before anything else. To this day, a year after deciding to close my therapy practice, most people still refer to me as a therapist first.
After the article came out, I felt an intense pressure to keep going — to keep sharing my expertise, keep making the lists and Instagrammable quotes on pastel backgrounds, keep churning out content multiple times a day, keep creating the prescriptive, didactic posts everyone was eating up, keep building, keep growing. It was working by everyone else’s standards. My book deal happened because of what I was sharing, so I had to keep sharing it, right? Yet I also felt an intense desire to stop — to use the platform I had built for something else — to share what I actually wanted to share, which was the truth about what it was like to be a person, therapist or not. I wanted to write. I wanted to write. I wanted to write. As a person. Just as a person.
The pressure to maintain success when we find it is big; the pressure of maintaining that success when it doesn’t feel aligned is painful; I was doing both. I was grateful to be reaching so many people in a supportive, helpful way, but my soul was dying. I was honored to have the privilege of a large platform, but my humanity was crumbling. I remember feeling buried underneath the expectations to churn, churn, churn. I remember feeling claustrophobic on my own page, like there was only room for a crumb of me and nothing else. I remember feeling like a brat for thinking any of it was a problem when *waves around to all the real problems in the world*. Yet I also remember realizing it was all of my doing, my making, my building — and I could choose to pivot anytime.
We so often feel stuck and trapped by our own choices, as if we aren’t the ones making them. Or maybe I should only speak for myself — I so often feel stuck and trapped by my own choices, as if I’m not the one making them.
The truth is that I didn’t trust myself. I didn’t think I had what it took to write in other ways. I didn’t think I had the skills or the courage, the capacity or the bandwidth, the willingness or the audacity. And I didn’t believe anyone wanted to see what else I had to offer and share beyond what I was sharing. Yet the longing was there — the desire was there — the inner nudge that I was meant to write… and not just write “self-help” content in tiny captions on Instagram… was there. I was just ignoring it for the benefit of this outward success and growth — I was ignoring it for the certainty of what was working, which was showing up in that one way, the professional, the always-wise, the palatable, the always-has-the-right-thing-to-say one.
There came a time when the truth couldn’t deny itself any further. I had been slowly making a gentle pivot toward showing more of myself in my public work, sneaking in personal writing occasionally, but the pressure to keep going was still there. I had a book coming out that was very much written from a therapist slant — I had years of experience being seen and admired in this way. I had what many would consider success. Yet the desire to write differently couldn’t be ignored anymore. And right beside the desire was the fear, the hesitation, the doubt, the questioning, all of it still there, swirling, tugging, causing me to forget there was a choice I could make.
But I made the choice anyway. I finally made it.
When I decided to leave my role as a therapist last year, I also made the choice to leave behind what was in order to make room for what would be, which was unclear and murky. It still is, to be honest. There is no “other side” I’ve gotten to. As I’ve moved through the process of leaving my role as a therapist and embracing my longings as a writer, I’ve had to grieve the certainty I felt before. The bigness. The perceived security and ease of being mostly one thing to a lot of people. The financial steadiness. The accolades of doing “selfless work”. The positionality and respectability of being an expert. The felt sense of feeling landed. The known. The admired qualities of being a helping professional. The sureness of it all.
Two things I read/heard this week that made my body soften around doing what we’re called to, even without certainty on the other side:
Rick Rubin on On Being saying, “my book isn’t filled with what I know; it’s filled with what I notice.” and Carl Phillips in My Trade Is Mystery — Seven Meditations on a Life of Writing saying, “The tarantula ego — starving to be shored up by praise — tries to scare me away from saying simply whatever small, true thing is standing in line for me to say.”
What making the right choice for me has required is a letting go of ego, of being big, of popularity and large numbers of followers, of a trajectory of success I could have stayed on that may have brought me much further along than I am now, much more quickly. My ego has some grief around that — around whether it means I’m not reaching my full potential or doing as much as I could be doing. There is grief around no longer doing work I loved in many ways — even though not doing it (for now, at least) is absolutely the correct choice. There is grief around even the most right choice.
But my humanity? There is celebration there. There is an embracing of the path less known, knowing it is serving me now and perhaps that’s enough. There is a growing trust that I have a lot to write and share from this stage and season, from my crevices and nooks that haven’t yet been seen or in the spotlight. There is opening. Unfurling. Emerging. There is the buzzing energy around moving toward a new project that has more room for me in its pages. There is expanse in my bones. Thawing in my chest. A felt sense that the hard choice was the right one, even though I don’t have a lot to outwardly show for it yet.
I didn’t think of the point of this letter before writing it — I didn’t think of what the big, powerful, meaningful outcome would be that you could take away from it. Maybe that’s the point. I’m still in it. Still not in the place the big decision was made to usher me into. Still not to an Other Side, an After, a look-at-me-now place that proves the decision was right to anyone but myself. And I suppose I just wanted to share some of the in-between of all this — some of the confusion, the rumbling, the not-so-neat-and-tidy bits. There is so much to process here. So many messy thoughts. So much jumbled within me that is slowly finding its way out, some of it here and some of it elsewhere.
I guess I’ll just say this: sometimes, we need to make the right choice before we know where it will lead. Sometimes, we need to choose before there’s a net, before there’s a known outcome, before we can predict the future. Sometimes, we need to trust ourselves to be with the unknown path when walking down the known one isn’t working anymore. Sometimes, we need to let ourselves linger in that place longer than is comfortable, longer than is admirable, longer than is relevant for our brand or our dreams or our image. And sometimes, choosing to do so is the greatest gift we can offer our own humanity, knowing the truest path is always going to bring us closer to ourselves.
Thank you, as always, for being here.
△ These scenes from the past week, sunshine feeling like magic on my skin.
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