“Walking off a beaten path will open up a world of beautiful possibilities.” — Anonymous
I walk by a dead-end road almost every day and have always wanted to explore it. I never did, because I was afraid. I was afraid of the signs: “Dead End, No Parking Beyond This Point.” I was afraid of the barrier that blocked a portion of the road and the sneaking fear I might get in trouble.
To be clear, there are no signs saying people are not allowed to walk on the road. There are no “No Trespassing” Signs. There is not even a “Keep Out,” but in my mind, I created one.
The other day, I finally did it. In the mildest act of bravery ever, I walked past the guardrail to see what was at the end of the road. What I found was beautiful: an old boat ramp that leads directly to the river. This bit of serenity and beauty has been less than a mile away for the past seven years and I never knew it, because of my fear.
It makes me wonder: What else in my life have I missed because I was afraid? What signs have I put up in my life that are keeping peace and beauty out, and fear in? I started to think about it and realized I had quite a few.
For a long time, I had the sign “MUST BE PRODUCTIVE TO BE LOVED” up. That sign kept me from resting and writing. It kept me exhausted. I was constantly overextending myself in the hope that I would be seen as worthy and lovable.
Another one I had was “IF YOU AREN’T PERFECT, THEY WILL LEAVE,” so I pretended to be perfect. I acted like everything was fine and I was happy all the time. That nothing got me down. Meanwhile, I would stay up all night analyzing everything I may have said or done that could have offended someone. I would overanalyze all my actions and try and overcompensate to hide all the flaws I kept finding.
I also realized that my perfect sign was one I had split into a lot of tiny warning signs I had used throughout my life: “IF YOU DON’T GET STRAIGHT A’S, YOUR PARENTS WILL BE FURIOUS”; “BETTER TO NOT TRY THAN TRY AND SHOW EVERYONE HOW BAD YOU ARE”; “IF SOMEONE GIVES YOU CRITIQUES, IT IS BECAUSE THEY THINK YOU ARE AWFUL AND YOU CAN’T DO ANYTHING RIGHT.”
My life was filled with so many signs.
I now know (thanks, therapy!) that the signs thought they were protecting me. My mind created all these warnings to try and keep me safe and away from what it perceived as dangerous situations. The downside was that it also kept me away from growing, improving and trying new things.
I think the first step in my healing was recognizing the signs I had created. Truthfully, I am still finding signs, but recognizing the ones I listed above has really changed my life. Much like my mild act of bravery, you have to see that some signs are not real. That the only person seeing that “warning” is you. This is a surprisingly hard step. Those signs are very real to the person who created them, and it takes a lot of work to realize that maybe the warning is not a valid one.
The second step is to try and figure out where or when you created this sign. I am not great at this step, because I feel like my memory is horrible. But even “I have had this sign since I was a little girl” is something. Try and think of a time when you didn’t have that fear or worry and then a time when you first remember feeling that way. Somewhere in there is when you created your sign.
The second step leads to the final step for understanding your signs. What is the real purpose of this sign? What does it think it is protecting you from? Take “You must be productive to be loved.” That sign thought it was keeping me from abandonment and the wounds of being rejected. When you know what purpose it’s serving, you can see if it is actually true.
In my case, I could see the sign did not accomplish what it thought it was doing. Yes, to an extent, people would praise me or like me for a time because of all I would do for them. But most of those relationships would end as soon as I said no or voiced my need for something in return. The damaging thing is that my sign would use these unhealthy relationships as validation of how right those people were. In reality, my sign was not protecting me, but attracting people who would take advantage of what my sign read.
Now that I see that sign and know that it is not actually true or helpful, I have better boundaries. I let myself say no, and I let myself rest. That is not to say that at times I have not resurrected the sign, but I recognize it more quickly now and can take it down.
Taking the sign down, or at least being able to ignore it at times, has really opened up my life. Much like my walk, there was a whole world waiting for me once I bypassed my sign. It is one where I have free time, can read a book or can simply rest because I am tired. These may seem like simple things, but to be able to do these things without guilt or defensive justification has changed the quality of my life.
I would recommend taking a moment and looking around you. Are there any signs you have put up in your life that are more harmful than helpful? Is there something beautiful or freeing waiting for you to discover it? Maybe take a few moments today and see. Like my intro says, “Walking off a beaten path will open up a world of beautiful possibilities.”