The Muddy Middle

The “muddy middle” is where we live most of our lives. Life is messy and sticky, like mud, and the solutions to most problems are not absolute but typically fall in that gray “middle” zone.

I tend to view life in terms of absolutes – – right or wrong, all in or all out, this or that. The good news is that at 51, I am finally “okay” with the reality that most problems in life cannot be neatly dealt with and put away.

Several years ago, I allowed someone to undermine my confidence. It happened subtly. It happened over a few years—a microaggression here and there, making me feel crappy and unable to articulate why.

I have always had good instincts. But over time, I allowed this person to plant seeds of doubt. As a result, I stopped trusting myself and instead started deferring to the judgment of others.

And again, the undermining was so subtle and gradual that I was not even sure it was happening. I thought maybe I imagined it. Or that I was overreacting. All I knew for sure was that I was consumed with self-doubt.

Over time, the microaggressions turned from verbal jabs and snippy responses to the silent treatment. I was excluded and marginalized without explanation. It was then that I thought my worst fears, the ones that had always lived inside my head, were true. I was not smart enough, not capable enough, not valuable enough. I was inadequate.

About a year ago, I hit rock bottom. Depression and anxiety had taken control of my life. But, ultimately, I pulled myself out of an abyss so deep I never thought I could climb out. I did so because of the help and support of those already in my tribe and by making my circle bigger. I realized I was not alone — once again proving the power of community and human connection.

With time and support, I allowed myself to get past it and not let the experience define me. Instead, I rebounded and then thrived. Finally, I am becoming the person I was meant to be. And as it turns out, I am pretty amazing.

While I limited contact with my “underminer,” I carried the weight of the bad behavior. I thought my choice to move on meant I had to pretend nothing had happened.

And then, a couple of weeks ago, I found myself in the presence of this person. Ironically, this person was recounting the events of the last several years. I listened while failures were omitted or turned into victories and while the successes of others were ignored or adopted. It was revisionist history.

My initial reaction was rage. Then I felt hurt. Then I felt rage again. But I did not let the incident derail me. I know my worth, even if no one else does. And while I cannot say that validation from others has become irrelevant to me, it certainly is not something I care about more than my opinion of myself.

When I could see more clearly, I had a choice: did this latest incident have to become a “something,” or was it “something” I could move past, as I had previously? I realized it was both. At that moment — in the context of shock over revisionist history — I understood for the first time that the previous behavior was objectively unacceptable. Unfortunately, I could not see it for what it was until then because although I moved on and was doing well, I never acknowledged that the other individual was responsible for that individual’s own actions. It was as if a weight had been lifted off me.

My ability to move on does not mean the bad behavior – both over the last several years and in the recent incident – did not happen. It was not my reaction to the events that made the behavior unacceptable. The behavior was inappropriate all on its own – completely independent of my reactions and emotions. And it was irrelevant whether the conduct was “just who the person is.”

Although I did not have to make the situation into a “something” to prove my worth, I did need to turn it into “something” because the behavior was unacceptable. What we permit, we promote. And what we encourage has a way of becoming accepted as the norm. I simply cannot let this behavior become the norm.

So yes, 2022 will end for me as “muddy” as it began. But my outlook is much more positive and flexible than it used to be. By freeing myself from absolutes, the world has become more accessible and less exhausting. Freedom from myself has given me strength and power I never thought possible. And because I can accept life in the “muddy middle,” the opportunities that lie ahead are limitless.