What's your currency?

My entire life, people have told me that I'm pretty.

But like Beyoncé says, pretty hurts, and it took me a long time to realize the impact of hearing such well-intentioned, yet destructive, words. It's true -- for years, I've been told that I am cute and pretty and beautiful and lovely in terms of my physical appearance.

And for years, good looks became my thing.

The thing I could control. Being pretty meant attention. It meant feeling important and valuable. I learned rather quickly that being attractive led to more smiles, more opportunities, more positive assumptions about my intentions, more getting what I wanted. More, more, more.

I also realized this attention rooted in appearance opened space for manipulation, hollowness, and miscommunication. 

I started to notice that being beautiful often meant I could get away with behaving however I wanted, however poorly, which led to unhealthy power balances and a lack of integrity. Nobody ever thinks that the sweet, pretty girl will lie, right? I started to feel incredibly insecure, always wondering if people liked me for me. In relationships, I constantly stressed about being a "trophy" girlfriend -- but I also desperately wanted to BE that prize for someone -- which resulted in a substantial fear of commitment. I worried that I would only be loved, known or accepted . . . as long as I was deemed attractive. This concept dug its nails into my developing perfectionism, and boy, did it do a number on me.

The more compliments people paid me, the higher my self-esteem rose, and the more emphasis I put on my appearance: being thin, wearing makeup, always smiling, perfectly kept hair, great style, white teeth. The media, as it does for all women, continued to hammer these thoughts into my brain, and I listened, taking all of it to heart.

You see, when you're pretty, you don't have to be brave. You let your looks open all the doors, and you settle for a lot less than you deserve. Beauty becomes something to be traded and used and micro-managed.

In college, things started to escalate. I still got good grades, but all of a sudden, classes became more challenging. I had a few part-time jobs, but student loans started to build up, causing great stress and anxiety. I gained the freshman 15 I swore I wouldn't, which led to late night hours on the elliptical machine; because I ate so little during the day, I snuck fast food in the evenings, and even (to my great shame) forced myself to throw up a few times to destroy the evidence.

Then I graduated, moved to Chicago for a new job downtown, went through three heart-wrenching break-ups in the span of three years, and finished a full-time graduate program at a top university. I said yes, and yes, and yes, to everything, until it all came crashing down.

When I ended my engagement to my college boyfriend, I felt so alone, for the very first time, as if my security blanket had been ripped out from underneath me. I knew it was the right decision, but it didn't make it easier, and I threw myself into other relationships, work, and school.

Mostly, I kept trying to be perfect and beautiful . . . because that's what had always worked for me. 

When the next guy informed me that he "preferred girls who are almost anorexic, but not sick, just extremely skinny," I stopped eating lunch. I didn't  need it, I reasoned, and besides, I was always rushing between class and work anyway. The pounds started to slip away, and I felt light as a feather -- so light, in fact, that when the same boyfriend became controlling and obsessive about our relationship, the damage seemed miles away.

When another man whom I adored, and I thought I was dating, started secretly seeing a friend of mine, my heart filled with rage. I was prettier than her! I thought. Why would he choose her? I wondered, filling the pages of my journal with frustration.

Even now, I can remember precisely that sick one-two punch of rejection, that powerful feeling of not being good enough. 

When my grad school professor gently noted that it didn't seem like I wanted to pursue a PhD, I strode ahead with applications, desperate to prove to others that I was not only pretty, but smart as well.

That's the double-whammy, or so says our society. It's not enough to be just good-looking, you've got to be wildly intelligent, wealthy, thin, funny, successful, the whole shebang.

When my therapist asked if I ever thought about hurting myself, and I paused before answering that no, I would never -- that's when I knew something was really, really wrong.

So I cut out the toxic relationships. I stopped dating. I acknowledged that I was too thin and fairly depressed. I quit skipping meals. I let my family help me. I moved to a new city for a new job. I stopped spending an hour getting ready for work each morning. I started to think hard about my own self-worth, my priorities, my values, my dreams. I wondered how my heart and soul had drifted so far away from my body and mind.

It took three years to rid myself of the belief that being pretty mattered most. Three years of a healthy relationship (for once) and a stable environment led to new freedom to consider what actually filled me up and made me feel whole. Turns out, it wasn't being beautiful or perfect.

For the first time in my life, I began to worry less about what I looked like, and focus more on what I felt like.

Writing and yoga helped immensely over time. A stable environment and a healthy relationship also served as a salve. But it wasn't until I picked up Yes Please by Amy Poehler this year that I finally found the words to talk about this experience of obsessing over appearance.

I assumed I would like her memoir -- after all, I think Poehler is absolutely hilarious, and her comedy work continues to break down barriers for women everywhere. (Also, she and Tina Fey are just the absolute best together and I want them to host all award shows ALWAYS.)

But Yes Please resonated with me in a major way due to one quote about deciding one's currency.  Poehler talks about not feeling pretty as a young girl, and how after a certain point, she decided that being funny would be her currency. Instead of trying to get people to think she was beautiful, she only wanted them to think she was hilarious. That became her goal, her career, her core sense of identity.

I love this idea. For so many years, I truly believed that being beautiful was my only currency. It led to a lot of physical, emotional and psychological damage that took years to repair. The worst part? I still feel hesitation about sharing my experiences because I am embarrassed and ashamed. I feel like it was my fault, and it shouldn't have happened. I'm intelligent, and I've experienced no major trauma or tragedy, and I have a loving family and plenty of privilege.

In other words, I'm just like thousands of women out there who don't have a "reason" to experience disordered eating or depression, and yet, I did.

I'm thankful, because even though it was really bad, it could have been much worse. I managed to clean up my destructive eating behaviors without delving into having a more serious disorder; I felt able to change my negative mental patterns about worth over time through yoga, church and friendships. But when I heard Poehler talk about deciding one's currency, I remembered my years of struggle around external validation and appearance.

One of my strongest memories from childhood is hearing my mother say,

"Honey, you are so beautiful, but remember that beauty fades. It can always be taken away from you. You could get into an accident tomorrow or get sick and your beauty could disappear, at least in the way you know it. So make sure you stay pretty on the inside for the long run."

I didn't know I had misunderstood her. She meant that beauty is enjoyable and fun, but not the most important trait. I thought she meant I should protect my beauty at all costs, because it is THE most important thing about me. I was wrong.

I know now that beauty is a bonus. It's nice to get a compliment about your appearance. It's great and fine to want to look good, or get in shape, or lose weight, or gain muscle. It's fun to delight over a fantastic outfit and revel in a long run or hot yoga class.

However, looks are no longer my currency. It pains me to remember how much time and energy I spent, I wasted, on believing otherwise.

I'm grateful to shift to such a mindset, but others remain locked into the idea that appearance matters most. "Thinspiration" and "pro-ana [anorexia]" abounds on social media sites. 24 million people in the U.S. suffer from an eating disorder, and about 85-90% of them are women. Anorexia is the third most common chronic illness among adolescents, and over half of teenage girls participate in unhealthy eating behaviors without ever being diagnosed. 81% of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat. 50% of people diagnosed with eating disorders experience depression to varying degrees, and 70% of antidepressant prescriptions are given to women. (Source)

This emphasis on beauty, on appearance -- it's killing us. Literally.

This is why I support movements like #AskHerMore and Lisa Bloom's work on talking to little girls about ideas rather than looks. This is why I continue to adore outspoken women in today's media landscape who are making a difference and speaking loudly when it comes to portraying real, diverse women on screens -- Amy Poehler and Lena Dunham and Mindy Kaling and Shonda Rhimes and Tiny Fey and Amy Schumer -- creatives who are challenging the lie that all women need to be thin, beautiful, white, polite and perfect. This is why I appreciate the honesty of blogs like Choosing Raw and Momastery and so many more.

What makes me feel happy and sexy nowadays is no longer a flat tummy or size zero jeans or curled lashes or the adoring gaze of strangers. All of that is just temporary, anyway. Sometimes I forget that truth, but I always remember.

I feel happy when I see the smiles on my parents' faces, when I hug my sisters, when I take my dog on a walk, when I write these blog posts and write anything at all, when I walk into the yoga studio, when I feel fed and rested and not too busy. I feel sexy when I'm jotting down essay ideas, when I try something new, when I go outside of my comfort zone, when I tell the truth about what I want and need from someone, when I invite connection, growth and intimacy into my life.

And even on the days when I feel happy and sexy, I still have moments of feeling sad, or confused, or angry, or jealous, or anxious, or scared.

I just don't turn to my appearance and try to "fix" myself as a distraction from feeling my full range of emotions as a human being.

I strive to be smart, or kind, or generous, or thoughtful, or creative, or reliable, or honest, or funny like Poehler. And if someone tells me I am beautiful, I say "Thank you," and carry on being my best, brightest self. 

How teaching yoga taught me to embrace criticism.

More than anything else, teaching yoga has taught me one simple, powerful lesson:

A few weeks ago, I headed to a yoga studio to fill in for a fellow teacher. I turned on the music, kicked up the heat, glanced through my notes for the flow I planned to teach, and welcomed students as they checked in to class.

Class itself went well. Most yoga teachers know that most classes are fine, in the sense that they're good, solid, no problems, nothing fancy. Some feel particularly lovely; others feel like they could have been better, but the majority are just good. I used a favorite playlist , the sequencing worked and seemed accessible to all in the room, we laughed a few times and seemed to have fun together.

Then as folks sauntered out as class concluded, a woman paused at the door, turned to me, and said, "That was the worst class I've ever been to."

Confused, I paused and cocked my head. 

"What?" I said. 

"Terrible class," she continued.

I quickly thought about my impressions of her during class. She seemed late middle-aged, and not super flexible. I noticed that she opted out of several postures and didn't close her eyes or seem to relax during our final resting pose. But . . . there's no way she hated it, right? She couldn't have. 

She stood in the doorway, as other students squeezed past her, staring me straight in the eyes.

"I'm sorry to hear that," I replied. "Did you have a question about class today? Every class is a little bit different, so if my teaching style didn't work for you, you could certainly check out a different instructor. . . "

I trailed off as her eyes bore into me.

"No, it's not that. I come here all the time," she answered. "But this was just an absolutely terrible class. Horrible."

Me, mentally: Hey, screw you, lady. Thanks for being so RUDE.

Me, out loud: "Again, I'm sorry you feel that way and had a negative experience."

She shook her head. "Me too, because it was a complete waste of my time."

I retold that story about 10 times, feeling more and more vindicated with each telling. What an awful, old woman! Friends exclaimed. I know! I replied. 

I kept adding lines about how I "didn't really care," and it "didn't matter" and "the problem was her" and so on. 

Except . . . I obviously cared. I couldn't shut up about it, about my poor victimization from this random lady when I was clearly trying to just GIVE HER THE GIFT OF YOGA.

Then I shared the story with one of my best friends, and she said, "Hmm. Well that was rude, but haven't you ever been to a class you hated before?"

I immediately felt defensive, and dived into the fact that okay, yes, maybe I have, but I would NEVER treat someone poorly like that and besides, I've never been to an absolutely, terrible, horrible class, and my class was NOT. TERRIBLE. It was a good class! I had great music! I made jokes! I gave excellent cues! I offered modifications and adjustments! It was safe and the flow was simple and I did everything right and she should have liked it.

Ahhh . . . "she should have liked it."

You see, most students don't actually offer up feedback after class. Sometimes people will say that they appreciated working on a certain pose, or comment on the temperature, or ask about a song choice, but most people walk out with a quick glance or a hello and you never really know what their experience was like.

Not this woman. She spoke her truth, which was that she did not, at all, like me or the class I taught. Specifically.

And that stung. Because I wanted to be liked.

In my year and half of teaching yoga, I've learned several lessons, such as

  1. be flexible with your plans for class
  2. speak louder than you think you need to
  3. buy more workout clothes so you're not always doing laundry

But the most important lesson arrived during teacher training, before I even set foot in a studio room on my own.

One of the leaders of my training was an outspoken man covered in tattoos, hair pulled back in a classic man-bun, who inspired straight-up fear within me. I did not like him. He called people out constantly. He had no time for excuses. He stared you straight in the eye and didn't smile as he asked tough questions about motivations and ego. Teaching in front of him made me so nervous about messing up that I literally, physically dreaded it. 

And he would say over and over throughout training: You will not always be liked.

I did not like hearing that. I mean, I knew theoretically that fact was true, but in terms of yoga, I wanted to be like my beloved instructors! I wanted to be the cool teacher students raced to talk to after class, with great music and an uplifting message and a confident attitude and a not-trying-hard-but-still-matching outfit.

I mean, I didn't really care what other people thought. I would just be super good at teaching. Perfect, even. For my future students, of course.

This particular teacher went on to say: 

I remember thinking, well, sure, of course not everyone is going to LOVE your class, dude, but I get what you're saying.

But secretly, unconsciously, I also thought Except everyone will like ME, because I am special, I am different . . .


It turns out, this always wanting to be liked, this striving for perfection, is my biggest, most self-destructive habit. And I am not unique in this desire. Literally every single person I know struggles with this tendency.

You see, even though I know that I don't need to be liked, even though I know that I love myself and am loved by many others, even though I know that this wanting to be liked brings me more confusion and pain than any other habit, even though I know that I'm only human and I will make mistakes . . . I still fall prey to the lie of people-pleasing perfection.

Remembering that this is, in fact, a lie, is a daily process. I have to constantly, actively work against it.

Because guess what? Though I adore and respect my friends who literally do not care what others think of them, I am not built that way. I do care.

I feel so tender about approval and rejection, as much as I try to pretend like that isn't true.

I think we all feel this way, actually. We worry about being liked or not liked; we get caught up in pleasing others. For a long time, criticism paralyzed me -- but through the practice of teaching yoga, I managed to figure out how to embrace it in a healthier way. 

It sure as hell didn't happen overnight.

I ended up auditioning three different times for a teaching spot at the studio I loved. Every time, the feedback was the same: you're not ready yet, work harder and come back. It sucked to feel like I wasn't good enough, when so many of my peers were added to the teaching schedule. But it forced me to decide: how much did I want this opportunity? Enough to keep going? The answer was yes.

Then I participated in an advanced level training, basically an opportunity to practice teaching more complicated flows. The same instructor was there, and just as before, he provided direct feedback and criticism to our small group. One day, while trying to teach a half moon sequence, he called me out for everything: talking with my hands, pacing, missed cues, missed theming opportunities, etc. At the end, I burst into tears, embarrassed and overwhelmed and mostly feeling stupid and attacked. I went home and told everyone that this guy was so mean to me. 

Except . . . It really wasn't about him at all. He bluntly pointed out areas of improvement. I took it very personally. Why? Because I wanted to be liked and I wanted to be perfect.

Slowly, teaching helped me let go of that desire. The more I taught yoga, the more I realized that every class could not be perfect. It was impossible. The more I tried to be perfect, the more I stumbled over my words and confused students with the poses. But the more I embraced the fact that yes, I would mess up, I might say the wrong thing, I might make a small mistake -- the more authenticity I experienced.

I started to feel confident about the fact that I was doing my best. I knew I could teach a safe, logical class. That mattered most, and the rest . . . well, students could take it or leave it.

If you worry about being liked or not liked, if you feel caught up in pleasing others from time to time, remember this:

Being liked doesn't matter; liking yourself does.

The more time I spend fretting about approval, the less time I spend being creative and working toward my dreams, priorities and goals in life.

The quicker I dive into the lie of being liked, the deeper I fall into despair and anxiety. 

The times when I get caught up in pretense are usually the times when I'm not living in according to my own values and truths.

When I remember that, oh hey, I do actually like who I am -- a person who strives and tries and cries and ultimately means well -- then I discover a stronger ability to be brave, to get things done, to tackle new challenges. 

I can like myself as a yoga teacher and still be open to feedback and growth. I can like myself as a writer and still recognize that I have a lot of work to do. I can like myself as a friend, a partner, a sister, while knowing that sometimes I really suck at calling people back or struggle with speaking my truth. And if along the way, others are disappointed . . . they'll live. Because I really am doing my best. I'm bound to fail, but I'm a lovely work in progress. I'm human.

Just like you.

This past week, it happened again -- though not to the same extreme. I taught a class and as people exited, some exclaimed how it was the "best" class ever. Then another man walked out with annoyance on his face and sweat dripping down and gave me an "ugh" look. Maybe he hated it; maybe he didn't.

The point is, it didn't really matter. I let it go. Who knows what was going on his life, what he brought to his mat that day. That's his work to do; not mine. 

What I've learned is that once I let go the desire to be liked, even just for a SECOND, it stops mattering. And once I stop living in the loop of a lie that says I require approval of all to be worthy, my life begins to feel much more fulfilling.

Because life is actually pretty boring when everybody likes you.

So here it is, your permission slip to -- gasp! -- not be liked. You can stop worrying about it, right here and now. You don't have to be liked. You are lovable even when people don't like you. All that time and energy that you used to devote to being liked can be put to better use.

And that, my friends, is a blessing.