When I was a girl I wanted to be a princess. I had stacks of coloring books, and I would only color the pages that depicted lovely ladies in ornate gowns. I drew pretty women all day long, including during class at school. I wanted to go as a princess every Halloween, and would have preferred we lived in a time where evening gowns were a regular part of our wardrobes. My definition of good fine art was the frilliest Rococo paintings with delicate ladies on swings reaching their pointy toes in the air to reveal a bit of their ample petticoats. At the time I lived in a small mountain town where almost everyone wore jeans and t-shirt every day.
This painting was a throwback to my days of being enthralled with princesses. After years of drawing and coloring them, I felt I owed it to myself to paint one. And then I gave the princess the head of a tiger cub. Even though I adored fanciful girl stuff, I was also an outdoorsy athlete, and a brain. In the time I grew up I would have never made a good, well-bred princess for real. The tiger is roaring (or maybe meowing, at that age) with a manner unfitting for her apparent station. In the background are power lines, an indicator that her indoor set-up might not be lodged on the grounds of a grand palace. She looks uncomfortable and off-balance in her chair. She tries hard to play the princess part, but she can’t escape the fact that she’s based in reality. The shadow she casts is stiff and pointy, not in keeping with her flowing surroundings.
This painting shows, among other things, the contrast in my life of having been encouraged to express my old-fashioned womanliness in a time when Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman Hear Me Roar” was playing in the background. On a deeper level the painting offered me reflection on how my characteristics can contradict each other and befuddle me, especially until I learn to free myself from over-identifying with them.
Take the girlie-girl attribute, for instance. When I was a girl it was not uncommon to be told that we had limited job choices and that our best bet was to someday find a man to provide for us. Therefore man-getting (and its corollary, looking pretty and feminine) held importance to many of us. But at the same time this convention was being challenged on a mass scale for the first time in history, and we had another camp telling us to burn our bras. It was hard to shake the Barbie Doll image of beauty, especially as we were the first generation of women to not only be asked to ditch that idea, but to feel the pressure to raise the status of women, be our own person, and make lives that didn’t revolve around men. It wasn’t hard to embrace the women’s movement with our minds, but most of us had grown up watching our mothers cooking, cleaning, and man-tending with no inclination toward other options. And in my particular case, I also grew up in a locale where women were also praised for their outdoorsy-ness and toughness, adding another layer of complication to my sense of identity. My penchant for wanting to be a girlie-girl was often in question. Second-guessing myself was a frequent pastime.
I say all this to give background to a predisposition. I came about it through my experience, like we all do, which should be a reminder that everyone has a reason for their oddities and customs. My proclivities aren’t inherently faulty unless they hurt others or I feel bad about them. In the past I used to take these labels more seriously and think it was necessary to analyze through reasoning whether it was OK or not that I acted a certain way. More often than not my process of deduction was conducted using other people’s values as the standard. I wasn’t adept at accessing my own truth.
Learning to let go of other people’s definitions of how to comport myself came hard. I had to become exhausted from the fruitless task of wondering what other people thought, working hard to find the winning formula, and then finding they never really cared anyway. Repeating that scenario couldn’t help but leave me bone-weary. I had to surrender the task of perfecting myself according to arbitrary rules that were constantly moving and changing. It involved being so tired I didn’t care what my attributes were. Take me as I am, I thought, because I’m too petered out to be any different.
This no-man’s land of giving up labels and definitions is an advantageous place to be. It feels empty and groundless, but there is much freedom in not limiting myself to an identity that was forged in formative experiences that don’t fit my values today. No matter how I came at my temperament originally, my life now, and indeed each moment, gets to be defined by what is arising at the time, not by a mental prison of mores to which I am beholden. But why was it so hard in the first place to let go of those definitions? Why did I have to get so exhausted before I’d let them go?
Because they seemed so important when I was little that I became very attached to them and eventually mistook them for who I really was. We tend to think of our personalities as our selves. Our unalterable nature. We are so convinced of this that we’ll repeat ineffective behavior for years, convinced that our same way of doing things has be OK because it’s who we are. But personality is only a construct. We hang onto it for dear life because dropping it can feel like we are literally dying.
Putting personality in perspective requires having another concept of self to rely on. Some like to capitalize the word, as in Self, to represent our individual soul, or aspect of our being that is eternal and always connected to an unlimited source of power and love. It shouldn’t be too hard (intellectually) to choose which one to rely on, self or Self. Self is connected to the Great Source of eternal wisdom, oneness, and bliss. The other self, as defined by our ego, is in a constant state of posturing and maneuvering for survival. But trusting that the Almighty has our back is easier said than done.
I’ve found that my painting process is a good start toward the process of surrendering my ego (and everything else) to the care of a Higher Power. My paintings are my way of identifying and classifying aspects of my personality as temporary affectations that only have a hold as long as I need them or am blind to them. I must first gain awareness of what they are and become familiar with the hold they have over me before I can “offer them up.” With lots of practice it has become easier and faster to let go of troubling energies.
After leaving the job of transformation with Something or Someone More Qualified, I have a new relationship with my personality traits. I don’t apologize for them. I’ve no idea if they are meant to be a part of me that will be useful from time to time. As I watch them diminish, disappear, rear their heads, or lay low, I can stand back and witness the play of my humanness with interest, not afraid of the pain or pleasure that their activities might bring. From this place of the curious onlooker there is a sense of equanimity and peace. Letting go of identity even for a few minutes builds my ability to identify with the Self on a more regular basis.
My Tiger Princess painting exemplifies a jumble of traits that ultimately only had to be conflicting if I clutched them too dearly. The unique combination of tendencies that make up my personality are captivating, but in the end, not near as fascinating and enchanting as letting go. Pure consciousness is our true nature, the light within all of us that embraces everything in existence, no matter how our human minds label and judge it all. Am I getting better at coming from this place? As a wise teacher of mine says, I’m working on it.