“You think I’m a crazy, middle-aged woman, don’t you!” she said as she plopped into the chair in my office.
I smiled and gently shook my head, “I’m sorry…did I say or do something to give you that impression?”
Jenny replied, “Well, no. Not you, I guess. But, everyone thinks it. I know they do. I disappoint them all, especially my husband and my family.” She wiped her tears away and described a recent evening.
“I teach at our local high school. I got home from work at five and started cooking dinner. My oldest kids were at band and soccer and ballet. Our youngest is just a third-grader and she had a lot of homework. So, I was helping her. I hadn’t vacuumed or dusted that week. So in between her math problems and cooking, I needed to clean. Also, I had found some of the leftover paint for our guest room; it was old, so I needed to use it before it went bad.”
“Wait… So you were preparing dinner, cleaning the house, tutoring your youngest, and painting a room…”
“Well, yeah. There was a lot that needed to happen.” She paused and continued, “My husband finally came in from the farm.” Then she smiled, “He came into kitchen, put his arms around me and kissed me on the cheek and went upstairs to clean up before dinner…finally, at nearly 7:00pm, everyone was home from practice, dinner was ready, and we ate. It was such a long day. I felt like I was going nonstop since 5:00am.”
“I don’t think I understand, Jenny. It sounds like a beautiful evening—busy and hectic, sure, but beautiful. Why do you feel they were disappointed?”
“Well, I didn’t finish the repainting, and my husband had to help the youngest with her homework.” Her hands rose to hide tears. “I just try so hard… and I just can’t ever to do it all. I let them all down. They don’t say anything, but I know.” Her voice shook as she attempted to settle herself, “I try to do everything for them, and I just can’t… I know they’re disappointed. And, I know when I complain or am stressed that they think I’m some crazy woman. A witch or something.”
A few months later and life caught up to me. Two extensive papers due on the same day. And, a presentation with defense. And, I was responsible for a student prayer service. I completed all of these in time, sure, but I was running on not much more than coffee fumes and anxiety. Going into the prayer service, I became convinced that I was letting people down: I was failing my mission to study, my presentation didn’t feel up to par, and the prayer service was going to be a bust—obviously, this all meant that I’m a terrible Jesuit and a terrible person.
In my head, I actually began rehearsing an apology to the students in the group. But before I received a chance to delivery it, an acquaintance came up to me: “Colten, I don’t know you that well, but I’m always impressed by you…”
At the statement, I stopped. It felt all too familiar, and I thought of Jenny’s words: “You think I’m a crazy, middle-aged woman, don’t you!” Her words echoed my own internal monologue: “You think I’m terrible, don’t you!” It was the same narrative and the same pain.
“Jenny, it sounds like you have a lot on your shoulders.” I paused for a moment. “I don’t know your family, but from your descriptions they sound wonderful.”
She mumbled, “They are.”
“And, it sounds to me like they love you, Jenny.”
She wiped the tears from her eyes, “They do.”
I often remember the impossibly high expectations Jenny set for herself, and I recognize that frequently I set impossibly high expectations for myself. Jenny was convinced that everyone was disappointed with her for not being a superhero. Again and again, the same lie runs through my own thoughts. It’s not what others think of me, but what I think of myself that hurts.
I’ve never spoken to Jenny after that day, but I’m reminded constantly of our short conversation. I hope Jenny realizes that what she thinks about herself is much more harsh than what others think of her. I hope she finds a way to soften her own expectations in order to find peace. And, I hope to find the same.