The Story Economy Blog

Everything is All Officially a Mess

back garden 2Saturday afternoon was the first warm day we’ve had, and the sight of the mess at the edge of the backyard crashed down on me like, well, a pile of tree limbs. There are invasive vines everywhere. Weeds like crazy. Poison ivy I never took care of last year, still growing up the neighbor’s ugly chain link fence. And then there is the “compost” pile. I am the worst composter ever. I don’t do any of the stuff you’re supposed to do. I just keep piling on leaves and crap. Come summer, I make half-hearted efforts to get the space looking almost presentable, with some weeding and mulching. But the mess still stays.

It’s just a perpetual pile of failure. One of those messes that confirms I’m faking it as a put-together person. And that’s what hit me Saturday. I’m such a fake. For more evidence, I only had to look at the basement, where shelves overflowed with yet more crap. So much stuff was piled up and spewing all over the floor, there was barely space to walk to the washing machine.

The evidence of my fakeness and non-togetherness only gathered momentum when I peered into my disorganized closets, at my overfull iPhone (with hundreds of pictures of the kids I haven’t done anything creative with), and then at the kids’ room, with its lack of colorful storage bins or adorable handmade art or all the stuff I’d always assumed I’d do in their room.

This was more than an urge to spring clean. This was a meltdown, a mass of non-togetherness strangling my well-branded, together image.

You know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve felt it in some area of your life or business. I know it.

I also know this: that shit has to be nipped or we’re not getting anywhere.

The Thing at the Bottom of the Pile

I’m pretty sure I already did a “spring clean your business” newsletter last year or the year before. And even if I didn’t, I really don’t want to. Because it’s so much more than following an urge to tidy and spruce up your closets, your copy, or your key words.

It’s confronting something much uglier.

So, after my meltdown settled a bit, I did some reflecting on what’s really going on.

What’s going on is that it’s March, and I can’t stop thinking back to last March, and how it was the beginning of the long goodbye to my dad.

What’s going on is that Saturday morning, I had volunteered at a tag sale at the elementary school. For three hours, I worked the checkout, and saw a parade of moms with their monogrammed totes and babies snuggled in slings, buying kid wardrobes for the entire season. And it struck me that I don’t even know my own kids’ shoe sizes, that I could never master the baby sling, that I could never even get my stuff together enough to sell old kids’ clothes at a tag sale, and that I generally suck.

What’s going on is that my husband and I have been to hell and back in the past year, and while the sun is shining as we try to recalibrate, there are still these little pockets of resentment that pop out. So when discussing the terribleness of the basement, I actually said to him (a stay-at-home-dad, and the one who does know the kids’ shoe sizes): “You’re home all day. What are you doing anyway? Can’t you just take charge of this?” (I’m well aware that if a husband said this to his wife who stayed home with the kids, we’d call him a lot of names. It’s okay if you want to call me names. But keep reading anyway, because I do redeem myself.)

And what’s going on is that I feel stuck at the same level, business-wise. It’s not a bad level at all. It’s just not the one I want to be at, with only six months to go until I turn 40. And if I don’t even know my kids’ shoe sizes and I can’t tag and bag their old clothes, do something amazing with their art, or organize the gift wrap box, I should at least be fantastically, remarkably, Inc.Magazine profile-worthy successful in business.

That is a whole lot of shit to nip.

But actually, it’s not. It’s just one thing: the shame of fakery (with a side dish of grief thrown in). The worry that the story I tell the world and the story of the mess all around are far too different. I find that the shame of fakery comes and goes for me, and for most people I know. I don’t live in perpetual fear that I suck. I know I don’t really suck. I have a pretty healthy self-esteem. But still, it comes calling when I let it build.

It used to be this worry that someone would come knocking on my door one day, and tell me the jig was up. That the loophole I found around having to trudge into a 9 to 5 job every day was closing. I couldn’t love what I did this much, and be this well paid for it. It was just too good to be true.

I confronted that one about five years ago, when I decided that the evidence pointed to the fact that what I did wasn’t a loophole, it was a business. A pretty successful one at that.

But now, just like my lazy compost mound, the pile is too big again—filled with kids, a marriage, a house, the wreckage of a recession and clients who moved on, and the memories of a really hard year.

So it’s phase two of the shame-of-fakery standoff.

I think first, it’s about reframing. I righted the discussion with my husband by apologizing, and then reframing it. “I am struggling and feel disorganized about this situation,” I said. “I’ve taken the lead on some things in our marriage. Can you take the lead on this, because if you get motivated, I will get motivated. Can you help me?” (Turns out that’s a much better strategy than blame.)

My reframing also helped me see that had I actually engaged in real conversations with the baby sling moms, I would have discovered they felt just as insecure, frazzled, and full of shame as me. Had I channeled empathy (instead of judgment), it would have forged a connection. But instead, I stayed disconnected, because that’s less risky.

And that leads to the second part of the standoff: risk-taking. And it’s much scarier.

So the riskiest thing I could think to do was to register for a somewhat pricey content strategy conference in May, even as the January/February cash flow has been less than stellar. Because if I want to get to the next level, I have to go where people at the next level congregate.

And the last part just involves talking about the shame. Writing about it. Admitting it. Exposing it. That’s one of the best ways to evaporate shame. And I’ve noticed even just in the day-long space it’s taken me to write this newsletter, I feel lighter and less bogged down.

The shit is not officially nipped. But it’s not officially a mess anymore either.

So, off with you, shame. Go find another compost pile to hide under.


  • Christine Parker

    Posted by Christine Parker on 03/12/14 1:34pm

    You are a GIFTED writer. Do not ever give up and do something else. I will hunt you down if you do. Your words move me on a regular basis. I can not think of anything else I read, for which I can say that. I needed the words you put forth today, more than I can express. I lost my mom 20 years ago last Feb 25 and I felt and am still shaking off everything you just wrote. Thank you. And my basement, backyard and brain look like your backyard right now :)

    • Judi Ketteler

      Posted by Judi Ketteler on 03/12/14 8:19pm

      Christine, thank you! I'll never give up writing! It would hunt me down & find me if I tried. Here's to backyards and brains that get better.
      -- Judi

  • Debbie Kane

    Posted by Debbie Kane on 03/12/14 7:31pm

    This is such a pertinent post on so many levels.

    Every woman I know feels like they're faking it on some level: job, raising kids, maintaining a happy marriage, maintaining happy singledom, whatever (men rarely feel this way, BTW). My business coach asked me recently why I felt like I hadn't accomplished "anything" with my business. When I thought about it, it was because I was holding myself to some sky-high standard that I thought everyone else was maintaining but was really a figment of my imagination.

    The bottomline is not to say "I'll never let myself get this way again." Because you (and all of us) will, it'll just be a different kind of chaos. It's to recognize when you've hit that point, accept it, then move on.

    Thanks for a great post.

    • Judi Ketteler

      Posted by Judi Ketteler on 03/12/14 8:23pm

      Debbie, thanks for your comment. I really like what you say about avoiding saying "I'll never let myself get this way again." It's easy to get all caught up in the motivational language & affirmations and sayings like, "Failure is not an option!" (that one always makes me crazy). But in reality, that stuff is often hollow, and very one-dimensional. Because the ups and downs are sort of what make life great. I think you're right: it's about accepting stuff, sitting with it, and then re-starting with what you've learned, and moving forward.
      -- Judi

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