A Letter to the Seeker

Words by Shelly Brown

Photos by Kenwyn Alexander

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The sun beamed through the windows of my Venice California Air BnB. I sat on the far right side of the sofa doing what my counselor called “parts work.” The idea of parts work is that unresolved conflict within ourselves causes us to sabotage our own healing. The different sides, or parts, of us create inner battles, making us our own worst enemy.

Moments before I sat in the sunlight, I had made a list. She asked me to make a list of everything that I consider to be feminine. Within minutes, I had filled the page up with everything from education to lipstick. As we went down the list, she commented that I had included a lot more empowering words than most. Then she stopped at one: “polite.” “What does polite mean to you?” she asked.

“I guess there is just a nice way to say things most of the time,” I replied.

My counselor tilted her head. “What if a situation doesn’t call for something to be said politely?” I didn’t know how to answer. I assumed that even in conflict conversations, I could find some way to not be an ass? Not that I had mastered this by any means—I had just always wanted to.

“What if it is a situation that really needs you to stand up for yourself?” she pushed.

“I guess I could still be polite about it?” I replied in a questioning tone.

At this point, she explained to me that we would be doing parts work. I would sit on one side of the couch as one version of myself, then sit on the other side of the couch as the other version, then figure out who would sit in the middle. This was all great for me because I’m a visual learner and it almost felt like a game. As I sat as the “polite” version of myself, I subconsciously straightened my back and flipped my hair.

“If you show up as this version how do you look?” she asked.

My immediate reply was, “Put together.” The idea of a southern belle worthy of a fashion blog popped into my head. As she guided me through questions, I felt irritation rise inside of me. She  strategically placed me in imaginary situations where I had remained quiet when I didn’t really want to. Not because it is necessary to say everything that comes to mind, but because they were situations and conversations that went against my value system. They were situations I actually had been in and remained quiet to keep peace and be polite. I believe quiet is the evil twin of polite. It appears the same from the outside but leads you away from purpose and stirs anger inside. I could feel myself getting angry as I tried to make excuses for why there is always a way to be polite, a way to not make anyone feel bad, and in certain situations you just don’t need to speak up. When my counselor asked me to move to the left side of the couch, I could hardly wait. My entire body language changed as I slumped down into the left sofa cushion that felt like it was filled with authenticity. “How do you feel about her?” she inquired, pointing to the right side of the sofa.“I hate her.” I felt exhausted. Every excuse I’ve ever made for bad behavior—for myself and for others—rushed through my brain. The situations I had been in that called for the female to remain quiet filled the room, and on this side of the couch, I didn’t have to act like I liked them.

“Why do you hate her?” my counselor asked.

“Because she isn’t real. She just says what she is supposed to say so that nothing gets stirred up.” I said in the same tone that a sibling would blame a sibling.

“Do you think she should be rude?” she asked.

“Of course not. I just can’t figure out where the balance is,” I replied.She smiled and told me to sit in the middle of the sofa. She explained to me that both these sides of myself were important, that both were necessary, but that there was something that needed to happen. I leaned in, having no clue what she was about to instruct me to do. “This girl (pointing to the left side of the couch that had held the eye-rolling version of me) needs to protect this girl.” As she pointed to the right side of the couch that held the visual of my people pleasing persona, I felt compassion and grace for my right-cushion self. That side of myself had done a lot for me. She was a good mom, staying calm in moments that would cause some moms to end up on the news. She opened doors for people behind her. She listened and loved people boldly and for the right reasons. She just needed to be protected. I don’t want to walk around life not giving AF but I realized I hadn’t done the best job of protecting the parts of me that give the most.

“So, when ‘this girl’ hears something disagreeable but feels called to stay quiet, how do I protect her?” I asked, genuinely not knowing the answer.

“You say no in all of those situations,” my counselor replied without hesitation. My. Mind. Was. Blown. At 34 years old, I had just learned what a boundary is. This situation doesn’t work for my life and my value system? I say no. Don’t like that person? Say no to hanging out with her, because it is possible to do it in a nice way.

How had I missed this for so long, and why does it always feel that I have to say yes to things? The simplest visual had just untaught me what culture had taught me my entire life. My idea of polite changed. Real doesn’t mean impolite. It just means that some things don’t work for your path. What makes this seem like a problem is that from this point there is big change. Change in what you say yes to and who you surround yourself with. Change that can catch people who are in your life by surprise and might not please them. But the change is also the growth and it is not personal toward anyone. It doesn’t mean you tell everyone off; it just means you protect the side of yourself that is able to give the most so that you can serve your purpose for this life.

I share this story for our Ideas issue because ideas can make or break us. Ideas that we have about ourselves and ideas that we have about life can change in a moment, and suddenly everything you know seems different. The ideas we have shape our habits and our habits shape our lifestyle. This section is dedicated to new habits. I hope we can change your mind about anything that holds you back from your potential. I hope you sink into whatever side of the sofa feels best to you and give no energy to anything that does not help you improve your life.