In a year-long lead up to my 50th birthday later this week, I’ve taken numerous strolls down Memory Lane and this has included listening to songs that remind me of earlier times in my life. As a little person in the 70s, I grew up loving the Muppet Show. Hearing its theme tune on my Spotify playlist a few days ago, in addition to inducing a fit of giggles, got me reflecting on a recent experience and its relationship to a struggle I’ve grappled with throughout my life but which I finally seem to be overcoming.
Whilst Jim Henson originally gave us ‘Muppet’ – spoken with affection, and synonymous with unfailing optimism as much as silliness and naivety – it has since been re-appropriated and ‘muppet’ is now a colloquial, distinctly unflattering, term for someone considered foolish or incompetent.
I believe each one of us has an area of our life about which we feel deeply insecure and sensitive – an inner place of muppetness. But, rather than representing some random, unfair wound, I see it as having the potential to serve an important function and to act as a powerful source of profound meaning-making; I would even go so far as to say that it has a sacred quality. I believe that, if an attempt is made to understand it, especially within a broader context, it can over time yield its treasures of wisdom and compassion. The alternative to this is projection. When this occurs, qualities associated with the wound, such as anger or fear, are disowned and unconsciously placed into others, enabling denigration from a seemingly safe – but entirely misplaced – place. Sadly, this is a common tendency for us all, particularly in one’s younger years in the absence of self-awareness.
For me, this wound has related to my core identity particularly within a professional or public sphere. Only now, at mid-life, have I come to realise that no evidence to support a self-concept of innate stupidity and ineptness actually exists. However, in the years leading up to this realisation, shame assumed a major position within my psyche, fulfilling its job description well by standing in the way of cherished goals, including that of being an artist. This example of the ‘presenting past’ – negative beliefs arising from experiences earlier in one’s life which continue to exert an influence in the present – leads to misguided thinking, the impact of which can be far-reaching and profound, as it has been for me. Not having a sense of myself as a worthy individual crippled my capacity to communicate and caused a deep fear of people. As the eldest of four, I’d assumed the role of carer from a young age but always operating from an unhealthy, unbalanced place, running away from my needs, desires, intuitions and any other responsibility to myself. Essentially, I had no sense of my own worth and power.
In the last twelve years, however, adopting Yoga as a philosophy of life and engaging in a committed process of self-observation, I’ve worked hard to heal this wound. Ultimately, it is the work of a lifetime but, so far, I’ve not only convinced myself of myself, I finally see ‘me’ through the loving eyes of those closest to me – I feel my worth and I feel my power. My lifestyle may be unrecognisable from what it was a dozen years ago, but I have found peace and have learnt the true meaning of happiness. And so now my desire to help others comes from a place of self-love and respect, as well as a deep sense of who I am in my own right. By learning how to care for myself, I can better care for others – precious fruit from all those years of inner labour.
Self-care is a crucial issue when writing about something like this in a space that can be accessed by anyone, anywhere. I’m operating on the assumption that no-one else, apart from a few within my circle of friends and family, is actually reading this and so, although technically not a private space, in reality, it probably is! But the mere fact of voicing a struggle here represents crossing a major threshold, something as a private person I would never have contemplated doing so until now. I’m aware that this kind of sharing permits depth and a context for other discussions. As such, with careful consideration, I’m venturing out of my comfort zone and taking this new step.
Back to the recent experience. It started out as an attempt to convince myself – and ended up as an attempt to convince a senior professional – about the merits and relevance to his field of a psychosocial perspective. This was politely but unequivocally rejected. I strongly suspect he hadn’t actually read much, if any, of what I’d written. However, whilst I believe he was being closed-minded, I’m conscious that he’s a busy man who had shown kindness and generosity – I have a lot of respect for him – and that my attempt to persuade was impulsive and, quite frankly, not at all well-constructed. I was embarrassed and being at a low ebb already did not help.
Having taken an unprecedented risk several years ago by forgoing both a contract extension and promotion in favour of temping as part of a plan to restructure my working life, I had found myself in an increasingly precarious situation. As a single, middle-aged homeowner cum career-shifter this would have been risky enough, but the covid-19 pandemic took things to a whole new level and I ended up with no work. I’d reached a point where, in an attempt to create space in my life for creativity and compassion, I had seemingly ruined it.
Basically, I felt like a complete muppet.
And so, from this fragile position, I ended up trying to persuade an expert to open up to a completely new perspective on his field, to which I am a complete novice. Er, way to go…? Whilst embarrassment is unpleasant, it’s nothing compared to the excruciating feeling of shame, but whereas this impasse might have previously sparked a strong shame response, this time it did not. In recent years, I’ve begun to notice how my inner response has differed considerably from what it would have been before. I’ll admit that for a brief moment this situation did make me wonder if I even wanted to remain in the field. However, it was fleeting. Then, rather than back down, I felt more determined than ever to fight – another new response in recent years.
I know I’m a novice in his field, but I also know I’m less of one in mine. More than that, my stance is not only based on theory but lived experience – I see examples of toxic social structures and their effects at an individual level in action every day. I would go so far as to say that sometimes they break my heart. I’m committed to doing what I can to remain as self-aware as possible and to find ways to protect myself – and hopefully others – from their pervasive, covert effects. In this light, I feel strongly that this lens could add real value to the efforts of the professional in question and I’m minded to continue my efforts, so as to persuade, if not him, then others like him.
I realise this must all sound as vague as it does dramatic. I’ll expand on it at a later stage but, for now, I should stress that this ‘fight’ is double-edged. It’s something I view as much a responsibility as a passion, as though the decision were not entirely mine. I feel a weight on my shoulders at the prospect of future muppet-inducing moments but accept this as part of my journey and am committed to doing my best.
And I know that doing my best means trusting in the process and maintaining a balance: between my inner muppet – staying connected with my vulnerability so that I remain sensitive to the inner muppets of others – and my inner Muppet – staying connected with all that is enduringly and endearingly silly and sunny, and, in the face of failure, being willing to open up to yet another zany idea that just might work this time.
Harnessing humour and pathos, gravity can work hand in hand with levity to open up the possibility comfort during times of challenge.
Well, that’s exactly what happened to me. At the eleventh hour, having reached a state of not-so-quiet desperation, a job opportunity presented itself, one better suited to supporting my goals than anything I could have hoped for. To have any hope of getting it, though, I knew that, being in a place of zero confidence, the crux of my interview prep had to be on lifting my spirits. The older I get, the more I appreciate just how crucial going a bit crazy every now and again is to being a productive, responsible adult. Luckily, I have a natural talent for madness but being able to utilise it productively is the result of much focused and committed inner work: fostering a more mature, more complete, Muppet.
And so, my Muppet came to the rescue. Following an appropriate period of idiocy, and in the face of fierce competition, I got the job… The best – most sensational, inspirational, celebrational, muppetational – 50th birthday present ever!
As for you, dear reader, in honour of your inner muppet and Muppet, here’s a tune I hope they’ll both enjoy. :O)