Why a Compass?

This post is going to be incredibly personal, but I think some of the imagery that I’m using might be useful for others who deal with perfectionism/body issues/self esteem issues which is why I want to explain my use of the image.

I’m planning to get a new tattoo soon, and unlike my previous two this one is not nearly as self-explanatory as the others. I think in part, I don’t even entirely know what it means to me except that the idea of it has been calling out to me for quite some time now ever since my therapist threw out the idea of “why don’t you think of yourself as an explorer?” in a therapy session a few months ago.

Why is it so important for me to have a word to attach to myself, particularly this one? What is it about being an explorer that helps me as a human being? And why do I want to have a reminder of it on my skin? I think that tattoos can be cathartic. They are changes we choose to make to our bodies, permanent and visible. For me, they are an important element of constructing my own identity. So when I start to construct a new piece of my identity, something that feels like moving forward in a positive fashion, I want to have a reflection of that on my physical being.

My last tattoo was the eating disorder recovery symbol. For me, it was a choice to try to change. But it was also a recognition that my life was still ruled by food in many ways, even if it was through a choice to try to be healthier with my food. Now, as the next step in recovery, I am actively trying to create an identity that has nothing to do with my eating disorder (or at least very little. I do still want to be an advocate for mental health care). The image of an explorer resonated with me for a number of reasons.

One of the things that has been overwhelming to me in the past is my curiosity. I can never know enough, and for the last five years or so that was something that provoked a lot of anxiety in me. One of the things that I like about the image of exploring is that it does not imply that I HAVE to explore any given thing. I get to try out new places, new things, and then come home. No explorer is expected to give up everything else in their life to only explore or to try every single thing. You might go to space or deep sea or discover America, but there is nothing that says you have to try absolutely everything. You can just try what strikes your fancy. The label seems to imply freedom to come and go.

Another piece of exploring that is quite comforting to me is that the essence of exploring is uncertainty.I have had a hard time accepting ambiguity and uncertainty in my personal life. I want to know where I’m supposed to be going and what I’m supposed to be doing. I want a path that will tell me what’s Right. Unfortunately reality does not exist in that fashion, and finding the excitement of uncertainty is a goal of  mine. There is no set path, but that does not mean I’m doing something wrong or that I’m going to die. In fact not knowing can actually be a great thing, something that leads to growth and deeper understanding and connection and support and vulnerability.

I’ve also spent a lot of my life afraid of leaving people behind. I hate the idea that I could be spending time with someone but I’m choosing to do something else, as if it will ruin any love or care that we had. But explorers have to leave. That doesn’t mean that they won’t come home again or that there won’t be loved ones waiting for them. It doesn’t mean they don’t care or that their relationships are not good enough. It means that they have a drive to find new things, and that they need to do that sometimes. But they can always come home. There might be some pain in leaving, but there will always be joy in coming back. There is security in knowing where home is.

But perhaps my favorite part of the image of a compass is the space it implies. A compass is for going, for finding, for doing. It is for wide open spaces and running and sailing and GOING. There is so much in me that loves movement and filling up all the space I can find with my words and my thoughts and my body. There has been so much fear in my life of hurting others if I let myself stretch and be as large as I want to be (this is metaphorical). It has become more and more obvious to me that making myself small does nothing for others. I am giving myself permission to fill every space I want. The image of exploring says to me that I get to do this, I get to be in all these new places. I get to expand myself in all directions. It is freedom.

My body has never been a site of freedom before. I want to know what that’s like. Having an image that speaks to me as part of my skin feels like control to me. It is the control to make decisions about who I am.

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