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Put Your Whole Self In

April 27, 2020

My best friend sent me a meme the other day (because that’s what best friends do) that said something about checking other drivers when you have your windshield wipers on to make sure you’re not overreacting.  She said she totally does this and I sent a LOL emoji back but then I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  

This friend works for an international company and travels solo to meet with bigwigs all around the world.  She has endured the loss of her father and sister, and is married to a man with severe Crohn’s Disease who’s been in and out of the hospital for multiple surgeries.  She is an incredible mama to a teenage daughter whom she shares a strong relationship with.  She has lived abroad on her own.  Yet she still doesn’t fully trust herself to make the simplest decision about what she needs.

I think as women we are conditioned not to trust ourselves.  We grow up bombarded with messages that we don’t know what’s best, for our own bodies, for our relationships, for our careers.  We learn to question our instincts and second guess our decisions.  Even when we’re shown evidence that we are wise enough, strong enough, capable enough, in our bones we just don’t believe it.

In conversations with other women I’ve noticed a pattern: many of us spend the majority of our time feeling like imposters in our careers.  We show up and work our asses off but there’s always the fear that someone will realize we don’t really know what we’re doing (even if we really, really do).  The same can be said of motherhood.  “Fake it til you make it” becomes our mantra.  We second guess, we overthink, we agonize over whether we’re doing the “right” thing.  We listen to that old voice inside that says we aren’t good enough and worst of all, we compare.  The adage “Comparison is the thief of joy” is accurate, but it also robs us of our self worth if we allow it.  

I think as women it’s about time we quit checking what the other drivers on the road are doing.  We’re the ones looking through our own windshields at the storm; shouldn’t we decide whether we can see or not?  Our vision is clear; we just have to trust it.

In high school and college I used to babysit virtually every weekend.  It got to the point that my regular families would give out my name to their friends on the condition that they got first dibs.  I made decent money hanging out with some of the coolest kids ever.

My college roommates used to tease me about my “babysitting voice.”  They always knew when I was on a call from a parent to schedule something.  Apparently I had a certain tone and manner I used on those calls, something that I felt conveyed my maturity and trustworthiness.  There was some level of acting on my part that felt necessary to me at the time. 

I still catch myself doing this.  I notice during certain interactions or in certain settings I am less myself.  There’s a deliberate change in my tone of voice, my body language, my mannerisms; I edit what I’m thinking before I say it to be more palatable and comfortable for others.  

Obviously there may be times this is just good manners.  When we’re comfortable with ourselves, we don’t necessarily need to share everything we’re thinking or feeling with everyone around us.  We’re also naturally more relaxed with those closest to us and as a result they get to have the privilege of seeing more of us than we may choose to reveal to the world.  So how do we balance this knowledge with the desire to feel like we’re demonstrating integrity and being true to ourselves? 

I spent much of my life as a chameleon.  I would read the room or the person and figure out what I needed to be in order to fit in or get along.  My family relocated to a new city when I was entering eighth grade; I think when you move at such a vulnerable, insecure age you tend to worry far more about conforming than you might otherwise.  I believe my childhood taught me the value of keeping the peace, even when it cost me more than I should have been willing to pay.  But I also know that girls and women are conditioned to make others comfortable even if it means silencing our voices and behaving in ways that are counter to how we feel. 

This tendency probably served me well in some ways: supervising people, working in groups, handling social situations, they all require some skill at diplomacy and presenting a certain image.  I was a pro at becoming what I knew others wanted me to be, as an employee, a partner, a friend, a new acquaintance.  I made others feel at ease.  

Unfortunately I hadn’t yet developed the ability to keep this inclination in check and I often found myself silencing my true voice in favor of saying what I knew people wanted to hear or remaining silent when I really wanted to speak up.  Early experiences with masking my true feelings and being rewarded for it led me down a path of betraying myself to please others.  It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I began purposefully trying to break this habit, and it wasn’t until my forties that I truly made an effort to match my outside to my inside.  

In my relationships as a teenager and young adult I was especially lacking in spine and self-respect.  My desire to fit in was stronger than the impulse to follow my inner voice.  If my friends were engaging in risky behaviors, who was I to be a killjoy?  Sure, the person I was deep inside felt uneasy with lying to my parents, skipping school, getting drunk, but the discomfort of being an outsider was greater, the thrill of being included too powerful.  If the boy I was dating pressured me to be physical before I felt ready, who was I to stand my ground?  A little part of me might have died every time I allowed things to go further than I felt comfortable with, but the fear of losing him was stronger than my shame.  I became someone who didn’t express opinions, she only agreed with them.  I never made plans, I just went along with them.  I airbrushed the image I shared with others until I almost erased myself completely.   

I think of my daughter, on the cusp of adolescence, and the thought of her sacrificing her true self to be liked makes me break out in a cold sweat.  I have a responsibility to her to lead by example, to show her the importance and power of being true to your own values and feelings.  Every time she sees me behave in a way she knows runs perpendicular to what I believe, she internalizes that as acceptable.  On the other hand, every time she hears me speak up against something I disagree with, or set healthy boundaries, or be unabashedly and wholeheartedly myself regardless of whether others accept me, she is empowered to do the same.  

So many of us, especially women, spend much of our time and energy in an attempt to be liked, trusted, and appreciated by others instead of liking, trusting, and appreciating our own damn selves.  What good does it do for us to spend our lives invested in this kind of false advertising, knowing deep down that what others see and hear isn’t really who we are?  The best feeling in the world is being truly seen and accepted.  We can never experience that if we’re constantly manipulating the version of us we share with others.  

Remember the Hokey Pokey?  You put your whole self in, you put your whole self out.  Your whole self, not some socially acceptable percentage of your self.  If the people around you can’t handle you in your glorious wholeness, they don’t deserve any portion of you.  And the people who can not only handle you but who love the real you?  Those are your people. 

So how do we do this?  It isn’t easy to break a pattern of behavior we’ve followed for so long.  It takes intention.  It takes courage.  It takes accepting that the results may not always be pleasant.  We have to expect that others, especially those who have known one version of us for years, may be taken aback by what they see as a sudden change.  We have to be ready to defend our actions and our words, not in a way that’s confrontational (although that may sometimes be necessary) but in a way that demonstrates our commitment to making our outsides match our insides.  

The people in our lives who have benefitted most from us being chameleons may react negatively to us behaving like butterflies.  Our honesty often comes at the cost of their comfort.  The first time Uncle Joe makes a racist comment at Thanksgiving dinner and we call him on it, the first time our partner takes us for granted and we express how that makes us feel, the first time we speak up in a meeting when a coworker tries to take credit for our work, it will feel uncomfortable.  It will require us to be brave.  It will likely rock the boat.  We have to be willing to face the reactions from those who might be hearing our truth for the first time.

We also have to understand that the familiar feeling of being accepted for what we’ve projected might be the price we pay for a new feeling of wellness in our souls.  The path to living with integrity is littered with the things we lose: unhealthy relationships, unrealistic commitments, unfulfilling careers.  It can be painful to let them go.  But the peace of knowing we’re being true to ourselves and speaking and behaving in a way that aligns with how we feel is so worth it.  The people we attract into our lives when we’re fully ourselves are the people who we’re meant to connect with.  The life we begin living when we stop trying to be something we’re not is the one we’re meant to live.  

You might have to start small.  Choose one relationship or situation that consistently makes you feel as if you’re being inauthentic, and make a choice to speak your truth or show your whole self the next time you’re in a position to do so.  The words might get lodged in your throat.  The expression on your face might not immediately arrange itself into one that shows how you’re feeling.  Take a deep breath and imagine how it will feel to behave the way your inner self longs to, to live life on your own terms.  Once you put your whole self out  a few times it gets harder and harder to put it back in.  When you experience the power of authenticity you begin to care a whole lot less about being what others expect and a whole lot more about being who you are. And you? Are amazing.

Love & Light

~ Ashley

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