Back in 2003, if you’d asked what my favourite film was, I’d have said the critically-acclaimed Brazilian crime film City of God. Watched at the behest of my then love interest because he pooh-poohed people who didn’t watch subtitled films, I did indeed love the film.
But actually, my joint favourites are Ghost and Coming To America. Along with subtitled films, I’ve claimed to love drinks that made me feel queasy and gave me bubble guts (beer) or turned me nutty (Jack Daniels and coke).
I’ve miserably tottered and teetered in a pair of clear-heeled pole dancing shoes that a shady ex gave me for Christmas (and insisted I wore despite my very obvious humiliation). And I’ve pretended to be the girl with no needs who isn’t bothered by much. These, and more, were part of my long list of endeavours to be ‘cool girl’.
Not being myself was my go-to method throughout my entire relationship history. Like the lyrics of Taylor Swift’s catchy Blank Space, my thing was to “find out what you want, be that girl for a month” – or even a couple of years in my case. I mean, isn’t that what women are supposed to do if we want to be liked, loved and, dare I say it, ‘chosen’? Um, hell no!
When you’re consistently being something you’re not, and breaking your boundaries by putting up with behaviour and situations that are incompatible with your wellbeing, you wake up to the realisation that the rejection you fear from others is nothing compared to the alienation and rejection you experience through loss of self.
So many of us have picked up messages earlier in life that we’ve inferred as lessons in why it’s not a good idea to let our real selves hang out. We want to fit in, whether it’s with our family, our peers or even with society at large. When we feel as though we’ve said or done something that has exposed us to criticism, ridicule or judgement (or seen others experience it), we believe that it’s safer to be what we think other people need and want us to be.
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In romantic relationships, this manifests as us behaving as if we’re auditioning for the role of partner or spouse for some big, powerful talent-show judge who can give us our ‘big break’. We glean as much info as possible to help us figure out how to be the person they want us to be.
When we’re unsure of what to do, we avoid being or doing anything that we think will cause them to form an opinion about us. But we spend so much time trying to be that right person for them that we don’t stop to ask whether they’re even the right person for us.
When we’re afraid of our true purpose, we’ll often amp ourselves up to get a job that sucks the soul out of us. When we blame ourselves for something that happened years ago, we might hold on to draining friendships or bullying faux friends. We stress ourselves out about being accepted by people who we don’t truly even like, compromising our own needs and making us forget who we really are.
It’s tiring being on guard and running everything we do through a filter that checks if we’re ‘good enough’. Trying to be what we think others expect of us exacerbates feelings of loneliness. Not being ourselves causes us to be emotionally adrift, as we’re not expressing our innermost feelings and thoughts, and we’re wearing a mask that keeps us at a distance from people. It’s a silencing of, and suppression of, the truest expression of ourselves; one that’s based on us suffering a great deal of self-criticism.
We end up feeling anything but ‘cool’. If anything, we grow increasingly frustrated and resentful. It’s bad enough to experience rejection and disappointment, but it can be excruciating when it feels like we’ve done everything possible to avoid being rejected by them. How can they not love us when we’re being exactly what they wanted? It fuels this notion that we’re ‘not good enough’, when in truth, we have always been good enough.
Pretending to be whatever we think is most attractive for others is a path to pain. We must be for ourselves before we can be for another and if we want to be loved for who we are, we’ve got to consistently show up.
Of course, many of us don’t know what the hell ‘being yourself ’ actually means. We see plenty of inspirational quotes about the importance of it but not a great deal of clues about the how. Being yourself means letting you be the person you are when you’re not following all of the rules (shoulds, musts, always and nevers).
Who would you be without the restrictions, criticisms, stories and judgements? It’s who you briefly contemplate being or going to be, before the committee inside your head slams it down with chatter and fear. It’s who you are when you’re not doing things with the aim of gaining approval, attention and affection from someone, or to avoid criticism, conflict and rejection. It’s when your outside matches your insides.
Ultimately, greater peace of mind and more harmonious relationships and experiences come from living in line with your values; when your preferences, priorities and principles reflect what feels good and right for you. In your values lies your truth, your purpose – these are critical to your wellbeing because they allow you to live happily and authentically.
Becoming more of who you really are is a work in progress. It’s about being vulnerable enough to allow yourself to consistently show up, giving you the sense of self to make self-supporting decisions and choices that allow you to grow. Never sacrifice your character and what matters for the things that don’t.