“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” ~E.E Cummings
I was a pretty shy and very quiet kid, so going to school for the first time in kindergarten was a terrifying experience for me.
After a short time, though, life brightened for me in my little elementary school. As it turned out, I loved learning and was a natural student. It was my bliss and often a respite from tumultuous home circumstances, the first place that I spoke out loud with confidence.
Unfortunately, in the urban neighborhood where I lived, being smart meant being very low on the social hierarchy.
For years I was oblivious to this, but as I moved in to pre-adolescence, I became acutely aware of how my peers viewed me and felt increasingly embarrassed about standing out as a stellar student.
In one particularly memorable experience, I left the stage of a successful debate speech humiliated because I spied several of my peers mocking me in the audience during my delivery. This was a turning point.
Because of an intense desire to win the approval of my peers, I began to actively make decisions to fit in rather than finding my joy by expressing who I really was. Although uncanny to me now, at times, I even would intentionally give the wrong answers on exams to bring my scores down.
An occasional wrong answer didn’t change who I really was, but each decision I made to choose the approval of others, buried my true self deeper.
The momentary gratification of being liked or winning approval could have had profound consequences. It certainly left me feeling empty.
Every time we make small decisions to fit in, whether as a child or as an adult, we are burying a little part of ourselves down deep. This is really serious business, this denying of who we are.
Make it a habit, and you risk becoming confused about who you really are. Just search online for books on topics like finding your true passion or how to get back to your true self to get a sense of the energy it takes to find pieces that are lost.
In high school, I made a dramatic internal shift. Because of a newfound faith, I started to think about my future and felt that I had a responsibility to begin living my life in a way that reflected who I really was.
This, rather than the approval of others became a driving force for me. Small decision by small decision, I began to act with the courage to be me.
I’d like to say that from that period on, I have been always and consistently true to myself. That, though, would not be true. And ironically, not being honest about who I am.
The opportunities for adults to deny their truth in favor of approval are endless, and choices can feel complicated. In some moments, I have done better than others, whether it be stating an honest, but unpopular position or leaving a lucrative career for more meaningful work.
I do know for sure that I have never met one human being—not one—who regrets making choices that reflect who they really are.
Recently, something reminded me of the rewards of being true to who you are. My son asked me if I had three wishes for my life, what would I wish.
I was stumped. Really. Sincerely. Stumped. I couldn’t come up with one wish—not because I have arrived to a particular destination or had everything that I ever wanted, but because I know that I am truly on the right path, my unique, one-of-a-kind path.
There is good news though. Just like denying ourselves can bury who we are, small decisions to be you can have a cumulative impact too. The more often that we are brave enough to express who we are, the easier it gets.
So, in this present moment, how about you? Are you growing up to be who you truly are?
Here are easy suggestions for building the being you habit. Pick one or more if you like.
1. Express your uniqueness daily.
Create a daily practice of doing or saying something that expresses you without regard to its popularity or commonality. It can be as simple as a wardrobe choice or saying no to a social engagement that will leave you feeling drained.
2. Make time for brief moments of solitude.
Even just a few minutes during the day can help you connect to yourself rather than being caught up in outside forces.
3. Re-connect to a childhood passion.
Think about what you loved to do as a kid as it can be a clue to your truest expressions. Anything you want to try today?
4. Write down three things that you truly value.
Take one small action every day to express your values.
5. Go easy on the pressure.
There’s a difference between compromising your true self and having multiple passions. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to make the right choice when it comes to your calling. Sometimes you just have to pick something and take action.
6. Create relationships based on being you.
Some people are more naturally inclined to care what others think. If you are one of those people, you also likely have a great propensity to be empathetic. Build upon that strength and reach out to others to get the support you need.
7. Find your mantra.
Sometimes we end up compromising who we are because it is hard to say no. Write down on a small card your response to requests for your time or an opinion you are not prepared to give. Doesn’t have to be eloquent—“Huh, I’ll have to think about that” works.
8. Support someone else in self-expression.
When you see someone standing out rather than fitting in, be a voice of encouragement and support.
9. Create art.
Buy a small journal or notebook just for self-expression. It will be one of the best purchases you will ever make. Spend even one minute a day writing or drawing a picture. No directions required.
10. Remind yourself how important this is.
Hang up a sign with the quote at the beginning of this post or another that reminds you the importance of being you.
If you feel like your true self is lost under the debris of fitting in, take heart, you are closer than you think. If you are a being you master, then add to the above list. Either way, I’d be honored to hear your stories in the comments.
Girl hiding face image via Shutterstock