“Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.” ~Steven Pressfield
“We need to talk to you.”
I looked up from my book. The other thirteen girls in my class had assembled around me.
Part of me was annoyed that they interrupted Indiana Jones’s latest adventure. But another part couldn’t shake the feeling that I was facing the sixth grade execution squad. My heart began to beat faster, my shoulders tensed, and sickening fear spread through my body.
“We don’t like you,” the appointed spokesperson declared.
“We think you are arrogant and weird, your nose is always in a book, and your clothes are embarrassing. You don’t fit in here. Do yourself a favor and stay away from us.”
With that, they left. I could hear them gossip at the other side of the classroom. As if nothing had happened.
I sat at my desk, alone. My shaking hands were still clutching my book. My throat felt tight and sore as I battled to hold back tears.
Sure, I would have been kidding myself pretending that I was ever popular. But still, some of these girls I considered my friends. And this brutal, unanimous rejection was a shock.
I can’t remember how I made it through the next two lessons and the bus ride home. I know I didn’t cry. I didn’t want them to see how much they hurt me.
It wasn’t until my mum asked me how my day was that I burst. Tears ran down my cheek as I was sobbing. Looking back, it feels like I wept for days and I remember crying myself to sleep for many months.
I had been judged unworthy of friendship, respect, and approval. I was unacceptable. I wasn’t good enough.
That’s how it started.
The Guaranteed Way to be Accepted in Any Social Group
“Why would you want to be part of their clique anyway?” my mum asked. “They are superficial and blind if they can’t see what a wonderful person you are.” Mums would say that.
But it wasn’t how I felt. I wanted to be accepted. I wanted to be included. I wanted to be invited to the birthday parties and sleepovers. And I was sick of being picked last in sports.
For a while, my classmates avoided me, as if I was suffering from a contagious disease. As instructed, I kept my distance. I felt upset, wounded, heartbroken.
But I watched them. I observed their interactions. I studied the requirements of acceptance. Little by little, I adjusted my behavior.
I begged my mum to buy me a pair of Levi’s 501 jeans so they couldn’t disapprove of my fashion sense. I left my beloved books in my bag to participate in the shallow gossip during recess. I swallowed my opinions and conformed to the group consensus. I engaged in activities I hated. My sole desire was to be accepted, and I was willing to make sacrifices.
And I succeeded. My assimilated interests and behaviors morphed into a new version of me that was finally accepted (or at least tolerated) as part of the group. No more lonely recesses, no more exiled lunch breaks, no more involuntary isolation. I had reached my goal.
I didn’t know then that the cost of acceptance was by far outweighing the benefits. It would be a while until I found out.
A Painful Wake-Up Call
Thirteen years after my fateful teenage rejection, now a student at Vienna University, I was waking up in my tiny flat. My boyfriend of eight years was awake, looking at me. I smiled at him, stretching while planning a busy day in my mind.
“I need to talk to you.”
My smile froze; my stomach felt like it was filled with gravel; my mind was racing. Please, not again! I did everything expected of me.
Don’t do this to me again!
“I don’t love you anymore,” he continued. “I am so sorry. I met someone else.”
That evening, he moved out, to be with her. I sat on the floor, alone, in disbelief, my back against the cold radiator.
I was rejected again! How could this happen? I had done everything required.
But it seemed that no matter who I was or pretended to be, no matter how much I pleaded and begged, no matter how much I changed, adapted, and adjusted myself to please them, they always rejected me. Because I wasn’t good enough. No version of me would ever be good enough.
I cried for days. I wallowed in self-hatred, blame, and self-pity. I cursed my inferior, unacceptable existence. I grieved for the life I lost and prepared myself for a future of unworthy loneliness.
But then, something amazing happened.
The Revelation of the Tragic Price of Acceptance
Two weeks later, I was preparing to go to work. I opened my wardrobe, and the realization hit me so hard that I lost balance.
All the clothes I owned were beige! He had preferred me in beige. He said he didn’t like it when I stood out. I had followed his rules to give him no reason to ever reject me. I was whatever he wanted me to be.
I stared at the rows of neatly folded beige T-shirts, jumpers, and cardigans. There was no color, no personality, no character, no life. Only fulfilled expectations, subordination, and lies.
I had rejected myself to be accepted by others! My true self was chained and gagged, silently suffering. That’s when I realized that self-rejection is the most devastating rejection of them all. It had to stop!
That day in May 2005, I started the journey back to myself. Now I want to share what I learned along the way to help you rediscover your own authentic self.
1. The fascinating reason why we fear rejection.
Nobody likes being rejected. It sucks! But it’s unavoidable.
No matter how much we change, bend, or distort, we will always encounter people who dislike us, disapprove of us, or disrespect us. We will always face situations where we lose out, fail, or don’t make the grade. That’s life.
But we tend to experience rejection as a threat. And I soon discovered that there is a scientific reason for it.
You see, the need for acceptance is deeply rooted in human evolution. If our early ancestors were exiled from the tribe cave, they were history as soon as the next sabre tooth strolled by. Survival depended on remaining a part of the tribe at all cost.
Nowadays, we usually aren’t at risk of being devoured by a wild beast when others disapprove of us. But it still hurts! Because, while our life might not depend on it any longer, our self-worth often does.
We feel worthy only if others approve of us. The issue is that nobody will be acceptable to everybody else.
It’s important to know that rejection doesn’t mean that you aren’t good enough. Some people don’t click. And that’s okay.
2. Being myself was harder than I thought.
When people want to encourage you, they often say: “It’s going to be okay. Just be yourself!”
Good advice. But if you pretended to be someone else for most of your life, this other version of you, the act, becomes who you believe you are. Once this false persona collapses, and you discover that your life was a lie, all that is left are questions.
“Who am I? Do I actually like my work, hobbies, style? Or did I choose them to please others? What do I like? What is important to me?”
In the early days I felt lost, aimless, forlorn. I thought I had to know myself inside out, uncover all the answers, find myself. But the beginning of your journey back to yourself is like the start of any relationship.
You need to get to know yourself. Bit by bit. It takes time, patience, and lots of honest talks. (Yes, with yourself!)
Through these conversations with myself, I learned that I couldn’t rediscover myself through my likes and dislikes. They were artefacts, reflecting the passions and interests of the people I wanted to impress.
I had to investigate what made me happy. I had to identify what made my eyes light up and my heart sing. Because those were the things that originated from my true self.
3. Denying my true self was hurting me.
Throughout my teens and early twenties I suffered from several health problems. I now know that they were caused by my self-rejection. Because they all vanished after I accepted my authentic self.
My social anxiety originated from the belief that anybody could reject me at any time without warning. My night-time crying fits resulted from the grief I felt over losing myself. My bouts of self-hatred stemmed from the fact that I loathed the person I pretended to be, and even my bronchitis was a warning sign that I wasn’t speaking my truth.
I was emotionally, mentally, and physically hurting myself so others might approve of me. And I didn’t allow myself to see it. I ignored all the signs because my desire for approval was paramount.
I needed to be accepted to feel worthy, and blamed all the negative consequences on a nervous disposition, a sensiive soul, and the harsh Alpine air.
4. I never knew what I wanted because I didn’t know who I was.
By the time my boyfriend left me, playing an act to please others was so normal, I had stopped noticing it. But I always felt unfulfilled. My life lacked direction and purpose.
I was unsure what I could offer the world or what I wanted from life. Sometimes I sat in the living room of my tiny flat thinking, “I want to go home.” At the time, I didn’t know where this absurd thought came from.
Now I understand that you cannot find your true calling if you aren’t true to yourself. If you pretend to be someone else to gain approval from others, everything you do reflects your efforts to please, appeal, and impress.
Once you rediscover yourself, can you walk on your right path. Because every decision made or influenced by others will ultimately be the wrong one for you.
Finding your direction, passions, and purpose has to start with accepting who you are and presenting this person to the world.
5. Losing friends is unavoidable.
And that’s where it becomes terrifying! Your friends, business partners, clients, and colleagues only know your act. But now you have to put the cards on the table and be honest with them. I found that to be the hardest part.
Exposing your true self to the world leaves you naked and vulnerable. It’s impossible to predict how people will react. In my case, some were disappointed and hurt, some disliked my true self and disappeared from my life, but most neither noticed nor cared.
The truth is that some friendships may not survive. And that’s okay. Most friendships aren’t constants; they are in flow.
Your friends reflect what you believe about yourself. If your beliefs change, so will the people around you. A special few may stick with you for life, but most will come and go.
Yes, it can be heart-breaking but no friend will ever be worth denying your true self. Losing a friendship will never be more devastating than losing yourself. And no rejection is as disastrous as self-rejection.
The friends who cannot accept your authentic self will be replaced by people who love and respect the real you.
The Key to an Authentic Life
I know what you’re thinking. What if not? What if you will never find anybody who loves and accepts you?
Would you not be better off being an integrated pretender than an authentic loner?
The answer lies in your self-worth. Think about it. There are 7.4 billion people on this planet. It is statistically impossible that they will all reject you!
But throughout your life you learned to believe that you are unlovable because you have nothing to offer. That you don’t deserve other people’s approval because you aren’t good enough, and that you are only acceptable if you cover up your flawed and unworthy self.
That’s why your mind will always caution you. It wants to protect you from the pain of further rejection and disappointment. Because a deep-seated feeling of worthlessness has become your default state.
But it’s not reality! It’s not the truth.
The truth is that you are worth personified! Your true self is beautiful, valuable, and infinitely deserving of happiness, friendship, and love.
Your worth is unconditional. It doesn’t depend on your style and appearance. It exists irrespective of your bank balance, success levels, or qualification, and it isn’t diminished by the lack of other people’s approval.
Yes, we all make mistakes, we all do things we aren’t proud of, and we all are rejected at times. But as long as you do your best to be a kind, loving, and warm-hearted person, you will always be good enough!
Once you accept this, once you accept yourself, others will see the amazing person you are. People out there want to know and love you. That much I know.
Because I worked my way from a conforming, self-suppressing, anxiety-filled, beige existence to a happy woman with a wonderful husband, a beautiful daughter, and genuine friends who love me for who I really am.
I believed I was unacceptable. But it wasn’t the truth. It was low self-worth.
And it is low self-worth for you too. You can overcome it; you can heal. And you can attract the people out there looking to meet you.
Now you just need to have the courage to introduce yourself. I know you can do it!