How You Can Find Yourself By Losing Yourself

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“Our lives improve only when we take chances and the first and most difficult risk we can take is to be honest with ourselves.” ~Walter Anderson

Growing up in a small town in Western Canada, I was known as the kid who accomplished things.

I was the well-mannered and conscientious child who skipped grade two, was at the top of her class, played three musical instruments, took ballet lessons, French lessons, swimming lessons, and any other lesson in which I expressed an interest.

While this might sound like the calendar of an over-scheduled kid, it actually never felt that way. I had a real love of learning, and appreciated the opportunity to be exposed to so many things.

While I was grateful for all the privileges afforded to me by my parents, the unintended side effect of being the kid who accomplished a lot was that it set a very high bar in terms of others’ expectations of me.  

I knew my classmates and teachers expected that I would go on to great things, and so, I continued to achieve. I was educated at some pretty prestigious schools and got a Masters’ degree, and then a PhD. I embarked on a career as a corporate psychologist in which I consulted to high-powered senior leaders, lived a jet-setting lifestyle, and made a healthy income.

And, if I’m being perfectly honest, it wasn’t just others’ expectations that drove me—I savored the response I got from people when they wrongly sized me up based on my appearance, and then found out about what I did. I enjoyed getting upgraded on airplanes and having access to V.I.P. areas of hotels.

Being an achiever was an integral part of my identity. Yet, after a while, it started to become confining.

As you can see from my childhood experiences, I am the sort of person who has varied interests, and a lot of them are creative. So, as you might expect, there eventually came a point in my career in which the artistic-dreamer aspects of my personality felt like they were being trampled by the pragmatic, results-driven, goal-oriented parts of me. I knew I needed to make a change.

I talked with friends about my dilemma and got advice akin to some of the backlash many others who have been lucky enough to have some degree of privilege receive. People unsympathetically dismissed the stirrings of my soul as being in the realm of self-indulgent “first world problems.”

“Do you know how many people would want your job with the money you’re making? You can’t mess that up!” a well-meaning friend said.

“Are you kidding me?” chimed in another, “You sound like one of those spoiled self-absorbed celebrity types who has lost touch with how things really are and don’t realize how good they have it.”

So, what did I do? Nothing. I put my nose to the grindstone, continued business-as-usual, and tried to revel in the identity that looked like gleaming gold to others, but was beginning to look painfully tarnished from the inside.

Then, in 2013, my husband and I had a son. Each night, as I rocked him to sleep, I did what so many parents do: I shared my hopes with him regarding how he would live his life.

I whispered to him that he could do anything he desired. I encouraged him to go after his dreams and live out his passions. I told him he was uniquely talented, and that he needed to use his gifts to the best of his ability. In other words, I told him to do everything I wasn’t doing.

As someone with a newborn, I was a rush of emotions, novel experiences, and sleep-deprivation. I had quite a bit of time in the wee hours of the morning to introspect and contemplate the meaning of life. And when I reflected on it, I knew that the reason why I wasn’t practicing what I preached was because I was scared.

What if I tried something that I was truly invested in and failed? How would others respond? Perhaps I would have to listen to sincere concern from loved ones questioning why I was making reckless choices.

Maybe I would get expressions of disappointment from certain friends as I fell from the pedestal on which they had placed me (against my will). And, it certainly wasn’t inconceivable that I might be on the receiving end of some gleeful schadenfreude from others behind my back.

Plus, there was that pesky issue of my identity. I liked being known in my circles as the one who could be counted on to achieve. Who would I be without that identity?

After numerous quiet meditations during 3:00AM feedings, I realized that who I would be was someone who was a whole lot happier.

I would be able pursue my heart’s desires unencumbered by apprehension about how others might respond. I would no longer have to stifle the voice deep inside trying to get me to embrace all sides of me. I would be free.

So, to honor my creative side, I finished a book I had started writing a few years prior. I dealt with the feelings of uncertainty and nakedness that I felt in response to putting something about which I was truly passionate outside of my reach for others to judge.

I have approached my work differently, drawing on my penchant for asking life’s deep questions and a desire to help others have professional lives that provide them with a sense of purpose.

I have allowed myself to delight in the journey, without worrying too much about how others might perceive whether or not I am living my life in the way they think I should.

And, the invisible weight that I have been carrying around has disappeared. I can just be myself—whoever that happens to be at the time.

If you, like me, have let your view of yourself hold you hostage, here are some suggestions for breaking free:

1. Think about your various identities.

Which ones work for you? Which ones constrain you? While some identities might be obvious in terms of how they hold you back (i.e.: “I am not smart.”), be aware of others that might seem positive, but actually can work against you (i.e.: “I must do everything well.”)

2. Recognize that other people, though well-meaning, can box you in.

While listening to others’ feedback can be a helpful way to develop, be aware that they bring their preconceived notions to the table. Trust your gut, and be comfortable with the fact that others may not always agree with your choices.

3. Be aware that identities change.

Just because you have been known as “The person who…” for as long as you can remember, doesn’t mean you have to own that persona for the rest of your life. Who do you want to be? What feels right for you right now?

4. Give yourself permission to grow.

Instead of needing to be exceptional right away, arming yourself with the knowledge that you can always develop in an area through effort can help to deal with some of the fears that might come up when trying something new. Be compassionate with yourself.

5. Keep in mind the words of the late, great Maya Angelou, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Do you want to look back on your life with regrets? If not, be true to yourself, and you will be rewarded with greater life fulfillment and meaning.

Man searching image via Shutterstock

About Patricia Thompson

Dr. Patricia Thompson is a corporate psychologist, coach, and author of The Consummate Leader: a Holistic Guide to Inspiring Growth in Others…and in Yourself.  For over ten years, she's helped her clients achieve their professional goals by developing their talents and unleashing their authentic selves. If you're interested in improving your relationship, get her free e-book “Working on Your Relationship … by Working on Yourself.”

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  • Why is it so much easier to give advice to others? No matter how much we believe in the advice or know it to be true ourselves, it is scary to follow it. I am really hoping to get to the point of getting out of the confines of myself and growing more as a person.

  • I hear you! It really can be scary. One thing I have found in my case, however, is that the anticipation provided a lot more anxiety than the actual leap and “afterlife.” Good luck with your personal growth!

  • Manas

    Making space in life for a range of experiences is one of the primordial but one of the most difficult decision. People wrap us their lives with a feeling of what if. In our wish to describe a happy life we forgot that happiness is a state of mind and the mind changes with seasons.

  • It seems that as humans we have a real tendency to pigeon hole each other, doesn’t it?

  • Padmini Ram

    Thanks for the note! This reads like something I would have written, all complete with the change that came after we had our son, and I started telling him all those things that you did. In my case it was also the three miscarriages, I had before we had him, that put me in a state of depression and made me feel at a loss of control for the first time in life. What helped was turning back to my creative outlet. I started learning about photography, went back to painting. I am in a happy place now, because I don’t fill up my life with things that I feel I ought to do, rather with things that I want to do. I quit my job to take up PhD so that it allowed me to have a more flexible schedule as my son grows up.

  • I’m so glad it resonated with you!

  • Stacey Aaronson

    Another wonderful article, Patricia! I can completely relate because I also grew up as the contented overachiever for whom everyone had high expectations … and I relished fulfilling them. And then, as I reached college and continued to aim high and maintain a 4.0 while working two jobs, I discovered that my own father didn’t seem to think much of my accomplishments. It’s not that he wasn’t proud; rather, he told me, “Well, that’s what you’ve always done, so I’m not surprised.” It was then that I realized my high achievements were simply expected and not so much appreciated for the incredible amount of time and commitment they required. I also realized I needed to ensure I wasn’t being a high achiever for others’ approval, but rather for my own self-satisfaction. It was quite an a-ha moment! In any case, I love what you illustrated in the article and the advice you shared. We would all be wise to do some self-reflection, if we haven’t already, to be certain we’re being true to ourselves. Maya Angelou, our deeply missed sage, gave us wonderful food for thought in that quote, and I’m so happy you shared it, along with your own inspiring story. Thank you!!

  • My pleasure! 🙂

  • It takes great wisdom to realize the cages we’ve built for ourselves… pretty as they are, the traps of ego and identity lay in such glittering words as “achiever” and “attractive” as they do in the more obvious job titles and relationship roles. Salutations.

  • Amen!

  • Kyra

    Thanks so much for this article! Really hit home for me. I’m 17 and going into University. I keep feeling like I have to go to a prestigious university or I’m letting down everyone who believed me to be a certain way. This came at the perfect time. Following passions may be scary, especially when you know you very well have the attributes to become a successful person in other regards. THANK YOU!

  • Kyra – what an exciting time of your life you are in! I’m so glad the article was helpful to you, and I wish you much success with your endeavors. Let me know how it goes (you can contact me through my website). 🙂

  • Cez

    A very articulate article. I used to be in the same shoes, Patricia. Thanks for this!

  • Thanks for the compliment. I’m glad you enjoyed it!