“To be beautiful means to be yourself. You don’t need to be accepted by others. You need to accept yourself.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
I was raised in a family where outward appearance and reputation were important. Standing out was only encouraged if it was within the bounds of what was considered “normal.”
No one ever explicitly told me, “What other people think of you is more important than being your true self,” yet that’s what I learned to believe. It became my mission to be accepted by others, because I thought that only then would I be worthy of love.
I spent most of my middle school and high school years pretending to be somebody that I wasn’t. I would “chameleon” to blend in with people around me.
I suspect that due to my less-than-stellar acting skills, a lot of people could tell that I was being phony and didn’t want to hang out with me. This only increased my hunger for external validation and acceptance.
At the age of thirteen, I attended my first personal development seminar.
It was an incredible experience for me, and when I was in the seminar room, something inside of me came alive. Being in that space awakened my passion for personal development, a passion that has only grown over the last fifteen years.
In the next decade that followed, I’d spent more than 350 hours participating in personal development seminars, and in July 2009, I finally received the honest feedback that would change my life forever:
I showed up as arrogant, selfish, self-righteous, superior, and judgmental.
The feedback hit me like a ton of bricks. I was simultaneously composed and totally shocked.
I was composed because I knew that people experienced me in those ways: I was a condescending know-it-all with judgment by the boatload, and little tolerance for people “doing it the wrong way” (not my way). My demeanor was often cold and closed off, and I could easily insult people where I knew it would hurt.
I was shocked, because when I received that feedback from somebody that I’d met less than six hours earlier, I felt completely vulnerable. I didn’t know what to do with myself in that moment of being completely exposed.
The walls that I’d created to “protect” my authentic self were only pushing (or rather, shoving) everyone else away. I finally decided to make a change. And thus began my journey of rediscovering my true self.
To say that it was a battle would be a grave understatement. The little voice inside my head had gotten really good at convincing me of “truths” that were actually just thoughts based in my false beliefs about reputation and acceptance.
Lying to myself had become such a subconscious process for me that bringing it into my consciousness on a daily basis was a struggle.
Right after receiving the feedback, I’d keep “be authentic” on the forefront of my mind for a few days at a time. But more often than not, my commitment to being authentic would slowly fade behind my decades of pretending to be somebody else, and I often wouldn’t even notice the shift.
When I’d realize that I wasn’t being perfectly authentic, every moment of every day, I’d go into beat-up mode and would berate myself for being a failure.
My new awareness seemed like a game of lose-lose: if I ventured out into authentic living and slipped back into my old ways, I’d go into beat-up mode; if I acted like I was okay with being my pretending old self, I’d feel sick to my stomach about who I was pretending to be. I didn’t know how to win that game.
I spent a couple of years on the rollercoaster ride of stepping out and being authentic, slipping back into my old ways, and beating myself up about it; it was exhausting. But then I learned that personal development isn’t a switch, it’s a journey.
I couldn’t just turn off my old behaviors and turn on some new authentic behaviors.
Creating lasting change would take commitment, practice, and most importantly self-compassion.
Commitment meant truly committing myself to being authentic, and doing it for nobody else but me. And practice meant making conscious choices to set my authentic self free instead of staying in the box I’d built for myself.
The self-compassion piece was the most important because it determined whether or not I wanted to pick myself back up, dust myself off, and give it another go.
If making a mistake was only going to end in me beating myself up about it, then I’d rather not have even attempted it. But if making a mistake was met with a desire to learn, and then re-approach my ways of being in a new way, it was a much easier choice to make.
Throughout my journey of discovering and living as my authentic self, I have experienced moments of immense joy and freedom, which have encouraged me to continue moving forward.
One of my most impactful experiences of letting my authentic self shine took place at the end of November 2013, when I shaved half my head.
One of my friends shaved part of her head in mid-2013, and I loved how it looked. I thought it was a perfect combination of sexy and tough. I immediately wanted to shave my own head, but hesitated…for six months.
I thought, “What are other people going to think when they see you? Everyone is going to judge you. People are going to think that you’re weird.”
The little voice in my head was going crazy. My head and my heart weren’t coming to an agreement because that little voice was repeating phrases I’d heard my entire life.
But one day—and I can’t remember exactly when it happened—I just decided to do it. I knew that deep down in my heart I wanted to, so I refused to let that little voice stop me anymore. If people were going to think that being my authentic self was “weird” then so be it!
I wish I could say “and then I shut the little voice up forevermore and lived happily ever after,” but that wouldn’t be true. My little voice was screaming when I finally sat down to get my head shaved. But I just chose to acknowledge the screaming and shave it anyways.
After it was all done and I looked in the mirror, I fell in love. I fell in love with me! For the first time in my life, I felt completely aligned in my outward appearance and my inner authentic self. I felt free.
Sure, people stare at me in public. But I just smile and walk on by. Everyone has an opinion about my hairstyle, but there’s only one opinion that matters—mine. And I love it!
That was one of the biggest and most tangible steps that I’ve taken toward letting my authentic self truly shine. Now, if I start letting to the voice inside my head get to me, I can just look in the mirror or touch the shaved part of my head to remind myself of who I really am.
One of my biggest lessons throughout my head-shaving experience was this: when I limit myself because of my fear of what others might think of me, I’m limiting what I think of me. When I truly embrace my authentic self, I am free.
Abraham Maslow said, “What is life for? It is for you.” I’m finally living my life for me, and I’ve never felt more empowered, joyful, or authentic.
How are you holding yourself back?
Would you be making different choices in your life if you weren’t worried about the acceptance of others?
How different do you think your life would be if you stepped outside of your comfort zone one time every day?
I encourage you to get uncomfortable and to let your authentic self shine. You might be surprised at how freeing it can be.
I certainly was.
Photo by AJ Leon