“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” ~EE Cummings
For many years I felt like a fish out of water, but I desperately wanted to belong in the pond. I grew up wanting to be ‘normal,’ to fit in and be like everyone else. As a result, I was not in touch with who I was because I didn’t think there was another choice.
The blueprint was clear: find a man, settle down, and prepare for a family. Do the career you’ve trained all your life for and climb the ladder because more (status, money, etc.) is always better than less. Buy things because they’ll make you happy. Be busy because this is a sign of success, even if it means you’re stressed and on the verge of a breakdown.
So I did all those things and it didn’t make me happy, and for many years I denied the things that would. I wanted to feel important and successful, so for many years I put off my dream jobs—writing, yoga, and new age hobbies.
I didn’t want to be the only gay in the village, so I denied my sexuality.
I was desperate to shed all these false goals and the materials things I’d collected, which weighed me down.
We are inherently people pleasers, so we want to fit in—to not rock the boat. But we also want to be successful and be noticed—try to stand out.
It’s a competing paradigm that tests our authenticity and takes us further away from who we are with this pressure to be something else. Whether we deny ourselves to fit in or push ourselves to stand out, we’re having to be someone else, and that’s exhausting.
This was certainly true for me, and I tried both!
Scared of being different, I adopted other people’s styles and opinions and shaped my life to look like everyone else’s—the job I had, the people I hung out with, and the hobbies I pursued. It didn’t make me happy. In fact, it was an exhausting act in a play that didn’t feel like my life at all.
When I got older, I began to feel pressure in the other direction—to get noticed, to stand out.
When I started dating there was a pressure to dress up to be noticed and get picked; similarly, at school there was a pressure to try to be top of the class, be noticed, get picked for the team.
As I climbed the career ladder I felt the pressure to stand out again—to be more extroverted despite my introvert tendencies, to speak up, be the hard-nosed business woman, to chase down the big promotions and be noticed by the bosses, to be picked again.
Two pressures in opposing directions, but the same results. None of it was me, and both related to my need to please people, conforming and doing what I thought I should, not what was deep in my heart. Hell, I hadn’t even known what that was given how little attention I’d paid to it over the years.
It can be our people pleasing tendencies that compel us to conform or try to stand out, but our fear of failure is also a huge contributing factor. We don’t want to fall short of society’s ideals, not be like everyone else, not make our parents proud, or not fit the mold for ‘success.’ We don’t want to be left on the shelf or be seen as different, undesirable, or unsuccessful.
I spent my life doing what I felt I should, what those around me did, what felt ‘normal’ even when it didn’t feel right, even when it disconnected me further and further away from myself. It was only when I felt burnt out and exhausted from a lifetime of acting and feeling desperately unhappy that I thought things must change.
I wanted to be me and find others who were themselves, but I also needed to find out who that ‘me’ was.
My resulting action was quite drastic: I quit my corporate career, left my relationship of seven years, and traveled around the world in search of answers. I felt a need to get away from this place I didn’t belong in and wipe the slate clean to rebuild my life in accordance with who I really was.
A trip around the world isn’t a prerequisite for embracing your authenticity; it’s actually much simpler.
Ask yourself what you used to dream about as a kid, what is it that you admire most about others, what legacy do you want to leave the world, and what are your values? What do you love to do, and do you currently make time for these things?
Take a moment to consider what your strengths are and get clear on your values. It also helps to seek out like-minded people. Not only do we feel at ease with them, they help us grow and flourish in accordance with our true selves.
This need to fit in or stand out can show up in many ways: sending your child to a certain school because it reflects on your status as a family. Taking over the family business because you want to make parents proud. Driving a certain car that reflects your importance and status as a human. Wearing the right clothes because they are ‘in fashion’ and are what everyone around you is buying.
There is another way, and it involves listening to your heart, not what others say. Follow your own dreams, not those society prescribes. Know who you are and stay in touch with that. Make decisions based on your values and the legacy you want to leave. Rediscover what matters to you instead of worrying about what you think you ‘should’ be doing. And ensure you prioritize your time based on your true priorities—the ones that make your heart sing.