If you’re anything like I was, you probably find it easier just to go along with what everybody else wants. You may find it’s harmless or even helpful to be the person who’s always flexible, being a good sport, or doing what everybody else needs or wants. But, by constantly doing and being what it is that everybody else needs you to be, you may just wake up one day and not know who you are.
Five years ago, from the outside it looked like I had it all. A home, a wonderful marriage,and a stable, steady job. I had a PhD in academia. My life couldn’t have looked better, but there was a secret that I carried: this was all a house of cards. On the inside, I felt like a poser…like an imposter in my own life. I was so scared of disappointing everybody else that all I was ever actually doing was disappointing myself. It took a tragedy for me to actually recognize this behavior and step out of that fear and into a new, authentic life. Now, that’s what I have the privilege of doing every day with my clients. I help them recognize this fear-driven behavior that’s holding them back and help them realize their own authentic, powerful self.
From a young age, we’re taught to follow authoritarian figures: parents, teachers, coaches, etc. The story was the same for my childhood. If anything, I was one of the lucky ones. I had incredible role models that were there trying to help me succeed and working with me to overcome all of my obstacles. I was incredibly privileged. I had people surrounding me all the time who showed me that through hard work, you could accomplish your dreams – it’s just they had a very clear definition of what those dreams were, and they were willing to help me. They wanted the best life for me, and the best life was a stable one one that you earned through higher education. So, I adopted their stories which is that I could have a happy, stable, steady life – I just had to earn enough degrees and earn enough respect from people around me in order to be worthy of it. Then I would have happiness. And so that was the trajectory that I set out on. I was bound and determined to get my happy, so I set off on this path pretty early. I strived to achieve excellence and actually surpass people’s expectations of me. I wanted to be perfect, and that perfectionism actually had some downsides: it landed me in a hospital when I was only 11 years old with a pretty severe eating disorder. My shame in that moment was almost unbearable. I was caught between these two big fears: my fear of rejection of not being enough in the eyes of society, of my friends, and of my peers, and my fear of rejection from my family and failing them, because they taught me values like looks looks aren’t important and you don’t have to be beautiful to be valuable in society. I wanted to uphold both of those, but I found myself trapped. How do I maintain the looks and be skinny and thin and perfect for society, yet not care what I look like and not be vain? I didn’t want to be vain. I wanted to be perfect. I somehow managed to make it out of that hospital and kind of limped forward with an impaired brain and body. 4.0 in college was not good enough, I had to prove my worth, push more, be even more perfect, a respected athlete. I needed to push harder, stay longer hours in the gym, and prove myself. Meanwhile, I slowly watched all of my dreams slip away like acting, being on stage…it was not realistic, not stable, not good enough, not respected enough, not enough. It didn’t matter that it was my dream. It wasn’t enough for them. It was enough for me, but I didn’t trust me enough, because I wasn’t enough for myself.
What I failed miserably at for years was the recognition that I was enough. That I, myself, was enough, and that my dreams were valid enough and secure enough and respected enough by me to be important. Instead, I spent the better part of three decades chasing validation and love and approval of others so that I could finally have that happiness, that worth. I’d earned the life of a stable, steady job and income and partner and home and, ironically, when I finally had achieved that pinnacle of higher education (I had a PhD) and a stable, steady job, a beautiful home, and a loving husband, I had never felt more miserable in my life. Where was this good life I’d been promised?
I think we might find that we’re all chasing something, and often it’s not the things that we’re chasing that truly make us happy. For me, success and happiness kept eluding me because I never paused long enough to actually define them for myself. I knew what success looked like for my parents, for my teachers, for my professors, and for people that were highly invested in me and wanted me to succeed. But I never actually stopped and slowed down and asked, “What do I want from life? What would be a successful life for me? What would make me happy?” I had done everything right by other people’s rules – they had applauded me along the way, I just never stopped to recognize that I wasn’t applauding me. None of this was what I wanted. I’d forgotten about actually living the life that I was existing in. I was so busy chasing and looking to the future and the next thing. I was moving through life not living in it.
And it was that persistent pursuit of the next degree, the next goal, the next relationship, the next thing that I was going to accomplish in order to prove myself that kept me in this cycle of unhappy. What the hell did I even like? How would I define a happy life? I didn’t even know anymore. I’d lost all semblance of myself. And so when my sister-in-law was diagnosed with terminal cancer, it gave me great pause. I realized if that diagnosis had been mine, I would have been sorely disappointed with the life that I had led, because all of my decisions up to that point had been made out of fear, out of trying to prove myself, trying to be worthy of some standard that had been set by someone else. I decided I was going to stop making decisions out of fear. I was going to find myself again and do the thing that I wanted to do. I wanted to make sure that when I did get that diagnosis for myself, I wouldn’t have any regrets. I would not have lived a life in fear.
Within a month, I had quit my job, sold my house, and divorced my husband. I’m not saying it was a bright and happy time – it was one of the darkest moments that I’d ever been through. But it gave me hope, and I started to see my life through my own eyes for the first time. I took a road trip with a close friend. I found the stage again and realized this is what I’ve been missing! This is what I love doing! I asked myself, “Why does it matter if I fail at something that I love doing if I’m doing it for me?” W was already failing myself by succeeding at all the things that I didn’t really care to be succeeding at. It turns out succeeding for them felt just as bad as failing for me. So why wouldn’t I fail for me and give myself an opportunity to succeed? And when I did that, the craziest thing started to happen. Rather than fail like I thought I would, I started to fly. It was slow and painful and difficult at first, and don’t get me wrong, there were many nights when I questioned everything that I was doing. There were nights that I had spent sobbing myself to sleep. I felt more alone than I’ve ever felt in my life before, but it was my life. For the first time, it was my life.
How will you show up in your own life for you today? Start small – what is it that you love that you want to do or that you want to experience for you – not for anybody else? Even if that thing means looking like a failure to that outside world for a bit, recognize what it is. The thing about finding yourself is that it always starts small. Start with that small first step in recognizing that you are not any better or any worse than anybody else out there, but that you deserve to be you, and the happy life that you want to live is defined only by you. So if a PhD and a stable job is your ideal life, then by all means, chase it! Go after it, find it, live it, experience it, and enjoy every second of it. But if it’s not, define your own happy, your own success – what does that look like for your life outside of anybody else’s influence? Take your time and sit with yourself to ask yourself this one small question – what does your life look like, ideally? Ask this without consulting anyone else, without consulting the outside world, or any measure of success or comparison to anybody else. What is your ideal life?
Until next time, it’s your life. Go live!