When I was growing up my mother often said to me: just be yourself.
But did she really mean it? And why, after so many years, is it still so damn hard to do?
I have zero doubts my parents loved me. Yet sometimes their love felt conditional.
Just be yourself (as long as it’s the version we like).
In other words not the self that’s too whiny, too sensitive or too needy. And definitely not the one that gets angry. Good girls – nice girls – don’t get angry.
WE can be angry (and trust me they often were, at least with each other). But YOU certainly can’t be. That was the unspoken rule in our house. Because as soon as I showed up as my real, less-than-perfect self, with any sort of emotional need they couldn’t meet – I was criticized, teased or punished.
Please know that I’m not blaming my parents in any way. It was all they knew how to do. They grew up in the “children should be seen and not heard” era. In my heart of hearts I know they did their very best with the tools they’d been given.
However it’s no big surprise I turned out to be a people-pleaser.
Especially as the youngest child of four. I was, after all, a very quick study. I watched my three older siblings closely. Whenever they got into trouble for something, I would tell myself: I’ll never do that. And so I didn’t.
Instead I chose the straight and narrow path. The very straight and narrow path. And became somewhat of a golden child.
In high school I was well-liked by other students and my teachers. I made the honour roll. Joined teams and committees. And never skipped a class. I didn’t dare step outside of the box.
No smoking, no drinking, no drugs. And certainly no boys. I had a standard to uphold after all. I was the good girl.
I aimed to please.
After entering University on a scholarship, I took a break to become a fashion model. And (gulp) beauty queen. I walked runways, posed for magazine and newspaper ads, and did TV commercials. I won three titles in one year: Miss North Shore, Miss Congeniality, and Miss Fresh Face. As well as a trip to New York City to meet the iconic Eileen Ford, owner of the Ford Modeling Agency.
It was exciting and utterly terrifying all at once. Inside I wondered: am I special enough? Am I worthy? Am I lovable?
Lord knows I strived to be all of those.
Eventually I finished school. Got a real job. Got married and had a child. I spent years trying to prove I was good enough. Responsible enough. To be what I thought others wanted me to be.
It was exhausting.
Somewhere in there was the real me.
But where was she? Who was she? And what did she really want?
It took a divorce and single parenthood at the age of 41 to fully wake me out of my people-pleasing stupor. I had focused so much on everyone else’s needs (including my ex’s) that I’d lost touch with my own.
I felt broken.
Over the next several years I gradually put my life and myself back together. And tried to figure out who I really was.
I found a great therapist who helped me start to peel off my people-pleasing mask.
And encouraged me to go back to school to become a Certified Life Coach. It was there that I finally found my “tribe” – a group of like-minded individuals who made me feel safe. Like I’d finally come home.
While training to become a Life Coach I was challenged over and over again to peel off even more layers of my false self. To finally get in touch with my true essence. The me I’d always been. But had just forgotten.
It was incredibly freeing. The real me stepped up and out.
And for the first time I felt truly alive.
I learned to set boundaries. And say no without guilt.
I learned to check in with my heart. To trust my intuition. Trust myself. To be myself.
But even after all I’ve learned, I still struggle at times.
And I still get lost.
I can feel the pull to the dark side. The one where I try to please others instead of myself. Where I try to be the person I think others want me to be.
If I sense someone dislikes or disapproves of me, or an opinion I hold, I suddenly find myself shrinking back. Not wanting to show my true, authentic self. For fear of being judged or ridiculed.
Or worse. Of not being liked.
And it royally pisses me off.
My inner critic yells: haven’t you learned anything yet? Why can’t you stand up? Be seen and heard for who you really are?
Why can’t you just be yourself? Like your mother always suggested?
And then I take a deep breath (or two) and tell my inner critics to go take a hike.
Because sure, sometimes I still struggle to be myself. I probably always will a little bit. And that’s OK. That’s part of me. Part of my uber-sensitive, vulnerable, imperfect self.
And I’m learning to like that part. To actually embrace that part. It makes me human.
It makes me…ME.
(Now it’s your turn. Can you think of an example from your own life when you were able to just be yourself? If so, I’d love to hear from you in the comment section below.)