I'm currently reading the book 'Wonder' by R.J Palacio with my students at the moment. And I can honestly say that all of us (me included) are loving it. Early in the book, August's English teacher Mr Browne introduces the class to the idea of 'precepts', which he explains are rules about 'really important' things. The one he uses as an example is 'who we are'.
Perhaps that all began at the age of 7, when I sat in my year 2 Catholic scripture lesson on a Thursday morning. I think my catechist was trying to get the immenseness of God's love and heaven across to us, but it went horribly wrong. In all honestly I can tell you that I found the concept of time difficult. Kids often do at that age. So when my teacher told me that one day the Sun would shrivel up and die (running out of gas for combustion) and that everything on Earth would cease to exist, it struck home. Admittedly I didn't realise how far off that event was from happening, but I understand the magnitude of what she was saying...
You see, I hadn't been introduced to the concept of 'mortality' yet. Anyone who didn't exist in my life had 'passed away' and heaven was a rather abstract notion for a 7 year old, who was still in her 'egocentric' stage of learning. Later that year I would come to know it's meaning a little better, as my great grandmother passed away from cancer, but still I wouldn't fully comprehend it.
I still remember the impact of my catechist's words. She was a lovely lady (and still is) who I have the utmost respect for. And I'm sure she would be mortified if she knew her words would have such an adverse affect on me, as it would never have been her intention. No sooner had those words slipped out of her mouth, than the whole room began to close it around me. My heart started to beat a lot faster, my palms became a bit clammy and a had this awfully nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach. A sinking feeling.
That was my first experience with anxiety. And it would plague me for years to come. In fact, I still experience it now, 21 years later. It's that nagging feeling deep within me making me second guess my choices, my actions and my feelings. The shady sensation in the pit of my stomach that churns, eating away at my confidence, my courage, my charisma and my resilience. That nasty voice in my head making me wonder if indeed I'm good enough or I've tried hard enough.
At the age of 7, I suddenly understood that from a Christian standpoint (which I was brought up to identify with) there was only one life. One go round. So you had to make the most of it. You only got one shot, so you had to be the best person you could be. And in that moment was born my Type-A personality and my OCD tendencies, because perfectionism was key and you had to get it 'right'. I wanted to live my life successfully and to have an impact, I wanted to make a difference in my numbered days.
So as a result, for a lot of my life I've wondered what the meaning of it all was. Not in a Monty Python 'The Meaning of Life' way, but in a genuine 'why am I here?' kind of way. I mean, we're born at a precise time out of this incredible combination of genetics that makes us uniquely us. And then day by day we make our way through a multitude of decisions along a mysterious path that stretches out in front of us for an unknown number of days.
We have a vast range of experiences- good, bad, happy, sad, euphoric, depressive and heart wrenching. People come in and out of our lives from our first day until our last, some for a short time, others for the long haul while some are a lesson and others are for life. And whilst some believe there is a divine plan for us, others don't feel like there is one.
So I guess it all kind of clicked for me when I read those three little words 'who we are'. Perhaps a large part of the whole mysterious meaning of life, is that it is this marvellous journey of self discovery. A constant change of who we are and what we are about. A flux in identity, until one day (and who knows when for some of us - especially me) we become happy and confident within ourselves - our values, beliefs and actions.
And possibly there is a far more significant meaning than that.....I'm not saying I'm an expert. However, if you think about it, the concept of who we are underpins everything we choose to do in life and consequently the impact we have on a small or large scale. The more self-assured and confident we are, the more likely we are to pursue our dreams and enact change.
But then I found myself thinking about my own identity. Recently I've admitted to a number of people, including my psychologist, that I feel like I've lost my sense of identity. Over the last six months I've noticed myself using words such as 'lost' and 'confused' a lot, particularly about who I am, what I am about and where I am heading.
Upon reflection, I know I've never been confident within myself. People find that hard to believe at times, because I public speak, I have used my voice to address my concerns in the workplace and I constantly put myself out there, but no - I'm not a confident person. Not yet. And honestly? I think a lot of that comes down to the fact that I'm unsure of my identity. It's hard to be confident in yourself, if you're not sure who you are.
Discussing this notion with my psychologist, I stated how I had begun thinking about who I wanted to be and become. I came to the realisation that a lot of my life has been lived according to other people's opinions. I have always wanted the acceptance and approval of other people; since day dot. I lived for reassurance from my parents, praise from my teachers, compliments from my friends and inclusion from my peers. But sadly, somewhere along the way I lost sight of who I was and what I was about, because it didn't fit in with what other people's ideal was. And I wanted so desperately to belong that I began to hide.
I read a really interesting article the other day about Alicia Keys and a revelation she had had. It reported that she had once taken to social media to discuss her self-reflections on her life and a revelation she had come to. Expecting a typical 'click-bait' article, I was pleasantly surprised to find a really raw reflection that hit home. HARD.
In the social media post Alicia Keys talked about how over time she had hidden parts of herself, little by little. The parts of herself that she mentioned as being hidden were:
- her intelligence so she wasn't favoured by teachers or used as an example, worried that she would be made fun of or looked at as 'different'
- her looks and body so as to not gain unwanted attention from men on the street; jeans and played down hair instead of makeup, pretty hair and dresses
- her thoughts, feelings and opinions
It resonated with me so intensely, because I could relate. I was Alicia Keys and she was me. I had had the same set of experiences, I just hadn't grown up to be famous. My anxiety had created this need to be seen in a positive light; a want and need to please. Not just academically, but socially. And therein lay the potential for some very unhealthy patterning and some very unpleasant memories.
In hindsight, I've had a very poor relationship with myself - not just because of my OCD, anxiety and depression, but because of my desperation to 'fit in' and 'belong'. I gave away my power to people who didn't deserve it, because I was trying to be something I wasn't for the sake of making 'friends' who were honestly not the kind of people I should have ever wanted to associate with. Real friends don't make you feel poorly about yourself, they don't put you down, they don't exclude you and they don't make you dislike aspects about yourself that you are unable to change. But most of all, they don't humiliate you for being exactly who you are.
Over the years I have been ashamed of and tried to hide a vast number of things that make me who I am:
· My intelligence
· My work ethic/study habits
· My sporting ability
· My body shape/type
· My 'tomboyish' habits
· My dress sense
I wouldn't say my relationship with myself has improved all that much, despite many years going by. But I know I'm on my way. So I find myself at the age of 28, almost on the cusp of turning '30' experiencing what can only be deemed as a 'quarter life crisis' or as a dear friend of mine reminds me 'a quarter life clarification' (because you know, positivity is key!)
That being said, I have learned a few things in my time:
- The most important relationship you have is with yourself
- You need to work at being your own best friend, not your own worst enemy
- Despite what society tells you, life is not a competition so don't get caught in the 'comparison trap'; just work at being the best possible version of yourself
Which brings me back to my first concept. Life really does revolve around who we are. So I'm starting there. With my identity.
Having discussed this with some of my close friends, I was grateful to get their advice and ideas. My best friend was quick to remind me that I beat myself up a lot and that I really, really need to stop. She told me that I need to be confident. And I love her for it, I do. I just wish she realised how hard that is for me to do.
Another one of my best mates told me that I just need to 'own it'. To be unapologetically myself. He's always telling me 'just do you'. And again, he's right. I'd just really like to know what it looks like.
Then came one of my other best girlfriends. We were sitting down to lunch and she was telling me how she had been given some 'homework'. She too was unsure of her identity and who she was, and had been called out when stating 'but who does?' The person she was speaking to said, 'I do.' So my beautiful friend found herself having to write a list of a things that she 100% knew about herself.
Discussing this task with her, I found myself drawn to it. It sounded like a really healthy challenge. But we both baulked at having to work in 'absolutes'. Nevertheless, the idea got me thinking a lot and I started a list:
· I have a loving husband
· I love my dog Astrid
· My parents are supportive
· I am a teacher
· I enjoy playing sport; particularly Soccer and Hockey
· I enjoy being creative
· Writing makes me feel good
· I am family orientated
· I am self aware
· I worry a lot about what others think
· I am a hard worker
· Sarcasm and cynicism come easily to me
· I have a good sense of humour
· Beaches make me calm
· I am a water baby
· I love long, hot baths
· I love singing and dancing, but am too embarrassed to do it in front of people
· I am incredibly self critical
· I have high expectations, first and foremost of myself, but of others as well
· I live my life in spite of my OCD, Anxiety and Depression
· I mean well
· I like bright colours and bold patterns
· I am intelligent (and I cringe every time I admit that)
· My '5 favourite people' are quality friends who always have my back
· I like my hair and my eyes
· I am making a difference
· I love 80s Molly Ringwald movies
· Sunshine makes me happy
· Summer is my favourite season
· I enjoy watching 'Chick Flicks'
· I think Jane Austen novels make great movies
· I love reading (when I get time)
· I don't think that 'self help books are for losers'
· I have a love-hate relationship with crossword puzzles
· I like the feeling of sand between my toes
· I love eating eggs, despite my intolerance to them
· I like to travel
· Being outdoors and in nature is a favourite past time
· I want to feel 'conscious' not just on a 'self' level, but a community or world level
· I don't like being told what I can't do or being restricted by others' mindsets
And whilst most of you who read this will think it is the most random list ever, it tells me a lot about myself. It tells me who I was before I started worrying about what others thought. It tells me how I should be spending my time, instead of how I do. It tells how I should dress to express myself instead of subscribing to the 'societal ideal of feminine beauty'. It tells me how the flaws I worry most about matter least of because of everything else I have going on.
So my point is this. Despite the OCD, the Anxiety or the Depression (or whatever the hell else you have going on), find out who you are by whatever means necessary and own it. Stop hiding parts of yourself because others make you feel like you should! Don't ever let anyone dull your sparkle!
"Does the Sun ask itself, "Am I good? Am I worthwhile? Is there enough of me?" No, it burns and it shines. Does the Sun ask itself, "What does the moon think of me? How does Mars feel about me today?" No, it burns and it shines. Does the Sun ask itself, "Am I as big as other suns in other galaxies?" No, it burns and it shines.
Be too busy working on your own grass (or shine) to know if anyone else's is greener! Because in the end, it's about whether you were who you wanted to be.