Some call it letting your freak flag fly. Thoreau called it dancing to the beat of your own drummer. In the past, if someone told me to “just be yourself,” “be authentic,” or “be genuine,” I didn’t know what the heck any of that meant. I knew that there must be some version of Mallory who could show up in different situations who would be closest to “who I am,” but I didn’t know what she looked like and I hadn’t stopped to find her in many years. And I certainly never stopped to ask how it might feel to be me without the many masks I wear.
Achievement and accomplishment aside, how did I want to feel? What would get me to that feeling?
Sometime in late elementary school, continuing into middle and high school, I decided that I had something to prove. I placed a lot of value on the judgments of my peers, and when I faced rejection from those whose approval I wanted, I thought there must be something inherently wrong and made it my life’s mission to fix it. But the more fixing I tried to do, the farther I seemed to get from who I am at my core.
I have often said that in the years of my life when I was unhappy, I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. I now understand that it was because I was living so much in my head and not in my body. Before any social interaction, any time I had to say something or do something in front of others, I questioned what they might think about it or say about it, to themselves or to each other. I lived solely in this space in between my intuitive impulse and what I thought others might want to see or hear.
And thus, most of the time, I just didn’t say or do anything. I was completely paralyzed. If I had just spoken or acted according to how it would feel for me, knowing the ease and comfort we feel when we practice speaking and acting from our truths, my life may have looked very different. But alas, these are the difficult lessons life is all about.
I realized the full weight of this space-between living this past weekend at coach training. Thirty hours over three days, learning, coaching, and getting coached. The coaching process enabled me to understand, in a really concrete way, this mask-wearing aspect of myself that I’ve practiced for so many years that it almost became completely unconscious. So many of the choices I have made were because I thought they would make someone else happy or because I was running as fast as I could away from full recognition of my own belief that I wasn’t good enough.
But man, when I faced that head-on, when I talked to someone else out loud about my real-life choices and saw how utterly and completely I had been rejecting myself for so many years, it was profound.
I went into the training on the first day thinking it would be easy. I know all this stuff, I know what my gremlins are, I’m working on it, I won’t expect any aha moments. See? Just another wall I put up to guard myself from perceived weakness or potential judgment. By the end of the first day, the wall was coming down. By the end of the second day, I had cried. And I cried again on the third day. I won’t be one of those people who cry when they experience utterly soul-shaking moments of growth, she said naively on the first day.
Yeah, except I totally am one of those people. I totally am. I own it. I have always been someone who needs the release of tears during emotional realizations. But I have also always been someone who has then said, Okay, got the cry out, it was a nice little moment, now let’s move on. I never stopped to actually work through why I was crying. I usually told myself a story about it in which it was someone else’s fault or I was just not good enough and that was the immutable reality I was stuck in. Move on, tighten another layer of armor.
Anyway, I’m taking off the armor and the masks. It feels good to take them off. It’s exhausting to carry around so much weight every day.
Here are some masks and armor I have worn:
- To make sure others would know I was smart, I decided I needed a PhD.
- To make sure others would’t think of me as combative or sensitive, I stayed quiet whenever I wanted to offer an alternative viewpoint or own that I had been hurt by something.
- To make sure I didn’t make anyone feel less than or annoyed, I avoided talking about myself. I became a listener. If I was forced to talk about myself, I was super self-deprecating and tried to narrate my experiences in a way that didn’t make me seem too far away from what I perceived as “the norm.”
And on more lighthearted notes:
- I have worn clothes that I didn’t love to fit in with those around me. Fashion over comfort.
- I have lied in conversations and said I loved particular books or movies or bands that I actually wanted nothing to do with to be perceived as “cool.”
It turns out I can work toward a PhD for the valuable learning, skills, and growth I’m experiencing. I can share my input and stories and others benefit by their light. I can wear whatever I want and feel really good about it. And people generally like me more when I’m honest about my tastes.
Last year, my headphones broke and I needed to buy new ones. I went on Amazon and realized the brand I liked had every color of the rainbow. Normally, I would just buy black or white so as not to stick out on the bus or walking around campus (because in my mind, everyone cares a lot about the color of my headphones and may make a snap decision about my worth based on what color I chose). On this particular day, I was feeling in tune with myself and starting to own some qualities, habits, and tastes of mine that had previously embarrassed me. So guess what? I bought the bright pink headphones. Not dusty millennial pink, my friends. Hot pink. Like, you could see the cord from a mile away.
I freaking love pink. When I was a little kid and had just moved into my neighborhood, some girls (who I later became friends with) asked my favorite color and I said pink. They replied that they liked blue. Rather than rejoicing in our difference, I assumed there must be something wrong with my choice. And pink became a dirty little secret about myself that I needed to suppress.
But guess what else? Not only do I not care what anyone thinks of my hot pink headphones, but also every time I wear them I feel a little spark of joy. Just seeing those babies dangling from my ears makes me happy.
That is a silly and inconsequential example, but you get the point.
When you show your vulnerable underbelly, it frees you. I feel physically lighter. I attract more people into my life who have more in common with me. I form deeper connections. I like myself more because I’m no longer acting from a place in which I reject myself in favor of a hypothetical judgment by another. Why live by hypotheticals when you can just live from the real?
Remember my inner mentor post? Sometimes I imagine that woman (who is me) when I feel myself moving out of my body into the space between me and another person’s judgment. She tells me that everything’s okay; in fact, everything will feel better if I do or say what’s right for me. She has always done what’s right for her, and I can see how relaxed her brow line, jaw, and shoulders are. She carries no tension there. She’s surrounded by people who love her for who she is, not what she thought they wanted her to be. Now, every day, I make the choice to move in that direction.
Two days ago, I had the opportunity to test this out in a much bigger way. I had to give a presentation on my research to a room of my peers, the Director of Graduate Studies, and my advisor. In theory, it really wasn’t that big of a deal. A pretty low-stakes situation. But I have always felt a little vomit-y before public speaking, despite my background in theater and teaching. Something about my peers just really does me in.
I decided I would use the presentation as an opportunity for growth and an opportunity to test showing my authentic self. My authentic graduate student self doesn’t like esotericism, jargon, or claims of certainty. I didn’t want to give a canned presentation that spoke only to those in my field, and I didn’t want to act like I had arrived at some great truth. I never feel like I’ve arrived and really only a couple people in the room study things similar to what I study. I thought if I wrote a presentation that told a story about my research process, not only would people be able to relate to my content more because they would see where it came from, but they might also be able to relate to the messiness and recursiveness of research.
The old me may have said things like, They are going to think you are stupid if you don’t use jargon. They are going to think you are not a good scholar if you don’t propose a thesis. They are going to think you’re not professional if you speak too conversationally.
The new me said, Who cares! It’s going to feel so good to show who you are as a scholar and a student.
Well, you can guess how this story ends. I did it. And it felt so good. There was positive feedback to boot, but for once in my life, I wasn’t in it for external validation. I was in it for me–to show up and show my real face and feel the integrity of choosing the courageous path that was right for me because it demonstrated one my most important values: openness.
After I shared this story with one of my good friends, he said to me: “You have always been smart and easy to like, and when you let people see both of those by being natural and not worrying about how it’s supposed to look, things go well.”
He is right. Things do go well.
How do you take off masks in your life? Can you think of a time when you hid your true self and felt burdened later? What about a time when you let it go and felt easy and free?
And P.S.: Did you absolutely love Heather’s post (the one before this)? I relate so hard.