Don’t be sorry for who you are

What I want for myself, more than anything, is to stop apologizing for who I am.

I didn’t start to figure out who I am until I was in my very late 20s and only really started mining the core of it when I was 31.

I learned, very young, how to perform and how to make myself as small and unobtrusive as possible. I recognized what would be convenient for everyone around me and decided that filling that role created a lot less fuss. I also got a ton of praise for it and that felt awesome in those early years.

And then the real me, the me with opinions and difficult feelings and big dreams, got silenced and forgotten.

It sucks. It totally sucks. Ten months of therapy later and I understand why and how it all happened. But that doesn’t decrease the very acute pain I feel at facing what I have done to myself. How I have kept myself so small, so muted, so SORRY all the time, and prevented my own deep flourishing and wild happiness in the process. I thought it would be better to be liked, to have everyone around me say, “She sure does make my life a lot easier. Isn’t she great?”

Turns out, it’s not better. In fact, it will eventually suck the life out of you and you will wish you were dead if you keep at it long enough.

Here are some examples of how I have apologized, made myself small, and worried that I was a mistake:

  • When people ask me what I do, I have always been embarrassed to tell them I’m working on a PhD in English. Because I had heard the varied (and now SUPER tired) critiques of that choice hundreds of times from strangers and loved ones alike, I learned to fear the response. But guess what? Other people’s opinions of my dream? Not my problem. Not my job. Let the haters hate. It says more about them than it does about me. And that is not just a saying to make us feel better about our choices.
  • I put off my real, true dream for more than a decade because I was afraid what people would think. I was afraid I would fail. I wanted to keep everyone’s expectations low. I thought people would make fun of me or judge me. Some did, back when I still used to admit out loud that all I really want is to be a novelist. So I stopped writing and shut up about it. But now I’m working through the third draft of a manuscript. And I don’t know how long it’s going to take me to finish. Maybe a decade. But I don’t care. I’m doing it because it’s for me. If it ever gets published, there will be people who hate it and think it’s stupid. But it doesn’t matter. Because I’m not doing it for them.
  • I put off applying to graduate school for four years. Why? Because I didn’t think I was smart enough to do it.
  • I often don’t speak up in groups even when I have so much to say because I’m afraid my opinions will be unpopular or someone in the group will think I’m stupid. I smile and nod even though I’m raging inside.
  • I don’t talk about my interests very much because I worry people will make fun of me. Because people have made fun of me.

But I’m getting so tired.

It’s exhausting to hide most of yourself from the world. It’s exhausting trying to guess what other people want from you or want to hear you say. It’s exhausting keeping the volume on mute because you worry that you’re just too loud and too much for people to handle. It’s exhausting to wrangle all the parts of myself that I think will make others uncomfortable, denying who I am because I think she might sometimes be a little off-putting.

I have even surrounded myself with people at various times who did get uncomfortable when I showed too much of myself, who literally told me so. I unconsciously sought out people who would tell me when I was getting to be a little too much because it served as a weird validation of my choice to make myself teeny tiny and mousy.

Kids know when adults don’t walk their talk. When adults say to kids, sure, honey, you can be weak and vulnerable, but then never show weakness or vulnerability themselves and criticize it in others, kids understand that. They learn not to trust the words because the actions are so much louder. That’s when your education starts.

As an adult, it’s my responsibility to unlearn lessons from younger years that don’t serve me anymore. I don’t get to use the excuse of being a scared little girl anymore. I have to take control of my life.

I don’t think I’m defective like I used to. I don’t want to feel guilty anymore about being who I am. I don’t want to be sorry for having needs. If you worry about being one thing or another–too focused on your career, not focused on it enough because you want to stay home and raise kids, overweight or underweight, too educated or not educated enough, too emotional, too soft, too bookish, too tough–stop. You’re not defective.

I’m so, so tired of apologizing. I’m so tired of letting other people’s opinions of me–that might even just be me projecting based on past experiences–determine my worth.

My instinct is to make sure everyone likes me at all times, but I can’t control other people. I also don’t want to try anymore. I must stop focusing on what they might think. It takes up too much time to worry about it. Also, it’s none of my business. What is my business is getting on with my life and myself and all the huge, grand, wonderful things I want.

In this Cancer season, I am recognizing that the crab shell I have relied on to carry me through life and hide me from possible hurt is no longer serving me. I have to ditch it and walk on my own, even though I’ll be exposed. I have been in a strange state of mourning these past two months as I have recognized this in a really profound and new way. I think I am mourning the familiarity of the shell, the false comfort and safety it provided for so many years, as I recognize it’s time to move into the arena of full participation even more than I already have. The small ways I’ve already done this do hurt because I’m doing really hard things I’ve never done before and it’s not always easy. Learning to stick with hard things, embracing the chaos, is disorienting. But I trust I will figure it out one day at a time.

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