Living YOUR Life

I was listening to a conversation between Oprah and India Arie the other day while walking my dog (okay, can we just pause in awe of the miracle of technology in that sentence). For those of you who aren’t familiar with her, India Arie is a musician who had a meteoric rise to fame about 15 years ago, took a break from music, and then returned on her own terms.

Being a perfect daughterIn discussing this time with Oprah, Ms. Arie said that she realized that in her early incarnation in the music business, she was not living her own life, but was rather inhabiting the one her mother wanted for her. She was doing all of the things she knew her mother would want her to do so she could have all of the things she knew her mother would want her to have. She was living her mother’s imagined daughter’s life. BAM. It was a revelation that pointed the way to an obvious set of next steps, starting with figuring out what she wanted independent of all of that.

It was a great conversation and as I listened I reflected on all of the different ways that we can live someone else’s version of our own lives. When I went to college, I was at something of a loss for what to study. My best times in high school were spent on the stage: singing and acting. I told friends I wanted to be a history teacher, but I think I really wanted to keep being on stage.

But somehow, I became convinced that this was not a pursuit I was meant to undertake, and when I let that super secret dream go, I was adrift. I enjoyed my history classes, but not enough. I began to take political science classes, a “more practical” version of history was my justification. In truth, I had grown up in the D.C. suburbs, and my understanding of careers included a lot of folks who likely studied political science, either formally or on the floor of the buildings in the capitol. I began to sketch out a version of myself that I think had everything to do with people I’d seen and admired and not much to do with where I felt on fire. I began to tell myself what people wanted for me, what my parents would respect (I didn’t ask them mind you, just decided for them) and charted a course that worked and got me finished in four years.

I was living someone else’s life – one that I made up for them. I was meeting expectations that were purely fictitious. And over time, the gap between my fictitious life and the one in my heart or the one I had yet to discover demonstrated itself in a variety of ways. I tried jobs on. I tried ideas on. I switched around, moved house, changed coasts. I kept shifting back and forth between doing what felt right and doing what “WAS RIGHT.” And if you’d asked me where that pressure was coming from, the pressure to do anything other than live my own unique life, I would have cited external sources every time.

Finding a pathI didn’t have the maturity or wisdom or emotional honesty to realize that I had done it to myself. A pushy parent or overbearing spouse can only go so far in taking us away from our path, as demonstrated by the fact that I had neither. To really diverge from our path, we have to submit to the desires of others (including the desires we imagine they have) and resist our own inclinations. We have to subvert our internal wiring and discipline ourselves thoroughly. We have to stop living our own lives and live someone else’s. Having a deeper, fuller, more satisfying time on this earth requires us to live our own lives.

These ideas we have about why we don’t do that very thing: other people, practicality, reality, logistics, responsibility… they’re all baloney. They’re all there to keep us from having to face what we really want in the world and find the courage to do that. When we give our choices to other people, when we make them responsible, we give our power away wholesale. We surrender everything we need to be our best selves.

“But,” you say: “I DO have responsibilities…” Yes, you do. Where on that list of responsibilities are YOU?

Boom.

I love you.

j

The “If…. Then…” of Relating to Other Humans

“If I don’t take care of this…”

“If I don’t get it right…”

“If I decide to just be myself…”

“If I choose what I’d actually like to do…”

“If I say what I really think…”

“If I wear the clothes I want to wear…”

“If I hurt his feelings…”

“If I do anything less that A+ work…”

Then what?

What if they don't like meThen they will all find out who I really am? Then they will all find out I’m not perfect? Then they can choose not to like me anymore? Then they will know the thing I’ve always known, inside, that I’ll never fit in, I’ll never be good enough, that I’ll never be safe just being myself here. Then they will know and I will know that they will know and that will be so painful.

But my dear darling THIS is already so painful. I know because I was a master of the double life. I discovered early in my teenage years that my grades were the barometer that my parents used to discern whether or not I was “okay” in the world. If I kept my grades up, I could get away with a LOT. And the longer I kept my grades up and did all of the things that a high-achieving student would do, the more trust they gave. More weekends away, fewer questions about my destination and my company, more really bad explanations for things accepted without further question. I had parties (big parties). I smoked cigarettes in the car. I skipped classes. Even now I’m uncomfortable writing this because there are family members for whom some piece of that might be new information. I took full advantage of the freedom that was given to me.

And the whole time, and for many years after, I was stunned by the fact that nobody was calling me on it, that nobody was catching me, that nobody actually KNEW what was going on and tried to stop me. I had built a double life. I was really good at it. I tried to fool them, and it worked. So yay! Yeah, not so much.

Not so much because the whole time that I was enjoying my secret life, what I really wanted was for someone to know me. I felt so lonely (maybe just in a 17 year old girl way, but it seems deeper, even in retrospect). I so wanted to be all of the parts and have it be known, even if there were consequences. I so wanted to ditch the fear that if they found out they wouldn’t love me anymore. My double life made me complex and cool to my friends and still allowed me to win gold stars with my family. I got all of the “awards” I was looking for and it just didn’t matter.

It didn’t matter because what I was hung up on was how they felt about me. All of my secrecy and all of the entertainment I provided for my friends was to ensure that they all felt good about me. The entire “If… then…” world that I had built up failed to acknowledge the depth of feeling anyone had for me (like they actually love you kid, even if you screw up or aren’t cool). And to make matters worse, not one bit of all of that effort did anything about how I felt about myself.

imposter sydromeIt’s easy to see this in a teenage story, because we have myths about how insecurity is a natural part of being an adolescent, that somehow just dissipates as our bodies mature. But the truth is that for many of us this “if… then…” way of relating continues long after we reach the age of majority. We make so many decisions based on how other people will feel about us. We act in ways to shore up public opinion, as though we will appear on page 6 if we get it wrong. We fear that we will be fired if we make the smallest error at work. We’re sure that our upcoming presentation might be the breaking point when everyone will find out how unqualified we really are. We just know that if we relax and show our true selves that we won’t have any friends left. If… then…

I’ve been deconstructing some of my if then thinking over the last couple of years. And I want to tell you a few things about that:

  • I’ve never been fired, even when I make mistakes or tell the truth.
  • I still have friends, maybe even more friends, certainly deeper friendships.
  • I’m not so very tired after every social engagement. I’m still an introvert, but I’m not working so hard all of the time.
  • I feel free to try new things, risk things personally and professionally because I’m not so worried about what everybody else thinks.
  • Paying more attention to what I think of me has been the greatest gift I could possibly give myself.

Are you living a double-life? Maybe yours doesn’t have house parties and hidden cigarette butts – maybe yours looks more like putting things off until you’re sure you can get it perfect; maybe yours looks like constantly putting your own needs on the back-burner so you won’t seem selfish; maybe yours looks like waiting for the other shoe to drop at work, at home, with friends. Aren’t you tired of it all?

What would happen if you just decided to be a little more yourself? Dipped a toe into the water of telling the truth and doing what you want? Maybe it’s time to find out.

Are You A Heretic?

We don’t hear this word much anymore, despite the significant play it’s gotten in the past. In days of yore (whose?), being called a heretic could end with some kind of jail sentence on a good day. Now? I can’t remember the last time I even heard the word. Well, until Sunday when there was discussion of the anniversary of Martin Luther posting the 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, that’s okay. I promise I’m not about to go all history teacher (even though I was one) or theologian (even though I’m married to one) on you. It’s that heretic word that I’m interested in. And I’m interested in it because my very scholarly minister told us that heretic, translated in the ancient Greek, just means one who chooses. Huh. All of this trouble in our collective history over people who choose.

Are you pleasing people?I started thinking about that yesterday and I was immediately aware of how many of my clients experience discomfort, shame, family conflict and oceans of self-doubt because they are choosers. These are women who have decided that the script that society provides for all of us doesn’t work for them and so they have chosen (as one so aptly put it) to live off-script. They have chosen to consciously do something different. They’ve chosen not to marry. They’ve chosen not to have children. They’ve chosen to outpace their partners financially. They’ve chosen to be the working parent while a partner stays home. They’ve chosen to change career paths, pursue higher education at inconvenient times, become yogis and healers. They’ve chosen to leave marriages that other people think are just fine. They’ve chosen to stop giving a crap about tablescapes (yes, that’s a thing) and perfect dinners and what the neighbors think. They’ve chosen to do them instead.

There is no death sentence awaiting them. They won’t be burned at the stake for deciding not to marry or have children. They won’t be jailed for choosing to pursue the arts as a profession. They won’t be interrogated for having a messy entryway. But they will feel the weight of discomfort. And in my experience, they will believe that the discomfort comes from the judgments that other people will have about them. “My parents really want me to be married.” And maybe they do. I have no idea. “My parents want grandchildren so bad they can taste them.” That’s gross, but I get it. “My family can’t believe I’m leaving him.” Yes, there is perhaps judgment out there.

What matters, though, is what we do with that perceived judgment.

One of my marvelous mentors, Martha Beck, (I almost left out the comma so that marvelous mentor Martha would just flow better – it’s a sickness) has a sentence that I just love for these kinds of situations. Actually she has more than one, and I’ll share the two that are top of mind right now in case one works better for you than the other: “I respectfully don’t care,” and: “They just get to feel that way.”

These sentences represent one way that we, as choosers (I say “we” because I can assure that anyone who has the title of “life coach” is a chooser for sure), can respond to these judgments, complaints and discomfort in others when we encounter it. We can respectfully not care and we can acknowledge that they get to feel that way.

Making Hard ChoicesHow does this help? This helps because it keeps us from confusing their discomfort with our own. It keeps us honest about the location of our difficulties when we walk down the chooser path. In my experience, it is not the judgments that others have of my choices so much as my reaction to all of that that causes me to suffer. It is only when I take their judgment and turn it into crippling self-doubt or insecurity that I have a problem. It is only when I use those judgments as stand-ins for my own self-judgment, self-criticism and fear that I get into trouble.

If I can, instead, acknowledge that they get to feel how they feel and that I don’t have to care about that I save myself one layer of discomfort, and I push myself toward the emotional honesty that comes with saying: “Sometimes being a chooser is hard. I am tired. I am afraid. I worry this won’t work out.” I push myself toward allowing the feelings that come with doing hard things and releasing them. I push myself toward a place where I can acknowledge what I’m thinking and all of the ways I’m getting in my own way. And once I’m there, I can make a different choice, because that’s what choosers do. I can use my choosing skills to acknowledge my own strength. I can use my choosing skills to acknowledge how far I’ve come on my path. I can use my choosing skills to make my own evaluation of how it’s working, knowing that at any time I can make a different choice. I am free.

If you feel like a heretic sometimes, if you’re a chooser and see the holiday season coming at you – full of opportunities to give everyone evidence of all of the ways you aren’t measuring up, take stock. Remember that the opinion that matters most is yours. Work on that one instead of trying to prove to everyone else that you’re okay. They’re going to think whatever they’re going to think. You can still be happy. You can still be free, even if you’re a heretic.