So many people have an influence on our lives.
For many of us, our family- parents, siblings, grandparents, or other extended family members- are the first to have direct access to us, impacting us with regular and frequent interactions. When we get a little older and begin attending school, our teachers begin to have their hand in shaping what we learn and the way we act towards others. As we form friendships, our peers make their way into our lives and in many ways, our friends will leave the most profound impressions on us of anybody as we bond over the shared experiences of growing up.
We will meet thousands upon thousands of people over the course of our lives, and each of these relationships will develop to different degrees. Some people will only stay in our circles for a short period of time. Others will stick around for the long haul.
The vast majority of people will never get to know anything about us beyond their first impressions of us. They will never learn about who we are and why we are that way. All they will ever think of us will be shaped by one brief moment.
Hundreds of others will get to know us for a short while. These may be first grade classmates, people we share a few classes with for a semester in college, or coworkers at a new job. We may eat lunch together, do work together, and even hang out from time to time.
Inevitably, though, things will change. The following year they’ll move away. Our class schedules change or we’ll switch majors. We’ll find a different job. Whatever the case may be, things will change and we won’t really see these people much afterward, if at all.
Dozens of others will get to know us over a longer period of time. These may be people we’ve known since kindergarten who become our core group through high school. We may not necessarily share the deepest parts of our lives with them, but we’re around them all the time and for the most part, they know us pretty well.
Still, things will change. Our friends start dating and become immersed in those relationships. We finish high school and disperse towards different paths to colleges or jobs, and it becomes harder to stay close with these people. We may reconnect from time to time over the holidays and breaks, but chances are we’ll never have quite as much time with these people as we used to.
Then, there are a select few people with whom we will share extremely deep and intimate bonds. These people will come to understand us and accept us as we are, and if we’re lucky, they will continue to grow with us. With these select people, it is common for us to proclaim to others that “they know us “better than we know ourselves,” so to speak.
The sentiment behind this statement is quite sweet and for all intents and purposes, though it’s a bit of an exaggeration not to be taken literally, it’s typically meant to be harmless. If anything, we use this phrase to express just how close we feel to that person, how deep our bond feels to us, and that we feel understood.
But when you really sit and think about it, the idea that somebody “knows us better than we know ourselves” is an intriguing concept that leads to an important question:
How well do I know myself?
Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to feel a bond so strong with another person that we feel inclined to say that they know us better than we know our own selves. But the fact is, that same concept leaves a little wiggle room, doesn’t it? Wiggle room for this other idea to exist in our reality. The idea that maybe, we don’t know ourselves as well as we should.
See, we grow up being taught by our elders and seeking acceptance from our peers. Each of these interactions shapes who we become in some way- our interests, our hobbies, our food preferences and our habits- and all of these things are prone to the influence of others. There are so many people who impact our lives that the lines can become blurred between the influence of others, and what is genuinely us.
So when it finally comes time for us to take charge of our own lives, becoming more independent and making autonomous decisions for ourselves, it can be extremely difficult for us to decipher what it is that we truly want and expect of ourselves.
In kindergarten, we are expected to learn how to interact and share with others. By elementary school, we are expected to start making friends. By middle school, we are expected to get good grades and to have certain interests. By high school, we are expected to dress and act a certain way, drive a particular type of car, begin dating, and prepare for college. In college, we are expected to declare a major, participate in student organizations, network, and begin preparing to become professionals.
And then, all of a sudden, we’re expected to begin making major life decisions for ourselves. These decisions will ultimately dictate the careers we will have, the money we will earn, and the lives we will create for ourselves. If you ask me, that’s quite a lot of pressure to put on an individual whose entire life had previously been filled with the many continuous and unrelenting expectations of others.
Truthfully, no matter who you are or what your situation is, none of us are immune to the changes we face during the various stages of our lives, and the expectations that others place upon us. Whether it’s intentional or not, spoken or not, there are expectations placed on us every day by others. With them, and our subconscious desires to please and be accepted by others, so many of the things we do are influenced by these expectations whether we realize it or not.
Here’s what I mean:
When someone smiles at us, we’re expected to smile back. When someone shows us something they like, we’re expected to say something nice back. When someone asks us a question, we’re expected to not only respond but respond favorably in many cases. If we don’t smile back, say something nice, or respond in a favorable way, it could cause an uncomfortable interaction, one which we hope so much to avoid that we do what’s expected, just because.
I’m sure that many of you can relate to what I’ve described here. I’m also confident that some of you have navigated these transitions more smoothly along the way, while others have struggled greatly in negotiating through change. Growing up with OCD and the severe anxiety that came with it, I can personally say that I fall into the latter category.
I’ve written before about how calculated I tend to be, and how nearly every decision I make is easier for me when I can follow a methodical, logical process. Needless to say, change has never come easily to me. As I’ve gone through each of these phases in my life, I’ve relied heavily on the input of others around me. While I’ve absolutely appreciated the advice and perspectives I’ve gotten from so many people throughout my life, I’ve started to realize lately that it has come with some mixed results- sometimes at the expense of my sense of individuality.
On the one hand, I’ve learned to see things from a variety of points of view, which I do believe has helped me relate to others. For instance, even when I can’t necessarily draw from a place of similar experience, I could draw back to things I had learned almost vicariously through the feedback of others. In these past instances, gaining input from others helped to alleviate some of my anxiety about the decisions at hand.
I thought I was saving myself from the anxiety then, but in retrospect, I’ve found that I’ve created future anxiety for myself in different ways. By frequently seeking out the opinions of others in my decision-making process in the past, at times I’m left feeling curious about my own expectations for myself in the present. Simply put, I sometimes wonder how much of what I do is done because it’s something I’ve heard someone else express to me before and not because it was something of my own original thought.
The blurred distinction between the expectations others have had of me during my first 30+ years on earth, and the expectations I have for myself has presented me with an interesting challenge. That challenge, frankly, is to make it a point to sort out what expectations are genuinely my own, and what expectations I’ve received from others and internalized over the years.
And yes, like most things, this challenge has given me an immense amount of anxiety. But still, I believe it’s important to question ourselves and who we are. And when I say “question” who we are, I definitely do not mean that we should “doubt” who we are. I simply mean that I believe it is human nature to be curious about ourselves, and that in these moments of curiosity, it’s important to take a personal inventory and to ask ourselves certain questions:
What are my priorities?
What are my desires?
What are some of my best qualities?
In what ways do I want to improve?
In the next part of this series, I’ll talk more about how I’ve approached these questions and how I’ve handled the accompanying anxiety that has come with learning about myself. In the meantime, I challenge you to start taking a personal inventory of yourself and feel empowered to identify with who you truly are.
What do you feel are your 3 best qualities?
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