My entire life I’ve been told who, what, and how I “am.”
“You’re a smart boy.”
“You’re the future leader of this family.”
“You’re good at math.”
“You have OCD.”
“You should lose weight.”
“You lost too much weight.”
“You should be a teacher.”
“You’re too smart to ‘just be a gym teacher’.”
“You have neat handwriting, for a guy.”
“You’re too cautious to be successful.”
“You’re too intense.”
“You’re too passive.”
“You can do so much more.”
Let’s be real, we’ve all heard a million of these types of statements in our lives, some good and some bad. We’ve all also had our part in delivering similar statements to others, too. Every single one of these statements has been directed at me at least once in my life. And frankly, I’m sure that each one of these statements has, in some way, been representative of a perception of me which I’m sure for those people were at least partially real opinions.
Now, I don’t mean to diminish some of the observations of others that I’ve heard throughout my life. Frankly, some of these positive statements have at times instilled a confidence in me that have driven me to accomplish things that I’m personally quite proud of. It’s important that we realize, though, how deafening these statements can be when we say them to others.
Honestly, think about how deafening these statements can be when we hear them directed at us. I’m sure there are some of us who have become quite adept at tuning these things out and focusing solely on our inner compasses. Still, I’m even more willing to bet that the majority of us still care to some extent about the things people say about us. And when the things that people say are polar opposites of each other it can be very disorienting.
For me, “you should lose weight,” followed by “you’ve lost too much weight” has been one of the most frustrating pairs of feedback I’ve ever gotten about my body image, and let me tell you, that really messes with my psyche. To this day, I find it extremely difficult to be happy with the way I look; that’s a whole other topic for another time.
As a kid, I was much more likely to take the suggestions of my parents, teachers, guidance counselors, etc. at face value and follow through with them, as long as they seemed “logical” to me. There came a point in my life, though, when I began to feel conflicted about following through on them and began to question whether or not these were the best things for me. Although these suggestions may still have made sense from a logic standpoint, something within me began to resist.
As someone who has historically valued the opinions of others- possibly to a fault at times- feeling this resistance to the suggestions of those who I had listened to for so long led me to experience a great deal of anxiety. Part of that anxiety came from self-imposed guilt, worrying that by not following through on their suggestions, I would be letting them down. The other part of that anxiety stemmed from my own uncertainty. I was nervous that whatever was causing me to resist others’ suggestions was coming from a misguided impulse within me.
It’s quite unnerving to simultaneously feel strongly about two conflicting things, one being pursuing something different than my “usual,” the other being meeting the expectations of others. It’s even more anxiety-producing when the decision is as important as a career change or relocating to a new place.
The best way I can describe it is that it feels like a tug-of-war taking place in a pit of quicksand. As time goes by, a sinking feeling sets in and it becomes more and more urgent for one side to win out over the other. Still, neither side will really budge towards the other.
For a long time, this was how I felt as I struggled to balance the expectations of others against my own inner voice. What I’ve learned from this process, however, is that there’s a lot to be said for the fact that there is a struggle at all. The fact that something inside of me is sounding an alarm, rather than letting me go along with what others say, is significant.
When I was younger, there was never much resistance from within me to go against what others suggested that I do. I attribute this to the implicit self-doubt that comes with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder because OCD is, after all, “the doubting disease.” I doubted myself and my own instincts as a kid and ultimately, I felt more inclined to take the suggestions of others, feeling very little inner pull in any other different direction. I was basically neutral about most decisions, swayed by others to follow one path or another.
As I’ve grown and become more aware of myself and my own identity, things have changed. In areas of my life which I once was neutral, now there is that internal pull to make certain decisions. And when the pull from within me is finally saying something different, it’s hard to simply just continue going along with what others think is best.
The caveat here, again, is that pesky OCD, planting seeds of self-doubt.
The most important takeaway from all of this, though, is the recognition that there is, in fact, “the pull.” Something inside of me is telling me to make certain decisions, regardless of the insistence of other people. That’s not to say I don’t still value the opinions of others because I do. But more and more, I’m discovering that there are specific things that I truly want for myself that have nothing to do with anybody else’s expectations, and that’s something I can’t ignore.
It’s empowering, really, to have gained a strong handle on my own identity. I’ve uncovered a confidence that for years eluded me as I was being told how “fat” I was, how “weird” the things I found interesting were, and that I “should” be something that made sense to somebody else but not to me.
Finally, I’m hearing my true self speak.
Of course, though, as with most things in life, one can’t expect all positive outcomes. As you can imagine, when you go so long taking the advice of others without resistance, those people become conditioned to believe that you’re going to see and do things their way. Basically, people generally like getting their way.
With this newfound self-confidence and clarity, there has come a strain on some of my relationships. For those people whose suggestions I used to follow regularly, and at times, virtually blindly, hearing me assert myself in opposition to their input was not always accepted without conflict. Some people had become so used to me agreeing with them that anything different than a “yes” from me was a shock to their system.
As we take control of our own lives, we take away some of that control from the people who use to have a greater influence on us. Whether it’s a parent struggling to accept the transition to adulthood of their now grown-up child, a teacher “passing the torch” to the student to take what they’ve learned and go out into the world, or a significant other from whom we’ve grown apart, letting go is a change that can be difficult to accept.
In the next part of this series, I’ll share more about how I’ve navigated through these changing relationships in my life and found ones that allow me to hear my inner voice and speak its words more clearly. I’ll also open up about some of the ways I’ve started to take hold of my own identity, and how I’ve dealt with the anxiety surrounding the major changes in my life. In the meantime…
What is one positive thing you’ve recently realized about yourself?
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