Free to Be
It’s no wonder so many of us have lost touch with ourselves in a world that encourages us to be anything but ourselves. Our culture tells women they should be thin, pretty, nice, modest and agreeable. Men are told to control their emotions and be successful and in command of every situation. These gender expectations may not match at all with our true selves. Then, just to make things more difficult we are sent conflicting messages. To women, be pure but wild in bed. Be fiery but never angry. Be educated, but don’t disagree or contradict. Men should tell us how they feel, but never appear weak. Follow their dreams but only if they can provide. Layer on top of all that the idea that taking the time to find our true self is selfish or indulgent, and it’s understandable that so many never question the mold. “Authenticity” is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are. (Brene Brown, Daring Greatly)
The first thing to question is this seemingly inherent sense of inadequacy and unworthiness we all seem to be carrying around. The more unworthy we feel, the more separate we become, which can lead to depression, loneliness, fear of abandonment and rejection, addiction in all forms, and difficulty trusting that we are loved. If our self-esteem is low enough, our inadequacy can be triggered even by hearing of someone else’s accomplishments, and certainly if we are criticized or make a mistake. We hold ourselves to a standard of perfection, which necessarily spills over onto our expectations of others. We all thrive when we experience connection, so we conform in an attempt to achieve it. But fitting in and belonging are not the same thing. (The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown) In fact, fitting in gets in the way of belonging. “Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are. True belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our levels of self-acceptance.” (Brene Brown)
Self-loathing is not an inherent part of being human. It is prevalent in the West, but the Dalai Lama observes that it took him a while to even understand it because it is not imprinted on children in the East. Even our culture’s creation story (Adam and Eve) suggests we are basically flawed, and need to redeem ourselves from “original sin”. “In order to redeem our sinful selves we must overcome our flaws by controlling our bodies, controlling our emotions, controlling our natural surroundings, controlling other people. We must strive tirelessly - working, acquiring, consuming, achieving, emailing, overcommitting and rushing - in a never-ending quest to prove ourselves once and for all. By contrast, Buddha taught that this human birth is a precious gift because it gives us the opportunity to realize the love and awareness that are our true nature. We all have Buddha nature. Spiritual awakening is the process of recognizing our essential goodness, our natural wisdom and compassion.” (Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach) The Dalai Lama encourages us to not get caught up in roles-- not to confuse temporary roles with our fundamental identity.
Being over-achievers, we have developed a whole litany of ineffectual strategies to deal with the pain of inadequacy. Our lives are a series of self-improvement projects, whether it be the latest diet, a self-help book, a new outfit or a spiritual quest. We attempt to control the uncontrollable, and when we can’t control / perfect ourselves, we strive to control other people’s perceptions of us. We become experts at winning people over. We play it safe, rather than taking risks and risking failure and criticism. And when we do reach out for something, we pretend it doesn’t matter all that much in the mistaken belief that this will save us from the possibility of hurt if it doesn’t work out the way we plan. Downplaying what is important to us sends an inaccurate message to the Universe, and we miss out on the support of our community if they don’t know what matters to us. We don’t have to feel the pain of inadequacy if we avoid the present moment, so we are experts at distracting ourselves -- with our phones, food, and our long list of to-dos. (Tara Brach and Brene Brown) Sadly, all of these strategies so carefully designed to mask our insecurities, only reinforce our feelings of unworthiness.
The good news is that authenticity is our natural state. We are born knowing how to “trust our instincts, how to breathe deeply, how to eat only when we’re hungry, how to not care about what anyone thinks of our singing voices, dance moves, or hairdos, we know how to play, create, and love without holding back.” (You are a Badass by Jen Sincero) Returning to our natural state of authenticity is a practice-- a practice made up of all the small choices we make everyday to show up and be real, to be honest and to allow ourselves to truly be seen. The idea that authenticity is a choice makes most of us feel both hopeful and exhausted. (The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown) We feel hopeful because we long to be real, but it can be daunting to fly in the face of societal expectations and do the work of uncovering our buried selves. A great opportunity to practice is when you are entering a situation where you feel vulnerable, you can make authenticity your goal. When your focus is on authenticity, you may get your feelings hurt, but you won’t feel shame. (Brene Brown).
The antidote to unworthiness is “radical acceptance.” We can learn to see the present moment as it is, and embrace what we see with an open heart. (Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach) We are aware of what is happening in our body and mind at any given moment, and don’t try to control it, pull away or judge. This means we will come face to face with all our ineffectual strategies, and all the ways we beat ourselves up. We can practice broadening our perspective and identifying with something larger, so that we witness these coping mechanisms without adding them to the list of our perceived inadequacies. Instead, we can offer ourselves compassion as we would to a struggling child. By allowing space for all our feelings without identifying with them, we will recognize their transient nature and our own strength.
Imperfection is a natural part of life, not a personal problem. When we relax about imperfection, we no longer waste time with the belief that something is wrong, or wanting things to be different. The greatest misunderstanding about Radical Acceptance is that if we simply accept ourselves as we are, we will lose our motivation to change and grow. In actuality, the paradox is that when we fully accept ourselves just as we are, then we can change. Our deepest nature is to awaken and flower. Radical acceptance creates a fundamental shift that opens the way to genuine, lasting change.
Before long you might find yourself raising your hand in class and admitting to being lost, or asking someone what a word means in a conversation rather than pretending like you know. You may ask for what you need, even when it’s not considered cool. You may come to love your body even if it doesn’t match what you see in the magazines. It is possible, even likely, that when we practice authenticity-- making the choice to be ourselves-- the people around us may struggle to make sense of how and why we are changing. However, in the end, being true to ourselves is the best gift we can give the people we love. When we let go of trying to be everything to everyone, we have much more time, love and attention for the important people in our lives. We can finally experience true connection because the people in relationship with us will really be in a relationship with “us”. Our courage to be authentic will inspire others to reveal their own imperfectly-perfect light within. We truly are free to be, you and me.
** For more information on this topic, check out these insightful works who have informed this writing--- Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown, Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach, You are a Badass by Jen Sincero, The Art of Happiness by the 14th Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler)