Who Are You?
Somewhat distracted during a morning meditation, I found myself looking at a collage of photographs I’d created, depicting the past fifty-some years of my life. Glancing from one picture to the next, I paused when I came to a photo of me at age fifteen. Unlike the happy girl/woman in the other pics, I appeared sad and uncertain. But isn’t that normal for females at that age? I suppose it’s one of those times in life when we’re afraid to shine, terrified of not being accepted by our peers. Being a teenager is challenging at its best. Even if you are one of the popular kids, that does not guarantee you don’t struggle with self-esteem. While I fell somewhere in between “being cool” and “not,” I suppose it was during my sophomore year when I began to change. Suddenly aware how much others’ opinions mattered, I surrendered a piece of who I was to become the teenage girl I thought I should be. Yet, this picture reminded me of how much confidence I lacked. Fearful that showing up as my true self would not be enough, I compromised who I was in hope of being accepted. My 40th high school reunion was several weeks ago. Though I couldn’t attend, it was great to see the Facebook posts and pics of former classmates. It was then I wondered—how did others perceive me during those high school years? Did they know the real me? But how could they when I clearly had no idea who I was. Avoiding being our true selves—whether consciously or unconsciously—keeps us small and limits opportunities for growth. For me that meant playing it safe, remaining guarded, and avoiding venturing into the unknown. Instead, I adopted safe labels—like “tennis player” and “smart girl” to help me feel comfortable and know how to act. This limiting behavior continued through college. I wanted to have fun, belong. Once again, I morphed to fit my surroundings by becoming a work hard/play hard Lehigh female. Perhaps it wasn’t until I became a mom that I started to realize this pattern. But at that stage of life, I didn’t really have the time to dig in and explore who I really was … I was too busy raising two boys. Now don’t get me wrong. I love my life. It’s just that looking back, I see areas where I was afraid to be me, take risks, and explore uncertain paths. Sure, I have regrets—like not studying abroad because I didn’t want to be away from my college boyfriend—but I’m not so sure I’d be where I am today if my past was significantly different. Thankfully, I now have a pretty good idea of who I am. But like many, I spent years defining myself by external labels based on my education, careers, occupations, and relationships. Somehow it felt safer to be a fourth-grade teacher, Scott’s wife, Jack and Grant’s mom, or runner than to be seen as my true self. I suppose clinging to these identities made me feel secure because I knew what others expected of me in those roles. Trying to fulfill an image based on a label can be exhausting. And it only adds another layer to the confusion of figuring out who we truly are. However, when we finally shed the tags and take the time to discover our authentic selves, life shifts. New and unexpected doors suddenly open, showing us what can be. This is not an easy process, and it requires introspection and courage. First, we must go within to witness who we are at our core. And then we must muster the fortitude to accept what we discover—the good, the bad and the ugly—showing up as our true self regardless of who we are with or where we are at. It’s then we realize our past behaviors, situations, and experiences no longer define us. Sure, they helped to shape who we are, but they are not the essence of our spirit. Uncovering our true selves doesn’t always happen in a graceful manner. In fact, I’ve found the process to be extremely messy. Not only have I confused others, but I’ve also felt uncomfortable. It’s been necessary to create boundaries, forgive myself, and know when it is time to let go. When we present as who we now are instead of versions based on past labels, we evolve into the unique individuals we are here to be. This doesn’t make us better than our former selves. In fact, stepping into our authentic identity can be scary, requiring unanticipated shifts in habits, behaviors, and thought processes. Nevertheless, in the process of discovering who we are … and then accepting what we find … we light the flickering spark within, allowing us to shine.