How much of our lives do we spend living in way to please other people? How much unhappiness do we feel in our lives because we’re not being ourselves? Today I want to talk about why it can be really hard to live authentically.
And this, too, affords no small occasion for anxieties – if you are bent on assuming a pose and never reveal yourself to anyone frankly, in the fashion of many who live a false life that is all made up for show; for it is torturous to be constantly watching oneself and be fearful of being caught out of our usual role. And we are never free from concern if we think that every time anyone looks at us he is always taking our measure; for many things happen that strip off our pretense against our will, and, though all this attention to self is successful, yet the life of those who live under a mask cannot be happy and without anxiety. But how much pleasure there is in simplicity that is pure, in itself unadorned, and veils no part of its character! Yet even such a life as this does run some risk of scorn, if everything lies open to everybody; for there are those who disdain whatever has become too familiar. But neither does virtue run any risk of being despised when she is brought close to the eyes, and it is better to be scorned by reason of simplicity than tortured by perpetual pretense.
Growing up, I was constantly adjusting and perfecting the persona that I showed to other people. Because I was expected to be a good little mormon boy – we used the term Peter Priesthood – I was constantly making sure that I never really revealed my true thoughts and feelings about a lot of things, depending on the company I was in. I learned how to espouse the “correct” views so that I was able to fit in to the culture I was in. It was only when I spent time with my theater friends outside of church or school that I felt like I was able to be more of my true self.
The biggest problem with this was that I always felt like a fraud. I disagreed with the church on a lot of issues, but because I had been raised to believe that church doctrine was the word of god and it’s leaders were infallible, I felt like there was something wrong with me rather than the teachings. The church’s views on topics ranging from sexuality to science to the treatment of women were thing that just never fit with my own opinions and ideas. Because I was so immersed in the culture, I got pretty good at saying all the right things at the right time.
This was also an issue at home where often I had to hide my true feelings and ideas in order to keep the peace with my father. Learning to navigate his explosive moods to stay safe from his wrath also felt like a tamping down of my own self. It’s taken many years, decades even, to learn how to stand up for my own opinions. Often times I wasn’t even sure what I felt or thought about things or what I really wanted as a person because I had spent so many decades hiding my wants and needs in order to fit in with others and remain a member of the church.
Over time, what this did to me, and what it does to others, is it gives you the message that who you are as a person is not acceptable. Because we all want to fit in, we bury that true self because that self is not okay. We end up miserable because deep down we know that we’re faking it to get along. We’re lying to ourselves and to everyone around us, and that takes a toll on our mental health. We often feel resentful of those around us because we feel like they are the reason that we can’t relax and just be ourselves, when in reality, it’s prison of our own making.
The life of those who live under a mask cannot be happy and without anxiety.
We spend much of our time doing things or acting in a way to fit in with those around you, and this feels disingenuous and fake and not who we really want to be. This is what happens when we are well socialized. We all are trained by our culture of how to fit in and what things are acceptable and what things gain you approval of others. Breaking this kind of thinking and behavior is really hard for most people because from birth we are trained to seek approval. And for most of us, this pretense we’re taught to keep up feels fake, but we’re not sure how to be otherwise.
Recognizing this feeling is where the work starts. Once you start to look around and see what is really going, you have choices. Do you just go with the flow or are you honest with yourself and others about who you really are and what you really want? Do you tell people no when you don’t want to do something? Do you go along with the crowd so as not to offend others? Do you step up and be that person that you want to be regardless of who others want you to be?
These are not easy choices. It feels like so much at stake for stepping up and owning your life. But there is even more at stake if you don’t, mainly, living a life that you won’t regret when it comes to a close.
So how to we break out of this pattern? How do we take off this mask?
It think the first step is to accept yourself for exactly who you are. This is not an easy thing. When you’ve been brought up with all the subtle messages that the person you are is not acceptable, it’s really hard to believe that you are okay. But I will tell you something, you are okay. Do you know how I know that? Because you are here in the planet to be exactly who you are. No one else is just like you, so your job is to be the best you that you can be. Accept all the messy, weird, and quirky bits of you, just like you do with your friends.
Second, spend time with people that accept and encourage you to be yourself. If people don’t like you for being yourself, then they are not your people and that’s okay. Why try to fit in with others that don’t like you? Be around those that you can be honest with. That you can tell your truth to without being shamed or belittled.
Another step that I have found comes from one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman. In a commencement speech at the University of Philadelphia, he said, the most important thing we can do in life is to “Make good art.” Why art? Art has always been a way for people to explore facets about themselves. Writing, drawing, sculpting, singing, writing music, whatever it is that you can do, just do it. You can find what makes you unique. And don’t worry if it’s good or not. It’s not about impressing anyone else, it’s just about exploring and making things that are all about you.
What it really comes down to is learning to listen to yourself, knowing what you want, and making choices that suit you best rather than make others happy. You may lose friends and even family if you take that path, but you might just find yourself.
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