“Just be yourself!” How many times have I heard that phrase before? From an early age, I heard this phrase repeated often. The best, most heartfelt advice I got from my family, friends, teachers and mentors was simple: I just had to be me.
This advice irritated the baloney out of me. First, I didn’t know who I was. Second, and equally troubling, I didn’t think people liked me. Why would they? I was an awkward little girl who turned into a geeky teenager complete with rose-rimmed glasses, braces and frizzy hair. I wasn’t quite smart enough. I didn’t have a lot of friends, and preferred the company of books and Barbies over neighborhood children. Some kids made fun of me for being too smart while other kids looked down on me because I wasn’t in their advanced math class. I was picked on and called mean names (like “Scary Carrie”). The one thing I felt I was good at was serving as the butt of a good joke. I often felt like an extra puzzle piece – one with an odd shape and a less-than-appealing color scheme which didn’t fit into the puzzle around me.
One place I most adamantly felt I didn’t fit in was my church. This was particularly troubling for me, because I thought that church was the one place that everyone belonged. I had questions about my religion and when I asked them, I was told to “just have faith.” This well-meaning advice didn’t sit well with me. Instead of feeling faithful, I felt dirty and wrong. I felt rejected by the one institution that was supposed to accept me just as I was. I internalized the guilt I felt over having very normal questions as a sign that I was a bad girl and I didn’t deserve to belong at church or anywhere else, and I decided to just fake it, by becoming an altar girl and attending youth group. I looked the part of a pious churchgoer, but I felt guilty and ashamed for not believing everything I was supposed to believe.
Since I didn’t like myself, I didn’t understand the value of showing up as myself in the world. Instead, I decided to mold myself into the person I thought other people wanted me to be. In school, I was a rule-following, high-achieving brownnoser. At dance class, I pretended to like the genre of dance that the teacher of the moment was teaching, and I pretended I understood what my fellow dancers were talking about when they described their social lives. When I started noticing boys, I pretended to like the TV shows and music that they liked, often to my eventual embarrassment when the boys realized I didn’t actually know the difference between Fish and Phish.
Sometimes, it worked. I was sometimes able to choose the right words or wear the right clothes to fool people into thinking I fit in. I was included in sleepover parties and I was asked out on second dates. The problem was, I often found myself feeling alone and scared even when I was surrounded by people. I would think, “What if they find out?” I was worried and anxious that people would figure out I was just pretending and that I didn’t truly like the things I said I liked and that they’d kick me out of the group because I didn’t belong. I was always waiting for the shoe to drop.
Another bad side effect of pretending to belong was that I never felt that anyone accepted the “real me.” When we present a false self to the world, any love or acceptance that false persona receives makes the real person underneath the façade feel even more alienated and wrong. I might think, “Sure Aaron says he likes me, but he thinks I like the NBA. I don’t like basketball. He doesn’t even know who I am! He doesn’t really like me!”
Unfortunately, I didn’t realize the destructive thought pattern going on in my brain until well after I had graduated college, climbed the corporate ladder, gotten married and had children. All along the way, I played the roles I thought other people expected me to play and I got rewarded with external praise. I was included in happy hours, barbecues and playdates. I felt alone and alienated even when I was surrounded by people that said they liked me. The problem was that though I fit in, with my yoga pants and the bun on the top of my head, I didn’t ever feel like I belonged. I may have looked the part, and I may have given off the appearance that I fit in, but I didn’t feel accepted or acceptable.
I had confused “fitting in” with “belonging.”
In “The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are,” Brene Brown writes: “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.”
It turns out that the advice that was so annoying to me, the adage to “just be yourself,” was actually very good advice. When I rejected my own self and tried to mold myself into who I thought other people would like, I lost the essence of my being, and in doing so I lost the ability to truly belong.
We cannot truly belong if we are denying the inner qualities that make us uniquely us. I had been pretending to be cool and hip while squashing down the very qualities that made me, me. I had pretended to like Phish when I really liked Sarah MacLachlan. I had dressed in boxy business-casual outfits from Steinmart instead of embracing the chiffon and lace that expressed my true style. I had squashed down my personal spiritual beliefs, thinking they were weird, rather than nurture my authentic connection with the universe around me. The list of ways I dishonored my own preferences is astronomical.
I was trying to fit my odd-shaped puzzle piece into a puzzle that didn’t fit me. The truth is, I didn’t have to change my shape – rather, I had to embrace myself and discard the thought that I had to fit into any particular puzzle at all.
In my late 30’s I gave up trying to be the person that other people wanted me to be. I gave up trying to fit in, and I decided to search for self-acceptance instead. It has taken retraining my brain and giving up on limiting belief patterns to reveal what has been here all along – a dreamy, free-spirited girl who likes hockey (but not NBA basketball), vegetables (not sushi) and dancing (just not in pointe shoes). Every day I work to honor the being-ness inside of me and to nurture all the aspects of my personality and spirit that make me uniquely Carrie.
What I have found is that when I show up as myself, I finally feel like I belong. I may not always please the people around me, but pleasing people is not my responsibility. Honoring my unique self is my responsibility. Taking ownership over my life and empowering myself to express my true essence has given me freedom.
Now, when someone says they like me, I don’t doubt it. I don’t second guess the intentions of people around me. I like myself today, and therefore I’m able to accept the love that others give me. I’m also better able to give that love back in return.
I am no longer concerned with fitting in. I am not a puzzle piece. I’m a human being, with all the messiness and beautiful intricacies that come with being human. I know that I am inherently a worthy person because I exist on this planet. It doesn’t serve me to cover up or change qualities about myself to suit a group I want to fit into. Instead, I’m learning to let my own authenticity shine through. Now, I know that I belong.