I was listening to a podcast the other night and it really resonated with me because I’ve struggled for decades to find meaning and my place in the world. There was a specific quote from Oprah that has stuck with me, and she said, “Whatever is holding you back in your own life, whatever is preventing you from being your authentic self, is also keeping you from your truest, greatest power.”
When I look back at the last 17 years of my life (meaning the time I entered the professional workforce after college), what I see is that graduating from college was the point at which I began rejecting my authentic self. Up until that point, I’d followed my heart and did what I wanted to do. I wasn’t worried about bills or the future or choosing a practical field; I wanted to study literature and Spanish—so I did.
After that, as real life hit, I almost always took whatever jobs were available regardless of whether or not I wanted them. I was afraid to change trajectory and afraid to examine what could be, and I was also afraid to walk away from any opportunity to earn the money I needed to pay bills. The result is that the last 17 years have been a complete and total loss of myself despite material advancement and professional success.
The podcast was looking back to 1997, when Ellen Degeneres came out and when I was 16 years old and still being me. It examined how the negative fallout of her telling the truth morphed into something beautiful and impactful, and ultimately became the best version of Ellen’s life that there could be.
I’ve found myself in the same space lately. I’m forcefully rejecting who I’ve pretended to be for so many years (a corporate professional) and instead am seeking to become who I truly am (a writer and a teacher). If you’re out of a job like me, it’s the perfect time to contemplate whether or not what you’re doing is authentically you. Are your life and/or career choices allowing you to not just grow your bank account and skills, but to grow into the greatest version of who you were meant to be?
I said to someone the other day that I’ve been chasing money for a long time. I’m not a materialistic person at all, to be clear; I’m a person who spent her childhood and most of her young adulthood hurting for money. So I live in fear of returning to a feeling of lack. I live in fear of running out of food, of losing my home, of not having even fifty cents to spend on anything extra. So my response to that fear was to use my liberal arts degree as a way to chase increasingly larger paychecks in the absence of a meaningful career path, and therefore avoid finding myself in a bad financial spot.
But what happened was that, while I avoided becoming financially poor (although I did become poor again for a while in 2010), I instead became a different kind of poor. I became poor in spirit, because I was doing jobs that sucked the life out of my soul. I became poor in health, because the stress of my work was taking a daily toll on my body. I became poor in emotional happiness, because the turmoil of doing something that was not “me” was a constant gaslighting on the inside.
I’ve spent years insisting that everything is fine, that I’m making good money, that I should be grateful instead of perpetually discontent. And I've also reasoned that life is pretty darn good and that I really have nothing to complain about, so I just need to soldier on because nobody really loves their job anyway.
But lying to myself is pushing the real me down into a black pit. It's dimming the light inside of me that has always strived to do and to be extraordinary, and instead has caused me to settle for what is instead of striving for what could be.
As I sit at this juncture in my life (as an unemployed person who’s lost yet another corporate job that was antithetical to who I am), I feel like Ellen probably felt in 1997: I can no longer continue living a life that isn’t actually who I am. I have to tell the truth about me. And the truth is the complete opposite of the life I’ve been living.
“Me” is not the managing editor in charge of digital marketing programs to make a corporation money, like I most recently was. "Me" is not the technical writer or the project manager or the marketing consultant, which I’ve been too.
No, “me” is the writer who creates meaningful blog posts like this one and who also has a book coming out about how to get through life. “Me” is the 5th grade teacher that I was back in 2010-2011, who wanted to make a difference in the lives of kids but was dismayed to find it was just too hard.
“Me” is also the Student Body President I was in high school, leading other students in activities such as painting an old man’s house with Habitat for Humanity, or cleaning up garbage along a creek, or tutoring elementary school kids who needed help. “Me” is the lit major focusing on American lit and African American lit before life hit, and having in-depth conversations with professors and students about humanity and all its flaws.
So that’s me.
Now, who are you?
It pains me to admit that the only true-to-me things I’ve done in my post-college career are writing a book, starting this blog, and teaching school. Everything else was a boldfaced lie that I told to myself and to the world so that I could avoid that poverty thing I’m so afraid of. And I suspect this is probably why every single one of my corporate jobs imploded—even the ones that started out with promise. They just weren’t who I wanted or was meant to be. I only did them because of fear, every single time.
Change is hard, but when I look at Ellen and how her life completely transformed after she had the courage to just be who she was, I can’t help but think my life will be the same. All of our lives could be the same if we just had the balls to figure out how to be more truthful about ourselves. Sometimes it’s hard to stand vulnerably in front of the world, waiting to see if you will be accepted or rejected for who you are. But there is no other way to live fully except to be whoever you happen to be.
To discover our true selves, we can start by listening to our guts. I think if you have a nagging feeling that something isn’t right in your life, or if you just can’t seem to be fully content in your days, or if you think you would love to do (or be) something else, then you’re probably living some form of a lie that you know is there. The question is, how long can you continue living it before you just can’t do it anymore?
I turn 40 in November and I’m at a point where I cannot, for one more second, continue to live the lie. I cannot work in places I am morally opposed to. I cannot participate in capitalism when the real me is not a money-making machine. I cannot give so much of my creative and physical energy to jobs such that there is nothing left for myself. And I think if I just follow “me” wherever I go, as long as I really do follow my truth, things will turn out ok. I’ll make it. Life will unfold in a magnificent way.
So I look forward to stepping boldly into my next chapter with naked authenticity. I look forward to finally being myself and experiencing the magic of living a life based in truth. I also look forward to seeing who will accept me and who will reject me, and finally deciding I just don’t care about anyone’s opinions anymore.
How about you?
My first book, Halfway There: Lessons at Midlife, will be published in July 2020. Click here to read an excerpt or to order a copy. Click here to subscribe to my blog/mailing list.
The Big Pause