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.
I woke up this morning to a friend messaging me through Instagram about her anxiety around the news and all the civil unrest. It was good timing because today is one of the rare days when my anxiety is mostly under control, so I was able to console her a bit.
As a mostly white (I’m honestly all mixed racially, though) woman who is married to a black man, and as someone who studied African American literature in college, issues of race are really important to me even though they don’t usually affect me very much. I’m not going to get all pedantic about the state of the world and try to lecture people one way or the other, and I’m also not going to go into why I think what’s happening in the streets right now is predictable. But what I will say is that whatever you believe is the correct behavior for the moment, what’s actually happening is that humans are really hurting.
When I went through my divorce many years ago, I passed through a stage where I was so angry that I couldn’t say enough F words to get it out. I was not a person who had ever cussed much, and I certainly never said that word because it felt like the worst of the worst, but an accumulation of negative experiences began to change who I was and how I behaved. I was looking for a valve to release the pressure and that word was the best one I could find.
I’d also started to go through these mini rages at home alone when I’d never been a particularly angry person before. After each storm finally passed through my system, my true emotions would start to take over and my eyes would rain buckets as I realized I was actually deeply hurt. People who are angry are hurt. Remember that. An angry person is someone you could potentially be if your life circumstances had aligned in a certain way.
Most of us can surely recall times when we've exploded. We usually explode with words and use them to wound those around us, but sometimes we take a step beyond words into physical action. This may mean we throw something against the wall or punch a hole in it because we recognize that hurling objects (or fists) at humans isn’t a good way to go, and thankfully most of us engage in these escalated explosions sparingly.
When I used to explode particularly badly, my favorite behavior was to use a pillow to beat the arm of the sofa or the footboard of my bed. There was also one time, again during a divorce-era mini rage, when I took a big wine glass and shattered it in the sink so as not to create a huge mess for myself after the explosion was over. At least I had the mental faculties to contain the glass to a small area rather than spewing it across my kitchen.
Even with all of the work I've done to be a happier person and to heal myself, I still beat the bed or sofa with a pillow on the rare occasions when lifelong hurts get the best of me. And I wonder if that’s how some people with lifelong hurts are feeling right now? And then I think, what if my own hurt/anger was amped up by centuries of abuse and pain rather than just a few years or decades? I wonder, then, what sort of explosion I might have?
I don’t condone violent behavior. I never do, because I don’t think violence is a good solution to anything and it usually brings about more violence. But I do understand it at this juncture in our history, and I encourage you to try to understand it (understand it, not condone it) instead of judging people for their explosions—especially if you’re a white person like me.
A few days ago, I cried on my husband’s shoulder and hugged his neck, spitting out words in between sobs about how I didn’t want him to be next and how I was afraid he’d get hurt. He reminded me that he’s had to watch his back his entire life, and that what we’re seeing isn’t all that much different than the things he’s had to be aware of for more than four decades while I was blissfully privileged to be born a different color.
As I’ve caught up with the news about fires around the White House and extreme unrest all across the country today, I’ve wondered again if there’s a better spot on planet Earth for me to live out my days. For now, though, I’m going to continue to stand with the oppressed in whatever way I'm able (through my writing, through petitions, through awareness) and just wait to see what transformation comes (or doesn’t come) out of this moment of chaos.
Sometimes big changes come painfully, and I do wonder if we are in the last few pages of a dramatic chapter in the human story. I also think that humans, as a species, can’t seem to get where they need to be without first creating destruction. I’m not sure why this is the case.
But if you’re reading my work, you’re probably one of the humans who is striving to be better. You’re probably a kind person with a good heart; you’re probably introspective and thoughtful; you’re probably someone who would help your neighbor as much as you can. These are the types of people I try to connect with through my writing because we can work together to become a beacon in the darkness. We can still be angry ourselves (my anger is deep and scarlet, believe me), but we can express it constructively while also understanding and holding up our fellow human beings who simply cannot restrain themselves in the same way.
I invite each of us to save our judgment of one another for a different day and instead work together to find solutions. And when we can’t do that - either because we’re emotionally exhausted or because we have no idea what to actually do to help - let’s at least stay in our own bubbles and do no additional harm to humanity while the world is swirling. As I said in my poem, Morning Trash, “We are one people. Two eyes, two feet. Two hands to hold or to steal life.”
Be well and be kind.
My first book, Halfway There: Lessons at Midlife, will be published in July 2020. Click here to read an excerpt and to order a copy.
I’ve spent the last few days finishing up a redo of my business website—the one that promotes my digital marketing services. It took weeks to complete because of my ongoing procrastination, so it seemed appropriate to step back and examine this unusual reluctance to work on something that’s mine. And in doing that, I got super honest with myself: I really don’t want to work in my field anymore.
It’s an unsettling moment when you realize you no longer want to do the thing you’ve built your life and livelihood (and business!) around. In fact, I was just getting really good at my job after spending almost a year being in charge of everything. It wouldn’t make much sense to walk away from something that I do well and that pays me well, right?
But I’ve been graced with a break over the last few months. I was on medical leave for my health issues first, which created a lot of thinking time on the sofa, and then I became unemployed and transitioned into the thoughtfulness of pandemic life. And I find that I’m exponentially happier now that I'm away from my job despite the swirl of uncertainty about what lies ahead.
I took a walk several months ago (well maybe it was a good six to eight months ago; the pandemic has distorted everything) and I remember making a pact with myself. I told myself that by the time I turned 40, I was going to be done with corporate America for good. I had no idea how to make it happen and also had no idea that I’d be unemployed anyway just six months before said birthday, but I set it as an intention and decided I'd figure it out in the coming months.
I took another important walk a few weeks after that. It was a late-morning speedwalk meant to disperse a buildup of negative energy and frustration about things going on at work, and about fifteen minutes in, as I rounded a corner while lost in thought, I started screaming inside of my head, “I HATE business!” I continued those screams, with my fists clenched and my eyes wide, for probably a good thirty seconds before heading home with tears rolling down my face.
I knew my truth. It was coming through loud and clear.
I think each of us already knows our truth if we just listen carefully. It’s not always what we want to hear because it can contradict our lifestyles or our plans, so sometimes we ignore the quiet voices until we end up having a breakdown on the sidewalk on a random weekday morning. Then we go home with our hands still shaking, and we tell our spouses that we just cannot keep going like we are and that we’ve got to find an exit route. And then we cry some more.
I deployed my new website into the world today despite all of the above, because it cost a lot of money to create and because I need it as a sort of insurance policy in case finances get worse. But beyond that, I plan to just let it sit out there like a business card that I can pull up and share on demand if I need to. I think it’s finally time to walk away if I can, since I’ve reached the point of screaming inside my own head.
From a logic (and logistical) perspective, however, this seems like a really dumb thing to do. I have a ton of experience and I actually really know my stuff, so I’ve spent a lot of time trying to convince myself that it wouldn’t be all that bad if I just took a part-time gig that paid well and then did whatever I wanted on my own time. And then I think about the last decade of my existence, and how the continued drudgery of corporate work hampered my progress as an artist.
I remember how I’d wanted to set my Fridays aside for writing but that it pretty much never happened. My paid clients consumed every single weekday despite my best efforts, and the intense copywriting I had to do for them often stole every last bit of my creative energy. I had nothing left for myself.
I also remember how my creativity always dried up and cracked like scorched earth when I was subjected to work I didn’t want to do—even small bits of it—because the negative emotions snuffed out all of the other parts of me. I think I’ve spent so many years in jobs I’ve disliked that even a small dose of one makes me recoil on all levels now. I become paralyzed and sink into a heavy depression.
So I can't help but ask myself, do I really want to spend another decade of my life feeling broken simply because I didn’t have the courage to finally let go of my established career?
This decision isn’t easy, of course. Right now we have a pile of bills and I still haven’t heard if I’m going to get unemployment. But then I also want to vomit when I think about going back to what I was doing a few months (and a few years) ago. In fact, the “not wanting to go back” is a lot more powerful than the “not having money to pay bills” at this moment in my life, and I think it keeps me grounded on my more fearful days.
When I made the vow during walk #1 that I’d be out of corporate America by age 40, I didn’t understand that what I actually meant was I wanted to be out of corporate activities by age 40—out of marketing, out of tech writing, out of social media (except for my own use), and out of anything related to making money for a business. Because, remember? I hate business (walk #2).
I’m trying really hard to be okay with that decision despite the recent loss of money on my website and the ongoing uncertainty about finances. But I have to let go of what was in order to make space for what could be. There's no other way forward if I want to finally change my life. So let's say it together now:
We have to let go of what was in order to make space for what could be.
And what could my life be? Well, I know that I’d like for my literary magazine to take off and for my book to sell. I know that I’d like to spend my days alternating between my publication and my personal creative projects, which would allow me to make my living in an authentic way by doing the things that feel right to my soul.
Sometimes we’re forced make hard decisions when we’ve hit rock bottom with our health or our emotions or our jobs (or all three, like I recently did). Letting go of who we used to be could mean we lose a little—or a lot—financially or otherwise. But I think this losing is temporary if we’re following what we believe is right for us. I think we lose more of ourselves by staying on the wrong path, even as our bank accounts grow and our prestige increases, than we do by taking a risk to make a change. And that’s what I’m holding my hopes on today: that I’ll lose a little by letting go of what was, and gain a whole lot by reaching for what could be.
What about you? Could you dare to step out of the life you used to have, and into the life you truly want to live?
My first book, Halfway There: Lessons at Midlife, will be published in summer 2020. To be notified when it is available for purchase or to follow this blog, sign up for my mailing list.
The Big Pause