“Just be yourself.” I often heard people give this advice when I was young, and it always confused me.
Because I was in the midst of figuring out who I was, the advice, “Just be yourself” often seemed unhelpful. The situation was complicated by other people, some of whom seemed to disapprove strongly of who I was.
For example, let me tell you about a time I was bullied when I was younger and how it made it really hard to figure out who I was. And I also want to tell you the lesson I learned from it and how I figured out how to be myself in the best way possible.
Here’s my bullying story:
I was in fifth grade, and I had started a new school. I was on the brink of adolescence. My world was changing dramatically, and I was looking for some kind of confirmation that everything was okay—that I was okay.
I remember waiting for the bus after school, and I saw two boys in my class, Derek and Christopher, standing fifteen or so feet away.
They were looking at me and whispering. I was wearing a particularly cute outfit that my mom had made me, and I felt great. I remember thinking that Derek and Chris were going to tell me how beautiful I was. I smiled at them.
They walked up to me grinning, and Derek leaned over and whispered, “God, you’re ugly”, and they ran away laughing. My easygoing smile and confidence plummeted into the abyss, and it took several years for both to surface again.
“Destiny”, by John William Waterhouse
I am sure you could tell me stories like this about people who have said really cruel things to you. (And, by the way, I am really sorry that happened to you. It is so painful.)
Derek and Christopher are symbolic of an obstacle we all face.
All of us experience, at one time or another, people who tell us that we are not good enough in some way and that there is something deeply wrong with us. Maybe they tell us there is something wrong about our appearance or our abilities or our general worth as a person. No one is immune to the Dereks and Christophers of the world who walk around consciously or unconsciously shattering people’s worlds with their cruel words.
The other day, I read an article about Meryl Streep. She was once told that she was too ugly to be an actress. Of course, she ignored this advice and has had a phenomenally successful career. Someone told film writer Kevin Smith he did not have what it took to be a successful writer. He, too, defied this criticism.
It seems that most artists, writers, musicians, politicians, and other culturally influential people have had at least once person tell them they were too ugly, stupid, lazy, etc. to accomplish their goals. Somehow, these people were able to see past the shortsightedness of their critics and pursue their powerful potential.
Michelle Obama has beautifully captured this idea of knowing who you are and moving past criticism. She says,
“One of the lessons that I grew up with was to always stay true to yourself and never let what somebody else says distract you from your goals. And so when I hear about negative and false attacks, I really don’t invest any energy in them, because I know who I am.”
This quote of hers is actually what inspired this blog post. I have been so impressed with the grace and class Michelle has shown in the last eight years as First Lady. Even when people have attacked her and President Obama with hate, ignorance and racism, she consistently responds with love, intelligence, and truth.
She reminds me that eventually we all must know who we are, or we will rely on other people to tell us who we are. There are a lot misinformed and ignorant people who cannot see our potential. There are a lot of miserable people who believe that the only way they can pursue their potential is to destroy ours. She reminds me that if we listen to these voices, we will miss out on our own beautiful and unique lives. We will miss out on our own personal power.
It is not easy to know who we are, especially when we feel very different from other people; or when we are still figuring out our goals; or when we remember all of our failures.
How do we go about knowing who we are? I do not have all of the answers to this, but here are some ideas that have helped me over the years:
One: We are all utterly unique expressions of human rationality, spirit, wisdom, compassion and resilience.
Two: We are full of powerful potential because we have an almost unlimited capacity to develop all of the amazing character traits mentioned in #1.
Three: We have certain physical characteristics and appearances, passions, traits, and goals that give us clues about how we can develop our potential in a manner unique to us.
Four: We need to unfold this potential in the most authentic way that is loving to ourselves, to others, and to the Divine (if we believe in the Divine).
Five: Unfolding our potential is a learning process, and mistakes (even big ones) are normal. We need not beat ourselves up about our mistakes. Rather, we need to learn from them, to make amends if necessary, and to keep unfolding our potential in the wisdom we learn through our trials and errors.
Six: As we unfold our potential, we know more clearly who we are.
Seven: As we authentically and lovingly unfold our potential, we will bring more beauty into the world, both through our appearance and our actions. Everyone has this ability.
Eight: No one else is exactly like you, and so you are in better position than anyone else, even the critics, to know who you are.
A lot of the difficulties in our lives stem from us letting other people decide who we are or deciding that we can only be who we are if we make other people less of who they are. When we let people decide who we are, they miss out on our power.
When we think we can only be who we are by destroying others, we miss out on their power. What the world needs most is people lovingly unfolding their potential who know who they are. When we do this, we are powerful together.
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 The names and some of the details of this event have been changed for privacy.
 Some of the details of this event have been changed for privacy.