How We Forget Who We Are
When I was in the first grade, my music teacher picked me to play the little princess in our annual class play. The next year, she chose me to play a different princess in a different play. In both cases, the princess didn’t have any lines. She either stood in the centre of a semi-circle while the other children sang about her life, or she pantomimed the story of her life as read by a narrator.
My mother loooooooved the fact that I was chosen to be the princess two years running. Both years, she spent hours painstakingly making my costume. As for me, well I didn’t love being the princess. It was boring. I didn’t even have to remember any lines. All that was required of me was to stand there looking pretty.
So, in third grade, when that same music teacher asked me yet again to play the princess in yet another princess story (why-oh-why were we doing so many damn princess stories?), I refused. I still remember the look on her face – surprise, followed by a flash of annoyance and then panic. She looked around the room at all the other girls, and then back to me. If you’re wondering why my teacher was so obsessed, it’s because at that age, with my long blonde hair and penchant for red patent leather shoes, I looked like I had been sent by central casting for princesses.
But to my teacher, that was the only thing that mattered about me.
“Are you sure?”, she asked.
“I am,” I answered, feeling a rush of pleasure from what was a rare moment of defiance. “I want to be the narrator.”
The teacher asked at least one more time that day, but I was adamant. I wanted to hold the microphone and show off what a good reader I was.
After school, when I told my mother about my decision, she was NOT happy about it (and that’s another story). But I didn’t care.
I had a voice and I wanted to use it. That’s who I was. And to this day, if you ask me what I’m most proud of in my life, it’s that at the age of eight, I knew that if I allowed myself to cajoled into playing the silent princess even one more time, I would be betraying myself.
And then I forgot.
Nearly two decades later, I found myself married to a controlling man who reminded me nearly each and every day that I wasn’t enough. And I believed him. For years, I tried to be what he wanted until eventually, I was so removed from my true self, I was virtually invisible.
Needless to say, it was a terrible marriage, but for all kinds of reasons, I was too afraid to even consider ending it. So, I just played it out with little thought to where it was going. I was stuck.
But then, one Saturday afternoon (rather than exploring the exciting new city I was living in), I was sitting on the sofa, watching Olympic swimming and eating ice cream, when a voice appeared in my head. It was my own voice, but it wasn’t my thought. Or at least I didn’t know it was my thought at the time. It seemed to have just appeared out of nowhere.
The voice said, “This isn’t me.”
My first thought was, “What the hell was that?”
My next thought was, “This is dangerous.”
So, I ignored the voice.
And, I ignored it several more times over the next year as my marriage deteriorated and I grew increasingly lost and frustrated and ate more and more ice cream. Instead of creating my life, I was simply reacting to it. I had made myself powerless. I felt frumpy. I felt useless. I was so fucking bored. And I thought this was the best I could do.
Eventually, my husband did me a great kindness (though I didn’t feel that way at the time), by ending the marriage. And in the coming months, I rediscovered myself. I remembered that I loved going out with friends, trying new restaurants, visiting galleries and when the mood struck, dancing around my living room. I was no longer frumpy, useless and bored. I was awesome, amazing and happy.
But the voice in my head wasn’t done with me yet. It popped up years later when as a corporate vice president, I looked at my schedule and found that I hated ninety percent of my daily work.
“This isn’t me.”
The voice returned a few years later when as a start-up CEO, I just didn’t have the same fire in my belly that I’d seen in other start-up CEOs. And when I thought of the very best outcome for my company – growing it into a billion-dollar unicorn – rather than feeling excited, I was filled with dread.
“This isn’t me.”
My first marriage, my corporate life, my start-up life… I was betraying myself in all those situations. And yet, there I was in those situations. And to be honest, I kind of sucked in those situations. I was petty, defensive, reactive, judgemental, self-absorbed, and increasingly addicted to ice cream.
“This isn’t me.”
Why did I keep forgetting who I was?
Because despite my successes, deep down, I was entrenched in a small identity. In other words, I was in a contractive state.
What’s a contractive state you ask?
I'm glad you asked. In my experience, it all starts with some kind of plateau.
The plateau can be internally derived - for some reason we can’t move forward with something. Maybe a relationship has run its course but we don’t want to admit it. Or we’re not making progress at work, but we can’t figure out why. Or perhaps a creative endeavour has become a slog and we don’t know if we should give up, or keep going. Or it can be the result of an externally imposed shock – perhaps someone we love has died, or we’ve been fired, or our health isn’t as robust as we’d like it to be.
With the plateau comes a sense of decline. Things aren’t as good as we think they should be. We’re not as good as we think we should be.
We begin to operate from a fear state.
What are we afraid of? Well, the big three fears for most of us are fear of loss, fear of less and fear of never. We fear we’ll lose our job or our relationship. We fear we'll have less time or money. We fear we’ll never live the life we were meant to live.
And at the core of all of those fears, is the big daddy of them all. The fear that we’re not good enough. And if we’re not good enough, we’re not worthy of love.
Ugh. Well that got deep rather quickly didn’t it? But it’s there.
And this is where the trouble starts.
Because this is where we begin to forget who we are.
When you were two, you were your whole, remarkable self. You were full of love. You were fascinated by everything. You were dedicated to growth. But as you grew older, and were socialized, and especially as you approached puberty, you began to forget all the good stuff.
And this is because your socialization trained you to prioritize values about who and how you “SHOULD” be, over values about who and how you “COULD” be.
Should values are the things your parents or teachers might have said to you when you were young. You should be a good girl, you should not be too loud or outspoken. And then as you got a bit older, other people chimed in and said you should be a certain weight or a certain kind of employee, daughter, wife or mother. And wow, motherhood is the motherlode of should values. It seems a lot of people have a lot of thoughts about what kind of mother we should be, or even on our decision to have kids or not.
In many ways, conforming to should values makes life more comfortable. And so we begin to prioritize the comfort of doing what’s expected of us over the truth of who we are.
The thing is though, loving and accepting ourselves requires us to prioritize our could values, because they are the truth of who we really are.
What are could values? These are the values you choose for yourself. Some examples of could, values are curiosity, exploration, structure, acceptance, challenge, spontaneity, understanding, joy, dignity, honesty, accountability. I could go on for some time because there are actually a couple hundred could values available for us to choose. And each of us has our own unique combination of chosen values.
When we operate primarily in “Should” mode, and prioritize it over our “Could” values, we’re prioritizing comfort over truth and this causes us to fall out of alignment with our core values.
We’ve forgotten who we are.
We’re betraying ourselves.
And we know it.
And that feels terrible.
We begin to beat ourselves up. And from this place of shame, we become entrenched in a small identity. This gives rise to limiting patterns of belief and behaviour such as isolation, anger and blame. We believe we’re meant to be small. And strangely, we actively resist when opportunities arise for us to grow and become bigger.
We’re in a contractive state.
And in our contractive state, we don’t apply for that job, or start that business. We don’t call out someone’s negative behavior. We don’t speak up in meetings. Or if we do, we beat ourselves us for interrupting or not expressing ourselves well enough.
And “We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?” This is such a contractive thing to say! Who am I to be all the wonderful things the universe intended me to be?
And the answer is, “Actually, who are we not to be?” – This, of course is a very famous quote from Marianne Williamson, in her book, A Return to Love
This is the terrible thing about should values. They often teach us that it’s wrong to stand out, to express ourselves, and to focus on being our best selves. But in fact, the exact opposite is true. We’re here to live our could values. We’re here to fulfill a purpose. We’re here to grow and contribute. That’s our job! Who are we not to it?
And the only way to grow and contribute is to enter what I call an expansive state. When we’re in an expansive state, we’re grounded in solid core values and purpose, yet are open to new ideas, people and situations. From this place, we experience heightened creativity, energy and joy.
Sounds good right?
I’ll tell you more in my next post.