And the day came when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. – Anais Nin
Living authentically is easier said than done. It is, as the popular saying goes, “a process”. As babies, we begin our lives authentically, expressing ourselves freely – often loudly and in the middle of the night. As we grow older, however, we unconsciously incorporate the unspoken messages we receive, from those closest to us, like family, friends and community members. We are told to act like someone else, to hide parts of our personality or doubt ourselves. We can carry and follow these powerful messages with us into adulthood and it may take a very long time for us to realize that they are still at work – and yet, not working for us.
I grew up with parents whose behavior communicated that I was not allowed to leave home and become an independent person – let alone get an education and have a successful career. Meanwhile, their words extolled the virtues of excelling academically as the path to success as an adult. Their actions belied their words because of their inability to face their deep fears about their children growing up and leaving them. For instance, after my parents said they supported my goal to achieve an “A” average by the end of eighth grade, they insisted they had no recollection of any such goal when I actually achieved it. There was no celebration or recognition of what I had done. When I approached my senior year in high school they refused to pay for my tuition, insisting that my grades were not good enough. When it came time to go to college, my parents insisted they had no money to pay for it, despite paying for my brother to attend a private university. This behavior made my parents feel like two obstacles that I needed to overcome rather than a support system on which I could rely.
I guess I always knew deep down that I would not only never receive my parents’ support but that they would go out of their way to try and cripple my efforts. I had been working from the age of about 13 as a way to protect myself from the financial support that I knew my parents would one day withdraw as a means to try to keep me at home. I paid the tuition for my senior year in high school so I did not have to change schools. I found a room to rent, applied for the federal student loans that would cover tuition at the local state university and I moved out of the house for good at the age of 17, just prior to my high school graduation. I no longer had to remain vigilant against whatever obstacles my parents tried to put in my way. Unfortunately for them, by refusing to acknowledge their fears of their children leaving home, my parents had hastened the very situation they dreaded.
I finished college and went to law school at night while working full time and started practicing law. Some years later, I was sitting in my therapist’s office bemoaning the fact that it was so difficult to make a foray into one of the large law firms in my city. I had been practicing at a small firm but was looking for the excitement of working with bigger clients in an international context at a larger firm. The problem was that large firms generally looked for lawyers who had gone to Ivy League schools. I certainly had not, since I had no financial support from the age of 16 onward.
My therapist suddenly asked me, “Are you good enough to work at a large firm?” Instead of my usual confident response, I hesitated. That is when it hit me. I was afraid to reach for something more. But, why? I realized that despite overcoming some formidable obstacles as a teenager in order to achieve what I considered my basic right to education and independence, I was not completely free of the messages that I had received as a child.
As a child, I had learned to avoid reaching for certain goals as a defense against the attacks my parents had inflicted whenever I tried to advance. While I had willingly engaged in a difficult struggle when it came to the big goals I set for myself – like getting an education and moving out of the house and having a career – I realized I was still unconsciously heeding the unspoken warning to dare not move forward when it came to the smaller stuff. I had learned as a child that any movement toward a goal would involve a colossal struggle and I had forgotten that I was no longer in that environment! I have heard that when a horse is zapped by an electric fence, the horse will rarely try to get past the fence again in order to protect itself from receiving another shock. Humans are no different. As children, we learn how to keep ourselves safe from the “shocks” we receive from those influential people around us. Unfortunately, that protection can involve hiding our authenticity. As we grow older, however, and gather strength and maturity, we forget to reassess whether the way we protect ourselves is still necessary.
Sitting in my therapist’s office, I reviewed my situation again from my newfound perspective. Was anticipating a negative response from others still warranted? Fortunately, over the years I had found people in my life who were supportive. In the worst case scenario, even if I did encounter someone who tried to sabotage my efforts, I was now an adult with a lot more skills than I had as a child. Now, I realized that I could handle anything that came my way.
I started networking in order to make my move to a large firm. It took some effort to work through my doubt and fear when I hit bumps along the way. But, I realize that this process actually helped me to become aware of my belief that other people were obstacles, rather than a support system and to challenge that belief with every positive experience along the way. With each effort to move forward I was releasing the conditioning I had been following. I eventually made my change to a large law firm despite some shaky knees and sweaty palms – something I chuckle about almost ten years later.
Stepping out of our family dynamic takes a lot of courage and not everyone around us will be thrilled with our changes. We may fear the loss of a relationship with those in our immediate family. Logically, we may understand that a relationship conditioned on keeping our own authentic self under wraps is a dysfunctional one. After all, if we are not loved for our authentic selves, we are not truly loved or accepted. This realization may ultimately keep us on the authentic path but it does not prevent the grief that we will need to work through when some of the relationships around us fall away. In their place, however, will be new relationships with people who love us for ourselves and who are truly supportive. It is even possible that those who could not handle our changes at first may surprise us by rising to accept our authentic selves. Ultimately, in order for any of us to thrive and truly experience happiness we must go our own way – with or without our family’s support or approval – and in spite of their possible retaliation against us. We must dare.
There is no justification in holding ourselves back to avoid conflict just to keep others in their comfort zones. We must learn to get used to the anger and fear of others when we pursue our own authentic path. Each of us has unique gifts to bring to the world and we were meant to thrive and to shine our light for everyone else to see and to learn. As Esther Abraham-Hicks said, “You cannot get sick enough to help sick people get better. You cannot get poor enough to help poor people thrive. It is only in your thriving that you have anything to offer anyone. If you’re wanting to be of an advantage to others, be as tapped in, turned in, turned on as you can possibly be.”
What messages have you internalized as a result of someone else’s fears? What do you not dare to do, unconsciously, because of unspoken conditioning that you have received? What reaction do we fear from others? Bringing these messages into your consciousness is the first step in moving past them. Then, defy any detractors by shining brighter than they ever told you that you should. Finally, take the hands of those detractors and show them the way to finding their own authentic selves – by living authentically yourself. The most powerful way to teach is by example and providing those who fear your changes with living inspiration is a generous and compassionate response to their warnings. “A rising tide lifts all boats!” It is never too late for everyone who has felt stifled to pursue their own authentic path.
Free hearts rock boats, break rules, do things that disrupt the system—whether that system is a dysfunctional family, a bloated bureaucracy, or the whole wide world. – Martha Beck