We all have our public and private selves to some degree. But we need to feel free to be our true selves most of the time, or the weight of the artifice can become exhausting. I had a friend in college who slogged his way through medical school because his father always wanted him to be a doctor. In his second year, it became clear that the path he was on was not suiting him. He was frequently sick with unexplained maladies, and eventually had to be hospitalized suffering from nervous exhaustion. Thankfully, he was able to talk to his father and admit that while he enjoyed medicine, his real passion was for teaching music. The following year, he changed courses and never looked back. But not before literally making himself sick trying to please someone else.The disease to please
is a common one, and nobody is immune. Many of us are taught early on that the needs of others should always come before our own, and we bend ourselves into pretzels accordingly. Nice girls don’t cause a fuss, only selfish people look out for themselves, and so on. But there is nothing enlightened about silently keeping the peace, while quietly giving yourself an ulcer from seething resentment. Learning to express your own needs, clearly and unapologetically, is the first step towards recovery. When we can do this, we become much more pleasant to be around, and more tolerant of others who have needs different from our own.With the passing of my sister-in-law and both of my parents in recent years, I’ve looked carefully at my motivations. I wanted to make sure that the life I was living was fully my own. With practice, I learned to distinguish between a should
statement. I want
to go to the gathering this evening is always preferable to I should
go to this gathering. One implies choice, the other duty. Notice how any activity that stems from choice feels uplifting, while those that stem from obligation feel deadening. Are you saying yes because you want to, or because you’re afraid to say no? There’s a world of difference.
In his epic 1915 poem, The Love Song
of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot gave to the world his most enduring literary creation. Prufrock, the hapless hero, wanders alone through unnamed streets, wrestling with deep existential feelings of loss and regret. His deepest frustration, it seems, stems from what he sees as the inability to clearly articulate himself. Over and over, we get the weary refrain: “No, that is not it at all; that is not what I meant at all.” Is the life you are living the one you meant, or is it like Prufrock, a manifestation of someone else’s dream?
The people we tend to admire most are the ones who live their lives without apology. We use names like maverick, hero or genius to describe them – never allowing for the possibility that we might become one of them. But why couldn’t we? Once we recognize that our time here is finite, we are less driven by the distraction of external voices. What can you choose to do right now, so that years from now, when you’re looking back at your path, you might feel genuine pride? These are the decisions your future self will thank you for.