I’ve lost myself. Oh don’t worry, it’s not serious. Not like the time I ate the special brownies and tried to join Gwar only to get eaten by a giant cockroach. (lie: I don’t eat brownies unless they’re in ice cream and the only “special” ingredient I’d eat would be black beans. I would totally join Gwar though.) But I do seem to have lost my way a bit lately, lost my sense of who I really am. It’s not a surprise – this happens to me from time to time. It’s one of the downsides of being what psychologists call a “high self monitor” (i.e. a social chameleon). I get so eager to please people and fit in that I immerse myself in whatever they like and try to change myself to fit with what they expect me to be – or at least what I think they expect me to be. Unfortunately the more I try to be everything to everyone, the more I fail to be anything to anyone. It’s been a hard lesson to learn.
Social chameleons are often reviled as sycophants and social climbers but in truth we all do it to some degree; it’s just part of functioning in society. (There was even a really interesting study recently about how one way our intuition alerts us to creepers and sociopaths is that we subconsciously mirror the affect and mannerisms of whomever we are speaking with and so when someone doesn’t do that – as sociopaths often fail to do because they lack empathy – we get this weird feeling they’re creepy, even if we can’t quite explain why. Another reason you should trust your gut!) But it’s a matter of finding the balance between the two extremes: too individualistic (a “low self monitor”) and you lose the ability to relate to others and miss social cues, too chameleon-esque and you lose your own sense of self and come off as insincere.
(Side note: It’s my unscientific opinion that the majority of reality TV stars become such because they fall on one extreme end of this spectrum or the other. On one end you’ve got Elizabeth Hasselbeck and that last Bachelor who was so awful that I now know everything about him even though I never watched the show and on the other end you’ve got every winner of American Idol or America’s Next Top Model.)
Having fallen off this particular log quite a few times in my life, I’ve learned to recognize when I’ve gone too far. It’s mostly born of an increasingly frenzied feeling that nobody likes me but if I just knew what they wanted me to be I could totally fix myself! Of course this doesn’t work. But realizing that I’m doing it (again…) is one thing, fixing it is another thing entirely. I still really struggle with staying “true” to myself but I will say that the older I get, the more rooted in myself I feel. And I’ve picked up a few tips along the way that help me. Or rather, I’ve found that for me it takes a series of small course corrections that I consistently apply to keep me in line with The Real Slim Shady, er, Charlotte.
An inscription on Stirling Castle in Scotland, later attributed to Shakespeare (although I couldn’t find where he said it or wrote it).
How to Find Yourself When You are Lost*
1. Don’t wear masks. When I first started this blog over 7 years ago (WHOA), it was this awful white-text-on-black-background monstrosity and the only picture of me on the entire site was one of me years ago in full goth kit: wig, crazy black eyeliner (all over my face) and all. I was unrecognizable. I didn’t even blog under my own name. Why? Because I wanted to feel “free” to say whatever I wanted without people connecting it to Charlotte. I learned quickly this kind of inauthenticity is a cancer. If you don’t want something that you say to be connected with you, then you shouldn’t be saying it. Whether you wear the mask of anonymity on the Internet or you wear a mask in real life (i.e. “I’m shy” or “I’m crazy” or “I’m Zorro”), this is a cop out. It may be easier in the short run but the problem with masks is that you have to keep them on and eventually that gets exhausting. Or you get mistaken for a bank robber.
2. Live consistently with your beliefs. Lots of people talk about this as if it is as simple as one day deciding “From now on I will only act according to my core principles, the world be damned!” I wish it were. The first part is to decide what your beliefs actually are. Everyone thinks that of course they know what they believe but try writing “I believe…” on a piece of paper ten times and filling in each line with an answer. Just try it – I promise it’s illuminating. And then recognize that being authentic isn’t one decision you make one day and you’re golden but rather many, many small decisions every day.
3. Set goals. Many others have covered this much better than I so I will simply say that there have been many times I’ve been furiously climbing a ladder only to reach the top and realize it was leaning against the wrong building. Hard work without goals is just splitting rocks in prison.
4. Be accountable for your time. Time is a valuable resource just like money, water, oil and the LEGOs with the attached axles. It’s yours and you only get so much of it, so pay attention to how you’re trading it.
5. Create a sacred space within yourself. A while ago, a friend came up behind me and put his arm around my shoulder and neck, pulling me back towards him. I stiffened – I do not like surprises and I do not like people touching my neck – and noticing my discomfort he laughed, “I just crossed all your boundaries didn’t I?!” So what did I answer? (Warning: you’re going to want to smack me.) “No worries! I don’t have any boundaries!” But I do have boundaries and not just physical ones. I believe every single person is born with a divine spark within them that is uniquely theirs. It’s what makes you, you. It’s what makes you beautiful. Nothing can change it or take it away or break it but sometimes it can be hidden (either by us or by others). Finding that sacred space in your own skin and being able to love it is the key for knowing where others stop and you start.
6. Light attracts light. All those people who claim that “like attracts like” are scientifically confused. (And probably the same people who say “a pound of muscle weighs more than a pound of fat”) On a very elemental level, it’s opposites that attract. But a bright light, on the other hand, is a powerful attraction, leading others (and moths) out of the darkness. Find those people who are beacons for you – you know who they are – and then follow them persistently. Eventually you’ll have enough strength to be a beacon for someone else. But realize that those who are light to you are not always those who are most like you; be careful about seeking out only those who would agree with you.
7. Do not fear opposition. Pain hurts. It’s pain, duh. But it’s always pain with a purpose: it’s only through the struggles that we grow. We have to tear down muscle fibers before they can knit back together stronger. It’s the same with our inner muscles (and I’m not talking the kegel ones). The only way we’ll ever know what we’re really made of is if we have to use it.
8. Learn to love those closest to us. Social media junkies unite! It sounds counterintuitive but it can be so much easier to love those far away from us whether they are blog friends or old college buddies on Facebook at the expense of the people sitting right next to us. Part of this is that with the Internet we get to choose exactly with whom and how we associate but in real life we’re just thrown together. But our parents, siblings, spouses, and children are not only going to be the ones we’ll have the longest relationships with but they’re also the ones who know us best – the real us – so it’s worth cultivating those relationships and putting them first. Even if they insist that peeing in the general vicinity of the toilet is sufficient.
9. Learn from history. Learn from your personal history. Learn from mine. Learn from books. There are so many smart people in the world! (For example, this post was inspired by this talk by Quentin L. Cook.) To paraphrase George Santayana, those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it. And be grateful. One of my favorite things about reading my past journals and blogs is seeing how blessed I was in that moment, if I couldn’t see it then.
10. Seek correction. It takes a strong person to accept criticism but it takes an even stronger one to seek it out. Being humble and admitting our faults can be so hard but we can’t keep our spark if we’re not willing to trim the wick and clean off the wax every once in a while. The flip side of this is not being easily offended. Ask for ways you can improve, let go of slights (especially intended ones) – do whatever it takes to stay teachable.
I know this sounds like I’m giving you all advice. I’m really not. I wrote this post entirely for me (selfish moment! Sorry!). But I can’t be the only one who struggles with remembering who they really are? Some of you have noticed and even commented lately that I don’t sound like myself or that I seem off. You’re right. I am. (Or it might just be that part of my lunar cycle. TMI.) Either way, I’m grateful that you love me enough to point it out and I hope you’ll be patient while I get the ol’ ship back on course.
Of course I’d love any advice you have for me! Where do you fall on the scale between social chameleon and staunch individualist? What do you do when you feel like you’re not yourself??
P.S. Black bean brownies are actually really yummy.