Recently I watched a documentary about Janis Joplin called Little Girl Blue. I was struck by Joplin’s ability to let go of who she was “supposed” to be and embrace who she was. Her parents wanted her to be a schoolteacher, but when she was about 17 she began listening to music. She started singing and to her surprise she was brilliant at it.
“I always wanted to be an artist,” she says in the film, “whatever that was, like other chicks want to be stewardesses. I read. I painted. I thought.” While she encountered tremendous off stage struggles that lead to her tragic death, she knew herself and what she wanted and fiercely pursued her passion.
Watching Joplin’s musical journey unfold I wondered: Why is it so hard for most of us to embrace ourselves and discover our brilliance? After all, writers and philosophers from Shakespeare: “To thy own self be true” to Dr. Seuss: “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You” encourage authenticity, yet loving, accepting and revealing our true selves is tough.
Numerous obstacles keep us from being and owning our essential power and stepping into our brilliance. First we’re conditioned to reject, rather than accept ourselves. Think about your own childhood. When you were a child what did you love to do and want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a dancer, but I was born into a family of intellectuals. Dance didn’t fit my parent’s career aspirations for me, so I let my dream go and moved in practical, joyless direction. In college I choose a major and career path based on what I thought would make my parents proud rather than what delighted me. Despite the fact that I’m much more interested in metaphysics than Marx and market forces, I majored in economics. My first job, a corporate retail position, was a complete disaster. I was lost and miserable and it took me years to get back on track.
We’re born unique as snowflakes. Gifts and passions are placed in our hearts to steer us towards meaning, purpose and joy. The world sets us off course by encouraging us to fit in rather than stand out. Unless we’re incredibly strong willed and courageous, like Joplin, and/or have parents who support and guide us towards our genius our quest for authenticity crumbles.
Parents, peers and the media tell us who to be, what to do and even how to look. When we don’t behave correctly we often feel shame, that nasty emotion that screams: You’re bad. While shame evolved thousands of years ago to protect us from being ostracized from the tribe, the toxic emotion no longer keeps us safe.
Instead shame makes us feel self-conscious, inadequate and worthless. It makes us want to hide and withdraw from the world and that desire to conceal our agony can trigger addictions to help ease the pain.
Striving for love and acceptance we listen to all the voices—real or imagined—that tell us to conform and hide our light. Instead of discovering ourselves we focus on pleasing others. As a result we become who the world tells us we should be instead of who we truly are. Listen to your heart? Go your own way? Forget about it. We’d rather be popular then unique.
So many women also resist embracing themselves because of fear — of failure and success! Staying small makes us feel safe at least temporarily, so rather than face our fears we remain depressed and stuck in lives we don’t love.
In the words of Marianne Williamson:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be?
One of my friends, Claire is health nut who wants to share her passion for wellbeing with the world. Problem is she’s worried about what people will think if she talks about cancer causing chemicals in shampoo and the healing power of microbes and magic mushrooms. Rather than sharing her enthusiasm for alternative and holistic healing she hides to avoid feeling vulnerable and exposed. When I offered to coach her through fear and the discomfort trigger by sharing her passion, she politely declined. Unfortunately, the Saint John’s Wort she’s been taking isn’t boosting her self-worth or reversing her depression.
Super coach Michael Neill has a marvelous metaphor that illustrates why and how we hide our brilliance. “Imagine that the very heart of who you are is a perfect diamond and it shines,” says Neill. “Over time, that diamond gets covered over with horse crap – the thinking and ideas about ourselves starts accumulating on top of the diamond and it obscures the diamond and you can’t see that, at the core, there’s this beautiful, perfect shiny thing. We don’t want to walk around smelling like horse crap, so we take nail varnish and we coat the horse-crap covered diamond and we make it look pretty and that’s our personality. But that’s all the coating we put around so people won’t notice the horse crap that we start to think is who we really are.”
The coating takes many forms — a more prestigious job, a wonderful relationship, another degree or certification, a nicer house, a new car or even dropping a dress size or two. While there’s nothing wrong with losing weight, going back to school, finding a mate or becoming more successful, the problem is that changing the outside doesn’t lead to long-term joy, happiness and empowerment. The outside in approach that so many of us try requires us to keep layering on the nail polish by constantly working on our exterior rather than make peace with who we are inside.
For years I took the outside in approach. I presented an image to the world that made me feel safe and secure—the super fit, personal trainer with the perfect body. My buns may have been made of steal, but my spirit was wilting, and frankly I was exhausted from working out so hard to stay in shape.
It took me years to drop the façade. Setting the perfect image aside and revealing myself was scary. I remember the night I showed the real me. I was visiting my parents in Boston looking for a recent photo for my new website. My Dad had taken a number of pictures of me that actually looked like me, no make up, no Photoshop just me smiling at the camera relaxed and at ease. Heart pounding, I posted it on Facebook. Immediately a flurry of likes appeared. People responded to my smile, to the real me. I had a Sally Field moment, that sense of being accepted for who I was, not who I was supposed to be.
So I encourage you, take a chance. Show yourself to the world. Embrace who you are, the diamond beneath the horse-poo and varnish. You’ll come alive. The cracks and vulnerability you’ve been hiding make you human and allow your light to shine through.
In the words of Janis: “Don’t compromise yourself. You’re all you’ve got.”
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