This week I was sharing with a colleague a struggle I was having at work. They’re not a therapist, but their response was as good as it gets: it’ll be much better if you do you.
You see, he got me: how I like to be with others, how I like to negotiate problems, how I find being certain ways stressful, exhausting and unnatural and other ways invigorating, nourishing and easy. He got how those I learned the work from ‘experts’ who did things differently and so the hidden beliefs that I should do it like them. That if something went wrong, I definitely needed to do it more like them. He got how the regular messages from those up the ladder reinforced these beliefs.
And then he affirmed that I could do it. That I could trust the way that comes naturally to me. And that he’d back me up.
You might think that after years of training as a therapist and then providing therapy, I’d be over all this. The things is, I’m not. Some things are baked into me. And the tendency to believe I should be doing things differently - better, like ‘them’ - is one such thing.
Why is it so hard to trust doing me?
Well, firstly, it means tolerating the disappointment of others. They have their own expectations about how I should get things done, show up, and what they’d like to happen. Doing me means saying no to their expectations which will always have an impact. Perhaps they’ll be frustrated or hurt or use their power to coerce or pressure me. Perhaps they’ll withdraw their support or validation.
And, if I’m honest, I’m not always sure I could cope with all that.
Then there’s tolerating my own vulnerability. When I do me, I don’t get to hide. ‘Well, they said I should do this.’ ‘This is what they want me to do.’ ‘I knew it wouldn’t work.’ If it goes badly, it’s hard to shift the blame. And this is the crux of the vulnerability: it’s the vulnerability of ownership, of responsibility, of showing up as me in the world and risking the worst kind of rejection. Of course it feels better to be rejected trying to be someone else than being me.
How do we prize ourselves away from doing others?
I suggest its two-fold. Firstly, we build up our tolerance. We might start small. Notice little ways we can start to show up as ourselves at work or in our relationships or just on our own in the way we find natural and nourishing to do things. This is not simply rebelling by doing something else for the sake of doing it differently. It has to be really us showing up as ourselves in the world and facing the world’s response.
As we do this, we start to get actual feedback (rather than all the imagined feedback that goes on in our heads). It might be about how other actually respond and who can tolerate (even welcome) us, about how we can still survive another’s disappointment and how our relationships can survive disappointments, about our capacity to fight our own corner, about how others often respond positively when we are able to show up, about our capacity to hold the anxiety, the lack of control, and work through it, and about the excitement and contentment we experience when we do ourselves.
This all slowly, almost unnoticeably, happens as we choose those small acts of self-expression and our tolerance levels rise with it.
The second way is exactly what my colleague did. Over the years, he’s seen me, understood me and validated me. You see, it’s in relationships we learnt that showing up as ourselves wasn’t acceptable. It’s in our past relationships we learnt that others couldn’t tolerate us doing us - that doing so risked that worst kind of rejection. It’s when we were too small to cope with their responses of disappointment - shaming, anger, relational withdrawal, judgement - that all these things were baked into us.
And so it’s in relationships now - whether with a parent, friend, colleague or therapist - where we bake something new with the heat of being understood, welcomed and valued. Such relationships cut the strings still keeping us attached to self-abandonment.
So, I’m thankful for my colleague. I’m grateful to all those who have cut strings that still pull at me. I’m grateful to all those who have helped baked new ways of being in me. And, slowly - falteringly - I’ll keep learning to do me in all the different areas of my life. And when I come across something new, maybe it won't quite take me so long to learn it again.