Don't Let Anyone Else Define Who You Are

By Gail Wagnild

Reading time:  3 minutes

A hallmark feature of resilience is authentic living. In other words, being yourself. This is more difficult than it first appears. There is a tendency to think, ‘well who else can I be?’  But every day we are bombarded from all sides to be richer, more attractive, smarter, more powerful, and more famous than we are. The poet e.e. cummings wrote:  ‘To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.’ A nurse interviewed people at the end of their lives. The most common regret that people had was this:  ‘I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.’

So we read words like ‘hard battle’ and ‘courage’. These words remind us that an authentic life can seem risky and daring. Why would this be true?  Because when we are true to ourselves, we risk being rejected, disliked, ridiculed, unfriended, and worse. Sometimes it seems easier to go along to get along but this usually leads to unhappiness and disappointment.

I came up with three reasons why living true to my values and beliefs can be difficult. You probably can think of others but this is what I’ve learned:

  1. I fear what others will think. Will others dislike me if they see the real me? Will I make enemies? Will I lose business? Winston Churchill said, ‘You have enemies?  That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.’
  2. I might have a desire to conform. It’s easier isn’t it? Sometimes we don’t want to look different than others and just want to blend in. Why is this? It may be because we are afraid our ideas, seen in the light of day, will look ridiculous. Or maybe we are afraid that if we fail, everyone will see us. Maybe we fear that standing out means ending up all alone.
  3. Maybe we don’t want the pain and inconvenience of having to change jobs, our college major, and end relationships because we realize that we are not living true to our deeply held beliefs and values. A life course change is not easy but probably essential if we hope to live a meaningful and fulfilling life and find ourselves on the wrong path.

So how do you get to an authentic life? I read that Stanford University requires an essay when applying to one of their graduate schools. Applicants are limited to 750 words and the title of the essay is:  ‘what matters most to you, and why?’  Writing an essay that answers this question would be a good start.

Another exercise is to identify the five top values in your life as well as five values that are not important to you. Examine your life and answer the question, ‘Are my daily decisions congruent with my most and least important values?’

And finally, can you think of a time when you made a decision that was difficult because you risked rejection or ridicule? How did it work out? Can you also think of a time you followed through on a decision that went against your values? How did that feel?

The rewards of being ourselves are powerful and result in satisfying lives full of meaning and purpose.