Moments before my first public speech in front of a full auditorium, my best friend Joe told me that I’d do a fine job if I’d take a deep breath and just be myself. That pat, clichéd advice was well-intended, but it threw me off-kilter for awhile.
The reason Joe’s friendly proverb caused me to feel discomfort is because as a 19-year-old, I didn’t honestly know how to be myself. I still clung to some macho adolescent façades. I had also just perfected an on-air persona to use on my college radio show. More worrisome, I was still in the closet. The task ahead was to talk about my work in the grocery industry and not to engage in introspection.
There was no time to dwell on being my authentic self just ahead of speaking in front of a large crowd. I wanted them to remain friendly, not devolve into a crazed mob. I ended up behind the podium describing my job experiences through the voice of my on -air persona. I can’t say that it was an excellent speech, but it was more than passable and the audience’s applause was better than simply polite. I was extremely happy the ordeal was over.
Throughout adolescence and into my early 20s, I did whatever it took to present myself as masculine and straight. In other words, people had no clue who I really was. The façade worked well enough to help me get by in school and effectively enough to land the supermarket job. However, the conflict between my public self and my true self caused a lot of misery. What would happen if people found out who I really was?
Joe’s friendly advice has lived in the back of my mind up to this day. Perhaps the trauma of that pre-speech moment locked it in place. Although he has been physically gone for a few years, I can close my eyes and see his 19-year-old version’s smile of reassurance. Of course, Joe was correct. Life feels more solid and satisfying as myself than as someone I conjured up to please other people.
If you cannot let down the false-front in day to day living, people will pick up on some subtle nervousness. The reticence, and anxiety will appear as false bravado that is a symptom of weakness. As a person becomes more comfortable in his own skin and doesn’t worry about other people’s opinions about him, genuine confidence grows and authentic peace of mind settles in.
Discovering myself didn’t happen overnight nor even immediately after I came out of the closet. It has been a continuing process involving a lot of soul searching through the dark passage-ways of the mind. As I let go of hero-worship and trying to emulate others, I discovered that I have something unique to offer simply by relaxing and being myself. If people have a problem with my real self–so what? The people who understand and appreciate who I really am are potential close friends and confidants.
One of the best discoveries about dropping the façades is that the world of creativity opens up. Not only artistic creativity, but living life, itself, creatively. Being oneself isn’t just complying with the wishes and expectations of the tyranny of authority and society. It is the flowering of freedom.
If there’s one important lesson I’ve learned about being oneself, that is there are a lot of people who hate for others to have freedom. There are plenty of euphemisms such folks use to express this dislike, but a wise civilization does not restrict the rights of minorities. A wise society accepts the reality that people are alike in that we have differences in personality and disposition. Allowing for individuality promotes the overall good of civilization. Marching in lockstep with conformity is akin to thinking inside of the box.
There is a caveat to being and behaving as oneself. That is as long as one is fundamentally good and not harmful to other’s well-being and freedoms, I’ll be granted plenty of room to be myself. If I’m not infringing on other selves, people are a little more likely to see my unique form of joy. Even if others do not like the honesty they see, I still have the peace of mind that comes from accepting myself.
Such acceptance is a work in progress. There is still a lot to discover.