The Guilt Trap

“Saying no to something is actually much more powerful than saying yes.”

~Tom Hanks

Everyone recite after me: “No means no.” You know that phrase – you practiced it in elementary school. In fact, it followed you all the way up to college (if you attended – no judgement). Teachers, mentors, and counselors applied it to everything from drugs to sexual advances. We proudly stood tall and assured our authority figures we could utter the words in clear tones.

And we do – in THOSE situations.

But get us cornered in an office setting and thrust a giant stack of reports into our arms, and the word “no” disappears from our vocabulary. Confront us with a shift that needs to get covered, and two little letters no longer exist in the alphabet. Ask us to remember to take care of ourselves, to prioritize our health (mental, physical, spiritual) above ANYTHING else, and we wilt and collapse under the pressure.

Epic fail.

Figuring out how to say no violates the guilt centers of our brains. Someone’s approaching and asking (demanding?) assistance, and we’re incapable to backing down. After all, we know no one else is going to step forward. A lot of people with depression, anxiety, or other conditions HATE seeing someone else in distress. We know what it feels like. So we bow our heads and take the burden on ourselves. To the detriment of ourselves, but – hey, we’re used to it. And better us than someone else.

Suddenly, we’ve created a pattern. Everyone learns that we’ll say “yes” to everything. No need to check elsewhere, regardless of the work piled up on our desk. They know the guilt will nibble at our conscience and prompt us to accept ONE MORE task without hesitation. Who cares if we’re dissolving into ill health and crumbling into despair? Just so long as they don’t have to bother with handling something themselves. And we don’t disappoint them.

We just sacrifice ourselves.

Because saying “no” is HARD! You have to fight that disappointment that’s going to flicker over the other person’s face. And you know they’re going to unfurl a guilt trip if you so much as form that hard “n” sound with your mouth. You’ve established a routine of always doing everything they ask. And now you’re daring to refuse? What the hell’s gotten into you? You’re supposed to work yourself into the ground – burn the candle down into a pool of wax!

Figuring out how to stand up for yourself and say “no” takes an effort of will. The first time I refused to accept a shift that needed to be filled, I honestly felt like I was dying. I couldn’t stop sweating, my pulse raced faster than during my hardest HIIT workout, my vision blurred, and I thought I was going to pass out. (Sound familiar? Oh, wait – that’s an anxiety attack!) But I had no choice – my body was beyond its limits. I was in so much pain that BREATHING hurt, and my system was going to take me out one way or another. I knew the refusal was needed for my own safety – and the simple act of saying no made me feel like I was dying! (Dead if I did and dead if I didn’t – such an awesome place to be!)

And my manager made me feel like shit for it. She gave me the worst disappointed look and pointed out that I had always stepped up before. (Talk about pouring salt in a wound!) I had to stand my ground and defend my decision – defend a simple “No!” I had co-workers that lied through their teeth to get out of covering shifts, and they never had to justify their answers. I was coming apart at the seams, and I needed to explain that – because I’d set a pattern of “yes.”

Learning to say “no” might save your life!

I started looking at everything I was asked from that point forward. I took stock of my body and my mental state. And I started saying “no” more often – for ME. Amazingly enough, my health improved. My body recovered, and I spent less time sobbing into my pillow at night. My depression eased up on me, giving me a chance to breathe. I realized I was BURYING myself in all of those “yes” and “sure” responses!

It’s still difficult for me to say “no.” My brain is wired to help and say “yes” to whatever someone asks me. I have to gut-check myself to STOP and look at calendars and think through how things are going. Because sometimes that need to step in still trips me up. And I pay for it.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be there for someone (don’t misunderstand me there). But you have to keep yourself at the top of the list. If you go down, you can’t help ANYONE. If you bury yourself, eventually the dirt’s going to tumble over. No one’s a superhero – much as we want to all try to be. Finding the courage to square your shoulders and say “no” is the smallest act of heroism you can accomplish – for you. Your mind and body will thank you.

Known and Unknown

“Feelings don’t try to kill you, even the painful ones. Anxiety is a feeling grown too large. A feeling grown aggressive and dangerous. You’re responsible for its consequences, you’re responsible for treating it. But…you’re not responsible for causing it. You’re not morally at fault for it. No more than you would be for a tumor.”

~Patrick Ness, The Rest of Us Just Live Here

When Pixar created the character Fear in Inside Out, I felt an immediate connection. The heightened awareness of everything going on around him. The jittery nerves (with or without coffee – though they clearly made him a caffeine addict). And the mile-high reports on every conceivable outcome for the situations being presented. Even the disbelieving stares of those around him at the more “outlandish” possibilities he listed in the reports. It was anxiety personified, but given a label of “fear” to appeal to every age group.

A little unfair, but not far off the mark.

Fear resides in the heart of anxiety. The tightening spirals we spin down develop out of fears. Ironically, the deeper we get into our whirlpools, the greater those fears become. We start on the fringe with “rational” concerns for every situation we encounter. Then we start to branch out into those possibilities the people around us start laughing at. The kind of things everyone assumes impossible and irrational. (Of course, the way 2020’s been going, I’m not sure how many people are still laughing at us)

It’s hard to interrupt those spirals. People with anxiety are always aware of them. We know when we’re generating our tornadoes. But stopping the process, putting on the brakes and forcing ourselves to breathe…it’s damn near impossible. Trying to do so is like – well, it’s like trying to stop a tornado. What if we overlook something? What if we forget to plan for an eventuality?

Pulses spike, our lungs take in less air, the brain clamps down in the skull, and our body starts shrieking a warning. (We forget to include that possibility. Ironic, right?) Now we’re lying on the floor with people standing over us, staring in shock. And the odds are the situation was minor.

One more time when the spiral won.

I panic over EVERYTHING. I have a 100% satisfaction rating and constant five-star ratings for my writing. Yet each time I turn in an assignment for a new client, I freak out until they respond. And if it’s more than a day, my brain twists in my skull. This is the time my words failed me. The assignment flopped. This client will hate my work and break my streak. I had an off day. I missed an edit that killed the entire article. I’m a complete hack. I’m an utter failure who can’t string one sentence together. It goes on and on until drinking water makes me nauseous. Suddenly, they’re reaching out to my other clients questioning why they’ve hired me.

And then they tell me it’s wonderful, and they’re pleased with my work.

And I repeat the spiral with the next new client. My track record means nothing to my anxiety-fueled brain. Hell, I conjure fifty horrible possibilites for why someone rings the doorbell in the space of walking from my desk to the front door! (It’s usually the postman) And don’t get me started on the phone ringing. I know the gut-check reaction isn’t rational, but trying to stop the flow of concocted possibilites is almost impossible.

While I’m aware elevated cortisol levels aren’t doing my body any favors, I’m pretty sure my system’s adapted to them by now. Let them drop, and I think I’ll crash. (See? The spiral really never stops) However, that cursed way of thinking comes in handy now and then. Thinking of everything means I PLAN for everything. I have a contingency for the bulk of my concerns. (I have no plans for aliens – not yet, anyway) Most people with anxiety work the same way, once they learn their thought patterns. It’s a pseudo-coping method that works with their brain chemistry.

“Okay, we’re going to overreact, but we’re also going to over-respond.”

I rationalize through the fear. It calms the racing pulse, and it keeps my brain from spasming. And it makes me a valuable person to bounce ideas off of. Maybe I come up with situations that aren’t always rational (odds are computers won’t gain awareness and seize control of your company), but most of the contingencies WILL. I can play Devil’s Advocate with the best of them, forcing you to think through things you normally won’t when you’re riding high on a dream. It’s one of the reasons I honestly believe I’ve been so successful in MY dream.

I sat down and wrote through every pitfall. (And at least a dozen that weren’t very likely) With them staring me in the face, I had a chance to think around them. It made stepping off the cliff’s edge easier. It also lessened the tension in my shoulders, around my skull. The practice drives my fiance’ crazy at times, but it gets him thinking. And it’s even made him pause a time or two when I’ve voiced a (real) possibility he didn’t consider. It’s a secret superpower those of us with anxiety have tucked away.

Yes, we’re frustrating. When we tell you we’re concerned about getting mauled by a bear on the subway, we drive you up the wall. But if you take a second to breathe and ask us to think through that statement (and what we can do to avoid it), you’ll steer us AWAY from a deepening spiral. We know the idea’s absurd (we honestly do). We just need help switching tracks in our brain. Figuring out a solution helps. And USING our gift of seeing possible problems when you need to plan – that makes us feel useful.

The spirals are always there. They don’t go away. We see them EVERYWHERE. We just need people to understand them.

Biggest Piece of the Puzzle

Stop me if this sounds familiar: you spend HOURS reciting conversations in your head. Whether they be arguments, lengthy discussions for ways to better things at work, or just elaborate plans for your future. In your mind, your carriage is always upright, you don’t stumble over your words, and the other participants always hang on your every word. (They also don’t interrupt, talk back, or break from the script – something they fail to do in real life)

Do you recognize that person in those flights of fancy? (I’m not trying to demean your exercises, but if you never follow through on them, they are little more than imaginings) That’s who you WANT to be. It’s the confident person you carry around inside, buried under layers of self-doubt, questions, and years of ridicule. Which is why those rehearsed speeches never see the light of day.

Which is an absoltute crime.

Those words MEAN something to you. You wouldn’t take the time to craft those speeches if they didn’t. You don’t stand in front of a mirror and talk to your reflection for nothing. (Yeah, I know you do that; I’ve done it, too) That core of SELF is trying desperately to reach the surface, to break through the abuse and lack of self-confidence. YOUR voice wants to be heard, to come through into the atmosphere. It’s why you spend so much time in your head. It’s the only life that voice gets (most of the time).

Anxiety KILLS confidence. That niggling condition buries those speeches under an avalanche of “what if” scenarios until you crawl away to the shadowy corner where you’re happiest. And most of those situations are ridiculous. (I mean, what are the odds of Godzilla bursting through the building because you suggested a new chart to hold people accountable for tasks?) Meanwhile, your confidence is screaming in its cage, asking you to be reasonable. But you can’t hear it. Because it’s often too small, too quiet in comparison to that thundering roar of insecurity and doubt.

Freeing your confidence is HARD.

Taking the step off the ledge to becoming a freelance writer took me four months. Not because I needed to figure out how to write. I’ve had that down since I took home my first award in the second grade. It wasn’t even a matter of figuring out the freelance system. I read articles and advice columns starting in January when the idea first took root (and I realized I no longer wanted to do my previous line of work). No, what took so long was having the confidence to admit I COULD do the job. Having the confidence to stand up and assure people I was the right person for the their projects.

That scared the SHIT out of me.

My anxiety went into overdrive at the very thought. What if I was wrong? What if I wasn’t the right person? What if I couldn’t write after all? (As I said, anxiety gets kind of crazy) What if no one wanted to take a chance on me? What if I had to give up and go crawling back to that hateful job? What if I was going to be miserable for the rest of my life? I circled down the drain for weeks, convincing myself out of the very idea. And depression decided to join in on the fun. Pretty grim.

I’d love to tell you some magical switch flipped to pop confidence out from under the mountain. I wish I could say I had a spontaneous moment of clarity. But I’m not a liar. The truth is, I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and jumped off the damn cliff. Because I wasn’t getting anywhere in the anxiety spiral. Because it was something I WANTED enough to try. Because, in the famous words from We Bought a Zoo:

“Sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrasing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.”

~Benjamin Mee

And, in the end, that’s what confidence IS: stupid, ridiculous courage. The courage to embrace YOURSELF. It’s getting to your feet, opening the cage, and letting your voice come out. I won’t deny that confidence is frightening (horrifying, and your anxiety passes out from conjuring possible scenarios), and it doesn’t get any bigger even if you use it daily. I wish it did. Maybe for people that don’t crawl out from avalanches every day – maybe it’s a larger concept for them. For those of us that battle other monsters, it’s feeble and needs coaxing and protection.

I still rehearse conversations in my head, but I think I do it a little less. My hands shake every time I compose a pitch, but I DO submit pitches for my writing. I’ve stood up for my abilities more and more often. I feel that my confidence in my writing has grown. I proudly call myself a successful freelance writer, at this point. (I mean, I’m not world-reknowned or anything) I’m brave enough to use MY voice.

Is my confidence still on life support? Yeah. But it’s alive. And that’s the most important part. Take your twenty seconds and give yours a chance. You won’t regret it. I promise.

The Constant Battle

“You may have to fight a battle more than once.”

~Margaret Thatcher

Chronic illness sucks. Actually, let me clarify that: chronic illness SUCKS! When you have a chronic illness that brings pain along for funsies…suffice it to say there aren’t enough expletives available in every language in the known universe. Don’t get me wrong, we all get good days. We get days without pain (ha, just kidding – we get days with manageable pain). We get days where we get to function like semi-normal human beings. Those are usually days when we overdo it in a heady rush to catch up on everything we’ve slacked on during the bad days.

Because the bad days…

Pain takes a big toll on mental health. Not just for people with chronic illness, but anyone. Nerves screaming for your brain’s attention diverts blood flow and resources away from – well, pretty much everything. (I’m not making this up, either. This is genuine science) There’s only so much the brain is capable of handling at one time. When pain demands too much focus, that beautiful machine sacrifices other functions to try to cope with the raw nerves. Guess what that leads to?

The dreaded FOG!

Doesn’t matter how well-educated you are, how fluent your usual vocabulary. You are suddenly reduced to a complete and utter idjit. You lose entire sections of the dictionary. Not just the big words, either. I’ve stared at a table and come up with nothing more than, “flat thingy.” (Oh, yeah, people look at you with respect then!) Sentences trail off to nowhere. Focus? Forget it. Your poor brain doesn’t have time to help you concentrate. You stare at computer screens while clocks tick by, wondering what you’re supposed to be doing. You wander into rooms with no clue why (assuming you remember what the room is in the first place).

And you’re mental health tanks behind it. You KNOW you’re intelligent. You KNOW you’re competent. You KNOW you can write and speak and read at more than a kindergarten level! But you’re sure as hell not demonstrating that fact! So you hide away from friends and family. You avoid speaking aloud lest some brainless phrase escape your lips. You frantically run documents through spellcheck and Grammarly to save yourself from looking stupid. You feel less than a milometer tall.

All from a physical reaction.

Pain is a powerful thing. It really can sabotage your brain that easily. I don’t want to say those of us with chronic illness are used to it, because we’re not. We hate sputtering through our flares. We hate canceling plans to avoid looking like certifiable morons. But we at least know it comes with our diagnoses. Someone experiencing nexus-level pain for the first time? Yeah, no clue what they’re in store for.

Spoon theory works for chronic illness when measuring physical activity. But it fails when we try to account for our mental well-being. How many spoons to speak like an educated person? How many to write a thought-out article? How many to describe a room? How many to understand a Dad joke? Who freaking knows?! It never comes up in all of those cute memes displayed around social media. But it matters. Our mental health and well-being is just as important as our physical capabilities.

Yes, I want to know what I’m going to accomplish each day. (And, yes, I overspend my spoons pretty much every day) But I also want to know how much fog I’m going to cope with. I want to know if I’m going to sound like a moron with a new client. I want to know if I’m going to have a sentence fade out when talking with my fiance’ at the end of the day. I want to know if I’m going to just curl into a ball mid-way. Not just because the pain is getting to me, but because I feel like my brain is failing on me.

How many spoons to feel like a real person again? That’s what I want to know.

Finding the Closure Store

How many times in your life has someone insisted you “need closure?” You end a relationship – you need closure. You get in an argument with a friend (or even just an acquaintance) – you need closure. You have some kind of incident (I’ll leave the details up to you) – you need closure. Your barista hands you the wrong cup of coffee in the morning? Dammit – you need closure!

Closure starts to sound like a physical object after awhile doesn’t it? Either that, or it starts sounding like some kind of talk show “professional” advertised on late-night television. (Personally, I’d prefer the kitschy object) Everyone has the opinion you need it, they strongly recommend you seek it out, but no one quite knows where the store selling this magnificent solution is located.

Where IS that elusive closure store?

Allow me to clear things up for you. Closure is different for every person and every situation. Which is probably why you’re having so much trouble tracking down that store. (And please DON’T try booking yourself onto a talk show) Also, whether you NEED it or not is entirely up to you. You NEED to breathe. You NEED shelter. You NEED food. You NEED water. Closure? Nah, not in the essential pyramid.

So what is closure?

Closure is nothing more than the point where you can finally move on from a bad situation. (Which means you should probably let your barista off the hook. Seriously, was one wrong order THAT detrimental?) That is the entire magical definition. It’s also why it’s different for every person and every situation. Some people do have physical objects – like baseball bats to their ex’s heads (please note: I’m NOT advocating this!). Some people are subtler: they finally manage to tell their story without crying. You might even achieve closure and NEVER REALIZE IT! All of a sudden you look back and realize you’re miles away from that nightmare. Who knew!

If you’re still fixated on something, then you haven’t achieved closure. No magical store is going to do it for you, either. Trust me. You think I haven’t hunted for that store over the years? Of course I did! I wanted that wand (baseball bat – I’ll admit it; I wanted a baseball bat) in my hands SO many times. I never found it. Instead, I found paper shredders (paper shredders are awesome – just watch your fingers and remember they overheat), Unfriend buttons, and weeds in the yard. Did you know you can rip weeds out of the yard without any repercussions? True story.

You do what it takes to mark something OVER.

The point of CLOSURE is to END it. You don’t revisit it, you don’t bring it back to conversations, and you don’t give it space in your mind. You want that anxiety OUT of your head space. If that means visiting a gun range and turning a target to Swiss cheese, so be it. If it means turning old records to confetti, do it! Take the burden of liars, manipulation, and misery OFF your shoulders. Dump it in a hole and bury it out in the woods where no one can find it ever again. (No physical people – I’ve been informed this is illegal)

But stop looking for the store. It’s just not there. And what works for one person won’t work you, anyway.

Check the Fertilizer

Wasn’t exactly intentional, but I’ve stumbled onto a theme this month concerning dreams and goals, and this post circles around that same concept. When you sit down and start to figure out how to break down your dream into goals, it’s natural to look around at the people you love and admire – especially if they’re successful and living their personal dreams. It makes sense, too, since they’ve achieved a lot of their goals and climbed higher on their ladders than you. I’m not saying this is a bad idea by any stretch. The problem comes in when you start to compare and contrast them against yourself.

The grass is greener on the other side for a reason.

You are NOT that person. The two of you don’t have the same pedestals, don’t have the same ladders, and you aren’t even standing on the same level ground. Comparing yourself to them is going to start a round of self-defeating thoughts and behavior that will guarantee one thing: you aren’t going anywhere. You don’t know how many goals they’ve checked off the their list to get where they are today. How many sacrifices have they made? How much work have they invested? What kind of commitment are they putting in every single day? And how long have they been at things? You’re not even at DAY ONE – expecting brilliance is asking too much of anyone (not even superheroes save the world on their first day).

Yes, they make it look easy, and it’s depressing. When you reach that stage, you’ll get to depress everyone watching you from the ground floor – so there’s that to look forward to (don’t make that a goal, please). As soon as you sit down and FOCUS on what steps you’ll need, you’ll figure out it isn’t easy and gain some perspective. Whatever the dream is that you’re chasing down, there’s work involved that demands your attention, blood, sweat, and tears. Nothing that requires those things is easy. Anyone that tells you differently is selling something – usually at a steep price.

Are there people out there willing to sneer down at you from their ladder? Of course – people are shit. They live to make you feel bad because they aren’t secure on their own journey. Maybe they didn’t plan very well and are stuck without a new rung to go to. Maybe they realized what they were chasing wasn’t their dream (NEVER follow someone else’s dream!). Or maybe they’re just an asshole – those people do exist out there. Yeah, they’re standing above you, but if they aren’t doing any work, you need to stop and think before you try to compare yourself to them.

Sometimes the grass is green because it’s full of shit.

Is it hard to stop comparing yourself with the successful people around you? Of course it is. I spent years hearing my parents tell everyone who would listen about my sister being the only one in the family who used her college degree (newsflash – I’m not using any of my degrees). I watched my brother move up through the ranks of his military career (you get medals there, too). Then my other brother got a job where he was PAID to go to movies and got free tickets to ComicCon – I mean, come on! Meanwhile, I was sitting in a career that didn’t really offer advancement and wasn’t exactly thrilling me – yay.

I was embarrassed, I was depressed, and I avoided family functions whenever possible so I didn’t have to admit that I was a pathetic nothing in comparison to my fabulous – younger – siblings. It took me YEARS to realize that my siblings didn’t feel they were any better (or worse) than me, nor was there really any comparison. None of us are even in the same REALM as one another when it comes to our dreams and goals!

Comparison can get your nowhere – FAST!

What I DID finally get was a blueprint for my own success: I stopped being an idiot and realized what I wanted to do with my life. I thought over how my sister followed what she wanted to do – I could do that (and I have). I looked at how my brother has continued to pursue his dreams despite all of the changes in his life – hell, I could do that (and I am). I admired my other brother’s commitment and constant genuine self – yeah, I could do that (and I figured out how to). I picked out the RIGHT comparison to get myself moving forward, instead of continuing to stagnate.

Pick out the elements of those people you admire and decide how they benefit you. If they don’t, dismiss them and move on. If those people look down on you – get rid of them, because you don’t need that kind of negativity. Compare, don’t contrast; you can find the right model to help you adjust your goals and planning appropriately.

Remember: the only person you’re in a race with is you and where you were yesterday.

Taming Godzilla

I think envy motivates a lot of people.

Shia LeBeouf

Who here hasn’t experienced a visit from the green-eyed monster? It’s a common enough visitor in our lives, and it changes size depending on how we’re feeling that day. Maybe we’re going through a rough patch, and so every person we look at feeds the monster a little bit more: her hair looks better, his job sounds better, their yard looks better, his lunch looks better, his car isn’t broken, her elliptical has a higher incline…the list goes on and on until the monster could give Godzilla a run for his/her money (depending on which movie version you’re watching). Or maybe the day hasn’t been so bad, so we’re just that little bit envious that the person ahead of us in line got the faster cashier, so the monster can still fit in our pocket.

You hear it from everyone around you that you’re not supposed to envy anyone else; depending on your belief system of choice, it’s actually a sin. Not every envious thought it detrimental, though. Personally, I am almost never warm – even bundled up in sweats and a blanket with a reasonable setting on the thermostat, I am freezing, and I envy my finace’ (and most normal people) and the fact that he’s perfectly comfortable. I refuse to believe that envy is a crime punishable by condemnation to a fiery pit (needless to say, I don’t subscribe to any of those religious practices). Now, when you decide to take your level of envy and translate it into a felony crime, there might be a problem.

But can envy be productive?

Absolutely, if you look at it from a different angle and make the monster work to your advantage (a helpful tidbit all of those people fail to tell you). It’s super easy to wallow in self-misery about what someone has that you don’t – we all know that; it takes a little more effort to examine what it would take to GET what they have.

Okay, so you hate your job – how do you get a better job? Remember, you aren’t handcuffed into that position (and if you are, you have a completely different problem than envy). Talk to other people in the place or field you want to work in – hell, talk to the person you envy! – and ask for their advice about what is needed to move to that job.

You hate something about your appearance – who doesn’t? Everything is able to be changed, if you really want to, but odds are it’s time for a pep talk with yourself about what’s really bothering you inside (don’t roll your eyes – you know that’s true). And if you’re still determined to make a change, start small and go get a new haircut…mostly because it will grow back if you don’t like it. Or get a new outfit – you can always return it if you hate it. Just don’t jump to something drastic.

Let envy MOTIVATE you instead of make you miserable.

The monster doesn’t have to tower over you and crush you into the ground, making you feel worse than you did in the first place. The monster can actually help lift you up, give you a firmer place to stand and push yourself up from. It isn’t BAD to envy someone, not when it gives you a chance to examine yourself and ask important questions. WHY am I feeling like this? Why am I so upset? Is it really that I think her hair is better, or is it just that my coffee sucks? Do I really think his job is better, or am I just not happy in mine? If you catch yourself BEFORE the monster destroys Tokyo, you’ll feel better, and you’ll be in a position to do something to help yourself out…and, seriously, hasn’t Tokyo been destroyed enough times?

Be Anyone but Yourself

I've always loved the idea of not being what people expect me to be. - Dita Von Teese

One of the biggest lies you will ever hear from another human being has to be, “Be yourself.” Those two little words come from everyone: family, friends, teachers, motivational posters in medical offices. The words come in the form of empowered scripts, cute kittens, every range of emoji, and endorsement by any number of celebrities. Indoctrination begins way back in kindergarten and follows you into adulthood, becoming more and more of a parroted line with every recitation. Now, I’m not condemning the sentiment or even every person who tells you to, “Be yourself,” because there probably are people who were – and are – genuinely honest. Let’s be real, though: the vast majority of people say those words with a little tiny caveat attached.

Be yourself…with the following conditions.

People really don’t like us to be ourselves; they like it when we’re THEIR version of ourselves. So, be yourself…but don’t wear that, don’t say that, don’t speak up, don’t join that group, do join that group, don’t write that way, don’t associate with those people, don’t vote for that person, do vote for that person, don’t support that cause, don’t color your hair that shade, don’t color your hair at all, don’t wear your hair in that style, don’t wear glasses, do wear glasses but not that style, don’t listen to that music, etc., etc., etc. The list goes on and on and on, and suddenly you’re no longer yourself, you’re a ridiculous clone of the person who told you to, “Be yourself.” Sometimes, you can’t even remember who you actually ARE. Did I really like Top 40 music? Do I even like reading mysteries? Have I always liked the color green? When did I sign up as a member of the Walking History Tour Fans? How did I ever end up with green braids in my hair? Suddenly, you find yourself staring in the mirror, struggling to figure out who the hell that person is looking back at you – not because of depression or any other mental imbalance, but because you’ve lost your personal identity under a tidal wave of, “Be yourself!”

Actually being yourself means NOT listening to those people. It means closing out all of the other voices when you make your daily decisions, not worrying about what someone else is going to think about your choice. Not everyone is going to agree with you (that’s a good thing, by the way), and they’re going to make faces, and they’re going to roll their eyes, and they’re going to say things – usually worded quite cleverly – to make you question yourself. They do that because they want you to BE LIKE THEM! Consider that when you hear that slight inflection at the end of their words questioning your decision. After all, cutting your hair super short and dyeing it ice-blue isn’t going to end the world (personal experience, here). Speaking your mind, rather than keeping things bottled up and eating you alive inside, may or may not be detrimental – depends on how you say things – but it’s a thousand times better than keeping pain inside, allowing it to fester and destroy you. Honesty isn’t going to win you a lot of friends, but it is always, always, always the best policy.

If you can look in the mirror and see YOU – 100%, genuine, YOU – and be content, then that’s a win. It likely means disappointing people, annoying people, aggravating people (all of which has the potential to be fun, if you look at it the right way), but where lies the greater peace? Making everyone else happy, or making yourself happy? Looking in the mirror and seeing the Indianapolis 500 version of yourself, created by everyone around you, or looking in the mirror and seeing the you that you have worked so hard to create yourself?