Today’s post is a little bit different, but it’s something that’s been on my mind a lot lately. Something I’ve been talking about a lot with my therapist is how I learned from a young age to suppress who I really was — the things I liked to do; my sense of humor; my opinions — in order to win others’ approval.
The need to be liked is something I still struggle with, and probably always will on some level. But more and more, I am learning how to be not the best version of myself, but the truest version of myself. I have decided that 2021 will be my year of authenticity: of learning to be myself, of embracing the things that make me “weird,” of no longer hiding how I really feel.
Since I was 16, I have lived my life online. I became a blogger in high school, and my blog began to take off halfway through college. By then, I received brand sponsorships, developed friendships with other bloggers, and felt that, on some level, people were invested in my life.
Online, I presented a perfect image of myself, which involved joining a sorority full of inauthentic friendships and spending money I didn’t have on credit cards in order to keep up with appearances. Even though I was struggling, I posted as if I had it all together and was sharing advice to a previous self. But offline, I was struggling with loneliness, depression, anxiety, and dysfunctional relationships.
A turning point occurred when I ended a three-year relationship with a toxic boyfriend. Around that time, I stepped away from my blog and decided to live my life offline. I spent only about a month being single, but in that time, I learned a lot. I discovered a deep yearning for belonging that led me to seek comfort from dead-end relationships with emotionally unavailable men.
Shortly after, I had a breakthrough that led me to assert my boundaries for the first time and brought me to my current partner, David. Then, I ended my relationship with my emotionally abusive father, faced my credit card debt, quit my sorority, and still managed to graduate college one year early. That year, I had far fewer people in my life, but for the first time, I could say that I was truly happy.
Even now, I sometimes feel as if I am playing a role — not by choice, but by habit. I want to be the perfect doctor’s girlfriend, the perfect dog mom, the perfect “future therapist,” the perfect influencer. But perfectionism is inherently at odds with authenticity. Every day, I have to consciously make the decision to be my truest self, not an actress playing a part in a film.
I am still on my journey toward healing from people-pleasing and inauthenticity. But since the years I spent living my life for other people, I have learned a lot about what it means (to me, at least) to be authentic. Based on those experiences, I’m sharing some tips that I hope will help you navigate your own journey.
1. Examine Your Beliefs
If you’re here, you probably feel the need to people-please, to put on a fake smile, or to play a role at least some of the time. But have you ever asked yourself why you feel that way?
To pinpoint the beliefs that make you feel like your authentic self isn’t good enough, start at the very beginning. We all receive messages in our childhood, direct or indirect, that shape the way we think about ourselves. Maybe it’s that I’m an aspiring therapist, but I truly believe that these messages are ingrained in our subconscious from a young age, and continue to shape the way we behave as adults.
Sometimes, those messages are obvious, like only receiving praise when we got an A on a test or won an award. But other times, they’re more insidious: for example, I had a narcissistic parent who used to imply that my friends were “nerds.” As a result, I learned to hide a lot of my interests that were considered “weird” at the time.
The next time you hear a critical voice in your head, it’s worth asking why you believe this thing is true instead of quietly accepting it as such. Sometimes, when we look more closely at our beliefs, we realize they aren’t rooted in the things we truly believe at all, but in the things that someone else taught us.
2. Embrace What Makes You “Weird”
As an Enneagram Type Six, it should come as no surprise that I am self-conscious about feeling “different.” Throughout college, I molded myself into the person I thought I should be in order to make people like me. I joined a sorority, started drinking, and bought a new Lilly Pulitzer wardrobe. But behind the scenes, I was struggling with my mental, physical, and financial health.
Growing up, I heard so many messages that made me feel ashamed of who I was and what I was interested in. In high school, I stopped reading manga or watching anime — hobbies I’ve since picked back up, because I genuinely enjoyed them — after learning it wasn’t cool anymore. I have always liked Harry Potter, but I learned to bury my inner Hufflepuff so others wouldn’t judge me.
So many of us struggle with the compulsive need to be liked — and trust me, I get it. Rejection is painful. However, I’ve learned that when you try to make everyone like you, you don’t make genuine connections. Meaningful friendships and romantic relationships come when you are being your true, authentic self, as people are attracted to others who are like them. People may reject or make fun of you, but at least you will have the gift of friendship, instead of the surface-level connections that are inevitable when you’re trying to be liked by everyone.
3. Follow Your Intuition
I am an INFP, so being intuitive is a part of who I am. (In case you couldn’t tell, I really like personality tests!) But I also spent so long pretending to be someone who I wasn’t that I know what it’s like to confuse what YOU like with what you think you’re SUPPOSED to like.
Trying to be liked over being authentic stifles your intuition. You learn to ignore the gut feelings that draw you toward certain people, objects, and experiences if there’s a risk that those things may create conflict or cause others to reject you. That’s why it’s critical to authenticity to get in touch with, and listen to, those gut feelings again.
Take the example of clothing shopping. When you buy clothes, are you looking for clothing that fits a certain “aesthetic?” Or are you picking up the items you are naturally drawn to and attracted to? The key to authenticity is doing less of the former and more of the latter. Listen to your gut, not to what society has to say about what you’re supposed to like.
4. Contradict Yourself
Despite what high school cafeterias may suggest, most people can’t be boiled down to a single “type.” We aren’t nerds or jocks or goths or band geeks. People are more complicated than that. Instead of trying to mold yourself into a stereotype, don’t be afraid to be your unique self! You don’t need to simplify yourself into a certain stereotype (or, these days, “aesthetic”).
We tend to do these things to make others feel more comfortable, since cognitive dissonance — the psychological term for making sense of contradictions — feels weird and, at times, wrong. But it isn’t your job to make everyone around you comfortable. If just existing as yourself makes someone uncomfortable, that’s THEIR problem — not yours!
So, where to start? To begin with, stop saying “or” and start saying “and.” You’re allowed to be soft AND tough. You’re allowed to like the color pink AND have a black belt in karate. You’re allowed to study science AND have an Etsy shop on the side. You don’t need to be girly OR strong; logical OR creative.
You’re allowed to exist as you are, even if parts of who you are seem to contract one another. As human beings, we’re tempted to make people fit neatly into boxes. But it’s okay to be messy. Embrace the parts of yourself that make you say “and.”
5. Give Yourself Permission to Change
As important as it is to accept yourself as you are, you also deserve permission to change. Growth is an inherent part of being human. We aren’t meant to stay the same our entire lives — otherwise, we wouldn’t get wrinkles or gray hair!
Sometimes, we cling to old interests because they’ve been part of our identities for so long, we don’t know what to do without them. Pursuing a career in social work, I sometimes worry if I made a mistake by abandoning marketing. I knew I wanted to study communications way back in high school, and I fear I’m not listening to my instincts by changing my mind.
But the thing is, you’re allowed to change your mind. People outgrow careers, friendships, relationships, and hobbies the same way that they outgrow their clothes or shoes. It doesn’t always feel comfortable — in fact, a friend breakup might be the worst thing I’ve ever been through — but it always happens for a reason.
And, if it helps, you can always change your mind again! Remember that girl you knew who changed her major ten times in college? Schools LET students do that — because they know that it’s in our nature to be indecisive. Just remember that, with the exception of tattoos and pregnancies, no decision is permanent. You can always pick up and move, quit your job, or learn something new.
Give yourself permission to make those mistakes. Mistakes are the business of living, after all — and if nothing else, you’ll always learn from them.