As young girls we are raised by society to believe that our lives are about other people. We’re raised to serve others, we’re raised to be good. We’re taught that our value is dependent on how we show up for others. We’re taught that what others want and need from us is always more important than what we want and need for ourselves. We’re taught about perception, specifically that how others perceive us is more important than how we perceive ourselves. We’re taught that being kind, thoughtful, generous and agreeable are the feminine qualities we should aspire to emulate.
Then one day those young girls grow up and realise they have become women, women who have lost their way, women who have lost themselves. It is with that realisation that a deep pain takes root in our hearts and souls because how on earth do we find our way back to a self that is now so far away? How do we find our way back to a self we no longer know?
How often do we hear a woman whose children have left home or whose relationship has broken down utter the words ‘I feel lost. I don’t know who I am anymore’? Once young girls full of dreams, hopes, and aspirations, we become women who are defined by our relationships with other people, defined by our roles as mothers, wives, girlfriends, daughters, we become these roles at the expense of our own individual identities.
As girls we learn that living our lives to please others gets us love and approval. We watch how others perceive our behaviour, whether it pleases them or not, and adapt accordingly. We learn which behaviours are seen to be ‘good’ and which ones are ‘bad’ and if the need to please those who are important in our lives is strong, we will ultimately assume the traits that we know will garner praise and acceptance, even if that means stifling part of who we are.
We spend our lives showing up for other people, living our lives to please them, letting others decide who we are and who we’re capable of being, and then we wonder why we’re lost. It’s important that we know that our years, decades even, of learned behaviour can be undone. It’s important that we know that there is a way back to ourselves and it starts with slowly unlearning so much of what society has taught us. I stress the word slowly because for many of us this feeling of being disconnected from ourselves, of not knowing who we are anymore, has been a long time in the making and so it’s also going to take time to find our way back from that.
So how do we do it? How to we unlearn a lifetime of conditioning? How do we take off the masks we’ve had to wear for so long? How do we awaken the woman we have buried deep inside ourselves? In order to start, there are three very important things we must stop.
Living our lives to please others
This is a road that leads nowhere other than to great unhappiness. When we choose to stay on it, not only do we meet unhappiness but we are most likely to also meet its sibling, resentment, and those two together are never a good combination!
For many of us this need to please begins in childhood as we learn to respond to those around us in ways that will bring us the least amount of stress and the greatest amount of love and approval. That means from a young age we allow our decisions and behaviours to be greatly shaped and influenced by the needs and wants of others and these become prioritised above our own needs.
In her inspiring and courageous book ‘Jump….and your life will appear: an inch-by-inch guide to making a major change’, author Nancy Levin states that for those of us who have spent our lives trying to please others we become unconsciously consumed with trying to continually morph in to who we think others want us to be. She describes pleasing as a form of currency, one that can be used to purchase love and approval, but one that inevitably leads to us becoming emotionally, physically, and spiritually bankrupt.
This need to please has been a particularly chronic issue for me throughout my life, to the point where I have gone through much of this year in somewhat of a crisis mode because I suddenly realised that I lack a strong sense of my own identity. I’ve found myself asking a lot of difficult questions these past few months. Who am I? What are my dreams? What are my opinions, thoughts and beliefs? What do I like to do? It’s a really scary thing to wake up and realise that you are so easily influenced by others that you lack a clear sense of self. For me, it got to the point where I was so used to doing what I thought would make others happy that I had absolutely no idea what made me happy!
So what I will say is this – as women we have to stop living our lives to please others because in doing this it is almost guaranteed that we will not only lose ourselves but cause ourselves a great deal of pain down the line. We have a right to have our own passions and goals. We have a right to have our own dreams, whether or not these make sense to anyone else. We need to stop the madness of living our lives to please others because here’s the thing – when we put some of the focus back on ourselves, when we start pursuing our own interests, we begin to feel a sense of achievement and fulfilment, our confidence grows, as does our levels of self-esteem and self-worth. The result? Happiness replaces resentment, and guess what? In that scenario, everyone wins.
Giving too much to others and not enough to ourselves
This is the next bit of madness that we need to stop! The issue lies not in the fact that we give to others, but that we do so in a way that is out of balance with how much we give to ourselves – in other words we tend to give a lot to everyone else and very little to ourselves. We tend to realise far too late that our bucket has become empty and that we have got to the point where we are so burnout that we end up giving to others out of obligation, leaving us feeling resentful.
For me, giving too much to others at the expense of my own wellbeing is an extension of my need to please. Instead of realising that people love me for who I am and not what I do, my sense of self-worth has, from a young age, been tied to how much I can do for other people. I’ve always viewed being focused on others and their needs as being a good thing, as being healthy, after all who wants to be seen to be always thinking about their own needs, to be thought of as selfish?
What we often struggle to understand is that there is a big difference between being selfish, where we simply don’t care about the needs of others and plan to do what we want regardless of how they feel about it, and being self-caring, which is where we take in to consideration the thoughts, feelings and needs of others, while also thinking about what we need in that moment. Selfishness means our own needs will always win out above the needs of others, being self-caring means that sometimes, perhaps when our buckets are reasonably full, we’ll happily choose to give to others, while when they are nearing empty we will come to the realisation that we must prioritise our own needs on this occasion so that our buckets can be replenished and we can once again give to those we love.
It is massively important that we understand the difference between these two things and that we recognise that we are just as worthy of receiving our love and attention as everyone else in our lives is. We need to stop buying in to the mentality that exists within society that women can do it all, that we can be everything to everybody, give nothing to ourselves and still maintain high levels of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. The ‘you can have it all’ belief system is a dangerous one that leaves us feeling as though we are constantly failing in one, or multiple, areas of our lives. It’s time to take off the superwoman cape and realise that we are human and that it’s okay to put ourselves first sometimes – in fact, it’s essential, not just for our own wellbeing but for the wellbeing of everyone in our lives.
Looking to others to tell us who we are
The idea that our value is tied up in how we show up for others and how they perceive us, means that we can end up living our lives for other people, allowing them to tell us who we are and then wondering why we feel lost. The danger of letting others define us is that we can end up shutting down and disowning the parts of who we are that we feel don’t fit with the definition of ourselves others have given us.
This is equally problematic whether the definition is negative or positive. A negative example may be if an individual is told at school that they’re great at the so called ‘softer’ subjects like art and music but that they’re just not ‘academic’. In a world that tends to prize literature and the sciences and views the ability to write an essay as the measure of success, excelling at art is somehow viewed as not being quite good enough. They may be told that they can’t possibly make a living out of being creative and need to pursue a more stable career path. Those individuals often then grow up to hold the false belief that they aren’t smart enough because that is the definition that they feel someone else has given to them. They assimilate that definition in to themselves until it becomes part of their core identity, often pursuing career paths that don’t play to their strengths, leaving them feeling as though they are failing when of course the reality is that it is society that has failed them.
Equally, that same individual could be defined positively as someone who always goes above and beyond, says yes to every favour asked of them and is just generally defined as an all round helpful person. The problem here is that if the day comes when they finally say no to something or choose to place their needs ahead of someone else’s they will often immediately be stripped of their definition as the selfless helper and instead be viewed as selfish for stepping outside the box that they’ve been placed in. If the need to be liked is strong, this idea that someone else may not like the decision they’ve made will often be enough to have them quickly step back in line.
As women we have to stop allowing ourselves to be so easily influenced by the definitions others give to us because these are often toxic and cause us long term harm. It is not up to anyone else to decide who we are, who we can become, or what we’re capable of achieving. The only person in the world that we’re accountable to when it comes to those things is ourselves. We were all born with different skills, gifts, characteristics, and talents and there’s a reason that each of us was born with the ones we have – it’s because nobody else on the planet can make them come alive quite like we can, nobody can use them in quite the same way we can, that’s why they were given to us and not someone else. Let’s stop being cookie cutters of who we think others want us to be and start being who we want to be.
Coming home to yourself
That young woman that we talked about earlier, the one with all the hopes and dreams, didn’t die, she’s still very much living inside of us and those feelings we feel sometimes of anger, resentment, sadness, loneliness, disconnection, are all her begging us to let her come out again. I wish I could say that we can ignore her voice without their being consequences but I know from my own experience that we can’t, to do so is to sentence ourselves to a great deal of pain and unhappiness.
Her voice may be softer at times but if not listened to, the roar will return. She won’t allow us to silence her, because in silencing her we silence the true nature of who we are and all that we are capable of becoming. We need to stop living our lives for others, stop giving so much to others at the expense of ourselves, and stop letting others define who we are and we need to start listening to that voice inside of us calling us to find the courage to become who we are. When we’re feeling lost her voice is our map and our compass, her voice is our way home.