“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment” – Ralph Waldo Emerson, essayist, poet, and champion of individualism
One of the most detrimental things we can do to ourselves is to live our lives according to a label we have adopted or been given by society. We think we have to fit into a certain box that comes with a list of requirements for how we should act, think, dress, work, love, and all those other important verbs.
I have struggled with labels my whole life, some self-adopted and some given to me, and I’m betting many of you have as well. As a “vegan”, many people have questioned why I would work at a zoo, since many people perceive them as a place where wild animals are kept locked up (more on that topic another time…). As a “hippie”, many friends have been appalled by my love for pop music of all kinds, especially of the country variety (T. Swift forevaaa!!). I don’t fit neatly into any of these categories and neither do most people, yet all of us have had moments where we get surprised by something we learn about someone that doesn’t fit into how we had labeled them in our minds.
Sometimes, labels are helpful. As an educator, I am grateful when a parent tells me that their child has been diagnosed with autism, so that I can set that kid up for success and make sure their week at camp isn’t totally miserable. As humans, we have an innate tendency to sort, categorize, and label all the living and nonliving objects in our world. We can separate edible from non-edible foods, dangerous from harmless animals, and family from non-family members.
Unfortunately, we have taken labels to such an extreme that we tend to see other human beings as two-dimensional people who should fit neatly into a category that is easy for us to process and understand. But we all know human beings aren’t that way at all. We are messy and complicated and unique and no matter how many people you meet, each one is going to surprise you sometimes. Sure, we may sometimes fit into groups that have similar characteristics and that is how we find people to connect with and build community with. But it is important to remember that no label will ever be able to completely and accurately describe an entire person with all their complexities and life experiences.
The pressure with labels comes not only from others but from within as well. We often put ourselves in boxes and then feel like we have to conform to certain ideas or standards. Sometimes we even convince ourselves that it is the people around us who expect this conformity from us, when really the only person pressuring us to be a certain way is us. When I first became vegan, I was very strict with myself and thought there was a certain way I had to live if I was going to claim the title. As time has gone on, I’ve realized that how I eat is, surprisingly, completely up to me!! If I happen to be living on a farm that makes goat cheese, then I’m going to eat some delicious homemade goat cheese, dammit, and that doesn’t make me a bad person or a liar! And, despite Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, there really is no scary vegan police that is going to come take away my super powers because I drank a latte with real milk in it (although my stomach might not be too happy with me…)
The Guessing Game
In addition to the pressures we put on ourselves, we also tend to assume a lot of pressures from other people that don’t actually exist. Have you ever thought you knew exactly what someone was thinking or feeling, only to find out later you were totally wrong? Or found out from someone that they thought you had a particular motive that was in no way where you were actually coming from? Both of these things have happened to me enough times in my life to realize we can never really know what another person is thinking, but we have a much better chance of finding out if we ask them. So often, we feel pressure to do something that we think is coming from another person when it is really coming from our own misconceptions.
I know that in my life, I sometimes feel judged for certain actions like eating junk food or watching tv when I feel like I could be using my time more productively. This feeling does not come from anyone saying anything to me about it, but simply from my own assumptions. Usually, once I think about it more deeply, I realize that it was my own insecurities or guilt that were causing me to think others were thinking critically about me. Why should I live my life worrying about what others are thinking when the odds are that they are so wrapped up in their own lives they don’t have the time or energy to be judging me at all!?
Don’t play the guessing game. Don’t try to figure out what someone else wants and then meet those assumed needs without even talking to them about it first. Don’t assume that someone is judging you for living your life a certain way when they’ve never said one word to you about it. Talk! Ask! Listen! If you are feeling insecure, or judged, or unsure, find a good friend you trust and talk to them about it. Be vulnerable and open up about what you are feeling. Work through it and then move on with your life and continue doing what you want to do without worrying about how others may perceive it!
As a half-Canadian from Portland, it is in my blood to apologize, which is perhaps why I love the song “Sorry” by my fellow Canadian Justin Bieber so much. It might also be the sick dance moves from the song’s really awesome music video and the fact that the dance group is from New Zealand. In any case, let’s just say I’m a really nice person who hates to displease others and always wants everyone around her to be feeling good and having fun. I think I’ve gotten a little bit better as I’ve gotten older at not being such a constant people-pleaser, but I do still worry a lot about what others think. And when I feel guilty about something, I will often preemptively apologize or make an excuse, even though nobody around me has said anything to make me feel like I should.
For example, as an earth-loving crunchy granola girl from Portland, I feel terribly guilty buying coffee at Starbucks, especially when I am traveling. I feel like I should be scoping out tiny little coffee shops in back alleys where the owner has been roasting her own beans for thirty years and the paintings on the walls were made by a local artist who uses paintbrushes made out of his own hair. But the truth is that I love Starbucks coffee and I love that the drink I like to get tastes the same everywhere in the world. I have had Starbucks in Spain, Malaysia, Australia, China, and everywhere in between. And I can tell you from experience that a soy hazelnut latte ALWAYS TASTES THE SAME. It’s amazing. And it’s comforting. It reminds me of home and gives me a little pick-me-up when I am feeling homesick.
Besides, the truth is, I don’t think anybody else really cares that I do this, so I should stop feeling so damn guilty about it! Who is going to give me a hard time? The travel police? Are they going to show up at my door and cut my passport in half so I can never leave the country again because I did a bad job of exploring authentic Italian coffee culture??? Probably not.
I was once hanging out with a German guy in Kuala Lumpur and I really wanted a coffee, so I said to him “I know this is terrible, but do you mind if we just run into Starbucks really quick?” Turns out the guy had never been to a Starbucks in his life, so it was a new experience for him and he ordered a chocolate chip frappuccino! Not only did he not care at all whether or not I drank Starbucks, he tried something new because of me. Ok, maybe getting a German guy to try Starbucks for the first time isn’t going to win me the Nobel Peace Prize, but it did make me realize that we are all usually judging ourselves a lot harder than the people around us are.
I may have gone off on a bit of a tangent there as I was daydreaming about sugary coffee drinks, but my point is that you should never apologize for liking the things you like and being who you are. If you need a good pump up song to encourage you to stop giving a shit what other people think about all your deep dark secrets (like being a Starbucks lover and listener of country pop music), please listen to Secrets by Mary Lambert – she is a total musical badass and a great example of someone who lives life authentically as herself.
Oh, and in case you are wondering, the answer is no, Starbucks did not pay me to write this piece. In fact, nobody is paying me to write this piece, so there!
Live the life YOU want
Sometimes we get so caught up in pleasing the people around us that we forget to ask ourselves this simple question: what would I be doing with my life if I was thinking only about what I want and not anybody else? Now, of course, there are always going to be other people in our lives whose needs we want to consider – a spouse, children, family members. But what these people want for themselves or for you should not be the defining factor in the choices you make for your own life. Compromise and working together towards a common goal are important, but if you don’t take control of your own life and determine your own goals, you can bet other people will do it for you.
Maybe your parents think you would have the best life possible if you became a lawyer. Maybe your spouse thinks you would really be much happier in a job that made a lot more money. Maybe your boss wants you to put off having a family so you can spend more time at work. Maybe your siblings think it’s time you stopped living like a nomad and settled down and got a career. But what is it that YOU really want? We all have ideas deep down of what would really make us the most happy, of the life we truly wish we were leading, but not all of us have the guts to admit that and make it a reality.
When we build the life others wants for us rather than taking control, we give up the chance of having that life we really want. Maybe this makes it easier because we can blame others for not getting what we want, rather than assuming the responsibility ourselves. But we all have choices, every single day, and giving up control of our own lives is a terrible choice to make. We may think we are doing a good thing because we are doing our best to make the people around us happy, but if we are not our happiest selves, we are serving no one.
Hopefully, you are surrounded by people who want similar things to you, who support you in following your passions and who understand when you choose to do something that is different than what they would have chosen. Maybe this post doesn’t really resonate with you because you have always listened only to yourself and have done the things you really wanted to do. If that is the case, that is super awesome, way to go! And if it is not, I highly encourage you to start seeking out those people who will make you feel super awesome about going after your dreams, who have similar goals and can help you reach your own. Spend more time with friends and family who encourage you to make your own choices and who love seeing you flourish, rather than people who want to decide your life for you.
Because when you live your life as your most authentic self, the people around you can’t help but notice how brightly you shine and they will wonder how they can get that for themselves. It’s not always easy to be true to ourselves in this world – we get pulled in a million different directions and it can be hard to know which path is the one we really want. The good news is, you can always change direction. Sometimes I get so afraid of making the wrong decision that I agonize over my choices and stress myself out trying to figure out which path will really be truly the best one for me. But then I remember that, if I choose wrong, I can always change my mind later on. The same opportunities might no be there anymore, but I trust that new opportunities will always arise if I stay open to them. And if I am being authentic to myself and what I want in my life, I will continue to draw things to me that fit into the life I am building for myself.
I guess this entire post can really be summed up in one of my favourite sayings of all time: “you do you”. I’m out, y’all!