If you feel like you do not live the life you want – heck, if you feel like you are not even your natural, real self in the day-to-day moments… I got news for you: You are not alone.
But why is it so hard to know who you really are authentically, what it would look like if you watched out for your needs and boundaries consistently, if you made brave and independent decisions, if you led your life in the way that suited you most?
Sometimes, we know what our authentic needs look like but are afraid to act on them. And sometimes, we don’t even know what we want or what we feel. It is as if some invisible force is standing between us and our true souls, blurring the vision, distracting and fooling us.
Knowing about these forces, these saboteurs, is the first step to our empowerment. This article addresses eight such saboteurs (without claiming to be an exhaustive list).
Read about these saboteurs and try to check in with yourself – how familiar are they to you?
Do you have a hard time tolerating tension in the air? Can you not stomach leaving the scene after a fight without resolving the conflict first, because it will haunt you? Can you not relax until you have apologized ten times and have been assured that the other person involved is not mad at you (anymore)? Do you avoid shining too much, or being too successful, because seeing that might leave others jealous and miserable?
You care about others a great deal and that’s a fine trait. It is also a tendency that leaves you putting other people’s needs first, so you can maintain a peaceful sense of harmony around you. In the course of your life, you may have learned to calm down, absorb bad moods, and resolve tensions.
Now what if your own opinion conflicts with that of your counterpart? When your own truth is met with discomfort? When someone decides to get angry or sad in the light of a decision of yours? What if the way to re-establish harmony is to give in to other people’s will and expectations?
It’s a dead-lock for us people pleasers. (By the way, I recommend giving the song “people pleaser” by Cat Burns a listen. The lyrics caught me off guard, there were so spot-on!)
When the need for harmony is currently greater than the need to be truthful, things remain unsaid and possibly even unthought.
This one is a close relative of the aforementioned ‘Need for Harmony’.
Were you taught that prioritizing your own needs is selfish? Do you think that you are taking something away from others or that you are a burden to others when standing up for yourself? Does something inside you believe that you are not enough, that you don’t deserve to live your truth? Have you ever been told directly, for example by a family member, that you should not care so much about your own needs? That you are too sensitive, too special, too complicated?
(Tough luck if you are gay, on the spectrum, vegan AND gluten-intolerant. Didn’t you get the memo that you are only entitled to a maximum of ONE peculiarity? Gosh, aren’t you just sooo complicated, making it hard for everyone else… 😉)
If we feel guilty about our needs, about voicing or acting on them, it is difficult to resist expectations that are not serving us.
Even if our parents, or other important caregivers in our childhood years, have the good intention of giving us their love and attention unconditionally – this is an art that’s almost impossible to master. When born into this world, we are utterly authentic. We shriek and giggle and wail our feelings as well as physical needs out into the world. But over time, based on the reactions of those around us, we learn who and how we need to be in order to receive love, attention, and approval. Depending on the conditions of these goods given to us, we shape our behaviour inside and out.
We may learn to hold back our opinions, not to be so loud, to be diligent with our studies, not to talk back, not to cry, not to express anger, to be the affable class clown, to wear certain clothes, to pursue approved hobbies, and so on. We move further and further away from our full, authentic selves by directing them through the filter for conditional love. We create a persona that promises to carry us through life successfully. This persona may not exactly be a lie – but it is not the full truth either.
Finding our way back to our full truths as adults is not so much about learning to be more authentic. Rather, it is about laboriously unlearning all that which, over the years, has led us further and further away from accessing our full selves.
Do you feel powerless a lot? Have you stopped protecting your boundaries after they have been crossed too many times? Do you believe it is not in your power to bring about the changes you want, after all? Do other people or general circumstances always seem to stand in your way?
Learned helplessness means, loosely speaking, that you don’t even look for a way out of the cage anymore because experience taught you that you can’t escape anyway. So, if the door opens for you now, you won’t trust it and stay put regardless.
In other words: Why should you pay attention to your needs and wants if you expect that you can’t fulfil them anyway?
Consistency is an important cornerstone of the human psyche. We feel good when our thoughts, actions, and feelings are aligned. When our biography reads somewhat like a logical succession, even if, for many of us, our path has been somewhat windy and adventurous. When what we say is what we’ll stand by in the future. When we have an identity, an idea of ourselves that is coherent and enduring.
We might know ourselves as enthusiastic tennis fans and loving parents, invested workaholics and convinced vegans, feminists and centre-right voters, off-the-beaten-track adventurers, or careful life planners. But what if, over time, we discover facets of ourselves that conflict with our long-held identities?
We experience cognitive dissonance when aspects of ourselves don’t fit together. When our thoughts, actions, and feelings exhibit inconsistencies, it causes psychological pain. One way to escape this pain is to adjust what doesn’t seem to fit. Under these circumstances, it is quite possible that we simply suppress certain needs, desires, and dreams for many years.
Fear of negative consequences can have such a deterring effect that we might not even allow ourselves to become aware of certain needs, to engage in thought experiments, to dream of the forbidden fruit. If I stood by my needs, my values, my dreams, would I have to fear financial decline? Could I lose the love and support of someone I care about? Could I be facing violence?
Being able to express yourself fully becomes a privilege if your true self is regarded as a violation of social norms or laws in some corners of the world (think being gay, for example, or being a woman wanting to choose her path independently). It also becomes a privilege if, in the same corner of the world, two different people express the same aspect of themselves and one of them gets punished for it while the other does not (expressing anger as a white man will be perceived differently than a black woman doing the same).
Even if society, in general, welcomes your authentic self, particular people whom you care about or who have power over you might not.
Fearing negative consequences can be very distressing, particularly if the fear relates to something existential. But even if we do not have to fear for your lives, our well-being, our financial security – negative consequences for being ourselves that are less harsh can already have enough deterring potential to censor our thoughts and actions from the outset.
I confess I am a “head person”. My body can groan and communicate all it wants – chances are, I don’t know how to interpret its efforts. Worse, I may not even be consciously aware of them! And I know I am not alone in this.
How about you? Are you able to perceive it when your stomach grumbles, your shoulders tighten, your breathing becomes shallower? Do you hear the “no” forming in your head, or your “yes”?
Your inner truth doesn’t always have to be veiled by some evil filter – maybe you just haven’t learned to pay attention and interpret the clear signs yet. I claim: Being mindful is a prerequisite for authenticity.
I am devoting a separate paragraph to the treacherous terrain of limiting beliefs here. However, to be precise, this manifold saboteur has been lurking in many of the previous paragraphs already. They are everywhere. If you are educating yourself on personal development, if you have ever had coaching, you know that there is no way past that topic.
Beliefs, in general, are deeply internalized assumptions about ourselves and the world that strongly influence our thoughts and actions. Their origin often lies in the years of our growing up when we are strongly influenced by our caregivers, our environment and the views prevailing in it. But experiences in later years, too, lead to the formation of beliefs.
They are not good or bad per se – beliefs can help us as well as hinder us. It is our responsibility to understand when a belief is not good for us – and to check its validity.
Beliefs come cloaked in various disguises. For example, we assume causal relationships and use them to derive (behavioural) rules for ourselves:
“If I don’t always look perfect, I won’t find a partner.”
“If only I try hard enough, I will be successful.”
“I must not be too proud of myself, otherwise I will be punished for my arrogance.”
“To be happy, I must first achieve my financial goals.”
“If I make myself vulnerable, I will be hurt.”
Some beliefs come in the shape of attributions which we consult to evaluate ourselves and others:
“People from my social background cannot be successful entrepreneurs.”
“Muslim people are misogynist.”
“As a man, I can’t show weakness.”
“Overweight people are lazy.”
“People who look out for their own needs are selfish.”
Assumptions like these have a massive impact on what choices in life we allow ourselves to make, what things we trust ourselves to do, how we act in our everyday lives, what we think about ourselves… and what experiences we end up having in life. Because unfortunately, beliefs can also be like self-fulfilling prophecies:
If I think that people are fundamentally untrustworthy, I’m more likely to treat others with suspicion and interpret every little “transgression” as a reinforcement of my assumption.
If I believe that I am not up to the world out there, I take fewer risks, dealing with which could have raised my confidence level, ironically.
If I never train for that competition – because I don’t think someone like me has what it takes anyway – I’ll never find out if I might not have excelled.
If I don’t dare to go on that first date without plastering my face with makeup, I won’t know if my counterpart might not have fallen for me without it.
If I’m convinced I’m not good enough, I’ll spend a lifetime running after the craved feeling of recognition and belonging without ever really surrendering to them.
How differently could our lives unfold if we recognized an obstructive belief for what it really is: the image of our learning and experiencing at a particular point in time, which can be revoked or changed at any moment?
Beliefs are, in other words, merely offers of support to interpret events and choose our actions. Like any offer, a belief can be rejected if it turns out to be well intentioned but a bad advisor.
We have discussed a non-exhaustive set of 8 “saboteurs” that could stand in the way of noticing, understanding, and acting on your truth. You may have noticed that these phenomena do not have to come along but can be an intertwined force.
Which ones do you suspect have their hands on you the most?
Try to be honest with yourself. Observe how their influence is showing up in your everyday life.
Awareness is a powerful tool. Use it.
And if you feel brave, share what comes up for you – in the comments, or in a personal message.
I love hearing from you!
photos: Pexels / Pixabay, Victoria Akvarel, Alex Green, Kelvin Valerio