Trying to be anybody else is a waste of time
When I was in the fourth grade, I had a crush on a boy who loved penguins. When I found out, I looked up “penguin” in the dictionary, and “poof!” penguins were miraculously my favorite animal. Cue two and a half decades of penguin-themed holiday cards and gifts. Admittedly, penguins are cute, entertaining, hilarious, and utterly mystifying. “Happy Feet” is one of my favorite movies, and those penguin National Geographic documentaries blow my mind. However, the thirty-plus penguin stuffed animals adorning my childhood bedroom are more symbolic of my early tendency to conform than of any natural affinity for wobbly black-and-white birds. Honestly, I’m more of a monkey person.
Looking back, it is astonishing and even a bit embarrassing to recognize how much time I have spent comparing myself to others or attempting to build myself into a person I thought others wanted me to be. While excellence has always been a motivation unto itself, there is often another layer of wanting to be the most excellent in relation to my friends, peers, coworkers, and even family members. I wanted to be better, smarter, stronger, more loveable, worthier of attention, and more successful, and I learned to only pursue activities where that was possible. My internal monologue was persistently about how I was falling short and who I was falling short to— “You’re not as good at math as Kathleen,” “You’re not as athletic as Jess,” “You’re not as smart as Anthony,” “You’ll never be as pretty or fashionable as your sister.” I was threatened and jealous of others’ successes and gifts even when my own successes and gifts were right in front of me. I also had no idea who I was when everybody else was removed from the equation. My entire identity hinged on who I was in comparison to others, on if I was the best and recognized accordingly.
Early in my freshman year of college, I visited my French professor during office hours to discuss an assignment. We eventually started talking about my interests and goals, and after a few minutes he paused in thought. “It sounds like you have a lot going on and you have big plans,” he said, “but, how are you going to become THE Marissa on campus? How are YOU going to stand out?” At the time, I heard his question as a challenge to outperform my classmates, to make a name for myself based on academic and extracurricular prowess. I was also incredibly pleased with myself. Listen to this smart man who thinks I am special and that I will do important things! Yet, in hindsight, I see that his query was of a much higher order. He was challenging me to find MYSELF, to figure out who Marissa was, and to learn how to allow that person to shine. He saw through my carefully constructed goals and interests and wanted me to recognize that I could dream bigger than what my parents wanted me to do, than what many of my peers were able to do, than what I knew for certain I was good at. Now, when I am stuck, feeling insignificant, or unsure of a course of action, I let his question guide me. My decisions and actions cannot be guided by what anyone else would do. Instead, I must reflect on what THE Marissa would do, recognizing that in most cases, she is, and I am, enough.
Kurt Cobain once said, “Wanting to be someone else is a waste of the person you are.” In the leadership section of this book, I discussed authenticity and how dangerous masks can be. One of the dangers of wearing a mask, particularly a mask that doesn’t fit, is that we cover up who we truly are, thereby robbing ourselves of the opportunity to live into our most authentic selves and robbing the world of our raison d’être. When we aspire to be or to be like another person, when we put on a mask that tells the story we think others want to hear, we are wasting our gifts, wasting our time, and wasting our purpose. But it is certainly easier said than practiced.
In my personal life, I struggle with a deep-seeded notion that being my full and truest self, while enough for me, is not enough or acceptable to others. I have family members who believe that with my level of education and intellect, I should be doing far more professionally and making significantly more money. I always hesitate before telling people that I have a social work degree because the response is almost always a highly-condescending, “Aw, that’s cute. Good for you for trying to help people.” When people find out that I am the primary breadwinner of my household, there is frequently vocal judgment, “well, that’s not forever, right?” or “You’re really okay with that?” As a person who values the opinion of others and seeks constant validation (for better or for worse), I am guilty of masking reality and trying to present myself as the person I feel is expected in any given moment. I tell people that I am fine when I am really struggling because somewhere deep inside, I judge myself for being where I am and for not being where my loved ones and friends think I should be. How can I complain about money when I chose a profession that I knew would never make me rich? How can I talk about how hard it is to live in a single-income household, when I am permitting it to be so? When I know it is the right thing for me and my partner right now? While in these moments I am not trying to specifically be anyone else, I regularly make the conscious choice to not truly be “me” out of fear of falling short.
In lesson nineteen of this series, I discussed the importance of letting go of “should-be’s.” This lesson is intricately intertwined with that lesson but is distinct. In that section I say, “when we move beyond the unhealthy obsession with what life ‘should’ be like, we get to enjoy what life is.” As indicated previously, I have become much better at this on a personal level when nobody else is involved. However, in this section I want to emphasize that I also need to move beyond the unhealthy obsession with what I should be like so that I can fully enjoy who I am. This is much more challenging and requires me to dig into what it really means to be me outside of and irrespective of who others are, what others do, and how others live in the world. Writing this anthology of lessons is possibly one of the first truly authentic expressions of who I am as an independent thinker, learner, dreamer, changemaker, and citizen of the world. I am learning that there is great power in unapologetically sharing my experiences and truths, that I can stand on my own, that THE Marissa is not only enough but exceptional not by virtue of being “better” but by virtue of being her.