“You’re like an excited puppy”, said a partner, years ago.
I thought that was delightful. She didn’t.
I’d been on the receiving end of back handed comments like this before. The frowns of people who found me too loud, too ostentatious. The silent "shhh" when talking about an idea that excited me. The frustrating phrase, "calm down", directed my way, when I'd bounce in all-excited.
Sometimes I wonder if there was a shield I could have worn when I was growing up and in my twenties that didn't take critique to heart. It really did take me ages to realise I was capable of building that shield myself - instead of waiting for people to "get" me.
But, over the years, I’d built a sort of shield, one where I’d hide a part of myself, to make other people feel more… comfortable.
At work, I’d talk about, well, work. (As a workaholic that suited me just fine as, to be honest, I didn’t have anything else to talk about.) At home, I’d make frivolous chat with my partner, to avoid a challenging conversation about how I felt we’d outgrown each other. And socially, I’d talk about what other people wanted to talk about, because, I thought I told myself it was ‘easier’.
I became a MD: master deflector.
In my twenties, I whispered to a therapist I hadn’t many friends I felt ‘got’ me.
I’m an introvert, I wanna go deep and I was stuck in conversations about brunch and the weather.
“Have you given them a chance to get to know you?”, she asked, in that way therapists do.
I scrunched up my face and tilted my head. “Huh?”
“When you reveal yourself to others”, she said, “it gives people an opportunity to get to know you.”
I sighed. “I guess I feel like I can’t trust myself”, I said. “Like, if I tell them one thing, I’ll end up being totally inappropriate and end up telling them all sorts of crazy shit.”
“Maybe”, she nodded, encouragingly. “And what would happen if you did?”
“I guess they’d figure out I’m a bit of a freak”, I laughed.
She smiled, encouragingly. “Maybe.”
After years of being a work robot, instead of crying in the loo and hitting the treadmill at midnight to process my emotions, I tried out this radical act of being myself at work. I tried ‘connecting’.
“How was your weekend?”, a colleague asked.
‘I don’t care’, I thought, ‘and neither do you’.
“Good”, I said. “Um, Fine. How was yours?”
‘Shit. That’s what the therapist told me not to do’, I thought.
We continued to have a stale, one dimensional conversation she didn’t care about, and I didn’t care much for either.
I tried again.
“How was your weekend?”, she asked the following week.
“Um, good”, I said. “So, I kind of have this queer Labradoodle share thing going on?”
She laughed. “What!?”
“Yeah”, I continued. The teleprompter wasn’t on anymore and I had to freestyle. “Uh, so, like, he kind of has four puppy moms?”
“Omg”, she said, “I have to hear about this.”
Over the years we had some hilarious moments. I shared Morrissey’s weight loss journey, our favourite Netflix series and she taught me about the value of ankle cleavage, how crotch covers (also known as long singlets) make you look skinnier and where to get amazing pizza (Lazer Pig if you must know).
Revealing myself had filtered out the BS, and we were having real conversations. If, that is, you count pizza recommendations as real conversation and let the record state that yes, I do.
When you're a bit unusual, bit different, or you have an idea and can’t see in what version of reality it would fly, or the people in your world tolerate you instead of celebrating you - getting the courage to say whatever the fuck is on your mind kind of feels like an act of badassery, but doing anything about it seems kind of like career suicide.
The irony is of course, that you only get better at something by doing, um, something in the first place.
My awkward stumble out of ‘how was your weekend’ conversations failed for the first few attempts, but with practice, it got easier. Because confidence isn’t a personality trait: it’s a skill. It gets built by small incremental steps that reinforce doing something slightly different was a good idea in the first place.
I mean, no one (I sincerely hope) was googling ‘when will Rachel Service put Beyonce analogies on the internet to describe her feelings’. I had to put myself out there first. I had to do what I’m terrible at on Tinder. I had to make the first move.
I was telling a colleague over lunch recently how, since creating Happiness Concierge, once a blog, now a business, complete strangers were trusting me with some of their darkest secrets. How people in super senior positions with important sounding titles were telling me they feel like a fraud at work. That their marriages were suffering. How early childhood trauma continued to affect their behaviours around stressful situations. And how, the more candid I was with them about my biggest regrets in life, my biggest screw ups, the busier I was becoming.
I told her how people from companies I’ve never ever thought would ‘get’ what I’m doing were saying ‘come into our workplace and do your thing, our people need to hear it. How I'd always felt like my fuck ups would resonate with people but it’s kind of that thing where you need evidence until you really really believe it.
“Oh yeah", she said, over sushi. "You can’t trust a leader who doesn’t have the ability to express regret. When someone expresses regret, they’re revealing themselves to you. And you’re more likely to trust them. Think about it: can you really trust a leader who doesn’t have the ability to say they effed up?”
I knew from the people I had met they felt isolated, surrounded by people but feel like very few people could see what's in their head. When they came to me, I'd marveled at how onto it they were, and had even asked why some had come to see me. It was validation they were after. That whole 'I see you've screwed up in the past so I feel like you would understand what's going on with me - can I just get a sense check that the way I'm feeling is... normal?'.
Aaah, normal. I'd love to know what that looks like. I think it just means that you're not alone.
In my Mojo Sessions, I’ve often observed how one of the most validating part of the experience appeared to be when people were given an opportunity to own their narrative. When they were asked to attach a language, or a catch phrase, to put previous experiences and thoughts patterns into something they could ‘own’.
In therapy circles, it's known as 'to name it is to tame it'. I think that's why actually doing something about a shitty situation is so hard for so many of us. Do I really have to own this? Can't someone else do it?
It's hard work but it's also scary being yourself, I have discovered. It can have consequences, I have discovered, too. You might lose friends, partners, lovers. How others perceive you might change. Opportunities to what is expected of you might dry up.
Maybe all of that will happen.
But the question we gotta ask ourselves, I think, is less ‘who’ or ‘what’ do we want to be defined as (or in comparison to), and more ‘what is the price I’m willing to pay to not be myself at work, at home, with friends, family, loved ones’?
If there’s little consequence to your financial, emotional, spiritual, physical and mental safety, there’s sweet all motivation to change anything.
But, if you feel, like I certainly have, that there’s a disparity between your private and public self, that you’re spreading yourself thin because you’re being lots of versions of yourself for others and that you are mentally and emotionally disintegrating to make others feel more comfortable, well guess what?
You end up paying some form of price.
Be it opportunity cost (because you’re busy doing stuff that doesn’t actually serve you), financial cost (you’re only earning as much as you’re perceived worth and that influences how you see yourself), cost to your emotional, mental stability, an eroded confidence over time, and in some cases, your physical safety, too, or even burnout from just being insanely bored.
Surely, being 'ourselves' doesn't have to be work?
Well kind of yeah.
Feeling like I could be myself, without fear of judgement, consequence, isolation has been an insanely slow process. It was scary, awkward, stumbly and strange at first.
But over time, owning my actions, acknowledging other peoples judgements says more about them than it does about me, finding my people and finding a creative outlet - has actually kind of set me free from the anxious thoughts in my mind.
I guess the difference between my naive, full of energy, fearless, ambitious kid-Rach; my stuck-in-my-head and blaming others 20's-Rach; and my current mid-30’s being a grown up who DGAF what other people think-Rach is the shield I’ve created for myself - and maintained at painstaking lengths - which protects me, no matter what people say or think.
I didn't realise until recently that I could create that shield for myself.
That it gets stronger the more badassery you put in the tank, the more you hang out with your people who reinforce you're not alone, that there are other people out there who think and act like you do.
And it has been this, tiny, internal, act of badassery that has started a snowball effect in my confidence, how I see myself, and what I've been able to achieve. It has affected every factor of my life. (Save love and finances. One step at a time, people.)
Tonight, as l looked for a Saturday night series to watch, I came across this interview with Drag Queen, Peppermint. She’d come out as trans recently; a seasoned drag queen had told her that was great and all that, but, “she’d never work in drag again.”
“But that’s not true”, said the host, Michelle Visage.
“I know that now”, said Peppermint, “but that [phrase] scared the shit out of me. For years. I still worked but… It made me push them to opposite ends of the room… I didn’t think being a drag queen and a trans woman would ever mix. But know I know… these things can co exist: if that’s who you are.”
And that’s who she is.
So I guess the question is, if you're reading this is: who are you, really?
Are you gonna hide behind the shield you've created for yourself to protect?
Or create a new one new to protect you as you make small, tiny, brave acts of badassery?
And what's gonna happen one, five, ten years from now if you freaking don't? Are your loved ones still going to be around to see you become the badass of your own freaking life?