I’m no guru, and I’m not claiming to have unlocked the mystery that is the meaning of life, but it seems to me that one of the largest undertakings we can go through in life is two-fold: (re)discovering our identity and communicating that to the outside world. Being authentic is not a switch you decide to flip on one day, it’s an evolution equal parts gut-wrenching and fulfilling. The struggle to carve out our own path amidst expectations and approval of others is a tug-of-war. We’re social creatures (yes, even the introverts), but the inability to express and be ourselves threatens to pull us under.
For me as well as countless others, this manifests in many ways: taking detours of what we should be doing instead of what we are called to be doing, living a closeted life (and this is not just for LGBTQIA folks, we all spend our fair share of time in the closet), it’s abandoning our passions, it’s sticking around in relationships that destroy us, it’s choosing the safe and comfortable option when we yearn for spontaneity and adventure.
This is not just about “following your bliss.” While it’s a great concept, too many of us do this in as discreet a way as possible.
I wanted to be a writer since I was a very small child, but I remember being told by family, well-intentioned as it was, that I “needed to have a day job, a back up plan” so as not to flounder in poverty. Who in your life is giving you well-meaning advice that is actually helping to instill fear in living your true, genuine self? Or even more insidious, is giving you license to stay in your safe and comfortable closet while life goes on in auto-pilot mode?
All of this just became fodder for this concept that “you can do things you enjoy, you just mustn’t tell ANYONE about them” that I still carry around today. Writing and trying to start my own business? My nerdy hobbies, like comics and Dungeons & Dragons? Wanting to participate in outdoor adventures just as backpacking, kayaking, and climbing? My spirituality that borrows from Kundalini, Wicca, Indigenous, and Buddhist practices? Or even this, something I have only spoke of to a handful of people: I am genderqueer, more specifically a demigirl? These are things I would never have dreamed to broadcast about myself, and have a hard time talking about even to my spouse.
This isn’t just a “coming out” story. I am me, I am complex and still very much battling with how I present myself to the world, to both people close to me and the public at large. I am discussing this as a way to not only see that you can’t just expect to be “yourself” and “authentic” overnight but that it takes years and is never truly over. Think of these blog posts as a series of lessons along the way that can help you evaluate if you’re hanging out in your own proverbial closet or if you’re on the right track in your own authenticity journey. And not only that, but hopefully this can serve as a way to continually check in with yourself. There are many times I thought I had it “figured out” and just kept moving forward, but it wasn’t until another relapse of anxiety/depression knocked me on my ass and reminded me that my identity and purpose are not just a “one and done” type of deal.
Even though all of these intertwine and inform the others, I found that it was better to separate them in some ways due to coming to terms with these facets taught me different things about myself. I’m starting off with how I began to find where my professional strengths were and how I could do my best work that feels more aligned and inspired. I chose this one to start with because that’s really how I began my authenticity journey, because it was my dissatisfaction in work that cascaded into other revelations in both my professional and personal life.
My Internal Compass:
“What I wanted to be when I grew up” changed about as often as my clothes. Astronaut, broadway actress, novelist, politician/diplomat, speechwriter, psychiatrist, Air Force linguist/translator — the aspirations swung pretty widely. Call it what you will, but three things have always shaped how I wanted to experience and do my best work: I wanted to explore and discover the world, create and express myself, and to help people live better lives.
I was in college around 2006–2007, when the Recession hit. My original plans to major in International Relations and work at a NGO or the UN were suddenly in jeopardy. It felt entirely too risky, we lived in an uncertain world where I recognized even then that having a degree did not guarantee me a job. I pivoted into nursing, my mother’s profession and at one point had told her, “I’ll never be a nurse like you.” Even then, I eschewed a private out-of-state university due to the uncertainty of student loans and because Philadelphia seemed a country away. As you can tell, as a teenager (17–18), fear was my ultimate motivator. I took little to no chances and went to community college/technical school as the safe choice.
It’s not even that I dislike nursing, it’s a great profession and there’s lots of things I enjoy about it. I discovered my love of teaching and training others through my nursing background. I have seen the most beautiful and tragic parts of the human experience, from birth to death, due to being a nurse. But the American healthcare system itself has a lot of problems that really drive down the quality of life of all healthcare workers, especially nurses. Due to the emphasis on profit, working with patients has become little more than working an assembly line of seeing as many patients in a short amount of time and squeezing in as much charting as possible to bill for the highest amount. And of course, in your dizzying pace, the looming prospect of missing something and the ensuing litigation haunts you as it’s drilled in you that any mistake can cost you your very livelihood.
While this sounds dramatic, all of the things that may cost you your license are drilled into your head throughout nursing school as you stumble your way through clinical rotations trying desperately not to be responsible for killing anyone while you suffer through memorizing lab values, medications, and 20-page nursing care plans that never see the light of day outside of school. This frenzied pace starts very early and sets you up for early-career burnout and even early in nursing school mental and physical health issues related to that began to surface for me.
I’ll spare you all of the details of my 5 year nursing career but will remind you of my three criteria: discovery, creativity, and service. It became obvious that creativity and exploration weren’t high on the nursing agenda, and the idea that what I was doing (spending most of my time with a computer screen instead of a patient) was actually making someone’s life better was a dubious prospect at best. Something in my career had to fundamentally change.
Building a (Failing) Business
However, fear still gripped me. It was in my very core. This was all I knew. I had attempted to venture out into health IT and training health professionals. It still didn’t feel quite right. What came next required a leap of faith. I realized that the only “true” way to live a professional life that could satisfy what I needed to feel fulfilled was to create it by becoming self-employed. Now the how was a lot harder. I didn’t have a Bachelor’s degree and I felt I needed to further credentials. I stuck with health as that it was I’ve known and worked in. From there I decided to pursue a health coaching certification.
I finally started to feel happy. I was working towards creating a business that not only could sustain me but allowed me to write and create as well as help people without constraints from insurance companies, ICD codes, and appointment slots. I saw so many health coaches focus all of their efforts on touting the perfect diet or product, but knew that that didn’t resonate with me. I wasn’t passionate about it because from my experience in nursing and helping teach patients, I knew that change in our habits came internally with their mindset, reframing their thought patterns and conquering their unhealthy coping mechanisms instead of the external changes like diet that others were promoting.
I struggled with niching down in an authentic way while still wanting to focus on how the mental changes can improve physical health. I landed onto burnout and how we put our health and self-care on the back burner because I noticed in myself and others how all of our other obligations tend to take precedence over our own care. This felt right, and I overhauled my website to reflect this. I wrote blogs about it and had a lot of ideas for other kinds of content about mindset, self-care, and resilience.
But something was wrong — no one was engaging with what I was putting out there. My email list was single digits. Not a single client signed with me in the span of a year (super embarrassing to admit that, but this is a post on vulnerability and authenticity). I poured my own savings and even got a part-time job to support my coaching biz. At first, this failure was due to a fear of putting myself out there. The sting of failure, of embarrassment…of proving people “right” that I wouldn’t make it. But I started to do livestreams, networking, even being quoted in some major outlets and getting interviewed. I WAS putting myself out there. Maybe not in big ways but enough that I should have been getting some sort of reaction.
I realized…there had to be more than just fear. There had to be something else that was bothering me and holding me back.
Becoming a coach spurred me towards personal growth and my own transformation as I wanted to be the best version of myself if I expected to help others. I will go more into this in the next blog post but suffice it to say, I faced a lot of hard truths about myself and felt like in a lot of ways I was overcoming that fear.
As I began to do more digging, I realized that health, while something I dedicated my entire adult life to improving in others, is not where my heart was anymore. I was on the right track, I still wanted to design my own business that serves others, but this just wasn’t the way I was meant to do it.
Being a health coach was just another way for me to play the role that I had been as a nurse that ended up being unfulfilling. I was still, even when striking out on my own, trying to be the person that I thought people wanted me to be.
And of course, no one resonated with that. No one wanted to work with me because I wasn’t showing up in the world the way I wanted to be.
This revelation didn’t come as a lightning bolt. It came as little clues here and there that “something wasn’t right.” You probably have them too from time to time. They’re easy to ignore for awhile, like little whispers in a crowded room. Suddenly, these thoughts get louder and louder until one day, you’re in the shower washing your hair and it stomps and screams because it will no longer be ignored.
I decided that first and foremost, before anything, I wanted to be a writer and author. That telling stories was not frivolous or something I had to hedge my bets for. That, if it was important to me, I could make it a priority in my life.
- People will encourage to shelve your passions (don’t let them)
- Listening to what your inner self is trying to tell you is far more important
- Fear is not a productive motivator and I regret letting it drive many of my decisions
- Knowledge of our self (our purpose and passions) is only half of the journey. Next, we have to live it and express it.
- Just because you have put years of time into something doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t pivot into something you actually want to do