“Being someone we are not is nearly a guarantee for unhappiness,” according to Christine Selby, Ph.D, a psychologist in Bangor, Maine. And these words couldn’t be more accurate. After all, happiness happens when we create a life based on our values, a life that is meaningful, that includes activities that fulfill us, surrounded by people who truly understand us.
Which are all things that we don’t exactly do when we wear a mask. Or two. Or three.
So what do you do when you’ve been pretending for too long? What do you do if your facade has been glued on tightly for years? According to Selby, start slow and small: “Find little ways to express yourself that you know to be truly reflective of who you are and what you want.” She shared these helpful suggestions in our interview:
- Make your favorite color part of your life—whether it’s in the clothes you wear or the accessories you have in your home. “[I]t took me until well into my 20s to realize [and] admit that pink really is my favorite color. I was raised by a not-so feminine mom and learned that things that were ‘too feminine’ were not OK. And, since pink is usually associated with as feminine as you can get, it was not initially a simple matter to declare such a thing as my favorite color,” Selby said. What is your favorite color or colors? How can you add those colors to your environment? To your everyday? Doing so is simply another way to express ourselves. A fun, nourishing way.
- Share your opinion and preferences—in situations where you typically don’t share either. For instance, you might share where you’d like to go for dinner, what movie you’d like to see and what foods you’d like to eat. Don’t silence yourself. Plus, when we go along with others’ wants, which are different from our own, we plant seeds for resentment. And resentment can be poison to our relationships (and to ourselves).
- Play music that moves and energizes you—instead of music that’s culturally popular, or what your friends and family like. If you’re not sure what that is, sample songs from all kinds of genres. Devote a few days to finding your favorite tunes. Listen to what you loved as a child or teen. Host a dance party for one. Practice yoga to various soothing symphonies. What resonates with you?
- Spend time with supportive people. “While it is good to interact with a diverse group of people for all kinds of reasons, it is essential to be sure you have people in your life that support who you are, what your choices are, and do not question them,” said Selby, author of the book Chilling Out: The Psychology of Relaxation. “They effectively let you be exactly who you are without making you feel like there is anything wrong with you. Oftentimes, this group of people will have interests and opinions similar to your own—that’s a good thing. It allows you to feel connected, accepted, and ultimately sends the message that who we are is absolutely OK.”
It’s hard to be yourself when you’ve spent too many days, months and years being anything but. Yet, as Selby said, start small. Ease into this process. Remind yourself that taking supportive, intentional, tiny steps can feel incredibly empowering. It all adds up.
You can even make a list right now of your likes, dislikes and opinions on different subjects. Then add attributes, aspirations, needs, loves and anything else that describes you. Basically, think of this list as a kind of character sketch. You are describing yourself like a writer would describe a character. Or you’re talking about yourself like you would to a longtime friend who would never judge or criticize you and who you trust with your whole heart.
What does your list say? How can you translate that into day to day? How can you honor who you are on a regular basis?