I’ve always despised that statement. “Just be yourself” is no easy thing for some of us. Now, for those people who, as I like to describe it, “take up too much space in the world,” “being yourself” comes naturally. These folks know no other way. And they have no idea what it feels like to be anyone besides yourself.
However, as a recovering people pleaser, there were many years where I had no idea who “myself” was. Because of this, I had no idea how to “just be myself.” I remember staying the weekend with a family friend and being asked, “What would you like to do today, Julie?” My mind was blank. I was in my early 20s and I had only been someone who responds to other people’s needs and had been raised by parents who did not know how to parent me in ways that would allow my authentic self to flourish.
One very important role of a parent is to validate a child’s feelings. A very wise counselor once told my husband and me that reflective listening is very helpful for couples who are experiencing problems. You’ve probably heard this, too. One of the keys to reflective listening is to have Person A tell Person B their feelings about a situation. Person B then tells Person A what he/she understands Person A to be saying and feeling. While this is good, it’s simply not enough. The wise counselor told us that Person B needs to then say, “Is this correct? Did I get it right? Is this what you are feeling?” Person A then responds as to whether or not Person B understands things accurately. Then Person B needs to say, “Is there more?” If Person A needs to convey more information about the situation, Person A continues to reveal their experience and their feelings about it. Person B repeats the actions above until Person A feels completely understood. It is critical for Person B to continue asking, “Is there more?”
This reflective listening experience is so important for youngsters to experience also. A child who has hurt feelings from an encounter with a classmate or a neighbor needs to be able to confide in his/her parent and be “heard.” The child needs to be completely heard so that his/her feelings are validated by this authority figure. The child does not need advice. The child does not need to be scolded. The child needs validation of his/her feelings. Once that is taken care of, if it is appropriate, recommendations may be given as to how to avoid a similar situation in the future, etc. If the child’s feelings are not validated, the child will suffer many emotional problems in the future stemming from a lack of validation.
In my 20s, I had no idea what I wanted to do when asked, “If you could do anything you wanted to, what would you do today?” My “self” had been smothered by controlling parents and my life was mostly about minimizing their anger and unhappiness. As a child, I had taken on the role of emotional caregiver to my parents when they were unhappy. Incorrectly, I assumed it was my responsibility to “make them happy.” Perfect grades, perfect skin, perfect responses to the wardrobes they purchased for me, and perfect attention to stories they wished to share with me filled my days. If ever I looked away while my mother was telling me one of her crazy stories she should have really been telling a therapist or a friend, she would say, “Are you listening to me?” That was my cue to straighten up and fly right. I did not want the rage. I must do everything in my power to avoid the rage which lay just below the surface.
I am 51 now, and after much work and the desire to continue to grow and learn, I know myself. I don’t struggle with the question any longer when asked, “What would you like to do today?” However, I am careful to notice others who may be struggling in the presence of those persons who take up too much space in the world. I’m always drawn to those who suffer and may need a smile or a kind word.