Despite the mantras, most of us don’t live life as our best possible selves, and it’s not because we lack capability or willpower.
We know we’re ready for the promotion, but we don’t ask to be considered. We know competing businesses charge better prices for their services, but we’re anxious to raise our own. We’re bothered by being out of shape, but we sabotage any attempts to work out. We want to dress well, but when it comes time to get ready, we reach for the same old clothes and call them “good enough.”
Or maybe it occurs in subtler ways. We know gossiping isn’t a good character trait, yet we’re sucked into it anyway. We know most worries are unfounded, yet we dwell on them regardless. We want to reach out, make plans, be more social, but we fail to follow through. We want to live in organized spaces, but we delay the half-hour of daily upkeep that would require. We know we need a glass of water, but we never reach for it.
On the surface, these tiny failures seem like laziness or a lack of confidence. The reality is much deeper.
When you were a kid, you were fearless. You stated your needs, you were effortlessly creative, you stayed present, and you were more honest than you will probably ever again be in your life.
It wasn’t until early puberty that you started to gain the cognitive ability to recognize a certain kind of danger, the kind human beings fear the most: social danger. You were born with the innate need to be accepted by your peers, but as you grew up, you began to understand the codes and conditions by which we evaluate one another to determine worthiness.
Soon, that free-flowing, effortlessly present, and wholehearted life you were living began to seem less like a natural expression of your self and more like the criteria upon which others could judge you.
Whether you realized it or not, you adapted.
You made yourself small before you even knew that was what you were doing.
Your “small self” is a combination of habits, behaviors, and beliefs you adopted from those around you. You interpreted their needs and preferences and took them as your own. You assumed certain traits for defense, or safety, or because you just never took a minute to stop and think: But is this really who I am?
In the same way that we adjusted and adapted to other people’s expectations, we are capable of adjusting and adapting to our own.
Habits function in a three-part cycle: trigger, routine, reward. That’s exactly what’s happening when you keep deciding to be less than you are.
Say you want to do something outside your comfort zone — whether that’s as difficult as applying for a new job or as small as picking an outfit in the morning. You sit down at your computer to start the job application, but you open Facebook “real quick” before you get started. Next thing you know, you’ve been scrolling through Facebook photos for an hour and your job application remains incomplete.
Opening Facebook is your trigger (a 30-second-or-less action) that kickstarts a routine (endlessly scrolling) that is rewarded (by feelings of safety and security) by allowing you to avoid doing the thing that stresses you out. The same goes for picking an outfit. Once you grab one familiar item of clothing, more familiar items will follow, and any bolder items end up staying on the hanger in your closet while your brain rewards you with feelings of comfort that come from sticking to the status quo.
When you’re stressed, you resort to old habits: your routine, the one you formed as a defense all those years ago. You start to behave as the self that was reinforced, the self that stayed safe. When you do this, your brain rewards you with feelings of safety. The cycle continues.
This feeling of retreating into your “small self” will not sustain you if you want to grow. Your small self is a black hole for which there is no bottom. It will never be enough because you can never have enough of what you do not really need, and you can never be enough of a person who you really aren’t.
But remember: Our sense of self is malleable. In the same way that we adjusted and adapted to other people’s expectations, we are capable of adjusting and adapting to our own. We can unravel the identity we created years ago and build a new one more aligned with our authentic truth.
Your awareness that you’re not being your best self means you already know what your best self would be. The fact that you are conscious of being inauthentic means you already have some concept of what authenticity would feel like. You would not feel discomfort, or even concern if you did not identify a gap between who you are and who you know you’re meant to be.
Here’s how you can begin to bridge it.
Visualize the person you want to become
Imagine walking as them, living as them, behaving as them. Every day of your life, you must wake up and completely embody the person you want to be. That is the only way you will become them.
Imagine how they dress, how they style their hair. Imagine how they write emails, how they handle conflict, what they get done, and how they do it. Take the macro and make it micro: Imagine your whole, full, ascended self, and then figure out how that person would handle the minutiae of your life.
Defy your old impulses
If you know you have impeccable style but don’t dress as well as you could, you must defy your impulse to stay small and, instead, choose the wardrobe you really want. If you know you’re a master of your craft but downplay your success because doing so feels comfortable, you will have to defy the impulse to seem insignificant.
At first, this will not be comfortable, but it is essential. The crux of abandoning your small self is abandoning your desire to adapt to what others might want you to be.
You are not only capable of becoming this person, you are meant to be this person.
Almost everybody is exceptionally good at one thing, terrible at one or two things, and generally average at the rest. Instead of trying to even all of these out and seem “pretty good” across the board, leap toward your strengths, admit and outsource your weaknesses, and find comfort in your normalities.
Rewrite the story
The reason you resist being this ideal version of yourself is that you associate it with something negative. You’ve written a story about your ideal self — one you had to write decades ago, in early puberty, when you abandoned your real self in favor of a smaller one.
Maybe you assume attractive people seem vain, or successful people seem shallow, or confident people seem arrogant. In each case, you’re weighing social currency above anything else. The truth is that you can be anything you want — and as long as you are kind, authentic, well-intentioned, and willing to admit when you’re wrong and try again, you will be accepted by your peers.
Change the story. Tell yourself you’re becoming the kindest and most loved version of yourself. Step into your power and truth so you can lead the way for those around you. By becoming what you want to be, you will release the tension, the resistance, the unhappiness. You are not only capable of becoming this person, you are meant to be this person.
This process of self-validation is essential. After all, you began to play small in the first place because you sought that validation from other people.
What would you do if you knew nobody would judge you?