I’ve always had trouble expressing myself. In the past I’ve blamed this struggle on my mind. I believed it was a product of a subpar or slow thought process. I thought I processed information more slowly than others and therefore had trouble keeping up in conversations. But as I’ve grown older I’ve worked to accept me for me. I’ve worked to change the negative self-deprecating internal conversation to a more uplifting, positive chatter. Instead of giving into the fact that “I’m just not good enough,” I challenge myself to figure out why I feel this way and how to change the feeling.
I no longer believe I have a fundamental problem with my mind. The issue (that I can overcome), is that I’m afraid of not being perfect. I’m not a perfectionist. People often use the term “perfectionist” as a personality trait that causes any number of issues in their life. It works great in an interview when spinning the inevitable “biggest flaw” question, but if you really want to know why you have certain tendencies or challenges, settling with the fact that you’re a perfectionist is probably just a way to avoid facing the more personal issue(s) at hand.
I use the phrase “afraid of not being perfect” intentionally. Very few people are textbook perfectionists. Tons of people, on the other hand, are fearful of being perceived as dumb or clumsy or inadequate or less than perfect in some way. Just like me.
Expressing oneself is a form of revealing oneself —flaws and all. It’s scary. I realized this exposure at a young age and made it a point to avoid showing vulnerability whenever possible. Instead of blurting out an opinion during a conversation, I carefully craft every word in my head before speaking up. There are times when I’ve missed commenting on entire topics because I take so long to formulate the perfect comment in my head. Saying something useless or stupid is worse than saying nothing at all. So why speak? I’m not perfect, I’m fearful.
It took me until my late twenties to admit to a friend or coworker when I didn’t know a certain person or current event they referred to in conversation. I’d just nod along pretending like they were saying all the right things and I knew exactly what they were talking about.
It’s still hard for me to say “I don’t know [insert topic or name],” but the moment I started to get more comfortable uttering those words my mindset and my world began to change. I went from secretly feeling inadequate to realizing that I was putting an immense amount of unnecessary pressure on myself, to then discovering a sort a freedom I’d never experienced before. I began to experience less fear and more confidence. And in doing so, I found personal growth.
After some introspective moments revisiting previous conversations in my mind I began to understand why I was so fearful of expressing myself. For me, it was more than just not showing vulnerability, it was also about controlling the outcome.
Many times we hold back or alter our self-expression because we want to draw a certain action or reaction out of our audience. We focus on what the end product will be of our actions (i.e. I want to say something smart so that everybody thinks, “Damn, Christine is smart.”). But when we change our behavior for vain reasons it’s almost always a setup for failure. Here’s why: We cannot control the actions or reactions of others. As you may have suspected, you can control your own actions and reactions. The conclusion we can therefore draw is that it’s silly to restrict or change or silence yourself because you want a certain outcome. It’s a fruitless effort that is likely causing you stress and anxiety. Let go of trying to control things you simply cannot control.
So why is it so important to push through feelings of fear and inadequacy? Because personal growth is on the other side. It doesn’t matter how you are perceived by others. What matters is how you perceive yourself. You have to live with you. Like, all of the time. So aim to impress yourself. I’m talking about actions that lead to personal victories, the ones that make you smile inside. That quiet pride you feel is the feeling of self-improvement and growth. Maybe I’m not the most clever conversationalist but I can still impress myself by listening and understanding and by being brave and speaking up when I have something to share.
Some challenges will remain challenging for a lifetime. But if we’re willing to step out of our comfort zone in the name of growth, we’ll start to see that it’s a fight worth fighting. It’s not selfish to focus on personal growth, it’s perhaps one of the most selfless acts you can take. The next time you feel fear start to grip you and lead your actions, wiggle free. Say what you want to say. Do what you know you should do. Be who you are proud to be.