Truth be told, it’s difficult to lose yourself when you never really knew who you were in the first place. Up until my 33rd birthday, I’d spent most of my adult life defining myself through my relationships with other people, through my successes and achievements, through how I believed the world perceived me. All my effort and energy was spent trying to please others; trying to absolve the “mistakes” I felt I’d made along the way. Everything I did was fuelled by my fear of disappointing people and of losing those close to me. I chased my vision of perfection with everything I had – house, career, husband, children. If I achieved these things, then everything would be ok. Then I would be happy. Then I would love and forgive myself. Then all would be right with the world.
Is it surprising that I’d wake at 33 to a life filled with all these things, but with a reflection in the mirror that I did not recognise? It’s hard to really know someone who has defined herself her whole life by things external to her.
I remember several moments that led to this realisation. One was doing a personality course through work and struggling to define myself. I was asked, "Well what are your hobbies?” When I went to respond (to such a seemingly simple question) no words formed. I stared blankly at the trainer. “You must have a hobby!” What made the feeling even worse was that when posed with a further question, “Well, what would you like to do, if you could do anything?” I had no answer. Not only did I not know who I was and what I liked to do, I’d lost sight altogether of the person I wanted to be.
Unfortunately, in that moment I didn’t grab hold of the reins and set about making changes. I had fallen so deeply into the cycle of “just surviving” that I had lost the energy, will or desire to get up and get living. I had completely forgotten who I was outside of the realms of the roles I was playing: wife, mother, daughter, friend, career woman. There was no “me”.
It would take a complete stranger calling me “boring” to finally fuel the fire in my belly. Boring?? Nobody gets to call me boring! This was what you’d call a pivotal life moment. I had two choices: either deny it and continue down the path I was on; or take a shower, a deep breath, and a long hard look in the mirror. I chose to do the latter.
So there I was staring into the mirror, with little recognition of the face staring back at me. I hadn’t lost myself…rather I’d just never really found myself, well at least not in my adult years. In that moment I made myself a promise: To take the time to get to know myself properly, and to honour the person that I discovered.
My journey began with memories, some of which I started to capture in journals.
I remember being eleven years old… trying to find my way…trying to make sense of my world in the midst of my parents' divorce. I felt many things – confusion, anger, shame, hurt, loss...even apathy. In short, I felt like my world had been turned upside-down and I didn’t know how to put everything right again.
I have a distinct memory of lying on the kitchen bench of my childhood home, just staring at the ceiling. Commotion all around me. I remember my mind suddenly quiet. I remember how the world faded in that moment and I was filled with silence - as white as the ceiling, as clean as the paint untouched.
I remember the thought as it was born, “What if my world really had turned upside-down?" What if I could be the one to walk on this pure untouched ground for the first time? What if doorways were steps and lights extended from the ground up? What if this whole new, quiet, serene world had been laid out just for me ?
It was like seeing everything for the first time. Everything looked beautiful and new and pure...everything seemed possible.
My perspective shifted ever so slightly and my memories began to propel me further within.
When I was in year 2 my best friend’s name was Prathanna and he was the best colour-inner I’d ever met. He’d colour the trees pink and orange and blue, and the sky purple, and the flowers green. He’d fill in the white spaces with solid, vivid colours that danced on the page and made my imagination run wild.
In later years I felt compelled to replicate his style in primary school art class. Only to be shot down by the art teacher with the words, “Too child-like, too undeveloped; demonstrates no understanding of colour”. Some memories cut deep. At 11 years old I was taught that self-expression was an action open to judgement, and as such should be carefully monitored.
The further I dug, the more I realised that I needed to look inwards and nurture my inner child to enable her to heal, grow and integrate with my adult self. I began to play more, laugh more and question more. I started to focus more and more on the present moment and on letting go of things past. The more I opened myself up, the more the colour started to flood back into my life.
I quickly began to realise how much my own children were teaching me every day…and how in turn they were watching me to see how I would behave. I became acutely aware of the importance of living my life authentically; of ensuring that I loved, honoured and respected myself. Because our children are always watching us, soaking it all in, adjusting their next move to align with our last.
So I just kept peeling back the layers – the layers and layers of paint that had masked me for so many years. The fresh coats to mark new starts. The touch-ups to cover the mistakes. The graffiti of misspoken words. Paint in colours that didn’t suit me. Paint that others had applied. Paint so opaque and shiny that it let no natural light shine through. I just kept peeling and peeling, no matter how uncomfortable or tired or scared or unsure I became, I kept on peeling until finally - the beautiful, original wood grain began to show through.
So now, now that I’ve begun to uncover, know and love the inner authentic me, I have made a new promise. I promise to teach my children how important it is to know and love themselves. Sometimes I will teach them through conversations, through praise, or by working through their feelings. Other times I will teach them through actions, including loving myself enough to do things for me sometimes, or by passionately pursuing my own dreams.
I make this promise to both my children and myself because if you love yourself, you won’t spend a lifetime chasing happiness – trying to find it in other people, in possessions, in achievements. When you truly know and love yourself; happiness naturally follows.