Too far beyond the comfort zone

Do you know who you are? How do you introduce yourself to others? What’s your elevator pitch? I’ve always admired those who could blurb out a quick personal infomercial with confidence and conviction. In most scenarios I’ve observed, an intro includes a job title. If you don’t volunteer it immediately, rest assured someone will ask “And what do you do?” Rather than simply stating a profession, some people proudly elaborate on their key responsibilities and skills. Whether you’re at a bar making new acquaintances or at a conference amongst clients and colleagues, you should know how to present yourself. I used to struggle with this, never confident in who I was or what I was doing.

I’ve often heard people claim that what you do doesn’t define you, a mantra that I believe aims to lessen the pressures of having to be in a purposeful career rather than a job – something you do as a means to an end and nothing more. But even a job over time becomes your trade. It may not define you, but it describes you. It becomes part of you, of your world, of your existence. For those of us privileged enough to choose the type of work that we do, we should choose something that fits us and accentuates our best assets. I learned this the hard way. Whether in a temporary job or long-term career, you should always be yourself and celebrated for it. I, on the other hand, spent years trying to morph into an alternate persona that I felt better met the requirements and expectations of the corporate environment I was in. This is the hard way, the path of most resistance, where I thought I could never succeed unless I changed, but no matter how much I tried it was never enough, and I was constantly afraid I would be discovered.

As a young professional hesitant about my path, I embraced the “fake it til you make it” motto. In fact, it became my way of life. After graduating college, I had no idea what I wanted to do in life. I just needed to get a job asap to become financially independent and relieve my parents from that burden. They brought me to the U.S., land of opportunity, and put me through college. All I could do in return was make them proud. In the image of my engineer father, I aspired for a stable job at a reputable company with good benefits and upward mobility. I began my corporate journey as a customer service rep for an IT company. In pursuit of recognition and perceived success, I diligently progressed on a linear path within that field. I never asked myself if it was what I wanted. Anytime I felt uncomfortable within my professional role I told myself it was necessary in order to learn and grow. I believed that I was working to become a better version of me, determined not to let my perceived flaws hold me back. But in reality, I was repressing myself, trying to delete the parts that didn’t fit in, the ones that didn’t elicit the reactions that I wanted. My new mantra was “fake it til you become it.”

I was surrounded by successful people and I wanted to be like them. Unfortunately, that meant being a lot less like me. This strive to be someone I wasn’t inevitably fueled a lifelong struggle with impostor syndrome and eventual identity crisis. 

When we moved to the States, I was a shy and confused 14-year-old with a language barrier. Kids would occasionally approach me with initial curiosity towards the new girl from Italy. But they would utter words I didn’t understand, and my awkward reaction would quickly drive them away. Then I’d occasionally notice them making fun of me from afar or avoiding me in the hallways. I was too ashamed to eat lunch alone in the cafeteria, so I often hid in a bathroom stall. I continued to feel like an outcast in college when I would be thrown into the dreaded group projects with confident extroverts who would run the show and easily forget about me sitting quietly in the back just waiting to be told what to do. By the time I entered the workplace, the language barrier was gone but the shyness still alive and well. I went into every interview knowing I had to temporarily become a confident extrovert in order to get the job. It was like taking one long breath in and exhaling only once out of the room. I implemented every rule in the book. Sit tall on the edge of the chair to demonstrate interest. Offer a firm hand grip. Keep a clear and distinct tone of voice. I faked it, in many cases successfully, but occasionally betrayed by blushing cheeks and a trembling voice. While practice supposedly makes perfect, it’s hard to control the biological stress reactions in our bodies. I continued to struggle with these throughout my career, not only in interviews but also when offering my opinion during large meetings or when owning the spotlight during a presentation. However, I never shied away from the public speaking challenge. In fact, the fear was partly thrilling. It’s a bit like jumping out of an airplane. You’re terrified to take the plunge but exhilarated when you realize you’re still alive. Only, it never got easier. So I wondered, Where is the balance between stepping outside your comfort zone and living in constant discomfort?

I stayed on my corporate journey for 15 years before the resistance became too strong to tolerate. Everything in my body was screaming for change. I felt like I had silenced my inner instincts, my passions, my desires, in exchange for financial freedom and reputation. My “success” had granted me social acceptance yet instead of building my confidence it shrank my spirit. I was emotionally drained, mentally exhausted, irritable, demotivated. I needed a fresh start. I needed the space to free my spirit, listen to my heart, and give it a voice. Away from the prejudice of who I’d been and the pressures of who I needed to be.

So I left. My job. My city. My country. I leaped towards a new form of discomfort, the type that feels right, that inspires and ignites. I started rediscovering myself and learning to accept myself. It’s a deeply vulnerable but empowering process. It involves shedding layers of shame and insecurities to reveal unconditional love. I’m now able to appreciate the humility in my shyness. The self-awareness in my self-consciousness. I discovered empathy to be my greatest strength, my superpower as I journey through life chasing what brings me joy: people, connection, belonging.

This is who I am and what I’m doing. Confident that no matter where I am in life, I can only thrive in it by being ME. 

Antonella

One thought on “Too far beyond the comfort zone

  1. Pingback: I decided not to fake it and got rejected. | Two Eureka Girls

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