Stop living for an audience of strangers

It’s been two years since I left my job and life as I knew it. It was a decision that had been roaming in my head for months, but fear of the unknown held me back. I wanted change but was afraid of getting it wrong. I was unhappy but had no guarantee that leaving would bring me happiness.

It’s hard to envision a new life, a reality different from the one you know and have experienced. Through our experiences we develop a concept of what’s normal and defend it like it’s the only certainty in our lives. We are attached to our expectations and all the things we think we can’t live without. We are taught to be ambitious and want those things. Many of us are told to dream big and then we’re told what to dream, bombarded by images of an ideal life. So, we live in constant comparison and fear of inadequacy. And we forget what really matters. I had to leave to figure it out.

Change, particularly drastic change, triggers a destabilizing stressful reaction in most humans. Yet we underestimate our survival spirit and sense of adaptability. It’s just a matter of time before we are able to adjust and conform to a different environment, before the new stops feeling new and becomes our normal. Some of the things we were used to begin to lose value, while others gain new meaning. And we’re left to wonder, Why did I wait so long to make that change? What was I so afraid of? Judgement, I say, judgement.

Think about this… How would you live your life if no one was watching?

How would you live your life if you knew nothing about how others were living theirs? 

I’m not advocating for chaos or ignorance or isolation. But the idyllic vision of the American white picket fence was created by someone and unconsciously accepted by all. We overestimate the concept of happiness like it’s a state we can only reach once we’ve ticked off a series of boxes: stellar career, financial wealth, perfect family, numerous friends, etc. But is it what each of us really wants? Or, to refence another American idiom, are we just trying to keep up with the Joneses because we obsessively measure our life against that of the people in our network?

There was a time when our network was limited to our closest friends and family, people who truly mattered to us. Then came social media and the concept of friend started to broaden. Now, while I recognize the value of Facebook in the barriers it has brought down connecting people from around the world and building communities that bond and inspire, I can’t help but fear the damages of living with the daily judgement of, and comparison to, an immense audience of strangers. 

Who are the people in your life who know you deeply and accept you and love you unconditionally? The people who want your happiness and will celebrate it with you no matter their own emotional state? The people who don’t care if you’re a doctor or a comedian, or if you have children or pets? Those who do not pretend to tell you how to live your life and they do not condemn you for doing so in a way that’s different from theirs? These people should be your only audience. 

So, I challenge you. Silence the noise and focus on your own voice. Abandon those who do not support you. Take a chance. Make a change. Step outside the lines. Erase and redraw the lines.

Find the happiness that exists in every moment you get to choose how to live your life. 

Antonella

You’re on your own and that’s the hard truth!

What the hell am I doing? I woke up nagged by this question today. Two years ago, I quit my job and left the country in search of purpose. On this quest for meaning and enlightenment, I rediscovered myself and gained a great deal of confidence. Yet today I still battle with the voice that tells me I’m not good enough. My coach encouraged me to give it a name, an identity. I called it Stuart, don’t ask me why. It was in one of those tap-into-your-unconscious exercises where you’re challenged to close your eyes, put your mind to rest, and just feel from your gut. I felt the name Stuart. 

Stuart shows up about once a week, typically in the absence of sun, in a shitty mental and emotional pattern that halts my progress, sucks my energy, and dims my light. Since leaving corporate America I started cultivating new dreams. I began envisioning myself as a solopreneur, aspiring to create something meaningful that would allow me to make a living while directly impacting peoples’ lives. This desire is so strong within me that it cannot be ignored. It drives me, it excites me, it simply feels right… Until Stuart tries to tell me I don’t have what it takes. I instantly believe him and lazily abandon myself to the overwhelming disappointment. I wallow in the confusion and resign to self-pity. Me, a solopreneur? Who am I kidding? 

It takes a lot of courage to build something from scratch, and on your own. Courage takes confidence. Confidence can be irritatingly volatile. Even on my best days, when I feel like hot stuff and virtually unstoppable, all it takes is one rejection, one negative comment even from a random stranger, for Stuart to reinforce his case: You see, you should just give up! Stuart then convinces me that the best thing to do is hide at home and avoid social interactions at all costs. My introvert side celebrates. It’s a great excuse to sink into the couch with whatever comfort food I’m craving at the moment and the latest bingeworthy Netflix series. Sadly, while we all need and deserve these moments in our lives, they are not a good solution for addressing self-doubt. Self-doubt is a lonely place to be. 

Here’s what I’ve figured out about loneliness. It accompanies us throughout our lives. And it’s best experienced with low levels of confidence. That said, it doesn’t matter if you have a million IG followers, the best of friends, a perfect partner, or the most supportive family in the world, you will still have to face loneliness. While you can (and should) lean on others and ask for help when needed, the hard truth is that in the end You’re On Your Own. Stuart tried to remind me of this today to deprive me of any lasting shred of fight. I wanted to dispute it. I thought about all the people in my life, those I can call and trust to go out of their way to be there for me, and I thought about the strangers, the infinite number of good souls out there who may be nothing like me yet they’re sharing similar paths, or similar challenges. I have no reason to think that I’m ever alone. Yet the feeling occasionally transpires and I just can’t shake it. So, today I decided to give into it and I quickly realized that I was about to face a great fear. The fear of facing myself. Of having only myself and nobody else to count on. Of myself being enough: good enough, strong enough, whole enough. As Stuart’s voice finally went quiet, I basked in a moment of pride for having had such courage. And the great thing about courage is that it reinforces confidence. Suddenly, I felt empowered. Alone, but not lonely. I recognize I am no master at self-love, but the only chance it has to grow is if I continue holding up a mirror.

Antonella

There are no AHA moments!

Two years ago I climbed mount Kilimanjaro with my dear friend Nellie. We wanted to do something adventurous and were inspired by stories of people who described it as a life-changing experience. I was excited. It was a time in my life when everything was feeling quite blah. I was two years post a devastating heartbreak and still mending the pieces. Work was inching towards total career crisis. Nothing felt quite right and I feared looming apathy. I needed something to reenergize me and inspire change. What better than hiking a 5895m mountain? I could picture myself at the top, head high, fists in the air, and the sudden clarity I so desperately needed. I wanted that AHA moment, some sort of sign from the universe that would illuminate my path. I thought I would find it there, at the top of that mountain, ‘cause down in the streets of New York I was getting nothing. Just my brain, my convoluted thoughts, and paralyzing confusion. No enlightenment and no awakening, no matter how many meditative yoga sessions I reluctantly dragged myself to.

Reaching the summit took 6 days. The final climb from base camp began at midnight. It was the coldest cold I’d ever experienced. I wondered at what point my numbing toes would get frostbite, and at what point the frostbite would be so severe to require amputation. It was pitch black. We were a group of 10, walking in a single file line, so all I could see were the feet of the person ahead of me, illuminated by my headlamp. At the first break I looked up and in the total darkness I saw what looked like a string of decorative lights. It was the group ahead of us. I wished I had more energy to appreciate the nothingness all around and the immensity of the starry sky. At about 6am the sun started rising and we regained our sense of sight. We were surprised to notice the Mars-like terrain we had been walking on, the other mountain peaks around us, and the distance still separating us from the top. I believe that’s when my exhaustion started manifesting itself as anger. My legs seemed reluctant to continue holding me up. I conceded them a break as Nellie encouraged me to pause and admire the scenery. “You need to look around and take it all in” she said, “or you’ll regret it.” Her inexplicable positivity angered me even more. Words would have required too much effort so I just grunted in response as I dropped to the ground. I took a look around and no words or pictures can convey what I witnessed. I acknowledged it in awe and gratitude, trying my best to take a mental snapshot, but quickly returned my attention to the bitter cold and distant finish line. I wanted it to be over. 

Ironically, the top of the mountain was not the finish line – possibly some sort of life metaphor for never emptying out your tank in case you’ve gotta go an extra mile. Yet another cruel realization was that having made it to the top didn’t offer any relief from the cold. In fact, the wind was even more ruthless up there. Through the pain, tears, and mix of incoherent emotions, we inched our way to another side of the mountain where the elevation reached its highest point, as marked by the celebratory can’t-leave-without-taking-a-picture-in-front-of-it sign. I could barely muster a smile. There were certainly no fists in the air. And no magical revelations. It was the experience of a lifetime. But my existential questions remained unanswered, even up there above the clouds.

After Kilimanjaro I decided that if I wanted a true life-changing experience I needed to change my life, so I quit my job and moved abroad. The anticlimactic truth is that I continued to struggle with not having answers and on some days, I still hope for someone or something to just tell me what to do. Free will is a great responsibility and when you’re a people-pleasing perfectionist, it’s a paralyzing risk of failing and disappointing – yourself and others. As I continue to navigate through uncertainty, I have found bravery and empowerment through the stories of others on similar journeys, learning that there is no shame in not having it all figured out. None of us do. Instead of being overwhelmed by the big existential questions, I now celebrate my many daily choices and small accomplishments, confident that they’re all leading me in the right direction and excited about the mystery of what lies ahead.

Antonella

posing in front of the Kilimanjaro peak sign

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