The Unruly Self

This post comes a little late, but with warm feelings and happy memories, even though it is very different from anything I’ve written in the past.

These weeks have been full of news, full of discoveries and full of uncertainties, but I have decided to embrace and accept them with patience and self-confidence, without letting me lose heart.
I took a kind of trip into the past, I tried to remember who I am based on what I liked over time. Freedom and music, my identity. It had been a long time since I gave myself such a space for myself, and it made me regain possession of myself in full.

Music, in particular, has a seductive effect on me. Listen to it, connect the words of the lyrics to memory and memories. Hearing the notes of the guitar accompanying a melody takes me back in time, and I have the extraordinary ability to remember every moment associated with it.
It probably doesn’t work for everyone, but every time I need to find myself, I throw myself on my favorite notes and start traveling as if I were in the world of Fantàsia. It is a simple but very powerful thing.

And I remembered. The unruly and rebellious girl who ran away from home to dance late. Who covered each other with friends to be able to do whatever we wanted. That she suffered because none of the greats liked everything she did, and she was constantly punished for being the way she was. And these experiences, these memories are now engraved in the lyrics of the music that I listened to and loved.
I looked at the photos of the past by now very distant, but only by listening to the songs of the time I associated those photos with the feelings I felt and the confusion of joy and pain I felt inside, and I was so excited that I felt again as I was at the era, naive, curious, enterprising, and nothing, absolutely nothing could have dissuaded me from having fun.

That way of being happy it’s what I’m rediscovering now, with more awareness and clarity.

Associations are important, let’s use them for a good purpose.

P.S. To my old friends (you know who), you are always in my heart!

Luna

Enough with labels! And why we over-diagnose our emotions.

One of my readers recently expressed concern about my posts. “What exudes from your writing is that you’re an unhappy person,” she told me. I should specify that her feedback wasn’t unsolicited. I expressly asked for her opinion but did it fully confident I’d receive a wildly complimentary pat on the back. Her words left me a bit surprised but as I mulled over them, I completely understood. You see, the words came from my biggest fan, my most die-hard supporter, the one person I could never do wrong by, my mother (sorry mom!) She is also the one person in my life who rejoices most in my happiness and carries the heaviest burden of my pain. Even my tiniest frown can cause my mom great concern. So, I understood why my writing about insecurities and vulnerabilities would worry her. But I also wondered, do others echo her thoughts and find sadness in my words? And, do we have a tendency to dramatize what are normal swings in our very complex emotional spectrum? 

After a recent personal post on social media where I openly shared about a particularly difficult moment in my life, a friend of mine reached out to ask if I had considered seeking professional help. The tone of my post, I thought, was one of hope and compassion. Despite the difficulty of what I was experiencing, I had found the courage to give myself a hug and trust that all would be ok. That was the message I shared. I had hoped it would elicit an empowered fist bump reaction, offering some relief to others who might have been facing similar challenges. Instead, my one friend (and maybe others) interpreted it as a potential cry for help. While grateful for my friend’s attention and care, I was still quite taken aback from his response. And I wondered, is our increased focus on mental health rushing us into over-diagnosing basic emotions as symptoms of very serious conditions?

Both episodes have sparked a lot of thinking in me about how difficult it is to talk about emotions. On one hand, there’s a tendency to hide emotions in fear of burdening others, especially loved ones, or worse, being misunderstood. On the other hand, there’s the shame of what we are feeling, as we ourselves often have a hard time understanding it and end up believing there’s something just plain wrong with us. I certainly don’t want my mother to think I’m a sad person, but I do get sad. I don’t want my friends to think I’m clinically depressed, but I do have days of not wanting to get out of bed. It’s hard enough to talk about feelings. But even more so when they’re negative feelings. Pain, disappointment, anger, regret… emotions most of us struggle to properly express and explain. 

We learn to keep our feelings to ourselves from a very young age as we imitate the behavior often modeled by the adults around us. With the best of intentions some parents tend to mask their worries and shield their children from inconvenient truths. They avoid showing or even acknowledging many negative emotions. Yet when a child appears sad or upset, the parents expect him to openly share and explain what he’s feeling. Unequipped to do so, the child internalizes and represses, laying the first stones of a soon-to-be insurmountable emotional brick wall. As we learn to successfully bury our emotions, we become empowered by our strength and ability to compartmentalize as we’re praised for doing so. I don’t know anyone who’s comfortable crying in front of others and doesn’t instinctively fight to hold back tears, no matter the occasion. After all, the expression “there’s no crying in baseball” has been extended much more widely than the sport to remind us that it’s rarely socially acceptable to cry. So, repress we must. Unfortunately, the more we repress the more afraid we become of ever exposing any vulnerability. And that fear keeps us from deeply connecting to others and supporting one another. Alone in our deeply complex emotional states, we struggle to make sense of our often-erratic behavior.

Luckily, with the recent boom in the self-help industry, we are finally allowing our emotions the space they deserve and embracing them to help us improve our quality of life. Self-awareness and emotional intelligence have become fundamental skills at the basis of any good relationship, partnership, or even business transaction. But in our efforts to better understand ourselves and others, we’ve become obsessed with labels, which aim to neatly define us and openly embrace us. 

Labels normalize our weird. But sometimes we rush to them as a solution without properly understanding the problem. We find such a sense of belonging in them that we build our identities around them and use them to predict and justify our behavior rather than improve it. In doing so, labels have become our own limiting beliefs that keep us enslaved within static profiles unable to capture our true essence. 

I have claimed a myriad of labels throughout my journey of self-discovery and development. When analyzing my behavior in social settings, I went from thinking I was an introvert to an ambivert to a shy extrovert. Most recently, a trusted colleague suggested that I might instead be exhibiting signs of social anxiety disorder. My brain exploded. I realized that rather than working so hard to understand and define and diagnose our emotions, we should focus much more on experiencing them, free to be completely incoherent and courageously vulnerable. 

Communication is at the core of our existence. Yet we often fail miserably at it. We fail to find the right words. We fail to listen and reserve judgement. We shy away from conflict and tone down our instincts. We silently swallow things up only to violently spit them out in a torrent of resentment. When we don’t give proper voice to our emotions, we inhibit our ability to love and be loved. So, let’s talk about our feelings and cry and write outpours of personal reflections to help us better connect with the world around us and love it a little bit better each day.

Antonella

Do programs shape our identity?

It seems obvious, every time we decide to do something, every time we say something, or even when we think something, we assume it is us doing that.

I’m sitting in a café in Rome, looking at people working on their computers, I enjoy my aromatized water with mint and orange; I feel connected to all the people in this room; I feel connected to the wooden tables; I enjoy looking at the graphic art on the white clean walls, and the modern minimalist designs of the furniture in this café.

This kind of place is a perfect example of what the new modern digital era is. Fresh, minimalistic, friendly and enjoyable.

The more you meet people, especially millennials from everywhere, you will always find a sort of connection in this way. You may call it a fashion, or a trend, but in my perspective, this is a real program.

Programs are built in us constantly, and they are very useful for our happiness and well-being; unfortunately, most of the time we blame them like it is something that makes us weak and meaningless.

Parents are certainly the first ones to build our programs. Good and bad, right and wrong, happy and sad. Any good parent has to teach us the basics of life for our survival.

They teach what food is good for us; they make us listen to our first songs and watch movies with them; they decide when it’s the right time to praise us or when and how to reproach us.

Unfortunately, so often, they have the tendency to answer for us, especially when we are so young that we can’t answer for ourselves.

Imagine being a child, walking in the street with your mom, suddenly she gets stopped by another person, maybe a friendly woman we have never seen before and she says “what a cute little child!” .

A very innocent and common scenario in every person’s life, but maybe the woman didn’t realize that the child is too young to answer, to communicate or even express what’s feeling, so the quickest thing to do is to just hide behind the mother.

“She/He’s just shy!” often moms say. All this may seem very superficial and irrelevant, however this leaves everyone with a program in their mind that will stay forever.

The child is a blank canvas that can only absorb new inputs, new information, he will learn that they are cute and little from the lady. The child will learn that strangers can talk to him/her and it’s ok, they will learn that strangers can assume something about them. They will learn from their mom that they are shy, they will learn that hiding is something you do when you are shy, and that talking to strangers is unpleasant and being shy is a way to escape that situation.

This, of course, is just a simple case many people can relate to on how programs are built within us.

There is no awareness this is happening, and there is no awareness we are programming others. In reality, we automatically create these programs within ourselves constantly, every time we think and act, and we associate those to our identity.

We could say Neuro-Linguistic Programming is all about finding those programs.

Sometimes people think they might use NLP to re-program themselves to become exactly the way they wish to be.

If I really could do that, well, I’d probably try to re-program myself to be more like Beyoncé or anyone that I admire; but is it really like that? And is it really worth to try?

Fortunately, I have to say, no.

Of course, NLP gives you so many tools to find your inner programs, and also the tools to change them. But no matter how much you want to change yourself, you can only change yourself effectively to develop your true self.
You can only use it to find a kind of sweet spot where all your identities (son/daughter, dad/mother, artist, athlete, worker, citizen etc…), live peacefully together without going into conflict.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

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