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

I decided not to fake it and got rejected.

Last week I got a rejection letter from a prospective employer. It was after the last round in a lengthy interview process and a final performance I thought I nailed. I fully expected to get an offer. So, the “we were impressed but chose another candidate” message really punched my ego. The recruiter offered to collect and share feedback in case I was curious about where I fell short. I welcomed it, certain that the stories in my head could not have been any more pleasant than the truth. I was right.


“You didn’t seem excited about the role.” That was the main consensus amongst the panel of judges who had scrutinized my aptness for the job. There was no criticism about my qualifications or concerns for my ability to carry out the role. And most importantly, there was no mention of my flaws, a long list of imperfections that my brain had already been scanning through trying to figure out which one might have been the culprit. 


I figured it had to do with my being shy, my greatest insecurity when it comes to human interaction, particularly in an interview setting where confidence and assertiveness are expected. I thought they might have noticed how nervous I was. Maybe they saw my cheeks blush or heard my voice tremble. All aspects I fear make me a less than ideal candidate. Yet, as often is the case, the story I told myself was just that – a story. An elaborate tale made-up by my bitter alter ego, Stuart, who likes to eat Nutella and wallow in self-pity. 


I didn’t get the job because I didn’t really want the job in the first place. I just wanted the satisfaction of being the chosen one. I didn’t get the job because they saw right through me. Or better yet, I was too transparent. I voiced concerns about aspects of the role I didn’t find suitable. I gave honest answers when asked questions about my interest in the company and aspirations for the future. I didn’t pretend that working for them was my lifelong dream. I didn’t deny that I have personal passions and interests that a proper work-life balance should allow me to cultivate. I didn’t fake it and it cost me the job. 


That’s the price of being authentic. Staying true to yourself means that you can’t make everyone happy. Some people may like you and relate to you, others won’t. Some people will say YES to you, others will affirm a decisive NO. It’s a harsh reality for people-pleasing perfectionists like me. We are masters at conforming to our audience in order to elicit the desired response. But having to put up an act is exhausting. Even if effective at shielding us from rejection, the constant pretending inevitably leaves us tormented by the symptoms of impostor syndrome. I know this because I lived through it. Impostor syndrome is the nemesis of self-love. 


When you stop faking it, you find freedom. That freedom empowers you. It allows you to get to know yourself much better and learn to love yourself much more. Rejection always stings a little. It’s hard not to take it personal. Yet it’s quite egocentric of us to expect that the world will always, unanimously, unequivocally agree with us. Let’s instead be ourselves and celebrate what makes us different, what makes us unique. Even if that means not getting the job. The right one, I’m certain, will come along.

Antonella

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