“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Growing up as a child, I was shy, bullied often or ignored because I couldn’t stand up for myself.
My parents, immigrants from Colombia, South America, bequeathed me an inheritance of brown skin, brown eyes and a language full of emotion. Nothing like the world I was thrown into.
I started kindergarten not knowing a word of English, trying to find my place in a sea of white faces.
I stood out like a fly in milk.
I was teased and ostracized in class and recess until the nuns stopped the torture. I grew up smart and pretty and over the course of my life that got me by. I learned to hide my self-doubt behind my looks and mind.
For years, I tried to adapt to a world I felt I didn’t belong to. I felt like a chameleon, turning a different shade of color based on the situation. The pressure to fit it was greatest after college. I bought into the ‘more is better’ philosophy. Status and material possessions became my goal. I became successful playing a game I thought I was winning while losing my individuality and creative spirit.
A SHIFT TO AUTHENTICITY
Over time I have learned a few things about being authentic. My outlook on life changed after the birth of my son, and the two years I spent as a full-time mother. I no longer craved attention or felt the need to belong. The playfulness of my childhood returned to my life through my son.
Reflecting back on this critical phase of my life, I realized that what brought me into a mature assessment of my values was a combination of three things.
First, I spent time in meditation and quiet reflection, often in nature. Being in nature connected me to a spiritual source within me, and that became the origin of my personal power and confidence.
Second, I remembered how to play. It may sound frivolous but play is learning. When you play, you tap into joy and creativity, uninhibited by judgments and criticism. Play opens the imagination, and this is the beginning of manifesting your dreams.
Third, I began to spend more time on what I cared about and less time on what I call my “shoulds." I can always tell when I am out of harmony with my true nature by asking am I doing something because I feel I should do it or because it inspires and energizes me.
How to Create An Authentic Life
I now make choices that align with my values even if it displeases someone else. I continue the practices I began when my son was young to stay attuned to what matters most to me in the present moment.
I learned that unless I place value on myself, no one would value me. I've become less tolerant of ignorance, unkindness, and victimization.
I have been able to identify a set of practices that sustain and nourish me. These practices lead to an authentic, empowered life.
Because I practice these lessons, I live an extraordinary life traveling between two countries, doing work that is location independent and having the flexibility to express myself creatively in ways that benefit others too.
Lesson 1 – Find a partner and tribe that reflect back your strengths and greatness.
I read a quote recently that says, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”. You’d better be sure that they are ahead of you on the journey.
Having a tribe, and a partner, that reflects back to you your gifts, talents and greatness is the only way for you to see this in yourself. If you’re around people who love drama, complain all the time and sap your energy, move on and find people that energize and inspire you.
Raise the quality of your relationships with others and you raise the quality of your relationship with yourself.
Lesson 2 – Seek out challenges to all your perceived limitations.
Stop telling the “I’m not enough” story. You are enough if you define enough on your terms. Comparing yourself to others causes anxiety and diminishes your self-worth. The images you see in our culture portray an unattainable perfection that will sabotage your potential. You will know you are enough when you look within and value your talents, skills, and gifts regardless of cultural messages.
If you want to challenge yourself to grow in certain areas, get support to break through your perceived limitations not because you want to prove something.
Do it because you have a genuine desire to develop yourself.
Do it because you recognize your potential.
When I learned to kayak, I did it because I was afraid of the water. I wanted to prove to myself that I could overcome this fear and the little voice that told me I wasn’t strong enough. I learned how the mind creates fear, which in turn creates limitations. I tuned into the bliss that happens paddling in nature and riding the waves. I challenged limitations I thought I had about being strong and taking care of myself on the water and found joy and power in every stroke.
Lesson 3: Begin to see yourself as more than what you have allowed yourself to believe.
Spiritual activist, Marianne Williamson wrote, "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” I see how true this is for me.
Reach beyond your comfort zone to discover the hidden potential within. Have the courage to test yourself. Do whatever you find difficult to do and discover that you possess more power than you had allow yourself to believe.
I learned this lesson walking through the rainforests of Ecuador with a family of shamans. There I was, sweat pouring down my face, frizzy hair and mud all over me, trying to keep up with five native shamans on a “walk” through the Ecuadorian rainforest.
I would never have believed I could do this. I always thought I wasn’t strong enough or brave enough to go into a raw and natural setting and survive. I came out of the experience transformed, asking myself, “If I can do this, then what else am I capable of?” That lesson helps me tap into my power to overcome the challenges that I face every day.
Lesson Four: Make a commitment and life hands you the curriculum required to meet it.
It takes courage to commit to something larger than yourself. You may be committed to being a change agent or building a business that has a significant social impact. You may be a community activist taking on the politics of making change happen in your community. You are thrust into a leadership commitment that exceeds your capacity, but because you have the vision and the drive, you step up to the challenge.
These larger commitments force you to adapt to the challenge and to bring forth all of your creative potential in service of a larger vision. Life becomes the classroom, and the commitment becomes your coursework.
For years, I dreamed of building a retreat center in Ecuador, a haven for individuals to reflect and renew their lives and to resolve the unresolved questions of their lives. Every time I thought of doing this, the daunting nature of such a project made me take a step back. After years of dreaming, I decided the time was now to commit, or this would always remain an unfulfilled dream.
I could not remain the most comfortable version of myself, the one that played it safe, and succeed at this project. I had to develop my capacities as a leader, a project manager and a visionary to manifest this dream.
The project became my curriculum, and Ecuador became my classroom.
Lesson Five: Courage is the active engagement of fear.
Fear is the one thing that stops you from living an empowered, authentic life. You wonder what people may think of you, or you fear losing acceptance and relationships if you are vulnerable and authentic. You listen to the gremlin telling you that you are not enough. You stop trying and growing.
You have three choices. You can allow fear to stop you, ignore fear or you can engage and transform fear into the energy that propels you forward.
Think of fear as a message to pay attention, telling you that there is something you need to address. Engaging your fear positively allows you to anticipate problems and find solutions. It causes you to focus on the essentials to achieve remarkable outcomes. Distractions fall away, and you can accelerate your goals. Courageously engaging your fear allows you to transform its negative energy into the positive energy of movement.
Lesson Six: Become the Center of Your Universe.
I get teased for saying this all the time. What does it mean to become the center of your universe? It means you make a choice for your wellbeing first and foremost. It is a conscious choice for self-care. It is a way of loving yourself.
You begin making healthy choices such as choosing to get enough sleep instead of staying up all night. You choose to eat healthy and nourishing food instead of skipping meals or eating junk food. You choose to have life-affirming, respectful and loving relationships. These are all ways to express how much you value yourself.
This expression of self-love is the foundation for self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-care. Without it, you cannot create an authentic and empowered life.
Self-love is the cornerstone of an authentic life.
Lesson Seven: To grow, you must embrace the fullest expression of yourself.
If you let others define you, you will never know yourself, and you will never find peace and happiness. You will always live someone else’s version of your life story. You will never know your beauty and greatness by being someone you are not.
The incongruence between how you live and who you are will cause dissonance, distress and disease. Seek out people and activities that bring forth that creative expression of your heart and soul.
If you want to go on a cross-country trip or spend a month taking cooking classes in Italy, find a way to do that. If you want to stay close to home learn a craft, play a musical instrument or attend literary lectures. These all have the potential of sparking your creative potential.
These are not frivolous pursuits, although some may claim that they are. These are ways of opening yourself up to the inspiration that leads to an authentic life.
The things that inspire you will attract the right relationships, the right work, and the right life for you.
Lesson Eight: MYTH: You have a purpose in life. Wrong!
Most people don’t like it when I tell them to stop seeking their purpose. It just doesn’t make sense to me.
Seek self-knowledge; discover your true nature and purpose will find you.
As you age, what you care about will change. That’s how you grow and evolve. You will discover that there are many ways, not just one way, to express yourself authentically.
Be attentive of when you feel depleted or when you feel yourself struggling. Notice when you feel energized and inspired, when your passion is ignited. These are all clues to what you want to include or exclude in your life.
Asking, “What is my purpose?” leads you through a maze to nowhere. Stop looking for your purpose and start looking deeply in the mirror to know yourself first.
Purpose is the result of being authentic and living in harmony with that.
Lesson Nine: Engagement coupled with reflection brings clarity.
I was having a conversation with a good friend when a fundamental idea about how to make changes in life was born. We were having coffee, and she asked me, "How did you decide to move to Ecuador, even part-time? I'm trying to make some changes in my life, and I don't know how to begin."
I thought about it and realized I had combined two ways of being that seem to be in opposition of one another but together they form a powerful method to go through transitions.
I thought a lot about what I wanted and I spent time observing myself here and in Ecuador to find the truth about what I wanted out of my life now. I tried new things like living in Ecuador for three months and leveraging technology to be able to work remotely to see how I could design this new life that was calling to me.
This combination of reflection and action is like creating the journey one step at a time as you’re walking it. Simply reflecting on a change doesn’t work any better than thoughtlessly moving from one activity to the next.
Taking one action, reflect on it, adjust and then take another action to create the steps to living an authentic life. Eventually, you will arrive at your destination.
Lesson Ten: Make curiosity your greatest ally.
Being curious is opening yourself to something new. Leading an authentic empowered life means learning new things about yourself and the world all the time.
It requires a high level of self-awareness and an enhanced quality of attention to gathering the insights that teach you how to design your extraordinary life.
Curiosity is the way you engage life as the adventure it is.
I believe that until we become authentic in the way we work and live, we will not be able to find real joy, fulfillment, and happiness. It is only through an authentic life that we can empower ourselves to do the work we were meant to do in the world.
If you feel like you are leading a stranger’s life, you probably are. You can change that. It takes courage and being around the kind of people who appreciate and love you.
Everything you believe about yourself holds the possibility of being less than the truth.
What if those beliefs are the source of your unhappiness? Consciously choose to believe something more empowering, and it will change your life.
You deserve to be YOU in your fullest expression. You deserve to wake up each day feeling confident and healthy and loved. It starts with you.
Note: A version of this post was published online at Tiny Buddha.