Yes, I talk about self-knowledge a lot. But never more than it should be. Such is the case for women – women in business, professions – life in general. We must keep at the task of self-discovery for as long as we live and breath. Certainly to fulfill the destiny for which we were designed. But also to keep others from defining our “who” in their image.
Knowing ourselves is one of life’s toughest challenges. Knowing ourselves well enough to not let others determine who we are is even tougher. We must know enough about who we are to avoid the trap of being defined by everyone from parents, friends, siblings, teachers – and the list goes on.
It was my senior year in high school and I needed to fill one class period. I decided to take an English class I had taken my junior year under the English Department Head, Miss Hopkins. She was an awesome woman and I adored her. Her death the summer between junior and senior year was devastating. But surely I couldn’t error retaking that class from Miss Hopkins’ dear friend, Pearl Bartley. Or could I?
It was obvious from day one that Miss Bartley preferred I not be in her room. When I raised my hand to respond, she never acknowledged me. She avoided eye contact and when she did – it was to glower at me. The first few weeks were anything but pleasant.
I made the mistake of questioning something the new Head of the English Department (you guessed it – Pearl) taught us as gospel English. Not only did I question it, but I prefaced by comment with – “But Miss Hopkins said. . . ” That was all it took!
“Linda, you are in this class at my sufferance and I have suffered you long enough,” she roared! “Don’t ever try to go to college – you simply are NOT college material You don’t have what it takes!”
You could have heard a pin drop! I pressed back the tears and glanced at the clock to see how long I had to hold them back. George sat next to me; reached out and patted my shaking hand which I’m grateful for to this day. Finally the bell rang and I ran from the room.
But it didn’t end there. I found the courage via anger and outrage to trot myself to the principal’s office and lodged a complaint. That complaint and the principal’s decision to take Miss Bartley to task cost him his job – at least as principal. Years later he returned as Superintendent of Schools!
That fall day in 1955 could have been a devastating defining moment for a young woman not out of her teens who lacked the gutsy confidence of her more ‘sophisticated’ class friends. Instead the harsh unkind words of an arrogant woman who resented the praise heaped upon me by her predecessor became the spur that drove me to complete not one degree – but two! And with each one, I sent an announcement to – you guessed it – Miss Pearl Bartley! (There’s more to the Linda and Pearl saga, but for another post another day).
I share my personal story to drive home the point that others will insist on defining us in order to make us into their image. They will decide “who I am” – rather than me doing so for “me”. Had there not been a spark of courage in my belly that warm fall day which sent me flying to the principal’s office, I might have shriveled and never brightened the door of any school of higher education.
Instead, I decided I would prove the woman wrong and make her eat those nasty negative words spoken in considerable anger; designed to take any vestige of self esteem.
I bet all of you reading this can point to a person or situation in which someone attempted to mold you into the likeness they wanted for you. I also bet that most of you found the courage and intestinal fortitude to resist.
Then again – perhaps there are a few who did not. Or who are struggling to crawl out from under a “who am I” they know is not who they are. So how do we know? Know if the definition of “WHO” is my who? Here’s a few ideas I’ve pursued over the years:
1. Does it fit? I mean does who others say I am feel like a well worn coat that slips easily over my shoulders and I’m thrilled to wrap my body in its warmth. If not – then it’s probably not your “who”.
2. Engage in some ‘navel-gazing’ as we used to call it. Step back from the hustle bustle of life and sink into some serious soul-searching. How did you get to this place in life? Are you satisfied with where you are and who you think you are? If not, set aside specific times to do nothing but examine your life; your thoughts about yourself and determine if life and your thoughts feel “right” to you.
3. Discover what it is that you truly want out of life. Is it what others said you ought be about – or is it what really satisfies your soul? If not – then set out to discover your deepest passions. Learn from others how they see and experience you. Let them tell you what skills and abilities they observe – especially the one’s you never thought you had.
4. Make a list of adjectives that accurately describe you. If you struggle doing so; then let others who know you well share the adjectives they use to describe you. You’ll be amazed at how those who care the most tell you how you appear to them.
5. Take those adjectives – the one’s you do, as well as those of others, and wear them. I mean REALLY wear them. If they fit – or seem to fit (like a smile on your face when you hear them); then repeat them to yourself over and over again. Repeat them until they drip from your lips without an ounce of hesitation. Once you can do that – you’ve arrived at a sense of self you may not have had before.
Five tips. Five seemingly simple tips to discover if the “who” is the “who you really are”. Yet they are not simple. They represent a considerable challenge. A challenge that without a willingness to engage them can spell the difference between a life lived less than fully and richly invested in our unique destiny or a life lived to the fullest with an unshakable confidence no one can ever take from you.
Ultimately, the choice is ours!
Linda S. Fitzgerald, Visionary Partner
Champion of Ordinarily Extraordinary Women of the World
A Women’s Place Network, Inc. dba
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