If you are a human being, and I am assuming this to be the case, people have been telling you what to do and who to be since before you could talk. It starts with things as simple as gender: “This is my beautiful little girl” or “Oh, look at my strong little boy.” Then, it progresses on to things like personality and intellect: “Taylor is the nicest kid” or “Sam isn’t very smart, but Alex is a child genius.” It comes to us naturally, and it comes from everywhere: our family, the media, strangers, etc. Comments like these don’t seem to be a big deal in passing, but for some of us, these words can bind us as we get older, holding us to a definition of a person who we are not.
Story time! Growing up, I was always “the smart, silly, chubby girl.” I was also a fiercely free spirit, although when I thought of myself, I thought of myself as chubby, smart and silly. Now, it wasn’t that people directly told me that I had to be these things. They were more or less observations that people had made about me. As I got older, I began to allow these observations and definitions that other people made to rule my life.
Puberty was very kind to me, and those things people thought about me changed. Suddenly I was the “beautiful, thin, perfect girl.” (The word “perfect” to this day upsets me beyond reason.) I saw these things as my worth. After all, it was what people thought of me. No longer was I smart, but thin. I stopped trying in school and started trying harder to be more “perfect,” whatever the hell that means. After all, to others, it was more valuable for me to be beautiful than smart, right? I remember thinking to myself that I must not be very smart because nobody else seemed to think it.
Eventually, without realizing it, I stopped thinking for myself altogether. The activities I chose to do were chosen by someone else, and I rarely spoke for fear that I would be out of line. I allowed friends, relationships, the media and even strangers to define me, write my story for me. I looked for validation in other people, not myself. I saw beauty and obedience as my only values, the only things that I could offer the world, and I held myself to ridiculous standards. I had completely lost sight of my true self. So far gone was the happy free spirit of my childhood. It was the most miserable I have ever been and hopefully ever will be.
Finally (and fortunately), I snapped. I realized how distorted my thinking was and set out to find out why. I turned inward and sought answers. It wasn’t really that I was self-obsessed, because if you asked the real me, I couldn’t care less about looks, and yet I got up two and half hours before school in order to get ready. Why on earth would I do that? It was that I had been trying to keep up this image of what other people thought of me, and I had never questioned it. Things needed to change, or there was going to be nothing left of ME. But I was afraid. What would people think of me if I changed? What would I think of myself? Eventually, it got to the point where things were falling apart so badly that I had no choice but to do the tough thing.
And so, I sat down and questioned EVERYTHING. I questioned what I was wearing. What I was doing. Who I was friends with. My gender. My beliefs. My values. My personality. I took months paging through my life, getting rid of everything that I had not myself written. I kept only the things that were truly, purely and absolutely me. A distillation of person. Though some things remained the same (I do enjoy singing, and I do identify as female), so much of who I was was based on other people’s ideas of me. The person I am now is so radically different from who I thought I was, it’s hard to say we are the same person. That being said, I still have a long way to go, and I continue to question myself.
The thing about letting other people define you is that you no longer live as you; you live as them. It’s so easy to let small comments get to you and affect the person you are. Most of the time we don’t even notice that we are being affected by these things. Sometimes, these comments are good, and you find that they suit who you are. Other times, they can leave you living deep beneath the shelled exterior of “someone else.” Good or bad, if someone tells you “girl,” when you feel like “boy;” or someone tells you “dumb,” when you feel like “smart;” or someone tells you “love him,” when you think “love her;” and you find yourself starting to believe them—take a step back, stop and see for yourself. Stop caring what other people think; stop being cautious. Listen to what you want and do it. This is your life; live it. Remember that who you are and what you are is not a definite thing. You can create it, you can change it, mold it until it fits you like your own skin. Nothing is definite. Don’t be afraid to change.
And so, my friends, the secret to NOT letting other people define you is simple. Question everything, even yourself.