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By Matt Hearnden
“How should I be?”
How? That’s an anagram of “who.”
I was worried about how they’d judge me.
I wanted them to like me and I was trying to convince myself I needed to think about “how to be” to do that.
Nerves are a symptom of wearing a mask.
When I realised I was trying to wear a mask, I smiled.
And when I realised I was trying to wear a mask because I wanted people to like me, I felt calm.
I was only trying to make myself happy. That’s ok. I like being happy and I like knowing I like being happy.
But I was doing it wrong. Even if I had worn a mask and got on with everyone and said all the “right” things I would’ve felt full with a hollow ache.
A few years ago I got moved into a job I hated. I wasn’t asked. I was moved, like a pawn, like an empty wrapper to the bin.
Even though I was eating healthy food, even though I was going to the gym, I was tired. I’d almost fall asleep at my desk every day.
One day, when I was driving home, which is only a 20-minute drive, I fell asleep at the wheel.
When I opened my eyes I was about to crash into a car on the other side of the road.
I yanked the steering wheel to the left as hard as I could, and then to the right to avoid the trees, and then to the left to avoid the oncoming cars, again, and then the car span and came to rest on the grass next to the road, facing the wrong way.
I was ok but shocked. I didn’t want to believe it had happened. But it had.
I didn’t tell anyone at first because I knew why it had happened and I didn’t want to admit it.
I hated my life.
I don’t remember if it was that night or not but I soon ended up in the foetal position on my bed. I didn’t know what to do. It seemed like the only place to find solace.
“We’re going to be offering voluntary redundancy…”
I don’t know what she said after that and I didn’t care.
Voluntary redundancy. Those words rocketed through me, cleaving my mind open.
I knew what I wanted to do but I held back my relief, in the moment.
Is there a difference between listening to your gut and to impulse? I like to think so.
I took the news to my parents and told them I was thinking of taking it.
That silence was painful.
I can’t remember what we discussed next. They probably asked lots of questions and I probably gave moody answers. You’re welcome, mum and dad.
But then I said something I’m proud of.
“I’m not asking you for your permission. I’m telling you my thoughts because I love you.”
I said that because, in the moments of silence during our discussion, I took the time to detach myself and ask questions like “who’s the most important person in my life?” and “what do I really want to do?” and “what would the real me do?”
They all pointed the same way like some internal compass fuelled by happiness.
I knew I had to give up.
I had to give up trying not to make them disappointed, trying to keep them happy, and acting on every single thing they said.
Of course I don’t want to disappoint them, and I want them to be happy, and I want to listen to them, but I’d been placing all of those things above me. And that made me resent not wanting to disappoint them, wanting them to be happy, listening to everything they said.
And that’s not how I want to live.
And that’s why I gave up.
Because I gave up I then took voluntary redundancy without looking back and took the biggest step towards the life I’d been daydreaming about for years.
I haven’t made any money yet. I work harder than ever. I work longer than ever.
It’s already worth it.
I’m glad I found myself in the fetal position because it provoked me into being tired of caring.
Tired of caring about what people thought of me, or how I should act while I’m at work, or who I was trying to impress.
I was tired of pretending to be someone I wasn’t.
I decided, moment by moment, to give up pretending.
I searched for moments where I could let my true self flicker. It was uncomfortable because people expected me to behave in a certain way, and I no longer did, but I also felt a rise in me when they gave me a surprised look.
It was working.
And, paradoxically, or not, I started hearing the feedback I’d always wanted to hear.
Different. Charismatic. And there was “something” about me, apparently, though they weren’t sure what.
I was sure. That “something” was me giving up pretending and, finally, giving into who I was.
And, also paradoxically, or not, I heard everything I’d always wanted to hear but I cared less about hearing it.
Because I felt free.
Because I’d given up.
I knew that for the nerves to dissolve I had to give up the mask.
I had to give up trying to be someone people would like. I had to give up wanting to put on a performance. I had to give up putting them over me.
I sat next to a person I didn’t know and had them laughing and telling me about their life. I answered questions. I even did some improv acting, because I saw it as a challenge, not as a chance to impress.
I had fun because I was me.
I had fun because I gave up.
I feel proud of myself when I give up because it means I’m telling myself it’s ok to give up.
If I’m telling myself it’s ok to give up, I’m telling myself I’m the most important person, in the universe, to me.
If I don’t give up the mask, if I don’t give up wanting people to like me, what am I telling myself?
That I don’t even think I’m important enough to be who I really am?
I was inspired to give up my mask because I knew other people had, or I’d read about people who had, or I’d listened to people who had, and it etched me.
They were at ease, even when calmly obliterating the status quo, even when in front of people, even when wearing a mask would’ve been the “easy” thing to do.
I wanted that.
Not to be them.
But to be free.