Opening Doors

“Take a day to heal
from the lies you’ve told yourself
and the ones that have been told to you.”
– Maya Angelou

The feeling of ‘not being enough as we are’ often results in internal banter as we struggle with deeply held beliefs that hold us captive. Sometimes, our many internal narratives can be variations on a theme of “Who do you think you are?” (Many times, insidious questions of this genre are inflamed by a sense of shame.) Untended to, these can run feral and rule our lives in unruly ways.

Anything that calls into question our enoughness is worthy of deeper exploration so that these thoughtlines do not pervade our lives. When we doubt our own worth we lead life from that contracted place. Our lives become confined by this diminishing stance as we allow external narratives about who we are, who we should be, and what’s possible for us to have the weight to displace us and who we really are.

Becoming aware of the internalized messages about how we should be in the world, and locating the beliefs that limit the expansive possibilities available to us because of who we are, is an everyday ‘fight the good fight’ sort of inner wrestle. Beliefs lodge deeply. They constellate with other beliefs in our body-mind-heart complex and create boundaries from which we operate in the world.

How often do you feel you have the right to be yourself? What factors or situations cause you to question it? What stories do you live by or have you inherited about the way the world is or what is possible for you? How does the belief or feeling that you’re not good enough, or that you don’t belong here, or that you don’t deserve x, y, or z, feed the motif of keeping yourself small and disconnected from being who you are, fully, and keep you from what you really want? Where do those messages come from?

The internalized messages that can shape our sense of self are subtle and social. We learn them in our early conditioning, from our parents, grandparents, caregivers, teachers, churches. They are gendered, classist, racist, misogynistic. We learn them from society and cultural norms. Boys feel it when it comes to expressing their whole selves (“Boys don’t cry.” “Don’t be a sissy.”). Girls and women feel it in the conflicting messages they receive about the fine line they need to walk to be in the world judgement-free (“Be nice.” “Don’t be a bitch.” “Don’t show weakness.” “Don’t throw like a girl.”). A person of color or someone from an under-represented part of the human collective might feel it in the myriad of ways in which racial messages play out in life, such as simply driving down the street. In many ways, stepping outside these harsh lines defined for us and into the out of bounds area of the societal playing field feels unsafe. So, we stay within the lines. Limited.

When, where, and how does one claim the fundamental right to be yourself?

When we step out of bounds, to be ourself fully, shamelessly, we eschew the prescribed notions that make us feel less than. We begin to find that we are, indeed, enough. We can stand our ground there, in our enoughness, and we may stumble grandly into a sense of inherent belonging.

As humans with a case of the ‘not enoughs’ running in our lives, we need to internalize messages that attest to our belonging as whole persons. “You are AOK as you are.” “You are more than enough.” “You and your entire story are nothing to feel shame about”. Moving to that place takes an inner shift to overcome shame, and it takes a larger helping hand from the bright people in our lives to remind ourselves that we are worthy, talented, capable and that we matter.

As Maya Angelou says in the lines above:

“Take a day to heal
from the lies you’ve told yourself
and the ones that have been told to you.”

With her recent book Becoming, Michelle Obama, who helped create the most welcoming and inclusive White House in history, hoped to widen the pathway for who belongs and why by sharing her story. “So many of us go through life with our stories hidden, feeling ashamed or afraid when our whole truth doesn’t live up to some established ideal…,” she writes, “That is, until someone dares to start telling that story differently.”

The people who believe in us help us move out beyond the limits of the voices that say, in some form or another “You can’t” or “You’re not good enough,” or in the case of the cultural messages for people of color in a white society: “You have to work twice as hard.” What struck me most in our podcast conversation with Legacy71 founder David McQueen is that he is building an entrepreneurial community around the very notion of not letting outside narratives like race constructs dampen one’s sense of possibility for themselves and their organizations. McQueen sees the limits of believing the race conversation — i.e. messages like “You have to work harder” — and defies them by not letting messages like this rule his life. He prompts to those in his community: “Do not let the race conversation run in the back of your head.”

Letting that conversation run, internalizing it as if it’s to be adhered to, puts us at a false handicap. “If you go in thinking that you have to work twice as somebody based on race, you’ve already put yourself into an inferior position,” he notes. “You’ve elevated somebody because of their race, and in many ways you’re actually creating a platform where you already feel like an impostor. I refuse to allow my journey to be dictated by someone else’s narrative because of a social construct.”

Or, as Eleanor Roosevelt put it: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

The fundamental right to be yourself precedes any narrative from the external world. You have a right to be here. While reading Michelle Obama’s book, I was particularly struck by how, as her extraordinary journey unfolded, the mantra she would use to quell the voice in her head at each juncture was:

“Am I good enough? Yes I am.”

It’s a power line to keep handy and at the ready to remind yourself of those very words whenever that inner voice chimes in to try to warn you of your place, that you’re not good enough, and who do you think you are, anyway?

“I may have had some successes in my life,” she writes, “but I can still feel the twinge of embarrassment from when I misspelled a word in front of my class when I was in kindergarten. I still remember the doubts I had about myself as a working-class minority student on an affluent, mostly white college campus. I think we all carry moments like that—and let me tell you, they don’t disappear when you suddenly find yourself speaking to crowded arenas and meeting the Queen of England.”

When it comes to claiming the fundamental right to be yourself, it helps to have guides along the way. Parents, teachers, mentors, managers, bosses are in powerful positions (and positions of power) that can impact someone’s life in non-grandiose ways. It doesn’t take much to open a door for someone, to believe in them, and to let them know they matter. It could be an introduction that begins the first step of a career, or supporting a young adult’s passion for the arts. It could start by listening and giving someone the space to share their story and be heard. The small acts can make a big difference in how someone reclaims their story, their sense of self, and heals from the lies they’ve been told (or have told themselves) about who they are.

Think back over the course of your life, how many people in your life opened doors for you? How many doors have you opened for others? How often have you supported without taking credit?

My sense is that the majority of us humans have ingested some external narratives that may still be hampering us. Whenever we hear those messages being told to us, or running in our internal dialogue, we need to pause and ask that narrator, “according to who or what?”, and call it on its own malarkey. From that place, we begin to include ourselves in our own narrative. That is how we honor and respect our fundamental right to be here.

You are good enough. Yes, you are.