I told you recently that the way I want to feel this year is BRAVE. After saying goodbye to my trusty old job at the end of the year, I knew that, in order for this year to turn out alright, it would have to be defined by my courage. So far, I would say it has been.
There are many passages in my journal that show me propping myself up, reminding me of both what is at stake and how I have stepped up before. Those journaling sessions have been invaluable, as I have used them to propel myself toward finishing a book and submitting it for lots of potential rejection. I have risen to the challenge. I have been brave.
I can’t tell you how good it makes me feel to describe myself as brave! That adjective is hard won, and I am savoring it now. I have realized something else, though, in these days of summoning my courage: I wouldn’t need to be brave if I wasn’t so darn scared!
That’s the thing about courage: it doesn’t show up unless you are afraid.
So, while I am still proud of myself for being brave lately, I would be lying if I said I haven’t spent even more time racked in fear. Fear of going broke. Fear of failing as a writer. Fear of a future in a soul-crushing job. Fear of not being enough. Sure, I have stepped up and worked through it most days, but it has felt crippling anyway.
It was nice to use “brave” to describe what I am all about, but if I am being honest, the adjective “afraid” fits me at least as well. That seems weird, right? I have been wrestling with this seeming paradox this week, trying to understand who I really am. Am I brave, or am I afraid? If one of those words defines me, does it mean the other one shouldn’t? Am I a walking contradiction?
I decided that the best way to work this out is to come up with a bigger list of adjectives to describe who I am. That way I would know if I am being pulled apart on other issues, too (and if I am a good candidate for the loony bin!).
The list, I decided, should be long enough so I am not just a cartoon figure, but not so long as to cover every single thought or emotion I have ever experienced, making me a mere blur of every adjective in the English language. I went with 50.
So, without further ado, this is how I would describe myself, in no particular order:
Okay, that is enough! There are plenty more I can think of to cover all of my moods and my worldview, but this is good. It is a fairly clear picture, at least from my eyes. I know we don’t always see ourselves the way others see us, but I will not worry about the others for now. It is challenge enough to clarify my own view.
In looking at it now, I can see that the brave-afraid duo is not the only seeming contradiction in my personality description. I am definitely both selfish and altruistic. I am both cerebral and intuitive, passionate and serene, open-minded and opinionated. And I am certainly, depending on the moment, very often self-confident and very often insecure.
In those combinations, I can see how foolish we are when we try to put others in a box based on one thing we know about them. After all, if I am any indication, the opposite characteristic might be just as true for that person we have tried to trap in the box. So, making them into a cartoon character so that they can quickly fit into a box in my mind simply doesn’t tell the truth and shortchanges both of us.
Much like the contradicting combinations, there are some of these qualities that have both positive and negative aspects, and I can see myself covering the full spectrum. Sensitivity is one. It can be wonderful when appreciating art and being compassionate toward my fellow human beings, but it can also make everything sting more than it should and make me resistant to hearing criticism of all sorts. I can see this range of positive and negative outcomes with my fierce independence, too. As with the combinations, this broad-spectrum view reminds me to be more open-minded when observing someone else’s personality.
That, I can see now, points to the difficulty in gleaning any meaningful conclusions from the list taken all by itself. If I just looked at this list of 50 adjectives and didn’t know who it represented, I couldn’t be sure if I liked this person or not, precisely because each characteristic can show itself in a number of different ways. Sure, some characteristics are almost certainly more favorable than others—kind is better than unforgiving, right?—so we can get hints from the list. But, without the context of the actual person, it is a challenge.
So, though I wouldn’t necessarily use this process as the answer to finding your soul-mate, I found it immensely helpful for examining myself (and that is exactly what our journaling is all about). I learned a lot from those very first words I wrote in my notebook after I said, “GO!” And then later I learned a lot from the end of the process, when I had written around 80 words and had to narrow it down to 50. That is when I started digging harder: “Who am I REALLY?” My answers were revealing, more so than I would have guessed before I started the list.
In the end, I think my biggest takeaway is that I am complex, that I don’t fit very well in any neat box, not even one of my own making. That is an important lesson for me, not just for my own self-awareness, but in how it affects the way I need to walk the world. I have been journaling every day for 20 years, so I know myself extremely well and know that I have well-defined views and attitudes on just about everything. If I am still revealing contradictions and wildly divergent personality traits about myself–and if I am feeling more certain than ever that I don’t belong in a box–then I ought not be so quick to put anyone else in a box, either.
This process, then, has been a necessary reminder to make better use of some of the adjectives I listed in my 50: open-minded, curious, kind, compassionate, altruistic, generous, caring, and inclusive. Yes, I think I will work on those. If I walked out of the world tomorrow and could leave the people in my life with any words to describe me, I would be satisfied with those.
How about you? Which words describe you best? Open up your journal and your vocabulary. What are the very first words that come to mind about you? What is it about those characteristics that make them so prominent in your description? Are they things that you have always thought about yourself? Are they things that other people usually mention about you? How close are they to the core of you? Which of your words are ones that maybe only you think about yourself, words that would surprise other people to read? How much of your personality do most people see? How much of that is because you intentionally protect certain sides of yourself? If I gave a list of 200 words—including the 50 you wrote about yourself—to your three closest loved ones and asked them to pick out your 50, how many would they guess correctly? What if I asked your co-workers? Do you feel like you are honest and authentic about who you really are in most situations—e.g. at work, with friends, with acquaintances, with family, etc.—or do you mostly wear a bland mask until you are with your closest loved ones? How much has your list changed in the last 10 or 20 years? How different, if at all, will it look 20 years from now? How many contradictions are on your list, like my self-confident/insecure combination? Are you more or less complicated than most people, or about the same? How much do you cling to the boxes you put people in? Did this exercise change the way you think about that? Do you like who you are and what is on your list? Which words do you hope to get rid of? Which are your favorite characteristics? Which ones are not on there now but hopefully will be soon? Can you add a new one today? Leave me a reply and let me know: Which words describe you best?
P.S. If today’s challenge made you look at yourself differently, please pass it on. Let’s all be our beautiful selves!