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How Not to Lose Yourself

Would you recognize yourself if you overheard people describing you in detail?

I didn’t. And it was mortifying for so many reasons:

  • How could I know myself really well, but not recognize myself at all?
  • How could I be so visible to others and yet be invisible to myself?
  • How could I truly care for someone I didn’t fully see?

That experience imprinted on me—I remember it like it was yesterday.

I was running my Homecoming retreat and came across a group of women on the lawn overlooking the lake of the summer camp I had rented for the weekend.

They were laughing and talking animatedly about this amazing woman they knew—she had her own business, was a triathlete and a mom, she was funny, brave, smart, creative, and a free spirit.

I listened intently, waiting for a pause in the conversation to ask who this woman was—and was she here…at the retreat? Because I was pretty sure I wanted to find her and be best friends. She sounded awesome.

So I asked them—”Who are you talking about?” They looked at me confused…some laughed like I was joking.

But one woman—I’ll always be grateful to her—saw what I couldn’t see, and gently touched my arm.

“Lael, we’re talking about you,” she said.

It was awful, that experience. I ended up writing about it in Unscripted, the first of my two books, because I’ve learned it’s a pretty common experience for the women in my world of SheChanges.

It’s hard to believe that experience was 15 years ago because it still haunts me.

Recently, I’ve been wondering if I would have recognized myself if this group of women had been talking about all my shortcomings and deficits—the things about me that I know all too well.

If they had been talking about this woman who was always late, changed her mind constantly, and seemed all over the place with over-the-top energy…would I’ve chuckled knowingly and said, “You guys talking about me or what!?”

Would you recognize yourself if you overheard people describing you in detail?

That question feels more relevant now then it did back then. Maybe it’s because I am 54 now and was just shy of 40 back then, but it’s taken on a whole new level of meaning in the wake of the 2016 election, me too and times up movements and the loss of Roe v. Wade protections.

From where I sit—and from what I know—now is the time to hold onto yourself for dear life.

Hold onto your whole self in this divided world we’re living in.

Life is bumpy and jarring—especially now—and valuable stuff can jiggle loose and fall off your wagon without even realizing it. Your favorite pieces of you might be left in your wake as a result.

It happens to all of us—even those of us that seem to know ourselves really well. You’d be surprised to hear how often it happens.

Caring for myself is an act of self preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.

—Audry Lorde—

It’s been a common theme in my practice these days. Strong, powerful, independent, accomplished women are saying things like:

  • I don’t even recognize the woman I am anymore.
  • Where did I go? How did I get here?
  • I feel like I’ve lost so much of who I am.
  • I don’t even know what I believe anymore.
  • I miss myself—where did she go?
    I feel so far from the woman I knew myself to be.
  • It’s heartbreaking, isn’t it? And yet maybe you can relate. Especially Now

It’s why I’m sharing my own story about it with you here today—so you know you’re not alone. There are many times—still—I honestly don’t trust myself to recognize myself.

It’s what happens when we get tired and have been part of the grind for so long.
It’s what happens when we get busy and distracted.
It happens when we feel like we’re too much—or not enough.
It’s what happens when staffing is low, pressure is high and patience is spread thin.
It’s what happens when we spend so much energy fighting to be seen, heard and valued.

But mostly? It’s what happens when there’s so much gaslighting.

Do you know when you’re being gaslit? Because it’s going around like crazy.

In short, gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation—designed to convince you that what you’re seeing, experiencing, feeling, sensing (ergo the term, “does anyone else smell gas?”) isn’t real…when it actually is. It gets you to doubt yourself, trust others’ perspectives more than your own, and wear you down to the point of shaming you into silence.

What’s scary is that a lot of people do it without realizing they’re doing it—it’s become a rather common way of shutting down what is disruptive, uncomfortable or hard to hear.

Consciously or unconsciously, it’s a tactic used to avoid assuming responsibility.

It’s what we do with inconvenient truths. And it’s what we do to outspoken women.

Here are some common gaslighting phrases you might hear:

  • You’re overreacting…
  • Don’t take it so personally…
  • You’re reading way too much into this…
  • You shouldn’t feel like that…
  • You’re making a mountain out of molehill…
  • It’s really not that big of a deal…
  • I don’t know why you’re getting so worked up about this…

So how do you stay clear-sighted and not lose yourself on the bumpy road?

The more I rest, the more connections I make. Connections help to pull back the veil.

—Tricia Hersey—

I’ve been thinking about this—in fact I’ve been trying to live this. So have my clients.

Here are 3 practices to help you remember who you are in the swirl of your busy and full life.

1. Gather some origin stories—and keep them close
I love the concept of origin stories and use them a lot in my work with clients. More than what you’ve done or skills you have, these are breadcrumb stories that light the way back to the essence of who you are. Origin stories transcend your roles, circumstances and relationships. They often take the form of vignettes and can seem benign, but speak volumes. Origin stories are memorable illustrations of who you are are how you show up in the world. Read mine if you want to get a flavor of how they look so you can start to gather your own. The bottomline? Fill your pockets with moments that will remind you of who you are—wherever you are.

2. Get some solitude—and listen for the sound of your own voice
I’ve gotten better and better at practicing this, even as I beat back the guilt and the selfish feelings that inevitably come my way. I’ve also been gobsmacked by how my need for solitude has grown over the years—especially given my extroverted nature. One of my readers recently put into words what solitude gives me—the curious feeling of more of less. Less noise, less distraction, less voices, less opinions. More blessed silence, more inner attention, more communing with My soul. And it doesn’t have to be a big hairy ordeal…it could be as simple as taking the long way home in your car, all by yourself. The bottomline? It takes silence to hear a soul—so get some.

3. Get your people to have your back—and ask for help
Tracee Ellis Ross talked about this in a fabulous interview with Glennon Doyle recently. She said she has these “cauldron sisters” that she relies on her to remind her who she is when she’s forgotten or not seeing clearly. I used to have my “touchstones” that I’d gather periodically—those women in my life who embodied an important thing about myself I never wanted to forget. Danielle LaPorte has an “ask-a-friend” exercise in her book Fire Starter Sessions that is not so much about feedback (blech!), but more about soul-nourishment. The bottom-line? Have a handful of people you trust to remind you who you are when you need it most. I keep a list of them handy in a note on my phone.

Want some more? Check out my Stand Tall course which you can get sent to your inbox right now with a couple of clicks. It’s got 10 different practices, 30 examples and 50 prompts that will inspire you to play with different ways to stay whole—and remember who you are—in these gale force winds. They’re my favorites and I reach for them often.

Let’s fill our pockets with moments that light our way back to wholeness—so we can see our way forward. And let’s gather by cauldrons along the way and tell our stories in spaces where we’re seen—and safe.


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