As a child, I clearly remember a moment of self-awareness when I realized I was growing up. I was old enough to realize that soon I would be at an age when most people could no longer play pretend or make believe. It was already getting harder to lose myself in the fanciful games that had occupied my entire childhood. I was young enough to naively, optimistically hope that I could still manage to hold on to my childlike imagination forever through sheer determination. Like Wendy’s bittersweet decision to leave Neverland, and Peter’s inability to leave it, there was a recognition that childhood can’t last forever if we are to gain the benefits of being an adult.
As a teenager, like many, many others, I was painfully self conscious, and given to changing my identity on the turn of a dime. Everything was about self expression, from my hairdo to my shoelaces. Sure, it was a lot of adolescent posturing, but in the midst of all those attempts to categorize and define myself, there were moments of beautiful accidental honesty. I may have gone through a lot of fashion phases, but all of them were very real and very true at the time. There was a creative freedom and innocence to those shifts that, like my childhood ability to pretend, would diminish in adulthood.
As adults, it’s far too easy for us to step into the roles we feel we need to fill.
It’s far too easy to see the world in types and think in terms of “I should buy this car, or rent this apartment, because I’m x, y, or z kind of person.” You are The Good Mother, The Successful Manager, The Hip Businessman, The Career Woman, The Family Man, The Single Girl, The Nice Guy, The Wife, The Rebel, and the list goes on and on. With all the marketing and branding we’re surrounded by and create for ourselves, it’s day to think we can only shop at certain stores, look a certain way, have a certain zip code, or watch a certain channel of news based on who we think we are and who we want to be.
We play pretend all the time by projecting who we think we need to be.
These are similar impulses to the teenager trying on a different look each month, but they come from the opposite place. This desire to fit ourselves to a type is often less honest than we accidentally were in adolescence. All too often there is no imagination in it– only picking the type that serves us best and trying to fill its shoes to the best of our ability. Playing to a type can help simplify our busy, complicated lives. It seems like a fast track to getting picked by the right boss, the right significant other, the right friends.
We’re afraid that if we don’t play the part, we won’t get the role.
It’s easy to be afraid you’ll miss out on an opportunity if you don’t look or act like the person you think should get that role, or who you think others will deem right for that role. However, you can miss out on just as many opportunities by not being yourself. What if you’ve misread the crowd? What if the act you’re putting on isn’t the right one? What if you’re spending so much time trying to be someone you’re not you aren’t putting that energy into your work, your relationships, and feeding your soul? Living in fear can be exhausting.
As adults, we’d all be better off if we gave ourselves the freedom to be ourselves.
To live with imagination or to be honest in projecting who we really feel we are, these are the gifts of childhood that may diminish into adulthood, but shouldn’t disappear entirely. Children live so easily in the present moment, and open about their needs, and are unabashedly themselves. It is only as we grow up that we become more self conscious, more self-aware, and more burdened with a sense of expectation or a desire to please. But by getting in touch with the children within us, we can be more authentic and reclaim some of our best qualities– those that are childlike, rather than childish.
We can only achieve the greatest success and the greatest happiness by letting ourselves be genuinely who we are.
That may seem daunting in a world that seems to be built on types and categories and image, but it’s also part of the journey to authenticity. It is one of the biggest challenges we can face as an adult, and ironically it involves doing something we never thought we would as we worked so hard to be “all grown up.” It means reclaiming the best parts of your youngest self in order to be your very best present self, and grow into a happier, more compassionate older self in the future.