Once upon a time, I was a connoisseur of self-loathing, a master of shame. I was all too familiar with every shade of self-judgment, and I did my best to cover it up.
I hated my body, so I spent hundreds of dollars on trying to “fix it.” I bought diet pills, waxing kits, hair dye and cellulite cream. I learned to layer my clothes in order to “look skinny” and I learned to do my makeup so that flaws on my face would never see the light of day.
By the time I was 13 years old, I wouldn’t go to the mailbox without first caking on makeup and putting on my best (skinniest-looking) outfit.
I also felt intense social anxiety. This, too, I hid. I hid behind an aggressive, tough exterior. I hid behind a few beers rapidly consumed before all social occasions. I hid behind a ruthless, “bitchy” sexuality that everyone else seemed to interpret as confidence. And yet, it wasn’t.
Self-confidence isn’t real if you can wipe it off with makeup remover. Self-confidence isn’t real if behind closed doors, when the party’s over, you look into your bare, naked eyes feeling shame and disgust.
So many people back then told me that I was the most confident person they knew, but it was all a big lie. I wasn’t confident; I was hiding. I was hiding my terrible, ugly self behind a veil of cool, composed confidence and a layer of expensive concealer.
I learned the hard way that needing a mask to feel confident is self-imprisonment. Every time I put on the mask, I suffocated my authentic self. Every time I put on the mask, I became more dependent on it. So my authentic self would spend less and less time in the light of day, until l reached a point when no one ever saw my true self, not even for a moment, not even me.
I learned the hard way, too, that it isn't in the nature of the authentic self to be pushed down, subjugated and controlled, suffocated into an easy, quiet death. When I pushed my true self down far enough, it pushed back — violently.
I think that's what a midlife crisis must be like: the eruption of the authentic self from beneath layers of masks piled on top of it to feign self-confidence and comfort. Even though I was only in my early 20s, that's just what happened to me. At the time, I thought I was having a mental breakdown.
Now I know it was more of a breakthrough. In one painful, emotional night, I broke free of the chains that I had put around myself. I broke free from my own prison. From then on, I could no longer put on a mask. My authentic self needed to breathe, and any attempt I made to cover it up caused me intense, unbearable pain.
The only thing more painful than trying to cover up my authentic self was facing it. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent looking at my reflection with no makeup, feeling pure, complete hatred. I can’t tell you how many weeks I spent looking at and hating my real body, my real hair with the dye taken out, my real emotions that seemed to leak out at every opportunity. I can’t tell you how much it hurt.
But it set me free. Learning to face my natural form — my natural body, my authentic emotions, my insecurities, my past, my fears — allowed me to accept myself just as I am. I learned to feel love for the imperfect, flawed woman in the mirror. I learned to embrace the hairs, the cellulite, the pale skin, the face that reddened much too easily.
And, in that space of complete self-acceptance, I began to grow a deep, indomitable confidence.
I can’t tell you that it will be easy, and I can’t tell you that it will happen overnight, but I can tell you that getting acquainted, intimately, with your untouched natural self is the only way to build the kind of self-confidence that can’t be taken off, because it’s not a mask. It’s a state of mind and a way of life.
Unshakable self-confidence must come from within. It can't be put on. It must be drawn out.
And, however painful, drawing it out means facing yourself just as you are. I promise that once you see through those layers of self-judgment you’ve learned over all these years, you'll find something so amazing that you won’t want to keep it hidden.
Your authentic self is beautiful. I promise you. Just take a chance and find out.
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