From an early age, there was a part of myself that I didn’t want others to see.
It was my tears.
I was a sensitive little boy, and somewhere around age 5 I started to feel like sensitivity wasn’t welcome in my world. I remember getting “looks” from others when I'd get emotional. Most of the time, I wasn’t told to stop crying, but I started to feel that holding back my expressions would make others more comfortable.
I'd find ways to hide that part of me. I remember several instances when I was teased in school and tried my best to “hold it together” and not cry, only to turn around and let it all out behind closed doors. I remember spelling the first word in a spelling bee wrong and feeling so much shame ripple down my spine that I barely made it offstage in time to explode in emotion.
For the majority of my life, I haven’t felt safe expressing myself fully, but I've recently noticed that I'm not the only one who feels this way.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended an event in Boulder called the Authentic Man Program (AMP). I entered a room with eight other men, and we all worked to fully "show up" as ourselves. We were invited to be who we really are, and I started to safely unravel the parts of me that I’ve suppressed for the last couple of decades.
I was invited to share the things that had caused me pain in life, and I realized that a lot of the pain I had experienced only existed because I felt alone in it. I was convinced that if I were to share that part of me I might lose a friend, a romantic partner, or someone else I cared about. I didn’t hold back—I let myself cry when tears were there. I let myself feel pissed when anger was present. I let myself grieve when I felt loss.
As soon as I spoke out, I noticed my sharing actually created a deeper, more relatable connection with the people around me. Even though I’ve been in loving spaces like this before, I was reminded of how powerful it can be to reveal ourselves and share that which we think isn't welcomed.
I left the program feeling whole, and I've been working to maintain that feeling in my daily routine. Suppressing my self-expression isn’t a game I’m willing to play anymore.
If you’re also ready to stop holding back, here are three exercises to help you unlock your true self:
1. Welcome your emotions.
People have the tendency to make themselves "wrong" for being emotional, but any feeling or emotion you have is valid. The next time you're feeling something that you might describe as “off," use it as an opportunity to put a voice to your inner experience.
Exercise: Find someone in your world who loves you unconditionally. Set a timer for 15 minutes and tell them about something that's on your mind. Refrain from apologizing or soften your words. Make it clear to this person that all they need to do is hold space—they needn't provide feedback or offer advice. This is for you to share yourself and be seen in your fullest expression. Giving yourself the space to share yourself can be uncomfortable yet super rewarding. This exercise has helped me deepen the connection I have with myself and with others; not to mention it's helped me create some of the most dynamic and tight-knit friendships of my life.
2. Share impact.
Most conversations that we have are informational, meaning that we go back and forth and talk about things outside of ourselves. Another form of speaking is called "relational communication," which elicits connection based on your relationship with another person.
Exercise: When someone else says something that has an impact on you, ask them if they'd be willing to hear about it. Ask, “Hey, what you share had an impact on me, can I share with you?” If they agree (they usually do) then repeat back to them, “When you shared _______, I felt _________." Maybe something like, "When you shared about your promotion, I felt excited for you and also a little sad because I have been wanting a promotion and haven’t yet got it." Sharing impact with others allows them “into your world” and gives them a chance to see how they are showing up to you. This tends to strengthen the connection that you share with other people, and with yourself.
3. Voice your desires
Every desire can be fulfilled—if something has showed up in your head or heart, you have the ability to hold it in your hands. If there’s something that you want, would you ask for it? When we suppress our desires, they tend to manifest themselves in other—oftentimes negative—ways. If you’re feeling a desire, what might happen if you reveal it? You might get a “no,” or you might get a “yes,” but you will definitely get nothing if you choose to ignore it entirely.
Exercise: Start taking slow steps to put your desires into words—you don’t have to start out with something that feels overwhelming. Maybe just ask your partner for an extra date night, or your server for some extra guacamole. If you are someone who has had a challenge expressing your desires in the past (like me!) start with asking for things that are more neutral. For instance, you might declare where you want to eat, what you want to do this weekend, or something else that might not feel as personal. This will allow you to work your way into some of the deeper desires that you notice within yourself.