When I was 4, I thought I could be anything. Really, anything. A pop singer who moonlights as a grocery store clerk, pulling occasional shifts driving a limo and working on her 3rd best-selling novel. Wow, that sounds reeeeally specific… was that ACTUALLY your dream? Yes. Yes, it was. Don’t act like you’re surprised.
But when I turned 5, something cataclysmic happened… I started school. And a funny thing happens when you start school: you begin receiving feedback about your performance. When you’re 4, everything you do is amazing, your potential is limitless, the world is your mutha-truckin’ oyster.
Then, you become a big, world-wise 5 year-old and you’re dumped into the school system, which is basically a giant social sorting hat (YASSS, a Harry Potter reference!) that shakes you until you’re helplessly tossed into your respective category. At this point, you’re told that maybe you’re not that great of a singer, your crayon skills are trash and that you don’t have the patience (or the eye) for finger painting. Game over. Try again.
As time wears on, your friends are slowly labeled “artists,” “actors,” “mathematicians” and “future doctors.” So you, too, find a box with a label that feels like an okay fit (something that you’re decently good at and don’t mind doing) and begin to stuff yourself inside of it – a process that continues long into your adult life.
And, voila: you’ve prearranged your whole life based on a label you begrudgingly/ unconsciously accepted before you were old enough to drive. You still feel like you can DO and BE anything. But, see, your brain has already sorted you into a category that colors every choice you make. You’ve assumed an identity, and this identity starts to shape the rest of your life.
Me? I decided early on that I was “supposed” to be a professional working woman, like my mom. An amorphous “business woman,” a la Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion. I was good at writing, but never really trusted myself enough to be a novelist. So, the world of business seemed like an excellent compromise.
Although I never quite figured out what a “professional working woman” was, exactly, I carried around certain stereotypes of what this chick was all about – she’s classy, makes smart, savvy decisions, rarely makes mistakes, thinks logically and conducts her business (and life) in an orderly fashion, according to a Master Plan she locks down by age 30. She most certainly does not turn down two perfectly good job offers, spurning a chance at stability and normalcy.
Yes, that’s right. I just turned down my second job opportunity in the last calendar year.
Aaaagggghhhhhh, but you were almost a responsible adult!!! I know, I know. The decision was completely illogical and ill-advised. I keep saying that my ultimate goal is a stable, lucrative career – something my professional alter-ego would want, obviously – but I keep intentionally fucking it up.
I’m just a fat, furry fraud, talking a big game, playing at being an actual adult. But when the heat is on and the stakes are high and there are actual decisions to be made, I’m as inept as two teenagers groping awkwardly at one another in a dark dorm room while watching The Notebook (omg, that was such a weirdly specific reference, did she actually do that in real life?)
Or, maybe it’s not ME…
Maybe I’m just mislabeled.
For years, I’ve struggle to fit into the mold of a “professional” person. It’s hard. It feels like I’m fighting the current. I keep making counter-intuitive decisions, behaving erratically, starting and abandoning projects with a casual air of flakiness… I feel like a gigantic failure under the weight of this crippling inadequacy.
At the age of 33, I’m still PETRIFIED of having to explain to anyone what I “do” for a living. It’s such a weighted question, because I know that when I answer, I’ll immediately be sorted again, this time into a “worthy/ not worthy” social category.
And it doesn’t matter if it’s my mom, my best friend, or a random stranger I meet on the playground. Whenever the “what do you do?” question surfaces (which it allllllways does), it’s a cue for me to start fumbling awkwardly through my lexicon, trying helplessly to string words together that make me sound more grown-up and “together” (which is especially embarrassing, because I work with words for a living).
I want so desperately to sound professional, smooth, successful. Because in this country, if you don’t have a smooth-as-butter, fancy-pants title next to your name, you’re… well… nobody. Here, what you do IS who you are. And if you can’t be sorted into a neat, tidy little box, you’re disposable.
What do you do? Oh, I’m a freelance writer.
Cool, cool. So, what kind of writing do you do? Mostly press releases and marketing… stuff… and I blog… and… (I can tell they’re starting to lose interest) various… other… (oh shit, the jig is up, they know I’m a total nobody) projects… (mumbling nonsense)… (scary face emoji)… (disappears behind the nearest port-a-potty)…
Inevitably, I wind up reading some sort of disapproval (or maybe confusion?) in the listener’s eyes and trying to hurriedly change the subject to cooking, primetime television, poop – anything to not have to try and sound so frickin’ professional anymore.
Because you guys… I’m not a professional.
I know this because I finally figured out what I am. And it’s made an explosive difference in my mindset and outlook.
I’m an artist.
I’m an artist!
Y’all. As soon as the word hit my brain, the whole world made SO MUCH SENSE. Suddenly, I understood why I’ve always felt much more at home among the artist community than the working professionals that I know. I understood why my work process isn’t linear, but ebbs and flows with the tides of my energy and inspiration. I understood why I hate getting caught up in the weeds of grammatical rules and syntactical boundaries.
Words are my clay, and I just want to throw them around as I see fit.
It seems so silly, but this tiny shift in how I choose to label myself opens up my entire universe. Suddenly, I’m free to live and think outside the box. My brain is finally letting go of its exhausting struggle to live up to ideals and standards that don’t fit – that will NEVER fit me, my work, or my life.
My mind is relaxing into the thought that, as an artist, I’m free to operate differently. I can make my own (fucking) rules. I’m allowed to make choices based on nothing more than a gut feeling- in fact, it’s encouraged. I can still totally run a responsible and professional business, but on my own terms, without looking over my shoulder for some mysterious supervisory approval.
Perhaps this has always been true. But for some reason, my brain has been unable or unwilling to accept it…
…until the moment I slapped on a new label. Re-categorized myself.
After that moment, truly miraculous things began to unfold.
I started (UNAPOLOGETICALLY) wearing bright pink lipstick and sporting super messy birds’ nest-esque topknot hairbuns and my old high school throwback cartilage hoop earring. I publicly parented my kids with zero fear of what anybody else had to say about it. I started engaging strangers with polite eye contact and pushing my cart at the grocery story without slumped shoulders and a constant string of “I’m sorry’s” for (God forbid) being there at all, in somebody’s way when they absolutely must have their Apple Jacks nowwww!!!
I stopped living to make everyone else more comfortable at the expense of my own self-worth, because I finally felt like I deserved to be here, to be seen and to give MYSELF permission to say and do what felt good to me. These were signs that my brain was done awaiting someone else’s approval in order to do whatever the fuck I wanted to do; it was letting go of its striving to perform as a responsible, “normal” adult would.
Because I am not normal. I mean, normal, responsible people wear deodorant and bras. They don’t eat cheese and beef jerky for dinner. They don’t pee with door open in a public restroom, or smoke weed in the middle of the day (hypothetically). But society seems to give artists special leeway for such offbeat behavior. We shrug it off, because hey, “they’re artists.” They’re allowed to be unique. They dance to the hum of their own hornets’ nests (or some shit).
When I look at the past several years through an artist’s filter, my behavior and choices aren’t erratic – they are perfectly in line with my beliefs about my unique potential, intention and values. As an artist, it isn’t (as) weird for me to describe writing as akin to giving birth; my work is the unpredictable, untidy labor pains by which I bring forth a message or idea into the world. This is a messy image not so readily accepted in the sterile, masculine world of a professional.
But I’m an artist. And I’m on my soul’s greatest journey to bring forth the creative vision within that longs for expression.
People, I have been set FREE by the simple act of relabeling myself.
What about YOU? Have you always felt a little out of place? Inconsistent? Abnormal? You aren’t the failure that you imagine yourself to be. Maybe you’re just striving to fit into the wrong ever-lovin’ box.
You don’t need to change your environment, your skill set, your goals or your attitude in order to feel more at home with yourself. Stop trying to adjust yourself to fit your mold and start asking if it’s really your mold to begin with…
Sometimes, all it takes to change your outlook is the simple, defiant act of choosing your own label. One that suits who you already are. One that says “I deserve to be here, I deserve to be seen, I give myself permission.”
Labels matter. You hold the power to choose your own and
change your save the world.