You Don’t Have To Be Who They Want You To Be

afraid to be yourself
Photo by Javier Reyes

I have always been caught between two worlds. I have never been good enough at art to exist solely as an artist. And yet, my artistic inclinations have caused others to see me as too artistic to be scholarly.

What do you do when you are trapped between two worlds, but neither one of them really wants you?

When I was younger, I buried my head in books and strove to be as close to perfect as humanly possible. I often studied, read, and memorized until I was so exhausted that all I could do was cry. My entire identity became centered around my academic achievement. I was just a kid, and I had already lost myself to this society’s plague of perfectionism.

Once I entered high school, I began to explore my artistic side more deeply and passionately than ever before. I began to dress edgier and took every art class I could fit into my academically rigorous schedule. I joined the drama club and poured my entire being into our school’s theatrical productions. Slowly, my peers started to see me as less of a scholar and more of an artist. I began to shed the studious identity I had forced myself to take on so many years earlier.

I finally began to find myself.

But being an artist was never anything that came easily or naturally to me. I could not create a decent drawing without pouring hours and hours and hours of work into it. Everything I sculpted out of clay was always just a little bit lopsided. I memorized and read my lines with ease but struggled to find my voice when it came time to actually act. I always managed to miss the mark.

No matter how hard I tried, art was never anything I could excel at. I understood all of the necessary parts of the equation. Yet, every time I put them all together, the answer was always incorrect.

My looks screamed artist, but my best achievements were always purely academic. I could never live up to the image I portrayed to the rest of the world. I could never actually be the person I wanted to be. I would make art that I loved and then sit in tears as my classmates tore it apart. Conceptually strong and horribly executed, those are the words I would use to describe my art. My projects started on solid ground but always managed to slip away from me by the time they were complete.

I am all good intentions and poor execution. My mind produces art 24/7, but it hasn’t quite figured out how to communicate with my hands yet. I have such beautiful visions, but they are never able to come to fruition. Nothing I create is ever the way I picture it in my head.

The thing about art is that there are not really any right or wrong answers, just opinions waiting with razor-sharp teeth to tear you down. One person’s trash is most definitely someone else’s treasure, but no one ever tells you how difficult it is to convince someone else that you aren’t trash.

To find someone who values your work as much as you do and who sees that same picture that you see inside your head is priceless. It is elusive. I want to believe that it is worth the wait, but at what cost is all of this waiting?

As much as I began to pour myself into art, I never lost sight of my desire to be the epitome of academic perfection. I worked so hard but still managed to come up short. I did not graduate first or second in my high school class; I was third. Third in line and basically invisible. I achieved high test scores but not high enough to get the full-ride to college I had been working towards for so long. I wasn’t accepted by my top two universities; I settled on my third choice because they accepted me. I settled on art school because academia no longer wanted me.

I remember the day that one of my friends told me that I couldn’t be smart because I was good at art. As if everyone in this world is allowed one interest and one path to pursue. As if this world is so small that there is no room for those of us with big dreams.

Eleven years later, and I still have not forgotten that comment. I still have not forgotten what my designated place in this world was decided to be.

I eventually convinced myself that going to art school was the perfect choice for me. If all of my high school peers saw me as an artist, then ultimately, I had to be one.

Unfortunately, art school was not a dream come true. I found myself thrown into a program full of some of the most talented people I had ever met, and I was nowhere near their level of excellence. I was one of the least gifted artists in my class, and in my four years of college, I was never able to entirely free myself of that feeling.

I spent four years working harder than I have ever worked in my entire life, but nothing I did ever felt good enough. What was my best work was still below where I should have been in such a rigorous program. I began to blur the lines of not being good enough in the eyes of professors and peers and not being good enough in my own eyes. I could no longer discern who the enemy was.

Was I always the voice inside my head telling me that I was not good enough? Was I the sole person who convinced myself that no matter how hard I worked, I would never be enough?

What do you do when your biggest enemy is yourself?

I know that I am not the only one to blame for how my mind perceives my achievements. Our society puts far too large of an emphasis on visible, tangible success. We are forced to grow up far too young. We are thrown into a competition the day we exit the womb.

Whoever learns to walk first is best. Whoever learns to read first has to be the smartest. We are so desperate to be first before we even understand what it means to win, to be the best at something.

Why are we all forced to strive towards something that is almost certainly unattainable for most people?

If the goal is to be the best, then realistically, most of us cannot achieve this. Within the standards that society has carved out for what success means, there is often no room at the top to share it with anyone. We are taught to push others down to get what we want. To be the best is to be successful, and to be successful is to live. We have whittled ourselves down to nothing more than a number and a dollar amount. Our overall value has nothing to do with our actual values. It is all a numbers game, and for most of us, the odds are not in our favor.

So, what do we do?

Those of us who are not number one, should we write ourselves off as failures? Should we give up before we even start? Should we keep catapulting ourselves from dream to dream in hopes that one of them will finally be the perfect fit?

I wish I knew the answer to these questions. I wish I believed that there was a definite answer to any of them, but I don’t think there is. I don’t believe that anyone has any of this figured out and that we are all just doing our best to pretend that we do.

We pretend that we love the jobs that make us cry ourselves to sleep at night. We pretend to love the people who do nothing but hurt us because we are so afraid to be alone. We pretend that we are happy because we are fearful of what happens if we are not.

We are so, so afraid, to be honest. We fear being honest with those around us because we do not want to be perceived as weak. We do not want to be seen as wrong. Happy people are successful people, so we stifle our every emotion until one day, we just burst.

Until one day when you accidentally knock your coffee onto the floor, and you completely lose it. Until one day when you’re crying and crying and crying, and you can’t even remember how or when it started. Until one day when you just fucking break.

You shatter, and you can’t even put yourself back together because you don’t even know yourself enough to know what you look like whole. You have been hiding every aspect of yourself for so long that you can’t even recognize the person looking back at you in the mirror. You catch your reflection in the store windows you pass by on the street, and you see nothing. Your eyes are two big black holes, and you’re pretty sure you could get lost forever if you keep looking into them.

When did you get this empty?

How long has it been since you’ve known yourself?

Have you ever even known yourself?

Or are you just pretending to be one person even though that was never what you wanted for yourself?

Did you give up the day you received your first no? Did you shed the skin you used to love so much the day they told you that you were disgusting? Do you paint on the face you think they want to see every day, even though you can’t recognize yourself while you’re wearing it?

It is heartbreaking to see how we destroy ourselves to fit into the cookie-cutter world society has created for us. I have never understood why I have to choose between one way of life or another. I have never understood why it is wrong to pour myself into more than one glass when I have always been more of a waterfall than just one singular pitcher.

If I want to make art, then I should be allowed to make it. If I want to read books and write essays, then I should be allowed to do that, too. No one should be made to feel like their appearances have to dictate their path in their life. No one should be made to feel like they are failures the first time they hear the word “no.” Everyone deserves a chance to explore every inch of their soul, no matter how long it may take them to do so.

I did not “find myself” by 25 as I had always hoped that I would. I have not shaken the feeling of being a failure by my late twenties. I may never know if I am more of an artist or an academic. I may never make art that makes sense to anyone else but me, and I may never achieve enough academically to be seen as outstanding.

My mark on this world may not be viewed as significant by the standards this society has put forth for us, but that doesn’t make me any less important as a human being.

I may never be the best at the things I have chosen to pursue, but at least I will always know that I have tried. I will still know that I went for the things I wanted in a world that discourages us from doing so. I will always know that no matter how difficult and uncertain my path gets, I will always be able to start over.

You can change your path at any time. You can change your mind one thousand times a day. And still, neither of those things will make you a failure.

You owe it to yourself to be who you are, regardless of whether the people around you understand you. You are here for you and no one else.

I hope one day you allow yourself to be everything you have ever wanted to be, despite what anyone else might say to try to hold you back.

You do not have to be who they tell you to be. Always remember that.

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