“I’m not a science person, I was only ever good at English in high school”. “I’m a terrible driver and have no sense of direction.” “I have no idea what i’m doing in the kitchen”. These are all examples of common sentiments people repeat about themselves, and were statements I believed to be true about myself for most of my teen years and early adulthood. My belief was that because I enjoyed reading and that I spent much of my childhood journalling tragic thoughts about unrequited love or losing a tennis match, it meant that my personality was suited for English-based work. This perception was strengthened in high school when I knew what a simile was and I could string a sentence better than I could work a bunsen burner. The bias continued throughout my latter years in high school and throughout university. I chose a degree based on what I thought I was good at, and placed myself in a rigid box based on a preconceived idea of what I enjoyed in high school.
Whether consciously or subconsciously, we all hold certain beliefs about ourselves. Knowing that we possess certain traits, characteristics and skills (or lack thereof) creates feelings of certainty and predictability, and assists in easing any anxiety we might feel about the world. Knowing facts about ourselves creates a sense of structure and consistency – feelings that are useful in a world where we are trying to avoid the stress associated with the unknown. Believing facts such as “I am good with numbers but bad at writing” helps us create an identity in which we can base our future actions, thoughts and behaviours on. We might follow certain career paths, choose friendship groups, and pursue certain hobbies based on what we perceive our identity to be. This then reinforces the original beliefs to be true, because we might refrain from a career that has any scientific analysis in it (therefore precluding our interest and understanding in science to develop), or choose to only use public transport (thus never giving yourself the opportunity to improve your driving skills). In the end, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that the person you build yourself up to be in your head is indeed the person you become. Whilst you might be walking around with a smug sense of awareness of who you are, ultimately you might just be getting in the way of your own development and quest for personal fulfilment.
It could be argued that many people do have fixed personalities and interests throughout their adulthood. Indeed, the scientific validity of personality testing lies in the fact that our personality remains generally consistent throughout our lifetime. However, it is not always useful to meander through life assuming you are a certain way and never questioning your values, interests and what you perceive your personality to be. This is particularly the case if you are at a point in your life where you feel unfulfilled and down-right miserable. You might be unhappy in the career path you have chosen and feel overwhelmingly unfulfilled or anxious throughout your days. Or you might be unhappy with your friendship group because they have the propensity to insult you and drink copious amounts of rum when you’d rather meditate and be nice to one another. Whatever it is, overall if you have a nagging sense that the life you are living is lacking in purpose, then something undoubtedly needs to change.
One of the reasons you might be feeling miserable or unfulfilled in one or more aspects of your life is because you haven’t taken a moment to assess and challenge your core beliefs and identity. It might be the case that you haven’t analysed what your hobbies, interests and goals are and have simply assumed you are a certain way because of what a teacher said to you when you were in year 8. Through the process of introspection – looking within our selves – we might learn that our hobbies and the way we view ourselves differs substantially than when we were a pimply 15 year old. For instance, you might realise that human biology, previously a confusing topic, is a subject matter that fascinates you, and that English literature has the same effect on you as two sleeping tablets or a choke hold from a UFC fighter in that it puts you to sleep.
It can be alarming to wake up in your mid twenties, or thirties or sixties, and realise you’ve never actually thought deeply about what interests you. You might be working in a job where you are in a constant state of boredom, and the commute to work is accompanied by an overbearing sense of dread and foreboding. If this sounds familiar, just know that you are not alone. I have experienced the soul-sucking sense of unfulfillment associated with working in a career that you know truly isn’t right for you. Whether we all have one “purpose” in our lives is questionable, however it’s safe to say that our intuition often tells us when we aren’t “living our truth” like we should be. I knew from the moment I commenced law school that it wasn’t for me. Did I listen to my inner voice and immediately withdraw from the course and board the next flight to Spain to drink alize? No I persevered for five years because i’m a fucking moron. But at least I have a pretty piece of paper stamped by the chief justice abating my insecurities about being unintelligent.
And that is why I am writing this article, to educate anyone I can to steer clear of the dreadful career of law. Just kidding, but I do think it is absolutely crucial to listen to your gut as much as you can. More importantly, and in relation to the point of this article, it’s important to check in on your inner voice as often as you can. You might think you are interested in a particular university or Tafe course because of your interests when you were 17, but you shouldn’t feel the need to honour those interests and remain attached to a career because of an outdated perception of yourself. It’s really never too late to look internally, analyse your life and realise what sparks joy and, conversely, what depletes you.
Our reluctance to deviate from behaviours that reflect our core beliefs about ourselves might also stem from our fear of how others will perceive us. We might be worried about negative feedback from our friends or family if we decide to do something unexpected and engage in behaviours that go against the norm. If we were to quit our job as a dentist and dabble in an alternative career as a personal trainer, it’s quite possible that some people will be resistant to this change. They might make snarky comments about this career transition, or openly criticise your decision to leave an established and “well-respected” career to pursue your personal passions. It’s critical to remind ourselves that anyone that truly cares about us and our well-being will want us to pursue something that makes us happy, and those that are openly critical are probably transferring inner demons and regrets that they too need to confront and analyse. Ultimately, you are the only person who has to live your life, so whilst other people’s opinions can be useful as a guide, I’ll reiterate the importance of following your gut feeling and doing what YOU want.
So what should you do if you feel like you are in this position of unfulfillment and uncertainty? The first step is to write down what beliefs you have about yourself currently. For example, some beliefs I previously held about myself included:
- I am not a morning person.
- I am better at English and writing than I am at science and maths (I know what you’re thinking, “geez you must be terrible at the latter”).
- I am hopeless at cooking in the kitchen and toast will always be my specialty.
- I am not a runner and will never be able to run for more than 5 minutes.
Once you have written down the beliefs you have about yourself, it’s important to explicitly identify how these beliefs have limited you in some way. I used to place myself in a rigid box – with unwavering interests and unchanging qualities and attributes. On the basis of these beliefs, I chose a uni degree and subsequent career that I don’t enjoy, never ventured into the kitchen to cook anything beyond microwavable rice, and refused to do anything but tennis and walking as a form of cardio. Clearly these perceptions I had about myself limited me because I refrained from doing certain things that I might enjoy had I given myself the opportunity. More significantly, these limiting beliefs prevented me from living my “truest” life, as heinously wanky as that sounds. Have a think about the ways in which the beliefs you hold about yourself have limited you in any way.
The next step in this process of “unfucking your brain”, as Carla Lointhisle would say, is to directly challenge these beliefs. This might be through pointing out the times you have done something which contradicts these beliefs. You might challenge the belief that you’re a person who is simply good at english and poor at maths and science by reminding yourself that you did quite well at school in maths and science, or reading an article you wrote on your blog and realising it is, indeed, garbage so hey maybe you aren’t actually a sensational writer. You might challenge the belief that you’re a poor public speaker by recalling a presentation that went really well at work, or remembering the compliment from your partner about how articulate and confident you sound communicating to groups of people. Write down as many ways in which your actions or previous experiences contradict your current beliefs. It might also be useful to ask your close friends and family about examples to add to your list.
The final step in this process of refuting the beliefs you have about yourself is through direct action: the cultivation of a new identity. Here is where you take actionable steps to engage in the behaviours that you previously avoided, with the ultimate goal of figuring out what you truly enjoy and what fulfils you. So if you think you aren’t a runner, you begin by running a small amount every day and gradually increase this. If you think you aren’t a morning person, you actively begin setting your alarm earlier and create an environment that makes it easier for you to wake up earlier. If you think you aren’t a writer, you start a blog and begin creating articles. The very act of doing creates space for internal change to occur, because you now have concrete and continuous evidence to prove that you can indeed be a runner or a morning person. You begin to realise that these beliefs you held about yourself were never rigid and unmovable definitions tied to your core identity, but simply subjective perceptions that held you back. Through this process, you begin to truly become aware of where your passions and interests lie, rather than perpetuating outdated and irrelevant beliefs.
Once you start focussing on things you genuinely enjoy, you create an identity that is aligned with your truest self. Nothing is more liberating than realising you have built a life centred around things that truly light you up. The previous beliefs I held about myself were probably an attempt to define myself in a concrete and clear way in order to increase my self-awareness. In reality, however, the more I believed these statements to be unchanging truths, the more I was limiting myself to be the version of me that would make me the happiest. By challenging these beliefs through direct action that disputed their validity, I became to realise I had been wrong about myself for a very long time. The black and white categories I previously defined myself by no longer hold any weight and I don’t define myself by what my personality was 10 years ago. You, too, can realise that you can be a morning person. You can be a runner, or someone who posts lame but inspiring captions on Instagram. You can be a scientist if that’s what interests you, and you certainly don’t need to continue down a particular career path because your 17 year old self was interested in the subject matter. Give yourself permission to change and grow.