I used to rehearse things in my head before I said them. I would edit and re-edit, worried about how my words would come out, whether the person listening would take things the wrong way or they would think I’m stupid or the myriad of things I would worry about as a result of self-doubt. What will they think of me? I want them to like me. I want them to think I’m smart. I want them to think that I matter. When I would finally speak, if I chose to do that because oftentimes I’d choose silence, the words would emerge in a jumbled mess and I would instantly regret it. Or I would state an opinion and when the person disagreed with me, I would see it as either an affront to my beliefs or verification that what I said was faulty and that I should’ve stayed silent. Editing myself didn’t just happen with words, it happened in many different aspects of my life. I can’t do that, my parents won’t approve. I won’t show myself this way, what if people laugh at me? I can’t say no, they won’t think I’m nice.

For my business book club, we read the book Dare to Lead by Brene Brown. One of the exercises we did for the book was called “Square Squad.” We were presented with a square and asked to write in it the “names of the people whose opinions really matter to you.” I thought for a brief while. I thought about all the friends and family whose opinions I valued, all the inspiring people whose books I read, as well as the wonderful people in my life who energize me and while their opinions mattered and influence me, the opinion that mattered most was mine. So I wrote, “ME.”

Who’s in your square? I can say confidently that for the majority of my life, “ME” was nowhere in or near that square. In the Korean culture in which my parents tried to raise me, what other people think of you means everything. This means we were constantly seeking approval from others. I remember in high school, I wore red nail polish to my father’s dismay. “Take that off!” he commanded. “Only vixens and prostitutes wear red,” he would say as he tried to impose his old fashioned beliefs on me. I refused but he was so worried about how it would reflect on him that he was relentless and I finally listened. To this day, my father, who is a devout conservative Christian who believes in fear and exclusion over love and acceptance, mourns my rejection of his beliefs. “How can I show my face as a Christian when my daughter doesn’t believe as I do?” he’ll say everytime we talk. It took me until my 40s to finally tell him that I don’t go to church. I stopped believing in my 20s. I just pretended all those years, carrying the unbearably heavy weight of his expectations on me because I wanted his approval and was afraid of losing his love. And I did lose a little bit of it. My father always reminds me I’ve failed him as a daughter. But do you know what I’m finally realizing? I’d rather lose some of his love than lose any part of me and at the end of the day, all I can do as his daughter is to love differently than he loves me.

The self-editing wasn’t just something I learned to impose on myself. I did it to those around me too. I would never let my kids out of the house unless they were dressed nicely, their hair combed, using detangling spray to ensure they looked neat and put together. I would criticize my husband for behaving a certain way because I worried it reflected badly on me. I would yell at my family when we took family photos if everyone’s smiles and poses weren’t just right. I worried too much about wearing the right brand of clothing, making sure I decorated my house with only name brand furniture and accessories, and I made sure to drive the fancy status car, while racking up debt in the process to ensure everything was picture perfect.

Not having ourselves in the square means everyone else matters except for us. It means we are looking outside ourselves for validation and worth, weighing everyone else’s opinions and needs more heavily than our own. It not only hurts us but those to whom are we closest, the people we dearly love and whose opinions and feelings actually matter. We do this because we feel responsible for everyone else, their feelings and opinions. And we adjust ourselves to fit in at our own expense. I learned as a young girl that I had to be “nice” and take care of everyone else. I was always the “nice” one. Being “nice” is different than being “kind.” Being “nice” means being polite and editing yourself to make others comfortable. It stems from the feelings of unworthiness and approval seeking. Being “kind” is different. It comes from compassion and a deeper connection to humanity and that only emerges from a strong sense of self value and worth. So with only “ME” in the square now, I strive for being kind over nice. Instead of taking care of everyone else’s feelings, I take care of my own. An amazing thing happens when you start to do that…you start giving people space to take care of their own feelings too. They stop feeling the weight of your expectations on them…the burden we unwittingly place on others when we look to them to give us our feelings of worthiness. And now my kids leave the house with hair messy, mismatched outfits put together on their own and my son tells me, “I don’t actually have to listen to you.” I reply, “You’re right. I can’t really make you do anything. You are responsible for yourself.” I am far from perfect but I don’t aim to be. I’m still learning and I make mistakes. I am flawed, I have dips and highs and occasional thoughts of doubt and I sometimes still yell too much at my kids. But through it all, one thing remains the same. I go back to the square and return to me. “ME.” That is all you really need inside that square. Your feelings matter, your opinions matter, you matter.

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