"Do you ever stop smiling?", my friend Simon asked me a few weeks ago as I left work with a huge grin about god knows what. Not often, no. I'm happy, confident, powerful, bold, open, alive, enthusiastic and proud in almost everything I do. But it hasn't always been this way.
I sat alone through high school, certain nobody wanted to sit with me. If another child asked my name I asked them why, assuming they were playing a joke. Why would they be interested in me? What a pity party, right? My suspicious attitude didn't draw crowds of friends. But I was 13 years old and just wanted to get through the day without anyone noticing me. I didn't want sympathy, I just wanted to be gone.
What kept me going was a vision. There was me, an apartment (with fabulous interiors) where nobody could reach me, where I lived with a man who I loved, who loved me exactly as I was. I didn't have to hide or pretend or work hard to be in his presence. No one knew we lived there but we were happy because I was loved, so was he, we had each other and that's all that mattered. Love is all that matters.
I held on to that powerful vision with my fingertips and made it through school, and when I was 16 things at home finally blew up and I left everything behind. The only thing more terrifying than walking out into the world alone as a child with no money, no eduation and no future was staying, and having my authentic self buried in shame by the powerful people I'd loved and listened to my whole life.
I found a bedsit in Southampton for £50/week and a job as a kitchen porter at Yates's. It was hard but I was free, and nothing would make me give that up. I sacrificed my privilege for my freedom. I made friends with gay people, who listened to the words I'd absorbed and they rebuked them. I wanted their rebukes to be truth, but always in the back of my mind was my mum's voice repeating over and over "They would say that, they're gay". It felt better, but it was always like getting crutches for a broken leg. I could stand, but the wounds remained.
By 21 things were better with my parents, they were more positive. They emphasised how much they liked my boyfriend therefore they were 100% ok and to be forgiven now. It still felt empty, probably because all the love and support was on him, not me. But also because the wounds were in me, not them. I read Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, and took a Myers-Briggs personality test (INFJ) and begun to understand myself better, with a little less shame and self-disgust.
INFJs tend to see helping others as their purpose in life, but while people with this personality type can be found engaging rescue efforts and doing charity work, their real passion is to get to the heart of the issue so that people need not be rescued at all.
By 23 I'd wandered into that abusive relationship, drawn into the battle of blaming myself for my screw ups and winning his approval to undo them, because if this man would only love me I'd finally be ok. He did love me, it was just impossible to really see through his anger and my gaping insecurities.
How grateful I am my teenage self didn't know that isolated life with a man I loved would be so many nights spent alone at McDonald's in tears, waiting for him to fall asleep so I could go home.
By 26 I was on my own. I read a ridiculous book about getting rich that emphasised habits, and weirdly it was right. I got into the habit of reading for the first time in my life, and this is where things changed.
I read Power of Habit to understand these habits better, and make me better at making new ones. I read Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff, which taught me to silence the self-hatred that was burying me long after my teenage years.
I read Presence by Amy Cuddy, which taught me to own the space around me, to embrace the world with my whole self and allow myself to be wherever I was.
I read Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes, my absolute hero, which taught me, along with Cuddy, that we're all faking it til we make it and nobody really has a plan but we just go out and do the best we can moment to moment and love the people around us as we go and the rest follows.
People are drawn to strong personalities, and ENFJs radiate authenticity, concern and altruism, unafraid to stand up and speak when they feel something needs to be said. They find it natural and easy to communicate with others, especially in person, and their Intuitive (N) trait helps people with the ENFJ personality type to reach every mind, be it through facts and logic or raw emotion.
I no longer have time to stop and pick on myself, channelling voices of people who don't love themselves anymore than they love me.
Through hard work, persistence, learned self-compassion and empathy, I've reached a place where I truly love and accept myself exactly as I am, embracing my flaws and nurturing myself to improve the things I want to change lovingly, and enjoy the things I don't.
I can let go of that vision, with that man who loves me as I am, because I love me as I am and I value and trust that love.
I let myself be present and authentic in my own life without being afraid someone will discover those ugly words that pretend to be truth because I don't speak them to myself anymore. I'm happy and proud, not ashamed. I'm home.