Unfolding Yourself

I want to put this post in the context of three memories I have. First, I remember some years ago when the US Army ran a recruiting campaign with the slogan, “Be All You Can Be.” Second, I recall a football coach saying to me, “Football doesn’t build character; it reveals character.” Finally, I remember a college history professor speaking to a group of parents and saying, “I don’t teach history; I teach our students.”

These memories seem unrelated, but they all carry the same message: Coping is about putting yourself in situations where who you are – your traits, your qualities, your individuality – can unfold for you to see. If you don’t like what you see, then it’s up to you either to keep yourself out of those situations, or – if that’s not possible – to modify your actions and express your traits in more desirable ways.

During my years as a college professor, I met with dozens of high-school students and their parents when they visited King’s College to see if the school was a fit for them. I always ended our meeting with variations on these words: “Visit all the colleges you’re interested in – if possible, more than once. Experience the school’s culture. Stay overnight in the dorm; eat in the cafeteria; attend some classes; talk to professors like we’re doing now; talk to as many students as possible. Once you’re back home, ask yourself, ‘Is this school a place where I’m comfortable, where what’s already inside me can unfold and allow me to see who I am?’”

In a sense, I was asking the students to decide if King’s was a place where they felt they could “Be all you can be,” where “You can confidently reveal your character,” and where you can “Allow teachers to show you how to evaluate information around you.”

When it comes to coping with stress, it helps to be the Army recruiter and remind yourself, “I should strive to be all I can be.” It also helps to be the football coach, and encourage yourself to find challenges that allow you to unfold in ways that reveal your character. Finally, it helps to listen to those who inspire you, and find role models whose actions are consistent with your values.

Here are some questions to ask yourself, questions I think capture what the recruiter, coach, and teacher are saying:

Do I “pay” myself adequately? Are you overly self-critical, always putting yourself down? How often do you march in your own special pity parade? How much do you ruminate about the past and how others were mean and rejected you? Do you complain that others do not appreciate how hard you try, and then internalize that criticism by giving yourself a pessimistic evaluation of your abilities? If so, maybe it’s time to give yourself a psychological “pay” raise – a symbolic pat on the back, so to speak – by complimenting yourself on a job well done. Engage in some positive self-talk now and then: “They said I was really helpful. I need to do stuff like that more often.” It never hurts to focus occasionally on your actions that have positive results.

Do I give myself growth opportunities? If you are going to empower yourself to cope effectively with life, you need to have challenges in front of you, and to give yourself the chance to tackle those challenges head-on. Thus, you need to provide yourself with opportunities to venture outside your comfort zone and experience new things. Seek out situations that challenge you, that let others help you grow, and that allow you to develop a sense of purpose.

Why do I need a sense of purpose? Without a guiding rationale behind your actions, you will find that it’s hard to be productive and satisfied with your efforts. Being committed to purposeful goals will encourage you to examine your values, morality, integrity, character, and personal standards. Finding purposeful actions that bring you satisfaction will help you develop your own moral compass.

How do I develop feelings of ownership of my life? Be realistic, confident, and humble about your competencies and skills, and act within the constraints of reality. Above all, be accountable for your actions, and use failure to help you improve. Accountability will give you a sense of pride and ownership about your actions. You will become less vulnerable to those who would dominate you, and use you for their purposes. Being accountable will give you the confidence to be autonomous and independent – to take charge of your life and move confidently in directions you choose.

The answers to these questions are revealed when you look in the mirror honestly. No one else in the world can see what you see. Only you. What do you see? What do you feel?

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