Being yourself sounds like it should be the easiest thing in the world, doesn't it?
As kids we are unabashedly authentic about our thoughts, feelings and personalities, until something comes along and decides that it's time to reign us in.
Maybe it's a family member, a teacher at school, or a mean girl on the playground.
Most of us have come up against something that made us feel ashamed for who we were, or that something about us was fundamentally wrong.
So we compensated, or we hid.
My parents' religion taught them that their children would be born perfect by virtue of their faith. So I got pretty good jump on that compensating.
Every now and then I would make a new shift in myself to people-please and bend myself into the contortion that looked like the definition of "perfect" that I was taught.
I believed that it was right, and that the striving for this vague sense of perfection was authenticity and it was what got me love.
Like keeping an impossible circus feat going indefinitely, it was exhausting.
It took its toll and l I began to break down. I tried playing the perfect student, a perfect girlfriend, and later a perfect little employee. But ultimately I would fail in some way.
Finally my circus act began to crumble and I started to see through my own facade. It was pretty bleak.
On the "Success Checklist" I had most of the boxes ticked of: House, Job, Car, Relationship, Social Life, Bank Accounts, 2 Cats + 1 Dog. But I was miserable.
The one thing I was missing on the checklist was Myself.
I had no idea who I really was. I had no idea what I wanted, and I never dared to articulate even the hints of desire to myself.
Instead of continuing to keep it all under wraps, one day I allowed myself a little bit of space to speak about it.
There was anger, bitterness, a whole lot of tears, and there was a shit-ton of fear.
Taking yourself down to that frightened but truthful essence is like finally finding your inner child that has been locked away in the dark. It takes time to rebuild the trust with yourself.
But it can happen, and it does when you give it love and care without judgement.
Part of my rebuilding process was obsessively photographing everything. I rediscovered the beauty of mist in the morning, the run rising over the river, and the perfect shape of leaves in each season.
In some ways it was like the slow recovery after you break a bone. You're gentle with yourself and your movements, testing each step for strain and appreciating each sense of regained mobility.
Soon I felt a new need well up within me. I needed to write about the things that I had locked away inside. My sister and I began to share stories with each other on a blog, digging up memories and holding them up to the light for examination.
I wrote about leaving my parents' faith after a failed marriage and shared it with my sister. She told me that she felt others needed to hear the story too. So I submitted the work to women's blogs, and my essay was eventually published on The Hairpin.
Being that vulnerable and real made me feel nauseous. I expected hateful comments to pour in from people ridiculing me or my experience.
Instead there were words of love and support, and I cried in relief.
Sometimes the work was simply about feeling lost:
"At the Helm." Fine Art Photography by Jen Kiaba.Click to Purchase a Limited Edition Print. Again, I felt terrified to share the work. I was embarrassed when I showed it to people, feeling that same sense of raw vulnerability.
But then people began to reach out and tell me their own stories. Some said that the work helped them find the words to lead them to their own voices.
I realized then that there was no going back and there was no more hiding behind facades.
That was a turning point and since then experience has shown that when we show up with loving authenticity, and even vulnerability, there is love and support in return. Maybe not always from the places we had hoped or expected to receive it, but it is there.
The more we show up to support others in their expression, hopefully, the more we can create a culture in which authenticity thrives.
Because there may always be the parent who doesn't understand us, or the teacher that doesn't get along with us - and unfortunately there may always be the mean girls.
But your art is an expression of by soul. The way that you speak, the way that you write, bake, organize, and style is art. If it comes from a place of authenticity and love, then the world is a genuinely better place because of you.
We need authenticity in our world. We need YOUR authenticity. Even if it is the kind that creates art to work through pain and darkness, the world needs it.
So take a step today, even if it's a small one. Peel back a layer, even if it hurts.
Look yourself in the mirror and say "I love you." Place your hand over your heart and say "It is safe for me to be seen."
Dance, sing, sew, paint - do whatever it is that your soul is longing for. Chances are your art has the power to help someone else in their own healing journey.
I believe that that is the key for each of us to heal into a new sense of freedom and authenticity.
And I'll be here cheering you on with love and support. Promise!