Public, Private, and Secret Self

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As I’ve gotten older, I’ve spent more time considering the differences between how others perceive me and how I know the real me to actually be. Looking at myself from the outside, I know I have a great life. I live in the best country in the world, I am married to my best friend, I enjoy my work, and I’ve been lucky enough to be the President of two mid-cap companies. In truth, all of my problems are first world problems, and I’ve never had to worry about where my next meal was coming from. While all the above is true, it is not the whole picture. I told you about my public self, but we all also have a private and a secret self – the private self only those close to us can see, and the secret self which no one but we can see and must live with.

While our private self is the most comfortable,  our secret self is the exact opposite, at least for me, and is where lots of my problems and personal hang-ups reside. One of my most painful memories is from the first grade, when a classmate told me, “You don’t belong in this class. You are retarded.” I am almost 48 years old, and yet I remember that comment as if I heard it yesterday. The reason my classmate treated me poorly was that I struggled with learning development issues, with dyslexia and a lisp. It created a stigma for me at school, and I felt like an outcast.

Thankfully, when I was fourteen, we moved from metro DC to rural Georgia, and the move was liberating. The area we went to was very close to nature, a red clay countryside cut by the Savannah and Broad Rivers. The change in scenery allowed me to start anew and leave a part of my past behind. I felt I could be seen for who I am and not who I was. From the first day at school in Georgia, my new classmates accepted me as the “big-city-kid” and liked me.

As great as it was to be accepted, I still felt like I was hiding something, and I worried my friends wouldn’t like me if they found out about my past. I carried those fears into adulthood, the fears of falling short and being “found out”. “Am I good enough?” was a question that haunted me for years. When you are young, you think achievements can validate your self-worth. That is true for a few moments, but it doesn’t last. The first time I became the head of a $300 million division, I felt good for maybe a week before the same anxieties set in. Then I had to try harder, to prove myself again. Over the years, I’ve learned it is people, not accomplishments, that gives me authentic joy. My greatest satisfaction comes from helping people do something they didn’t believe they could do and from helping people build skills and confidence.

If building people up are the high points in my life, then tearing myself down are the low points. There are times when a black mass fills my chest, and I believe things would be better if I were gone. A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to be in Europe for a two-month vacation of a lifetime. Then one day, while in Paris, I woke up and just wanted to kill myself. Logically, I knew what I was feeling didn’t make sense because my emotional state so contradicted my actual reality. I was in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, and I despised myself. I spoke with my doctor once I came home, and after some assessments, she diagnosed me with bipolar disorder. I wanted to avoid dealing with this mental illness, but she said, “If you are sick, you need help.” I was intellectually okay with mental illness if other people had it, but it was a different story when it was me.

For those going through the same struggle, I hope they know – this too shall pass. No matter where you are, don’t focus only on the here and now because it will be different in the future. There is a Chinese folklore about a Taoist farmer. The farmer had only one horse, and one day the horse ran away. A month later, the horse came home bringing with it a beautiful wild horse. Soon after, the wild horse kicked the farmer’s son and broke his leg. Then a war came, and every able-bodied man was sent into battle. Only the farmer’s son, because he had a broken leg, remained. What the folklore tells me is that life is ever-changing and mysterious, and what is a blessing and what is a misfortune is not as obvious as they seem.  You never know what tomorrow can bring so just hold on for one more day.

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