Let me introduce you to the woman in this photo. She isn’t from the 1950s, although I understand how you could think that. She’s a pastor’s wife, professional opera singer, teaches voice lessons, and makes 20 pies for the annual church dinner each year. She’s quite the homemaker—she makes mini appetizers and tiny delicate desserts that are so darn cute. She makes everything look perfect and everyone loves her. She is Martha Stewart extraordinaire without the staff. But she has a secret. Underneath the cheerful facade, she is completely miserable. What she portrays to the world is far from who she really is. She can’t sleep, is constantly stressed, has many unexplainable health problems, and thinks she isn’t good enough at anything she does. Another secret is that the woman is me, or at least the person I used to pretend to be. The picture is from 2009, and it’s the one I sent out with Christmas cards. It isn’t a costume, it’s how I dressed daily.
For years I played a role that really wasn’t me. It was some sort of a version of me with layers of expected behaviors. I felt the pressure of who I should be so strongly that I became what was expected. I should be an opera singer. I should be married to a man. I should please everyone around me. I should be the perfect homemaker and work 60 hours a week. I should never complain or express my true feelings. I should. I should! I SHOULD! I was shoulding all over myself.
Have you ever shoulded? Many of us do things because we think we should without even realizing it. I took it to an extreme until my life became intolerable. So allow me to introduce the real me. I was a kid who wanted to be Pat Benatar, and yearned for attention and affirmation. It lead me to become the person in the photo. I was killing myself to be impressive. But then I started my life over, creating it from scratch after age 40. Everything was different—I changed careers and the whole way I approached life. It was both scary and freeing.
Now I’m a financial advisor, professional empowerment speaker, writer, and resident goofball. I’m part life coach, part stand-up comedian, and part go-getter. I practice doing things that make me afraid and I work on myself every single day. I’m still a musician, but I allow myself to do whatever kind of music feels good to me, which is sometimes rocking out with my band and sometimes singing musical theatre or opera.
Why would I go public about how I lived an inauthentic life for so long? There was a lot of shame for me in the admission. When I realized how much of my life was not really me at all, I was lost; I didn’t even know what I liked or who I really was. I was taught to never let anyone see me fail, and living that fake life and realizing it, I felt like a huge failure.
But I feel it’s important to talk about it because I’ve learned that talking helps let go of the shame of a situation, and that we are not alone in it. From the many speaking engagements I’ve done and other things I’ve written, I’ve gotten a lot of feedback. People tell me time and time again, “I resonate with your story so much!” “You are telling my story!” “I didn’t realize that other’s struggled with this too!”
We’re trained from birth to be what others want us to be, and we learn that pleasing people is a way to be successful in life. We don’t even realize how much of our life is lived by obligation because it’s so much a part of our culture that we can easily lose track of what we want. Living for yourself isn’t easy. It takes patience, time, and practice, but it’s worth it to be able to have a life of your own design instead of what you think you are supposed to be for other people. Trust me, I’ve tried it. It doesn’t work.
That’s why I’m here—to share some funny, sometimes painful, experiences in the hope that they will help crack open some light for you. That by writing a series of articles in upcoming issues presenting my stories, I help you realize the places in your life that are missing the most important thing: your unique self. I want to start conversations among friends and family about how we sacrifice our own needs to please others, and that there’s a different way—one that honors everyone. I want you to realize that everything you need to find your purpose and live your true life you have within, if you take the time to listen and reflect.
My passion is helping others find their way through the dark with someone who knows the way. My life circumstances may seem dramatic, but I bet you’ll see some similarities that hit home. If you’ve ever caught yourself saying should, you’re in the right place.
Sandy Eichel is a happy ex-should-er.