Sunday, May 29, 2011

Ask Parvati 14: The Death of Niceties and Feisties


Dear Parvati,
I notice that when I am around other people I tend to go into people pleasing at the expense of myself. I wonder what you have to say about that.


One of the pivotal quotes that shaped my life growing up was from one of my favorite musical icons, David Bowie. He said something like the worst trick God could play is to make you mediocre. Internalizing my version of his message, my motto became through high school and university that I would rather be an A or an F student than a C student.

Living by that belief, I developed two distinct personality traits, a tendency to edit myself to people please with niceties or plow through things with a fiery feistiness. Both extremes were fueled by a drive for what I understood to be “perfection”. The tension that lay between these and the fervour I put into trying to be “perfectly A” or “perfectly F” eventually consumed my health and wellbeing.

By the end of high school and into my first year of university, I was exhausted and stressed because I was not being authentically myself. Though it took me completing university and facing the rest of my life to figure it out, I eventually realized that I had allowed other people’s voices, wishes and dreams to unconsciously run my life. My feistily polite drive for “perfection” was based on the fear that if I were myself, I would not be loved.

I share this because I believe the fear that to be oneself would lead to a lack of love is not unique to me, but is surprisingly very common, even rampant in the human psyche. In the process of trying to come to terms with which inner voices were mine and which were not, I discovered that my extreme personality traits were like healthy qualities on steroids. Through various illnesses and harsh life lessons, I learned to dial down the intensity of my attachment to an idea of perfection and redirect the root energy that was driving it into more life affirming expressions.

I discovered that within my drive for perfection were many strong qualities. From this, immense creativity, powerful zeal and an ability to harness raw momentum out of almost any situation soon became my allies. Drawing upon these qualities, I learned to redirect my drive for perfection towards protecting my inner voice rather than the voice of others.

(I am very fond of the approach of self-help author Debbie Ford, whose shadow work helps people profoundly transform their lives, not by trying to get rid of “bad” qualities, but by finding the gems, the hidden teachings, in all we have within.)

Learning to be true to myself has meant letting go of a lot of excess. I have had to look at letting go of a tendency to become entangled in what others think. I needed to look at my defensiveness, learning to let go of a general, ongoing feeling of being judged or attacked. I have had to watch the death of my niceties and my feisties so that I could find the courage to go within and fiercely honour my own unique rhythm and voice.

As I began to live a more soul-directed life, I realized that doing so was not really the norm. Looking back at the construct I had started to leave behind, I saw that though on the surface it seemed that society supported excellence, the pull to live in the status quo was stronger in the collective consciousness. It seemed most people were complacently satisfied with fitting in and being “normal”.


Midway through university, I started to wear a pin on my coat that asked the question: “Why be normal?” I meant it as a provocative and sincere question as to what normality really meant to the world at large and to anyone who noticed me wearing it.

What I came to realize is that there is nothing wrong with being an A, B, C, D or F student, if that is who you truly are. We each are unique expressions of a divine force and it is our job to discover what that is and express it in our life. The problem is, most of us go through life on autopilot, as though we are asleep, wondering why life feels like a bad dream, tending to react to our unconscious thoughts and desires rather than learning to live fully and authentically.

When we begin to wake up, we wake up to, as the mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “the full catastrophe” of our lives. We learn to see the depth of our reactivity, the ways we give our power away to people and things and how we place happiness in some elusive place or person outside ourselves. Deeper still, we learn to touch and be present for the silent voices that rage through our actions, like feeling fundamentally “I can’t” or “I am not loved”.

When we come upon these old, hidden places within us, we must learn to pause and befriend them, rather than run from them pretending they do not hurt. When we welcome our full self into our self, we access our fullest power. We learn to see that our dreams are completely feasible, and that we have all we need to realize them. We begin to see that our main obstacle has been our self (no one else) and the antagonistic way we have seen the world.

As I began to find my own answers as to “why be normal?”, I started to follow an impulse, a powerful yet quiet force that lay waiting behind my conscious thoughts. It was within me and made no logical sense. But did it matter? I felt alive. I felt open. I felt connected. And in so doing, I was a better, fuller, more inspired, helpful and loving person.

In learning to find our unique rhythms, we need to try things out. I went through a phase of sporting short, electric purple hair with fluorescent blue eyebrows. My regular dress was multi-coloured body paint hidden mysteriously under a wardrobe of solid black. Only after a phase of leopard skin, tutus and combat boots, followed by a love affair with haute couture, did I reveal my joy of full colour. That was when I got rid of everything black.

When I was living in New York City, I went through a phase where everywhere I went, I carried a rubber goldfish in the palm of my hand, that I called “Fishy”. There was no sense in it. It was my own whimsical performance-art piece. The jelly-like goldfish was my friend, so it went where I went. People got use to it and accepted it. It was funny. It made people pause, do a double take and laugh. I loved that pause. I loved the space it gave because it allowed for more authentic connections as we stepped out of “normal”.

A friend of mine from New York, Kelly Cutrone, has a recent book called Normal Gets You Nowhere that shares her own brand of self-love. She believes normalcy inhibits the unique gifts everyone can offer the world and doesn't necessarily bring happiness. I agree with Kelly that when we are true to who we are, it's easier to be honest, it's easier to be compassionate, and the world is a much better place.


Being true to who we are is an ongoing process as we meet each moment of our lives. It is not a final destination point but a ripening as we get to know ourselves more fully. We all are works in progress, letting go of excess, reclaiming what we lost, discovering the new and rediscovering the forgotten.

It requires a fierce courage to be oneself. “Fierce courage” to me does not mean acting like a bully or railroading people. (If that is naturally who you are, then ok - but I would doubt it to be so. Most bullies are people who are deeply afraid.) We need fierce courage because there is momentum to normalcy, there is social momentum to staying asleep and not awakening one’s true nature. In effect, there is no “normal”. There is either “asleep” or “awake”, to varying degrees.

When we begin to honour our true nature, we shed light for others to do the same. But not everyone is ready for such honesty, nor does everyone want it. Connecting to our inner fierceness keeps us honest, instinctual, and in alignment with nature. Tapping into courage helps us move towards greater expansion. Developing compassion helps us understand the tendency to want to remain asleep. Because that tendency exists within us all, we can see ourselves in others. However, in this moment, we choose to live awake.

When we are naturally who we are, we align our energies with the force of nature, a most potent force. It does not apologize for who it is. It does not sheepishly try to be something else. It does not look for approval. It simply is.

The flower does not question that it is a flower, nor does the lion question its nature. The flower quietly reflects beauty. The lion will tear off your head if you get too close. The flower does not question if it is too beautiful, nor does the lion struggle with guilt, doubt and self-reproach due to the force of its claws. If the lion pretended to be a mouse, the lion would be unhappy. If the flower were crushed by concrete, it could not grow. We must be who we are.

Driven by the ego that knows only fear and disconnect, our minds tend to seek control and manipulate reality to suit our core beliefs. In turn, we create complexity in the moment, in which we become entangled. By becoming mentally convoluted, we lose touch with the force of our innate intelligence that arises from deep within through our connection with nature.

If your joy is singing, then sing. If your joy is being a lawyer, then love it. If you want to sit and read a book, then lap it up. If you need to tell someone how you feel, then let that person know. And do it completely, with every ounce of your being. Whatever it is, if you crush that connection with nature, your connection to who you are, everyone loses. When you honour it, everyone wins.

If there is truth in my desire to be either an A or an F student, it is that neither being driven by wanting to be “nice” nor by being overly “feisty” was right for me. Both were a form of pushing or pulling at life, rather than riding the river I am. Each one of us has to find that flow, our own unique expression of the life force that moves within us. Groundbreaking modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham provides an inspiring quote to illustrate this: “There is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action. Because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost.”

We often mistake compassion for sentimentality and love for sweetness. Love to me is fierce, an unbridled force that defies reason. It is the force that says, “I am that I am.” Compassion is an expression of that force through action. It calls us to serve through love for being here, for being part of it all.

When we don’t say what we need or share who we are, we are living in fear and, in effect, we waste our lives and everyone else’s time. This life is short. The perils are many. We need to sharpen our inner clarity to see who we are and connect to our unique inner light so that we may shine as beacons in the world.

Many people won’t get it. Many people will. Either way, it doesn’t matter. What matters most is that you feel alive, plugged in and real. In tapping into such rooted, vital expansiveness, you send a message to the universe of possibility, of interconnection, of “yes” to life. Without any aggression or warrior rage, you have created a radical revolution – by being exactly who you are. 

Today, and every day, I celebrate you.


  1. As noted sports talk show host Jim Rome says "give me an A or give me an F!" From wearing a fake wedding ring to actually believing I would be better off as a power-suit-wearing MBA-holding Bay Street bigwig (even though I knew while still in my 20s that I wouldn't be happy in that line of work), for years I tried to make other people think I was closer to perfection, or at least more "normal" or "mainstream", than the failed underachiever I thought myself to be. Even now, I feel I have to stuff down Amma, check my spiritual practice at the door, so people won't think I am involved in a cult of some kind. Is it any wonder Amma seems like a weekend hobby to me.

  2. Keval, I hear you saying how painful it has been for you to try to conform to the expectations you felt from others, and to live in attachment to the fear that you will be misperceived for your devotion to the Divine Mother. I think Parvati addresses these fears very well in this blog entry, and points the way forward. Now is the time - for the sake of our evolution, for the sake of our joy, and for the benefit of all around us - for each one of us to take the courageous step to be fully and unapologetically who we are. The past is gone. You don't have to beat yourself up for it anymore. You have the opportunity in this moment to begin to celebrate the unique, sensitive, devoted, gifted and playful person YOU are. Why not go for it? Sounds like a whole lot more fun than heavying yourself out with old stories. :)

  3. Being normal is really the most bizarre thing in anyone.

  4. You make it sound so easy, yet I know it's hard work. I have trained my surroundings to believe that I am a certain way, obviously to guarantee being loved. So now I have to not only find out who I really am, but in the process retrain my friends and family that I am not the person I pretended to be. This meets with resistance and requires adjustment on their part. Not only that, our habits are pointed in a certain direction and it is like a ball rolling downhill, it has momentum. Then there's the question: who am I really? So I agree, it takes fierce courage. And perseverance in the face of fear, resistance and doubt.