Have you ever felt trapped by other people’s or by your community’s perceptions of you? I’ve heard people say that they can’t do this or can’t be that because they’re not educated enough or not pretty enough or the wrong race or the wrong political persuasion. They get into a headspace where they get so attached to whatever titles they hold in life – whether it’s soccer mom, doctor, waiter, writer, democrat, republican, southern belle, or feminist – that they have a hard time distinguishing themselves from their label.
Oftentimes, the negative and restricting aspects of a particular title or label aren’t the official, openly discussed ones. They’re usually comprised of “unspoken” opinions or rules in a specific community. You know, like: soccer moms have nothing to complain about. They live off of their husbands and have lunch dates while their kids are at school. Or southern belles shouldn’t be too ambitious or wear their skirts too high. Or all feminists are probably latent lesbians and just want the nanny state to sponsor their babies. If you’re on the sensitive side, these unspoken constrictions can greatly affect your mental and emotional freedom.
Recently, I recognized this internalization of other people’s opinions in myself, and it took my background river of misery turning into a raging waterfall for me to examine this phenomenon and do anything about it.
Working in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles in large part as a performer and a model, I have – as one might infer – been defining myself as an actress. I do other things beyond just acting, but I was defining myself as “an Actress who also does x, y, and z.” I’ve realized this has had an enormously destructive impact on me, mostly because Hollywood tends to hold actresses in not very high regard. As a result, I came to adopt and internalize other people’s opinions on what an actress is rather than stick to my own.
My definition of “actress” is very different from how a sizable group of people around me define it. I’m not talking about the official industry definition, which, though a far cry from a gut-wrenching Hedda, is still quite respectable. After all, it’s quite natural for many actors to take great pride and perhaps a certain level of artistic snobbism in their “craft,” which is often somewhat at odds with Hollywood’s idea that actors should fit the mold of whatever physical type they are – whether that’s sorority girl no. 1 or art-school-student-who-winds-up-dead. This is a natural discrepancy between artistic idealism and reality, and both have their time and place.
No, I’m talking about another definition, another perception altogether. It’s not the official perception of actresses, but it exists nonetheless in certain enclaves of Hollywood society. It’s not spoken with conviction and candor, but rather whispered, murmured, alluded to. It insinuates itself subtly and gradually into the minds of its adherents and the newly-initiated. It lingers in the background at Hollywood parties like a new-comer’s cheap perfume; dangles iridescently between banter like a starlet’s rhinestone earrings; bubbles silently below the surface of introductions like canned sparkling wine* in an aging diva’s clawed grasp.
Anyway, I won’t go into all the sordid details. The point is, when I referred to myself as an actress, I felt shame. I felt an incredible insecurity. I felt judged, objectified, dismissed. For the past couple of years, the title of “actress” made me more insecure than I had ever been, made me second-guess myself constantly, neurotically seek others’ approval and validation, and gave me a general sense of ineptitude about myself. I felt I was constantly being judged – by everyone. Not necessarily on skill or talent, but on looks, on my commercial success as a product, on my marketability. I felt that being known as an actress took away any strong points I had – even ones that had NOTHING to do with acting or the entertainment industry as a whole. I felt stupid, inept, utterly worthless, and like I was just a piece of ass. I felt like a deaf and dumb product, my product being a reasonably attractive female body – nothing more.
“Actress,” a label that I had once put so much pride, passion, and reverence into now became a mental prison for me.
But here is the significant part: the moment I stopped thinking of myself as an actress, and instead started thinking of myself as ME, that’s when things started to change. I started seeing tiny glimmers of my self-esteem again, cowering underneath all the crap I’d allowed entrance to. Thinking of myself as ME gave me the confidence and courage to do the things that me the actress felt wholly incapable of doing. Like writing, or studying finance, or buckling down and coming up with a business strategy. I started feeling joy, passion, and drive once more. I started to recall the girl that I once knew. The girl from Texas who had an opinionated pen, who could carry on on stage with gusto, who didn’t cower before anyone because she knew what she knew and what she knew was solid. The girl who had dreams and ideas and wasn’t afraid to put some tire marks on asphalt. Where did that girl go? What I saw in the mirror was too much make-up sandwiched between a curve-hugging dress and coiffed hair.
Labels are, by their very nature, limiting. If anything, they describe only one facet of a person. Every person has within themselves incredible power and limitless potential. We are not just actresses, mothers, southern belles, or feminists. These are descriptions of what we do at a particular moment in our lives, but not what or who we are. We can change at any time.
The key is all in your mind. If you tell yourself that you are XYZ, your thoughts and actions will be contained within the confines of XYZ. But if you say you are YOU and that you simply DO XYZ, your thoughts and actions are free to be as far-reaching as you can make them.
The cynics may say this is simply semantics, a mind trick – and to an extent it is. But if that is the case, perhaps we should reevaluate our attitude towards “semantics” and “mind tricks.” Perhaps “semantics” and “mind tricks” hold far greater power than we have given them credit. And isn’t that our problem to begin with? We give too much creditability to outside stimuli – other people’s opinions, for example – and not enough credibility to the intangibles that can really change our perception of ourselves for the better.
The cynics may say that a rock is a rock is a rock. It can never be anything else. But I disagree. Even a rock is not confined by its rock-ness.
This is a rock:
They’re all rocks, but they’re also very different and very beautiful. Just because a curmudgeon thinks a rock should look like lump of hard grey matter does not mean that that’s what a rock necessarily is.
It all depends on how you look at things. It is so simple that it seems downright silly. But it’s very powerful.
There is a movie by the Coen brothers called “A Serious Man.” It is in times like these, that I find myself going back to it time and time again and appreciating its understated wisdom.
The protagonist, Larry Gopnik, seems to have everything going against him. His wife wants to leave him for their neighbor, he’s being conversely pressured into accepting a bribe at work and black-mailed by the possibility that he might accept, his daughter wants a nose job, and his son gets high during his Bar Mitzvah. Larry seeks answers to life’s riddles from one rabbi after another, but the best he gets is counsel to look at his life from a different perspective. In one rabbi’s office, Larry is urged to consider the deeper meaning of the synagogue’s parking lot. “Just look at that parking lot!” the young rabbi exclaims. It looks like just a parking lot, but it could, after all, be so much more.
Though it may sound ridiculous at first, the advice holds deep wisdom. A parking lot today could be Nordstrom’s tomorrow. The key, however, is to see it not as a parking lot, but rather, as it really is: fertile land on which anything can be built, anything can be sown, and any miracle can be made.
What labels have you allowed to run your self-perception and your life?
*Note: Yes! There is such a thing as “Canned Sparkling Wine”! Who would have thought? Known as Sofia Mini, it comes courtesy of producer Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter, Sofia Coppola, straight from the Francis Ford Coppola Winery.
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