Live Well, Live Blind is a series exploring how losing my sight taught me to be happy. You don’t need a moment of impact or an event that changes everything to start to improve your life. You deserve the life you love now.
Last time we delved into living slow. Today, we’ll discover how blindness taught me to live authentically, the benefits of doing so and some simple things you can do to live a little more authentically too,
What blindness taught me
It’s impossible to blend in with the crowd as I wield my cane down the pavement and Voiceover blares out of my phone. I stand out. Over time, blindness has taught me, not only is this OK, but it’s also OK to be a bit goofy, prefer Poirot to Game of Thrones, and be all the other things that make me, me. Vision loss pushed me towards living more authentically and I discovered, living authentically ultimately leads to living well.
How blindness taught me to live authentically
If you’ve read my The Cane and I series from a few years ago, you’ll know I spent most of my life pretending I was sighted by finding ways to work around the fact that I couldn’t actually see. I go into more detail about this in those earlier blog posts, but in short, I thought it was easier to pretend I could see to fit in, than to be myself.
When my visual impairment became more difficult to conceal, there was a lot of work ahead of me. Some of it psychological, coming to terms with having less vision. A lot was practical, learning how to actually do things differently. With all these important and difficult things to work on, you’d think my mind would be sufficiently occupied. However, during that period I found my bandwidth being taken up by unhelpful thoughts about how others would perceive the new, or rather the real me. And you know what? No one really cared – not in the way I feared. People offered help and felt sad for me, but they didn’t mind. I wasn’t ostracised. The only person who seemed to mind my overt blindness, was me. People responded to me differently, but not always in a bad way. People were kind, curious and yes, some were a little awkward, but I could tell they wished they weren’t. Of course, there have been hurtful comments, some who try to take advantage and others who think they know best, but I’ve learned to deal with them in a way that doesn’t involve wishing to conceal my blindness. There’s a story about that later.
Through necessity, my blindness was on display and despite my initial resistance, it made me feel more relaxed and confident around people. Perhaps it was because I no longer needed to think of ways to appear ‘normal’ when I couldn’t see something. It was a relief at first, then it became more like liberation. Gradually, it’s feeling like something a little closer to normal.
The thing about blindness is that although I spent so much time focused on hiding it, it’s just a small part of me. It doesn’t define me or say anything about who I really am. Once I was open about my vision loss, I was able to be open about other things too. Being authentic began to reach across all areas of my life.
How we live
‘Being yourself’ isn’t as simple as it sounds when the world favours conformity over originality. Those who dare to be authentic are described as ‘eccentric’ or ‘different’, and not in a good way. Social acceptance is the path of least resistance, which is enough for many of us to live in a way that is ‘normal’ but may not reflect our true selves.
If we repeatedly sacrifice our authenticity to blend in, we reach the point where we don’t really know who we are anymore. We’ve neglected our values for so long, we can’t remember what they are. But we know something doesn’t feel quite right. Our lives our somehow unfulfilling, we’re not flourishing, and we don’t know why. Living inauthentically doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be miserable, but you’ll notice something doesn’t feel quite right. It may feel good to be accepted in the company of others, but alone, you might find yourself wondering if there’s more to life. If you feel like this, there probably is.
What happens when we live authentically?
1. We cultivate a life we love
Being authentic means making decisions that reflect your values, which brings you closer to a life that you love. I don’t mean everything we do is consciously geared towards this ultimate goal, but rather each decision we make affects the direction we move in.
I’m fortunate enough to say I’m happy, but It’s no coincidence that in recent years I’ve been making decisions more authentically. From small things like wearing dresses instead of jeans and persistently smiling and greeting people I meet in the lift so that they smile too, to bigger decisions, like moving across the world and deciding corporate law firms were no longer for me, they all played their part to bringing me to this very moment. If I had not found the courage to be authentic, I might be wearing the ‘right’ clothes, in a lift with unsmiling people, on my way to the glass-walled offices where I’d worked for years. That might sound like the perfect life for someone, it’s certainly a great life, but I know my life now, although simpler, makes me happier.
Our lives are a culmination of the decisions we make, so if they’re not made in line with our values, they set us down a path to a life we didn’t choose.
2. We become more humble
‘Humility is not thinking less of ourselves, but rather thinking of ourselves, less.’ I can’t remember who said this to me, but they were spot on. Living authentically means our behaviours come naturally and we don’t filter ourselves for our present company. Being less preoccupied with ourselves, our attention can turn to others. The question ‘how do I feel’ becomes ‘how do they feel?’. We understand it’s not always about us, and where we once placed so much importance on how others perceive us, we now have the capacity to perceive others. Being authentic teaches us to be humble and our authenticity makes us feel grounded. These things combined, allow us to focus our attention on the needs of other people so we can be kinder and more compassionate. When we are free to truly think of others, our connections deepen. We are more able to identify when someone needs help and in a better position to offer it. In short, authenticity helps us think of ourselves less so we can think of others more.
3. We experience negativity differently
Authenticity brings a quiet, inner self-confidence. It’s not comparative, arrogant or boastful. It’s belief in the values by which you live. Let me tell you a story that demonstrates how this has helped me reframe negativity.
A little girl enquired curiously about my cane. I told her all about it and she declared it must be magic. Then we played together for a while. The woman she was with, maybe her mother, said to me sadly, “You’re good with children. It’s a shame about your eyes, you would have been a good mum”. I froze briefly, not quite believing what I had just heard. Then I smiled at her and told her it was OK, I explained I had two kids and we were doing all right. I said it as gently as I could. because she didn’t mean to be hurtful, but I did want her to know that blind women can be good mothers. She was of course mortified.
When I recounted this tale to a friend, she was horrified, saying it was judgmental, ignorant and insulting. The comment was all of those things, yes, but that wasn’t my focus. Since blindness has been teaching me to live authentically, I’ve become more comfortable about who I am. I know how I parent, and the woman’s remarks didn’t make me question that. So as I responded, my head was clear of self-doubt, which made space for self-compassion, as I remained sure of my parenting abilities, and compassion towards the woman, who I could tell simply didn’t know that blind women have children. Yes, to me, and probably to you, it’s inconceivable that an adult could lack that knowledge, but here was the evidence. So, although I was aware of the judgement and presumption in her comment, I chose to focus on the knowledge gap instead. As kindly as I could, I helped her learn the truth. I spoke carefully as I didn’t want to sound indignant, offended, patronising or preachy, but in that moment, it felt important that she didn’t carry on believing as she did. I couldn’t control how her words came across, but I could control how I responded to them. To come away, knowing she was now aware of the capabilities (and existence!) of blind parents, seemed like the best option for me.
Authenticity is grounding, which means you don’t immediately search inwardly for the thing that is wrong. This gives you the headspace to respond to negativity in a way that is true to you.
4. We find our passions
When conformity and acceptance is no longer the goal, we are free to pursue or discover our passions. As children, we are naturally authentic and because of that, we live passionately. If we want to dance, we dance like there’s no one watching. If we decide we like sharks, we find out everything there is to know about them. As we grow, we become self-conscious, and we accumulate responsibilities, so we often neglect and even forget our passions.
While in pursuit of authenticity, we need to discover what is meaningful to us and a large part of that is doing things we care deeply about. We give ourselves permission to pursue interests wholeheartedly that might be counter to popular culture and perhaps not what our peers expect of us. Being open about our passions, and the positive effect they have on our lives tells the world something about who we really are. The sense of fulfillment and belonging that comes from being part of something you love, is a world away from the feeling of just ‘fitting in’.
5. Authenticity makes the world a better place
OK, excuse the melodrama and bear with me. We are all passionate about something, but we are not all passionate about the same thing. When we find and pursue our unique passions, magic happens. With a spark Inside us pushing us to learn about, or work tirelessly on something, the result will be far superior to that of someone working on the same thing, without passion.
Imagine a world where we all lived authentically, and we all contributed our own unique talents. We really could change the world. Perhaps your passion is the environment, education, engineering, or inclusion, and you work in that field. Your passion motivates you to do all that you can to make advances in your work. If each of these fields were populated by people who were truly passionate about their work, imagine the progress we could make together.
How to live authentically
Authenticity starts with knowing yourself and your values and establishing a congruency between who you are on the inside and how you show up in your life. It’s not as complicated as it sounds. Try starting with these ideas.
1. Weed out what’s wrong
Some of us may decide we want to live authentically, but we find it hard to define who we really are. While it can be difficult to say what is truly authentic, it is relatively easy to feel what is not. So weed out what feels wrong. Instead of seeking what’s authentic, we can eliminate things that are not. We instinctively know some things we do, don’t feel quite right. We can’t stop doing them all straightaway, for example, we might be in a job we feel we’ve outgrown, but we can’t just leave without a plan. However, there are other things that feel wrong, but we can stop doing them. For example, we can stop buying clothes we don’t really like and never wear and say no to drinks with that friend who makes us feel bad about ourselves. Start by cutting out one wrong thing at a time, then look for the next. This in itself might not feel like living authentically, but when we struggle to pinpoint what is true for us, getting rid of things that are obviously wrong for us is a pretty good start.
2. Don’t wait until you feel ready
Sometimes we tell ourselves that once we have the confidence, we will be ready to do that thing we want to do, but it turns out, that isn’t how it works. According to Ellen Hendriks, author of “How to Be Yourself”, if we act first, our confidence will catch up. If we wait to have the confidence, we may never begin, but if we just begin and trust our confidence will follow, it usually does. Psyching ourselves up to do something doesn’t make it less scary. But actually doing it, does. The thought of showing you real self, saying what you think and making decisions for you and not others, might be a scary thought, but thinking about it isn’t going to make it any easier. The only way it becomes less scary, is if you actually do it. If you start being more authentic in one area of your life, you’ll feel more confident to be more open in other areas too. You could speak up in a meeting when you spot a problem no one else seems to have noticed or tell your colleagues you’re not going to the bar after work because you want to rush home to a crime novel you’ve been enjoying. As you do, your confidence will grow and you will find you can be authentic in making more important decisions too, to do with your career, relationships or commitments.
3. Set specific challenges
The problem with being told to ‘be yourself’ is that it’s too vague. How do you know when you should be actively doing something to be more like yourself? At the end of the day, how do we know how ‘like ourselves’ we have been?
We work better when we break things down into smaller chunks. For example, say you’re heading into the office for the day, instead of just aiming to ‘be more authentic today’ think of specific moments where you can challenge yourself to act more authentically. Pick a number of events you know will happen and challenge yourself to be authentic when they do. You will need to get dressed, so wear that silk blouse that you love even though someone once said he thought his mum had the same one. When that pregnant lady who gets on the train at your stop each morning, resolve to say something when yet again no one offers her their seat. You have that meeting with your boss later, so be honest and tell her you’d love to take on that project but would need specific training first. Go out for a walk at lunch even though everyone else is eating at their desk – again. When you break it down into smaller chunks it’s clear what you need to do, and you can easily tell if you did what you set out to.
4. Be vulnerable
Being authentic means being open about all of who we are, including the things you feel insecure about. I don’t mean you need to tell everyone you meet that you’re terrified of public speaking, or you wish you had more self-control around chocolate biscuits. But authenticity is not just letting the world see the positive side of the real you. You come as a whole package and it’s not realistic to think any of us are free of flaws or negative emotions. They are part of us all and there’s nothing wrong with letting them show sometimes. Being honest about our feelings can improve our relationships. Not being afraid to admit when we don’t know something, usually means we’re about to learn something new. Talking about a problem can put things into perspective and is often the first step towards a solution (definitely the case when I’ve been reluctant to admit I can’t see!). Being authentic about our vulnerability makes us relatable and well, human.
Now you know what blindness taught me about living authentically, what it is, how it benefits us and how we can work towards it. Maybe something here resonated with you, and you want to do something to incorporate a little more authenticity into your life. If so, I hope you find the courage to approach life more authentically and enjoy the rewards of doing so.
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