In 1980, I was a little girl growing up in India, a nation struggling with poverty. No Barbie dolls or fancy toys or TV shows. And, definitely no Disneyland.
I didn’t grow up with access to media or exposure to successful role models. My father did something very special that left an imprint on my mind. He created a collage of pictures of inspiring women leaders and glued it to the inside of my closet door. And at the center of that collage, he drew my face and wrote my name. That’s it. He never said a word about it or explained what it was. But every day when I opened my closet door, I would look at the collage and see my face amongst these role models. I grew up to believe that they were my friends, that I belonged amongst them, that I could be just like them. I believed that I had limitless potential and even an ordinary person can create extraordinary impact.
I did everything a good kid is supposed to do – I studied hard, I did my homework, I got good grades, I was top of my class. I was a young overachiever taking on more challenges than my peers, breaking barriers, accomplishing incredible things and making my family proud. But I didn’t feel like a hero – like the heroes in my collage. I felt lost and invisible. Perhaps I needed more interesting hobbies or cooler friends or more daring adventures. Perhaps I would be a hero if I simply went someplace else.
So, in 1997, I set off for America to be a hero. I was a young girl with big dreams and I believed America was the place where those dreams would come true. My dream quickly turned into a nightmare. I felt homesick and isolated. I didn’t feel heroic. Even the most mundane things felt unfamiliar and scary – like how to use a washing machine, learning the difference between a penny, a nickel and a dime, or even how to drive a car on the wrong side of the road. It seemed like everything I’d ever known was no longer relevant. What was even worse was realizing that I was different – that I did not belong. I felt even more lost and invisible.
I did the only sensible thing I could think of: I imitated the people around me in the hopes of fitting in. I embraced everything American, even worked on my accent. I got a job at a big company, moved to a big city and did my best to blend in. I blindly followed well-meaning advisors who said I must learn to play golf if I have any ambition of making it big, who said I must wear pantyhose and pearls to look the part, who said I should follow sports so I can make small talk with clients. Well, I hate golf, I don’t like wearing pantyhose and I have zero interest in sports. But I did everything they said I should.
I did my job, I didn’t break any rules, I didn’t challenge convention, I flew under the radar, I didn’t share any personal details. I didn’t talk about my journey as an immigrant. I didn’t acknowledge my struggles as a person of color. I didn’t complain about the lost opportunities as a woman. And I certainly didn’t tell anyone I was gay. Not even my family. All I did was blend in. As I became more of everyone else, I became less of me. My world kept shrinking and I felt more and more lost and invisible.
Years went gone by and I continued to do even more of what was not working. I had this carefully crafted persona – professional, polished, and picture perfect. I had a career filled with achievement but no fulfillment. I had a big social circle but no real friends I could count on. I had a strained relationship with my parents because I wasn’t myself with them. I lived a lavish lifestyle but I was buried in debt.
Then in 2008, the market crashed. My world fell apart and I lost everything I was afraid to lose. And then, I experienced the greatest loss of my life – I lost my partner to suicide. In just one week, I went from having a regular life to being broke and depressed. When you hit rock bottom, there aren’t a lot of places to hide. I felt completely exposed. You have only yourself to lean on and either you are strong enough to support yourself or you crumble under the pressure. I crumbled. I didn’t have the will to carry on. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I didn’t want to live.
Then in 2010, after two years of grieving and depression, I woke up one day and made a decision. I realized that I can choose to be miserable or I can choose to be happy. I chose the latter. I realized that happiness is a choice I must make every day. Happiness comes from hope. Hope comes from belief in something bigger than ourselves. I recalled that collage from my childhood. I recalled that sense of optimism and belief that I was limitless. And I wondered why despite all my successes, I had never felt limitless. Why did I feel so invisible? Why did I never feel like a hero?
I realized that my fear of not being accepted by others didn’t allow me to accept myself. How could I possibly be the hero of my own story if I didn’t embrace my whole self? How could I be limitless if I rejected so many parts of me? For the first time, I asked myself “who am I?” And for the first time, I accepted the answer. I connected with myself and suddenly a whole new world opened for me.
You can’t connect with your purpose if you are not connected to yourself. You can’t live your full potential if you don’t embrace all of yourself. I had finally embraced my whole self. I had found my purpose. I gained clarity on what mattered and why. I took courageous action to follow through and I never gave up despite any obstacles. Most of all, I became unapologetically authentic. That was my journey from fear to freedom.
As human beings, we fear the unknown and the unfamiliar. We are wired to fear anything that’s different from the norm. But the differences in others help us grow. And the differences within us make us shine. When you embrace your own authenticity, you go from living in the shadows to stepping into the light. You shed all the baggage that is keeping you trapped and hidden.
Authenticity makes you visible, visibility creates awareness, awareness leads to acceptance. You can’t change hearts, minds and attitudes, if you are invisible. I used to be a ghost living in the shadows hiding from my truth most of my life but today I am standing in the spotlight. The more I embraced myself, the more I grew and transformed and inspired others.
Authenticity is the key to unlocking your limitless potential. Embrace your personal power. Let authenticity be your activism.