It’s 2018. Does “fear” really have an expiration date, or change with the seasons? The short answer is: no. Fear is fear, and we are humans. We are innately programmed to fear, and that is something we can’t ever “conquer” completely. In fact, I dare say we don’t want to. Fear is a vital part of the human experience. It can serve to protect us from harm, but it can also prevent us from living abundantly.
Fear in 2018 does, in some ways, look different than it did half a century ago. Many of my friends fear rapidly advancing technology. Many fear social media. Some fear a text they don’t want to receive from their boyfriend, or perhaps that weird guy they met at the bar last night. A handful fear what they didn’t know before checking their iPhone news feed this morning.
When I sat down to write this, I began thinking about the young adult women in my own life. I asked myself: “what do my friends tend to fear?” The more I thought about it, a common theme emerged: fear of what others think.
It’s a funny thing, isn’t it? Fearing what others think?
Professor Jean Twenge from San Diego State University conducted a study a few years back, surveying 15,000 American college students. The results found that young adults today are significantly more narcissistic and self-conscious than they were during the 1980’s and 1990’s. Why is this? Various studies over the years have shown we consistently overestimate how much others think about us. Because of this, we are far less likely to be our most authentic selves, for fear of not pleasing or living up to the expectations of others.
So, how do we, as strong, young adult women, stay true to ourselves amid an often chaotic, overwhelming, and materialistic era?
Well, why don’t we start by dropping the “act”?
What is the “act”? The “act” is anything that precludes us from being who we truly are. It is a mask we wear. A shield we use. It is the feeling we get when we feel something is expected of us, so rather than saying what we really feel, we say what we think others want to hear.
The “act” allows other people’s limited perceptions to define us and to determine how we live.
I remember a huge dropping the “act” moment for me. It was April of 2017, and I was a sophomore in college. I had been pursuing a serious modeling career since I was signed to a reputable agency in the fall of 2016. I had already walked in two New York Fashion Weeks and was in the process of building my book, slimming down my hips, and trying to make my agents like me. Yes, this was all just as exhausting as it sounds.
The moment occurred when my dad came to visit one weekend. Over dinner at a fancy hotel, he asked how things were really going. When I told him I spent more time counting calories than anything else, his eyes grew sad.
“Sarah, I love you. More than anything, I want you to be the best version of you because I know how incredible she is. Do you feel like you are the best version of you?”
Fighting back the tears that had wanted to come for so long, I shook my head.
And that one honest conversation was the beginning of a new chapter in my story. Like clockwork, my agent called the next day and asked if I wanted to continue modeling. I told her as much as I enjoyed it, I needed a break. And that was true. I did need a break. Not from modeling, but from the strings attached. The image. The Ego. The mask. The “act.” Because the “act” – no matter how hard I tried to convince myself otherwise – wasn’t me. And those who knew me best, like my dad, saw right through it.
Sometimes all it takes is one, honest conversation to remove the mask to see clearly. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: to be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.
Why, then, do we continue putting on the “act”? Why do we willingly follow the status quo instead of rising above it? Why are we so afraid of being unapologetically ourselves in a world that is in desperate need of individual fearlessness? I don’t know much, but I do know this: the opposite of courage isn’t fear; it’s conformity.
Perfection? Forget about it.
I was recently on a train, returning from speaking at a leadership conference in New York. I noticed a young woman in front of me, scrolling down her Instagram feed. This young woman would stop on a photo every few seconds, stare at it for maybe ten, and continue scrolling. A few seconds later, she’d scroll back up to the same photo, stare at it again, and continue scrolling. She did this multiple times within ten minutes. I wanted so badly to hear her inner dialogue. What did she think as she stared at the photo of the pretty, blonde girl in a bikini? Was she comparing herself, her life, and her body to hers? And if so, why?
Salvador Dali, one of the greatest artists and minds to ever live, said these words: have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.
So, my question is: why do we, as young adult women in 2018, strive so hard to reach perfection? More importantly, why do we fear not reaching something knowably unreachable?
Because, as the young woman on the train, we are so quick to let other people dictate how we see ourselves. Perhaps we do this subconsciously, or perhaps we are conscious of it. Something I have learned and continue to learn each day is the less we try to outdo everyone else, the more we realize that nothing and no one is perfect. The sooner we realize, accept, and come to terms with this fact, the sooner we are free to drop the “act” and simply live as the perfectly imperfect women we are.
Your value doesn’t come from external things.
A couple of nights ago, I accompanied my friend to a dinner gathering in New York City. We were greeted by a long table of young adult women, wearing black mini-skirts and giggling over glasses of Cabernet. I was in a hoodie and Adidas. It wasn’t my scene, but I entered in, as settings like those always intrigue me.
“You guys, check out the hottie I went home with last night.” one of the young women pulled out her phone and passed it around the table for approval ratings. When it got to me, the Instagram photo of a shirtless, straight-faced, Italian-looking model was enough to make me suppress a chuckle.
“What? You don’t think he’s hot?” the girl asked as if I had offended her.
“No, no,” I tried to redeem myself. “He’s definitely hot. Just not my type.”
“He’s almost at 123.”
Then it clicked. This guy had 123,000 followers on Instagram.
“Ah, right, ok,” I said, passing the phone back to her.
Social media is unavoidable as young adult women in 2018. It swirls around us, competing relentlessly for our attention. Let me just say this, and get it over with: your value is not determined by how many followers you have. Your value is not determined by designer clothes or a tiny waist. Your value is not determined by your parents, your friends, your boyfriend, or even the guy you hooked up with last night.
I believe our value comes from two things: God and ourselves.
God is where I find my deepest sense of worth so it would be silly to exclude Him for fear (yes, that was intentional) of what others may think. God is unchanging and unshakable, therefore so is my self-worth. If I placed my worth in external things, such as people, likes, or clothes, it would constantly waver, and I would never be sure. Even my own mood often wavers. When I place my value in God, I am sure. I don’t care if the world values me because I am valued by the Creator of the world.
Secondly, it’s called self-worth for a reason.
As young women in 2018, we are often quick to give our power away to those who don’t deserve it. In fact, nobody deserves your power more than you. If we think about this long enough, we realize how often we hand our precious power over to others, letting them run with it. When we deeply value ourselves, we acquire a deep ‘internal power’ that increases our capacity to love others. I believe if every woman truly knew how much power she held within herself, fear would be sparsely used in her vocabulary. She would hold onto her power like a rare gem, using it as a shield, as that is what it is.
Learning our power takes time.
After countless conversations with young adult women around the world, asking these very questions, I have come to realize there is no one-size-fits-all. Each woman has to navigate her own journey of self-discovery before reaching somewhere she deems worthy of anchoring. And surely, she won’t anchor long before setting sail once more. Because she knows that is the only way to keep the winds at her back, allowing herself the freedom and fearlessness to fly.