As a 28-year-old I know myself a lot better than I did as an 18-year-old. While I don’t ever stop discovering things about myself and growing, I was pretty clueless back then about what I wanted, who I was, and what I believed.
I’m much more confident in those things now, and I’m actually appreciative I had years on my own to figure that out. I know who I am — a geek with more than a few quirks, passionate about art, gaming, and living by Christ’s example, an introvert who’s learned to value community above most things, someone who doesn’t like the cold but lives in a freezing city. I am me.
But when you meet someone you really like and you want to make a good impression, it’s difficult not to hide bits of yourself. Because what if they don’t accept your quirks? What if they don’t appreciate certain things about you? Would changing a few things about yourself so they accept you be so bad?
I remember when I liked a boy in high school and tried to show it by demonstrating I liked everything he did. He liked playing soccer; I liked playing soccer. He was an extrovert; I tried to be more outgoing. He ran in marathons; I started running. His favorite food was broccoli; well, let’s not get carried away here.
For some reason, our minds are wired to think that people will be attracted to us if we’re more like them. And there is some truth to that. Shared interests are a great way to bond. Similar personality types may understand each other better. A mutual faith creates a stable foundation. If you don’t have anything in common, you may have trouble finding things to do with each other.
But differences are just as important in a healthy relationship as similarities. If I were exactly the same as my partner or friends, I would never be pushed toward growth. For example, I get anxious when I travel. But being friends with someone who enjoys traveling is actually good for me. (This does not mean I try to hide my anxiety and pretend to love traveling.) It means accepting each other, considering each other’s needs, and challenging each other to be better people.
The Bible encourages us to make each other better and wiser — “You use steel to sharpen steel, and one friend sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). Whether we like it or not, we influence each other. But we can’t do that when we’re afraid to show who we are, weaknesses included.
My high school self didn’t understand that morphing into a copy of another person wouldn’t result in a strong relationship. Now I know that I can support someone who loves something I don’t — it doesn’t mean I have to run a 5K. Plus, I’ll be so much happier with someone who loves me for who I am, not for trying to be someone else.
Back then, I also thought weakness was unacceptable. I figured I’d better hide everything I struggle with, all my anxieties and deficiencies, because that’s the kind of person others are interested in — someone who seems perfect. Funnily enough, the people who believe that are intimidated and the ones who see through it have no interest in someone who isn’t genuine. Admitting weakness actually takes more strength than hiding it. And the right people — the ones you want in your life — know that.
Our weaknesses are how God works through us the most often; Paul figured this out and even decided his weaknesses were worth bragging about: “’My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
These days, I let myself tell others that I’m a bit of a control freak, or I struggle with anxiety, or I could get lost in my backyard, or I think pineapple on pizza is perfectly acceptable. Because all I’m doing is admitting that I’m human like they are. And when I’m tempted to change something core to my identity because I’m afraid they won’t accept me, I stamp that thought underground where it belongs.
Like wearing bow ties, being yourself is cool. It’s difficult and scary, because there’s always a chance that your real self will be rejected. But, as with most things, the more you practice vulnerability, the better you get at it. And when it results in loving, strong relationships, you discover it was worth it.