Wednesday, February 29, 2012

What do we do when our reality doesn’t meet our expectations?

Mourning the Loss of Who I Thought I Was
                Have you ever had a self realization that was a long time coming, yet felt earth shattering when you put it all together for this first time?  Well, I feel the need to document mine publicly as a declaration to myself that I need to keep on the track of changing my ways.  Even better yet, I hope that the honesty about my struggle might be beneficial to you, whoever you are, in some way.  I mean, we’re all human, so maybe our stories are not all that different.  So here it goes:
                Hello, my name is Alyssa, (insert a monotone response of, “Hi, Alyssa”) and when my expectations didn't meet the reality of my life I used to fall to pieces.  The event which this pattern finally caught up with me was after my semester studying abroad in London.  It’s been eight months since my semester abroad; it’s taken me that long to realize that the greatest lesson I learned in London was to appreciate what is happening in the moment.  Until two months ago, I hadn’t become aware of how I was holding myself back by trying to force my idea of who I thought I was supposed to be onto who I actually am.  Since that revelation I’ve turned my life around.  It might not be extremely visible on the outside, but on the inside I feel more alive than ever.  Now, let me catch you up to speed with how I dug myself into this hole and crawled back out again. 
                Since I was twelve years old I dreamed of going to London to study theatre.  I would fantasize about becoming a real actress and having beautiful Orlando Bloom type men around me and fab girls as my friends saying things like, “I’d like to have a go at snogging Orlando Bloom.”  I’d drink tea, eat biscuits, and fit right in as the woman I was supposed to be.  Cut to the college I ended up going to, which had a semester abroad exchange program with a school right outside of London.  I was right on board and already knew from my first day of class as a freshman that I would be studying abroad in London my second semester junior year!  Hmm, looking back I see my mistake - do you?  I spent nine years of my life building up the experience in my head.  How could anything live up to my unrealistic expectations?  To add to that, every time I felt like I didn’t fit into my department, I’d calm myself by saying that in London it would all come together.  I had come to the conclusion that my life would unfold during my five months away.  SPOILER ALERT!  That didn’t happen, because life doesn’t work that way, and I broke down.  When I say I broke, I know I’m using the word figuratively but to me it felt very literal.  I couldn’t bear that my expectations didn’t meet the reality of my life.                   
                How did I allow myself to become so disappointed?  I was still in London, still studying theatre, meeting great new people, and there was even a guy I really liked that asked me out on a date once and I was too blind to notice it.  I spent so much time focusing on what it wasn’t that I couldn’t be thankful for what it was.  So, should it surprise me that more positive things didn’t come my way?  No, because even when great things did come my way I didn’t always see them.   Don’t get me wrong, I honestly had a lot of fun, met great people, was in a show I’m proud of, did a fantastic acting workshop in London, and traveled all over England.  I didn’t push my negativity on everyone around me, but I know it slipped out more often than it should have.  I just wonder how amazing my time could have been if I would have changed my attitude.  If I got so much from my time there with my general outlook of dissatisfaction, imagine how mind -blowing it could have been if I was more open to everything around me.  I can tell myself my attitude was “being realistic about what was happening,” but in reality it was a drag of an attitude to live through. 
                If I could magically teleport my current- self to my past- self in London, I’d run up to her, shake her by the shoulders and yell, “Appreciate what’s in front of you; you’re wasting so much time wishing this amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience was something else.   KNOCK IT OFF!” Then I’d most likely do something corny, and give my very upset past-self a hug and tell her that everything will be ok.  I’d also tell past -Alyssa to go easy on the desserts, because honey, you are going to swear up a storm when you step on that scale for the first time back home and see a number twenty pounds higher than when you left.  When I came back from my trip I put a very positive spin on my weight gain while in England.  Sort of a, “haha, it was all in good fun.”  Let’s be real, there is nothing fun about gaining  twenty pounds in five months, especially when you are hardly 5 feet tall.  My clothes didn’t fit, I didn't recognize the person in the mirror anymore, I was horribly out of shape, and my mood was all over the place.  I don’t regret trying a lot of different foods, in fact, I love having food adventures.  What I regret is using food as an outlet to comfort my disappointment.  I was not getting what I wanted out of my semester abroad, it was not unfolding into what it was “supposed to be”; but hey, I could order a pizza at 8 pm and have it to my room in 45 minutes, so that was pretty instantly gratifying.  I’m not sure if in the moment I was fully aware that I was doing this.  It just sort of happened gradually and spun out of control. 
                But wait, when did this “hard fall” post- London happen?  Oh, that was my first semester back at my own college.  To sum it up I thought London would be this experience that would clarify my life, and I left that city more confused than ever.  During the summer I was a little numb and didn't know what to do with all my emotions.  When I got back to school the reality sunk in that I still didn’t have it all figured out.  I thought I was not the great actress I should be.  This resulted in me having a crying session about once a week.  It usually happened in rehearsal or in my auditioning class when I was in the presence of my instructor Dana.   Dana is one of those rare people who can perceive what others are feeling and be so articulate about it that you can’t help but be moved by her words.  It’s a gift I admire about her and that I hope to develop some day.  So, she saw through my façade, and therefore I had an environment where I could openly mourn the loss of who I thought I was.  That’s what I see my first semester of my senior year as: mourning the loss of who I thought I was.  I needed that; I needed to break down so I could build myself back up. 
                Say whatever you want about actors, but if you are going to cry in front of any group of people, there isn’t a much better group than a bunch of actors.  My fellow performance majors never were uncomfortable around my tears and feelings.  In fact, they encouraged it, and they supported me.  They watched Dana push me to speak my monologue honestly, until I ended up crying in front of them all because all my feelings about not being enough came over me.  It was one of those ugly crying sessions as well, where you have snot all over and can’t catch your breath.  For anyone who is reading this who was in the room as I broke down, and didn’t make me feel guilty about taking up that time, thank you so much.  This also goes for my family, friends, and the counselor at Viterbo.  Thank you so much.  I could not have gotten to where I am today without your support. 
                As I write this, I look back on all the times in my life that my pattern of building something up so much to what I think it should be and not being able to see what it actually as has occurred.  I’m awe struck.  Is that why I stayed in that relationship so long that was clearly over?  Was I trying to force my idea of what I thought our relationship was onto what it actually was?  Is that why I stopped getting anything out of that internship?  Is that why I tanned and dyed my hair darker in high school?  Wow, I really did that!  I had this idea that I should be more exotic than I really was so I wanted my outside image to reflect that.  There are countless other times where I have tried to force myself to be the idea of who I should be over who I really am. 
                So, where am I now?  I’m trying to live a life where I focus on who I am, what I actually am interested in, and follow what makes me feel fulfilled.  I still have moments where I have a hard time letting go of the idea of who I thought I should be, but it’s getting easier every day.  This journey in my change of attitude started when I was home for winter break.  I knew this change had to happen; it was time.  I had done all the ground work and now I had to execute it.  I started with something smaller, working out and eating right.  I made it a priority- because I like it.  It makes me happy, it makes me feel good, and so I should follow that.  I started having a more positive attitude about exercise and food.  I focused on the idea that I’m doing this to be healthy, and not the idea of not wanting to be fat.  Since that change on my outlook I’ve lost 15 pounds in two months and am in the best shape of my life. 
                The thing that means the most to me is that I found my love of theatre and storytelling again.  I thought I lost it; in reality I was focusing on my weaknesses in performing, and that was all I saw.  I spent so much energy making myself feel like crap, and for what?  That never led to me being a better performer, that just led me to feeling pathetic and like I was doing something wrong.  When I came back to school second semester and went back to rehearsal for a show I was in it was like I was in a whole new show.  I was funny again; how I viewed myself made my personal performance come alive.    Before break I was also dreading my senior show, which is a 30 minute show that every senior performance major makes that highlights what kind of performer they think they are.  Yet, Dana did her guru magic again, and helped guide me towards the concept that was in my heart all along: a one woman show that focuses on true stories.  I just never gave myself permission to do it before because it didn’t fit into my head of what I was supposed to do.   I’m also job shadowing at a news station, and the coolest part is that I have no idea how this will end up fitting into my life.  I’m doing it because I am genuinely interested in news and storytelling, and think this might be a way to pursue that as well.   
                  In the end, this change for me was the scariest thing I’ve ever had to do.  It’s terrifying following what you really care about because there is a lot more opportunity to get hurt.  Yet, I find it ironic that it hurt a lot worse to pretend to be someone I was not, and being frustrated with myself because I was bad at being that person.  I hope this testimony I wrote for myself helped someone who ended up reading this.  I know when I read stories like this, it keeps me looking forward. 
                Readers, I’m about to get really sappy like a maple tree all over you.  Please, please be good to yourselves.  Stop putting so much pressure on who you think you should be; focus on what you love about who you are.  Take time to appreciate and realize what you already do have.  If you’re not open to the possibility of growing where you don’t expect it you won’t see those life changing opportunities.  I’m saying all this to myself as much as I am to anyone reading this.  I’ll end this post with a quote that is a summary of my journey:
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
― Albert Einstein

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