An interactive experience, How to Be You invites you to make the book your own through activities such as coloring in charts, answering questions about how you do the things you do, and discovering patterns in your lives that may be holding you back. Through Jeffrey's own story of "growing up fabulous in a small farming town"--along with the stories of hero/ines who have transcended the stereotypes of race, age, and gender--you will discover that you are not alone.
Learn to deepen your relationship with yourself, boost your self-esteem and self-worth, and find the courage to take a leap that will change your life.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.60(d)|
|Age Range:||3 Months to 18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
This book comes straight from the heart. And it aims for the heart too. If I could offer a teeny bit of advice, it’s not to shoot for understanding anything in here, but to shoot for seeing what resonates with what you already understand. I beg you to look for your own truth. What connects with your own life and with the world as you see it? What zaps you right in the heart? I have endeavored to make so much of this book about your experience. I trust you deeply and I want you to trust your own truth of what we’re going to talk about too. So you’ll notice that each chapter has some kind of fun, challenging, enlightening, and delightful exercise or experience of the topic at hand. We are creating this book together and it is meant to be the manual on how to be you that you didn’t get while growing up. It’s never too late to learn how to live a full happy life as you, and now’s the best time to start.
One more suggestion before we get started. Repeat this book. Your understanding of the things in these pages will deepen and grow as you grow, so I’ve made it easy to repeat and reread it every five years or every year or every week. In this book, you will create astounding expressions of who you are, and build your own windows into how the world works. Who wouldn’t want to do that again and again? Why not keep refining your idea of how to be you? So grab your pencil and crayons and enjoy yourself. Before we get into the heavy, joyful stuff, a little bit about me . . .
I grew up poor. By the time I realized the barn could be my theater, our farm was in decline. When I was old enough to help with chores, my family’s farm was reduced to raising just a few animals and planting two crops: corn and soybeans. Mom had a rural farm joke she liked to tell people she just met: Did you hear that our bathroom caught on fire? Thank God the fire never reached the house! Like any good joke, it’s an exaggeration, but it reveals how far down a dirt road we actually lived. I spent the first few years of my life without a street address and without any idea that there were other people like me (just an occasional mention of the “gay plague” on TV).
There was one place where I did feel totally like myself when I was growing up. Before I found community theater, I had a place where I didn’t have to worry about being punished and I could express myself as myself. There was a stage. Footlights. A velvet curtain, a packed crowd. All I needed to do was rearrange a few bales of hay and it would be real. The old barn could be my private dress-up theater. Expressing myself on the farm was always a bit complicated, but when I discovered the raised platform inside our abandoned barn, I could see a safe, private space to explore being a fab ten-year-old. It was a stage for self-expression. I started playing there almost exclusively. To be in that safe space was addictive, all that twirling, dancing, and even singing, feeling secure and whole. There was an old trunk I took from our attic to store odds and ends of skirts and gloves I found in thrift stores or got from friends. The shows were always glittery musical extravaganzas, hours on end of playtime dancing and romancing. While my older brother and his friends went hunting or played football, I brought Vegas to the barnyard.
I don’t think Mom and Dad ever did find out about the barn. If they did, they didn’t say. I know raising me couldn’t have been easy. They both had ideas about how life was supposed to be for me, about what the “right” path was for me. Over the years I’ve come to drop the chains of wishing they were my idea of perfect. Maybe all children drag around ideas about how their parents could have done things better. But, of course, we’re all doing our best.
At some point, around the time my mom suspected I was wearing her shoes, something became crystal clear: they couldn’t possibly “love me for who I am” if they didn’t know who I was. I realized this when I was eleven. It was time to come out to my mom. As the moment approached to tell her, I pictured myself triumphantly saying, “I have an announcement: I’m from Planet Spectacular! I have come to take over and rule, with Tom Cruise by my side!” All I could muster, though, in a creaking, changing voice, was a stammer that sounded something like “I think I like boys.” There were a million more hidden, beautiful, heavenly, stuffed, and shamed parts of my story, but that tiny sentence would have to be enough for then.
Mom hit the brakes. I was scared. She was scared. We were driving home from church; I couldn’t tell if my timing was impeccable or exceedingly unfortunate. She swerved off the road, perhaps with God on her mind (she was, after all, a Lutheran pastor).
“You can’t say that! You’re eleven years old. You don’t know anything about that!” she said.
The ideas she had about me, the plans she had for my future, were all changing before her eyes. I would never be her version of the Perfect Son. I can understand how it would be tough to come to terms with that. It would take two more messy “coming out’s” and seven more years of stammering to finally tell Mom that I wasn’t going to be the world’s idea of perfect—that I was going to be me.
Let me be clear: Mom loves me. Dad too. My parents are very supportive, even now. Mom has always fought for me. She is one of the strongest, smartest people on the planet. And back then she was told that who I was, how I expressed my gender, was her fault. She was told that this child she loved would lead a disease-riddled, psychologically disturbed, imperfect shell of a life. And without anyone else around to contend that view, it’s not surprising that she spent a lot of time trying to correct what she thought was a terrible mistake.
Things did work out for the best. I see the perfection in my life today. Now I “dress up” as my life’s work. I dress up because it’s who I am. Several times a week I’m making glam music videos and sending out little messages of self-worth to millions of viewers. I love interacting with all kinds of people online. Messaging with folks who have their own entrenched ideas about being perfect, who wouldn’t normally “get it,” excites me the most. It proves that we’re all more alike than we often admit. Everyone seems to be drawn to this message: there is nothing wrong with you.
I am often head over (stiletto) heels happy when someone doesn’t even think about gender identity; they just look at my online presence and see their own goodness reflected back. Because the truth is, my personal journey may be unique to me, but ultimately we all struggle in some way with our sense of self, and when I speak to others, I’m just mirroring for them what they’ve always suspected deep down: they are great just how they are.
CHAPTER 1: DON’T TRY TO BE PERFECT
Sorry! Perfection doesn’t exist. Whoever taught you what it means to be “perfect” was making it up. Whoever taught them was making it up too. Perfection is a phony concept. It’s a phony set of standards. Where did the standards come from? How did they start? You can’t always be sure where your ideas about how you should be came from, but one thing to notice is that perfection often has a shifting definition. Over time, we as a society change our standards. And, yes, over time, you as an individual change your ideas about how to be perfect. What you think is the “perfect person thing to do” now may change in five years. It may change in five minutes. “Perfect” is a shifting, unclear, unreliable set of standards. Because of this, you will never meet the fake standards of perfection. This is awesome news! As soon as you give up the quest to be perfect according to some outside standard, you can start being you. Holy wow, I feel like that’s so important I need to say it again. As soon as you give up the quest to be perfect according to some outside standard, you can start being you.
And there is a good reason you can’t meet the standards. You are a living, breathing human. That’s why no one can meet the standards. You are not some caged, bottle-able, sellable set of never-changing qualities. You are alive. And alive things change. It is constantly, always what you do. So you can either embrace change and get excited about it—you can even start to love it—or you can try everything to freeze yourself into a perfect set of standards. Good luck with that second one. You can’t actually freeze yourself. But so many people just keep trying to freeze themselves; they keep trying to get to that perfect spot where they can be frozen and perfect and everything about their lives will work because they’ve done all the right things. Excuse me, but what kind of weird goal is that? Since when does trying to meet some passed-down fake standard of perfect equal a nice life?
It doesn’t. It equals a life of constantly trying. You might keep striving for an idea of perfection for the rest of your life. Many people do. And it is not worth it.
You’ll never get there. The standards for perfection shift and morph and climb so astronomically high that they are unattainable. Why spend your precious life trying to do something impossible?
It is not fun. Fun might not seem like an important criterion here, but why do something that is so unpleasant? If you could try to be perfect your whole life and have an awesome time doing it (even though it will never work), I’d say, “This is great. I’m so glad you’re having so much fun. Yippee!” But of course trying to meet false and shifting standards is actually the setup to making a bummer of your whole life.
I have a question. What’s the one thing about yourself that you were taught to hate? What’s the biggest thing that you were taught is imperfect about you? Have you struggled with that thing your whole life? Have you tried to change and change and change that thing? Would you call trying to change that thing fun?
The same thing goes for your life in general. It isn’t fun to try to control your circumstances; you can’t try to “make perfect” outside events so that you can feel more perfect inside. Making your outside environment perfect is unlikely to work because you can hardly control yourself, let alone anyone or anything else you see outside you. Your idea of perfection is based on a faulty assumption: that you are separate from the world and can judge how it should be. What if life has its own kind of perfection in it without your “help”? What if you, just as you are, are part of life’s perfection?
THE PERFECT PROM THAT ALMOST WASN’T
One clear spring morning on our family farm in York County, Pennsylvania, I received a phone call. “I’m scared. I can’t go,” said a shaky, squeaking voice on the other end of the line. With that, my perfect prom was ruined.
I had come out as gay just a few months before. At the time, I felt a lot more complicated than “gay,” but that moniker would have to do for then. It was vulnerable to come out, and so I thought that controlling everything else in my life and making everything else “perfect” would help me feel stable and capable. I wanted the perfect prom. There was this one tall, handsome boy in the only LGBT support group near our rural town. He was bad, a rebel. He had an earring! And, va-va-va-voom, he had a beard. Well . . . actually, it was a patchy, fuzzy beardlike conglomeration in his facial area, but it seemed like a beard to me! This was love. Looking back, I see it was radical (and generous) for Mom and Dad to drive me an hour each way to attend a gay-positive teen discussion group. It was even more radical for me to ask my rebel crush to come to prom at my ultraconservative country high school. I would show the kids at school, I thought, because we would be perfect together. When I asked my crush, he said yes!
I had a vision of how it would go: We would look ultrachic and every head would turn as we entered triumphantly. We would dance under the fake string-light stars to the Bangles’ “Eternal Flame.” He would kiss me, and we would live happily ever after. Cue the glitter and balloons raining down on us.
When I heard my crush’s voice on the phone that morning, though, the perfect prom I had crafted in my head, the one where I was perfect, where he was perfect, where our night was perfect, gosh darn it, started to crumble. He was concerned that we would be in danger. Kids at school didn’t like the idea of the two of us going to prom together. They had already made threats about what would happen if my crush and I showed up. I didn’t take their threats seriously. I was too busy trying to control the night and make everything “just so.” But my would-be date did take the threats seriously, very seriously.
It was the morning of the dance. He said he could not go. I was devastated. This forced change felt like a mistake and it felt like my fault. At the time, I couldn’t see that he was scared. All I could think was that senior prom would be embarrassing and awful and imperfect. It was not what I had in mind. I just kept thinking that I had done something wrong. I thought that if I could have been more perfect, somehow, or if I could have controlled things better, maybe the night would have gone the way I wanted it to go and I would feel okay about myself.
It was sad. I had dreamed of being the belle of the ball at my senior prom, with my crush by my side. But instead, I went alone. I wore a drop-dead gorgeous satiny 1920s tux and danced the night away with my friends. Without the pressure of being “on” with my crush, I had freedom to let go and enjoy myself. After all, by senior year, everyone at least knew that I wasn’t a straight man—that I didn’t see myself that way. And everyone knowing that was a great relief. Although I wanted to, I didn’t need to put on a big, fabulous perfect show in order to feel like me. I didn’t even need a date to feel like perfection, I just needed to let the night happen.
For many of us, worrying about what others think of us is so important. It is funny that the social world of Spring Grove High School seems far, far away, almost like a dramatic book I read in English class. Nowadays, I can barely remember the CliffsNotes! All those popular kids I was so concerned about impressing, the people I was so concerned about making things perfect for, have vanished from my life. I could not say what any one of them is doing today.
That night at the dance was a new beginning for me. I realized that maybe having the perfect image wasn’t so important. Maybe things do not have to be managed and planned to be perfect. Maybe it will all be okay; maybe you can even have a little fun while you shake off the expectations the world has taught you.
Simone Biles is an American athlete who has become the all-around world champion in gymnastics. She has gone on to shatter records by winning a total of ten World Championship gold medals, prompting USA Today to say about her, “No one does it better than Simone Biles. Certainly not now. Maybe not ever.” She is a symbol of perseverance, dedication, and strength. At the same time, it is clear that she is not trying to reach some fake idea of perfection. When she is asked for advice, she often says, “Just go out there and do what you do in training. And remember, have fun.” Simone has come so far and achieved so much without worrying about being perfect or whether she will get a “perfect 10.” In fact, the International Gymnastics Federation has done away with the idea of a perfect score. In 2006, they switched to an open-ended scoring system. The federation said they wanted to be more objective. The new system makes it impossible to achieve a total perfect 10 score.
Without the carrot of perfection dangling in front of her, Simone can focus on other goals. To this day, while continually rewriting the record books, Simone simply has fun in gymnastics. She is part of a group of athletes who work hard and train diligently while enjoying themselves. She doesn’t let the idea of needing to be perfect affect her love of gymnastics.
Another way to look at perfection is to say that you are, in a way, perfect already. You get to make up the definition of perfect, right? So why not include yourself as you are? In this way, if you are already perfect, you are not broken. It’s a very new, shiny notion: you don’t need to fix yourself because you are already a messy, gorgeous, perfect human being. You are free to be life’s idea of perfect when you stop trying to fit into society’s idea-of-perfect box. You are free from an old, hard standard of what it means to be perfect when you see how truly perfect you already are.
And actually, that brings me to a larger point: we will never be able to fix what isn’t broken. It is frustrating to try to be perfect by society’s standards because that is the process of attempting to repair something that is working fine as it is. It is frustrating to fix yourself, not because you are bad at fixing but because you are unfixable-beautiful just as you are. If you look at yourself from a loving angle, all of your supposed flaws and “imperfect” ways are just fine. In fact, your differences are what make you important and unique. If you were a “fixed” person who met all the fake standards, you would be the same as any other fixed robot people and it would all be so boring. Life would be boring. No variety. Fixed perfect people would think alike and act alike and all have the same hobbies and shoes. But people aren’t like that, thank goodness, and it actually makes each of us perfect in a very real, true way. Because the ultimate perfection is in our diversity. It’s already in you, being just how you are.
When you reject the notion of needing to become other people’s idea of perfect, you can see many more possibilities for how to live. I am not saying it is easy. It will take practice, and it will take perseverance, and, yes, patience. Maybe you could experiment with it a little. You could do one or two things a day purposefully imperfectly. You would find out if the world will end or if everyone will reject you. There is one thing I know: none of the worst that you think will happen if you give up on society’s version of perfect will actually happen. In fact, once you get a taste of the freedom from not needing to be perfect, you can begin to appreciate your “imperfections.” It sounds crazy, but one day you can start to enjoy not being that kind of perfect.
When you don’t meet the standards, when you aren’t the world’s idea of perfect, how do you treat yourself? List the ways you punish yourself for not being perfect.
How do I avoid trying to be perfect according to society’s standards?
Once you understand the made-up standards by which society judges perfection, you can start to break the habit of trying to meet those standards. That’s the fun part. Once your perspective has been broadened enough to see that it’s a bogus system, you can start to play with that system.
Often, your sense of “imperfection” comes from the assumption, based on predetermined standards, that you have made a mistake. But this is only if you believe mistakes are real. In fact, there is nothing wrong with learning a lesson via your actions and their consequences. This doesn’t mean you are imperfect somehow. There is nothing wrong with adjusting your life strategy as you encounter new information. There is nothing wrong with change. In fact, you can’t seem to avoid change! Where you go “wrong” (not that it’s a mistake!) is when you make changes because of your supposed mistakes. So many of us learned that that’s the only reason to make a change: We did something wrong and now we need to fix it. But what if nothing is wrong in that way? What if everyone learns as they go? What if it is absolutely fine to:
1. try something
2. have it go a way you didn’t think it would, and
3. try something else?
No idea of perfection. No standards to meet. If you call your first try, the one that didn’t work so well, a mistake, you are more likely to feel imperfect and bad about who you are. And that is something you want to stop doing as soon as you can.
So, long story longer, play around with being imperfect! Experiment with the ideas around perfection. You can start chipping away at your own internal standards system. It can be as simple as wearing a color to work or school that you love but is widely considered by you or others as the “wrong” color for you. Or maybe you implement a new system at your job that isn’t perfect but works for you. Mix it up. Change things. You can be like a scientist and study the results of your experiments. It can be as small or grand an imperfect gesture as you feel comfortable making, but you can always give purposefully “not living up to the standards” a try. You might even find you like it. When you give up on trying to be everyone else’s idea of perfect, you can spend your life being your own version of yourself. You can spend time being you, or perhaps even . . . wait for it . . . you can spend time enjoying yourself.
IMAGINE YOUR PERFECT LIFE
What kind of life do you want in five years?
Where do you want to be in ten years?
How about twenty years from now?
How will you feel when you have your perfect life?
Now go back and look over your answers from the last page.
Is there any way to feel the way you want to feel in the future right now?
Is there anything you can do in your life—right now, today—to feel the way you always wanted to feel in your perfect future life?
Table of Contents
1 Don't Try to Be Perfect 1
2 Trust Yourself 15
3 Learn More About Yourself 43
4 Have Your Emotions 69
5 Let Go of Punishment and Control 93
6 Forget Haters 115
7 Get Used to Not Knowing 129
8 Feel Good 145
9 Stay Connected to You 165
Appendix: Ten Top Tips for Teachers (and Anyone Who Works with Young People) 179
About the Author 191