Dear Lauren,

Is there a way to always be true to who I am no matter who is around me and no matter what the circumstances? Since I was really young I seem to morph into whatever anyone around me expects me to be. It's getting tiring, especially since people think I'm always fun, that I don't take anything seriously, that I hate religion, that I don't think about God, and that I'm a spoiled brat.

I don't have real friends, only classmates I hang out with, because I never feel safe to really be myself or to show who I really am. I want so much to be myself, but I'm afraid to be, and I shift into whatever it is the person near me thinks I am, without even making a conscious decision to do this. I think this behavior comes from being a shy child and being told just who I was and what I was thinking by my older family members and teachers and then my classmates, and I was too timid to explain myself or answer back, and instead I've been accidentally performing for years. I need a break from this. I prefer to be myself. Thank you.

Lauren Roth's Answer

There was a beautiful tree in Princeton. Every fall, all the leaves on the tree turned a brilliant yellow, such that its long, gnarled, multitudinous branches created a gargantuan canopy of sunlight-yellow, roofing the walkways around it in every direction. I loved that tree and absolutely delighted in its shining brightness every year.

When we moved to Lakewood 12 years ago, I was really excited that we were an hour’s drive from my amazing tree. Each fall, in October and then again in November, I piled all my kids into our minivan and we drove out to Princeton, waiting for the glorious, expansive yellow canopy to appear. Each year, I was disappointed, and told my kids and myself, “Hmm. We must have come too early in the season—I don’t see the canopy yet.” Or, “Hmm. We must have come too late—I don’t see the canopy.” After about 10 years of searching, I realized: we weren’t late. We weren’t early. The tree had been removed.

At first, I was really sad about the loss of my glorious tree. For a couple of autumns, I would wistfully think of the view from under it: the lovely yellow leaves, with the sunlight streaming through the spaces between them, and the blue sky above it. Then, all of a sudden, this year, I realized something. In the 12 years that I’ve been chasing my memory of that tree in Princeton, the trees around me here, where I live now, in Lakewood, have been steadily growing. Knowing that there is no yellow tree in Princeton to run to, this year I’ve been reveling in the gloriousness of the arboreal splendor in my own backyard, and, for the first time, bringing all my artistic appreciation skills to bear on the blazing oranges and fiery reds right down the street from where my life is now.

How does my tree story apply to your question? Because it’s the same process: I committed to finding the beauty in my own backyard instead of running to other places to find it. So too, in order to be yourself, the first thing you need to do is to commit to yourself. Decide: “I want to be ME, not other people’s perception of me. I want to be ME, not other people’s thought-projections of me. I’m no longer a shy, insecure child, and I am ready to be my true self.” And make that commitment a strong, unshakable one.

Ah, but then the wonderful question: who is your true self? To find out, pay close attention to who you are. Study yourself like you would study a subject for a report. What makes you happy? What makes you sad? What are your opinions on different topics? You can record the information in your head, or get a diary and actually write a report on yourself.

The best way to notice yourself and your likes, dislikes, opinions, taste preferences, thoughts, etc.—the best way to learn yourself—is through mindfulness. Mindfulness is the lovely art of paying attention. We have a great system in Judaism for inculcating mindfulness: praying every day. When we pray three times a day, we are supposed to be practicing mindfulness. We are supposed to stop being so busy and stop running here and there, and just THINK. That mindfulness of praying without getting distracted is the mindfulness that you could apply to the question, “Who am I, really?” and learn more about what makes you you.

Praying is one example of mindfulness; let me give you another, to help you on your way to practicing it. When I prepare my coffee in the morning, I really pay attention to—and enjoy—the preparations. I notice the sunlight coming in through the window. I enjoy the smell of the coffee grains, the sound of the water pouring into my glass jar (yes, I drink my morning coffee in a glass jar! Macrobiotics would understand!!), and then, when I drink the coffee, I take my time with it, noticing and savoring every sip. Mindfulness can help you learn about yourself, and it can also be very soothing during your learning process.

Of course, even if you’ve committed to being yourself, you’re also absolutely allowed to notice aspects of others’ personalities, and then decide whether or not you want to adopt those traits into your own persona. Let me share with you two examples from my own life.

You wrote that you were a shy child. I was one, too. But then I went to sleepaway camp. One evening, at the campfire, I saw girls laughing and talking and socializing, and I really wanted to join them. But a voice inside my head said, Oh, no, Lauren, you cannot just go over there and laugh with them—you are shy. At that moment, I decided, Hey! Maybe I don’t want to be shy anymore! I watched the girls, studied how they acted, then got up, walked over to them, and did the kinds of things they did. Things like: saying “Hi!!” brightly, or laughing at someone’s joke, or standing within their circle. I kept waiting for one of them to say, “Um, Lauren, you can’t do that—you are shy!” But of course no one did. So I kept on watching and learning and incorporating into myself the behaviors that I saw and liked. And within one day, I was no longer a shy kid!

My second example is more recent. This past Shabbos was my daughter’s bas mitzvah, and my whole family, from Tennessee and Texas and Baltimore and Montreal and Florida came to our home. My children and I were clearing the table after lunch on Saturday, and I accidentally dropped a dirty spoon right onto my Uncle Paul, dressed in his nicest suit. He didn’t even flinch. He had been sitting with his hands in his pockets, enjoying talking with his wife and his sister, and after he noticed the dirty spoon and its dirty pathway down his nice suit, he continued talking with his wife and his sister, and he didn’t even take his hands out of his pockets. He didn’t grumble, he didn’t grunt with annoyance, he didn’t make me feel stupid or clumsy—he just exhibited sterling character. I immediately decided that I wanted to incorporate that Uncle Paul response into my persona.

I’m rooting for you!