As submitted for publication in Recorder Community Newspapers, July 12, 2007

“The eggplant Parmesan is great… and I don’t even like eggplant,” my waitress offered enthusiastically. Taking her dubious suggestion provided me with one of those life lessons that sometimes sneak into our otherwise uneventful days.

To my surprise, the meal didn’t taste like eggplant at all–obviously, I wasn’t listening very closely. The cook had ground up what little eggplant there was and mixed it with what seemed like a bushel of breadcrumbs. By taking the essence (or “eggplantness”) out of the recipe, the cook had tortured my meal beyond recognition. And so it is with people. You can transform yourself with a bushel of personal development, but you will end up an unidentifiable, mushy mess if you try to turn yourself into someone you are not.

Ironically, while we all know exactly what eggplant tastes like, we are often not as sure about what gives us our personal flavor. Think about it. What are the key ingredients that make you… you? What changes to yourself would make you an essentially different person? These are not easy questions to answer, despite your having a sense of who you are.

You probably don’t even notice your self-perception is unclear until you face new and different experiences. Then you might wonder whether you really fit with what’s required of you in those situations. For instance, in assessing your new position as a boss, you might question whether you could ever enjoy being the assertive person you know you need to be–even if you could do it. Or, perhaps, as you consider having children, you question whether you could be happy making the sacrifices that parents make.

Before making decisions that require major change for you, be sure that you are not trying to make yourself into someone you are not. If you do, you will end up feeling as though something is not right–much like that “eggplantless” eggplant Parmesan. You can avoid this problem by being clear about who you are; and who you are not. To do this, you must maintain a perspective of valuing yourself. In other words, you must maintain self-respect. You can accomplish this by doing the following:

Find the value in your personal traits. Different situations call for different abilities. For instance, being a social butterfly is an asset at parties, but can be a liability when developing deeper personal relationships. That’s where the wallflower’s roots can be a stronger asset than the butterfly’s wings.

Keep an eye on your strengths. As long as you remain aware of these, you will never define yourself by the difficulties you are facing in any particular moment. To continue our example, if you are aware of the benefits of being a quieter person, then you will see your efforts to become more outgoing at parties as adding to your strengths–not trying to just overcome a weakness.

You can also use your strengths to help you with various situations that you struggle with. For instance, someone with a natural outgoing nature might win a friend who is knowledgeable about landscaping–a real asset if you know nothing about landscaping and are looking to fix up the outside of your home. Keep in mind that this is an opportunity not just to beautify your home, but also for you to learn more a about something new. In this way, you continue to stay focused on what you can do and are learning, rather than on elements of your personality that are weaker.

Define yourself by what you are, not by what you are not. In doing this, you will have the strength to plow through the difficulties and self-doubt that inevitably arise when stepping into new arenas.

You will also be better able to determine if your experiences feel “right” even if they are not comfortable. To do this, observe your thoughts and feelings. Then decide whether you are moving in a direction you desire, or are just trying to please (or impress) others. This distinction is extremely important, though not always easily discernable.

Take the universal example of aging. We are faced with having to come to terms with those lines that etch ever so slowly into our faces. For those of us who use age-defying crèmes, there is the question of our motivation. Are we helping to keep our skin as young as we are at heart? Or, are we supporting our fantasy of being able to stay young even as the days pass into years? Most likely, it is a bit of both. This causes a serious dilemma in accepting and feeling good about ourselves as we age–recognizing that our experience and wisdom are part of the essence of who we are.

Remember that change is always at least a little unsettling simply because it brings new experiences with it. However, the better you know yourself and the more positively you feel about yourself, the more you will feel that you are growing and will continue to feel good about you. Just one word of caution: If you are thinking of making a personal change so amazing that you won’t recognize yourself, think twice. I can tell you that I have definitely learned my lesson about this–I will never again order a meal touted to be so good that it doesn’t taste like its main ingredients.

The Recorder Newspapers has over 250,000 readers and publishes weekly editions in 19 newspapers, which cover Morris, Somerset, Essex and Hunterdon counties of New Jersey.

Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Basking Ridge, NJ