The person you used to be still tells you what to do

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Once my friends and I reached legal bar-going age, I watched as we split into two factions. There were the people who went out to clubs to dance, and the people who went to pubs to sit and drink and talk loudly.

I hated the clubs. The music was awful, thumping electronic noise. I think I made about three attempts to have fun this way, and then I made a long-lasting error in judgment. I made a conclusion about myself I wasn’t qualified to make: dancing is not for me.

As it turns out, much more investigation was required. But I didn’t bother. I thought I knew. I’d endured three dull nights drinking draft under sweeping blue lights, pretending I was happy to be out and about but silently wondering how anyone could bring themselves to flail their bodies to uptempo remixes of Ricky Martin. So without quite realizing it, I decided I am not one who dances. I love music, but not the music people dance to.

A sweeping generalization like that, if it concerns who you are and what’s for you or not for you, can affect you for a long stretch of your life. For the next twelve years all invitations to go out dancing were declined by default.

That’s all it takes to keep something out of your life, a single instance of telling youself, “This is not for me.” The problem is we don’t think much about what exactly constitutes “that” and so we’re prone to dismissing, just by association, a whole lot of experiences that maybe are for us. We lose track of our symbols.

Earlier this year it cracked — while traveling, which seems to be what I’m doing at all of the moments in which I become aware that a long-held misconception about myself has just died. I found myself sitting crosslegged on a friend’s floor, talking about music with a woman I’d just met. I liked her right away, and every time she mentioned an act I liked too, I felt closer to her.

When she mentioned she liked electronic dance music I felt a pang of disappointment — a bit less of a connection, momentarily. Somehow, nearly half a lifetime after I first rolled my eyes at a roomful of late-nineties club crowd, I figured some part of what I had seen and hated appealed to her.

And that’s because I already knew that is not for me. I’d known for years. I don’t dance. I think I said so. 

I already knew her taste was excellent, though, and so I explored the music she was talking about, and of course it sounded nothing like the electro-pop shlock I had hated as a teenager. It was awesome. Unpretentious and refined.

And now I dance. I love it. I should have been doing it all along.

To that day — and thankfully, never after — the image I had in my mind of going out to dance is the same one I rejected twelve years earlier: drunk teenagers dancing in a terrible suburban club to vapid anthem-pop.

What surprised me was how relevant my opinion of dance music still seemed, up until that moment. It felt true, but it was based on old, inadequate data, like most of our opinions probably are. Still, we tend view our own beliefs as if they are real knowledge. I hadn’t realized how crusty and obsolete my impression of “dance music” was. In reality, since I’d last actively considered it, the sun had risen and set four thousand times, wars had been fought, borders had been redrawn, great loves had started and ended, eras had died. Children who were five then were now driving cars, and somehow I still felt like I had a pretty clear idea of what I was missing.

I can’t say for sure what my early dismissal of dancing cost me. Certainly hundreds of amazing nights out. Certainly dozens of would-be friendships and connections. Certainly it stifled my progress away from shyness and self-consciousness.

Naturally my personality gradually conformed toward the pub faction’s qualities and away from those of the club faction — towards more passive vibes where you sat and talked to the same few people, and away from more active and intimate social dynamics. I know now that the former is less me than the latter, given the superior vantage point I now inhabit, at 31 years. All I know for sure is that a huge amount of what I love was missed.

So essentially, at thirty-one years of age, a large area of my life — how I go out, how I recreate — was still being decided by a judgmental nineteen year-old. I see now what a bad job that nineteen year-old had been doing. He doesn’t know me. He doesn’t know what I value, what really turns my crank, what I ought to be afraid of or what I ought to seek out. My 29 year-old self wouldn’t even do a very good job of telling me what to do. I’m a different person than he is.

This happens a lot. Much of what you do today (or don’t do) was decided by the person you were years ago, a person with less life experience and less insight into your values. Your identity — as in who you are to yourself, and who you are to others — changes throughout your life, and the person most qualified to be deciding how you spend your time now is always going to be who you are today.

But we often don’t work like that. We work from conclusions made years ago, usually with no idea of when we made them, or why. Most of our standing impressions are probably based on a single experience — one instance of unpleasantness or disappointment that turned you off of entire categories of recreational activities, lifestyles and creative pursuits, forever.

A conclusion is not the point at which you find the truth, it’s only the point at which the exploring stops. We do it quickly and unconsciously and the effects are long-lasting. In no time you’re left with a standing belief, a sort of surrogate “fact” in your head, left over from a time when you didn’t know any better.

A lot of the things that feel like are not for you are indeed for you. The person you used to be still wants you to be the person you used to be.

Beliefs collect like old magazines, except that even though they direct our behavior, we can’t really see them so we don’t think to clean them up or cull them. You may be familiar with the notion of challenging your beliefs but how do you actually do that in real life? Do you sit down with a big list and think about each one again?

That’s too abstract and too boring and if you’ve tried it you know it won’t get you anywhere. In real-time, moment-to-moment life, culling beliefs about yourself amounts simply to consiously doing things that feel like they’re not quite a natural fit for you, just to see what happens. If you’re not doing this on a regular basis — things that feel out of character for you — you are definitely missing out on a lot that is close to perfect for you.

Let the phrases “not my thing” or “not for me” become red flags to you whenever you hear yourself say them. How old was the person who decided that? Was it even a decision, or just an emotional reaction? How much do you really know about it?

Ask, or otherwise know that your lifestyle is still being directed by a younger and less experienced version of you who, frankly, doesn’t know you at all.

***

Photo by fabbio

This and 16 other classic Raptitude articles can be found in This Will Never Happen Again. Now available for your e-reader, mobile device, or PC. See reviews here.

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kitchculture July 31, 2012 at 9:26 pm

First!

Lauren July 31, 2012 at 9:31 pm

Awesome article ~ I really love the idea of being open to new definitions of yourself and to exploring new things… that is very freeing to think about and I will definitely apply it! :) And welcome to the world of quality electronic music ~ believe me there are many depths of amazing music to be found out there… I always feel like people don’t know what they’re missing when they count out electronica… to me it is above & beyond anything else. Glad you gave it a chance. ;)

David August 1, 2012 at 8:07 pm

I am open to recommendations!

Vilx- August 5, 2012 at 8:08 pm

Jean Michel Jarre is high on my list. :) Although I don’t dance to it, so I don’t know how suitable it is for that purpose. But many of his works are simply amazing to listen to.

Vilx- August 5, 2012 at 8:10 pm

Oh, and Erasure holds a close second place. It’s more pop-like though, so it might spark some bad memories.

Beepboop October 8, 2012 at 4:35 pm

Surely, nobody can forget “Always”! Make popular again thanks to Robot Unicorn Attack. But really, all my friends were singing that song for months.

Joy July 31, 2012 at 9:47 pm

This is great – I’ve discovered in the last couple of years that apparently I’m a runner, a dancer, a public speaker and somewhat of a hippie. My 15-year-old self would be appalled by even one of those things!

David August 1, 2012 at 7:54 pm

If you’re making your 15 year-old self aghast you must be on a path of growth

Rob August 26, 2012 at 1:24 pm

Haha! Snap! Over the years I’ve found out I love working out, green tea, meditation, and loud rock music …my 14 year old self would probably hate me if we ever met!

I think it’s great that we have the capacity to change so much. I mean, I’m 25 now, but I wonder what my 35 year old self would think looking back to me now…

kitchculture July 31, 2012 at 10:00 pm

But seriously, what’s interesting funny to me is how often that thing that’s not for me is dancing. Men especially just don’t want to be involved with dancing as if there’s something intrinsically emasculating about it. I wonder to what extent this is because people are just embarassed by being not as skilled at something as someone else. There are some activities which have these kind of barriers and people are just turned off by the prospect without giving it a real try.

My guess is that when you went clubbing, you didn’t really actually try dancing at all. You realized you didn’t like the mainstream music scene (and you probably still don’t), but the dancing was associated with that experience when it really shouldn’t have been. I’m going to have to think to what extent I might have made similar associations and whether they were justified.

David August 1, 2012 at 8:01 pm

Yes, definitely. I had danced at weddings and pre-teen dances to mony mony and all that, when everyone was just being silly, but the club music was too unpalatable for me. For me it was the type music. I have always loved music, but very little of the kind of music I was into was what I would hear wherever I went somewhere people were dancing. Awful music is offensive to me and so I refuse to give it my endorsement by moving my body to it. That’s what was missing for me: an experience of being in a club that was playing music I wanted to endorse with my body. That’s all it would have taken, but by that time I had thrown “clubs” and “dancing” in the garbage.

bobby August 1, 2012 at 1:45 am

Doing NOTHING is our True self.

David August 1, 2012 at 8:01 pm

Explain.

bobby August 2, 2012 at 9:20 pm

this perspective is true even if you were to reverse all your statements. imagine having gone to those clubs throughout your twenties. at a certain point you would likely be dissatisfied with that … routine. perhaps wondering out loud along a similar vain.

whichever activity performed is insignificant; the attitude you held not so: if you enjoyed those past moments of not dancing, and enjoyed these present moments dancing, then your true surprise should be is why you feel the need to do anything at all.

Alec October 11, 2012 at 6:26 pm

It’s not about enjoyment of the moment. It’s about reevaluating your perspective and making sure you aren’t guiding your actions based on old biases.

Donna August 1, 2012 at 3:47 am

David, your wisdom continues to amaze me….and it’s just plain spooky how often the theme of your articles is directly relevant to the moment when I’m reading them. Or perhaps that’s the point – they are universally relevant and significant. And a treat.
Anyway, at 6am this morning my previously inactive 51 year old self achieved a 5k run for the first time, following the ‘Couch to 5K’ programme, and I am smiling back at teenage me who decided that any exercise was uncomfortable/embarrassing/generally lame…

Alex Smith August 1, 2012 at 2:00 pm

Reading this made me happy! Congratulations!!!

David August 1, 2012 at 8:05 pm

Wow! You rule. I am far from a 5k runner but I do remember a time when I just *hated* every moment of exercise. I still forced myself to do it because I wanted to be fit, but I resented it so much. I thought I always would, but I was wrong. It feels different now mentally… empowering in the moment, rather than awful in the moment and empowering later.

Kate August 1, 2012 at 3:51 am

Two things have sprung to mind after reading yet another thought provoking post:
Firstly, *ouch* The penultimate paragraph was bang-on! Whenever my friends invite me to camp out at a music festival I tell them it is, “not my thing”. Next summer I’ll say, “YES PLEASE!”
Secondly, my young self was a bit of a hippy but I have since decided it is not really me. At all! What I find funny is that some old friends, friends around the world who I don’t connect with on a daily basis that is, have a hard time letting go of that image of me. Oh well, they will get used to it!
Thanks David!

David August 1, 2012 at 8:06 pm

Ah so we have one non-hippie turned hippie, and one of the opposite.

What you say about friends is true. Often one version (or era) of our personality really fits with a particular friend, and they begin to resent your attempts to change, even if it’s for the better.

William August 1, 2012 at 5:00 am

This is a really insightful and useful article for me. I am actually in the process right now of trying to throw off old notions about who I am and what I like and like to do. I enjoy your musings and what you have to offer to the (my) world. Thanks.

CB August 1, 2012 at 8:30 am

Me too.

Mike August 1, 2012 at 6:52 am

David, your last 5 or 6 posts have really been outstanding. Great work!

Kabamba August 1, 2012 at 7:19 am

Back in 2010, on my maiden trip abroad I run into some misfortune; in South Africa, I missed my connecting flight to Swaziland and was asked to buy another onward ticket even after many protestations. When I finally reached Swaziland, I was detained for a few minutes by a very zealous security person. I almost said “this travel the world thing is not my thing”, but I didn’t.
And I am glad I didn’t because a few years later, I have been to some amazing countries and I have finally been baptized into the wander and wonder of travel.

Brenda A. August 1, 2012 at 11:23 am

I’m almost 49 yrs old and am amazed at how many “reincarnations” of myself I have experienced thus far. And even still at times I find myself saying “that’s not me”. Thanks for the reminder to once again check in with myself and be open to whatever it is I’m avoiding.

Greg B August 1, 2012 at 11:53 am

This happens to me all of the time . I love the quote “Let the phrases “not my thing” or “not for me” become red flags to you whenever you hear yourself say them” You’re right about this. When did we come up with these preconceived notions about ourselves? Most likely one event in the past which has affected us constantly over the years. One main point I am going to take away from this is that I shouldn’t label myself as anything unless I have tried it multiple times. I plan to change my behavior and put myself in more uncomfortable situations of this article . Thanks David! Good stuff!

David August 1, 2012 at 8:08 pm

Yes, labels give us grief. A good rule of thumb is to distrust any sentence that begins with “I am” and continues with nouns or adjectives.

Karen J August 2, 2012 at 10:05 am

Ooh! Handy shortcut, that!
I’ve been shifting those “I am…” sentences to “I have been… ” They become a statement of history instead of an prediction of continuing.

Steven Hume August 1, 2012 at 4:01 pm

Great article. I have long been intrigued by the idea that although we usually see ourselves in terms of a single, integrated personality, really we’re more like a whole group of people with different views, interests, tastes, etc. But often there is a dominant member of the group who “gets things his way” and can simply write off all kinds of things as “not me”. Well, “not me” may be true for that “sub personality”, but not true at all for us as a totality. I think we become more alive the more we challenge ourselves to go beyond whatever we have labeled as “me” or “not me”. (But I myself have become pretty stuck in these patterns and am not nearly as open and courageous as I know I could be).

Evan August 1, 2012 at 7:32 pm

I’ve started JOURNALING this last year. Me… Journaling!! I decided when I was about 8 years old in journaling class that I was a bad writer, and if I didn’t journal the way I was told then it doesn’t count as journaling at all. I HAD to write “Dear Journal,” at the top or else it didn’t count in my mind.

Now at 25 years old I decided I had so much to write about and that I should just do it and damn the “it should be this way”s. I write in squiggles, run-on sentences, I make up symbols, skip lines, etc.

And most importantly I don’t EVER start with “Dear Journal.”

Juanyoancruz January 8, 2013 at 7:40 am

Great insight Peter. I found that the messeir the music the more organized my thoughts, and vice versa. Coltrane’s avant guard stuff keeps me focused. Maybe this is why Endless Love makes some people want to kill.

Kathy August 1, 2012 at 9:44 pm

I’ve been enjoying this website for several months, and it just keeps getting better. This is really good stuff. I am working really hard to get rid of the labels and limits I have put on myself and break my own rules.

Lauren August 2, 2012 at 9:01 am

What a fantastic article! As I was reading I realized I am letting my 6 year old self get in the way of getting out on the water and having fun. I’ve been telling myself for a very long time that I am a person who does not like deep, dark lake water – I’ve held on to the notion because ‘thats just who I am’. Thank you SO much for the revelation … maybe now I can get out and do those lake swims for the triathlon I (my 26 year old self) have been wanting to do.

Maia August 2, 2012 at 1:59 pm

Good insight David, as you say never say never. I’ve done that quite a few times only to change my ways a few years down the line and then being laughed at by friends :-) Would also be interested to hear some good electronic dance music suggestions myself!

Vincent August 2, 2012 at 3:26 pm

Thanks for the great articles as usual !
Long time reader here, I finally decided to drop by and comment.

For a big palette of electronic music I suggest you have tune in at di.fm where each radio channel has a different electro genre. I usually pick one based on my current mood.

Do you think this inner voice you describe is also related to the voices of internalized parents/friends we often hear from ?

Karen J June 24, 2014 at 1:17 pm

Hey, @Vincent ~
I’m thinking that’s an Ab-so-fu’-lutely YES! all those internal voices and “micro-rules” are related! Certainly in results, if not in original source.

Bright Blessings (from a very different Karen J person than the one who’s commented here before! ;) )

Cherie August 3, 2012 at 12:37 am

I loved reading this article now because it gave me a moment to reflect on how I’ve been choosing to live life. Being only 23, I feel like I’m still the same kid I was in high school – but in reality, a lot has changed. It’s just hard to acknowledge this since you can never distance yourself from yourself to see the change. Anyway, reading this has made me reconsider my everyday-decisions and who I “think” I am. I plan to be more observant of my actions now. Thanks so much!

Tim Van August 3, 2012 at 3:59 am

G’day David.
Excellent piece, I just stumbled upon your site and I must say you got style. You write in a interesting way, making me finish the article and click for more.
I have been trying get re-program myself this past year, becoming a nicer, more tolerant person (or at least trying). This week I even started a blog to try and make people become more tolerant and respectful of other people, betolerant.wordpress.com if you don’t mind me saying :)
The script of the past does not mean you have to stick to it in the present and future. However I did notice that change is not easy. Hard work and discipline with no garanty of happiness. But still better to wait for the happiness to find me.
I will come back here for sure!

Elayne Collins August 3, 2012 at 4:18 am

Travelling in different places and getting along with others is the best way to find yourself.

michael platania August 3, 2012 at 7:18 am

I was 42 when I had a major Aha moment – a life changing realization. From that point, over the next few years, I realized that I needed to challenge every belief I had previously held to see if it was still true, from Catholicism (I don’t know what is out there but I no longer follow any organized religion) to sports (I hated playing sports, now I find them fun) to alcoholism (I didn’t drink for 13 years, now I can take it or leave it but it is no longer an addiction). Challenging my previously held beliefs has allowed me to create an entirely new life for myself, one I am still discovering, and it’s been a hell of a ride!

sayama August 4, 2012 at 11:27 am

David, your words resonate with the thoughts that have been flying around my head of late. I am a late arrival to the world of electronic music. An old boyfriend I had in my early twenties (who was very much into the electronic dance scene at the point) tried to convince me that the music he enjoyed was upbeat, exhilarating, and (at least in terms of mood lifting) far superior to the soulful ballads I generally listened too. I dismissed his view (and him to a degree), thinking it was all about a bunch of off their head ravers… I kinda wish I’d given it a chance before as I feel I’ve missed out a bit until this point…
And for recommendations, M83 is one of my favourites right now..

Fiona August 5, 2012 at 5:21 am

You should read Jonathan Carroll’s wonderful novel THE GHOST IN LOVE. The whole story is about this very thing and describes it so beautifully that I read it twice.

Emmet O' Sullivan August 5, 2012 at 7:24 am

Great article. The idea of identity is definitely the worst straitjacket to a life. I’ve been meditating for a while now and trying to detach from my so-called identity and my life has become so much richer. I’ve done more things and met more people in the last year than probably in the two or three years previous. Its kinda exciting to know your future is not limited by ideas you thought were concrete and immutable and that you can create a life that’s really you rather than a “type” of person that only does certain things.

neo August 8, 2012 at 1:21 pm

I’ve experienced this myself. There are so many sounds, experiences, tastes that I’ve written off. I decided to let myself at least try these new things. And I’ve discovered I like them. Even love them. It’s opened up my life in so many different ways.

Buddha August 11, 2012 at 12:12 am

Ok, there’s been 2 things that I’ve hated for so long… Karaoke and Country music. Thanks to this article I’m going to give an honest and sincere try to both of those items.

I’m going to sing a country song at karaoke.

Nothing like jumping in with both feet.

Thank you for the push.

Esther August 22, 2012 at 11:33 am

Hello.
I read your article on self-acceptance a few months ago and I can tell you it changed my life. But I don’t why I never visited any more of your blog. Maybe I just wasn’t ready. Yesterday I went back to it and now I finally have the time to read some of your articles and I’m really happy I did that.
And I don’t mean this comment to be the typical adulation thing but I really enjoy the way you write. Your writings really provide an insight into things we’ve always wondered about and never managed to get right, like, for example, dissastisfaction. This made me think, and see things differently from what I did before. This meant something special.
Thank you.

David August 22, 2012 at 7:57 pm

Well thanks for coming Esther. There are 200+ articles in the archives, I hope more of them resonate with you :)

Aizdevumi internetā August 28, 2012 at 6:57 am

You hit the nail to the top. Dancing isn’t my thing either, but I might give it a try, otherwise my 8 years old me is dictating what to do. Thank you :)

Patricia September 9, 2012 at 5:36 pm

You are right that the person we used to be often directs what we’re doing now even when it’s not who we are anymore. Again…This is my 2nd time that I have to recommend you read Joseph Dispenza’s book “Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself, How to change your mind and create a new one” You will be soooo fascinated! It explains a lot about what you are experiencing. And how to be even more conscious.

Hunter Nash October 7, 2012 at 5:38 pm

Beautifully said, bro. Lost years (or decades) cannot be recovered. SELF however can go into recover, if we choose to ‘put away childish things’. Hasty judgements such as what ‘fits’ our self image are amongst those things. Thanks for the article.

Andy October 8, 2012 at 2:29 pm

“A lot of the things that feel like are not for you are indeed for you.”

This seems to be a one-off based on the one experience you describe here. Couldn’t the opposite also be true? Couldn’t a lot of the things you feel aren’t for you, actually be not for you?

Steve October 8, 2012 at 3:57 pm

I’ll say that what you are onto here is nothing new, but yet new it is, if you haven’t considered it. And, though you had some trouble verbalizing the experience and it’s meaning, I will say that you managed to cover your point quite well. Very insightful. Thank you.

David October 8, 2012 at 9:39 pm

Wow, thanks for the super-condescending comment Steve. The internet needs more of you.

Chris October 8, 2012 at 5:55 pm

What electronica did you finally turn on to? Because I tried it again, and found it lacking… movement. It had a beat, but never seemed to go anywhere.

David October 8, 2012 at 9:38 pm

There are just so, so many subgenres today (and still a lot of bad stuff) so you have to poke around a lot. It helps to have friends whose taste you respect who are into it. I like Pantyraid and Phutureprimitive and Gaudi to name just a few. Also, one thing about electronic is that the live experience is completely different than recorded music. Part of the dance experience is feeling the music physically. I can’t get into Skrillex when I listen to it but I went to a live show and it melted my face.

Emmett October 9, 2012 at 12:19 am

So what was the music she recommended?

Belinda Rachman October 9, 2012 at 8:53 am

I wonder if I should try snow skiing again.

Jon C. October 9, 2012 at 10:59 am

Could go either way, I guess. I know exactly why I’m not much of a dancer, and I KNOW it’s because of all the family weddings I’ve gone to (I’m the youngest in my generation and have quite a few cousins). There’s only so many times you get asked to do the Electric Slide or YMCA before you make yourself scarce by going outside, just to keep your sanity. Over the years, however, I find I’m more of a music listener and instrument player than a dancer anyway, and I’m totally fine with that.

Still, I totally get your point. I’ve been taking a lot of second looks lately at things I didn’t like first time out, such as books I loathed in high school and so on. It’s been an interesting experience.

Rick October 10, 2012 at 9:44 am

David, your article is excellent and very relevant to my life. I just retired at age 60 and I am trying to live a more meaningful life “before it is too late”. It astounds me that at 31 you are able to communicate with such integrity the wisdom you are receiving from your experiences. Your courage in revealing yourself so publicly extends the blessings received many hundredfold, if only they have ears to hear. Best of luck on your journey. I suspect when you are 60, you will have done great things for a great many.

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