Which is it? You grow because you’re uncomfortable, like the story of the lobster? Or are you uncomfortable because you’re growing?

I appeared confident as a young woman, but I was uncomfortable in my skin. It took me well into my 30s to start to like myself — to really like myself. That doesn’t mean I like everything about me; I still have plenty to learn, and too many episodes of internal dialog that sound like this:

I talk entirely too much. Did I just say that out loud? Oh dear. What if I insulted her? What did I say that might have hurt his feelings? I wonder if this is going to haunt me…

I have a theory that most of us fight who we really are in our teen and young adult years. Most people I know tried very hard to be something they weren’t when in high school and in their early 20s.

There was a girl in my junior high school who was very pretty, and very quiet. She sat quietly in class, smiling, obviously somewhat shy, but to me, she was just so mysterious, and boys seemed to be attracted to her. Boy crazy for sure, I decided I would be “the quiet girl” for a while, and maybe FINALLY get some attention from a boy.

Anyone who knows me just laughed out loud. I could never be “the quiet girl.”

I remember looking in the mirror throughout junior high and high school and picking apart everything about me. I’d think of all the things I didn’t like, some pieces I thought I had some control over, and some I didn’t. (Like those super-skinny chicken legs.) I talked too much, even though I was shy. I was too short. I was too flat chested. I wasn’t good at anything, especially sports. I was too nice. I wasn’t nice enough. I wasn’t pretty enough, or smart enough. My eyes were too big, my hair was too flat, too brown, too straight. This was my internal dialog. No matter how many times my mother told me I was beautiful, I wouldn’t believe it.

It was my first year of college when I met a woman who changed the dialog. She asked me why any of that mattered.

Let’s just pretend that you aren’t pretty or smart. If a person doesn’t like you because they don’t think you’re pretty enough, or smart enough, do you really want to be around them? Surround yourself with people who love you, and who believe in you, and forget the rest.

Photo courtesy of Karen Cohen

To her, it wasn’t about beauty, or our perceptions of beauty. It was about character, trust, and love.

That conversation was the beginning of serious growth. It was uncomfortable to stay in that stage of self-consciousness. It was uncomfortable not to be true to myself, to hide my personality and quirks. It was uncomfortable enough, finally, that I could hear what she was saying. Though I had heard those words a few times before meeting her, I wasn’t ready to absorb them yet; I had to get REALLY uncomfortable.

Here’s my theory: We fight who we are for many years; those of us who are introspective and have a good support network start to recognize our value around our late 20s and early 30s. We start to resign ourselves to certain perceived short-comings, and choose to move beyond them.

I have skinny chicken legs. So? They reach the ground. They’re very strong, and they get me where I need to go.

It’s in our late 30s and early 40s that we move beyond that stage of resignation, to a stage of embracing and valuing those characteristics we saw as short-comings before. That’s when we know what we don’t know, and aren’t afraid to admit it. This is the time, if you’re growing and changing, that the gap between how you are perceived by those around you, and how you perceive yourself, gets smaller.

I have skinny chicken legs, and they’re AWESOME. Look how strong they are! I look good in short skirts. You don’t like my skinny legs? Not. My. Problem.

The danger comes when we define ourselves by our relationships with others, rather than defining ourselves by being comfortable in our skin. Sometimes it’s easier to stay uncomfortable in a comfortable relationship. What’s that old saying? The only thing we can count on is that things will change? Or something like that.

If our growth in those decades also happens to coincide with marriage, there is danger in finding that voice, that comfort in your skin. I know many people who finally grew into themselves in their 30s, only to find that their partner wasn’t comfortable with this new discovery. Or worse, the person doing the growing wasn’t sharing the thoughts and changes with her partner, leaving the partner bewildered with this new version of someone he knew for decades.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, and there’s no way I’d tell someone else what to do. My answers have been pretty simple and effective so far; they seem to be working for me in my relationships with my mother, siblings, husband (of 20 years), and children.

Choose to share your growth.

Be aware that what is going on in your head isn’t available to those around you unless you talk to them. Share your fears, your excitement, and your hopes with those around you. They cannot read your mind, use your words! You cannot blame them for being angry or appearing that they aren’t supportive if you aren’t talking to them. Make sure when you’re sharing that you’re allowing time for people to ask questions and absorb what you’re sharing. A serving of verbal diarrhea leaves no room for discussion, growth and love. If you wait too long, it will come out as anger, disappointment, and hopelessness, which few relationships can survive.

Grow together.

Make conscious efforts to involve your family and partner in your new activities. If your partner isn’t excited about going skiing with you, find something you can do together afterward. Make sure you’re investing the time and energy to bring your partner along in your growth. Encourage independent activities as well as together time.

I’m pretty excited about what’s coming in my future, though I know it’ll be uncomfortable. If my previous decades are any indication, I have a lot more growing and learning in store for me.

We grow and change as we experience life; if we don’t choose to grow together, eventually comfortable relationships (spouse, parents, children, siblings, best friends) will become so uncomfortable that something will have to change. There’s no guarantee that relationships will weather the storm of growth, but there are ways to make sure they end with the knowledge that you tried to make it work, and that your time together was valuable, even if it didn’t turn out how you intended.

Time is never wasted; there are no mistakes if you learn from every experience.

Sarah Elkins is a professional coach and consultant, helping people and businesses improve their communication through the art of storytelling. She’s also the President of Elkins Consulting, the company making a splash with small, face-to-face, affordable interactive conferences called No Longer Virtual.

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Originally published at medium.com