I should be writing an information manual in four languages for Relaxscape retreat guests, a legal requirement when setting up an Alojamento Local here in Portugal, but instead I really would like to write about this. You. Me. Who we are. Who we’d like to be. How we’d like to be.
Be kind, but more importantly be you
There’s a meme circling the internet, “in a world where you can be anything, be kind…”. I’m never quite sure how I feel when I see it popping up on my screen, the words glowing smugly with virtuous intent, basking on a soft pastel background, accompanied by a hackneyed image to really get the message across. Don’t get me wrong, of course I want everyone to be kind. I try to be kind to everyone. But it makes me sad, that we need to be told to be kind. That somewhere along the way, in our ultra-developed, more educated than ever, 21st century world, we’ve forgotten fundamental behaviour. It’s also become a bit of an aspiration, a bit of a showy-off virtue signal - “Look at me, I’m one of the Kind People”. It shouldn’t be something we need to boast about. It should just be so.
It’s more than that though. What I really wish for people, is that in a world where you can be anything, be YOU. Be yourself. In all your complex, individual, messy, interesting, human glory. I’m sure you are kind already. And you are probably so much more as well. The things are not mutually exclusive. I’m all for focusing on your strengths and positive reinforcement - as a coach that’s the basis for any work I do with clients, and there has been much documented about the effects of positive reinforcement on children’s behaviour as they develop. But there is also a danger that if you don’t allow people to be themselves, to develop their own personalities, that they lose their identity, their sense of self. And when we don’t know who we are, what often happens is that we stop being kind to ourselves. And then other psychological factors kick in and sometimes that means we project onto others the negativity or disappointment or even anger that we feel towards ourselves.
Do you know who you really are?
The pressure of being told what to do, how to behave, how to think is also very damaging on our psyche, on our emotional and physical health. Often we don’t realise this. It becomes such an ingrained habit, that feeling bad feels like the norm. What often happens with women particularly, is that it propels them to reach out and overcompensate, to fiercely care and nurture - all virtues that we have absorbed and been taught since childhood, playing with dolls, being told to be a good girl, dress nicely, be pretty, be kind - and all messages that are still being pumped out at us daily through media channels. Behaviour designed to show others that you are worthy, and surely that must then mean you will be loved? How disappointing then when we are not.
And one day we wake up and we realise that we’ve spent our whole lives caring for others, and what happened to us? To that shining, bright person full of spark and drive and passion. It makes us feel a bit lost, and unsure what to think anymore. So we turn to what is readily available, the safety net of the internet and media, to help us find our way again. But the media machine relies on this, it’s a house of cards, a shimmering mirage of unrealistic and unattainable behaviours and lifestyles, designed to keep us wanting and insecure and homogenous. We’re easier to control that way.
Is not being yourself affecting your health?
It’s safer to be like other people, to follow society’s rules and norms, that way we don’t have to think too deeply about who we really are, how we really feel. But living your life according to how you think you should behave, based on society’s pressure and media influence catches up with you in the end. You start to show symptoms of stress, both mental and physical. You might notice your gut health deteriorates. Your skin suffers. Your hair. Your work. Your family. Yourself.
If you’ve ever felt lost, or unsure of your purpose in life, this is probably why. Empty nest syndrome is a good example of this, when your children leave home and leave you without quite knowing what to do with yourself. You’ve spent your whole life caring for others without leaving any room for you to grow as a person in your own right. Impostor syndrome is another. More common among women, it’s when you don’t quite believe that you’re good enough to be doing the job you’re doing, rather than being able to shrug your shoulders and say “sod it, I’ll just do the best I can, and that will be good enough”. It’s exhausting, trying to be someone you’re not. Trying to be perfect.
What is perfect, anyway? It’s such a subjective concept.
Do you need to be perfect?
Living authentically, being you, who you were and are meant to be, is learning not to worry about being perfect, or like everyone else. It’s the marrying up and acceptance of all the different influences in your life that have gone into creating you, your unique personality and set of values, your strengths, your gifts to the world. It’s the most liberating feeling, when you get to that point. You’re no longer constrained by worrying what others will think, or how you should behave. You’re just being you. You’re giving others the gift of you, the real you. Once you’ve learnt to trust yourself, that your you is good enough, your drive becomes something bigger, more absorbing. You can stop trying to gain acceptance, approval even, and use that energy instead on other more interesting pastimes! It doesn’t mean you’ll be any less of a parent, friend, carer, in fact you’ll probably find that these roles become easier, more natural. Going back to that concept of reflection/projection that I mentioned earlier - you’ll be feeling more positive, and that will reflect back to you.
Living in Portugal, loving Portuguese kindness
Since I’ve been living in Portugal, I’ve been struck by just how authentic people are here. I’ve slowly but surely been seduced by a whole nation. They are straightforward and honest. And kind. So kind. Because that’s how they’re all brought up: in an environment of love and support and sunny cheerfulness, their parents projecting behaviours that are reflected back. I love watching groups of parents and children here - the children are trusting and open and friendly and curious with everyone, and they know that it is ok to be like that (perhaps not so much in the big cities, but definitely here in the more rural Central Portugal). I live in a country where people make an effort to include you. Where there is friendly tolerance and acceptance, of others as well as of yourself.
There is a lot of hardship here, and I know a lot of families have been or are going through very difficult times. Ill health, cancer, alcoholism, unemployment, money worries, all are rife. But even through their dark times, they will be kind to others, generous with everything, anything they have. Without being told to on a T-shirt. They’re very matter of fact and stoical about these things. It’s life, it’s dealt with. They don’t take things too seriously, they make enough, plenty, of time for rest and relaxation and enjoyment. (It’s sacred in fact - the hour for lunch and the family day on Sunday!) I’m sure the sunshine and blue sky helps. It’s hard to care too much about anything when the sun is shining. Even the Portuguese, who must surely be used to it by now, rejoice in its restorative powers. They know how to appreciate the small things, to enjoy what they have.
Being here, learning from how the Portuguese people are, has helped me to rediscover the person I used to be, the person I’ve always wanted to be. Somewhere along the way that got lost, buried amongst all the baggage we collect through life. But it’s gradually re-emerging, as I realise that I have everything I need, here, in me. And with the people here, who accept me for who I am.
New is not always better
What makes me sad, though, is that what with media influence from the US and the UK, the young Portuguese are keen to adopt what they see as the cool and the new, the “bad habits” and social influences that in fact those countries are beginning to realise are not healthy - those very things that have contributed to the rise in anxiety and other mental health issues. Thankfully though, there seems to be a growing movement among young people, from what I’ve seen in the UK at least, to “go back to basics”, to live a more natural lifestyle, to care for the environment, and for each other. They’re beginning to shrug off the social constructs and materialistic values that their parents have been busily trying to impose on them; a younger generation that’s building a new world based on old fashioned, simpler values. I hope the message spreads to Portugal before the damage is done. A message of freedom. Of the power of being yourself. Of how less is more. Of how to be happy. That you don’t need to be like everyone else. That it’s ok to be you.