In Prison With The Door Wide Open

Most of us are afraid to break the rules. We do what is expected of us because we imagine what others might think if we don’t. We conform to overt social pressure and to subtler, unconscious influences alike.

In our family, we have my husband who was raised to respect the rules. And then we have me, raised half by hippies, half by myself. I am a jay walker, a fence jumper, a user of men’s bathrooms when they have no line. I am not necessarily advocating this way of life 100% of the time. I once hopped a flimsy barricade put up after hurricane damage and snapped a fibula. With a few exceptions, if rules seem pointless or discriminatory, I treat them as gentle suggestions.

Whether or not you were raised to defer to authority, we all want to feel a sense of belonging. Most of us try to mold ourselves into the most acceptable version with the right clothes, the right hair, the right body. We do our best to avoid the judgment of others for falling out of line.

And we believe everyone is judging us.

According to sociologists, we each have a “generalized other,” whose judgment we fear the most. In fact, without being conscious of it, we have actual individuals we imagine doing the judging. According to Martha Beck, we each have approximately three such folks in mind.

When you picture your three, who are they? Your parents? Members of your religious community? Neighbors?

When I thought about my everyone, i.e., the ones I imagine scrutinizing my every move, I think of two particular family members and a mean lady on the PTA. I would name them all but then, like fly paper, they’d read this story and I’d be forced into an awkward convo.

Unwittingly, we make major life choices to satisfy our judges. In retrospect, it may have been why I became a lawyer. The old men at the firm hated all my awesome suggestions. I hadn’t been properly trained to keep quiet. I tried to fit that mold but it just wasn’t me.

While most of us spend a lifetime trying to fit in, it’s ironic that we also deeply admire those who stay true to themselves no matter the consequences.

This week, while traveling with my family to Berlin, I witnessed the most striking example of this paradox. Not a contemporary case, but a historical one that drove the point home like no other.

After Jewish-owned businesses were boycotted in Nazi Germany, a Jewish shop owner hung this sign:


I think we can all agree that demonstrating such courage to be unapologetically who you are in the face of the highest possible stakes is profoundly inspiring. Why? Because in the truest part of ourselves, we all wish we could be that brave. To be oneself no matter what. To live free of the opinions of others, even if they could kill you. Or in the case of this remarkable person, even WHEN they definitely would.

But the reality is, that after a lifetime of being conditioned to fit a particular mold, so many of us don’t even know ourselves well enough to stand up for who we are. We have been so busy trying to do what is expected of us that we live by committee.

How can you tell if you do this? When you have decisions to make, big or small, do you ask the advice of other people?

If you think about it, why would you ask someone else to tell you what you want? They are not you. We are all so profoundly different. If this strikes a cord, it’s time to get to know yourself better.

If this is disconcerting, you are not alone. Society was designed to make you afraid to be exactly who you are. From the moment we are born, we are socialized to please. At times it was a matter of survival. But trying to be good in the eyes of others has caused us to doubt ourselves. Most of us have unwittingly aligned with our imagined judges. We are now our own harshest critics.

But we can stop to look around and recognize that we have choices. We do not live in a fascist regime. We are free to live how we wish. That is not to say that we don’t stand to lose anything. We do. But it could just be the life we never needed in the first place.

In the five days since we have been in this place where millions of innocent people were stripped of their agency to live their own truth, it is clearer than ever to me that our freedom is a priceless gift. We don’t have to live in a prison with the door wide open.

So. In the words of the great poet Mary Oliver, what are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?

Sending love and courage to be yourself,


Need help figuring out what you really want? I offer one on one coaching using the Wayfinder Coaching model designed by Martha Beck. If you would like to find out if this work is right for you, email me at to schedule a Discovery Session. And if you are family or a friend, I have a wonderful coaching community who are ready to partner with you.

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