When I was in eighth grade, I went to a leadership conference. At the time, I was half the person I am now; gullible, naive, and scared of the world, myself, and making a wrong move. I am still these things, sometimes, but it was worse back then.
Still, I was willing to try something new. Even something as off-brand as a leadership conference. Me, the follower, learning how to lead. It seemed laughable.
It was a few days long. At the beginning, they threw each of us in with one or two roommates, people we didn't know. I barely got to know mine, but she seemed nice enough. Each day, we were put in our groups to do team-building exercises, learn about each other, and learn good leadership strategies.
I told myself something going in. I said, "Domi, no one knows you here. You know no one. You will likely never see them again. Be the person you want to be. Be that person."
But who was the person I wanted to be?
In this case, I wanted to be more outspoken. I had always been the wallflower in class. Diligent, but quiet. I wanted to be louder, even if it meant I had to be more annoying to do it.
So I raised my hand for everything. I spoke at every turn. I gave wrong answers, I gave right answers. I took control of situations. It even got to the point where the adult in our group had to be like, "Does anyone other than Dominique want to answer?" It was invigorating. To be frank... I felt great.
And I made a few friends. I can't remember all of them, but I do remember one: Eliza. She and I bonded over singing and The Lion King. We're still Facebook friends now, actually.
But the culmination of all of this came at the end of the conference in three ways.
1. The Talent Show
We had a talent show that we could sign up for. Both Eliza and I wanted to sing. I was nervous as heck. I would've been content to sit in the audience and not sing, but I knew I'd regret it. So of course, I signed up to sing the Star-Spangled Banner.
They put me as the first act, because of my song choice, which scared me even more. But no turning back now.
And so, I sang a capella. In front of all of my peers. And it felt amazing. (I also wore a really weird shirt, but middle school was a weird fashion time anyway.)
At the end of the conference, family can come and see their kids on stage, sort of like a graduation, where the conference leaders talk about what we learned and stuff. I remember none of it... EXCEPT one part.
A day before, our group leader asked me about doing our group's speech. I suppose my talkativeness was paying off. So I accepted. I wrote a draft, sent it their way to proofread, and then there I was on stage, with my group behind me, as I read my speech. Pretty sure it sucked... but no one complained.
Later, my parents told me how surprised they were to see me up there. Admittedly, I was too. Would normal me have done it? Or perhaps, the better question is: Would normal me have been given the chance to do it? Who knows.
3. The Compliment Sheet
On our last day together in our groups, we all sat down in a circle with a sheet of paper and wrote our names on it. Then we passed it to the person next to us and entrusted the sheet of paper to make a full circle and come back to us, full of anonymous compliments and words of encouragement.
This was both the most excited and scared I felt during this trip. This was it, to me. These people who didn't know me, who only knew loud me... how did they see me? I knew it shouldn't matter, but it did. I wanted to know what they thought.
The paper made its way back to me, and with shaking hands, I glanced at the scribbles all over it.
The first thing that stood out to me were the sheer number of people who said, "You should go on American Idol." Literally dozens of comments. I was actually surprised. At the time, American Idol had been a dream of mine since I started watching in Season 2. Seeing how many people were encouraging me to try out was exhilarating.
There were other comments, longer ones from those whom I had gotten to know a little better. I always loved those.
Surprisingly, there were very few that seemed to comment on my outspokenness, which I had worked so hard to show. That was curious to me. Although the group seemed to recognize that I raised my hand first and always had an idea or a thought, no one put it on the compliment sheet. To me, that was the thing I was hoping to see. Something like, "I love how you're not afraid to speak your mind." Something like that. But most of the comments were things I'd seen before. Kind, compassionate, funny... all good things, but not the things I was looking for. Did I miss something?
Then I got to the comment from my roommate. We had barely interacted, honestly, so I didn't expect much from her. But her comment was the most intriguing of all: "You're a fun, nice person to be around, just a little held back. I hope you stop holding yourself back."
Stop holding back?
I puzzled over this for DAYS. I thought I had stopped holding back. I thought I had become something closer to the person I wanted to be. I didn't realize that people had seen right through me. Even someone with whom I had had very little interaction saw through me.
The talent show and the "graduation" made me think something had changed. But maybe nothing had changed at all.
Maybe nothing would ever change.
"Stop holding back."
These words have stuck with me for a decade now. I've been trying to figure out what exactly I'm holding back and how to stop doing that. It's still a work in progress.
I've discovered that my roommate was right. By pretending to be something I wasn't, I was holding myself back. I tired myself out pretending to be an extrovert. I did break free of my comfort zone a bit, in the end, but I still hadn't completely left that zone. I was tiptoeing along the line. And that wasn't a bad thing. I just wasn't being quite as "out there" as I had originally thought. I still had a long way to go until I could truly say I wasn't holding myself back.
But beyond that, I had to wonder what else in my life was affected by this. Where else was I holding back?
It quickly became clear.
In my romantic relationships, I can't be clear and upfront about my feelings. I'm holding back.
In my friendships, I can't say what bothered me, until it finally exploded in a totally unnecessary way. I'm holding back.
In school, I only did the minimum of what was expected of me, because I didn't trust my ideas enough to bring them up in our groups and run with them. I was holding back.
In my family, I can't be honest about what I wanted to do with my future. I'm holding back.
At conventions, I can't go talk to the creators that inspire me because I'm afraid to bother them. I'm holding back.
There have been instances where I haven't held back. Where I acted on feelings and gut instincts, and things turned out splendidly. Where I put out an idea I had in class, and we took it and ran with it and created something beautiful.
I hold back because I don't trust my feelings or my instincts. Given how often they're right, I'm not sure why I don't trust myself to them more.
Maybe it's because I've been told all my life to make logical decisions, not "because it feels right" decisions.
Maybe it's because of the risk involved with trusting yourself, blocking out all the outside noise even from people you care about and taking the leap.
"Stop holding back."
Eventually, I'm going to have to make a decision.
If I want to live my life as I always have, safe and secure inside my bubble, I will have to accept that my dreams might not be achievable from in here.
But if I want to achieve my dreams, I will have to risk it all, let my fears go and leave the bubble.
So for all of you who are in the same boat as me, the important thing to remember is this:
You can't change who you are. You can only change where you're standing.
You can pretend to be someone else, in your bubble, if you want. That's the safe option. That's not courage. It's deception.
But if you want something to change, what you need to do is be yourself, but outside the bubble. Be you, whomever that might be, but move. Get out. Stand somewhere new, next to someone new. That is where the change will happen. Don't keep yourself inside the bubble. That's what holding yourself back really means.
Old roommate, if you happen to be reading this, I wanted to thank you.
I can't remember your name, but you taught me something truly valuable. And I will never forget that.
I will stop holding back.