The 1980s saw Michael Jackson's "Thriller" ruling the charts, TV viewership soared with the "MAS*H" finale, and high school sweethearts Dave and Cheryl did exactly what society expected them to do - get married, buy a house, and start having kids.
The youngest of two I found myself constantly grappling with a sense of inadequacy. Not quite funny enough, not quite skinny enough, not quite successful enough... not quite enough.
Growing up in a world where conformity seemed essential, I yearned to fit in, imitating my older sister's hobbies and obsessing over pop idols like the New Kids on the Block. However, my pursuit of acceptance often fell short, leading to relentless bullying and a persistent feeling of being not quite right.
It wasn't until seventh grade that I experienced a pivotal moment that challenged societal norms. I met AJ, a confident tomboy who sparked an undeniable connection within me. AJ introduced me to a world I didn’t even know existed. I had never seen queerness represented on TV, mainstream media, and certainly never within my immediate or extended family. As I grappled with my emerging identity, I nervously confided in a family member, only to be told that I was too young to understand what that meant.
It was in high school that I honed the art of conformity - as if handed the guide to a socially successful life, I consumed society's narrative like my life depended on it. Fitting in became a matter of ticking off boxes on a to-do list. The more boxes I checked, the happier my family and peers seemed to be. It became a self-imposed duty to live up to their expectations and find total acceptance.
In my early twenties, online dating was just starting to gain popularity, and where I would meet who would eventually become my husband. Despite his flaws and red flags, our relationship was celebrated by those around us. It seemed like the natural progression: engagement, marriage, buying a house, and fulfilling societal expectations. I just kept telling myself that as long as I was checking off those boxes, the feeling that something wasn't quite right would fade away.
Looking back, I contemplate how my life might have diverged if the indoctrination of societal expectations had not been so deeply ingrained within me.
What if I had seen happy, confident queer individuals in everyday life and media? What if our language shifted from "when" to "if"? If we considered marriage and children as choices rather than obligations, we would empower individuals to define their own paths. Happiness and success should be measured by the contributions we make to the world and celebrated based on what brings us genuine joy.
As a queer identifying almost 40 year old, I reflect on my journey with a newfound perspective. I wish I could tell my younger self that she was always enough, just as she was. Authenticity and self-acceptance go hand in hand, and the guidebook we follow should be one we write for ourselves. By embracing our true identities and celebrating our unique contributions, we can create a world where everyone feels empowered to live authentically.
I invite you to challenge the notion that happiness and success are synonymous with a predetermined set of checkboxes.
Instead, let's celebrate the diversity of human experiences and encourage individuals to follow their own paths. By rewriting the guidebook and replacing "when" with "if," we offer the gift of choice and hope. Remember, you were always enough, just as you are. Embrace your authenticity and live a life that brings you true joy.
About the Author:
Carling Middlestead (she/her) is a Canadian, Queer Identifying 30 something year old host and producer of the "I Did Not Sign Up For This" podcast. With a passion for storytelling and a desire to explore the human experience, Carling's podcast features candid conversations with individuals about life's unexpected twists and turns.
In addition to her podcast, Carling also speaks on the topic of conformity and its toll on mental health and personal fulfillment. Her presentation, "The Price of Conformity," draws from her own experience of never quite feeling like enough as she tried to live up to society's definition of success and happiness. It wasn't until she came out as gay that she realized she had been on the wrong path the whole time, and that she had been enough all along.
Through her podcast and speaking engagements, Carling hopes to inspire others to embrace their true selves and live authentically, even if it means straying from the path that others have laid out for them.