Inspirational quotes posted to Facebook, greeting cards with fluffy words of encouragement, advice from other people – you hear it all the time: “Be the best version of yourself!” Blah, blah, blah. It sounds nice and all, but what does that actually mean?

Over the years, I’ve presented various versions of myself – many of them “pretty good” but a lot of them not pretty at all. I muddled through my days, hoping to make changes to be a happier person, but not really doing anything significant to make progress in that direction. In recent years, I’ve discovered clarity and higher self-esteem through fitness and better communication. I genuinely understand that the best version of myself is often kind, and consistently happy. It’s being physically and emotionally fit, as well as drama-free. It’s choosing to give, to love, or to be authentic in response to easy and uneasy situations in life. When I make choices that push me in a negative direction, I can’t possibly present “the best version” of myself. When I go about my day in a mindful, positive and organized manner, I usually follow through with all the things I want to do in order to show the world who I am, feel peaceful inside, and go to bed happy.

The other day I was in line at a thrift store. I had a cart full of awesome stuff (a.k.a. stuff I don’t need), and there was an odd, older woman behind me. She seemed a bit “off” and you know what I’m talking about – baffling choice of attire, messy hair, too much makeup, and a strange little shuffle. The snarky, judgmental side of me would have referred to her as “crazy eyes” like the character from the TV series, Orange is the New Black.

She was trying to talk to me and she made several comments about the stuff in my basket, the fact that it was raining, my jacket, and how she bakes bread in the morning. Seriously, in a matter of minutes, her comments ran through a broad spectrum of completely unrelated topics. My reaction a few years ago may have been to roll my eyes, and possibly even ignore her. I may have murmured something to be polite in response but that would have been it. Instead, I decided right then and there to turn toward her to engage in conversation.

Her whole face lit up as she proceeded to tell me about her children, her grandchildren, and what a total “witch” her sons’ wife is – like a real witch I guess. She covered pretty much every topic she could think of in a span of ten minutes. I realized, in the moment, that she what she needed was someone to simply listen. I wouldn’t have recognized this years ago when I was actively wrestling my demons, and serving myself only. I knew and felt, in a profound and conscious way, that I was being the best version of myself in that moment.

In relaying this story, my intention is not to imply that she was some sort of charity case or that I’m just so wonderful for bestowing this lady with my attention. That isn’t the case. However, making the choice to be engaged instead of annoyed most certainly lead to a sense of well-being that did not come from the treasure hunting trip itself, or the stuff I bought that day. Choosing to be kind instead of judgmental (or just polite) in that moment invoked my emerging awareness of our shared human condition and our innate need to be heard. A positive, simple interaction with another human being can change the karma, the emotional trajectory of a person’s whole day. This happens a lot when we are mindfully being the best version of ourselves. Plus, as I found out, she was super interesting, animated and kind of fun to talk to. And we had a little something in common too – she had her hands on a very cool, vintage Grateful Dead T-shirt that should have been mine.

Choosing patience, kindness and engagement with others instead of judgment, apathy or disdain is just like choosing NOT to honk our horn when the person in front of us doesn’t see the green light. It’s the same as choosing compassion instead of anger or frustration when the baby on the plane won’t stop crying. These choices bring about the best version of ourselves. And it’s the version we like.

It takes practice and repetition. It takes being cognizant and showing empathy for others who may be struggling with things we know nothing about: loneliness, lack of friendship, physical or mental ailments, addiction, and depression to name but a few. And, conversely, it also means being genuinely happy for others when good things are happening in their lives because we know in our hearts that we have enough, and that we are enough.

Joy, happiness, and self-respect comes directly from the series of choices we make each day. When we understand that our life, our health, and our relationships are gifts, we can practice being the best versions of ourselves. We can then quietly pay our goodwill forward. It’s recognizing that sometimes, the opportunity to be true to who we are (and who we want to be) might come in small moments, as it did for me in that thrift store the other day. When we choose to be our best, true self, in whatever form that takes, we find that our constant search for self respect and happiness turns into simply being quietly confident and happy.

It is then that who we present to the world shifts from a mere version of ourselves, to who we actually are, instead.