We hear all the time that we should bring our authentic self to everything that we do.
What does that even mean?
Who is this authentic person?
How do we get them to come out and play?
We all have parts of ourselves that we keep hidden from view. We have different personas for different situations. We learn to act in a certain way, say things, use language appropriate to the situation, and share personal stories or not. We learn from an early age about how to fit in and what we should do.
I am an introvert and I find some situations more taxing than others. New and unfamiliar situations may require more effort and deciding what to reveal and what to keep hidden is tiring. Being prepared to reveal more about yourself beyond simple pleasantries requires trust. You must trust the other person safe in the knowledge that they will be making a judgement about you.
It is incredibly important to remember that trust is a two-way process. It is the foundation for every relationship that you build in your personal and professional life.
Being comfortable in your own skin means that many things will become less exhausting and take less time. You will not have to put on an act, carry around a heavy set of armour, or do things because you think you should. The good news is that you do not have to flay yourself open and reveal your inner most secrets, unless you want to. The trick is to work out when being a bit more open might help the other person to trust, remember, and engage with you.
When you have figured that out, you can work on what is stopping you from bringing that part of you to everything that you do.
I know, it all sounds a bit touchy, feely, coachy but bear with me.
What does that mean to me?
I have read many books, listened to podcasts, thought a lot about being my authentic self, and now I have a better understanding of what it means to me. There are several things that came up. I would like to:
Stop lying to myself, hiding, and pretending.
Start showing and telling.
Put LOTS of things into my “Don’t give a fuck about” bucket.
Remember that NO is a complete sentence. I do not have to give excuses.
Decide when something is SEP (Someone Else’s Problem) AND let them deal with it.
Practice sitting with how shit all of that makes me feel and get better at managing said feelings.
Make up a mantra, or steal someone else’s, so that I can remind myself why all the above is important.
The trouble is that it looks simple in print, but it takes effort and there is no quick fix. You have to do the work. You will need to be vulnerable:
It means that you might mess up and get things wrong.
It means that some people might think that you have lost the plot.
It means that some people might not like the changes.
It means that some people might think ….
The “what people think” gremlin is a problem for many of us. It is deeply rooted in shame and guilt.
Bréne Brown’s book “Atlas of the Heart” discusses over 80 emotions. Chapter 8, “Places we go when we fall short,” groups shame, guilt, self-compassion, perfectionism, humiliation, and embarrassment all under one roof. I found it enlightening to discover that perfectionism is rooted in shame, and that it feeds on “what people think.”
There is a crucial difference between guilt and shame:
Guilt is when you think “I did something wrong or bad.” There is a chance to learn from the experience and make a positive change.
Shame is when you think “I am a bad person.” It is a toxic feeling that does not drive positive change and it kills creativity.
Many of us find that we get stuck thinking and doing the same things repeatedly. We find it hard to move past obstacles that block the way to where we want to be. You know the inner conversation that I mean, the one that makes you feel guilty or annoyed depending on the choice you make. The conversation that focuses on the “shaming shoulds” instead of the “creative coulds.”
Where does shame come from?
It can take time for us to get to the root of what is driving our critical inner voice. But it is usually buried somewhere deep in our values and beliefs and shame is often lurking somewhere in the background.
Values and beliefs make us who we are, and are responsible for how we interact with the world. I have written more about that here. They are crucial to our quest for working out who this authentic-self person is. It is incredibly easy to find yourself living someone else’s values. You may also find yourself working for an organisation whose values do not align with yours. Rest assured that both scenarios will slowly chip away at you and make you feel increasingly stressed and unhappy.
I am a recovering people pleasing perfectionist, who grew up striving to be a good girl. In some ways that behaviour was helpful, and it allowed me to succeed in many areas of my life. BUT that behaviour was responsible for several of my obstacles too. As I got older, I found that I did not always want to live by the rules of my good girl box. My values and beliefs were changing, but that did not always trickle down into my daily life. It created resistance to change because I did not understand how to reconcile the conflict without feeling guilty or ashamed.
All of us who have lived in a good girl box know that you will be bothered to the point of paralysis by what others think. We are conditioned to care deeply about such things. Guilt and shame do not confine their influence and control to one area of life. They pop up all over the place in different disguises.
Where do guilt and shame show up for you?
I have noticed that they hide in my professional persona.
This persona helps to keep everything in the correct place for me. Professional life and private life artfully arranged in boxes. There are labels, definitions, expectations, rules, ways to behave, and impressions to make. It has always been thus for my entire adult life. I know exactly what to do and how to be when I have my professional persona on stage.
In some ways it makes things easy. But there is a snag. Now I have a portfolio career and my professional personas are getting confused. Being a coach and business owner is trespassing on being a doctor. Knowing how to be in one role does not necessarily translate into being the other.
When we change something or step outside of one role and into another, things get a little sticky. There may be new rules of engagement and ways to behave. We may be busy writing our own rules. This is liberating in many ways, but shame has a habit of stalling change and creativity. “What will people think?”
The shame of considering a career change
Shame showed up for me when I wanted to change career. I was so ingrained in being a doctor and working for the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), that even thinking about changing how I worked or leaving the NHS made me feel shame and a deep sense of guilt.
There was also an interesting overlay of concern from others. “Are you sure that you want to leave?” That made me think that they thought I was stupid. Did they think that I had made my decision without any consideration or due care?
This became a fertile ground for my critical inner voice. She can be a complete bitch. The narrative included words such as: mad, stupid, reckless, bad, ungrateful, failure, letting everyone down. In fact, the title of chapter 8 in Bréne’s book was very apt: “The places we go when we fall short.” I could not think of any positive words for some time.
Shame and guilt were determined to keep me in my place. I struggled to see the wood for the trees and spent many hours thinking and coaching myself to achieve clarity around the change, that I so desperately wanted.
I have noticed that shame also hides under the cloak of professionalism in my work as a coach. I have been held back by my doctor’s list of rules for:
Making a presentation
Give considered opinions
Filtering out emotion when it gets in the way of professionalism
Hiding my vulnerability
My first coaching blog post was Harvard referenced, I used professional language, I worried about what my medical colleagues might think, I worried about getting it right, I worried about pissing people off, I worried about what friends and family thought. I separated out the audiences and hid from one, while showing the other a small part of this new side of me.
Deep down I was ashamed of showing and telling. What would people think about the part of me that is not a clearly labelled “Doctor”?
The part of me that gets furious about injustice and speaks up when something is not OK. The messy emotional part that gets things wrong and needs coaching. The knitter, the gardener, and owner of a ridiculous stash of craft materials. The woman who attained a private pilots licence, that opened the door to the possibility of career change. The menopausal, midlife woman who rails against the perception of my place in society. The sweary, fuck it, who gives a shit woman, that is screaming to get out. The part who wants to enable other amazing women to get shit done. The coach who is finding my tribe, and whose tribe is finding me.
I have decided to get on with the business of being proud of all of those parts of me. I will not be for everyone and that is exactly how it should be.
I am learning how to let go of shame and guilt, and you can do it too.
Bréne Brown explains that the antidote to shame is empathy. She states:
“If we reach out and share our shame experience with someone who responds with empathy, shame dissipates. Shame needs you to believe that you are alone. Empathy is a hostile environment for shame.”
My experience of coaching and life demonstrates repeatedly that I am not alone with these feelings and thoughts. We think that we are though. We often feel so much shame that we dare not let on, because “What will people think?”
It is music to my ears when someone thinks or says “Oh really? I thought I was the only one.”
I know just how you feel. You are not the only one. Let’s bring empathy on board and cast out shame.
It does not matter how successful or brilliant you are; things can and do change and what once felt great may lose its shine. Recognising this, and being able to do something about it, might be one of the most impressive and important things that you do. Change does not have to be radical and sometimes the smallest changes can have the greatest impact.
If you are stuck because of an extensive list of “shaming shoulds,” it might be worth a deeper dive into the reasons for your list. It is usually the “shaming shoulds” that get in the way and stop you bringing all of you to the party. That deprives the world of some of your best bits. We want to see your “creative coulds” in all their glory.
Back to my original list; I stole two mantras one from Seth Godin and one from Bréne Brown.
Seth says: “It’s not for everyone.”
Bréne says: “I’m not here to be right. I’m here to get it right.”
I initially wrote this as an objective piece because I was worried about how much I wanted to share. “What will people think?” It is not easy to decide how much to share about shame, but now you know why that is; silence is shame’s secret weapon.
If sharing my shame allows just one person to realise that they are not alone with theirs, then I’m glad that I put my “What will people think?” worries into my “Don’t give a fuck about” bucket.
Try it and see how it feels.