“The most courageous battle we’ll ever fight”

Monday , 27, January 2014 Leave a comment

Zombies, right?  Wrangling a posse of caffeinated, sugar-high toddlers?  Maybe resisting the urge to hit the snooze button just ONE more time on a cold winter Monday morning?

All good contestants, but no competition for the battle we’re about to approach.

I’m talking about authenticity.  Staying real.  Real to our true, authentic selves and living in a way that honors that person.  Despite the risk.  Despite the (sometimes) terrifying vulnerability it requires.  Despite the chance of being rejected.

I’m currently enrolled in an online course where I’m spending six weeks challenging myself to look at the way this plays out in my life.  Confession?  This stuff is HARD, but I absolutely love it.  It makes some people squirm and change the subject.  Me?  It makes me come alive.  The more authentically I live, the better my life feels.  That’s not to say that I’m always GOOD at it, but it’s clearly worth the risk.

The course is being guided by Brené Brown using her book “The Gifts of Imperfection.” (if you’re not familiar–check her out!)  Here’s, in part, how she defines authenticity: “Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.” (p. 49)  She goes on to talk about letting go of perfectionism, setting boundaries, risking vulnerability, and believing we are enough (that’s a pretty liberal paraphrase there, but you get the idea).

Those are the topics we’re hitting on in this course (using art journals, which has led me to want to watercolor EVERYTHING I SEE)–topics I’ll be writing about, I’m quite sure, as we progress.  Intersection with life, number one: work.

I’ve read this book previously, but in re-reading, it’s struck me how deeply this issue strikes me in my job.  When I first started work here, I learned quickly that making waves would not be welcomed… (insert flashback music here)  I can still picture the meeting–our whole team (me, the “newbie”) at our bi-weekly meeting.  I don’t remember the topic, but I spoke up with a concern–a likely problem we’d encounter, or something of the like.  I can still picture feel the reaction I got.  Stares.  Silence.  Uncomfortable glances around the room (but no eye contact with me).  Specific body language from some people that now, many years down the road, I quickly am able to recognize as signs of discomfort.

Message received, loud and clear.  Authentic me in the way she was used to working wasn’t going to be welcomed here.  Tough to swallow.  Interestingly, Brown’s research asked participants about their struggle to be authentic in their daily lives.  They suggested that the message they received was:

  • Don’t make people feel uncomfortable but be honest.
  • Don’t upset anyone or hurt anyone’s feelings but say what’s on your mind.
  • Sound informed and educated but not like a know-it-all.
  • Don’t say anything unpopular or controversial but have the courage to disagree with the crowd.  (51)

Oh my.  I wasn’t part of that research, but I might as well have been.  I suddenly found myself walking each of those tightropes.

Related research suggests that to be considered feminine, “some of the most important qualities for women are thin, nice, and modest.  That means if women want to play it totally safe, we have to be willing to stay as small, quiet, and attractive as possible.” (51)

Upgrade that “oh my” to a “yikes.”  Would people describe me as “thin, nice, and modest”?  Um, they’re more likely to describe me as innovative, thoughtful, serious, honest, and just a tad of a loon.  Utah culture rewards (expects?) nice and modest from women, without a doubt.  It also expects women to not rock the boat, to be concerned with feelings and nurturing, to defer, to take care of the home and the kids, and most certainly not challenge the “ol’ boys’ club” or its rules.

I’ve got news for you: that’s not me.  You’d better believe this creates challenges as I strive to live authentically.  Some days, I back down without even realizing it.  I keep my mouth shut.  Sometimes that’s a conscious decision to choose my battles.  However, I also catch myself saying things without thinking–“yeah, we can totally do that,” or “sure, that’ll be great, we’re on it,” or “I’m fine, I’ve got it all under control.”  Trying to play nice.  Often, I’m actually thinking, “you’re out of your effing mind” or “I’m smiling but only because I’m thinking about throwing you and your project out that window.”

Ever paused and realized that something that just came flying out of your mouth feels like it was spoken by some detached version of yourself that is speaking for you without permission?  Strange sensation.

It’s a fine line to walk–a line that requires constant attention to how I’m really feeling, what I’m really needing, and what pressures I’m unnecessarily allowing others to place on me.  And then using my voice to stand my ground.  The more “in-tune” I stay with myself, the better I feel and the less resentment I end up with.

I’ve learned who I can truly be myself with and when I need to “play the game” (I honestly consider this a skill that I should be able to list on my resume–“Knows how to work the system due to expertly tuned BS detection system”)  Luckily, over time “real me” has become more trusted and respected by those who I work with frequently.  It’s a true blessing to find a place to work, and people to work with, who ultimately believe in you because of your authenticity, not in spite of it.

Maybe the greatest blessing is my OWN increased trust in that last piece–that when I stay grounded in authenticity, I’m at my best.  After all, -I- have to believe that before anyone else will.  Thankfully, we all get a new chance at authentic living each day.  Multiple times each and every day, really.  Good thing, because this shit is hard.

(Book citation: Brown, B. (2010): The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Center City, MN: Hazelden.)

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