To thy own self be true. ~ William Shakespeare
We hear variations of Shakespeare’s advice a lot. Be true to yourself. I even wrote a very personal post about returning to my Authentic Self two weeks ago. How do we know if we are or aren’t being true to ourselves? After all, most of us were socialized since a very young age to be good girls and boys, to seek approval and validation from others that we are who we’re supposed to be. As we assume more roles and responsibilities as adults, do we really know our true self, let alone honor it? If the life we have created doesn’t fulfill us, how do we know that it isn’t just a rite of passage that many experience, instead of a more fundamental violation of our true self?
Before being brainwashed
I’m an introvert by nature, drawing energy from being alone and going within. According to my mom, when I was really little, if I wasn’t holed up in a corner somewhere entertaining myself, I’d happily roam whatever free space there was in our small apartment, sometimes singing or mumbling to myself. Up until I was 5, before my baby brother was born, my parents, two brothers and I slept in the same room; the other 2.5 bedrooms were occupied by my paternal grandmother and two other households—an elderly couple and two brothers who were both cops. Every now and then, one of the adults would try to engage me in conversation. Apparently, my response would often be a very matter-of-fact “not talking to you,” before I’d turn the other way to continue my solo roaming. Evidently, the little pre-brainwashed me knew instinctively how to honor my true nature.
Fast-forward three decades, I was mindlessly sucked into building my career in the extraverted Corporate America. In my first consulting job, I’d often talk non-stop all day, running from one meeting to another. Many of those meetings were high-stress ones involving putting out fires or trying to manage complex moving parts with great urgency—depending on whether I was wearing my executive management or consultant hat. I lived for the evening hours after the close of business, when my frazzled self could sit in the silence of my office and actually hear myself think—and get some work done. During crunch times, the work would follow me home and keep me up till the wee hours of the morning. I’d catch a few hours of shut-eye before dragging myself back into the office for a new day of high-strung talk-a-thon all over again.
I burned out on that job after 3 years. The constant meeting and talking was only one symptom of how out of alignment my job was from my true nature. Aside from requiring me to be far more extraverted than I’d like, the job didn’t give me nearly enough space to be the nurturer and supporter of people I loved to be. My boss, the CEO, constantly chided me for being too “employee-focused,” that my hours wouldn’t be so long if I’d just focus on doing the “real,” billable work and cutting back on caring about staff. The company culture and the work we did—and how we did it—were incongruous with my nature and innate passion. If working there was a rite of passage, I was done passing through. Staying in that job would prolong self-abuse, and I wouldn’t be true to myself.
Your specific situation may differ from my story above, but the underlying issue is the same. That is, if you dread Monday mornings and long for the weekends, it may be a sign that your professional life doesn’t honor the real you. If you don’t know who the real you are, or you’re unsure, don’t despair, as many are in the same boat. Recall what you were like when you were really little. That would give you some insights about your true nature—before it got obscured by life experiences. List the reasons why you’re currently unhappy. Be as specific as you can beyond “I hate my job/life” into the whys. These are clues to what violates your true self.
Let’s also do a simple exercise here. Read the four profiles below, and pick the one that, as a whole, sounds most like you. Even if parts of one or more may resonate, select the one profile that most completely describes you.
- I thrive on following a set of rules and procedures that are clearly spelled out, telling me what’s right vs. wrong, who’s responsible for what, and what I can expect. I freeze when there are abrupt changes and untested new ideas. What I value most is feeling a sense of belonging, that I’m one of the guys or gals.
- I thrive on focusing on what’s directly in front of me at the present moment. Too much structure or rigid planning makes me crazy; and whatever you do, don’t hem me into tightly defined buckets. I value above all else having the autonomy to do what feels right to me at any given point in time.
- I thrive on thinking outside the box and reasoning logically to build/perfect systems and solve problems. I can’t be bogged down by traditions or too many details, as they compromise my efficiency and effectiveness. I value most being seen as really good at what I do; competence might as well be my middle name.
- I thrive on being able to act according to my vision and beliefs about what’s good and right for myself and for others involved. I abhor bureaucracy, and don’t make me say or do anything that violates my integrity. I value above all doing meaningful work, collaborating harmoniously with others I respect and appreciate.
Once you’ve decided which profile most closely describes you, think about whether your professional life supports that you. If not, it’s your first clue that your work doesn’t allow you to be true to yourself. It goes beyond temporary unpleasant conditions, such as cutbacks and furlough due to a tough economy. Regardless of your temperament type, denying your true self its authentic expression means relinquishing your birthright to live the life of your dreams. Wouldn’t you want to reclaim that birthright?
I’d like to close this post with a famous number by Frank Sinatra that captures the essence of being true to ourselves: My Way. Here’s an excerpt from the song lyrics that is particularly poignant:
I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried.
I’ve had my fill, my share of losing.
And now, as tears subside,
I find it all so amusing.
To think I did all that,
And may I say, not in a shy way,
“No, oh no not me,
I did it my way.”
By being true to ourselves, it doesn’t mean our lives will be free of upsets or challenges. Rather, as Mr. Sinatra sang, if we were to cry and to suffer losses at all, we ought to be able to look back and know that we’ve lived passionately our way. If not my way, by whose way am I going to live? What about you?
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Note: The 4 profiles above are based on the temperament typology by David Kiersey. There’s a plethora of information and tools online about personality types. You may also want to work with a professional coach to help you assess your true nature and values.
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