How often are you yourself? I don’t mean the person you play at work, or the person you play at home, or the person you play when you’re out with your friends. I mean how often have you been you — your real, genuine self?
Some people may bristle at this, answering, Of course I’m always myself. Authenticity is everything to me! If that’s your answer, wonderful. Some people find it very easy to be themselves. Others of you may say, I’m myself at home, but I definitely put on a different face at work. Others might flip that around. Then there are those who might say, I don’t feel safe being myself until I am alone.
I fit in that last group. Since I’ve known myself, I have always felt the need to play a role. That’s why I studied the performing arts and film production. I am fascinated by the process of creating a character and then, like a diver preparing for frigid water, stepping into the character like a body suit and navigating the world. That's not to mention creating entire worlds around characters. Also, like many women -- and especially as a woman of color -- I learned early to be aware of how I look, what I say, and how others might react to me.
Throughout my youth, while I was never one of the “cool” kids, I was definitely always trying to stay one step above open ridicule from my peers or failure in the eyes of my superiors. I worked hard to get the right grades, craft the right resume, the right look, the right attitude and to hold up the mask as I constructed it. When it slipped — due to a maintenance failure on my part or a lack of resources — I would criticize myself, analyzing why it slipped and how I might hold it more firmly next time.
Now that I am older, I’ve learned to care a bit less about what people think. I chopped off my hair, stopped wearing makeup, and only go out if I feel like it. But I’m still keenly aware of others thoughts. I still find myself saying, If I do that, how might I be seen — what will people think of me?
Self-awareness rests at the heart of that question -- specifically, the balance between internal and external self-awareness.
A group of researchers published a piece in the Harvard Business Review
on self-awareness in leaders, they found that there are four archetypes of self-awareness, and one of them is called “pleasers”. These are people with low internal self-awareness and high external self-awareness. Pleasers "can be so focused on appearing a certain way to others that they could be overlooking what matters to them. Over time, they tend to make choices that aren’t in service to their own success and fulfillment.”
Ouch. That's me. (If you’re interested in taking their quiz, you can find it here
. You’ll need a friend to take it with you to get results.)
Those with both high internal and external awareness are called “aware”. These are people who “know who they are, what they want to accomplish and seek out and value others’ opinions. This is where leaders begin to fully realize the true benefits of self-awareness.”
So, rather than asking myself what others might think, the real question I should be asking is: what do I want to accomplish, and from whom might I get feedback to make sure I’m going about what I need to do as effectively as possible?
This immediately raises the specter of selfishness for me. When one only cares about what they want, they inherently disregard others’ wants and needs, right? Not necessarily. Two principles hold true:
Apply your air mask first. If you can’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of others.
You can want what others want. Sometimes what you want will coincide with what others want, and when it does, that’s a great opportunity to team up and discover even more beyond what you and they wanted.
I used to confuse self-awareness with superficial activities such as not wearing makeup or not going with the crowd. Sometimes the crowd is going to a great place, and sometimes makeup can be a fun expression of one’s artistic abilities. Self-awareness, at least so I am learning, is about declaring clearly to yourself not what you think others want you to want, but what you want unto yourself.
So, knowing all of this, what is one to do? Well, in my case, I’m focusing a bit more on when I make choices, pausing to ask myself what I want to accomplish, and what I am willing to sacrifice to get it. I am watching for language such as:
- What will people think of me if I do that?
- How will I look to others if I do that?
- How am I being seen right now?
There’s a time and place for great performances (and I do love me a great performance!), but it should not come at the expense of taking the life path one wants to take -- rather than the one others want them to take instead.