“Finally. At least now I don’t have to go on pretending anymore that it’s really what I wanted to be doing. Now I can finally do what I WANT to do.” That’s what my client Lon said after his business sold.
I wasn’t surprised that, after the initial shock of the transition wore off, what he felt was relief. Pretending exacts a huge toll.
Lon had expended enormous amounts of energy over the prior two decades trying to fit in, trying to prove he deserved the accolades he had been desperately seeking, pursuing acquisitions and deals that he was certain would finally allow him to relax and be himself (but never did). For years, he alternated between anxiety, depression and resentment – mostly because he was constantly trying to be a version of who he thought he should be to succeed.
Lon’s attempts at compartmentalization – keeping his “work self” and his “real self” distinct – and tamping down his real desires and his unique personality consumed vast amounts of energy. He told me that “everyone” did this in the industry; “No one is their real self or gets to do what they really want.” Despite thinking of himself as quite entrepreneurial, he had been trying desperately to be like everyone else, to fit in and not to stand out as “weird, eccentric or too far out there” in his approach to business.
He told me he was ready to get out there and find his next thing, before he got too stale. This was all too familiar, the business owner who feels a need to throw himself into something else as soon as he’s exited his company.
When we next met, I asked Lon to outline what an ideal work situation would look like. His responses told me that he was still operating from a view of what he thought he could get, not what he would actually consider ideal. It took quite some time for Lon to get to the heart of what he really wanted. From that place, he could begin to approach a new role – one where he could feel free to express his many talents and soar.
Moments like Lon’s exit, actually contain the seeds of freedom. Freedom to admit that what we were chasing so hard isn’t actually what we wanted at all. It gives us permission to turn our attention toward what we DO want and to be who we really are.
There is a curious gratitude that arises in those newly diagnosed with cancer. Not gratitude for the cancer, but for the permission to finally abandon assumed obligations and begin saying NO or YES. The gratitude of being able to say “Screw this, I’m going to be who I am and do what I really want.”
The goal, however, is to develop the willingness to reveal who you are and what you want WITHOUT HAVING TO ENDURE A DISASTER to acquire that permission.
Most of us have, at one time or another, been in a relationship – at work or in our personal life – which began by pretending. Pretending to like what we don’t, pretending to be more or less of something than we really are. Accommodating the other, hoping that once we feel safe we can actually ask for what we really want. We hide a part of ourselves, sometimes an essential part of ourselves. Giving ourselves away for the sake of belonging and then awakening sometime later with the roaring anger of resentment or the paralyzing fear of being discovered as a fraud.
We often think that hiding who we are is the safe thing to do when being who we are is our greatest strength. There are times when it’s crucial not to put ourselves in harm’s way and times when it’s important to bring ourselves fully forward or some essential fiber of who we are will wither. Everyone has had to face this choice, more than once; when to show up and when to pull back. Too often, we pull back; we hide, rather than show our true selves.
If we hide long enough, we can forget what we are hiding or that we ourselves are even hidden. And, the longer we hide, the more fearful we become of revealing our true selves and our actual desires. Eventually, who we are and what we want will no longer tolerate being hidden. Feeling suffocated, it will find a way to escape and set us free.
Almost all our faults are more pardonable than the methods we resort to, to hide them. – La Rochefoucauld
Let me put this into context with Lon’s story. Before we started working together so he could accept who he was and what he really wanted, Lon suffered from great insecurity and couldn’t find the foundation of his own self-worth. He was endlessly seeking validation and recognition, assuming that when he made a great fortune he would finally feel “free” to do what he wanted. Meanwhile, his actual resources were being squandered in the intense activity that was necessary to keep searching for a sense of worth that no one could bestow upon him but himself. Whatever praise or success he received was always insufficient because he viewed it with unworthy eyes.
Lon was driven in the name of ambition and the need to be accepted. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to work toward something or with wanting to belong. The harm comes when ambition is used as a tool to solve feeling unworthy. Or when the cost of being accepted is giving up who we are instead of entering true relationships that can affirm and enrich who we are.
The way our path unfolds depends upon which voices we listen to. Do we adhere to the expectations of others or do we honor our unique desires? Do we stay loyal to the voice that’s mapped our journey to a partnership with others we don’t respect or to the one that admits en route to the airport that we love eating dinner with our children, that we no longer want to travel for work?
Whether we stay our course or use one course to find another, the core question is: Why do we sometimes hear our soul whisper and sometimes ignore its shout? But one thing is certain; it’s harder to hear your soul while hiding.
Hiding who we are is often predicated on a strong fear of what might happen. We think, “If I show who I really am, I will be rejected or damaged or hurt.” Or “If I tell my partners I don’t want to travel anymore, they will lose respect for me, leave me out of the next fundraise and I’m likely to earn less.” When we are able to listen clearly, we remember that being who we are is prompted by an inner urgency that won’t let us escape the moment at hand. An inner voice informs us, “If I keep muffling this feeling, if I DON’T speak my truth, a part of me will die.” So, we tell it, “Later, not now.” And it shows up again and again, nagging. Or perhaps in the form of a crisis that demands our attention.
How do we know when to pull back and when to bring ourselves forward? How do we know when to come out of hiding? No one really knows. But one act leads to the next and the reward for speaking our truth, even if alone or to a trusted friend or coach, is that such authentic speech clears an inner path by which we can discover and build the courage to reveal who we are, what we want and it will lead us to the life we long for.
If you are not yet certain how to speak that truth of who you are and what you want, or are afraid there is no way to get what you want in your work and are hiding parts of yourself or your desires, call me. Let’s have a conversation about how to begin the journey to the life you long for and deserve. It really is possible. In fact, it’s essential. And, you know it. Don’t wait for your own version of a disaster to give you permission to own your life.
“The real work of our life is to be who we are everywhere – alone, in relationship, at work, and in public.” – Mark Nepo