No one can be myself like I can…

At various times in my life, usually in high pressure environments, I’ve been given the advice, “just be yourself.” I never found it very helpful, or indeed, very easy – as if it should come naturally! The ‘just’ implies that it requires no effort.

Why is it so difficult to just be ourselves?

If we are lucky, we have a few friends, family members and/or a partner with whom we totally feel we can be ourselves – we can voice our opinion or reveal how we are feeling without fear of negative consequences, but it certainly isn’t a given. We are social animals, designed to mix and collaborate with others. From an evolutionary perspective, this was a matter of survival. Like herd mammals, the individual left out of the group was the most vulnerable to predators, to the elements, and to starvation. So our brains developed to keep us safe, making us hyper-vigilant to tiny facial movements and gestures in others which give us feedback on whether we are acceptable to the group. This is particularly noticeable when we are introduced to a new group e.g. starting a new job, working on a different team, meeting a partner’s family or friends for the first time. We can be acutely aware of how others react to us and it can feel like being on show. There may be aspects of our personality or lifestyle, even our appearance that we hold back because we feel we may be judged or disliked for what we do or say.

This is perfectly normal and natural and usually as time goes on and we get to know our co-workers and in-laws better, we start to feel more comfortable and reveal more of our true selves.

However, in the work place, there is added pressure. The risk of rejection is still present but the stakes are higher. We may feel that we will be overlooked for promotion or not considered for a team unless we blend in with the majority. Toeing the corporate line and not being completely honest about what we did at the weekend to maximise the chance of career progression is one thing but covering up a core part of our identity is another thing entirely. Yet this is what many people have to do in their working lives.

A woman who works in a male-dominated industry hides her soft, caring side and acts like ‘one of the boys’ to fit in.
A black woman plays down her leadership qualities and refrains from expressing strong emotions for fear of adhering to the angry black woman stereotype.
A gay man puts up with the ‘banter’ and inappropriate jokes from straight colleagues for fear of rocking the boat.

The effort of keeping up this kind of facade has been proven to take its toll in terms of stress and mental energy and often leads to burnout. It can mean that you become out of step with your values but you feel powerless to change things. This has been described as ‘emotional labour’ in various articles including this one from the BBC:

“ it’s the insidious, wearying work of having to pretend you’re not as bothered by microaggressions in the workplace as you really are – whether those aggressions are racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist… any situation where you feel like you’ve been stereotyped, or your identity has been attacked in some way, and you have to pretend that it’s fine.”

The reality is that diversity actually improves team performance. Divergent thinking breaks boundaries in creativity and problem solving. And when people feel safe to voice their opinion, to contribute and to challenge without fear of recrimination, they become more engaged, more motivated and more productive. In fact Google’s Project Aristotle proved that psychological safety was the most important factor in high performing teams.

So how can we bring our whole selves to work?

It takes courage and vulnerability (and the ability to not take ourselves too seriously) but most of all it demands reciprocity.
If we want to be valued and celebrated for who we are, then we must do the same for others.
This requires fortitude, an open mind and a compassionate heart.

Being an ally isn’t something we can claim and sit back. It involves taking action or making a stand against oppression and marginalisation, challenging stereotypes. It can and will be uncomfortable.

Many years ago I was drinking in a pub in Brighton with my husband, his sister and her wife. A woman came in spouting some homophobic drivel and it made my blood boil. I stood up and told her to get out. Anyone who knows me will know that conflict is not my style. I usually do anything I can to avoid it, but we all experience those moments when the tension builds in our chest and we have to say something. I’m not saying that we should go around shouting at people in the workplace, in fact being able to regulate our emotions and stay calm would be a far better option. However if we hear an inappropriate comment or feel that a discussion is being limited by stereotypical views then we should challenge them calmly and firmly or make a point of asking the opinion of someone whose voice is not being heard.

Allyship is only recognised by the marginalised individual or group. We must remain aware of our inherent biases and can never claim to speak on behalf of a group to which we do not belong.

We are all uniquely different, being a product of our culture, our upbringing and our lived experience. Our view of the world is shaped by the films we watch, the books we read, the people we meet, the people we love, the ideas we’ve studied, the prejudice we’ve come into contact with, the trauma we’ve experienced. Keeping this in mind will allow us to learn to acknowledge our own potential for bias, even when it’s unconscious, and will help us to give others the benefit of the doubt. It can also give us confidence, because although we may not feel we know as much as the next person, we can be sure that we know something different.  Bringing our personal passions and interests into the workplace might mean that we are chosen to work on a project that is particularly of interest, or that we discover and get to know others with similar interests.

We must challenge stereotypes and notice when they might be affecting our thinking.
And we can broaden our view of the world by informing ourselves, seeking out books and films that challenge our own views and our stereotypical beliefs. (The algorithms of Amazon and Netflix are not helpful here!) Prejudice comes from ignorance so arm yourself with knowledge.
We must take stay curious, take our listening skills to the next level and learn to suspend judgement.

To feel we can totally be ourselves at work we must allow others to do the same.

And I’m going to end with the words of Chesney Hawkes… (helped by Nik Kershaw)

I am the one and only
Nobody I’d rather be
I am the one and only
You can’t take that away from me
I can’t wear this uniform without some compromises
Because you’ll find out that we come
In different shapes and sizes
No one can be myself like I can
For this job I’m the best man
And while this may be true
You are the one and only you

Helen is a wellbeing coach and a mental health first aider.  She works with individuals helping them find a place in the world where they are happy, safe and fulfilled.  She also works with organisations helping them to provide working environments where everyone, whatever their role, is respected, valued and challenged to develop and grow.