Are You Torn Between Being Perfect, and Yearning to Be Authentic? The Magic is in Being Real
Flashback to many years ago….An Olympic Gold medalist, working at a top five business-consulting firm, I walked into the conference room wearing my four-inch stiletto heels and a tailored black suit. All heads swiveled around, expectantly watching me, the expert, who effortlessly solved the client’s tough business problem in no time at all.
=== SCREECH! ===
Okay, part of this is true. I am an Olympic athlete, whose rowing team was expected to win gold in 1988, but we came in a disappointing 6th. I did work at a top five business consulting firm, but four-inch stiletto heels? Oh, please. I can barely wear one-inch heels. Expert? One boss told me, “You are not analytical enough to be a business consultant. Go work with people.” I was crushed.
The first scenario was my Ideal Self many years ago: the golden, smart, unflappable, well-spoken, in-control businesswoman. The other was my Actual Self, desperately trying to measure up in the competitive, male-dominated business world. There is a third self, not very apparent in my scenario above, my Authentic Self, or innate nature, which I was not very attuned to back then.
The seeds of my Ideal Self were planted at a very young age and influenced by my early experiences and parental expectations. Let me back up a bit, I popped out of the womb expressive. Maybe most babies do, but I seemed to express everything big: colicky baby, lots of laughter, big hugs, as well as, angry tantrums. However, I started to learn early on that there was not enough room in our home for more than one big expressive person, and it wasn’t going to be me.
My father was a military man probably suffering from post-traumatic stress from three wartime tours, lubricating that trauma with alcohol, which made family dinners stressful. One time in particular, I was so mad at my dad for making fun of one of my teachers. As the high-spirited child, I stood up and yelled, “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” Well, sparing you the gory details, it was a life-changing event for me. That night, I made a decision that I wasn’t going to let what happened to me then, repeat itself. Instead, I would shut up and shift my focus to pleasing my dad, which meant getting great grades, achieving and ignoring how I felt.
My adult Ideal Self grew out of a survival need and a disconnection from my true feelings and Authentic Self. I decided that I was only safe if I was in-control, well spoken, looked good, and got the gold, which was impossible to maintain. As a result, I walked through life feeling like a fraud.
I was not who I thought I should be: my Ideal Self, nor was I who I unconsciously yearned to be, my Authentic Self. Instead, I was stuck in the middle, being my failure, sellout Actual Self. This is how I created so much self-hate, which just fed my desire to work harder to reach my Ideal Self and continue to abandon my Authentic Self.
What a vicious cycle!
Are there places where you are not who you think you should be, nor who you yearn to be? I know some clients of mine felt this way:
- Skip, the CEO of a tech start-up, was singing his company’s praises for investors and media, promising a phenomenal new year, yet couldn’t sleep and was having chest pains — the new software didn’t work and a supplier was increasing costs;
- Janey, a stay-at-home-mom and the top volunteer at her kid’s elementary school, desperately wanted to revive her Wall Street career;
- Leslie, an top VP, trying to appear tough, flippantly dismissed the touchy-feely leadership training, yet was in tears at her one-on-one with her CEO boss due to a recent divorce.
Where are you not good enough? Where are you abandoning yourself? My trip back from fraud to whole person has been a painful many-year journey. I’ve been there, and as a result, can help you. Good news: you’re probably a faster learner than I am.
We are all born with our Authentic Selves intact. Call it soul or spirit. However, we are quickly bombarded with other’s expectations of who they want us to be: a good girl, straight A student, wonderful musician, or great athlete. These expectations start from the outside, yet slowly integrate into our beings. We develop an ideal of who we think we should be and then strive to make it happen. This striving is very serious and hard work. However, we inevitably fall short of our ideal, and as a result, start to hate ourselves for it. Who we are, is just not good enough.
Finishing 6th at the Olympics filled me with shame and embarrassment. My client Skip, couldn’t stand the game he had to play to raise money when so much was caving in. Janey thought she must be a bad mom because she cared more about stock prices than baby food prices. Leslie was highly threatened that she felt so vulnerable at work.
There are three dynamics going on here:
- In striving for your ideal, to meet other’s expectations, you abandon your Authentic self, which doesn’t feel good, even unconsciously.
- When you strive to reach your ideal and don’t make it, you feel like a failure and begin to hate yourself. This usually fuels you to work even harder to reach your ideal.
- Even if you reach your ideal, there is just another ideal that replaces the original one, keeping the striving game going.
All of these dynamics create feelings that you are not okay. There is a different approach; however, the path to wholeness. I was introduced to this Selves Model at The Haven Institute and here are my adapted steps to the path to wholeness.
Step One: Breathe and Become Aware
When you breathe you connect more to your body. This connection leads to more awareness of these three different selves inside of you, and where you are in the cycle. It is important to connect to your true feelings.
I had to become aware of the lie I was telling myself of whom I said I wanted to be and the feelings that went with it, which were initially rage at my dad and then shame at myself.
I found a safe place to express those feelings of grief and helplessness, which for so long I had covered up pretending everything was okay.
Step Two: Acknowledge and Accept
When you acknowledge out loud to someone else what you are doing, it allows you to accept yourselves as simply human. This is a powerful step because it breaks the façade of perfection you are trying so hard to maintain.
When I expressed how I felt about growing up and shared this with another, I learned that I could be vulnerable and not be punished. It didn’t mean everyone was going to be comfortable with my emotional expression, but someone was, which was enough for me to find a path of acceptance of myself.
Step Three: Compassion and Action
This step is about having compassion for how hard you have worked to reach your Ideal Self, as well as, your resulting humanness or Actual Self. Feeling compassion for yourself ironically taps you back into your Authentic Self. With this connection, you can take action based on your Authentic Self desires.
When I could appreciate the masterful way that I had coped and how that had served me, I connected back to my Authentic Self and learned I loved artistic expression. I began taking painting and acting classes and have even sold my artwork and acted in a several plays.
Once that first crack in my armor began, I found other areas that needed healing. Rather than pretending the Olympics didn’t happen because I felt so much shame about not getting the gold, I was able to acknowledge that we lost and feel how painful that was, which connected me to others who failed at something they desperately wanted to succeed at. For my clients:
- Skip communicated a more realistic picture of the company, while still holding onto a confidence that they could get through. Surprisingly, his honesty brought more support for the company which helped resolve some of the issues.
- Janey acknowledged to her husband the pain she was in and is now working part time in a stock firm in San Francisco.
- Leslie finally acknowledged to her team what was going on in her personal life, which completely transformed how she showed up at work.
Remember in those places where you feel like an imposter you need to:
- Breathe and become aware of what you are feeling
- Acknowledge and express how you feel to unlock the blocks
Having compassion for all of your “selves” connects you back to your Authentic Self.
This is a great place from which to take inspired, life-affirming action. That’s the path to wholeness and what wins you the gold medal of being human every time!
CrisMarie Campbell (author) and Susan Clarke are Coaches, Consultants, and Speakers at thrive! inc. They work with business leaders whose relationships matter as much (or more) than their business results. You can see their TEDx Talk: Conflict — Use It, Don’t Defuse It! They would be happy to coach you, consult with your team, or to speak at your next event. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.