How to Build a Personal Brand Without Selling Out

Is that even possible?

Sarah Aboulhosn
Jun 18, 2019 · 7 min read
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Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

I’ve always hated the idea of “putting myself out there.”

I want to live in a safe little bubble that no one has access to and do whatever I want, with no outside feedback.

Is that too much to ask?

Well, I work on the internet and write things that anyone in the world can see, on purpose. So…yes. It is.

I’ve always had a hard time showing people exactly who I am — the good and the bad — and being unapologetic about it.

In college, I had a personal Twitter account, and I also had a “professional” account that I would put on my resume and job applications.

On the “professional” account, I would share articles that I didn’t read and quotes from people I didn’t care about. This was all to make me seem smarter or like the type of person that a company would want to hire.

My personal account was full of food pics, song lyrics, random funny thoughts, and the occasional drunken rant about the annoying skateboarders in front of my building.

I was told that having a personal brand was important for finding a job in marketing/PR, BUT only if your personal brand was professional enough to impress the people seeing it.

The disconnect between my real self and my brand is something I think about way too often. Along with, “do I even want to be a brand?” Followed by, “fuck this, I’m a person, not a brand.” And then the cycle repeats itself.

There are a lot of other signs and internal red flags that you think would have deterred me from ever wanting to use my name and likeness to sell services or share ideas. Yet, here we are.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that I need to get over the awkwardness I feel branding myself if I ever want to make an impact as a writer. There are a few mantras I try to remember when the personal branding gets tough or I feel myself losing my authenticity.

Self-Promotion Doesn’t Have to Be Weird

Self-promotion makes me feel gross. I don’t like sharing my achievements or talking about things I’m good at. It’s something I’m working on. Being able to sell yourself is an essential part of personal branding. You have to actually tell people what you’ve been doing and share your accomplishments to gain trust and show people they should give you their money in exchange for whatever it is you do.

But it doesn’t have to be weird. It all boils down to authenticity and honesty. Tell the truth about what makes you good at some things and not good at others. Don’t call yourself an expert if you’re not. Talk about the journey as well as the destination. Most accomplishments have backstories. Share the story of how you achieved it.

When I’m trying to sell a service to a potential client, I try to talk about how the results we achieved made the client feel. It makes it less about what I did and more about the outcome they received.

I’ve also realized that if you’re awkward about promoting yourself, it makes it seem like you’re hiding something. Confidence goes a long way, and you should be proud of what you can do and what you’ve done.

You Don’t Have to Do Just One Thing

Being a real-life person, I change all the time, and I often change my mind. My brand has always felt very all over the place. I have a lot of different interests and do a lot of different things that don’t fold neatly into one box.

I don’t have a specific niche in what I do or what I write about. So the idea that I need to be a representation of just one thing is really scary to me. I want to explore new ideas and new sides of me all of the time, and that doesn’t seem conducive to building a brand. I’ve always liked the idea of anonymity.

The thing about a personal brand is that there is a person behind it (duh). People are not just ONE thing. That’s not authentic. Even if you’re a writer and you sell yourself as a writer in the wedding industry, your brand doesn’t have to be “weddings.” That’s not real. Unless you’re a real-life wedding fanatic, then, by all means, own it. But most people understand that there is a complexity to your interests.

Don’t worry about pigeonholing yourself.

For a while, my brand was writing about marketing. Now, I mostly write about personal growth. I’m worried that people who started following me for marketing content will be irritated that I changed and now actually really hate writing marketing content and giving marketing advice.

Those people will move on and find someone else who can give them what they need. It’s ok if your audience shifts as you grow and evolve.

Let Go of the Fear of Being Called Out


Cancel culture is real. I’m not siding with people who do shitty things and get canceled on the internet. But putting yourself out there puts you at risk of saying or doing the “wrong thing.” Having a personal brand and being a real and vulnerable person on the internet means there’s a high likelihood of some people not agreeing with you.

And it’s not like if someone doesn’t agree with you, they will call out the publication you’re hiding behind. It’s me as a person. If a brand publishes something that people don’t like, the person behind the computer isn’t chastized publically. Their identity is protected. If I blog about something sensitive that people don’t like there’s nothing for me to hide behind. Which is a very scary thing to me. And people can very easily say hurtful things, and I can’t control that.

I wrote about being ghosted by a client, and someone responded that my grammar was probably the reason they let me go. While I responded nicely, albeit kind of snarkily, this is the kind of feedback that terrifies me. People shoving my insecurities in my face and telling me that it’s my fault that bad things happen to me.

I don’t feel strong enough to deal with trolls on the internet, even though every single person who has made any impact on the world has had people hoping that they fail.

If you’re going to have a personal brand, you need to understand that there will be a time when you get called out. I actively try and think of reasons why people might disagree with the things I write and what my response would be. This may not be the right approach. But it keeps me sane, and it helps me hit “publish.”

I recently finished “Braving the Wilderness” by Brene Brown, and there was one part that I keep repeating to myself over and over again. It came from her interview with Viola Davis.

It’s on the idea of growing a thick skin to deal with criticism. She says that growing a thick skin will stop things from getting in, but it will also stop things from getting out.

I’m sure the real quote is much more eloquent, but I can’t find the exact page right now. The point is, don’t let the fear of criticism, or the need to put on a brave face, deter you from being authentic and vulnerable.

It’s Always Easier to Hide Behind Something Than It Is to Be Unapologetically Authentic

I’ve always loved the idea of anonymity. As a teenager, I started multiple blogs under pseudonyms and wrote scandalous things that could never be traced back to me because I was too afraid of sharing them as myself.

If I start a blog under a generic name, use it to write about sensitive things, and make someone mad, they can write off that blog. If something goes wrong, I can start over with a new blog. I can incorporate the lessons I learned into building something else from scratch.

But if I publish something under my name on my website and someone doesn’t like it, I can’t start over with a new identity. Unless I witness a murder and get relocated to somewhere new.

I like the idea of being anonymous on the internet, but I also know enough about marketing to know that people don’t respond to robots. It’s really hard to build a brand and make a real impact when people can’t put a name and a face to the words on a screen. And I want to make an impact, and I want my words to influence people.

Be Vulnerable and Speak Your Truth

There was a time when I got sucked into the world of internet marketing and tried to sell an online course. It was sad. I ruined my email list and wrote spammy articles on my blog. Eventually, the cloud of denial around me lifted. I realized I wasn’t going to make $100K selling a shitty course, no matter how many Amy Porterfield masterclasses I took.

I had fallen victim to good copy and the promise of being a guru. It was not me at all. I was embarrassed by what I created and the content I was writing. It made me stop writing for a while until I could reassess my goals. When I shared this story, I got dozens of emails from readers telling me they had done the same thing. And how ashamed they were with themselves for being inauthentic in an attempt to hack their way to a million dollars.

These articles are my favorite ones to write. The ones that are cultivated from a lot of pain and embarrassment. They’re about things that I never wanted anyone to know. But they end up being the best ones. Being honest about what you’re going through shows people that you’re a real person. And a personal brand requires you to be a real person, and everything that comes with it.

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