The “just be yourself” thing is overplayed. If it was that easy, we’d all be doing it.
According to Psychology Today being authentic means: “you act in ways that show your true self and how you feel. Rather than showing people only a particular side of yourself, you express your whole self genuinely.” But that’s tricky. I struggle with lying, which is just a nice way of saying I am ruthlessly honest. Fair warning: if you ask for my opinion on something, I will tell you what I really think. I also care deeply about the well-being of others. But, over the years, I’ve been described as insensitive or indifferent to people’s feelings. That feedback hurt. Every. Time. I struggled to understand how I came across to others, and to figure out what I needed to do differently so people could connect my actions with my intentions.
Turns out, there is a name for that: external self-awareness, which is how well you understand how others see you.
I have ADHD (hang on, I promise this is relevant). I was diagnosed in my early forties while reading “Driven to Distraction” to better understand ADHD as a parent (my son had just been diagnosed).
“Often have a hard time finding the right word, so impulsively say any word or just stay silent and feel stupid.” (Driven to Distraction)
A table in the book listed 20 criteria for diagnosing ADD in adults – 12 or more was considered a “chronic disturbance”. I had 12. I follow-up with a psychiatrist who confirmed the diagnosis. I still remember reading the list and how these came together for me in a big way. There were four criteria in particular that started my journey into self-awareness.
A tendency to say what comes to mind without necessarily considering the timing or appropriateness of the remark. It felt like I did this a lot – said the wrong thing or the right thing at the wrong time. And I generally didn’t filter or edit my remarks – how I thought is how spoke. It always made me feel uncomfortable. I'd say something then immediately feel bad, misunderstood, frustrated or embarrassed.
Trouble in going through established channels, following “proper” procedure. I am a rule follower and fairness is one of my core values. Together, they mean we should do the right things (rules) in ways that are just and equitable (fairness). While I believe rules are important, I’ve never hesitated to question a rule that didn’t feel right, useful or fair. It made me uncomfortable worrying that my colleagues might label me as a troublemaker for questioning how we did things.
A sense of insecurity. I suffer from imposter syndrome and genuinely believed that it was only a matter of time before everyone figured out that I didn’t know anything. Whatever my training, I didn't really understand. Whatever my experience, I wasn't sure. If I immediately understood what someone was saying, I must be hearing it wrong. I was constantly second guessing myself and worried everyone else was doing it, too.
Inaccurate self-observation. I have always struggled with how I am perceived. My strategy for dealing with it was simple: denial. Self-perception forms and evolves through interactions. Many of my interactions were uncomfortable, embarrassing or stressful. The cumulative effect was constant negative self-talk about how others see me. It made it increasingly harder to connect with people and only reinforced a story I told myself for years: I'm just one of those people who doesn't have a lot of friends, and that's okay.
The ADHD diagnosis was very freeing. It never occurred to me that it was my brain wiring. I always assumed it was a character flaw or personality weakness. You mean I really was a good person and not indifferent or uncaring? The diagnosis freed me of self-judgement. I was finally able to work on paying attention to the impact I was having on others, without all the negative self-talk.
That brings us back to where this started – authenticity. Authenticity is a popular word today. Companies say things like "bring your whole self to work" or talk about it in as part of their brand's narrative or identity. It's easy to say but hard to do – it's elusive. It requires more than self-awareness; it also requires self-compassion. If you don't believe in yourself or even like yourself very much, why the heck would you want to "be yourself" around others?
“Role-playing can be helpful… Since people with ADD are very poor self-observers, watching others play them can vividly demonstrate behavior they may be unaware of rather than unwilling to change.” (Driven to Distraction)
The work on noticing my impact on others helped me realized that how people saw me was highly influenced by how they saw themselves or the context of our relationship. Clients saw me as smart and creative. Friends saw me as carefree and honest. Bosses appreciated my directness but were frustrated by my independent streak.
Once I was able to see myself more objectively (and lovingly), I began to feel more comfortable about the way I acted and talked. I started to work on the "how" and "when" to say things. I learned to trust my thinking and nurture my natural curiosity so I would feel less “stupid” and insecure. And I started paying attention to how my words, actions and behaviors were received and interpreted. Once I was able to see those reactions more objectively, I slowly become more self-aware, both internally and externally. Of course, it is important for me to be considerate, respectful, patient and honest. And it is also important to learn how to show up so that my actions were consistent with my intention.
I'm still a work in progress, but it's healthy work based on self-acceptance, self-awareness and self-love. Today, I simply try to live each day without trying to be something I'm not or talking differently in anticipation of how others might perceive me. I'm “just” myself. The rest is on them.