There is a difference between being free of fear and being brave enough to work through it.
Over the years, people have told me that I come across as confident. I scratched my head every time I heard it because internally I have always felt anything but confident. Even today, I don’t feel confident. I’m always a little bit uncomfortable whenever I’m in a group – doesn’t matter if its a group of friends, colleagues or family. At work, being different carries risk, so there is safety in covering. But my family and friends know my quirks, idiosyncrasies, strengths and weaknesses. They love and accept me as I am. So I don’t need to cover when I’m around them, but sometimes I still do. That’s how I knew this discomfort is me, not them.
I wasn’t aware of this discomfort at first because its how I’d always felt. It was my ‘normal’. As I became more self-aware, I started to notice when I was uncomfortable. The feelings were familiar, but took me some time before I was able to put it into words. I didn’t want to stand out in a crowd. The opposite was true – I wanted to blend in. That’s what I thought it meant to be included.
I was uncomfortable for a lot of reasons, but there were two main fears that kept coming up over the years: I’ll look stupid or I’ll come off as bossy. Most of the other reasons are either variations of or a combination of these two fears.
“I saw now that a part of me never felt good enough for anyone so I tried to be someone I wasn't.” ~Stefanie Sybens, Letters from the What-Went-Before
Whenever I’m in a group, I look for someone I can connect 1-on-1 with. It’s easier to talk with one person. It’s hard to feel excluded with one person. I did this in kindergarten. I did this in college. I still do it today. I find someone I feel safe around then try to stick with them. Turns out, this is also a safe way to merge into the bigger group. The 1-on-1 becomes a small group chat, which grows until we’ve merged into the bigger group. But, even when that happened, I’d end up feeling a little uncomfortable again. The bigger the group, the less safe I’d feel.
I’d say the wrong thing and feel immediately awkward. I’d hold back because I’m not sure how to merge into the conversation. I’d offer up jokes and witty comments because making people laugh felt safer than sharing my true feelings. Someone would say something and I would privately get embarrassed, so I’d withdraw. The conversation would move in in a direction I couldn’t relate to, so I’d hold back. The group would be discussing a subject I didn’t have any experience with, so I’d fall silent.
From time to time, I’d try to ignore my inner voice and speak up. Sometimes it worked, but mostly it flopped. I think it is because I was trying to be what I thought “they” wanted me to be, rather than being myself.
I remember being called “Bossy” when I was in elementary school. I reacted immediately and felt defensive, but never said anything to defend myself. I just fell silent. I couldn’t understand what I’d done to deserve it. As I got older, that word would come up again. While often disguised as a joke or clever remark, it still stung because it felt like blunt honesty disguised as humor. At work, I got feedback that would imply I was being “bossy”, but that word was never explicitly used.
“I just love bossy women. I could be around them all day. To me, bossy is not a pejorative term at all. It means somebody’s passionate and engaged and ambitious and doesn’t mind leading.” — Amy Poehler
I still bristle a little bit when I hear it. Merriam-Webster defines bossy, an adjective, as “inclined to domineer; dictatorial.” Synonyms include authoritarian, overbearing and autocratic. Antonyms include meek, indecisive, passive, submissive and obedient. It isn’t something we say to be nice. It is almost always a negative, particularly when it comes to women. And in the workplace, women with authority are often described as bossy. It is a term used for women who are assertive, decisive and confident. Interestingly, men with those same attributes are rarely called bossy. Instead, they are called things like confident, decisive and leader.
I’ve always raised my hand, offered to help or openly shared my ideas. I ask questions when I’m not sure, and I am not afraid to disagree when I (wait for it) don’t agree. I argue to understand, not to marginalize or shut people down. That said, I wasn’t always aware of the impact I was having on others, so I didn’t notice how I was coming across. So, I’m guessing “bossy” was the combination of speaking up, stepping in, asking questions or pushing back.
Finding My Voice
According to Webster's dictionary, the definition of fearless is simply: free from fear; brave. I like to believe I am, but I’m still working on it. I do believe I am authentic, honest and not afraid of trying new things. But that doesn’t exactly make me fearless.
No one is free from fear, nor should we be. It keeps us safe – the fear of bears in the woods, for example, is a really good thing. However, at the other extreme, it can be debilitating. Like all things, its about finding the right balance. I use the word Fearless to mean feeling confident enough, courageous enough, or brave enough to move forward despite the fear. That includes being fearless enough to be yourself all the time – socially and professionally.
We all want to be accepted, to be part of the group. But at what cost? In a strange way, being called confident held me back. The more people told me that, the more I would cover-up my insecurity. I felt like an imposter and was scared everyone would figure it out at any moment. As I started to talk about this more openly with friends and colleagues, it turns out that my inner voice didn’t quite match what others thought about me. Yes, I was direct. Yes, I was decisive. Yes, I was (or at least appeared to be) confident. But I was also respected, trusted, valued and appreciated. The stories I told myself were waaaaay worse.
My ADHD diagnosis helped, too. Turns out the tendency to say the wrong thing at the wrong time or do things differently was part of my brain wiring, as was inaccurate self-observation. I was too busy listening to the negative internal chatter to notice the positives others saw in me. I was working hard to fit in as someone else, but it turns out others saw and accepted me as I was. I was hiding in plain view.
“When you learn how much you’re worth, you’ll stop giving people discounts.” — Helen Keller
I’m still uncomfortable in groups, but I’ve learned to work through the discomfort. When I notice the feeling, I remind myself that is just my automatic reaction to years of insecurity. Then I make it a point to scan the group and look for the cues and clues that I am being respected, trusted and included. Although it takes a little work, I can usually get to the place where I can trust myself and feel safe enough to relax and be myself.