This week’s change to Be Authentic goes hand-in-hand with Week 13: Being Vulnerable.
What does it mean to Be Authentic?
“Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”— Brené Brown
Transformation from Authenticity to Conformity – when and how does this happen?
We are born with authenticity. We do not pretend to be anything other than what we are as children. At some point, for many of us, this changes.
As a child, I didn’t think about being myself, or trying to “be authentic.” I just was who I was with no thoughts about whether who I was, was acceptable to anyone else, or whether I was fitting into a mold of what children should be like. I just was. But I don’t think I remained authentic for long, in the sense that Brene Brown talks about.
In retrospect, I was an “odd” child, and I came from a very “odd” family.
My family has walked to a beat of a different drum for as long as I can remember. I didn’t even know how strange we all were until much later in life.
Growing up, I was very content with being by myself for long periods of time. This was an adaptation I made from very early childhood, out of necessity. I was alone a lot. I had a vivid imagination and would spend hours in my creativity to entertain myself. If I was doing chores, I was a host of my own imaginary T.V. show on How to Clean. This was back in the early 70’s before there were such shows. If I was in my room, I would be hosting an imaginary show on How to Do whatever I was doing – decorating my bulletin board, sewing, playing jacks, knitting, making crafts, playing music. Whatever I was doing, I created an imaginary stage, and I was the star of my own show. I also liked to write. I kept journals, and wrote stories. I loved to read, and would spend many Saturday’s at the Public Library to get new books to read. I loved to read so much, that when it was time to go to bed, I would read under the covers with a flashlight because I didn’t want to stop reading.
I had a neighborhood of friends growing up that I played with: Sandy, Kevin, Punky, Reanna & her sister Ranessa, Alicia and her brother, Micah. I played different games with them, and my T.V. show was only at home when I was by myself. I played whatever they wanted to play. And with each of my friends, we played different games. With Sandy, it was dolls, with Kevin it was military games and hide and seek, with Punky it was anything to do with cars, Elvis, or music, with Reanna & Ranessa it was mostly hide-and-seek, cards, or playing on their trampoline, with Alicia, we played music together, and with Micah, we played house, hung out doing nothing, or played sports.
I was a different person with each of my friends growing up. I realize now that I have been a chameleon for a very long time, changing form and identity to conform with my surroundings, to be protected from attack. I didn’t think of it as being fake, or not being authentic because I didn’t think about it at all, then. But I see it now as wanting to fit in, wanting to play, and wanting people to like me.
I first noticed that I didn’t really “fit in” when I was bussed to an inner-city urban school in the 4th Grade. I got my first taste of culture here where I was one of a few white kids in a school mixed with Asians, African-Americans, and Latinos. My two best friends were Minnette from Puerto Rico, and Annette from Panama. They were both very, very poor. I wonder where they are now. I wonder where any of my childhood friends are now. I have no idea. I had one privileged white friend. I don’t remember her name, because we did not connect. I wanted to. I rode the bus over to her house in the rich neighborhood to play once, but I couldn’t relate to her at all. The chameleon in me couldn’t adapt. She seemed so normal and perfect. I couldn’t relate, and I guess that is why I couldn’t conform to her world.
I have always been a student of music and the arts. And this school focused on both of those aspects. I was in music groups, and I took piano and harp lessons here. But I didn’t really feel like I fit into this world and I didn’t feel good enough to display my interests with confidence. I was sensitive and insecure. I still am.
Before all this, I remember being an attention hog for center stage. I remember this, because I was told this as a child – I talked too much. They called me “Chatterbox.” I was told this by my family and by my teachers. In fact, I missed so many recesses in 1st Grade because I talked all the time. I would get my name “Susan” written on the chalkboard and I would have to stay in for recess. But guess what the punishment was?! READING. I had to READ! BY MYSELF. Suffice it to say, this was not a deterrent to keep me from talking!
I think this is why I moved to creating my own imaginary stage where no one was around to tell me to be quiet and quit talking so much.
Parents of my childhood friends didn’t like me. They could smell my strangeness from a mile away. They could also sense my lack of boundaries, and potential for trouble. I was always in trouble for something as a child. I spent more time grounded to my room than I can remember. But I think the real reason they didn’t like me was because they saw the chameleon that I was. They could see right through me wanting to fit in and be the child I was supposed to be. I think the child they saw was Eddie Hascal, from Leave It To Beaver. The one who acted the part of a good kid, but wasn’t really the part – it was an act. I was always up to something. Although most of the time I had no conscious idea of this.
The point to all this is that early on, I realized I didn’t fit in, but I think because of this realization, I rebelled against being authentic, and instead tried to conform to what I thought people wanted me to be.
What triggered the Chameleon?
What made the change of being a free child with no smoke and mirror show to hiding my true thoughts, feelings and passions? Can we really go back in time and pinpoint an event or trigger that changed us from one person to the next? Are we just looking for an external event or person to blame for the realization we have now of what we became as a result of environmental programming or neglect?
The irony is that I came from a family that fought against conformity. A family that went out of their way to be different. Yet it was I who became the chameleon. Adapting to whatever change was imposed upon me by family, circumstances, or environment.
What does this mean today?
I consider myself a work in progress. I slowly and gradually wake up to realizations of who I am now and what has shaped me to become the person I am today. A lot of it has to do with external factors, but much of it has to do with internal anxiety and fear. Is this something that is nurtured, or is this nature? I have no idea. And it is probably a combination of both.
The topic of authenticity came up in a couple of conversations I had this past week. Not in talking about myself, but in discussing others. Because it is so painstakingly obvious when someone is not being authentic. Not being real. Hiding something.
I continued to reflect on these conversations. I try to use experiences, perceptions, thoughts and reactions as mirrors to reflect internally on my own growth process. In reflecting, I saw the chameleon in the mirror that I thought had disappeared. The chameleon is still very much present. Not in a sense that I am a fake and pretentious. But in a way that I continue to hide or protect my thoughts and feelings instead of being open and honest about them. Especially at work. At work, I still feel the need to conform and “fit in.” To act like an attorney. Whatever that means. I have no idea, really.
I realize the danger in perpetuating an existence of hiding who we really are. It opens us up to being misunderstood, because we can be perceived as not trustworthy. Because people can sense this. And if you are paying attention, you can see it in their eyes when they know you are not being authentic. If you are lucky, they may call you out on it.
Since Week 13 when I took on “Being Vulnerable” as a change, I have become more open about sharing with selected people who I am. This has been a good first step toward being real. But have I been consistently authentic? I don’t think so. Because I am selective about who gets to see the more “real” me and hiding that person from people I don’t feel I can trust with “ME.” I have been afraid too many times of not fitting in and being accepted that I have spent a lot of time trying to be invisible.
I think a lot of people are this way at work. We have a work personality, a social personality, and a family personality. People that can be the same person no matter the environment are not only authentic, but likely much more content with their lives. I think there comes a certain peace with not having to adapt all the time to the environment. To not have to play a game of Darwinian Evolution in order to survive and be happy.
I have had a taste of this on a few occasions and that is why I am taking on this change this week. I would like to strive to see the same person in the mirror, no matter what environment I find myself in. I think there is a fine line between variations of authenticity. I admire people who just don’t give a crap what people think of them and say what is on their mind no matter what. I think this comes with age. But at the same time, I think there is something to be said about being authentic with an air of compassion and empathy toward others. I say this as a sensitive person that can easily get my feelings hurt by those that have no filter. I know better than to let these people bother me, but it doesn’t make it not affect me.
I think many of us know when we are not being true to ourselves, for whatever reason. We may have learned to bite our tongues because we didn’t develop communication skills to articulate disagreement in a peaceful manner. We may have received rejection too many times for taking off the mask and being vulnerable. Or, we may not have any awareness or thought about why we are the way we are because we choose not to examine ourselves. Not everyone sees life as a path of growth and learning. In fact, many don’t.
But I do. And if you are reading this – still – then I think you do, too.
How do we regain an innate characteristic to Be Authentic?
As I said in the beginning, authenticity isn’t something we should have to learn because it is an innate characteristic that we are born with. We come into this world with no awareness to be anything other than what we are. But at some point, we forget who we are.
Is it like riding a bike? How do we combine separate compartmentalized selves into one authentic being? Can I be the person that I am at home with my family all the time? Is this even “appropriate”? How do we remove the chameleon skin to reveal the true depth of layers that lie underneath?
It may start with some of the other ideas I have explored, like letting go of expectations, fear of rejection, acceptance and being vulnerable. It will likely take conscious awareness of when the chameleon skin tries to velcro back on to me. For this week, I will watch myself interacting. I will see when and where I feel the need to hide. And ask myself why.
What about you?
Where do you fall in along the spectrum of authenticity? Share your own experiences, successes and struggles. What do you do to walk in your own skin?