We all know at least one of these people. They are the ones who say exactly what they’re thinking. They don’t hide their emotions, seem to share every opinion, and are unapologetically who they are every moment of every day. As you think about a person like this in your life, you may find yourself of two minds about them. First, you think of the damage they sometimes do – the feelings they hurt (intentionally or not), the opportunities they may squash through lack of tact, the relationships they may lose over words and actions that are, let’s say, “direct” in nature.
Your second mind, though, probably leans a little differently. There’s something undeniably appealing about a person who holds nothing back. You know what you’re getting with them, and you know it’s the truth, whether you like the flavor it comes in on a particular day or not. You may not think the way they approach certain situations would be how you would choose to handle them, but you can’t help but…well…respect them for it.
Why is that? Given all the fallout your first mind noticed from their behavior, why would you also kind of admire them for it?
It’s not a rhetorical question, and it’s not a trick one, either. What’s appealing about people who speak their mind is that they’re authentic. They’re not pretending to like, believe or support things that they don’t. On the other hand, when they are in favor of something, you sure do know it, and they will boldly support it through their words and actions all day long.
In a way, they’re trustworthy. You know they’re being honest with you, but the thing is, it has nothing to do with you. It’s about how they feel, what they think, and what their inner self is telling them to do. They’re being honest with themselves, and as a result, also with others. They trust themselves, and if that trust sometimes leads them to make missteps, they keep going. They’re relentless, in a sense, which of course, is both aspirational and super scary.
We respond to authenticity because we crave it for ourselves. We have a deep and persistent need to not only be our true selves, but to have those selves be valued by those with whom we interact, and the communities we live in. So what’s the problem, then? Why not just be yourself and be happy, if that’s all it takes?
Two reasons: 1) we aren’t always connected to/aware of our authentic selves, and 2) even if we are, we don’t always value those selves enough to believe that others will, or even more, should value them, too.
Why? Because we tell ourselves stories. We make assumptions about what other people think. We decide that the only way to fit in, be successful, and be loved is to play up certain parts of ourselves, and play down others. We pay attention, we make intentional choices, and then, we hold our breath. We show part of the way up. We learn how to let go, but of things that are fundamental to us instead of things that don’t enhance our growth. We prioritize being liked, respected, valued and loved by others over feeling those things for ourselves.
Most of us do this, to some extent or another, at least some of the time. Occasionally, it’s in small choices that are rooted in empathy. We don’t say the thing that (we think) will hurt someone’s feelings because (we decide) it won’t be productive. Or, we do say it, but we slow down and select our words carefully, so the message might be received and heard (as we hope) instead of defensively rejected (as we assume it would be). These choices, and others like them, are made through compassion, diplomacy, and wisdom, which in turn, can make them authentic. However, they also make the other person’s choices for them. We don’t actually know how they will respond to us because we don’t give that scenario a chance to play out. While that may feel compassionate, it’s a little unfair as well, to them and to you.
But even if you go ahead and hold back, and choose words and actions in a particular moment that don’t perfectly reflect your inner voice, the choice to modify them can work, IF your authentic self tells you it resonates. That’s the rub, though. Your brain can tell you that you’re glad you spared a person, a group, or the world the brunt of your honesty, but how often are you doing this? Are you even aware that you’re doing it? And what does your intuition have to say about it?
If you’re saying to yourself, “Well, what’s the difference? How the heck am I am supposed to tell them apart? When’s the right moment to speak my truth without holding back?” I have an answer for you: mindfulness. If you want to give your “authentic self” and your intuition a chance to speak, find some quiet so you can listen. Focus. Stop holding your breath. Let go of what you think needs to be said or done, and let your (inner) voice be heard. Once you have a clear sense of what it’s saying to you, you can make an intentional choice about what it sounds like to the rest of the world.
Of course, nobody wants to be a jerk (P.G. word choice intentional) who runs around like a “bull in a china shop,” doing whatever they want regardless of the results. We want to be kind, respectful, and sensitive members of our families, teams, and communities. In fact, we have to be, especially in the MBA world. People don’t want to work with people they don’t like, right? Kindness matters, and it is important. It just can’t come at the expense of your whole self.
The truth is, if you find yourself constantly holding back, fully pretending to be something that you aren’t, never speaking your mind and always curating your interactions to be measured and “in line” with what you assume the others around you want from you, then you might not be in the right place for you. Restriction is the antithesis of growth. Your strengths, talents and gifts will not be maximized if you are holding yourself back. It’s not good for you, or them, even if it looks good on paper.
The answer is always in balance. If your honesty, truth and authenticity come from a heart that is full of empathy, compassion and goodwill, then it will not steer you wrong. When you mindfully check in and find it’s really about your ego, competitiveness or making someone else feel small, then you may want to check yourself before going any further.
Mindfulness will help you make the distinction. Just a few minutes, most days, and you will begin to see yourself a little more clearly. You will recognize what is for you and what isn’t. You will know that your intuition, your voice, your self is valuable, and when combined with an open heart, it is infinitely powerful.
Photo credit: Camila Cordero