Human beings are complex and messy; we frequently get in our own way, preventing us from showing up as our best, authentic selves. We don’t start each day wanting to look stupid, disconnected, or ineffective. Most of us want to look smart, capable, and helpful. However, we also don’t like to be vulnerable where we’re exposed to risk, uncertainty, and emotional exposure. Researcher and bestselling author, Brené Brown, describes this as “armoring up”; much like medieval soldiers would put on armor to protect themselves during a battle, we put on invisible armor to protect ourselves and avoid looking bad.
We tell ourselves stories that might help keep us “safe” but that also keep us small and lead to disconnection, silos, and keeps us (and organizations) from thriving. Consequently, we aren’t showing up as our authentic selves. Brené Brown defines authenticity as “the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.”
As human beings, we are hardwired for connection with others – which is impossible to do when we’re showing up armored and in self-protective mode. We have to have the courage to embrace our humanity, be imperfect, and allow ourselves to be vulnerable—to be fully seen. However, easier said than done.
“Perfectionism is a belief system that if we are perfect we can somehow avoid or minimize painful feelings of shame, judgment and blame. It’s a myth and an unattainable goal.” – Brené Brown (The Gifts of Imperfection)
The Stories We Tell Ourselves
We all have stories we hold—about ourselves, others, and how things work. The question is whether these stories serve us well. Much of the time, these stories are self-limiting and stem from our ego (the part of our brain that wants to please, perform, perfect and self-protect). At the root of most of these self-limiting stories is usually something about not being enough: not smart enough, lovable enough, thin enough, pretty enough, strong enough, or good enough. And when not enough is in the driver’s seat, we show up guarded, in self-protection mode, and are limited in being able to navigate through the challenges our increasingly disruptive world brings.
I have learned that it doesn’t matter if someone is a world-renowned surgeon, entry level worker, stay-at-home parent, celebrity or any role in between; it’s part of the HUMAN condition to be triggered to self-protect and have our ego take over. So trying to fight it or pretend we’re immune to it doesn’t make any sense. What we need is to get to know ourselves on a more intimate level so we know the signs and signals we are triggered and what triggers us to self-protect. Then we need to be curious and move to a space of self-reflection. Otherwise, we’ll be in a never-ending, vicious cycle that will keep us from thriving and having the impact we want to have in the world. And if we want to have a positive impact in the world, we must decide to show up as a leader. In our new book, Rehumanizing the Workplace, we define leadership as:
“Leadership is maximizing our positive impact on the world by becoming our best, fully authentic selves and supporting those around us to break past barriers and step into their greatness.”
Leadership is ultimately a behavior; and EVERYONE has the opportunity to show up as a leader their lives. However, it’s hard to do when we’re operating from a place of scarcity and self-protection. If we are going to show up as leaders in our lives, we have to start by owning our own stories. We have to give ourselves and others grace and acknowledge when our humanity gets the best of us. And then we must be intentional about rewriting our stories that keep us safe and small.
Rewriting Our Stories and Embracing Our Gifts
Life has a way of presenting us with unexpected gifts. I received such a gift recently that served as a great reminder of the value of taking off our armor and that our views of flaws and imperfections may not be the same as others’ views. You see, between finishing our new book, consulting and coaching work, and speaking engagements, I have been on overload and haven’t been practicing what I preach for quite a while. And when I’m in overload, my armor unintentionally goes on. I armor up with data, research and productivity; I get into full-blown, pain-in-the-ass, perfectionist get shit done mode. I’m productive, but it has costs. I stop telling my own story, get task-focused (which disconnects me from people), and my wellbeing takes a hit.
I know this about myself. So a few weeks ago I made the intentional choice to recommit to me. Consequently, I’ve become painfully aware of how overloaded I am and what my realistic bandwidth really is. I’m saying no more and am pushing out meetings; I’m finding myself unable to get to projects and needing to re-prioritize work; I’m regularly apologizing for being behind on emails; I’ve been scattered and have been constantly playing catch-up. I know things will settle and self-correct eventually, but, not gonna lie, it’s rough at the moment.
I presented two keynotes this past week for a great event. I went into them knowing how overloaded I have been. So I made the decision to just be real and be me. Since I would be standing most of the morning and then running through airports, I decided to be comfortable and wore jeans and boots presenting for the first time. I was extremely open and shared my own self-limiting stories and the tools I use with myself and others to help step into our greatness. Here’s how it went down…
My Internal Narrative (during keynote #1): “Shit; I should’ve spent more time finessing this. This is going okay but not my best performance”
- Audience: “That was AMAZING – thanks so much!”
- My Internal Narrative (during keynote #2): “Crap; this is disjointed and probably is confusing and not helpful. UGH!“
- Audience: “This was so inspiring and helpful!” …then several notes and LinkedIn posts followed with gracious praise and thanks – with some saying they already are creating plans to put the exercises into practice.
It was a very real reminder that our self-doubting inner-narrative is a HUMAN experience. And when we’re on overload, it rears its ugly head even more. I chose to trust myself and just be me. In doing so, I was reminded that people care more about the humanness and realness than polish. It helps us authentically connect with others.
It was also a reminder that many times our idea of messing up is not the same as others. In this Thanksgiving season, it’s time to practice more SELF-GRATITUDE. Yes, we can be better versions of ourselves. And we are ENOUGH just as we are.
There’s a lot of great research on the power of having a gratitude practice. But what about a self-gratitude practice? Over the past decade or so, I’ve realized how much perfectionism and armor take over people’s lives. We can be ridiculously hard on ourselves and set unrealistic expectations – for ourselves and others. Add a bunch of us together in an organization, and you see all kinds of issues arise.
One of the exercises I have people do is a Self-Gratitude Reflection. I invite them to spend a few weeks ending their day with two reflection questions:
- What went well for me today; and what qualities about myself am I grateful for?
- What did I learn about myself today?
The first question is to help people start to be more self-accepting and to acknowledge their gifts. The irony is that many people struggle with this. The second question is written very intentionally to help people embrace struggle, disappointment, and failure as a valuable gift of learning. If people like to journal, I invite them to actually create a Self-Gratitude Journal. Otherwise, I invite them to just mentally reflect.
After a few weeks, I consistently hear people say they are starting to be a little kinder and gentler to themselves. I also invite them to use these questions in team meetings to reflect on what’s going well collectively as a team and what people are learning. It helps create a psychologically safe space for people to learn and grow. Many people have said they now use these questions at home with their families as well.
When we take off our masks and armor and stop telling ourselves stories that keep us safe and small, we not only can step into our greatness, but we give others inspiration and permission to do the same. In doing so, we show up as leaders in our lives.
We could all stand to be a little kinder and gentler to ourselves and others. I invite you to use the self-gratitude questions for yourself, with your teams and with your loved ones and see what opens up – and I’d love to hear about it!
Never dull your sparkle!