“Self-knowledge is no guarantee of happiness but it is on the side of happiness and can supply the courage to fight for it.” – Simone de Beauvoir
One of the hardest things any of us will ever do is admit that we might be partly or even completely responsible for whatever is going on that frustrates the hell out of us.
My favorite coaching question of all-time is this: what would happen if you took complete responsibility – 100% of it – for what’s going on right now? Not once when I’ve asked this question has my client been willing to answer right away. Most often they try to avoid answering at all by changing the subject. Sometimes they just scoff at me insinuating, and sometimes flat-out saying, that I’m being ridiculous. I understand. I don’t want to answer it either.
For as long as I can remember I’ve struggled to authentically connect with people I’m meeting for the first time, especially in new group settings. I am not shy. It’s not that kind of discomfort. I do this thing where I protect myself from being known in an authentic way by putting up a facade of competence, especially if I perceive that I don’t quite measure up with the others in the room. It’s an old pattern of showing up with an air of sufficiency or qualification that I must have thought would make me seem special in the eyes of others. Of course, I would always find fault with “those people” for not “getting me” or connecting with me as I struggled to make sense of why I never felt like things clicked for me as easily as they did for others. I’ll give you two examples.
Years ago I attended training to become a facilitator for a collegiate leadership academy. My brother-in-law lived in the town where the event was held, and we had dinner together the night before. I had too much to drink and was hung over the next morning. It was not an “incapacitated” hung over, but a “tired, cobwebby, please speak just a bit more quietly” hung over. At the beginning of the training we, of course, did introductions but the leader used an unconventional method for doing so. She presented us with a big box of hats and asked us to select and wear one that represented something about us. Our introductions would be facilitated by sharing those stories.
I chose a jester’s cap and proceeded to explain that as the youngest of six kids I developed an active and engaging sense of humor from a very early age. Now, please imagine this being explained to you by a guy who is nursing both a cup of coffee and a headache while sporting a jaunty “cap and bells.” In no way did my demeanor match my story. Words and pictures were glaringly misaligned.
It wasn’t altogether surprising, then, that during my feedback session at the end of the training the leader said that the person she had gotten to know barely matched the one she met on that first morning. We had, in fact, developed a great connection during the event and she expressed confusion at experiencing two distinctly different versions of the same guy. I was embarrassed by the feedback. I didn’t like being called out since I was sure I had done such a good job of faking it.
I wonder what would have happened if I had been straight with the group and simply said, “On most days this hat would be a great way to describe me but since I’m hung over right now you’re just going to have to take my word for it. Thanks for your patience as I ease into the day.” I’m pretty sure they would have given me a wide berth of understanding born of personal experience. I couldn’t speak the truth for fear of being judged, of being seen as unworthy.
A few summers ago I attended a professional conference at a nearby university about the dynamics of human relationships. Instead of just talking about it theoretically for three days the conference design was both practical and experiential. We were sorted into small groups and directed to simply observe what happened as we engaged with one another in these sessions. During our second meeting, one of the group members began to describe his past experience as the victim of bullying and how that had shaped his interactions with new people, especially men, in his adult life. The vulnerability of his expression was genuine and he proceeded to go around the group, person by person, describing how he felt in relationship with each of us. He was proceeding in these descriptions when he abruptly turned to me and said: “And you! I don’t even feel like I can talk to you. You are obviously a CEO or a Ph.D. or something and I don’t even know what I would say to somebody like that.”
I was stunned. And flattered. At the moment, I flushed with pride that someone would see me that way. That I had real gravitas. So much so that someone felt like they couldn’t even talk to me. At the time, I could only see it as an accomplishment.
That evening, on the drive home, reality set in. I had so successfully constructed the façade of uber-competence that I became precisely the person I do not want to be, a dis-invitation to connection and relationship. That I initially saw it as an accomplishment flooded me with shame.
What he didn’t know was that I was blindly playing the part I knew how to play. In that university environment, all of my insecurity had surged forward. He didn’t know that I was about to take on an adjunct faculty position there and that I wasn’t sure I was up for it. He didn’t know how inadequate I felt for my lack of a Ph.D. and that I could only reconcile that by acting like I had one. In his impressive vulnerability, he gave me exactly the recognition I wanted and, by doing so, shattered my facade.
I didn’t like it when I discovered this pattern. I’m sure I denied it for a long time because I knew there were going to be some significant implications if I decided to address it. It would mean I would have to stop seeing others as the problem. It would mean I would have to let go of being charming and smart and having it all together and begin to trust that I could just show up as me and that would be ok. And it would be awhile before I would be anywhere near ready for that.
But it did happen. The veneer finally cracked, the facade was broken. And that’s as much about the sincere commitment of many thoughtful people to help me get honest with myself as it was about my decision to finally confront what I had constructed. I still have to work hard to stay out of the old pattern. I can rebuild that facade in no time. Some days the best I can do is close the gap just a little bit between the fiction I think I need to be and the person I most want to be. Before every new event or engagement, I give myself a healthy pep-talk, a reminder that people are more interested in what I am than in what I am not.
The simple truth is this: if you want it to change – if you want to do better – you’re going to have to try.
DAVID BERRY is the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world, especially the parts where he doesn’t handle it very well. If you enjoyed this post someone else might, too. Please pass it along.