I’ve known many people, including myself, that have a lot of trouble just being themselves. You can get into a lot of unfortunate trouble if you don’t develop a fine-tuned filter. We all know there are certain things you can’t reveal or express about yourself at work, or in most social situations … even around family and loved ones!
And so I and others have asked … if you can’t let go and be yourself … how are you supposed to live, then?
The older I’ve grown, the more I can feel like I can see where the problem lies, and what the answer to this question is.
So I’m sure you know by now that nobody, absolutely nobody, is perfectly “normal.” We’ve all got weird things about us, thoughts that are strange, habits that are questionable or disgusting, “issues” we haven’t worked out that make us look and feel out of place. There’s no rhyme or reason to it – this is part of life. And this process is often messy and not always pleasing, to us or to others.
Human beings are marvelous, complex creatures, but like anything else, we’ve got our ugly underbelly – especially those of us that are most considered beautiful! The nice, easygoing, positive, laid-back person that you enjoy being around is no more beautiful, when taken as a whole, than the mean, selfish, negative jerk – they simply are better able to share those parts of them that are beautiful, and – this is the key – they are better able to deal with their dark side, to keep it in check, to not let it invade areas of life in which it doesn’t belong.
That is so much of life, isn’t it? It’s a monumental task, this constant maintenance-of-self. But it’s easier than it looks if you’re not doing it the wrong way.
Your awareness is more important than your image
So maybe you know what you would like people to know and appreciate about you – but do you know what people actually think about you, as you are? Do you know how you “come off” to others? If you are unaware of these things (or if you are in denial about them), other people will also see this lack of self-awareness, and they will be less likely to consider you approachable, safe, trustworthy, and reliable. Awareness is a big deal!
I, for one, am a tall male with a pretty naturally loud voice. But I really only understood what that meant just a few years ago, when I became more self-aware: it meant that very often, for what seemed like no reason to me, many other people would label me a threat, or “overwhelming.” I’m a guy, larger than average, with a loud voice, and very extroverted; this can be intimidating. The fact that I was obviously unaware of the impact I made on others with my behavior only provoked more insecurity in those around me. If he is this irresponsible about his behavior, the thinking would go, he must not be a very responsible person in other areas of his life.
Now that I know that other people see me this way and that I can affect spaces substantially without even realizing it, I have the awareness to make adjustments: for example, I can consciously lower my voice (even when I don’t feel like I’m shouting – because my voice is naturally loud) or even say to people, “my voice can get loud. Feel free to let me know if I’m talking too loudly.” Or I can choose to take a seat, so that the person that I’m talking to doesn’t feel towered over. Or I can consciously choose to listen rather than always say what’s on my mind, so that other people get a chance to speak and the conversation is more equitable (my rule of thumb: I always dominate conversation more than I think I am!). Once I’m aware of the effects I have on people when I’m “just being myself,” I am much better able to adjust as needed (for example, the loud voice works well when talking to a roomful of people).
Most people can tell if you have worked at being self-aware, and it quickly informs their opinions of you. After all, who would you rather interact with – somebody who is in their own world, or somebody that has a grasp of how they impact those around them? Self-awareness is the key factor in being an independent human being: being able to take care of yourself, and minister to your own needs.
From self-awareness to general awareness
Once you are more self-aware, the next step is about awareness of how you connect to the world around you. This is often a lot more complicated: you can always take a moment out and examine yourself, because you are always with yourself – but you cannot always do this with other people. Often, it’s impossible.
So you have to listen.
Listening is the quintessential skill, because it can be applied always and everywhere. It’s the key that unlocks all the doors. Or a more appropriate metaphor: listening is the keyhole that can receive all the keys that will unlock your doors. This is an important distinction because we cannot make anything come true through listening – we can only recognize all the things that are already true (so many of which we miss out on!)
The safest, most trustworthy people are the ones that listen best – because they are the most aware. At the deeper levels of listening, you become able to give and receive comfort and trust that cannot be communicated in words. And, most importantly of all – the best listeners have the best general awareness about when to apply a filter, protecting others from things that won’t do any good to bring up, and when they can be completely open.
Social limits on expression often function as a sort of test of how aware you are of yourself and of your role in a public space. The more awareness you show, the more people will generally be willing to trust that the things you say and do will be considerate of their feelings, perspectives, and desires – something that goes a long way to putting people at ease and earning their trust.
This goes for all of us, every single one of us. Because even though it can look like some people need to adjust more than others, the reality is that everybody is constantly dealing with this issue in their own way. Everybody’s struggles are different, and in a society that will be very often be quick to judge by superficial characteristics, it becomes a lifelong, ongoing project to be able to understand how best to put yourself forward. Racial and ethnic minorities and other outsiders in particular are even more prone to facing these questions. So don’t ever feel alone in this journey; though you may not always see it, you’ve got a lot of fellow travelers around you.
Related post: What is “listening?”