Q: I hate it when people tell me to “just be yourself” when I’m uncomfortable. I’m just not sure what that means because I feel like I’m someone different in different parts of my life. How do I figure out who my authentic self is? — Mari, 31, project manager
A: This is a deep question that is worth the effort it’ll take you to think through.
First it’ll help to get your nerves out of the way. There are surely times when you feel more at ease than at others. Use this as your baseline.
What are you doing at these times? Think about who you’re with (or if you’re by yourself), the activity you’re doing, and where you are.
Notice your emotions in these moments. How would you describe the positive feelings you have?
Finally, how does feeling at ease show up in your body?
Conversely, what are your emotional and physical manifestations of tension or anxiety? Emotionally, you may be feeling any of a host of emotions. Physically, you may clench your jaw or limit your breathing.
By mirroring your good feelings and paying attention to your emotional and physical responses to stress, you can help open the door to just being yourself.
It’s easy — just do a quick body scan to see if you’re holding in anywhere that is making you less comfortable and then release the tension. No one will even know, but it’s a good way to keep your “real self” present. A couple of deep breaths will also help a lot.
Now, on to the authenticity piece. I wonder what it means when you say you’re someone different in different parts of your life. I doubt that you mean that you value different things; it’s likely more tied to how you behave.
Consider the following scenarios.
Imagine you’re going to meet with a new team. If you’re feeling grounded, you’re friendly but taking charge of the agenda as befits your role. But when you’re uncertain, you become tentative and this creates a leadership void.
Or flip it around. When you’re tense, you become aggressive and put people off, while when you’re at ease you create a collaborative environment.
So, who are you? Write out responses to the following prompts:
• The values that are most important to me are …
• The behaviors I like to exhibit are …
• I have regrets when I …
• I would like my legacy to be …
If you want to break away from words, try making a poster that shows who you are.
Or find music that expresses you. The approach doesn’t matter — clarity of your authentic inner core is the goal.
Then combine it all. Take your inner vision, your insights into your emotional and physical selves, and your actions in various settings and put it all together.
Don’t expect a “one and done” here. This will take time. Go easy on yourself and enjoy the process!