‘Just be yourself’ is a phrase I have heard countless times in my life as I’m sure many of us have. I can think of a few examples where I have been preparing to do something, a job interview, meeting the future in-laws for the first time, first day on a new job, and friends, or family have said to me, remember, just be yourself. Even growing up I remember my grandparents, and a favourite teacher telling me that one of the most important things to do is to ‘be yourself’.
I have always thought that I have done a pretty good job of being myself. The saying “what you see is what you get” springs to mind, but the reality is what you see is most certainly not what you get.
Something that very few people know about me for instance is that I am receiving palliative care for cancer. Outwardly, to look at me, you probably wouldn’t instantly know that I was sick, because I’m pretty good at pretending I’m not. I don’t really like sharing it widely as it can be an uncomfortable thing to talk about, not only for me but for others too. People don’t really know how to react or respond, and I don’t blame them for that, it’s a difficult thing to process let alone talk about.
I am lucky enough to still be working, which I am grateful for as I really enjoy what I do. But at times I have found it challenging to know how to navigate work whilst going through my treatment. My confidence took a huge hit and at times it could feel a bit overwhelming, trying to juggle the treatment, manage the side effects and still perform in the way I wanted to keep up with my colleagues and the expectations of my various projects and responsibilities. There have even been times where I have wondered whether I should stop working, because maybe I’m not good enough to keep going now.
Alongside my own work, I have been working as an intern at Zest Psychology where I have been lucky enough to learn about authentic confidence from Dr Anna Kane. One of the components of authentic confidence is authenticity, which consists of knowing yourself, having your values aligned and being yourself. It seems very timely that I should get the opportunity to learn about this when I’m finding myself experiencing a loss of confidence in my own working life.
One thing that has struck me as I reflect on the last year and half of being sick is how often I held back on being myself to lessen the discomfort of others. I wouldn’t let on when I was tired, I tried not to show when I was in pain, I wouldn’t tell people that my brain wasn’t working the way I would like and how infuriating that was for me, instead I would muddle through and do the best I could to appear ‘normal’ and ‘ok’. I think there were several reasons for this. I didn’t want people to think I wasn’t capable of doing my job. I was worried about putting additional pressure on my co-workers, I didn’t want to feel like I couldn’t do the things I have always been able to do and most of all I didn’t want to show how much I was struggling at times. It was often much easier to show people the positive, strong, and resilient cancer patient they wanted or hoped to see. Throughout my illness I have of course tried to be all those things, but I am not all those things all the time, because this illness is hard. That is the reality.
A while ago, a good friend of mine asked me how I was doing, and I responded with my go to reply of yeah, I’m good thanks. Her response however was not what I was expecting. Instead of the usual, “that’s great, you are doing so well (or similar) she said, “I don’t buy that, how are you really?”. It was incredible how adding one small word to the end of a question changed the conversation that followed. What my friend did that day was invite me to be ‘unapologetically me’, to share the warts and all reality, the good, the bad, the ugly and the plain uncomfortable. She listened non-judgementally, with compassion and kindness and a genuine desire for me to have a moment to just be me, no pretence. What I learnt that day was how it felt to have the confidence to be my true self without fear of judgement.
Since then, I have taken a slightly different approach to managing my illness, particularly in relation to my work. I realised that my bosses and colleagues couldn’t support me at work if I was hiding who I was. It was a daunting prospect thinking about sharing some of the most vulnerable parts of myself with those I worked with, but it has made things a lot easier and reduced a lot of the pressure I was feeling trying to be something I wasn’t.
I am lucky to work with some incredibly supportive people who understand my needs and accept which ever version of me comes to work each day. By being ‘unapologetically me’, there is new level of transparency between me and my colleagues that enables us to get the most out of the work we do together, which we didn’t have before when I wasn’t being myself. Having this level of acceptance and understanding has also allowed me to begin to rebuild my lost confidence.
I’m still learning how to be more unapologetically me, but the more I am, the better I feel. It is helping me come to terms with a very challenging time in my life, and I am grateful to have the opportunity to really work on discovering who I am and put what I learn about myself into practice. It’s refreshing and exciting and I feel I am adding so much value to all aspects of my life through learning to be unapologetically me. For me, it doesn’t just have to be about sharing the hard stuff, or having the difficult conversations, or letting people see when you are having a bad day. It’s about learning to accept and celebrate the things that make you who are, the good and the bad and being brave enough to show your vulnerabilities and proud enough to shout about your strengths and accomplishments.
I share these experiences as I have found myself drawing on them in other areas of my life, and I think there is some real value in learning how to be unapologetically yourself. The difference in my own confidence at work, and in my personal life is astonishing and I truly believe this is because I am learning to be more accepting of myself. I am learning to be unapologetically me.
Rachel Smith is the blog author. She is an intern at Zest Psychology.