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Can You Be Your True Self at Work?

Experts weigh in!

12.19.16
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It’s a complicated time to work. So many of the things we want are at odds with each other: a career that overlaps with our most authentic self; a work environment that feels like home; a seamless connection to everyone and everything; and then, of course, a physiological and mental need to not burn out. As the line between work and life continues to blur, the infamous balance between the two (how to achieve it! how to keep it! blah blah blah) becomes almost obsolete. There are consequences when that breaks down, right? Just as there are consequences to a divide that’s too great.

We still have agency when it comes to deciding. We have the power to draw the line thick or thin or erase it entirely. A critical part of that process is choosing whether or not we want to be our “real selves” in the workplace. I have my own opinions but I wanted to ask others, too. I spoke with Jacqueline Cohen, Executive Coach and Therapist at Form For Life, and Aimee Hartstein LCSW, a seasoned psychotherapist who’s been practicing in New York for over 20 years.

Both had complimentary takes on the topic. From their answers, I deduced four main guidelines when it comes to answering the question of how real is too real.

Step 1. Be authentic.

Hartstein understands why we even have to ask. “For those of us who grew up before internet and email, it’s a bit easier to still comprehend that there is a boundary,” she said. “But for younger people — who are used to being connected 24/7 — it’s very difficult to know where to draw the line or that their should even be one.”

Blurred lines aside, she advises you learn to switch modes, but find a way to make them both feel like you. “We spend so much time at work that if you find yourself becoming an ‘imposter’ it’s going to be unsustainable and unsatisfying,” she says.

Cohen agrees.”It’s important to be genuine and authentic in any situation,” she told me. “When we are spending anywhere between eight to 10 hours a day at work or in a professional setting it can feel very depleting if we charade around as someone we think we should be.”

Step 2. But know where to draw the line.

Authenticity has its limits. “In the workplace, you have to be more aware of the impression you’re making than you would outside of it,” Hartstein said. “To do that you have to understand the culture you’re working in. The best way to gauge this is to look around and see how the higher ups behave.” Their approach will be a cue for what is and isn’t considered appropriate. It’s different everywhere.

Cohen says it’s particularly important to reign in your instincts during a work crisis. “If your ‘true self’ in a particularly stressful moment is moody and critical, then taking a walk around the block before entering into a team meeting maybe more productive,” she advised. “Even our ‘true self’ has the ability to filter a response or a reaction that may cause more harm than good.”

Step 3. Keep in mind the impression you’re making.

Reigning in emotional responses may feel like putting up a front, but there’s a reason it’s useful. “Be aware that employees are constantly being judged and vetted,” said Hartstein. “Employers are looking around to see who they feel is professional and competent enough to move up the ladder.”

Don’t feel stifled! Cohen says that connection doesn’t hinge on oversharing. “Many feel that sharing information about family, lovers and panic attacks should probably be reserved for their therapist and best friend. There are other ways to connect and create community at work.” Like grabbing lunch, sharing hobbies or making small talk.

Step 4. But do what’s comfortable.

Even if a culture is more casual, you might find that keeping a personal distance from your colleagues helps you stay focused. That’s okay.

“Some people have the emotional and social bandwidth to navigate friendships and personal relationships with their colleagues, others don’t,” explained Cohen. “If you have a full life outside of work and don’t feel the need to befriend everyone at your company, politely decline the invites. Your ‘true self’ will thank you.”

So: Can you be your “true self” at work? The answer seems to be a measured yes, but it’s up to you to read your work environment and figure out how to be authentic without undercutting your reputation or your own happiness.

This shit is complex. Here are four common workplace mistakes and how to avoid them.

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  • Rachel Zuckerman

    This exact topic has been on my mind for days!

  • crystalh

    I wish this tackled the big issues like if it’s okay to acknowledge religion, politics, or express ones gender in the workplace. What are the healthy boundaries for office small talk? Healthy boundaries for intersex relations?

    • Marion A.

      These are great questions I think It’s really subjective to who you are talking to and where you are.

  • Grace B

    I’ve batted this around a lot. Being my true self has really meant this: quitting jobs on emotional whims, spending long hours complaining about jobs, analyzing my work life, and struggling to have a professional demeanor and facade in stressful moments or work crises. Last week I started a new job with a week of training. One of my fellow trainees is 7 years younger than me (a “true” milennial?) and woah, did I ever feel mature around her at first. She took selfies constantly, hugged people higher ranked than her, shared many, many personal details and just overall skirted the dress code. I was shocked, infuriated, and embarassed. Uh, how many times had I discussed astrology with a co-worker or boss? MANY. Oops. And now that we’re working together all I witness is her hard work and composure, so I do my best not to dismiss her on first impression.

    All of this to say, I tried being authentic at work. I stopped valuing work/life barriers, felt it was better to complain that problem solve, and quit jobs frantically when I thought they weren’t helping me get where I wanted to go. I can’t recommend “Great on the Job” by Jodi Glickman highly enough. Now that I am more SINCERE at work, less personal, and more positive, I am really thriving! In my work.

    Just my experience.

  • Marion A.

    I absolutely believe that it’s important to first know thy self and understand your environment. After experiencing many jobs and environments I understand that it is important to observe others first because people will always show you who they are. The woman gossiping about all of your co-workers shortcomings when you first get there will probably be telling the next new person all about you too. Understanding that not everyone wants you to do well is also sometimes an ugly reality.

    I honestly don’t like the constrains I feel at work when I can’t be 100% authentic and have to taste every word before I say it, but after co-workers/bosses trying to sabotage me when I told them about trying to complete a degree, or had my words being taken out of context and almost having a hostile coup of 40-year-olds because “he said she said I threw you under the bus” I’ve learned. I also would recommend being aware of things you are comfortable sharing and things you don’t want to disclose. If you know this information you’ll be less likely to have an overshare moment at work. If you choose not to engage socially at work chances are people will assume something untrue about you if you don’t care about this more power to you.

    I basically follow these guidelines: It’s ok to not be friends with everyone at work. If I don’t trust you I’m not trying to kick it with you outside of work.

    It is to your benefit to be friendly and polite people will be easier to work with if they like you enough not to constantly be plotting your demise.

    If you are wondering where to start ask questions about others it builds your own empathy for others, you can learn a ton and people like it.

  • vicki

    I don’t completely agree with this. I have made very close friendships with co-workers where we discuss life/love/health during and outside of work hours. Yes, I wouldn’t have those conversations with my boss but with co-workers who are similar age/careers, I find those conversations and friendships form quite naturally.

  • I’ve been at my new job for nearly two months now and I am sooo myself at work. Why isn’t it OK to talk about family, partners, and our mental illnesses? Maybe because I work for such a small company, the owner of it all works in the same office as the rest of us, no walls, and we all just talk about everything 🙂 maybe it really is ‘cos its such a small business. It might not be everyone’s cuppa tea but it’s perfect for me 🙂 I like being friends with the people I work with!

    Amber Love Blog

  • Claire

    is that the midi length asos dress eliz? looks so good on you, at least the cheek to belly button zone : ) it’s been in my cart for a while, and really think i should go to check out with that… how do you like it? can you post a photo here or to your insta? thanks! lovely as always eliz. greetings from berlin.

  • Basil

    I’m now a decade into my career and I’ve found it best (for me at least) to have a separation between my work life and my personal (or real) life. In my first professional job, I didn’t maintain that barrier to the same extent, and when things went very wrong it was very difficult, and I had to just walk away. At my next job I maintained a distance from the beginning with things like – don’t be FB friends with current colleagues, don’t share personal stuff that’s going on (unless I needed to) and try to avoid at all costs getting embroiled in office controversies / grudge matches. It was much healthier for me, and even with all these rules in place (which could lead to being antisocial at work), I’ve developed some deep and lasting friendships with co workers. I found it helped me separate the stress from work from my personal life (though this is something I’m still working on) and feel more professional at work. I’m still myself at work, I just hold back.

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