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.