We all wear masks in an attempt to keep up with social norms and conformity. Whether we are functioning in our roles as career professionals, parent, child, partner, friend or volunteer, these masks can be pervasive, worn to hide our true self. This wearing of multiple hats in life can be a heavy burden to bear. Imagine a life where this unnecessary weight of masks and hats is lifted away. We can be so deeply entrenched in the many layers of role-playing that the only sign many of us have that we are not living as our true selves is a persistent niggling feeling of unease at the pit of our stomachs as we go through life’s journey.
So, does life have to be like this, or is there an alternative? If so, how do we find our true version of who we are, never mind living it? The surest way of knowing your true self is to pay attention to the experience that tugs the most at your core. It is the thought that invades your quiet moments. The wish that keeps you up at night. The dream that never really goes away. It could be an accountant’s enduring dream to be a dancer, the janitor who seeks expression for his poetry, the CEO who has held many a rock concert – in the mirror in the bathroom, or the female who feels trapped within a male body and a male existence.
I had the pleasure of meeting Charley Woodward, a remarkably interesting high-flying Director working within VMware, a company that has quickly risen to become one of the world’s largest & most successful software companies. The tech industry is unique in its contradictions. While many of the innovations we enjoy today come from the tech space, it can be also a conservative and accused of being chauvinistic in certain ways and largely dominated by men.
I attended her session titled “Dare to be Your Disruptive Self” at the recently concluded VMworld 2019 Europe conference, and as I listened to her story about how she had made decisions and underwent her own transition “…from male to her now true, female, authentic self.”
I couldn’t help but be struck by her honesty and clarity of vision for who/what she is. This clarity transformed her decisions and next steps on a journey from bravery to normalcy – “This is me!” – and coming out unscathed on the other side. These lessons for becoming one’s true disruptive self can be summarised in four steps:
1. ACKNOWLEDGE: The first step to self-awareness is acknowledging that there is a true version of oneself wanting to come to the fore. It is important to come to terms with this version of yourself, to recognize and respect it. It is impossible to proceed when you are still living in denial. It is important to respect that there is an unmet need and make a conscious effort to embrace and pursue its realization.
2. RESEARCH: The next step is to find out what needs to be done to achieve wholeness. Sometimes, we are afraid that learning the way forward could potentially open the door to even more discontent and dissatisfaction. The bliss of ignorance might seem more acceptable than the pain of knowledge, so we stay in the relative discomfort of “What I don’t know can’t hurt me.”
However, it is possible that fact-finding could make the impossible seem so much more achievable. So, do your research and find out what the pragmatic steps would be in achieving your objective. Read, ask questions, explore, review and find inspiration in other people’s story.
Charley confessed she’d had periods of her life where she too lived in fear of broaching the topic of transition at work because – let’s face it; certain things, once said, cannot be unsaid. She feared the repercussions of this change of circumstance, but armed with research and determination that this was right for her, she took the plunge to have the conversation at work with her manager.
What she discovered was that far from being an alien or uncomfortable discussion, her workplace actually already had pre-existing policy documents in place to navigate her exact circumstances, suggesting that this had already been considered or that there had already been at least one prior incident requiring such a policy.
There have been many people who have walked and continue to walk in your shoes, but you will never find them unless you step out of your comfort zone and put in some effort. Often, those things that we think are insurmountable are conquerable; those things we consider the journey of a thousand miles just require that we take the first step.
Charley told the story of a nurse who had worked in a hospice for fifteen years. The nurse explained that at the end of life, the greatest sentiment seemed to be that of regret, with many stating, “I wish I had lived my life true to myself and not in a way I thought other people wanted me to live it.” How truly sad to never have tried and have such regrets!
Of course, it may turn out that the sacrifice might be a step too far or a chasm too wide to cross, but you will not know unless you find out the steps involved. Knowing the potential price that may be required for realizing those dreams makes that decision just wishful thinking or Kum Bah Yah. The price might ripple to estrangement from friends and family, a financial cost, an entire lifestyle change or worse, all of the above!
Taking the first step, however, is often the biggest step of all. For Charley, she approached her transition by giving people time to digest the information. You cannot expect instant acceptance or, for that matter, instant understanding. As she said, “I don’t 100% understand transgenderism myself so how can I possibly expect my loved ones to understand it?” For Charley, she found family, friends and work colleagues warmed at different rates, some faster than others, some on different components of her transition more than others. But what she learned is that loved ones want for you what you want for them: to be happy!
3. BE INSPIRED: Researching to know what it would take to fulfill a dream is one thing, the courage to follow through is something else altogether. Investing in your true, disruptive self will require inspiration and bravery and you will need to find both. This might be people you meet face-to-face or simply inspiring stories of other people’s journeys.
You may be the first you know of on your particular journey but there have been others with similar struggles you can extrapolate from. When the suffragettes were fighting for female voting rights, they looked to prior movements like the abolitionist movement for inspiration. Martin Luther King famously fashioned his civil rights movement on the methods Mahatma Gandhi pioneered during India’s independence struggle. Finding inspiration can be a powerful motivator. Being able to remind yourself that tough as your journey might be, others have walked similarly challenging paths and overcome daunting challenges that can be helpful.
4. ACT: After all of the analysis and inspiration, all that’s left is to step out and act on the decision. Every transition is a journey, a process, and only you can choose what the successful completion of the journey looks like. An end goal might be to join an amateur arts club on the weekends, or it might be to become a full-time writer, in pursuit of that dream for creative expression. Success might be coming out only to close friends and family while keeping that side far from your work life, or it might be a more encompassing transformation.
It will not always be easy – anything worth doing seldom is – but all the steps previously covered will help you through the tough times. The reliance on the fact that there are others that have gone through this and that there is an expected end should offer some comfort. The fact is that this should not be an impetuous dive off a cliff but a well-considered transition from a place of buried dreams and masks to one of unbridled self-expression.
Charley finished with a quote “When you are damaged on the inside it is hard to shine on the outside.” You might not be damaged bit, like her, you might be carrying a level of complexity. With the right steps, you could have your complexity removed, hats lifted, mask gone.
Many people have walked this path before and surfaced the better for it on the other side. With the right approach and attitude, you could be your true, authentic self too.