It stands around the corner from an authentic Thai restaurant in central London. On the face of it, it’s an elegant building. As you walk past, however, you realise with surprise that the frontage is a façade, an elaborate shield concealing a plain office building that lies behind it. It’s a striking metaphor, a symbol of sorts for an inauthentic life. It challenged me powerfully yet silently to consider the masks I wear, the images I project to disguise my real self.
Some years ago, John Powell published a popular, short self help book, ‘Why am I afraid to tell you who I am?’ He explored how we attempt to protect our fragile egos and avoid our fear rejection by acting out roles or playing games. These are defensive routines aimed at minimising social anxiety or negative evaluation. By putting on a front that we believe will impress others, we attempt to feel better about ourselves and to win others’ approval.
At one level, these strategies can prove successful in life and work. It’s one reason why we pay attention to our physical appearance, the way we behave and conduct ourselves in public, the way we present ourselves at job interviews etc. From our earliest childhood experiences, we learn what wins love and affirmation from others within our key relationships, social environments and culture. We learn how to play the game.
At another level, however, keeping up appearances can prove self-defeating. Over time we may feel alienated from ourselves, not sure how we really are, and alienated from others, not sure if we are really loved and accepted. We can feel lonely, frustrated and tired. It’s as if, paradoxically, the façades we create to develop and maintain relationships can have the opposite effect, preventing authentic and intimate contact with others.
This presents us with a dilemma, an anxiety-provoking risk. What if I remove the mask, tell you what I’m really thinking, show you how I’m really feeling? Would you love and accept me for who I am or would you look at me with disappointment in your eyes? Will making myself vulnerable release you to be vulnerable too? Can we find a new way of connecting that feels more real, more authentic, less defended, less like a façade?
It can feel like a breathtaking step. The possibility feels exciting and yet the potential feels daunting. I’m reminded of Jesus’ call in the gospels: ‘remove the mask and come into the light’. There is further New Testament teaching too: ‘perfect love casts out fear’. If God can love and accept me as I am, perhaps I can learn to love and accept myself and to love and accept others too. Perhaps that’s where it starts, feeling truly safe with God.
So therein lies the challenge. As a leader and a coach, am I willing to make myself vulnerable so that others can be vulnerable too? Can I demonstrate unconditional love with such honesty that others feel safe to remove their masks, to take down their façades? Can I find new ways to relate to others with an increasing sense of trust and authenticity, creating ever-deeper levels of contact? It’s certainly a goal worth praying and striving for.
A good friend in the police service once commented how he would arrive at work each day, put on his uniform and spend the rest of the day ‘impersonating a police officer’. He had a clear idea in mind of how a police officer would typically speak and behave and so consciously acted it out. It was like playing a role in a theatre with the uniform acting as both costume and psychological prop. A young girl working as a prostitute on the streets of Bangkok told me how she always used a pseudonym when working with clients. This name kept her real identity hidden and provided her with an alternative persona. By doing this, she was able psychologically to disassociate and protect her ‘true inner self’ from the separate persona that was engaging in sexual acts with strangers. A priest spoke of the pressures he felt to live a public life under constant moral scrutiny. By wearing a dog collar, he identified with a faith, a role and a calling that demanded high levels of personal integrity. Over the years, he struggled and found ways to live a more integrated and authentic life commenting that, ‘the real question is not how to be a priest but how to be oneself who is a priest.’
The first example here is of a person who found ways to fulfil a role by copying the behaviours of role models within that specific professional culture. The second is a person who learned to survive by deliberately separating herself psychologically from her persona-in-role. The third is a person who sought to find ways to live out a role by becoming more truly himself within that role. I’ve worked with numerous leaders who have experienced similar challenges. How to live and cope with one’s own expectations of leader and leadership as well as those imposed by the organisation or culture, not to mention the actual or imagined expectations of the board, peers and staff. It can feel stressful, daunting, isolating, debilitating and anxiety-provoking. It can result in burnout. Sometimes it’s a case of ‘impostor syndrome’ where a person believes he or she has been appointed to a role under some assumed false pretext or mistake. In such a situation, the person may put on a brave face and live in continual fear of being found out. ‘Sooner or later, they will discover that I’m not as good or capable as they think I am.’ It’s a form of exaggerated negative self-evaluation.
I’ve experienced similar pressures myself, especially 6-12 months into a new job. During the first 6 months, I tell myself it’s OK not to know everything because I’m new. There comes a point at which, however, I risk placing expectations on myself that I should now know more than I do. It’s a type of personal anxiety (fear of failure) combined with social anxiety (fear of being negatively evaluated). One coping strategy is to wear a metaphorical mask like a stage actor. The problem is that it’s the same phenomenon the word ‘hypocrite’ points towards: literally, one who pretends to be what he or she is not. It lacks reality and authenticity, takes considerable energy to sustain and can lead to stress and exhaustion. It prevents the person being and contributing their best, as they really are. There are spiritual parallels in Christian theology where people are both challenged and encouraged to ‘move into the light’ or to ‘live in the truth’ where everything is exposed for what it really is. It’s as if we need to find a space, a relationship, where we can see clearly and be totally honest, real and accepted in order to build out from that place. It’s about learning honesty, integrity and peace.
It’s like the equation: ‘trust = risk + support’. A person is more likely to open up, to be real (which can feel risky) if, when he or she takes such a step, they experience genuine acceptance and support. It reduces anxiety, helps the person think more clearly and creatively, fuels their energy and motivation, enables them to hear critical feedback and builds trust for the future. Various coaching and therapeutic schools draw on similar principles, e.g. providing unconditional positive regard (e.g. person-centred); enabling a person to question and test their beliefs and assumptions in order to get a better sense of what is real (e.g. cognitive behavioural); experimenting with new behaviours to discover new experiences and ways of being and doing (e.g. gestalt). In my coaching work with a leader, I may encourage him or her to explore and grow using a range of approaches, e.g. draw graphic images, select objects/symbols or strike physical poses that depict (a) their idea of the leader they believe the organisation or others expect them to be and (b) the leader they believe they are or aspire to be, then explore the commonalities and differences. Alternatively, I may encourage the person to experiment wearing different types of clothing, to practice holding themselves in a variety of postures, to speak in different volumes or tones of voice to explore which they feel most comfortable with, to find a physical expression that best enables them to be who they are.
I may encourage the person to brainstorm what they believe others expect of them, believe about them as a leader and to test those assumptions openly with others. I may encourage the person to vividly imagine themselves as e.g. a humble, confident, capable leader and to role play it focusing on real scenarios, reflecting on thoughts, feelings, behaviours and responses as we do it together. I may provide the person with toy figures and invite him or her to create a configuration of their current key relationships (e.g. leadership team), then ask them to move the figures into different configurations to reflect on how that feels and what insights emerge. I may also invite them to reflect on past life or work experiences that have felt very similar (e.g. family, previous teams). I may encourage the person to step back and consider what their own experience might point towards culturally or systemically. If, for instance, the leader feels unsafe to be honest, what light does that shed on, for example, what is considered acceptable and unacceptable culturally within that environment and what can the leader do practically and realistically to influence positive change.
I would be interested to hear of others’ experiences in this area and how you have worked through them. Have you experienced ‘impostor syndrome’? Have you struggled to reconcile who you are with the role you find yourself playing? Have you coached, mentored or trained others working through similar personal or professional challenges? If so, I would love to hear from you.
Do you ever find yourself talking at cross purposes with a client, resulting in bemusement, confusion or frustration? I met with a team recently to explore their work with others. I noticed how they would sometimes describe themselves as a ‘service function’, a title that implied and created a specific type of role and relationship in their own minds as well as in the minds of others.
As we explored the nature of their work in more depth, it became clear that they aspired to relate to clients as business partners, not simply as service providers. In fact, they already relate to clients in a number of different modes but they hadn’t yet stopped to reflect on and articulate this clearly. As they moved between modes implicitly rather than explicitly, it risked confusion.
We separated the modes into a conceptual map, drawing this on a flipchart with ‘quality and accountability’ as an overall goal. Sometimes they operated as consultants, helping others to think through, understand and do things well for themselves. Sometimes they operated as co-leaders, running joint initiatives, events, projects or processes in collaboration with others.
Sometimes they operated as service providers, providing information, advice or services or doing specific tasks on behalf of others. Sometimes they operated in governance mode, ensuring that clients are aware of and adhere to legal, policy and agreed good practice. The trick as a business partner is to navigate between modes according contextual opportunities and demands.
It’s one thing to feel clear about your own role and chosen mode in a particular situation yet important, too, to ensure the client is also clear. One way to do this is to pose a simple question: ‘This is how I see my role and your role in this situation. Is that how you see it?’ Posing the question in this way opens the possibility for discussion, clarification and negotiation.
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.