Being Authentic Without Being a Brat
© 2022 Lane Wallace
Aviation for Women magazine, November/December issue, 2022
The incident happened more than 20 years ago, but the memory still carries the same unpleasant aftertaste it provoked at the time. I was at a local amusement park with my niece and nephew, who were about 4 and 5 at the time, and we were waiting in line for a ride. The woman in front of us was ranting to a friend about something, in a loud, angry voice and using almost non-stop expletives. As she went on, the kids moved closer to my legs and gripped my hands tighter. She was scaring them.
“Excuse me,” I said to the woman. “Could you possibly lower your voice and maybe tamp down the language a bit?” I nodded toward the kids. “The children,” I explained.
“Hey,” she shot back at me. “I’m just being myself, and if you don’t like it, that’s your problem!”
I sometimes think of that interchange as I assess a mountain of self-help and workplace advice that focuses almost exclusively on how we promote and take care of ourselves.
Don’t get me wrong. Making sure we have our own oxygen mask on before we help others is important. But in a society and social-media culture already hyper-focused on personal achievement, happiness and actualization, encouraging people to “be authentic” or utilize “radical candor” can end up providing license for some pretty self-centered and inconsiderate behavior.
Where those well-meaning efforts go wrong, I believe, is in overlooking what is both the most essential, and most difficult, aspect of self-development. And that is, while that effort may start with us, it’s not just about us.
Anyone who’s read much of my work in the past few years knows I’m a huge believer in the power and importance of a woman’s authentic voice. And I understand all too well how difficult it is for any of us to even find and stay connected to that voice, let alone gather the courage to make our choices, words, and actions align with that truth within us. But there’s a tricky catch to achieving the kind of authenticity that imbues a woman with clarity, strength and resilience. Because authenticity in and of itself isn’t what’s powerful. Being authentic simply means that our outer actions and choices accurately reflect what’s going on inside us. For better or for worse. So we can’t have a strong authentic voice if we’re a hot mess, at the core.
One could argue, for example, that a two-year-old throwing a public temper-tantrum is being completely authentic. But they’re also being two. And that’s a key point. When we’re two, we’re at a developmental stage characterized by self-centeredness and limited emotional maturity and control. By the time we’re adults, however, we’re supposed to move on, in terms of psychological development, to a more balanced and mature focus on not just self, but self in relation to others. We’re supposed to know how to share; to have empathy for others; and to be considerate and respectful of others’ needs and feelings as well as our own. That ability to successfully balance our own needs against the needs of others, and focus on community as well as self, is actually a hallmark of a psychologically well-balanced, grounded, and mature adult.
Fifty or 70 years ago, civic and religious institutions in America had far more power to influence and enforce community-oriented norms of behavior. As a child, I never questioned why my mom wore a hat to church, or why we were expected to sit, politely and quietly, during sermons and lectures. To be respectful to our elders, including addressing them by their formal names. To abide by dress codes, write thank you notes, apologize, do our chores, pick up our garbage, and refrain from acting out in public. And I can tell you—if we broke any of those community norms, we felt the sting of parental and community disapproval.
That doesn’t mean that era was some kind of glowing ideal. Those strictures and community expectations of behavior were also incredibly confining, especially for women or minorities who wanted to be something more than what was socially acceptable at that time. But the point is, civic institutions used to be more powerful in dictating behavioral norms that focused on community as well as self.
As power has shifted away from those institutions, and externally imposed norms have weakened, it’s opened up far greater opportunities for professional freedom, self-expression, identity, and social and economic equality. All of which are wonderful and valuable things. But it’s like shifting from a tower-controlled airport to one that’s “uncontrolled.” Just because a tower controller isn’t telling you where you can and can’t fly doesn’t eliminate the need to consider or be responsible for the welfare of others as well as yourself. Otherwise, people get hurt. And not just other people. Of the three things we all really need to be happy, two of them—a sense of meaning, and strong personal relationships—require us to care and think about others, and act accordingly. Selfish or inconsiderate behavior tends to push people away, costing us friendships and the respect of others, and leaving us increasingly isolated, with a shrinking island of people willing to support us.
So it’s important to remember that with greater personal freedom comes greater personal responsibility. The less that external institutions enforce community-minded behavior, the more it falls on us to shoulder that responsibility, ourselves.
All of which is to say, in order for our “authentic voice” to be a force for good in the world; a powerful compass that can help us achieve meaningful impact and navigate challenging careers and life challenges more effectively, we need to make sure it’s a reflection of our inner adult, not our inner brat. Not just our self, but our best self. And that’s easier said than done.
Being our best self is a challenge all of us wrestle with, every single day. But for many of us, there may be some self-improvement we need to attend to before that goal even becomes possible. We may need to face and unpack some serious baggage and hurt. Build enough courage and confidence to look honestly at our weaknesses as well as our strengths, avoid blame and victimhood, take responsibility for not just our choices and actions, but also the impact of those choices and actions on others, and get better at balancing our own needs and desires against the needs of those around us.
Tackling those issues can be hard work. But that’s precisely why the authentic voice we can bring into the world, if we do that work, is so powerful. Because a woman who has a mature level of self-awareness, the ability to balance her own needs with consideration for others, and a clear sense of what’s really important, is a formidable woman, indeed.