My husband and I enjoy taking regular walks in and around our neighborhood. Particularly in the nicer weather, we see several people out and about, and often wave or stop to say hello. We encounter one gentleman on a fairly regular basis who never acknowledges us in return. This has inspired an increased amount of efforts in my husband, as he hopes to somehow connect with this gentleman. Despite this, he continues to receive no acknowledgement in return. After several of these one-sided exchanges, I implored my husband to just continue our walk, without trying to say hello to someone who does not seem motivated to respond. My husband, however, remained undaunted. He reminded me that he is “just being who he is”: a friendly person with a strong motivation to share his good-natured personality with those around him. To him, it is not so much about achieving this man’s reciprocation, but maintaining his identity, even in the face of this negativity. I cannot say with absolute certainty (since I started to speed up and avert my eyes from my husband’s display when we walked past this person), but after several more encounters I may have witnessed a half-hearted wave from this stranger, who initially had been so reluctant to engage. I had to admire my husband’s commitment to being himself, and thought about how many times we struggle to remain true to ourselves because of situations we encounter in daily life.
When we shift the focus of our interactions with others to be about sharing our true selves rather than trying to change people, we actually have the best chance to be positive influences in the world around us. Since my husband naturally enjoys connecting with others and feels certain this could have a genuine impact, he feels confident in his actions. I am sure he would have experienced the frustration and self-consciousness that I did, had he fretted about whether or not the person we encountered would become friendlier toward us. Rather, my husband persists in his amicable approach because he believes it represents who he is, and any greeting in response from the other person is “icing on the cake”.
Alternatively, sometimes, we stray from who we are in efforts to win over the approval of other people. Over the years, I have spent time with many friends and family members who excel at entertaining large groups by telling amusing stories. I admire these people because they make events more fun, and as I watched them I wished I could naturally captivate a crowd as they do. On a few occasions, I have “pretended” to enjoy capturing the spotlight by sharing a funny story at a large social gathering. It does not take long before I can feel my heart pounding, my face flushing, and my voice turning into a whisper: I am more than ready to divert the big group attention away from me. Unfortunately, no matter how hilarious my anecdote may have been, no one is very entertained if they only hear a few details told in a rushed and fading voice. As such, I have learned that I more effectively trade meaningful insight – and the occasional humorous story – with one or two people at a time, but that I fail miserably when I try to pass myself off as someone who thrives on the energy of a bigger crowd. I also remind myself that if 50 people attend a gathering, and all 50 are competing for the group’s attention, chaos would ensue: I play an important role by listening and enjoying those who more easily command the brighter spotlight.
We also may struggle to remain true to ourselves in our relationships with family members, co-workers, and friends when they make choices we do not always agree with or understand. At work, we might hear others criticize or complain about an employee rather than taking such concerns to the other person in a positive and constructive way. We might have a friend who does not respond to our outreach in a timely manner, causing us to feel hurt at this lack of timely response. At home, a moody teenager might lash out at us for simply engaging with them and asking how their day was. It is tempting, as we wrestle with difficult feelings, to let this negativity eclipse our own beliefs and priorities. If we value direct and constructive communication, though, we can suggest a co-worker bring concerns to another person rather than engaging in non-productive conversation. If we believe in timely responses in communication, we can check in with a friend sooner rather than contemplating why they may not have returned our message. And when we encounter a moody teenager, we can take a deep breath, refrain from saying the first several things that come to mind, and summon enough patience to let them know we are here if they would like to talk. The more we think about and focus on our own beliefs and priorities, the less we speak or act impulsively and end up experiencing regret.
Remaining true to ourselves on a daily basis can even lead to eventual acts of heroism. In 2007, an ex-Marine named John Keller showed the world his true self when he saved hundreds of people, many of them elderly and with health conditions, from a flooded apartment building in New Orleans during hurricane Katrina. Rather than let this disastrous situation define him, he chose to use his abilities and fierce determination to define the situation instead. John identified himself as a brave, capable, strong and compassionate man. He thought about how he would want someone to act if his own elderly relatives were in a similarly precarious position. He channeled his bravery and strength to speak authoritatively to those who tried to loot the building’s dwindling supplies, and he eventually took rescue operations into his own hands as he hot-wired a boat to transport people to safety. Most of us will hopefully never have to show our true colors in a catastrophic event such as this, but we have small opportunities every day to role model positive qualities to those around us. We never know when a newer employee, younger family member, or even a stranger may benefit from the words or actions that stem from our true character.
Laura B. joined Empathia in 2000 as an EAP Counselor. Laura has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, with a concentration in marriage and family therapy. Prior to joining Empathia, she worked as a case manager with chronically mentally ill adults readjusting to life in the community. Laura enjoys reading, attending kids’ activities and spending time with family.
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