Come as you are

I started to respond to this thread on Linked In about someone who shared their decision to be more authentic at work, no longer hiding tattoos and piercings but had more to say so moved over to the blog – others responding widen the topic out to many aspects of identity and personality, that this time where many of us have brought work into our homes, has made us less willing or able to hide or edit ourselves the way we have done in the past for the office.

This is such an important topic. Wellbeing in the workplace, and indeed life is made up of so many things. We know that if we want people to be able to thrive, and perform to the best of their ability, we cannot expect everyone to be the same. People have different backgrounds, experiences, identities, strengths, weaknesses and needs. Identity and values are key in our psychological wellbeing.

Trolls on the Internet like to criticise talk of identity, and focus on issues of diversity – but the formation of our unique identity as adults is a key stage of development. However it’s not always straightforward to discover and formulate our identity – if we face push back from the world around us. The world can be so hostile sometimes. Some aspects of who we are are undeniable. We can’t disguise them or change them. I can’t disguise the fact I am fat, a large person, I have no choice but to absorb the comments and looks, and know that a good chunk of people think badly of me for it. I am not one of those people who can change that, or at least I haven’t found a way in my 45 years that works with my combination of mental and physical challenges. Others can. Someone who experiences fatphobia may go to great lengths to keep to a size that society deems more acceptable, to avoid that opprobrium – even if this makes them unhappy and even unwell. Most people cannot hide the colour of their skin, their height, certain physical disabilities or disfigurements. And we can face different treatment, discrimination, prejudice, bullying, even violence, to different extents because of peoples attitudes to these things.

Knowing this, it is not surprising that if there is some other aspect of what marks us as different from whatever “norm” or “standard” model the world is judging us against – that we might go to great lengths to change this to “fit in” and hopefully deflect that negative attention. People from different cultural, class or religious backgrounds, or the LGBTQ+ or neurodivergent communities, opting not to make this obvious at work, playing things down, changing the way they speak, the language they use, the way they dress. Taking part in activities which would not usually be acceptable for them, missing out on prayer or other practices. Sometimes to those outside these things might seem peripheral, unimportant, whereas to us they are chords which are attached to the core of our being, and in masking, changing our behaviour, our expression, we are making ourselves less – dimming our light.

Inability to live in a manner which is congruent with our identity and core values causes inner conflict which contributes to unhappiness and other manifestations of mental distress. Feeling we cannot be ourselves, or that some aspect of ourselves is not valued or respected by our peers, leads to further conflict, damages self esteem and can build an enormous sense of injustice.

If we are dealing with all of this, and expending energy on trying to be other than we are – we are not able to bring our best game to the table. It is damaging for both individual and employer.

We need to nurture and celebrate our diverse teams. To me professionalism is about what we do, about results. Making everyone fit in one “standard” box will diminish everyone, and the best you can hope for is average results. Standard removes the possibility for excellence. People need the right conditions for their needs to show us just what they can do if we let them.

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