When We Feel Pressure to Be Fake

“Vulnerability is the last thing I want you to see in me, but the first thing I look for in you.”
– Brené Brown

When my Mom was first diagnosed with cancer, her first impulse was that she didn’t want to tell anyone. She thought maybe people would see her as vulnerable, frail or dying. I remember thinking That’s nuts!

But it wasn’t crazy. It’s a common first reaction. And she went on to have a very open and successful battle with lymphoma.

It’s quite common for people to conceal parts of their identity for fear of being stigmatized. At work people often hide their religion, political values, sexual orientation, health conditions, maybe their cross-dressing preferences. People even conceal quite benign things like parental obligations to fetch a sick child from school, or take them to a dentist appointment. All out of fear of being branded as not professional, or not dedicated, or most importantly not like everyone else at work.

It’s an effort to get along, to be part of the group, to fit in.

The fear is that if our true identities are known, we’ll be stigmatized, possibly ostracized from people at work. Understandably no one wants to feel rejected. The interesting thing about this expectation is that it’s completely false. In this fascinating study from Yale, researchers discovered that overwhelmingly people believed and expected that by concealing parts of their identity that were unique or counterculture, they would feel a higher sense of belonging to the group, and in turn the group would be more welcoming and more inclusive to others looking and acting like everyone else.

It turns out the opposite is true. When we conceal parts of our identity that are core truths about what we believe and who we are, we start to retract from homogeneous groups. And by hiding personal truths, and socially withdrawing from a group, people around you sense it and begin to withdraw from you as well. It’s a reinforcing cycle.

Not only that, when we start to conceal personal identity traits it makes it harder to honestly and genuinely connect with others. The result is we lose a sense of belonging, which is at the very core of this buzzword engagement.

If we to feel like we belong to where we work, we care more about the work we do. To bring out the best in people, we need a culture that not only allows, but actively encourages expression of self. And the very best bosses and leaders understand this by creating an environment of inclusiveness and acceptance.