Permission to Be
Imagine a gate in a fence that divides a field.
The field and the surrounding landscape paint a picture of all your life experiences: the people you have met, the places you have been and the adventures you have had. All those events that define you as the wonderful, unique person you are.
In my story, in my field, I am one side of the fence. Everyone else I’ve ever met is on the other side, and I’ve often wondered why.
The fence and the gate? There is nothing remarkable about either of them. Neither is imposing or threatening. It is easy to see what is beyond. There are no ‘Keep Out’ signs on the fence or locks on the gate. The fence is not so high that you can’t see over it, it’s not so solid that you can’t see past it. The same goes for the gate, although I suspect the gate will take some effort to push open – it may be stuck as it hasn’t been opened in a while.
The part of my field I’m focusing on right now is the bit that looks at the last 25+ years of my career in leadership development. The people I can see on the other side of the fence are a mix of colleagues, friends, bosses, clients, and delegates. They include some remarkable people from a range of cultures and countries, not to mention organisations and industries. And I have always been curious and fascinated to learn from their stories and experiences.
From where I’m standing, I look across and I pay real attention to those folks who are being extraordinary and achieving remarkable things in their lives. They are being courageous and skillful. They are being creative and imaginative. They are being bold and ambitious. They are being thoughtful and caring. And I can see them doing it all. In some cases, I taught them the skills and techniques to do and be those things.
The question I ask myself is: why do I stay here on my side of the fence in isolation and not push open the gate to be with the crowd? After all, I know about the things they are doing and, I can do some of those things they are doing. But I have realised that I haven’t given myself permission to be any of those things. Instead, on my side of the fence I choose to be fearful and doubtful and whilst I know I’m missing out it feels, at least, familiar (I’ve been here a long time). I suspect that to others this shows up as apathy, procrastination, a lack of courage, ambition or even intellect. On my side of my fence my internal dialogue is one of being a fraud, a coward, an imposter, unworthy of the company of those talented people I admire.
My friend and colleague Alistair Skellern wrote recently about the power and value of ‘constructive and positive self-talk’– a topic I’ve also taught for years. In response to Alistair’s article my team-mate, Guy Pollard, shared a quote with us from the American actor Wentworth Miller. He said: ‘If I spoke to my friends like I speak to myself, I wouldn’t have any friends.’ These two ideas really made me stop and think. Reflecting on some of my own self-talk I realise that I’ve slipped into the habit, sometimes, of giving myself a hard time.
On my journey I’ve heard stories about, and have experienced firsthand, organisations that talk a good talk about their culture but behave very differently. By contrast, those businesses that truly live their values are amazing places to be. I think this is why I choose to stand where I do; it’s somehow safer here on my side of the fence. I have learned to observe from a distance and protect myself from the harm caused by false promises and misplaced trust. My reluctance to push through the gate is also grounded in my fear of being hurt in some way.
Over the last two years however, that has all changed and I’ve made a couple of important decisions:
I’m now in a workplace that says and does the same thing. This congruence creates a nurturing, trusting and supportive environment. I’ve noticed my colleagues on the other side of the fence enjoying the benefits of it and, to a person, they have been calling and waving at me to come and join them. I have, at last, finally given myself permission to be safe. Despite sometimes feeling vulnerable and fearful, I feel safe in the knowledge that I am supported by those remarkable colleagues I work with and want to spend time with.
I’m now consciously practicing a more forgiving and positive conversation with myself, especially in those moments of self-doubt. I have to raise my voice sometimes, to break my habitual dialogue, so it is a work-in-progress. So far, so good.
I have at last pushed the gate open. It needed a good shove, as I expected it would. It is scary and exciting in equal measure and I’m looking forward to being a more complete version of myself with my colleagues.
One final thought. I suspect there are other gates in my metaphorical fence, and I will deal with them when I need to. For now, as with any journey, it’s all about the first few steps.