What if we all made more of an effort to help each other feel seen, heard, and understood? That was a question posed at the start of my coaching program a few years ago. It was (and still is) a great question and something that I strive for in all of my interactions – coaching, social, professional, and more. The follow-up question we were asked was, what gets in the way of people feeling seen, heard, and understood? Another great question and one that I have been reflecting on lately. I’ve been reflecting on 1) how comfortable (or not) that I am with being seen, and 2) what I do to both help and hide, if and how, people see me.
I am more comfortable seeing others than I am with them seeing me. That is my natural state. There have been times in my life when I have consciously (and sometimes unconsciously) felt the need to hide, defend, or mute parts of myself. I’ve written before that some people are surprised by my “non-traditional” life choices (e.g., being in a long-term, loving, and committed relationship and choosing not to cohabitate or be married; choosing not to have kids). With certain people, I self-edited how much I chose to share. I worried about being judged and yet, I try my best not to judge others. So why was it so hard to give others the benefit of the doubt and the chance to learn something about me?
I would tell myself that I wasn’t up for a long explanation, or that this was information the other person didn’t need to know, or that the other person couldn’t handle the truth. And, those are all valid reasons. But if I’m honest with myself, the main reason I was holding back was that I was scared. I was afraid of being judged, discounted, written off, or excluded.
My deflection cultivated a strength. My discomfort with people seeing me has helped me to be better at seeing others. Over time, I learned that the best way to turn the spotlight away from me was to shine it on someone else. Intentionally focusing on others has helped me to be a better listener and observer. As a leader, I’ve place a lot of emphasis on empathy for others, trying to see things from multiple perspectives, and asking questions and then really listening to the answers. In many ways, I am grateful that my natural state is to focus on others rather than myself. It has informed how I am with friends, family, colleagues, and even strangers.
Every strength has a shadow side. Strengths are great but when used to the extreme, they can hold us back. For me, creating space for others to talk, being curious, and listening are all skills that have become part of who I am, what I am known for, and what I take pride in.
The shadow side of this has been to mute or hide parts of myself. In conversations with others, it is not uncommon for me to say to myself, “You’re being selfish if you make the conversation about you,” “Your experience or thoughts are not as important,” or “The other person needs to be heard more than you.” These thoughts limit my personal growth and how I connect with others. And, they hold me back from truly accepting who I am.
Hiding my “non-traditional” life choices is an example of how my fear of judgement fed into beliefs about myself. I told myself that I was holding back because people couldn’t handle the truth. The reality was that I couldn’t handle the truth – I still had unresolved feelings and self-judgement about my choices and was comparing my situation to the image of what the ideal long-term relationship should look like.
On a professional level, turning the spotlight on others often came at the expense of me expressing my thoughts or opinions. Early on in my career (and definitely in school), I was the quiet one. I rarely spoke up in class or meetings and my contribution would be to take the notes or edit the assignment. Choosing to not let others see and hear me limited how others saw me, how I saw myself, and what I imagined to be possible for my career. The picture I was painting of myself wasn’t always the picture that I knew to be true – it usually didn’t match how I was feeling inside. My self-limiting beliefs gave others permission to have limiting beliefs about me as well.
I have been working on helping others to see and hear me. An eye-opening comment I received after we went live with our podcast was, “Wow, I didn’t know you knew all of that stuff.” Yes, yes, I have known all of that “stuff” for a long time, but you didn’t know what I knew because I was too busy being quiet about it. And then I had to ask myself, who’s fault is that?
I have often said that I am most comfortable at the edge of the centre of attention. I like being near the action, but I don’t like too much attention on me. I realize this might seem odd since I share a lot about myself though this blog and through our podcast. But, both of these activities are relatively new and they are part of me doing the work to get more comfortable being seen and heard. They have become a way for me to practice feeling vulnerable and sharing my stories in a safe and controlled way.
Now, I like to say that I am taking responsibility for being seen and heard. And, I need to keep disrupting myself and busting out of my comfort zone. If I stay where I am most comfortable for too long, I will never learn and grow.
Reframing what being seen looks like has greatly changed the experience for me. I used to think that helping others to see me was about shouting it from the rooftops, bragging, and selling myself. And, it can be all of those things. But it can also be done in a way that feels more like me. When I think about business development, I don’t rely on cold calling or telling people what I can do. I have chosen to share what I know and who I am through proof of work – the consistent content created through this blog and our podcast, how I partner with clients, and how I am choosing to show up in all of my interactions. This reframe has been huge for me – it has helped me to turn a scary part of self-employment into one that feels authentic and natural.
I’m not sure if I will ever be completely comfortable being seen and heard but I know that I want to be. So, I will keep practicing and will let you know how it goes.
What is something that doesn’t come naturally to you but would serve you to be better at? How are you practicing?