Being Seen: Self-Exposure or Self-Acceptance?


“The quickest way to acquire self-confidence is to do something you are afraid to do.”

– Anonymous

In Southern Africa the Zulu greet each other by saying Sawubona, meaning, “I see you,” to which the response is, Ngikhona, “I am here.”

In the culture I was raised in being seen is vulnerable and risky. Confidently exclaiming to the world, “I am here” is often accompanied by self-doubt and threatening comparisons. For many of us, claiming and proudly sharing what we have to offer could be perceived as boasting. So we stay silent or shade our strengths perhaps deferring to someone else’s achievements instead.

In my writing business I come across this all the time. Clients hire me to unearth and describe their professional stories but get caught up in diminishing their own qualities in the same breath. No one is guiltier of this falsehood than I am. In fact, author Richard Bach’s philosophy that we teach what we most need to learn constantly reminds me to take a breath and remind myself of why I’m drawn to the work I do.

Recently, I was asked to deliver a speech to 200 financial consultants at a corporate kick-off event for the United Way. The speech, which I give often, is a testimonial of how a UW funded agency helped me find my way on a career path and into starting my own business. The speech is meant to be a story of success; an inspiration to others about how I struggled my whole life hiding in the shadows until I realized that fulfillment depended on putting myself out there, fear and all. The finale — that I now help others write their stories, counsel women on their career journeys, lead groups on self-esteem and guide people through the transition process — demonstrates my arrival at a successful destination. End of story.

However, when the invitation for this engagement came in, even though I said yes, I really wanted scream, “no!” How come?

At that particular time, I felt I had lost my way and wasn’t the exemplar of what I was asked to speak about. I wasn’t as busy as I’d hoped and worried that I couldn’t make a go of things after all. I was on shaky ground. I couldn’t share, in front my biggest audience to date, that being self-employed is a lonely business, and in the ebb and flow, I was stuck in the ebb. How could I present as the confident entrepreneur I was expected to be when I was feeling unsure, vulnerable and doomed to failure? I didn’t want to be seen. I wanted to hide.

For days I considered calling to cancel the engagement; the United Way could have easily found someone to replace me. Someone more authentic, more prosperous than me. But I didn’t. I stopped myself. Remembering Richard Bach’s words, I realized there was something I had to learn from this daunting situation. What would I tell someone else in the same predicament? How could I take my own advice? Here’s what I came up with:

     1. Don’t dismiss your vulnerability. Befriend yourself — show some kindness. Remember what you can do and do well. Your best does not mean perfect. Focusing on what others do well, or better than you, is not helpful.

     2. You don’t have to feel successful all the time. Even the most outstanding artists, leaders, and professionals experience self-doubt and feelings of failure more than you’d realize. They share about it all the time.

     3. Even if you don’t believe what you’re telling people right now, are the words you’ve written true? Have they ever been true? The answer is probably yes. Therefore, you are not a fraud or an imposter.

     4. Only you know the difference between your most and least confident self. Do others believe you can do this, even if you don’t? Yes? Then trust them!

     5. Being seen does not mean you must burst onto the stage like fireworks. Even if you show up with birthday candle strength, you’re still offering your light. Celebrate your courage to shine no matter what the intensity.

     6. What will you regret if you don’t do it?  Letting yourself down is almost as bad, maybe worse, than letting other people down. Measure it out, check inward and gauge whether it’s fear talking or if you’re in over your head.

     7. And lastly, the most important question: What are you learning? You may decide that now is not the time to take a risk and that’s okay. Be kind to yourself (see #1). What will you know for next time?

My work and own personal journey have taught that there are many ways to be seen. Whether it’s in front of 200 people, in writing, by employers, clients, or potential mates, being visible to others is scary business, but more often than not, it’s worth the risk. Putting yourself out there, good or bad, plants the seeds of confidence and takes you one step further than you were before. It’s an opportunity to embrace your enoughness; to proclaim, “I am here” in all your imperfections.

On the morning of my speech I woke up feeling anxious and emotional, I won’t kid you. I had to do lots of deep breathing and convince myself of my own advice. Shonda Rhimes writes, “You can waste your life drawing lines, or you can live your life crossing them.” So I decided to fasten my seatbelt, be kind and step into a challenge I knew I could survive, even if I screwed up. But I didn’t screw up. I was fine. A little self-conscious for sure but no one was the wiser — except for myself.

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