The Challenge In How Others See Us

By Chris Chittenden

"It takes half your life before you discover life is a do-it-yourself project."

… Napoleon Hill

I turned sixty this week and with that birthday came a surprise. For the first time in my life, I received a birthday card from not one but two policitians. My initial thought, "This can't be good!" One, my state member of parliament, was even so kind to include an application for a Senior's Card entitled, "collect your reward". I am fairly sure this was done with good intent, but it didn't feel that way to me at the time. Added to that were some cards and comments that alluded to the writer or speaker's assessment that although I had turned sixty, I certainly didn't look that old. Nice of them to say, however it got me thinking about what they and, more particularly, I thought about a stereotypical sixty year old male and how this compared with myself.

As I reflected on the importance of a particular date in the calendar that indicated that I was now officially "old", at least according to my daughter, my thoughts went to how I actually felt in comparison to the story I and others had about how I should feel. After all, I had only really aged a day not crossed some great divide in time.

In my reflection, I found that my breakdown was not about how I felt within myself but how I now had to deal with other people's assessments of me. Every time someone raised the point with me, I found myself automatically asking, "Is that how I feel?" Although I know that I should not feel any difference in my experience of being when these breakdowns occur I have found myself in the question of whether my feelings are valid or not.

As it turned out, I also had a conversation with a female friend who spoke about a women in leadership program she attended at some time in the past. She told about one exercise the group had been asked to do where they were given a situation where the group was stranded on a desert island and each person was asked to identify what role they would best fill in the group. Two of the roles were "hunter" and "leader" and interestingly enough not one woman in that group picked either of those two roles. Given these were women in leadership roles already, my friend was puzzled about why this should be so. However, unsurprisingly the women had picked roles that were seen as more nurturing and, therefore, more feminine as they seemingly defined femininity.

As the women on the leadership program discovered, it is all too easy to get caught up in other people's stories about ourselves. Without knowing it, over our lifetime we have taken on many beliefs about who we are and who we should be. These women were in leadership roles yet struggled to see themselves as leaders and it would appear this was a well hidden belief about themselves. Unless we are vigilant, it is all easy to fall under the spell of such stories and embrace them as our own.

Heightened self-awareness is a way of innoculating ourselves from taking on the stories that may not serve us well into the future. Families, friends and work colleagues are usually the main sources telling us who they think we are or should be. Only with a clear of sense of self and our integrity can we assess the validity of their stories.

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© 2014 Chris Chittenden