As children we start defenseless. I don’t mean physically, though we start physically defenseless too. I mean kids don’t protect themselves from being emotionally hurt or having their identities challenged. Kids say things we adults recognize we would catch in mental filters before speaking.
What mental filters? Everybody knows what I mean. As we get older we learn to protect our vulnerabilities. We learn protocol and manners. We learn how to behave in certain situations to meet social expectations. Doing so rewards us with getting the results we wanted. With a cost, though.
- When we meet a girl or guy we like we play it cool and don’t let on.
- We don’t tell a friend about a shortcoming.
- We don’t tell anyone we feel too insecure to ask for a raise.
- We don’t raise our hand in class so we don’t look like we don’t know.
- We act like we’re above it all to look more in the know.
- We act sarcastic or jaded. We dress how someone else says we should.
Each time we protect ourselves and follow manners, we create shells between ourselves and our worlds. They often improve our lives, helping us in social situations, at least in the short term. Or to get ahead, or to avoid risking embarrassment. In the long term, they shield us from connecting with others or even understanding ourselves. Keeping others out keeps them from understanding us.
When we were young we didn’t see learning manners, acting like we’re “supposed to,” and other forms of following other people’s rules as creating barriers. We saw them as ways to mature and succeed. We felt like we were maturing. Some people continue through life adopting new roles and manners to progress further in business and life, not realizing they’re sacrificing their individuality.
Leadership exposes these barriers. Leaders who want to connect with people will hamper themselves with these barriers. They’re kidding themselves if they believe others don’t see their barriers. As are you and I.
Hiding vulnerabilities and insecurities looks to others like someone trying to hide having a pebble in their shoes. Everyone can tell something is off about you. Our shells and wished-to-be-hidden vulnerabilities define us to others, much as we’d wish otherwise.
By contrast we enjoy time with people who don’t hide their flaws. They seem natural and make us feel natural. We want to become like them.
Some people realize at some point the manners and rules they’re adopting aren’t making them more mature. They’re keeping them from themselves. Their challenge — our challenge, since I count myself in this group — is to undo the barriers.
It’s why I coach, write, and teach.
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