How I Learned to Lead From a Place of Authenticity
How I Learned to Lead From a Place of Authenticity
An honest evaluation of the self requires the acknowledgment and acceptance of gifts and weaknesses, both of which are necessary for balance.
Twenty-eight years ago, I embarked on the first day of my clinical psychology internship. What I learned about courage that day has forever framed my professional and personal life.
The year was 1988, and on that first day, I was to complete my first consultation on an AIDS patient who was refusing care and asking to die. Much was still unknown about AIDS, and fear drove many decisions and assumptions. Drugs were being produced and studied, but access was not equitably distributed, and financial limitations precluded many from getting the much-needed drugs. For most of the world, AIDS was “a gay disease” and as such elicited many biases and beliefs that were absent with other conditions. I was keenly aware of the reactions of the more experienced staff, who seemed to manage Room Three differently. Their wariness only contributed to my own apprehension.
This particular case provoked fear in me that reached beyond my inexperience and the normal self-doubt of a first day on a job. While I had read about AIDS and intellectually understood the symptoms and neurological presentations, I had no face to put to the words. I didn’t know anybody personally who had the disease, nor had I encountered any patients’ suffering from the disease before today. I was afraid of what I might see when I walked through the door. Most certainly, I was emotionally unprepared for what I was about to experience.
I felt too inexperienced to understand this man’s decision to stop treatment and die. I wanted so badly to understand his depression and despair, but what could I possibly know about being treated as a leper, lying alone in a hospital room, waiting to die, with no family sitting outside because they had disowned him years ago?
I went through the motions of what I thought was expected of me, but I felt overwhelmed and lost. I could not hold back my tears. Excusing myself, I left the room. I stood in the hallway, feeling inadequate, lost, ashamed, scared, and sad about the realities that I would have to face to work in this profession. My tears were freely flowing. This was not how I wanted my supervisor to see me. It was not how a professional in big-girl shoes was supposed to behave. And it certainly was not how I wanted to see myself.
In that moment I realized I had two choices: I could pull myself together because psychologists don’t cry, or so I had been taught—or I could go back into that room and allow the patient to see the insecurity I was feeling and hear the shuffling sound of my ill-fitting big-girl shoes.
When I pushed the door open and stepped back inside, the young man lying in the bed turned and looked at me. I pulled up a chair and moved closer to the bed, and for the next hour I listened to him talk, cry, and share his fears. I told him mine. As I stood to leave the room, he thanked me for really listening and for not pretending to fully understand his circumstances. He thanked me for “being a real doctor.” “You know,” he added, “for not faking it.”
That compliment stuck to me like a piece of Velcro. I realized in that moment that what he saw in me was the very strength I saw in myself but often doubted; he saw my reason for wanting to be a psychologist in the first place.
Through that experience, I developed a deep understanding of the power of courage. The courage to really examine the image I held of myself—my thoughts, my beliefs, my internal view of who I am.
I was so focused that day on feeling like an imposter that I almost became one. I almost became the psychologist I thought I was expected to be: the serious, technical scientist, who intellectually understood emotional struggles but didn’t feel them, who could diagnose and treat but was afraid to empathize.
On closer examination, however, I found that I was really a young woman, an untested psychologist, a serious scientist who also had a sense of humor, a professional who could be moved to tears, a woman who wore high heels and a white coat, an inexperienced doctor who had much to learn but already possessed the capacity to connect with people in her own, unscripted, and unique way. That day, at Henry Ford Hospital in the hallway outside Room Three, I experienced the power of authenticity.
Researchers describe this kind of authenticity as “the courage to be imperfect.” It requires the active choice of letting go of our expectations of who we should be and choosing instead to be who we really are. Letting go of the imposter we hold inside gives us the freedom to embrace our limitations and strengths. When I stopped pretending and became “real,” that day in Room Three, I discovered the power of human connection.
The concept of being “real”—genuine and true to our own image and beliefs about ourselves—is often created early and then shaped and reformed as we gain life experiences and make conscious choices. Our authentic-self- concept is the internal picture and ever-running cognitive script that we create to describe and define who we are, what we believe, and how we feel about moral issues. The value we place on that image rises from our own examination of strengths and weakness but can be heavily influenced by feedback from others. In other words, our self-image is like an internal Velcro strip: when we get a compliment or a criticism, it sticks to us, but only if we ourselves hold the same view.
An honest evaluation of the self requires the acknowledgment and acceptance of gifts and weaknesses, both of which are necessary for balance. To seek perfection may, in essence, remove us from our own humanity and thus make us self-focused and preoccupied. If we are so busy looking at ourselves, how can we ever be emotionally available to see others?
If we can’t slip our feet into the shoes of confidence and clear identity, we live in fear. Fear of being seen. Fear of failing. Fear of being “caught” as the imposter that our insecurity tells us we are. For successful women, the stakes get higher. The problem is that women who are visible and successful are often seen by others only through the lens of success. They become one-dimensional. Perhaps we as women not only feel like imposters when we distort our own self-view but create the imposters in each other when we hold other women to a one-dimensional standard.
This essay is an excerpt from Lori’s book “Put on Your Big-Girl Shoes: Stepping into Resilience, Courage and Gratitude.”
Lori Stevic-Rust, Ph.D., ABPP., is a clinical health psychologist and an international consultant. As an award-winning keynote speaker, media contributor, author of five books and the Dr. Lori column, she integrates science and real-life experiences with enthusiasm and wit. She has received several awards for her advocacy in the prevention of abuse and exploitation of seniors and women. Stevic-Rust is a proud member of a five generation family and lives in Cleveland, OH with her husband and her 104-year-old grandmother. She has two adult daughters and is an avid Cleveland sports fan. Learn more about Dr. Lori Stevic-Rust at www.doctorlori.net