Five ways to flatten your belly, seven secrets to success, and the top 10 ways to improve your sex life. It is hard to pick up any magazine and not find a list for something because, in truth, we love lists. We are eager for self-help and ways to improve our bodies, our relationships, and our minds. And lists and strategies can serve us well by guiding us toward self-examination and self-improvement to become a “Better You.” But maybe there is also value in celebrating the person we already are — flaws included.
An honest evaluation of the self requires acknowledgment and acceptance of gifts and weaknesses as necessary for balance. To seek perfection may, in essence, remove us from our humanness, which then makes us become 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 identity, we live in fear. Fear of being seen. Fear of failing. Fear of evaluation. Fear of being foolish. Fear of being “caught” as the imposter that our insecurity tells us we are.
The concept of being “real” — genuine and true to our own image and beliefs about our self — 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 we create to describe and define who we are, what we believe, how we look, and how we feel about moral issues. The value we place on that image rises from our own examination of our strengths and weaknesses but can be heavily influenced by feedback from others. It is as if 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.
Consider when Meryl Streep, the actor nominated for more Academy Awards and Golden Globes than any other actor in history, is quoted as saying, “You think, ‘Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?’” The real question for Meryl is, “Can you act? Do you believe that you have a talent for acting?” If the answer is no, then don’t act and learn a new skill. But if the answer is yes, then an internal period should be put at the end of the sentence. “I know I can act.” It is a different question to ask, “Can I learn more and aspire to be an even better actor?” Of course, because that is not a question about our view of ourselves, that is a question about a drive to be better, learn more, and improve ourselves. But that feeling is not the one that sets us up to feel like an imposter. The question that gets to the core of Meryl Streep is the doubt about her own perceptions of her skills and thereby her reliance on the evaluation of others to answer the question about whether or not she can act. This kind of reliance on the views of others over our own sets us up for fear and doubt, as the opinions of others is a moving target that we will never fully satisfy. But if we hold our own view firmly in place, we have a better chance to feel confident and connected to our identity and the feedback from others. It is the lifelong process of practicing the art of being authentic — with the good, the bad, and the ugly parts fully exposed.
Historically, it seems to be in our very nature to begin with an analysis of our weaknesses, our obstacles, and our shortcomings. Until recently, even the field of psychology focused on illness, deficits, and pathology almost at the exclusion of strengths and virtues. In the business world, strong leaders typically have been recognized for their ability to see what is not working at the system level and recognizing who is not capable at the person level. Fortunately, we are seeing a major shift in research, practice, and training around the identification of strengths and using them to improve the bottom line in business and the emotional well-being of the person.
The exercise of identifying our life themes and the strengths that we possess is actually the foundation of success. Warren Buffett, one of the richest men in the world, once described his key to success as his ability to know his strengths and then make them better. He described himself as patient and practical — skills he uses every day when investing and running a business. Successful people, particularly women, learn to organize their lives in such a way to maximize their strengths. And the discovery of our greatest strengths usually occurs under high-stress situations when we default to what we know best.
The truth is we actually invent our own insecurities. When we focus on the things we don’t like about ourselves, the things we believe others do not like about us, we give those attributes and beliefs life. We breathe energy into our flaws and failings and make them larger than anything else in our lives. But imagine what could happen if we focused our energy on what we do well — our unique gifts. Imagine if we nurtured and developed those strengths. Imagine the possibilities.