It can just creep up on you, pretending at work.
When I started at work, I was just myself. A well-behaved version of myself, of course, but just me. I was young, I didn’t really know what I was like or who I was. I was fortunate that the environment I was in was quite entrepreneurial, there wasn’t any pressure to be anything else.
But then there was the meeting with my bosses boss, when my business case got ripped to shreds even though it was my first one and was approved anyway. I thought it was unfair but I learnt to hold my tongue. “He’s just had a bad day, he’s not normally like that”, my boss told me afterwards.
And then there was the time another boss called me in and shouted at me for missing my sales targets, which had happened because he had allowed the sales force to be moved to another division. I learnt that it’s not so good to have visibility when people are lashing out.
I’d already stopped sharing my political views as they were not in sync with a newly-privatised organisation in Thatcher’s ‘Free Enterprise’ Britain.
I wrote a paper about how the restructure of our organisational unit had unintentionally damaged the integrity of the business and would reduce income. A senior manager told me it was very well argued and he would raise it with out General Manager. This did not go well. I learnt that our General Manager did not appreciate business advice from junior managers, even where they had in depth knowledge and the best intentions for the business. So I learnt to be careful about who I shared my thoughts with.
I found out that it was easier to get things done if you kept below the radar. I learnt that if you kept quiet you avoided the ‘searchlight’, a management practice of focusing intently on a part of business for one or two weeks, driving the people to distraction with stress and pressure, until management got an answer or lost interest. I learnt how to fit in, to blend into the shadows.
You see, bit by bit, you modify your behaviour. Bit by bit you disengage, you narrow your focus, you ration your contribution. Little by little, you adjust your behaviour, you pretend to be like all the others, pretend to hold their opinions and pretend to follow the rules.
Even if underneath it all you are still a rebel and a maverick, you are being less and less like yourself.
And then one day you can’t remember if you are pretending or if it’s really you. It’s as if you don’t know your own mind anymore.
That’s why you have to go and find yourself again.