Authenticity, transparency and vulnerability: What’s the difference?

I’m having a hard time writing about this topic. must admit, the last presidential debate was pretty horrifying. We all watched the leader of the US of A, ranting and interrupting and bullying in a tragic example of authenticity.

According to Vanity Fair, “Trump doesn’t accept the consensus that the debate was a disaster because, sources said, he was unabashedly himself.

In other words, he was authentic. The genuine Trump. The real deal.

He was also completely transparent: he wasn’t trying to hide behind convention or be someone he’s not, which is often why his supporters say they like him.

But vulnerable? No way. Vulnerability requires self-awareness in the context of other human beings. It’s the feeling we get when we’ve perhaps revealed too much of ourselves, or we’re afraid to reveal out of fear of being judged.

Authenticity is the truth of who we are, whereas transparency is the degree to which we reveal that truth. From opaque to translucent to transparent, we make judgement calls on how much we can reveal, to whom, and when.

Alone on a desert island, we’d all be authentic and fully transparent. We could run around naked, shout expletives at the sky, and be as weird as we wanted without any sense of vulnerability. I suppose that can describe narcissists as well.

But of course none of us live on desert islands.

It’s not all or nothing

We all yearn to bring our whole selves to work, because the energy required for mask upkeep is exhausting. All eyes are on the leaders to model the level of transparency that’s acceptable within the culture.

Historically there’s been too little transparency, where everyone’s walking on eggshells trying to guess at people’s real identities, emotions and intentions behind the armor and masks.

In an over-correction, the trend now is to let it all hang out. But too much self-transparency can scare the crap out of people and potentially cause you to lose credibility; there’s such a thing as authentically inappropriate. When a plane hits turbulence and everyone’s watching the crew, it’s wise to keep imposter syndrome under wraps.

I’m not so sure about this vulnerability trend; vulnerability is intimate; it can’t be forced. It’s a guide, not a goal. Instead of being caught in duality of all or nothing, perhaps there’s a third way.

The third way: Translucent

Being mindfully transparent is about revealing our humanity without pointing out the hair growing out of the wart. Transparency is potent stuff: we need to know the right dosage, the right degree of “see-through-ness” or translucency for the situation. What’s the right degree? That depends on an awareness and understanding of both ourselves and our listeners. 

It requires an exploration of the intersection between ME and THEY… which, of course, is WE. It’s about balancing relatability and truth with confidence.

  • ME: What is the most genuine version of me? What am I feeling right now? What do I need? This self-listening and self-validating step helps ground us in our truth. It’s about being vulnerable with ourselves first, so that it can be transmuted into strength.
  • THEY: Who are my (peers, team, partner, etc.) as human beings, not titles? How do they feel now? How do they want to feel? How comfortable are they with emotion? What do they need from me? These answers come from empathy and deep listening. 
  • WE: Within the context of our shared humanity, what’s my role as a leader in moving us towards our collective desired state? What’s one story I can tell that establishes a human connection? What do I say (or how do I say it) to earn both relatability and trust?

Start with who.

This is all part of the process I call Start With WHO. So much business discussion is focused on why (purpose), what we do and how we do it. But so few start with who: Who am I as a leader? Who are my peers and colleagues and customers, and what shared identity bonds us together?

A leader doesn’t build a product or a department or a company: he or she builds a sense of belonging by magnetizing a tribe of diverse individuals who come together because they’re wired similarly. The similarities may be purpose, or it may be identity, values, or needs. Rebels, travelers, change-makers, connectors, security-seekers, DIYers, catalysts… when we start with an authentic who, beginning with leadership, everything else falls into place.

Within this tribe, we can safely drop the masks. We can model a greater degree of transparency, showing our genuine selves, because we’ve created a safe space for people just like us. The uncomfortable feelings of vulnerability are diminished; we know we won’t be judged. This still doesn’t mean we can let it all hang out in a vulnerability-induced verbal vomit that shakes people’s confidence, but it sure simplifies where to draw the line.

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Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

We find belonging in our darkness

My biggest problem is that I look too normal. If you didn’t know me — heck, even if you do — my appearance would lead you to a pile of incorrect assumptions:  that this tall, slender, blue-eyed blonde has always been popular, probably a cheerleader in high school, successful in career and in love, and that I generally get what I want. And when I don’t conform to your expectations – which happens when my mask slips – you might write me off as weird, or a bitch, or entitled, or however else your filter might interpret my usually well-meaning actions. Trust me: I’m pretty familiar with all of them by now.

Let’s just get the big stuff out of the way right up front, shall we? I’m a gay, neuro-diverse (aka Asperger’s or high-functioning autistic), only child, ex-military brat who is never, ever going to fit into mainstream society no matter how hard I try. And oh, how I’ve tried. I learned all the social rules as best as I could, but they’re not instinctive. In my darkest days of trying to be someone I wasn’t, a friend told me, “you’re just not a girl’s girl” to explain why I was gently evicted from that circle of friends. I had no idea what that meant, but knew I simply had to try harder. At what, exactly, I wasn’t sure.

“What do you want from me?” I‘d cry to the uncaring world, weeping alone on my living room floor after another unintended social gaffe led to another rejection or another lost job, willing to drain my life blood for this feeling of belonging that seemed so easy for other people. Through decades of repeated traumatic losses, developing and eventually (mostly) recovering from PTSD, I’ve excavated the many reasons behind the fact that I am, and always will be, an outsider. And I’m ok with that.

Nowadays my outsides are a bit more aligned with my insides: I cut my hair, got a tattoo, and love to wear my motorcycle boots. I’ve slowly figured out how to be myself even in the business world. A few years ago I made an agreement with myself: that instead of sacrificing my life to fit into the mainstream world, I’d create my own. I now see that this motivation powered my decision to bolt overseas. And if I can succeed in creating a sense belonging while I’m on this nomad adventure, anyone can.

Why am I telling you all this? I think it’s essential to start normalizing and talking about the less-sexy stuff that makes us human. Over the past 6 months of solitude and reflection, I’ve come to realize that our power dwells in what we’ve hidden in darkness. That whatever we keep secret becomes a festering wound that’s visible in some form or another to everyone but ourselves. And that the only way to heal is to bring these truths and experiences into the light of awareness: to stand in our strength and embrace them, fully and completely: the beautiful lotus in the mud of human existence.

So I’m not writing this for you: I’m writing it for me. This is who I am, and it’s so liberating to set down the mask under the mask: the one everyone wears whether they know it or not.

The closet is not just for gays: it’s for any deviation from the media-defined norm, and let me tell you, it’s pretty damned crowded in here. When I shared with my dad my delighted discovery that I’m very likely on the spectrum – hurray! My entire life now makes sense! — he quickly advised, “don’t tell anyone.” Because that’s exactly what the older generation did: sweep uncomfortable things under the rug and don’t acknowledge it no matter what, even if the walls crumble and the house falls down.

There’s a reason why Brene Brown is so popular; she’s willing to openly talk about topics that no one else will even acknowledge. Much of the world is suffering from the absence of vulnerability. Society trains us to only see, respond to and judge each other’s constructed identities. As long as we all wear our masks, we can laugh, drink and pretend together that the world is as perfect as we make it look, all the while dying inside a little bit every day, thirsty to be seen for who we really are. And when seen, accepted.

The new thing now is Straight Pride: a far-right meme that snowballed into an actual event in Boston this year where a couple hundred straight conservatives marched in parody of Gay Pride. What a hoot. I actually love this idea, but they haven’t quite grasped the real purpose. A Pride parade is about taking out of hiding something deemed as shameful (but really isn’t) and wearing it like armor so it can never be used against you. Here’s what should happen in a real Straight Pride: everyone marches while holding up signs like:

  • “I’m overweight and I’m proud of it.”
  • ”I’m autistic and I’m proud of it.”
  • “I’m an introvert and I’m proud of it.”
  • “I’m sensitive and I’m proud of it.”
  • “I’m hairy and proud of it.”

Or maybe we dig deeper into things that might not make us proud, but they make us who we are. They’re those unhappy facts of life that we need to just own already instead of pushing away in horror like a dead rat. Why? Because countless other human beings are struggling with the exact same secret, all suffering in silence, all losing an opportunity for genuine connection and belonging with others who really, truly get it. Which means I’d expect to see Straight Pride signs with whatever is making each person feel so alone in this world:

  • “I’m depressed and can’t get out of bed in the mornings.”
  • “My brother is homeless.”
  • “I have a mental illness.”
  • “I lost my job.”
  • “I’m failing at ____”
  • “I’m HIV positive.”
  • “I was raped.”
  • “I committed a crime and I regret it.”
  • “I drink too much.”

THIS is what Straight Pride — scratch that — what life needs to be about: the deep inner work of owning who we really are and not what our masks lead others to believe. This is what members of the LGBTQ community have been wrestling to the ground. This is the spirit of Pride that I suspect we’d all love to witness: millions of people stepping into their power by paradoxically embracing what society says is weakness. Which means: understanding. Empathy. Inclusion into this big group we call Humanity instead of the ridiculous infighting that’s going on now between opposing groups in the name of a sad, diminished, lower-case-b belonging.

What do you think, dear reader? Are you with me? Don’t leave me hanging… I’d love a comment or like if you think I’m on the right track here.

Photo by Agustin Fernandez on Unsplash