I started my project management career in the NHS. Way back then, IT was a very male-dominated environment. So to fit in I wore suits, effectively suppressing my femininity. I also kept my personal life very separate from my professional life. One day, a colleague I’d worked with for three years or so said to me: ‘We don’t really know anything about you Tracy’. She was right – I always had the belief that sharing my private life was ‘unprofessional’.
I was very good at compartmentalising my world into my personal life and all that it entailed and my professional life. It suited me.
When a relationship ended, I would just carry on as if nothing had happened, taking solace in throwing myself into work. ‘Never the twain shall meet’ I believed – helped by the fact that I worked away a lot.
It took me a while to realise that I was hiding behind a mask. In my professional life, I didn’t have it as all together as I wanted people to believe. I felt a fraud; I didn’t know enough, and I didn’t dare ask for help – that would be perceived as a sign of weakness, as far as I was concerned.
It wasn’t until I worked in the Gambia that I started to bring all of who I was to the professional side of my life.
There was no hiding – the Gambia is centred around community, which is valued above self-interest. For a year, I lived up country in a compound with a local family. Water for drinking, eating and cooking was fetched from the local well by one of the sons. It took me 20 minutes to walk the five-minute journey to work every day – I had to say ‘hello’ to everyone. I would lunch with my work colleagues from a communal food bowl; I broke fast with my colleagues after Ramadan, and I had people from my office round for dinner.
When I returned home, I bought all of who I was into the workplace. I learnt that being authentic meant being true to who I was: enthusiastic, energetic, determined, driven and intense at times, but also calm, focused, fun and playful. I stopped pretending I had it all together and found that people related to me more. The paradox is that what looks like strength is often a weakness – an attempt to cover up fear – and what looks like weakness is often a strength.
If you hold on to an image of who you are as the super-professional, give yourself permission to drop that persona. Don’t spend years hiding behind a mask, thinking you ought to behave in a certain way. Give up the image, be really authentically you and notice the impact on those around you.
Our greatest strength is to be present, to be awake and to be all of who we are.