The first significant time I remember myself bringing out loud my inner voice was at the age of 11, at elementary school. I was participating in weekly choir gatherings, and loved singing, yet it quickly turned from a joyful experience to an embarrassment, because the music teacher kept putting me on the spot since she liked my singing. Though her intentions were positive, no child wants to be seated in the center of the room and used as an example, while all his friends are staring at him; so I decided to go talk to her about it. I was walking in circles for a few minutes, and then finally told her what was bugging me: “You’re giving me unwanted attention”, I blurted.
She turned red, and spent the next few minutes shouting at me how disappointed she was with my ungratefulness. Back then it felt horrible, but when I grew up I realized it was an important lesson about standing up for myself, no matter how much it hurts. I stopped singing at that choir, but I found my own authentic voice.
Standing up for yourself in the face of someone with an opposed opinion – may it be an individual, a group of people, an organization or a governmental body – can feel pretty much the same as I felt that day. That feeling gets even worse when the other person holds a position of power, or when that person’s view matters to you. I found myself many times keeping a low profile only to avoid a debate or keep someone from getting upset. I found myself probably an equal amount of times bringing my opinion out loud, debating and arguing, and many of those times were indeed painful. Physically painful. I felt my stomach hurt, my heart beating fast and my head pounding, twirling around a few versions of the same basic question: what did I do wrong?
The answer I came to embrace is quite simple: I did nothing wrong, but to think that everybody has to like me or at least listen to my different opinion. My need for belonging and acceptance should not shadow my need for being true to my values and opinions. That realization was far from being achieved in a short time – it took me a few years to be aware of my pattern to let people hear what they want to hear, rather than what I want to say. Then it took a few more years to find my preferred tone of voice and words of choice that I feel comfortable with, and picking the right timing. I can assure you I’m still struggling with that, and still making mistakes. Yet my choice to overcome the fear that someone won’t like me for what I have to say – was derived from understanding that there’s a bigger price for not speaking my truth: the price of losing my confidence in myself as well as others confidence and trust in me.
Finding our own voice and being upfront is not only about being assertive and standing up for what we wish for; it’s about aligning our speech with our perspective, and our actions with our values and belief system. It involves strong inner work which reflects externally in more than one dimension: First our voice is being heard, then our opinions are grabbing the attention, following that a new attention is given to what we represent, and finally – if we manage to align our inner voice with our actions – our trust-worthiness is significantly increasing.
Authenticity thus is our inner journey of defining ourselves as a whole – Head (what we think and say), Heart (what we feel and value) and Hands (what we practically do) – and at the same time our external journey as social creatures. We present to our fellow humans a certain image of us, and the more authentic we are – the more likely we are to be valued, accepted and trusted.
Does that mean that we have to stick to our own opinion, no matter what?
Not at all. There’s a fine line separating between adhering to our truth and not listening openly to different opinions. Our ability to listen carefully with an open heart, open mind and open will is a gift both to ourselves as listeners and to the person being heard – since it allows us to shift our attention in a new perspective, learn about a new idea and perhaps even generate a new outcome. Staying true to our authentic voice is not necessarily ignoring other views; it requires first a deep inquiry of different perspectives, opinions and other relevant information about the current situation, and as a result from that process – we’re more equipped to take a decision, which is aligned with our inner voice and values.
Now that sounds so bright in theory, who promises that it will be as easy in practice?
No one. No shortcuts. In fact, I can guarantee it is going to involve a lot of hard work, practice, some frustration, and then some more practice. I know because I’ve been – and still am – there. I can share a story from my own experience, which can probably be presented in my personal “Failures Gallery”. Five years ago I took part in our community team which was organizing the local event of the Israeli Independence day. When I heard about the planned fire-works, the disposable dishes to be used for the festive dinner, the hundreds of balloons which will be released into the open air, and some more – all I could imagine is the environmental damage that will be caused from those grandiose plans. I tried to explain to the rest of the team why it is so ecological harmful, but I was a fresh team member and my voice was barely heard. One guy even turned to me and said: “I don’t understand people like you – caring for the trees more than other humans”. That was enough to keep me quiet and obedient.
The year after I said no more. I started publishing articles in the local magazine. I was talking to people about my agenda, and listened back to what they have to say. I helped organise a sustainable second-hand market and I gave a community talk about sustainable consumerism. Gradually, I became the “sustainability person”, but since I learned not to impose my opinions – I also became a trusted source of information. Last year I co-founded the sustainability team in the local community, and our assignment these days is to reshape the way we think and operate in our community in a more sustainable and ecological manner. It has been a slow process, yet thorough, trustworthy, and mainly authentic.
Being authentic is paradoxical to many of our cultural common approaches and behaviours. It is the opposite from fitting in, following the herd, obeying blindly or just being apathetic to those in positions of power. It is, sometimes, speaking up when the vast majority remains silent, it is turning away from a violent behavior or just a rude and aggressive one, it is being proud with what you already have – when many others are chasing status, money and more “stuff” – just for the social impression. It is being the kid who yelled: “The king is naked!” when everybody else are cheering on a shallow culture with an empty-content.
Being authentic can feel lonely and scary, and at the same time courageous and rewarding. Just like a fingerprint, each one of us has a unique voice and authentic self. Our mission is not only finding it – but to find the courage to bring it forward and let it thrive.