Reading time: 4 minutes
Thinking time: If only I knew …

When I was a young child, my parents, long divorced by now, had a habit of arguing a lot, mostly late at night. Way too often I overheard them, sometimes evening after evening, shouting to each other. My mom crying out loud, throwing things at my dad. At least that is what I imagined. I’m not sure if it was that bad, it is how I remember it. On those nights, me and my little sister, 4 years younger than me, would be sitting side by side on top of the staircase, listening to what was happening downstairs. Of course, we should have been in bed by then, instead we were silently crying together, and I would put my arm around her saying everything was going to be all right.

It made me averse of fighting and arguing for I guess the rest of my life. Even at the age of 20, I could still burst out into tears hearing two complete strangers argue on the streets, just because it took me back to those younger years. Going through my own marriage and divorce, me and my ex-husband never fought. Not once. I even cooked him his favorite meal on our ‘last’ day. Later on, we went shopping for his new furniture together and had a lot of fun whilst doing that. Going through those experiences as a young child, over the years I learned how to be empathic and how to avoid loud arguments at all cost. I could be very angry without anyone ever noticing. As an adult, I have always been proud of my kindness and positivity, worn on my sleeve as a badge of honor.

Lack of authenticity

Up until recently, when a friend told me my ‘overly developed empathy’ made him feel like I was behaving unauthentic. And that he didn’t believe me. I am not sure anyone can imagine how shocked I was. Me? Unauthentic? The remark took me completely by surprise. I always saw myself as one of the most open, vulnerable, behaving as my truest self, people. And now this?

  • Yes, I always take into account how the other one feels. Or would feel based on the behavior I can or could demonstrate. A talent I developed.
  • Yes, I tend to put the wellbeing of the other one before my own. After all, I am strong. I am flexible. I am always positive. I can survive anything.
  • Yes, I do nonstop analyze the potential outcomes for even the smallest acts. Whether it is liking or not liking a post on LinkedIn. Calling someone. Asking for help. Telling how I feel.
  • No, I am not avoiding conflict. On the contrary. I believe I manage them quite well. By communicating with respect. Patience. And parking a lot.
  • No, I am not working too hard only to be liked. I know not everyone will like me. And that’s perfectly fine.
  • No, it’s not that I don’t have my own opinion. If only. I feel strong about my beliefs.

But still, does too much empathy results in me behaving unauthentic? After giving it much thought, I now believe it does.

How does it work?

As always, our survival strategies are putting on the pressure here. No loud voices or ugly words for me. They simply take me back to bad memories. Unwanted situations. Moments where you might have been bravely comforting your little sister, nevertheless not knowing if you’d really make it out of there in one piece yourself. Without the feeling of being safe, we tend to be careful. In my case, by being too considerate. For others, in avoiding the whole conflict. Or simply in always wanting to be liked. Avoiding the argument an sich.

In my coaching sessions, I often use the Stephen Covey principle of dependence and mutual dependence. Demonstrating your true self, even when you aren’t at your most kind, or beautiful, asks for the confidence that you are not only safe, but also worthy and equally important as the other one. In order to reach a level of mutual dependence, call it the commitment you desire, we have to risk being completely independent. Risk being left alone. Putting the wellbeing of others above your own in fact always leads to dependence. And that is not a happy place. Even more, you hide the truth from someone that is important to you. By not telling them how you feel. By not behaving as you would prefer. By not showing a side of you that is angry, frustrated, or unsure about how to proceed.

A shared intention

Just be you. Easier said than done. Of course. As always, simple and easy are not best friends. Guess I’ll be searching for some more coach guidance myself in the near future. Nobody’s perfect and we all need to keep growing. Yet all I want for now is to set a shared intention. Knowing we won’t always succeed. Understanding that survival strategies can be very persistent. And that the need for safety and survival is often drowning down everything else. Setting a shared intention of being as honest as possible. Not only because the other one deserves to know our truth, but because we deserve to be just the way we are. Unvarnished. Good enough. Even at our ugliest. Worthy of showing our true self.

I’m in. Are you? Feel free to share your own experiences and opinions in the comments below.

Good luck!

About me – Being a certified executive and personal coach, I am associated to the Global Coach Group and Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Coaching team and owner of the global executive coaching practice BigFish4.me where I am working on an ambitious scale-up plan now that I’ve learned to ‘not having to do it all on my own’. Next to that I’ve co-founded thehouseofgrowth.org in December 2018 and started working some hours a month for my old love, the Adecco Group (LHH) as well as for one of the biggest Dutch coaching practices in Amsterdam. My passions include playing my quarter grand piano and messing around with acrylic paint on large sized linen canvas. When I’m not catching some proverbial Big Fish, for now I’ve partially replaced the gym for my now brand-new mountain bike, and I am loving it. But then again, I am still luckiest doing what I do best, challenging others and myself to perform at ‘our’ best