My dad appreciated uniqueness. He didn’t care much for comparisons. He’d say “a papaya tastes like a papaya, not a pear. A mango tastes like a mango, not a peach.” He felt the same about people, appreciating them for what was unique and special about each one. I think that’s why he made friends so easily – he simply accepted every one of us for who we are… Accepted without judging, without comparing, and without expecting us to be something we were not. He found ways to dignify each and every person he encountered.
What he expected in return was for each of us to rise to our fullest potential. Toward that end, he challenged us and encouraged us and gave us an enduring example of self-confidence, dignity, determination and perseverance. As a result, I’m a proud papaya, not a pear.
What about you? Are you confident enough to be exactly what you are? To dignify others even if you don’t agree with the ways they are different from you? Do you know who and what you are?
Many people, even leaders, do not know. They flounder throughout their lives trying to be something other than themselves or trying to force others to be just like them. An endless litany of comparisons keeps them from accepting what they are and who others are, too. Instead, they focus on trying to be what someone else is or what some artificial ideal suggests we are all supposed to be.
I know how they feel. Despite my dad’s example, I struggled for the first half of my life with trying to be something other than myself. Growing up in a home with two retired Marines wasn’t always easy for someone who was a feeling type. My parents approached decisions and day-to-day life with logic and structure. To them, I seemed self-indulgent, hyper-sensitive and soft. This was, perhaps, the one quality Dad couldn’t quite dignify because he saw it as a barrier to success. Their tacit disapproval convinced me that I needed to suppress my feelings and be more austere.
Mostly, I succeeded, at least in an outward presentation. But the internal struggle wore me out. I felt bad for feeling bad about this part of me that I’d come to think of as bad. Over time, this significantly eroded my confidence and happiness. I could only pretend for so long. In the workplace, perfectly good employees often burn themselves out in this same way, trying to please a leader who demands sameness.
Fortunately, I became a mom. For me, that turned everything around. Not right away, although the resolve to be myself was there from the moment my daughter was born. It came because I didn’t want her to grow up feeling like she could not be who she was. I realized that this meant I would have to rediscover and learn to accept myself first. Doing so meant unlearning a lot of restraining habits and giving myself permission to be liberated. I had to find my own dignity in order to be sure she would have hers.
When I recognized that I could be a papaya instead of a pear, I even saw my parents differently. They were accepting and supportive in new ways – ways that my younger self had not given them credit for. They didn’t change their own ways, but they did seem to soften and meet me in some touchy-feely spaces where we hadn’t been before. They did that, I am sure, because I went there first and then invited them to join me.
In the last 15 years of my parents’ lives, we had relationships that were built on being ourselves. I no longer felt I had to suppress myself to win their approval. By stretching to be the best me I could be, I gained their approval in new and unexpected ways. But more importantly, I gained my own approval and dignified myself. It was only then that I could understand that my dad didn’t even like comparisons.
When I discovered the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality assessment, I had research and science that validated all these mixed up feelings and put sense into the differences I’d experienced and suppressed. This was yet another green light to be me. I’m finally getting pretty good at it.
In my work, though, I see so many other people who are where I was. They are struggling with the discrepancy between who they are and who they think they are supposed to be. They are desperately seeking validation and permission to express their own true selves. Their battle may be internal, but it shows up in their day-to-day communication, interaction with others, and level of satisfaction. Ultimately, it takes away from their ability to connect with others because they feel largely disconnected from themselves. Without seeing your own equivalent worth, you cannot have the dignity you deserve.
Society signals that were are supposed to be a certain type. Well-meaning family members try to mold us in their own image. Corporate America has a clear preference (albeit implied) for what is expected of us. Commanding leaders and peer pressure add to the confusion. Even so, no one is ever truly effective or happy unless they operate from a core of confidence that comes from being who you are made to be.
So who are you? A papaya? A pear? A peach? Or a mango? Each one is distinct and different and sufficient in its own right. And so are you.
This blog post was originally published on August 25, 2012 and was selected for the CONNECT! Community’s series on dignifying others. As a leader, it’s imperative to understand why and how to dignify every other person. Learn more about the impact of dignifying others and how you can CONNECT2Lead. And be sure to subscribe to the CONNECT2Lead Blog for weekly tips and techniques on leading with a people first approach.