Did You Disappoint Me?

Notice who you’re listening to, because context shapes your capacity to add value.

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

Q: I want to show up to work as my authentic self, but I have found at times that leaders and managers—people who I don’t want to be like incidentally—want to impose their preferences on me. They have wanted to mold me into cardboard cutouts of themselves. I’ve been told I am too exuberant or too open, and too expressive of emotion for others’ circumstances. The teams I work with, due to my compassion, tend to like me and engage with me. Just to be clear, this is not happening in the here-and-now (it’s historic) but still, it impacts me. I know I am a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), and I can’t change that. I’m not even sure I would want to. It is seen as lacking resilience at times when I think it is a gift. Leaders in the past have not liked it because I can act as the conscience of the organization. Do you have any thoughts of how I can get over this and just be me and use that to the advantage of organizations?  I have a lot of skill but this has definitely been a barrier for me.

Can I ask you something, Sensitive One? Imagine if the situation was reversed, and I was coming to you to ask how can I “get over” being myself, especially if I am also an HSP?

No, no, no, you’d likely say. 

You might even pull up the famous Martha Graham quote to explain why: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.”

Besides, you’d add, even if it were possible to change, you’d be doing it for all the wrong reasons, trying to please those who just want a cardboard cutout of you. Right? 

So, let’s not listen to those who don’t actually have our interests at heart.


While no one can question the truth of Graham’s “force that is translated through you into action”… living this truth? Haaaaardd. 

Hence your note. 

You’re not alone. As humans, if we *have* to pick between belonging and being ourselves, we start to jettison ourselves, abandoning our own truth as if tossing it out of a sinking ship. Again, not because we want to, but because we have to. Because of Maslow’s Hierarchy. Like you’re doing in your note. With your “I want to show up …..BUT” they don’t like it. 

This tension between voice and belonging is why so many of us act as if our boss gets to decide what is authentically true. Or we think making ourselves small will keep us safe. Or how we give up voice, subjugating our interests, to belong. 

We are only able to add our value when people around us let us. When we are valued. 

This is why the tension isn’t what you are asking….  if you should change who and how you are the — “conscience of the organization”  but how do you find a context where you will thrive


It’s painful to think of how many times I have let my crowd question my worth when really I needed to question if they were treating me right. 

Once, someone I deeply admired texted me line-by-line a talk she was witnessing between Oprah & Michelle Obama at some summit, and how she related it to Onlyness. 

Around the same time, another leader kept telling me how I “didn’t get Onlyness.” She felt so clear about this lack of my knowing that she not only said it to me but also in emails with other leaders I had introduced her to. It was excruciatingly painful to watch as she harmed me, even as I was helping her expand her network. In addition, she often suggested I imitate someone else, who wasn’t tilling new soil but marketing an already popular idea. “Be like Kim,” she’d say. 

Another bud told me my idea “wasn’t actually my idea.” Onlyness, she argued, had nothing to do with networks, but was entirely about the boldness of voice, aka a better word for Brand. As if brand didn’t already have its own word: brand. As if I hadn’t coined and then researched, then written 20 specific stories of how agentic power is social, how creating networks is what enables belonging… so that one’s voice can actually be heard. But 🤷🏽‍♀️ hey

And while I could hear the difference between the positive and negative, what I wasn’t able to do was sort this feedback in a more meaningful way. 

This gets to why I am sharing these vignettes.  

The person saying “you don’t get your own idea” was comparing me to another thinker/writer. The person saying, ah this is like branding was equally comparing me to an existing idea, one she personally loved. But the one texting me the speech content was spotting what I was aiming to contribute, in a “hey here’s how I understand it and where its relevance applies.” 

I was hearing negative, negative, positive. Yet I could have noticed something far more specific. Comparative. Comparative. And Contributive. 

I was listening to them say I was disappointing, but not asking if they were disappointing me

Which is a crucial question. 

That person who had live-texted me the Michelle Obama + Oprah interview? Who believed in this idea as a route to better business cultures? How it addressed those most often dismissed — Black women — so they are centered? I turned to her and questioned her love. Asking if maybe she was wrong in supporting me in the first place, “am I a pity fuck for you?” 

(Yes, Sensitive One, you read that right. Instead of advancing Shine Theory, I did the very opposite. Internalizing the folks who make us feel shitty because they can’t see our worth … and then turning on those who do see, value us. Instead of shineshit.)

I questioned a very capable person who was rooting for ideas we care about in common. And in doing so, I ended up (and rightly so) losing a potential collaborator, champion, and friend. 

<Le sigh>


Why do I share all this? 

So you’ll notice the difference. Who is able to reflect you vs. be referential. 

The one who reflects us back to ourselves is helping us see our own ideas more clearly, and in doing so, be seen. For ourselves. Like a clear (non-distorted) mirror, not a judge. Asking us questions, yes but not to make one feel unclear, but so one becomes clearer.

To be referential is to compare ideas. Often used to say, hey this is how it’s always been done. Or to suggest if your idea isn’t already known and popular, it’s not worthy. (pssst, breakthrough ideas take time.) To refer means newness isn’t being seen, heard, valued. 

Not understanding this distinction means we try and address the bad-faith reactions of people who can’t honestly see us, and we waste our energy in all the wrong places. 

The saying goes never accept criticism from someone you wouldn’t turn to for advice. Even clearer: Listen to those who reflect your own needs and interests, not just refer to their own. 

By the way, I should mention that bud who said I didn’t get my own idea? She changed her mind after she lost her big-titled job and felt lowly about her lack of organizational power. *That’s* when she got the value of Onlyness. “I get it, I get it!”, she said with such liberated joy. 

(FINALLY, I wanted to scream. Still do, if the caps are anything to go by.)

You need not enter, only to crawl. You need to stand fully in that spot where only one stands. 


The most fundamental question we each have to learn to answer is the one you ask. But let me ask it in a way that better serves us all. How do you find the spaces to work where you can contribute what only you can?  You don’t have to “get over” yourself, but instead find the people and places where you can be valued, celebrated, seen. 

Loved, even.  For yourself. 

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