Opening Up at Work – Lessons Learned from a Month of Being My Whole Self

Recently, I had an opportunity to tell a lot of individuals how much I appreciate having them in my life. I found it to be a fairly scary experience: What if they thought I was too mushy? What if they didn’t care about me as much as I cared about them? One by one, I had these conversations, and one by one, people told me how happy they were to hear the nice words. Lots of these conversations ended with the two of us reflecting on our friendship, and even feeling more connected than before we had started talking.

Opening up to people is always a scary business, even when it’s about something positive. What if we get hurt? From elementary school on, we learn that you don’t tell people when you like them, or when they make you happy. What if they don’t like you? What if they think you’re weird?

I learned something from my experience: There is a lot to be gained from telling people that you care about them, and very little to be lost. I decided to see if this theory was applicable in the rest of my life. So for the last few months, I’ve been testing out a new life guideline for myself: Don’t hold back the good things.

Don’t Hold Back Appreciation

In day-to-day life, we tend not to spend a lot of time thinking about the things we appreciate. Instead, we focus on the day’s little inconveniences, the things that went wrong, or the things we’d like to do better next time. We don’t usually reflect on all the good things in our lives, and if we do, we don’t usually tell other people about it–especially when those good things are other people and the work they’ve done.

Sometimes, we even purposefully withhold praise from our teammates, in order to motivate them to do even better, or because of office politics, or because we don’t want to embarrass them. Sometimes, we feel like praise is supposed to be sparing and only for the big things. We usually remember to give it when someone has put out a fire or reached a huge milestone, but we tend not to thank and praise people for just doing a good job day-to-day.

When we fail to do this, we miss an opportunity to improve our own mood, but we also take the chance of negatively impacting our coworkers. Failing to recognize a teammate’s hard work can leave them feeling under-appreciated, and the next time they receive a piece of critical feedback, it will be that much harder to swallow.

On the contrary, there’s so much to be gained from practicing appreciation! Taking time to thank someone for a job well done or praise them for the great energy they brought to a meeting boosts everyone’s mood, and it tightens the bonds between teammates. It lets them know that you care about them and the work they’re doing. Reflecting on my teammates’ positive qualities also leads me to appreciate them more as individuals, which helps me build friendships with my teams.

Don’t Hold Back Friendship

If we have friends at work, we tend to hold them at arm’s length. We keep quiet about the trials and triumphs we’re going through in our personal lives, in an effort to insulate our coworkers from our problems, or to avoid being perceived as weak, or just because we feel like we’re wasting time by talking about anything other than work.

This is a shame, because we spend eight hours a day in the office. That’s even more time than we may get with our families. Why not spend those hours with close friends?

During my time at Atomic, I’ve found that with each new project, I can’t help but start to feel close to my team. Going through difficult things together tends to form bonds between people. And the work we do here is very difficult. It can be stressful at times.

Naturally, Atoms tend to become friends. Those friendships are what makes this office tick—they’re what makes the office a happy, fun, safe place to be, and I think it’s why I keep accidentally punching “home” into my GPS when I mean “work.”

Don’t Hold Back Your Personality

Still, shaking the idea that I needed to hold back in my friendships at work took a while after I started at Atomic. There’s a vulnerability in being friends with someone: You let them see your “real” self, and you have to trust that they won’t turn away from you for it. Pretty big risk, eh?

This holds especially true in business settings. Most people get trained to be “professionals.” Generally, that means we have a clean-cut, pulled together persona that we bring to work. We draw strong boundaries between our real-life selves and our work selves.

At work, we try to be level-headed and reserved, not too excited, not too emotional. We talk around our strange hobbies and our bad jokes and the things we care about most because we feel like craziness and caring are unprofessional.

Unfortunately, it’s exactly those things that make life, and people, interesting. As previously mentioned, we spend eight hours a day with people who have been discouraged from being interesting for most of their professional lives.

I once asked a more experienced Atom how much personal life was okay to bring to work. Did he think it was okay to share that I was getting married? He told me that not only was it encouraged to share exciting life news at work, but also that I needed to quit trying to divide myself in half. Up until then, I had been trying to be professionally distant and avoided talking about my personal life at work, at the expense of sharing my personality and building relationships with my teammates.

Learning to bring my whole self to work meant sharing successes and failures and all the things I cared about, and it made me feel more like myself. That’s really important; once again, eight hours of every weekday is a lot of time to spend not being your whole self.

When to Hold Back

“But professionalism is important,” you say. It’s true; professionalism strives to cultivate an environment where people can be productive, and it helps very different people work together in a neutral space. I use these goals to inform my actions while I’m in the office, without taking professional dogma too seriously.

For example, I want everyone in our office to feel comfortable coming in to work. Other people may not be as touchy as I am, so even though I’m a hugger, I don’t give hugs at the office. I don’t feel like I’m compromising my personality; I’m just doing my best to be respectful of others. Maintaining respect for my teammates and giving careful thought to my actions preserves the important elements of professional conduct, without making me feel constrained or distant.

Practicing a New Skill

It’s been several months since I started consciously practicing not holding back. In the past, I’ve wasted a lot of worry on whether I should tell people I appreciate them, whether I should tell people I care about them, and whether I should be honest about who I am.

So far, doing these things has made me happier and more appreciative of the little things, and it’s deepened my relationships with my friends, my family, and my coworkers. I feel like I’m taking full advantage of opportunities to enjoy my day-to-day life; that’s pretty powerful!