Today, at work, I accidentally took off my wig. Not a real wig, mind you, but one of the many layers of disguise I apply before I enter any space occupied by other humans. In this case, what I actually did was bust loose a couple of lines of Shakespeare. Loudly. Probably way too loudly, knowing me. Specifically, King Henry V trying to rally the troops to face the upcoming battle of Agincourt:
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
Then there’s the uncomfortable moment when I remember I am at work, in a people manager’s meeting over WebEx. You know, the work where my skills are all about hacking a 10,000 line resource-loaded schedule, negotiating a policy change, or designing a governance model. At work, I am not a writer, painter, or performer.
So how does that equate to taking off a wig, you ask?
Lemme explain it for you.
I’m not the only person who applies layer upon layer of armour and disguises to go out in to the world. Everyone does. Some people do it consciously, taking careful effort to hide away parts of themselves that they are afraid will attract ridicule, hatred, or fear. Some people do it unconsciously, adopting the behaviours of those around them without ever really thinking about the meaning behind their actions.
There are work clothes and workout clothes and clothes that are okay to attend afternoon tea in a fancy downtown hotel. There are shoes for comfort and shoes for style. There’s makeup to conceal my imperfections. Deodorant to cover my stink. Cologne (no, no, say “perfume”, or they’ll see through your gender issues) to make you smell like someone else. Which tone and volume of voice can I use here? Is this the place where I can type gonna, shoulda, and y’all without getting made fun of, or the one where I use AMA footnoting and polysyllables that prove I can work my way through real scientific research papers? Am I acting too masculine? Too feminine?
As we head into fall, all around me, I can see everyone starting to assemble their armour. We’re going back to restaurants, movies, football games, school, the workplace, or even just out of isolation to start to make contact with old friends and family for the first time in months. We need to squish ourselves back into the right configuration to be accepted in each of these spaces. It’s super uncomfortable to make ourselves look, sound, smell and act the right way for each context. You need to remember what each person knows about who you are, and keep the other bits buckled down out of sight. It’s exhausting.
The most powerful example of this I have ever seen in my life was in the fourth episode of How to Get Away with Murder. Annalise (Viola Davis) takes off her jewelry, wig, false eyelashes, and makeup before confronting her husband (see video below). She takes off her metaphorical armour in a scene rocked me to the core by witnessing how very much armour she thought was necessary to be a powerful, professional woman. The character Annalise was an unbelievably powerful human who never needed any of that, but she believed that she needed that armour to face the world. As she strips away each layer, all I can think is how much of herself was never given a chance to shine. It echoed the actress’ own challenge, in a career that seemed to demand that she cover up so much of who she really was before the camera could roll.
I ached for Annalise, and for all of us, who invest massive amounts of energy making sure our work and home selves don’t cross into each other’s spaces, trying to make sure that we present ourselves i just the right way to meet each separate audience’s expectations, until you’re not really one person any more, so much as a half-dozen strangers that you’ve cobbled together out of other people’s rules.
The pandemic has given many of us a chance to reset our expectations about what we want and need in our lives. As things start to open up and you are given the chance to make contact with old friends, colleagues, and new connections… try to consider leaving a bit more of your armour in the closet. Take what you have learned about yourself and what really matters to you, and try to be open to doing old things in new ways, where more of your real self can come to work and play.