In my former life, I believed that in order to be “professional,” I had to hide parts of myself at work. And so for decades I hid parts of myself: my lifelong health challenges, my recurring illness, the pain in my heart. I told myself that if people knew how sick I really was they would judge my work through that lens, and they wouldn’t “trust” me.
And this terrified me. I feared I was a fraud, and that people would know it.
I was in treatment for chronic Lyme disease for 15 years, taking massive amounts of antibiotics and dealing with difficult physical restrictions. Yet, I overrode my body’s needs, and separated myself into two beings: Work Norma and Home Norma.
And Work Norma worked hard. She was driven, on time, reliable, and trustworthy. She performed at a high level, no matter how much it cost her body and her life. And, she used her head for everything. Everything was weighed and measured, analyzed, justified, rationalized, planned, and thought through relentlessly. She strove for as much certainty as could be had in a moment, speculated well beyond certainty, and documented everything. And it was exhausting.
And… she was rewarded for this. Appreciated, respected, validated, and rewarded.
Meanwhile, Home Norma recovered. Rested, recuperated, worried about maintaining the image, and feared being truly seen. Hiding.
In hiding the totality of who I was, thinking people couldn’t handle it, I was living two lives.
But I had internalized that it was what “professional people did,” and I was being “trustworthy.”
(Spoiler alert: Trustworthy to who?!?!?!)
At the age of 37, with all my beliefs and perceptions and coping techniques in place, I moved into international development work. This entailed spending up to a month a year in Ethiopia, predominantly in the rural field with local colleagues. And I noticed something amazing: they brought their whole selves to work. They didn’t have 2 separate personas, they didn’t deny what was happening in their bodies, they didn’t try to pretend that they didn't have personal needs, or, that they could do it all.
They slept in the car, they were emotionally open and relatable, they didn’t weigh and measure the impression they wanted to make, they took the entire car along with them when they went for their prayers, and they laughed. They were emotionally available to the group, gave and took from the group generously, and participated.
They didn’t have a “work persona,” and this blew my mind.
And then, the crash.
There came a day and time when I had used my work persona, and all of my other coping techniques, through to the bloody end, and I hit rock bottom. I was empty emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and physically, and I crashed.
Turns out, the coat of armor that relied on being perceived as trustworthy and professional, that worked so freaking hard all the time, had not made me impenetrable after all, it had consumed me and spit me out. Ignoring the truth in my body, what my body really needed, hiding valuable and important parts of myself, and denying my truth for so long was unsustainable, and the gig was up.
I collapsed on the couch, and spent a year staring into space, off-gassing all of the accumulated pressure that I had been holding. Turns out that bifurcating oneself, denying ones human needs, striving relentlessly, being “trustworthy,” and “professional,” and maintaining two separate personas was hard work.
The reckoning came in waves; and I became painfully aware of all the ways that I had abandoned myself, denied my truth, hidden myself, and overridden the truth in my body for an external priority.
And I deeply wanted to return to a new version of the old life. To “heal,” so that I could resume a “normal,” life. I judged myself as “weak,” for “failing,” and really didn’t want to face the possibility that me denying myself was the root of the problem. That maybe working in an office setting, with all of the rewards and security, just wasn't for me.
That would mean being seen, giving up all of my coping techniques, trusting myself, and going off the beaten track. Terrifying to even consider.
But healing was elusive, and wouldn’t budge if I wasn’t willing to change myself to meet it - and to see the root problem, which was that I was out of integrity with myself. Integrity can be a loaded word for some, however its original meaning is simply ‘wholeness.’ My body wanted me to choose wholeness, to honor my truth, and to express and communicate life from this deepest truth.
Over time, I came to understand healing is a call to change one’s relationship to life.
All those former ways of relating to my life were out of integrity with myself. They were predicated on a deep distrust of myself, of my true nature. And these beliefs valued an external perception of who I “was,” over who I actually was.
Perception over reality.
I had believed that shaping and modifying and controlling how I behaved in the world made me “trustworthy,” but in truth, it made me controllable.
Controllable to an external person’s (fickle) perception. And then I would twist myself into knots to be perceived a particular way, and mistrust my truth if it differed.
It was this way of relating to my life that was making me so sick.
Our western culture, our social conditioning, rewards us for doing this - for denying and suppressing ourselves, for shaping our behavior to manipulate others, all to maintain a place within the power structure. To be reliable and dependable and controllable and trustworthy - so as not to not be rejected or excluded, or judged.
Put another way: the price of assimilation within the power structure is to be controllable by external perception.
Because, when there is no room for our truth within the larger cultural/corporate/pan/agenda/goals, then we are being controlled. When we value an external perception of being right/wrong, or good/bad, at the expense of true/untrue, we are being controllable.
When (we believe) the culture asks us to override *our* truth to drive toward an agenda that does not include our truth, we are being controllable Controlled…by ourselves.
Having our safety be dependent on the fickle perception of others is relentless, and it is unwinnable. It is unwinnable.
It also buys into a mindset that says that some people are superior/inferior, some people matter more, etc - that we are inherently unequal. (Why would I consider another person's truth more true than my own?)
And this cultural pressure goes up against our truth in myriad ways: our health, our knowledge, our truth, our gut.
Being perceived as trustworthy was actually a means of being controlled.
Healing has brought a new perspective: that we only, ever, need to be trustworthy to ourselves.
Trustworthy to myself looks different than external control.
True trustworthiness means living from my truth, and having a conversation about that truth. It does not care about an outcome, for it knows that no outcome is truly complete until all perspectives are incorporated, and that all we can ever know and do is the next right thing.
It means I only, ever, have to speak my truth.
And, anyone that does not honor and respect my truth is untrustworthy…not me.
(Deeper truth: they are probably uncomfortable with honoring their own truth, so integrating my truth is deeply threatening.)
True trustworthiness is an internal act of revolution. It is uncontrollable, it is free, and it is deeply healing.
Norma Van Horn