I used to be a master at being a chameleon - figuring out whatever other people wanted from me and trying to be that. I did this a lot at work. Each company had a different culture, set of values and performance expectations. I did what I thought was needed at each to fit in and excel. The problem with this chameleon approach is that you end up losing yourself, trying to be someone you’re really not - acting in ways that don’t feel good, that don’t feel like you. And once you start it's extremely hard to stop. You’ve trained people to expect you to be that way and you've received external positive reinforcement for it. Yuck. You don't want to fall into this trap. You want to get to be you all day. It's way too exhausting and unsustainable to do anything else. Take it from me - you won’t be able to keep it up.
“But,” I can hear you thinking, “what choice do I have?” While it may feel like you have no choice and you have to do what you think is expected, that's not really 100% true. Let me explain. Of course we all want to do a good job and do the job that we’ve been hired to do, but in a lot of instances, there really is more wiggle room to show up as you - with your thoughts, opinions, needs, work style preferences etc. than we ever give ourselves a chance for. But instead of using that wiggle room, we tend to just chameleon-up, pretend to be who we think we have to be and the idea of doing anything different feels scary. The thing is though, that a lot of what we think is expected of us and how we’re supposed to be on the job can be based on assumptions we’ve made and stories we’re telling ourselves, not reality. We've locked ourselves in a box without anyone forcing us in. The good thing is that those assumptions and stories can be challenged to give us a bit more breathing room to be ourselves. When you’re feeling like you have to be a certain way or do your work a certain way when it doesn’t feel good to you, you can ask yourself, “Is it really true I have to be/do it this way? Is there some wiggle room for me to try things differently?” For some things the answer will be no, there’s no wiggle room, but for others you will see there really is more freedom than you thought.
This doesn't mean challenging your boss to the point of putting your job or reputation in jeopardy, but a lot of happiness can be gained from speaking your truth around the smaller things (like your preferred working style and how you want to set up your day/projects). I once had a colleague who, during the summer months, would take her laptop to the cafe across the street from the office and sit outside with a cappuccino. Almost every afternoon. If we had a meeting she’d come back in and yeah, it wasn’t the norm for the office to be so nomadic, but no one really minded as long as she got her work done. She got to sit out with the sun and the birds and do her thing. All because she used the wiggle room.
And even things that look bigger on the surface can be not that big a deal when you look at it. Perhaps your boss is constantly asking you to put in time over your weekends. But that’s not what you signed up for when you took the job. Maybe you just need to have an honest conversation about it so you're on the same page with expectations and what you're willing to do. It's just two calm, rational (hopefully!) people sitting in a room talking about something. I know the anxiety about speaking up for yourself can make it feel like it sometimes, but remind yourself it’s really not life or death.
So, how do you get to be yourself at work? You choose to be yourself. You choose to make the effort to use the wiggle room instead of just assuming you have to be a certain way. Just play with it in any small ways you have the opportunity and courage to and see what happens. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.