This is a scene that occurred a few months ago: The sidewalk outside the elementary school is sweltering, even at 8 A.M. A woman's voice calls out brightly through a sea of parents: "Hey there, how are you?" I think about my morning, how one daughter cried into her cereal over a homework assignment while the other refused to put on her "ugly" shoes; how I barked at both of them before pulling on sagging running shorts and dashing out the door.

I say, "Great! How are you?"

I always thought of myself as unabashedly authentic, never one to wear a mask. I voiced my opinions and advertised my flaws. I admitted when my life was a wreck—I wrote a memoir filled with embarrassing episodes from my past. (If anything, I was too honest.) But when I moved from my funky neighborhood in Los Angeles to a suburb populated by stay-at-home moms, I suspected that my cynicism, outspoken views, and sloppy, disorganized ways would get me in trouble.

Listen, I know myself. I step on other people's toes easily. I'm self-deprecating, neurotic, sometimes obnoxious. Not everyone likes me. (I do, though!) I knew the odds of misstepping were high. So I forced myself to be friendly, sanding down my edges.

One day I received an email from a local woman about a recent exchange in which she believed I'd slighted her. Her note was snippy. ("Like I already told you..." one sentence began. Actually, she hadn't told me.) I let it go. Still, the next time I saw her, she gave me the cold shoulder. So I apologized. It was almost painful, this inauthenticity. I resented it. And soon that resentment—and my thoughts about her—started leaking out in chats with parents in our circle. Despite my attempts to seem agreeable, I was starting to act like a backbiting jerk.

Then, my closest friend in town, Ann, said to me, "Why don't you just admit that you're not that cheerful or positive? I think everyone would rather know the real you." Finally I got it: I was being patronizing, even rude. I had underestimated these people. They could handle a woman with opinions and an attitude. What they couldn't handle was a liar.

So I stopped acting upbeat all the time. I started to disagree with other people, trusting that they could take it. I loosened up, joked around. I was my flawed, inconsistent, sometimes effusive, sometimes flinty self.

You might think that you'll find the real you, and after that she'll stick around forever. The truth is, every time you move somewhere new or start a job or meet people, you have to take the risk of revealing the real you all over again. And, for me at least, it only gets harder. The better you know yourself, the more worried you become that your iffy qualities will turn people off. As it turned out, it was easier to be kind and generous once I could admit that I was also moody and disorganized. Even better, showing my true self to people let them stop acting like perfect robots, too. Suddenly, instead of having stifled conversations, I was having real talks—often about being moody and disorganized.

"Blah. It's too muggy out. I don't want to do anything today," Ann said this morning. Music to my ears.


Next Story