Lessons from Oprah and Mika Brzezinski on Being Authentic in the Workplace

People don't want to be or expect to be "fixed." Instead, what they actually yearn for is to be understood.
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"Don't expect the clarity to come all at once, to know your purpose right away," urged Oprah in her May 2013 commencement speech to Harvard graduates. After several years in the media business, Oprah said, "it became clear to me that I was here on earth to use television and not be used by it." And that is precisely what she's done -- she's grown an empire and has used the transcendent power of her industry to better people's lives.

Coming from a different place in the media business, Mika Brzezinski is following in Oprah's footsteps, using her platform as co-host on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" to address the tender issues of negative body image, binge eating and the restriction of food. Like Oprah, Mika has struggled with compulsive overeating and a hidden obsession with shame and self-criticism. In her current bestseller, Obsessed, Mika Brzezinski says, "I never really thought I brought much to the table, so junk food filled the emptiness I felt." She reveals personal encounters from a lifetime of hiding her own challenges with body dissatisfaction and patterns of disordered eating, healthcare and overall emotional well-being.

In her previous book, Knowing Your Value, Mika looked at the roadblocks women face in the workplace and the ways in which women get in their own way, thwarting their confidence level and success. Prompted by her own on-the-job experiences, Mika encourages women to make changes in order to attain the recognition and compensation they deserve. This time around, she goes the next step by speaking candidly about her personal life, saying:

You can't do that, if the message is a lie. I thought the only thing that mattered was being thin. I thought that thin equals success. It took me a long time to realize that it's not enough just to look good. That image won't last unless you are healthy on every level, and honest and transparent about what it took to get you to that place. That honesty will give you a sense of peace and clarity, along with the confidence you need to do the job before you, and to be recognized for your accomplishments.

Thank you Mika, and thank you co-author Diane Smith for having the courage to join Oprah in talking about your personal struggles -- those "real" struggles that far too often are taboo for discussion. When I tell women about Mika's history, they stare blankly back at me, realizing that if a woman who is clearly smart and attractive can be at battle for years with her own appearance and sense of being "good enough," then it's understandable that any of us might find ourselves in that zone.

The key is changing our way of thinking and changing our way of talking to and about ourselves. We need to become more mindful of the distorted ideas we hold, locked in a time warp held over from our teen and early adult years. Once aware, we need to learn and practice speaking with pleasant tones of voice and use positive language.

Addressing the challenge to accept and embrace one's authentic self, Oprah told the graduating students "the single most important lesson I learned in 25 years of talking every single day to people was that there is a common denominator in our human experience. What we want, the common denominator that I found in every single interview, is we want to be validated. We want to be understood."

You betcha. That's been a refrain of mine for many of my 35 years in practice as a psychotherapist and leadership consultant. People don't want to be or expect to be "fixed." Instead, what they actually yearn for is to be understood. Ironically, to get there we must start with understanding ourselves. Too often, we think it's others who we need to validate us. That maybe the case in some situations, but it doesn't and can't supercede the need to learn how to validate and support ourselves. Obsession about anything drains productive energy, distracts away from what matters most, dampens the spirit and inhibits overall confidence. When we have ways to counter inner worry and the tendencies to invalidate ourselves, we strengthen our ability to be reasonable, confident and resilient.

All the accolades, applauses and attention from others doesn't hold up against the power of our own internal voice -- that voice that I call the Inner Coach™. It's the voice that speaks with compassion, encouragement and wise guidance for how to move forward. It's the part of our mind that recognizes our efforts and fosters a positive attitude. It's an orientation that recognizes we will always feel less than others in certain ways and, in spite of that, we can value the ways in which we are loveable enough, smart enough and attractive enough.

Having imitated Barbara Walters during her early years in show business, Oprah encouraged the graduating students to be more real in how they live their lives, to be more of who they actually are:

One night, I was on the news reading the news, and I called Canada "Can-a-da," and that was the end of me being Barbara. I cracked myself up on TV. Couldn't stop laughing. And my real personality came through, and I figured out "Oh, gee, I can be a much better Oprah than I could be a pretend Barbara."

I love that story as well as her concluding remarks:

From time to time, you may stumble, fall, you will, for sure, count on this no doubt, you will have questions, and you will have doubts about your path, but I know this: If you're willing to listen, to be guided by that still small voice that is the GPS within yourself, to find out what makes you come alive, you will be more than okay. You will be happy, you will be successful, and you will make a difference in the world.

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