Most of us have learned or been socialized to compartmentalize ourselves—especially when it comes to work. However, my experience has been that bringing your whole self to work unleashes a tremendous amount of energy and focus, enabling powerful connections and extraordinary outcomes. So why don’t we do it? There are a lot of reasons—all of which I experienced firsthand. The ability to bring your full self to work—and to life—is the result of a personal journey that often takes the metaphorical coal of life and turns it into gold. I share my journey as an invitation for you to embark on yours. It is not easy. There are challenges and often feelings of discomfort, but I believe it’s worth it. In work, family, or friendships, bringing your whole self is the only way to unlock your true potential.

Practically speaking, bringing your whole self is about acknowledging that you are one person—whether you’re at home, in a social setting, or at work, and bringing with you your unique experiences, life choices, and a frame of reference that makes you who you are. When I bring my whole self, I give context so that it’s clear what drives me and what my values are, and I’m transparent about my strengths and weaknesses. By sharing these things with others, it makes it easier to connect, and connection fuels trust, collaboration, and growth.

The second part of bringing your whole self is being vulnerable, which means forgoing the masks and pretenses that feed assumptions, misunderstandings, and disconnection. I discovered that when I shared my whole self, my relationships were catalyzed for greater engagement and success.

I wasn’t born this way, nor was I brought up this way. It is a journey fed by two pivotal stories that showed me that being anything less than my whole self would be disastrous to my well-being and what I could offer the world (i.e., my purpose). My story is unique to me, but see if you can find some parallels.

Growing up, academic achievement in science, engineering, or medicine was defined as “success in life.” I excelled early on, even skipping third to fourth grade. On top of being younger than my classmates, my family moved frequently, which did not engender me to my classmates and I experienced a great deal of bullying and alienation.

In my last year of high school, I rebelled. I refused to study and was held back a year, which allowed me to rejoin classmates in my age group. I fit better socially and experienced better self-esteem. I focused on my social connections and studied a little more but did not get into any of the engineering schools my father had been eyeing for me. Frustrated, he and I had a strong argument after graduation. He claimed to “wash his hands of me,” which gave me a little bit of space to find my way. I found a French-American Business school, took the entrance exam, and got in. That was the first time I stood up for what mattered to me, and by doing so, I found my tribe—my dad eventually came around. I had finally tapped into my whole self.

I continued showing up with my whole self as I moved into my professional life, where the stakes can seem higher.  

There are many definitions of success, and I had happily achieved a fair amount. I was enjoying a senior role at a global healthcare company in our global offices in Denmark and had been offered a new role in the U.S. that would involve more growth while also allowing me to pursue my ambitions to have a family. When I took the position, many people told me I was crazy because it looked like a step down, but I was clear on my “why.”

Success continued to come, and I was offered an opportunity to launch a brand in an emerging market. While challenging, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a meaningful difference. After a successful launch, my mentor—an executive in the company—and my manager discussed moving me to a more senior position with more opportunity. After much angst and thought, I gracefully declined—but it was not received well. From their vantage point, they questioned my ambition. By saying no, was I burning bridges? That was their frame of reference. It wasn’t mine.

I stayed where I was because I was committed to the current opportunity and there was still more to do. There was also my other responsibility, being a single mother to my child—my most important title and my number-one priority. And the rest is history.

Was this easy? No. I was worried and anxious, but I wasn’t willing to compromise. I was clear on my “why.”  I knew, from experience, that I needed to bring my whole self and be clear about what I needed and wanted. I had to practice courage regardless of being uncomfortable.

This is the courage I role model when I’m leading my teams. If I want people to bring their whole self, it begins with me, and because most of us aren’t used to this, people feel uncomfortable at first. This is understandable. Trust takes time, but once earned, it’s as good as gold.

Showing up with my whole self boils down to this:

  • Being clear about what matters most to me
  • Being open about my personal values, beliefs, and motivations
  • Modeling transparency about what influences my decisions
  • Asking people to do the same

As a parent, I do the same. I model for my daughter, and I ask her questions so she can tap into what she loves—what drives her, the things that make up her whole self. I work to nurture her strengths and minimize her weaknesses. We engage with both. I try to attune her to her feelings and encourage decision-making anchored in her motivations because I know the payoff.

And the payoff is huge. People comment on my seemingly limitless energy and passion. This is the result of being my whole self. It’s worth the discomfort in the beginning. Tap into your whole self and feel empowered to do bigger and bolder things. Tap into your purpose. And then model it for others.