"Style is a way to say who you are without having to speak." --Rachel Zoe
Claiming your personal image is a hot topic for me. Now when I say “image,” I’m not just talking about the clothes you’re wearing. I’m talking about the entire self you present to the world - and while that does include clothing, it’s also about your verbal and non-verbal communications as well as your internal thoughts and reactions that manifest into your actions. It’s a full package and a lack of authenticity on any level is reeeeeaaallly easy to spot. And everyone has an image - the student, the executive, the trainee, the entrepreneur, the stay at home parent…if you’re a living, breathing human, you have an image.
I have learned to not focus on what other people think or to only do something for outside validation, but we as humans are very visual and experiential beings, and we make subconscious decisions about people almost immediately based our own biases and experiences. That immediate reaction from other people, we can’t control. We all do it. But the one thing we can control is the message and the energy we share with people and send out into the universe.
So how do you find a balance between not caring what people think and ensuring that they don’t misunderstand what you are saying about yourself? Because once you lose control of it, it’s difficult to regain.
So I’m going to break it down here, into 3 separate areas on personal image messaging:
The first, and what I consider probably the most important of these three steps, is to keep your focus on you and your efforts, and genuinely not concern yourself with the reactions of others. I know this sounds counter-intuitive but just stay with me on this because this is important and everything else relies on the understanding of this concept. This is a big part of my life and I apply to every situation. I’m not telling you to not care about others or have no compassion, because that’s destructive and arrogant, and that’s not what this thought process is about. In fact, it’s deeply rooted in caring for and respecting yourself and others.
What it starts with is an understanding and appreciation that you have 100%, full control over your actions and thoughts, and that you are doing yourself a disservice by deflecting or placing blame on anyone else for them - or conversely, giving them any credit. I do understand that this may not sit well with some of you who rely on guidance from, say, other sources, but I truly believe it makes you more powerful being, enabling you to do great things.
But even if you do already understand this, the part that a lot people miss or just don’t see, is that although you do wield power over yourself, the opposite is true about the power of others. What you need to accept is that their thoughts and actions are not only completely out of your control, but they’re also not your responsibility. Let me say that again - the actions, reactions and behaviors of others are not your responsibility. Unless of course, your kid breaks a window and you need to pay for it because you’re the adult, but the ultimate responsibility still lies with the kid because you know you’re going to make them pay you back somehow (right?).
And if you have something in your heart that you need someone to hear or see, you should only concern yourself with ensuring that the information you share is delivered from a place of love, authenticity and compassion, rather than how the other person will react. That’s how we miss out on magical opportunities and taking the necessary risks needed to find fulfillment or some type of success.
The second is, now that you are armed with the knowledge and power that you don’t control and aren’t responsible for the reactions of others (which I personally find very freeing), when it comes to your personal image, don’t give anyone any reason to question who you are and what you stand for. In other words, don’t give away your power. I know you’ve worked extremely hard to either get what you have or what you want, and you need to display it. Claim it and wear it proudly.
And when I say “wear it proudly,” I’m not just talking about your clothes, wearing designer labels, and the latest fashions, spending a lot of money, live outside of your financial means or try to impress someone for the sake of gaining approval.
I’m talking about respecting yourself enough to pay attention to and maintain control of your whole message. Yes, what you wear is important and a reflection of you, for better or for worse, but so is how you communicate, how you treat others and how you respond to others. And to be aware that what you do and how you look and behave, is loaded with messages. If your message that day is “I just left the gym and now I’m stopping at Target to pick up bread,” then so be it. Don’t excuse it or shy away from it, just be aware of it. And own it. And if you’re trying to convey some other message, say, trustworthiness, or professionalism, or whatever is important to you, pay attention to your entire message.
This knowledge can be applied in any situation. For example, you may be talented beyond comparison, but let’s say you show up to an interview dressed in opposition to that industry’s expectations, what message do you think people will “hear”?
Control. Your. Message.
Find the balance between being authentic and respecting cultural norms so you don’t completely turn people off - unless, of course, shock value is your goal. In which case, you need to go all in with everything you’ve got
My third point is to be aware of and take responsibility for your reactions and biases toward others. Again, you can’t control the actions or behaviors or messages being shared others, but you are completely responsible for how you react to them, and I don’t want you to miss out on something because you’re stuck in your head.
Let me tell you a story of a very embarrassing time from when I was much younger. I was working for an agriculture company, and I was pretty cocky and obnoxious (and I have many other stories to share on that subject because I was admittedly pretty insufferable and unlikable at times, and I was going down a seemingly predisposed path, chosen for me by a historical behavioral pattern in my family, of which I was in complete denial at the time) and it caused me to be judgmental, depressed, jealous, angry, manipulative, and just generally an ugly person inside. How anyone liked me or even tolerated me back then is beyond me because today I would not have chosen me for a friend, but it does explain some of my choices back then. But again more on that later because it’s very enlightening. And it does relate to my point, I promise. And by the way, I recognize who I was back then, and I own it. But, ugh…
So get back to my story…I was working the reception desk and a woman came in wearing dusty clothes, she looked a little dirty, hair was a mess, like she had just come out of the fields, which made sense considering where I worked. Then, with her scratchy, cigarette-infused voice, asked to see our managing partner. Now thankfully, at that exact moment, he came around the corner because who knows what kind of attitude would have come out of my mouth.
He was genuinely pleased to see her, and they hugged, and they laughed, and they talked about the coming harvest season, so I thought maybe she was a family friend or into gardening or something. After she left, he was still smiling and asked me if I knew who that was, and I replied that I didn’t because I didn’t have a chance to ask, which was the truth.
I don’t remember her name, or really anything else about her, but it turns out that she was one of the wealthiest and most respected women in the valley, and then he commented on how much he loved how unassuming she was and was always herself and how funny that you’d never know any of that by looking at her.
That, for me, was a major wake-up call. Apparently, she was known in her peer circles as being the most self-aware, kind, compassionate, giving person they knew. She was a genius when it came to gardening and harvesting crops, and I’m told almost able to communicate with them.
But what I learned that day was I needed to be more aware of my biases and judgments toward others. Had I opened my big mouth and almost assuredly said something snarky, because again, I was young and ignorant, I would have damaged my reputation. By not being curious about others, and wanting to really hear their true message, I was only hurting myself. Now, while I can’t necessarily point to that specific moment as being the one turning point for me, because I still remember it clearly after almost 23 years, it clearly made an impact on me and was definitely important.
So, this lesson and concept has been a large part of my personal developmental process and journey, and although I haven’t been and am still not perfect, by being open and aware of and in control of my thoughts I’ve met some amazing people and had some incredible experiences. And, by the way, thankfully became a different and I hope better person in the process.