Sameena Safdar | Social Media Strategist, Personal Branding Expert, & Legal Technology Consultant

Lay Down Your Mask and Be Seen

Here’s a piece I wrote this winter, after seeing the Disney movie Encanto.

Why is it so important to us each to see and be seen? If it is, why do we all avoid it so much?

I just finished my second viewing of Disney’s Encanto, this time watching alongside my teenager for his first viewing. I was impressed by his quick insights (or maybe it was just a predictable Disney plot) into how each family member was struggling to live up to the expectations their family had of them.

Trapped by Expectations

Many of the characters felt pressured to refrain from anything that might not fit their family’s expectations. They needed to hide parts of themselves that didn’t fit their family’s narrative, as they felt like their other values, skills, or desires weren’t seen or appreciated by their loved ones. They feared they would have no value to their families if they weren’t the things their family expected them to be.

“What could I do if I just knew it didn’t need to be perfect? It just needed to be?”

Character from Encanto riding a unicorn

One character laments the fact that she cannot relax and live in the moment: “But wait. If I could shake the crushing weight. Of expectations, would that free some room up for joy? Or relaxation? Or simple pleasure?” (Cue her dreams of relaxing and joyfully soaring on a unidonkey).

Another discovers she can create beautiful things when freed from the constraints of her family role: “What could I do if I just knew it didn’t need to be perfect? It just needed to be?” Of course, one member leaves the family to go into hiding due to feeling no one appreciates him or his unexpected gift. But (spoiler alert!) I won’t talk more about that, no no no.

Lay Down Your Mask

Every day when coaching clients, I see this dynamic of hiding parts of yourself that may not match what people think of you. My coaching clients seem scared to highlight anything outside others’ narrative of them. They are afraid to place anything in their LinkedIn profiles beyond what they’d list on a resume, afraid to “overshare” on social media about any topic beyond their stated area of expertise.

The goal of social media is to connect with others and share who you are (your “special sauce”), your values, skills, accomplishments, dreams, and goals.

Now that I coach British and Swiss attorneys, I hear that fear a lot, and “brash American” and “sharing like Oprah” has been said often in reply. I have found lawyers are especially reluctant to unbutton their top button or suit jacket and show people who they are beyond being great attorneys.

Image of a person buttoning up their suit.

The goal of social media is to connect with others and share who you are (your “special sauce”), your values, skills, accomplishments, dreams, and goals. When you don’t show anyone who you are, why you do what you do everyday, and what makes your heart sing, no one can get to know you. People can’t feel connected to you if they don’t know you. If you don’t include any of what makes you who you are in your profile, or if you don’t share about things that are important to you personally, and especially if you shut your door, put your head down, and work your 80 hours, no one will feel connected to you.

If you don’t feel engaged and fully seen for who you are, including all of your skills, strengths, interests, gifts, and more, you won’t want to spend so much of your time with your coworkers.

COVID pushed those masks aside and laid bare what we had tried to hide–that we have lives outside of being devoted employees. We have other roles (parents, children, pet owners, entrepreneurs, caregivers) and once we could see in each other’s living spaces, the jig was up. Our real lives were laid bare as kids, dogs and cats, spouses or partners all wandered into frame from time to time. It happened to us all-CEOs, secretaries, law firm partners, accountants; no one was immune.

video of a someone's kid walking into camera view during a zoom.

Once we all were seen, some of us craved it and decided to find roles where we could not only be fully seen on a regular basis, but where that was welcomed. Enter the Great Resignation (or Great Reset or Great Reflection or Great Reorientation–whatever we’re calling it this week). If you don’t feel engaged and fully seen for who you are, including all of your skills, strengths, interests, gifts, and more, you won’t want to spend so much of your time with your coworkers. Generally we spend more time with coworkers and clients than with our loved ones. Thine CEO and cofounder Sang Lee says feeling seen is one of the things that most motivates employees.

Image of Santana from Glee saying "I wanna shine and be seen for the star that I am."

Women are Struggling to Lay Down Their Masks

But some people did not embrace laying down their masks. I coach clients everyday who hesitate to show authentically who they are. Sometimes, they don’t even know–they’ve never stopped to think about what makes them who they are, why they have chosen the path they have, what they really want to do or cultivate in their lives, and what they offer the world (their special sauce).

It’s more often my female clients who are afraid no one wants to know who they are beyond the roles they already play. They fear their accomplishments are not worthy enough to talk about. Imposter syndrome is crippling so many women, especially women of color, and keeping them from fully connecting with others. Women often have a Greek chorus in their head telling them what they are doing is not enough, it is not as much as others are doing, and they’d be taking up space if they shared it.

So my social media coaching has really morphed into more of leadership coaching–understanding who you are, what drives you, and how to share your voice with your colleagues, clients, potential clients, leadership, and the world.

I encourage you to embrace fully showing the world who you are and what makes you the special person you are.

Image of Chris Sapphire saying to Shine that light so bright

Raise your voice to be seen. At the end of Encanto, the main character’s family tells her they see her: “We see how bright you burn. We see how brave you’ve been….Open your eyes. Abre los ojos. What do you see?”

The main character responds that she too finally sees herself: “I see me. All of me.”She’s an animated character, but you deserve no less. Start sharing who you are with your managers, colleagues, clients, and the world.

Don’t hesitate to use social media to let people glimpse the things you care about and are passionate about–your special sauce.

We want to see you, and we want you to feel seen.

Branding: A Key Tool for Women’s Success

We all have a personal brand, whether we realize it or not. Your personal brand is what you are known for and what people say about you when you’re not in the room.

But you don’t get much training in college or graduate school on how to recognize your brand-or how to hone it.

Women especially often struggle to cultivate and share a brand that may look different from those in power in their companies. With most organizational leadership historically dominated by white men, women and women of color might hesitate to highlight anything different than what they see in their current leadership ranks.

But if you don’t focus on cultivating your brand and sharing it, you risk not connecting to others. There’s many ways to hone and share your brand and there is no one way you have to do it-just find a way that feels authentic to you.

A Thomson Reuters diversity conference I attended a few years ago featured three different women discussing how important  branding had been to successfully embarking on different trajectories in their careers.

Branding Your Femininity

Carolyn Leonard, Co-Founder and CEO of DyMynd, discussed how she combatted the sexist and hostile reception she received as one of the first women traders on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade — by using her being a woman and her femininity to her advantage. “I chose to be a first-rate woman because I was always going to be a 2nd-rate man.” Leonard also used her clothing as a weapon, dressing in beautiful bright suits and 3- or 4-inch steel heel stilettos every day. “I considered clothes more than clothing, but what I needed to go to war. I needed power to survive in the environment the men created for me in the profession I chose.”

The other secret benefits to steel-heeled stilettos were how an unfortunate “accident”, when she stepped on another trader’s foot, led to her obtaining a key spot on the trading floor not only with a wide berth by fearful competitors but also fortuitously in a location where she could both hear and feel buy orders rapidly increasing. Leonard humorously gives “all credit to the shoe department at Neiman Marcus.”

Image of a red stiletto with steel heel

Leonard also noted that men on the floor bought into her branding so much they would come over to see exactly what she was wearing that day — but of course they had business to transact and would end up doing business with her.

As time progressed, Leonard became known as a strong, successful woman and an advocate for other women, because she understood the power and strength of appearance.

“Being a woman means being feminine but strong, that I have integrity, and that I have an ability to stand up for myself and others who cannot.” — Carolyn Leonard

Branding Your Integrity & Accountability

Branding yourself for your integrity and accountability can lead to new paths in your career as well, especially when suffering a failure or setback.

Suzanne Rich Folsom, currently Senior Vice President and General Counsel at Philip Morris International, noted that once she failed in her pursuit of anti-corruption efforts in a foreign country because she misread the political winds. But after that and serving through one or two other crises, she became known as someone who would do the right thing no matter what. She also found that the people around her began to think of her for other crisis positions.

Karen Gray, now Executive Vice-President, Human Resources of A+E Networks, recalled how taking accountability for a mistake as a junior associate and calling it to a partner’s attention, not only impressed the partner but led to the mid-level associate on the same matter taking an interest in her career and actively looking for opportunities to promote Gray’s advancement. An associate in the audience agreed, noting that the opposite is very effective too — a partner who had the managerial courage to take responsibility with a client for a large mistake she had made as a junior associate made the associate develop deep loyalty to the partner. Now as a mid-level associate, she models that same behavior for her junior associates.

You can tinker with your brand somewhat but cannot be inauthentic or try to become someone you are not.

Gray noted too that you can tinker with your brand somewhat but cannot be inauthentic or try to become someone you are not. Folsom agreed, warning that as you move up, there will always be someone who doesn’t like you or dislikes some aspect of your personality, but you shouldn’t necessarily change yourself or your branding because of that.

“People who know you have always done the right thing will believe and support you, and not what’s written on the internet or believe other negative things about you,” Folsom said, adding that you can be successful if you focus on yourself and your skills and values instead of worrying about whether people like you.