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The key to personal empowerment and a more inclusive world? Be your unique self

© Calvin Thomas

A globally recognized coach and speaker visiting Rochester this week is challenging people to be more authentic.

Ritu Bhasin says embracing our own unique qualities is not only the path to empowerment and personal success; it's also the foundation for a more inclusive world.

Bhasin will deliver the keynote address at Friday's FLX Women's conference, WOMEN RISING: Resilience, Resistance and Radical Connection.

In a recent interview, she explained what she means by authenticity.

"I define authenticity as the consistent practice of choosing to know who you are, to be who you are, and to embrace who you are as much as possible."

It sounds simple, but Bhasin said it's a challenge for most people. She learned from an early age that the more she expressed her unique self, the more she was told to conform.

"You can't tell this," she said, "but I'm a woman of color and I come from a religious minority group. I am a Sikh. My faith is called Sikhism, and I experienced, unfortunately, a lot of bullying as a child; racist childhood bullying at that. From a very young age, I internalized messages that to be accepted and have doors opened for me in terms of friendships and relationships, I needed to push down my brownness and play up my, 'I'm just like you, white people; I can be just like you.'

"Because my parents were immigrants to the country, I didn't grow up fancy and so it was a lot of me learning to act a lot more fancy than I am. While on the surface, those actions of me conforming to fit in led to some relationships and some doors opening, ultimately the adverse impact is, it hurt my self-esteem and my self-confidence."

Once we're adults in the workplace, Bhasin said, we might find the messages to fit it become more subtle and nuanced.

"For example," she explained, "you laugh and someone raises an eyebrow about how loud you're laughing, or you walk into a room and someone stares at you up and down and looks at what you're wearing, or is staring at your hair, or you're noticing that the person on your team who speaks in a really extroverted way and whose accent is more similar to the accent of the leader's and whose emotional expression is more similar to the leader's emotional expression in your team -- that's the person getting the better work, that's the person getting the mentorship and sponsorship, and that's the person ultimately getting promoted." 

She said these attitudes are insidious and permeate most workplace cultures. Bhasin said that's why leaders and those in positions of power must become aware of how bias or certain behavior preferences affect the way they judge and evaluate people.

Secondly, she said, people who have unique traits or come from diverse communities should learn how to embrace their differences and get ready to withstand possible pushback.

That includes showing insecurities and vulnerabilities. It was one of her biggest lessons.

"The more I actually show you my imperfections and my vulnerabilities and my insecurities -- basically, the truth of who I am -- the more you will be drawn to me and the more you will embrace me," Bhasin said. "Why? I create a space for you because you're living like that, too, and you need a safe place to fall."

Click on the LISTEN link above to hear an interview with Bhasin.

Her book is "The Authenticity Principle," and she'll be a keynote speaker at the FLX Women's Rising conference this Friday, Nov. 1, at the Woodcliff Hotel in Fairport.

Beth Adams joined WXXI as host of Morning Edition in 2012 after a more than two-decade radio career. She was the longtime host of the WHAM Morning News in Rochester. Her career also took her from radio stations in Elmira, New York, to Miami, Florida.