Eating My Own Dog Food
Authenticity, coming out, and the messy art of getting vulnerable
The day I pushed send on the first draft of my TEDxChristchurch talk to the speaker coach who was assisting with crafting engaging narratives, I knew that I wasn’t 100% comfortable with the draft and that something was missing.
Telling the story of how I had discovered the world of slam poetry and its power to shift thinking and drive behaviour change, I had at one point alluded to “something crazy going on at that point in my life”, going on to say that I had learned a great deal about myself. It was completely general, giving no clues as to what had been happening, why it was crazy or what I had learned. The speaker coach emailed back within a few hours, and straight up called me out on omitting the details. I had known on some level that it was poor, incomplete storytelling and that it would leave an audience wanting to know more, but I had been desperately trying to avoid doing something that was scary as hell for me — coming out as gay to a live audience of seven hundred people.
The crazy thing I had referred to in the first draft of my talk was me coming to a personal realisation in my late twenties, that I had been in deep denial about my sexuality for well over a decade and that it was no longer a viable option to keep my true self hidden. I had consequently ended a relationship with a kind man who I cared about deeply and with whom I had bought a house just months earlier. I had been going through the pain-staking process of de-coupling my life with that of a baffled and heartbroken partner who had been completely blindsided. In the following months, I was simultaneously processing feelings of elation and freedom, immense guilt, and confusion as to how I could have buried such a crucial part of myself in the furthermost recesses of my psyche.
My story of self that I had so carefully crafted and nurtured for ten years was beginning to crumble. It was no longer ringing true to me, and consequently I was starting to question everything about my identity.
I recall confiding in a close friend a few weeks before I told my partner, and after having uttered those two tiny little words for the first time — “I’m gay” — I told her there were two simultaneous, opposing thoughts going through my head. The first was “Oh my god, there’s no turning back”; the second, “thank god, there’s no turning back”. Both of those things were true, and were symbolic of the conflicting narratives that are common within us in times of great upheaval.
Torn between trying to respect my partner’s feelings, while also desperate to get out there and start exploring my new identity, it was a tumultuous year filled with a great deal of personal reflection and learning. I made many mistakes along the way. My partner was deeply hurt at the speed which I had seemingly moved on, being oblivious to the months of personal processing that had I had gone through before choosing that fateful Friday afternoon to make my big announcement. Looking back, I realised I had often put my own needs and feelings before his, and felt a certain degree of regret at how I had acted.
By omitting the story from my TEDx talk, I was trying to avoid being vulnerable and coming out to a large room full of people, and indeed any number of people on the Internet who might stumble upon the talk in the future. It was 2012, before we had marriage equality in New Zealand, and there was still a significant degree of prejudice towards LGBTQ people from large sectors of society who have since mellowed somewhat.
But by avoiding it, I was burying a hugely powerful part of my story; a story that notwithstanding the individual circumstances, contained important lessons that were relevant to anyone, from the importance of treating people well in difficult circumstances to being gentle with yourself as you let your own messy stories unfold.
A great irony of this situation is that a big focus of my talk was about the power of authenticity in spoken word poetry and storytelling, and there I was trying to avoid being authentic. In the software development sector, the phrase “eating your own dog food” is a common metaphor for the practice of using the software that you build within your own company and teams. It’s a way of finding out firsthand about the bugs, the kinks, the less than optimal user experience. After all, if you’re not willing to use your own software then why should anyone else buy it? For me, the process of getting up on stage in front of 700 people and telling my authentic story felt a lot like eating my own dog food.
Nothing inspires us more than narratives of personal experience. The power of a person relaying the stories of what that they themselves have faced far exceeds that of general examples. Yet we need to live our stories in order for them to be genuine; and in order to live them, we need to breathe life into them and let them be heard.
When we go through the process of crafting a story that we want to tell about our lives (or perhaps are hesitant to tell), it is not only the receiver of the story that benefits. By carefully dissecting our stories to understand what others might learn from them, we can learn a great deal about ourselves. We may begin to question long-held narratives that inform the way we think. We may start to wonder whether certain stories that we tell ourselves still hold truth, or whether they are serving us well. Through careful investigation, we may even reframe the stories of our past, re-casting ourselves or others in a different role. We might realise that in that heroic tale that we’ve been carrying all those years, we may at times have acted a little villainous. Or that the person who had hurt us and who we had consequently cast into the role of villain, was in fact going through a great deal of personal turbulence themselves and had been doing the best they could to get through it without any harm intended.
Despite the terror of coming out so publicly, embracing that part of myself and telling my authentic story was a profoundly cathartic experience. It was a step that helped pave the way to healing the wounds of my past, and accepting who I was.
A byproduct of becoming more self-aware is that we become more authentic, which in turn makes us better storytellers. Over time, the simple act of authentically telling our stories makes us better at telling stories. The personal undeniably influences the collective, as it paves the way for other hidden stories to come to the surface. And it is precisely the emergence of the stories we have kept hidden all these years that can slowly but surely help shift societal narratives.
For better or worse, the personal is the powerful.
Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed the story, feel free to clap — remember you can clap up to 50 times if you like it a lot. :) Most of my writing, I currently do for free. If you’d like to support my efforts in writing about storytelling for impact, narrative change, and systems change, you can do so through Patreon.
This article is adapted from the draft of the book I’m writing on storytelling, narrative, and systems change. For updates on the book, you can sign up to my newsletter. Thank you!