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Don't Let Mental Illness Make You Lose Sight of Who You Are

It was the final lecture of my graduating year at the Sauder School of Business – I sat down and looked up at my professor, assuming we would complete the semester with a review class of key takeaways and course concepts. Instead, she posed a question to the class. She asked: “What is your personal brand? You need to know who you are when you walk out those doors. You need to know your morals, values, strengths and weaknesses. You need to know what you want because people will take advantage of you if you don’t. Don’t settle for anyone that makes you question your personal brand. So, what is it? Who are you?”

I was poorly mistaken; this wasn’t an hour to review course concepts — it was an opportunity to confront a dilemma I had been neglecting for far too long. As a child of divorced parents, I reaped all of the “benefits.” And I am not talking about the two Christmas dinners or the extra birthday money; I am talking about the convenience of having two identities, two last names. Legally, my name is Braelyn Fedun. I use this name for official documents like my passport, birth certificate, school enrollment, etc. However, my friends and social media followers know me as Braelyn Bjornson. As a commerce student, professors would drill in the importance of keeping your personal life personal. If an employer wants to find something out about you, they will. You can change your privacy settings, sure — but they will find a way around that. Since I can remember, I was encouraged to be cautious of what I share on the internet. So, Braelyn Fedun would have a LinkedIn account, while Braelyn Bjornson would have Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

I thought I was brilliant; I had cheated the system. Braelyn Fedun was the marketing student attending the most prestigious business school in Canada. Fedun had a strong work ethic and would strive to be the best possible version of herself. So what did that look like? A high GPA. Fedun was a student number in a lecture room of 120 students. How would she differentiate herself from the others? By trying to be better than them, smarter than them. Her number one priority was her academics — she felt immense pressures as she was paying a lot of money to be there.

Braelyn Bjornson – she was the outgoing, loud (so loud), social butterfly. She loved her family and friends wholeheartedly. She secretly wanted to be an actress, but settled for Sauder because she knew there was more financial security in the corporate world. She was creative – she had so many ideas, but very rarely did her education allow her to implement them. Bjornson was brave; she was challenging societal norms by talking openly about her mental health struggles. She was a published writer (thank you Huffington Post). She was the BC Ambassador for The Maddie Project – an incredible organization supporting youth mental health.

I made a conscious decision to separate the two; I was still ashamed of my mental illness, despite my first publication on Huffington Post. I was talking to two different target audiences – for the marketers in the room, you know this strategy is rarely successful. I was experiencing cognitive dissonance (oh, big words Braelyn, well done — when you spend thousands of dollars on education, your vocabulary is richened). By separating the two, Fedun was feeding into the stigmas that Bjornson was desperately trying to eliminate.

I spent those four years of my university education jumping back and forth – on most days I was Fedun, but on a special occasion, Bjornson would visit. I was a fraud; I was lying to myself, and everyone around me. I didn’t know my personal brand, and because of that, I drowned in a loss of self-worth and identity. Don’t get me wrong, I am so grateful for everything that Sauder has taught me. I was able to network and collaborate with industry leaders; I had the privilege of learning from the best of the best. However, I do think there is a culture that exists within the school that needs to be deconstructed. You are more than a student number. The grade that you receive on an exam is not a reflection of your worth. A high GPA is only going to get you so far; when you sit in that one-on-one interview, you don’t have a transcript to talk your way through each question. Your personality and charisma are what distinguish you from the other candidates. Your personal brand is comprised of your values, interests and attributes – this is what gets you hired.

That final lecture, taught by the incredible Ann Stone (enroll in her course if you haven’t already), was the first time I was honest and merged the gap between the two names: Fedun and Bjornson. I stared at the handout Stone had asked us to complete and didn’t make it past the first question. It read: “What is your brand name?” I rewrote and erased my name several times. Fedun? Bjornson? No, I think Fedun. No, I should definitely make it Bjornson. You get the idea – I was conflicted, confused and frustrated. I didn’t finish the handout, instead, I approached Stone after class. She was well aware of my publications on Huffington Post because I told her the day I found out – I couldn’t help but brag to someone I admired, I was proud. Well, Bjornson was proud – Fedun, on the other hand, was worried how these publications would tarnish her reputation.

Stone was incredibly supportive. She congratulated me for being so vulnerable, honest and brave. But I wasn’t any of those things – or else I didn’t feel like it. I was hiding who I was because of the possibility of it hindering my success in the future. I knew if I merged the two I would get rejected from an employer; that was inevitable. Bjornson and Fedun both appreciate success and living a comfortable lifestyle by the way.

In response to my blank handout, Stone said “Braelyn, there is going to be a time when you sit down with an employer and they ask you about your publications. You will be your complete and total self and right away, you will know if they see your advocation for mental health as a strength or as a weakness. For the employer who sees it as a weakness, you will politely get up from your chair while thanking them for the opportunity. Then, you will exit the room as a professional who doesn’t have values that align with the company. Cross that organization off of your list and apply for the next position that intrigues you. You do not need to be anything but yourself; you don’t need to settle for anything less than what you deserve. There will be an organization that sees your advocation for mental health as an asset, and that is where you will be hired.”

I took Stone’s advice and ran with it. I went home and changed my LinkedIn and UBC email so that I would have one brand name only. I redesigned my entire resume because it did not reflect who I am or what I stand for. Since then, I have stayed true to my personal brand. I have only sought out opportunities that align with my personal values and goals. To the students at Sauder and friends who are contemplating sharing their story but are fearful of how it will tarnish their “brand image” – I wrote this for you. Be your complete and total self; don’t settle for anything that makes you feel less than what you are. Two days ago, I received an official offer from Lululemon Athletica – a brand that fosters health, wellness and leadership. It is a very successful corporation with a strenuous, highly competitive hiring process. In the fifth interview (yes, you read that correctly), I spoke in-depth about my involvement with The Maddie Project, my two publications on Huffington Post and my two-year battle with anorexia nervosa. You may have a mental illness, but you are not your mental illness.

It took awhile, but I recognize that I am as much Fedun as I am Bjornson. Fedun — no one loves their friends as much as Fedun. No one has a drive for success like a Fedun. No one is as generous or as funny as a Fedun. Bjornson – no one is as compassionate and empathetic as a Bjornson. No one is as emotionally intelligent, passionate and forgiving as a Bjornson. Fedun and Bjornson have shaped me into who I am today. I would not be where I am without the other. Fedun and Bjornson make up equal parts of my heart, and for that, I am grateful. However, it wasn’t about the last name; I was forced to confront a much bigger issue – the decision to choose Bjornson or Fedun is irrelevant. Braelyn, that is the name that needed to be defined; I did not know who Braelyn was. Beautiful people are kind people – you are who you surround yourself with – this applies in both your personal and professional lives. Don’t lose sight of your brand, it is everything and all that you have. Stay true to it and be proud of it. Thank you to all the Bjornson’s and the Fedun’s – I love you and all that you are.

So, this is what I hope you can take away from my short novel – your name is irrelevant. It isn’t your brand “name” that matters, it is your brand. It is your actions and how you treat other people that matter. Treat others how you want to be treated. I hope this inspires you to engage in the conversation. What conversation? A conversation that you are passionate about, despite the controversy that may surround it. I chose mental health. What will you choose? You can speak publicly about your values and still get the dream job. So, let me leave you with this – what is your personal brand?

Shine bright, Braelyn

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Unsplash photo via Ross Van Der Wal