The costs of being so Professional all the time
I came to realize in the past couple of years that it’s a lifelong strategy of mine, this needing to come across as professional, having it together, on top of it all, near perfect. Some would say it’s an American cultural thing. I can’t be certain of that, but I can imagine that to a large degree, it was passed down from my grandfather to my mother and “into” me. It’s about having impossibly high standards and no matter the amount of work, those standards are never quite met. Hardy any satisfaction to be found in such a cycle, so the work ethic is HIGH and time for rest and relaxation is LOW, to say the least.
But this cycle of non-stop- work-never-satisfied is not the only cost. What helped me see the bigger picture was the question, “what do you (hope to) gain as a result of this strategy?”
Hmm, well, I suppose several things, starting with:
- respect, admiration, appreciation
- being “seen” and recognized for high quality work
- being a desirable, hard-to-replace employee (or volunteer, or friend, or mother, you-name-it)
O.K. let’s face it, the underlying needs of mine (attached to this particular strategy) are about:
- being accepted
- being loved
- having a sense of belonging
So has it worked for me, this strategy? I suppose it did to a degree for a long while. Before moving to the Netherlands over three years ago, I was never satisfied with my own work results, but I seemed to receive the things in my first list above and therefore experienced the underlying needs being met. So why wasn’t I satisfied and deeply happy? Hadn’t my strategy paid off?
Another huge insight of mine since my coaching training commenced is that this strategy of being so professional all the time is a lonely business. I can best illustrate this by describing a recent event . . .
Before the summer, I took on a “process management” assignment, despite the fact that I prefer spending my time coaching and training others. The person I am completing the work for is someone I admire a GREAT deal. We had a meeting recently to discuss my progress and next steps. In my mind, I wasn’t at all well prepared. I felt chaotic and yet was hell-bent to not let him know it. MUST-come-across-as-professional-and-having-it-all-together-and-under-control! So we trudged on, me asking random questions and trying rather desperately to present myself knowledgeably.
At some point in our conversation, he expressed frustration and called a time-out. It wasn’t working for him. I started to get real nervous– oh no, he SEES. But what came out of his mouth was something entirely different than the criticism about my sloppiness I was so sure he was irritated about. He said, “Cara, I’m not meeting you.” If you’ve seen the movie, Avatar, this statement was something akin to their greeting, “I see you.” It’s an acknowledgement of the fact that there’s a whole human being (or in their case an Avatar) in front of you. That has never been a part of my strategy of coming across as professional, so I had to ask him what he meant.
He explained that he’d not yet seen this side of me . . . that he wasn’t used to not connecting with me on a human level. No criticism about how unprofessional I was being? No, he just wanted some connection to what’s really going on in me – why the frenzied, distant approach to the meeting? I sighed, felt my oh-so-tense shoulders drop, and melted into some sense of the real Cara. Then I proceeded to do a VERY “unprofessional” thing – I shared openly . . . all kinds of things about my hectic week, my worries about my kids and if I’m mothering them well enough, my feelings of being overwhelmed and not living up to my “professional standards.” He just listened, and when I felt emptied out to a large degree, he just smiled and said, “Thank you.”
So my loneliness stems from my lifelong habit of not sharing the “real Cara” when I think I’m supposed to be “professional” – and that’s evidently most of the time. I don’t really like the ongoing lonely feeling – it’s completely COUNTER to my needs for acceptance, love, and belonging. I’m working a lot these days on fulfilling these particular needs within and by myself, and in the meantime I’m exercising my “sharing & vulnerability” muscle, which so far is a whole lot more fun than being so damn professional all the time.
[For more inspiration, please see Brené Brown’s excellent Ted Talk on the courage to be imperfect, vulnerability, and connection at: www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html]