The costs of hiding behind a mask
Wanting to deliver high quality, come across as having it together, on top of it all, near perfect—this is my definition of “professional,” and it has been a lifelong strategy of mine. Some might say it’s an American cultural thing, this hiding behind a mask. I can’t be certain of that, but I can imagine that to a large degree, it was passed down to me through my mother’s side. It’s about having self-imposed, impossibly high standards, piling on the work with little room for play, and little satisfaction to be found. In this process it was so easy to lose myself, feel stuck and quite lonely.
So what on earth is going on here? I’ve discovered how to break this down for myself, get inner clarity and find creative, new strategies.
Reflecting on reality
I first took a step back to observe my behavior with the help of this question: “What have I hoped 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
- job security by being a desirable, hard-to-replace employee (or partner, mother, friend, pick-the-role)
O.K. let’s face it, if I’m really honest my underlying needs or behavior drivers are primarily about:
- being accepted
- being loved
Second question: “Has this strategy worked for me – fulfilled these longings?”
I suppose it did to a degree for a long while. Before moving to the Netherlands six years ago, I was never fully satisfied with my results, but I seemed to receive the things in my first list above. So why did I carry so much doubt with me? Why wasn’t I deeply happy? Hadn’t my strategy paid off?
Well, no, because I came to learn that this strategy of being so professional all the time is a LONELY business. My deeper needs (second list) were not being met in any kind of satisfying way.
What a dose of honesty can bring
I was in my early years as coach and took on a temporary consulting job pulling together a business plan for someone I admire a great deal, my first Nonviolent Communication (NVC) trainer, Yoram Mosenzon. We had a meeting to discuss progress and next steps. I wasn’t at all well prepared. I felt chaotic and yet was hell-bent to not let him know it. Only one thought coursed through my mind: “I-MUST-come-across-as-professional-and-having-it-all-under-control!” So we trudged through the meeting, mostly with me trying rather desperately to present myself as totally together and knowledgeable.
At some point in our conversation, he expressed frustration and called a time-out. It wasn’t working for him. If I felt nervous before, it increased tenfold at that moment . . . “Oh no, he SEES.” But what came out of his mouth was something entirely different than criticism (my worst fear). He said, “Cara, I’m not meeting you.” If you saw the movie, Avatar, this statement was something akin to their common 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. I felt totally confused and had to ask him what he meant . . .
He explained 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 insight and understanding as to what was 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. The mask came off and I ventured into very scary, “oh-so-unprofessional” territory. I shared openly—all kinds of things about my hectic week, my worries about my two children, my feelings of being overwhelmed and not living up to my “professional standards.” He just listened, and when I stopped, he just smiled and said, “Thank you.”
Taking new steps
So my loneliness stemmed largely from my lifelong habit of not sharing the “real Cara” when I told myself (and believed) that I had to come across as “professional.” I haven’t enjoyed the side effect of feeling lonely, mostly because it’s completely COUNTER to my needs for acceptance, love, and belonging. I’ve been taking new steps since this event—working to fulfill all my needs, strengthening my “vulnerable sharing” muscle, which is still scary for me, but it’s a whole lot more real and connecting than hiding behind that “professional mask” of mine.
[For more inspiration, see Brené Brown’s excellent Ted Talk on the courage to be imperfect and vulnerable: www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html]