Monday, April 28, 2014

Unexpected Soul Baring

It's funny.  I had a couple potential blog posts in mind - cooking and food, giving you the 101 on a pair of really great breathing exercises, thoughts on style and closet purges and MMM - and here I sit, writing to you about perfectionism and self-esteem instead.

I guess I should back up.  In job interviews, I describe myself as a "recovering perfectionist."  (That always gets a laugh)  However, I'm also the person who thinks to herself, "Aren't I doing great with my perfectionism?  I'm now living by the 80/20 rule!"  To which folks have responded, "Uh ... if backing off means going for the 80/20 rule ... that's still setting the bar really high!"  Oops.  And I'd been so proud of myself, too.

I am also somebody who's spent her life surrounded by "success," in the American sense of the word - material success, professional success, and all the trappings that go with it.  To wit: around the time I turned 23 - and certainly before 25 - word passed through my high school grapevine that one of our classmates had just sold his company for $100 million.  "The first one of us to reach $100 million!" people said.  I'll pause to let those words sink in.  Note they carry the assumption that MORE of us will hit the $100 million mark.  OK, I went to high school in the epicenter of Silicon Valley.  The guys down the street started some tech company our freshman year and were rumored at a $2 million valuation by the time we hit senior year.  So having multiple classmates hit 9-digits, that's probably gonna happen.

And I'm no slouch.  I went to UC Berkeley.  I won a Fulbright.  I went to Harvard.  But somehow that whole area - Silicon Valley, San Francisco - has a way of pushing all of my insecurity buttons.  I never feel smart enough, pretty enough, cool enough, up-to-date enough when I'm there.  Maybe it's a function of trying to shed my adolescent skin in a highly competitive, conspicuously success-driven environment.  And because I'm a perfectionist, my instinctive reaction is to just bear down harder.  Work harder, try harder, do everything in my power to control every last possible outcome ... because maybe, through sheer elbow grease, I can pull it all together to Be Enough.

You know that new car smell?  I'm pretty sure new grads give off a similar scent.  There's something about our wide-eyed "I want to change the world!" that causes older, gruffer folks to roll their eyes and automatically discount the words coming out of our mouths.  Coming out of grad school, I must've reeked of it.  Higher ups often wouldn't take me seriously.  Wring those perfectionistic tendencies a little bit tighter - no really, if I just work a little harder, I'll get people to take me seriously! - and with every interaction they'd go tighter still.

Because working in the non-profit world, I'd never hit $100 million, man!  That meant that I needed to Do Good in the world instead, right?  To compensate?  Because that's what kids from the Silicon Valley elite ... the ones who go to Harvard ... do, right?  If I wasn't going to make the big bucks, then at the very least I could have my intelligence recognized by Making An Impact.  And not just any impact.  A big one!  With me playing a central role!  Ugh.  Is it any wonder I had a mini breakdown and came running to Portland?

One of my goals here is to develop a more balanced life, one where work matters less to me (matters less ... so that it can actually be a sustainable part of my life!), and one where other parts of my life come into greater focus.  Which is why I started laughing today on the way home from work.  Because in my current job, I have a fair number of interactions with Executive Directors, Medical Directors, Operations Executives and the like.  And if there's one thing about me and my lingering new grad scent, when you first meet me it's easy to mistake my naturally bubbly enthusiasm for idealistic ditzyness.  Generally speaking, the longer people know me, the more they realize, "Oh shit, I guess this girl kinda knows what she's talking about.  Sometimes."

So now that I'm in a job where I do a lot of first impressions and have little opportunity to strut my stuff, as you can imagine, my "let's-write-off-this-girl" hit rate has been decently high.  Which you think would bother me.  And at first, it did and then it really did, and I feared I was in danger of disappearing down the same hole I fell into in California.

Then something odd happened.  I got that reaction so often that ... I stopped caring so much!  Call it desensitization.  Call it a realization that these people are as limited as I am - how often have I been guilty of mislabeling an acquaintance under the wrong first impression?  (Including several of my best friends!  Jessica!)  Hey - maybe their perception spoke as much about them as it did about me!

I mean, intellectually these are things I've told myself all along.  But emotionally?  Truly feeling OK that other people don't think much of me?  And not having this instinctive need to wind the perfectionistic coils tighter and tighter, and fight harder and harder against these amorphous shadows?  But to instead laugh about it?  And not just laugh as in "haha, I will distract my angst with my laughter, thereby minimizing whatever emotional hurt is there," but laugh as in, "well!  That's rather amusing!"

I mean, gosh.  I'm pretty pleased with that.  This move, totally worth it.  Already.  Several times over.

Well, that's it for me for now.  Back in a bit, maybe on one of the three topics described above, maybe to ramble about something else!  Me Made May - the short answer is that I'm not participating this year, and feel pretty good about that decision.  It's just not where my attention is at the moment.  That said, I have been making stuff.  It adds a nice balance to my day.  A silk cami, a Moss mini, a gorgeously flowy summer dress ... maybe I'll get photos at some point for you lovelies!  In the meantime - I bought a bike!  *Does a jig.*  Spring is here!  *Claps hands.*  I made oatmeal-chocolate-chip-craisin cookies!  *Crams 2 more in her mouth.*  *Smiles.*  *Ignores dishes in sink.* 

*Smiles again.*


Anonymous said...

Have you seen this article about imposter syndrome ( I thought of it after I read your post. Glad you're happy about your move to Portland. :-)

Alessa said...

Yay for bikes! Yay for Moss minis! And wowza for your education! I have to say, the American education system mystifies me a bit. It's just so different from the German one, where it hardly matters which high school or Uni you go to... ;) Reading your post, I had to think about back when I was younger and really interested in physics and totally determined to be the top student in my year and then study physics and revolutionize the Theory of Relativity and win a Nobel prize! Ok, so I was about 13 back then, but my determination held long enough to at least come in third place in my high school final tests. ;) And then, years later, I wasn't even sure for a while if I'd do a thesis, and at work, I look young enough that some patients think I'm an intern until I tell them that I'm the doctor.
So yeah, life's funny. And I'm glad you're doing well. :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that text. I´m right there with you. And it´s good to know I am not the only one. Sometimes we put so much pressure on ourselves to become a bikini-modelling peace nobel prize winner. So much pressure that, in fact, we feel drained to the point were we can only lie on the couch, watch TLC and stuff ourselves with snickers.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the honest post. I have a similar issue in that I do want to be successful but my personality is not that authoritative and I am not all that articulate. Also, as a one woman business I do everything, including dirty manual labor. So a lot of people see me, a rather quiet woman of average appearance, and write me off. And then they ask me who I work for. When its clear that I'm not making the big bucks, but I'm taking the big risks, and I'm making it work because I do good work, the attitude shifts. But I'm not sure that is because i feel bold, our they have to reconsider. It sounds like you, too, do good work. Maybe it's densitization, maybe it's that deep down you know you're good, and it's up to them to figure it out. That's being your own boss, woman! And it's worth more than a billion bucks. Sigrid