A lot of my recent sense of inadequacy has stemmed from being unable to match up to the ideal self I have drawn up in my head. The pain of not matching up to that standard was only worsened by my inability to accept that it was something I would struggle to reach. The frustration of always trying so hard but falling just short. To accept that I am not as outgoing/willing to network as I thought I was. That I’m not likely to fight for what I truly feel if I am faced by an overpowering bully-like client. That I am more likely to give in and extend kindness to a friend 9/10 times whether they are deserve it or not. That I am not the kind to enjoy seminars, networking events, and all the many things that people in my profession consider crucial. That maybe I have to find ways that actually work for me, rather than subscribe to a pre-set formula to success in my area of work.
After many a meltdown and a near breakdown, I have picked myself up (with a lot of help – thank God for a husband and a couple of friends who saw the signs before me, and knew just what to do and say when the crash came around) I’ve been asking myself what is this ideal anyway? Who sets it? Who determines what measure of hard work is actually required? Who told me success was only measured in earning xx rupees a month? When did I start believing I had to do things that didn’t sit right in my gut, in the name of getting my name out there? When did I stop believing in the worth of good and honest work?
What is this completely unrealistic formula of being outgoing, loud, chatty, networking and very, very busy all the time, that I was beginning to believe was ideal and the only way to get to where I wanted to be? And why was I holding myself up to it anyway? When did things get so uptight around here? When did I stop accepting myself for what I am and stop treating myself with the kindness that I used to?
A lot of introspection, many bouts of tears, some painful letting go, some recalibration and necessary space and time away from all the things that were eating into my personal/alone time – time that once used to be the balancing factor in my life – later, I realised somewhere, I was beginning to believe and subscribe to the working world’s obsession with the extroversion being the ideal. You know? The extroverts who can talk their way through everything, the ones who can sell anything, the ones who climb social and business ladders with ease, the life of every meeting/party, the ones who know what to say when and how to ask for it.
I am clearly not one of them. And I was killing myself trying to be something I am innately not.
Funnily, right around the time I had hit upon this possible reason for all my angst, I stumbled upon this book: Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. And it reads like the story of my life. It’s funny how we uphold the cacophony of extroversion to be so important, how much we value the noise that comes from teamwork and how much we reinforce the need for people to conform to turning into unnatural forms of themselves, just so they fit in. And fitting in itself, is valued so highly.
It took me back to the very earliest memories I have of feeling altogether uncomfortable and completely beside myself with worry about having to deal with groups of anything more more than 3 people. I detested team-work and the forced clusters that we were made to sit in. I really hated the extra-curricular activities that needed us to head off in large groups to confront new situations, and facilitators teaching us new, unfamiliar skills. I hated our class picnics and outings and those deliberate attempts to make us bond and work in teams. Nothing really changes even in college – I was never one of those popular, outgoing people. Whether academically, socially or otherwise, I much preferred to stay behind the scenes. I was always happy to be a part of a team making things happen, than leading the way. Plays, for example were never my thing. I hated being in the spotlight. Whereas the choir or singing in a group, I loved. I realise now that this is probably also why I completely gave up on the decade+ practice of music and dance, when the pressure to perform became inevitable and too heavy to shrug off casually. I still love the idea of indulging in both, and a 1/4 lifetime of studying them both will probably never leave me, but the trauma of having to go on stage solo still grips me.
Cut to work: I despised making presentations, leading meetings and being the decision-maker. I have always been a dedicated doer. I work hard and painstakingly when a path is charted out for me. I am happy to be a part of making that path for myself, but I hate taking the lead and motivating myself. I don’t have any of the traditional skills deemed necessary to be a leader, entrepreneur or game-changer. I’ve had endless debates with bosses who would coax me to make presentations, take the lead in conducting training modules, leading the way for a team of juniors – all of it always made me so uncomfortable.
It took me a long many years to accept that it was not meant for me, and that it was okay. And somehow the busyness of last year wiped that part of self-esteem and self-worth away. Clean.
So in many ways landing on this book was serendipitous because it echoed a lot of what I was rediscovering myself, and it’s been like a balm to soothe the pain of accepting the hard truth about what I can and cannot do. But most of all it’s been like a gentle sounding board, giving me the permission to feel the way I do. And constantly reminding me that it is okay.
I’m going through what was once a very familiar bout of not wanting to meet people. I have refrained from making plans, haven’t accepted too many invitations and have found myself prioritising me-time and work-time over going out more often than I did about 6 months ago. Practicing honesty and clarity in such situations has also made me capable of confidently and clearly just saying no, without having to provide white lies for reasons, except in cases where there really are legitimate reasons. The reactions have been amusing to say the least. I’ve faced concern from friends who quickly checked back time and again to see if I was feeling okay, if everything was alright; and mild paranoia from some who checked if I was maybe avoiding them; to my favourite of all – passive aggression to make it seem like not being available for a social event was somehow going to be my loss.
I can tell things are going back to normal in my head, and in my life, because just a few months ago, any of the above situations would result in one of two reactions: a) extreme irritation and anger b) getting offended, upset and possibly crying about it. But I realise that my calendar is full, but not the kind of full it was last year. I find myself sinking comfortably into what I feel is natural, but that so many are quick to call “anti-social”.
But the truth is, I am happy spending inordinate amounts of time with myself. By myself. I don’t feel lonely in my aloneness. I choose it more often than not, and I feel right at home. I feel like I’ve reclaimed some of the quiet I once had, that I lost to the chaos and cacophony of busyness. It’s quiet, I like it here. This is what makes sense right now, and I’m sticking with it.