"Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval. Most perfectionists grew up being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule following, people pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way they adopted this dangerous and debilitating belief system: 'I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect.' Healthy striving is self - focused: How can I improve? Perfectionism is other focused: What will they think? Perfectionism is a hustle."
-Dr. Brene Brown
Being a new professional is lonely. My personal experience of launching off to establish a professional identity in a new place has included occasional feelings of isolation and a sense that I'm running a maze I should know but can't always recall where to turn. I find myself asking "am I doing something wrong?"
I think the fundamental dissonance I'm experiencing boils down to the following question: do my peers think I am doing a good job? Tragically, finding a verifiable answer to this question wouldn't assuage my sense of loneliness or perceived inadequacy. No, the question itself reveals the engine of disharmony I feel about my chosen profession and professional identity.
I should note the delineation between my professional and personal identity. I refuse to believe that life is so easily compartmentalized. I choose here to draw a distinction between the two to illustrate a larger point about transitioning into a new job or workplace. Much about my recent move to Kansas has gone splendidly, and I truly appreciate both the Lawrence community and the place I work. That being said, I know I'm not the only one experiencing a sense of frustration and isolation in the midst of working at a place you KNOW you belong. My hope is this post will serve as an acknowledgement that YOU (dear reader) aren't the only one feeling those feels.
The Tyranny Of Perfectionism
New professionals do things wrong. I've already said "oops" and "ouch" several times this year. The first couple of times I would walk away from these instances with my insides all tied up in knots. If my supervisor made the comment, "well, lets make sure that situation doesn't come up again," or "in the future this is how this situation needs to be handled," I assumed that I was a fundamentally flawed employee. At no point in the conversations that followed such mistakes did my supervisor express that I didn't deserve to be where I was. I drifted towards such thoughts anyways. My perspective in such moments isn't rooted in a desire to do my job well, it's rooted in a desire to be perfect.
Perfectionism is a terrible burden to carry. Where does the imperative to remain crystal clean come from? The answer to that question is probably grist for years of therapy, but professionally, there are some systemic elements that encourage this unhealthy striving.
In "Becoming Socialized in Student Affairs Administration" (2009) Tull et. al. posit that there are three initial stages connected to a professional's integration into a new administrative position:
1) Formal Stage: characterized as "learning the ropes" and full of formal training and integration.
2) Informal Stage: characterized as learning "the realities of working life in the position." A professional hasn't necessarily personalized the role, but is learning beyond how things should be done to how things actually look when addressed in the position. Another way to characterize this might be by saying that a new employee begins to run up against the "unwritten rules" of the position.
3) Personal Stage: characterized by "Having learned the ropes in the formal stage and decoded the unwritten rules in the informal stage, the new professional truly inhabits the professional role and develops a personal style consistent with the role."
Each of these stages is composed of personal, professional, institutional, and extra-institutional realms that influence the day-to-day experience of being-in-the-professional-workplace. Each of these stages carries its own set of burdens, challenges, and potentials for excellence. Each stage requires a crucible of trial and error, courage and perseverance. IF one's goal is to "stick a perfect landing" in each of these stages....to remain pristine and not make mistakes, professional growth cannot occur. Perfectionism can ultimately mean operating out of a sense of fear, not inspiration.
Finding Space For Vulnerability In the Workplace
Mastering the on-boarding process is not the solution to the potentially debilitating effects of perfectionism. Cultivating a posture of vulnerability is a helpful step towards a sustainable solution. Moving to a new area of the country, cultivating relationships with coworkers, and tackling the typical problems associated with my line of work are all grist for the nagging feeling in the back of my mind that my efforts aren't enough.
In her book Daring Greatly, sociologist Dr. Brene Brown highlights the effects of living in a culture that is hyper aware of scarcity, and ultimately encourages dwelling on the things we lack. As she puts it:
Scarcity thrives in a culture where everyone is hyperaware of lack. Everything from safety and love to money and resources feels restricted or lacking. We spend inordinate amounts of time calculating how much we have, want, and don't have, and how much everyone else has, needs and wants. (pg. 27)
Dr. Brown's solution, ultimately, is seeking a posture of vulnerability in relation to the world around you. Vulnerability here is described as "uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure." ...It's hard for me to think of a better encapsulation of the first year in a new job. For Dr. Brown vulnerability, when understood and utilized incorrectly, can lead to intense feelings of shame. Shame, particularly when combined with perfectionism can lead to a debilitating loss of agency.
I've taken to routinely asking two questions in my effort to embrace the inherent vulnerability of being a new professional:
1) Are there individuals with whom I can be real? We all need space to vent and individuals we can share our work stories with, but this question also cuts deeper. Inherently, I'm asking whether or not there are folks I'm willing to share my shortcomings and fears with. Are there people I'm willing to reveal my missteps with? We all need to be honest about where we need to improve.
2) Am I framing an issue or a problem I'm facing through the lens of "what will my standing with others be based off the action I take?" Should I be mindful of the implications of my actions on my supervisor, those I supervise, and the students I serve? - Yes. However, addiction to the approval and praise of the constituents involved can quickly turn toxic.
This too shall pass
Eventually, being a "new professional" gives way to familiarity with the institution and a personal interpretation of my role and how I can contribute to the life of the community. Meanwhile, this crucible that is "the first year" provides an opportunity to examine both personal and professional assumptions that influence my being-in-the-world. I'm comforted to know that I am not the only individual working through this transition.
What do YOU (dear reader) think? How have you managed the transition into a new phase of professional life? What did you learn along the way?
Brown, Brene. (2012) Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York, New York: Gotham Books.
(Ed.) Tull, Ashley., Hirt, Joan B., Saunders, Sue A.. (2009) Becoming Socialized in Student Affairs Administration. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus.