[Image credit: Antoine Beauvillain]
“Here’s the thing, Jane. I’m tired of the me I have to be at work.” I’ll never forget these words, spoken by a fortysomething man who had come to me for career coaching.
From the moment we’d first started chatting, it had been clear that he was miserable in his current job. The core problem was not named, however, until he uttered those words: I’m tired of the me I have to be at work.
What was interesting here was the fact that the work itself was, he said, “grand”: he actually enjoyed the tasks, the challenges, the logistical problem-solving, the responsibility.
What was corroding his soul—as he himself put it—was “all the nonsense” that went with the job. He meant by this the strain of having to be a certain kind of guy at work—all the time. He even quoted the famous lines from a T. S. Eliot poem he’d done for his Leaving Cert: “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet”.
He had, in short, become two different people. The real him, known to family and friends; and then the improbably chipper and charismatic version of himself he had to present to colleagues and clients. And it was his talent at being this latter guy that made him feel so trapped in inauthenticity.
Yes, he was good at being this guy. Damned good, in fact. To the point where he put much of his career progression within his field down to his having “nailed the character” (again, his words). Fashioning himself into a paragon of cheerfulness and unflappability had made him a winner—but it all left him feeling weirdly like a loser. He felt himself frozen by the character others expected him to be. He couldn’t ever not be ‘on’ at work.
I don’t think this experience of workplace self-alienation is at all uncommon. Everyone knows the feeling of reluctance that comes with returning to work after a holiday period. Of course, some of it is just a dislike of having one’s time regimented again, and of having to spend one’s best hours marching to an external drumbeat. But—and I invite you to consider whether this might apply to you—is there not also in the mix an element of aversion to having to return to being your Work-Self?
Let’s not be naïve here. There are few jobs that allow for a seamless continuity between our private, at-home self and our Work-Self. And that’s as should be. Professionalism calls for a certain rising into the role, a certain consistency of persona, a certain level of performance. (They don’t call it ‘job performance’ for nothing!) But things can get problematical when you’re in a role where a big part of what you’re having to sell is an inauthentic (or perhaps even just exaggerated) version of yourself. Mandatory likeability, charisma, small-talkability, cheeriness, etc. etc.—these can become quite the drag if you’re just not feeling the feels. You feel more like an actor than a normal human being.
If this pressure to always be on brand is an issue for you, then I suggest you analyse your situation carefully.
Does your job logically and sensibly require this persona? Would not having this persona have a negative impact on performance of the job itself?
If the answer to these questions is yes, then you have to face the big question: Is this job really you? Is the gap between you and your required workplace persona intolerably wide? If so, then it may be time to rethink your career.
If, however, you conclude that you have slipped into a mode of behaving at work that, far from being intrinsically necessary, is in fact a habit that is surplus to requirements, then you may have room to adjust your behaviour without leaving your position. Yes, this may mean surprising or even disconcerting colleagues at first, but the relief it will bring you will be immense. Great power can come from relaxing into a Work-Self that is, so to speak, closer to home.
Think about it…