Back when I was a ball-busting, suit-wearing, coffee-jacked, wine-numbed workaholic I spent a lot of money on clothes. Everything I wore was a suit of armor.
I believed that if I looked perfect at all times, I could repel criticism. Don’t like what I’m saying? Zing! It bounces off me, I am perfect. Doubt my abilities? Poof! Vaporized – I am perfect. Challenge my leadership? Kablam! Explosion before impact –I am perfect and so you, therefore, are wrong.
Well, that is how I hoped it went down. I experienced life through my “reflective cogito,” which is to say that I was keenly aware and valued how others saw me. (Sidebar: Thank you third-year philosophy studies. You seemed useless in 1989 but here I am using you twenty-five years later.)
I didn’t really believe I was perfect; it just felt safer under an intimidating veneer. I tried to create a flawless exterior to camouflage self doubt in a classic “impostor syndrome” model.
I was good at my job and took on leadership roles for which I was well-suited (no pun intended, but since it arose let’s enjoy it). I was competent and successful, yet if criticized I’d be shattered because I valued others’ perceptions more than reality itself. The remedy for my wounded ego was to seek out a supporter to bounce off of; someone who’d express outrage at the offending critic and rattle off an opposing view, restoring world order with their favourable opinions of my performance and ability.
In the past, it was not unusual for my day to be interrupted by a media interview or public appearance. I was my company’s “face and voice” as well as the president of the local industry association and sat on several boards and committees. I always felt pressure to be “camera ready” – the demanding standards of my inner critic proved useful and valid often enough to justify the unhealthy level of self-inflicted strain.
Perhaps I was overly self-aware with good reason. Perhaps I created circumstances for myself to perpetuate a cycle that offered validation. Perhaps that’s just life.
At any rate, it took its toll when one essential component of my life strategy ceased to function properly: wine as reward and comfort. As time went on and life’s pressures mounted, my evening wine intake increased proportionately and then gained momentum and a life of its own. The perfect exterior made it hard for even me to believe that I had crossed the invisible line into addiction, but from my “under armor” vantage point, I could see the hidden truth. Terrified, I set out to quit drinking and quickly realized that true recovery would require a whole new level of honesty – one that left no room for false fronts or catering to imagined opinions.
I’ve moved on to a different stage in my career, a slower pace of life, and a new level of self-acceptance that requires much less self-awareness. Recently, I looked at the collection of career wear in my closet and decided it was time to give it away.
I chose a few special outfits to keep – the suit I was wearing when I met with the Premier, the dress I wore to receive a special award, my go-to news interview skirt suit. These were lovingly placed into individual storage bags, together with relevant news clippings and photos, and a few memories I wrote about wearing each piece and the achievements I’d accomplished in them. A mini-museum of my armor, complete with battle notes.
My sons and husband thought this was utterly strange, but I treasure the idea of a future granddaughter or great-granddaughter glimpsing this bit of history and feeling inspired to face some challenges of her own. Hopefully, I will be there to dispense some graceful wisdom.
Be honest about your weaknesses and take credit where deserved.
You don’t need to be perfect, just be perfectly yourself.
And watch out for the wine.