So there I was, sitting on the dusty flagstone floor in my best black dress and suit jacket, one dog sitting on my lap, the other methodically removing all makeup from my face, and she walks in and says ‘and you must be Leah’
But let me take you back a moment.
Where did you learn to be professional?
Most of us who haven’t grown up in the world of lawyers and doctors and accountants start mimicking early in our careers. Even if your parents were the most professional professionals in the professional money, I’d stake next month’s mortgage payment on you having, deliberately or otherwise, copied them.
Being professional doesn’t come with a set of written rules. It’s a cultural thing, the rules change from industry to industry and from office to office. I’ve worked with people whose every third word was ‘fuck’ to people who apologised for saying ‘shit’ when they hurt themselves.
Cultural norms are responsible for such varied beliefs as ‘I should never tell my clients I’m busy, they’ll think I can’t cope’ to ‘I told them I was busy and tripled the price. They still put money on account’ (both lawyers by the way, working in similar areas of law too!).
And so we watch and we mimic because we want to fit in. We want to be appropriate. We want to be approved of and liked and maybe even admired.
And so we bend. And we fold over our corners and squeeze our square peg selves into restricted round holes
Maybe, like me, you struggle with imposter syndrome, you don’t think you belong, so you work even harder to fit in.
Two downsides to this.
1 - you become bland as rice pudding, because you’re so busy trying to fit in that you never stand out, and then you wonder why you’re underpaid and overworked
2 - you struggle, because you’ve consciously adopted mannerisms and behaviours that aren’t you, ever widening the void between who you and what it is to be professional, reinforcing the imposter syndrome belief of ‘I don’t belong’
There’s a third, too.
You stop paying attention to what’s important to you and what success even means and before you know it, you’re waking up one, two, three decades into a career you don’t even recognise as one you wanted, having felt more pinned in, restricted, out of options as the years go by.
A decade into my legal career and having had the biggest shakeup of my life, having lost my mum suddenly, I tried something new.
You see, I knew what I was doing wasn’t working. I was permanently exhausted, feeling unsure of myself, unable to trust my instincts (fatal in a lawyer!), second guessing myself constantly and, as a result, even more exhausted because every single act took five times longer than it should.
So I switched locations, worked somewhere closer to home. Changed my specialise to one I thought would be less challenging and confronting.
Didn’t work. Was the worst move of my career. Caused me massive health issues and stuck me with nearly a year of bullying and harassment.
So I thought, I’ll try something else. I started looking at building my own business, and the seeds of Searching for Serenity were sown.
But the best lesson, the one that truly changed the way I felt about myself, the thing that helped me start living and working in a way that didn’t kill me.
I stopped giving a fuck about being professional.
By which I mean, I stopped acting so damned hard.
For more than a decade, whenever I stopped for a moment, I started considering ‘how’ I should behave.
I changed my accent in subtle ways to reflect my clients. I changed my language to fit in with others. Every move I made, every thought I had, was filtered through 15 different angles before I acted.
Most of the time I didn’t do it consciously, but I was always antenna up, mirroring behaviour on, mask firmly fitted.
I behaved in a way conducive to the people around me, and never once asked myself what it meant to be professional, what the people I admired did that didn’t require me to do a poor impression of them.
So, when I considered what professionalism meant... it meant being me. It meant simply being the expert, instead of tying myself in knots to prove it. It meant not destroying my self confidence every time a client didn’t like me or thought I should have done X. I was the expert, so I would simply be ok with it.
In the year that followed I started letting more of my weird self out (and for those of you that worked with me earlier in my career, you saw it, you just didn’t see as much of it. You saw me blushing and uncomfortable and clumsy because I was so damned awkward in my body. You saw me bursting out with odd phrases because there had been a whole conversation in my head that you hadn’t been privy to)
So I started saying no when I meant no and yes when I meant yes.
I said when I thought something was a bad idea even if I was overruled, and I stopped changing my damned laugh!
I swore when it was appropriate to me and my conversation, because language no longer determined my acceptability.
And I got on the floor with the damned dogs.
Fast forward to this one day, we’ve all travelled a long way for a big client meeting. It was going to be a difficult meeting, I knew people at that table didn’t like me. And we were in a client’s home, which always feels a little awkward.
We arrived and Mr Client was holding two big black dogs by their collars, and they were straining to get to us. I asked if they were friendly, he said yes, so I said to let them go. He looked at me like ‘it’s your funeral woman’ and walked inside.
There I was, tottering over gravel in my four inch heels, wearing my best dry clean only dress and jacket, carrying a big handbag with notebooks and pens and papers.
With two dogs sniffing and running round me.
So I walk into the atrium and stop to say hello to the pups. They’re so excited that I end up sitting on the dusty floor, one dog in my lap whilst another methodically removes my makeup.
And one of the other professionals who I had spoken to but not yet met walks out, looks me up and down and says ‘well you must be Leah’.
It’s so funny to me because it was completely unprofessional. Dogs, floor, drool, laughing... but it was so clearly me.
It was a difficult meeting, went on almost all day, with a long drive there are back. It was exhausting and overwhelming.
But it’s also one of the times that sticks out clearest in my mind that I was so clearly me. Leah. The lawyer.
Fully me, instead of a half-assed pantomime production of what it should look like to be a professional.
And my emotions were so clearly in place that day. Of everywhere those dogs could be, they spent most of the meeting with me; one under the table asleep on my feet, the other stood next to me, head in my lap.
Say what you will about emotions and empathy, dogs will always read us best.
Now I’m not saying you need to half-ruin your best dress and sit on the floor with a part-wolf. I’m sharing it because that was ME.
(I spent most of that year conducting meetings with dogs in laps, sitting on floors or throwing squeaky toys. And with only one or two notable exceptions, my clients adored me and were genuinely upset when I left. Most asked to come with me!)
Dropping the mask of what you think a professional does, and instead learning to back yourself?
It’s one of the greatest professional achievements you’ll ever bring yourself.
The imposter syndrome melts away.
The stress and the overwhelm.
You become clear that you can do what you can do and you can’t do what you can’t do.
You focus on your strengths.
You know your less-strengths aren’t weaknesses that make you less, they’re just not your wheelhouse.
It makes burnout less likely, overwhelm less of a problem.
Because you simple are, and do, and let go.
Want to give it a try?
PS we’re coming up to that moment where I tell you the doors are closing, don’t get left behind.
Over the next four weeks I’m going to be taking a group of clients through a process of becoming clearer, becoming less caught up in the bullshit.
The programme is called Be Heard Be Seen Be You and it’s a four week breakdown of becoming confidence, standing by what you say, dealing with pushback and difficulties without it affecting who you are as a person, and how to simply let yourself be.
We’re going to be talking finding your own voice, dealing with difficulty and conflict and bringing the professional and the personal together so you can get rid of the work masks and personas once and for all.
We start after the bank holiday weekend, will you be joining us?
Click the link in the comments below to find out more and join.
Doors are closing soon, are you joining us?
Doors are closing soon, are you joining us? https://searchingforserenity.vipmembervault.com/teaser/courses/view/10