Last week one of my bosses hauled me into a meeting to discuss my behavior, which is a problem. Or rather, my lack of behavior is a problem. I don’t talk enough. I don’t socialize enough. I take work too seriously.
When I got home from work that evening I discovered a package from my dad. Inside the package I found assorted pieces of memorabilia from my childhood, but most interesting were my old report cards from grade school.
Check out the comments from my former teachers:
Mercy seems to be quite intelligent, however, her behavior is causing a lot of problems.
Spends too much time socializing. Talks too much.
Mercy is very capable but doesn’t take school very seriously.
Compare to my boss’s complaints above.
I spent the entire time I was in grade school in trouble with my parents and teachers for being too social. There was near-constant disapproval from all authority figures because my behavior was unacceptable. Now I’m an adult and my boss finds it unacceptable that I’m not social enough. Last week’s meeting about my non-talkativeness was the fifth or sixth of its kind; so the disapproval feels near-constant.
I passed every class in school despite my behavior. I graduated from every grade. As an adult I do my job well despite my lack of behavior. My boss has no quarrel with my job performance. But isn’t it interesting that disapproval is the enduring element? First I am too much and then I am not enough.
This isn’t the first time. Too much and not enough is familiar territory. When I was a partner in my former yoga business my partners complained that I was arrogant, smug, and lacking in humility. My yoga was good but my personality was a problem for them. After I left the business a spiritual adviser described me as reserved and afraid to step into my power, but chalked this up as just a natural part of my personality. More too much and not enough.
It’s maddening. Crazy-making. Or, I should say, it used to be maddening and crazy-making. This is the kind of shit I used to let tie me up in emotional knots for weeks on end. I’d wrestle with questions like Why am I never the right thing? Why I am either never good enough for anyone or always too much? I’d make summations like No matter what I do my personality is the wrong fit for everything. I don’t belong anywhere. I’m doomed to be a misfit forever.
When I was younger I would hear feedback at either end of the not enough/too much spectrum and try like hell to be the opposite thing. I’d turn myself inside out trying to please. Initiate a make-over of my entire personality to suit the required deficit or overage, whichever was the case. Force myself into the required role, apply every effort to suit, and I’d fail every single time. It never worked in the long term. More importantly though, I would take on a significant amount of self-inflicted damage for my perpetual failure to be the right kind of person the world needed, which was always subject to change.
Now that I’m not young anymore? Nope.
I was desperate for love and acceptance as a kid. I valued social connections and friendships more than scholastic achievement. I eventually outgrew this. I evolved. My work ethic today is an indicator that my values changed. Now I won’t socialize at all while work is pending. I naturally make people uncomfortable if they still value socializing over a strong work ethic. Disapproval is an indicator of that discomfort. We are all evolving (or not evolving) at different paces, in differing rhythms, and in different directions.
What about the contradictory advice? Still a matter of values. Natural-born leaders come across as arrogant to folks who are fearful. Leaders who have outgrown the need to prove themselves will get criticized for being reserved. The conflicting feedback is only evidence that both make people uncomfortable depending on what they value at any given time.
It’s all too easy to then surmise that whatever people value at any given time, it is never me. This would be internalizing the discomfort of others and assuming I’m the cause of it. The years I spent struggling with this have taught me that the conflict is simply evolutionary disharmony. It is conditional, circumstantial, and temporary. It is not proof of a character flaw in any individual involved, only proof that it is uncomfortable to be growing dis-similarly. All growth is uncomfortable.
If I had figured this out sooner it might have saved me a lot of arguments. It might have saved some friendships too.
But why is this disharmony a recurring theme in my life? Perhaps this is my job. Perhaps it’s why I’m here. Perhaps this is my thing. My specialty. My field. I make people grow, which means I make them uncomfortable. Or in the alternative, I make them aware, which creates a prompt, which can initiate the growth process, which folks can still override. Either way the discomfort is manifested as criticism of my behavior and/or personality.
Sounds arrogant, yes?
Maybe not. What if I am not be the only one? Maybe many folks out there are the same as me and I just haven’t read their blogs yet. In their company I wouldn’t be arrogant at all. Or too much. Or not enough. We’d probably all be best friends. Until one of us starting growing again, of course.
Either way, after all these years it feels normal and natural to be the dissonant chord. These old report cards and my boss’s displeasure feel like confirmation. I feel like nodding and smiling and telling my boss, “Yes, yes, of course I am. This is the way it’s supposed to be. I’m doing it right.”
I spoke to my sisters over the weekend and they report similar social dissonance at work. Bosses are thrilled with their exemplary work but constantly harp on their attitudes because they aren’t social enough. Lack of socializing is characterized as lack of friendliness. Efficiency and performance aren’t valued as much as shooting the breeze and being everyone’s buddy. We do great work but we don’t kiss enough ass. In fact, we find it irritating when poor performance is overlooked as long as someone is friendly and socializes well. You know, folks who don’t pull their weight but get by on being a “sweetheart.” Ugh.
My dad introduced a working theory that this breed-apart feeling happens because we raised ourselves. We never went to daycare. Never kept a babysitter very long. After our mom bailed on us we took care of ourselves. This was back when latchkey kids were still a thing. We were on our own. Home alone every day, which just isn’t done anymore. We just got shit done without having to schmooze. Could be; maybe this is part of it.
My sixth-grade teacher wrote that I needed improvement recognizing my weaknesses but also evaluated my level of self-image as Low. Sounds like I confused her. I probably should have taken it as a sign that no one was ever going to figure me out. Fast-forward 35 years and my boss kept returning to, I can’t quite figure it out; just can’t put my finger on it. I guess I’m still nailing it. Unfortunately, no one gets good grades in befuddlery.