Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Burning Bright

*Be aware - this post is more like a journal entry. I make no guarantees of its being interesting

I'm a bit much for some people. In my personal life, I like to connect with other people in short, deep, intense bursts of trust, followed by slightly longer periods of being alone with myself. In the virtual world, I also enjoy "socializing" - more surface-level trust-based connection with little or no social expectation.

For work, when it comes to what is known as "networking" or "socializing,"  I've learned to mimic the people around me so I don't make them uncomfortable. I find myself making self-depreciating body movements, like slouching forward, shrugging, twittering my hands. I reflexively put on a more "girlie" persona that is less likely to be threatening to the women while more likely to ingratiate me to the men. My persona shifts subtly in response to feedback on any number of running processes:

  • How much are our views the same or different across a range of key issues? 
  • What language do I need to use in order to not offend you? 
  • How are you judging me and my message? 
  • What could I offer that might interest you?
  • Will openness with you lead to semi-formed judgments that can affect our funding? 
  • Who are you going to repeat this to, and how will you position it?
  • Are you inclined to be helpful if you can? 
  • Will I get a chance to find out more about you? 
  • Do you prefer a shallow relationship?
  • Do you prefer a high degree of formality?
  • What do you care about?
  • Will you share openly with me? 
  • Will you keep information back from me?
  • Do you see me as a threat or opportunity in some way?
  • Do you see this work I'm doing as relevant and important?

That's just a smattering of the profile. I'm able to build personae on the fly that hit the right note with about 65-75% of people. I'm aiming for the right note with 84.5% of people (84.5% being the universally accepted standard of slightly above average).

The truth is, I'm uncomfortable in my skin because it's not my skin. Yet, that persona seems to make many people I encounter more comfortable than when I let down my guard. In my work life, it's important that I build connection with people, most of whom seem intent on minimizing their level of connection and number of connections. People are fatigued with connection, networking, talking about issues, thinking about issues, and trying to get something done. I'm newish in these here parts, so they'll be friendly and meet me a couple of times, but they have their work. And now they've done that, so why am I still calling them? They aren't looking for a connection with me or to increase their connection with my organization. I have only one or two chances to carefully slide around and mold my key to fit at least a few of their locks.

So, we dance the trust dance. It's exhausting. 

I've been experimenting with not doing that. With making more encounters like short, deep, intense bursts in which I trust. In some ways, it's an intriguing, invigorating success. In other ways, it hasn't worked for me at all. It turns out, many, many people don't want short, deep, intense connection in their daily lives. At best people find me refreshing, genuine. Some people think I'm a bit strange but interesting. Some people feel vaguely uncomfortable. A small but important few find me too informal, and don't take me seriously or even disparage me.

Trying to balance between being my open, genuine self and being the person the other person needs me to be leaves me in this terrible no-man's land where I can't make any connection at all. The last two times I tried it, I could sense it wasn't working but had no idea how to fix it. I vacillated between being too informal and too formal; between being too self-assured and too ingratiating. I felt miserable inside as I carried the conversations through to the end, all the while doing my best to read and connect.  I unintentionally said surprising things, then try to normalize them too much. I giggled (which I abhor!).

So I'm back where I started - the way to get by seems to be mimicking shallow connection that others expect, and trying to anticipate what will make people feel comfortable without actually connecting to their spirit.

The only alternative I see is not caring what they think.

I do explore moving beyond caring what other people think. I think I could cultivate it, but I don't think that serves me. My role in the community is to try to bridge gaps between sectors, plant ideas, encourage changes in thinking and assumptions, encourage people to work together. I can only do that if people are not uncomfortable with me. Being myself is a risk that could result in real connection, but the wager is whether I will damage my influence with this person and the people they influence.

But here's the real problem. Since I've been more and more myself, I can't seem to pick up the costumes as easily as I used to. My genuine self is too much for most people to encounter unprepared, yet I'm not as smooth and comfortable as I used to be with putting on a persona. I'm clumsy with turning up the volume on myself without blasting the place open, and my persona feels forced and fake.

I'll tell you, it shakes my confidence in my ability to do my work. Right now, I need to be on my game. I need to somehow catalyze an increase of love in our community, and the only way to do that is to get other people interested. There is time pressure to come through this work with some tangible outcomes, not to mention my reputation intact.

I grow afraid that I may have set myself up for a challenge that's actually beyond me. When a challenge seems unattainable to me (not when others say it is), I lose interest quickly. I start looking around for a challenge I can work towards with some hope that it will be met. But this is my job, so I need to manufacture some passion. I have skin in this game. I'm feeling the stress.

I long for work that allows me to work in short bursts of deep, intense connection with trust behind it, where I feel as though I'm making a larger-scale impact. I wonder, does such a thing exist?

Let me end on a high note - my practice with bringing short, deep, intense, trust-based connection to my daily life is not a total failure. It has transformed my encounters with clerks and strangers everywhere. It's hard to describe the flashes of pleasure I have found in the eyes of bored, tired grocery clerks when I ask about their day. The old man who lives downtown and lights up with a smile of recognition when our eyes meet. Joy in my children's faces as they realize that the "real" mommy is here, with them, at least for this moment. Running to the door to hold my husband closer than close, so grateful he is home.

Burning bright isn't all bad.