In an earlier article, I discussed how procrastination can arise from a general feeling of dissatisfaction—an attitude of “nonacceptance” toward the world—and how letting yourself fully experience that dissatisfaction, without judging it or pushing it aside, can help you overcome the habit. My focus here is another common cause of procrastination. I suggest that, when we feel the need to adopt a contrived, artificial persona in our jobs, we create the kind of frustration that has us put off our work.
My recent work with a client was a good example of this point. I worked for a while with a lawyer who wanted to get out of the office earlier in the day. She had the sense that, although her job was demanding, she could find a way to spend less time at work. The biggest obstacle she faced was her tendency to lose focus and procrastinate—to start surfing the web, calling her friends, reading the newspaper, and doing other things that provided brief relief from work but ultimately had her spend more time in the office.
One of the first questions I asked her was what was usually going on when she started procrastinating. Was there any specific activity at work, I wondered, that she often found herself resisting?
After some thought, my client realized she tended to start procrastinating when she was drafting legal papers that took what she called a self-righteous and highly aggressive tone. She felt uncomfortable writing in this style—so much so that, each time she’d draft a few sentences in this blaming, holier-than-thou voice, she felt her shoulders stiffen painfully. No wonder she often felt the need to stop and do something else.
“What is it about sounding really aggressive that doesn’t sit well with you?” I asked.
“It feels like I’m pretending to be someone I’m not,” she replied. “I’m just not the kind of person who gets outraged and condemns people all the time.”
As we explored this issue further, she also recognized that she felt some pressure to adopt a hyper-aggressive tone in her writing because she was female. She worried that her predominantly male superiors would tend to assume, because she was a woman, that she’d be easily pushed around, and thus they’d be less likely to consider her for partnership. She felt the need to reassure the higher-ups by adopting a “take no prisoners” writing style. But no matter how often she drafted her papers this way, she never seemed to get comfortable with it—something about it kept bothering her.
We decided to experiment with having her write with a style that came more naturally to her. Her preference was to convey her points in a concise, matter-of-fact way, without lots of overblown, blaming rhetoric. Interestingly, when she adopted her new approach to drafting, she found herself procrastinating less often. When she no longer bore the burden of adopting a contrived, hyper-aggressive persona in her writing, she didn’t have to take frequent breaks to deal with her discomfort anymore. What’s more, her superiors seemed just as happy with her work.
As my client’s example illustrates, we sometimes find ourselves procrastinating when we feel the need to put up a facade while working. For some reason, we become convinced that who we are just isn’t good enough for our work environment, and we develop a “work persona” with the characteristics we think our superiors, clients and colleagues prefer to see. For example, perhaps we think we need to try to look more outgoing, organized, submissive, happy, or something else.
Unfortunately, maintaining this persona takes a lot of extra work, and on some level wearing this mask makes us uncomfortable. Thus, when we feel the need to adopt a work persona, we find ourselves doing anything we can to avoid working. It’s no surprise that, if we believe working requires us to be something other than what we are, we tend toward procrastination.
Sometimes, as in my client’s example, we aren’t fully conscious of the areas where we’re putting up a false front for work purposes. We just have a nagging, inexplicable discomfort with working that has doing our tasks seem like constant struggle. In these situations, as I did with my client, it’s helpful to ask ourselves what specific activities seem to give us the most trouble.
For instance, perhaps the “problem activity” for you is negotiating, writing, talking to your boss or customers, or something else. When you discover an area of your working life that seems particularly problematic, look closely to see whether you feel pressure to change your personality when you’re involved in it. Your discomfort may result from the “work persona” you’re projecting to impress or pacify others.
What do you do when you find that you’re holding up a facade to succeed in your working environment? Simply dropping the facade is easier said than done. Many people, when they become conscious of the artificial personalities they’re adopting at work, fear that discarding those personalities will harm their performance.
This is why I usually recommend that people start by temporarily experimenting with bringing more of themselves to their work. If they’re displeased with the results, they can always revert to their old way of doing things. But this approach at least allows them to find out whether it’s possible to perform well at work without having to revamp their personality.
As with my client’s situation, people often find they don’t need their working personalities as badly as they thought. Surprisingly enough, their superiors and colleagues are more accepting of their authentic personalities than they’d anticipated. What’s more, because people tend to procrastinate less often when they’re no longer burdened with the need to wear a false face at work, often they actually please their employers by dispensing with their facades.
In her book Who We Could Be At Work, business consultant Margaret A. Lulic has an inspiring passage on how abandoning our role-playing at work, and bringing all of ourselves to what we do, creates more peace and productivity:
In the health field, we’re learning that human beings are complex wholes and that we can create better health by treating the whole person rather than just isolated parts. When we act on this same premise in the workplace, we create healthier, stronger organizations. The starting point is to bring all of who we are to work and to learn to live with each other in that wholeness. When we are boxed and labeled by titles, education, sex, race and beliefs, great potential from each person is wasted.
As it turns out, discarding the masks we wear in the work context can actually free us up to work more efficiently, and perhaps even enjoy what we do.
(This article appeared in the Carnival of Self-Mastery, located at http://www.ananddhillon.com/blog/2008/07/carnival-of-self-mastery-july-29-2008/.)
Bookstores and the Internet are overflowing with “tips and tricks” we can supposedly use to get other people to do what we want. Whether you’re looking for advice on what to say in a job interview to make sure you’re hired, how to subtly pressure a potential customer to close that deal, or attractive body language to display on a date, you can be sure there are thousands of lists of techniques out there intended to help you induce others to fulfill your desires.
Many of us, however, get a little uneasy when it comes to actually using tips and tricks like these. This unease stems from our desire for people to appreciate us “for who we are.” We crave to feel that, even if we didn’t use any rehearsed lines or strategies in pursuing our goals, people would still want to give us jobs, money, intimate relationships, and so on, and generally love and respect us. When we use a technique we learned from an outside source to get what we want, we can’t access this feeling, because the technique—not “who we are”—was responsible for our success.
We need others to acknowledge us for “who we are” because we want to get rid of a fear that’s haunted many of us all our lives: the fear that people won’t admire, respect or love us if we “be ourselves” around them. Using a “canned” strategy to get what we want, in a sense, only confirms that our fear is justified. After all, if everyone else thought we were okay “as we are,” we wouldn’t need to follow “Top 100 Ways To Get People To Like You” lists from the Web to gain others’ acceptance and appreciation.
Since we have this fear that people don’t appreciate us “as we are,” and using rehearsed techniques to get what we want only reinforces it, why are books and websites describing these techniques such a huge industry? Why aren’t we all out there simply “being ourselves” and letting the chips fall where they may? It’s partly because, by following someone else’s ideas of what to say and do, we don’t have to risk finding out that, in fact, people don’t want to be with us when we’re “ourselves.”
But at an even deeper and more uncomfortable level, we often gravitate toward tips and tricks for getting what we want because we don’t know how to “be ourselves”—we don’t know “who we are” in our essence. It’s unclear where our contrived strategies for dealing with others end, and the natural expression of our true selves begins. When you follow someone else’s advice on how to behave, you don’t have to face the unsettling concern that you don’t know who you are, or how the “real you” would act in a given situation.
How do we assuage these fears around our identity? I believe the answer is to gain some understanding of who and what we truly are. To get this understanding, as many spiritual traditions advocate, it’s helpful to start by acknowledging what we are not. On an intuitive, instinctive level, we have quite a bit of knowledge of what we are not. For example, we don’t have to investigate any facts, read any books, or meet any spiritual gurus to know the following truths:
We are not our thoughts. We know that our thoughts—such as our memories, desires, and ambitions—are not part of who we are. We experience them, or we have them, but we are not them. For instance, we would say “I have a thought about what to do this weekend”—not “I am a thought about my weekend plans.”
We are not our emotions. Although we sometimes use expressions like “I’m angry,” a statement like this is short for “I’m experiencing anger”—we don’t mean to suggest by this that we actually are anger. Emotions are things we have or perceive—not parts of our being.
We are not our bodies. Our arms, legs, organs and so on are things we have, not who we are. When I see the hands that are typing on my computer right now, for instance, I instinctively think of them as “my hands,” but not as “me.” Even if my hands disappeared, I would still have the sense that I am “me”—not that I had become someone or something else.
We are not our possessions. This is likely the most obvious one. Although we often get attached to things like money, degrees and cars, we understand they aren’t actually part of who we are. No matter how much I may like it or get upset when it doesn’t work properly, my car is something I have or perceive—it isn’t me.
As we expand the list of things we aren’t, we start noticing it’s difficult to think of anything we actually are. As Ken Wilber explains, “[i]f you see something, that is just another object—another feeling, another thought, another sensation, another image. But those are all objects; those are what you are not.” This realization can fill us with a sense of despair and emptiness. It may seem that, not only are we unaware of what we are, but it’s quite possible we might never know.
There is one thing we know for sure, however, which is that we perceive, or are aware of, the objects I listed. If we know we are aware of our possessions, bodies, relationships, jobs and so forth, we must be something capable of awareness, of observation. We know, in other words, that we exist, and that we perceive. As Sri Ramana Maharshi lyrically puts this point, “[a]fter negating all of the above-mentioned as ‘not this, not this,’ that Awareness which alone remains—that I am.”
I’ve found much peace by repeatedly pondering what I am and what I’m not. In moments when I’m aware of what I truly am—awareness, consciousness, perception—I am at my most calm and centered. This is because, in those moments, the fear that I’ll never find out who I am—which for most of my life has nagged me at the edge of my consciousness—simply doesn’t arise.
I can also see, in those instants of clarity, that I don’t need to try or decide to “be myself.” I am always awareness, regardless of what I do and don’t do, and it is impossible for me not to be what I am. And because I am always “myself,” the anxiety that others won’t like me if I “show them who I am” makes no sense.
How does knowing our true selves relate to whether we should use “tips and tricks” to get others to do what we want? They are connected in two ways. First, knowing what you really are relieves the fear that arises from using strategies and tactics to advance yourself in the world—the sense that, by using a strategy to get what you want, you’re confirming that no one wants to “see your true self.” Because you are always awareness, no matter what happens, you are always your true self, and nothing you do can conceal or change that.
Second, and more importantly, when you know your true essence, the thought of using “tips and tricks” to “get ahead” simply doesn’t occur. Because what you are is complete and unchanging, the fears that you won’t get ahead and that you’ll wind up “a failure”—the worries that motivate us to scheme and manipulate each other—don’t influence you anymore. The sense of the world as a hostile and painful place subsides, and is replaced by a deep peace and focus.
Personality tests are becoming increasingly popular among people starting out in their careers and those seeking career transitions. These tests are intended to gather information about the taker’s desires, fears, values and skills and recommend careers best suited for people with those traits. If we pick a career that other people with our personality type tend to enter and avoid those careers they stay away from, the theory goes, we’re likely to find job satisfaction.
On the surface, this sounds like a good idea. Getting clear on our likes and dislikes, and learning which careers people with those traits tend to prefer, seem at first glance to be helpful career guidance.
However, basing one’s career path on personality test results makes an assumption I question. It assumes we should choose only those careers that the test tells us we’re comfortable with, rather than trying to understand and perhaps overcome the discomfort we believe other careers would provoke in us. In other words, it assumes that, if we’re afraid of doing something, we shouldn’t try to come to terms with the fear, but instead select a career where we don’t have to face it.
For example, following this thinking, if you’re an introvert and dislike working in groups, you should choose a job that mostly involves working alone. If you’re convinced that you’re not creative, you should select a career that involves structured, rote activity with little need for innovation. If you’re shy, you should stay away from selling and networking. And so on.
At first glance, it may appear that we’ll lead happier lives if we stick to careers—and other activities—that we’re fully comfortable with, and avoid anything that might trigger our anxieties. However, it seems that—no matter how successful we become—part of us remains dissatisfied when we limit our horizons out of fear.
For instance, I know several highly-paid lawyers who wanted to be artists of various kinds when they got out of college, but were skittish about the financial instability of the professional artist lifestyle and what their families might think if they made such a choice. However, a few years into their law careers, they regretted their decision and wished they’d been able to overcome their fears.
How Our “Survival Personalities” Limit Our Growth
I believe this happens because we recognize, on some level, that our fears aren’t part of who we really are. They’re just strategies we developed—often in early childhood—to protect ourselves from perceived threats in the world. I think psychologists John Firman and Ann Gila put it well in Psychosynthesis: A Psychology of the Spirit when they describe most of our fears, dislikes and discomforts as aspects of our “survival personalities.”
As young children, we’re completely dependent on our parents to meet our needs and ensure our survival. Over time, we learn which behaviors make them more likely to pay attention to us, and which ones make them pull away. To ensure we get the care we need, we learn to prefer those behaviors to which our parents respond favorably, and shun those they dislike.
If our parents seem to respond positively when we’re quiet and submissive, for instance, we learn to passively bend to others’ will. By contrast, we learn to avoid aggression, as it upsets our parents and puts us at a perceived risk of abandonment. Over time, we start believing these desires and fears are part of who we are—part of what Firman and Gila call our “authentic personality”—but in fact they’re part of an artificial “survival personality” we created to make sure we get our parents’ approval.
Our survival personalities can get us far in the adult world. If we learned to be submissive as children, for example, we may have great success in a workplace that’s rigidly hierarchical and where obedience is highly valued. However, part of us remains aware of when we’re following the rules of our survival personalities rather than doing what we truly desire. This part yearns to get back to being who we really are, and ultimately this yearning becomes so painful and powerful that we fall into despair. As Firman and Gila put it:
Many of us can live a long while lost in an identification with survival personality, especially if this mode is well-functioning, adaptive, and capable of success in the world. However, in many cases, survival personality sooner or later eventually wears thin, revealing the hidden chasm of nonbeing on which it is built. . . . The pressure from such hidden wounds can and does eventually wreak havoc in our lives and in our world.
When we avoid the career we want based on discomfort—when we say, for instance, “oh, I could never be an entrepreneur because I’m afraid of selling things to people” or “I could never be a musician because I have so much stage fright”—we’re following the dictates of our survival personalities. If we take this approach to life, eventually unease and dissatisfaction with what we’re doing catch up with us.
What Do Personality Tests Really Measure?
Taking a personality test to clarify your likes, dislikes, strengths and weaknesses is certainly interesting, but basing a career decision on your test results isn’t likely to bring you satisfaction in the end.
This is because much of what such a test will show you—particularly in the area of your dislikes and anxieties—is your survival personality, the personality you developed to get the care and attention you needed as a young child. Following your survival personality’s rules in selecting a career may make you a well-liked and productive worker, but in the long term it won’t bring you the happiness you seek.
This isn’t to say that personality tests have no worthwhile purpose. In pinpointing areas where you’re afraid, anxious or blocked, a personality test may help you recognize places where you have opportunities to grow as a person. In other words, it may help you see where your survival personality is artificially limiting your options.
It may take some inner work, but overcoming your fears and finding a career in line with your authentic personality—what you genuinely desire and find meaningful—is the best way to achieve lasting satisfaction.