Welcome to Unsetting Expectations—a newsletter for high-performing, high-achieving, perfectionist workaholics grappling with issues of never feeling satisfied, always working crazy long hours, and not feeling proud of their accomplishments, written and curated by Franka Grubisic.
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The benefits of talking about perfectionism, expectations, and a sense of worth are greater when coming from a range of perspectives. That’s why this post is written by Cara Cooper - a feminist, writer, mother & designer, in no particular order. As she likes to tell it, she’s navigating her way through prohibitive structures, raising the roof as she goes.
This story is about one of her experiences in being able to do just that — finding herself. Enjoy!
I’ve always felt divided.
In my late teens my therapist gave me a wonderful explanation for mental illness - every person has parts of themselves they wish to segregate, but most people never truly manage to cleave that part of themselves away. Those who are mentally ill have been successful.
At the time I was struggling through my Art Foundation, a prescriptive 1 year course that is designed to bridge an art student’s transition from school at 18 to starting a BA at university. It allows you to make your way through creative subjects and focus in on where your skill and interests lie. My peers started down pathways of graphic design, fine art, fashion, print making….and me….I was like a rabbit caught in headlights. Being comfortable sewing and working with fabric, I specialised in textiles, but very quickly it felt too narrow, too limited. I asked permission to switch pathways to painting but quickly found myself floundering - 2d work wasn’t my form, though I loved the conceptual side to things. Meanwhile, every Wednesday afternoon I was excused from my classes to sob in my therapist’s office for an hour. Whilst I was there I uncovered the pain of my childhood and my teenage years. After a breakdown I’d experienced a year prior, I was desperately trying to get myself ‘back on track’ with my life, that really, ought to have only been starting. I was experiencing the rebirth of my soul all before my 21st birthday and it was excruciating. So in the bowels of an old Georgian hospital, which I’m pretty sure had been a morgue in a previous incarnation, I was required to ‘know myself’ enough to choose a creative pathway. In that diagnostic year, despite being highly creative, I could not put my finger on what I ‘did’.
I finished the course making grisly, graphic, installations based on my own feelings and experiences of my abject self. I fancied myself as a Tracy Emin-esque figure though I was 20 years too late and probably not as talented.
Not having found my speciality, I took a year off to work, travel and finish my course of psychotherapy. I returned and started a broad based Fine Art BA, which I quickly realised wasn’t where I should be. So again, I paused and got a job and carried on trying to find my one true calling. Eventually I graduated as a set designer ready to work in film and tv, - I started taking on freelance jobs and worked my way into the art department of my first feature film. It was that summer, hot and exhausted, always on location, that two things happened - one, I realised the scale of commitment and sacrifice that this job would require of me, and two, how much I wanted children. I decided I should look for something more 9-5. Teaching seemed interesting and I started a job as a teaching assistant in an inner city secondary schools Nurture Group. I’ve always felt a strong pull towards psychology, therapy and education so perhaps my career could start there instead.
Then three unexpected things happened almost simultaneously: my husband lost his job, got sick and a few months later was diagnosed with MS and I found out I was pregnant.
By the time my daughter was born, I had no idea of who I was or what I did. Was I a mother, a teacher, a set designer? Should I train to become an Educational Psychologist? Maybe a social worker? I knew I was literate, academic and talented. I knew I had a good work ethic but what the hell should I do? The film industry wanted more than I was willing to give in exchange for a career, I wanted to be around enough to raise my daughter. Apart from that one amazing school in London, education was a pretty bleak place to be… Being a mother was beautiful, but I needed something else.
Confused, I retreated into myself. Blaming myself for being ‘faulty’. Too divided, too fussy, wanting too much, being too indecisive to have the successful career I’d always pictured.
Life carried on, we had another baby. I’d been quietly hoping that if I just plugged away at life whilst building our family, then eventually, I’d find my thing. My son arrived a few months before the pandemic. I suffered post natal depression and between that and the lockdowns, I was shattered, but from there, I was also able to rebuild.
After reflecting on my capacity to design spaces; my love of textiles and furniture I started studying to be an interior designer. I figured I had finally hit on IT.
In trying to piece myself back together personally, I took part in UPFRONT - an online confidence course for women. During this, I experienced a lightbulb moment - having children had inextricably shattered my sense of self.
I started writing about my experiences of motherhood and had the most phenomenal feedback. The lonely space that had opened up in me, that I had filled with failure and shame, and was so, so certain was mine and mine alone… well it turns out to be so common, so taboo, so painful that we don’t seem to talk about it. And as I’m writing, and being told that I am a writer, that familiar feeling crept up on me - the rug being pulled from beneath my feet.
Just as I thought I was
I’ve spent the last year engaging with myself. Trying to enact healing, progress, and finding me again. Me when I’m at my best. Extroverted, creative and engaged. Academically driven and well read. I’m trying to feed my soul as well as my mind.
Currently, Monday - Friday I’m taking care of my children. At the weekends I sit down at my desk and switch my brain into designer mode whilst I study, my heart fills as I think about how to design homes that people want to be in, how colour, texture and practicality fit together to make a room sing. But I’m also making time to develop a writing practice. I know I have to write about motherhood - I have valuable things to share and I think people want to hear them.
Sometimes I look at what I’m doing and panic that I should be specialising, I think that I should give myself over to interior design and let everything else fall away. Or else I should do an MA in Woman’s Studies. Society continually tells us: find your thing; find the job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. Sure you can have a side hustle, but it will be just that, on the side, and a hustle doesn’t necessarily mean a career path.
A little while ago, I challenged myself to sit with this discomfort. In a landmark moment, I said to myself, “You don’t have to decide. You can be more than one thing. Sit with it.” I wrote it on a piece of paper and stuck it on my wall.
The same day, I stumbled across Emilie Wapnick and her beautiful rejection of everyone fitting into society’s idea of singularity in favour of recognition of the multipotentialite - in that moment, listening to her speak, I finally felt seen.
Which expectations did this issue help you unset? I myself have struggled with the same all throughout my life, being skilled in many areas made me feel like I’m flawed and in a constant search of ‘the’ thing I should be doing… Today, I know that the combination of my unique skills is what makes me me, what makes it my niche!
This being the last issue until fall, I've put together some questions. Answering will only take a few minutes (there are only 7 of them!), and it will help Unsetting Expectations to become the diverse and open space it should be.
As one reader put it:
“This is such a space to be you and to share what being you means.”
Thanks for gifting me space in your inbox. I appreciate that you’re here, whether this is your first or 12th read.
Take good care and have a lovely summer, I’ll see you in September with something big, new and exciting 💛
Here’s the link to the questions once again. Thank you.
Lastly, if you’re thinking to yourself “Wow, I so relate to this, I can’t wait to read more!” and want to know how you can support me in my writing so I continue to bring great issues, this is how: by buying me a doughnut 🍩.
Why a doughnut, you may ask? Well, in my native language, 'doughnut' is spelled 'krafna', which makes it an anagram of my name; Franka. And if there was such a thing as a spirit animal, but for food, I'd be a doughnut (you know, crisp on the outside, soft on the inside, and you never know what’s gonna be on top).