Absorbing reflected perfectionism

The dynamic of perfectionism in the workplace

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 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 I'm thrilled to welcome you to Unsetting Expectations’ first guest post! 🎉

Our first guest is a UK-based local government officer with some thoughts on the emotional value of honesty! It’s a beautiful, open, and raw story about absorbing reflected perfectionism in the workplace, mostly from our managers. And having the courage to realise you’ve been holding up a mirror. I hope you’ll enjoy reading it.

Dear reader, I’m writing this anonymously. Please don’t think I’m doing this to put some distance between us, actually, it’s quite the opposite. You see I’ve recently had a conversation which enabled me to realise something profound about myself, and sharing that with the world is tricky. I’m learning to be visible. This is the first time I’ve written about my self, and my work and so, here goes…

All through lockdown 3 I had been holding my professional self together whilst personally feeling very low. I had two little children and a partner at home. The combination of a heavy workload, home schooling and remote managing a team, left me exhausted.

In 1:1 meetings with my boss I would switch on the laptop, smile and show her exactly what she needed to see; a mirror image of herself, organised, determined and diligent. She is my age, with kids the same age too, and so in my eyes I had no excuse to fail. I would gloss over my challenges, say I would meet deadlines, nothing to worry about here, all under control. Then I’d turn off the laptop and cry, drained from the pretence and angry at myself for not being honest with her.

I carried on in this way for a couple of months, feeling increasingly bad about the widening gap between reality and the picture I was painting. Until the day came when I had to acknowledge I was becoming unwell and I couldn’t keep up the pretence any longer. I called my boss and told her my house of cards was about to fall down.

To my amazement, she confided that she was struggling too. The combination of the domestic and professional loads of lockdown was draining her, she was missing deadlines and cutting corners in the hope of keeping her head above water. We’d never talked with this level of honesty before. Never in the decade I’ve worked alongside here has she shown vulnerability like that.

I realised that I am by nature, a mirror. I reflect whatever version of myself the person I’m talking to needs to see. I hide my true feelings and thoughts, defaulting instead to what I think is required. Now I see that this mirroring stems from being an inveterate people-pleaser, and one whose low self confidence has meant I have to work hard to value my own thoughts and experience enough to voice them.

So dear reader, watch out for dazzling mirrors - the ones you might be holding up, and the ones held up to you by others. They are blocking your vision. Better instead to aim for empty but beautiful frames. Hold them up, focus attention on yourself and others, have genuine conversations and build real connections. I have a feeling that in a post-pandemic world, framing each other’s unique and intersecting experiences will be the bedrock upon which we build the better normal we all need to see.

Have you felt the same? I can really relate to this story, as I would often (ok, ok, always), pick up on others’ behaviors and expectations. Which mirrors are you holding up, and which do you feel are help up to you by others?

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Take good care and have a lovely week, until next time 💛