My last day of my social work student placement was exactly one week ago, and just before I left, one of the social workers took me aside to give me some advice for my future work. It may help to know that I love this person, and I find her sweet, disorganised and perhaps a little cooky. But she works hard, and she does her work well, and my respect for her has grown over the past few months.
The essence of what she said to me was this: “I’m quite quirky person, and I think I would be right in also saying that you’re quirky as well. You do things spontaneously which I find wonderful, but not everyone sees it that way. Like for example when you asked that geriatrician if he used his stethoscope, everyone laughed but not everyone was laughing with you. While I found it funny, some people would have thought it was weird and treated you with distrust. And sometimes you really need people to trust you; to believe that you’re responsible, and to be willing to work with you. I advise you to think about things before you say them, to censor them in your head like radio stations do (they have a five-to-ten second delay so they can delete anything that goes wrong), and to really think about how far within the range of normality something is before you say it. And when you get a new job, I advise you to really try and act normal, and to work really hard, so that other people realise that they can trust you. And then when they trust you, you can start to open up and they’ll accept some of your quirky behaviours.”
I was so, so grateful that she took me aside to tell me that. But it rocked me to my very core. It challenged a long-standing belief that I had held as a way of protecting myself from experiences with bullying and being hurt by others. It was the belief that “What other people think of me does not matter. As long as I am happy, that’s all that really counts.”
In that one conversation I came to realise that what other people think of me really does make a difference to my life. Work is almost always a social activity – there are very few jobs that don’t require you to work as part of a team. And being held at arm’s length by your co-workers, treated with puzzlement, distrust and suspicion makes it very hard to do good work. Conversely winning them over with charm secures you a place in the organisation, allows you to make mistakes and be forgiven, or to do good work and be rewarded. But in order to do that on this placement I’ve had to put on a facade, and that’s been really hard for me. Instead of sitting outside and drinking tea, doing taiji, reading books and going for walks to clear my head during breaks, I’ve had to sit in the dining room and be social, or to use my phone or read a magazine. I had to fit into the work culture, and it frustrated and confused me. Why did I feel so much rejection when I started doing things differently within the system? Without going into an analysis of why, it certainly made me feel uncomfortable enough to put on a mask, to act a certain way in order to conform. And the thought that I have to do that for the rest of my working life is exhausting enough to make me want to collapse.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve come to love talking and being with people. I usually find them to be wonderful and miraculous and interesting company worthy of caring about more than my own problems. But I am still an introvert, and I need time by myself to recover my energy and heal. As someone recently said to me, “If [politicians] weren’t up for being scrutinised by the media 24/7, they shouldn’t have applied for the job. If it’s too hot, get out of the kitchen.” This line of thought has left my view of the future quite bleak, with very few kitchens that I would be willing to work in.
But I spoke to Roger and Naomi, and Bethwyn and Ivan. They all helped me to realise that not every organisation will require me to give up who I am, to put my metaphorical personality in a jar. That there are “my people” out there in the world, people I love and respect and accept for who they are, and those that do the same to me. And some of them might value who I am and what I have to offer enough to pay me to do something. After quite a confronting couple of days where I really had a good hard look at how important the views of others are, I’ve come to realise this:
If you don’t love me for who I am, well that’s just too damn bad. Yes I’ll do my bit to conform, I’ll keep the peace (because as social creatures, we all have to make little compromises in order to live in societies). But I will not fundamentally change a part of who I am, just to please you, just to serve your organisation’s ethics, or just because you’ve convinced me that I need the money more than I need my values. Who I am, what I am, everything that makes me unique is fantastic and worthwhile and utterly incredible. And when I find my niche, I’ll be the best damn me I can be, and that will make all the difference.