Wednesday Missive: Self-Care and Professional Self-Doubt

Hello darlings,

A few things to begin: 

  • I’m so honored to be featured for the Washington Post Magazine’s Dream Day column! Read about my ideal DC day, including my favorite restaurants around town.

  • Calling all the DC-based ladies with Imposter Syndrome! On September 28th in Washington, DC, I'm co-teaching a breakthrough workshop with improv teacher and LCSW extraordinaire Lisa Kays. Our goal is to use the power of self-care and the genius of improv to help women stop apologizing and start trusting their values and their voice. Interested in attending? Read more here and use coupon code: "gracy" to get a $20 discount.

And now, today…

The other day I took a moment to recognize that I’ve created my own paycheck for over ten years now. Not only have I managed to support myself through my own entrepreneurial efforts, I’ve pretty much always done work that I’ve enjoyed and felt that my work has really been of service to my clients. Further, I’ve managed to transition my business ventures from their initial forms (taking photographs of people’s pets and teaching my first yoga classes) to what I currently do now (leading self-care communities of amazing women) without making any abrupt moves or hugely scary leaps. Over the years, I’ve just kept noticing what interests me and found ways to incorporate new focuses into my work.

Then, my question to myself was: Why do I still have such a hard time calling myself an entrepreneur? (Ahem, imposter syndrome!) Further, why do I still spend so much time doubting whether or not I’m making the right professional moves? Hasn’t my life has shown me by now that I can trust myself professionally?

I know that not everyone reading can relate to my journey as an entrepreneur. However, I think most of us can understand the self-doubt that comes up in our professional lives. Although we keep our outer image together quite well, inside we grapple with the ongoing thought that we aren’t doing this the way it should be done. And of course, when we’re struggling with our doubts it’s so easy to compare ourselves to our star colleague or powerhouse friend. Everyone else looks like they have it perfectly together. Why don’t we? 

From watching my own experience, listening to my friends, and sharing stories with my clients, I have a few theories about why, despite outer circumstances, we can still spend so much energy doubting ourselves professionally. I believe that examining this issue from a self-care perspective is incredibly important at this moment in time when claiming our power and changing dominant structures feels necessary for our continued well-being in this world. I don’t think we can get there without examining our part. 

The first reason we can get so lost in self-doubt is that in our culture, especially as women, we’re taught to trust outside forms of feedback more than ourselves. From early on in our education, we’re taught to gain the approval of authority figures and become motivated by extrinsic rewards, such as getting gold stars and making “A’s.” If we’re good at getting gold stars, we can base our entire self-esteem on this sense of achievement. If we don’t get the stars, we can develop a story about ourselves that we’re defective. 

Later on in life this need for outer approval translates as getting a higher salary, better title, or bigger office. Yes, these aspects of our lives are really important. Especially as women, we need to be practicing the self-care of asking for what we’re worth and advocating for our future professional growth. However, when these outer factors become almost the entire reason that we’re pushing ourselves so hard to excel at work, it becomes very easy to lose our sense of self in the process. When this happens to an extreme we may experience burnout, anxiety, and/or depression. 

The second reason for distrusting ourselves professionally can be because our values are misaligned. If you work at an organization where there’s a culture of toxicity (poor communication, misdirected emotion, a top-heavy hierarchy, etc), you will react negatively in some way. Some of us get angry at this toxicity. To me, this feels like the healthiest option in a bad work situation. When channeled with awareness and with some openness from higher ups, I believe this kind of anger can be a powerful change agent. 

But if we aren’t in touch with our anger at others, it’s way easy to turn our frustrations in on ourselves. This happens when instead of noticing how unproductive it is when everyone talks over at each other during the team meeting, you chide yourself for not being confident enough to butt your way into the conversation. Or, instead of calling bullshit on why junior staff are expected to stay late in order to prove themselves, you get upset with yourself that you can’t be more driven like your officemate. Instead of recognizing that your workplace is the problem, you make yourself the problem. 

Finally, I think we struggle with professional distrust when we keep our work-related insecurities all to ourselves. As the ever-wonderful Brene Brown reminds us, the people with the most shame are the ones who talk about it the least. The more we try to pretend we have it all together professionally, the more we’re probably suffering inside. The less we talk about the places we struggle, the more we block ourselves from the nourishing connection that happens when someone else says: “Oh yeah. I feel that way too!” 

This is why I so appreciate adding the term “imposter syndrome” to our modern lexicon. Now with just two words we can name the ways we feel shaky in our professional lives while also adding in the essential insight that enough of us are struggling with these feelings that it warrants its own vocabulary. When we say it, we remind ourselves that we are just one of many doing the very best we can in our careers.

Which brings us to what I think is the most important point. Recognizing the commonality of professional self-doubt is essential for changing dominant work culture. Once we realize that we’re not the only ones struggling, we can become more critical of the system itself. We can speak up about toxic culture, suggest workable changes, and if we are not listened to, realize that we have the right to look for a workplace where we can be valued. 

To do this, we have to break our unspoken agreements that we’re going to be compliant at all costs. We have to be willing to risk a few gold stars in the name of true professional integrity. As hard as it may feel, we need to start listening to ourselves and trusting what we hear. From there, we gain the courage to search out the support we need and start speaking directly about the problems we see. 

I think this way of conducting ourselves is both very simple and incredibly challenging. It will require us to really face our fears. The good news is that according to the Buddihist maxim, the way we do anything is the way we do everything. Approaching our professional lives with more courage and integrity will also transform how we show up in our personal lives. We will no longer date people that always interrupt us or let our unspoken needs with our kids turn into seething resentments. We’ll even stop tolerating negative self-talk, because we’ve stopped allowing it from other people. Little by little, we’ll recognize our power to show up differently and how this kind of self-care can revolutionize our entire lives. 

As I close here, I think it’s important to remember that even if we’re practicing amazing professional self-care, we’re still going to experience moments of self-doubt, especially if we’re taking important professional risks. A year and a half ago, I decided to retire Self Care 101, the very successful group habit-change program that launched my self-care business, and begin the Beautiful Life Collective, a monthly membership program focused on the intersection between social justice and self-care. Doing this meant I would give up a sure thing that felt like it had run its course in exchange for a new opportunity that *might* someday grow into a successful venture. 

I won’t lie. Starting something new at that point in my career was a tough process for me. As the Beautiful Life Collective went through the many fits and starts of any budding new venture, I wondered many times if I made the wrong decision. Had I traded away everything I owned for a silly handful of seeds? 

But every time I checked in with myself, I reconnected with why I made the change in the first place. I believe so deeply in the socially-conscious self-care conversation we’re having and the women who were showing up to have it. In my harder moments, I reached out for support from trusted friends and other entrepreneurs. They reminded me that my vision just needed time and space to grow.

And it has grown! We’re just ready to wrap up our first year as a community and I could not be more proud of the revolutionary self-care work we’re doing together. Each day, I feel more sure of the direction that we’re going and the many ways we can continue to grow in our self-care and our ability to care for our world. 

With patience, self-trust, and a very normal amount of anxiety, I’m happy to say that I used self-care to navigate another bump in the road of my career. It’s strengthened my resolve to share more openly on these topics and help others find the most easeful path to their own professional growth. It reminds me that even though we’re all doing such different things in our work, we are all in it together as we strive to grow in ourselves and make the world a better place.

With care,

PS - If the Beautiful Life Collective feels interesting to you, I highly suggest signing up for the Waitlist here. I’m opening up the Collective again for new membership later next month and have a special Waitlist discount!