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In small and not-so-small circles people are talking about identity. The type of identity that defines who we are and how we are perceived. All around the world people with various backgrounds and stories are breaking the “rules” about what it means to “be” and defying traditional definitions. A very recent ABAC webinar, a few social media posts by others, and a loving personal conversation between friends in the past couple of days has gotten me thinking about what it means to look or “be” professional (which for me includes professional behavior analyst, entrepreneur, graduate student, mentor) and how closely my “definition” is tied to my struggle with aging and my difficulty with self-compassion.

In the following imaginary interview, Adrienne Fitzer of ABAC, Inc. reaches out to Adrienne Fitzer, interviewer, to help her share her story.

Adrienne. Thank you for joining us today.  Why did you reach out to me to set up this interview.

I wanted to share something personal with you all.

Prior to every webinar we run at ABAC, I follow a specific routine. I change my shirt, I put on jewelry, I apply make-up, and I attend to my hair. I do these things to make myself professionally presentable to a global audience around the world. It doesn’t take long for me to do my routine…but the accompanying thoughts that go with the routine can be a bit all-consuming.

Must make sure the makeup looks good. Must make sure they can’t tell my hair isn’t as thick as it used to be. Must make sure they see me as a “professional.” Must make sure the lines on the face don’t look too deep. 

Etc.

Sometimes I feel like I fail.

When I view a recording when this happens, my first thought is always “uch.” My second is to point out to myself the flaws.

“I look too [old, tired, weird, unprofessional, professional, frizzy, pale, blotchy, odd, unrelatable ]”

Sometimes I feel like I succeed.

When I view a recording when this happens, I am always surprised.

Adrienne… ummm…why are you telling us this?

Because I HATE wearing layers of make-up. Because I want it to be okay to wear an artsy necklace without worrying that someone will be turned off because I didn’t come to the presentation dressed “professionally enough.” Because I want to go to conferences but never wear heels for a whole day again. Because I find it easier to be ME when I tell everyone that I am human.

Scratch that…when I remind myself I am human.

There has to be more to this.

Yes. There is.

Last week, Dr. Bridget Taylor spoke about self-compassion during her webinar and mentioned the Self-compassion rating scale developed by Dr. Kristin Neff. I took it.

I scored very low.

It is all I have been able to think of since.

Look, lots of people have a professional identity and a personal one. You are always “yourself” during your webinars- waving your hands all around, being silly, giving all you’ve got. There is nothing wrong with having a professional look. First impressions DO mean everything.

Yes, they do. But what I grapple with is whether people will respect me as a professional if I present myself in a way that allows me to be presentable yet physically comfortable. Take behavior analysis professional conferences. I wear heels. Practical heels. Not too high. But they kill my feet after a whole day in a way that takes a few weeks to recover from. I don’t love the way dress pants or a suit or dress feels on me for long periods of time. Short periods? Sure! I love to dress up here and there for a night out. But all day… shudder. What if I wore clean, cork-based shoes and flowing pants with a nice top to a conference.. Would you see me as a respectable professional or a little cute tree-hugger who you would love to hang out with but not necessarily consider an equal.

This sounds like something you should be talking about in private with a psychologist or a counselor not with us.

Actually, I disagree. This is something I feel I should talk about to everyone. I have decided people should feel comfortable in their own skin and feel comfortable “being” than trying to fit some mold or definition. I am putting this out there so others who struggle with dressing or otherwise presenting themselves in a way that makes them feel comfortable (albeit neat and clean) in professional or personal situations know they are not alone in their struggle.

Do you think you act differently when you are dressed differently? Does how you dress or the make-up you wear really matter?

When I attended the Morningside Teacher’s Training in July, (a great program by the way) the instructors wore casual summer clothing. They were no less able to teach me due to what they were wearing. In fact, they were absolutely wonderful and impressed upon me that they were truly excellent at what they do. Nevertheless, I feel less able to be “on” as a professional unless I am dressed the part.

So you are saying, as long as other professionals are dressed in neat and clean clothing, the rest doesn’t matter as long as they are great at what they do… but the same doesn’t apply to you??

I guess I am saying it shouldn’t. If asked, I would tell people to be themselves. The point of course is that when it comes self-compassion, some people have a damn hard time with it. Obviously I am one of them.

So now what? 

Now I hug myself and say to me the same thing I would say to you.

When you feel like dressing up do it. When you feel like wearing make-up do it. If you are not comfortable wearing certain dress clothes don’t, if you want to wear less make-up that is okay, if you feel like wearing a necklace made out of rope and wood beads go for it, if the next day you want to wear pearls that is okay too. Embrace your comfortable you.

Or in other words…

“You be you, however you need to “be” today.

(or?)

Just be ethical, stay true to yourself and your purpose, and it will all work out”