Several years ago, I was a civil servant. I first landed a government job not because I was particularly driven to the mission of the agency I was hired into-- it has a good, noble, important mission-- but because I needed A Job after being unemployed for three months (more on this in a later post).
Most mornings after my alarm sounded and I started to get myself assembled for the day, I'd open the closet door, sit on the floor and gaze at my options. Usually, I'd grab my phone or, once I was senior enough, my government-issued Blackberry (TM) and check out what I had on the books for the day. And then I'd think, "who do I need to be today?"
Monday through Friday from 730ish until 430ish, my clothes reflected the person my colleagues needed me to be. Was she the spunky, enthusiastic agent of change? Was she the giver of performance improvement plans and disciplinary actions? Was she on the periphery of a big meeting, taking notes? So very rarely did I dress for myself; instead, my clothes armored my true self under carefully crafted ensembles that would allow me to fit in. I wasn't unhappy in my beautiful, carefully selected pieces, but I wasn't authentic. I was playing adult dress-up in the professional world.
The agency I worked for didn't have a dress-code other than some reference in a code of conduct about maintaining good hygiene and dressing professionally. There weren't restrictions on hair color or suit patterns or the sparkliness of accessories. There were unspoken rules about not standing out due to appearance. I wanted to stand out because I was a high performer. (Is this sounding familiar to anyone?)
This adherence to the unspoken rules came to a screeching halt when I chopped off my hair. I'd been ill, had surgery and spent 6 weeks at home recovering. During that time of discomfort and frustration, I reached for the one thing I could control and off went almost a foot of curls. To the outside world, my boy-short hair exposed a tattoo behind my ear, gave my many earrings more visibility, was a startling, drastic change. To me, I was literally un-locking the constraints I'd put on myself for so long. I started with playing with how I styled my hair, because why not, and that started to cascade down to the rest of my appearance. I dabbled with colors, shapes and classic styles reimagined. I brought more of my sense of play and my playfulness with clothes that I'd reserved for after work hours into work hours.
I was feeling more like myself, and I began to act in a way that was more natural. When I stopped "dressing" for other people, other things slowly changed, too. I was happier. Relaxed. I let people see glimpses of the truest me, while still maintaining professional relationships and adhering to the work environment. My world became that much easier to navigate. My work was more effective because I wasn't affecting. I figured out that the unspoken "rules" were unspoken because they didn't really exist. So long as I was clean, coiffed and bringing my best to the job, people didn't really care if my dress was flamingo-pattered or if my grey suit had metallic pink pinstripes.
How many of us play dress-up in our lives?
How many of us look at our closets (literal or metaphorical) or our reflections and deny our authenticity to shine through?
Where can we make little changes to how we dress (or behave, or feel) more like ourselves every day, all day? Because don't little changes become big changes when added together and given time?
Let me help you get started answering these. The next time you ask yourself, "who do they need me to be today?" The answer is you. They need you to be you.