Why are you so scared?
Updated: Jun 14
Are you scared because you fear not pleasing people?
When did you become so scared?
When did you abandon yourself?
Let’s start with a little trip down memory lane, shall we?
Do you remember getting the phone call to tell you that you got this job? Do you remember your first day with your current employer? Do you remember the carefully chosen clothes you wore? Did you want to give off both a competent and confident air? Did you want to show people (note that ‘people’ term, please) that you were the right choice? Did you have a head full of ideas about the difference you’d make to your countries’ relationships with other countries?
Heady times, weren’t they? All those possibilities that lay out before you. Let’s fast forward.
Do you remember the disappointment of that performance review where you did not get the ranking you felt you deserved? Do you remember the disappointment of not getting that promotion? Or the posting you really wanted? Did you get feedback about what the successful candidates did? Did you also look around to see what those successful candidates did to get that promotion, posting or performance rating? Did you compare their job history, friendship groups, clothes, general demeanour to yours?
Me too. I can remember thinking and doing all of those.
Critically, do you remember making decisions to change aspects of yourself: your words, thoughts and actions, to better fit the model of success in your employing agency?
Yep, me too.
What’s the problem?
Consistently making small changes to our words, thoughts and actions - over time - add up to major changes and personal compromises. If you’re like me, I dare say that the younger, eager and idealistic you who walked into your workplace on your first day all those years ago might not recognise you now.
This isn't a bad thing. We change over time as the sum of our experiences and life lessons grow, so of course your 20-ish year old self may not recognise the current you. But what would your younger self say of how you speak and act? Would they be disappointed that you sacrificed so much of you to fit in and get ahead?
I want to be clear before we go on further. As diplomats, it is right that we approach our work with caution and respect. Communicating messages across nations with differing working styles, motives and cultures is hard. The chance of miscommunication leading to unintended consequences for our countries and our citizens is real. Modern diplomacy requires care lest there be a significant misunderstanding between nation states.
Moreover, we are the representatives of our governments, for better or worse, all the time and wherever we are. This responsibility means that our approach to our work cannot be cavalier, as it may reflect poorly on our government’s policies on contentious issues. After all, attention needs to be kept on the policy, not a bureaucrat’s private thoughts on it. There is a rich vein worth further exploration right here, but I’ll come back to it in a future post.
What I’m curious about is why can we be so eager to alter ourselves and our words, thoughts and actions to fit into our workplace.
Is it that we are afraid of being seen? But don’t we want to be seen? Is it that we are afraid that we will be seen for the wrong reasons? We are happy to be seen as the snappily-dressed diplomat who's got it all together, but not as the human who's desperately trying to keep it all together. That’s probably it, isn't it? That’s what it was for me.
In the hyper-competitive environment in which we work, we fear that one false move will send us to the end of the line for that much-desired promotion or that posting. Showing that we're human is a false move: Wow.
We fear that people (there’s that term again) in our agencies are watching and making note on our staff records of any signs that we're not made of the right stuff.
We fear that post on social media we liked or shared with which people in our employing agency might not agree is Strike One. You're clearly subversive.
That contribution we made at a meeting that suggested a new way of looking at an issue but wasn’t well received? Oh no, Strike Two. It would have been better to keep quiet or just agree with the senior person in the room.
Saying no to attend a function on the weekend because it’s our child’s birthday. Strike Three. We’re out.
By out, I mean that we’re afraid of being seen as unreliable and not committed.
Whether this is the official organisational reality cultivated by our employing agencies (which it rarely is) or the reality as we perceive it is immaterial. The fear is just the same. We change ourselves to fit in and we can proceed in our careers very cautiously so we don’t tarnish our carefully cultivated reputations [continued below...].
For the mid-career diplomat
Years of working in this kind of organisational culture – again, real or perceived – is manifestly dangerous to our sense of self.
The eternal guessing of how something – anything – we say or do is going to be interpreted is exhausting. We are worried about what people (that word again) will think. How this will reflect on us. Whether this will hinder our chances of advancement and if we are reliable. We can only feel confident when we know that people (that term) are on our side.
We can be scared to try anything new for fear of failure. Simply want to follow what we think is the acceptable script. Following the script gets people ahead.
In a cruel irony, just as we think that we’ve got the system worked out, the system can change and we are back to working it out all over.
Furthermore, how we use language matters. Using the latest organisational jargon, despite its absurdity at times, shows people (that term again) that we are quick to change and that we’re all in.
What buzzwords are people saying now? Can we still work with someone, or do we collaborate or liaise with them? Is it a taskforce or a tiger team we want to get on to? Do we still tic tac with someone, or do we talk to them, or do we connect with them or loop them in or do we reach out? Are we still meant to be across an issue while being forward leaning?
We all want to know where the line is between being seen for being ourselves and doing a good job for our countries making a difference. We want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. We want our efforts at work to have real impact and make a legacy. Yet, here we are, being scared and cautious. We fear crossing the line and being seen for being who we are - awesomely skilled humans - and getting it wrong.
Rather than seeing opportunities for growth, development and putting ourselves out there, we see risks as not worth taking. We fear getting it wrong and being judged. We are spending our lives trying to please people (again, note). This leads to statements from us or others or thoughts within ourselves like:
‘I know it’s getting late, but people are waiting for this work. I’d/We'd/You'd better stay late to get it done.’
What will people think if I do/don’t do this?
I don’t want to prove people right if I fail.
Have you or has anyone else ever defined who the people you’re trying to please are? Invoking generic people and their all-encompassing expectations is a cheap behaviour modifier.
You deserve better.
Here are some tough questions: Does people's opinion of you really matter? By this, I mean will having people's good opinion of you change your opinion of yourself, how you work and who and what you hold dear?
Why are you so scared?
Think very hard on these answers. Reason and emotions may be at odds within you.
Here’s a final thought: it takes bravery to deviate from the script and put effort into an idea that is just as likely to fail as it is to succeed. But being brave and taking calculated risks may just break you from your rut and end the frustration you’re feeling. It may even get you noticed. Indeed, all my mentors over the years at senior levels have put themselves out there and taken calculated risks. They even failed. They have all been seen and admired for being themselves.
Yep, putting yourself out there is scary. But it’s better than always trying to please amorphous people and their ever-changing opinions and abandoning yourself.
Shit may have gotten real for you reading that. Take a moment. Be kind to yourself.
There are four things I want you to pay attention to after you read this and have practiced some self-care:
1. Be alert to when you use, or someone else uses, ‘people’ to justify doing anything. Kindly ask for specifics about which individuals make up ‘people’, even if it's asking yourself if you're using the cheap behaviour modification tactic on yourself. We do so much work to keep ‘people’ pleased with us, after all. It’s only right that we know precisely who they are.
2. Your language. What words are you using in the workplace? Are they your words or the words that everyone else is using? Language is an important way to build a community, but how quickly we adopt it can show our willingness to adapt our words, thoughts and actions to fit in. And please stop saying 'grip up'. It's an affront to the English language.
3. What would you do if you weren't scared?
4. By whose rules are you living and working? If you’re spending your life playing a game where someone else makes up the rules, maybe it’s time to stop and start playing by your own rules. I don’t mean that you should go rogue and just do your own thing. Far from it. If your words, thoughts and actions are in alignment with your principles and values, then you have a steady set of rules by which to live and work. Others will think and say of that what they may, but you’ll be calmer within yourself because you will be in integrity.
Who knows, maybe even the people will notice you being more awesomely you. The world needs more you and less gripping up.
Thanks for reading!
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Important notice: All views expressed above are my own and do not reflect any official position. The words published above are intended to support, challenge and inspire diplomats and those living the diplomatic life as they reconnect with themselves and the world around them. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional.