Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Think first. Cry later.

As I have mentioned to any number of people lately, my job satisfaction is at an all-time high. I don't think that I have been this happy with work since I lived in Chicago lo these many years ago. It kind of hit me by surprise, this work-happiness. Not that I was previously unhappy at this job, because (barring the here and there bumps that we all face in the world) I have enjoyed a fairly terrific job and office over the past almost-five years. I know all too well how rare it is to be able to work less than full-time in a meaningful job where people take your contributions seriously and value your efforts. (Heck, I know how rare that is in a full-time job as well!)

My present job-happiness is in large measure due to federal health reform. (Yes, I have essentially just outed myself as the biggest dork ever.) For the past several years I have been part of teams investigating, analyzing and recommending ways to improve in the Oregon health care system, knowing that much of what we recommend will be shelved for lack of funding. And now! Now we have both funding and a mandate to move forward! A big health policy geek could not ask for much more.

So yes, all is well, and we are in the middle of a lot of work. My colleagues and I are all running flat out to get everything done. This summer I upped my work hours from 24 to 32 hours and still I have more than enough to keep me busy. And last week the announcement came out for a big grant that we need. Due in a month, but mostly no problem as we have planned and considered and prepared for this moment. But still - in the next month I will be on a work/blogher trip one week and on vacation another. And as ready as we are for this grant, we still do have to apply. So I was feeling amped up and tense going into a meeting last week. The meeting involved a heated discussion about something important to me, and all of a sudden, I was in tears.

Everyone in the room looked shocked. Or horrified. Or both. It has been so long since I have cried in public this way that these people didn't know or didn't remember that this is what I do when I am nervous. Or frustrated. Or both. Tears are a physical response that happens before (and even without) a conscious feeling of frustration, stress or anger. I really was not especially upset when I started to cry. The combination of underlying stress and momentary frustration with the conversation activated my tear ducts. Everyone around me clearly thought this meant I was UPSET. I was barely even upset.

But I was embarrassed. My horror at crying in front of this group and even greater discomfort at their response left me rattled. We moved on, finishing the conversation and moving on to other topics. But it made me realize that my recent decision to contain myself more at work may be harder than I'd feared.

I want to be taken seriously and to be seen as an asset to the work we do. Watching others I respect, I recently decided that I need to employ more of a poker face. That I need to shut up more and share less goofiness. Even if I am able to do this, I am not sure I will be able to hold back the tears when they want to come. I worry for the impact this will have on my work life. The extent to which people will see me as too emotional or not strong enough to take on leadership roles. The extent to which my lability will undermine me.

I don't have much control over how I am perceived by others, but I can continue to work on how I present myself. I am voluble by nature, and a calm silence does not come naturally. If I could make a deal with my tears I would. I would give up so many things in order to know that I would not ever repeat the scene I faced in that meeting - the look of horror on the faces of my bosses and colleagues. But since I can not strike such a deal with myself, I will instead make a concerted effort to think first and speak later. It is the best I can do for now.

Tearful navel-gazer
I wanted to break up this post with a photo, but all I could think of was this 
portrait of the blogger as a tearful navel-gazer.

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