Sunday, June 15, 2008

Clothes and Changing Jobs

Having a dispiriting job is difficult - I often would say "here I am having to be on my best game at the very time I feel so depressed and worthless." That's where "acting as if" comes in. If I change a single thing about my attitude or behavior, there can be ripple effects into the rest of my life. At very least, I'll get new information to notice.

One of the things I've noticed is that dressing well is an essential part of "acting as if" and "envisioning the desired end state" - the way to get to our intention and goal.

There's an expression: "I build self-esteem by doing "esteemable" things." For example, I started years ago making my bed in the morning, as an estimable thing to do. When I walked into my bedroom at night, it looked neat and ready for a new night's sleep. When I didn't make my bed, I felt a little lazy and disappointed in myself, and then at night it felt like I'd never left, as though I missed an entire day. I found myself saying "oh, I don't care" in order to help myself feel OK about not doing that simple thing. And the "I don't care" attitude then got permission to permeate my life. Whereas when I did make the bed, I demonstrated to myself that I DO care, and then that got permission to permeate my life. I do care about how I look, I do care about the work I do, I do care about where I live, I do care about my quality of life and my emotional health and physical health.

After turning 30, I gained a lot of weight and started wearing boring, boxy, neutral clothes in an effort to disappear. Of course, I never did disappear. Unfortunately, I communicated that wish to disappear to the rest of the world and to my psyche. The underlying message? I was ashamed of myself. I didn't care about myself. Other people picked up on my lack of self-esteem. While I'm not certain how that translated into how people treated me, I did sense disrespect and disregard.

Then I started dressing better - nicer quality clothes, more flattering styles, bolder colors, fun shoes, jewelry. I began to feel better about myself, more worthy, more capable, more respected. And about 9 months after I made that shift, I got the job as Executive Director of City Harvest. Plus I'd lost some weight.

I find that when I dress well, I often start to lose weight. And even if I don't, I still look good. I cease being ashamed of myself and no longer want to hide out - simply because I am demonstrating to myself (and the world, against which opinion I still do judge myself) that I care about myself and how I look. I am acknowledging that I am NOT invisible, much as I might pretend I am.

What's key about clothes is that they are something we really can do something about right now, even if we don't have the body or job or house or commute or partner we want. It's totally within our control, right now. So I find it a powerful tool for acting as if I matter, as if I'm worth more than my negative voices tell me I am worth.

That means I don't necessarily have to believe I'm worth it, I just have to act as if I believe it. New action can lead to changed beliefs. If I act (read: dress) as if I'm confident, I may start believing I am. (It's often summarized as "dress for success" - I just get there from the long way around.)

Small changes in what one wears can produce big changes in what one thinks of herself. My sister, for example, never wore jewelry. Through an at-home jewelry party, she bought some. Now she has a bunch of necklaces and earrings, and feels so polished and professional when she wears them. I see a different confidence, a feeling that she's special somehow. Just yesterday, I told her how nice she looked and wondered if she was going somewhere. She wasn't and she didn't feel dressed up, but she was wearing a necklace and it just transformed her appearance. It was an example of how a single change in behavior and dress can completely change how people perceive one as well as one's self-perception.

So go for it! Buy something a little scary to wear - a blue top in one of those teal, turquoise or pool shades. A deep coral skirt or pair of pants. A chunky necklace (if you wear jewelry - and if you don't and you're not constitutionally uncomfortable with it, start wearing some!) or noticeable pair of earrings. Or a long, bright scarf draped around your neck. Some bright shoes - green or deep pink. A scoop or deep V neckline. Even a sheath dress in black or navy with a great necklace. It doesn't matter what your style is, as long as you step a little out of your comfort zone.

Oh, and when people compliment you, just smile and say "thank you!" Eventually, you will be comfortable with the compliments - because your own self-esteem will have risen to match your estimable outward appearance.

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