How did I manage a professional image when my personal life was falling apart?
No one’s life goes perfect for an entire professional career. Divorces, sudden illness or death of a loved one and more can throw our neatly folded life off balance. At some point, personal pain leaks into any carefully constructed professional space. After all, the two personas inhabit the same body and brain.
I have been in that place. I know it, I’ve felt it and the memory of it as I write this article has me typing through tears. There was a time when I struggled to to keep my life together when the family super glue had sold out.
During the years when my youngest son was suffering from depression and eventually became addicted to heroin, I co-owned a digital marketing company with nine employees (pictured above). As a partner, work had to get done and as an owner, there was more pressure to maintain a polished image.
The crushing defeat of feeling as if I had failed as a mother did affect my ability to focus on the task at hand and my productivity suffered. I clung to some image of professionalism with the edges of my fingernails so as to not let slip away the only vestige of human dignity I thought I had left. I couldn’t fail at being a good professional, too. Who would I be then?
Oftentimes, I had to bail on meetings because of a crisis
I started to look “undependable” but the disasters that were happening were not within my control. This was also true for my husband.
Professionally, it was all I could do to maintain a facade that everything was OK when presenting to clients. Work did present distractions and for that, I’m grateful. But there were personal counseling appointments to attend, insurance companies to call, lawyers to hire. A shortage of cash to pay for all the ‘extra’ reminded me of how important it was to keep my job and stay on task.
How did I smile through the client cocktail party when my sixteen-year-old son was in jail in another state? How did I make a presentation about social media when my child had just walked out of detox after relapsing? How did I laugh through the client lunch the day after we secretly hired an escort to kidnap my sixteen-year-old and take him to a $32k wilderness program? And how did I get up and dressed, paste a smile on my grief-stricken face and go back to work a week after my son killed himself?
I did it because I had to.
This is not uncommon. There are millions of other professionals who are out there dealing with crisis-level personal issues and having to power through it at work because they don’t want to live in a tent and eat beans out of a can. The problems might be different but the effect on us is often very similar.
How did I manage?
I found support.
I had to find other people dealing with this–a person, a counselor, a group. I did all three because my exterior was starting to show cracks brought on by extreme stress. Had I been at a larger company, I might have looked at starting some kind of internal group but I found support outside of the work environment.
I told my business partner and his wife what was going on. My husband told HR. Employees should be able to be honest about what’s happening in their lives with someone at work without the fear of reprisal or judgment so that person knows what’s going on and why things might look off track. Employee assistance programs are a start but they don’t complete a circle of the growing need for connection.
Ultimately, I made the personal choice to go public because silence on the subject of suicide kept me ignorant of the signs I missed. Grief-stricken, I published a newspaper article about my family’s story after my son’s suicide. When the editor called to say it was online and would be in Sunday’s paper, I had to pull over to manage the edges of a panic attack that threatened to consume me. It had taken me five months to write those 1,200 words but when it was first published, I wasn’t proud, I was terrified.
I went through the inventory of fears I had when that editor called, one of which was a projected image of all my clients walking out on me. I thought my business partner would regret ever partnering with a screwed-up family like mine. I thought no one would ever want me to work for them again. Naked and alone, I feared the judgment and reprisal for having told and revealed my ugly naked grief in public. Was that professional? And my worst fear of all was that no one would care enough to read the article because they thought my son was just another “dirty drug addict.”
The article ended up going viral and being shared around the world because others read their story in mine. Talking myself through my fears helped. I could no longer keep my personal life out of my professional life because I was too devastated to do so.
And then something unexpected happened
People respected me for revealing my pain. They saw me as a leader when I thought telling my story made me look vulnerable, weak, and pathetic. All of a sudden I had the support I had craved. My professional facade was not tarnished forever. No clients waltzed out because of my son’s suicide. I didn’t become “unemployable” because of it. Although any or all of that could have happened. It was a risk.
In the digital age especially, as we’ve advanced our careers, we’ve adopted a kind of “I-have-to-do-it-all” strategy that is counterintuitive to human nature. We are meant to connect. Yet when our lives become unmanageable, we turn inward, and curl up in a ball while the stress eats at our major organs, all in an effort to maintain an image that feels like it’s the only normal thing we have left to cling to. It was my internal implosion that forced me out of my cocoon to seek help.
We need to offer people more support at work
I’m not saying ditch any professional image and drag all your family woes into the work culture. But by creating spaces and opportunities for connection and self-care with an openness for those times when a life suffers hiccups or major setbacks, we can create a work culture that helps people manage and cope with these difficulties. Think about what a positive effect this would have on overall productivity.
Some of us think of our professional image as a trophy that can be polished up and put in a display case. But who we are professionally should be authentic because the best leaders are. There are times when keeping it together to project the perfect professional brand image is unrealistic and professional aspirations have to go on autopilot while we work through a personal crisis. And facing one with emotional support is what helps us bounce back when we are ready to re-engage with building the professional aspect of our lives.