I walked away from the meeting as quickly as I could feeling discouraged and embarrassed. I had been asked a question that caught me off guard and made me feel attacked in front of peers and administration. My scrambled response, which was a jumble of “uhms” and “ahs” among discordant thoughts, exposed my lack of knowledge and I felt I looked incompetent and perhaps even desperate in my unprepared response. As a perfectionist, this was perhaps the worse case scenario I could have imagined in the work setting. I slunk back to my desk and had a private pity party for myself. Has this ever happened to you? If so, I’m sorry because it’s not a nice feeling. But I’m excited to share there are ways to prevent this type of scenario and minimize embarrassment.
The answer came a few days later after I had I replayed the scenario in my head over and over (I’m not kidding when I say I’m a perfectionist). I suddenly realized that no matter how I filled in the awkward scenario with different answers and comebacks (which was a lot by that point), the reality was that I didn’t know the answer to the question and needed more time to find out the details. It was clear I needed a simple go-to response when I felt my brain spinning out of control because I didn’t know the answer or felt like I would look foolish if I couldn’t provide results.
Self awareness requires awareness. About yourself. Ground breaking, I know. But it’s amazing how often I let myself overlook that simplicity and add complexity - and I’ve seen others do the same thing. If you share this boat with me, let’s agree we need to strip things down to the basics. I need to pay attention to myself; you need to pay attention to yourself.
Let’s start with your body, because you’ll notice physical triggers before your brain has the ability to fully articulate what is going on. What happens to you physically when you feel nervous, attacked, or put in a tight situation? Make note of your physical triggers - this makes a tremendous difference.
Looking back on that meeting, I remembered my face flushed like a tomato, my palms started sweating, my heart started racing, and my mind felt like it had suddenly decided to go on it’s morning break - completely blank. Because I hadn’t practiced paying attention to my physical triggers I panicked because I hadn’t taken time to be aware of myself and have a standard response. Once I figured out my physical manifestations, or triggers (like heart racing), I could prepare a standard response. My favorite is a simple answer like, “I’ll look into that and get back to you.” I then intentionally write it down in their presence so they know I’m serious (plus I have a note to remind me to follow up). That quick response gives me the ability to buy time, but also gives me the freedom to recognize I don’t have to know everything. I can testify this simple plan has saved me loads of discomfort and internal turmoil.
An important note about why this simple response works - I’ve given myself permission to not know everything. If you’re a perfectionist like me you’re likely driven to always be right, and this has the potential to prevent things from being accomplished because we have to be involved in everything to make sure it is just so. That mindset is driven from fear of being wrong, which results in poor production levels and the brain shutting down when the answer isn’t known. The reality is that neither you or I can be right all the time. No human can.
An unexpected gift from accepting this fact is that I am able to focus on the needs at hand - to be “with” those around me. It is impossible to be “with” anyone if I’m only focusing on being right. If being right is the focus, you can never focus on others. Join me in focusing on others.