No More Cardigans: How I Finally Stopped Living a Lie at Work
It was a week before my laser appointment. I was scheduled to go in and start the year-long process of getting the large tattoo on my left calf removed. It’s not that I didn’t like the tattoo—I actually like it more than the half sleeve on my arm, but that one has so much color that I feared I’d be left with a mangled mush of misshapen images on my arm if I tried to remove it. I decided I would tackle the leg first and hope technology advanced enough at some point to clear my arm. With no more ink on my leg, I could at least start wearing skirts or capris to work in the summer.
It may seem like a small triumph, but that was my dream. For the 15 years I’ve been professionally employed, I suffered through the heat and humidity of summer in long pants and long sleeves. I assembled an obscene collection of cardigans, flowy summer blouses, and linen pants to hide my tattoos at work. Sitting out on the plaza during staff meetings, my forehead beading with sweat, I would respond to the quizzical looks of my colleagues by saying my skin was really sensitive to sun or that I had a rash. I even once told someone that I thought tank tops were inappropriate in a work environment. Anything to explain away why I was dressed like a Jawa desert dweller in the height of summer.
Every time I left the house I would assess the likelihood of running into someone from work. If there was any risk, I would dress accordingly or at least bring an emergency cardigan. It got to the point where I didn’t feel safe going to Target, the grocery store, or a restaurant in a t-shirt and shorts. I was even nervous gardening in my front yard, since one of my colleagues lives eight blocks south. It felt like vacation out of town was the only time I could really relax and be myself.
This paranoia of people accidentally seeing me in the wild, with all my ink and secrets, gave rise to a lot of anxiety and negative self-talk that told me that the more I let people at work get to know me, the less they would like me, and the more of an outsider I would feel.
I so completely believed that if people found out that I had tattoos or that I dropped out of college to ride freight trains and hitchhike across the country or that I have struggled with mental illness or any of the other ways I wasn’t normal, it would undermine my career and ruin my life in some way.
While there was no formal policy prohibiting tattoos, there was nothing about my conservative company, run by its boy’s club, that suggested any upside to revealing more of me to those I worked with, especially to those people vying for the same, scarce leadership positions. I had been proud at various times in my life to be different, but I didn’t want to be different at work and repeat middle school every day I showed up at the office.
It was emotionally safer to create my acceptable work persona, clad in Ann Taylor and Calvin Klein, and build a thick wall between my work life and my personal life. “Work Carolyn” was not rude, unsympathetic, or overly reserved, but she was formal, focused on the work, and always on her guard. She certainly wasn’t Facebook friends with anyone and didn’t hang out with co-workers on the weekends. The pictures she put on her desk were strategically staged to avoid showing her and her husband’s tattoos. She didn’t talk about her punk past or what band she saw on the weekend. She kept it “professional.”
One of the great ironies was that a 360 degree review revealed that the biggest issue people had with me was my lack of “interpersonal sensitivity.” I was overly task-focused and not enough relationship-focused. People thought I didn’t care about them and their problems, assuming that I only cared about myself and my achievement.
Some thought I lacked the “warm and fuzzy” to be a manager. I detected some latent sexism in this, but I can understand why I would have come across that way. My worry about what people would think about me and my lack of self-love and confidence led me to shut down and push them all away. And so I just reinforced their narrative of me. With one influential person in particular holding that view of me, it was clear that my career had stalled.
After nearly 10 years, I left that company, looking for a fresh start. I took the advice from my 360 degree review and professional coaching and lowered my walls a bit. I emphasized connection and warmth, especially with my staff, while preserving certain boundaries. I became a better listener and offered my opinions with less force. I learned to identify the triggers that would send me back to “Work Carolyn.”
I became more of the same person at work and outside of the office.
But I still had this mental block around exposing my tattoos to my new boss and peers. I stopped obsessively hiding around them—a task made easier by working remotely much of the time—but it was still an issue in the forefront of my mind.
Packing for a visit last summer to our headquarters, where it was going to be extremely hot and humid, I lamented my wardrobe choices, knowing how uncomfortable I would be. I plopped down on my bed, telling myself that my tattoos are never going to stop being a problem. So long as I want to be a businesswoman, as long as I want to climb the ranks, I am always going to have to wear long pants and long sleeves to work, even on the hottest days, and I'm always going to worry about people seeing me. At least until I’m CEO. Then I imagined myself coming out on stage in a sleeveless dress and telling everyone to kiss my ass.
With this hopeless view, I made the laser appointment. I scheduled it for after my return from a meditation retreat in California. I didn’t want to show up on the beach with a raw and blistering leg or try to meditate through the itch of healing skin. I am so glad I waited.
Sitting on our meditation cushions and sprawled around the couches in the beachfront house, we each got a piece of paper with dozens of values printed on them, like integrity, compassion, and reliability. The teacher asked us to circle the ten that were most important to us—those values that define who we are and what we stand for.
I circled “authenticity” and “freedom.” Then it hit me. Hard. I wasn’t living in alignment with either of those. Maybe that was a big part of why I didn’t feel great about what I was doing.
Instead of changing myself to fit my job, I needed to change my job to fit me.
Or at least change how I show up at work to be more myself. I had it totally backwards this whole time.
I raised my hand and shared my story with the group. I told them I had been thinking about getting a tattoo removed, but realized through this exercise that doing so would not be in alignment with my sacred value of authenticity. And obsessively hiding parts of myself was keeping me in fear, which is incompatible with freedom.
“Let’s see the tattoo. What is it an image of?” our teacher asked.
As I awkwardly tried to hold up my calf for the others in the room, I explained it is the Goddess Artemis, reaching for an arrow.
“You mean to tell me that you are thinking of erasing from your skin that beautiful and powerful image of intention and manifestation right at the time that you are seeking transformation?” he pressed.
“Well, when you say it like that, it sounds fucking stupid,” I laughed, digging out my phone then and there to cancel the appointment.
It’s not to say I will always keep that tattoo or that I think my tattoos define me in any meaningful way, but I would have been removing it for the wrong reasons. I had set up this condition in my head that I cannot reach the level of career success that I want until I remove these tattoos. I hadn’t stopped to ask myself what my heart truly longs for, what beliefs about myself were underlying my fears of being “outed,” or what were the real costs of compartmentalizing my life and going through life in hiding.
But I see more clearly now. So much of it was made up in my head, fueled by ego, illusion, and fear. With all of that in my head, I was not free. I was not living my truth. I was most certainly not bringing my whole self to work. Nor was I listening to the whispers in my soul telling me that my true path may lie outside of the boardroom and the corporate world.
After all, when first getting that tattoo on my leg nearly 20 years ago, I dreamed of being a writer and told myself I never wanted to work somewhere where I couldn’t be myself. As I got older and entered the work force, I had viewed that rationale as incredibly naïve. But perhaps it was actually very prescient, like a message to future Carolyn calling me home.
I'm starting small, exploring the exciting world of cropped ankle pants and half sleeve shirts. And I no longer weigh the probabilities of being seen before going out—I wear what I want.
Every day I ask myself: How do I want to show up today? What is one thing I can do, however small, that brings me joy and honors who I am? I’ve realized the answer really has nothing to do with how I look. Instead, it’s about what I bring to the table and how I let myself shine through.
For one of the greatest gifts in life is to discover and explore the depths of who we are and what we are here to do. We can’t do that if we are pretending to be someone else.
And why would I want to be anyone other than me? As I learned to love myself, I learned to love all that was unique about me and my experiences and cast aside the different masks I had created to fit in.
Authenticity, to me, means being who I am wherever I am and whoever I am with. By being authentic, I free myself from my fears and feelings of unworthiness. I start believing that I can create the life I want, which is the greatest freedom of all. Channeling my inner Artemis, I reach for my arrow, aim, and pull back the bow string.