Vocab is coming. I am just a bit procractinating...
Сonscientious is my middle name. Not literally, obviously, but ever since my time as a school prefect, I’ve been proud of my a hard-working streak. ‘Conscientious’ was the word teachers wrote in my report, and I recall feeling a glow of satisfaction that they recognised how I threw myself wholeheartedly into my work. As an adult, I feel validated when an editor who needs a reliable – or 11th-hour-deadline writer – calls me. It isn’t just a work thing. When my mates fancy a night out, I’m the one who makes it happen. I’m forever doing favours for friends and family – I can’t help it; we conscientious types are simply like this. And, while friends enjoy weekends with their feet up, I’m more likely to be mopping floors or sorting out sock drawers. But, lately, I’ve begun to think that perhaps it isn’t doing me any favours. Instead of taking pride in being the person people call on to get something done, I’ve started wondering if they’re simply taking advantage of my can-do attitude. After all, other people are the ones who benefit most from my conscientious nature. I recently volunteered to write marketing material for an associate’s business. I offered because I saw the need for the job to be done well, I had the necessary skills and it wouldn’t take up a huge amount of time. But I started to feel that my contribution, although appreciated, wasn’t truly valued because, while other contributors were paid for their work, I was not. I felt short- changed.
Please walk all over me
I could see that my conscientiousness was to blame – if I hadn’t eagerly offered my services, I might have had the opportunity to be paid like everyone else. I felt I’d been labouring under the misapprehension that people thought of me as capable and conscientious when, in fact, they saw me as fair game when they needed a cheeky favour that savvier people would refuse them. Maybe editors call on me when they need a piece written quickly – not because I’m quick and conscientious – but because other journalists would demand twice the fee to meet such a short deadline. Perhaps the school mums get me to organise drinks – not because I do it well – but because no one else can be bothered. And maybe my associate simply saw me as cheap labour and not a valuable asset to her business.
What’s the truth of these situations? Am I people pleasing at
my own expense? And, if so, why? I spoke to clinical psychologist Linda Blair. She says it’s important to distinguish between being conscientious and being a people pleaser because, while the two types of behaviour can look the same, the motivations behind them are different. ‘What matters isn’t what you are doing, but why,’ she says. ‘People pleasing suggests a lack of confidence, but what you describe sounds more like others recognising you as someone who gets things done.’ What’s key, she says, is whether I feel pressure to say yes when they ask for my input. I realise that I don’t – I’m perfectly capable of saying no to people when I want to.
“ The first child has
attention, then loses
it – and they develop
an ache. They learn
to help care for their
siblings to get it back “
Born this way?
Blair then suggests my conscientious
streak may stem from my birth order.
‘Conscientiousness is a common trait
in firstborn children,’ she explains.
‘The firstborn is the only child who
starts out having complete parental
attention, then loses it — and they
develop a bit of an ache. They quickly
learn that helping to care for younger
siblings is one way to get back some of
the attention they feel they have lost.
That resonates with me. I am not
the eldest child in my family but I
am the first girl and, having an older
sibling with additional needs, it seems
I’ve developed some characteristics
typically associated with firstborns. I’ve taken on the ‘fixer’ role, forever
organising others and volunteering
for tasks, from hosting family parties
to arranging office secret Santas.
‘This [dutiful streak] is also why
firstborns typically do well in life but
sometimes at great cost – because
they always push themselves harder
than they need to,’ says Blair. In
itself, conscientiousness is no bad
thing, she says, quite the opposite
– it’s one of the ‘big five’ personality
traits identified by psychologists.
Life coach Richard Harris agrees.
‘Conscientiousness is the biggest predictor of career success for most
industries, so it’s a good thing,’ he
says. ‘But your agreeable nature is
probably costing you money.’ He’s right, and I’m determined to
make conscientiousness work for me,
not against me. That means valuing it
in the first place and communicating
to others that it’s a marketable skill
for which I expect to be rewarded,
not penalised. Harris continues:
‘People prone to agreeableness must
do what is unnatural for them, and
negotiate assertively.’ He recommends
rehearsing negotiations with a friend
or coach to help reduce anxiety over it.
But another aspect of all of this
is that I want to allow myself more
downtime – to switch off the
conscientious me sometimes and
relax. Blair explains that there are
two dimensions to conscientiousness:
industriousness (self-discipline and
efficiency) and orderliness (a love
of routine and tidiness). In terms of wellbeing, happiness and satisfaction,
industriousness is beneficial but
orderliness is not. She suggests I keep
a note of the things I do for order, and
to drop one habit every few days. ‘You
may feel a shiver of naughtiness, like
you’re getting away with something,’
she says. ‘When that happens, you’ll
also feel a release of energy – direct
that into an activity you want to do.’
To be or not to be…
I love that Blair’s approach means I
don’t have to stop being myself. ‘If
you’re the best at organising drinks,
last-minute commissions or doing
your friend’s marketing and you like
doing those things, keep offering!’
It feels so good to reframe my
conscientiousness as a strength and
focus on channelling it towards doing
things that give me satisfaction. It’s
liberating to embrace my diligence
but I also feel a new commitment
to ask, without apology, for it to
be rewarded when appropriate.
The prefect in me never realised
you can be selectively conscientious.
I have decided to step away from
helping my associate market her
business, and I feel no discomfort,
just that shiver of naughtiness Blair
mentioned. I’m learning to love that
feeling and I look forward to working
out how best to use the burst of
energy that I know will follow.