The other week, I was putting on a suit for work; I had a client meeting in the afternoon and I was speaking on a legal panel that evening, and I wanted to look sharp. But on this morning, I observed a new feeling that I hadn’t ever experienced: putting it on just didn’t feel right. This was a suit that I’d worn many times before; as I looked in the mirror to put on my tie, I felt that something was “off”. Like many feelings, it was hard to pin down at first. All I knew was that this was a new feeling and something wasn’t right. The feeling was of contradiction; conflict, even. After sitting with it for a while, I narrowed it down: I no longer needed to wear a suit in order to feel like, well…me.
I should mention at the outset I don’t wear a suit every day I’m in the office, except when I have a client meeting or I’m going to an event where a suit is customary. As a sole practitioner working primarily with creative clients, I do a lot of my work in a shirt, jeans and a pair of good shoes. But, the fact that I am not necessarily accustomed to wearing a suit every day still didn’t account this unsettled feeling I had observed. No, this was something much deeper.
I began to reflect on this feeling on my drive to work. I realised that it wasn’t so much that wearing a suit felt “wrong”, but rather the fact that I had experienced and observed this feeling in the first place was the real issue. Why did it feel different today? And then, it came to me: a suit was no longer a part of my core identity.
I realised that a suit had come to represent a set of core beliefs and expectations about how I perceived myself and the world around me. I had come to view a suit as something more than the style of dress in my chosen profession; it was how I thought I had to look in order to be “me”, to be “complete”. I can trace it back to my father and his particular belief system about happiness, love and success, which I adopted and then reinforced in my social and professional choices as I grew up and started working. The idea of wearing a suit seemed connected to my beliefs about love – not only for myself, but also from others (maybe this is why I’ve become a lawyer in the first place?!). I had internalised the belief that in order to be a happy, successful person, I had to have a profession (note: not a job…but a profession!) where I wear a suit to work. In fact, when I started my practice in 2013, I would wear a suit almost every day, regardless of whether I had clients coming in that day. I felt that if I didn’t wear one, I wasn’t a “real” lawyer – as if all of my education, knowledge and experience was for naught if I came to work in slacks.
As I explored this feeling even deeper, I came upon another unsettling realisation: a suit had become my suit of armour – my defence not only against the judgement of others, but also against my own self-judgement. Reflecting on it now, I had this feeling like I wasn’t “good” when I didn’t go to work in a suit; a feeling of “lesser”. Can we go so far as to call this shame? I was judging myself – and I felt judged by others – if I thought I didn’t look the “right” way or live up to a certain image of competence and success that had been instilled in me as the measure of a person.
I even had (still have) a specific “power suit” – a Harry Rosen pin-stripe suit with an expensive, thick, red tie, also from Harry’s – which I had bought for law school interviews (I bought the suit from the Montreal factory that supplies Harry’s, and not at market price). Whenever I wanted to project an image of power, competence and success, I would put on this suit, look in the mirror and think “Yes! This is my power suit.” And I would find confidence and power in that feeling.
But, what I realise now is that what I was really saying was “Yes! This is me.” And I was taking my self confidence and validity from that self-image.
My personal and the professional images had melded into one unhealthy, judgemental version of myself. The fact that I even needed a suit to feel powerful meant that I had been judging myself all along - that if I deviated from this standard, I didn't somehow measure up. I was, quite literally, judging the “book of me” by its cover. The expectations imposed by my familial, professional and cultural environments had fused with my core self-image.
And this re-examination of my core beliefs isn’t confined to my wearing a suit. It has also been happening in other areas of my life, particularly with relationships, with work, and even with my car (and I love my car). Over the past while, I have been challenging long-held beliefs about who I am and how I perceive myself and others, and exploring the attachments these beliefs have created in my life. It is a process of moving from a judgemental, critical and non-accepting place to one where I love and accept all aspects of myself. I am beginning to observe – and trust - my own intuition and feelings. As my relationship to myself is changing, my relationship with the world around me – particularly with material things – is changing, too. It’s not that I don't like or want these things anymore; it’s that I don’t need them to feel whole.
I don’t need these things to feel that I matter.
Since that morning, I have realised that I no longer need a power suit – or any suit – to feel confident, powerful and happy. I am those things regardless of what I wear. My confidence and power comes from my self-acceptance, non-judgement and courage to walk my own path; I have found strength and calm in this vulnerability. This is my new core belief. And it was this gap – the conflict between my old critical, judgemental self and my new accepting, non-judgemental self - that was at the heart of the feeling I experienced that morning; my becoming wake to the closing of that gap into a single plane of love and self-acceptance.
So, it perhaps shouldn't come as such a surprise that putting on a suit feels a little different these days. It doesn’t meant that I’ll stop wearing suits. What it does mean, however, is that the reasons why I need to wear a suit are no longer related to my self-acceptance . I’ll wear a suit because that’s what is expected in certain cultural or professional situations. And that’s OK...because I actually like wearing a suit and I think I look pretty good in one. The key is that I don’t feel like I have to wear one in order to feel accepted. And besides, if it’s up to me, I’d choose a shirt, some jeans and a pair of good shoes, anyway.