You got it: I’m fed up with boxes.
Not the kind that helps you move from one place to another. But the kind that someone else has put you in to. The ones you have learned to adapt to. So much so it has come to feel natural. I’m talking about the stereotypes and expectations imposed on you by the outside world. The ones that have ingrained in your mind that there is a right way to live and behave as a girl, a woman, a boy, a man, a professional, etc. and if you dare and try something else it will be catastrophic for you. You won’t be accepted.
These ideas and expectations keep you small, afraid of the outside world, and more likely to stay in your box. Don’t get me wrong, like a cat I get the appeal of boxes – it seems comfy inside, you’re protected from the unknown world outside and you know exactly what you can expect from your environment. No risk. No emotional exposure.
Or so we think.
Because, really, it’s a trap.
“Be a good girl and be quiet.” “Don’t upset them.” “Are you sure you want to do/say that?” “What will people think if you go out like this?”
It all comes down to one message: what others think of you is absolutely key. It’s what matters over all else and these are the guidelines you should follow.
This one particular box for women
One particular version of this that drives me totally crazy is to hear how a “woman” is supposed to behave, dress or speak, as a leader or as a professional. One company recently made headlines thanks to a seminar on “leadership and empowerment” they put their female leaders through, to educate them on how to dress, behave and be in the work environment to not upset, distract, you-name-it, the men in the company. Apart from the obvious appalling nature of such a measure (once again, women need to change themselves to make sure they are making everyone else comfortable no matter the price they pay), this particular box is one that is impossible to conform to as it is full of contradictions. Don’t be bossy; don’t be weak. Don’t be cold; don’t be emotional. Don’t speak too much; share your opinions more. Don’t dress too feminine; don’t dress like a guy. I could go on and on about a woman’s voice, her attire, her demeanor, her way of leading, her authority, etc.
If you try to fit into that box you’ll tear yourself apart. It’s a lose-lose. A trap.
Oh, so it’s a women’s issue.
In my opinion, it is and it isn’t. It is because it makes it very hard for women to establish and own their styles in leadership roles. To be fully themselves and bring all their talents and qualities, including the ones we like to call feminine qualities, to their leadership roles. And it isn’t because it’s not only women who are put into boxes and expected to behave a certain way. So are men. For them the boxes have names like:
“Don’t cry. Be a man.” “Grow a pair.” Or: “Don’t be a pussy.”
Boys are still frequently told from a young age to be strong, to not cry, not to show anything that could be interpreted as weakness. Don’t ask for help, don’t show that you don’t know it all. Basically, don’t show that you are human and not a superhero.
This has consequences too. It means that men oftentimes stay alone with their emotional turmoil, because, imagine you’d reveal to anyone else that you aren’t always feeling strong, that you have doubts, feel sad, lost, or lonely? What would others think? The obstacles for men to seek help are almost insurmountable. Being alone when you need support is incredibly painful (read more here about how we can physically feel emotional pain).
So, we have women who are supposed to be everything and its contrary (aka: perfect), not bother anyone, and look flawless while doing so and men who are supposed to be self-sufficient superheroes.
Where does this lead us?
I would argue that we are all setting ourselves up for failure. We create a lot of pain for everyone who doesn’t live up to these limiting and impossible expectations. And let’s be real – that’s all of us in one way or another. While we try hard to conform to the boxes, they don’t fit. We feel that we are pretending, playing a role, holding back. We are keeping our pain to ourselves and think we are the only ones who “get it wrong” and suffer. Not permitting ourselves to express who we really are and to use our unique talents, ideas, and voices fully, or to ask for help when we need it. Instead, we work very hard to be a perfect version of that high-performing-while-looking-perfect woman or mother or that impenetrable superhero who has the solution to every problem himself and needs no one else.
It also means that we, as a society, are losing out on all the great qualities, ideas, and dreams that we all have to contribute if we are ourselves. Because we don’t dare to bring them since they don’t pass the “what-would-others-think” test.
And that’s not okay.
So this is what I am doing about it.
Humbly, I want to change the glasses through which we look at ourselves and others. I want to provide a space for everyone who wants to break out of the box, remove the straightjacket, speak up, and have their voice be heard.
The space I am talking about is actually spaces (plural), where we can experiment and learn. And build the confidence to continue climbing out of the box.
As a career and leadership coach, one of the things that I can contribute to getting rid of the boxes is to accompany you as you start jumping out of the box. Again and again. Until you don’t need its safety anymore.
The boxes that others have put us in oftentimes become the boxes we impose on ourselves. We develop deep-rooted negative beliefs about our capabilities, our worthiness, or our dreams, which keep us from being courageous, go for what we really want, and from just being ourselves.
At the same time we also fundamentally know who we are and what we are made of. By training our minds to recognize when we sabotage ourselves, activate a different brain region, and to tap into that deep knowing of who we really are, we can stop imposing these limitations on ourselves and start showing up in all of our colors again. This is what I do in the PQ mental fitness program, developed by Stanford Professor Shirzad Chamine and backed-up by a range of scientific studies.
I work with leaders, especially women leaders, who want to discover and own their unique leadership style. Leaders who want to step up their impact while “just” being themselves. We don’t need leaders who live inside the traditional leadership box. We need leaders who bring all that they have to offer to the table. Leaders who show us -by living it- what is possible when we allow ourselves to fully be who we are.
Does any of this resonate with you? If so, you might be ready to get out of your box(es). If that’s the case, don’t hesitate to contact me so we can talk about how you will break out of your boxes.