Are You Boxing Yourself In?
Last week I was talking with an OnStage participant originally from the UK and we got to talking about how people seemed to make decisions about who he was and what he was like as soon as he opened his mouth to speak. They’d hear his accent and *snap* – decide. And last night I was speaking to a friend of mine who is originally from Hong Kong and she has experienced something similar. As they realized that they were being pigeon-holed into fitting into a certain pre-conceived-idea of what it meant to be a foreigner in the US, both described a sensation of feeling like they needed to pull back a bit. To put up their guard. To almost protect themselves from the misperceptions that surrounded them.
And I think we all do this to some degree.
It’s human nature to put things into boxes. In our attempt to make sense of the world around us, we unconsciously sort, and index, and catalog everything in our path. It makes us feel less confused, more sure of ourselves, and gives us a sense of control. We all do it and most of us are completely unconscious about doing it. It just is. Like breathing.
The problem is, people don’t really fit into boxes. There are no clear definitions of what it means to be a “mom”, a “business person”, a “New Yorker”, a “woman”, a “Millennial”, a “leader”, etc. And as we find ourselves fighting the boxes in which we’re placed, we end up with three natural choices: To either willingly jump into the box, to challenge the label with all we’ve got, or to draw back and try to keep our differences off the radar.
And to add to the complexity, the truth is, we find some security in the box. We like to feel like we fit. We experience belonging – which, if you remember Maslow’s Hierarchy, is one of our core needs as human beings. Belonging feels good. Not belonging, not so much. We’re apt to box ourselves in just to belong.
So if we’re about being and bringing our best and most powerful self to all that we do, which way do we turn? To place ourselves into a box in which we don’t fit is anything but “authentic”. To challenge the labels can be less than constructive. And to draw back minimizes our intrinsic power and makes it nearly impossible to bring presence or influence. We want to belong, but boxes are confining. What now?
With no clear path that leads to our best, perhaps our only option is to forge a new one.
In the theatre, one of the things we work to do, is to identify a “point of concentration” or “point of focus” or “focus of attention” (they’re all the same thing). When you’re an actor on the stage, doing something as inherently vulnerable as going all out in front of an audience of strangers, you need a strategy to be effective in spite of your humanity. Otherwise, an actor’s natural impulses would lead them to play generalities (jump in the box), to over-act (fight the box), or to protect themselves and keep their differences off the radar – all boxes leading to horrible acting and thus unemployment. In order to perform their best, they have to focus on something else entirely – as if the box doesn’t even exist.
We are far more complex and amazing than any box can contain. More interesting than any label can define. And it is our unique qualities that set us apart – to own them is where we find our “power”. Our ability to influence. Our ability to express ourselves authentically. To capture attention with our presence. To truly connect with others. To think creatively and innovate. And ultimately, I believe, our ability to lead.
Today I encourage you to give yourself permission to think outside the box. Focus your attention instead on what you’re up to in the world. Go make an impact.
If you do that, you know what you may find?
That the box doesn’t even exist.
(This post is dedicated to my courageous friends from the UK and Hong Kong and the rest of you who risk stepping outside your box to make an impact. Keep it up, the world needs you!)
©OnStage Leadership, 2014
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