The idea of being one's self, one's whole self ‘at work’ is an idea that most people find really appealing. I think its because most people recognize that they do hide facets of who they are, or wear masks at work.
This practice began for me, and probably for most people, at school – being laughed at by your classmates as well as your teacher for asking a question or making a statement that they thought was silly or dumb.
This is the one that sticks with me:
Back in the day, sex education films were shown in the auditorium to all the year 5 classes together, on, wait for it, FILM reels...
Earlier that week, I’d witnessed the miracle of birth as one of the neighbourhood dogs had a litter of puppies. It never occurred to me that they would come out encased in the placenta. After showing the film the teacher asked for questions my hand shot up (something that hasn't changed) and my question went something like “Do babies come out in the same kind of little bags that puppies do?” Cue uproarious laughter, as if that was the most idiotic thing anyone had ever said.
Up until then, I’d felt really free to be curious. After that humiliation, a little less.
Isn’t it funny how clearly I remember that incident – I can still smell the air in the room. Walking out of the auditorium that afternoon, I picked up my first mask.
In high school I was a bit of an enigma – always in the top classes, but also a cheerleader, and then a rocker. I spent many years changing clothes in the car – I had literally different uniforms. At school I would dress one way, then change for work in the car into my office uniform, and then change after work into my denim and leather for another night on the Sunset Strip.
This pattern lasted for four or five years, and my approach to it was that there were ‘different Susan’s’ – 4 or 5 personas that I could be and that were differentiated by my uniforms.
After university and (my first) marriage, slowly but surely the Susans came back together, into two focuses – work and home. As my personal focus on career (what does that mean anyway?) accelerated, those masks came to the fore.
Even when I was doing work that brought me joy, there would be some enforced ‘coping’ masks that I’d put on just to get me through the day.
The ones that comes back for me so strongly are ‘the mask for firing people’ or ‘the mask I put on in the plane because it’s the only time I’m alone and if the guy next to me starts chatting I might very well explode because this is the only down time I’ve had in 17 days’.
This memory makes me smile a little, because it reflects the absolute nonsense of the idea of work-life balance. When I was not bringing my whole self to work, there was never a chance for any kind of balance – hence the futility of the concept.
It’s all life….
These are just tiny little snippets of all my experiences, my influences, my ideas, my fears and phobias (utensils with round handles).
At some point, many of us suddenly see that our reactions in the moment don’t always (or even usually) serve us. We might consider why we react to certain things, and might start to recognize that certain ideas or words or phrases repeatedly trigger this reaction. This is one facet of personal sense making.
I’m not a psychologist, or a Buddhist, but as a human, I know that I suffer less when I don’t react, and when I don’t react the chance that I’ll hurt another human with my reflexive reaction is mitigated.
But not always. (see 'the paradox of silence').
If we are doing work that matters to us, with the people we choose, in an environment of high trust, is it not in everyone’s interest that we support each other to notice and work with and enable us to work through our personal sh*t to enable growth and development? What better environment than the place where you are spending most of your time, with people who have a good sense of you, and shared context for triggers that manifest when you are together. To feel safe to remove and perhaps destroy the masks?
I return to my basic hypothesis of wholeness, and that it is a remedy for the scourge of scarcity. If I can be all of who I am in the work context, not just the rational/masculine, bringing only that perspective; if I can bring even just 3 or 4 different facets of my being, and you bring 3 or 4 and so on, suddenly we have 12 or 20 different perspectives in the room. And that is magic.