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How to understand expression and boundaries

Discover why some individuals struggle with self-expression and maintaining boundaries in professional settings, while others excel.

Why are some people able to express themselves, appear confidence, and maintain boundaries while others can’t? Why can some talk through conflict while others become inarticulate and emotional?

You can try to maintain a calm disposition, practice your deep breathing, walk away from your desk or workspace for a mini break – and yet you’re suddenly enraged by something small. You might even respond impulsively — and then comes the guilt, shame, and fear of repercussions with all the should and shouldn’t buzzing around your head like hornets, exacerbating an already high-anxiety level.

The internet is pulsing with self-help classes and workshops on managing behavioural shifts in professional environments. Many promise “immediate results”, “life-changing effects,” or “a complete 180 shift.”  But as any of us know who’ve taken those workshops, while the strategies may seem excellent, somehow, they don’t stick.

The truth is that behavioural change takes a lot of practice, repetition – and failure – before they become an integral part of your response to stressors so you can activate your parasympathetic nervous system. You might feel the immediate benefit of breathing slowly during the workshop, but when the next stressful situation catches up with you – will you remember to breathe in for four, hold for four, exhale for four, hold for four?

Additionally, once your workshop is over, the group and coach support are gone. And, more importantly, if you haven’t addressed the root of the problem then those strategies will act as flimsy band-aids, ready to be ripped off when the stress is surging.

I’ve just finished reading Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light In the World, a memoir and poetic tribute to her beloved husband, Ficre, who died suddenly at age 50 from a massive heart attack. Alexander is an acclaimed poet who wrote and performed her poem at Obama’s inauguration. She is also an educator, a scholar and was a professor of African American studies at Yale for fifteen years. She’s now the president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Her husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus, escaped from the war in Eritrea and came to America where he and his brothers co-owned the highly popular Caffe Adulis featuring creative Eritrean cuisine. He was also a brilliant artist.

Both Ficre and Elizabeth had parents who understood the transformational value of education, and the supreme role of family in nurturing the child’s sense of identity. Their extraordinary advantage: they grew up with families who loved and believed in them.

If the individual career person, highly educated, articulate and secure in some degree of success, has had an actively abusive or neglectful background, she will struggle against the self-defence responses that she developed for security while she was growing up. As an adult, she may think she can move forward away from the past towards opportunity but if she hasn’t dealt with her fears, she will continue to cycle through disappointment, anxiety, low self-esteem, and the sense that she will always fail. She will also be highly susceptible to externalized interpretations of her identity through, for example, social media and marketing. In other words, she will be living in a manufactured identity that perpetually undermines her.

Set-backs — such as receiving critique during a job evaluation, the one person who doesn’t respond positively to her idea during a meeting, or someone who appears to ignore her — will have a significant negative impact.  Moreover, her judgment and ability to make creative decisions as a leader will be affected. Another person who’s grown up being consistently assured of her value will take those setbacks in her stride as opportunities for self-improvement or, in the case of being ignored, to be dismissed as irrelevant.

Children suffer PTSD not only from suffering and/or witnessing violent and psychological abuse, but also from dismissiveness, mocking, and rejection. To be centered in self-worth that will allow the adult to be a fully actualized person with self-confidence, adaptability, resilience, and success, the adult needs to first be aware of the chronic effects of their history.

The National Career Development Association reports that family trauma can play a role in unfulfilled career goals where individuals can unconsciously sabotage their careers having beliefs that they don’t deserve to be successful. They can create conflicts instead of authentic connections. And toxic work environments can leave a lasting effect where the individual responds instinctively with atavistic defence mechanisms from childhood.

So, while self-help classes are extremely valuable, if your authentic sense of identity isn’t addressed, your career trajectory is likely to remain plateaued, and your ability to create and sustain nurturing and profitable professional relationships will continue to be impacted. And you’ll continue to wonder why others are handling themselves and situations that remain flammable for you.

The way to get in front of this is to address it at its source:

  • Find a coach who you can trust and who will hold you accountable.
  • Sign up for workshops that target specific areas you want to address, such as resilience, setting boundaries, clean space management, boosting productivity, speaking to be heard in meetings, or how to walk into any room, knowing you have value to add.
  • In your workshop, commit to ONE tip that you will follow and incorporate into your professional life. You can only make important changes by instituting them singly and thoroughly – and persistently.
  • Read. Read. Read to learn new ideas but, importantly, read to generate ideas of your own that are inspired by others. Find out what people you admire or follow are reading.
  • Keep a journal so you can write ideas down! It will also serve as a way for you to track your progress.

And be gentle with yourself. Coming from a difficult past can be challenging, but your past is also the reason why you’re here now. Celebrate that! Your ancestors are cheering you on.

Alexander, Elizabeth. The Light In the World. Grand Central Publishing 2016. Kindle edition.

Barriga, Paola A. “Embracing the Reality of Trauma and its Impact in Career Development.” Career Convergence Web Magazine. National Career Development Association. Accessed 25 Mar 2024.

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