This article was first published on susiebraam.com on 9 August 2021.
During a recent workshop on Cultural Intelligence (CQ - defined as the ability to relate and work effectively with people from different nationalities, ethnicities, age groups and all types of diversity), I learnt about ‘covering’. Covering, it would seem, is something we all do; it’s when we hide certain parts of our identity to fit into our environments. Consciously or subconsciously, we want to come across in a certain way, fit in, assimilate, so we adapt our behaviour, perhaps our looks or our accents, in order to fit in. We may ‘cover’ in any number of situations, but for the purpose of this workshop, we were asked to think about the parts of our identity that we cover in the workplace.
First up, we were given a list of identifying characteristics. Things you’d expect like ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation were on there. But also things like your education level, whether you had care responsibilities and hobbies. Taking our personal answers to those characteristics, we were asked to identify which ones were most important to us - which ones we viewed as an essential part of how we self-identified. For me, there were two things: being a woman and being a mum. These are aspects of my identity that I think about every day and lenses through which I view the world.
Now, as I said, covering is something we all do. It’s not necessarily a bad thing and can be an extremely helpful mechanism when we find ourselves in a new situation or meeting new people for the first time. It doesn’t mean you’re being inauthentic; it’s subtler than that. But, it is a problem when we are covering a part of ourselves that is integral to our view of ourselves, and even more so when that covering is persistent. In this situation, how we identify is not aligned with how we are living, and this can only store up problems.
This reminded me of an exercise I did around a year or so ago with Sonja Kresojevic, an inspirational friend who at the time was coaching me. She got me to list all things that were important to me, tangible and intangible. We then went through each one and she got me to sort them into three columns: important, very important and non-negotiable. The aim being to filter down to less than a handful of things in the non-negotiable. I ended up with three: my children, my mental health and continued personal growth. The second part of the exercise involved reflecting on how I had been living my life - personal and professional - and considering whether it was in alignment with my non-negotiables. It was not.
Incrementally taking on more responsibility at work and spending longer and longer away from home, had eroded the time I spent with my children. I also realised I was trapped on a relentless and unthinking treadmill towards the next promotion, the next achievement all my life, with limited room for genuine personal growth. And unsurprisingly, that combination had indeed been taking a toll on my mental health. I had been compromising my non-negotiables for too long.
Learning about CQ and covering has made me reflect further on how I was living my life before that exercise with Sonja. What I realised was that not only had I compromised time with my children, but I had at times ‘covered’ being a mum. This was particularly true when I returned to work after maternity leave. My confidence at an all time low, I rarely spoke about my children at work, overly conscious to appear professional and keep my private life private. Instead of leaving a meeting that was running over at the end of the day, I’d pick my kids up from nursery late. I didn’t want to be seen as anything other than 100% committed to the job and I felt, rightly or wrongly, that I had to ‘cover’ up being a mum to succeed.
A combination of amazing coaching and support, time and space to reflect and perhaps just the comfort and confidence that comes with maturity and experience, empowered me to understand, articulate and ask for or go after the things I want, as well as say no to the things that don’t align with my values. Some of us, particularly (though not exclusively) women, aren’t great at setting boundaries. We don’t like to say no, so we say yes to everything, and it’s usually an unconditional yes. It can’t be. For our own sake and others, it can’t be an unconditional yes. I’m still a work in progress (we all are), but I have established clearer boundaries around certain things. Over time, my non-negotiables and possibly the relative importance of aspects of my self-identity are likely to change. But whatever they are, I won’t compromise them and I won’t cover them, and I won’t be apologetic for that.