Challenges to Engaging Your Whole Self at Work

A friend of ours, “Karisma,” last month attended a two-day course on lesbian, gay, bi and trans (LGBT) issues in the workplace, and left with her head spinning. What happened may surprise you.

She’s a counselor in a New York City high school, and two colleagues attended the learning program with her. We connected when she was somewhat distressed shortly after the seminar; the primary issue, in her words, was:

I tried to ‘come out’ at work during a two day training and it was a disaster for me. Internally I felt so upset I cried all the way to the ferry, obviously not a good look. I’m better now than I was, but I am still thinking about Monday and my re-entry to work.

Like many people, Karisma has preferred to separate aspects of her work life from her personal life, so the struggle to reveal her self to her coworkers is real. Still, by thinking hard about her actions and feelings in the context of her job, she’s well equipped to reap the rewards of revealing and engaging her whole self at work. Let’s look at how the events unfolded.

Karisma relates how the opening go-around began:

The prompt was, ‘Please respond to the following–

1.  Name
2.  Organization
3.  Location of organization
4.  Share something about your culture.’

My responses were similar to the other participants with the exception of number 4. Each person responded by identifying their ethnicity.  I on the other hand responded by offering cultural values. My response was as follows:  ‘In my culture we value competition, education, and we’re creative.’

The facilitator responded by asking me to say more about my culture to which I assumed she wanted me to include my ethnic group membership as others before me had done. I queried, ‘Are you asking about race or ethnicity?  Because those are only parts of culture not the only variable.’  To that she responded is there anything else you’d like to share about your culture?  I then repeated my original statement and she simply said ‘I get it, next.’

Each participant after me stated their ethnic group membership with one guy stating, ‘I’m Latino and proud of it.’  I took it as a jab at my response, laughed and waited for the exercise to end.

Karisma may sound like a peace disturber as she schools the workshop leader on the definition of “culture,” yet as a group leader herself, she knows how important it is for all participants to connect to the content in their own way.

While we do hope the course instructor will consider re-examining her definition of culture, it’s becoming clear that full engagement at work sometimes comes with thorny feelings.

We also see an aspect of Karisma that may be both a gift and a hindrance:  her sensitivity.  She keenly senses the facilitator’s exact word choice, her fellow participants’ input, and her own contributions to the program.  In this way, she’ll clearly derive an abundance from the course; at the same time, she’s already feeling stung.

Karisma’s sensitive nature is part of her beauty, and it’s a natural piece of who she is; we’re simply describing how it appears to play out in the workplace.

Somewhat weary, Karisma remained engaged through the duration of the first day’s agenda. She then continues:

During the second day of the two-day training, one of the facilitators ‘comes out’ to the group as lesbian during the opening morning session.  She stated that she typically waits until mid-way during the training because she wants to see if there is a difference in the group or the way in which group members relate to her–whether negatively or positively–after having the opportunity to interact with her sans her gay sexual orientation.

Prior to lunch we participated in an activity called the 4 “I’s” of oppression:  Ideological, Institutional, Interpersonal, and Internalized.  During the end of the activity, the facilitator who came ‘out’ stated that she had internalized many of the negative emotions due to having to be closeted and oppressed in a heterosexist society.  There were emotions such as depressed, suicidal, aggressive, reactive, explosive, alienated, etc. I started to tear up but did not comment.  I became emotional because at that point I realized that oppression is oppression and that as a Black woman I had been marginalized in many of the same ways and was able to completely relate.  At lunch, before the two facilitators left I shared my insights about oppression as a Black woman and they were grateful.

Karisma wants to learn so much, and because she’s relatively extroverted, she comfortably approaches the facilitators at the break and shares with them how she’s making meaning of the curriculum. She wants to be understood as the person she is, and wishes to make connections with the course leaders.  It’s how we learn: by connecting with ideas, information, and people.

She goes on:

The point at which I had a spaz attack was at the closing circle where the group was instructed to share something they enjoyed or what their experience was during the two days.  In my head I am thinking it would be courageous to come out as insecure and fearful despite my presentation as a ‘strong Black woman who seemingly has it together and is often fearful of being found out as a fraud because I don’t live up to the pedestal a lot of folks place me on.’  So when it was my turn to speak, I said, ‘I appreciate being at the training although I was apprehensive initially.  I feel connected to the group and am grateful to each of you for the courage you display day in and day out to combat oppression.  I am taking pieces of all of the courage with me because often in my school building I feel alone.  I am going to ‘out’ myself because during the 4 I’s activity I identified with almost all of the negative internalized emotions.  I now know I don’t have to anymore.’ Then I got teary and the lady next to me rubbed my back.  People applauded for some strange reason because no one else in the group was applauded after they shared their experience.  That’s when it occurred to me that perhaps I’d not been clear about what I was ‘coming out’ as or with what…and panicked.

Did she just come out as lesbian? True, in her office she has prominently displayed the rainbow flag that symbolizes LGBT pride, which has prompted her students and colleagues to wonder about her sexual orientation. Her hair’s cropped very short, and she readily wears suits to work. As an adult Karisma has examined her feelings of same-sex attraction, and ultimately identifies as straight. In this manner, we see:

  • As a broad thinker, she freely examines the nature of her sexual identity.
  • She has playfully explored her own gender expression through her appearance.
  • She’s what’s known as an “ally” or “LGBT ally.”

Which is to say, Karisma is a work in progress. Who isn’t? Most of us could benefit from understanding the complexities of our sexual identity, gender expression, and racial identity development.

The conclusion of the training program then feels messy; Karisma’s unclear message to the group mirrors her struggles to understand the multi-layered dimensions of who she is.

What about her initial concern regarding re-entering work on Monday? Karisma recently related:

When I re-entered the workplace on Monday there was no earth shattering event or interaction, which clearly made me feel silly and as if I’d completely over-reacted. After our conversation, (among others) and a ton of self- reflection, it occurred to me that most folks were probably so wrapped up in their own self-reflections that they could care less about what I’d said.

In addition, the colleague that I was most concerned about behaved in a familiar fashion, and honestly once I thought about it, I felt empowered to just be who I am at work without having any concern about what other people think. Who cares anyway? And if they do care and judge me negatively, it doesn’t really impact my real life. My family is the same, my friends are the same, my money is the same (lol) and my love life is what it is. So, with that said, me making a 60 second contribution to the conversation really had no negative impact besides the self-flagellation I inflicted upon myself.

Believe it or not, I feel way more confident about speaking my mind because I keep repeating the infamous RuPaul quote, “what other people think of me is none of my business!” I LOVE that.

Lessons learned!  Because Karisma’s challenges were in service of engaging her whole self and learning about her self, the heartache seems worthwhile.

A special thank you to Karisma for detailing her experience so we can all continually figure out how to reveal our true selves on the job, even when it involves sweat and tears.

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