Boxes are built to contain, to give form and order to their contents . Depending on the need we have for a box, they can be useful and necessary. But – as with everything in life – when used in the wrong way and for the incorrect means, they can be damaging and limiting in the purpose they serve.
This goes for the literal boxes we use as well as for the virtual ones - those identity ‘boxes’ we put ourselves into.
Let’s start with the literal ones. Consider a box that you have stored a collection of reports into before having them filed. Here the box is useful in bringing order to an office – but only to the effect that we use it properly. If the box is clearly labelled and the reports are eventually taken out and filed, then the box has served its purpose as a temporary storage point for its contents. But if the reports are never taken out and looked at again, the box becomes a useless piece of clutter housing obsolete material. Or, if the reports are taken out, and the box is then left empty while other clutter builds up around it, because of the mistaken belief that the box is only useful for what it has been labelled for – those particular reports from that particular time – then it is wasteful and unnecessary.
So how does this translate to the virtual identity ‘boxes’ we put ourselves into? We are often told not to ‘box’, or stereotype, ourselves and each other. But this outlook is not entirely useful - and certainly impossible to do. Humans naturally look for similarities and patterns in order to make sense of our world around us and develop a sense of belonging. Indeed – this is how we use the ‘boxing’ metaphor to our advantage. We are able to predict how others may behave, how we may be received, how we may be useful, by seeing similarities and differences between ourselves and others. And it would be very difficult to craft a path in our lives if we did not have some sort of awareness of the particular traits we and others portray – in other words, the boxes we often inhabit. Emotional and social intelligence demands a high degree of self- and other- awareness…which is really about putting ourselves into boxes.
However the damage of misusing these virtual boxes is important to note, and we see the impact of this damage all around us through the false perceptions and assumptions we are laden with. As with the literal box example, when we become stuck in the one box - like the reports that remained in the box - then we never allow ourselves to experience the other facets of ourselves that may offer us new experiences and opportunities. This could be the rigid belief that ‘I am efficient/ creative/ a numbers person’… Let’s look at the Efficiency’ box. Having self awareness, and being able to utilise the trait of efficiency as a strength, is incredibly useful. It can encourage you to take on projects at work that have a tight deadline and that require productive efficiency in order to be completed. It can also allow you to analyse exactly what it is that you do that makes you so efficient and useful to your team, with the intent of sharing this learning with others. In this instance, playing in the Efficiency box is productive and helpful.
But consider what it would be like if you were unable to remove yourself from that box. What might happen if you were only ever able to be efficient and could never access the freedom and messiness that it sometimes takes when you need to innovate and try a new approach? Would the desire to do things perfectly and efficiently restrict you from trying a new way? Would you be able to access the creativity and lateral thinking necessary to find a new way forward? And what about relationships with your colleagues? If you are only ever able to stand in the Efficiency box, there would most likely be little room for the relationship building and interaction that occurs in the workplace that is most valuable in connecting with others and developing a communal culture. The image of the highly efficient work-horse plugging away at his desk doesn’t engender an ease for colleagues to approach you for assistance or even to offer you new opportunities…
As well as this, holding onto just this box can then result in us holding on even when it no longer serves us well, or when we need to change something about ourselves - as with the empty box waiting to be use in exactly the same way as before.
Boxing ourselves restrictively results in an inability to innovate, create and question. We lose the ability to be curious about ourselves, experiment and explore alternatives to our view of ourselves. The result of this can be catastrophic. We can end up bitter and disillusioned with the way we feel life is treating us, and unable to see that it is our own boxes that we refuse to step out of!
Inherent in all of this is the fundamental truth that very often the boxes we are doggedly holding onto were actually boxes given to us in childhood by someone else, perceptions others mistakenly held long ago and with which we have somehow identified in order to try to understand ourselves. How many people can say they have avidly pursued law as a career because they were told they were very rules-based and good at arguing a point… only to discover that this box doesn’t fit them at all and what they really identify with is a life making hand crafted surf-boards? Or how many have been told that they are a people’s person and must work with people – only to discover that they are in fact introverted and find being continually around people exhausts and depletes them and what they really want is to become an academic and immerse themselves in research?
The upshot of all of this is not that we must avoid putting ourselves and others in boxes, but rather that we must be very aware of when we are doing it and for which reason. Important too is to keep the lids off these boxes and allow ourselves to step in and out of them as we explore what and who we really are and want to do in this world. So don’t think out the box or in the box – but about the box! It’s all about awareness after all.
Looking to develop your self-awareness to help you make positive changes? Coaching can be a powerful opportunity to do this! Contact me today to arrange a free consultation to decide if business or life coaching is the option for you: firstname.lastname@example.org
On a personal note...
I am curious, creative, determined, committed and (a bit too much of) a perfectionist.