A Cocktail: Compartments, Rejection, and Spillover

To compartmentalise or not compartmentalise, that is the question.

Many of us have compartments. Think about a wall unit with different sections, maybe one of those old school ones we had in our living rooms – I can only speak for living rooms in Africa – the ones where moms kept the glasses and dinner plates for guests. As I grew up, I started to wonder what the rationale of visitors’ glasses and Sunday best attires were! You see, very early in life, we were taught in subtle ways to always present curated versions of ourselves to the public. In a sense, we were all child actors.

What if we never presented curated versions of ourselves? What would happen if the visitor used a glass that we used daily? Why did we have to use the older glasses, the chipped ones, and save the ones that were newer and in better shape for the guests? Why?

Like a living room wall unit, we split ourselves up into sections. The parent, the manager, the employee, the Rotarian, the gym buddy, the sibling, and the friend. The list could be longer depending on your social activity and circles. Running through the list has me out of breath, so can you imagine what it must be like getting into each role daily.

Picture a day where you go from parent, to sibling on your drive for work, to manager at the office, to gym buddy, to Rotarian at an event, to spouse at home, and then finally yourself. Sounds like such a long day. We go through different roles throughout the day and as a result, our day becomes 10 hours of acting in different scenes until we are in bed alone and we can finally just be. Well, that’s if the acting doesn’t spill over into that space too, especially when we share it. If that’s the case, we may have to go on solo trips to find the room just to be ourselves.

The parent, sibling, manager, gym buddy, Rotarian, and the spouse are all the same person, or at least they should be! But, because we focus on the role at hand and the expectations of that role, we find ourselves changing bits of our personas (sometimes in an inauthentic manner) to meet these expectations. Given how often we may switch through roles in a day, it can get exhausting. Sometimes it may feel like the roles require different parts of us, however, if we are remaining true to who we are fundamentally, it should not be.

Rejection: It’s not you, it’s me

No alt text provided for this imageI think we are aware of our shortcomings to a degree. Because we don’t like them, it is easier to present curated versions of ourselves as opposed to bringing our whole selves, flaws included. I mean if you don’t embrace your shortcomings, how do you expect others to? Plus, failure to embrace your shortcomings coupled with rejection by others as a result of them, can injure you significantly. We have all faced some version of rejection. Either at work, in friendships, families, romantic relationships, or sometimes, sadly really early in life on a kindergarten playground.

Rejection sucks! It is painful. I remember having a guy tell me once that he did not have peace about being with me and that it was nothing that I had done. I had my panties in a knot over this one. I asked myself, what did I do? What can I do? How can we fix this? Just like that, all the fairytales in my head were crushed. It’s funny how such experiences – technically of no fault of our own – stay with us. Such experiences make us more critical of ourselves. We become more self-conscious. We unveil ourselves slower and more cautiously. Sometimes we even go back to a life of inauthenticity and acting, all because we’re afraid of a repeat.

Episodes like this send us down a path of self-evaluation, and it takes time to heal to be able to bring our whole selves unapologetically to relationships moving forward. It is either that or you’re condemned to a lifetime as an unpaid actor. That doesn’t sound like fun at all to me.

Rejection happens at work too, we just call it something else – being laid off or being furloughed. Sometimes it manifests as a failed job interview. Lay-offs are the strangest though, in terms of how they leave you feeling. Betrayed for one, because there was a commitment involved at a certain point. Inadequate, because the company is still in business and they had to make choices, and they did not choose you and so you feel like you did not make “the cut”. A strong sense of loss, because depending on how long you and your employer had been hanging out; the longer, the bigger the feeling of loss because let us face it, they do grow on you. Your employer becomes a big part of your day, you plan with them in mind and many times depending on where you are in your career, they come first.

I feel like I am writing about a break-up, I mean it kinda is right? They hit you with the speech I got from that guy. Well, there are some nuances but it goes something like, “you are a phenomenal employee, anyone would be lucky to have you blah blah blah…” and I am sure during that conversation you are thinking, “why don’t you keep me if these feelings are real?”. At this point, you probably feel like asking them to cut the BS, tell you where you need to sign, what else they need from you so that you can get out of there. I know that deep down it is true when they say it, but at that moment with all the emotion, it feels so insincere. After the lay off you play out scenarios leading up to the event. If you are like me who thinks – maybe way too much – you think through the last 6 months and wonder if there is anything you did that contributed to being let go. Was it that meeting when you were firm? Was it that time you were honest about being overwhelmed and turned down a project? Was it when you chose family? Was it because of an error you made months back even if the lead said it was fine? Maybe it wasn’t and they were waiting for a moment to cut you loose? You think through so much, as far back as you can remember, trying to make sense of the fact that you were not chosen. After hours and a severe headache, you are unsuccessful.

Rejection and what it leaves behind can be heavy because sometimes after all of that transpires, depending on how much time you take to heal or if you do at all, you may still feel like it was your fault. The problem then becomes the version of yourself you take to other workplaces and relationships. You try too hard, you struggle with acceptance, you are scared they will leave, that they will not choose you and you are just all kinds of extra. You become that person on a team who is ALWAYS available, you respond to emails at 11 am on a Sunday, you are collaborating on a gazillion projects and kissing any and every behind in sight. I assure you, this behaviour is not sustainable, at all! Go ahead, try it, and let me know how that turns out for you. Spoiler alert, you will burn out and feel so empty inside. Not to mention the fact that all the extra effort may not be acknowledged, and may only compromise your wellbeing. What a shame!

Spillover

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Those sections in the wall unit I was telling you about, the ones that come alive as compartments in our lives, they seem like a good idea – a way to keep things neat. But, I honestly think that they will tire you, and there is always spillover. I know that this is debatable, well not the spillover but perhaps how long before it happens and the magnitude of the damage when it does. Sometimes people say, I want to be a better friend, I want to be a better partner or I want to be a better manager. Granted, the roles may be unique but the common denominator is YOU. Evaluating how things affect you and how behavior manifests in you as an individual may make it easier to identify in the different roles of your life because you are the constant. Also, dealing with it on an individual level as opposed to looking at it in just one role (compartment) for example the friend, may allow you to get to the root of the issue sooner and avoid bandaid solutions. Indulge me for a moment as I share some scenarios off the top of my head in regards to how I see this playing out.

So he or she left, they served you some story you are still trying to understand. For the record, let it go, it is NOT constructive. Or you were laid off, the economy is struggling and they are taking a conservative approach to expenses or maybe they were reviewing strategy. I know it doesn’t matter since the reason does not change the effect on you. Both scenarios can magnify an already existing feeling of inadequacy which inevitably throws us off, especially if for the longest time we have felt like we were the best thing since sliced bread. The shock sometimes creates denial on our end. The scenario that brings the feeling to the surface is irrelevant because it does not deter a feeling that reared its head at work from spilling into our relationships outside work. The magnitude will vary but because you are a common denominator, it is only a matter of time.

I have put some thought into how some unhealthy tendencies in one role of our lives can manifest in another and how the awareness of them can make us more proactive in identifying and addressing them. When we think about trust issues, we imagine a psycho partner who is always checking in from a place of keeping tabs and not so much concern. This person may check credit card statements, phone records, and generally exhibit snooping tendencies. The same can manifest at work. That person that stalks colleagues’ online calendars, looks at attendance lists for meetings and is generally paranoid. In case you were wondering, this is NOT healthy behaviour! If you’re guilty of any of the above, before you start thinking through what your partner has done to make you not trust them or what your company has done to create that environment, you should look inward. Please hear me when I say that I am not negating how the behaviour of an individual or culture of an organisation affects you, because I know that it plays a role. All I am saying is that after all is said and done, the only part you can be deliberate about addressing is you and fixing that first thought, which is that when you are not included in something, it is potentially because you are the subject of it. When unhealthy habits occur, there is value in refraining from viewing them in the one role that they manifest. Instead, we should view them holistically and examine ourselves; not just as employees, managers, or spouses but to dig deeper. Unhealthy habits may be in one part of our life for example work, however, thinking through how that can affect other parts is helpful as well as digging deeper so as to take a proactive approach to self-development. Treating them holistically presents a unique opportunity to address the unhealthy habit at its core versus the symptom and that reduces the probability of it manifesting in another role.

Rejection can give birth to feelings of inadequacy and resuscitate any dormant fear of abandonment stemming from things that you might have experienced decades ago. Sometimes when we work on these habits and (seemingly) nip them in the bud, we might have everything under control until our centre is rocked and cracks emerge. This year has rocked many of us. I know there have been months where I have experienced a myriad of emotions. As such, things we may have not dealt with in the past may re-emerge, like feelings of inadequacy probably fueled by fear and a highly volatile work environment. As a result, you might be shocked by the ease with which you compromise on your boundaries. You may struggle with saying no. You may even go the extra mile and plug into anything and everything because you think that if you don’t appear on a multitude of projects, you may not be seen to be productive and valuable. Feelings of inadequacy have you in situations where you are constantly trying to remind people why you deserve to be where you are. This could be a job, a clique of friends, or a relationship. There are strategies that enable you to demonstrate your value at work and other spaces that are healthy and don’t entail a violation of self and your boundaries. Having to compromise is a red flag and a signal of a bigger issue. If this struggle of inadequacy starts at work, it has the potential to spill into other aspects of yourself. So pause, evaluate, and dig deep. Getting to a place of knowing you are enough takes time, and every now and then things happen that create doubt. Don’t get it twisted, you are the same human existing in multiple contexts. Even if you create compartments, remember that you are the common denominator. Think through how that unhealthy habit can manifest in other roles; be aware and proactive so that you can nip it in the bud when the time comes.

Moment of vulnerability – A brief self-audit

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Let me peel back a layer and share an area that I am working through – Unrealistic expectations. As a person, I am deliberate in my approach to many things and I am a recovering perfectionist. Because of this, I struggled for the longest time with extending grace to others. In my friendships, when something happened or a friend fell short, I would always think to myself, “How could he or she not have thought of this?”. Sometimes I went to the extent of making assumptions on the meaning of their behavior. I may have come off as gracious because I did not communicate it overtly, but I thought it. In my mind, people should have figured out all their stuff.

You and I both know now that we keep at this all through life. I have said this in a previous article, we never really arrive and in fact, we are in transition all through life. I have seen in the past year how I have transferred this to my work sphere of life. If I expected humans to have their stuff together, can you imagine what I expected of organisations? The mother of all perfection! In my mind, as an organisation whether you were 20, 30, or 2 years old, you had to have had it all figured out. Like with people, the older organisations get, the more experience and lessons they have to draw from, which helps with better decision making, or at least it should. That said, we know that 50-year-olds don’t always make the best decisions but many times, their myriad of experiences offers them numerous contexts to draw from to make decisions.

As obvious as it sounds, I learned that organisations consist of people, and that like me, they make mistakes. They are figuring themselves out and while they do that, they are working collaboratively with other humans to figure stuff out. As such, if there is no such thing as a perfect human, by extension, there cannot be a perfect organisation!

I have learned to understand more, extend grace, and allow others (people and organisations alike) the same empathy that I appreciate when I am behind on something or struggling with a new concept or unique task. I am learning not to take everything personally; just as we want people to know that our actions are seldom about them but us, so is the case many times with the organisations we serve. Don’t be a doormat on my watch, just avoid being presumptuous. Ask more questions to seek clarity, context, and better understanding, and then draw your conclusions.

At the end of the day, you should do what works for you, compartments or not. I think it is worthwhile to think through the potential spillover and how you can get ahead of it – being aware of, and examining unhealthy behaviour when we see it in one compartment and thinking through how it can manifest elsewhere. After all, trash in one room if not taken out, can stink up the whole house.

Here’s a radical thought! Remove the compartments altogether, and consistently deal with yourself as a whole. It’s no secret what my preference is, but like many things, it is a process.

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