The pandemic forced many workers to work from home. Some welcomed the change, enjoying being at home with their pets or having a chance to sleep in. Others weren’t sure how to balance their family life, having to monitor remote schooling while remote working and juggle other family demands. And many didn’t want to mix up their personal and professional spaces. These are all valid reactions to this unusual predicament.
Pre-pandemic, it was easier to delineate your personal and professional lives. Now sitting in our personal spaces while working a profession is a bit fuzzy. A meeting can be interrupted by a child in need, a cat who decides to snuggle up while you’re writing an important email, or Alexa who decides to respond to something she thinks you told her (I hope this doesn’t just happen to me.) The personal and professional are harder to separate when your kitchen is right next to you and you’re wearing pajama pants.
While I understand that there are certain things we consider personal and certain things we consider professional, I also think that aside from physical location, the personal and professional are way more connected than you think.
I have often heard of people who use the term “professional” to indicate a way of being, as if to say it overrides certain behaviors you’d typically enact in your personal life. However, even if we suppress certain behaviors, that doesn’t erase their existence or their origin. Those emotions are in you; they literally live within your body. So if something feels threatening in the workplace, that means that no matter how you react to it, your body still senses and holds onto it.
Oftentimes the profession we choose is because of our personal skills and interests. So to say that the personal and professional are completely separated doesn’t really make sense to me. And if you do choose a profession that is not based on your interests, that doesn’t mean you left your personal self at home.
Because the personal is professional, period.
While you might have a different demeanor in the workplace, it doesn’t take away who you are at heart. It is just another way of saying that you act differently around certain people. You can say that for family versus friends as well. You might not react to your friends in the same way that you’d react to your immediate family, but that means that your relationships have different levels of intimacy. It’s not because you became a different person. Say, for example, that a close friend turns into your romantic partner. Your relationship shifts, but your personality traits and lived experience never changed.
I think this is most evidenced in the professional world in the case of bullying. I have many friends, mostly women of color, who have experienced bullying in the workplace, mostly from their supervisors. Women of color are familiar with being treated or seen differently — it’s part of our lived experience. And the bully is not a bully unless they have personal wounds and biases, often systemic biases embodied in their behavior.
Common complaints I hear from people of color about the workplace are about getting bullied, not being given credit for their work, and not receiving fair and equal compensation. This stuff is personal. It doesn’t stop after 5:00pm on a weekday. It follows you through dinner, it interrupts your sleep, it makes you question your job choices.
And professional choices have political leanings, which affect the work you tend to like and dislike. If you’re in a job that doesn’t align with your values and/or politics, it’s no surprise that, over time, you might feel like your life is being sucked away. As you can see, it’s hard for me to believe the personal isn’t professional, especially if you work a job for at least 40 hours a week.
The recent rise in anti-racism initiatives, especially after the George Floyd murder and more Black Lives Matter protests, brought systemic injustice into the workplace. Yet the challenge seems to be really getting down to deep personal awareness of biases and the pervasiveness of white supremacy. In order to do so, people really have to face themselves in a way they may never have before, especially in a work setting. This can get very very personal, and in a “professional” setting, it tricky to demand this of workers because of the personal nature. Herein lies the rub. We separate our personal and professional lives even though the workplace can be a site of injustices against humans. It feels inappropriate to ask a supervisor or subordinate to go to therapy because it might be “too personal.”
I’m a person who values vulnerability, and, I’m happy to tell you or write about my life because that’s who I am. I’m not saying you have to be that way. I’m not saying that you have to bring these stories into the workplace. But saying that you don’t bring your personal life into your professional life is a personal statement. Trying to ignore your personal challenges in a professional setting ignores the support you might need. It ignores how we are always human beings first, which dehumanizes labor.
I think it’s time to open this conversation to a larger discussion of how professionalism mirrors larger socioeconomic norms and divisions, which creates personal hardships and also defines how we view “success.” I think it’s time talk about elitism and class differences when we talk about our “professional” lives.
These will probably be uncomfortable conversations. They will definitely be revealing conversations. But it’s time we recognize that they are necessary ones.
Nisha Mody is a writer who also is also a Coach, Podcaster, and Librarian. She has written for The Rumpus, The Times of India, and Ravishly. Find her on Twitter and Instagram. But most importantly, adore her beautiful sister cats. Read more of her work on her healing and justice newsletter, The Healing Hype.