How to Shed Your Military 'Tapes' in Your Civilian Career

(Ken Scar)

As adults, it's important to know what "tapes" or messages you picked up as a young person that aren't serving you anymore. For instance, perhaps you were told by your parents, caregivers, teachers or community leaders that you should act a certain way ("don't self-promote"), dress a particular way ("ladies, always wear closed-toe shoes") and communicate a specific way ("wait to speak until spoken to").

These "tapes" are often still engrained in how you live and behave today, many years later. Add to those messages the unique culture of the military, and your tape library is likely very full! As you transition to the civilian sector, it can be frustrating to know which messages still have value, which feel right and true for you, and which can be abandoned.

Examples of tapes you may have learned as a youth include:

  • Tattoos should always be covered
  • Women shouldn't have "those" kinds of leadership jobs
  • Defer to your elders
  • You can never apologize too much
  • When it's your turn, you'll get a chance (to succeed)
  • Don't call attention to yourself

Examples of military messages you've likely embodied during your time in service can include:

  • Civilians will never understand what you've been through
  • Keep your emotions close to the vest (and safe)
  • Others around you will protect you
  • Never show weakness
  • It's not about you, it's about those you serve alongside
  • And many more ...

As you transition to the civilian sector, it's not about losing the part of you that wore our nation's cloth, but rather recognizing and embracing those messages that will continue to serve you in the new chapter of your life.

How to Reframe the Tapes

As with any behavior modification, the first step is awareness. Recognize when your thinking is limiting or based on biases because of various beliefs or norms you accepted and embodied.

For example, if you believe that certain people shouldn't have certain jobs, recognize that is an opinion, not a fact. People of different backgrounds, genders, lifestyles and abilities can often work most jobs, given the right training and opportunity. Similarly, believing that you can't express yourself (and your body art and piercings) because "it's not appropriate" may or may not be true. Depending on the brand you're building for yourself, the environment you'll be in and the people around you, self-expression can be wholly embraced.

It's important to be aware that you're having the thought and how that thought could be restricting your growth or limiting your thinking.

Next, decide whether to change or abandon the thinking and messages that aren't serving you. Yes, it's a choice. You can decide to be more inclusive, understanding, empathetic and warm, for example. Just because you've been conditioned to be different doesn't mean you can't change your thinking and approach.

If you decide to be more open-minded, for example, you might lead with questions instead of forming conclusions early on. You might listen more than you speak and validate what's being said to you as you consider the information. You don't have to change your mind each time new information is shared with you, but you can choose to be more tolerant and inclusive of others' opinions.

Then practice your new thinking. Starting small -- sometimes with low-stakes efforts -- can lead to big changes. For example, if you were taught to wait until spoken to, and you decide that this is restricting your ability to be heard and seen in your organization, you could begin by speaking up in meetings more often. Raising your hand, sharing your ideas and insights, and volunteering for opportunities to be seen more are great ways to shed the thinking that you must wait.

Being in control of how, where and who you show up as is a key part to navigating civilian culture. Pay attention to the messages you hold as true and decide for yourself if they serve you or not.

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