Why “I Can’t Breathe” Resonates Worldwide and in Every Domain of our Lives

This past week, the seemingly simple phrase “I can’t breathe” ignited a global call to action – one that has touched me on a deeply personal and professional level.

On Monday, I had my third coaching session with Jean* – a successful senior business leader based in Brussels. Over the last few months alone, Jean has had an average of 10-14 online meetings daily. For each of the problems that he used to resolve during a short discussion at the coffee machine, Jean now receives an invitation for a half-hour video conference that he feels compelled to accept. Jean suffered some form of oppression from a young age that eventually shaped his leadership style – namely, he tries to garner respect by catering to others and being agreeable. After two months of juggling successive meetings and navigate workplace anxieties, I couldn’t see any signs of the successful leader I once knew. His shoulders were hunched and his back bent forward, limiting his ability to take full and deep breaths. Not surprisingly, his energy, creativity, and ability to mobilize others had all but vanished. Every cell in his body was screaming, “I can’t breathe”. His coaching highlighted how a past difficult experience affects the body, thoughts, beliefs, and our ability to breathe and take skillful actions to inspire others.

The sad truth is that most people on this planet have been shaped and pay the price for oppression.

  • Jean’s parents emigrated from the Democratic Republic of the Congo after it gained independence from Belgium in the 1960s. He learned very quickly that he would only earn respect by setting and achieving ambitious targets and responding to the needs of the people around him. When he is under pressure, this ingrained belief manifests itself in not setting boundaries to maintain his own professional and personal goals.

  • Sarah, the chief marketing officer of a consumer goods company, inherited the idea that men are more capable of reaching the top of an organisation than women. This internal narrative was strong enough to leave her throat tensing up and her chest compressed whenever she spoke up at board meetings.

  • Although Emeline comes from a wealthy family and learned to keep a low profile rather than pursue her aspirations, she eventually managed to carve out her own path to become a respected entrepreneur in her field. Even still, 30 years later, Emeline struggles whenever she enters a room. Her thin body and legs, shallow breath, and restrained energy are the side-effects of her need to shelter herself from judgement and rejection.

  • As a respected leader within a French Telco company, Philippe learned from a young age that keeping control and over-performing in every domain is the key for success and recognition. After working an average of 18 hours a day for many years, his tight gaze, short and anxious breathing, contracted shoulders, and forward-facing body were reminiscent of a sprinter waiting to start a race. Despite his strong commitment to his company’s success, Philippe’s need to control and achieve excellence became the primary bottleneck that prevented the organisation from transforming.

  • Cathy, an executive director in the financial services industry, believed it is dangerous to appear beautiful in a professional setting. This embodied belief, inherited from the community she grew up in, was at the root of the compression she felt in her shoulders, hips, and throat whenever she presented in front of her team.

Most people have been shaped by their families’ and society’s values, and are left paying the price for these internalised views that rob them of their authenticity. Each time an institution, economic system, or a community’s dominant cultural values denies us access to safety, dignity, resources, or education, it encourages us to safeguard ourselves. Over time, this process becomes automatic, stored deep inside the body, and forgotten. Not only do these messages come from overt and systemic racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, and colonialism, they are often build into our very public education and healthcare systems, not to mention capitalistic frameworks.

When he is under pressure, Jean fights for success to the point of exhaustion; Sarah creates more space for less competent “alpha males” to fail their way upward; Emeline stifles her dreams of fostering a world with more social justice; instead of delegating Philippe assumes control; and Cathy loses her impact over perceived beauty standards.

Like my clients, shallow breathing and physical contractions are often the first signs that you are in survival mode. By incorporating this somatic wisdom into your professional role, you can reconnect with your colleagues to create a sense of interdependence, align your values to achieve a noble purpose, face your fears with dignity, and inspire others to follow your lead.

Jean has learned to slow down, set boundaries, and inspire his team from a resource-rich perspective. Sarah now faces her male colleagues and states her vison with confidence. Emeline shares her dream of a world with more justice and inclusion. Philippe embraces an agile way of working. And Cathy smiles through her tension each time she presents her plan to her organisation.

Exemplary leaders respond to antiquated systems from a level of consciousness that enables them to transcend their conditioning and act from a compassionate and interconnected state. It’s a profound act of freedom – both individually and collectively.

In these times of uprising and collective transformation, what are you doing to improve your leadership style and challenge your adopted beliefs?

(*) Names, job titles, and industries have been changed to preserve anonymity.

Manu Henrard is a Executive Somatic Coach and an Executive Recruiter based in Brussels. He is also an associate from the Strozzi Institute for embodied leadership. Manu's professional commitment is to help leaders increase meaningful productivity and achieve inner peace. More about his coaching program here.

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