Some time back, a dear friend had been messaging me quite a bit, asking for some help on how to deal with a number of difficult professional and personal situations. I started to notice resentment creeping in. The unbidden judgement popped into my head: “If you want coaching, hire me – stop using our friendship as a source for free coaching.”
If you’re wincing, you’re on to something. I wince too at acknowledging that judgement. Talk about harsh!
Fortunately, I now have the skills (and support) to notice resentment for what it is and get curious about it. After giving myself a lot of self-compassion, and doing some processing with my empathy buddy, I was able to formulate and lob a gentle question to her, free of judgement or accusation, expressing genuine concern for her situation and asking her what she thought she really needed from me. And then what followed was a beautiful back and forth, that helped to deepen our understanding and friendship. And the last tendrils of resentment on my side dissolved.
Another example from this week. I have been working with someone I know from way back to re-purpose some items of value I inherited from my mom. We first started on the project over a year ago – and months have gone by with no communication or follow-up from her. We finally got to the point last week of finalizing the designs and for a down-payment. For a few reasons, I didn’t respond right away. And then I got “barraged” with emails and messages. I felt pressurized and my resentment meter went from 0 to 100 in 1 second. “What the hell is she playing at?” my internal voice of self-righteousness erupted. “We go for months with silence and no movement on her part, and now that it’s time to pay up, if I don’t respond instantaneously I get a deluge of messages. This is totally B.S.” (Let’s be clear here: she sent me all of 3 or 4 follow-up messages within 2 days – so not exactly a “barrage.” See how quickly resentment blows things out of all proportion!)
Mustering my courage, I drafted an email back to say I was feeling uncomfortable and confused, and that I needed to step back a bit to get some perspective. Which in turn generated a genuine apology and some clarity around assumptions we were each making about timing and urgency.
So what has this to do with boundaries?
A few things.
For one, I’ve come to learn that, for me, there is a huge relationship between resentment and boundaries. Quite simply, that resentment is THE warning sign to me that some kind of boundary has been crossed.
Secondly, I’ve come to learn that if I don’t address it, either with myself or with the other person or both, the resentment will fester and stew and negatively impact the relationship.
And finally, that addressing it takes a whole heap of courage. And skill. Because if I just blurt it out, the boundary I am trying to set will almost always come out as a judgement and sound like I’m putting a wall up. And that leads to the other person getting defensive. And then things just spiral downward from there.
The boundaries I know about and can voice upfront – those are the easy ones to work with. It’s the boundaries I don’t know about, the one’s that creep up on me, visible only when resentment raises it head, that are the hard ones. I call these my “stealth boundaries.” And precisely because they really are just a form of unvoiced expectations, they are “resentments waiting to happen” in the words of Anne Lamott.
Knowing this has helped me a lot with how to work through my stealth boundaries when they do show up. Instead of judging myself or the other person for the fact that I am now feeling resentment, the situation rather just becomes an opportunity to clarify what is and isn’t ok with me – kindly and gently (that’s the hard part!). And then not to fear whatever their response might be – but just to be open to it, and take it for what it is – theirs, not mine. When I’ve done the work on my side to be clear, kind, compassionate and generous, then more often than not the response back helps to open things up and develop greater clarity and connection between us.
This approach comes from Brené’ Brown’s chapter “Sewer Rates and Scofflaws” in Rising Strong. Generosity in this case is “what is the most generous assumption you can make about this person’s intentions”. In practice, and as Brown details at some length in the chapter, it is working from the belief that “people are doing the best that they can.” That is a hard belief for many of us to adopt – but has been transformative for me. But that is a whole other post!
But being generous in assumption of intent without boundaries is equally as dangerous to our work performance, well-being and relationships. Because in this scenario we are (however unwittingly) giving people carte blanche to walk all over us. If we’re not secure enough in our own self-worth, or if our need to be liked or “people please” is greater than our desire to practice our integrity, then we don’t say “no” to behavior that is disrespectful or unprofessional. And while we bitterly resent how we are then treated – why on earth should we expect the other person to treat us with more respect than we are treating ourselves?
So yes, how we set boundaries matters. A lot. I’ve had many an experience in the past where trying to set a boundary has backfired on me miserably. The other person (often my husband, or my boss) would push back hard, calling me unreasonable, inflexible, difficult, or selfish. Boundaries without compassion or generosity feel like walls – and back then I didn’t have much of either compassion or generosity, I just had heaps of resentment and judgement.
Now every time a stealth boundary creeps on me I lean into what I’ve learned from Brené Brown: the most compassionate people have the clearest boundaries. And that gives me the courage to work it through with the other person. Whenever I'm about to do that I recite a little mantra in my head: “Boundaries without generosity feel like walls. Generosity without boundaries is being a doormat. Be clear. Be kind. I am worth this.”
“When we combine the courage to make clear what works for us, and what doesn’t, with the compassion to assume people are doing their best, our lives change,” says Brené Brown.
In this week’s toolkit, there is practice on getting clear on our boundaries – and how to turn them from “walls”, to something more like a “guidance system.” Have a look!
And one final thought. I do want to be clear that, with some people, setting boundaries is going to be like waving a red flag to a bull. For the more self-absorbed, self-aggrandizing, power-hungry people in our lives, narcissists if you will, any boundary, no matter how skillfully set, is going to be met with resistance, and quite possibly fury and rage. This NOT about you. This is about them. If you have expressed a boundary clearly and kindly, you have given the other person the benefit of the doubt, and made a clear distinction between their behaviour and them as a person, and they still react negatively – you have done the best you can. Whether this is happening in the workplace or in your personal life, you may need to make a hard decision as to whether continuing to work or be in relationship with this person is possible or good for you. You may hope and want them to change -– but that is not in your control. Your power is in choosing what you are going to do: file a complaint, look for reassignment or another job, minimize your contact with the colleague or family member, or exit the relationship. None of these choices will be easy. All of them take courage, because you are saying to yourself and to others “I am worthy of being treated with respect.” And if this is what you need to do – please get some support from someone you know and trust and respect, and who has only your best interests at heart. Because this is hard enough to do with support – but harder still to do alone.
Over the last few posts, and in the most recent resilience toolkit I've shared a practice to identify your core values. And then take the next step: work out how you actually operationalize them. Talking a good value game is easy and B.S. The more meaningful, and much harder, part is working through how you are actually going to walk your talk. That takes some good ol'fashioned look-at-oneself-in-the-mirror work. But the results, as I share below - are so worth it. I am definitely feeling much more grounded in, and committed to, my values now that I have gone through this exercise.
So, what about you? Have you tried the exercises to identify your core values and how you operationalize them yet? What came up for you? What did you notice about what you struggled with vs. what came more easily?
Behaviours and practices that support my compassion value are
I had a hard time separating out slippery slope behaviours and early warning signs, so I allowed myself to go with consolidating them into one question. From that, the following slippery slope behaviours or early warning signs emerged:
Looking back for recent examples of when I was truly living this value brought me some surprises.
One of them was during my month long stay at Malibu Vista in November 2017. Compassion meant that I stayed in my own lane, not joining in some of the gossiping and back-channeling that some of the other women were engaging in. “I have enough of my own stuff to deal with," I said when my silence was noted, “I don’t need to get into anyone else’s business”. And so it caught me by surprise when as residents left, they would hug me warmly and thank me for always being available to talk – but only about ourselves, not about others as a way of avoiding our own work. After everything I had been through, this brought tears to my eyes every time: I was not the mean bitch work had tried to make me out to be. I was capable of being the kind, generous and open-hearted person I felt myself to be.
Another is through my volunteering work the Women’s Opportunity Center - a local non-profit serving low-income, marginalized and displaced women. Those women amaze me with their courage, their strength, their determination. Society is incredibly quick to judge them as “less than” and “living off the system”. They are anything but. They are fiercely determined to make something of their lives – when the deck is heavily stacked against them. And whatever I give to them in terms of coaching, they give me so much more. They keep me grounded, and real, and hopeful. They remind me of the innate competence and capability of every person – no matter how much society may judge or shame or belittle them.
The feelings that come from living into this value - even when it’s hard – are powerful. I feel grounded, aligned and purposeful. I am less impulsive and more considered. I am less quick-off-the-mark with retorts to perceived slights or put downs, and can take my time to listen, and chose not to even respond – as most of the time a response isn’t necessary. I feel more open and connected to myself and to others.
In terms of support for this value: I’ve made a commitment to share this reflection with a few people in my life who can help me to practice my values – even when the going gets tough. On my list are my husband, a close friend, a fellow NVC practitioner, and two coaching friends. Yes, it feels vulnerable to do this: and yes I know this is exactly what I need to do. My ask to them will be that they encourage me and check-in with me on time to time – just holding space for me to reflect and process.
One more reflection before I wrap this. Writing this down, as an actual shareable reflection, has truly helped me to deepen my own insights and get more specific on the behaviours that support versus challenge my values. So, I encourage you to take the time to work this through properly. You’re welcome to use me as your “accountability buddy” if you like. Schedule a session with me to go through your own process. Or pick someone else who is important in your life and part of your support system, like I am doing. Stretch yourself into your challenge zone – but not so far that you’re in you’re in your freak out zone. It’s all about baby steps as you learn these skills and put them into practice.
When I’m running a resilience workshop I teach the concepts of “post-traumatic growth” and being “resilience-informed”, not just “trauma-informed”. The basic idea is that we are more than what has happened to us. We all found ways to cope – no matter what happened to us. We may have found better or worse ways to cope, but cope we did – because here we are.
For myself, feeling isolated in a privileged all-girls school, I learned to rely on academic performance to prove myself, to cope. And this carried over into my professional life. For others, our coping strategy may have been to shut down emotion, or to learn not to care, or to drive ourselves ever harder to “be perfect”. We developed those coping strategies because we learned and grew from our experiences. From bullying at school: don’t show weakness. From feeling isolated and excluded: don’t show them that you care. From harsh criticism on our performance: work harder, work longer. Our strategies emerged from our strengths: our willpower, our capacity for work, our creativity, our sensitivity.
And everything I have learned since that awful moment in 2017, about how we can use those same strengths to develop skills that are more adapted to the life we are in now – rather than the life we were in then – got beautifully amplified last night, when I attended a community screening and discussion of the movie Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope.
The cinema theater was full. There must have been at least 150 of us or so. We were from all walks of life: law enforcement, recovery, the school system, universities, mental health professionals, medical professionals, faith leaders and ordinary citizens and people. We were all there to embody the basic tenant of movie, and the research it is based on: “If you can get the science [about trauma and resilience] into the hands of the population, they will invent very wise solutions”.
And we are. We so are.
Here, in my community, we have started a community-wide campaign called “Be The One”. The idea is so simple. And so transformative. It is that we can all “be the one” person who shows up in someone’s life to be of support and strength. In small tiny moments, or in big moments. We don’t need to be mental health professionals, we don’t need to be therapists or coaches or teachers or educators or priests. We just need to be ourselves. We just need to care and be kind. And includes ourselves, for sometimes the one person we need to show up for, care about and be kind to is us.
A few weeks ago on a Friday I gave a talk on resilience and my own experiences. I didn’t feel that I did good job, and the shame gremlins came calling and camped out over the weekend. For the first time in a very long time they had me up at 4am in the morning. By Monday morning I had what I call my “vulnerability hangover”.
At this point I relied 100% on my training and the research: self-compassion is the way, not self-criticism. And compassion is an infinite and renewable resource. We do not need to ration our care and empathy and compassion – to ourselves, or to others. No matter what we have or have not done. The more empathy and compassion and care we give to ourselves and to others, the more we have to give. And the more courage we have to pick-ourselves up and keep on going.
So as I came into that Monday with client calls, I just kept on telling myself “Compassion, Sue, compassion. Be kind to yourself. Be very, very kind to yourself”. I reached out to my “ones” – some dear friends and fellow coaches. And I got through that Monday. I was there for my clients - compassionately, kindly. And the shame gremlins and vulnerability hangover started to fade.
One of the audience questions last night was: “What can we, who are not medical or helping professionals do?” The answer came back very simply: care about others, believe in their competence, know they are capable of change and growth. One of the panelists called it the three Cs: caring, competence, capability. Believe in the resilience of people. Don’t think of them as broken and needing fixing. Believe in their innate competence. Believe that they are capable of learning and growing from any experience. And do so in a kind and caring manner. In short, be “resilience-informed” and be kind.
And those three Cs are in SUCH short supply in the workplace these days. I lived it in in 2017. I hear it everyday from my clients, as they try to navigate harsh criticism, uncaring bosses, difficult colleagues and their own gremlins. They are beating themselves up so much over workplaces that are beating them up. They think they are to blame, that they are at fault. No, no, no! They are just trying to do the best they can, using the coping strategies that they learned decades ago as they navigated childhood and early adulthood. They are survivors and fighters – not failures, not weak. And when they realize that, and tap into that, I just stand back in awe and wonder and watch them take flight. It is one of the most rewarding things in the world.
And so here’s my question to you: Will you Be The One? Will you be the one to be kind to yourself? Will you be the one to care about a colleague and reach out to them? Will you be the one to take a moment to truly see someone, and see them for the perfectly imperfect human being they are, not just a colleague who frustrates you, a boss who you fear, or a direct report you despair of?
It doesn’t take any special kind of training. It doesn’t take any super-hero skills. It’s just takes you saying “Yes, I will be the one”. And then letting the magic of compassion happen.
Sue Mann - Coach
Reflections on how we reclaim and sustain our worthiness in the face of falls and challenges.