8 May 2020
My brother died last Tuesday. Tomorrow would have been his 33rd birthday. It was very sudden and unexpected.
It wasn’t COVID-19.
But COVID-19 helped to turn his death into something beautiful.
My brother was handicapped with an intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorder and epilepsy. He had also just started to walk again, after shattering both legs in a terrible fall in the mountains, a difficult air rescue out, seven surgeries and three months in hospital.
He wasn’t born disabled. All it took was one tick bite. And our family's lives changed forever.
But his life was not small, or hidden. Ralph touched so many people - in ways both big and small.
This is his story. And the meaning of a life like my brother’s for us all.
I was almost 16 when my brother was born. My older brother almost 18. Ralph was a very - very! - unexpected addition to the family.
What’s it like to be in high school, where your mother is your English teacher...and she’s pregnant...and then you have a baby brother?
In a word: awesome.
Precisely at a time when I wanted my parent’s attention anywhere but on me, my brother’s arrival ensured exactly that.
Frankly, we adored him. He had four parents, not two, really. It was certainly one hellava way to experience up close and personal just how much work babies are. I needed no schooling about the value of contraception after that.
Our lives changed irrevocably when Ralph contracted tick bite fever when he was just 20 months old. His temperature rose so high that he was overtaken by a temperature convulsion...and then remained unconscious. Rushed into hospital, my older brother and I waited anxiously at home. When Dad called, terrible hours later, he was in tears. The doctors had done everything they could, he explained. Our parish priest was at the hospital with Ralph, praying over him. Would we please call the church and activate the prayer chain?
Miraculously, Ralph survived, prayed to life by his mother. He regained consciousness after five days. But he had suffered a cerebral edema, and the doctors warned that he would almost certainly have brain damage. Only time would tell how bad it would be.
When Ralph came home, he was like a newborn. He couldn’t even lift his head. We celebrated each new development milestone reached (again). We had so much hope when he first reached for Dad’s pen in his pocket as Dad scooped him up into his arms after coming home from work - that had been Ralph’s characteristic gesture.
And then the seizures started. First petit mal. Then grand mal. And it also became clear Ralph had indeed suffered brain damage.
Our hearts broke again.
But we soldiered on.
Through the tantrums, the despair, the laughs. Ralph was an utter rapscallion. He would get into everything. We became a lock-everything-up-and-hide-the-key family. He refused to sleep in his bed. He waited until Mom and Dad came to bed, then crept into their room, and lay down on the floor in their room to sleep.
Exhaustion and being at our wits end became the new normal. “I don’t know how you cope,” asked one family friend in disbelief as Ralph trashed everything again one afternoon. “What choice do we have?” we asked back. “We cope because there is no alternative”
It’s a question all too many families of children with special needs face. And it’s the wrong question. Every family - truly, every family - copes the best way they know how. From the outside looking in “How do you cope” is a natural question. From the inside looking out, coping is just what you do. There is no “how” to coping. There’s just “you cope.”
My older brother and I grew up, went to university, got jobs, travelled overseas, met our future partners, had our own children.
Ralph went to a special needs school. Then, at 18, to a large adult care center providing mostly for Down Syndrome adults. They had just established a new addition where they were taking in other forms of intellectual disability and it was possible to buy a “life right” to fund the expansion and secure a coveted spot.
Mom and Dad moved quickly to secure Ralph a place. They were viscerally aware that because of their age, they had to get Ralph settled in a long-term care home as soon as possible. With my older brother and I with our own lives and families, they were determined not to place the burden of Ralph’s future care on us. And to do everything they could to secure Ralph’s future. They had heard too many stories of families who kept disabled members at home, until the parents died, and then it was too late: there was no one to take in the now much older disabled adult, due both to their age and their inability to adapt to life in a group home.
Mom and Dad were determined to avoid that mistake.
Life, it seemed, had a different plan.
By 2020, Dad - now 75 - (Mom having passed away in 2017), was down to the one last option in the country that could take Ralph with his mix of both intellectual disability and challenging behaviour: Open Circle, in Cape Town. He had tried every other home in the country that would accept him.
COVID-19 and South Africa was in one of the strictest lock-downs in the world, with all inter-provincial travel banned. Except for funerals.
So Dad had to go all the way to the High Court to get a permit to travel to get Ralph there, after the local police, local magistrate and COGTA (Cooperative Governance Traditional Affairs - the coordinating governmental authority for South Africa’s COVD-19 response) all refused to grant a permit.
The court documents make for searing reading. From 1989 to 2020, Ralph had been admitted 33 times to 28 different places. He had been expelled from every single residential group home my parents had tried - including the very group home my parents had founded and funded along with some other families.
The “short” list of Ralph’s key risky behaviours included (but there were many many more incidents)
Throughout the years Ralph had been on a wide variety of anti-epileptics and drug trials. Nothing had ever brought his seizures fully under control. Complicating matters severely was the well known fact that many anti-epileptic drugs have an adverse impact on behavior and vice versa.
Periods of intense anxiety would also cause seizure spikes, a phenomenon called Psychogenic Nonepileptic Seizures (PNES), that is only recently becoming more studied - and is still barely understood.
And, after a decade of trying to understand the triggers of Ralph’s violent outbursts, his team finally concluded that his sudden, unexplained outbursts of rage were a form of seizure and totally outside his control, or the control of the carers looking after him.
But whatever the cause, these explosive outbursts were real, frightening, dangerous, getting more frequent and severely complicating his care. Living at home with Dad was simply not a viable option - for Ralph or Dad.
Total seizures in Ralph’s lifetime ran into many thousands. And with each seizure his neurological function would decline that tiny little bit more, and his challenging behaviours increase that tiny little bit more, such that by the end of 2019, there was only one facility left in the country that had the potential capacity to deal with Ralph short of complete psychiatric institutionalization (and even that was questionable) or homelessness (more probable).
The High Court case made the news in South Africa, with the headline “Lockdown favours the dead over the living.” We heard from Dad’s lawyer that it likely helped many other families. “It appears that the judgement has made a lot of people descend on the Government for help armed with the newspaper article. Looks like you have helped many and caused the Government to look at amending their regulations.”
For Dad, however, it was a pyrrhic victory. The High Court had given him 5 days to complete the move. Exhausted - mentally and emotionally - from the isolation, the caregiving, separated from family, the vigilance to keep himself and Ralph safe, and the incredible emotional, mental and financial burden of pulling together an urgent High Court case, he somehow managed the 1,500km trip from Howick to Cape Town. Calling my older brother and I along the way to talk to him and keep him awake and going.
He went through 10 roadblocks on the way, but not one - not a single one - looked at the court papers permitting him to travel. Indeed, the police actually told Dad en-route he should just have faked a death-certificate and said he was going to a funeral. The utter disconnect between what he had been told was the only way to travel (a ruling from the High Court case) and the reality on the ground, beggars belief. We still don’t understand it.
But Dad and Ralph had arrived safely in Cape Town, awaiting his move to Open Circle, so we were hopeful - for the first time since 2017.
But Ralph was not.
Ralph was in torment.
His memories of Cape Town were of his four recent psychiatric hospital admissions in the state hospital, a three month stay in the state’s psychiatric residential institution and the group homes and sheltered workshops from which he had been expelled.
His anxiety was at a fever pitch. While all of us knew that Open Circle was his last, best bet, Ralph could not understand this.
And so his anxiety spiked...and spiked...and spiked again. Like his temperature had risen all those years ago. Until he did not survive that one last epileptic seizure.
Reading all of this and you would be forgiven for thinking that Ralph’s life was misery and living with him misery. For sure, the last 6 months had been particularly hellish for my father, but that would be an incomplete picture. And not do justice to the life my parents carefully nurtured for Ralph, or the life Ralph actually enjoyed.
If there was one thing that emerged so powerfully and beautifully from the virtual memorial service we had for Ralph, was just how much Ralph had been fully integrated into our family’s life - both immediate family and our larger friendship circles.
We loved camping, hiking and climbing - so Ralph came along too, and loved it. After Dad injured himself and needed to turn to kayaking instead, Ralph came along too. Weddings, funerals, family gatherings, family holidays - Ralph was always there, a member of the family the same as everyone else. As Dad moved into retirement and got out even more, Ralph joined him even more, and was warmly embraced by the various hiking, climbing and kayaking groups Dad was part of.
Many of these friends joined Ralph’s memorial service. And shared beautiful and warm memories, and shed tears, and read poems, and offered tributes to Ralph and Dad.
This was one of them:
The thought and prayer that Ralph had gone ahead of us, again, to show us the way...brought most of the 200+ in the service to tears.
When we put together the slideshows of Ralph showing his love of the mountains, his connection with family and friends, what we were reminded of so poignantly - and which the challenges of recent years and months had obscured - was just what a happy, sunny, cheery, delightful, full of mischief boy and young man he was. His life was not that of one being trapped in a deteriorating mind. It was a life of great joy and connection.
Ralph: Son, brother, uncle
Music: Special Star, by Mango Groove
It was Ralph who brought my brother and sister-in-law together. She was one of his early student carers, providing relief and respite to my parents. Ralph was also beloved by his nieces, who have many happy memories of hikes, building puzzles and playing snakes and ladders with him.
After Mom’s death, Ralph gained two “other Moms”. Dad’s housekeeper, turned carer, was beloved by Ralph. He turned to her repeatedly for solace. She in turn loved him like he was a son. It was truly special to watch. When Dad met his amazing new partner, Ralph’s gentle, open spirit engaged her too.
Ralph’s amazing ability to connect with others was one of the other abiding themes of his service.
Many of Ralph’s early teachers had insisted that Ralph would never learn to read or write.
It was his speech therapist in the early 2000s who refused to accept this limitation placed on Ralph, and worked with him to learn how to do both. During the service she shared how formative this experience had been for her too, as it had come at the beginning of her career. Going against the consensus that it was a fool's errand to try to teach Ralph to read and write, she trusted her sense that Ralph was desperate to learn how to communicate. And he did. She shared how much of a lesson this taught her: never to limit her expectations of what disabled people are capable of achieving.
After Mom’s death, Dad gave Ralph Mom’s phone, so Dad could contact Ralph regularly at his group home. Ralph had other ideas and soon discovered WhatsApp. And then...well, Ralph’s communication just exploded. It was like he had finally been given the key he needed to open the door he had been standing in front of for years.
WhatsApp became his primary form of communication, especially of his feelings and emotions - something he struggled incredibly to convey in actual conversation.
In 2019, Ralph sent Dad over 4,500 WhatsApp messages - and that was just to Dad. There were many more thousands sent to the rest of us. Dad periodically tried to limit his sometimes inappropriate calls and messages by “cleaning up” his address book. But Ralph just re-entered numbers from memory.
His messages gave us an insight into his inner reality, and are a precious treasure to us.
He also became a highly competent internet surfer - finding anything at all that he wanted and sharing it to us via WhatsApp. The family joke during the service was that we better expect him to find the recording of his own service on the cloud.
But the most profound, and important, aspect of Ralph’s life, is what he taught all of us about disability.
First, all too often still, children and adults with intellectual disabilities are “hidden away” - from families, from society. Their odd behaviours and awkward communication too uncomfortable and strange for the neurotypical to bear. So we’d rather just not know, not deal.
But Mom and Dad had made an early decision never to do that, always to treat Ralph as the member of the family he was, and to include him like we would any other member of the family. For sure, it was uncomfortable at times. There was more than one occasion when the family was invited to something, but Ralph was asked not to attend. My parents always declined those invitations.
Then there was the matter of Ralph’s service. With us all separated under lock down, and Dad overwhelmed by too many separate messages, we set up a temporary WhatsApp group, directing everyone there as the best place to share a condolence message, a memory, a story and get details of the service. Membership of that group exploded, It included Ralph’s carers, Mom and Dad’s university friends, extended family, friends of both my older brother and I going all the way back to our high school days... There were people from literally every time in all of our lives - and Ralph’s life...and some that we had not seen in decades. We were stunned.
We had thought the service would be small - maybe 20 or 30 people. But as the Zoom log-ins reached 40, then 70, then quickly approached 100, each with on average 2-3 people behind the camera, I had to upgrade my Zoom account on the fly just to make sure we could accommodate everyone.
In the end we reckon we had some 200 or more on the call. It was the largest Zoom meeting I had ever hosted.
And it was almost certainly larger than would have been possible or likely under “ordinary circumstances”. That Zoom call spanned 14 time zones, from us in the Eastern US, all the way to Australia.
Many were there to support Dad, my older brother and I.
But all were there because Ralph had touched them in ways big and small.
A cousin who barely knew Ralph shared “I didn’t spend much time with Ralph, but in the past when I have been down and out, I have sometimes thought about him and how despite all the immense difficulties he endured, he still had fun and took enjoyment in things. Makes me stop and try to do the same.”
Someone who had only met Ralph in the last twelve months said “In the short time that I knew Ralph I was always struck by how he was such a quick thinker, He had the ability to be very specific and precise with the details about his traveling experiences.”
From another of Dad’s “mountain cronies”: “It was at the Johnson Hut that Ralph and I sat on a rock overlooking the Helderberg Mountains. It was late afternoon with gentle light on the distant scene. His rocking stopped as I placed my hand on his knee. I asked him about his favourite place. The Drakensberg, of course. His rapid, hesitant speech quietened as his mind took over the memories dear to him. He hardly needed the prompting of the few questions I threw in. That time spent with Ralph on the rock was brief, but one that stays in my memory as a beautiful connection with him.”
Ralph: Hiker, climber, paddler, explorer. Friend and companion.
Music: Great Heart - by Johnny Clegg and Savuka
What was planned as a 60 to 90 minute service, became a nearly two and half hour tribute.
But there was also another focus to all the tributes to Ralph. And these were tributes to our family - and in particular to Mom and Dad - for all we had done to show how a life like Ralph’s can be integrated into normal life. Dad, of course, shies away from this, pointing out that Ralph was, in so many ways, an “everyman” who could speak for many of the handicapped because he had the ability to communicate - more than so many.
And that is true.
But what is also true is that Mom and Dad worked tirelessly for the needs of the handicapped. Dad was a founding and active member of the Southern Intellectual Disability Initiative in Cape Town, helping to raise R12 million to establish three new group homes, and a fourth state home, the Open Circle. More importantly than raising funds, SIDI brought together a true partnership of government, families, donors, non-profits, health-care providers, homes and others - a new, and needed model in South Africa. For the first time, everyone was actually talking to each other, in one room.
In the words of Feroza Cassim, the SIDI Group Home Coordinator, at the end of Ralph’s service, “This is the legacy Ralph leaves behind. This was his purpose. He was a means of awakening and steering the strength of his parents in driving this initiative, which will continue to help those in need for years to come. Parents achieve what we as professionals often struggle to achieve.”
It can be excruciatingly hard to be the parent or sibling of an intellectually disabled family member. There can be moments of despair, doubt, grief, heartache and exhaustion. But there is so much more to their lives than that as I hope you can see. They call forth from us a responsibility, a care, a compassion, a joy, a purpose. This is what humanity - everywhere - asks of us.
So we celebrate Ralph. An integral member of our family. And a vital part of our society.
Here in upstate New York, we’re coming to the end of our fourth week in lockdown.
What I’ve learned so far is
But more than anything else, I’ve come back again and again and again to gratitude. And to compassion.
These practices are the bedrock of my resilience.
Gratitude for my family, my community. For where we live. For enough food. For shelter. For being safe at home. For effective leadership. For spring coming. For digging my hands in the dirt. For creek walks. For the beauty, decency, kindness and humanity that is bubbling up everywhere.
And with gratitude also comes awareness of my privilege. I’ve written about it before. But the stark and grim news of how this virus is most impacting people of color, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the poor, the less able, minorities, the abused is both shocking and sobering. We need not to be silent about this. Not to look away. It’s hard to talk about this. We need to.
Gratitude doesn’t mean I don’t have hard feelings about all of this. Tears, anger, acting out, fear, doubt, worry - these are all very present for me. My long-suffering husband and back-at-ya’ kid will tell you so. But I also know that comparing my suffering to that of others and coming up short (i.e. who am I to be feeling anxious or complaining, other people have it so much worse) is not a path to greater compassion and empathy. It's called comparative suffering, and it doesn’t work to increase our capacity for compassion or empathy (see here and here).
And what of compassion?
That too is a practice. Like gratitude, it leads to compassionate feelings. But first and foremost it starts as a practice.
And I’ve needed it so much these last few weeks. As the tiredness and weariness of struggling with new ways of parenting and working - simultaneously, obsessively reading the news until midnight, or numbing out on Netflix until 1am (by some bizarre choice we landed on Hunger Games as our first lockdown binge watch...hmm, not our best choice) and my heart breaking at the loneliness of our son, and the use of screens as the only way to connect with his friends, it’s been hard to always be kind to myself and my family. We’ve snapped at each other. We’ve done the tug-of-wills. We’ve done the “let’s have a serious family chat.”
Again, and again...and again, I’ve had to give myself permission to hit the pause button. To slow it down. To deliberately and intentionally first give myself compassion for what it is I’m feeling, or however I have behaved, and then from there, reground myself in what’s really important, own my part, and reach out to connect.
I don’t have the answers here. I don’t know what normal will look like on the other side of this. I fear, deeply, what we may lose - lives, livelihoods, and perhaps much else. But I also have hope - deep hope - that something beautiful and amazing may also come of this.
It is the practices and skills of resilience, gratitude and compassion that I keep coming back to. And they sustain me. Even as I am head bowed, tears pouring down my face, or wanting to punch someone in the face so enraged am I at callous leadership and pig-headed selfishness.
So as I take a deep breath in, I practice those skills. I feel my body held and supported by the couch I am writing on. I sense the rhythmic rise and fall of my chest, the warmth in my hands, the pleasant tingling in my feet. I close my eyes and listen to the bird calls. I look outside and appreciate the soft beauty of snow showers swirling in the wind. I take in the luminous lime green of my raincoat that jumps up and down excitedly announcing “it’s spring, it’s spring, it’s spring.”
I let it start in my body. And radiate and grow from there.
Sending you all light and love and life. Wherever you may be.
May you find peace.
May you find solace.
May you find love and community.
May you find hope.
(PS: I’m making the resilience toolkit I’ve been slowly developing available to everyone on my email list. To access, click <Log In> on the website then <Reset Password> and enter your email address. Let me know if you have any problems.)
There it sits before me. An innocent thermos mug.
Which I hate.
And which I can’t throw out.
I hate it, because every time I use it, I land up burning myself when I sip my tea from it. Because it keeps things so damn hot. And then I don’t enjoy drinking my tea.
And the whole damn point of my tea ritual (my English ancestors and mother would be so proud of me) is that I get to really savor and enjoy drinking lovely hot tea throughout the morning without endless runs to the kettle.
(And wow, I really am throwing those damns around here aren’t I? Can you tell I get just a leeetle wound up over my tea?? )
OK, back to the thermos mug in hand.
And that’s also why I can’t throw it out. Because it really is the best thermos mug that we have - rating it on the scale of how long it will keep things hot. And, you know - landfill. Argh. Or I could just give it away to the Salvation Army or something. But….it’s a really good thermos mug.
So I hate it. And it sits there. And I stare at it malevolently - not using it nearly enough as I should.
There’s always more, isn’t there?
This thermos mug - the best one we have - also happens to be the sole physical object I still have from that awful toxic workplace that so completely crushed me that I fell apart completely and didn’t move off the couch for two months.
So every time I look at it, it’s a little reminder of that.
So I hate it. Of course.
But I still can’t get rid of it.
I mean it’s just an effing thermos mug. It’s not like it’s done anything to me.
Except burn me every time I use it for my tea.
So yesterday I decided, enough already. This is ridiculous. Either get rid of the damn thing or keep it and use it gladly.
I pulled it off the shelf and we had a little talk.
OK, I did the talking. It just sat there. Yup - it’s as crazy as it sounds.
“OK thermos,” I said. “Let’s figure this out. You just want to be you. You just want to do your job and keep things hot. And I keep putting too much boiling water in you, and not leaving enough space for milk, and then when I sip, you burn my tongue. Which is so not cool. So here’s what we’re going to do: we are GOING TO FIGURE THIS DAMN THING OUT OR YOU”RE OUT! I’m only going to fill you up to here with boiling water this time. Then add the milk, and lets see if that’s the right temperature.”
Thermos just sat there - duh - but grateful that I was at last getting this through my thick head.
I poured in less water than I usually do. Added my milk. And sipped.
Better. But still a little too hot.
Poor a little off. Add a little more milk.
Aaaaaah, just right.
I screwed-on the lid, and had 3 hours of hot tea. It was divine.
And yes, now I am going to get all profound on you. Bear with me.
Because that thermos mug, just like that toxic work environment, was just being who it was. I was the one who kept on burning myself - expecting, wanting, hoping it would change. The thermos mug wasn’t trying to burn me. It was just doing it’s thing. That awful boss, that passive-aggressive teflon-coated brick, that two-faced little witch, that lily-livered doormat of a manager - they were all just human beings, coping the best way they knew how. Doing the best they could with what they had. They were just doing their thing.
I was the one who kept wanting them to be something they weren’t - and couldn’t be. And so they burned me. Burned me to such a crisp that all that remained was the jewel inside of me. The jewel that had been there all along, but had needed the heat of their toxicity to burn away all the crud I had accumulated around myself in a life-time of proving, perfecting, pleasing, striving, justifying, defending, avoiding, ignoring.
So who in your life, or at work, is that thermos mug. The one that keeps on burning you. That you keep on getting so frustrated with, so hurt by, but which you just can’t seem to put down or walk away from.
What would happen if you just accepted him or her for exactly who they are. Stopped trying to change them. Stopped trying to please. Stopped seeking approval from. Stopped twisting yourself in knots to try and satisfy. Because you can never satisfy what they want from you. They want a personality transplant from you. And that’s not just impossible - you’ll die (figuratively or literally) in the attempt if you do try.
It doesn’t mean either of you is wrong. Or that either of you is right. It just means that you either need to truly accept them for they are, and truly be OK with that. Or you need to leave them be. To stopping putting yourself into the heat of their toxicity and get yourself to a better, safer place.
So yes, I’m keeping the thermos mug. Because while it still reminds me of that pain - it also reminds me of all the ways I’ve learned and grown since then. It doesn’t have to burn me anymore.
And those people? They are, of course, long gone from my life. And I’m all the better for it.
People can burn hot - with their fear, their anger, their hurt, their rage, their meanness, their negativity, their criticism, their unreasonableness. But they can only truly burn you if sip of their toxicity. If you take it inside you.
So stop drinking from them.
Struggling to know how? Drop me a line and let’s talk.
In the meantime: here’s to the perfect cup of hot tea (or coffee, or whatever!)
It was a typical scene. A whole ballroom full of people. Leaders from industry there as mentors and coaches to tout their wisdom and inspire the business school students. Graduate students hanging on their every word, eager to emulate their success.
And as the industry people went around the room, introducing themselves and telling their stories of what they did, how they got there, and their lesson’s learned, I noticed the characteristic warning signals that I was being tempted to step out of my integrity. To follow their example and gold-plate it all.
I felt my heart plummet to my stomach. My skin start crawling. A tightening and constriction across my chest.
All my warning signs that the gremlins of comparison and perfectionism (aka shame) were rearing their heads. And of my ego getting ready to swing into action. To puff up and defend itself. Or - if the gremlins won out - to stay silent and small, not to be noticed.
And in that moment I had a choice.
Brené Brown’s mantra came to me.
“Don’t puff. Don’t shrink. Just stand your sacred ground.”
I kept on repeating it over and over to myself as the introductions continued.
“Don’t puff. Don’t shrink. Just stand your sacred ground.”
“Don’t puff. Don’t shrink. Just stand your sacred ground.”
Finally, it was my turn. I was the last to speak. With my heart in my mouth, I stood up. Not quite sure what words were going to come out of my mouth, I leaned into everything I have learned.
“I'm perhaps a textbook example of what not to do with your career. I followed my head instead of my heart.”
And then I told them that I was a workplace bullying and toxic environment coach. I told them that - at this weekend where they were learning how to be better leaders - the chances were that half of them, at some stage in their career, were going to find themselves working with or for someone who put them down. Who diminished and demeaned them. That they were going to find themselves in difficult and toxic environments.
And that the probability also existed, under the right stresses and conditions, that they could be those leaders themselves.
Was it effective?
I honestly don't know.
What was the truth was that I stood my sacred ground on what I knew to be important to me. In that moment, as everyone was going around the room, it would have been so easy for me to have played the game of “This is what I've done with my career and isn't that great. And this is what I've learned and isn't that wonderful?”
Far harder, and far more authentic, was to speak the truth in my heart.
Did I reach anyone and touch their heart?
Maybe I did. Maybe I didn't.
But I’ve learned that success is not measured in outcomes. It is measured in “How true was I to myself.”
So when you find yourself in that moment, comparing yourself to others, and having that sinking feeling that you’re coming up short, I invite you to remember this.
Don’t puff. Don’t shrink. Stand your sacred ground.
And if you'd like to learn how to do that, I invite you to subscribe to the “Resilience Toolkit” and get started on developing the tools you need to be able to do just that.
We hear it all the time: feedback is a gift. We’re supposed to be so grateful for it.
But let’s be honest, most of the time feedback just sucks. Negative feedback hurts – a lot. And when we get that rare bit of positive feedback – it’s typically so vague and general that it actually doesn’t mean anything to us. “Great job” someone says to us. Okay – what made it great? What specifically did I do?
And the truly awful feedback – the stuff that feels like a gut punch to the stomach? The hallmark of that kind of feedback is that it targets who we are: our intentions, our personalities, our values. If specific observable behaviour is mentioned at all, it’s rolled up with so much judgement that you can’t parse the behaviour from the criticism of who you are.
If it takes skill and practice to deliver feedback well, it arguably takes even more skill, practice and courage to receive feedback that is unskillfully delivered. Harsh, critical feedback delivered poorly can be completely demoralizing and overwhelming. It can feel like threat (because it is, even if it’s not intended that way) and trigger our innate survival responses of fight, flight, freeze or appease. We are not in learning mode when we are in survival mode.
At the same time, if we wait for others to offer us usable, digestible, manageable feedback, we will not likely receive sufficient feedback for our growth and learning. We have to be able to take feedback – regardless of how well it’s delivered – and apply it productively. For one simple reason: mastery – in anything - requires feedback.
So what to do?
The alternative is to stretch our inner muscles, seek feedback, and grow in our capacity to find the pearl in the muck.
This week's tool is more of a guide: “The Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback”.
(If you're signed up for the Toolkit, you'll get this automatically. To download the guide, go here.)
If you wonder why you have such a hard-time receiving feedback, this explains why.
If you want to get better at giving feedback, this walks you through exactly how to do that.
If you want to get better at being able to deal with feedback, no matter how well or poorly it is delivered, how positive or negative it is, this tells you what to do to get to that place.
Over the last few week the skill of acceptance has kept popping its head up for both my clients and me.
Why on earth would acceptance be a skill of empowerment, confidence and resilience?
To answer that, first we need to deal with what acceptance is and isn’t.
By acceptance, I mean the ability to look at any situation or person and just accept it or them for what it is or who they are. Without judgement. Without labeling it or them as good or bad.
Acceptance does not mean acquiescence or apathy. It does not mean resignation, defeat or giving up. Acceptance is not indifference. On the contrary, there is quality of courage to acceptance. And true acceptance provides tremendous power and energy to take action and move forwards positively and purposefully.
What people say and do is about them; how we interpret their words and actions is about us.
A few weeks back one of my clients was talking about how hard she was fighting to change something. The image she brought up was of being on a raft, stuck in a whirlpool, going round and round, and she was paddling desperately trying to get out.
I happen to be an occasional river kayaker so I know just how scary whirlpools can be. And there is a trick to getting out of them. It’s counter intuitive and takes practice and courage. But it works. Every time.
You’ve basically got two options. Both involve surrendering to the whirlpool and letting it do the work for you. One option is to take a big breath, surrender, let yourself be sucked down to the bottom and then let the river naturally spit you out. Which it always does. In a second. Or two. Or ten. Ten seconds may feel like an eternity, I know, but the whirlpool does dissipate naturally in the current of the river. Alternatively, you just let the energy of the whirlpool take you around. As it brings you to the side of the whirlpool that is moving downstream, you take few strokes and let it slingshot you out, using the energy of the whirlpool for a fun boost. Experienced kayakers will intentionally seek out and play with and in whirlpools – harnessing the current’s energy to give them an exhilarating ride. I’m not in that category, though!
From this comes the other corollary about acceptance: it takes vast amounts of energy to fight acceptance, to struggle against what is. Fighting the whirlpool– that’s a recipe for exhaustion – and drowning. When you fight what is, you are using all of your energy against something or someone. Maybe even against yourself. Acceptance, rather, is about using that energy FOR something. As you relax and surrender to what is, you free up all that energy to take positive action TOWARDS something,
Activism comes from a deep acceptance of what is. The Archbishop did not accept the inevitability of apartheid [in South Africa], but he did accept it’s reality…We cannot succeed by denying what exists. The acceptance of reality is the only place from which change can begin…[Acceptance] allows us to engage with life on it’s own terms, rather than rail against the fact that life is not as we would wish…When we react, we stay locked in judgement and criticism, anxiety and despair, even denial and addiction. Acceptance is the sword that cuts through all of this resistance, allowing us to relax, to see clearly, and respond appropriately…Acceptance is not passive. It is powerful….[And] when we accept what is happening now, we can be curious about what might happen next.”
When we judge situations, others or our ourselves as good or bad, right or wrong, easy or hard, we move away from accepting what is. Being completely non-judgmental is a monumental task and, I would argue, neither helpful nor maybe even possible. However, just working in the direction towards greater acceptance, raises your energy and improves your ability to take positive action.
I’ve been talking a whole lot of people recently about their experiences with toxic environments and workplace bullying. Most them (me included), started off full of judgements and struggling hard against the situation. This is not the way work should be, this is not what I wanted or expected, this is not how people should behave to each other.
In not truly, fully accepting the reality of the situation, most of them stayed far longer in a really dysfunctional environment than they should have. In many cases years. They kept on trying to change others, or themselves, to make it “better”, the way it “should be”. The quicker they came to full acceptance that this was just how this particular organization, team or individual tended to operate, the quicker they started to make more powerful choices for themselves. Their energy shifted from struggle and fight (draining), to “Ok, given this, what do I need to do for me?”
Many chose to leave.
A brave few chose to stay, but in so doing, made a very conscious choice to shift from judging, criticizing and fighting , or feeling like a victim, to doing the inner work so that they could fully accept themselves, and in so doing develop the skills, courage and confidence to truly stand-up for themselves in a very different way.
Now instead of coming across as being defensive, aggressive, or the passive victim; instead of shaming, blaming and judging and in so doing perpetuating the cycle of negativity and toxicity, they came across as calm, powerful, and positive. They named the truth of what was really going on – but didn’t make it about them or others. The organization or individual could either hear what they were saying, or not – either way, they knew what they stood for and what they were worth. This released the hold of the organization, or the toxic boss or co-worker over them.
At a superficial level acceptance looks like rationalizing and tolerating. Neither of those are acceptance. Rather, they’re justifications. True acceptance takes more work and more courage. It’s not about complaining or feeling hard-done by. It’s not about giving in or coping. It’s about reaching true peace and calm, and taking action from that place.
There is a very different energy when you are throwing in the towel or giving up, than when you can simply be with what is, without judgement, and so create a powerful sense of peace and calm. True acceptance propels you towards positive, purposeful action that that is in line with your integrity and values. As such, you paradoxically become much more likely to achieve the results you desire. It is in the very act of letting go of what “should” be, and fully accepting what “is”, that you can find the power, energy and confidence to effect the change that seems to have eluded you for so long.
Developing acceptance is a deep work. It is also transformative work. One is never “done” with this. It is always a moving towards.
In the Acceptance practice in the Resilience Toolkit there are some questions and practices to get you thinking and get you started.
I’d love to hear how you go with this. How can I help you move from feeling disempowered and defeated, to empowered acceptance?
It’s a concept so simple it was taught to my son many years ago in Kindergarten: you cannot fill up your bucket by emptying someone else’s.
And yet that is what seems to happen all the time. Every day. Especially in workplaces. It’s part of what makes so many of them so toxic.
Here’s Elementary “Bucket Fillosophy”.
All day long, everyone in the whole wide world walk around carrying an invisible bucket.
All around us, people are running on empty. Not enough sleep, never enough time, rushing from deadline to deadline, attempting to meet the endless, impossible and competing demands of bosses, co-workers, and management.
All around us, our coworkers and bosses are desperately attempting to feel good – to fill their buckets – by dipping into others. Criticism, put downs, undermining, gossiping: our workplaces are rife with it. All dressed up as “feedback”. But it never is. Because the simple reality is: if we feel good about ourselves at work, we have no need to puff ourselves up by putting other people down.
This is not to justify or excuse poor behaviour. On the contrary. Because when your bucket is full, you can compassionately hold someone accountable for their behaviour without having to shame or blame them. You can set clear boundaries - without have to shut people out, or shut them down. You can give feedback in a manner that helps others see, and maybe even plug, the slow leaks – or gaping holes – in their buckets, so that they can stop dipping into others.
What this also means is that whatever other people are saying or doing is not about you - or at least not in the way they are trying to make it out to be. Their unhappiness, meanness, bullying, backstabbing, sniping etc. may be directed at you - but you are at the effect of their empty bucket, not it's cause. Yes, their behaviour is bucket-dipping, and to the extent that you are engaging in the same strategies, then so is yours. But our buckets are never empty solely because of the behaviour of others. When we know how to truth check the messages other direct our way, when we know how to replenish our own buckets without expecting others to do so for us, then we have true resilience and our buckets stay full, regardless of how much others are dipping into them.
It’s so simple and so hard: happy people aren’t mean. As you look around you at your coworkers what do you see? Do you see a bunch of people with full buckets? If so - yeah to you for being in an awesome work environment! Or you do you see a bunch of people with empty buckets, desperately trying to fill theirs by dipping into everyone else’s? Do you see people with holes so gaping in their own buckets that as fast as they or anyone tries to help them fill it, it all drains right back out?
So if you’re struggling at work, ask yourself: how full is your bucket? And how full are those of the people around you? Do you have holes in your own bucket? Do you know how to replenish your bucket when others take a swipe out of it? What are the thoughts, beliefs and patterns of behaviour that are draining you bucket dry, no matter how much your or others try to fill it? How much are you dipping into other's buckets to try to feel better? And what help or support may help you to fill your own bucket, or to stop the impact of other people’s behaviour on you?
You’d be excused for thinking, on reading that headline, that I’m about to engage in some victim-blaming and shaming. Far from it. As a victim of workplace bullying myself I am intimately familiar with the devastation it causes. Putting it all on me, trying to make me the solely responsible party: that was exactly what my bully tried to do to me. Successfully, I might add – at least for a while. It’s what took me down. But as I’ve since learned in my own journey of healing and recovery: bullying is about us – but not in the way you may think.
It about you because a bully can’t bully you if it doesn’t feel like bullying to you. Say what? Let me say it this way. Bullying triggers our innate threat detection system. But if we don’t perceive the bullying as personally threatening, then we can see the aggressor’s behaviour for what it is – awful, mean, insensitive, aggressive, hurtful, manipulative or whatever – but not a threat to our sense of self and to our self-worth. Oh, make no mistake – that is exactly what the bully is targeting. They are absolutely trying to make it all about you. But when we truly know and believe that we are enough, then we can say “enough”. And learning how to do that: that’s the reason I coach!
It’s about them because there are three reasons why people bully and harass (see “Why the ‘Zero Tolerance’ approach doesn’t really work” written by Hadyn Olsen, a bullying expert and researcher. It’s a short, informative and helpful read – I highly recommend it). All three reasons come back to the bully’s own experiences and the story they are telling themselves about how they can get ahead in the world. Writes Olsen, those three reasons are:
And it’s about us, because our organizations and cultures at best tolerate, at worse actively encourage, bullying. Bullying will happen in any social system, because bullying reflects one of the constants of human nature. Given the right circumstances and incentives, any of us can be tempted to pursue our own agendas and needs regardless of the costs to others, and most especially where the costs to us of doing so are low or non-existent.
And so, there will always be bullies at work. Because most of our workplaces are structured to value individual performance and contribution over empathy, collaboration and team health and performance. Given this, there will always be benefits – at least in the short-term – to bullying. And the bully won’t even see themselves as being a bully. They will see themselves - and indeed be rewarded for being - a valuable, results-driven high-achieving performer, while their victims are “weak” and unable to compete or get with the program.
And our workplaces tolerate, support, and promote these very people because “leaders feel they can delegate power to those who will most likely further their own goals, regardless of the person’s questionable sense of values. Those whose ethics are unquestioned, but whose ability to deliver appears less certain, usually come out second best” writes Charles Kelly in his seminal, and still – sadly – highly relevant 1987 article about those who he calls “Destructive Achievers”.
And we are also part of the problem because all too often, if someone says they feel bullied, we accuse them of over-reacting, of being “too sensitive”, of “not understanding the situation”. We dismiss or diminish their experience. We ask them to examine how they contributed to the situation. We question their right to feel wronged. We may even actively distance ourselves from them. We may shun, ignore or exclude them because associating with them taints us by association. In short: we reinforce the very systems and cultures that allow bullying to happen in the first place.
There are many wonderful people working at the systems and organizational level to shine the light on this, and to work for change. And the systems change work is absolutely crucial. But it will be slow. And in the meantime what do we, who are in it, do now?
How I know how to tackle this head-on, in practical, impactful and immediate ways is to help people develop their own innate resilience, built on a rock-solid foundation of truly believing in themselves and knowing their worth. Doing the work to develop yourself, to develop your resilience – this is a radical act. And ultimately, I would argue, a subversive act. Because when a bully and system - them and us - cannot keep you down, you become unstoppable. And we need more of that in the world.
Bullies can only bully if we allow them to. No, this doesn’t mean we bring it on ourselves or deserve to bullied. Rather, the impact of bullying is amplified when we do not feel secure about ourselves or our worth. What would happen if we all collectively strengthened ourselves and really believed in our inherent worth? The bullies would still show up. And their behaviour would still be mean, nasty and hurtful. And we wouldn’t buy into their message. We would clearly be able to see their behaviour for what it is: about them, not about us – even as they try to make it all about us. When we have these skills – then our lives change radically, for then we have no fear of bullies and they lose their ability to shame us into submission.
Resilience is not armor or a thick-skin. It is like an energetic force field surrounding us – allowing only the good in, and burning up the bad on contact. We get to keep all our softness, our caring, our warmth, our sensitivity AND we get to not be so emotionally slimed or hijacked when other people’s behaviour is just awful. Resilience means we don’t take on their load; we don’t take on what they are trying to offload onto us. We can see their behaviour for exactly what it is: a tragic attempt to meet their needs in ways that, I truly believe, will ultimately undermine them.
So, that is why I do what I do. I’m a “self-worth activist”: I want to help people truly claim their worth – regardless of what has happened to them – because the world needs more compassion and empathy, not less. And it starts with us. It starts with being kind to ourselves, and building ourselves up from within. That is an act of radical power and transformative in its effects.
In praise of “Being Sensitive”: It’s not what’s wrong with us – it’s precisely what’s right with us.
When someone calls you “too sensitive”, there’s such a world of judgement there. That somehow you are weak, over-emotional, and take things too personally. And you’re supposed to be the one to toughen up.
And I’m happy to report: that’s complete BS.
And even happier to report that the research is now there to back up what so many of us have know in our hearts for a long time: sensitivity is not a curse, it is a blessing. A blessing with a healthy side of challenge, for sure, but still a blessing.
In Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown included these words from Viola Davis: ”They tell you to develop a thick skin so things don’t get to you. What they don’t tell you is that your thick skin will keep everything from getting out, too. Love, intimacy, vulnerability. I don’t want that. Thick skin doesn’t work anymore. I want to be transparent and translucent. For that to work, I won’t own other people’s shortcomings and criticisms. I won’t put what you say about me on my load (emphasis mine).”
Oh my gosh, those words. I won’t put what you say about me on my load. So incredibly powerful. I can’t express my thoughts on them any better than what another Brené Brown follower said about this: “And some people, perhaps most people, will continue saying the same things about you, sometimes for years on end. They’ll just repeat a narrative they hooked onto because it served them somehow at some point without ever learning a thing themselves from the tale they’re telling. Not once taking even a moment to consider that likely some revision is due. No revising is bad storytelling, dreadfully boring, and I refuse to subject myself to it.”
I love Glennon Melton Doyle’s phrase for us sensitive types: we are the canaries in the coal mine. It is our very sensitivity that alerts us, our families, our schools and our workplaces that something is wrong, something is not working. And it’s not us who are the problem – rather it is the toxic environments in which we find ourselves. Thought of like this, we’re huge assets in workplaces and on teams. We’re not “high maintenance drama dukes or queens”. We are the early warning system that can keep us all alive. Quite literally. Or spur us to greater levels of creativity and innovation.
And so when I read how new research is pointing to there being a very specific and positive reason as to why evolution has programmed in greater sensitivity for a portion of the population, I did a little internal happy dance. Because, yes, I geek out on this stuff.
Here’s the key concept, as summarized by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley in “What does it mean if your child is sensitive”.
“Why would nature design a subgroup of humans so sensitive to environmental conditions, compared to the more impervious majority? Boyce’s explanation, and that of a number of scientists, derives from the idea of “conditional adaptation”—that there are mechanisms in the human body (the epigenome, which regulates gene expression) monitoring specific aspects of the environment (e.g., nutrition or threat) that adjust our biological development so we have the best chance of surviving in the predicted environment. For the vast majority, average adjustments will suffice. But nature has reserved this special population who responds more nimbly in harsh conditions (hence their heightened reactivity), or makes more elegant contributions in placid and calm conditions (emphasis mine), as a way of hedging bets on human survival.”
That just sent shivers down my spine. Our “sensitivity”, our so-called weakness, is in fact an amazing asset for humanity.
But yeah, let’s face it. We also need to figure out how to function in a world that frankly doesn’t know what to do with our sensitivity and has low tolerance for it.
That’s where the skills of resilience, self-compassion, self-care, mindfulness and wholeheartedness come in. So that we can thrive – not just survive – and truly bring our amazing canary voices to the world.
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.
Sue Mann - Coach
Reflections on how we reclaim and sustain our worthiness in the face of falls and challenges.