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 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.
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
These are my reflections on how we rise, how we reclaim and sustain our worthiness in the face of falls and challenges. Less personal stories ( see the blog for that) and more practical tools, tips, techniques and reflections for all of us to brave the arena every day.