When it comes to our emotions and our workplace’s we’re in a bind.
Display too much emotion, and we’re too emotional, unprofessional. Don’t display enough and we’re seen as cold and hard hearted. If we don’t know how to connect emotionally with people, we can’t inspire them or lead them effectively.
And if we let emotions rule we lose respect, can’t make tough decisions, and can’t give effective feedback.
Think for a moment of the worst boss you ever had. And now think of their general emotional tone. Chances are they were at one end of the spectrum or the other: either emotionally cold, distant and unapproachable, or emotionally volatile, prone to explosive rages, or moodiness - with their moods having everyone on eggshells. You feared them or disrespected them - or both - and probably left them as soon as you could.
And now think for a moment of the best boss you ever had and their emotional tone. Chances are they were probably somewhere in that sweet-spot in the middle, emotionally intelligent, warm, and approachable, but also emotionally well-regulated. They may not have talked overtly about emotions, but they clearly made space for feelings to be felt and didn’t expect you to be an unfeeling machine. You worked harder for them, went the extra mile, and did some of your best work for them.
Daniel Goleman’s pioneering work on emotional intelligence has really helped to change the conversation around emotions at work, and frame emotional intelligence as a core leadership skill. But time and time again I see people falling into the trap of thinking that emotional regulation and emotional intelligence are about only allowing oneself to feel “positive” or “good” emotions. Susan David succinctly calls this “toxic positivity.” This is the idea that if one is feeling anger, resentment, irritation, guilt, shame, rage, despair, sadness etc. these are bad, bad, bad and one should immediately be able to shift out of them.
The other thing I see time and again is people “tapping out” of these difficult emotions. Their most common comments are “If I allow myself to feel I’ll be overwhelmed. I’ll drown.”
Let me be clear: There are no good or bad emotions.
I’ll say that again.
Emotions are not positive or negative, good or bad. They just are.
At the most basic level all emotions are simply electrochemical compounds in our body. That’s it. There is no good or bad to them. They might feel more or less pleasant, more or less comfortable, but emotions just are.
I’ll risk a definitive statement: All our problems with emotional intelligence and regulation arise when we judge emotions rather than discern emotions; when we either refuse to feel them on the one hand or allow them to rule us on the other hand.
The problem is not what we feel. The problem is what we DO with what we feel, once we’ve truly discerned what we feel. And that discernment is a process.
So here are the three rules of what to DO with emotions that my years of training, coaching, personal experience, and reading of the research and best practices boil down to. The three rules that, collectively, can shift you to the emotional sweet spot.
Clearly, there is a lot more to each of these rules - but here they are at the high level to get you started.
Rule #1: Validate, validate, validate
The very first thing we are taught to do as coaches is to validate what the other person is feeling. We might think their perspective is dead wrong or that they are way overreacting. But they are feeling what they are feeling. That is their reality and their truth. Validation doesn’t mean we agree with them or even that we think they’re right. It just means that - from their perspective, given their experience, their values, and their stories - what they are feeling makes complete sense. And we would feel how they were feeling if we were in their shoes.
And this applies not only to other people’s emotions, but to our own too. When we judge our own emotions as good or bad, when we say we shouldn’t be angry, sad, depressed, lonely, frustrated or whatever, because “other people have it worse”, or because “I don’t have time for this”, or when we fear to feel what we feel because we fear we might be overwhelmed, we are invalidating our own experience.
Emotional invalidation is gaslighting. And it’s crazy-making. Literally. And it’s generally regarded as a form of abuse.
Validation, or rather the lack thereof, is where I see abrasive leaders get stuck. They either don’t even know what they’re feeling, or if they do, they blame everyone else for what they are feeling, and argue that whatever anyone else is feeling - they’re wrong and shouldn’t be feeling it. They take zero responsibility for their own emotions and offload them onto others. Then heap on the judgment when others react to their emotional offloading. It’s a toxic crap-shoot.
I have to do a lot of work with them to get them to the point of starting to see how they are not dealing with emotions effectively, and how doing so will help them, not hurt them, and increase theirs and others productivity, effectiveness and performance. (It’s a process, it takes time, but it is 100% possible).
Once I’ve got them there, I can teach them how to validate emotions. When they first attempt to validate, their initial unskillful attempts often land really badly. They can come across as manipulative and insincere, or even patronizing. And then we need to lean even harder into the importance of emotions - as of course it takes courage to keep on going at that point. But that’s exactly what they need to do. Because every master was once a disaster.
It is an acquired skill to be masterful at validation. I certainly flunk it sometimes. But when I do it right, it's the gift that keeps on giving. Because when we validate our own emotions we feel heard, and now we can listen to others. And when we validate others emotions, they feel heard, and now they can listen to us.
Rule #2: Feels the feels
Strong, difficult emotions feel terrible. They feel overwhelming and scary. We feel we are going to drown in a river of despair, or are terrified at our explosive, murderous rage. There are very good reasons anger is so feared. The atrocities and horrors it can unleash at home, in the workplace and in wars are horrendous.
But we cannot selectively feel. When we numb the dark, we numb the light. If we want to feel joy, we also need to be prepared to feel anger, fear, despair and sadness.
Feeling our feels does not mean acting on our emotions (that’s rule #3). Feeling our emotions simply means actually allowing ourselves to feel them in our bodies.
At the biological level, emotions are combinations of electrochemicals in our brain and blood. If we were simply to simply let our emotions be, to come and go as they do, and not amplify them either through resisting feeling them, or looping into a cascading thought-emotion spiral, the process would last six seconds.
“That’s how long it takes for each burst of electrochemicals, from the time it's produced in the hypothalamus, to be completely broken down and reabsorbed back into our body. If we’re feeling something for longer than six seconds, we are – at some level – choosing to recreate and refuel those feelings.” (Six Seconds, 7 Amazing Facts About Emotions).
And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s called being human.
But with any biological process there’s a beginning, a middle and an end. Just like a tunnel. There’s the first rush of feeling. That gut punch to the stomach of shock or fear. That involuntary gasp of surprise. That sudden flush of rage. We enter the emotions tunnel.
But to get to the other side of the tunnel, we have to go through the middle of it. We actually have to feel what we are feeling.
And this is where I see emotionally aware and sensitive people get the most stuck. Because the middle of the tunnel for strong, difficult emotions is dark, and scary. The light behind you is rapidly receding, and you can’t see the light at the other end yet. So you tap out. You numb, you suppress, you binge watch, you eat, you drink, you work and work and work.
When I guide my clients through the tunnel, they are consistently amazed at the relief they feel on the other side. “I thought I was going to have a complete breakdown, get stuck in there and never get out,” they say. “But I see now they only way out is through. And I feel so much better now. I can actually think straight”
You get to choose when, where and how to go through the tunnel. My preferred place is either by myself in my office, away from my family, or when I need extra support, with a peer coach.
And we feel our way to the other end of the tunnel. We don’t talk our way there. Venting is not feeling - that’s amplifying. Feeling our emotions looks like tracking them in our bodies. We feel the flush on our face, the wild thumping of our heart, our clenched fists, our roiling guts, our hot wet salty tears, our stuffy runny nose.
Feeling the feels literally got me through the pandemic. Saved me from burnout. And is saving me now as I contemplate the horror of Ukraine. I very intentionally allow my train to go chugging into the tunnel. All the way into the dark, where there is no light to be had. And I keep on feeling into my body. And the light comes. It always comes. And I reach calm and peace, and am ready now to decide what to actually DO with what I’ve felt.
Rule #3: Data, not directives
Emotions come from our “Thinking Fast” brain (Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman). Wise action comes from our “Thinking Slow” brain. Emotions give us critical data about the situation, our values, and how we feel ourselves to be in relationship to others. But the data is crude, raw and riddled with biases, assumptions and judgements. Emotions are not the full picture - but they are vital pieces of the puzzle. Our emotions always point us towards something we value, something that is important to us and we care about deeply. This is why we need to feel our emotions - so that we can gather ALL the data.
But to take wise action on this data, we need to bring our “thinking slow” systems online. In particular, we need to engage our prefrontal cortex, which is home to our executive functions. Master meditators access this state almost at will. For the rest of us, going through the tunnel provides another way there.
It’s never our emotions that are wrong. It’s only what we choose to do with them that is helpful or harmful. Outraged at what is happening in Ukraine or how your boss or an employee is behaving? Feel your outrage, mine it for all of its data. Get to the other side of the tunnel, where the flush of electrochemicals has subsided and you are now calm, purposeful, values-centered and grounded. Then and only then decide what action to take. Maybe you don’t share the outrage-inducing post, but rather connect with a local volunteer organization instead. Maybe you decide to stop feeling like the victim, and start to take responsibility for what you can do. Maybe you realize there is more you need to know before assuming your employee is just being willful.
It’s not our emotions that light our way out of the dark tunnel, it’s our values. But to find them and connect with them, we need to go through the tunnel. Then we can take calm, purposeful, value-centered action that is not about hurting someone else, or numbing ourselves, in an attempt to make ourselves better.
Feel the feels.
With practice we start to live more and more in the sweet spot: emotionally intelligent, warm, and approachable, but also emotionally well-regulated. Caring, but clear. Empathetic, but straightforward.
I love good science fiction and have read every one of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series, all of the Dune series, and many others. I picked up Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy at our Friends of the Library book sale last year, and devoured it.
In the third book of the series, Blue Mars, there is this passage in the chapter titled “A New Constitution”. At the time I read it, it blew me away.
Suddenly, Vlad Taneev stood up. Startled, Antar stopped speaking and looked over.
There is so much more to this powerful story, beautifully told, but it’s Robinson’s “If self rule is a fundamental value, if simple justice is a value, then they are values everywhere, including the workplace where we spend so much of our lives” that has stuck with me these many months since I read it.
No one ever gets up in the morning, eager to be harassed, humiliated, ignored, demeaned or diminished. No target, however “provocative”, keeps thinking of all the ways they can provoke people into bullying them. Targets are not at fault. There is not something wrong with them. They did not cause their bullying.
And yet, they are also part of the system that drives bullying.
Because most targets, like most professionals everywhere, have conflated their identity - who they are, their worth as human beings - with what they do, with their jobs.
How do we come to find ourselves in this situation? Here's my story. My guess is that there are a lot of parallels with your story.
Somewhere along the line, long before I even left school - and certainly without any conscious awareness on my part - I adopted the prevailing cultural belief: you are what you do. If you get good grades, good girl! If you get a good degree, good girl! If you get a good job, you’re becoming a real woman! If you get promoted and rise through the ranks, you're are a worthwhile human being.
I dutifully pursued that path for 40 odd years. And then it all came to a crashing halt. Next week it will be 5 years since I went out on disability leave. When the “old me” died. That dying was awful. And painful. And traumatic. And terrifying.
And it was the best thing that ever happened to me.
I'd deluded myself for a long time in thinking that I could, or should, conform myself to meet the expectations of others. Because that was what I thought was expected of me. Basically, in trying so hard to succeed by other people’s standards, I failed at being me. And when my job mattered to me in that way, who had the power? Certainly not me.
The first wake up moment took place in 2010 when I was the only one in the small company I then worked for who was selected for “lay-off". As explained to me later by a high ranking woman with whom I had worked: “You pissed some of the old men off. They didn’t like that you pointed out that their decisions flew in the face of the data and what the market research was saying. So they complained. And your company decided to get rid of the problem - you - rather than face up to the problem: an old-guard self-protective system. You didn’t do something wrong. You just didn’t do something right - as defined by them.”
Things have changed a lot since then. But I would argue that, even after a pandemic, the business world doesn’t really want us in all our glorious messiness and imperfection and jumble of contradictions. They want one thing and one thing only from us: our ability to show up and do the work they set for us. That is what they pay us for.
And that’s totally reasonable and fair.
But still today, most organizations and bosses seem to be operating under the belief that they are not only buying our time - but also our personalities. And they buy it when we acquiescence to the unspoken norms about how we are supposed to be at work: what we wear, what we talk about, how we are supposed to “show up” in terms of attitude, how early we arrive, how late we stay, our deference to authority, and hundreds of other daily choices. And then we wonder at how bullied, ignored, pushed around, overlooked, mistreated we feel or unfair the whole thing seems?
I had the most delightful coffee with a former colleague a few weeks back. We have traveled very similar journeys in terms of fall-out from our jobs having catastrophic impacts on our health and well-being. But where my path has taken me to coaching her path has taken her back to a different job. One where she is utterly clear eyed about what she is doing and why: she is selling her time for money. It’s that simple. Not for her identity, not for purpose, not for meaning and fulfillment - she is meeting those needs in other ways.
As I sat listening to her describe how - because of this - she can see what is actually going on in the company (rather a lot of disorganization), clearly point it out to the owner and her boss, and offer potential suggestions for improvements, all while being completely detached from how her boss responds or reacts, I had the biggest smile on my face. This is freedom - the real, meaningful kind. Because that organization, that boss - they have no power over her. Absolutely zero. And all because she has learned to detach her worth from her job; to separate what she does to earn a living from who she is as a human being. She knows she has worth just as she is, regardless of what kind of job she has. And because of this she’s no threat to the organization or to her boss’s ego either. She gets to be who she is AND she gets to work a job she chooses to do. It’s a joy behold.
If you are someone who is feeling bullied, yes, it’s possible to get to this place. No, it’s not easy. Yes, it takes work. And yes, it is worth it. You get your life back. You get to be you. One part of your path to this sort of freedom and joy is really ditching the 200 pound weight on your back that is tying your worth and identity to your job. Because work won’t love you back.
And if you are someone who leads and manages other people, I ask you to examine what assumptions you are making about how much you get to dictate to them about who they are supposed to be. “If self rule is a fundamental value, if simple justice is a value, then they are values everywhere, including the workplace where we spend so much of our lives.”
How much autonomy are you giving to your staff? How much are you expecting them to follow certain norms that really have nothing at all to do with their capacity to get their work done? There is an inverse relationship between control and trust: the more you control, the less people feel trusted, and the less they feel trusted, the less well they perform. “When a trustworthy work climate exists, information is communicated more openly, people are more willing to help one another and willing to test ideas even if these may ultimately fail. Such behavior, over time, leads to outcomes that make companies more creative, innovative, cooperative, and fast moving, which are all factors that drive performance in direct ways.” (What COVID-19 Teaches Us About the Importance of Trust at Work, Knowledge@Wharton).
Our jobs can give us great meaning and purpose. They can be places of tremendous personal and professional fulfillment and growth. We can look forward to going to work every day. And feel valued and trusted.
And they can also be places of misery and suffering. A lot of this is due to organizational structures and systems, yes.
But not all of it.
In Nonviolent Communication we teach that “There is no system in the world that reliably has enough physical force that can oppress large numbers of people without their partial cooperation or consent.” Malcolm Gladwell explores these themes in David and Goliath. When we conflate who we are with what we do, we give some of our power, some of our innate rights to self-determination, away. We partially consent to the very system that causes us so much misery.
We are not to blame for that. Society and our education systems actively socialize us into that belief.
And, if we are to bring humanity, dignity and compassion back to the workplace, so that all can thrive, it starts with not
carving workplaces out as the expectation to “If self rule is a fundamental value, if simple justice is a value, then they are values everywhere.”
“People are a time suck,” he told me in our first coaching session. “I’m sprinting and everyone else is crawling. They don’t seem to get it. I’m having to push them the whole time. What do I do about them? ”
He is the owner of two small businesses. And he came to me for coaching because “I’m not connecting with my staff in a way that’s working.”
To his great credit he also came to coaching because “There is no-one to hold me accountable. I haven’t been the greatest leader. I need someone to be a transparent straight shooter with me.”
“That I can do,” I promised him.
So: “I wouldn’t want to work for you,” I told him in our second coaching session.
And that, right there is part of the key problem. I could risk being fired as a coach. I have other clients. He is not my sole source of income. I could easily be the messenger because the risk was small to me.
But that is not the situation for most people working with someone like him.
When you have the greater objective power - when you’re the boss, the manager, the business owner, the more senior leader - it becomes infinitely harder and more dangerous for those below you to give you feedback. That’s not because they lack courage. It’s because they value their jobs and the income it provides them. They have ample evidence that their jobs may be at risk if they attempt to give constructive upward feedback - most especially when the more powerful person is abrasive and dictatorial. Because those are the very people who respond most aggressively to perceived threats to their power, status and competence.
Time and time again the advice to people working under toxic, abrasive managers is to “talk to them”.
It doesn’t work.
It’s unreasonable to expect someone with less objective power to hold someone with more objective power accountable. Absolutely part of the problem with abrasive leaders is that not enough people do hold them accountable for the impact of their behaviour. But reality is, when it’s your job and income on the line, it's completely human not to want to take that risk.
Because the messenger is usually the one who is shot.
If any of the staff of my client had attempted to give feedback to him, they would have been dismissed as entitled whining complainers, who “don’t get what it takes to run a business” (his words). And their future at the company would have been short lived.
I could be the messenger to him. His staff less so: because of the very environment he has created.
The messenger matters.
“We all want to believe in our inner power, our sense of personal agency, to resist external situational forces…(like abusive power). For some, that belief is valid. (But) they are the minority, the rare birds. For many, that belief of personal power to resist powerful situational and systemic forces is little more than a reassuring illusion,” Philip Zimbardo, creator of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, writes in The Lucifer Effect. That’s not because people are weak or sycophantic flatterers: it’s because we consistently underestimate the powerful and primal need to belong and to be accepted by both the group as a whole and the more powerful person in that group. Challenging the leader of a group risks expulsion. Which to our nervous system, still wired for social living in small groups on the savannah, means death.
The idea that the people on the receiving end of abusive and abrasive leadership should be the ones to challenge that leader is cruel and unjust. It puts the burden of accountability on those who have the least power and who have the most to lose. And it's blame shifting: it’s not leadership that’s the problem, it’s people who won’t stand up to the leader.
One of the more sobering findings from both the empathy and the self-awareness research fields is that there is an inverse relationship between power on the one hand and self-awareness, empathy and emotional intelligence on the other. The more senior the leader, the less empathetic and self-aware they tend to be.
And it’s not because those leaders start out with less skill.
Rather it is the social dynamics of power that drive this. It is simply hard to speak truth to power, and so the more power one has, the less truth you are told by others. Leaders tend to be surrounded by “walls, mirrors and liars” (Tasha Eurich, HBR Ideacast #644, “How to become more self-aware”). Precisely when it becomes more important to understand your impact on others, you become less aware of it. Which compromises your ability to lead and manage effectively.
This happened to me just last week. I needed to give some feedback to a more powerful man - and a masterful coach himself. Something he had said had really impacted me as a woman. It wasn’t easy for me to give the feedback that I did. But I knew that I had to if I wanted to be able to look myself in the eye and also to continue to collaborate with him. I coach around this stuff all the time - and I still needed to get some coaching support for myself before I went into that conversation.
It didn’t go badly. But it didn’t go as I had hoped either - because even he couldn’t resist subtly turning the tables and putting it back on me. Now, what he had to say back to me might have some truth to it. But that’s not the point. By not doing that in a separate conversation with me, but rather right after I had shared the impact on me of what he had said, the impact was to discount what I was saying, and by extension discount my experience.
The impact was to shoot the messenger - no matter how subtly.
Even if my experience was totally subjective, and not how any other woman or someone with less power would have experienced it, there is only one thing to say in that moment when someone has taken the courage to speak truth to power: “Thank you.” Bonus points if you can add “I appreciate the courage it took to raise this with me. I’ll think about what you’ve said. Can we have a follow-up conversation about this tomorrow after I’ve had some time to process this?”
Will I be likely to give him feedback again? Right now, I can honestly say I’m not sure. I hope I will - but there’s that little bit less safety and trust now, and so I will be more guarded.
Do I take feedback well, myself?
In a word: no.
Negative feedback, no matter how constructive or skillfully delivered, still lands like a gut punch to the stomach for me. I immediately want to get defensive. And my go-to defense strategies are to go on the offense, play the victim card, and/or bleat “that wasn’t my intention.” In that moment I have to lean hard into my training and practice, and just say “Thank you”. And try, if I can, to get curious - to really understand them as a human being. And if I can’t, to stick with the thank you and exit as graciously as I can. And then do my work to process it. I am very much still a work in progress on this. But I keep on practicing.
Because the messenger matters.
If I shoot them down, I don’t get to know more about them as a person (most especially if I thoroughly disagree with what they are saying), or more about me and my impact.
Yes, some feedback is more about the giver than the receiver. But relying solely on your own judgement to determine that is a recipe for self-deception. If you are a leader, it is 100 percent your responsibility to create your team of loving critics who tell you the unvarnished truth, and with whom you can check hard feedback. You need to create a psychologically safe environment for people to give you that feedback - not from those above you, but from those below you. And then explicitly seek it out. You cannot wait for people to come to you: if you do, you will never get enough of the feedback you need to become more self-aware and more effective.
And no matter how much you disagree with the feedback, under no circumstances do you shoot the messenger. Not ever. Because word will spread and you’ll enter the feedback desert. And your next ask for feedback will be met with deafening silence at worst, or useless platitudes at best.
The messenger matters.
Creating a feedback team of loving critics is something I will be working towards with my client. As will be supporting him in shifting his company culture to one in which his staff are explicitly encouraged - and rewarded - for being straight with him. It will take time, he has work to do, but it is one hundred percent possible.
What are you doing to value the messenger, to encourage and reward those who speak up to you when you have the greater power?
Why do good people become abrasive leaders?
Is it because they're bad people?
Or something else?
There is a wealth of research, and articles and publications on building healthy workplaces and workplaces cultures. What tends to be far less talked about is why organizational cultures go bad in the first place. Why do good people turn into toxic, abrasive leaders? Why is that behaviour tolerated, even encouraged? Why do leaders, bystanders and Human Resources fail to intervene to stop the behavior? Why is all the training on psychological safety, emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills, not resulting in real organizational and culture change?
For despite the vast body of information, practices, trainings and resources out there on building healthy, thriving, compassionate workplaces that allow people to do their best work, we are still seeing steady increases in toxic cultures and abrasive leadership.
At the core, I believe, is because we are not talking about, let alone addressing, the situations and systems that lead people away from compassion and humanity in the first place.
In much of the literature and popular press around “bullies” and “toxic bosses”, the emphasis is on individuals and their personalities. The focus is on the bad apples. And not on the barrel that is rotting the apples. Or the barrel makers who are responsible for the barrel in the first place.
The reality is: bad barrels turn good apples into bad apples. The research is abundantly clear, any of us - truly ANY of us - can become that “bad apple” given particular circumstances and situations.
Good intentions are not enough. All of us intend to be moral people (except perhaps for the true psychopaths - and they are, contrary to popular press - not that common). Toxic workplaces tend to happen by accident rather than design. No organizational leader sets out intending to create a toxic environment. It simply doesn’t make business sense to have people burning out, going out on stress and medical leave, high rates of turnover, and systems and conditions that compromise performance.
So what is going on?
That’s going to be the focus of these newsletters over the coming year.
We’re going to look at people, situation and systems. Or to use an analogy: the actors (people) in the play (situation) that is being written, directed and managed by the theatre owners and producers (the system). It is the system that has the power to create the situations that people then have to function within.
That does not absolve people for their choices and behaviour within any particular situation, but it does explain why they tend to make those choices and act the way they do. And why all the training we’re throwing at this problem doesn’t seem to be working. It doesn’t matter how much training you give the actors, if the play is still the same.
Within most organizations, people are still hired, reviewed and promoted primarily on their ability to get the work done. Managers are routinely selected and trained for their ability to manage work - not to lead people. Managing work and leading people, are however, two fundamentally different skill sets. Both are important, but when the focus on the work and performance outweighs the focus on people as human beings first and foremost, something very predictable happens: you create the conditions for toxic environments and leaders to emerge.
But all is not doom and gloom.
When we understand the power of situations and systems, we start to inoculate ourselves against their corrosive effects. Good people can - and do - withstand, and change, bad situations and bad systems. We don’t need to become whistleblowers, or superhero’s, or martyrs to do this. We truly do have the power within our hands to be the change we want to see in our workplaces - no matter where we sit in the organization. Yes, the greater one’s power, the greater one’s responsibility, to borrow from Spider-Man. But the reverse is also true: the greater our responsibility - the greater we understand the forces acting on us, and the behaviour that is likely to foster - the greater our power.
Thank you for being on this journey with me: to bring humanity, dignity and compassion back to the workplace. So that all can thrive.
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Workplace bullying is a dehumanizing process that is all about power and control. It targets an employee’s character, dignity and integrity — not just as a professional, but as a human being. It is often the most traumatic experience someone has gone through.
To any threat, stress, or trauma there are five possible stress responses. These stress responses are innate. They are part of the wiring of our brain and nervous system and not something we have conscious control over. Which one gets activated is a function of both personal wiring, experience and context.
Everywhere one hears about the “fight, flight or freeze” response. But there are two more. And how these responses look in a workplace bullying situation is not what you might expect.
The Fight Stress Response
The fight stress response is an attempt to defend oneself against a threat. That might be literal physical aggression. But in the workplace physical aggression is a no-no.
So for targets the fight stress response might look like:
The fight stress response in targets is all about trying to achieve justice, set the record straight and clear their name.
Sadly, however, it all too often boomerangs. The more a target tries to fight back, the more the intimidation and retaliation ratchets up.
Contrary to what most people think, however, the fight response is typically a late stage stress response for targets. It is not their go-to (unlike for abrasive leaders). And by the time targets get to the fight response it is almost always too late for it to be effective. By that point the damage has been done. They are seen as the problem, and their fight response is just further evidence of that. They are the ones who are difficult to work with. They are the ones who are now too aggressive.
And if they take it all the way to complaints and/or legal action, their resources to fight are miniscule in comparison to that of the organization. They are already emotionally, mental and physically depleted from the bullying. Now they deplete themselves even further.
Almost without exception, targets who do manage to win their legal cases say they’re not sure it was worth it. It can take years, tens of thousands of dollars, and being subjected to relentless intimidation and retaliation, to win a legal battle. And the chances of winning it are very low in all but the most egregious cases.
If you do choose to fight back, be very clear eyed about what you are getting yourself into. And set some very clear “fight rules” around the amount of time — and money — you will allow yourself to spend fighting. And when then those are reached: stop. And walk away.
“Don’t make fighting the organization that mobbed you be your next career… Unequivocally, your organization is not worth this level of sacrifice.”
The Flight Stress Response
The flight stress response is an attempt to get away from the threat.
The flight stress response plays out in a number of ways in a workplace context — from low key and relatively passive, to more active.
At its lowest level the flight response looks like increased sick-leave, disengagement, hiding out, no longer attending office social gatherings, and generally just trying to keep a low profile and make oneself as small, insignificant and unthreatening as possible.
Sadly, most targets don’t take this as their cue to immediately start looking for another job. And that’s because they’re usually still working under the (mistaken) belief that they must be doing something to cause this. And if they can just <insert whatever>, they can get it to stop. They’re bewildered and confused by what’s going on. They’re being told they’re the problem, they believe that there must be some basis for the feedback, and so they keep trying to *fix* it.
At some point the accumulated stress pushes them to start actively looking for a job, outright quitting even without another job in hand, or going out on extended sick leave. These are active forms of the flight response.
The most tragic — and ultimate — form of the flight stress response is suicide.
Decades of research reveals a clear — and terribly sad — pattern: most targets do not get out soon enough. Many endure months and months, some even years, of bullying — at profound cost to their mental, physical and emotional health. For targets, fleeing seems like giving up, like letting the organization get away with it; it feels grossly unjust that they are the ones who need to leave — not the ones being psychologically aggressive. And so they stay. For far too long. And at profound cost to their well-being.
The Freeze Stress Response
When it is not safe to fight, nor can one escape a threat, then the brain and nervous system will automatically activate the freeze response. In the trauma world, it is well understood that freeze stress responses often lead to far worse levels of traumatization and PTSD.
A person in a freeze response looks outwardly passive and immobile. Their muscles are tight and the expression on their face might be confused for being sullen and impassive. Their eyes can appear glazed over. They might be accused of glaring — when actually they’re terrified.
Inwardly, however, they are in a highly activated state of extreme distress.
In the workplace context, freeze happens when neither fighting back nor quitting are seen as viable options. It is the freeze state that keeps targets in a state of profound distress for far too long. The freeze state is accompanied by an overwhelming sense of powerlessness, despair and dread. Just the thought of going into the office is enough to bring on panic attacks. They are in a state of extreme internal psychological distress — and unable to take outward action to end the bullying.
Targets in a state of freeze need urgent social and professional support.
And, tragically, they all too often do not get it.
Well-meaning people — uninformed about workplace bullying, trauma and trauma responses — urge them to fight back or to leave. Not understanding that if they could, they would. When the target continues to be paralyzed, unable to take action or make a decision — even the most well meaning of family members and friends can get frustrated and lose their patience.
However, in a freeze response the body is ready to return to flight or fight once the threat passes. So, when a target is in a state of freeze, they need professional help to get them to a place of safety (i.e. not the workplace) for long enough so that they can start to bring one of the other stress responses back online and start the healing and recovery process.
This is still going to take time — and bucket loads of support — to recover from. And recovery is totally possible — with the right support.
Here is an example of a freeze response in an animal. While the animal survives please do not watch this if it may be too upsetting for you.
The Flop Stress Response
For animals, when the predator does not move away after the “feigned death” of the freeze response, they might move into a “flop” response. Where the freeze state is “scared stiff”, in the flop response muscles become limp, heart rate and breathing slow down, endorphins are released and the animal enters a state of “no pain”. They are no longer aware of their surroundings.
For humans, flop happens when the trauma is inescapable. When the freeze goes on for too long. This is a state of deep clinical depression. Of complete physical collapse. The brain disassociates from the world — and from the rest of the body.
Clearly at this point the target is no state to work at all. It may take many months for targets to recover from this level of collapse. And…recovery is absolutely possible. Indeed, anecdotally, it sometimes seems that the harder the fall, the higher the rise after — in a phenomenon called “post traumatic growth”.
Here is an example of a flop response in an animal. While the animal survives please do not watch this if it may be too upsetting for you.
The Friend Stress Response
The “friend” stress response is perhaps the hardest of all to understand.
Human beings (like many other mammals) are social animals. When under a state of stress, one of the first things we will do is look for social support and to engage in self-soothing behaviours.
It it fascinating to watch this stress response in action. The other day a dog chased one of our cats up a tree. When we got her down (that’s another story) and got her into the house, she immediately set to washing herself. That is the “tend and befriend” a.k.a “friend” stress response in action.
When a stressed mouse in a lab is allowed to return to other mice, they immediately set to grooming each other. And the stressed mouse rapidly calms down. If the mouse is unable to return to other mice, the stressed mouse stays in a state of stress and agitation for far longer. Researchers dub this “fight, flight, freeze or groom” — and it happens in just about all social species in some form or another.
We can see this stress response in babies and young children: whenever they are hurt or stressed they immediately cry out and look for help.
Kelly McGonigal talks about this in her wonderful TED Talk — How to Make Stress Your Friend.
And we see this response in children of abusive parents, partners in an abusive relationship, and people who are the victims of rape, taken hostage etc. When one is with an aggressor one cannot escape and cannot fight it is a highly evolutionarily adaptive response to try to mollify and appease the aggressor, to preemptively attempt to calm the abuser by agreeing, answering what they know the abuser wants to hear, or by ignoring their own personal feelings and desires and doing anything and everything to prevent the abuse.
So when the threat is coming from a boss or a co-worker, one of the most common stress responses will be to try to appease them.
Being a pleaser is a stress response.
And with bullying it works — for a while. But then it makes it worse. Bullying always follows a test-then-escalate model. So when the target doesn’t push back, but rather submits and seeks to appease (the friend stress response), the aggressor knows they can continue with the aggression. So they do.
When you pair someone who tends to default to the friend (a.k.a. fawn) stress response due to their own wiring, life experience and context, with someone who tends to default to the fight stress response (the abrasive person who responds to any perceived threat to their ego with aggression — overt or passive): bingo — you have bullying in the making. And a dangerous cycle has also kicked off: with the aggressor demanding more and more, and the target becoming less and less able to combat it. Even when the aggressor and the target might have started off with roughly equal power, it is this dynamic that so quickly leads to the power and control imbalance that is one of the hallmarks of bullying.
One of the most tragic parts of bullying is as it continues and escalates, the target comes to be seen as more and more tainted and damaged goods at work, and paranoid at home. Other people start to avoid them. At precisely the time when targets need more social support, it is less and less available to them.
One of my main jobs as a trauma-informed coach who specializes in workplace bullying is to get targets to activate that friend response towards themselves. Targets tend to believe that there’s something wrong with them (there’s not). They tend to assume way too much responsibility for what has happened to them. (Abrasive leaders, of course, have the exact opposite challenge — they take on too little responsibility for their actions). So my number one job as a coach is get them to stop fighting themselves and beating themselves up and start “friending” themselves instead. FYI, exactly the same is true when I’m coaching abrasive people: getting them to actually “friend” themselves and tune into their own stress — rather than taking it out on others.
Sadly, by the time targets get to me they have often been in a state of freeze for so long that even making the decision to do anything for themselves feels too hard or too scary. It breaks my heart when this happens. The single best thing targets can do is to start to fight for themselves — not against the circumstances. Targets need to externalize the cause (i.e. they did not cause this and they are not to blame) but internalize the solution (i.e. stop waiting for others to “fix” this for them and really start being their own strongest friend, ally and advocate.)
If someone you know and love is in this situation, please show them this article. Please help them understand the stress responses. All are adaptive. All are completely understandable. But there’s only one that leads to true recovery and sustained well-being thereafter: learning to activate our “friend” stress response — where we become our own best friend.
It feels so strange to be sitting down and writing to you all. I haven’t done it for months.
With the weather change here, and “school” starting back up, I am feeling how we entering yet another phase of this time.
So how are you, really?
Is your first response, “Fine” or “Okay”?
Channeling Glennon Doyle, fine is a word I’m trying to stop using these days. Since March I’ve been anything but fine. I’ve been exhausted, despairing, angry, hopeful, determined, resourceful, happy, at peace, fearful. I’ve cried. I’ve raged. I’ve laughed. I’ve snapped at my son. I’ve fought with my husband. I’ve watched the light go our of my son’s eyes. And come back again.
We’ve drawn closer as a family. We’ve played board games until nearly midnight. Binged together on Supergirl. (Go ahead, judge us!) We’ve started to do activities together that my husband and I last did before our son was born. We’ve introduced him to a whole new world of outdoor adventure – and forged some amazing memories.
As my world has shrunk, it has also become clearer. What really matters to me: family, adventures together, time with trusted friends, sewing and sewing and sewing, gardening.
Am I happy? Occasionally.
Am I hopeful? I practice that.
Am I determined? Yes, very.
I’m determined to come out of this having learn and grown and become a better person. This in my control. It is perhaps the only thing in my control. I want to look back on this time and say: “This is what I learned. This is how I grew. This is the meaning I created from this time.”
So have I been fine? No. For I’ve come to feel how fine numbs. It obscures. It hides us from each other, and from ourselves. I don’t want to hide. I want to see myself. And I want to see others. Really see them. That is something I want to create out of this: more connection, more meaning, more courage, more purpose.
Worthwhile? I believe so to the depths of my being.
So how are you, really?
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.
Sue Mann - Coach
Reflections on how we reclaim and sustain our worthiness in the face of falls and challenges.