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!)
Some time back, a dear friend had been messaging me quite a bit, asking for some help on how to deal with a number of difficult professional and personal situations. I started to notice resentment creeping in. The unbidden judgement popped into my head: “If you want coaching, hire me – stop using our friendship as a source for free coaching.”
If you’re wincing, you’re on to something. I wince too at acknowledging that judgement. Talk about harsh!
Fortunately, I now have the skills (and support) to notice resentment for what it is and get curious about it. After giving myself a lot of self-compassion, and doing some processing with my empathy buddy, I was able to formulate and lob a gentle question to her, free of judgement or accusation, expressing genuine concern for her situation and asking her what she thought she really needed from me. And then what followed was a beautiful back and forth, that helped to deepen our understanding and friendship. And the last tendrils of resentment on my side dissolved.
Another example from this week. I have been working with someone I know from way back to re-purpose some items of value I inherited from my mom. We first started on the project over a year ago – and months have gone by with no communication or follow-up from her. We finally got to the point last week of finalizing the designs and for a down-payment. For a few reasons, I didn’t respond right away. And then I got “barraged” with emails and messages. I felt pressurized and my resentment meter went from 0 to 100 in 1 second. “What the hell is she playing at?” my internal voice of self-righteousness erupted. “We go for months with silence and no movement on her part, and now that it’s time to pay up, if I don’t respond instantaneously I get a deluge of messages. This is totally B.S.” (Let’s be clear here: she sent me all of 3 or 4 follow-up messages within 2 days – so not exactly a “barrage.” See how quickly resentment blows things out of all proportion!)
Mustering my courage, I drafted an email back to say I was feeling uncomfortable and confused, and that I needed to step back a bit to get some perspective. Which in turn generated a genuine apology and some clarity around assumptions we were each making about timing and urgency.
So what has this to do with boundaries?
A few things.
For one, I’ve come to learn that, for me, there is a huge relationship between resentment and boundaries. Quite simply, that resentment is THE warning sign to me that some kind of boundary has been crossed.
Secondly, I’ve come to learn that if I don’t address it, either with myself or with the other person or both, the resentment will fester and stew and negatively impact the relationship.
And finally, that addressing it takes a whole heap of courage. And skill. Because if I just blurt it out, the boundary I am trying to set will almost always come out as a judgement and sound like I’m putting a wall up. And that leads to the other person getting defensive. And then things just spiral downward from there.
The boundaries I know about and can voice upfront – those are the easy ones to work with. It’s the boundaries I don’t know about, the one’s that creep up on me, visible only when resentment raises it head, that are the hard ones. I call these my “stealth boundaries.” And precisely because they really are just a form of unvoiced expectations, they are “resentments waiting to happen” in the words of Anne Lamott.
Knowing this has helped me a lot with how to work through my stealth boundaries when they do show up. Instead of judging myself or the other person for the fact that I am now feeling resentment, the situation rather just becomes an opportunity to clarify what is and isn’t ok with me – kindly and gently (that’s the hard part!). And then not to fear whatever their response might be – but just to be open to it, and take it for what it is – theirs, not mine. When I’ve done the work on my side to be clear, kind, compassionate and generous, then more often than not the response back helps to open things up and develop greater clarity and connection between us.
This approach comes from Brené’ Brown’s chapter “Sewer Rates and Scofflaws” in Rising Strong. Generosity in this case is “what is the most generous assumption you can make about this person’s intentions”. In practice, and as Brown details at some length in the chapter, it is working from the belief that “people are doing the best that they can.” That is a hard belief for many of us to adopt – but has been transformative for me. But that is a whole other post!
But being generous in assumption of intent without boundaries is equally as dangerous to our work performance, well-being and relationships. Because in this scenario we are (however unwittingly) giving people carte blanche to walk all over us. If we’re not secure enough in our own self-worth, or if our need to be liked or “people please” is greater than our desire to practice our integrity, then we don’t say “no” to behavior that is disrespectful or unprofessional. And while we bitterly resent how we are then treated – why on earth should we expect the other person to treat us with more respect than we are treating ourselves?
So yes, how we set boundaries matters. A lot. I’ve had many an experience in the past where trying to set a boundary has backfired on me miserably. The other person (often my husband, or my boss) would push back hard, calling me unreasonable, inflexible, difficult, or selfish. Boundaries without compassion or generosity feel like walls – and back then I didn’t have much of either compassion or generosity, I just had heaps of resentment and judgement.
Now every time a stealth boundary creeps on me I lean into what I’ve learned from Brené Brown: the most compassionate people have the clearest boundaries. And that gives me the courage to work it through with the other person. Whenever I'm about to do that I recite a little mantra in my head: “Boundaries without generosity feel like walls. Generosity without boundaries is being a doormat. Be clear. Be kind. I am worth this.”
“When we combine the courage to make clear what works for us, and what doesn’t, with the compassion to assume people are doing their best, our lives change,” says Brené Brown.
In this week’s toolkit, there is practice on getting clear on our boundaries – and how to turn them from “walls”, to something more like a “guidance system.” Have a look!
And one final thought. I do want to be clear that, with some people, setting boundaries is going to be like waving a red flag to a bull. For the more self-absorbed, self-aggrandizing, power-hungry people in our lives, narcissists if you will, any boundary, no matter how skillfully set, is going to be met with resistance, and quite possibly fury and rage. This NOT about you. This is about them. If you have expressed a boundary clearly and kindly, you have given the other person the benefit of the doubt, and made a clear distinction between their behaviour and them as a person, and they still react negatively – you have done the best you can. Whether this is happening in the workplace or in your personal life, you may need to make a hard decision as to whether continuing to work or be in relationship with this person is possible or good for you. You may hope and want them to change -– but that is not in your control. Your power is in choosing what you are going to do: file a complaint, look for reassignment or another job, minimize your contact with the colleague or family member, or exit the relationship. None of these choices will be easy. All of them take courage, because you are saying to yourself and to others “I am worthy of being treated with respect.” And if this is what you need to do – please get some support from someone you know and trust and respect, and who has only your best interests at heart. Because this is hard enough to do with support – but harder still to do alone.
Sue Mann - Coach
Reflections on how we reclaim and sustain our worthiness in the face of falls and challenges.