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.)
It’s a concept so simple it was taught to my son many years ago in Kindergarten: you cannot fill up your bucket by emptying someone else’s.
And yet that is what seems to happen all the time. Every day. Especially in workplaces. It’s part of what makes so many of them so toxic.
Here’s Elementary “Bucket Fillosophy”.
All day long, everyone in the whole wide world walk around carrying an invisible bucket.
All around us, people are running on empty. Not enough sleep, never enough time, rushing from deadline to deadline, attempting to meet the endless, impossible and competing demands of bosses, co-workers, and management.
All around us, our coworkers and bosses are desperately attempting to feel good – to fill their buckets – by dipping into others. Criticism, put downs, undermining, gossiping: our workplaces are rife with it. All dressed up as “feedback”. But it never is. Because the simple reality is: if we feel good about ourselves at work, we have no need to puff ourselves up by putting other people down.
This is not to justify or excuse poor behaviour. On the contrary. Because when your bucket is full, you can compassionately hold someone accountable for their behaviour without having to shame or blame them. You can set clear boundaries - without have to shut people out, or shut them down. You can give feedback in a manner that helps others see, and maybe even plug, the slow leaks – or gaping holes – in their buckets, so that they can stop dipping into others.
What this also means is that whatever other people are saying or doing is not about you - or at least not in the way they are trying to make it out to be. Their unhappiness, meanness, bullying, backstabbing, sniping etc. may be directed at you - but you are at the effect of their empty bucket, not it's cause. Yes, their behaviour is bucket-dipping, and to the extent that you are engaging in the same strategies, then so is yours. But our buckets are never empty solely because of the behaviour of others. When we know how to truth check the messages other direct our way, when we know how to replenish our own buckets without expecting others to do so for us, then we have true resilience and our buckets stay full, regardless of how much others are dipping into them.
It’s so simple and so hard: happy people aren’t mean. As you look around you at your coworkers what do you see? Do you see a bunch of people with full buckets? If so - yeah to you for being in an awesome work environment! Or you do you see a bunch of people with empty buckets, desperately trying to fill theirs by dipping into everyone else’s? Do you see people with holes so gaping in their own buckets that as fast as they or anyone tries to help them fill it, it all drains right back out?
So if you’re struggling at work, ask yourself: how full is your bucket? And how full are those of the people around you? Do you have holes in your own bucket? Do you know how to replenish your bucket when others take a swipe out of it? What are the thoughts, beliefs and patterns of behaviour that are draining you bucket dry, no matter how much your or others try to fill it? How much are you dipping into other's buckets to try to feel better? And what help or support may help you to fill your own bucket, or to stop the impact of other people’s behaviour on you?
Over the last few posts, and in the most recent resilience toolkit I've shared a practice to identify your core values. And then take the next step: work out how you actually operationalize them. Talking a good value game is easy and B.S. The more meaningful, and much harder, part is working through how you are actually going to walk your talk. That takes some good ol'fashioned look-at-oneself-in-the-mirror work. But the results, as I share below - are so worth it. I am definitely feeling much more grounded in, and committed to, my values now that I have gone through this exercise.
So, what about you? Have you tried the exercises to identify your core values and how you operationalize them yet? What came up for you? What did you notice about what you struggled with vs. what came more easily?
Behaviours and practices that support my compassion value are
I had a hard time separating out slippery slope behaviours and early warning signs, so I allowed myself to go with consolidating them into one question. From that, the following slippery slope behaviours or early warning signs emerged:
Looking back for recent examples of when I was truly living this value brought me some surprises.
One of them was during my month long stay at Malibu Vista in November 2017. Compassion meant that I stayed in my own lane, not joining in some of the gossiping and back-channeling that some of the other women were engaging in. “I have enough of my own stuff to deal with," I said when my silence was noted, “I don’t need to get into anyone else’s business”. And so it caught me by surprise when as residents left, they would hug me warmly and thank me for always being available to talk – but only about ourselves, not about others as a way of avoiding our own work. After everything I had been through, this brought tears to my eyes every time: I was not the mean bitch work had tried to make me out to be. I was capable of being the kind, generous and open-hearted person I felt myself to be.
Another is through my volunteering work the Women’s Opportunity Center - a local non-profit serving low-income, marginalized and displaced women. Those women amaze me with their courage, their strength, their determination. Society is incredibly quick to judge them as “less than” and “living off the system”. They are anything but. They are fiercely determined to make something of their lives – when the deck is heavily stacked against them. And whatever I give to them in terms of coaching, they give me so much more. They keep me grounded, and real, and hopeful. They remind me of the innate competence and capability of every person – no matter how much society may judge or shame or belittle them.
The feelings that come from living into this value - even when it’s hard – are powerful. I feel grounded, aligned and purposeful. I am less impulsive and more considered. I am less quick-off-the-mark with retorts to perceived slights or put downs, and can take my time to listen, and chose not to even respond – as most of the time a response isn’t necessary. I feel more open and connected to myself and to others.
In terms of support for this value: I’ve made a commitment to share this reflection with a few people in my life who can help me to practice my values – even when the going gets tough. On my list are my husband, a close friend, a fellow NVC practitioner, and two coaching friends. Yes, it feels vulnerable to do this: and yes I know this is exactly what I need to do. My ask to them will be that they encourage me and check-in with me on time to time – just holding space for me to reflect and process.
One more reflection before I wrap this. Writing this down, as an actual shareable reflection, has truly helped me to deepen my own insights and get more specific on the behaviours that support versus challenge my values. So, I encourage you to take the time to work this through properly. You’re welcome to use me as your “accountability buddy” if you like. Schedule a session with me to go through your own process. Or pick someone else who is important in your life and part of your support system, like I am doing. Stretch yourself into your challenge zone – but not so far that you’re in you’re in your freak out zone. It’s all about baby steps as you learn these skills and put them into practice.
When I’m running a resilience workshop I teach the concepts of “post-traumatic growth” and being “resilience-informed”, not just “trauma-informed”. The basic idea is that we are more than what has happened to us. We all found ways to cope – no matter what happened to us. We may have found better or worse ways to cope, but cope we did – because here we are.
For myself, feeling isolated in a privileged all-girls school, I learned to rely on academic performance to prove myself, to cope. And this carried over into my professional life. For others, our coping strategy may have been to shut down emotion, or to learn not to care, or to drive ourselves ever harder to “be perfect”. We developed those coping strategies because we learned and grew from our experiences. From bullying at school: don’t show weakness. From feeling isolated and excluded: don’t show them that you care. From harsh criticism on our performance: work harder, work longer. Our strategies emerged from our strengths: our willpower, our capacity for work, our creativity, our sensitivity.
And everything I have learned since that awful moment in 2017, about how we can use those same strengths to develop skills that are more adapted to the life we are in now – rather than the life we were in then – got beautifully amplified last night, when I attended a community screening and discussion of the movie Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope.
The cinema theater was full. There must have been at least 150 of us or so. We were from all walks of life: law enforcement, recovery, the school system, universities, mental health professionals, medical professionals, faith leaders and ordinary citizens and people. We were all there to embody the basic tenant of movie, and the research it is based on: “If you can get the science [about trauma and resilience] into the hands of the population, they will invent very wise solutions”.
And we are. We so are.
Here, in my community, we have started a community-wide campaign called “Be The One”. The idea is so simple. And so transformative. It is that we can all “be the one” person who shows up in someone’s life to be of support and strength. In small tiny moments, or in big moments. We don’t need to be mental health professionals, we don’t need to be therapists or coaches or teachers or educators or priests. We just need to be ourselves. We just need to care and be kind. And includes ourselves, for sometimes the one person we need to show up for, care about and be kind to is us.
A few weeks ago on a Friday I gave a talk on resilience and my own experiences. I didn’t feel that I did good job, and the shame gremlins came calling and camped out over the weekend. For the first time in a very long time they had me up at 4am in the morning. By Monday morning I had what I call my “vulnerability hangover”.
At this point I relied 100% on my training and the research: self-compassion is the way, not self-criticism. And compassion is an infinite and renewable resource. We do not need to ration our care and empathy and compassion – to ourselves, or to others. No matter what we have or have not done. The more empathy and compassion and care we give to ourselves and to others, the more we have to give. And the more courage we have to pick-ourselves up and keep on going.
So as I came into that Monday with client calls, I just kept on telling myself “Compassion, Sue, compassion. Be kind to yourself. Be very, very kind to yourself”. I reached out to my “ones” – some dear friends and fellow coaches. And I got through that Monday. I was there for my clients - compassionately, kindly. And the shame gremlins and vulnerability hangover started to fade.
One of the audience questions last night was: “What can we, who are not medical or helping professionals do?” The answer came back very simply: care about others, believe in their competence, know they are capable of change and growth. One of the panelists called it the three Cs: caring, competence, capability. Believe in the resilience of people. Don’t think of them as broken and needing fixing. Believe in their innate competence. Believe that they are capable of learning and growing from any experience. And do so in a kind and caring manner. In short, be “resilience-informed” and be kind.
And those three Cs are in SUCH short supply in the workplace these days. I lived it in in 2017. I hear it everyday from my clients, as they try to navigate harsh criticism, uncaring bosses, difficult colleagues and their own gremlins. They are beating themselves up so much over workplaces that are beating them up. They think they are to blame, that they are at fault. No, no, no! They are just trying to do the best they can, using the coping strategies that they learned decades ago as they navigated childhood and early adulthood. They are survivors and fighters – not failures, not weak. And when they realize that, and tap into that, I just stand back in awe and wonder and watch them take flight. It is one of the most rewarding things in the world.
And so here’s my question to you: Will you Be The One? Will you be the one to be kind to yourself? Will you be the one to care about a colleague and reach out to them? Will you be the one to take a moment to truly see someone, and see them for the perfectly imperfect human being they are, not just a colleague who frustrates you, a boss who you fear, or a direct report you despair of?
It doesn’t take any special kind of training. It doesn’t take any super-hero skills. It’s just takes you saying “Yes, I will be the one”. And then letting the magic of compassion happen.
Have you ever taken the time to discern what your real values are? Or sat down and determined if your values are setting you up for happiness and fulfillment, or for pain and suffering?
And why do values even matter? Especially when all around us we see people and organizations espousing high-sounding values and then, ostensibly in the name of those same values, behaving abominably.
Many of us talk a good game about our values. But consciously living by and holding ourselves accountable to our values, rather than just professing them - that's a whole different thing. It takes heap of commitment and courage to actually practice our values.
Simply put, if it's easy to list our values, they're probably not our real values.
If I had been asked what my values where a few years back I could have rattled off a nice list of good sounding ones: financial security, responsibility, honesty, generosity, community, work-ethic blah blah. But if I looked at my actual behavior there would have been quite the gap between what I professed vs. what my behavior revealed. At my best my behavior pointed towards values of kindness, consideration, and integrity, among others. At my worst: arrogance, intolerance, the need to believe I was right, power, rigidity.
Like an iceberg, it is our behaviors that lie above the water line, visible to ourselves and to others.
Our true values lie below the water line – typically hidden both to others and, more critically, to ourselves.
Whether we are conscious of them or not, values drive our behavior.
And getting clear on our values is not the simple exercise you may think. It takes some serious deep diving into the cold, uncomfortable, and murky waters of looking at what our behaviors, prejudices and judgments, thoughts and feelings, fears and dreams really reveal about our values – rather than what we profess them to be. And then doing the hard work of re-prioritizing them (if that is needed). And the even harder work of actually putting them into practice.
Why even bother to do this hard work?
Because it makes for much greater resilience, confidence, happiness and fulfillment. Even more, values are a protective factor when it comes to a concept known as "social contagion." Social contagion is the phenomenon by which behaviours become normalized and adopted. For example, as Susan David illustrates, take this scenario: You’re on an airplane, cramped and tired, eager to reach your destination. The flight crew is passing by with the snack cart. You’re not feeling particularly hungry—perhaps you availed yourself of an overpriced sandwich back in the terminal—but you notice that the gentleman sitting beside you is treating himself to a bag of M&M’s. You’ve never met this person before and exchanged only a cursory nod as you took your seats. Still, research shows that you are now 30 percent more likely to spring for some candy of your own.
This is social contagion. Where the choices of someone you don’t even know have may have sway over your own decisions. Large scale epidemiological studies show that if someone in your social network puts on weight or gets divorced, your likelihood of doing the same increases substantially. This is the case even if you don’t know the person. They might be the friend of a friend of a friend, but their actions have far-reaching ripple effects.
However, the research also shows that not everyone is equally susceptible to social contagions. People with a clear sense of their values have proven to be more resilient to the pressures of their community. Susan David gives another example. Women in professions with a high degree of gender bias are more likely than their male colleagues to quit when faced with setbacks. Without even realizing it, they can internalize the messages snaking through their work environment, the ones telling them that they don’t belong. But when these women are asked to perform a simple exercise in which they clarify why they are in their career—why it is of value to them—they become insulated from the toxic social contagion. They are more likely to hang in there when the going gets tough.
This is why it’s so important to know our values. They are more than nice-to-haves that make life more pleasant. Our values help to inoculate us against making decisions that are not our own.
Coming back to Brené Brown. One of the very first things we did as part of the Living Brave was to identify our values. She used the image of a lantern to describe what values do for us.
Values are what we take into the arena with us, she said. Values light our way.
The exercise was to discern our two core values. Yes, just two (I will come back to that). Her test was “without these I am not me”. Values, in her terms are "the organizing principles of our lives." Her suggestion was to think back to a time when we were most alive, most daring greatly in our lives, being our most authentic selves. And then think about what values we were living into at that time.
I did the exercise and felt good about the clarity I got to. My top two were vision and belief in self.
With hindsight it's embarrassingly obvious how those two values could lead me astray. There were certainly true, in that they felt true to who I was/was striving to be and to the moments and events in my life when I had felt most alive, most myself, most in my integrity and passion. They were not the complete picture, however. I hadn't dived deeper, to see what, if anything, might be underneath them. And frankly, it was both too easy and too feel-good, self-congratulatory. My understanding was at the intellectual level. I hadn't challenged myself or worked with a partner to think through what behaviors those values were driving and where those values may set me up for falls, heartbreak and disappointment, rather than resilience, grounded confidence and success.
The next step came from an unlikely source: Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A counterintuitive approach to living a good life. His basic argument goes as follows:
Since reading this some months back I haven’t been able to get Manson’s approach out of my head. Reading the “Living into our values” chapter of Brené Brown’s latest book, Dare to Lead, had me flipping back to Mark Manson, trying to see how I could tie Manson’s approach with Brown’s.
I’ve landed on not following Brown’s approach to focus one which values “resonate deeply” with me. Rather I’m marrying her suggestion to identify what fills me with a feeling of purpose with Manson’s question of “what am I prepared to struggle for”. What “resonates deeply” with me can feel like an exercise in self-congratulation. “What am I prepared to struggle for” requires some good hard self-awareness.
Manson and Brown do agree on the need for prioritization. Whenever we are presented with a list of values, most of us will want to pick 10 to 15 of them. But that’s not helpful. Brown’s research has shown that those who are most willing to wrestle with vulnerability and practice courage tether their behavior to one or two values, not ten. Channeling Jim Collins (of Good to Great fame): “If you have more than three priorities, you have no priorities”. When we identify a whole lot of values as important to us, we’re not getting real or honest with ourselves – we’re choosing easy, comfortable and a list of feel good words over integrity, courage and self-awareness. When we limit ourselves to two, we start to get really clear on what is truly driving us - and what we want to drive us. And we usually find that is those two where all the other values that we wanted to pick truly get tested.
In this week’s resilience toolkit there is an exercise to get clarity on your values. If you’ve read this far, why don’t you take it? The exercise forces some hard, and illuminating choices.
I’m clear on one of my two values: compassion.
Compassion sets me up with the kind of problems that make my life harder in many respects (darn it, I can’t just judge, blame and shame people; I can’t hold onto grudges or resentments) but better in all the ways that are meaningful and matter to me. It tempers my reactivity and defensiveness. It leads me towards connection, belonging, community, resilience, confidence, hope, perseverance, and joy. It’s also where a whole lot of other values get tested, like integrity, honesty, and knowledge. In particular it shines the light on where those other values of mine can be used as weapons to defend myself or hurt others.
As for my second, it’s taking a lot more wrangling.
Vision still keeps yelling for my attention. But I am not quite certain about it. It still feels too easy of a value to have - at least for me. And as I look back, I can see where it set me up with “bad problems” as well as “better problems”. I'm not ready to chuck it out yet though. I'm letting myself mull on it, trusting that if I just sit with this, and let myself be curious, rather than looking for an easy answer so I can just call this exercise done, my truth will emerge.
Joy is also calling to me. I know the struggle involved in joy. There is nothing passive or easy about joy. It’s a whole set of values, practices, and attitudes that challenge me on multiple levels, as so beautifully and joyfully elucidated by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in The Book of Joy. And each of those values and practices set me up for “good problems”. But precisely because joy is such a complicated value for me I’m having hard time feeling it’s the best choice. I am also of the view that joy is the result of the intentional practice of other values, rather than a value in and of itself. Intentionally seeking or cultivating joy usually results in its opposite. So, joy doesn’t seem to fit either.
And so I'm still doing the work on identifying my second core value. And that's OK with me. I would rather be patient, and spend the time with this, than rush to an answer.
How about you? What are your two core values? What kinds of problems do they create for you? And are those problems "good" ones, or "bad" ones?
Part 2 will be on "operationalizing" our values. Our values are just feel-good sentiments unless and until we move beyond professing them to actually practicing them. That takes courage. And thought. So more to come.
Sue Mann - Coach
Reflections on how we reclaim and sustain our worthiness in the face of falls and challenges.