In praise of “Being Sensitive”: It’s not what’s wrong with us – it’s precisely what’s right with us.
When someone calls you “too sensitive”, there’s such a world of judgement there. That somehow you are weak, over-emotional, and take things too personally. And you’re supposed to be the one to toughen up.
And I’m happy to report: that’s complete BS.
And even happier to report that the research is now there to back up what so many of us have know in our hearts for a long time: sensitivity is not a curse, it is a blessing. A blessing with a healthy side of challenge, for sure, but still a blessing.
In Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown included these words from Viola Davis: ”They tell you to develop a thick skin so things don’t get to you. What they don’t tell you is that your thick skin will keep everything from getting out, too. Love, intimacy, vulnerability. I don’t want that. Thick skin doesn’t work anymore. I want to be transparent and translucent. For that to work, I won’t own other people’s shortcomings and criticisms. I won’t put what you say about me on my load (emphasis mine).”
Oh my gosh, those words. I won’t put what you say about me on my load. So incredibly powerful. I can’t express my thoughts on them any better than what another Brené Brown follower said about this: “And some people, perhaps most people, will continue saying the same things about you, sometimes for years on end. They’ll just repeat a narrative they hooked onto because it served them somehow at some point without ever learning a thing themselves from the tale they’re telling. Not once taking even a moment to consider that likely some revision is due. No revising is bad storytelling, dreadfully boring, and I refuse to subject myself to it.”
I love Glennon Melton Doyle’s phrase for us sensitive types: we are the canaries in the coal mine. It is our very sensitivity that alerts us, our families, our schools and our workplaces that something is wrong, something is not working. And it’s not us who are the problem – rather it is the toxic environments in which we find ourselves. Thought of like this, we’re huge assets in workplaces and on teams. We’re not “high maintenance drama dukes or queens”. We are the early warning system that can keep us all alive. Quite literally. Or spur us to greater levels of creativity and innovation.
And so when I read how new research is pointing to there being a very specific and positive reason as to why evolution has programmed in greater sensitivity for a portion of the population, I did a little internal happy dance. Because, yes, I geek out on this stuff.
Here’s the key concept, as summarized by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley in “What does it mean if your child is sensitive”.
“Why would nature design a subgroup of humans so sensitive to environmental conditions, compared to the more impervious majority? Boyce’s explanation, and that of a number of scientists, derives from the idea of “conditional adaptation”—that there are mechanisms in the human body (the epigenome, which regulates gene expression) monitoring specific aspects of the environment (e.g., nutrition or threat) that adjust our biological development so we have the best chance of surviving in the predicted environment. For the vast majority, average adjustments will suffice. But nature has reserved this special population who responds more nimbly in harsh conditions (hence their heightened reactivity), or makes more elegant contributions in placid and calm conditions (emphasis mine), as a way of hedging bets on human survival.”
That just sent shivers down my spine. Our “sensitivity”, our so-called weakness, is in fact an amazing asset for humanity.
But yeah, let’s face it. We also need to figure out how to function in a world that frankly doesn’t know what to do with our sensitivity and has low tolerance for it.
That’s where the skills of resilience, self-compassion, self-care, mindfulness and wholeheartedness come in. So that we can thrive – not just survive – and truly bring our amazing canary voices to the world.
Some time back, a dear friend had been messaging me quite a bit, asking for some help on how to deal with a number of difficult professional and personal situations. I started to notice resentment creeping in. The unbidden judgement popped into my head: “If you want coaching, hire me – stop using our friendship as a source for free coaching.”
If you’re wincing, you’re on to something. I wince too at acknowledging that judgement. Talk about harsh!
Fortunately, I now have the skills (and support) to notice resentment for what it is and get curious about it. After giving myself a lot of self-compassion, and doing some processing with my empathy buddy, I was able to formulate and lob a gentle question to her, free of judgement or accusation, expressing genuine concern for her situation and asking her what she thought she really needed from me. And then what followed was a beautiful back and forth, that helped to deepen our understanding and friendship. And the last tendrils of resentment on my side dissolved.
Another example from this week. I have been working with someone I know from way back to re-purpose some items of value I inherited from my mom. We first started on the project over a year ago – and months have gone by with no communication or follow-up from her. We finally got to the point last week of finalizing the designs and for a down-payment. For a few reasons, I didn’t respond right away. And then I got “barraged” with emails and messages. I felt pressurized and my resentment meter went from 0 to 100 in 1 second. “What the hell is she playing at?” my internal voice of self-righteousness erupted. “We go for months with silence and no movement on her part, and now that it’s time to pay up, if I don’t respond instantaneously I get a deluge of messages. This is totally B.S.” (Let’s be clear here: she sent me all of 3 or 4 follow-up messages within 2 days – so not exactly a “barrage.” See how quickly resentment blows things out of all proportion!)
Mustering my courage, I drafted an email back to say I was feeling uncomfortable and confused, and that I needed to step back a bit to get some perspective. Which in turn generated a genuine apology and some clarity around assumptions we were each making about timing and urgency.
So what has this to do with boundaries?
A few things.
For one, I’ve come to learn that, for me, there is a huge relationship between resentment and boundaries. Quite simply, that resentment is THE warning sign to me that some kind of boundary has been crossed.
Secondly, I’ve come to learn that if I don’t address it, either with myself or with the other person or both, the resentment will fester and stew and negatively impact the relationship.
And finally, that addressing it takes a whole heap of courage. And skill. Because if I just blurt it out, the boundary I am trying to set will almost always come out as a judgement and sound like I’m putting a wall up. And that leads to the other person getting defensive. And then things just spiral downward from there.
The boundaries I know about and can voice upfront – those are the easy ones to work with. It’s the boundaries I don’t know about, the one’s that creep up on me, visible only when resentment raises it head, that are the hard ones. I call these my “stealth boundaries.” And precisely because they really are just a form of unvoiced expectations, they are “resentments waiting to happen” in the words of Anne Lamott.
Knowing this has helped me a lot with how to work through my stealth boundaries when they do show up. Instead of judging myself or the other person for the fact that I am now feeling resentment, the situation rather just becomes an opportunity to clarify what is and isn’t ok with me – kindly and gently (that’s the hard part!). And then not to fear whatever their response might be – but just to be open to it, and take it for what it is – theirs, not mine. When I’ve done the work on my side to be clear, kind, compassionate and generous, then more often than not the response back helps to open things up and develop greater clarity and connection between us.
This approach comes from Brené’ Brown’s chapter “Sewer Rates and Scofflaws” in Rising Strong. Generosity in this case is “what is the most generous assumption you can make about this person’s intentions”. In practice, and as Brown details at some length in the chapter, it is working from the belief that “people are doing the best that they can.” That is a hard belief for many of us to adopt – but has been transformative for me. But that is a whole other post!
But being generous in assumption of intent without boundaries is equally as dangerous to our work performance, well-being and relationships. Because in this scenario we are (however unwittingly) giving people carte blanche to walk all over us. If we’re not secure enough in our own self-worth, or if our need to be liked or “people please” is greater than our desire to practice our integrity, then we don’t say “no” to behavior that is disrespectful or unprofessional. And while we bitterly resent how we are then treated – why on earth should we expect the other person to treat us with more respect than we are treating ourselves?
So yes, how we set boundaries matters. A lot. I’ve had many an experience in the past where trying to set a boundary has backfired on me miserably. The other person (often my husband, or my boss) would push back hard, calling me unreasonable, inflexible, difficult, or selfish. Boundaries without compassion or generosity feel like walls – and back then I didn’t have much of either compassion or generosity, I just had heaps of resentment and judgement.
Now every time a stealth boundary creeps on me I lean into what I’ve learned from Brené Brown: the most compassionate people have the clearest boundaries. And that gives me the courage to work it through with the other person. Whenever I'm about to do that I recite a little mantra in my head: “Boundaries without generosity feel like walls. Generosity without boundaries is being a doormat. Be clear. Be kind. I am worth this.”
“When we combine the courage to make clear what works for us, and what doesn’t, with the compassion to assume people are doing their best, our lives change,” says Brené Brown.
In this week’s toolkit, there is practice on getting clear on our boundaries – and how to turn them from “walls”, to something more like a “guidance system.” Have a look!
And one final thought. I do want to be clear that, with some people, setting boundaries is going to be like waving a red flag to a bull. For the more self-absorbed, self-aggrandizing, power-hungry people in our lives, narcissists if you will, any boundary, no matter how skillfully set, is going to be met with resistance, and quite possibly fury and rage. This NOT about you. This is about them. If you have expressed a boundary clearly and kindly, you have given the other person the benefit of the doubt, and made a clear distinction between their behaviour and them as a person, and they still react negatively – you have done the best you can. Whether this is happening in the workplace or in your personal life, you may need to make a hard decision as to whether continuing to work or be in relationship with this person is possible or good for you. You may hope and want them to change -– but that is not in your control. Your power is in choosing what you are going to do: file a complaint, look for reassignment or another job, minimize your contact with the colleague or family member, or exit the relationship. None of these choices will be easy. All of them take courage, because you are saying to yourself and to others “I am worthy of being treated with respect.” And if this is what you need to do – please get some support from someone you know and trust and respect, and who has only your best interests at heart. Because this is hard enough to do with support – but harder still to do alone.
Over the last few posts, and in the most recent resilience toolkit I've shared a practice to identify your core values. And then take the next step: work out how you actually operationalize them. Talking a good value game is easy and B.S. The more meaningful, and much harder, part is working through how you are actually going to walk your talk. That takes some good ol'fashioned look-at-oneself-in-the-mirror work. But the results, as I share below - are so worth it. I am definitely feeling much more grounded in, and committed to, my values now that I have gone through this exercise.
So, what about you? Have you tried the exercises to identify your core values and how you operationalize them yet? What came up for you? What did you notice about what you struggled with vs. what came more easily?
Behaviours and practices that support my compassion value are
I had a hard time separating out slippery slope behaviours and early warning signs, so I allowed myself to go with consolidating them into one question. From that, the following slippery slope behaviours or early warning signs emerged:
Looking back for recent examples of when I was truly living this value brought me some surprises.
One of them was during my month long stay at Malibu Vista in November 2017. Compassion meant that I stayed in my own lane, not joining in some of the gossiping and back-channeling that some of the other women were engaging in. “I have enough of my own stuff to deal with," I said when my silence was noted, “I don’t need to get into anyone else’s business”. And so it caught me by surprise when as residents left, they would hug me warmly and thank me for always being available to talk – but only about ourselves, not about others as a way of avoiding our own work. After everything I had been through, this brought tears to my eyes every time: I was not the mean bitch work had tried to make me out to be. I was capable of being the kind, generous and open-hearted person I felt myself to be.
Another is through my volunteering work the Women’s Opportunity Center - a local non-profit serving low-income, marginalized and displaced women. Those women amaze me with their courage, their strength, their determination. Society is incredibly quick to judge them as “less than” and “living off the system”. They are anything but. They are fiercely determined to make something of their lives – when the deck is heavily stacked against them. And whatever I give to them in terms of coaching, they give me so much more. They keep me grounded, and real, and hopeful. They remind me of the innate competence and capability of every person – no matter how much society may judge or shame or belittle them.
The feelings that come from living into this value - even when it’s hard – are powerful. I feel grounded, aligned and purposeful. I am less impulsive and more considered. I am less quick-off-the-mark with retorts to perceived slights or put downs, and can take my time to listen, and chose not to even respond – as most of the time a response isn’t necessary. I feel more open and connected to myself and to others.
In terms of support for this value: I’ve made a commitment to share this reflection with a few people in my life who can help me to practice my values – even when the going gets tough. On my list are my husband, a close friend, a fellow NVC practitioner, and two coaching friends. Yes, it feels vulnerable to do this: and yes I know this is exactly what I need to do. My ask to them will be that they encourage me and check-in with me on time to time – just holding space for me to reflect and process.
One more reflection before I wrap this. Writing this down, as an actual shareable reflection, has truly helped me to deepen my own insights and get more specific on the behaviours that support versus challenge my values. So, I encourage you to take the time to work this through properly. You’re welcome to use me as your “accountability buddy” if you like. Schedule a session with me to go through your own process. Or pick someone else who is important in your life and part of your support system, like I am doing. Stretch yourself into your challenge zone – but not so far that you’re in you’re in your freak out zone. It’s all about baby steps as you learn these skills and put them into practice.
When I’m running a resilience workshop I teach the concepts of “post-traumatic growth” and being “resilience-informed”, not just “trauma-informed”. The basic idea is that we are more than what has happened to us. We all found ways to cope – no matter what happened to us. We may have found better or worse ways to cope, but cope we did – because here we are.
For myself, feeling isolated in a privileged all-girls school, I learned to rely on academic performance to prove myself, to cope. And this carried over into my professional life. For others, our coping strategy may have been to shut down emotion, or to learn not to care, or to drive ourselves ever harder to “be perfect”. We developed those coping strategies because we learned and grew from our experiences. From bullying at school: don’t show weakness. From feeling isolated and excluded: don’t show them that you care. From harsh criticism on our performance: work harder, work longer. Our strategies emerged from our strengths: our willpower, our capacity for work, our creativity, our sensitivity.
And everything I have learned since that awful moment in 2017, about how we can use those same strengths to develop skills that are more adapted to the life we are in now – rather than the life we were in then – got beautifully amplified last night, when I attended a community screening and discussion of the movie Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope.
The cinema theater was full. There must have been at least 150 of us or so. We were from all walks of life: law enforcement, recovery, the school system, universities, mental health professionals, medical professionals, faith leaders and ordinary citizens and people. We were all there to embody the basic tenant of movie, and the research it is based on: “If you can get the science [about trauma and resilience] into the hands of the population, they will invent very wise solutions”.
And we are. We so are.
Here, in my community, we have started a community-wide campaign called “Be The One”. The idea is so simple. And so transformative. It is that we can all “be the one” person who shows up in someone’s life to be of support and strength. In small tiny moments, or in big moments. We don’t need to be mental health professionals, we don’t need to be therapists or coaches or teachers or educators or priests. We just need to be ourselves. We just need to care and be kind. And includes ourselves, for sometimes the one person we need to show up for, care about and be kind to is us.
A few weeks ago on a Friday I gave a talk on resilience and my own experiences. I didn’t feel that I did good job, and the shame gremlins came calling and camped out over the weekend. For the first time in a very long time they had me up at 4am in the morning. By Monday morning I had what I call my “vulnerability hangover”.
At this point I relied 100% on my training and the research: self-compassion is the way, not self-criticism. And compassion is an infinite and renewable resource. We do not need to ration our care and empathy and compassion – to ourselves, or to others. No matter what we have or have not done. The more empathy and compassion and care we give to ourselves and to others, the more we have to give. And the more courage we have to pick-ourselves up and keep on going.
So as I came into that Monday with client calls, I just kept on telling myself “Compassion, Sue, compassion. Be kind to yourself. Be very, very kind to yourself”. I reached out to my “ones” – some dear friends and fellow coaches. And I got through that Monday. I was there for my clients - compassionately, kindly. And the shame gremlins and vulnerability hangover started to fade.
One of the audience questions last night was: “What can we, who are not medical or helping professionals do?” The answer came back very simply: care about others, believe in their competence, know they are capable of change and growth. One of the panelists called it the three Cs: caring, competence, capability. Believe in the resilience of people. Don’t think of them as broken and needing fixing. Believe in their innate competence. Believe that they are capable of learning and growing from any experience. And do so in a kind and caring manner. In short, be “resilience-informed” and be kind.
And those three Cs are in SUCH short supply in the workplace these days. I lived it in in 2017. I hear it everyday from my clients, as they try to navigate harsh criticism, uncaring bosses, difficult colleagues and their own gremlins. They are beating themselves up so much over workplaces that are beating them up. They think they are to blame, that they are at fault. No, no, no! They are just trying to do the best they can, using the coping strategies that they learned decades ago as they navigated childhood and early adulthood. They are survivors and fighters – not failures, not weak. And when they realize that, and tap into that, I just stand back in awe and wonder and watch them take flight. It is one of the most rewarding things in the world.
And so here’s my question to you: Will you Be The One? Will you be the one to be kind to yourself? Will you be the one to care about a colleague and reach out to them? Will you be the one to take a moment to truly see someone, and see them for the perfectly imperfect human being they are, not just a colleague who frustrates you, a boss who you fear, or a direct report you despair of?
It doesn’t take any special kind of training. It doesn’t take any super-hero skills. It’s just takes you saying “Yes, I will be the one”. And then letting the magic of compassion happen.
Per my previous post, as of the end of November, I was clear on one of my two core values: compassion.
But the second was proving elusive. “What am I prepared to struggle for,” kept playing on a loop in my mind.
The answer came, as is so often does, while I was rocking-out to some favourite music (Loreena McKennit) in the shower.
Yes, the obvious kind. And also much more than that. Play for me is not a simple value at all. It’s a wonderful yummy mash-up of rest, creativity, curiosity, learning, growth, exploration, not-taking-myself-too-seriously (one I reeeaaaly struggle with), goofiness, vulnerability, experimentation, down-time, relaxation, rest…etc. Play for me is both purposeful AND purposeless. It is both, at the exact same time. Just like it is with kids.
Why is play so important to me that I would list it as one of my two core values?
Precisely because it is the one where a whole lot of other behaviours and patterns of thinking get tested. Taking myself too seriously, for one, as I've already mentioned. When I was a graduate student the head of the Leadership Scholarship program I was a part of told me “Sue, you’re far too wound up, you should really just smoke of doobie”. As this was an Ivy League MBA program you can image how off the wall that suggestion was to me!
Yet I had been on the receiving end of variations on this theme for some years: A a short-lived boyfriend had told me in my twenties – “Your walls are raised so high I can walk in right underneath them”. Another friend at a similar time : “You’re strung so tight I can play you like a guitar”.
So play would hardly seem to be a value I was embodying. True, and yet....
It is was precisely because I was so deeply uncomfortable with vulnerability, and - truth-be-told, downright insecure - that I was armoring up and trying to project a certain image. But it was precisely in the moments when I wasn’t armored up, when I felt truly comfortable to be me, that I could be goofy, ridiculous, relaxed and chilled out. Earnest, task-focused, highly productive, taking-things-seriously Sue is a part of me yes. And it’s a part of me that, when left to run rampant, quickly leads me into a quagmire of shame, blame, judgement, resentment and unhappiness.
“The opposite of play is not work, it is depression” write Dr Stuart Brown, president of the National Institute for Play. Drawing on his own research, as well as latest advances in biology, psychology, and neurology, Brown explains that play shapes our brain, helps us foster empathy, helps us navigate complex social groups and is the core of creativity and innovation. Play is as essential to our health and functioning as rest.
Respecting our biologically programmed need for play can transform work. It can bring back excitement and newness to our job. Play helps us deal with difficulties, provides a sense of expansiveness, promotes mastery of our craft, and is an essential part of the creative process. Most important, true play that comes from our own inner needs and desires is the only path to finding lasting joy and satisfaction in our work. In the long run, work does not work without play.
All of this is so incredibly true for me. When I lose sight of play in my work, all the uglier, sadder and more depressive parts of myself quickly start running rough shod over my energy, my relationships, and my mood.
When I am honoring and living by play as one of my two core values I am me at my best. As a decision-making filter it guides me to decisions and choices that honor what I actually need, not what I think I need to prove myself to myself or to others. It is achievable, internal, conscious and socially-constructive (using the tests of good values from my previous post). When I bring an attitude of play to something I am open, curious, learning and growing. It keeps me out of defensiveness and armoring up. It helps me lean-in compassionately even with those with whom I really struggle.
So, compassion and play. There you have it.
In the next post I will (vulnerably, playfully and compassionately!) share how I am working to operationalize these two values, what tends to lead me to walk away from my values, and what support systems I have put in place to help me protect and nurture my values.
The reason we roll our eyes when people start talking about values is that everyone talks a big values game but very few people actually practice one. …If you’re not going to take the time to translate values from ideals to behavior – it’s better not to profess any values at tall. They become a joke. A cat poster. Total BS.
Harsh words. And yet we know they are true. As I mentioned in my previous post on the importance of identifying our core values, every day and all around us we see the evidence of people and organizations espousing high-sounding values and then, ostensibly in the name of those same values, behaving abominably. 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.
So how in fact, does one do that.
The answer is deceptively simple to describe. Much, much, much harder to actually work through.
In this week’s resilience tool, I describe the process to get clear on how to actually put your values into practice, identify when you are most likely to be challenged to show-up and behave in accordance with your values, and how to identify and put in place the support systems that will help you to stay true to your values – as we are human and we will be tempted to put down our values from time to time.
In next week’s entry I’ll share my own results of applying this process to my two core values: compassion and play.
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.
You may be trusting something other than your intuition – and it may be misleading you
Intuition is a pretty hot-topic. Google it and hundreds of searches come up. Most of them are around the theme of “how to tap into your intuition” and “trust your intuition”.
I get it.
The world is so complex - and getting ever more so. How are we supposed to navigate through it all? If we were to slowly, deliberatively, calmly and rationally sort through the hundreds of decisions we need to make each day, we would never get anywhere. There is simply no time to do that in today’s crazy world. In Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink (an awesome read, I highly recommend it) he writes powerfully to the ability to just know or understand something, seemingly immediately, and without any awareness of conscious thought or effort. Why wouldn’t we want more of that in our lives?
In our everyday language we venerate phrases like “I went with my gut” or “I just knew it was the right thing to do”. Note though, that these are always said after the fact – where whatever it is that we went with or did has turned out well.
Intuition is supposedly the font of all things wonderful and good: creativity, inspiration, better decisions, happiness, fulfilment. It would appear to be like some magical power, like the Force in Star Wars. “Use the Force, Luke” exhorts Obi-Wan Kanobi, and Luke goes on to successfully take out the Death Star, where all others have failed.
But the Force has a dark side – and, sorry to rain on the intuition parade – so does intuition. Chiefly because much of what we call intuition, really isn’t intuition at all.
In my previous blog post I wrote about System 1 vs. System 2 thinking, as researched and defined by Daniel Kahneman, the Noble Prize-winning psychologist, in his seminal book Thinking, Fast and Slow. In Blink Gladwell uses the phrase “thin slicing” to describe System 1 thinking in action. Thin slicing is the ability to find patterns in events based only on "thin slices", or narrow windows, of experience. The term means “making very quick inferences about the state, characteristics or details of an individual or situation with minimal amounts of information. Brief judgments based on thin-slicing are similar to those judgments based on much more information. Judgments based on thin-slicing can be as accurate, or even more accurate, than judgments based on much more information.” (Source: Wikipedia).
In other words, thin slicing – which is System 1 in action – looks a lot like intuition.
And it is, in a way. But critically it’s also not in another way.
Because this kind of intuition is based both on data AND on thousands of hours of learning, dedication and practice of a skill or craft. It is intuition based on deep expertise. And it truly breath-taking to watch in action. Some of the memorable examples Gladwell cites are of firefighters who just “know” that there is something wrong with a fire, and by this “knowing” avert disaster and save lives. Or a master chess player who can scan another chess game in progress for just a second or two and immediately blurt out the next three moves that will win the game.
However when most of us mere mortals use the word intuition, and when we are exhorted to tap into and trust our intuition, it is based on no such solid foundation of expertise. Rather, it is intuition that arises from System 1’s heuristics (rules of thumb). And this is its flaw. Because System 1 heuristics evolved to deal with relatively straightforward, survival- type situations – not with the complex, no-clear-right-or-wrong decisions and situations that predominate modern life. And when this type of “intuition” is applied to modern life its propensity to lead us astray and jump to conclusions that are riddled with errors in judgement, biased thinking, and stereotypes is well documented and researched.
Worse, much of what we venerate as intuition is not only System 1 thinking, it’s actually self-rationalization and self-deception masquerading as intuition.
How often, for reasons we typically can’t verbalize or explain, have we really wanted something or to do something. We just know it. And so we do it. And it works out. And we praise ourselves for listening to our intuition, for going with our gut. But the truth is, if we had slowed down and really looked at where that feeling had come from, and what the feeling was really telling us, it was almost always coming from a place of wanting to be right, of wanting to have confidence in ourselves, and wanting to believe that it will all turn out for the best. Because being wrong, lacking confidence and embracing the uncertainty that is life and living feel neither good or comfortable or easy.
And if whatever we wanted or whatever we did doesn’t turn out well, we don’t tend to say “my intuition was wrong” or “I shouldn’t have gone with my gut”. Rather we tend to say “I should have thought it through more”.
This is not to say I don’t believe in intuition. Not at all. I do. Very deeply. But I’ve come to learn (the hard way, of course) that real intuition is a much harder and more elusive thing entirely than what we typically call intuition. But while harder and more elusive, it is also so so so much more valuable.
For me, I’ve come to understand that my real intuition is actually a very soft, quiet voice. I have to be still and patient and intentional (yes, that is intentionally paradoxical! ) to hear my intuition. She is a gentle voice, and I have to cultivate space and safety for her to be heard. And, contrary to what I always thought, I find that my real intuition is never a feeling, rather she is a hearing. I have to listen for her. And to create the stillness and space so that I can hear her I need to be quite deliberative and intentional. For me that looks like sustaining as close to a daily meditation practice as I can. It means journaling regularly. It means making time to be alone, going for quite walks, doodling, sitting idly drinking my morning tea while I watch the birds and survey my garden, and listening to quiet music. It means pausing to reflect and process. It means, most of all, building “time out” and rest and relaxation into my schedule and my life.
So that when intuition speaks, I can hear her. And when she speaks, she truly is my higher power. Because with true intuition, my head, heart and gut are all aligned. I am truly “in synch” with and “in truth” with myself. For me, true intuition is not a feeling. It is a knowing. A deep knowing that my actions, choices and behavior are truly grounded in my values and my purpose. And it brings a deep sense of empowerment, inspiration and calmness as all my doubts fall away and my confidence soars.
True intuition’s soft, quiet, gentle voice is well worth sitting in stillness and patience for. She is my North Star – shining the light of truth and authenticity into the darkness of self-deception and self-rationalization. If I will but be quiet and listen.
For more on intuition, see Maria Popova’s marvelous blog Brain Pickings and in particular her summary of Kahneman’s contribution towards Thinking: The New Science of Decision-Making, Problem-Solving, and Prediction, a thought-provoking collection of essays edited by John Brockman.
“You question everything, but do you question your thoughts?”
Sue Mann - Coach
Reflections on how we reclaim and sustain our worthiness in the face of falls and challenges.