Toxic work environments and 5 strategies for repairing them
For many people, September is the month that feels like the start of an exciting and fun new year as kids and teachers return to school at every level and a more regular routine is reestablished. It can also be a period of extremely high stress if reentry is associated with a toxic environment. The dread and apprehension can paralyze people, and make them seriously consider bailing out at the last minute. Sadly, I hear this all too often from my clients working in academia.
The good news is that there are some simple steps to take from reminding yourself to treat others with respect to active strategies for dealing with difficult colleagues.
But first, let’s talk a little bit about what is going on. In their classic work, Influence without authority (2005, 2nd Ed.), Allan Cohan and David Bradford write: “… when dealing with colleagues, mutuality is critical, which can be difficult if the organization tends to reinforce competitive views” (p. 216). This is often the case in the world of academia, whether you are a student or a teacher at any level. Just noticing this, and naming it, can help with reducing the stress. The second thing to notice and name is the intrinsic power hierarchy and where you may fall on the “level of authority” scale.
To summarize Cohan and Bradford’s research, the ability to gain influence without authority is about self-empowerment. You empower yourself by knowing what others need and helping them achieve their objectives. Or in the pithy words of motivational speaker Brian Tracy, “Successful people are always looking for opportunities to help others. Unsuccessful people are always asking, “What’s in it for me?” (As quoted in The Lost Art of General Management (2004) by Rob Waite, p. 96). Influence is not the same as manipulation.
In other words, it’s all about the relationships with others. Jane Dutton (2003) makes a distinction between “high-energy” connections and “corrosive” connections in the workplace. She emphasizes that interactions creating either type of connection need not be big, damaging actions or long, drawn-out discussions, but are most often built through the small interactions of every day life. In an organization, corrosive interactions can be small incivilities creating a sense of disrespect, from simple inattentiveness to active words of cruelty like, “I told you that was a stupid idea.” Taking actions to make it difficult for others to get a task done or actively sabotaging someone else’s work product can leave people feeling unsupported and deeply unhappy, such as when a superior promises help but fails to deliver it, resulting in rightly placed misapprehension and distrust.
Dutton discusses the “spirals of incivility” that can result in a “death spiral turning competent performers into basket cases” (p. 114). Caught in a corrosive relationship, people start to doubt their own efficacy. This, in turn, impacts their sense of self-worth. (It is interesting to note that in one 2001 study with 12,000 participants conducted by Christine Pearson, Lynne Andersson and J.W. Wegner, the people instigating incivility were three times as likely to have more power than those targeted, suggesting that civility or politeness may also be a survival strategy.)
So what is one lone person to do? Here are 5 strategies for coping with corrosive relationships as presented by Jane Dutton. The first two are short-term, while the last three are long term.
- Name the problem: Understand the dynamics of the relationship as corrosive and understand the negative emotions being induced.
- Create a sense of control: Refuse to become powerless by setting your own goals, even if they are relatively smalls. One example is creating a game where you keep track of how often you can get the corrosive connection to smile.
- “Bound and buffer” interactions by eliminating any interdependent tasks you can, as well as disengaging psychologically, up to withdrawing from any unnecessary social interaction.
- “Buttress and strengthen” by building your own personal resources through meditation, constructing a more positive self-image, reducing negative self talk, finding your own meaning in the connection, using a long time horizon to see past the immediate behavior, looking optimistically at the future, and building supportive relationships outside the corrosive connection.
- “Target and transform” is the most long-term of strategies, to alter the corrosive connection. Take these four steps:
- Clarify your own needs;
- Seek information about the other’s needs;
- Think through alternatives to any form of negotiated agreement; and finally
- Engage in collaborative dialogue through the “high-energy” connection strategies of being present, being affirmative, actively listening, responding through supportive communication, enabling the other person, and being trustworthy yourself.
Noticing whether a workplace relationship is “high-energy” or “corrosive” at the outset of your reentry to the school year can help you determine what you can do on your own to limit negative interactions or work toward long-term positive change, one conversation at a time.
How to take a vacation when you can’t leave
We can’t always get away on vacation when we need to, here are ten ideas to help you:
- Spruce up your home or office so that it makes you happy. If you already have photos of family, change them out, because eventually those photos are like wallpaper and you won’t see them. If you have toys on your desk, change those out, too, for the same reason. Hang something colorful on your cubicle or office wall, maybe a quilt or abstract piece of embroidery from someplace like Guatemala, but not an “encouragement poster.” Those will just make you cynical after a while.
- Express gratitude for all that you have. You may not be able to afford a vacation right now, but can you get away to a coffee shop one afternoon with a friend? Do you have groceries in the refrigerator, a roof over your head, a sense of safety and being at peace when home? If you write down both what you are grateful for, and what you did to make it happen, you are also simultaneously building your confidence.
- If there is someone you should thank, a spouse that picked up dry cleaning, a child that made dinner without you asking, express your thanks aloud and see their joy. Positivity lights up mirror neurons and helps you feel good, too. Definitely a momentary diversion from the daily grind.
- Schedule a massage or some other form of self-care that you enjoy. An hour on the table when you cannot do anything else is a wonderful break from the demands of daily life. Call your local vocational and massage schools to see if they have especially low prices if you are willing to let a student practice on you. Listen to music you like, take a yoga class or engage in some other form of exercise. Or spend just one day at a water park with a friend or family because social engagement is also a form of self-care.
- Do a mindfulness meditation. Research shows as little as 10 minutes a day can start impacting your ability to cope more resiliently within a few weeks. Sit up straight, concentrate on your breathing, (in-out, in-out) and pay attention to the sensations in your body. If you become distracted, simply bring your focus back to your breath. Some people find it helps to focus on an item, like a candle flame, but it is not necessary. If you want to add a sense of helping the wider world, you can go to the Buddhist practice of tonglen: breathe in the pain for all the sentient beings in your situation, and breathe out peace.
- Learn to identify your own emotional triggers. Are you getting upset because everyone else (it seems) can afford to get away? Try thinking about exactly what getting away represents to you: Is it freedom? Having enough money? Available time? If it is one of these, what small thing can you do that will make you feel more free, like taking a hike nearby? If it’s more money, can you create a “playtime” account for next year’s vacation? If it’s more time, are there small things you enjoy that you haven’t done lately, like knitting a sweater, reading a novel, painting a picture? Doing any one of these things will help you feel like you have had a break.
- Be compassionate with yourself. Empathy for others is grand, but don’t neglect yourself in the process. Dr. Kristin Neff, Associate Professor of Human Development at the University of Texas who pioneered research on self-compassion has an autistic son. When he had “fits” in the grocery store, she reminded herself to practice kindness to herself, by practicing her own mantra “this is a moment of suffering and it will pass.” If you want to know how compassionate you are with yourself, take her test here:
If you are wondering how in the world this connects to not being able to go on vacation, it’s because being kind to yourself helps reduce the stress of daily life.
- Hug yourself. The physical sensation will be comforting to your body and therefore your mind—a handy trick when you can’t leave the office, or are up against a writing deadline, or caretaking someone else.
- Give yourself a technology holiday on the weekends or whenever you are not at work. Turn the ringers off your phone, don’t look at email, step away from that computer! Skip the news and other “feel bad” items. Leave the bills unopened until a set time when you plan to pay them. Take off your watch, leave your phone inside, and sit outside in the backyard watching the birds without knowing the time. No working from home!
- 10. Find a local festival to attend: there are more than you can ever imagine, and many are free to enter. From arts to farmer’s markets, check out what’s local that you would enjoy, and take a day off to enjoy it. Even better if it happens to be outside of the 20-mile radius you most likely traverse on a regular basis to give you that sense of getting away.
Now You’re Done: Post-project Depression
Post-project depression. Yep, it really does exist, and it has a name.
Psychologists have known about it for a long time. Many academics, authors and creative types go through it after “giving birth” to their particular obsession, whether it’s a dissertation, novel, play, painting, sculpture, or organizing a big event like a retrospective show or an opera. It’s akin to “post-partum depression,” what many women go through after all the excitement leading up to the birth particularly of a first baby. They just don’t anticipate feeling so exhausted, depleted and out of control.
I’ve been going through a bit of this myself after making my move to a new house and getting married over the Memorial Day weekend in May, so I was curious to see what other folks had said about it. Here’s the good news: it isn’t really true depression. It’s a completely normal reaction from running on adrenaline (and sometimes fumes) to get all that we need to get done to make the big project a success. We are totally obsessed, and our focus narrows down to the details of what must be done to get this project finished.
For brides, it’s details like finalizing the menu with the caterer, making sure all the people supposed to be there know where they are supposed to be for both the rehearsal and the event, that the florist can find a way to leave the flowers refrigerated until the appropriate time.
For authors and academics, there are piles of papers to sort, research materials to file, decisions about whether or not to keep the edited copies or just let them go. For all of us, there may be relationships or physical environments (that’s another way of saying the house is utterly filthy!) that we have not attended to in quite some time. Not to mention, there is a sense that a great big hole in daily life has suddenly appeared. What am I supposed to be doing now with that time set aside for the big project?
Here are 5 tips to help us get through your post project depression (whatever kind it may be):
- Celebrate, celebrate, celebrate…then rest! First you want to recognize that all that adrenaline and attention to details got you to finish a successful project, whatever it was. It’s important to give yourself some time to just breathe and be in the world, before you take up the next project. Some people watch back-to-back DVDs, some begin exercising strenuously at the gym, some bake cookies or do car repairs themselves. Whatever works as “veg time” for you is what you need to give yourself a break.
- It’s important to allow yourself to experience the range of emotions that comes from finishing a project even when it’s a big success. Dustin Was writes, “It’s natural, too, to feel sad, disappointed, even depressed at the end of a big project, even one that’s a resounding success. The things we do define us as people, and the biggest things we do are the biggest part of us; losing them, even by choice and design, is hard. I think this is why so many people seem to experience a fear of success that’s as paralyzing, if not more so, as the fear of failure: they are not prepared for the changes in their life that success would bring.” So let yourself feel all those mixed emotions. It’s part of the process.
- Begin to take stock by asking yourself some questions about your project: what went right? What went wrong? What was the best/worst thing about this project? Did I enjoy/dislike working on the project? Would I do it again? Or do it differently next time? Has my perspective/status/income changed as a result? How do I feel about that? How will I answer the infamous “What’s next for you?” question.
- Look for what inspires you. Inspirer, from Latin inspirare, from in- + spirare, means to breathe. Allow yourself to get excited again after making sure you have actually just hung out for a while and rested, given yourself whatever nurturing and care you need. Determine whether it’s a passing fancy, or something your can actually imagine sticking to all the way through the boring, tedious middle phase that every project goes through before completion.
- Finally, give yourself time to plan the new project. Here’s where having a deliberately vague answer to “What next?” can come in really handy. When asked, just say, “I have several ideas that I am working on, but I am still in the exploratory phase.” (This is also a great answer for anyone that has decided to change a career trajectory!) Think about it for a while before jumping into action.
Take a little time to reflect on your finished project. See how you might build on the success you’ve already achieved. Then get ready for the next big thing.
Caveat: If the sense of deflation hasn’t left you after a few weeks of trying all these tricks of the trade, then it might be time to look into professional help for actual depression.
Big changes using small steps.
I will be using some very small steps on May 24th this month as I walk down the aisle to marry my fiancée of one year. It will be nearly 2 years to the date that we met, and have we ever been through the changes! Big changes. Changes in lifestyle that have literally taken me 17 years to make.
You see, this is the first time in the 17 years since I became a widow that I have actually been in what you might consider a fully successful adult relationship with someone where we actually talked ourselves blue, in terms of who we really are in the world and what we really want in our lives. I really wanted to get married again: I’d had a good relationship (overall-everyone has their ups and downs) with my husband, but Rick really did not want to remarry, having left two previous marriages. He was afraid that the third time would be a strike-out leaving him too wounded to ever explore any relationship; I felt like the third time could be the charm, and his life would change for the better.
I am happy to say that last year on Memorial Day weekend he proposed to me aboard his boat, the Lady Joy, while anchored in Molasses Creek, complete with a vase of flowers and a bottle of wine. It was a memorable and joyful (excuse the pun!) day, and we were in that state of blissful obliviousness concerning the details to come. And did they ever come!
First, we had to make a decision about where to live: my house, his house or a new house? Looking over all our options, the strength of his roots in a particular neighborhood, and realizing the cost of real estate in our area for new homes, we decided to build on to his house. Want to test your relationship? Build an addition to one house while your partner is still living and working at another house across town over two rivers and 17 miles away. Every little choice that had to be made, I was making at the end of a long day, and usually in a state of near exhaustion. But instead of letting myself become overwhelmed by it all, I began to say to myself, “all I have to decide today is where to put the electrical sockets.” Or, “all I have to decide today is what color to paint the new upstairs office.” I began to refuse to make more than one big decision in the evening when I was too tired to think.
It took a little longer than we expected, but has anyone ever done an addition that did not? We had permitting issues with our town over the need to take out one dying oak tree that the town required be mitigated by planting three new oaks. The electricians put some wiring in wrong, and that led to all kinds of weirdness until it was found and corrected. We changed our minds about 100 times over whether or not to replace the old front windows to match the additional windows, and finally decided “the place is a mess now, why not get it over with and update the look of the whole (1964) place?” Bit by bit, project by project, decision by decision, the addition took shape, and there was now space for me to have my own office to continue my practice from a home base. On January 15, 2014 I finally made the move across town to my new permanent home.
No, I haven’t unpacked all the boxes, and no, I haven’t finished all the decorating I do want to do, and no, we haven’t even rehung all the pictures that came down with the paint jobs or added all of mine into the mix. But it feels like home with all my books unpacked in the office, and a space to work that has a lovely set of windows looking out over the creek.
So, now I am concentrating on the wedding. All the big stuff has been lined up: minister, church, parish hall for reception, caterer, photographer, electronic invitations, family discussions about who will stay where and how long they will stay. It is coming together, bit by bit. Rick and I are even taking dance lessons so that we can do the first waltz together. As klutzy as we are, and as little time as we have had to practice, I have no doubt that some guest will film it on their iPhone and send it to funniest home videos. But no matter. We are enjoying the process. And therein lies the key. Let go, enjoy the process, and remember the wisdom in the old joke, “How do you eat an elephant?” Answer: “One bite at a time!”
The Impostor Syndrome: It’s More Common Than You Know
It’s finally spring, and I have been thinking how delightful it would be to open up my scalp and give my brain a thorough cleaning, shaking out the old cobwebs and beating the mites out. I’d especially like to find a way to connect my neurons for success, instead of letting my mind wander down old, hard-worn pathways that take me to places I’d rather not go: certain I am a fraud doomed to failure in every aspect of my life. Wouldn’t it be great to wake up every day feeling perfectly confident, upbeat, excited to face the challenges of the day, without wrestling the dreaded demon most commonly known as “The Impostor Syndrome”?
The term dates back to at least the fall of 1978, when Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes published “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” in Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice. It’s defined as the feeling that you are a fraud and that any day the people around you will discover the truth. Or as Oliver Burkeman of The Guardian newspaper puts it, “A classic case of comparing your insides with other people’s outsides.” It’s a bit like looking in a fun house mirror and believing the distorted picture to be what you really look like.
In other words, only you know what’s going on inside your head, and you assume that means you know the truth about your abilities. Although women do seem to suffer from this syndrome more than men, plenty of men suffer from it as well. Margot Gerristsen surveyed engineers and earth scientists via Facebook in 2012 and got 220 responses in 24 hours (80 male, 140 female respondents), out of 2,000 people that actually viewed the post. She found 43% of men and 62% of women “often or always” think “I am afraid to be found out.” To quote Gerristsen’s results further, when asked whether having “impostor feelings” affected performance, 52% of men said, “Yes, negatively” (“scared,” “avoidance behavior”) and 27% said “Yes, positively” (“work harder”). In comparison, 87% of females said “Yes, negatively” (“scared”, “avoidance behavior”, “exhaustion”, “negative impacts on personal relationships”) and only 7% said “Yes, positively” (“work harder”).
“The impostor syndrome describes the countless millions of people who do not experience an inner sense of competence or success,” writes Dr. Valerie Young in her book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive In Spite of It. She adds, “Despite often overwhelming evidence of their abilities, impostors dismiss these as merely a matter of luck, timing, outside help, charm—even computer error. Because people who have the impostor syndrome feel that they’ve somehow managed to slip through the system undetected, in their mind it’s just a matter of time before they’re found out.”
If you do get better and better at whatever you do and rise to the top of your profession, it may not fix the sense of being an impostor. Actually, the feeling could get worse, because the higher you go in your own field, the more people you encounter with knowledge equal to or greater than your own. The insecurity induced can paralyze a person.
The cruel irony is that the impostor syndrome can lead to both success and failure. You succeed when you change your self-talk to something more positive, and you learn to embrace the times you feel totally in control and competent. On the other hand, if you hold yourself to a standard of rarefied perfection that no one can possibly achieve, you may stop yourself from even trying… a sure way to prove to yourself that you are, indeed, a fraud.
Graduate school was the place for me that I felt the sense of being an impostor most keenly. It is possible to beat it, as I know from personal experience, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to beat it back again and again. Getting out of academia helped me put my abilities back into perspective somewhat, but the fear still rears its ugly head from time to time. So, what can you do?
“Research shows that one of the best things we can do is name impostorism, to give students [and I will add, anyone else, too] the sense that what they are experiencing is more common than they believe,” blogged Jessica Collett, an associate professor of sociology at Notre Dame in Scatterplot on September 5, 2013. She adds, “Researchers find that impostorism is most often found among extremely talented and capable individuals, not people who are true impostors.” The bottom line is you are probably not going to be able to completely rid yourself forever of these feelings of being an impostor. Tina Fey, an amazingly successful comedian, is quoted in Dr. Young’s book as saying, “The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh God, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!’ So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud.”
Other steps you can take:
1. Celebrate successes, big or small;
2. Remind yourself that everyone makes some mistakes, and the vast majority of those mistakes are not fatal;
3. Remember that other people (advisors, mentors, supervisors, bosses) hired you because they think you are perfectly capable;
4. Know that feeling like a fake may just mean you are out of your comfort zone and into a learning zone; and
5. Realize that challenges lead to growth, personally and professionally.
By the way, there is a flip side to the impostor syndrome, which is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is when people greatly overestimate their abilities and competence and come to grief. But that, as they say, is a story for another day.
Courage, Risks and Rewards: 10 Reasons to Act
“Look before you leap.” As a rather impetuous and curious child, I heard that admonition from my parents, especially my mother, on a fairly regular basis. In an event my father no doubt does not remember, I clearly remember when I stopped using my middle name at about age 8. After climbing onto the roof of the garage at our (one-story) house, standing thoroughly entranced with the view from above down the block, I heard my father’s stern voice, “Hillary Lee Hutchinson, you get down from there this instant.” I knew I was in big trouble from the tone, and as a result, I have never been able to disassociate the use of my middle name from being in trouble.
OK, so scrambling up on the rooftop might not be the best example of good risk taking, and my father’s anger was most likely due to the fear I’d fall off and seriously injure myself. However, taking a risk doesn’t have to mean arbitrarily jumping in where angels fear to tread. It may actually mean taking a calculated jump: you might first want to brainstorm some other ideas about how to get that great view from the rooftop, then figure out a more secure way, possibly using a ladder, to get up and down. Then you might want to spend some time evaluating the possibility for success or failure in taking the risk, perhaps even discussing the options with some trusted advisors (in my case, sister and brothers) before you actually put the plan into action.
But don’t let the fear of risk overcome the will to action. It’s human nature to magnify the possibility of failure over success. It’s a brain thing. To paraphrase Richard Hanson, “Mistakes stick to our minds like Velcro, but successes slide off like Teflon.” From an evolutionary point of view, mistakes can kill you, but success is a kinda of “so what.” We humans also have a tendency to think we cannot handle things when they don’t go perfectly, and that is not true either. We are in fact designed as pattern-detecting instruments, and we often have more options sitting there ready to be launched when something goes wrong than we ever realized. Calculated risks are the ones where the downside is reasonably limited (or at least we think so!) and the possibility of a great outcome is virtually unlimited. In simplest terms, it truly looks like the gains will outweigh the risks.
So, as we in the Northern Hemisphere continue to hope for the final winter thaw, what risks do you feel ready to take? It may help to remember that everything we do in life is risky, from getting in the car to pick up kids from school to taking an airplane across country to a convention where you are giving your first public talk. As Helen Keller once said, “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it.” Yes, taking a risk is scary. But not taking a risk can be deadening, and in it’s own way, set you up for failure. Risk taking lets you live on your growing edge.
Here are a 10 more reasons to take risks:
- You learn to conquer your fears;
- You grow your skills, talents, and abilities;
- You get to make things happen instead of waiting for things to happen to you;
- You learn that failure isn’t necessarily or automatically fatal;
- You find that mistakes are part of any process;
- You may learn to let go of the judgments of others;
- You recognize that no one ever achieved their dreams without action;
- You grow in confidence and stand out to others as a success;
- You feel exhilarated and fully alive when taking the risk pays off; and
- You understand that taking calculated risks is indeed rewarding at many different levels: financial, emotional and developmental.
You have to learn how to take a chance to change your life. To help you overcome your fear of taking risks, you can get my 5-part self-paced course Courage, Risks and Rewards for just $97.00. You will get one short lesson a week by email, including exercises to find where you are getting stopped, and help you “get a move on” as you start thawing out.
Letting go when you feel out of control is counter-intuitive, isn’t it?
In general, we humans have a tendency to hang on harder and longer when we feel ourselves spinning wildly around. But sometimes, the best thing to do is just let go.
I don’t know how many of you got caught in the polar vortex over the holiday season. I heard one commentator describe the amazing snowstorm and cold in the Northeastern United States as “a drunken polar bear that just sat down on the front porch and refused to leave.” That’s certainly what it felt like from my perspective.
I planned a trip to visit a brother in northern Germany with a departure date of Thursday morning in order to give myself enough time to get over jet lag, unpack and generally relax before meeting with my first client of the new year at 9:00 AM on Monday.
All went smoothly in the trip from Beilefeld to Frankfurt and connecting on to Philadelphia. I was even sitting on the airplane on the tarmac at about 4:00 PM on the 2nd of January, congratulating myself on beating the big storm. But it was not to be. As I sat there waiting for the plane to take off, huge white flakes began to fall, and within 15 minutes there was about an inch accumulation on the wings.
To no one’s surprise, the pilot announced we would have to get in line for de-icing. Even then, it did not seem like too big a deal: we would simply be slightly delayed. But then we waited and waited…and waited…until finally the big machine came around pouring fluid on the wings, and we watched the ice melt away, taxiing around on the tarmac and getting back in line for takeoff. And still the snow came down. And down. And down. Finally, the pilot came on the loudspeaker system and announced that after about four hours on the tarmac idling, we were running out of fuel. Furthermore, the crew was beginning to time-out on how long they were able to work. Then he sighed and said, “I’m sorry folks, but it looks like we are going to have to take you back to the gate…however, at the present time, we do not have a gate.” Meaning, “by the time we get you all unloaded, you will be lucky to locate an empty hotel room,” though I was indeed fortunate enough to get one with a little help from my local friends.
For those of you that travel, you know the drill: there is no redundancy in the system, and once the system begins to fail, there is a true domino effect. The planes pile up, and the next plane is full before you know it, then it gets cancelled and now two planes worth of people are trying to get on the third plane out, etc., etc. You have to call and reserve your seat on the next flight and usually the next available flight is 24 hours later.
This is what happened to me, until finally on the fourth day, after once again going through security, waiting over two hours at the gate, and finally being told again that the flight was canceled, I threw up my hands in despair and gave up all hope of flying out of Philadelphia. I admit I did not want to drive in the snow and ice down I-95, the highway where my family was involved in an accident that killed my husband in 1997.
What was left when I gave up? A different option: Take an overnight train to Charleston! And so I did, sleeping fitfully but arriving at 6:30 AM, in time to make that 9:00 AM appointment. I don’t know that I was at my absolute best that day, but neither was I at my worst. Giving up on the plane was the best thing I could have done…and had I tried to get on the flight, I might have actually been stuck an additional three days, as a brand new storm headed into the area.
So, what’s the lesson here? If you can give up on the things you cannot control, you just might find you can control something else. How else might you apply this lesson to your life, whatever you are doing now?
Don’t wait to celebrate your life – do it now!
It’s the end of the year and time to take stock of yourself and where you stand. Rather than beating yourself up over anything you did not get accomplished over the past twelve months, I want you to look at everything you have gotten done. Don’t limit yourself to your professional life: celebrate every aspect of yourself.
Did you step out and try something new in any area, whether it was romance, athletics, or a new volunteer position? Are you managing your emotional life better, learning to operate from love instead of fear? Have you made a decision to stop doing something that no longer gives you joy but only anxiety? If so, celebrate! Celebrate all that you have done, and how far you have come.
For those of you wondering how to take stock so you can celebrate your life, here are 5 tips:
- Stop, breathe and listen to the quiet. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever seen about meditation is reminding yourself that you can no more stop yourself from thinking than you can from breathing. On the other hand, you can let the thoughts go, just like clouds passing across the sky. A great Zen expression is “Don’t believe everything your mind says.”
- Celebrate all the little things, no matter how small. Mastering a new yoga pose, writing that long-overdue thank-you note, finally getting out your first agenda for a new committee meeting, learning a new way to present data. We have a tendency to belittle our own accomplishments. Every one of these counts!
- Look at where you were this time last year. If looking back only one year doesn’t help, try looking back five years, or ten. You would not be who you are today without what has already happened to you, and how you responded to it. Personally, I am celebrating getting older and wiser, a truism now verified by brain science, that proves neuroplasticity and an ever-learning mind.
- Ask people around you what changes in you they would celebrate. You might be surprised to hear them say, “you’ve gotten calmer” even if you didn’t adopt a dog, or, “you seem lighter” even if you never lost a pound.
- Reassess and “take in the good.” Remind yourself that no matter what you are trying to accomplish, there will always be things left undone. Sometimes that can be good, as things change and evolve and maybe those old ideas or projects should fade away when new, more exciting ones take their place.
As the song says, “Celebrate your life, come on!” Don’t wait. Do it now.
Gratitude isn’t always as straight forward as you would think
I’ve discovered something interesting about gratitude: you really have to find new things to be grateful for so that you do not get so habitual in what you recite to yourself that it ceases to have real meaning. For instance, I am always grateful for my family, but sometimes I truly need to be more explicit about what exactly it is that I appreciate about someone in it. I was privileged to visit with my parents over this past month, and I have been reminded again what amazing people they are.
Especially my mother. How many 81-year-old women do you know who read things like the integral theories of Ken Wilber, A Universe from Nothing by Lawrence Krauss, and write haiku when they are sitting in traffic frustrated by a red light that is delaying them? Not many, I’ll wager. Here’s one she wrote that resonates for me living in South Carolina:
Framed in white railings
Sea, clouds, lighthouse, coast—
How did I get to be so lucky to be born into her circle? I don’t know, but I do know I need to appreciate it! Oh, we’ve had our issues, don’t get me wrong. Both my parents have high standards for their children and expected excellent grades and good behavior as I grew up, and the teenage years of asserting independence were sometimes quite painful for all concerned. Then, in my twenties and thirties raising a young family and working, overwhelmed by daily tasks, I felt I had little time for them. Now my own children are grown, I am taking another look at these unique people, and find myself giving profound thanks.
I only wish to suggest that in this month, when we make an overt practice of giving thanks for all we have, we take a closer look at those we may have taken for granted and see how unique they are, and how they have contributed to our lives. You may not feel that your relationship with your parents is one to celebrate, but consider: you may have learned exactly what you did not want to do by watching some particular dysfunction. You can be truly grateful for that.
Contentment with my lot has been difficult for me to attain. It’s all too easy to wallow in self-pity. I hope my mother’s poem will remind me when I feel lost or bereft that much remains to be appreciated. In the meantime, I seek to breathe deeply and absorb the beauty all around me, reminding myself to give thanks for the sea, the clouds, the lighthouse and the coast that buoy me up time and again, as well as giving thanks for a mother that helps me give voice to this.
If you need some more pragmatic reasons for expanding gratitude in this season of reaping what has been sown, consider these benefits:
- Gratitude can keep fear at bay by reminding you that there are good things as well as bad ones in your life, providing a broader perspective.
- Reminding ourselves of the good can keep us from being mired in always wanting something more than what we already have.
- That in turn reduces stress, improves our health and strengthens our relationships with each other. It literally eases our minds.
In expanding your own understanding of gratitude, consider moving beyond rote recitations of thanks by celebrating the unique idiosyncrasies that make the people in your life so weird and so wonderful. Family, friends, acquaintances, alive or dead, they are your companions along the way. I think I will have to keep working on this, but remembering the unique stories and idiosyncrasies is another way to keep smiling, too.
Seeking Balance In Your Life? Forget About It!
Maintaining balance in your life isn’t easy. In fact, I think it is impossible. What you are actually doing is making conscious choices about how you choose to spend the time you have, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. As Jack Welch put it, “There’s no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences.” In her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead Sheryl Sandberg writes, “I have never met a woman, or man, who stated emphatically, “Yes, I have it all.’” Because no matter what any of us has—and how grateful we are for what we have—no one has it all.” At this time of year, a lot of academics are wondering “How can I possibly get everything done, especially my own writing?”
Sometimes I am asked what the difference is between a life coach and a career coach. “Not much,” is the answer. Although my work focuses on finding the right career trajectory for my clients, it must work with all aspects of their lives. So many demands are placed on our time and energy, especially for the academic, that life can feel like a three-ring circus. Making choices about where you will put your time and energy is what it is all about.
Many life coaches begin their process with a “wheel” that asks clients to rate how satisfied they are with eight areas of their life: physical environment, money, health, fun and recreation, personal growth/spirituality, romance/relationship, family, and friends. This can be an eye-opening experience for some people, when they realize that just changing one aspect of the picture could make a big difference to their life satisfaction. For others, it is a recognition that they are choosing to put their time “where it matters most to them” and that is actually fine. Here’s the thing: at different points in your life, one element will be more important than another. When you have a parent in ailing health, or a child with special needs, “family” is where you will spend your time and energy. When you are working on a book project that will help you advance, “career” is where you will be putting your time and energy.
The trick is to keep yourself from getting caught in any one area, and keep your awareness open to the other areas of your life that need tending. In old age, “friends” is often the category that becomes supremely important. Paying attention to that category earlier in your life, can make it easier to get what you need and want later.
Basic life-work balance questions start by considering how well you take care of yourself, both physically and emotionally. Do you eat healthfully and exercise regularly? How are your sleep habits? Do you get check-ups and take preventative precautions? Do you set aside personal, quiet time for yourself? Do you make time to enjoy nature and art, “filling yourself up” again and again in order to renew your energy? How often are your time boundaries violated by too many commitments?
After that, move into examining the external factors, such as your work, your physical surroundings, the people you currently associate with on a regular basis. Ask yourself: am I energized or drained by these interactions? Does this space hinder or enhance my ability to “flow”? Are the day-to-day demands of my work deadening or enlivening? The answer to these questions can help you decide what choices you want to make daily that will play out in the long term.
Speaking strictly for myself, balance is actually about knowing my priorities, setting boundaries and sticking to them, as well as actually enjoying the choices I make. Being consciously aware of the impossibility of balance and making choices is a wonderful way to practice gratitude for all that you do have, and all that you can do. Maybe knowing that everyone struggles with this issue can help us have compassion for both ourselves, and each other, helping us grow in experience and wisdom.