Saturday, May 30, 2015

Empathy

One of the most frustrating things at work that I come across a lot is the lack of empathy. We've gone through a very stressful period in my department in the last one and half years with compressed project schedules and a lot riding on the product we were designing. Chuck a few personally ambitious people in the mix and you have a pretty explosive cocktail, the kind of cocktail my therapist likes to call "toxic".

I have pretty strong views on what a manager should do and what kind of support they should be giving the people who work for them. I had the luxury about ten years ago to be handed over to a manager whom I had no respect for at the time of the handover but who taught me the most important lesson about managing people that I could ever learn: having empathy.

M, as we will call him, was in a position that he wasn't exactly shining in when he was transferred into a business process manager position and handed the job of being my manager as a result.

Our first one on one meeting was a half our meeting in which he asked me to describe my job. I just spewed it out at him in a long tirade. It wasn't like he was going to really get it, right?

To my great surprise after that meeting I received an e-mail from him listing five things that he thought was my five top challenges in relation to doing my job smoothly. He asked me how he could help me remove or lessen the impact of those obstacles, in other words, how could he be of assistance to me.

It floored me. Firstly, this guy whom I had no respect for had listened so well he had already figured out that even if my team was enormously successful I could do better if I just got more support. Secondly, he was willing to do something. Thirdly, there seemed to be no obvious reason for him going out of his way to do it.

Our next meeting ended up a little differently. I walked in there with a lot more respect for him but I felt the need to ask him why he had chosen to do show that he was there to support me straight off the bat. "Listen," he said, "it's really simple. I have no idea what you do and how you do it but I've been asked to manage you. You obviously do a really good job and I want you to continue doing a good job or to do an even better job. When you look good it makes me look good so I have every reason in the world to support you as much as I can. In fact, supporting you is the only thing I can do here since me telling you how to do your job would be insane."

Turns out this guy was incredibly smart, and obviously psychology astute, and that he had spent time working for classy organizations like Doctors Without Borders. What he didn't do though was grandstand, ever!

However, he did spend a lot of time empathizing with people. When he fell foul of his eventual boss, a boss who liked to give what M referred to as "impromptu public performance reviews" (more commonly known as shouting at someone in an open office to embarrass them and to show how powerful you are) he took it in his stride. He seemed to have empathy with that guy too like he understood that underneath all the grandstanding was a hurting and scared human being.

So, while I was thinking back to that time I started thinking about this thing we do as a society when we start in on refugees or any other group of people for that matter. It's a big thing here in Australia what with the very public scare campaign teaching us to fear the "boat people", like they're an organized gang of horrid criminals arriving at our shores in barely seaworthy boats to officially seek asylum while they plot whatever nasty it is they plot to do. The government spends a lot of time and money to make us think that it's not a matter of these people being refugees but that they're really here to steal our whole bloody country and our national identity.

It bothers me. The history of the world is full of examples of lack of empathy on a grand scale (slavery anyone?) and the human ability to turn others into something you shouldn't care about because they are something you're not. Making a distinction between people depending on where they come from, what color they are, what religion they practice or what language they speak, or even their level of education or age, that is stuff of the every day in our world. Economic distinction and the very real segregation between rich and poor, the have and have-nots, that's run of the mill stuff.

To me it's not only a sad state of affairs but I think it's the one thing that stands in our own personal way of actuating our own happiness and contentment. This view we have of the world that it's unfair to us and that we must grab what we can before someone else takes it from us is really warped. It keeps ambitious and greedy people doing bad things to others and it stops them from growing as individuals. Worst of all, we're taught to buy into that world view on a much greater scale than we can possibly imagine.

The one thing that was instrumental in my recovery from depression and anxiety was learning to be compassionate with and have empathy for myself. It had a flow on effect. Once you learn to be compassionate with and have empathy for yourself it becomes a lot harder not to practice the same with others. Once you feel understood and heard then it's easier to understand and hear, and while we often look for that from others it really starts with us doing it with and for ourselves.

To walk in someone's shoes is to learn to understand them but quite often we're not even present enough to walk in our own shoes so to speak. We run around full of opinions about the world and how it should be, and what we are in that world, but very seldom do we stop and ask how we're actually doing. To stop and feel, and to notice that you don't feel all that good and to have the courage to not turn away from it, to distract yourself or to numb yourself, but to listen to it and have empathy with it and feel compassion for yourself is a life changing experience. It's more life changing than when your boss turns around and shows empathy with you personally rather than saying "we're all in the same boat".

Empathy. If you're not getting it from others do it for yourself. Let's start there and then we change the world, you and I together.

I'm just saying.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Leaving perfect behind

I'm a renter and every six months a total stranger comes to my house to check out how I'm treating it. It's fair enough since there's always that risk that I would be a crazy person who would trash the place and cause thousands of dollars worth of damage. But it's also a stressful knowing that you'll have someone come into your house basically to judge you and how you keep the place.

I'm a messy person. It's mostly a surplus of art supplies (and a not so unique ability to just leave clothes lying around) that's my problem. Because both Bee and I like to do arty things there's paper and pens, plaster, glues, paints, canvases, interesting stray pieces of stuff that has potential to be part of something more interesting, crocheting and knitting needles, yarn and projects in various stages of completeness. It's a bit of an issue every six months because it's kind of everywhere so you can get to it easily when the mood strikes.

Add to that, I have three cats and I'm only supposed to have two and none of them are supposed to even be allowed to so much as dream of being kept inside. Cats are mean creatures when it comes to leaving evidence of their existence all over the place and this evidence sticks to pretty much everything including skirting boards and (apparently) windows. They don't care one iota because cats are busy just being.

I'm fighting a war here.

The worst place in the house, and I'm glad to say this, is Bee's room. She's messier than me and while I'm hoping it's just a phase I think it's more of a truth that I have rubbed off on her. She's a messy person too and she's going to keep being a messy person. We have resorted to praying that she will find a life partner who likes cleaning, cooking and tidying up.

One would think that we would be content with just being messy, screw the real estate agent person because we're just messy people, but it's not so. Every damned time we're up for inspection my mother possesses my mind and I suddenly need to make a perfect impression.

My mother, unlike me, is a clean freak. She presents a perfectly manicured abode to the public and it's not only squeaky clean it's also color coordinated. None of that rubbed off on me. I think I got my father's genes but it's impossible to know if I did or if I'm a genetic mutation because my dad never got a look-in in the cleaning stakes. He just went along with my mother scrubbing, washing and cleaning just like my older brother and I did.

Sydney is a place that suffers from a shortage of places to rent and it's freakishly expensive to rent. As a single mum you're handicapped in the renter's game and as such the need to present yourself as someone who perfectly takes care of the place you rent isn't completely irrational. If you, like me, haven't had your rent raised in the five years you've lived in a place then you feel even more pressure to keep up appearances because you're saving money. If you've already made a good impression you feel added pressure to keep it up. The last thing you want to do is to have to look for a new place because you have to move.

But I'm not feeling it quite so much this time around and I don't know why. Maybe my need to appear perfect has been eroded together with my anxiety and depression, or maybe I'm just feeling a change coming up where I won't have to worry about a stranger coming to inspect my ability to care for a house. Maybe I'm just thinking that my "not good enough" is actually good enough and that I don't have to work quite so hard on making a perfect entrance every damned time.

In a lot of ways I'm leaving the need to be perfect behind and it's really so much deeper than just letting go of worrying about what others think of me and needing to make a good impression. It's more than feeling a little freer to be more a authentic self and less of what I think others want me to be. It's more of a finally allowing myself to leave the impossible standards my mother set for me not only with her insanely perfect cleaning and housekeeping, but also with how I am and how that impacts people's perception of her; it's setting myself free from having to be "perfect".

Perfectionism is a really dangerous partner and while it's ruled most of my life and got me to places I probably wouldn't have got to without it, I'm ready to leave perfect behind and while that will not get me further on the path I was on I'm pretty certain that it will bring me to new places and new successes, and that they will be very different..

I just don't want to strive for perfect anymore, I just want to be myself and that means I want to be authentic. I'm leaving perfect behind so that I can do that and I think that's where my happiness lies. Perfect is beyond elusive and perfect is an unattainable state. It's like chasing your tail and while it's keeping you occupied it's exhausting.

So, I'm leaving perfect behind.

Bye perfect!

I'm just saying.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Free

I'm coming up against this new thing a fair bit nowadays. I'm just not reacting to things the way I used to. I've become a lot more detached and there's more instances of me not giving a toss.

It's mostly in the area of what others think and while that doesn't mean I truly don't care what others think, I'm still perversely interested in what makes other people tick and how they tick, I just don't care what they think about me anymore. It's weird in a way because I've spent all of my life, as far as I can recall, worrying all the time about just that.

Did I mention I was basically declared "cured" of my depression and anxiety last Tuesday? I don't think I did but I was. I was told that I didn't need to come back unless I wanted to work on something particular or unless I wanted to take this a bit further.

There were times in my sessions last year when I asked my therapist if it was even possibly for me to recover.

I've done it. I'm coping like a pro most of the time and I'm calmer all around but it's the being able to be completely aware of what others are showing me about what they think about me and just letting it be like it's none of my business in the first place.

It's the feeling for the first time in my life what it feels like to have internal boundaries, and realizing that it affords me the luxury of allowing people just that little closer because I don't fear that they will drain me anymore, that's like golden butter melting on a freshly baked piece of bread. It's changed the way I communicate and it's changed how I interact with other people because I'm first and foremost aware of myself and my reactions rather than concentrating solely on them.

I feel free, not completely yet but free nonetheless, for the first time in my life.

I'm just saying.