When you are getting ready for work in the morning, is there a work colleague who comes into your mind who you dread seeing, and would rather avoid? If there is, then the chances are that you have a difficult person to deal with at work. Unfortunately, it’s not likely to be a problem that only you are facing. Difficult people at work can cause a ripple effect that has negative consequences throughout the workplace.
Everyone is difficult some of the time of course, so what does it take to be seen as a ‘difficult person’? There are people who complain all the time and are impossible to please. Then there are others who seem to want to turn everything into a competition, or worse, a battle. I have worked with people who treat their staff pool as a free audience for them to play out their own personal soap opera—they demand attention and tend to suck all the energy out of a team. Perhaps you’ve met the perfectionist? Someone who cannot accept anything that is less than perfect and projects their exacting and unrealistic standards on everyone around them. Quieter but just as deadly is the person who quietly goes behind everyone’s backs and gossips and manipulates to get their own way.
Toxic behaviour of any kind takes up time, energy and resources to deal with—all of which could be applied to the actual work to be done. Such behaviour can impact productivity and lower inspiration and morale among any team. It causes stress, absenteeism, and a higher rate of staff turnover.
However, it does not have to be all bad. Difficult work colleagues can help to focus our attention and encourage us to check our own habits at work. Let’s look at some practical, accessible steps that anyone can take to help them to deal with a difficult person at work without risking any of these negative outcomes.
Maybe as you read this you are thinking that you are always paying attention, and this is too obvious to mention? Perhaps you have not heard about the researchthat was done at Harvard University in 2010. It showed that for almost 50% of our waking hours, we are thinking about something different to what we are doing. This means that for almost half our life we are not fully present to ourselves and what we are doing.
Let’s take a moment to consider what that means. If our minds are elsewhere when we are interacting with another person then we are going to miss all kinds of signs as to what is actually going on. Our memoryof the interaction will be flawed and incomplete. We are going to be seeing people and events as we think they are, rather than how they actually are.
This is particularly important when dealing with a person we experience as difficult. We are going to need to able to discern clearly the other person’s behaviour, as well as our own responses to it. It won’t help to get caught out by defensive reactionswhich could add to the problem. Things will only get worse if we exaggerate the difficult behaviour of the other person. Developing equanimity, on the other hand will give us the grounding we need to understand and work with the challenges they present for us.
What we can do
One of the best ways to learn to be present is to make mindfulnesspractice part of your everyday life. Try to spend at least 10 minutes every morning sitting on a cushion, or hard-backed chair connecting with your breath. Simply rest your attention on the rhythm of your breathing. When your attention wanders away, notice it has wandered and bring it back. Keep doing this over and over again. Slowly, steadily you are training your mind to be present.
During the day we can use STOP moments—very short moments of mindfulness meditation.
This is how they work:
- Pause with whatever you are doing
- Connect with your body, feel its strength, let it ground you
- Take a few deep, slow breaths—release any tension you are feeling
- Let your thoughts come and go without chasing after them
- Enjoy the few moments of calm and spaciousness.
- Take that feeling with you as you pick up your activities.
I don’t think I have ever met someone who owned up to being a poor listener. Each of us believes that when people talk to us we hear what they are saying. Sadly, most of the time we only just scratch the surface. We are used to putting our case, telling our story and we want others to listen to us. If we put ourselves in the centre, then it is hard to embrace the whole circle. Much of our listeningcomes from a place of believing we have the correct response, or the right solution and we can’t wait to share it with the person we are talking with. That comes across for the person talking to us, who senses that we are putting our own reactions ahead of their needs.
Susan Gillis Chapman has written a book, The Five Keys to Mindful Communication in which she uses the three colours of traffic lightsto help understand the different levels of communication. When we have someone at work who we are having problems with, the chances are that our communication is going to be the red light, where defensive reactions are predominant. At these times, how we listen is of over-riding importance. Our difficult person is expecting to not be heard, is almost provoking misunderstanding. We cannot afford to shut down and close ourselves off from the signals they are sending. If we can demonstrate that we are trying our best really be present and to listen without the inner commentary of our own opinions, then we have a chance to move to yellow light communication, where things can become more fluid. Of course, our goal is the open communication of the green traffic light.
What we can do
- Try to avoid conversations with your difficult person when you are tired, hungry or stressed.
- When you know you are going into an interaction with them, try to take a STOP moment beforehand.
- Listen with your heart as well as your head.
- Ask yourself what is really going on for the other person.
- Look for any emotional clues.
- Watch out for repeated words or phrases—the chances are these are the issues that are on the other person’s mind the most.
- Consider your attempts to listen with an open mind and heart as your contribution to healing the situation.
Give up judging others
Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the leading figures in the mindfulness movement, described mindfulness as being, an intentional, non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. Why was it necessary to highlight this quality of non-judgment? If you think about it, we judge just about anything. In fact, we divide the world up into things we like and want, things we don’t like and don’t want and things we don’t really care about. We spend a great deal of effort going after the things we want, because we think they will make us happy and avoiding the things we don’t want, because we know they will make us unhappy. The thing is that none of it works. Lasting happiness is much harder to achieve than we thought and it’s hard to avoid challenging things happening to us.
Our like, don’t like and don’t care attitudes are just as easily applied to people we know, as it is to the things that happen to us. We hold our friends close and avoid people we do not like and in between is a huge mass of people we don’t ever really pay attention to. If we have a difficult person at work, they are likely to fall into the category of ‘don’t like and don’t want.’ Obviously, this is a weak position to try to find a solution from.
What we can do
We already mentioned the importance of equanimity as a basis for working with difficult people. It enables us to be present to the person and the situation but to not be drawn into it, to not be affected by it.
- Without equanimity we are defenceless in the emotional territory of the difficult person.
- With equanimity our limbic systemis under control and our neocortexis in charge.
- We can see things as they are, rather than from the point of view of our own self-focus.
- It is not necessary to draw courage from judgments which enforce our own opinions and prejudices.
- Equanimity allows us to be open to what happens, rather than pre-judging any outcomes.
It is easy to think that we don’t have time for kindnessin the workplace but this is a misperception. Being kind does not take more time, it just requires us to be present to ourselves, our work colleagues and the situations we find ourselves in.
Jonathan Haidthas researched something he calls elevation, or a heightened sense of wellbeing. This is the effect of people either experiencing kindness themselves, or witnessing it happening between other people and feeling the benefit personally. When this kind of interaction happens in a work environment it has the effect of building trust, commitment and loyalty. How we try to deal with a difficult person at work can contribute to the overall wellbeing of a workplace.
We’ve seen that it is all too easy to want to avoid difficult people at work, and to not have to deal with them—but let’s take a moment to try and see this from their point of view? Few people set out to be disliked—if their behaviour is provoking dislike, somewhere that is probably causing them distress.
What we can do
- Ask yourself what you know about your difficult work colleague
—are they under stress, is there something going on at home?
- Look for any small thing that you like about the person
—maybe you have the same taste in music, or they like the same movies that you do?
- Try to separate the person from their actions
—all of us do stuff which is not always nice, but it does not mean we are all bad people.
- Whenever you can, try to give your difficult person the benefit of the doubt.
- Observe how they are with other people
—are there other people they get on well with?
—I once had to work closely with someone who said I reminded him of his mother (with whom he had a problematic relationship). Although I found working with him very intense, I noticed that many other people sought him out for collaboration. The problem was something sparked very directly between the two of us.
Don’t forget yourself
Having a difficult relationship at work can be very disheartening. We can feel guilty, inadequate, somehow reduced by being embroiled in a difficult communication. It’s important to remember that we are one part of the puzzle and that the problem has many elements. At the same time, it helps to recognize that although we might not have started the problem it is inevitable that somewhere along the line, we could play a role in perpetuating it. We need to take time to look into our own behaviour and check our own emotional habits and vulnerabilities.
My main meditation teacher always used to say that if you want to remove a difficult person from the world, you can begin by looking into where you need to disarm your own destructive tendencies.
What we can do
- Show yourself some kindnessand understanding when you are under pressure
- Take steps to manage your stress and enhance your wellbeing at work
- Try not to take things personally
- Make mindfulness meditation part of your daily routine to help refine your discernment, develop equanimity and keep things in proportion.
If you found this post helpful and would like to go further, try this online course
9 WAYS TO COPE BETTER WITH YOUR WORK FRUSTRATION
You can sign up here https://www.awarenessinaction.org/cope-better-with-work-frustration/
Are you familiar with the growing popularity of online courses? If you know where to look it is now possible to find a tantalizing variety of learning offered in the form of online courses. Art classes, cookery sessions, language instruction, and all manner of lifestyle topics are now on offer online. It’s an amazing resource!
This year in Awareness in Action we have been delighted to offer our own series of online courses on the topics of self-compassion, working with stress and sustaining your meditation practice. We have several more exciting ideas in the pipeline.
My own exposure to online courses started a few years back when I was asked to facilitate a series of course programmes run by a meditation group in the States. I was immediately sold on the idea when I connected with the people taking the courses and the degree of passion and commitment they brought to their learning. It was this energy that we aim to bring to our own courses in Awareness in Action.
If you have never taken an online course you might have all kinds of assumptions about how they work and how much time they need. In this blog post I want to spell out six inspiring reasons why taking an online course could really work for you—while at the same time being upfront about when they won’t!
Reason 1: the high degree of personal attention each participant receives
We all know how it can be difficult to be heard in a large workshop, where the most confident and articulate people all too easily get the lion’s share of attention. This is not the case with an online course. Each person gets to send in their comments and postings and the facilitator answers each one individually and in depth. When the course facilitator is an expert in their field, this means that every posting becomes a 1-2-1 exchange in which the participant can benefit first-hand from the person who has the answers to their issues. With our courses, you can book SKYPE sessions as an extra if you want to go deeper.
Reason 2: online courses are so accessible
Taking part in an evening class can be a great experience but inevitably there comes an evening when it’s raining, you’ve had a rotten day at work and you just want to go home and have a hot, relaxing bath. Once you’ve missed one session it’s harder to turn up the next week and your participation starts to come unstuck.
This problem simply does not exist with online courses. If you have a good internet connection and a reliable device you can access your course anytime and anywhere. Even if you have to take a work trip, you can still work on your assignment.
Reason 3: online courses help to improve your resumé
Given the fluid nature of the current job market it’s more important than ever to show that you are interested in developing skills that will help you do your job well. The scope of online courses is widening every day and there are many topics to choose from. Even if a course does not include a certificate of completion you can request one at the end of the course and the facilitator will put one together for you that you can include on your cv. This applies equally to younger employees starting out on their career as well as experienced people who want to demonstrate that they wish to keep learning and up-to-date.
Reason 4: being part of a dedicated online community
At the beginning of this piece I mentioned how inspiring I had found it to work with groups of students on online courses. I know of people who have ‘met’ on an online course and arranged to go on to to others so they can stay together as a group. Even now, I am still in touch with people who I have never actually met but who have taken several courses with me.
When you join an online course you have the option to become part of a dedicated group of like-minded people who are interested in some of the things you are interested in. The possibilities for an exchange of views and experiences are endless.
In addition, an online community can act as a support to your individual learning. It’s reassuring to share struggles and insights with people going through the same programme as you are.
Reason 5: online courses are designed to fit into your life
We are all busy people, so we need our learning to come in short, practical modules in order to be able to fit it into our already over-packed schedules.
In Awareness in Action courses, each course is divided into topics and each topic becomes a lesson. However, we go further and break down each lesson into a series of activities, which give the details of each topic. We advise between one and a half and two hours for a lesson. If you find you don’t have that much time to sit with the course in one go, then you have the option to cover a number of activities depending on the time you have available. In that way, you can keep the thread of the course and progress at your own pace.
Reason 6: online courses are great value for money
Given all this, plus the fact that for many online courses you have access to the materials for as long as you wish, their cost is manageable for a wide range of potential participants. Most courses offer a basic fee, with bonuses for early bird sign up. If you want individual coaching you have the option to sign up for more elaborate packages that include these options.
….. and four things to avoid
Anyone wanting to create a vibrant, enthusiastic online course following is only interested in their participants being inspired, and satisfied by their online experience. Over the least year I have seen a few ways in which people can inadvertently undermine their online experience and end up feeling disappointed. Here are four of them.
Avoid signing up when you are about to be extra busy
It’s tempting when you see a course that feels just right for you and you just want to get started—you just want to jump right in and sign up. My advice is to take a moment to check your schedule and make sure this is the right time for you to start a course. If you are about to go on a major work trip, or have a baby, or support your kids through their GCSEs then it might be good to wait until the next time the course is offered. Most courses are offered two, or even three times a year. We might think that we can fit in a few minutes of course time in between—and in the general run of a busy life you can—but when it is something major, you will just be too absorbed in what you have to do. The course will fade to a vague feeling of guilt and fizzle out and that’s a pity.
Avoid signing up if you are in crisis
Another time to double check is if you are going through a challenging time. Perhaps you are under a lot of pressure at work and think that a course on mindfulness in the workplace is just what you need. Or you have been involved in a big run-in with your boss and you want to take a course on self-compassion to help you regain your equilibrium. If you are ready, then that is fine and the course could help you get through what you are dealing with in a constructive way. Just check that you are not still too involved in the challenge and having to give a lot of energy to managing it. The risk here is that course will come to seem like a possible lifeline that you are just too stressed and worried to access. Then you will have a wistful sense that you have lost out again and this will add to your sense of crisis.
Avoid riding on someone else’s inspiration
Last January one of my courses was advertised at a New Year’s Meditation retreat and I was delighted to see several people sign up. Just as the date for registration passed I received an urgent email from someone who had just got home from the retreat and wanted to sign up with her friends, ‘to keep the inspiration going’ she said. Wanting to help I made the necessary changes to the registration process and she signed up for one of the more expensive coaching options. She managed the first few lessons and one of her allocated Skype sessions but then it was time to go back to work. In spite of my best efforts to keep her connected and to allow her extra time to work with the materials her participation became more sporadic and soon fell away altogether.
I realized that she had been caught up in the enthusiasm of the retreat group for the online course and had not really made her own choice to commit to the material. It’s a shame, because she will be much less enthusiastic to sign up for another course after this experience.
Avoid signing up for more than one course at a time
Occasionally I come across what I call a ‘professional course-taker’—someone who signs up for everything you have on offer and then does not complete anything fully. This type of person might also have signed up for your courses and courses from other providers at the same time. It’s wonderful to have so much enthusiasm but generally it is hard to convert into quality learning on any of the chosen courses. As has already been said—most course programmes run tow or three times a year, so there is plenty of time to cover all the ground that you wish to cover.
Perhaps some of you reading this blog have already got experience of taking online courses. If so, it would be great to hear how you benefitted and if you have any more ‘things to avoid’ to add to my list. Do be in touch and share your experience.
If you are interested to try an online course, we have a meditation course for beginners running continuously—How To Start Meditation in a Way That Will Last.
You can sign up any time. The link is here
Many people that I work with tell me that they have so much to do at work that they cannot manage. They feel overwhelmed, and that there is never enough time. They never get to finish something properly because the next thing has already started. I have one friend whose boss schedules her meetings to happen two at a time—how is she supposed to handle that?
The trouble is that when you work this much it is hard to feel a real satisfaction in what you are doing because everything is moving so fast. This undermines our sense of accomplishment at work, as well as our personal wellbeing. It is also not a sustainable way to work and could all too easily lead to burn-out. It simply does not produce the best results.
So, what can we do about feeling overwhelmed at work?
Let’s look first at what we can do about how we are with ourselves—our attitudes and assumptions.
Celebrate your capacity
When we are free to work in our own way, we have a tremendous capacity. The trouble comes when we are at work, following someone else’s schedule. If we feel we are being asked to do too much, or work in a way that feels too intense, then we more easily feel stretched and overwhelmed.
This sense that things are not in our control is a major factor in building up stress. It helps if we can find ways that we can take control and being able to freely access our own capacity is one way to do this. So, don’t react to work overload by trying to protect yourself and limiting your own capacity. It’s energizing to connect with your capacity and to celebrate it. If we drop our worries about achieving everything we need to achieve, ironically, we can do so much more.
When we can connect with our full capacity then it is a natural step to allow our inspiration to blossom. Can you remember what attracted you to the work you are doing now in the first place? Go back and recall why you wanted your present job. Take a few moments to savor the reasons and then look at how you are working now. Is there any of the previous inspiration that you can inject into your current situation? Has your job evolved from when you started with it? Identify what keeps you doing it and allow those insights to inspire you.
When we get up each morning to go to work, we need reasons that continue to make sense for us. Make sure that you know what your reasons are.
Give up trying to be perfect
Let’s face it—there is the work we are asked to do and then there is the way that we do it. Most of us have a lot invested in our working life. It’s where we get to do something that we hope will be of benefit in the world and we want to give of our best. Sadly, that can often mean that we ask way too much of ourselves. It’s one thing to have a demanding boss—at least we can moan about it later—but when it ourselves driving us, that is harder to deal with.
So, in looking at how to deal with overwhelm at work, we need to see that perfectionism is a frustratingly unattainable goal. In fact, we even need to allow ourselves to make mistakes sometimes.
I love this quote from Thomas Edison,
I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.
A lot of the time we want to be perfect so that people will approve of us and accept us as being worthy of their attention. It tends to come from a place of insecurity. Edison’s approach turns all this on its head—making mistakes is an essential part of learning and growth. Adopting this approach releases a lot of the pressure we are putting on ourselves. We don’t need to add to our stress levels by trying to achieve something that doesn’t exist in the first place.
Come home to yourself
We each need to find a way that enables us to find a place of ease with ourselves. When we are too busy and feeling overwhelmed, we tend to be focusing our energy outwards, looking for ways to cope. Having a simple, accessible way connect with ourselves at anytime, anywhere will help us to puncture the feeling of being overwhelmed.
This is what I do—I call it a STOP MOMENT.
Take a few deep breaths
Pay attention to your body—do you have any tight places, are you tired?
Check in on your mood—how are you feeling?
At each stage, just pay attention. Don’t try to change anything. Don’t judge.
Rest your attention on your breath.
Try to keep it there for a few moments.
Continue with what you were doing.
Try doing several of these during the day—especially when you feel busy. It only needs to take a couple of moments but each Stop Moment will help to ease your tension.
With your boss
It will often be our boss that we feel is one the causing us to have such a heavy schedule. Here’s a few ideas of how we can tackle him/her. A lot will depend on what kind of a person our boss is—receptive or dogmatic; open or insecure? Whatever the case, it’s worth trying these simple steps to see if you can improve conditions for yourself.
You owe to yourself and your boss to communicate as clearly as possible. If we are nervous and afraid of offending then we will be unlikely to give a clear account of how we are experiencing our workload and the effect it is having on our productivity.
If you are already using the strategies listed above to do with working with ourselves, it is going to be easier to find a good place to talk to our boss. To do your job well, you need to be able to say what helps you to achieve at your highest capacity. Maybe your boss won’t listen. Maybe they will think they know better but you need to feel that you have done all you can. If it will help, document your concerns and keep them on file. Who knows when they might come in useful to put your case.
Stand your ground
Don’t wait for a crisis to put your position across. The danger is that you will be emotional and reactive and the exchange could easily get heated. If you prepare well and can give examples that support your case, you will have more chance of success
Any attempt to point out something to your boss that they might not want to hear is going to be a challenge. Remember that you are wanting to do your best at work and the suggestions you are making will help to contribute to that in your view. If you can stand your ground with a certain confidence it will make a more convincing case for your boss. Standing your ground does not need to be assertive, it can simply be reasonable and well-argued.
Put yourself in their shoes
This is very important. If you can enter the conversation—or series of conversations—with your boss having thought carefully about how things are for them, they will feel less defensive. You will be coming from a place of understanding and they will feel that. We all appear to be very different, with our own individual interests and goals. However, when we scratch the surface we don’t have to look too far to find common ground. We all want things to go well and we don’t want things to get messed up and cause problems. Just as you want to give of your beset at work, so does your boss. Perhaps you have different ways of showing it but deep down you want the same thing.
If you can spend some time reflecting on what your boss is facing and how they might be feeling it help you to broaden your attitude towards them. We all like to be understood and if you can demonstrate some knowledge of the challenges your boss is facing then they will feel more secure in listening to your concerns.
With your team
It’s pretty likely that the team you work with is also feeling overwhelmed at work and challenged by the amount of work that needs to be accomplished. Working together with your colleagues to find ways of easing your joint burden is a good investment. Remember, it’s not just about reducing your own feelings of stress and over-work but creating a more sustainable working environment.
All too often the way we listen is clouded by our own agenda. Recently I came across an article introducing the HEAR system of listening and found it relevant and easy to remember.
Halt whatever you are doing and offer your full attention.
Enjoy a breath as you choose to receive whatever is being communicated to you—wanted or unwanted.
Ask yourself if you really know what they mean and if you don’t, ask for clarification. Instead of making assumptions, bring openness and curiosity to the interaction. You might be surprised at what you discover.
Reflect back to them what you heard. This tells them that you were really listening.
If people feel properly heard it is already a way of cutting through feeling overwhelmed because something in us is reassured by knowing that someone else has really listened to us and understands how we are feeling.
It’s a funny thing about kindness—we may feel that it is all about reaching out to other people and enabling them to feel better but research shows that kindness benefits ourselves as well. When we show kindness to other we feel better about ourselves and our own wellbeing is enhanced. On top of that—kindness is contagious. If we see other people being kind to each other—even when we are not involved—we also feel better. All too often when we feel under pressure, our expression of kindness goes out of the window. We feel it is just one step too far. The science tells a different story, so however busy you feel, make time for small acts of kindness at work. It will help you as well as the people you are being kind to.
Avoid stress addiction
When everyone is very busy and things are tough, it is all too easy to become attached to our own stress as a kind of badge of honour—I must be doing a good job, look how stressed I am!
Some years ago, I worked in a tough inner London school where the challenges were certainly plentiful but the teachers made it all much worse by bonding together over how stressed they were. It became impossible to show happiness with your work because you were considered to be letting the side down, or not trying hard enough.
Stress closes things down and makes it harder to change the situation. Although it is inevitable that we will feel stressed from time to time we can try to maintain a sense of humour about it as well!
With your work environment
We have looked at how to cope with feeling overwhelmed with yourself, with your boss and with your team but let’s finish by taking a few moments by looking at your work environment. Each of us might relate to our work environment as ‘something out there’ that we can do little about—whereas the truth is that each one of us has a big impact on it.
Slow things down
It might sound counter-intuitive but when things are moving fast, it helps to slow down a little. It is all too easy to get caught up in the whirl of activity and lose our ground.
We already mentioned focusing on our breath as a way of settling ourselves when things intense. It is a skillful way of slowing ourselves down without becoming distracted. Simply take a few deep breaths when you feel overwhelmed and then carry on with your activity. It provides a brief moment to regroup.
Be in the present
When we are harried and overworked it is all too easy to worry about what we need to do and to keep going back over what we have already done and check that we got it right. Going a little slower, using our breath to enable us to focus both help us to stop ruminating and worrying and to be more in the present moment—which is the only moment we can do anything about.
Remember to smile. Pressure can make us grimace and look severe—whether we feel that way or not. When people see us smiling we appear accessible and they are reassured.
If you found this blog useful you might like to try this online course
How to Make Your Stress Benefit You: an online course that shows how to make the best of your stress.
You can find out all about it here
Life is what happens while we are making other plans
The plans we make
Many of us grew up with some version of how our lives might unfold—versions passed down to us from our parents, and adjusted according to the influences we encountered while growing up. I remember deciding quite early on that I was going to live in an isolated village community at the top of a mountain far from civilisation. My plan was to live only with people that I loved and I certainly intended to have a big family. By the time I was eighteen I was at university in Leeds and on my way to becoming a teacher in London—no mountain top in sight! A few years later I found out that I was not able to have children and no amount of treatment seemed able to turn that around.
The uncertainty of life
We all want to be happy and live a good life. We may well have lots of ideas as to how we want to make this happen but we can see that life is quite fragile and uncertain. Circumstances change, things happen beyond our control and we never know what the next day will bring. We never have enough information to make the decisions that affect our lives—how will the person you promise to love and cherish from today onwards be in twenty years’ time? Will you still like them? We can hope but we cannot be sure.
Then our bodies can let us down at a moment’s notice. The news is full of accidents that befall people going about their ordinary everyday lives—then there are the extraordinary events of terrorist attacks and travel catastrophes. On top of that, there are numerous illnesses and complaints that can invade our bodies and, inevitably, there is the slow but steady onset of ageing.
The insecurities of work
Perhaps we set out in life to be successful at work. In our meritocratic society, we are told from an early age that, with hard work, we can become whatever we want. The problem is that life shows us something different. However much we study and train there are circumstances beyond our control that will affect the result we are looking for. We might have an unsupportive boss; the economy might go into recession; or we may have to move house to be near an ailing parent. We watch in amazement the people who appear to have discovered how to make the system work for them and seem to have endless resources and opportunities.
We can wonder if we can become anything we want what is wrong with us when we are not at the top of our game. If rewards go to the people who deserve them, then are we undeserving?
Happiness and success
We can see that although we may wish for happiness, it is not as easy to bring about as we hoped and unhappiness comes much more often than we want. Perhaps our relationship is in trouble, maybe we cannot afford the holiday we were looking forward to, or we feel lonely even when with our friends. None of this fits with the images of success that fill advertising campaigns, which tend to focus on happy, fit and glamorous people. Social media can help to create an idea that everyone is having more fun than we are in all areas of life—work, leisure, family life, wellbeing and so on. It is a small step from feeling that others are doing better than ourselves to equating their happiness with success and any of our own unhappiness with failure.
How do we respond?
Fear of vulnerability
All of this can leave us feeling vulnerable, which does not need to be a problem except if we see it as a weakness. Many of us feel that if we are vulnerable, then other people will look down on us, or even take advantage of us. My mother used to warn me not to let other people see when I was upset and struggling to cope. She told me that it was a way of ‘letting myself down’. Her advice left me with a sense that being vulnerable diminished me, and made me less effective.
Happiness = success
If we feel vulnerable and are trying to cover it up, then we are easily going to tip over into trying very hard to appear as in control as we possibly can. You are probably familiar with the line of thinking—if I can hold it together, not show my feelings and get things right, then people are going to like me and approve of me. Because we are equating happiness with success, then we want to emulate what is seems to mean to be happy. We push down any feelings of vulnerability and insecurity and strive for an idea of perfection which we think will guarantee us acceptance.
Our critical voice
All of this is taking place with a tremendous amount of effort. We will ourselves to accomplish what we feel we must accomplish to hold our place in our community. We are not sharing our struggle with anyone else, so there is no-one to turn to for advice. This vacuum is filled with our own critical voice urging us to try harder and finding fault every step of the way. It is as if we believe that it is only by beating ourselves up that we will get the best from ourselves. If we let up the continuous critical commentary, we will not be able to trust ourselves to stay focused and accomplish what we feel we have to do.
Does this work?
After I left teaching I was appointed to a small executive team managing a large multi-national non-profit. I loved the work but it was incredibly challenging, with a steep learning curve. For the first time in my career I was one of the people in charge and the demands of the role pushed me back into insecurities that I thought had been overcome. It was not clear to me how much of cover up I was trying to pull off until there was a meeting with the directors of each of our national groups. The executive team was trying to get agreement on a key issue that I had put a lot of work into. The meeting quickly got stuck and it looked as if the project was going to fail. Out of a desperate attempt to save the project, I dropped my guard and spoke from the heart about how important it was.
Imagine my amazement when after the meeting—and its successful outcome—several people approached me to say how much it had meant to them to see me showing some vulnerability. It seems that till that point colleagues had been finding me tough and uncompromising, when I knew how challenged and insecure I felt. My inability to share any of my vulnerability and my attempts to appear in control had led people to feel less at ease with me and to not fully trust my directions.
Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, fallible and imperfect
We may be afraid that allowing ourselves to be vulnerable will make us appear weak, when in fact, the opposite is true. When we are vulnerable we are not pretending, we are not hiding—we are simply present with whatever is going on inside us. We can relax. This gives a kind of confidence that we can manage whatever is going on. There is also a generosity, because we are allowing others to know what is going on with us and are indicating a willingness to receive help and support from them as we go through it. Such openness is flexible and responsive, rather than brittle and afraid.
Engaging with self-compassion is a way of discovering a sense of acceptance of ourselves. We take on engaging with ourselves as we would with a good friend. We treat ourselves with kindness rather than harsh criticism, which helps us to work with our difficulties in a more sustainable way. Connecting with our own fallibility reminds us that everyone struggles at some time or other. At any time we may be feeling bad about something in our lives it is a fairly good bet that many other people are going through something very similar. We are all in the same boat regarding the uncertainties of life.
Have you ever met anyone that you consider perfect? It’s not common, is it? Why then do we think that is a realistic goal for ourselves? My meeting story shows that by trying to be perfect, we face the possibility of being less effective than we want to be. On the other hand, learning to accept ourselves as we are, with all our insecurities, fears and worries can be a deep source of wellbeing. When we can feel comfortable with all aspects of ourselves—the parts we like as well as the parts that we would like to be different—then we have the raw materials of coping with what life brings. With these raw materials the uncertainties of life become more the inevitable flow of life to be worked with, rather than fears and challenges to be battled against.
If you would like to take the ideas in this post further check out my online course How to be a Good Friend to Yourself
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