Most of us are back at work by this point in January and already the holidays are starting to feel like they’ve been over for a while. In our street, every day the pile of Christmas trees assigned to the garbage grows bigger. It’s hard to imagine that a few days ago they were taking pride of place loaded down with all kinds of treats and surrounded by presents.
Perhaps while you were enjoying your holiday downtime, you were thinking about the new year about to start. Maybe you’ve made a whole list of new year resolutions. It seemed a good idea at the time—make a fresh start to the year and get yourself in shape. The thing is, we can get a bit carried away. We make a huge list of all the things we are going to stop doing and all the things we think we should start doing and when we come to look at it—well, it’s a bit overwhelming and frankly, depressing!
When we are not self-compassionate
Now we have set up the perfect conditions for feeling guilty and dissatisfied with ourselves. The next step is to start beating ourselves up for not getting going on the self-improvement plans we made—which will make us feel worse. It’s easy to look back over the year just finishing and remember all the things we didn’t do, or hopes we had that were not fulfilled.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting to get the best out of ourselves, nor with using the beginning of a new year as a time for reflection on how we are living our lives. The thing is we tend to go about it in such a self-critical way.
We look at everything we think is not working so well and then make a long to-do list of all the ways we want to change. Somehow, we are surprised when it is overwhelming and we cannot keep it up. We feel as if we have failed in some way and are disappointed in ourselves.
Some suggestions for making self-compassionate resolutions
Not surprisingly, we are much more likely to get the best from ourselves if we approach any changes we want to make with an attitude of self-compassion and kindness. We can try and be a friend to ourselves, rather than behaving like our worst nightmare of a disapproving schoolteacher.
Start off with looking to your strengths
Think about the parts of your life that are on track and the things you do well. Ask yourself how you could build on that.
For example: you might be good at your job but have an irritating relationship with a work colleague. Your resolution could be to try to make a difference in how you both relate to one another. Start small by making them a cup of coffee whenever you can. The chances are you’ll be surprised how quickly they warm up to you. It often does not take so much to make a difference.
Choose the changes you want to make carefully
When looking for where you want to change, choose something manageable. You can see from the picture above that ‘improving self’ is a big project, as is ‘save money’. Both are too big and too general.
Even ‘more family time’ is asking a lot. Instead try to be specific—decide to call your mother twice a week; or decide to turn off all your individual screens (phone, tablet etc.) by 9pm in the evening in order to have quality time with your partner.
Set yourself some attainable goals
It takes time to change your habits, so take big picture into account. Set yourself a goal—like making meditation part of your life but then look at the steps needed to get there. Decide to meditate for five minute every day for two weeks. If that goes well, then try for 10 minutes every day for a month. When you miss a day, don’t stop to berate yourself—just carry on the next day.
Celebrate your successes
If you had a good friend who was trying to change some habits you would want to encourage them. Remember, with self-compassion you can be a good friend to yourself. Celebrate every success you achieve. Build in rewards for what you accomplish. When you manage your first week of meditating 5 minutes a day then you could celebrate by giving yourself a treat.
We are all in the same boat.
Whatever our situation and circumstances, people mostly want to be happy and live good lives. Think of all the people who are trying to make positive changes and struggling with them just like you are. None of us is alone in trying to find the way to get the best out of ourselves and live a meaningful life.
Allow yourself to get it wrong
No-one is perfect and it’s a waste of effort to even try. As human beings, we are sometimes going to make mistakes and sometimes we will be brilliant. When you break a resolution, or find yourself slipping back into old habits instead of beating yourself up, try forgiving yourself. Focus on the effort you’ve been making and don’t give up on what you are trying to do just because you had a bit of a blip. Remember to talk to yourself as you would to a good friend. If your friend was struggling with their resolution—how would you talk to them? Would you call them a loser? I doubt it. After all—if we cannot be a friend to ourselves, how can we be a good friend at all?
Very few of us are likely to set out for work with the intention of upsetting people. Mostly we want to do our job well, and get on with our day. How is then that so often we come home in the evening feeling annoyed by an interaction we have had and upset with a colleague? It got me thinking about whether anyone went home in the evening with bad feelings towards me!
Here’s some thoughts I had about ways in which it is possible that I might have got it wrong—without meaning to—and upset people at work.
Being too pre-occupied to listen well
Do you get impatient while people are talking to you? Are you tempted to jump in and make their point for them—because you see it already and more clearly than they seem to? Do you have to hold yourself back from interrupting?
The thing that I have come to notice is that people feel your impatience and it makes them uneasy. They don’t take it as a statement on your state of mind but on their performance and it makes them feel that they don’t have your full attention—which makes them less able to get their message across and increases your impatience.
These days I try to see listening as part of my meditation practice—part of being present, awake and curious. You miss so much by thinking you already know what someone wants to say, or by responding too quickly and cutting them off.
When we can allow someone the space to say what they want to say we are creating trust and communicating respect—so we are fostering harmonious relationships. We are creating opportunities to exchange useful information and to explore problems, which will help to boost creativity in our team.
It’s all too easy, when you are busy, to push ahead in order to get the job done and to overlook how people feel they are being treated. Of course, this is intensified if you are in any kind of managerial role, with people reporting to you.
In his book. 365 Thanks Yous, John Kralik tells the story of how he turned his life around by writing a thank you note to a different person every day for a year. Finding himself at a critical point in his life, he wanted to try and focus on what was good in his life, rather than what was going wrong. One of the stories that always sticks in my mind is the day he wrote a thank you note to his server in his local Starbucks. At first the guy thought he was being handed a letter of complaint and then he was amazed at being so beautifully thanked for something he did over and over again all-day long.
A lot of my work is carried out at a distance—through SKYPE, email, and online courses. Yet I find the power of appreciation is not diminished by distance. It shows you have noticed the effort someone has made, and you are the better for it. You need to do it because it feels right, if you are hoping for something in return it can get messy.
Talking about people behind their back
It can be seductive and oddly flattering to be pulled into a session of bad-mouthing your boss, or a fellow worker. For a while you can feel that you are accepted, and one of the in-crowd. You are being trusted to hear and share in the discontent someone is feeling. We all do it from time to time but when it happens as a routine part of each working day it can become unhealthy and potentially hurtful.
This was brought home to me very strongly during the years that I worked as part of the Executive Board of an international non-profit. I was the only woman on the team of four and many of our staff and volunteers in the national teams were women. Unfortunately, for some people I was an object of some envy and resentment. I was too slow to understand this and took too long to take measures to address it. After some time in the job—which I loved—I was told about stories that were circulating about me. Most of them were just inaccurate and came from people’s projections. Others had some truth but were recounted without a shred of empathy or understanding of the challenges that I faced.
I was shocked and devastated for a time but when I calmed down, I saw this was a great learning opportunity for me. There is nothing like being on the receiving end of gossip and speculation to help rid you of any inclination to engage it in yourself. I would never want someone to feel as I did during that period.
When you gossip about someone behind their back you erode trust. It always seeps out somehow and people come to know you’ve been talking about them. It’s difficult to ask them to trust you after that. Much better to approach someone directly to talk something through that is bothering you.
Not giving someone the benefit of the doubt
Imagine a situation where one of your children wakes up in the night with an upset stomach. You spend hours caring for them, changing sheets, bringing glasses of water and finally drop off to sleep at around 04.30. Your alarm goes off at 07.00. You have a splitting headache but you get out of bed because you are due to present a new project to your team at work at 10.00 that morning. Your child is over the worst but won’t be well enough for school. It takes almost an hour to arrange childcare and now you are late leaving the house. The train is packed and you don’t find a seat. By the time you get to work you are feeling very sorry for yourself but you do your best to give an inspiring presentation. It goes OK but lacks your usual flair and the team is doubtful and critical about the new project.
Your boss asks for a word after the meeting. He/she could take a number of approaches to your disappointing performance. He/she could start off by pointing out how flat you were and how your answers led to more, rather than less confusion. Or he/she could sit you down and ask what was going on and what help you needed to sort this out.
Which approach would you prefer?
When people behave in ways we are disappointed in, or uncomfortable with instead of immediately reacting, we could ask ourselves questions like these:
what might be going on for this person that I am not aware of?
what do I know about their situation which might help me to understand what is going on?
what can I do to support them?
These questions open a dialogue, which could lead to a solution of the difficulty, rather than an angry exchange.
Forgetting to include people
If we feel excluded from an event, we might say that our feelings were hurt. Neuroscience is showing that this might be more accurate than we thought. Research shows that the same area of the brain—the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex—is active when we process emotional/social pain, as when we feel physical pain, say from catching our finger in a door.
Our ancestors evolved to live in groups because they understood that the resulting protection was essential for survival. A sense of wanting to belong is hardwired in us and when we don’t feel we are included, then our threat response is triggered and we can become anxious, and uncooperative. The activation of the stress response uses resources that would normally go to the pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain we use for—among other things—problem-solving, and memory. When we are under stress, we are more likely to make inaccurate assumptions.
It’s this kind of reaction that can lead to someone trying to create their own sense of belonging. This is where potentially toxic behaviours such as gossiping, cynicism, and forming cliques can come in.
It makes good sense at every level to foster an environment of openness and inclusivity in your workplace. It helps to make sure information is easily accessible, and people feel encouraged to comment and feedback on work processes. Ensuring all views are heard in meetings, welcoming and supporting new and younger staff is important. Then there are the small everyday events that can have such a big impact on people. Things as ordinary as remembering to make coffee for all members of your team, including everyone in your morning greeting and spreading your invitation to lunch widely. All this helps to create a sense of inclusivity and belonging.
Being too anxious to trust a colleague
Few employees enjoy being micromanaged. It leads to people feeling not trusted, undervalued and over-controlled. It is also exhausting for the person trying to micromanage. If you are continuously looking over your shoulder to check on what each member of your team is doing, you never have enough time and energy to do your own work. It’s a self-defeating process. The more you micromanage someone, the further it saps their creativity, ending up with them increasingly dependent on you.
No-one wants to be an irritating manager. Micromanaging is often rooted in an anxiety about one’s own abilities, and an insecurity around your position. Perfectionism usually part of the mix—not having the confidence to let people have the space to experiment and even to fail. Instead you feel bound to monitor each step of the way, so you can check for anything unexpected along the way. You are afraid to fail yourself, and so you project it on to everyone working with you.
One way of lessening your own anxiety and allowing an employee to feel valued is to ease up you focus on doing. Micromanaging is worst around getting things done and achieving the right goals. Of course, we need to do that but not at the expense of being.If we are paying attention to how we are when we take on a task, rather than simply on getting the task done—then we might be open to starting a dialogue with the people we work with. We might consider asking them to give feedback on how we manage, or to share what they feel are their main skills. It can be possible to ask if, or where they feel blocked. Perhaps it would be possible to share some of your own concerns and to talk together about how to work together with more attention to the process of the work.
Opening up the one-way dynamic of micromanaging could hold surprisingly helpful answers for both mangers and staff.
Do you have any stories you would like to add? It is always good to hear from you.
If you find this post helpful, you might like to try this online course:
When I was in Junior School—quite some time ago now—I took part in a school Nativity Play. Wanting to do something a bit different the school included a Social Worker in the play to check in on why the pregnant mother and her husband were contemplating giving birth in a stable. The Social Worker was kindly but bossy—perfectly turned-out and very sure of her own place in the scheme of things. While my friends got to dress up as angels and donkeys and shepherds, I got to put on my best coat and scarf and play the role of the Social Worker, a real Goodie Two Shoes. Over the years my parents used to talk about what a good Social Worker I made and embarrassed me and several hopeful boyfriends with the inevitable photos. What they did not discuss was that even then I was influenced by perfectionism.
The perfectionist expectations of parents
Over the years I have sometimes thought of that Social Worker with a mixture of reluctant affection and some exasperation. The thought, ‘If only she had known then ….’ comes to my mind. My parents did not push me unduly as I was growing up but they certainly instilled in me the importance of having standards, of being well-organized, of doing well and not falling into bad habits. Of course, as soon as I left home and set out on my own I did my best to do all of those things just in order to check out how it worked away from the parental gaze. It took me years to come to any idea of who I was. I was caught in a struggle to be free and independent but at the same time full of fear. What if my freedom could only be bought by dropping those standards I had had instilled in me? I remember during one of my university terms I made the decision to be untidy because tidiness was so rigid. For about 6 weeks I lived in semi-squalor until a friend asked me what I was doing and the whole experiment appeared ridiculous!
Perfectionism as the wish for love
Perfectionism comes in many forms but it is always to do with the wish for love and acceptance. I wanted my parents’ love because I was not sure how to make send of the world without it. They seemed to make their love conditional on me having a certain set of standards and achieving a certain way of living. Part of my growing up was to find the courage to challenge this, which I did in fits and starts. We influence each other in so many ways that can be subtle and almost invisible but take years to unravel. If only my parents had been able to bring me up to understand that life is messy, that mistakes are inevitable but rarely fatal and that we can aim to be the best of ourselves without punishing ourselves along the way. Instead, probably scared themselves and wanting the best for their daughters, they created an ideal world in which if you behaved well and responsibly then everything would fall into place. Of course, the truth is radically different.
It’s easy to dismiss the idea of perfectionism by only seeing it as extreme behaviour—like constantly redoing a task that is already accomplished in order to ‘get it right’. Yet if we look closely, many of us are afraid of making mistakes, of being judged by others, of showing our true selves. Why do we do this? Because we want to appear in control, at the top of our game, and worthy of love. For me, it was such a relief to realize that perfection is an unattainable goal and trying to pursue it is like drinking salt water—the more you go for it, the more miserable you feel. Once I began to meditate it became clear that life is a practice and that means getting it wrong and making mis-steps but that is fine. It’s all part of the journey and the learning.
How does meditation help?
When we meditate our minds settle and calm down. This makes it much easier to see clearly what is going on with us and our world because a lot of the usual interference is not there. Meditation is about learning to be present and aware without judgement and wanting things to be different. This helps us to cope with the fear of what might happen in the future, and to let go of hurt that has happened in the past—our attention is more focused on what is actually happening in the moment. These moments change constantly, so it’s easier to connect with the idea process of life—its messiness and its surprises. The idea of control is exposed as hollow-how can you control a continuous river of experience?
In meditation we get to see ourselves close up—the torrent of thoughts and emotions that pass through our minds constantly. It is a process of coming to know yourself, to understand how your mind works and as you do that it seems less scary to allow yourself to be seen for who you are. You have had first-hand experience of your own imperfections and realized that it is fine. There is less reason to defend ourselves and to hide away. Yet at the same time, we connect with our soft spot—that place at our core where we can simply be with all our vulnerability, love and courage.
Brené Brown talks about perfectionism as a twenty ton shield that we think will protect us from being hurt but actually prevents us from being seen. Meditation helps us to remove the shield and helps us develop the courage to be vulnerable. If we can be vulnerable to our own pain and anxiety we have a chance of working with it, of moving through it. If we hide it away and pretend it’s not there it just blocks us.
Remember avoiding the traps of perfectionism is a process
One of the most insidious traps of perfectionism is when we apply it to the very means we are trying to use to help us avoid them. Often people that I talk to about learning meditation set themselves incredibly high goals, which inevitably they can’t keep up. This makes them feel discouraged and worries them that they are not doing it properly—that they are the only people who find meditation challenging. Sometimes this can even mean that they stop trying and feel meditation is not for them. This is such a pity and absolutely not necessary. The wonderful thing about meditation is that there is not such thing as a bad meditation and there are no standards to live up to. It is simply a process of coming to know your own mind, to make friends with yourself as you are and share that knowledge with courage and confidence.
If my young Social Worker had been taught to be with herself in this way, she might have had more of a sense of humour about the inadequacy of the stable’s facilities for child birth. She might even have been able to see the main point in the story—that something exceptional and magical was happening that was much more important than the irregularities that occupied her.
If you found this post useful you could check out my online course, How to be a Good Friend to Yourself