Saturday, July 9, 2016

Our Experiences and Feelings

One time I had a really awful supervisor. Now, I’ve had a few really awful supervisors. I don’t know if this guy was the worst, but he was definitely in the top three. (Fortunately, I have also had some absolutely wonderful supervisors.)

The year that I spent in this position, however, was hands down my worst. I had an employee who was resentful that I was hired into the position rather than her being promoted (even though she wasn’t qualified). Despite my concerted efforts to work collaboratively with her, she had other plans. How did she express her resentment? By cleverly sabotaging my work so that things fell apart when she was not on shift and I was. And by spreading horrendous stories about me to other employees both at our location and others. She was very compelling, very believable. Her campaign against me was relentless. And some of her stories about me were quite offensive and extraordinarily, personal hurtful.

So in addition to her sour attitude and vigorous campaign of sabotage, my other employees challenged my authority, and coworkers constantly gave me the side-eye, cold shoulder or worse because they kept hearing awful stories about me.

The boss – my supervisor’s supervisor – was “retired on the job” in the worst way possible. He had no clue what was going on, but would periodically pop up and bark out orders, send people scrambling, and chastise. Lines between work and personal were ignored, and I would be chastised for taking a rare sick day, or probed about my personal life.

Back to my supervisor. He’d lived a sheltered life, and relied on a very rigid and archaic work model. Our schedules only overlapped a few hours each week, so we communicated via notes we left for each other. He jerked me around on a regular basis (dispatching directives via notes), and if I asked for discussion or help in prioritizing or told him I was struggling with covering both the morning AND night shifts on Wednesdays and Thursdays, he would chastise me for whining and/or insubordination.

Add to this that my job was high responsibility, very high stakes, and high stress. Every day as got ready for work, I took a few breaths and sent out a wish that I would rise to any challenge that would come my way – knowing that it could quite literally be life or death.

This was certainly one of the worst years of my life, and the horrific nature of the job situation completely consumed and ruined my personal life.

When I approached my breaking point I carefully crafted a measured, diplomatic letter to my supervisor. I made it as clear and concise as possible. I let him know that I was feeling overwhelmed and on the verge of burning out. I summarized the circumstances of my job that made me feel that way (for example my employee’s campaign of sabotage, of which he was well aware) and suggested some solutions that might reduce my overwhelm.

In response, I got a lengthy letter that said something like, “what if those things aren’t true,” then systematically debunked all the things I had listed as being circumstances leading me to feel overwhelmed.

What if it isn’t true? That I’m not feeling overwhelmed? That I’m not going to burn out?

I felt like I was in the twilight zone.

He wanted to debate with me. NO, he wanted to tell me I was wrong, for feeling the way I felt. He seemed to think that he could argue why I did not feel the way I did. Not should not feel; did not feel.

Dear Reader, I have tried to paint a picture of how stressful my situation was so that you would believe me when I said I was overwhelmed and approaching burnout. But what if I started this post by simply stating that I had an impossible and stressful job situation, and was overwhelmed and approaching burnout?

Would you still sympathize with me? Would you question me? What would impact your decision whether or not to believe me? And when I say believe me I want to be clear: believe that this was my experience and that these were my feelings about it.

If you never had an experience like this at work, would you be skeptical? If you have more of an assertive personality, or a presence that compels people to take you seriously, and personally can’t relate to this experience, would you be skeptical of my experience?

If I was still working at this job and suffering and you were my friend, would my pain make you so uncomfortable that you would want me to “look at it differently,” “change my attitude,” or “interpret my supervisor’s behavior differently,” rather than you accepting that things were really this awful?

Not only did my supervisor invalidate my feelings, well-intentioned friends and family invalidated my experience of what was happening. And that made it worse because, on top of a horrific job situation, I felt like no one believed me or how bad it was.

Have you ever expressed your feelings, or shared your experience of something, and been hurt, confused or infuriated when someone told you that you were wrong?

As a society, we have developed some bad habits. Instead of cultivating compassion and validating others’ feelings and experiences, we question or even invalidate them.

Other people don’t get to tell us that our experiences are wrong; they don’t get to interpret our experiences. Neither do they get to invalidate our feelings. We are the only ones who know what we experience, know what we feel.

So when Black Americans share their experience of being Black; about how there are two different Americas; that while progress has been made, being Black is still a life sentence, we do not get to question that. When Black folks say that they are systematically being killed for the crime of being Black, they are expressing their experience.

White people cannot know what it is like growing up Black in the U.S. What we can do is listen and try to understand. And cultivate compassion. That’s a start.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Living Like Every Day Is Your Last

A woman is going about her life. She believes what she was told about making goals and plans for her future. She allowed herself an appropriate number of years to be carefree before getting tied down. Then she started to get serious about a career. Started making more responsible choices which would pave the way to starting a family, buying a home, upgrading that home, and eventually retiring with a comfortable safety net.

But somewhere in there she gets lost. She’s on the treadmill and maybe she knows it and hates it; or maybe she isn’t really aware of it, just has this sense of malaise; or perhaps she struggles with depression.

Then something shocks her to the core: Death. Someone very close to her, maybe even her. Someone in her family dies. Or she almost dies. Suddenly, all of her carefully laid plans are in ruins. More than that, she realizes that all of her meticulous efforts at creating an ordered life can be obliterated in a heartbeat.

Her entire Life, her entire perception of Life, is shaken apart. For days, weeks, months, she feels uprooted. Her plan clearly isn’t going to help her anymore. So now what?

It is common after such an awakening to reevaluate our priorities. And for many people we realize that our jobs, our retirement funds, pleasing others at our expense, and consistently punching the clock every day are not the things that create a fulfilling Life.

We promise ourselves to slow down, to spend more time with the people we love, to tell them we love them more, to stop and smell the roses. We worry less about pleasing our boss; we worry less about pleasing others in general. Many completely overhaul their lives leaving jobs, relationships, and homes that no longer serve them and bring them fulfillment; situations that they stayed in out of fear or habit.

They are spurred on by a sense of urgency, a desire to spend every day as if it’s their last and not waste it on something demeaning, demoralizing, or just plain unchallenging, because in truth every day may be our last.

This is a common theme. I’ve experienced variations of it myself, as has my extended family. My son’s cancer diagnosis a few years ago, and my young niece dying from cancer three years ago, continue to have reverberations.

The changes to my life were certainly more pronounced initially, and are probably not very obvious to an outsider. But I am far more aware of my heart connection to my son, his wife, and my nieces and nephews. I don’t reach out to them with messages of love as often as I did initially, but their wellbeing is more important to me now than ever. And I want to make sure that they know of my unconditional love for them.

My changes were not in any way exuberant or about chasing stifled dreams. I’d already been doing that – because I had my son at an early age, as soon as he finished school I struck out to explore and challenge myself. But also, when I got the news about my son’s cancer I was in the midst of the most debilitating time of my PTSD. I already knew that I needed to find a new way to earn an income after leaving my career as a park ranger, knew that I wanting to be near my son and be a part of his life – and – changes in my life happened very, very slowly.

It makes sense that after realizing death could derail our plans, or take us at any time, we might reprioritize our lives and even feel reinvigorated as we pursue things we hadn’t dared to pursue before.

But here is what I’m most curious about: what happens over time? I would guess that for most people, this reprioritization and reinvigorated lifestyle isn’t sustainable. Financially for one, but also that level of energy, uncertainty, and risk-taking can be exhausting and stressful. I wonder how hard it is, for many, to maintain that sense of living life as if every day is their last.

So for these people who have looked Death in the face, what do their lives look like in six months? One year? Two? Five? Ten? Twenty?

How many do in fact maintain a complete restructuring of their lives, based on this realization that their priorities were not fulfilling? How many unconsciously start settling back into old habits? How many actually fall into a depression, straddling this new knowledge, but uncertain what to do with it or how to go about redesigning their lives?

As I mentioned, my shock happened in the midst of a mental health crisis. It did not in any way diminish the shock, but it did slow down my ability to reorder my life. I wanted to immediately move to where my son was, to be near him. It took nearly two years before I was emotionally and financially able to do so.

Since then, and as a result of my deliberate reprioritizing, I have been living in a travel trailer which significantly decreases my cost of living while increasing my mobility. While living in trailer parks can be inhibiting especially with pets, living in a trailer has overall been beneficial. My home environment is cheerful and cozy, my lower cost of living gives me more flexibility, and I have peace of mind knowing I could easily pack up and move if necessary.

I’ve been finding ways to make an income; getting familiar with what does and doesn’t work with my new needs and priorities has been a long and slow (and lean) process, but the rewards are starting to pay off. For someone who really understands that tomorrow is not guaranteed, I don’t spend enough time outside, in nature, walking or stretching. I worry and obsess too much. Even though we live in the same town, I don’t visit my son as often as I’d like, or my other extended family.

But in some extraordinary ways, I’ve redesigned my life to make all of those choices more accessible. And part of my process is learning to do things at my own pace. While it may not appear from the outside that much is going on, a lot of important work is happening both internally and externally.

With slow small steps, every day, I free up more of myself to connect with Life.

And you?