It is that time of year where the Christmas cards extol the accomplishments of the year and social media captures the merry gatherings of families and friends. It all makes me smile as I imagine each occasion and the love upon which all the traditions have been built.
As Christmas draws near, I want to also take a moment to acknowledge the parts of the year that we may not see so publicly, but know to be true as well. I want to embrace the moments marked with pain, sorrow and sadness and give them their place along with the rest. My experience tells me when we can see the painful parts of life for what they are (inevitable), their hold is lessened, their truth more gently felt and the gift of wisdom becomes pain’s saving grace.
On Christmas our family honors those no longer with us by joining hands and softly singing “Silent Night.”
It is not uncommon for my coaching clients to be challenged by someone whose stormy behavior creates chaos in their heads, hearts and organizations. Here’s Monica’s story for your consideration. (Not her real name.)
When our call began, Monica said she was struggling with a colleague, Fredrick, who worked in a neighboring European country. Monica and Fredrick held high level positions in their organization and it was imperative that they collaborate effectively in order to achieve significant organizational results. Monica found herself increasingly frustrated with her colleague because his behaviors fell far short of being collaborative. Her assessment was he vacillated between being loud, dominating, disrespectful, petulant, excessively critical and blatantly condescending. Fredrick’s mood was often stormy and difficult and it was not uncommon for both Monica and her junior female colleagues to be on the receiving end of his outbursts and rants. Monica felt especially protective of the more vulnerable younger women with whom she worked.
Monica wanted to focus our call on preparing for an upcoming leadership team meeting, as it was a pretty safe bet Fredrick was going to misbehave. Monica knew she couldn’t control Fredrick; what she wanted to figure out was how to maintain her composure in those moments when she felt triggered by him.
First, we explored what about Fredrick’s behavior caused her angst. By looking at what was going on inside of her, we could get a better sense of what caused her reactions. As we talked, Monica realized her issues arose because Fredrick’s behaviors were actually a threat to one or more of the “essential nutrients” crucial to all of us: safety, connection and dignity/respect. Here’s what each looked like for her:
Monica felt if she was not able to maintain her composure when Fredrick lost his, then her reputation and credibility would be at risk.
Because Fredrick repeatedly refused to collaborate, Monica felt the project was constantly in jeopardy. If this project failed, there was a chance the company would fail. And if the company failed, Monica would not have a job. (Monica is a single Mom and the sole provider for her three children.)
Fredrick also had the ear of their boss. She wondered if he could compromise her career with irrational complaints about her.
Monica valued working with her colleagues to achieve success and find solutions for any roadblocks that arose. The deep connection that comes from solving problems in ways that everyone wins made the difference in work being a joy vs. something to dread. Sadly, Fredrick resisted any attempts Monica made to work together to solve the problems that were plaguing the project.
Fredrick’s behavior often bumped into Monica’s deeply held values about how one should behave and how others should be treated.
More importantly, her standards about how she wanted to be treated were repeatedly compromised.
Next Monica needed to get clear about what mattered to her about herbehavior. Who did she want to be as a leader? How did she want to be seen when there were moments of tension? Monica was wise enough to know success had to be about her and what she could control and not her difficult colleague or his behaviors. Knowing these things enabled Monica to articulate exactly what success meant to her.
Now all Monica needed to figure out was how to create enough space between Fredrick’s behavior and her response for her to be be able to choose responses that aligned with her definition of success vs. just react. Monica and I talked abut the signals her body gave her in moments of conflict. Some of her body clues included a flushing or heat in her neck and face, tightness in her throat, a knot in her stomach and tension across her shoulders. Monica knew these would be her first clues that her body was noticing something that could help inform her brain. Her body would likely be the first to know when there was a threat to her essential nutrients. With that early wisdom she would have a bit more time to be able to choose her response.
Monica was now as prepared as she could be for the upcoming meeting. She understood what was behind her reactions to Fredrick, what was important to her as a leader and how to tune in to her body. She felt grounded, centered and equipped to face whatever played out in the meeting.
Too often Monica worried if others would agree with her assessment of Fredrick. That second guessing kept her from asserting herself when she needed to.
Often, she would get stuck wondering “what am I doing wrong that causes him to behave this way?”
Historically she would either completely withdraw from the conversation or push back vehemently, escalating the tension.
Over time, Monica came to realize part of her struggle was about trusting her ability to assess a situation objectively.
Being objective meant not only looking for data that supports her belief or hypothesis about someone, but also other data too. With more complete data she could look for patterns and decide the right course of action for her.
Monica knew she had to stay vigilant with her practices if she wanted to be able to respond appropriately in the moment when things became chaotic.
Learning about threats to safety, connection and dignity/respect helped Monica stop second guessing herself. Rather than seeing herself as inadequate, it now made sense as to why she got triggered.
Here are some things Monica practiced both saying and embodying so that she would be centered and calm in the heat of the moment. She wanted to demonstrate an openness and curiosity about Fredrick while also not letting him bully her or others in the room:
“Could you repeat that please?” (It is very difficult for someone who is ranting to repeat the rant with the same drama and intensity a second time and not look like, well, an idiot.)
“What is it about this conversation that makes you respond in that way?” (This could help Fredrick articulate what is behind his rant, which may have merit and be better heard and understood if he improved his delivery…)
“We have two things in front of us right now. One is the content of this discussion and the other is your behavior, which is getting in the way of our discussing the content constructively. Rather than being distracted by your behavior, could we agree to continue with the content discussion in a more reasonable way?”
Equally important was for Monica to be prepared for the fact that no matter what she said or how she said it, it was very likely Fredrick would not be able to shift to more appropriate behavior during the meeting. He had shown many times he had a habit of being this way and it likely had served him in some way in the past, thus becoming a habit.
Monica knew her biggest challenge if she chose to say any of the above would be to do so without judgment or shame.
Monica continued her Centering practice every day so her body could call on the “muscle memory” of the calm state it creates for her.
During the meeting Monica also practiced Box Breathing to help her maintain her composure:
Inhale deep belly breaths for 4 counts.
Hold for 4 counts.
Exhale for 4 counts.
Hold for 4 counts.
Repeat as often as necessary.
Embodied Leadership, by Pete Hamill.
Difficult Conversations, How to Say What Matters Most, by Douglas Stone and Bruce Patton.
I’ve stopped watching the news on TV. Most days I barely even read the news on my IPad, much less look at a newspaper. From the horror of Las Vegas to the destruction of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, it seems trauma and suffering are everywhere. (And that’s just on this side of the world.) I can only imagine the impact of these and the many other current events on all those involved and what they will face in the coming months and years. The road to recovery will be long and likely overwhelming for many. My heart hurts for them all.
Whether or not you have faced a trauma of the magnitude of what is in the news, I would venture to say trauma and suffering touches us all. I see evidence of it in my coaching practice, in my friends, my family and myself. Because of what I have seen and experienced, I have devoted hours and hours to reading, research and classes on the topic of trauma, suffering and recovery. Please note: I am not a psychologist or therapist, nor do I intend to imply I am expert on this topic. Like all my posts, I am simply sharing what I have learned thus far. I trust you to decide for yourself whether anything here has relevance for you.
Most of the trauma I see in my coaching practice is the result of dealing with difficult people (i.e., a toxic boss or co-worker, someone who is psychologically unsound, a difficult spouse or divorce, etc.). My personal traumas have also included a wide-spread forest fire which destroyed our property and threatened the safety of our home; three separate, accidental deaths of my cousins who were brothers and with whom I was very close; a suicide attempt by a close family member; and most recently, the horrific death of my 33-year-old niece who was shot in the back while trying to run away from a 25-year-old stalker. I expect you have had traumas in your life too. Given there are plenty of stories about trauma and suffering, I am going to go straight to the habits, lessons and practices most relevant for this post.
My Habits (which have served me some of the time and limited me others):
I have a tendency to minimize or even ignore the traumas I have experienced, wanting to demonstrate only strength and courage. I turn my focus to taking care of everyone else.
I do not like to get too close to, much less share with anyone else, my symptoms of trauma, especially sadness and loss. While I might talk about the story, I won’t talk about how I feel about the story. I loath to burden others with my troubles.
In trying too hard to understand others’ perspectives (with or without engaging them in the conversation), I have second-guessed myself and diminished, or even lost sight of, what matters to me. Consequently, more than once I have missed opportunities to speak my truth with grace, in a grounded and centered way. By the time I owned my truth, grace and grounded-ness were nowhere near my grasp.
Too often I have been overly critical of myself. At other times, I found myself angry at others or the circumstances and, initially at least, unable to show compassion for the humanness of everyone involved, myself included.
In the past I have allowed too many people into my inner circle or let them remain too long and for the wrong reasons.
The impact of a trauma is unique to the individual and may depend on their resilience in addition to the severity of the event. Examples of the more severe traumas include physical or sexual abuse; environmental disasters; being in an accident that could have resulted in death; witnessing a loved one’s illness and death; the tragic, unexpected death of a close friend or family member; and trauma from experiences, at home or at war, that result in PTSD. There are many more.
Other life events may or may not be labeled as a trauma but can still leave an indelible mark on us, leading to tremendous suffering and pain. Examples include verbal and emotional abuse; the ending of a significant relationship (romantic partner, spouse or friend); a toxic manager or coworker; a sudden unexpected job loss; not being emotionally seen, heard or supported by someone close to you; betrayal of a close friend or family member; being rejected for who you are or your life choices; bullying; financial insecurities; the loss of one’s home, whether to fire, flood or foreclosure; being diagnosed with a life-threatening disease; and parenting challenges such as children with mental health or addiction issues. One key message is any of these (or any other example) could be experienced as severe traumas as well. There is no clear line of demarcation; only the person experiencing it can know and judge the impact of their circumstances.
When I see or hear any of the following, I wonder if they are symptoms of unresolved trauma:
Sadness and tears, depression.
Triggered reactions or behaviors that don’t fit the circumstances or cannot be controlled, even when control is deeply desired.
Telling the same stories over and over again. (I call this “spinning.”)
Being stuck, not being able to move forward, or not knowing what to do.
Perpetual busy-ness, as being busy helps occupy the mind and numb the lingering effects of unresolved trauma.
Where our habits (the way we are in the world) usually evolve as coping mechanisms developed over time, the impact of trauma and the habits that subsequently become a part of us can be immediate.
We need to learn to call a trauma what it is, to be honest about and own the impact of trauma on our lives. Be forewarned: Our Western culture does not make this easy!
We put ourselves through a tremendous amount of pain trying to avoid pain.
In my experience, many of us minimize or try to cope our way through trauma and suffering without truly recognizing or acknowledging its impact.
Many more of us try to bury our trauma and suffering and/or deal with it on our own vs. seeking support through family, friends or qualified professionals.
Some of us exhaust our friends by bringing up the situation over and over again without effort towards, or evidence of, forward progress.
Sadly, when we try to minimize the impact a situation or event has on us, it seems to me we are actually perpetuating the trauma. It’s like we are not seeing, hearing or honoring ourselves with regard to our experience.
In avoiding the pain, the resulting consequence of the trauma and suffering is compounded. The effects of the trauma will then linger on indefinitely, in unhealthy or damaging ways.
We need to not be afraid to talk about it with the right people. It bears repeating: Our Western culture does not make this easy!
In processing and recovering from trauma, I have read there is a difference in whether the trauma occurred in childhood or adulthood. It makes sense that the resolution is more difficult if a trauma occurred in childhood. Children do not possess coping or communication skills needed to process trauma. Sadly, and too often, the trauma for children comes from someone in the family, someone with whom they should be safe. Thus, they may have nowhere to turn.
Finding the modality that works to resolve trauma (one source actually referred to it as “cure”) can certainly be a challenge. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) has my interest and attention right now.
Modality is less relevant than the relationship with the person providing the treatment or support. Though they may be a therapist whose emphasis is one of a multitude of modalities, they could also be a minister, teacher, coach or friend.
It is of paramount importance to have an “inner circle” of family and/or friends. Define and build yours accordingly. (See Practices: “Their Place at Your Table” below for a way forward on this.)
The fact that the trauma occurred does not go away. We must be able to process it and recover from it if we want to manage its ongoing impact on our lives. I believe true healing requires compassion for self and others too. This bears repeating over and over again too.
The purpose of finding your compassion is not to make a trauma-inducing behavior acceptable. Rather, it is to help you be more kind to yourself, to take a stand for yourself when necessary and move past what happened.
Equally important, compassion will help us all be present with others who are living through the lens of their own trauma, who want desperately to integrate and move past the experience. Compassion helps us all make the world a better place.
Somatic work can help, perhaps even more so than the cognitive (thinking or talking) in the recovery from trauma.
Get clear about, articulate and uphold your boundaries, both in terms of how you are treated and who is in your inner circle.
Take up calming, compassion and resilience building somatic practices like yoga or QiGong.
Weave meditation, breathing or centering practices into every day.
Complete the exercise, “Their Place at Your Table,” as a way to define your inner circle, as well as other groups of people in your life.
Draw a bullseye.
The center of the bullseye is you.
Think about the personal traits you want to demonstrate every day and in every choice you make. It may help to start with “I am someone who….”
Reflect on how you are doing on each trait. It may be helpful to ask your inner circle what they see. (See Resources: How Will You Measure Your Life?)
The next ring out is your inner circle.
Name the behavioral indicators of someone who sees you, hears you, honors you, believes in you and supports you.
These are the people with whom you are always safe, physically and emotionally.
This is also the group with whom you are willing to devote energy to protect the relationships.
Consider this group sacred. Once defined, you may find there are some people who are in this group but should not be. Hopefully your significant other is in this group. Think carefully about the people you consider a part of this sacred space and be honest with yourself.
Name the remaining groups of people in your life and place them in the appropriate rings as you move away from the center…
(Email email@example.com for the full template of this activity.)
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Bessel van der Kolk M.D.
Getting Past your Past: Take Control of Your life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy, Francine Sharpiro, PhD.
Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, Lundy Bancroft.
I Don’t Want to Talk about It; Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, Terrance Real.
How Will You Measure Your Life?, Clayton M. Christensen.
The Body is Your Brain, a course with Amanda Blake who founded Embright, Your Brilliance Embodied.
Toxic Coworkers: How to Deal with Dysfunctional People on the Job, Alan A. Cavaiola, Ph.D., Neil J. Lavender, Ph.D.
Meet Kemba. Kemba is our German Shepherd Dog (GSD), often referred to around here as “Kemba the Wonder Dog.”
Kemba is a petite GSD, relatively speaking, and our friend Rick says she is proof that gender transcends all species. Kemba eats daintily and is gentle, nurturing and kind. But be forewarned, Kemba has a protective side too. She stays on high alert for perpetrators to those of us she perceives as more vulnerable, like babies, the elderly and of course, me. All bets are off if Kemba thinks that any of those she has chosen to protect may be in harm’s way. If another dog approaches us on our walks in a seemingly aggressive way (i.e., if they so much as look at us), or the UPS guy simply rings the door bell, Kemba turns into a beast. It’s all out “full protection mode” as she barks ferociously, teeth bared and hair on end. She basically terrifies anyone nearby. Though it might be great if I truly was coming into harm’s way, most of the time Kemba’s reaction is way over-blown for the circumstances. <sigh> Such is life with a GSD.
Kemba and I go on long walks almost every day. In addition to being my guard dog and protector, Kemba has another very important purpose for our walks. She is determined to slowly and thoroughly sniff every leaf, twig or blade of grass over which any other creature in the animal kingdom has crossed. I, on the other hand, am out for a fitness walk. For me, that means we need to go as fast as possible, covering as much distance as possible in as little time as possible. Thus, when Kemba’s radar is pinging from one thing to another, it can become painfully tedious for me to stop and wait for her every few steps as she completes her sniffing ritual. I confess I sometimes even get a bit annoyed. I often think or say, “For goodness sake, Kemba, can we just goooooo…?????” (Insert any relevant emoticons here, lol.)
Which leads me to the point of this post. It occurs to me people get stuck when they approach differences through the lens of their conflicting purposes, or positions. In our story above, Kemba’s position is she wants to sniff. My position is I want to walk fast. To move beyond positions, minimize frustration and more successfully resolve our conflict, Kemba and I will need to talk about what is behind our positions, to share one another’s interests. Thus, if Kemba could talk, she would tell me her interests include wanting to sniff in part because it’s a form of mental stimulation. For her, sniffing is a way to assesses her environment. It gives her important information and supports her survival and maybe even mine too, given she sees herself as my protector. Meanwhile, I want to walk fast because I want to be fit and to age well. If Kemba and I talked about our interests, we would likely find it quite interesting that, though our positions are different, our interests are actually very similar. Ironically, we share an interest of enhancing our chance of survival! If Kemba and I were two humans and if we were willing to look beyond our conflicting positions and focus instead on understanding one another’s interests, we would very likely be able find a solution that works for both of us. In the case of Kemba and me, one solution has been to use a retractable leash, which gives Kemba a longer runway when she stops to sniff. The other is to take her off leash occasionally, as I am confident in her dedication to me and to staying pretty close to my side.
There are times when I may be standing firmly in my position without consciously knowing, much less clarifying with others, my interests.
I miss opportunities to ask others about their interests and particularly need to refrain from assuming I already know what matters to them.
Clarifying my interests is important when I am frustrated. It may require slowing down long enough to go below the surface and figure out what really matters to me.
People often avoid talking about what is true for them. They fear being vulnerable and opening themselves to ridicule, judgment or attack.
I could have less stress and less conflict in my life if I were to look for, listen to and be open to understanding both my own and other’s interests.
Notice when there is a positional conflict and create the space to have a conversation that focuses on understanding the interests behind the positions.
Yoga is new to me this year. I want to be intentional in slowing down, opening up and balancing my life. Before each yoga session I want to state my commitment to take things a bit more slowly, a bit more reflectively with more openness to where others are and where they may be in any given interaction.
Book: Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher and William Ury
At a recent funeral of a family member, I found myself reconnecting with someone who had come to show his respect for my family, someone with whom I had not spoken in several years. Though we had a very pleasant conversation at the funeral, I couldn’t help but be reminded of some of the more tense ones we had in the past. Later that evening as I was reflecting on the day, I was suddenly struck by how this person had hugged me, both in his initial greeting and again later as he was saying goodbye. Each time, as his arms went around my shoulders, he leaned in with his right shoulder and seemed to create a barrier or block. It was unnatural and noticeably different from his hugs in the past, and I couldn’t help but wonder what this new version was really about. Was he still trying to “win,” even after all this time? I had so hoped we had finally made our peace…
As I pondered, it wasn’t long before I was quite sure there was intentionality and a not-so-subtle message in the hugs. As my annoyance grew, I considered sending a text to call out the behavior and let him know I was on to his game. But I was also perplexed. Our conversation that day was quite cordial and even kind-hearted. Why the mixed message? So, before sending my indignant text, I thought I would first try and recreate the so called ‘hug’ and see how he could have intentionally done it – TWICE.
As I draped my arms around an imaginary me, I realized I needed to bend my right knee slightly so my right shoulder would lean in and re-create the perceived block. At the same time, my left knee had to be locked and straight. Yep, that was the move! If creating some sort of block was his intention, this move was definitely repeatable!
And then it hit me. I remembered hearing he had knee replacement surgery a year or so ago. Could it be he simply couldn’t comfortably bend his left knee so that his hug would be more natural?
Oh my. I sure am glad I didn’t send that righteous text.
I have a habit of taking action. Had I sent the text immediately, my habit would have been controlling the situation. My choice in how I could behave would have been limited.
It’s amazing how our stories, fueled by our history and more by our imagination, can so quickly become distorted truths.
How important it is to notice how those perceived truths can influence our behaviors and create a dynamic that can quickly take us off course.
Sometimes I just need to wait….
When ever I find myself jumping to conclusions, I want to practice thinking of 3 possible stories that make the other person good instead of bad.
Be honest – could any of them be true?
What are the implications?
If I chose to act, what behavior best aligns with who I want to be?
Not too long ago I found myself ironing pillow cases. There were ten in my pile, so I had plenty of time to reflect while I ironed. I wondered if I was being just a bit obsessive-compulsive in wanting my guest linens to be ‘just so’ before our friends came for a visit. (I concluded the answer was most likely yes, and I was quite fine with that being true about me. At least I wasn’t ironing the sheets too!) I laughed at myself for being me (again!) and subtlety began to notice something else. As I moved the iron back and forth, finishing each edge to perfection, I noticed the practice of ironing was very calming. The typical noise of my cluttered mind was quiet as I studied each edge, noting where I needed a bit more steam and also where my work was crisp and complete. And then it hit me. Could it be ironing was the mindfulness practice of the last century, the thing that kept our great-grandmothers sane?
I get energy/adrenaline from always being busy.
I really like the peace I find living in the present moment.
As I seek ways to practice quieting my mind so I can simply be present, ironing could be another way to build my presence muscle.
Sometimes the most mundane can actually be really good for me!
Look for day-to-day activities that could translate in the same way as ironing does.
Create more wins in the mundane and practice every day!
Meanwhile, check out this related and interesting TED Talk!