The Still Space Podcast #20 How to Play Big When You Feel Small by Executive Coach Mary Lee Gannon, ACC, CAE
Dear Former Self,
You are enough being the person you are. What counts is what’s internal, not what’s external. It doesn’t matter if you have the gift of gab or if you are an extrovert. You don’t need to compare yourself to others to determine if you are successful or deserving of being loved.
After graduating with an engineering degree, you worked at your first job with enthusiasm, dedication, confidence, and an eagerness of learn something new every day. You put in the time and effort to learn the nuances of the job and gained valuable experience that you were able to bring to future jobs. You thought that making the job high priority in your life was going to get you to a leadership position in management in the future.
Seven jobs later, the enthusiasm, dedication, confidence, continuous learning, and time and effort to master the nuances are still there and stronger than ever. But your definition of leadership has changed.
With experience, you now have freedom, independence, and the satisfaction knowing you do your best every day, on every project, without sacrificing what’s important to you – the internal stuff. Now you know when to say I am done for the day and how much work you can handle. I don’t need to do everything to prove I am good enough.
You are a leader without a title, one who leads by example. You listen more than you speak and speak when you have something necessary to say, instead of talking just to talk. You are an introvert who gets the job done. Others respect you and recognize what you do. You do your job and meet your deadlines. In your current position, you are the lead writer for specific product features. You make sure that your part of the process runs smoothly, and guide others to do their best.
Moving forward, be curious, learn each day, take care of yourself physically and mentally, embrace your artistic side, and work on yourself. You are more than your job title or any title. Focus on what you can control – your thoughts, words, and actions. Take reality on reality’s terms and be as you are - good enough.
Customer Documentation Engineer, Multinational telecommunications, Information Technology, and Consumer Electronics Company,
~ Your ability to be kind to yourself – to know that no matter what the situation – you are ok with who you are. No judgment. You remember who values you. Your compassion for others grows. Compassion for self and others is the fulfilled human condition.
Stretch Your Safety Barometer
We are born into this world having come from the safe, protective and soothing environment of our mother’s womb. We are thrust without choice into a cold and unfamiliar world where every moment holds a new experience. To survive we learn very early to trust our parents or primary caregivers. With our parents we belong – we are safe. Our parents teach us how to stay away from harm. We mirror their responses. And we begin to make sense of the world.
What we don’t learn in childhood is that our experiences are one facet of life. Our interpretation of those experiences is another.
Our early ancestors understood the role of safety to survival. They knew that in order to withstand the elements and to feed themselves, men needed to hunt in a pack with women tending to children and home. Your existence hinged on belonging to a tribe. Your distinct role contributed to the survival of the tribe. If you were exiled from the tribe because you did not live by the tribe values you were subject to carnivores, weather, the aggression of competing tribes, lack of safe shelter, and starvation. If you had to live alone, likely you would die. Just as at birth, a sense of belonging lead to safety.
We are programmed to fit in with others because historically that is where we find safety for survival. As humans we are not calibrated to go it alone. As we grow up and live with people we trust, sometimes we adopt philosophies from them that may not feel true to our core, leaving us with a sense of unrest. Conversely, as we coexist or work with people we don’t trust, we can interpret their wrath as an assault on us personally, leaving us feeling as if we don’t belong – an unsafe and unsettling feeling for sure.
Either way, throughout our lives we have interpreted experiences through the filter of our safety barometer because self-preservation is our innate instinct. Am I safe or not? Those with a high safety threshold are risk takers. Those with a low safety ceiling are more risk averse.
Whether or not you want to sky dive is not what’s important. What is important is that you recognize how your safety barometer shows up in your career and relationships. When you feel threatened, defeated, dismissed, undervalued, personally attacked, or any number of negative emotions and can’t self-regulate false assumptions in order to release them, you will likely do something you regret. Think of the last time you said something at a meeting that you later wish you hadn’t. Or when you didn’t say enough because you were afraid of being judged.
The result of this can lead to doubt, worry, self-criticism, lashing out, anger, immaturity, judgment, self-judgment, inaction, overcompensation. These thoughts and behaviors self-sabotage careers and relationships. They rob you of peace and executive presence. And the worst part is, once you’ve been stereotyped for these (not executive material, hothead, not a leader, not strong, too emotional) it is very difficult to undo the stereotype without a noticed behavior change.
The more you run from the fear of not succeeding the less of your real self you feel you can expose.
• What would you lose if you exposed the sides of you that are less guarded, perfect, guarded, strong and more vulnerable?
• What if you showed you could be more individual, curious and fun?
Instead of giving half your precious energy to fear of being exposed or of failure, wouldn’t it be great to know deep in your heart you’ll be fine. Because you ARE fine just as you are.
The Tension: One system of your brain is completely focused on preservation, and has evolved to avoid risk and stay vigilantly safe. The other is dealing with expansion, innovation and creativity.
Self-acceptance is noticing your thoughts and fears, honoring them and not allowing negativity to define you. The ego triggers fear and that robs you of what is real – the present moment and your genius.
It happens a lot at work and in life. You get drawn into a dispute where after a few minutes you find yourself defending a position you never took. Or people come to you to mediate a situation that does not warrant your involvement. Or you find yourself doing things for someone out of duty not honor. Or you’re afraid of being alone so you put up with behavior that doesn’t feel right. I could write volumes on what motivates people to behave this way but that’s not important. These are boundary issues. When others don’t have them, you must create them for yourself. And when you don’t do that, people take advantage of you, leaving you feeling badly about yourself.
A boundary is simply an imaginary line between what you will and will not allow. You can’t change someone else’s behavior. They are on their own journey. If you sense someone is acting like a victim to get attention or you notice they are triangulating others against you for personal reasons there is nothing you can do about their behavior. The best thing you can do is to quickly create a position and stick to it.
One of the most important boundaries you can draw is around your time. It takes great self-acceptance to be able to say, “No.” “No.” is a complete sentence. If you are answering email you are working on someone else’s to-do list. If you volunteer for a project that is not directly tied to what you are measured against, ask yourself if that is a good use of your time. If people on your team are treating each other disrespectfully, how will you communicate that said behavior is unacceptable and out of alignment with company values?
When drawing healthy boundaries, you need to establish your “Homebase” before you speak. Your Homebase is your position no matter what curveball gets thrown your way. Don’t play anyone’s game but your own. You will not win if you are defending anything. You must be proactive to gain momentum. You must be the moving party. If you want to take the organization in a new direction don’t defend against how business is just fine now without the change. Segue back to your Homebase – this direction will keep us relevant and competitive and an industry leader. Hurl back questions asking them what they will do when the industry shifts and your speed to market will take too long to catch up. This takes planning. When conflict occurs in the moment you must think quickly. Pause, find The Still Space, take a deep breath and ask yourself, “What is my Homebase? Why this? Why now?”
Your Homebase might be just for yourself - “I only answer emails twice a day. At 11:00 am and 4:00 pm.” Your Homebase might be, “As much as that project interests me it is better placed with (NAME) because it is tied to his goals.” Your Homebase might be, “Our company stresses the value of dignity and respect. How do you feel your behavior at yesterday’s meeting aligns with that value.”
Know you Homebase and keep coming back to it or you’ll be covering balls across the entire outfield.
Establish trust. Your team will respect you for your boundaries because they will know where they stand. Consistency is key. They should know if they come to you complaining about another employee you will first ask, “Have you spoken with him about this? What do you think his perspective is?” If they complain about not having enough time to do something new you will say, “I trust your advice. What do you think we can stop doing to make time?” If your daughter tells you that you are the only parent who won’t let their child go on a ski weekend without adult supervision she should expect that you will say, “I’m comfortable with that. I’m the only one who is your parent.”
Always trust your gut. When you can’t decide what your Homebase is that is a signal that something is out of alignment. Trust your intuition. Your mind might be too analytical and your heart too emotional. Step back and allow for a broader view. Rely on your instinct. The decision may not even be yours to make. Who else should be involved?
Ellie is a very successful professional living in Silicon Valley who I’m very proud of today. She is smart, well educated, successful and came to me to grow her self-worth to show up differently at work and in life. She was struggling in relationships with people who were close to her. I felt the pain of her suffering. I felt her despair at how some people treated her. It made me sad.
We worked on healthy boundaries. We worked on self-awareness. We worked on defining her values and her vision of a life in alignment with them. We worked on mindful daily practices that help her self-regulate fear. We worked on being with discomfort long enough to see that it wouldn’t overtake her because it’s only her imagination. We worked on self-acceptance with all her imperfections. We worked more on boundaries.
We didn’t work on her being better than anything or anyone. We didn’t work on what she didn’t deserve. We didn’t work on why change would be better.
We worked on her re-discovering her. In that space she made decisions that resonated with who she was at her core. She had lost herself along the way.
I am never happy to see relationships end unless the breakup represents emotional freedom and self-respect. I’m very happy that today she has found a different home and been living there for three months. It was hard being alone at first. She anticipated that. She was prepared to self-regulate the doubt.
Today she smiles. She laughs. Other people interact with her differently at work, in her family and in life. She is enjoying developing her side interest of painting. She is reading and spending time with friends. She walks in a space of fulfillment not fear. She dances with inspiration. She isn’t minding what happens along the way.
She has built a life by design. She has freedom.