A few years ago, a disgruntled and disturbed individual came to my friends' partner's workplace and opened fire. She got word of what was happening while relaxing at the pool with their children and frantically tried to contact her partner to see if he was alright. But her phone had just ran out of batteries and she struggled to get a hold of him for a very long half an hour. The entire time, she was consumed by fear and worried for his safety, graciously accepting the help of friends to care for their three young kids while she got things sorted out.
The next day she took to social media to share an update and let everyone know her partner was ok, luckily he wasn't physically harmed by the open shooter. Sadly, one of his co-workers was fatally shot.
My friend expressed how shaken up she was by the experience. While she developed empathy for those who have suffered unimaginable losses at the hands of rouge gunmen, she was quick to discount her own trauma. She lamented "Jordan's fine. I shouldn't still feel so shaken up by this!"
When suffering, there's a fine line between expanding your perspective and discounting your feelings. This is one of the sneaky ways beliefs of "not good enough" invades our being. A story emerges where we aren't suffering deeply or badly enough to warrant compassion because other's have it worse off than we do. In such instances, we are quick to judge, deny and suppress our feelings.
This, of course, doesn't make things better. If anything, it adds layers to our suffering. Bringing us deeper into darkness, despair and disempowerment. It feeds narratives of being broken because "only people who have it REALLY bad should suffer" and therefore there's something wrong with me.
In the last eight months, I've read a lot of women's stories with breast cancer as part of researching my options and seeing what did or didn't resonate with me. I have come across a number of stories where women felt bad about their struggles because other women had it worse than them. In some instances, they were even judged by others because it wasn’t that bad.
I’ve had to steady myself against such harmful narratives. Yes, it could be worse. Yes, I’m lucky I didn’t have invasive cancer. And yes, I’ve struggled as I’ve navigated this chapter in my life in ways that have pushed me to my edges time and time again. Therefore, I have had to allow myself the time and space to heal emotionally as well as physically. The scars I carry outside are but a small part of my healing journey.
I’ve seen leaders have trouble balancing this distinction between gaining perspective and discounting feelings as their organization grows. The struggles they experienced as a startup, having to do all the things, before there were systems in place are real. New hires don’t have the same vantage point to see “how bad things used to be.”
But responding to their employees current challenges with, “you have no idea how difficult this used to be. Before we had automation, we spent hours doing everything manually. What you’re struggling with now is simple by comparison!” Doesn’t help.
Instead of offering an insightful perspective they’re discounting the other persons feelings. When our feelings are invalidated we don’t feel seen or heard or like we belong. Simply put, if you reject the feeling, you reject the person.
As leaders, it's important to be conscious of how we're holding space for people's experiences and feelings to be voiced and heard. We don't want to quickly invalidate what feels hard, hurtful or traumatic for another individual. Nor do we need to gloss over our own struggles because it could have been worse.
In fact, one of the most powerful ways to gain perspective in these moments is to recognize and allow the feeling without fueling or denying it. The simple act of bearing witness from a place of genuine care and concern not only helps us to recover. It enables us to see things from a greater vantage point, because we embrace compassion over ridicule for ourselves and others.
It's worth noting that allowing and creating space for people to express their feelings at work goes counter to traditional management practices. And even those leaders who feel drawn to foster a more compassionate workplace have a hard time finding the right balance. This is especially true when one has never experienced a leader who exhibits these skills.
Work isn't supposed to be therapy and yet we need to embrace the whole person in the proverbial office, feelings and all! Exploring how to do this and what it looks like may be a journey worth exploring in another blog post (you tell me). Any leader who wants to foster a more compassionate workplace needs to do the inner work of showing themselves more compassion when encountering a struggle. You don't need to hit some arbitrary threshold of suffering before you deserve compassion. You are human and therefor you deserve compassion.
As my friend reconciled her fears with reality I encouraged her to be more compassionate towards herself. Our brains don't know the difference between imagination and reality. If we fixate on the worse case scenario in our minds over and over again, our bodies respond accordingly to the perceived threat. Even if everything is alright in the end, we still must deal with the tax to our Body Budget.
Yes, it's valuable to lean into those experiences that expand one's perspective. And, it's possible to do so without discounting or invalidating one's feelings. Indeed, we are all better off when we approach these moments with compassion first and foremost.