Updated: Jan 12
It seems the tendency during this time of the year is to implement some drastic changes and determine our New Year’s Resolution. The things that we want to be different going forward.
By no means am I saying that is wrong or bad, I’m simply saying it’s a societal tendency. Many businesses rely on this tendency. And this can invite you and me to put a lot of pressure on ourselves to change something (anything) so that we can implement quickly and become the NEW versions of ourselves.
It’s also possible that the large amount of pressure we put on ourselves to be someone NEW is not helpful or a resolution at all.
What if we were open to something different instead? Meaning, not worrying so much about what all you’re going to change for this year but instead reflecting on how much you lived into your authenticity last year through a self-awareness practice?
How about just BEING YOU versus BEING SOMEONE NEW? I want to invite you to try something that won’t require you to buy something new or become something or someone else. (Unless of course that is what you want to do.)
Every year gets away from me but this year, I did something different. I took a trip west to unpack and process some experiences that transpired in 2021. Essentially, I wanted to step away from my life and my work for just a minute to reflect on what I was feeling. 2021 was a big year for me and my organization.
Full transparency, I completed a marathon that I didn’t even realize I had entered.
While I may develop leaders in self-awareness, emotional literacy, and the skills of hard conversations, it doesn’t mean I always do that well for myself. Going west helped with that. It gave me some distance from the immediacy of my work, and it gave me time to think, feel and reflect.
Here’s what I uncovered and here was my process…
I kept feeling this thing under the surface that was kicking my ass. It was grief. So much grief.
The thing about grief – it is the emotion that I don’t like to acknowledge is present. So, I usually don’t know it’s grief until I crash and burn. I can be one of those people who will run from my emotions to avoid feeling them or I “offload them” in the form of numbing. Which completely defeats the purpose of feelings. I guess that means we are supposed to feel them – they are called feelings after all (insert appropriate emoji here).
Here’s the thing about grief. No one that is in my immediate circle passed away – so, why was I dealing with grief?
Here is what was interesting. I didn’t fully realize it until October of 2021 when a life change in the form a relationship breakup happened. I think most of us can relate to the pain of a breakup or divorce – the emotions that surface during those times is complex and complicated. Of course, I was grieving the loss of someone I loved. Breakups suck, all my love for this man had nowhere to go. I was caught off guard.
But the pain helped crack me open a bit more. I’m middle aged, I’ve been through a divorce. I know pain, loss, and heartbreak. So, I’ve done this before, I know how to get back up after a setback. These were the thoughts going through my head. The grief I was experiencing this year was different for some reason. I was hyper aware of it because there was so much unprocessed grief behind it that I was avoiding. This is important insight for me and if you’re leading an organization, it may be for you, too.
The unprocessed grief I was not dealing with came through because of the time I took to reflect. Here are the events that happened in 2021 professionally.
· My work and organization grew rapidly
· We hired people quickly
· We lost people quickly
· We changed our plan frequently to meet client needs
· We lost clients
· We gained clients
· We tried new approaches
· We collaborated with new consultants
· We launched new programs which meant we let go of other priorities
One glance at this list and you may think, THIS IS ALL GOOD STUFF! Yes, you’re right and I will touch on that shortly. This list is to simply connect what I was not processing which is grief. I’m not an expert with grief but here’s what I’ve learned from Dr. Brené Brown’s research:
There are 3 properties that surface when grief is experienced: loss, longing and feeling lost.
As a change management practitioner, I was always pushing for change, change, change. Never acknowledging what the people encountering change were dealing with. Grief. Any time a change is implemented, there is this moment of grief (sometimes long moments of pain and suffering if we are honest). The way things were, are no longer. This process is gone, this equipment is gone, this former teammate is gone. That’s loss. The accompanying emotion is grief.
This kind of blew my mind and still does.
Keep in mind, as a recovering engineer who has let go of a lot of checklists and the need to control outcomes, dealing with emotions was something very uncomfortable for me. Very. So, when I learned grief was a part of my work professionally and that the emotion that was frequently connected to the outcomes of my work was grief, I was sick to my stomach.
I hate feeling grief and I hated knowing that so many changes I made invited others to feel grief. Phew! There is a light at the end of this tunnel.
My organization had changed rapidly this year. We had a lot of growth and demand. So fast that I was not feeling or processing emotions, especially the ones that make me uncomfortable. And notice I didn’t label them as negative emotions (read this helpful article by Nick Wignall here: https://nickwignall.com/stop-calling-them-negative-emotions/ )
Every time we lost something or someone or changed our method or process, I needed to take a minute to acknowledge the emotion behind it. But instead, I stuffed it down and saved it all for the end of the year and the grief just nailed me in October. The good news is this, I understand this, and I can do something to better process and handle this for 2022.
Not talking about emotions or acknowledging we have them is a mistake I make repeatedly but I am working on it. I always thought the being emotional or talking about feelings made me weak, but it actually gives me the power to name what I’m feeling and to choose what I do as a result.
When I went west, I had no real plan other than the terminating airport, a weekend retreat in Sedona and an old friend I planned to visit. I literally just drove and when I got tired, I stopped. The highway time, mountain time and especially the time in the desert was a recipe for success. I was surrounded by unfamiliar landmarks, but I was also surrounded by myself. Having the time to be in a headspace that gave me time to think but mainly to feel was a huge deal.
I only want to feel the good stuff, I only want positive experiences! I just want to feel gratitude all day! This is my self-talk. Sound familiar? But who are we kidding?! That’s not life nor is that realistic. If you notice, I can choose happiness every day or say all the right things but still not feel happy.
The reality is that I was blocked. Plus, when I don’t want to feel, I just work, work, work to numb it. I can’t feel happiness until I also feel pain. I cannot selectively numb the emotions that I don’t like – I cannot selectively numb grief. I’ve tried and I fail repeatedly.
I can feel grief and accept that it’s a gift of a life full of experiences that require risk, uncertainty, failure, and vulnerability. For that, I have excessive gratitude. The gift of feeling grief yields the gift of feeling connection, joy, and love. Thank goodness!
Here is my process (please steal this!):
1. Find your silence or whitespace (e.g., go west, meditation/prayer, exercise, etc).
2. Have a conversation with yourself (it’s ok, no one is listening) and ask these questions:
a. What am I feeling?
b. Where am I feeling it in my body?
c. What’s unsaid that I need to get off my chest and say right now?
3. Take inventory of behavior without judgment (this is IMPORTANT)
a. What can I physically observe in myself right now if I were to record my actions? Be honest here: Am I numbing via drinking, shopping, constant change/work, eating, sex, social media, addiction, etc? Avoidant behavior? Arguments? Withdrawal?
b. What does this behavior prevent me from dealing with?
4. What’s the underlying theme here? What story am I telling myself about myself? Think of “I am” statements to help uncover this a bit more. (e.g, I am unworthy of love, I am a leader that no one wants to work for, I have nothing to offer anyone because I keep seeing that repeatedly surface).
5. What am I FEELING now? Name the actual emotion.
6. Name it. Feel it. Acknowledge it. Release it.
Having emotions is part of the human experience. They aren’t bad even though they may feel bad or uncomfortable. When you think about the question I posed earlier, about authenticity and the New Year, I want to invite you to get curious about how you showed up last year and what emotions you have yet to process. What’s in the way becomes the way – so, if you have unprocessed grief like I did, giving yourself permission to feel is empowering.
Take your power back – “name it to tame it” then release it when you’re ready.
Authentic leadership requires us to be who we are. Which primarily requires us to be human, feelings and all. Our teams and our communities need to see that we are in this with them versus being separate from the human experience because we aren’t.
Besides, the power we all get from feeling builds connection and community. The very thing that the New Year is begging for.
Embrace the suck!