Irony is when we judge others as lacking empathy

10 years ago,
my mother
realized empathy with herself
and discovered
that all this time
she had unconsciously assumed
she had to do what she felt
was not worth doing,
only
to make others happy.

Ironically,
once she felt
she was given permission
to stop doing these things,
those around her
felt happier.

Why?

Because
She behaved toward them
less out of the resentment
left over
from doing so many things
out of obligation.

Something similar
happens in leadership.

Some founders I coach
started out thinking
it was their responsibility
to make everyone around them
happy.

A tall order.

Especially so,
because behaviors arising
from the tension they held
from that very sense
of responsibility
was contributing
to the unhappiness
of those around them.

But they needed permission
to invest the time and effort
to manage their own tension.

Because it felt selfish
to do so.

So instead,
they chose
to be strong.

The saying,
“Happy parents,
Happy kids”
is not a permission
to be selfish.

It is an invitation
to journey into
the vulnerable
and creative process
of survival
together
by striving
to be the best support
we possibly can
for each other.

Still a tall order,
but together.

We often confuse
rumination
with reflection

When we ruminate,
our minds race,
overwhelming us with anxiety,
which makes it difficult for us
to think
or to communicate
clearly
and effectively.

In this state,
those around us
can feel confused
and insecure,
which leaves them
unwilling
or unable
to support us,
which then leaves us
feeling isolated
and lonely,
which fuels our anxiety
and overwhelm.

A vicious cycle,
this is.

A company is
—among other things—
a play.

Just as Shakespeare once said
—all the world’s a stage,
and all the men and women
merely players—
when we first start our company,
we cast ourselves into roles.

CEO
CTO
COO

What we forget
is that there is no script.

In fact,
we mistake scripts
from other plays
as our own.

Which leads us to think
that we know what a CEO
is supposed to be like.

To think we know
what a CTO or a COO
is supposed
to be like.

To think we know what a father,
a wife,
a son,
a designer,
is supposed
to be like.

The question is
“In which play?”

There comes a time
in the lifecycle of an organization
—more than once—
where we need to revisit
our roles.

Not merely to redefine them,
But also to start writing
our own play
together.

A play
all of us want
to be in.

A founder
was feeling burnt-out.

“When was your last vacation?” I asked.
He couldn’t remember.

“I can’t take one.
My employees are working.
I should be there to help them.” he added.

“What emotions do you experience
when you think of taking a vacation?” I asked.
“…Guilt.” he answered.
“Let that sink in.
That’s significant.” I remarked.

He first looked puzzled,
but soon his eyes widened
and he blurted out
“Oh!
I see!
We should all take a vacation!”

When we feel responsible for “others,”
it’s not unnatural
to feel concern
for their suffering.

With sufficient concern
it’s also not unnatural,
to want
to help.

This is known
as compassion.

Despite best intentions,
however,
the impact of compassion
can also make things worse for others,
and burn us out, as well.

Sometimes,
we need to tame our compassion
to put aside our need to help “others,”
and instead help our “self”
through a vulnerably creative process.

A process
by which we can realize empathy
unexpectedly,
and let emerge
a connected entity
“we”
between self and other.

A process
by which we can learn
a new choice of sight,
that synthesizes
an unpredicted form of help
that helps not other
not self,
but us.

Despite grieving
their lost youth.

Despite feeling
unworthy
in front of their employees.

Despite lacking
a mere one good night’s sleep.

There are those who are willing
to light themselves up
again
and again
and again
in the crucible
of responsibility.

Customer complaints,
Employee demands,
Investor rejections.

All that is said
may well be right.

And yet
the weight,
the burden,
the load,
is one
and the same.

It is a haze
that last moment of breath.

If a mere 10 minutes
may we put it all down
to let out a big
sigh.

Despite the tightening of our chest.

Despite the sight
of our inflated belly
that we may despise

May we feel that sense
of fulfillment
arise from within.

You’re a miracle
for having survived til now.

You’ve done well
for having stayed alive
breathing.

I’m proud of you
just the way
you are.

What does it mean
to reflect?

Stand in front of a mirror.

The mirror
will reflect.

By mirror,
I mean a relationship
from which we can receive the choice
to see ourselves
from an interfacing
perspective.

By an interfacing perspective,
I mean a perspective
from which we can receive the choice
to see ourselves
as an “other”
with which we can empathize
without hyper-empathizing.

Go ahead.

Look into the mirror
and see yourself as an “other”
with which you can empathize
without hyper-empathizing.

Now,
by look,
I mean receive the choice
to recognize, acknowledge, and appreciate parts of your “self”
by recognizing, acknowledging, and appreciating parts of
the “other.”

Parts you forgot
or did not know
to recognize,
acknowledge,
and appreciate.

I mean give these parts
the choice
to feel seen.

The choice
to matter.

And by giving this choice,
may you realize
that this
is a loop,
where giving
does not constitute losing,
and receiving
is not predicated on lacking.

A loop,
where fear and shame
can make way
for flow.

Whether we reflect
through journaling,
through coaching,
or otherwise…

May this be a guide.

There is little we can do “all by ourselves”

Even if we have eyes,
we cannot see
without receiving support from light.

Even if we have legs,
we cannot stand
without receiving support from the ground.

Even if we have lungs
we cannot breathe
without receiving support from air

When we claim to have done it “all by ourselves,”
we’re probably either
insufficiently appreciating the support we’ve received from others
or
insufficiently feeling appreciated by others.

Our ability to appreciate others
is often intricately intertwined
with feeling appreciated by others.

At our first session,
she would habitually use the word “strong”
to refer to herself.

“To be strong,”
she said,
“I should
Stop worrying and,
instead,
Focus on problem solving.
I should
Stop blaming my employees and,
instead,
Blame myself,
the CEO.”

On the surface,
these sounded wonderful,
virtuous, even.

But after a month
of realizing empathy with herself,
she discovered
that by “strong”
all she meant
was “numb to pain & discomfort.”

There’s a world of difference
between following advice
and realizing for one’s self
by leading through a journey of innovation.

A journey
through which we learn new
or unexpected choices.

Without the journey,
“stop worrying,”
can merely mean “repress stress & anxiety.”

“Focus on problem solving,”
can merely mean “focus on eliminating fear & concern.”

“Blame myself,”
can merely mean “lead with unconscious shame.”

To frame this phenomena
as someone’s “fault”
prevents a deeper exploration.

More valuable
would be to recognize what happens naturally
when we lack
a sense of choice
or proper support.

A CTO once told me
that he had asked his CEO
“How many times have you wanted to fire me?”
to which the CEO replied,
“7.”

The CTO said his empathy realized instantly
as he knew the CEO was honest.
How did the CTO know?
Because he himself could count 5 times
when he thought he’d be fired.

Sincere honesty
can inspire the realization of empathy
in the prepared mind.

Unfortunately,
so much moral correctness
is published in leadership books,
that sincere honesty often seems unacceptable.

If you have employees,
there may have been times
when you experienced a deeply-rooted,
ferocious,
yet silent anger
accompanying a sudden urge
to fire them.

This is normal.

If you were surprised by your dark side,
this is expected.

The dark side is dark,
not because it’s “bad” or “wrong,”
but because we couldn’t see it.

When our dark side becomes visible,
it’s tempting to pretend we didn’t see it,
to leave it in darkness,
which can make things worse,
until we learn the choice
to respect our dark side
without admiration.

I recently heard someone share with me
the following fear:
“I’m worried I’m pursuing an uncommon path,
because I’m afraid of the common one.”

Instantly,
I was reminded of others who had shared with me
the opposite fear:
“I’m worried I’m pursuing a common path,
because I’m afraid of the uncommon one.”