Tension to Pain

Tension
beyond a certain threshold
will cause damage,
small or big.

Damage
will cause pain,
little or much.

Pain
will yield behaviors
intended to soothe
or prevent further pain.

Some of these behaviors
can damage our relationship to others,
unintentionally.

And yet,
if we
and our relationships
can recover from the damage,
both can develop,
as our muscles do
when they incur damages
from the significant tension they experience
from exercise.

It’s not You. It’s me.

It’s not you.
It’s me.

The person I’m speaking to
in conversation,
that is.

It’s true.
I sometimes speak
with my past self
instead of you,
the person
in front of me.

I know
this can confuse
sometimes even anger
or frustrate
you.

When that happens,
I want you to know
that it’s not you,
it’s me.

It’s just that,
the pain
of my past experience
is simply too much
to bear.

So although
I know
that as a leader
I must do better.

There are times
when it feels
as if I must proclaim
—No, shout—
in order to remind myself
to never experience
the same pain
ever again.

On Sacrifice

When we
hyper-empathize,
the distinctions and boundaries
between “self”
and “other”
vanish.

So when we feel
the “other”—
be it a person,
a thing,
or an idea—
is in danger,
it feels as if we
are in danger.

This makes it natural
for us to throw ourselves
onto incoming traffic
to save the lives
of such
an other.

To us,
this does not feel
like a sacrifice.

It merely feels
as if it’s a universal
human
reflex.

So much so
that sometimes
we think the other
would have done the same
for us.

Whether or not
that is true
is beside
the point.

Gratitude vs Indebtedness

Gratitude
is an emotion.

Indebtedness
is a judgment one makes
on top of gratitude
to inject our being
with a noble burden.

One that whispers
“You must pay this back.
If you don’t,
you’re not good enough.”

A burden
that sometimes leads us
to hyper-empathize
with the person
to whom
we feel indebted.

To Reflect

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.

Unconscious Shame

I once attended a workshop
that laid out a model of how shame develops.

The model suggested,
that when children feel overwhelmed with emotion,
—pleasant or unpleasant—
their natural instinct
is often to reach out to others
—like their parents—
to process it.

Yet,
for better or for worse,
parents may unintentionally “reject“ such reaching out.
And with repeated “rejection,”
children may start to subconsciously judge themselves
as unworthy of love and attention,
when overwhelmed with emotion.
Thus planting the seed of shame.

In hindsight,
I spent much of my life coping with shame.
I did it by pursuing a self-image
of someone who never felt overwhelmed.
A stoic who could always “figure it out,”
through sheer intellect and will power.

It wasn’t until I began my work on empathy,
that I learned the choice
to empathize with that part of me,
instead of hyper-empathizing with it.

It was perhaps as Carl Jung once said,
“Until you make the unconscious conscious,
it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

Forty One

On Sunday, I turned 41.

I’ve been told that in “Korean age” I’m 42.

There’s something interesting about reflecting on what happened in the past after I have had a 10+year distance from it.

In my 20s, I listened to a lot of computer scientists’ inspiring lectures. They were world-famous, which gave their words that much more weight. In hindsight, it would have been one thing to learn of their views and to appreciate them for what they were (i.e. views) while quite another to be persuaded by them. For better or for worse, I leaned toward the latter.

In hindsight, there were a few critical reasons why their views had such a big impact on me.

  1. The vision they portrayed were of a revolutionary caliber with a moral framing of “saving the world.”I have a need to rebel against authority and the status quo. Their vision fulfilled that need. I could not refuse being part of the rebellion—especially if it was framed as a way to save the world.
  2. Their views also made me feel understood and accepted.Having lived my whole life as a third culture kid, I’d been looking for this feeling from mother/father figures for a long time. When I didn’t get it from my parents, I was ecstatic to get it elsewhere, even if it were from total strangers.
  3. Finally, I was under the impression that someone had the answer to life.I considered life to be a problem to be solved, and thought that if I can only find that person who has the solution to life, I’d have figured it all out. It just so happened that these computer scientists sounded so confident that I couldn’t help but assume they knew the solution to this problem called life.

All throughout my 20s, my tendency to hyper-empathize with these influential figures grew larger. As a result, I now understand my 20s as a phase of living their lives not mine. It wouldn’t be until I turn 30 that I realize how easy it is to confuse living someone else’s life with living our own.

Then at the age of 29, I received a challenge. A bewildering challenge at that. One that made no sense. An artist I met at a computer science conference challenged me to go to art school. It seemed like a crazy and irrational idea. Especially because I thought so little of art at the time. I was a man of science, engineering, and design science. Art, I thought, was fluffy, useless, bullshit. In fact, you may have noticed that I put the word “science” next to the word “design” a la Buckminster Fuller, as if to imply that the word design alone was somehow not good enough. “Why would a man of science, engineering, and design science stoop so low as to study art?” was the kind of thought I had back then. (Arrogant much?)

It took me over a year since receiving this challenge of conducting my own, *ahem* scientific, experiments and to gradually build the trust & respect necessary to empathize with artists. When I finally did, it also became clear that this was a challenge I could not refuse. I had to answer the challenge. Why? Because I realized that not answering the challenge meant continuing to live someone else’s life.

Living someone else’s life of rebellion didn’t give me a sense of comfort, but it did give me a sense of safety and that ever-so-desirable feeling that what I’m doing was “important work” that “mattered.” Yet, for better or for worse, I was no longer interested in safety or mattering. I was now interested in being honest with myself in ways I had never been. I was willing to break myself wide open to find out what the hell was inside me instead of continuing to chase after something outside of me because an influential figure had persuaded me into thinking that it was the right thing to do.

For better or for worse, that’s precisely what art and my 30s offered me. It forced me to face my deepest & darkest fears. It crushed every little belief and assumption I had developed over the years. It shook me to my core and took me places I’m both horrified and grateful to have been.

To be clear, I do not recommend this to anyone. I’ll spare you the details for now as I’m not quite ready to write about them just yet. Maybe give me another 10 years.

Above all, I say all this to set myself up to say “thank you” to all those who have stuck by my side throughout my 30s. That’s it really. Because it is through your grace that I’m still alive today both psychologically and physically. I will never forget that.

You know who you are.

May you stay beautiful, always.

with warmth and curiosity,

slim
August 19th 2018

photo credit to Sue Langford

Hyper-Empathizing with Our Companies

When we, as parents, hyper-empathize with our children,
The children’s lives feel like our own.

Similarly,
When we, as founders, hyper-empathize with our companies,
the companies’ lives feel like our own.
So much so that we’re willing to sacrifice our health to keep them alive.

Sacrificing our health to keep our company alive
Can produce behaviors critical to the well-being of our company
In its early stages of development.

But as our company develops—as do our children—
Some of our “sacrificial” behaviors born out of care
Can also stifle its development,
Not to mention fuel our frustration, resentment, and disappointment,
As we can’t help but take everything personally,
When we hyper-empathize.

The 3 Basic States of Empathizing

Imagine two circles: self & other.

Not empathizing is them separated,
Empathizing is them intersecting,
Hyper-empathizing is them overlapping.

When we hyper-empathize,
we lose any boundary or distinctions between self vs other, and
our sense of identity becomes significantly affected.

A mother throwing herself in front of oncoming traffic
to save her child
is hyper-empathizing.
A business owner who feels like a failure
because her company has failed,
and kills herself,
is hyper-empathizing.

It’s important we learn the ability
to notice when hyper-empathizing works against us, so as
to choose another way of being.

Let us not unwillingly fall prey
to the whims of others.