MY DIRTY LITTLE SECRET


secretI have a dirty little secret.

I suffer from depression.

Not the blues.  Not feeling down in the dumps.  Full on depression.  The kind that takes me to a very dark place.  And, apparently, I share this disorder with 14,999,999 other Americans – a vast majority of them women.  I don’t necessarily keep this fact a secret but it is not typically my lead-in when I meet people.  Oddly, I don’t actually think of myself as someone who gets depressed but, as part of my efforts to live authentically, I have had to come to terms with what I refer to as my “dark periods.”  These periods do not pop up that frequently.  In fact, I can go years without having any type of serious depressive episode but, like earthquakes, it is not about the frequency, it is about the magnitude.

I suppose it was my birth right.  My mother suffered from depression most of her life.  She attempted to take her own life on two separate occasions when I was a young child.  Both times she downed an excessive amount of pills (likely aspirin because we didn’t have too many medications in our house) and I remember being in the ER at the hospital wondering what was wrong with her.  Despite the fact that she was often going to therapy, she never seemed to be able to treat her depression and, I suspect, it is because she desperately needed to be medicated.  Her depression was only one one of her many mental ailments.  My father struggled with alcoholism his entire life.  My brother is bipolar and my sister, like me, lives with depression and, likely, other forms of mental illness.  Our family legacy is both biological and environmental.  There is severe mental illness in my mother’s family and my parents, fighting with their own demons, inflicted a significant amount of trauma on my siblings and myself which, according to science, likely created a chemical imbalance and a form of PTSD that we each confront in our own unique ways.

Over the years, I have become skilled at dealing with my depression, from looking for the warning signs and fortifying myself, using exercise and diet as a minimizer, as well as treating it with antidepressants.  One of my challenges, however, is that my depression typically creeps up on me when I have either run out of things to distract my attention from it or when crushing stress becomes too much for me to bear.  Sometimes there are specific incidents that bring it on like negative interactions with people that leave me empty, wasted or diminished.  But, in most cases, I don’t see it coming and once it is upon me, I can’t find a way out of it.

I recently researched symptoms of depression to help me understand it a bit further.  I wanted to determine if what I was experiencing was truly depression or just some low periods.  I compared my feelings to the list:

  • persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood – check
  • loss of interest or pleasure in activities, including sex – check
  • restlessness, irritability, or excessive crying – check
  • feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness, hopelessness, pessimism – check, check
  • sleeping too much or too little, early-morning awakening – check
  • thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts – check
  • difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions – check

People often think that those of us who suffer from depression are downers who have difficulty functioning in everyday life.  These are just some of the myths that create stigmas and often prevent people from being honest about their own mental illness.  For me, the truth is I function very well and, most often, I am pretty upbeat – typically the life of the party.  And no, I am not bipolar.  I simply am not depressed every single day.  But when I go down, I go down hard.  And once I am down, it is very hard to get back up.

Recently, I went through an extremely dark period.  It felt like it came out of nowhere but, upon reflection and analysis, there were many triggers including work stress, holidays, and some challenging personal relationships.  I realized it was chasing me down and I was running from it like an animal being hunted as prey.  I just didn’t consciously realize I was scurrying from capture until it caught me and pummeled me.  When I saw the face of my demon, I recognized instantly that it had been sneaking up on me for a while.  Unfortunately, once I thought I got rid of the beast, I relaxed a bit and was shocked when it quickly reappeared and lingered  like a stalled-out hurricane.  It blew in, did some destruction and then seemed like it was moving out to sea.  Much to my surprise and severe disappointment, it changed direction and ended up blowing back in, this time much stronger and hanging on for a much longer period of time.  I was absolutely certain I was having a nervous breakdown. The darkness was so severe and so intense that I could not see my way to clarity.  I did not think the clouds would ever pass, that the winds would ever let up or that the rain would stop pouring down.  But, as is always the case with storms, they do pass and the sun shines through the clouds offering the hope for a brighter tomorrow.

Depression is even more complicated in my life because it is magnified by the echoes of the traumas of my childhood – the scars of which layer on top of my depression and validate many of my dark thoughts.  When I sink into worthlessness, my memories of words or experiences that traumatized me as a child, come to the surface and haunt me, giving credence to every distorted feeling I experience during these episodes.  It’s as if I am an alcoholic and, despite my efforts at recovery, there is always an open bar or a  friend standing by with a bottle to prevent me from ever achieving sobriety.  I have enough ammunition to keep me down for decades and, during some of these dark periods, I am rather confident that the sun will never shine again and that all of my worst experiences are my truth and personify who I am and what my life is meant to be.

The scariest part of depression, however, is not the admission of my illness nor is it the actual experience of going through the dark periods.  The scariest piece comes in the aftermath when, with a clear head, you realize just how low you have fallen.  When you realize just how easy it is for your mind to take you to places that seem unfathomable when you are rational and have your senses intact.  You realize that, in a split second, the pain that you are experiencing will take hold and you are captive to its powers and incapable of freeing yourself, left only with futile attempts to defend yourself and preserve some level of sanity so as not to have devastating outcomes.  I recently had a conversation with a close friend who had spent some time with me while I was in the middle of this recent episode and he shared with me his and his wife’s experiences and concerns for me.  It was humbling and, to some extent, overwhelming and humiliating.  He was kind and thoughtful in his comments and shared his fears in a compassionate and loving way.  But, it was in that moment that I realized how far away I go during those periods and how far removed from reality I am.  That is frightening and makes me feel vulnerable in the worst possible way.

Ultimately, my depression does not make me a bad person.  It does not prevent me from engaging in intimate and meaningful relationships.  It does not inhibit my ability to live a productive and successful life.  It does, however, force me to be acutely aware of the triggers and make choices differently than others who might not endure the same struggles.  It is like any other disease.  If I were diabetic, sugar would be my enemy.  If I had a heart condition, cardio would be a danger for me.  My medical ailment, caused by chemical imbalances in my brain (and, possibly, exacerbated by the hormonal disruption caused by the onset of menopause) forces me to think very seriously about how I interact with people, situations I put myself in, and how I deal with stress and anxiety.  I am neither ashamed nor afraid to share my truth but I realize that many will never understand this dimension of my life.  I need not be pitied or treated any differently.  It is just part of my truth.  And, fortunately, severe depression is something that rarely strikes me but, I acknowledge, that even if it happens once every five or ten years, it is real and it is dangerous.

So, I share my dirty little secret for the millions of Americans who are afraid to share their truth for fear that they will be stigmatized or ostracized.  I am not afraid because I am fortunate enough to have a small, intimate group of friends and family to whom I can turn for support during my dark periods and who understand my struggles and provide me with the love and nurturing that I need to get through the haze.  I also have an amazing therapist who works with me during dark days and, more importantly, during the bright ones to keep me focused on tackling the demons that bring me down and keep me down.  But, for many, they don’t have such luxuries and cannot be honest with themselves or anyone else because they feel shameful or afraid of the consequences of revealing their truth.  And, for some, like my own mother, they simply are not capable of seeing the truth in themselves and spend their lives living in denial, inflicting pain on those around them.

If you struggle with depression or know someone who does, take a moment to learn more and create a safe environment for yourself and others to live honestly and authentically.

BLIND SPOTS


“Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.” – Brene Brown

This week I was, thanks to a fortuitous blog post from a friend, reminded of some of the powerful words of Brene Brown.  Her research, talks and writing on vulnerability have inspired me over the past year as I have embarked upon what has been a very painful journey to find the courage to be more vulnerable and, ultimately, find peace in my life.

My story began so many months ago after the death of my mother.  She and I had been estranged for many years after a lifetime of emotional abuse that resulted in me becoming hardened, cynical and judgmental.  I steeled myself with the belief that surrounding myself with love, going to therapy and practicing different behaviors would ensure that I could protect myself from the long-term effects of both the abuse from my mother and the scars left from my alcoholic father (who had also passed away just months prior to my mother).  It took a while but I did, ultimately, realize that this plan was not going to work.  Shoving all my feelings into a locker inside me and trying to forget the combination would not prevent the leakage of all the pain and abuse that I endured.  It is insidious.  It permeates our cells.  It comes out in every place we least expect it to and at the times we least want it to.

On Leap Day – February 29 – I shared in a blog post that my mother had passed and it was the first time anyone, except for a very close few, had heard the news.  It was not something that I shared publicly because it was only noteworthy in that I felt a bit freed from the grasp of her will.  Even at her advanced age, even as she suffered from cancer, she continued to try to torment me and I continued to play into her hand, allowing myself to question everything, doubt my feelings and resort to behaving like a petulant child.  Once I learned of her passing, I felt a sense of relief and, consequently, a sense of guilt at not feeling the appropriate grief that one feels when their parent dies.  There was no practical way for me to explain this to most of my friends who have not previously been dragged through the muck that comprised my relationship with my mother.  I simply commented on it and expected that some might take note but did not anticipate that the result would inspire a whole new level of self-examination.

Sometimes I underestimate my impact on others – both positively and negatively.  I frequently find myself surprised to learn that someone is thinking about me or has been inquiring about me outside of my presence.  It sounds silly but is deeply rooted in wounds from my childhood and makes perfect sense to me.  Similarly, I do not always realize how widespread the impact of my negative actions can be.  I assume they go unnoticed by most because who would be paying attention to me – and, of course, that is a giant underestimation of its impact.  It is like the opposite of narcissism but, sometimes, equally dangerous.  Despite my deep level of self-awareness resulting from careful analysis of my feelings, actions and behaviors, I have a unique ability to blindside myself with my actions and behaviors.

In my work, we use a tool called Johari Window to help people understand the concept of blind spots when giving feedback in a corporate setting.  Every one of us has blind spots and they reside in the window of what people know about us but we do not know about ourselves.  And, while I generally believe that is a very small window for me, I also recognize that I can be a bit more clueless than I imagine myself to me.  My inability to recognize how others view me or that they even spend the time to think about me sits squarely in my blind spot.  When I wrote that blog post, I was standing in my blind spot.  I never anticipated that anyone would actually pay attention to the information about my mother dying and react with such support.  The outpouring of love and positive messaging was unexpected and I was both grateful and uncomfortable because I had revealed something very personal and I did not appreciate or recognize its significance because of my blindness.  One of the very valuable and powerful outcomes was the gift given to me by my closest friend, an expert in the field of blind spots, who utilized his craft on me to help reveal to me what I was so painfully missing.  By revealing my blind spot , he helped to thrust me into a place where I needed to search for answers and my first stop on the journey was vulnerability.  And so, it became a huge focus for me this year.  What I knew then about vulnerability is that I dreaded it, I loathed it and, what I have come to know for certain is that it is the only pathway to freedom, love and happiness.  Brene Brown says, in one of her TED talks:  “And I know that vulnerability is kind of the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, and creativity, of belong, of love.”

Another valuable outcome of the revelation of my blind spot, is that I am someone who values connections.  I need to feel connected – to be part of something.  Growing up without a strong sense of family and no formalized religion, I found myself drifting through life, often feeling like a misfit.  I never really belonged anywhere.  Lots of parents of friends would take me in and care for me over small periods of time but I always knew that I did not belong. The result was that I felt even more disconnected rather than being able to accept their offer of love and belonging.  I didn’t fall in love until i met my husband at the age of 24 so, until that time, I was a floater, seeking out personal and romantic connections. And even with him, it took years for me to shed my armor and truly connect.  Nearly 21 years later, I am still working on being raw and honest with him and finding a way to truly trust.  The wounds are deep and they show up nearly every day, with or without my notice.

The tragic reality of me is that, throughout my life, despite my desperate effort to make connections, I was always hiding.  I was hiding behind my vulnerability, afraid that if anyone really saw me, they would patently reject me.  I denied the fact that, in order to truly have a connection, you must be authentic.  You must bring your full and real self to the table.  Instead, I became masterful at matching other people’s behaviors and building artificial rapport in order to try to fit.  I never had to reveal anything to anyone that I didn’t want them to know because I was so adept at becoming whomever I needed to be in order to fit in.  I borrowed from other people’s personalities and adopted them as my own so I looked like I belonged.  I made superficial connections which, not surprisingly, did not have much strength and could not last beyond a little wear and tear.  As a result, many of my relationships were transient.

When I wrote my post in February, I truly believed that I was well on my way to becoming my authentic self.  And, to a great degree, that was true.  I had made some very meaningful connections and was allowing myself to be seen for who I truly was.  A little more naked than ever before.  But it was hard and took its toll on me.  And, what is also true is that, much like maintaining our bodies, we must also maintain our minds.  There is no final destination – it is always all about the journey.  If we spend months or years to build and tone our muscles and then suddenly stop working at it, our bodies will soften – and rather quickly.  When we are intentional about our beliefs and behaviors and feed ourselves positive thoughts and allow ourselves the time and space to accept ourselves, we tone our emotional muscles.  As soon as we take our eyes off the road and put our psyches on auto-pilot, we quickly return to unconscious negative input and easily sabotage our hard-earned efforts.  That is what is happening to me now.  I have lost focus and am straying far away trying to find my way back to my path.

I had a laser focus on what I wanted in my life and who I wanted to be.  Authenticity and vulnerability were priority #1 for me because I knew, without a doubt, that it was a passageway to freedom for me.  It was the route that most certainly ended in happiness.  So, how is it that I have felt so unhappy lately?  I have manufactured an environment surrounded by the people who I believe bring out the best in me.  I have consciously pushed away the influences that I believe are destructive and detrimental to my journey.  I have set intentions to be honest, authentic, loving and vulnerable so I can allow those who I want and need to be close to me get and stay close to me.  What I have not planned for is the reality of life and the bumps and hurts that come along.  Those who love us most also sometimes hurt us most.  And we also hurt them.  I have also not accounted for the leakage of my pain locker that has yet to be emptied.  Inside of it still resides years of residue that adds toxicity, even more fervently when I am in a weakened state.  When this occurs, I immediately retreat to a place where I can protect myself from feeling the pain until, all at once, the earth shudders a little too hard and the cracks spread and the walls collapse and I get sucked right into the floor, crushed under a pile of bricks.

Suffice it to say, I know that everything good and bad is only temporary and, as my husband often says “the difference between your best day and your worst day is your state of mind.”  I say with all authenticity and all vulnerability that I have stumbled.  I tripped over myself because I lost sight of my path.  I lost faith in myself and allowed the demons to take over.  I wish I could just will myself back into step but I know it is part of the journey to learn how to use the tools I have to pick myself up, dust myself off and keep moving forward.  Lately, I haven’t felt so motivated to move forward and thought perhaps my journey was futile.  But I had a moment, in between the raindrops of tears and anguish, when I realized that perhaps I had, in fact, made a major step forward because, if nothing else, I am feeling quite vulnerable and am just sitting with those feelings no matter how painful they may be right here and now.  With that, I know, at least, the road I am looking for is the right one and once I resume my journey I will do so, hopefully, without too many blind spots.

BE THE CHANGE


I believe intensely in the power of the small moments of our lives and how they shape and inform how we move forward.  I also believe that nothing happens by accident.  If you pay attention closely enough, you can fit together the pieces of your life and complete the complex jigsaw puzzle picture that is being formed.  It’s kind of funny that my husband and I are often diametrically opposed on this topic. Being an engineer, he believes that randomness is part of our existence and coincidences are just randomness collisions.  And, ironically, I believe he is one of the pieces of my life that most certainly did not happen by accident.

Along with my deep belief in fate, I also believe in the power of intention.  However, this is a relatively new way of thinking for me.  To be intentional, you need to trust that you can follow through with your intention.  You need to believe that you can regulate your life in such a way to live by your intention.  This is no easy task because it forces you to be present, conscious and accountable for your actions and behaviors.  On the other hand, being intentional creates an ease in your life because it provides you with a compass and barometer that immediately indicates if you have gone in the wrong direction or if you have fluctuated away from your focus.

Being intentional has never been a defining characteristic for me.  Because of the chaos in my life – chaos that caused me to be reactive and protective – I have never had the space or latitude to decide what I wanted.  I managed.  I survived.  I tolerated.  I never chose.  The idea of being able to choose the pathway I wanted was luxurious like cashmere and caviar.  I trusted no one – most significantly myself.  And, while I was blessed to have the gift of introspection which allowed me to constantly challenge myself and force myself to explore new ways of thinking and behaving, I failed to notice the magical connections that pulled my personal puzzle together and, ultimately, lived my life with same chaos that was foisted upon me for years and years.

I often talk about the blessings of people in my life and I firmly believe that I have been gifted with individuals who have come into my life to help me find my path, to help me along on my journey and show me the way when I could not do so myself.  Nonetheless, I have struggled to understand how to embrace these guides because my inability to trust would get in the way.  My aversion to vulnerability and fear of admitting that I need the assistance to find my way – or the acknowledgment of the fact that I might simply be lost -has prevented me from extracting the beautiful gifts bestowed upon me.  In recent years, though, I have much more consciously tried to change that.  I have tried to be courageous and test my limits, challenge my fears and consciously and intentionally accept what is being offered.  This is such hard work but the payoff is greater than any lottery bounty.

I want to tell this story in so many ways.  I want to share how this has paid off in work, how it enhances my relationships, how it makes me a better mother.  In reality, the only way I can honestly and authentically share the power of intention is to talk about how it has changed me – in the deepest aspects of my being.

When I have talked about vulnerability, I have shared that the environment I grew up in was one I would compare to a battle zone.  The enemy always had its weapon drawn and was ready to fire the moment they happened upon a vulnerable or open target.  I had to learn how to wear protective armor and shield myself from the oncoming attacks that happened far too frequently.  This was my familiar lifestyle.  A small voice inside me constantly begged for safe harbor.  I searched for someone, anyone who would be protective and would let me drop my guard.  I wanted to simply be.  I did not want to overthink things.  I did not want to be afraid.  I just wanted to be.  I wanted to luxuriate in the mundane.  My need for an ally removed any level of conscious intention and forced me to try so many people on for size – many of which resembled the initial enemies but did a wonderful job of masking their true identity.  I was hurt again and again and the callouses grew harder and thicker.  I trusted only to be betrayed and I never seemed to learn anything because I kept returning to the same enemy over and over.

I began to develop a level of consciousness in my 30s right around the time my first child was born.  Suddenly, as a parent, I knew instinctively that I needed to be intentional about mothering.  I knew that, without this intention, I could not possibly raise my children in a healthy way, offering them love, consistency and order.  WIthout clear intentions I would be replicating a level of chaos that defined my life.  However, I had no idea that I was even thinking any of this.  I did not have a vocabulary to define my behavior and actions.  I had instinct.  I had fate.  I was exercising these new muscles with my children but the rest of my relationships – particularly the one with myself – still suffered because I did not understand that trust and intention was what I required to begin a full transformation from that unarmed child.

There was no magical a-ha moment.  I did not wake up one day and burst from my bed with the answer.  I did not have a grandiose epiphany.  Instead, I worked really, really hard and tested everything around me.  I continued to try people on for size but I developed an acute awareness for what did not feel right and was able to extricate myself from unhealthy relationships much faster.  I took little baby steps towards a reality that included me possibly liking myself enough to invest the time and energy into trusting myself.  I grew older, I went to therapy, I battled through, I got hurt.

Then the universe kicked in and I was ready to listen.

Yes, I have had some extraordinary relationships.  FIrst and foremost is my husband.  For over 20 years we have struggled together, confronting our own scars and committing ourselves to let love prevail.  We are both very complex people with lots of emotional baggage and, often, our relationship has been so hard yet so worthwhile.  And the journey continues.  I have had friends – many of which have come and gone but who have left an imprint on me that I only now can look at and understand the significance.  I have risen from a family that suffered from mental illness, alcoholism and deep dysfunction – and I would not have chosen any other family because they are part of who I am today.  The good, the bad, and the ugly have helped to shape and inform who I am right here and right now.  They have helped me to struggle and forced me to confront my demons.  I could certainly have chosen to not do this but, for me, there never was an option.  I may not have set out to do this with intention but the universe intervened and made sure that I eventually paid attention and found my intention.  Today, I am surrounded by a beautiful tapestry of people I have chosen to be in my life.  Each of them enriches me in a way and I am intentional about my purpose in their lives.  I don’t always know right away what the purpose is but I am always committed to learn.  I still struggle with trust because that little person inside me looking for safe harbor also knows that the waters can be very dangerous and we need to be very careful.  But, for the first time in my life I have found myself in trusting relationships that continually prove themselves to be worthy and authentic.  And I am so moved, emotionally impacted and overwhelmed at how powerful the trust is.  And, when that trust is ever questioned or challenged, it rocks my world.

I am trying to be the change I want to see in the world.  I am trying to be intentional and give out to those around me exactly what I want in return – love, respect and trust.  It defines the me of today and I know, without any shade of doubt that the payoff is there.

I have found myself ending each of my blog posts recently with a thank you and acknowledgment to the people in my life and I will continue this practice because it is the people – always the people – that make the difference.  Without them, I stop learning and loving and growing.  Without them, I have no audience, no support system, no purpose.

The other day, while strolling through Manhattan with a dear friend I was sharing some stories of my early career days and I lamented about some choices I made.  He pointed out to me that, had I made different choices, he and I would never have met.  That thought stopped me in my tracks and I can still smell the air and hear the noises around me when he said it because I knew that would be a terrible eventuality.  Perhaps he was right.  But, given the power of our relationship I suspect the universe would never have allowed that to happen.

FLIP THE SWITCH


I am fascinated by change.  In fact, I am actively engaged in a love/hate relationship with change.  Being a middle-aged creature of habit who likes predictability while also being someone who craves new experiences and new ways of thinking, change is a very loaded subject for me.

I recently participated in a workshop that got me thinking about change from a bit of a different perspective.  Having studied change from every angle, this was nothing earth shattering but the combination of messages struck me in such a way that it moved my thinking 3 degrees in another direction – just enough to have some new insights.  We looked at change from the perspective of shifting brand messaging by moving from focusing on selling characteristics and benefits to communicating beliefs and values.  This is not the first time I have explored this idea but, for some reason, at this workshop it all made sense in a different way.

I organically connected this discussion with the work I do with my clients to help them shift the culture in their organizations.  It is much more powerful when we talk about an organization’s credo or mission and vision than when we talk about the tactical and practical ways in which they do the work that they do.  Individuals need to believe in something.  We have a natural need to be emotionally connected.  And, despite the fact that business is meant to be impersonal, we know that employees become more invested in their work if they can find a personal connection to it.  The difference between standing in a factory creating whatever device is being manufactured and going into the marketplace and seeing the same device in action with the end user is extraordinary – and the engagement level of the employees in those respective jobs reflect that difference.

In the workshop, I was introduced to a book called Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath which discusses how individuals approach change.  I, of course, being impatient and glued to my technology (something I might want to consider changing), purchased the book on my iPad within ten seconds of it being talked about.  I dove in during some breaks in the conference and immediately was captivated by the stories that the authors used to talk about change.  One such example is of a scientific study done on people’s eating habits.  A group of adults unwittingly participated in a study at a movie theater that looked at their eating habits.  Different people were given different size buckets of very stale popcorn – it was about a week old and really inedible.  The researchers were trying to find out if the people with the larger buckets would eat more popcorn just by virtue of the fact that there was more popcorn available to them.  And, sure enough, the individuals with the largest buckets ate 53% more of the disgusting popcorn simply because it was there.  What the researchers were ultimately working towards was a strategy to encourage people to eat more mindfully and eat less.  What they finally acknowledged was that, perhaps the best strategy to encourage the people to eat less was to give them smaller portions.  Rather than taking the typical route of looking to change the individual, they concluded that a more effective strategy would be to change the situation or the environment.

I love this idea.  We spend so much time putting people into self-help programs to help them change the way they do things.  A lot of this is important and helpful but, absent of the other component of changing the environment, it is often ineffective.  If you are trying to lose weight, you certainly need to change your habits around eating but you also rid your cabinets of high calorie and unhealthy foods – you alter the situation.  An alcoholic goes to rehab to quit drinking where their situation and environment is altered in order for them to focus their attention on the aspects of their psyches that needs to be altered.  Change is not always simply about changing ourselves.

There are so many ways to apply this premise.  I immediately apply it to culture change.  Since I spend 75% of my time working with clients on shifting their corporate culture, I put a lot of thought into what motivates people to change and what situational elements need to be impacted to influence the change.  We talk about value propositions.  We talk about corporate environments.  We talk about how we work.  Nonetheless, we almost universally end up talking about culture change through the lens of the people.  If we can change the people, we can change the culture.  If we can get them to think differently, to increase engagement, to develop buy-in, our culture will be more successful.

Not so.

Change is hard.  We all resist change no matter how much we might want it.  We can try to talk ourselves into change but it is a process that requires not just mental buy-in but a larger situational adjustment.  For large companies it requires a shift in not only the way people think but a shift in the way things are done.  It becomes a collaborative approach.  For individuals, change requires a balance between thinking differently and behaving differently.  Our change in behavior cannot just come from thinking differently and thinking differently will not be a natural offshoot of behaving differently.  We must consciously and deliberately do both.

When I walked away from the workshop, I found myself having a newfound appreciation for developing key values.  If we can align ourselves with a belief in some core values (and every organization and every human being MUST identify core values), we can much more easily begin to attempt the process of change.  Those values become our north star and every journey towards change will have something to align itself with.

MUSINGS FROM A DAY AT DMV


It probably comes as no surprise that I spend a significant portion of my day analyzing and reflecting on things in my life.  It is simply how my brain works.  Things just don’t slip through without careful examination.  I can barely get myself dressed in the morning without weighing the options on each garment.  Has my client seen me wear this jacket recently?  Will I be able to wear 3-inch heels and not fall and break a hip by the end of my day in the city?  Does this shade of black seem a bit lighter than that shade of black.  Yep, it is intense.

Yesterday, as I sat for hours in a less-than-desirable DMV office in a less-than-desirable part of NJ, I had lots of time for analysis and reflection, particularly the reasons why I had to end up in the less-than-desirable DMV office rather than the a little-bit-less-than-desirable DMV office closer to my home.  It had something to do with letting my license expire, some unpaid parking tickets and a lack of analysis and reflection on important papers that go unnoticed when they arrive in the mail.  But, rather than focus on my own foibles, I used this opportunity to think about how the experience at DMV could be better for both the employees that spend so much of their lives there and the patrons who view a trip to the DMV as a gateway into hell.

I put on my workplace consultant hat and thought about what the employee experience is for the typical DMV worker.  They start their days entering through doors covered in bars and manned by county police officers.  When they have the occasion to look out the windows at the lifeless streets and drab parking lot, they have to also stare out through bars.  It definitely gives the impression that you are imprisoned which, as any DMV patron can attest, is exactly what it feels like when you are being shuffled from one line to the next, to the next with no sense of what indignity you’ll be facing next.  Their offices have not been updated in decades and, in and age where we have more technology than we know what to do with, they have handwritten signs posted all around and have photocopies of photocopies that probably started on a mimeograph machine and you can barely make out the words.  To add to the ambience, rather than some unpleasant muzak playing in the background, there is a cacophony of workers yelling the names of waiting guests (that is how Target refers to their customers so I am going to pretend DMV values theirs in the same way) mixed with the low murmurs of patrons cursing about how long it is taking to get their necessary business handled.  (I wonder if the Muzak people have a service for that background noise).

Some – well, most – would suggest that anyone who is crazy enough to take a job at DMV deserves what they get.  The office staff is generally comprised of under-educated civil servants who make barely more than minimum wage (although they have killer benefits, which is nice) and they tend to be a disengaged and disgruntled 99% of the time.  I recently read a post by a woman who was telling of her son’s trip to DMV for his road test and she referred to the workers as “lazy and stupid who don’t give a frig about serving the public.”  I’m not sure if I completely support that sentiment but I will concede that it is easy to draw that conclusion given the experience most have when they are forced to make any type of visit to the office.  No one ever meets you for a drink at the end of the day to tell you about the amazing experience they had at DMV.  “Today they served champagne and chocolates.  I didn’t want to leave!”  Not quite.  However, I would suggest that perhaps we might be looking at the question of the chicken or the egg.  Does the culture of the DMV exist independent of the employees or do the employees create the culture.  If you read any articles written about how the government treats DMV workers and the significant cutbacks being made to the agencies which creates longer lines and, no doubt, more frustration on both the part of the workers and the public, you might consider that working at the DMV might cause a normally lovely person to turn into a hardened, miserable one.

I was watching one particular woman who seemed perfectly “normal” to me.  She was fairly well-dressed and, unlike some of her colleagues, was not chomping on her gum as if she was trying to use her teeth to crack open a walnut.  When I glanced over at her, hoping that my name was the next out of her mouth, she was rifling through a stack of papers as if she was looking for one in particular.  I couldn’t help but wonder if she was actually in search of some poor individual’s paperwork or if, rather, she was just shuffling the papers to avoid calling anyone’s name and let the clock tick forward a few minutes closer to closing time.  I gave her the benefit of the doubt because I believe the best in people.  Minutes later she was helping a gentleman who clearly was missing one of the points for the 6-point identification process (yep, I got the lingo down…that is how I roll).  You could tell that he was pleading with her to help him out so he would not have to return home to find a piece of mail to prove his address and continue on in his nightmarish journey.  I wondered if she simply did not care or if she was just following the stringent rules set by the powers that be that suggest “we make absolutely no exceptions whatsoever because we simply cannot trust the general public because everyone is really a criminal who is trying to get one over on us.”  Now, given some of the shady folks that were walking around the office today, I am not sure I entirely disagree with that line of thinking.  There were quite a few people that looked like they had some secrets tucked away in their very baggy jeans (perhaps that is what was weighing them down so they could not quite stay up on their waists).  I watched as this man pleaded and observed the body language of the DMV worker as she shook her head at him.  He was searching through his manilla envelope (did everyone else get the memo that you are supposed to bring a letter sized manilla envelope with your paperwork to the DMV?  I seemed to be the only one who simply tucked my stuff into my purse) to find the required paper and, each second that went by without him locating it, his shoulders slumped deeper.  He knew what was before him – go to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200 – and was dreaded starting over.  I am certain that I observed a glimpse of sympathy in the woman’s eyes as she confirmed his fate.  I felt bad for the man and wished they could make an exception (although was still bitter about the fact that I took the very same path the day before when I arrived without a piece of mail) but recognize that, in a culture, such as this, exceptions are out of the questions.  It would create mass hysteria.  My attention on this exchange was interrupted by the large African American woman sitting several seats down from me who was providing us with the enjoyment of her ongoing commentary of what was going down in Room 3.  At this moment, she offered some commentary on how that poor fool is going to have to take his ass home and come back tomorrow.  This was followed up by a long string of whining about how much she needed to go out and have a cigarette and, if they do not call her name soon, she is going to need to pop someone.  Good times!

My name finally did get called and I had the pleasure of having my picture taken which resulted in a photo that looked like I had seventeen chins (I though I had lost just a few of those already) and taking a vision test through some type of view master viewfinder device from when we were kids.  I did stumble before I was able to leave and, once again, had the opportunity to evaluate the culture of the agency.  Was the woman who was helping me (the fourth individual I had come into contact in my three hours at the office) going to go the extra mile or would she happily send me on my way to resolve the inane confusion related to my married vs maiden name?  Would she go out on a limb for me and actually read my marriage license to see that both names are represented?  “It doesn’t have a raised seal, I don’t know if they are going to accept it.”  That right there? That is the transference of blame to some nameless, faceless individual.  That has got to be part of the training.  Much to my surprise and delight, they did accept it and I was released from the holding cell.  Perhaps there are some renegades who want to feel good about helping others and putting in a good day’s work.  Maybe, just maybe, there are people who work at DMV that want to shift that culture to one that it inclusive and inspiring, moving from what feels like a hostile work environment to a place where people look forward to going to work.  Well, that might be a stretch but I will hold out hope.  You can say one thing for the employees at the DMV, they can certainly bring their true, authentic selves to work, and that’s something.

My journey this go round is not completely done and I get to go back one last time to fix my problems that I neglected, ignored and failed to analyze but, for now, I am done and for that, I am grateful!

 

GOING BELOW THE WATER LINE


In my work, we spend a lot of time working with clients on the topic of unconscious bias. The study of unconscious bias has focused on the hidden biases many of us carry around based primarily on race and, often, gender.  However, when you begin to dismantle the roots and sources of unconscious bias, they really apply to anyone who is different from you. We all know that we have certain proclivities towards particular people and behaviors and, conversely, very specific aversions to other types of people. Often times this is going on without us even being aware of it.

When I discuss or teach unconscious bias, I always have little epiphanies about myself or those around me because I draw on my own experiences to provide authenticity.  I continue to find it amazing how much these hidden biases come into play in our day-to-day lives.  One of the tools we often use when teaching unconscious bias is the Iceberg Model. This model is one that is used in many aspects of training because you can use the metaphor of the iceberg in a variety of different ways. I like this particular model because it really resonates as we think about how we approach our interactions with other people.

I am very fascinated about the workings of the human mind and how our own experiences build up in our unconscious to inform how we interact with others.  Too often, we, as a society, prejudge others based on what we can readily access from them – their appearance, their initial behaviors, the words they speak, etc.  Typically, in less than 10 seconds, we make assumptions about others.  Rarely are these assumptions rooted in much more than those basic aspects of their being that we can tap into.  What interests me is how much is actually informing their behaviors, words and actions.  I try very hard to see beneath the surface when dealing with people – particularly when I begin to notice something about them that does not sit right with me.  I try to understand the roots of their actions rather than just take them at face value.  I attempt to go below the water line to find out what has led them to become the person they are today.

Of course, I am not very good at this as not many people are.  More importantly, though, I try.  I fundamentally believe that we all have good in us and we all begin at a place where we are well-intentioned, moral, just and kind.  I recognize that this begins to erode as the circumstances of our lives interfere with our basic infrastructure and begin to create a different perspective that changes how we engage with others.  Typically, the people who are the most far removed from their core and who have not spent the time accessing their true and authentic selves, have the most difficulty both going below the water line with others and allowing what is below their own water line to surface with those with whom they interact.

As a young child, I was always very embarrassed about my family.  It was hard for me to admit that my parents were divorced or that I lived in less than a perfect family environment.  I often hid the truths about my life and managed to avoid going into details about what was really going on.  I spent so much of my life managing my fake reality that I never had the time to get to know myself or the others around me.  I spent a lot of time looking outwards at others and making assumptions about them – typically about how much better off they were than me – based on the small amounts of information I could gather.  This led me to be very anxious and depressed because my life was anything but real and meaningful.  I was trapped inside a very airtight box and, if someone popped even the smallest hole, all of my oxygen would escape and I would be destroyed. As I grew older and spent more time reflecting on my life, I began to come to terms with the realities of my place in the world.  This ability to go below my own water line enabled me to summon up these aspects of myself and share them with others in order to allow them a deeper glimpse into who I was.  Hopefully, this would prevent others from making rash judgments about me without the proper information.  And, as my own understanding of myself expanded, my ability to see deeper into others increased as well.

Today, when I meet or spend a little bit of time with people, part of my analysis of them includes getting a better understanding of where they come from in their lives.  Of course, there are many prototypes of people and, more often than not, people fall into very specific buckets. But, what allows you to better engage and connect with people is to understand the nuance of what they are bringing to their particular prototype.  Someone can be a type A, intense, intelligent, controlling person but that is not their entire story.  They may have had a tremendous amount of trauma in their childhood that has caused them to want to ensure that everything in their life is taken care of so as not to have to rely on others for their security.  This seemingly negative trait might actually be a window into a whole different aspect of their reality that allows us to connect on a much deeper level.  I often think about that when I meet people and wonder how they could be friends or partners when they are so extraordinarily different.  Very possibly, they have tapped into something deep below the surface and made a connection that is barely visible to anyone on the outside.  It is pure and it is authentic and it is powerful.

The flipside of all of this is, of course, the negative attributes that can be revealed when going a bit deeper with people.  So often, we meet people and are completely enamored with them because they are funny or charming or warm.  After spending some time with them and beginning to go below the water line, we notice that our initial experience is not their authentic self but, instead, the persona they put forward in order to attract people to them.  They have a very deliberate strategy for what exists above the water line to maximize their appeal to others.  It is a survival of the fittest behavior pattern because, much like external beauty, it allows them to have initial impact and success but cannot be sustained without something more substantial lurking behind it.

While the work that I do is focused on how we relate to others in a professional environment, I believe this information is valuable in all of our human interactions.  It is so important for us to stop ourselves from making snap judgments and be open to explore the deeper story that exists with everyone.  We need to adjust our radar and sonar to tune into the aspects that are not readily surfaced.  After all, we know that the part of the iceberg that lies below the water line is what sinks ships.