How many of you walk around feeling as if you are carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders?
It can be a burden can’t it.
Somehow before we know it we seem to have taken responsibility for everyone else around us. Family, friends, coworkers, even entire organisations. Add to that our concerns raised by engaging in the latest news story or global crisis. Just thinking about it feels heavy right?
The crux of this weightiness is that we are not taking personal responsibility for our selves. By this I mean we are forgetting to look after our own needs. I liken this to the oxygen mask analogy that is used so often. The wise people in the airline industry always remind parents, in case of emergency, to put their mask on first before their kids.
The question then comes to how can we help others and look after ourselves at the same time. Because it’s not about you or me it is actually about we being better.
We all want to be kind, compassionate and caring for others. Others want to receive our help knowing that it is fully supported and genuine, not an obligation.
So what happens in real life for us is that we forget this wisdom.
Why we forget
Well for many of us we are raised with the constant reminder to put others first. The virtue of giving compassionately is one to always carry with us. Yet why do we venerate a person who collapses in the process doing so? Why do we validate the martyr and not the person who showed how it is done? I don’t think that this instruction was intended to lead to pain, suffering or debilitation in the person helping. Somehow there needs to be a balance.
Then there is the feel good factor. If I help others and make them feel good then I will feel better about myself. This again is out of balance. You are also offering to others the lesser part of you, not the whole wonderful person you can be.
We are rewarded in many ways for working hard, doing more than people expect. This can be a particular issue in workplaces. Be seen putting in the hours. Be seen being the one that saves the day. A lot of people still inadvertently equate effort to effectiveness. Tracking hours of doing does not lead to quality it simply leads to behaviour linked to reward for more hours.
So what is missing?
When people take on the burdens of others or perceive that they are doing so many suffer in silence. You don’t know or hear the person complain. You may however encounter a grumpy and angry person, or perhaps a tired and lifeless person. Inside though there is a lot going on. The mind can be embedded in an internal war leading us to wonder why it is all worth it. Or just keep suffering.
Until a crisis hits! The crisis can be in many forms. For one it might be a health scare, another a relationship breakdown and another a warning or even termination at work. Something had to give and it was the person giving up having given too much.
I write this piece from a place of both observation and knowing. I have seen many people in my work over the years try to be the answer to everybody. I have seen the people sit in front of me and talk about work as if it were a curse thrown at them. How do we get to this place from a starting point of “yes I would love to take this job”, or “I am passionate about this work!”
A personal crisis
On my part I have found the struggle arise at various times in my life and career. I remember early on being praised in performance reviews for putting in lots of hours. So what did I do? I put in more hours! I was good at what I did so I think I worked effectively as one and half people. This was fine until my commitments expanded - promotions, extra study, home, marriage, kids, etc. As soon as I hit the next stage the old way of working didn’t apply anymore.
One of my scariest times of trying to be the answer to all was when I was a training manager in an accounting firm. I was pregnant with my first child (who by the way is now 161/2!). I had a core value of professionalism and had come through the ranks of the auditing side of the business. Having learned well how to continually exceed client expectations I turned this same approach to my job in training. I had also developed this crazy habit of working every weekend. Yes I was a bit of a workaholic.
So I was teaching a 5 day training program on a Thurs - Wed with the weekend as a break. Lucky for me. I thought the time out was good for me but of course I worked more. Training is a rewarding and fun and takes more time than people realise. This program was no different. But for some reason I was tired, really, really tired. So tired that I apologetically had to teach the class sitting in a chair. For me this was a clear sign something was wrong. It went against all my training, professionalism and standards as an engaging trainer.
That night I went home. I had no energy and resigned myself to sleeping it off in bed. Then at midnight it started. The most unbearable pains in my abdomen. I thought I had eaten something bad. Or maybe I pulled a muscle. Whatever it was it was not normal. I hung in there until I could not bear it and was then off to hospital. My obstetrician came to the rescue with the answer. I didn’t have food poisoning I was in labour at 21 weeks! Oh #@$%!!! Suprisingly, I was calm. Suprisingly, I surrendered to the situation. Something took over in me that said this was not something under my control. Up until now I thought, truly believed that I could control, manage and keep everything going exactly as I planned.
Well there was no more training to happen from me for awhile. Ten days of forced bed rest in hospital lying on my back proved that. After this stint I was sentenced to the remaining days lying on my back and moving minimally at home. Thankfully the quick actions of my doctor and nurses at the hospital enabled me to carry my son through not only to full term but past! And yes we are very grateful for him in our life.
What was the hardest thing for me though? Recongising that I was carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders. Not only did I feel responsible for me, I had a team at work, a department, students, an organisation. Oh and not to mention carrying a baby for the first time. Yes I thought I could be superwoman. I didn’t know that being superwoman meant actually saying no!
I can’t say that I have been perfect since then. There have been lots of stages of forgetting and remembering again. But then that is life. I still joke today about motherhood, business ownership being a juggle between the cape and the suit. These days I have to say there is less cape and less suit and simply more of me. I also have learned that the person who creates these expectations and way of working is me. Whilst a work culture can allow this to happen, even encourage it, the person acting with the burdens is me. I make the choices.
Seeing the light
It is from these places where we are not in control that we emerge into our true selves. We reclaim the parts of who we are that matter. We come up for air. We rise above. We get out of the hole. Can you see where the analogies are going? But we don’t just do it.
We are missing the fact that people need a lift up to be themselves. We need to give ourselves permission to say I am going to take care of me. Because when I take care of me I can then really be there for you plus more. We don’t always get this luxury, I know. Families have challenges, workplaces have deadlines and people have ups and downs.
So what is really required is collective acceptance and understanding and less judgment. We are not born to be critics of others. We are not born to bring people down. We are not born to do everything for everyone all by our selves. We are not born to live constantly with unreaslistic expectations-whether internal or external.
We are born to be who we are to the best of our abilities. We are born to know our own way and our own path and be aware of what we need. Being true to this lifts ourselves up AND others at the same time. We lift them up into the light so they can see that the world is bright, not so dark after all. But it starts with you and me doing this for ourselves. Sometimes all we need to do is see and show that there is another way.
This place we stand in empowers us and at the same time empowers the other person to stand in their own power.