Empathy for Monsters
Updated: Jul 28, 2020
Darkness welcomes you to bed. You lay in silence, and then the cupboard door creaks. You pull the duvet higher. Another noise, did that come from under the bed? You disappear altogether beneath the relative safety of your sheets. Your knees knocking you tightly shut your eyes. If we cannot see it it is not there, right? The light from the full moon casts a shadow that creeps ominously over the sheets moving ever closer you. Fear ripples through your body. Something touched your toes… or did it? It is all too much. You want to peel back the covers and take a peek (that strange desire that grabs us, to look even when petrified). Perhaps bravery, a primal or instinctual response of self-preservation, perhaps. Your eyes begrudgingly meet the end of your duvet, the fresh cool air kisses your forehead, beads of sweat form, your knees take one final knock. Your eyes fix on a shape and in the mid-light a face comes to focus, a pair of big smiley faces look back at you. It’s Mike and Solly from Monsters Inc. here to tuck you in. All is well, phew.
Now, you may either be completely confused about where I am going with this, or you may have an inkling of the direction I am heading. I am exploring the topic of perspective and how much of what we end up experience in our lives comes from a place of fear. I am sure you know the saying said by Franklin Roosevelt in his inauguration speech, ‘Nothing to fear but fear itself’. In other words, believing with absolute conviction that there is a monster in your closet that is going to come and get you, when there is in fact no monster at all.
I want to talk about how perceptions of experiences and people gathered without intent and clarity in the moment can later establish pseudo-realities that become ‘our’ reality and our memory of that experience, or that person. One such example you may have experienced is a situation when we recall memory and another who was were there remembers it differently. I say toe-ma-toe, you say toe-mae-toe. Both mean tomato, both are right. This illustrates an accent and cultural difference, same language, different delivery ultimately the request in both instances was the same, for a tomato. If you order a toe-mae-toe or a toe-ma-toe in a rural village in China where English is not spoken you will most likely receive a blank look. In this case you need to ask for a 番茄. The point I am labouring here is that we communicate differently, we see the world differently through a multitude of lenses dictated by our experiences, culture, beliefs, etc. From one individual to the next.
Each of our life experience is informed by two factors running in tandem, that is of the perception we have of the internal world within ourselves, and that of the external world. The interesting part here if you were to explore further down this rabbit hole, by this logic there are as many versions of the world as there are people. With this variance however large or small between individuals does present the possibility for misinterpretation, especially when you throw in matters of ego, etc. It becomes an even greater landscape with possible routes to various destinations, a network of rabbit tunnels leading to endless destinations. For the purposes of this piece, we shall not explore this further, a meaty topic that could go on for days. You get my point thought; we each, every one of us see things differently.
Now that I have planted that seed in your intelligent brain, I want to skip forward to putting this concept in to context of a spectrum where at one end I see red and you see blue, on the other end it holds the potential to start a war. This of course being an extreme example but wars have been started on less. If we look somewhere in the middle of the spectrum where more common instances take place for example we believe that someone, or a group of someone’s are out to get us, to make our life miserable. This is the focus of today’s discussion and I hope that as you read a penny drops as what I am describing is such a common experience that I bet you have had a scenario at one point or another in your life where you may have felt this way. These scenarios often sort themselves out, by it calming eventually in one way or another or by us actively removing ourselves from the situation all together. What I want to explore is the intentional dealing with situations like this when they do arise. It is not nice to go through, taking up a great deal of mind-space, energy and focus that could be otherwise spent elsewhere serving you much more in the bold pursuit of your greatest vision for yourself in your lifetime. Sound good? Great, lets carry on…
I had a situation with that over a period of years I was broken down bit by bit, chipping away at my self-dignity, my self-belief. I used to be so excited about life, free to dream the greatest of dreams and knowing I had every possibility to achieve them. It had all gone. It was replaced with thoughts of, ‘you are not good enough’, ‘Nice try, failed again, oh well’, ‘shame you’ll never amount to anything’. Where the hell did these messages come from? They did not slip in the back door quietly either, they hit my heart like the two arrows in the old Strongbow advert on TV, Not only piercing my heart and soul but tearing through it with menace and anger, with evil intent and bad taste. I tried so many things to get myself out, to resolve this confusing and weakening state. Fitness to feel better, nutrition, journaling, painting, woodwork, hiking all the things that had brought me joy before, however through each enjoyable action I could taste the flavour of ash on my tongue, tainting every experience, ‘What’s the point?’. Needless to say, it was not a great time, and I got so angry at myself for wasting time, my thirties drawing to a close I wondered if maybe a mid-life crisis, ‘You are too young for that Stu’, my older brother kindly and lovingly reminds me. Dammit, I had hoped I could blame it on something expected and normal.
What had taken my light, my power? I traced the patterns of behaviour specifically the feelings that consumed me in attempt to narrow down to the perpetrator. Then, it hit me the time I felt it the most was the days leading up the catch-up sessions with my seniority. The proverbial monsters taunting me from my closet. Ah OK, so now that I know where it is, I can deal with it right? No, I just avoided it, as much as possible, however it was not, avoidable that is. OK, so now what?
I decided to confront it head on one year. My appeal was met with understanding, confusion and surprise. My reaction was further confusion. “What? But, they are the ones doing this to me, how can they not know they are doing it?”.
I thought I had the situation waxed. All this stress and anxiety, planning for this call, was it all a waste of time. I allowed time to pass so I could consider, there was no doubt that much of the darkness I was experiencing rooted from there, however the mutual confusion, well, confused me. It took some time thereafter, much soul-searching for me to appreciate that all this enormity of fear was built by me. I had established a construct of fear and anxiety that rooted form misunderstanding through different methods and styles of working and communicating. In short, I had made a dark and towering mountain out of a molehill.
Now, my seniority and I do communicate differently, very different people and this was an important factor. It was not all on me as a mistake, it was something to look at and understand, an opportunity to lead to take the rein and better myself through learning more. There was no moment of the skies parted and angels flew down with a fanfare of congratulations, no that is not how it works. I had the option to run away, I could have left my job and found another where I did not have the same situation. However, realising that I had an opportunity to learn how to deal with the situation, that there was no intentional ill intent, it was down to my interpretation. I had some work to do. I had to consider what that was, something that had rocked my world for such a long time, and I was blind to it. I saw that the power to resolve the situation, for myself lay in my hands.
With this realisation, I knew that I could not just make it go away. I could have ran, but that’s not my style. As discussed in my blog about habits, ‘Living with Intention’ I knew that it would be the small changes that would help me get to the bottom of this. I desperately wanted to relieve myself of this dark monkey on my shoulder. My first move was a small one, to re-frame the situation. I had a think about what I would like these catch up sessions to be if I was their designer, imagine I am the seniority in the scenario, and someone is reporting into me. In my diary I changed the title of these sessions from ‘Reporting Catch-Up’ to ‘Inspiration Sessions’. I felt that these sessions should be full of support and mentorship, so this new name seem to fit well. In this action alone I felt a flicker of light within the dark, if only for a nano-second. The next ‘inspiration session’ was different. I felt different. I realised that I was approaching things differently, when I prepared for the call what I wrote as agenda items were affected in this new framework. The updates and the responses I wanted, it felt more genuine. Over the weeks and months that followed I added new things to try and keep steering the sessions in the directions I would like them to be, I enquired about personal life and developments, I imagined if I was in their shoes what would I like to discuss and how would I like to both receive and deliver information. The transformation was cataclysmic, it changed my entire life experience. The shoulder monkey moved on. I felt lighter, I felt more present at home with my family, I exercised more, read more, I felt lighter. I could see the horizon again and I wanted to explore it. The greatest observation form this entire experience is that it was nothing to do with the external world, with my seniority in this scenario, it was me, my perception, my understanding. I created a shroud of doubt and lived within it for years! What a waste of time and energy that could have been directed in a way that serves me and my life. Now there is a powerful lesson learnt and a situation that will very definitely not repeat itself.
Take time in your day, if you feel darkness like this, explore where it could be coming from and most importantly of all, be patient with yourself. Never beat yourself up for thoughts you think or feelings you feel. They come from a place within you that operates subconsciously and is more powerful than the conscious mind. Trust yourself and be brave. You may see within yourself reactions like anger, short temper, violence, passive aggressive behaviour, irritation, fear all of these emerge from a place of darkness and rarely are they the correct representation of the situation new are in. It is the conscious rationalisation of a much more complex signal from our deepest intelligence that deserves our attention and time to explore. It is temping to follow the conscious reaction in the moment, this only leads to regret later and either apologies to be made, or possibly relationships ruined.
We all have the power to shape our lives. In my example above if it had turned out that there was malicious intent and if I did have horrid bosses, it is my choice how I react to that. I have the power to rise above and use my time and energy on me, we all do. Complaining and moaning about people can feel satisfying in the moment, you know why that is? You are seeking validation from others and often getting it, ‘Oh that is awful I am so sorry, you poor thing’. It is like drinking too much alcohol to feel better; it is fun at the time but comes with one hell of a hangover, not worth it. Validation is like a plaster on a broken leg, it does not help the situation and makes you bitter - surely not where you want to be. Nourish yourself, take the time to do right by you and do not let external situations dictate how you feel. You have the power to control that. Live intentionally, take the wheel and as with anything with practise it becomes easier, your resilience to deal with the external world gets stronger and as a result your experience of life is better and best of all, within your control.
Next time you find a monster in the closet of your life, open the door, welcome it in. Explore where it comes from and know that you put it in there in the first place, even if you don’t remember. If this feels like too big a task, which is completely understandable send me an email and we can chat. Please don’t live life overshadowed by fear or darkness. You have what it takes to thrive in this world, to unleash your greatest potential to live a happy fulfilled life. Start by changing one small thing in your day, like I did the renaming of my meeting. Take action with intent and free yourself from the shackles that constrain you, take control. I believe in you, so should you!
FINAL NOTES: If you do find yourself using alcohol to feel better and you would like to perhaps look at other solutions to this please check out One Year No Beer, a community of people who also want to take control of their lives and experience all that the world has to offer.
If you have any feelings of violence, depression, severe anxiety please reach out to a medical professional for help. You deserve to be happy and ignoring it will only fill your closet with more and more scary monsters. Greet them and embrace them with the help of a trained professional. You got this, you rad this post, that just shows you that you are motivated to make a difference in your life, even if you don't think you do. Don't give up n you, you got this!