The biggest lesson I’ve learned in the last few years is one I’m still and always will be working to get good at: being aware of what I am thinking and feeling, and not beating myself up about what I am thinking and feeling. Interrupting myself before those thoughts and feels manifest as actions has been incredibly empowering. Being intentional and being ok with myself have been the keys to getting some regular semblance of great work-life-fitness balance, which really is my lifelong dream.
Awareness is the first key to immense growth and love for yourself and others. It is a strange and most wonderful gift. It can be almost shocking when you first see how much of what happens around you is directly related to your thoughts about things. Letting your brain go on autopilot is perfectly normal, and absolutely ok, too. And you have an option to take over the controls anytime you want to, and do something differently.
The second key is acceptance. Once you are aware that you have infinite choices, it helps to be fully ok with what you’ve chosen so far. It is normal to think and do things that you may believe to be less than ideal, and start judging yourself for it. But learning is how we grow, and no one is perfect – we know this, but do we accept it? Not being perfect is not a bad thing; really it is just the opposite, because it’s gives such variety and robust outcomes. Getting to where you accept all of yourself and others, not just the best parts, is where hope and progress and beautiful love come from.
The Natural Way
Enough with the cheesy theories. An example, please.
Some years ago, I was leading a handful of software engineering teams, working on some big, fun projects that I knew could make a big impact, collaborating with other groups. We were always aiming to make it easier to maintain and update our customer’s hosted environments, and extend the tooling so that customers could do more of those changes themselves, self-service style. It had its typical ups and downs, and I loved it all.
Until one day – I remember it was in late December, right before taking off for the holidays. I found out a big part of the project that my teams were involved in was being scrapped in favor of another one from our partners. As much as we’d been working together and it was all related, I wasn’t aware of or involved in it. I didn’t know what it meant for the future of my group or of me myself, I was drawing all sorts of conclusions about what it implied, and I certainly took the opportunity to think that I was a lousy leader because of it.
At that moment, I started a steep and rapid decline into severe burnout. I worked long hours, forsaking my self-care and almost completely avoiding connecting with loved ones. I put so much energy into work problems trying to make myself feel better. I saw everything around me as evidence that I wasn’t doing it right.
There were a couple exhausting years of this, and then I had the immense blessing of working with someone who pointed out that actually … I was fine. Everything was exactly as it was supposed to be, in the sense that I was not supposed to be perfect, and it is absolutely ok to learn as I go. When I heard it described as, “Aim for
B- gets things done,” it threw me off (later, I completely latched onto that). It took months of them challenging my thoughts and having me come up with evidence to the contrary of “I suck at everything” and “nothing is ok” before I came to realize for myself that a perfect life is one that is full of mistakes and joy, and fumbles and celebrations. We need all of it. And regardless of where we judge ourselves to be, we are complete.
So more recently, a similar situation came up. The old familiar “crap this is my fault and I should have been smarter about it then I would have seen it coming and I’ve let people down and I’m going to more and I’m terrible and no one is going to like me anymore and this must mean I’m doomed so I have to work like crazy to fix it” is a familiar runaway script of mine. But now I recognize these emotions and thoughts. I now realize they aren’t truths, and that they’re optional.
Ultimately, if I want to show up the way I want to and know that I can, full of love and motivation and balance, thinking that I’ve messed up big time isn’t going to get me there – or maybe it will for a minute, but it won’t keep me there. I know it helps to pause when that thought comes up. So I look for different ways to think about it, like “it was a totally normal thing for me to do because I’m a human trying to figure my way through just like everybody else” – that gets me a whole lot further. And even if anyone else thinks differently than that about me… so what? I’m fine! I’ll be fine. I can find so much evidence to trust that I will be ok. There’s so many other potential reasons for things to be the way they are, and I can believe them much as any of the negative or self-doubting ones I have focused on before.
So again in this type of circumstance –seriously so similar to the one years before that buckled me for so long– except now I’ve had a lot of practice with awareness and acceptance. Thank you, Work, for all the FGOs (frackin’ growth opportunities) so that I could practice it so much. I was able to quickly pause on my completely normal angry reaction. In a matter of minutes I could process that and start thinking about it differently. I instead tried on, “I’m so glad we’re figuring this out now instead of later and thankfully I’m able to help and (yes, my thoughts are usually long winded, run-on sentences) good thing too because I’m really good at these things that this work needs and I’m so excited about how far we can take this and how much it will help everyone and they need me.” And now I keep working my way up from fury to tolerance, tolerance to curiosity, curiosity to interest, and interest to excitement.
When I choose to look at things from a different point of view than my typical one, I’m able to take a breath. And in that space, I more often make time to figure out the most important things to do for work, and for me. I can focus on having time for deep thought, creating time to connect with loved ones, making time to keep myself active and strong. I accept that I choose not to do certain things more easily, and use that as an opportunity to set better expectations of me – and I find that this isn’t nearly as hard and I don’t end up thinking I’ve disappointed others as often as I imagined. I’m less afraid of consequences, because I’m more sure about myself.
It might be tempting to see this as letting myself go and setting a lower standard, but I promise you- I am able to achieve way more now than I ever could when I was beating myself up. I know that “I should” and “I have to” are traps, completely natural ones. Rising above that comes from higher thinking like “I am” great, and “I choose to” work, and “I’m going to” take care of myself, and “I want to” focus on my family.
I’ve been able to get into a workout routine and stick with it almost consistently. I connect more with my two sons and my amazing partner and husband (same person!) more often. I can say no to solving other people’s problems without the guilt, and make space for my own learning and growth more. And I do this while thriving at work and without sacrificing my career. Knowing I could walk away from it all and not question my worth or value frees me to do it all.
Do I do this all the time? Definitely not. It takes energy. But for every one time that I reach for that awareness and acceptance, and interrupt my normal thought patterns and take conscious control of my choices – that is one more day that I see more of that work-life-fitness balance I love. And on the days that I don’t, well thank goodness for them, too, because they end up creating the richness of what turns out to be a beautiful life. Eventual consistency for the win.
I share all this because I hope, for the first time in my life, to have more people like me around – I am talking to you underrepresented folk in tech especially. Another day I’ll tell the story of how frightened I was to have a daughter, lest she turn out to be the horror of a person I thought I was! I promise you, we need more horror shows like this one than the picture perfect colleague/mother/woman I thought I had to be. 💖