My family lived and worked on a farm, and from the moment I could hold an implement (around age 5) or drive a vehicle (around age 8), I was working at those tasks. Our family worked together and we bonded over shared tasks. Our family’s survival depended on the work done on the farm, and my father took that matter very seriously, for better or worse. He had a strong work ethic that he passed on to his children. And he was also afraid of failing to provide for his family: this, he also passed on to his children.
I clearly remember a scene from my teenage years when I first stood up to my father and told him I would not be doing the uncomfortable task he wanted me to do. I had lived in a fishbowl of fear of failure and fear of being punished for failing for over a dozen years, but the dreaded prospect of “cleaning out the bin” combined with my feisty teenage hormones telling me to rebel, lead me to risk jumping out of that fishbowl.
I said “No.” What a terrifyingly powerful word for a teenage girl.
This particular task involved climbing into a grain silo (bin), that held the remains of a load of barley, to use hands and feet to scrape the grains out into a hopper underneath the outlet chute. This is not such a bad job with a grain like wheat, but barley has an extra husk around it that breaks off of each individual grain creating a terribly itchy mass of particles that end up in your eyes, nose, mouth and ears, as well as inside your clothes to create a terrible itch that torments your bare skin. I had done it before, and I knew how terribly uncomfortable it felt, and this final time when my father insisted that I do it, I said “No.” What a terrifyingly powerful word for a teenage girl.
In this scene, my clearest memory is my father turning his back to me, in what I perceived to be disgust and disappointment, as I refused to do this task. This, it seemed, was the realization of what failure meant. That image of my father turning away from me, and the feeling of shame and rejection that accompanied it, stayed with me for many decades.
I realized another painful process that had been going on: I had become my father.
And so, 30 years later, I still carried with me this fear of failure to do my work which I knew would mean certain rejection by loved ones. No amount of telling myself, intellectually, that my new champions would not reject me for not climbing into the grain silo, managed to erase the connections my neurons made in those formative childhood and teenage years.
As I felt my way into this understanding about my motivation, I realized another painful process that had been going on: I had become my father. My very survival felt at stake when I considered success at work (in much the same way my father knew that his family’s survival depended on his success on the farm), and so I passed on that desperate need to not fail to those I worked with, by threatening to reject them if they failed. This was not a clear, explicit threat of rejection, but more a way of being around people I mentored that meant that if they were beginning to “fail” to do their work, I became my father in that paddock by the grain silo, and I gradually started to turn my back on them.
If we do not understand our own shame mechanisms, we will shame those we mentor. I had done this to people around me, sort of in the way one watches a car crash in slow motion – knowing where things were headed, but having no idea how to stop it. I had not understood what I was in the middle of doing, because I was still afraid of being abandoned for not performing. My shame at feeling unworthy of my father’s love translated into shaming others for not being worthy of my love.
These slow motion car crashes had occurred a number of times in my working career, and I had vowed a number of times to never be in positions where I could harm my colleagues in this way. But, as I moved from job to job, it was clear that if I wanted to do the work my passion lead me toward, I would need to work with others in a mentor role. The thought of wounding others terrified me. Like that powerful teenage girl, I had, in my possession, the means to shame, disappoint and reject myself and others. And knowing what this meant – how this was linked to the very survival of a beautiful, precious, innocent individual soul – I felt frozen in fear.
I asked how I could stop the slow motion car crash; how I could love people more; how I could cease to be so personally involved in my mentees’ work processes.
I tried to bring my brain in to address my difficulties at work, but all the leadership training in the world cannot tend to an old broken heart. Finally, I reached out for help to a new mentor – admittedly another father figure I longed to not be rejected by – and I asked for help. I asked how I could stop the slow motion car crash; how I could love people more; how I could cease to be so personally involved in my mentees’ work processes. What training could I do? What book could I read? What words could he say to me that would make it all OK?
But he didn’t give me any of these things. Instead he gave me the gift of curiosity and compassion. He asked me about the car crash in a non-judgmental way and we explored it together. We explored my capacities in other areas of my life and we ascertained that I was capable of loving and accepting the people I worked with. We talked about ways of exploring further, like meditation and therapy. But mostly, my mentor told me that I had within me the resources to work through this matter, that I could lean on the wise teacher within me, that I could be my own father but one who doesn’t turn away when I balk at itchy grains. And by being my own father, I could lend those supporting qualities to my work relationships and be a good mentor to others.
I needed to do my own work first. I needed to go back to that paddock and rewrite the script, to be curious and kind about my father’s pain, to bring understanding to his experience. But mostly I needed to tend to that teenage girl – to let her know that she is not alone, and that I will not abandon her.
This is a lifelong work – that’s why we call it “practice.” There are no quick fixes. But there does exist that wise inner teacher. And there is hope that I, like anyone, can work to listen to this wise inner and compassionate voice more and more. This feels like such sacred work, and I know that in doing my own work, not only will my existence become more easeful, but so too will the lives of those I share space with as I move along this journey.
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