Saturday, January 24, 2009

Are Your Friends and Family Inspiring You? Or Retiring You?

I must be on a real cleaning jag. Last week I did the dishes. And just now I spent a couple of hours in the garage, cleaning out one side of it, channeling Peter Walsh. While pushing broom and trying not to breathe in mouse dust (don’t judge, I live in the desert), I listened to the audio version of Change or Die by Alan Deutschman. This is the book in which he uses very inspiring examples to illustrate his formula of igniting lasting change.

One of his essential keys is the importance of being surrounded by role models – people who are not so different from you that they seem to have come from a different planet, but people just like you who personify the changes you want to make. In his own personal situation, he uses the example of Claudia Berman, a San Francisco-based trainer who inspired him to finally jettison 40 pounds.

At first I started thinking of a friend of mine who is still having the devil of a time finding and keeping a job with an organization who treats her with the respect she deserves. On a particularly low evening a few months ago, she told me that it’s hopeless to find a job in a respectful organization. That all businesses are hell holes and that I’m unrealistic to constantly be banging the gong in favor of emotionally healthy workplaces where people are happy and businesses are profitable.

It’s all a lie, she said. Of course she’s right, she says, referencing a good friend of hers and acquaintance of mine who told her so. And I’m just being delusional. Okay then. I guess that gives her all the permission she needs to stop trying. In the ensuing months, she’s had three jobs, and quit two of them. Yesterday I found out that she was fired by the third. So she must be right. Right?

I’m not blaming my friend for her terrible luck, but it sure isn’t helping her prospects any to be hanging out with people who will spend perfectly good social time complaining about the nature of work. And agreeing with each other about how lousy their bosses are, etc.

And then I started thinking about myself. And how I’ve been surrounded by people who would far rather talk about how awful things are than brainstorm about ways to make them better. Or just focus on elevating aspects of life in general. I remember a time about 10 years ago in Annapolis, I was sitting in the livingroom of some friends who spent the entire time complaining about their boss. Sitting there just listening to these coworkers, the thought struck me, “this is the most boring conversation I’ve ever heard.” So much to talk about: politics (we lived only 45 minutes away from Washington); art; music; literature; navel lint. But no, we indulged in the hurts-so-good outrages of a narcissistic control fiend (which, I grant you, she most certainly was, but who wants to talk about that on a Saturday night?).

I don’t know who said it, but you’ve probably also heard the truism that “we see things not as they are but as we are.” (Somebody please write in and tell me who said it!) And that is consistent with what Deutschman was saying about “frames.” We see and believe things according to elements we already believe to be legitimate truths in life.

So. If you think all workplaces are Dickensian workhouses, that’s probably all you’re going to find, because you don’t have the faith, vision, or expectation of finding anything better for yourself. And if you are surrounded by friends who firmly believe the same, you’re at a huge disadvantage even if you do aspire for better for yourself. You’re going to be constantly surrounded by debilitating messages that your dreams for something better are pointless. So, from their perspective, you might as well take what you get and suck it up. That’s reality, sweetie. Deal with it. Really? I beg to differ.

It’s not just friends telling you discouraging things about the world. It could be family members telling you discouraging things about yourself. This is especially common in families with neglectful, abusive, substance-abusing parents. Children of these households very commonly take on unconsciously assigned roles like the Scapegoat, the Troublemaker, the Over-Achiever, the Good One. If that’s the case with you, and you’re trying to thrive in a world of your own making, hoping for a better life in a healthier world, you could be upsetting the rest of the family. You’re breaking the rules, getting a little “full of yourself,” or “too big for your britches.” And someone is going to want to remind you – often forcefully – that it’s futile to aspire for anything better. And heaven help you if you actually reach for a way to love yourself.

Sometimes, as Mark Twain would have said, you just have to light out for the territories. Breaking away from the old ways is going to upset people who don’t want to try that for themselves – consequently having a vested interest in holding you back as well. So you may have to break away from people as well. Maybe not forever, but at least until you've gained solid footing on the new world that is closer to your vision of what is happily and healthily possible.

If you truly want a happier life, with a better job, working for and with people who respect and value you, go for it. It’s out there for you. The name of the game is to find people who agree with your vision of life as it can be, and who model for you every day the choices and behaviors that make that dream come true.

Find those people who see things the way they are – hopeful, empowered, mutually kind, respectful, high performing, rewarding, positive. You’ll get there faster that way.

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