Staring fear in the face

We are moving from a familial, parent-child relationship in the workplace to an adult-adult relationship with our organizations, with all the shock, difficulties, triumphs, and fears that entails.”

–David Whyte, Crossing the Unknown Sea: work as a pilgrimage of identity (2001), p. 36

She was staring at me, her face unflinching. Our eyes locked. I remember only that the end of her sentence went, “but I am disappointed.”

-“You’re disappointed at . . . ?” I wanted to make sure I understood my supervisor correctly, but was so close to not having checked with her. I am accustomed to moving on, consequently missing the fine yet crucial point, when I sense confrontation.

-“At the resistance.”

So she was upset with me specifically. Hearing this actually made it easier. Just up to that point, I felt constricted while struggling to get out of agreeing to a request, well, nearly a demand, that she had made of me on my first week of work.

“I would rather be honest than hide my feelings,” I offered, “so that you understand where I’m coming from.”

I felt my tone to be somewhat apologetic, but I was truly resistant to showing up to a work event at 6am when this was not an explicit part of the job description.

I know my limits. If I don’t get enough sleep, I am cranky and unable to more-than-barely function. Most people I know can pull through if they are tired or under slept; as a light sleeper I get anxiety. I could go to bed early a few days in advance, get used to waking up before dawn, and so on. Yet I was not eager to adjust my routine in order to accommodate what I felt was an unreasonable scenario; I did not want to start my new job cowering.

Something in me was ripe for a different physical experience to set the tone, where choice created space to maneuver. My body became a rock, and I looked back at my supervisor with a quality more like stone than I was accustomed to acknowledging.

My lesson, I realized, was to let her understand my position. I was happy to work more hours that day, I told her; work two shifts in a row if there was a need. I could use the money. Ultimately, it was important for me not to say yes to anything she said because she was my boss.

I kept my explanation brief. A pause followed. I then added, “I realize this is a lot for you to organize.”

“Well, there isn’t really a lot for me to do,” she said.

It turned out she was trying to help her colleague who was organizing this early-morning, all-day event by what she called “pulling” staff from our department (I winced at the image). That was because a number of staff people were going to be absent that day (I wonder why).

She told me she appreciated my honesty.

I told her I appreciated that we could have this conversation. “Well, maybe I demand too much from people,” she said. Then she told me not to worry about it; that I may be asked to come in at 8:30am, but that she will speak to her co-worker.

* * *

On my drive home, I felt the need to shake myself out; to let the tremors come after having held myself in a semi-locked state. Once arrived, I took a walk along the street and paused, looking down at a patch of grass. I realized my fear fully: that my supervisor would be angry at me, disappointed for hiring me in the first place. With this understanding I kept on walking and passed a well-tended front garden, its tall flower bushes probably pumped with hormones. “No one can be that perfect all the time,” I thought . . . “even if you are afraid to disappoint.”

I had told my supervisor what my need was; I said I was willing to help, and made a request while stating my terms. My attempt to empathize with her position revealed her desire to help out her colleague. This openness made room for a creative solution.

At the crucial moment, I made a conscious shift from assuming the familiar position of the child cowering to please the adult (clinging to safety and approval, false substitutes for love) and making myself invisible, to embracing the risk of being fully present in an adult-adult interaction. This involved pain and growth. Something in me knew it had to happen this way.

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