The ask and the answer

We can learn a lot by making distinctions between things. When we’re able to name differences – for example, between enlivening and deadening, generous and fickle, ethical and manipulative, truthful and untruthful – we make it possible to observe what would otherwise have been invisible to us, and take action on the basis of our observations.

Being able to distinguish between necessary and sufficient, for example, opens many avenues for moving beyond technical solutions to our problems and into what’s meaningful, principled and life-giving. The distinction between feedback and requests allows us to decide when we’re trying to help another person learn, and when we’re secretly trying to get something we want from them. And the distinction between when it’s time to exert ourselves and when it’s time to rest makes it possible for us to pay attention to the ongoing energy and flourishing of our lives in a way that’s not possible if every moment is just another moment taken, on not taken, for work.

But while distinctions are necessary, we can run into big trouble when we let them harden into dualisms – an either/or, is-or-is-not understanding of the world. Because dualisms introduce separation between things that are rarely actually separate. When I say ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ I create a dualism that leaves no space for my wrongness, and for your rightness. When we harden into ‘I’m scared of speaking in public, but I love being by myself’ we leave no room for the parts of us that long to be heard by others. And whenever we make sweeping and certain judgements about others based on their gender, sexuality, politics, business practices, skin colour, preferences and commitments the dualism we create blunts our capacity to see anything else about them, and very little about our own complexities and contradictions.

Very often, if we’re not careful, our dualisms imprison us and our capacity to respond to the world. And, when we start to look at the deeper dualisms that seem self-evident, it’s not so clear that they are as solid as they seem, either.

Is it really the case that what I call ‘me’ is over here and that ‘you’ are fully, and only, over there? If we allow the dualism to soften we can ask deeper questions: What about the ways we’re always in the lives of the people we love, even when we’re not with them physically? Even when we’re no longer alive. And what about the trail of words, objects, influences, impacts we leave behind and around us? Can we really say, absolutely, that they’re not ‘me’? What compassion might arise when we start to see that ‘they’ are ‘me’ and that ‘I’ am ‘them’ in very many ways? And when we see that what we are sure is only in others – all that we despise, fear, reject – is also in ourselves?

Can we say for sure that there’s a thing called ‘work’ that’s separate from ‘life’ such that the two need to be balanced against one another? Is life really the absence of death? Is death, really, the absence of life? And can we say, with any absolute certainty, that we’re separate from what’s around us?

When our distinctions harden into dualisms we easily close ourselves off to learning, to curiosity, and to a direct encounter with the world. It’s a difficulty made harder for us because so much of our contemporary culture and education thrives on dualisms, on certainty, on knowing.

And for this reason making distinctions but letting our dualisms soften enough that we can call them into question is necessary work for all of us. It’s the work of not knowing. Or perhaps, better said, the work of letting our questions be more important than our answers.

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Part of ourselves

How easily, how readily, we see in others – we project onto others – what we don’t want to see about our own lives. And how easily our projections turn others into an enemy to be corrected, scorned, hated or feared.

How easily we end up enslaving ourselves with all this. We lock ourselves into battles in the outer world, when what we want to correct, what we hold in contempt, what we need most to be reconciled with is actually part of ourselves.

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Seeing through it

Given how often our naturally associative minds fill in the gaps in our experience with the ghosts of memories, projections, and transference, what are we to do?

Let’s start with understanding that all these processes are entirely natural and – in many circumstances – entirely necessary. Faced with something new and unknown, it’s quite reasonable and very helpful that we have the kind of minds that enable us to predict what might happen and take action on the basis of our predictions.

But let’s also understand that in many situations our associative understanding of the world causes enormous trouble: when I try to gain your approval as if you’re a parent because of the way you have positional authority over me; when I treat you as I do my younger brother because you’re a peer on my team; when I project onto you those aspects of myself I don’t like or can’t tolerate, and judge you or criticise you because of them.

As I have written here in recent days, each of these can lead us into all kinds of difficulty because we are no longer relating to the people around us as they are. So how can we work with colleagues, lead an organisation, parent or be a friend in a more truthful way, a way which is responsive to what’s happening now and here rather than what was happening then or over there?

Perhaps a powerful and insightful place to start is to take up the discipline of regular self-reflection. Buy yourself a journal – something you’ll be pleased to write in. And a pen that you’ll enjoy writing with. And then write, daily. You can uncover wonders with just a few minutes of attention each day (some hints on how you could do this are here).

Write about what you see in yourself – your thoughts, what you experience in different situations, and the actions you find yourself taking. In particular, write about what it feels like to be with others. Where do you feel small, diminished, like a child? Where do you feel grandiose, puffed up beyond your normal stature? With whom do you feel judgemental, angry, resentful? Whose company are you drawn to?

And then, most importantly, write about what each of those feelings remind you of. It’s here that there’s the most uncovering to do – that the watchful, vigilant state you find yourself in with Paul reminds you of the feel of being with your father when you were small; that Dana irritates you the way you feel irritated with your sister; that you long for signs of Karen’s appreciation for you like you did with your mother.

Often it’s just the seeing of our transferences, projections and memories that allows their grip on us to start to loosen – that allows them to move from having us so that instead we can have them. And such self-reflection is vital work for all of us to do, if we want to take responsibility for the systems, communities, organisations and families in which we live our lives.

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On being whole

Life calls on us to be whole, which in turn calls on us to embrace the parts of ourselves that we’ve hidden away or denied – all the parts of being human that we’re sure are nothing to do with us.

The alternative is one-sidedness, in which we are gripped by a single end of each of life’s great polarities. We come to strongly prefer – or perhaps demand – perfection over mess, control over uncertainty, doubt over trust, going it alone over requesting help, peace over disagreement, success over sincerity, and so on.

We become convinced that the side we’ve chosen is the truth. And we come to see ourselves in a similarly one-sided way – perfect, or broken.

Being whole requires us to choose the middle path that includes both sides. Not easy, and probably not pretty either, because it calls on us to take responsibility for the darkness within us as well as the light.

But if we’re going to find a way to lead, teach and inspire others – and seize the chance for a fulfilling life while we’re at it – it’s vital work for each of us.

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Just like me

When you’re irritated or annoyed with someone for the way they’re being, you may think “I would never be like that”.

But the intensity of your irritation could be a sign that you’re experiencing a shadow side of yourself – a part of you, seen reflected in them, that you deny and which you do your best to keep out of view.

Pushing the other person away is an attempt to push away the part of yourself you’d rather not see.

And instead of believing all your judgements, you could start to recognise that what you’re seeing in them is, indeed, just like youAnd then you have the possibility of reaching out to them with compassion rather than hostility, learning more about yourself, and healing what’s pushing the two of you apart.

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Two sides

In the ancient Jewish tradition, people are thought of as having two primary orientations to the world – an inclination towards good (yetzer hatov) and an inclination towards evil (yetzer harah).

The inclination towards good draws us out of ourselves towards what is most compassionate and most principled. And the inclination towards evil draws us towards our most self-centred interests, from which we care only for ourselves and not for others or the world.

Surely, in this way of thinking, the inclination towards good is itself good and should be cultivated, and the inclination towards evil is bad and should be extinguished? No, say the rabbis, they are both good, and both necessary.

How can this be?

With only the inclination to good we risk spending all our time basking in the wonder and awe of life. Many possibilities for action are denied to us, because they cannot beknown to have positive outcomes. The inclination to good, on its own, is noble but paralysed, unable to decide what to do when uncertain about consequences, when the world in all its complexity and unknowability becomes apparent.

And so we need the inclination to evil also. Given free rein, it dooms us to a life of self-centredness, of action purely for our own gain. But without it, say the rabbis, nobody would create anything. We would not build houses, bring children into the world, nor do the difficult and creative work of shaping the world around us. The inclination to evil, with its indignation and rage and cunning and huge creativity is what brings us into purposeful action.

Denying either side leads to trouble. It takes both inclinations in a constant dynamic tension to have us act in the most human, and most humane ways.

And this is the foundational task facing each of us if we want to act with integrity in the world: we must find a way of knowing ourselves fully so that we leave nothing of ourselves out. We have to stop denying and pushing away the parts of ourselves that we don’t understand, or don’t like so much. We have to take our fear and confusion as seriously as our hope and our joy. We have to stop pretending to have it all together.

Integrity is exactly that – integrating all of it. When we bring our hope and our fear, our nobility and selfishness, our love and our disdain, our serious adulthood and playful childishness, our light and our darkness, each informs and shapes the other in a constant dance of opposites. And this is what brings us into creative and purposeful and appropriate action in the complexity of the world.

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The inner work required for work

Everything I wrote about yesterday – how we’re so often relating to split-off or denied parts of ourselves rather than to what’s true about others – is in play in our workplaces as much as anywhere else.

Who gets promoted and who gets sidelined, who gets invited and who gets ignored, whose ideas are given space and whose are shut down, which projects get the go-ahead and which do not, whose voices are heard and whose are suppressed, who gets admired and who gets judged, who gets to be in and who gets to be out… all of these are so easily an expression of the hidden inner worlds of those who get to choose.

Which is why it’s incumbent upon any of us who want to extend our cares beyond ourselves and our own self-interest to study and get to know our own inner landscapes.

Such work is not idling, nor pointless navel-gazing, but a necessary step if we want to bring about a world for the benefit of everyone. And this inner work is especially necessary when we have positional power, authority, or influence of any kind (which is all of us if we choose to take it).

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The parts of ourselves we see in others

There are parts of us we know well – those that are in close – and parts of ourselves we know less well – the more hidden, invisible parts. Sometimes, simply giving a part its appropriate name allows us to see it and to interact with it more skilfully. The inner critic is one such part. Seeing it, naming it, entering into a different kind of relationship and conversation with it – all of these can be powerful moves in having it take up a more helpful and life-giving place in the constellation of entities each of us calls ‘I’.

But there are also parts of each of us that we have disowned or split off and that we barely see as part of ourselves at all. These may be parts of ourselves that we dislike, or judge, or abhor. Or they can parts we long for, but do not feel are available or appropriate for us. But parts of us they are, and since we can’t bear to identify our experience of them with ourselves, we readily project them into others.

So often, when we find ourselves disliking other people, when we get irritated by them, feel judgment or scorn or disdain or even hate towards them, we’re seeing in them what we most dislike or scorn or are irritated about in ourselves. A simple way of saying this is that what we encounter in them reminds us so strongly of what we’re trying to get away from in ourselves, that we try get away from it in them too.

The very same process can also be in play with those we are drawn to, admire, or put on a pedestal. In this case perhaps we’re seeing in the other, first, a reminder of split-off parts of ourselves that we deeply long to be reunited with but do not consciously know as our own. We feel drawn to the other person, or good about ourselves around them, precisely because of the feeling of wholeness and re-unification it brings about it in us.

Perhaps it becomes obvious when described this way that the work for us to do with people who irritate us is not to try to change them (which in any case does not address the primary source of our irritation or anger or frustration) but to find out what it is about ourselves that we dislike so much and work with some effort and diligence to understand, turn towards, and accept it.

And with people we love and admire the inner work for us to do is much the same if we want to love and admire them for who they are rather than because a hole or an emptiness or a longing gets filled when we’re around them.

Then, we can find, it’s more and more possible to be around a wider range of people with openness and warmth and genuine regard. And it’s also more possible to be close and compassionate with those we love most, who are so often the very people with whom we have the most difficulty because it’s in them we find parts of ourselves most readily reflected.



No try

No! Try not! Do. Or do not. There is no ‘try’. Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

So often the very quality we have most to bring to the world is also, in our desperate reaching for it, the cause of our suffering and difficulty.

The woman who, trying to feel loved, over-extends herself in helping and self sacrificing, pushing herself into others’ lives without understanding that her efforts obscure that her very presence in the world is a form of love itself.

The young man who, in his urgency to demonstrate his integrity, judges and criticises those around him, wounding and driving people away – not seeing yet that his inherent integrity, in its truer form, is always present, spacious, welcoming and wise.

The man in his 40s who, in his insistence that he not be boxed in – that he remain always free – breaks focus and relationships and so creates a cage for himself, denying the very freedom to engage meaningfully that is his in every moment.

And me, so wishing to bring about peace, stillness and harmony that for many years I stifled others, turned away from disagreement, and did not know my own capacity to be still in the midst of storms of conflict and difference and anger.

So often the key to our own flourishing – and to bringing our gifts – is finding out that the very quality we are efforting hardest to bring about is the one that is right here, if we could be brave enough to embrace it and to relax our endless trying.

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Love, hate, inner, outer

It increasingly occurs to me

That my relationship to the parts of the world

(most significantly, others)

Is most often a reflection

Of my relationship to parts of myself.


And that until I learn how to give up

Hating, despising, fearing and judging my interior world

I can expect to have a tricky time

Loving the outer world, in which I live every day,

As fully as I could.

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How easy it is to be up to something while simultaneously denying it.

I have sophisticated strategies for trying to be in control while looking like I’m being inclusive, for trying to get people to love me while looking as if I’m just trying to help, and for being stubbornly attached to my own view while looking as if I’m asking what other people think.

All of these allow me to hold on to a particular kind of self-image (kind, accommodating, self-effacing) while simultaneously getting my own way. And they involve some sophisticated kinds of denial – spinning stories that blind me to my real intentions.

When I relate to other people in this way, things can get pretty complicated.

Sometimes, though – sometimes – I am able to see what I’m doing while I’m doing it. The intentions which I was subject to become object, moving from the background to the foreground, and then I have a chance to intervene and to take responsibility for what I’m doing.

I am less had by my strategies. I become someone who has them.

This move, making what we are subject to become object to us, is at the heart of all profound developmental transitions. Every time something moves into view (a part of us, or a way we’re thinking, or a way we’re constructing the world, or a way we’re being shaped by our interactions with others) it affords us more freedom to act, a more inclusive view of ourselves and others, and a greater possibility to take care of whatever and whoever it is that we care about.

And this move requires that we get onto our own con-tricksall the ways we’ll convince ourselves of our rightness and deny our part in what’s happening.

Often, it seems, what I’m hiding from myself about my intentions is pretty much the worse-kept secret of all, known to everybody else but me. And that is why, for each of us to develop, it’s so important to be surrounded by people who extend love our way, who see us for our goodness, and who extend the kindness and respect required to tell us the truth (with care for timing, and in ways we can hear and understand), rather than keeping what they see to themselves.

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How looking ok nearly undid me

Today, the third anniversary of a close encounter with the fragility of my own life, I’m reposting, below, on the necessity of asking for help, of allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, and of turning towards darkness when it presents itself.

It turns out that spontaneous blood-clotting is relatively common and often not well diagnosed. If you are interested in finding out more, check out the website of the Hughes Syndrome Foundation.

Looking Good

Could it be that it’s time for you to give up looking good so you can be real instead?

I’m not saying this lightly.

Two summers ago, I found myself rendered momentarily speechless, mid-conversation, as a dear friend and I walked together for lunch. A few minutes later, flat on my back on the pavement, heart pounding, short of breath, mind racing.

I knew for certain only after a few days – but had an inkling as it happened – that an undiagnosed blood clot that had been forming in my leg for some time had at that moment broken loose from its moorings.

Terror, love, longing, hope, confusion.

I called home while we waited for the paramedics to arrive.

“I’m fine,” I said. “There’s nothing to be worried about”.

Not, “I’m scared.”. Not, “Please help me”. Not, “I don’t know if I’m going to be ok”.

“I’m fine”.

It was a hot June afternoon, blue skies, but there must have been clouds as I remember watching a seagull wheel high overhead against a background of grey-white.

“I’m fine”.

Just when I most needed help and connection I played my most familiar, habitual ‘looking good’ hand – making sure others around me had nothing to be worried about. A hand I’ve played repeatedly since I was a child.

Even in the most obviously life-threatening situation I had yet experienced: “I’m fine”. Too afraid to be seen for real, to be seen as something other than my carefully nurtured image of myself.

It was there, on the pavement, that I started to understand in a new way the cost of holding myself back from those I most care about; the power and necessity of vulnerability and sincerity; that my humanity, with all its cracks, complexity and fragility, is a gift to others, not a burden.

I began to see that the realness I treasured in the people who love me the most was my responsibility too – a necessary duty of loving in return.

I’m still learning, slowly, how to fully show myself.

One step at a time.

And I’m learning, too, that sometimes we’ll carry on trying to look good, even if it has the potential to ruin our lives as we do so.

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Anticipatory moods

I am finding out how often I experience protective anticipatory moods.

There’s a part of me that makes sure I feel disappointment, long before the events about which I might feel disappointed have taken place. I can feel anticipatory disappointment – a kind of flatness and emptiness – before spending time with people I care about, before a special experience which I’ve been looking forward to, before teaching, before travelling. I’ve been feeling a special kind of anticipatory disappointment in the run up to the elections on Thursday here in the UK.

And there’s a part of me that can make sure I feel anticipatory shame. Before speaking in public, before sharing my deepest inner experience with others, before asking for something that I want or desire, before making a stand for something that matters to me.

The more I care about something – the more significant it is to me – the more often I’ll feel one of these. And the more often they’ll have me tune out or hold myself back.

It has been revelatory to spot this process at work – to disentangle how I’m feeling from how the world is. Because while these anticipatory moods are related to the world, they’re not so much of the world. They are, more accurately said, an attempt by protective inner parts of me to shield me from the more potentially public kind of disappointment or shame that comes from engagement with the world or with others.

Let us do the shaming or disappointment first, these parts say, to spare you a much worse kind of shame or emptiness.

As is so often the case, simply seeing these parts for what they are (and honouring their ultimately unhelpful attempts to protect me) has them relax, giving me a much better chance of bringing myself fully and courageously to the world.

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Deepening our difficulty

How much of the pain we cause others at work comes from our own unacknowledged pain?

How much do we wound others, because we feel wounded?

How much do we have others not be seen, because we do not feel seen ourselves?

And how much do we project our own harsh self-judgement so that we see others through a harsh lens rather than working to see ourselves, first, with more kindness?

Each time I’m told that work is not the place to address what’s personal, it seems clearer to me what a mistake this is. We have to learn to look at all this. And talk about it.

If treat work as if it isn’t a fully human affair, we deny ourselves the possibility of dealing skilfully with our difficulties. And if we use a shield of politeness and faux-civility to turn away from our own darkness, we shouldn’t be surprised that our workplaces continue to magnify and deepen our suffering. And nor should we be surprised how difficult it is to bring about the results, projects, and outcomes we wish for.

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Scared of ourselves

One part of me is often very, very scared.

It’s scared of losing people, and it’s willing to do pretty much anything to get people to stay.

It can be obsessive. It can fret over tiny details – what someone else thinks, whether they called or not. It can imagine the worst in an email (she wasn’t loving enough in the sign-off to that email, something must be wrong), or in a silence. It can imagine – and believe – elaborate scenarios in which people who are important to me have withdrawn already because of a slight, or an oversight, or a mistake on my part.

When I think this part is me, I too am afraid. And in my fear I try to drive it away: I do not want to feel the way it feels. I do not want to think the way it thinks. I work hard to push it out of view, out of my thoughts and out of my emotions.

And the fear multiplies in direct response to the abandonment I inflict upon it.

When I understand this part as if it were a whole person with its own coherent thoughts and feelings, I can see how my own fear of it makes it more afraidAnd my abandonment of it gives it the proof it dreads. It knows, from first-hand experience, that it is always at risk of being exiled.

I have been relating to this part in exactly the way it most fears. And it is no wonder that is has continued to haunt me.

As I wrote earlier this week, our own relationship to the parts of us has a profound effect on them, and hence on us. And so more recently, when I feel afraid of losing someone – when I feel the irrational, obsessive, implacable fear start to form – I practice turning towards the afraid part in as appreciative and loving a way as I can. Welcoming it home. Showing that though others may leave, I will not. 

And the fear settles.

By welcoming my own complexity and contradictions rather than turning away from them, I’m finding that I can create the conditions in which the parts of me, sometimes fearful, frequently needy, often longing, can find some peace. And in welcoming myself I am able to bring myself more fully, more generously, and with much less clinging to those I love, and to those with whom I work.

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The parts you push away

When you know yourself as made up of partsyou can start to ask yourself how the parts relate to one another, and how they relate to you as a whole.

Do some parts get loved and appreciated by you?
Do other parts get pushed away?

More illuminating still is to understand that parts have their own identity and intelligence as you consider these questions.

What do the parts you love do in response to your love?
And what do the parts you push away do in response to being pushed away?

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Basic Failings or Basic Goodness

So many of us, going through life with such interior harshness, gnawing inner-criticism and attendant shame, fear, resentment, and anger.

So many of us, blind to this force within us, unaware that this is the water in which we’re swimming, the air which we are breathing.

And because of this, so many of us projecting our own inner-criticism towards others as  judgement, shaming, name-calling.

Perhaps we don’t even understand we’re doing it, but it settles us to have the outer world reflect our inner world. That way we can say “it’s the world that is this way”, rather than anything to do with us.

And how it spreads, our inner acidity evoking and provoking the acidity of others.

Could today be the day to call a moratorium on this inner battle we’re fighting? To discover how much more there is to ourselves, and to others, than a constant barrage of comparison, belittling, and ‘not-good-enough’.

And to find out that there is another kind of contribution we can make – wiser, kinder, more transformative and not a jot less powerful – if we start by searching for and bringing out basic goodness rather than the basic failings we are convinced are the heart everyone, including ourselves.

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How to look at others

Can you allow yourself, for a while, to look for what you’re grateful for about others?

It’s such an easy habit, perhaps supported quite powerfully by your own inner-criticto keep on looking for all the ways in which people are disappointing, hurtful, irritating, obstructing, confusing and frustrating to you. You may not even quite realise that you’re doing this – how your background mood has quietly become one of scepticism or cynicism or despair.

So perhaps you could take up the practice of looking truthfully for a while in a different direction: at what you can be genuinely grateful for in each person, however small.

Write it down. Make a list. A long, ever-growing list of what you come to see.

The point of this is not to blind yourself to your difficulties or frustrations but to open your eyes to a wider kind of horizon than is available to you now; to bring about new kinds of possibilities, conversations and relationship with all the people who, right now, you can only see as obstacles to your intentions; and to find how out they might be supporting you and taking care of what matters to you in many more ways than you can currently see.

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Be like me

How much of the time, do you think, are you leading or managing others in a way that really just says ‘be like me’?

And how much of the way you act in your closest, most intimate relationships, is a form of ‘be like me’ too?

What about your relationships with your friends? Your children?

How easily do you fall into living in a way that understands in theory that other people are different from you, but repeatedly asserts that your way of being and doing is, really, the best?

And is this really the best way to be a leader, partner, parent or friend?

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Letting it crumble

What’s your secret project?

I mean the one you’re up to most of the time, even if you don’t know it yourself. The one you took up as a child, and have kept going ever since. The one that most of the people close to you would probably be able to name, if asked. But which, unless they’re braver or more skilful than most, they’ll probably keep to themselves.

Do you know what I’m asking about here?

Mine? Having people see me as good.

I’ve developed quite an armoury of skills in this regard. It doesn’t take much for me to portray myself as clever, intelligent, considered. Or to give others a strong sense that I know what I’m doing. Or that I’m acting with integrity. I can do what it takes to look kind, considerate, caring, attentive. I can calm down a conflict. I can be masterful at having you feel like I’m on your side…

… even when none of is true.

When I’m deeply enmeshed in the being-seen-as-good project you’ll probably not know how angry I am, or confused, or lost. You might not know how strongly I disagree with you, nor how bored or irritated I’m feeling. It might take a while for you to discover when I’m secretly taking care of my own needs and wishes at the expense of yours.

Like I said, I can be a master at looking good, even when it isn’t true.

But, if we’re lucky, it eventually starts to fall apart. Which, in my case, began about ten years ago. I found I could no longer successfully keep looking good while doing work from which my heart was so absent.

Lucky? Yes, because one cost of a project such as this – and we all have one that we take up right from when we’re very young – is that we can hardly be ourselves. We’re managing all the time, creating a facade. We’re manipulating others so that they’ll see us just the way we want to be seen, and no other. And so that we can see ourselves the way we want too.

Perhaps it begins when we gradually start to feel how desperate we are. How out of touch with ourselves and life. When we start to feel how distant we are from ourselves. And when we get so tired – tired of all the effort and hyper-attentiveness keeping up such a project entails.

And when our efforts fall apart, amidst all the confusion and uncertainty, the pain and bewilderment, we can begin to experience ourselves fully as human beings at last. Beautiful, contradictory, and flawed. And then, instead of bringing the world an act, a carefully constructed fiction, we can gradually begin to bring ourselves in a more honest, present, and generous way.

Like I said, if we’re lucky.

So what’s your secret project?

And are you prepared to begin to let it crumble?

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Becoming human

Four ways of dealing with the anxious feeling that you’re not completely in control of your organisation:

give someone a poor appraisal (blame someone else instead of facing that there are limits to own your power)

invent some targets for people to hit (if you can think of something measurable you might be able to avoid talking about all the uncertain, difficult to understand aspects of your work)

restructure (much easier than actually talking deeply to people about what’s going on, from which who knows what trouble might happen?)

or go the other way and try to do it all yourself (keeps your heroic image going and allows you to show people how much you suffer for your role)

Or perhaps you could give up ‘looking good’ – which gives rise to all of the above – as the primary task of leadership.

Owning up to your uncertainty and your anxiety, and to your limitations, allows you at last to become a human being to those around you, so that they in turn can be human themselves.

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Decisions, emotions and our deepest concerns

We’re often taught that emotions get in the way of good decision-making, and that it’s our logical, rational selves that are most human.

And, of course, it’s true that emotions can get in the way of deciding well:

Deciding your future in an outburst of rage…
Choosing who to recruit to your team from the midst of your frustration…
Making a commitment from fear or panic…
Or getting blinded by love, by resentment, by shame.

But your habitual, reactive ways with emotions are not all that are available to you.

Emotions can be cultivated, refined, mined for their deep intelligence, if you’re prepared to pay attention to them over time, allowing them to reveal their complexity and depth instead of pushing them away. Behind your hot, of-the-moment reaction, which for some emotions may be very narrow indeed, can be something more rarefied, more significant, and with a deep intelligence all of its own.

So before you act, before you decide, you could ask yourself:

What is this emotion drawing my attention to? What is it trying to say? What is it trying to protect? To what in my history is it attached? What care of mine is it expressing? What bigger commitment? What does it want?


Is there anything in all of this that seems true? That I want to take into account?

Reacting to your emotions in an unsophisticated way can be shortsighted, yes. But leaving emotions out of your decision-making means leaving out what matters most intensely to you.

Because emotions are always in one way or another intelligently associated with our deepest cares, and our deepest concerns.

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Nothing more whole

Right in the middle of your most profound difficulties, maybe the difficulties you’ve spent your whole life trying to avoid, there can be the birth of something new.

Perhaps an illness, a loss, or a disappointment leads to a new kind of strength, intelligence, compassion, or kindness. Perhaps it leads to gratitude for your human faculties and for your relationships with people around you. And perhaps a deeper understanding of human suffering, and of the nature of life itself, that had previously been denied to you.

Your attempts to turn away from difficulty, to pretend that all is just fine, can rarely come to much.

They arise from your fear that your heart will be shattered, that there will be nothing of you left. But hardening your heart to keep you safe leaves you rigid and frozen, disconnected from what can support you most.

Your attempts to stop difficulty getting to you also stop life from getting to you. And life will always, somehow, find its way through.

And so this is the logic behind the words of Menachem Mendel of Kotzk

“Nothing is more whole than a broken heart”

Things are not always what they seem. Sometimes your attempts to hold harm at bay themselves cause you great harm.

While you hold the world away, you can live only tentatively in the shadows of your own life.

And eventually, perhaps, you turn towards it all in welcome or in acceptance, allowing yourself to feel so much that your heart can break open and life come flooding in.

And you discover at last that difficulty and heart-brokenness are guests, uninvited and unwanted, who turn out to be the greatest teachers.

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Living your own life

“In the end, we need to feel that the life we lived was our life, not someone else’s, that it was chosen rather simply our following the instructions on the box, and that we stood in a respectful relationship to that which is larger than ordinary comforts and provided a deep sense of meaning, of satisfaction, and reciprocity. Then it may be said that we have really been here, living the life we were meant to live. The task, and the path we take in addressing it, will be different for each of us, but that is the gift we are asked to share, the gift of our separate selves.”

Beautiful, important words from James Hollis, who has written insightfully about what it takes to live a life that matters, to ourselves and the people around us.

For today, no more than that, and a link to the full article – essential reading if you’re asking big questions about what your life may be for, beyond getting what you want.

The book of his I’ve been most enjoying reading recently is Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally, Really Grow Up.  It’s beautiful, profound, clear and practical, filled with wisdom for any of us who’ve woken up with the realisation that in all likelihood more than half of life is done already: when life starts saying ‘this is it – time to turn towards living while you still have the chance’.

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A luminous garment

We’ve allowed ourselves to become obsessed by youth.

The way this has shaped our public lives is quite easy to see, from the relentless focus on youthful beauty in our media to the cruelty of causal ageism in the workplace.

What’s harder to see is how it is affecting the narratives we have about ourselves.

We see all the ways that growing old is a falling apart, an endless series of losses, a disintegration. And so we try to stave it off, denying what is happening to us. As we grow older and as the time remaining to us diminishes, we become diminished in our own eyes. In this way we rob ourselves and others of our dignity.

But here is an account of ageing from the Jewish mystical work, the Zohar, which points to a different possibility:

All the days of a person’s life are laid out above,
one by one they come soaring into this world…
If a person leaving the world merits,
he comes into those days of his life,
they become a luminous garment.

Such a different way of looking, this – our inevitable, inescapable ageing as a gathering and weaving of the days of our lives into a single luminous garment. We wear the sum of all we have been and done in our bodies, on our faces, in our entire way of being in the world.

This gives us growing older as an integration, a chance to unify ourselves, turning towards the shadow parts that we pushed away when we were younger.

And it invites us to give up our dependence upon looking good or being liked, so that we can have our ageing usher us into the fullness of our humanity.

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We don’t do introspection

“We don’t do introspection”, they said to me. “None of this fluffy, self-indulgent, navel-gazing here”, they continued. “We do action.”

Of course. If you’re going to lead as they were, in a global organisation, then right action is critical. But what they meant by “we don’t do introspection” was “we aren’t prepared to look at ourselves”.

If they had an inkling, and most of us do not, of how much their actions were being shaped, out of their view, by

their personal preferences,
by their fears,
by years of habit,
by their avoidance of reminders of childhood experiences (mostly shame),
by the expectations their parents handed them,
by their inner critic,
by their longing to be appreciated, liked, respected, feared, in control

then they would perhaps have taken introspection or some rigorous self-observation more seriously. They would have been brave enough not just to look at their actions, but to look upstream at what was giving rise to them.

But they didn’t.

They had asked for help because they’d been amazingly effective in taking action – action that had landed them and their organisation in deep trouble.

And now they were trying to get out, with the same excuses, and by doing more of what had got them into difficulty in the first place.

Crazy, and sadly all too common.

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We spend the first part of our lives folding ourselves into the shape made available for us by our culture, our family and, later, our work.

How else could it be?

We are born with so many forms available to us, yet we must find ways of being understood and met by those around us so that we can survive and hopefully thrive. Even our rebellions are mostly a means of finding some way, some place where we can belong.

But if we live long enough, we might gradually start to feel the constraints of our own folding-up. We catch a glimpse of a bigger freedom that’s been there all along but which, so far, has been necessarily denied to us. And we begin so see how much of ourselves is unknown.

We’re mostly not taught what an opportunity is there, in the longing and uncertainty, the doubt and confusion, in the sense of being lost.

Feeling that something is wrong, we turn away into distractions – a new job, a new relationship, possessions. But if we’re lucky enough at this threshold to find people who can help us and be alongside us – friends, family, teachers – or circumstances that invite it, at last we can begin to unfold again.

At last, an opportunity to give up on all you’re sure about and discover a new way of being in life.

Who knows what or who, even now, you might become?

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When we do the running for others

If you’re avoiding fear, shame or anxiety – as many of us are without realising it – you may also be avoiding, unbidden, on behalf of others.

Your insistence that others participate in your

being super laid-back
being in control
never stopping
knowing about everything
being right
making sure everybody is cared for
avoiding all risk
keeping your options open

might just turn out to be your way of ensuring your colleagues, your team or your family don’t have to experience what it is that you never want to experience.

I’m bringing this up because I think it’s a topic we could all do with observing in ourselves.

Running away, and denying that we’re running, constrains us enormously. And our unknowing projection of it onto others profoundly constrains their freedom too. Whole organisations have been constructed on meeting the avoidance needs of their founders and leaders, at huge cost to everyone.

As we gradually free ourselves from this compulsion, we each earn a much better chance of doing what it is that we actually came here to do.

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Shadows and Wizards

I’ve been writing for a while about the necessity, for each of us, of turning towards our shadow – all those parts of ourselves we started to push away and deny from the first moment we encountered disapproval from others.

We each acquired a shadow for good reason. It’s part of the necessary development from the wild everythingness of a new-born towards social acceptability – surviving as part of a clan or tribe, a family or society. We acquire a shadow in the name of appropriateness, approval and acceptability.

Beyond a certain point, though, the shadow is troublesome because it blinds us to ourselves. Whole aspects of ourselves become invisible to us, and we deny they are part of us. Often we’ll see them in others who become the target of our scorn, derision and judgment. “I could never be that way”, we say when, more truthfully, we are precisely that way but cannot see it.

If we are going to create lives in which we can respond fully, compassionately and creatively – families, organisations, societies too – it seems to me that we have a responsibility to turn towards our own shadows and learn about them, so we can fully understand and draw from what’s there.

And, as I’ve been reminded today by the wonderful Hollie Holden, one of the very best books on this subject is, in fact, a beautiful novel from 1973, A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin. How this book became labelled only as ‘children’s literature’ mystifies me – it’s deep, generous, rich in narrative and characterisation, and spot on about what it takes to meet our own shadow and grow up through the experience. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

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Speak to me from the darkness

Compassion is knowing our own darkness well enough that we can sit in the darkness with others.

And it is a relationship between equals, never a relationship between the wounded and the healed.

— Pema Chödrön

When I’m feeling ashamed at what I’ve done – an ordinary, human course of events in which I’ve made a choice I regret – the last thing I need you to do is to tell me what I could have done differently.

The judgement inherent in your advice prolongs my shame, and increases the distance between us.

Speak to me instead from that part of you that knows you could find yourself in a similar situation.

And, please, show me you see my humanity, and that you share it too.

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