Stay in the game

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I stepped out of the game last week. I felt overwhelmed, frustrated, and defeated. It felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders.

I needed a break. I needed to hit the reset button. I needed a walk in nature, a chat with a friend, and a glass of wine.

I also needed to get still and sit with my suffering.

I was angry with the world last week. I was sad that people lost their lives in a random shooting in Thousand Oaks. I was overwhelmed by my students who were in various forms of crisis. I was horrified that homes and communities were on fire all over my state.

And inside my anger was fear. I was afraid for my own mental health, my own safety, my own family. I was afraid of what the world is becoming. I was afraid of change and loss.

I felt small, mortal, finite, and powerless. I felt uneasy and restless. I felt trapped like an animal and wanted to run away from this dark place. I felt empty.

As I sunk into deeper suffering, I listened for my inner voice. I tried to remain open, awake, present, and still – without anxiety. My inner voice is quiet and elusive, but it brings me closer to understanding, to love, and to peace.

When it spoke, my inner voice reminded me that we are in a game. We are all in the game together, but it’s just a game. We are all in the game having a human experience.

In the game, we experience wins and losses. We are transcending levels as we move through each challenge. We are given new tools, new powers, and new partners to defeat the evil forces. And, we get to play, create, build, and enjoy it.

There is a lot going on in the game, and there always has been. We can choose to sit it out in the corner, stay on the bench, and shut it down. Or, we can choose to play it, engage in it, move through it, and live it.

We cannot hold on to anything in this mortal world. When we do not understand this, we continue to suffer. Our first step to understanding is to stop running away from our suffering. We must give ourselves permission to sit with our suffering, and stop distracting ourselves from it. In the stillness, our inner voice will speak to us.

Our inner voice wants to connect with us. It knows that everything passes and nothing is permanent. It knows our true purpose. It wants us to play the game and enjoy it. It wants us to transcend the levels. It wants us to take risks and learn from our mistakes.

It also wants us to feel all the emotions that are part of the game. And when we understand that painful emotions are part of the game, we do not need to suffer from these emotions. Instead, we can accept them and live to play again another day.

Game on, my friend.

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Things Happen for a Reason – But It’s Not Always What You Think

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I’ve adopted a philosophy over the years that my failures and disappointments have propelled me into being a better version of myself. I’ve embraced my losses and painful experiences as lessons that have strengthened me. But I realize that this “everything happens for a reason” philosophy has limits. Yes, terrible unfortunate events happen in life and it’s appropriate to accept them and move on. But, as a society, adopting this “everything happens for a reason” and “accept it and move on” philosophy when faced with atrocious, heinous, wrongful acts caused by injustice is extremely dangerous.

We instinctually want the world to make sense. We want to feel in control. And we want to avoid discomfort. When a person is harmed, we naturally look for a reason. We want to believe that if we follow the rules, things will work out. And unfortunately, sometimes they don’t. This is when we need to distinguish between unfortunate events and injustices.

An unfortunate event is when a tree falls on someone in the park and kills the person. An injustice is when someone is sexually assaulted. An injustice involves power and/or a violation of someone’s rights. In both cases, we might ask ourselves, “why did this terrible thing happen?” And then we ask, “how could it have been avoided? who caused it? and how do I make sure it doesn’t happen to me?”

When faced with injustices that are so wicked that they feel unbelievable and overwhelming, we risk feeling powerless to make things right. In the the absence of an answer or solution, we will do the next best thing psychologically, which is to convince ourselves that the victims must have brought it on themselves. Psychologists refer to this as the Just World Hypothesis. This is the erroneous, yet powerfully instinctual, idea that individuals get what they deserve. This is extremely dangerous thinking. This is the thinking that perpetuates oppression. This is the thinking that leads to apathy and civic disengagement.

As I discovered in my dissertation research, increased information and exposure to complex problems when presented without tangible solutions or reflection creates a decreased motivation to address the problem. When we cannot make sense of the problem, we are more likely to blame the victim or avoid the issue. If we have privilege (meaning we do not fall into the oppressed category), avoiding the issue becomes an attractive solution. If we relate to the victim, we may be more inclined to blame the victim to give ourselves the false sense of security that it can’t happen to us.

My dissertation research involved working with individuals experiencing homelessness. The causes and solutions to homelessness are complex. It’s difficult to identify the cause, it’s not a one-size fits all solution, and it can feel overwhelming when confronted with the task of improving the situation. On its surface, individuals who are homeless have often experienced an unfortunate event. However, upon further investigation, most individuals have also experienced some form of injustice – a power dynamic that resulted in their loss of ability to secure housing.

Whether we are discussing how to respond to homelessness or sexual assault, we must question our instincts to blame the individuals. Instead of victim blaming, we must root out the problem, name it, fight against it, and educate about it. Otherwise, we perpetuate the oppression and the problem.

There is no shortage of overwhelming and complex issues – immigration, health care access, pay equity – that are driven by underlying power dynamics. These are issues that can trigger our instinctual thinking to blame the victim. It is often easier to blame an individual – a refugee, someone struggling with mental illness, a person with a disability – than to confront the bigger issue.

Instead of moving quickly to the Just World explanation, we need to ask ourselves, “is there an injustice here? is this person impacted by a system that reinforces power? could there be another explanation?” These important reflection questions allow us to find the answers that empower us to make social change. These answers often challenge the status quo and require changes to the power structures that perpetuate the problems. These answers are often more unpopular than the idea of blaming the victim.

Too many of us are checked out, disengaged, overwhelmed, distracted, and feeling powerless. In order to reengage in social issues, we must help ourselves and others to think critically about these problems, to move beyond victim blaming, and to look for injustice and name it. This process of reflection is necessary if we want meaningful change. Yes, things happen for a reason but it’s not always what we think.

References:

Burkeman, O. Believing that life is fair might make you a terrible person. The Guardian, February 3, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/oliver-burkeman-column/2015/feb/03/believing-that-life-is-fair-might-make-you-a-terrible-person

Pedersen, J. (2008). The effect of service learning in higher education on students’ motivation to be civically engaged. UCSB, Santa Barbara, CA.

Empathetic Leadership: 7 Tips for Supervisors

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Original artwork by Joy Pedersen

As supervisors, we are in a powerful position to impact people’s lives. We spend an average of 90,000 hours at work over our lifetime. Most days we spend more time with our coworkers than our families. Therefore, our relationships at work affect our quality of life, our wellbeing, and our ability to make an impact on the world.

It goes without saying that our relationships at work impact our organization’s success. And if we want our staff to care about the success of our organizations, then we need to care about our staff.

As a new supervisor, in my 20’s, I was eager to show off my knowledge and efficiency. I was quick to reorganize the office, make organizational changes, and “improve” processes. Unfortunately, I was not truly leading. When I looked behind me, no one was following. I had not built relationships or trust with my team. I came into work each day and went straight to my office to return emails. My staff was unhappy, and eventually I was miserable too.

I learned an important lesson about leadership from that experience, and I approached every future leadership opportunity differently after that job. Being a leader is as much about the soft skills as the hard skills. Leadership is about helping others be the best they can be so the whole organization thrives.

An empathetic leader seeks to understand their staff.

Here are some tips for being an empathetic leader:

  1. Invest in relationships. The best advice I ever received from a mentor was, “It’s all about relationships.” Spend time getting to know your staff. Learn what is important to them. Is someone on your team taking care of an aging parent? Going through a divorce? Getting married? It takes time and effort to have authentic conversations, but these conversations are crucial to being an effective leader. Relationships also require a certain amount of vulnerability. Let your staff know interesting facts about you and find connections. Bonus tip: Emails do not build relationships. Pick up the phone, walk over to their office, take them to coffee or lunch.
  2. Assume the best. Most of us make assumptions about how others behave. These assumptions are based on stories we tell ourselves, the perceptions we have of others, and confirmation bias. Confirmation bias occurs when we filter information to look for examples that confirm our existing beliefs about a person. In short, we see and hear what we want to see and hear. These assumptions can poison our relationships if we attribute negative traits – like laziness, greed, or selfishness – to others. Rather than assume another person’s behavior is due to their shortcomings, try to assume that everyone is doing the best they can. Then, ask questions so you can truly understand the behavior. By assuming the best, we keep our relationships positive and respectful.
  3. “Tell me more.” Empathetic leadership is about understanding – understanding the behavior, values, motivation, hopes, and fears of our teams. Understanding starts with being curious and asking questions. And, the way we ask questions makes a big difference. Many supervisors frequently ask the 5 W’s – who, what, when, where, why – without realizing the impact of these questions on their staff. These types of questions can feel like interrogation. Instead of asking “why,” try saying, “tell me more.” For example, replace “why did you do it that way” with “tell me more about your process.” This approach disarms the other person and reduces their defensiveness; therefore, opening them up to be more honest, authentic, and truthful.
  4. Take responsibility. As supervisors, it’s our responsibility to be clear about what we expect. It’s also our responsibility to create an environment that fosters success, provide necessary trainings, and support our staff. If our staff are not meeting our expectations, we must reflect on what part we play. We should frequently ask our staff, “What do you need from me to help you be successful?” In order to do this, we must understand the experiences of our staff. Are they feeling frustrated? Are they afraid to make a mistake? Are they feeling undervalued? We must be able to answer these questions, then take responsibility to make sure our staff are able to work at their full potential by addressing the issues within our control.
  5. Encourage risk-taking. A team that is afraid to take risks cannot grow. In order to feel safe taking risks, people must know it’s ok to fail and make mistakes. Failure and mistakes are part of any job. As a supervisor, we need to reassure our team that it’s safe to take risks. One way to encourage risk-taking is by sharing our own failures, admitting when we make mistakes, and apologizing when we have hurt others. Another way to encourage risk-taking is to give our staff opportunities to take small risks and support them if they fall short. Risk-taking requires trust, therefore our staff must know that we have their back.
  6. Show appreciation. Appreciation has several impacts. First, it shows people that you see and value them. Second, it encourages positive behavior. It is a lot easier to reinforce a positive behavior than correct a negative behavior; yet, we often miss our opportunity to tell people what behaviors we would like to see them continue. Finally, it makes a deposit with the other person. As supervisors, we have to make requests and withdrawals. It helps to have deposits in a relationship when we need to ask someone to do something hard or deliver a difficult message to them.
  7. Respect everyone. Most leadership articles about respect focus on how leaders can earn the respect of their staff, but empathetic leadership is about giving respect to our staff. Showing respect is a reflection of our own character. As leaders, we should show respect for others because everyone has value. We do not have to agree with or like other people to show them respect. And, our staff should not have to earn our respect. Everyone on our team has inherent value; and therefore, deserves to be treated with respect.

As a supervisor, our attention is pulled in a million directions, which makes it difficult to attend to others. At its core, empathy is about paying attention, seeing and understanding others, and helping others achieve their full potential. Although it takes more time and effort, it is time well spent and an investment in your organization’s success.

 

Dream Stealer

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By Joy Pedersen

A dream stealer is living inside each of us. It steals our dreams because it cannot dream. 

If we want to save the world, first, we must save ourselves from it.

We fight evil in the outer world, but inside the dream stealer continues to live off our insecurities. 

It doesn’t want us to know the truth. 

It is afraid of many things – feelings, change, difference. 

It is especially afraid of our dreams. We have so many dreams. Our dreams are reaching out to us, calling, pleading to be let in.

The dream stealer feels threatened by their foreign ways – thoughts, ideas, language. It does not trust these strangers.

Our dreams tell us, “Have compassion. We are all connected.” These ideas frighten the dream stealer.

Our dreams use words like “imagine,” “trust,” “create.” The dream stealer cannot do these things.

The dream stealer does not like the way the dreams make it feel. The dreams bring change. They bring hope. 

The dream stealer fears the loss of control. It fears discomfort. It fears losing its power.

The dream stealer cuts down the dreams with its weapons – guilt, shame, judgement. It uses dogma to keep them at bay. It builds a wall to keep the dreams from us. 

The dream stealers wants to control us. It keeps us shackled by reminding us of the past. It keeps us in a cage it has built by creating fear of the future. 

The dream stealer is a master of illusion. It comforts us with its promises, but its promises are lies – meaningless and worthless. Its words are empty vessels.

It is a coward. It is easily scared off. If we confront the dream stealer, it will lose its power.

It disguises itself in order to trick us. It prefers to hide. If we remove its mask, we will see what it really is. 

Its tactics are faulty. Its arguments are illogical. If we question it, we will find there is no truth in what it says.

If we want peace, we must conquer it. 

If we want love, we must overcome it. 

If we want to be free, we must defeat it.

We are stronger than we think we are. It is weaker than it appears. 

We are fighters, lovers, and dreamers. It is no match for us.

Coming Home

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by Joy Pedersen

In a world where love is getting harder to find and keep, we can always find it in nature.

In nature, we are all loved. The trees hold us like a mother’s arms, the wind whispers our name like a lover’s voice, the sun dries our tears like a consoling friend.

In nature, we can speak our deepest secrets. The mountains hold our fears like trusted brothers. The birds listen to our sorrows like faithful sisters. The streams sooth our mournful cries like sage companions.

Put your feet in the dirt. You are connected to the earth.

Look towards the stars. You are part of the universe.

Place your hands in the water. You are linked to everything.

You are not alone.

You are a perfect creation.

You are loved.

Change

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By Joy Pedersen

Do you resist change?
Do you worry about the future?
Do you cling to the past and mourn your losses?
Do you fight aging?
Do you fear death?

Take a page from Nature’s book,
We don’t expect the caterpillar to crawl forever
We don’t tell the baby bird to remain in the nest
We don’t judge the whales for migrating
We don’t fault the sun for setting or the leaves for falling
We celebrate evidence of changes in Nature– blooming flowers, waterfalls, and full moons

Nature burns down her house to create new life
Nature is in perpetual motion
Nature does not make mistakes or have regrets
In Nature, the sun rises again, the storms pass,
And new life springs from the ashes
Go into Nature. Be still. Look within. Pay attention. You will find the answers there.