#11: Human or robot?

In my weekly update, I discuss saying goodbye, progress on a goal, and a healthy reminder of my fallibility.


Here in Utah, we enjoyed a surprisingly warm week for November (before the snow!), which led to a couple nice walks. With everything that has been going on, it was nice to get some fresh air and exercise again. Life can get so hectic that we neglect some of the simple choices that make a big difference to our mental well-being.

Something hard

Since becoming an engineering manager, no direct reports had left for a different company until this week. As I mentioned last week, it was a cause for celebration that the apprentice I hired earlier this year found a full-time role. What I did not anticipate was the emotional toll of dealing with her departure.

My daughter has participated in a couple summer programs, and often comes home grieving the end of a special experience. Trying to validate her pain, I told her that it was natural and healthy for her for feel sad because that exact group would never exist again. They could get together again, but it would never be the same. My daughter and my wife both turned and looked at me, a little incredulous. “Wow, thanks Dad!” Apparently I wasn’t helping.

I dealt with some of the same feelings of wistfulness as I faced the breakup of what has been a wonderful team. There has been great chemistry, and even though not everything has been perfect, we have been able to work together effectively and deliver great value. I know that things are not likely to fall apart with the change in the team, but they are going to be different, and that knowledge is painful. Change can be difficult for anyone, but as someone with OCD, I am often significantly thrown when plans or situations change out from under me.

The final one-on-one with my departing employee was an emotional experience. One thing that had made a real difference as I have worked with her was an early decision to be open and vulnerable about my mental health situation. This created a safe space where we could discuss issues that were deep and meaningful, and made a huge difference in our ability to work together. Because of the trust that we had established, we were able to share direct feedback to help each other grow a great deal in a short time. Saying goodbye to an employee like that was painful in way that has made me a better leader.

Something good

Carry less to give more goal

As I wrote about last week, one of my best friends at work is moving on to a new role at a different company. I had an experience with him that highlighted one of my two big goals for 2020. I wrote about these on my personal blog at the beginning of the year, and have kept them as the wallpaper on my phone and iPad to help me remember. The goals were simple:

  • Make more mistakes
  • Carry less to give more

I wanted to reflect this week on the second goal of carrying less emotional weight. This came from some realizations that I had in 2019 with my therapist. Partly from having OCD and seeing the world in black-and-white, and partly from being an empath and caring deeply about people, I tend to get fired up when I hear stories of perceived injustice. In the past, that emotion would often drive me to try and find a solution. At the very least, I would invest significant time and energy into dwelling on the situation.

What I learned was that there were a couple major problems with my instincts and approach. The first is that by my trying to solve the problems of other people, I am implicitly disempowering them. I am communicating to them that I do not trust them, and that I think they need my help to step in and improve their life. As a privileged white male, this is especially problematic when interacting with anyone belonging to a group that is often marginalized. I was shocked and appalled when I had my eyes opened to the implications of my behavior. My intentions were to help and support the people that I cared about, and so I was sad to learn that I was effectively doing the opposite. A much better approach for me is to create a safe place for the person to share their feelings and experience with me, and then encourage and trust them to solve their own problems and improve their own life.

Another major problem with my instinctual response is the personal toll it takes on me. In and of itself, that is not really the issue, but it directly leads to the issue. When I am spending my time, energy, and emotional resources invested in the problems of other people, I am too depleted to handle the issues that come up in my own life. For me specifically, as a husband and father of seven, some of the most important emotional weight I need to carry is with my family.

Family

In my wallpaper that I drew for myself, I included a stick figure-style representation of my family to help me remember the purpose of my goal. I am not trying to carry less emotionally for me. The reason this is important for me is that I need to be able to give more and more regularly to my family. Over the past couple years, since the great breakdown of 20181, there have been numerous times that I have needed to check out from family involvement and recover enough to re-engage. I would like to continue to reduce the need and instances of those emergency breaks.

The reason this came up this week as something good is that I was reminded of how far I have progressed. I was telling my therapist about the experience I had with my friend at work, and she admitted after I shared the story that she had thought for sure this was the moment where I broke down a bit and jumped in. She was pleasantly surprised to hear that I had been able to encourage my friend and avoid getting directly involved. It was nice to take a moment to pause and acknowledge how much progress I have made.

Something else

My wife and I got out of the house with our three-year-old over the weekend and went grocery shopping. We were discussing issues with the other children as we drove, which got a little emotional. I called time-out as I recognized that I was starting to get a bit heated and defensive. After we took a few minutes off, we were able to resume and make progress. By the time we parked, we had worked through whatever the issue was and were feeling connected again.

We went in to the grocery store and did our shopping, and as we went back out to the parked van, I noticed that the tail lights were on. My wife buckled in our boy while I loaded the groceries, and then I started looking for the keys. I slid in the driver’s seat and asked my wife if she had started the van. We realized that I had walked out of the van and went in the store and left the engine running for over half an hour2. My wife started laughing a bit and commented,

It’s nice to see that you’re human, and not a robot.

I just sat frozen in my seat for a couple minutes. To be honest, there was a little part of me rebelling against being called “only human.” This is something that I have wrestled with in the past, and thought I had overcome. Obviously not. I just sat with the emotions swirling around inside me, and tried to recognize what I was feeling. Something that came to mind was a skill that I wrote about around a month ago—self-compassion. There are three aspects to self-compassion, as defined by Kristin Neff:

  • Self-kindness
  • Common humanity
  • Mindfulness

Embracing my common humanity was a crucial part of being able to start developing this skill. It continues to be a journey for me.

I sat there frozen for long enough that my three-year-old called out, “Dad, go backwards!” in case I had forgotten how to get out of the parking stall. I was a little dazed that I would have been so absent-minded as to leave the keys in the van, let alone to leave the van running. That is completely uncharacteristic of me. I told my wife that I didn’t really know what to think after something like that. It was a good reminder for me how easy it is to make stupid mistakes. I need to be patient and kind with the dumb moves made by others, as well as by myself.

Wrap up

This week included a lot of growth for me. Living with OCD poses real challenges at times, and there are definite ups and downs. Early in the week, I had the pleasure of attending an alumni group meeting with others who went through the OCD and Anxiety Treatment Center. A key message I took from the meeting was to remember the skills that we learned in treatment, one of the most crucial for me being self-compassion. I think that is a good one for all of us to remember.


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  1. Learn more in my story if you are interested. [return]
  2. I had to look and see just how long we had been inside, and used the Today feature of the excellent journal app Day One to find out. A bit of OCD showing through? Perhaps. [return]

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