“Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.” ~Pema Chodron
I’ve been self-employed for many years now. This is no accident. I’ve always liked to do things my own way. I like to arrange my diary in exactly the way I want to, and make my own mind up about how I do things. I like to work without having to justify anything to a manager.
I’m not always comfortable in working relationships where the other person is “higher up” than me—when they’re in authority. You could say that I’m a teensy bit of a control-freak.
I used to work for a big corporation, and my relationships with my managers weren’t always easy. I was very critical of the way they did things, and if they criticized me I sometimes got very defensive. I learned a great deal from a couple of good managers, but I also spent a lot of time resenting being “told what to do.”
Recently, I decided to embark upon training to become a Buddhist minister. This involves having a “supervisor” who is responsible for my spiritual training, and who will ultimately be responsible for deciding whether or not I “make the grade” and ordain.
Last month, my supervisor asked me a question in an email and I felt immediately attacked and defensive. I felt annoyed. I complained to my friend. I sent her a long and rambling reply, outlining all the reasons why she shouldn’t be asking the question. We exchanged a few emails, and the situation got more and more confused.
I thought I’d managed to avoid conflict with people senior to me when I became self-employed. I didn’t have a manager anymore, so what was the problem?
The problem is that, as Pema Chodron says, nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.
This difficult situation arose with my supervisor because I had avoided dealing with my control issues by becoming self-employed. It was only a matter of time before these issues might have appeared in a different place in my life—with a colleague, perhaps, or in a disguised form in a relationship with a friend.
After trying to sort things out by email, eventually my supervisor phoned me and we had a conversation about what had happened. I was still feeling very defensive, and quite angry. We spoke for a while. She was patient and encouraged me to be open.
Eventually, I admitted that I sometimes found it difficult to be in relationships with people who hold authority over me. This was a turning point. Once this was “out in the open,” it was more possible to look objectively at what had happened between us.
By the end of the phone call I felt a huge sense of relief. I had challenged my supervisor, and she had survived. She could see my point of view, and I could see her point of view. She did have a good point with her question!
I haven’t suddenly become the ideal employee, but I do feel that I’ve begun to make progress in how I deal with authority. I can now feel grateful for this incident, however uncomfortable it was at the time.
If you feel trapped by a difficult situation that keeps re-appearing, no matter what you do, the following suggestions might help:
Be kind to yourself.
We can often end up in similar situations with different people, after promising ourselves that we won’t. This is because we are human! It can be easy to beat ourselves up, but it isn’t helpful, and it only adds misery to an already-miserable situation.
Once you’ve been kind to yourself, it’s helpful to be as honest with yourself as you can. It’s natural to want to blame the other person when we’re in conflict. Begin to take some responsibility for your part in what has happened. If you can do this, then change is possible.
Do you recognize this pattern from your history? From elsewhere in your life? What happens? How does it start? What hooks you in? It might help to discuss this with a good friend, or to write some notes.
Try and catch yourself when you find yourself in a similar situation. When something starts hooking you in, notice, “Ah, here I am again!”
This is where you can try behaving differently from the way you usually behave.
This might be holding your tongue, or it might be being more honest with the person you’re speaking with. It might be feeling things you’ve been avoiding, like sadness or anger. It might be taking some time away from the situation to consider what you’d like to do, rather than diving in feet first. Keep being curious, keep talking to your friends, and keep experimenting.
If you can find a way to learn something from what is happening, then you will change for the better. You are also likely to feel the same relief I did when I “came clean” with my supervisor. Pause and feel grateful for what happened, and for the lesson you learned.
None of us like learning lessons about ourselves. None of us like to be wrong, or to acknowledge a part of ourselves that is flawed or frightened. This is why our lessons have to keep coming back over and over again.
Rumi says, “Until you've found pain, you won't reach the cure.” When I look back over my life, I realize the most important lessons I’ve learned have often been a result of some kind of pain—whether the pain manifested as disappointment, or anger, or fear. I would never think so at the time, but I can feel grateful for that pain now.
Without this pain, I wouldn’t be the person I am now—a teensy bit less of a control freak! More humble. Hopefully, more loving. And definitely more grateful for life and all that it gives me.
Photo by zappowbang