The pain of losing it all lodged like in me like a blade

Bankruptcy lawyers report that the number one fear of all clients is, they’re going to lose everything.

After all the documents are signed, they’re going to be out on the street, homeless, and everyone will know.

This is largely myth. Declaring bankruptcy doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be destitute. Read any bankruptcy firm’s website. They’ll report that it’s unlikely that you’ll lose all of your personal property. Assets like clothing, pets, home furnishing and the like are treated as exemptions, which means they are protected from creditors.

Hell, my girlfriend once declared bankruptcy, and her house, car, dog and pretty much everything else in her possession remained in tack. She was fine. She even opened a bakery several years later that’s having tons of success.

Here’s the point of this lawyerly discussion.

You have less to lose than you think.

Especially when you’re still young and the world is still in front of you.

The problem is, your fears cause you to worry about the wrong things. Fear makes you overestimate your level of risk, which scrambles your sense of proportion.

Okay, if you don’t nail this audition, if you don’t crush this job interview, if you don’t ace this final example, then it’s all over.

No, it’s not. The fat lady hasn’t even done her warmup exercises yet.

Truth is, when an exciting opportunity comes your way, it’s probably not some extreme risk that leads you to either succeed immediately or fail. It’s not an inflection point that will change everything forever.

For all you know, the bar is so low, you could step over it.

When I chose to leave my career as an entrepreneur and join the corporate world, fear gripped my balls like a skeletal hand.

Surely this decision would result in me losing everything.

Nope. Didn’t happen.

Lost many things, from freedom to finances to friends. And the process of reinvention took several years.

But it would have been nice if someone tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, dude, you have less to lose than you think.

This doesn’t suggest you should be careless with your lifestyle or career decisions, but it does mean that objects in the mirror are safer than they appear.

Indeed, the dread of responsibility, the specter of projects not going well, that fear hangs over all of us.

But if you can grow in your willingness to try new things, if you can push through the irrational fear that it’s all going bankrupt, you might be pleasantly surprised.

What if you have less to lose than you think?

When selfishness doesn’t scale

One of my coworkers joked that the only reason she stays away from the dishwasher is, she’s a real feminist fighting the good fight.

That’s admirable. Good for her for standing her ground and not upholding that outdated gender stereotype.

On the other hand, there’s a fine line between honoring your cherished values and not being a good office citizen. If your team is stressed out and the dishes are piling up because the office manager is sick or the dishwasher is broken, it doesn’t really matter what you think about who should or should not help tidy the place up.

We all pitch in. Culture is everyone’s responsibility.

It’s a perfect example of how selfishness doesn’t scale.

Because when you’re the only person you have to worry about, by all means, be as selfish as you want. But when you’re part of a team or a family or even just a couple, it’s possible that by sticking to your guns, you shoot others in the foot. Not cool.

Our goal, then, is learning how to defer with love. Not surrendering our values in every small decision, where not speaking up starts becoming a habit other people take advantage of.

But rather, figuring out what brand of compromise we are willing to live with, for the sake of the team.

Because even if that team is only two people, this stuff ads up.

Gottman, the psychological researcher and clinician, has a quiz for people to determine the state of compromise in their relationships. Here are a few questions that resonated with me. Think about where you, your partner, friends and coworkers might fall.

*Can you give in when you need to?
*Are you stubborn, but not opposed to compromising?
*Are you able to yield somewhat, even when you feel strongly about an issue?
*Are you willing to compromise even when you know you’re right?

Clearly, if there is a perpetual and unsolvable problem, then it’s worth sticking to our guns and fighting for what believe. On the other hand, if we can find a solution that allows both people’s dreams, then it’s a win for the team.

Overall, the lesson to keep in mind is that selfishness, while useful and important individually, doesn’t scale. We’re all in this circus called life together, and if we stop being good citizens, the elephants will start to get restless.

Are you willing to be an imperfect living realization of your values and beliefs?

Toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress

If you had to choose between waiting for the storm to pass, or learning to dance in the rain, which would be more appealing to you?

If you interpret the riddle from a literal standpoint, it mostly depends on footwear.

If you’re wearing hiking sandals that have strong ground traction and washable waterproof leather, then dance away. Take the long way home from work and enjoy the wet adventure.

On the other hand, if you’re wearing diamond studded stiletto heels, maybe hold back fifteen minutes until the clouds clear up.

Now, if you interpret the riddle more figuratively, then your answer mostly depends on mindset.

Dancing in the rain can become a true spiritual practice. One that vaccinates you against future misfortune.

Seneca, the foremost stoic philosopher, called this voluntary discomfort. He wrote:

It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress. Fortune should fortify itself against her violence. In days of peace a soldier performs maneuvers, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order to be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.

Seneca’s words sound like dancing in the rain to me.

Do you practice voluntary discomfort? Any controlled exposure to physical stresses or psychological cues which trigger stress responses?

It’s a powerful practice. Personally, doing hot yoga was my first foray into the world of controlled exposure. The combo of heat, humidity, long posture and ninety minutes of class time taught me how to suffer with grace.

It built my willingness to tolerate short term stress and discomfort, in exchange for a new foundation of discipline and tolerance. It felt as much like exposure therapy as it did exercise. Yoga built my resolution to refrain from the escape response.

For example, when things got a little too hot in the room, rather than grabbing my water and bolting out into the hallway to huff and puff, I just had to stand there and breathe. As our teachers would say, the only way it is through. Fast heart, slow lungs.

To some, this idea of voluntary discomfort might sound extreme.

Is it religious flagellation, where you remind yourself of your continued depravity in the eyes of god?  

Is it a modern form of renunciation, where you forego all forms of sensual pleasure to redeem your sins?

What about asceticism, where you sleep on a bed of nails to achieve spiritual atonement and purification?

That’s not the point at all. The goal here is not to punish yourself, but to simply quiet your appetites. To prepare for sudden tough situations in advance while it’s still easy.

Because the more you schedule and practice and accept discomfort deliberately, the less unplanned discomfort will throw you off course.

How could you train yourself to become someone who could do what others dreaded, and resist doing what others longed for?

The path toward deepening the container of self

Let’s assume it’s true that when the mind is stretched by a new thought, and never shrinks back to its former dimensions.

Why stop with the brain? Surely the same metaphor applies to other organs.

In my experience, anytime I’ve been willing to stand in the fire of my difficult feelings and not run away from them, my heart is actually what expands and never shrinks back to its former directions.

Because you can’t unring that emotional bell. Every time shit goes down in feeling town, it’s recorded in our body. For better or for worse.

The good news is, this stretching helps us gain a new perspective on those complicated, unwelcome feelings. It can motivate us to stop racing around trying to outwit our despair, and start sitting with the sadness. It can compel us to surrender to these feelings, rather than attempting to fathom the source of our despair.

And it can train us to trust that the experience will lead us somewhere meaningful down the road.

Dayton’s psychodrama research poses a great question about this very issue:

What if despair was path toward deepening the container of self?

It’s a useful framing device to help us cope effectively in the moment. It doesn’t necessarily help the cloud of despair lift, but that’s not always the point. Maybe the point is gaining a new perspective on our emotional experience.

Behavioral therapists use the term called distress tolerance, which means our ability to cope when it is difficult or impossible to change a situation. Patients can learn to stop experiencing negative emotions as overwhelming and unbearable.

One technique is called improving the moment. Using positive mental imagery to elevate our current situation.

For me, that looks like asking myself questions.

Where is the gift in this?
What does this feeling want from me?
What is the meaning to gain from this difficult situation?

If it sounds hokey, you’re right. But my optimistic heart just eats them up.

There’s a part of me that finds a reassuring vital energy in that sadness. 

What if despair was path toward deepening the container of self? 

You’re not overworked, you’re just not efficient with your time

Would you still work after hours even if it violated company policy?

Many modern professionals say yes.

Employees are always just a tap and a swipe away from their jobs, so it feels like no skin off their back.

And yet, the cumulative cost of this efficiency in the form of anxiety far outweighs whatever value is created for the client.

Becker’s landmark study demonstrated that an employee doesn’t even need to spend actual time on work in their off hours to experience the harmful effects of this boundary violation. The mere expectation of availability increases strain for employees and their significant others, even when team members do not engage in actual work during non work time.

Seems to me, the culprit of this epidemic is not the employee, but the employer. The expectation to work around the clock trickles down from the top.

Years ago, our marketing director once sent out a memo to the entire team to put a moratorium on answering client messages during off peak time. She said she was confused when she arrived at work each morning and a flood of late night messages came pouring in. Her question to the team was this.

Are you up late at night because you’re overworked, or because you’re just not efficient with your time?

My thought was, probably both. Because if you are not efficient with your time, you will almost certainly become overworked. And vice versa. They’re both sides of the same productivity coin, each of which relate back to the issue of boundaries. Something that most employees don’t think about setting until it’s too late.

This is a conversation to have with your manager during your job interview. Not during your performance review three or six months later, but before you even start the job.

Williamson writes about this in her inspiring book on intimate relationships:

Some of the most important work we do on romantic relationships is when we’re not in them.

Same applies to our professional relationships. It’s critical to hold boundary conversations from, or even before, your first day on the job. Now, most career coaches will tell you to ask questions like this:

What are the typical working hours around here?
What is the reasonable response time for communications at night and on the weekends?

Both of which are helpful, but remember, the interview process goes both ways. They’re trying to sell you on working there as much as you’re trying to sell yourself. Which means, they are likely to respond in a way that best aligns with their economic interest. Consider asking this question:

How many nights last week did you stay past six o’clock?
What was the total number of hours you worked last weekend?

Be specific. Get a window in their daily lives before you join a boundaryless company where people tell themselves nothing is really wrong, it’s just the way things are around here. 

What if your employer’s lack of planning was not your emergency?

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