It’s a little more than 50 days into this year. Did you make a resolution? Are you sticking to it? Are you being gentle with yourself when you stumble? It’s great to make goals, but not always easy to stick to them. Failure has to be allowed and forgiven.
I do not often make resolutions – not for the new year, anyway. I don’t think there is anything special about January 1st. If I want to start something, I’ll start it – even on a random Tuesday. The neurotic in me, of course, prefers to start at the beginning of a new month or week, or at a time significant to me for some reason. But it doesn’t need to be January 1st. This year I made one – or rather, I recommitted myself to one I had made a few months earlier. I claimed my stance boldly and with conviction. This year I said I would not be the hand-holder.
Before you start thinking I’m leaving my struggling friends and family to fend for themselves. This was a resolution for my work life. And one that was desperately needed.
I am often the one to teach systems and procedures and policies to others. In doing so, I tend to do all the work for them – finding the correct documents, pointing out exactly what they need to focus on, suggesting (or writing) memos or emails or policy addenda. I have been with my current organization for just over five years and I began to notice that I was answering the same questions over and over again. My frustration level continued to escalate. Why did I need to send you this form again and tell you how to fill it out when I sent it to you a few months ago and filled part of it out for you?? Ahhhh…..I have answered my own question. Why did you not learn when I did it for you?
This year I said I would no longer hold hands for my colleagues. I would answer their questions and point them in the right direction and that is where my ‘help’ would end. I spent months collaborating with a coworker to update our departmental microsite on our intranet. This gives one place to find all our forms and pertinent policy documents for reference. I stopped attaching blank forms to emails, opting instead to mention our departmental microsite and including a link to the homepage. I was firm with staff to support and engage in this practice, as well. To use the oft-referenced adage, we stopped giving out fish and instead provided poles and a map to the best locations. We’re not heartless, after all.
I was rigid in my thinking at first. Fueled by annoyance and frustration and, honestly a bit of anger, I was determined to stick to my guns. When I received repeated questions I held firm to directing them to our microsite, ensuring them the answers could be found there. When faced with “can you just do this for me because I emailed you?” questions, I took a deep breath and sent the microsite link with a cheery “you’ll find everything you need here” comment.
Being honest – my initial motivation was entirely selfish. I was tired. I was answering too many emails. I was listening to the same issues come up from coworkers in departmental meetings. The more I ‘helped’ others complete these tasks, the more I was expected to help them – and everyone else – complete these tasks. Our office was working lean and this was an additional burden on all of us that was not necessary. I was working at a pace that was not sustainable in a healthy way. It was taking extra hours to complete my regular work around time spent coaching and helping everyone else. I felt angry. I felt taken advantage of. I felt done.
This was not a new frustration to me at work, but I honestly believed it was easier to just give them the answers. I believed it was not possible for me to stop providing the extra guidance. I am not like this in my personal life. From the time my son was an infant reaching for toys, I encouraged him to figure things out for himself. So, why was I treating adults in my workplace like they were not capable? These are highly educated individuals. Choices were made when I started: to be helpful and cheery. I was the new girl – I had to show them that I knew what I was doing and that I could help them with anything. That has worn off, I guess. They know me now, I’m a bit more comfortable saying ‘no.’
I was off for a few days this week and when looking at the emails sent to me while I was out, the panic that ensued from others to not get immediate response from me, and the disquiet that arose in the office from being short-handed and facing additional expectations, I realized that I have not been following my resolution. I have been holding hands too much, and this week my coworkers suffered because of it. It’s time to refocus once again.
It is not easy to change my own behavior after a lifetime of seeking to do everything for those around me. It’s even more challenging to change a culture I created among people with whom I have just a glancing relationship. It is arduous to find the balance within myself between the need to be the helper and the growing need to protect my mental and physical health. I struggle with this balance every day and I am still learning how to respond to others’ needs and to my own. I am only now beginning to recognize and listen to my own needs. (better late than never??) It will never be easy for me, but I am creating my own tools to help. The two I focus on most at this time is to pause before responding and to reframe any “I’m sorry” to “thank you for understanding.” I deliberately talk myself through these two actions multiple times a day because this is not a habit or comfortable behavior for me.
I am learning to live in discomfort. I am learning that my needs are important, too. I am learning that saying no is acceptable. I am learning that I can delete an email and start over – many times if necessary. I am learning to let go. That is a big one for me. I had to be the strong one, the one with the answers, the go-to person so often in my life that it became my default setting. After being pushed into that position too many times, it changed me from self-reliant to controlling. Releasing that need for control is scary when your mind constantly reminds you of how horribly that turned out in the past.
So, fifty-some days into this new year, I am reminding myself that I work with capable adults and I do not need to hold onto control of everything. My mind and my blood-pressure cannot sustain that behavior. One task at a time, one moment at a time I still stop holding hands. Perhaps, with my hands freer, it will be easier to find my peace.
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