In my 20’s, a childhood friend’s sister, Lucy*, died unexpectedly while traveling the globe during her gap year. While I’d lost communication with my friend and her family years before, my memories of eating lunch in their London townhouse and tea and biscuits in their sweet garden hadn’t faded. And, I vividly recalled my adolescent awe and intrigue when interacting with Lucy, just a year older, who seemed daring and precocious in ways that eluded me as she applied makeup skillfully and asked pointed questions about boy crushes. Upon hearing the tragic news, I hesitated to reach out to my friend for fear of exacerbating her fragility or burdening her with my own stunned grief. Wouldn’t my stream of consciousness condolences pain her even more? Then, I accepted that her gut-wrenching agony couldn’t likely deepen with any of my well-intended missteps. And, perhaps words from an admirer could provide reassurance of Lucy’s short life’s importance and relief from the trauma. I put pen to paper and wrote her a note.
We spend a lot of our lives, I believe, working hard to deny or ignore pain for fear of making it worse. As white people we don’t really ask about our Black colleague’s experiences of racial injustice because what if we ‘get it wrong’ and ruin the tenuous relationship? We don’t really inquire about our friend’s miscarriage because what if it reminds her of the loss and opens a healing wound?
Instead, we focus on preventing other upcoming worst-case scenarios and mitigating potential pain. We wear seatbelts, get regular physicals, take vitamins, withhold hard truths, keep busy, and tell our kids the dangers of drugs and drunk driving. In the time of COVID-19 we read statistics, take calculated risks, give virtual hugs, and remember to sanitize. We act as expert danger sleuths, vigilantly hunting for clues of where perniciousness lurks so we can capture it, conquer it, and reign victorious.
Often, though, we’re so fixated on sleuthing for threats with our magnifying glass, tuning into tiny footprints and breadcrumb clues, that we don’t acknowledge reality: what we most fear might already be upon us. We broke trust with our Black colleague when we chose to not deeply understand their experience. Connection disappeared in the friendship when we ignored a traumatizing life event. Too often, we’re existing in the belly of our deepest dread, falsely proud we juked it.
Take my client, Selena*. Selena is the COO of a mid-sized digital marketing firm who joined the company two years ago with an openly named desire to eventually take over the title of CEO from the Founder. Selena believes in asking for forgiveness, not permission. Her colleagues see her as highly competent and effective (and empathetic when she pauses to remember the value of it). She’s a person of color who names microaggressions, has disrupted inequitable hiring and compensation processes internally, and consciously elevates the voices of women of color around her.
Nonetheless, she came to me wondering how to initiate a conversation with her white CEO about succession planning. ‘Should I just be patient and wait for him to bring it up?’ she asked. ‘Should I focus on continuing to do a good job and trust he’ll notice?’ she wondered. As we explored her hesitations, she explained the CEO’s emotionally unpredictable nature, his reliable ability to hold grudges against those he deems as ungrateful, and his hesitancy to provide praise or validation for work well done.
‘What should I do?’ she asked with a tone of doubt and desperation.
‘What fears emerge when you imagine simply asking to talk to him about your career trajectory with the firm?’ I asked.
‘I worry he’ll deem me as ungrateful and it will create a toxic relationship. I don’t want to work like that,’ she says. I pause.
‘You feel invisible and disempowered and you’re hiding the brave and assertive parts of yourself to appease him. Aren’t you already in a toxic relationship?’ I say.
‘Oh,’ she says. ‘I guess so.’
Selena has fought her entire adult life to claim power and agency in a world that denies it due to the abundance of unconscious bias, racism, and sexism that permeates our society. Her worst-case scenario is disempowerment and yet she found herself swimming in a sea of it unknowingly as a means of self-protection. Naming that reality ignited in her a desire to surface her needs and wants without apology.
I believe many of us are living our deepest fears daily in relationships and workplaces: we feel unseen, unvalued, irrelevant, or worry that we’re squandering this one short life we have. These fears are often hidden beneath the numbing agents of a generous paycheck, the privilege of flexibility, or the ability to exercise our passions in weekend pockets. We worry that if we investigate the fears with our handy magnifying glass, the pain will be too much to bear. So, we tend to fears that feel more controllable and less raw; during a pandemic we wear masks and keep six feet apart. If we could say out loud though, ‘I’m scared of being invisible and yet I feel invisible’ we can begin to wonder what being visible means to us and what we need to ask of ourselves and others to step out of the shadows and into the light.
I know that real danger can exist when we acknowledge vs. silently live with our fear. Selena could risk unjust repercussions by engaging her truest self. But, Selena’s currently risking losing her truest self as she obediently waits for permission. I could have harmed my childhood friend with imprecise language that screamed pity vs. solace. Instead, the opposite happened. Fifteen years after I sent my note and Facebook emerged as a communication platform, I received a message from my friend when we virtually reconnected. ‘Thank you for the card you sent after Lucy’s death.’ She wrote. ‘It meant so much to me.’
I wonder what would happen if we chose to believe that sometimes, our bold actions can’t and won’t make it worse, but might contribute to all of our healing. What might you say or do if that were the case? I’d love to know.
*Names changed to protect privacy.