Even the ‘Oppressor’ Deserves Safety and Support

This weekend I reflected in gratitude at my LOH experience in the past year.  After resonating with Dr. Suchman’s moving keynote at a physician health conference in 2018, I sought him out to express thanks.  He encouraged me to apply for the program.  Then he coached me twice on getting institutional support, something I had never done before.  All through the program, he and Diane Rawlins, two of the best teachers I have had (and that is saying a lot), led us all through ten months of complex conceptual learning and skills practice.  Even better, they helped us synthesize and integrate learning between sessions, applying concepts through practice in our natural habitats, knowing we could report back to the group to debrief and trouble shoot before heading back into ‘the trenches.’  LOH runs annual reunions, refreshers and mixers during which attendees from different cohorts can meet, bond, and both expand and tighten our community of lifelong learners.  In the time of COVID, alum meetings have occurred about every two weeks over Zoom, from the comfort of our homes all across the country.  The more I think about it, the more I wish everybody had this kind of safety and support—this kind learning laboratory and community—to acquire scary new skills that, when practiced, benefit many more people than just us learners.

I imagine this may be what participants in the White Men’s Caucus feel.  Read all about it in Four Days to Change, which I started and finished in about three sittings.  –No really, read this book.  It provides a unique and profoundly important perspective on the true meaning of inclusion, that is, white men absolutely need to be included in leading and benefiting from systemic change for equity, not just passively doing the changing for others’ sake.  During the Caucus retreat, white men are both challenged and supported to dig deep into their own privilege.  Inescapable mirrors of truth and profound discomfort, and also of love and compassion, surround them for four days.  They are expected to feel tremendous guilt and shame, both natural emotions that occur on the path of self-discovery and humility.  But rather than weaponizing these feelings, facilitators love the attendees through them, shepherding them through the emotional (shit)storm to a place of self-compassion and forgiveness.  This is where their outward humility, openness, and sincere advocacy for inclusion and diversity take root—because they experience it first hand from their teachers and peer learners.  Leadership is hard enough, but leading initiatives in diversity, equity, and inclusion is a whole other dimension of complexity.  How can we expect any leader, white male or otherwise (but white males especially), to do it well alone, without a core peer group willing to hold their feet to the fire with both love and conviction? 

I wrote earlier this year, “Practicing inclusion INCLUDES the OWG (Old White Guy) ‘oppressor’!  If we talk only about him needing to include others, while we make him feel excluded himself, how can we ever expect to enroll him in our cause or even behave in the way we ask? We do how we feel. And when we feel threatened and marginalized, especially from a place of loss, we act accordingly.” 

Michael Welp writes in Four Days, “(My mentor) inspired me when he (said), ‘The only way to touch other white men is through love.’  His words have always stayed with me.  However, the overall pattern observed in my dissertation was that white male diversity advocates disconnected from other white men and drew most of their support from white women and people of color.  They were frustrated and angry toward other white men.” 

Imagine people of your own tribe, a tribe you may lead in good faith, suddenly confronting you about biases and prejudices that you never knew you had, telling you how you’re harming people all around the tribe, and that you have to change it all now, adopt a new set of beliefs and initiatives today, and they will accept nothing less than your complete and unquestioning compliance because you are simply in the wrong.  Would you respond better if they came at you with such accusations and demands, or came alongside you with a grave and critical invitation to curiosity and learning together, for the good of the whole tribe, yourself included?  Which approach is more likely to yield tangible results in the near term?  Which one is more likely to still engage you in the long term?

We can learn important lessons from addiction medicine.  Patients succeed in rehab with a lot of grit and commitment.  They also benefit from the unyielding support and dedication of treatment staff and various environmental safety precautions.  But relapse rates are high (40-80%) in no small part because the safety and support so crucial to getting sober in rehab too often simply do not exist in an addict’s natural habitat.  

The converse was found to be true among American servicemen who fought in the Vietnam War.  Up to 20% of them were found to be addicted to heroin while overseas.  But upon return, only 5% of those who recovered relapsed.  After rigorous study (by a well-respected woman researcher, whose results and report were initially questioned and even derided—but that’s for another post), it is now widely accepted that the environment plays a key role in our behaviors, habits, and ability to change.  Soldiers in Vietnam, as James Clear writes, “spent all day surrounded by cues triggering heroin use: it was easy to access, they were engulfed by the constant stress of war, they built friendships with fellow soldiers who were also heroin users, and they were thousands of miles from home. Once a soldier returned to the United States, though, he found himself in an environment devoid of those triggers. When the context changed, so did the habit.”

The system often dictates, or at least strongly influences, how we perceive, think, behave, and relate.  And we are the system, every one of us.  By assimilating to the dominant white male culture, even as we see ourselves as resistors, we perpetuate it.  But when we resist by only opposing our white male counterparts, rather than enrolling them in the resistance movement as equals, we undermine our own progress.  Everybody deserves the safety and support to do their own personal Reckoning, Rumbling, and Revolution, as Brené Brown describes in her book Rising Strong.  Real positive change is grounded in vulnerability, humility, and courage.  If we really expect our white male leaders to change in ways fundamental and profound enough to advance equity in any meaningful way, they need the safety and support to reckon and rumble with their resistance, their rage, their fear, culture, identity, relationships, memories, realizations—all of it—with people they can relate to and who can hold them up fully, who will not turn away or against them.  As I wrote last week, more and more I see that perhaps only other white men can truly do this.

To be clear, this post is not an apology for white male supremacy and the vast suffering this mentality has wreaked all throughout history.  I just think it’s important, and too seldom attended to, that white men also suffer in and from the culture they dominate.  And in order to really change this culture for the better, we all need to support one another, white men included.

What Emerges from Crisis:  Connection, Learning, and Contribution

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“What observations/discoveries/learnings have you noticed in these weeks?”

In phone calls, emails, and snail mail to friends, I find myself asking this question repeatedly.  This exercise yields two wins:  1) I’m connecting to my people all across the country; 2) I get to answer for myself, and new insights emerge each time.

How are you connecting with your people in these weeks of physical separation?

What have you had to reframe, create, and experiment with to make life work in our sudden new reality?  How does it feel?  What are you learning?

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 Inconvenient Emotions

Very early in the pandemic, when I realized my clinical volume would drop to practically nothing, I started to feel something akin to survivor’s guilt.  I still feel it—I am not on the front lines; I myself am not in harm’s way, as so many of my colleagues are.  I feel relief for not having to be there (yet).  Then I feel guilty for feeling relieved.  So I try to make myself useful, giving Zoom presentations on wellness to colleagues and firesides on Instagram for the public.  Life has settled into something of a routine.  I do video calls, helping with operations management and team organization from an armchair (standing desk).  Turns out I enjoy working from home!  And I feel guilty for enjoying anything about this time of unprecedented global disruption.  Hello, mental and emotional whiplash, my inescapable human companion.  Thankfully, self-compassion practice keeps me sane.

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Acceptance with Agency

“The first step to changing your circumstances is to accept them.”  Wut?  I have grappled for years to understand this concept; today I think I finally got it (thank you, Donna!).

Today I choose to define acceptance as a state of possibility, rather than of resignation or victimhood.  Sometimes it helps to describe something by pointing to its opposite:  What happens when we refuse to accept what is?  Often we cling to what we think should beWhat should be is a narrow set of unmet expectations that keeps us anchored to the past, or at least to an unreality that simply does not exist.

What happens when we finally accept what is?  We are liberated to ask some important questions:  How do I feel about what is?  What are the best and worst potential outcomes from here?  What do I want to be different?  How can I effect that change?  What is my work here?

Accepting what is brings us over the threshold from the narrowness of what should be to the wide possibility of what could be, where our agency is what we make of it.

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Optimism + Cynicism = Peace

Some days I get so excited, reveling in human ingenuity and resilience!  Look at the transitions we all made, practically on a dime, moving healthcare and education online, organizing COVID testing and creating treatment protocols, constructing hospital wards in convention centers, initiating clinical trials, and sharing experience and data internationally at breakneck speed!  All this learning and application, holy cow, how could we not be smarter, more connected, and better after all of this?

By being human, that’s how.  Despite our great capacity for survival and adaptation, we are creatures of habit and products of our environments and relationships.  We revert more easily than we convert.  On cynical days I think, “Nothing will change.  We will stay the same stupid species we have become, just a couple hundred thousand deaths closer to our own stupid, eventual extinction.  And we will deserve it.”

Here’s the fascinating thing, though:  I vacillate in this false dichotomy lightly, even though the emotions on both sides can get intense.  We humans are such a complex enigma, capable of profound love and selflessness, and also unfathomable hatred and destruction.  That’s simply what is—we are all of these things, intricately complicated in our nature.  Each one of us possesses an infinite set of potential vectors for connection and/or destruction.  But I still get to choose what to do with my time, energy, and resources in this lifetime.  It’s my call.  So I’m okay; I’ got this.

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Co-Creation:  The New Normal

The last two years I have had the privilege to work with colleagues around our vision, mission, and values.  I have studied various work cultures, observed and interviewed associates and teammates.  LOH taught me the language and framework to synthesize my own, evolving style of relational leadership.  During this downtime—this unearned vacation—I have time and space to consider a bigger picture.  What about our culture best manifests our mission and values?  How did this facilitate our successes in reorganization and mobilization?  What held us back?  What needs to happen (change?) in order for us to emerge from this crisis in learning and growth, rather than in fear and trauma?  These questions apply professionally, personally, and societally.

My strengths lie in relationship and connection.   Throughout this long journey to flatten the curve (and it will be months), I can contribute my insight, observations, and talents at synthesis, creativity and vision, to make our new normal as mindful, intentional, collaborative, and functional as possible.  I can paint a vivid picture of where we could go.  I can embrace dissenting voices and find alignment in apparently divergent interests.  I can help us be better.  This is the contribution I can make.

What will your contribution be?

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Onward from 2019: Learnings and Intentions

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Friends!  WHAT a year, no?  How are you feeling here at the end?

In this post:  3 key learnings, 3 high intentions, and my 6 recommended life readings.

What resonates with you?

What would you add?

For a thoughtful and inspiring look on the coming year, check out Donna Cameron’s post from yesterday.

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3 Key Learnings of 2019

Complexity

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”  –John Muir

“All that you touch, you change.  All that you change, changes you.” –Octavia Butler

We all live in inextricable connection, like it or not, know it or not, want it or not.  Every interaction has potential for benefit and harm, and the scale is exponential.  Some may find this idea daunting, overwhelming, or untenable.  I find it reassuring.  The idea that some cosmic life thread connects us all, that we are made of the same stuff today as that which existed at the dawn of the universe—this gives me peace.  It encourages me that everything I do in good faith could make a difference.  You really never know how far a small gesture or sharing will reach for good.

The 3 Tenets of Relationship-Centered Leadership

Not so much learnings as a synthesis from LOH training, these are the current foundation statements of my personal and aspirational leadership tenets (iterations likely to evolve over time):

  1. Founded on curiosity, connection, and fidelity to a people-centered mission
  2. Attendant to the relational impacts of all decisions, local and global
  3. Respectful of norms and also agile and adaptive to the changing needs of the system

Having defined these ideals for myself, I am now fully accountable to them.  And I hold them as a standard for those who lead me.

Being >> Saying or Doing

Saying and doing compassionate, empathic, and kind things are necessary and noble.  And they are not enough.  These actions ring hollow without honest sincerity behind them.  People feel us before they hear our words.  Our authentic presence, positive or negative, originates from within.  It manifests in posture, facial expression (overt and subtle, intentional and subconscious), movement, and tone and cadence of voice.  Fake it ‘til you make it—saying and doing things because we know we ‘should’—only gets us so far.  We humans possess a keen sense of genuineness—it’s a survival instinct.  If we accept that a meaningful, productive life and effective leadership in particular, require strong, trusting relationships, then we must cultivate true compassion, empathy, and kindness.  That means suspending judgment, managing assumptions, and holding openness to having our perspective changed by all that we encounter (see first key learning above), among other things.  This may be life’s penultimate challenge—our role models include Mother Theresa and the Dalai Lama.

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3 High Intentions for 2020

  1. Continue to ask more and listen better for people’s personal and unique meaning making—not just patients but all people—attend to souls
  2. Let go perfection
    1. All relationships are not great, and it’s not all my fault
    2. Some people/relationships and circumstances challenge my best self and skills more than others
    3. It’s the honest, sincere, good faith effort, and the learning from imperfection and failed attempts that matter
    4. Some relationships are better ended
  3. Guard against judgment, arrogance, and cynicism

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6 Recommended Life Readings—the 6 most personally impactful books I have read in the last decade:

The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander.  Scarcity thinking, competition, and looking out for number one hold us all back.  Stepping fully into our central selves, claiming our full collective agency for creativity and collaboration, and manifesting all the good we are capable of—that is the discovery of this book for me.

Start With Why by Simon Sinek.  In my opinion, the most eloquent and resonant writing on the purpose-driven life.  The freedom and creativity that flows forth therefrom—it all just gives me goosebumps.  Sinek’s The Infinite Game may eventually make this list too, once I have integrated its content and learnings more fully.

Rising Strong by Brené Brown.  Strength and vulnerability, confidence and shame, individuality and belonging—these are the essential human paradoxes that Sister Brené reconciles with gritty aplomb through real life stories as well as grounded theory research.

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.  Be you, all you, all in.  Love thyself—flaws, failures, and falls all included.  Make things.  Because that is what we are put here to do, for ourselves and for one another.

Leadership and Self-Deception by The Arbinger Institute.  Perhaps no book explains the profound importance of being better in order to do better, better than this.  And it took me almost all year to really comprehend, and then begin to apprehend, the concept.

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, MD.  I started and finished this one on vacation this past week.  Dr. Gawande is my favorite physician writer.  I consider this book required reading for all physicians for sure, but really for all people .  “The death rate from life is 100%,” a wise patient once told me.  In modern western society and culture, multiple intertwined and complex forces hamstring our ability to live and die well and at peace.  This book is a brilliant compilation of heartrending personal and professional stories, neatly folded with history, research, and practical information for improving this sad state of things.  It is also a guide to the hard conversations that we all should really have—now.  It has both validated what I already do in my practice, and profoundly changed how I will do things hereafter.  Thank you, Dr. Gawande.

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Best wishes for Peace, Joy, Love, and Connection to all.

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