Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Tough Love from a Close Friend

Yesterday I got this set of reflections from someone close to me:

"I am afraid to send this. I think this email could kill our relationship. I think not sending this email could also kill our relationship, though more slowly. And when I think about the relationships that I’ve seen really last and be good, they involve the ability of the parties being able to have this kind of conversation: to say this kind of thing to each other and weather whatever comes of it. They also involve the other party doing something in response to it. I’ve seen you over the years deflect this kind of communication in the moment, but then six months later be a different person who seems to have taken in what I said. So I am trusting that some part of you can hear this and will, and I don’t expect an immediate “oh, yes, you are right” response from you. In fact, if you don’t respond now, that’s OK with me. Just send me a note saying something along those lines and I will just try to let go for now needing to hear any kind of direct response. But if you do have questions or want to respond, that’s OK, too.

"The heart of this, I think, is about ethics, and that you don’t seem to be able to look at that. It feels like, for you, questioning your integrity is the absolutely worst thing anyone could do to you, or that you could do to yourself. Your sense of self is tied really tightly to seeing yourself as a deeply ethical person, and you seem to have a very strong need to be squeaky clean in this arena, and looking at the ethical level is really destabilizing for you. I think, now, that this need of yours is why we are having such a hard time with the conversation, and this is where we need to be having the conversation.

"From the perspective of intellect and information, what you did looks like it was in line with acceptable variations on the theme of how members of your community can act. If we just stick to what the rules say and ignore the relationships, it is fine, and there is nothing to talk about. This is where I see you trying to keep the conversation: you made a mistake in not informing the community of your actions to change the ways things had been done in the past so that the implications could be discussed before they occurred; you’ve admitted that, can we just move on?

"But when you look at it from the level of impact on fellow humans (which is the territory of ethics) then this was not OK. Switching gears without talking to people, altering what they had come to think of as a stable point about how things were done, has created a lot of suffering for those around you. In the language of Strangers to Ourselves, this, to me, is your conscious mind asserting a story that makes you look OK, and that you probably even believe, but I don’t think it was all of what was going on, and may or may not have even been the story at the time. It’s the rest of the story that we need; and if you don’t have access to the rest of the story, than at least an acknowledgment that there is more to it than just the level of whether you were following the rules or not.

"The problem is that you can’t have that conversation. You retreat into feeling like everyone is against you when I think what is happening is that people are trying to get you to look at how you are a fallible human being, capable of doing wrong things (not just mistakes, but also deeper wrong, ethical wrong). People are reflecting to you an uglier side of yourself and you are unwilling to look at the reflection. I can look at this situation and say, “You know, at the bottom of all of this, I was selfish, and I put my head in the sand, and that was wrong; I’m sorry. I’m not saying I set out to use Sandhill or you, or hurt Sandhill deliberately, and I’m not saying that I should be punished, but I am owning up to being less than perfect in the ethics department." This is what is missing from you.

"For whatever reason, I don’t see you being able to do that level of self-analysis. You say, “I don’t see myself as the person you are describing,” and that is 100% true. The problem though isn’t that we are all seeing inaccurately; the problem is your refusal to see yourself fully. It is like you are wanting to only admit to the conscious part of your brain being you and all that unconscious stuff is “not Laird” even though that part of Laird is just as impactful on your relationships as the part that you do see and are willing to admit to. It isn’t that the conscious part isn’t true, it is just that it isn’t the whole truth. Not being able to admit to failings at this level is prideful and it separates you from the rest of humanity. From Sandhill. From me.

"Here’s what I see as the ethical issues:

1) You intimidate and diminish other people. It isn’t your ability to explain things that is the problem, it is the way that you treat people in the process. Whether it is some need to be in control or some self-protection where you really don’t want your decisions scrutinized too closely because then you can’t do what you want, I don’t know. But your version of explaining data has an overlay to it that makes it very hard to relax and get what you are saying, even when the words are totally clear and accurate. (I think it isn’t enough to get the lesson that you are “bad at explaining things”—I think you need to get what makes you bad about it, and it isn’t your intellect or organizational skills, it is this.)

2) You make unilateral decisions that you convince yourself are for the best and act on them without consulting. In this case, you didn’t get other perspectives on whether your unilateral actions were OK or not (or, for that matter, wise or not). This is not the only time you have done this. I see you get carried away—with excitement or a sense of duty or something else—and then your good group mind turns off and some other part of you takes over. You are clever and you work hard and often there are no real impacts that come from you doing that… you don’t “get caught.” But sometimes there are and you do. This unilateral deciding seems to me to be related to this sense of responsibility that you have (or at least that is what I imagine is a story you might tell yourself that makes it OK to act on your own; if you’ve taken on a sense of being the responsible one then you have the right to makes those decisions… but sometimes you’ve taken that responsibility on without anyone else asking you to; sometimes you even do it when I ask you not to and say, “I don’t think that is yours alone”).

3) There is something I can’t quite put my finger on that relates to your basic Jekyll-and-Hydeness—you are both super competitive and dedicatedly cooperative. Sometimes those lines get blurred inappropriately; who you are when you are sitting at the game board doesn’t get turned off when you are interacting with me or Sandhill or others. Maybe it is just that you have overlaid competition on self-perception: you need to be the most ethical, hardest working, most generous person in the room or you start to feel like you aren’t good enough (it is the “moral high ground” joke, except that it isn’t really a joke). There is something unreal about this. Nobody can do that all the time, and you don’t get to breathe when you have such strong expectations on yourself. It makes you tight, and the tighter you get the more likely you are to snap (either at someone or at yourself and slide into one of those downward slides of yours).

"I am questioning your integrity. These aren’t just personality quirks, these are ways that you are off. I’m also questioning mine (looking more at how I can be really self-absorbed and self-serving, how I rush things that I don’t have the capacity to rush on my own and it makes other people work harder, suffer, resent me.

"The bottom line for me is that this kind of thing is just what people do: I don’t think it makes you evil or unlovable (or no more so than anyone else anyway; if it wasn’t possible to love someone with this kind of stuff, there would be no love in the world). We don’t see ourselves clearly and have to rely on a situation like this to show us who we are being. We don’t live up to who we’d like to be. We cause other people pain and then have to really work to repair the damage. We tell ourselves stories about ourselves to protect ourselves rather than to grow. It is a human affliction, and you aren’t above it. I feel tired of all the extra dancing around things we do because you are working so hard to be above it (even now trying to be non-reactive and gracious, instead of admitting that you are reactive and lack grace and that's part of how we got here). I wish that you could see this as an opportunity to take in what is being reflected to you and stop defending yourself. It’s not the fuck-ups that are hard to live with for me, it is the pretense that they aren’t happening."

Wow. This has been a very hard communication to digest (and I'm still struggling with it). While I'm in awe that someone cares enough about me to offer such thoughtful reflections, I'm also feeling overwhelmed and in anguish that I come across as so brutish and uncaring. I thought I had been doing better, and now I have the embarrassing task of reviewing quite a wide swath of recent actions and significantly lowering my expectations for the marks I'll come up with in a self-evaluation. While personal growth almost always requires the gift of hearing how you are experienced by people close to you, that doesn't mean you're going to like what you hear.


Unknown said...

I appreciate this post. It is tough to read because i see myself in it. I consider myself an open-minded, fair, honest leader and to have that side of myself image challenged is terrifically confronting. The idea that I am not fully conscious of parts of myself that are doing harm to others is chilling but necessary to look at. This points to pride, shame, and self centeredness not qualities that I want to associate with myself. Thanks for the hard hitting but important writing.

Quentin said...

Very hard to read but I know when people live close together difficult to express issues develop. I wonder if there is a way it address them.

maikwe said...


Talking, without side-stepping things. Compassion. Forgiveness.

Thanks, James... I'm sure it helps Laird to know that other folks in his position can see themselves in this.

Anonymous said...


I too felt overwhelmed reading your friend's words to you. I too have experienced "feedback" from friends that gave me a perspective I would not have seen in myself to the intensity they described. I wonder how much of what our friends tell us is also projection. Easy (at least perhaps in the moment) to point our darker side towards someone else rather than reflect as to what buttons are being pushed.

I want to thank you sharing this in your blog.

Tranq said...

Two things:
1, I wish I had friends who care enough to give me a chance to see myself the way they see me, instead of just judging and/or giving up on me when they don't like something about me. You apparently do.
2, Reevaluating your self-image, your past actions while hard, is not embarrassing. The lack of capacity to do so is. If you can do it and grow by the experience you should be proud of it.
According to one of my favorite quotes, knowing begins when we realize how much we don't know.
The tough part is to know when your critics are right and when just hurt. But again those terms a so relative...