“Look honey”, I told my girlfriend, “it’s not you, it’s me.” Thereby, in theory, absolving her of any of the need to feel bad about herself, and minimizing the amount of time I would have to spend breaking up with her.
“It’s not you, it’s me” is a sentence we use to get out of hurting someone. Ironically, it’s a phrase that has all of the appearance of taking responsibility for how things have gone, but is actually designed to remove any of the need to be responsible. We say this when we want to avoid the responsibility that comes from having hurt someone.
Relationships are relationships are relationships
The way we are at our jobs is not really very different from our romantic relationships. At the end of the day, they’re both relationships.
We don’t want to take any more responsibility for the way things go with the blowhard jerk in the cubicle next to us than we do for our soon-to-be ex-partner’s hurt and suffering. If the problem is simply that he’s an unchangeable hopeless donkey, there’s nothing for us to do than complain about him right?
The problem is that you’re an utter victim to this person. There’s nothing you can do, and so you’re relegated to your own suffering. And here’s the catch – you actually prefer that suffering to taking the next steps, because those next steps require taking responsibility for how you’re showing up.
The world is a mirror
I often advocate my clients to imagine everyone’s head was replaced with a mirror. That thing that they do that drives you nuts? That represents something that you can’t be with in yourself. They are reflecting a part of you that you can’t own. Maybe it’s something you do but wish you didn’t, or something you won’t allow yourself to do, because you have a story about why you shouldn’t (and therefore, why they shouldn’t, either). Whatever it is, you have a relationship with something on the spectrum of whatever it is you can’t be with in others.
I have a story — a script, if you like — that it is bad for people to feel sorry for me. Sympathy represents an indication that I’ve done something wrong, embarrassing, or that I’m failing. After all, if I wasn’t one of those things, why would they be sympathetic toward me? Inside that story, there’s no possibility for me to hold compassion for myself when I am genuinely struggling.
Sometimes, great leaders struggle. They get caught, they slip, they fall, they trip. Being a leader doesn’t mean that you are immune to these things. It means that you get back on the horse after it does happen. My story doesn’t allow for this.
It also means that when I see other people act in ways that are designed to elicit sympathy, instead of having compassion for them, I go to judgment. “How pathetic,” the voice in my head grumbles, “Why don’t they just pick themselves up and get on with what’s next?”.
The lady two cubicles over that’s always griping about her family life? She’s just doing her thing. Sure, there’s plenty of growth for her to take on, but at the end of the day, she’s fine — she gets to continue doing her own thing, and has every right to show up however she wants to. The gift that she provides you is some insight into the part in myself that I can’t be with. Sometimes, you just need some sympathy. Sometimes you just need some love.
You’ve got some work to do
When it really is you, there’s work for you to do. It’s a lot more work to take responsibility, but when you do, you can actually change things. At the end of the day, that’s the game that leaders are up to playing.
Adam Quiney is the founder of Evergrowth Coaching & Consulting, and an executive coach specializing in working with high-performance professionals. Prior to his career as a coach, he worked as a software project manager and a lawyer. Adam and his wife, Bay, are both avid bloggers at www.evergrowthcoaching.com/blog/.