Creating Safe Spaces for Emotions

“This is my job. I’m not here to make things better, to end the crying, or to distract them from missing their mommies. I’m not even there to soothe them any more than I’m there to ‘good job’ them: that is not my job. Becoming soothed is their job. Cheering for their own accomplishments is their job. My job is to be with them when they’re crying and when they’re cheering, speaking truth, and creating space for them to feel exactly how they feel for as long as they need to feel it. It ‘works’ every time.”

—Teacher Tom, “The Thing That ‘Works’ Every Time.” December 12, 2022.

This is probably the biggest mistake we make with one another. When confronted with strong emotion, many of us, especially men, try to ‘fix’ the problem rather than being present, making room for the feeling to be felt.

Feelings cannot be fixed. They can only be felt.

P.S. Also reminded of this little chestnut.

Let Go With Grace

“Once you accept that as a fundamental boundary on your capacity as a manager, it’s going to set you free. Free from centering on the self-serving anguish over what you could have done differently, and on to the acceptance that these outcomes are inevitable when dealing with the opaque potential of strangers.

The redeeming realization is that this is a great, big world. The human pieces that don’t fit into your puzzle will complete someone else’s. And in fact, if you refuse to let go of a piece that doesn’t fit on your end, you’re keeping someone else from making theirs. Besides, nobody wants to be the piece that doesn’t fit.

So learn to let go with grace. You’re not here to save anyone. It’s an illusion of grandeur to believe that you can.”

-David Heinemeier Hansson, “I can’t save you, nobody can.” August 5, 2022

This reminded me of a conversation with a neighbor I had several years ago. They were trying to get involved in the lives of heroin addicts in order to “save” them. I said it was a mistake. It’s a rare circumstance where you can “save” anyone. Moreover, the most likely outcome is that they would negatively impact her, not the other way around.

There are acute situations, where an intervention at a key moment, might change the outcome. They happen. But, they are rare.

But more than 99% of the time, people interesting in “saving” others are not focused on these moments because they have a different agenda. They feel broken and in saving others they are trying to save themselves. Or, more generally, if others can be saved, perhaps they can be saved. And much of that time, they doom themselves because they are busy trying to solve someone else’s problems rather than working on their own.

But, of course, that also sounds selfish. You don’t want to save others? You only want to save yourself.

The reality is that I can only control what I do. The key point is that we are interconnected. We cannot solve only our problems. But, we cannot solve the world’s problems. Nor can we solve the problems of a large group. Our effective influence is a few people, who we have enough interaction with to see those rare moments when an opportunity opens. We need to prepare ourselves to meet that moment, which means working on our own shit and keeping good relationships with people – building our relationships – so we trust one another when the storm hits. The reality is that trust often isn’t fully cemented until after the storm, when you rose to an occasion and you could have left.

But, the only way to get there is to spend the time and do the work. Even then, it may not be enough. It won’t be enough if you are with other people that aren’t spending the time and doing the work. I guess the net on that is make sure you choose your relationships wisely.

Mimesis, Unconscious Imitation

“What happened that night is something I now recognize as disruptive empathy. The cycle of conflict that stems from unchecked mimesis (unconscious imitation)—like that of a debt collector and a debtor, each responding mimetically to the aggression of the other—was derailed. There was an unexpected breaking in of empathy, something that transcended the moment. 

Fear, anxiety, and anger are easily amplified by mimesis. A colleague sends me an email that seems curt or disrespectful, I respond in kind; and passive aggression spreads like wildfire, beyond two people and through an entire organizational culture. 

René Girard uses the example of a handshake gone wrong to illustrate how deep-rooted mimesis is—and how it explains things we usually ascribe to simply being “reactionary.” There’s nothing trivial about a handshake. Say that you extend your hand to me, and I leave you hanging. I don’t imitate your ritual gesture. What happens? You become inhibited and withdraw—probably equally as much, and probably more, than you sensed I did to you. “We suppose that there is nothing more normal, more natural than this reaction, and yet a moment’s reflection will reveal its paradoxical character,” writes Girard. “If I decline to shake your hand, if, in short, I refuse to imitate you, then you are now the one who imitates me, by reproducing my refusal, by copying me instead. Imitation, which usually expresses agreement in this case, now serves to confirm and strengthen disagreement. Once again, in other words, imitation triumphs. Here we see how rigorously, how implacably mutual imitation structures even the simplest human relations.” 

This is how negative mimetic cycles start. We are not condemned to them, though. 

When we make the effort of getting to know people at their core, we reduce the possibility of cheap mimetic interactions. Knowing someone at their core requires sharing and listening to a particular kind of experience: stories of deeply fulfilling action. Knowing and relating to these stories produces empathy and a greater understanding of human behavior. 

A negative mimetic cycle is disrupted when two people, through empathy, stop seeing each other as rivals.”

-Luke Burgis, “Empathy Lessons … from a Hitman.” Arc Digital. June 15, 2021