What’s Disprupting You?

We’re at week three of novena one: Turning Points and Breaking Points.  We’ve focussed on week one in negative influences that arise in the workplace, and in week two on how personal setbacks can affect us.  This week, the spotlight turns within as we explore the ways we limit ourselves.

What’s your excuse?  We all have one, “I could do more if...” We blame our busy schedule; stress, the fact that we needed to do a load of laundry, on why we aren’t making time to be our creative best.  The trouble with seeing your job, energy level, or other commitments as roadblocks is that these things are just never going to go away.  If you stay stuck in this thought process, you will never achieve your goals, never advance your career.  So, if we have to accept a certain amount of life to get in our way as a constant, how do we contain all those time and energy demands so that they don’t drain us?

See things that never were

I love the concept of the “disruptive hypothesis,” as discussed by Luke Williams for Fast Company.  A disruptive hypothesis essentially involves framing a question not around a reasonable cause and effect prediction as with traditional research, but questioning why the relationship between A and B needs to exist at all.  There are several steps to creating that innovative spark and they all involve challenging the status quo:
1.   Is your industry really your industry? We’ve discussed how blue ocean strategy thinking can be used to lead us away from competition and towards creative solutions that get traction because they serve previously undefined markets and needs.  http://thepatronsaintofarchitecture.blogspot.com/2010/09/is-your-ocean-red-or-blue.html The assumption isn’t that everyone needs to compete with the same resources in the same way for the same market.  Instead, you can create new markets and new relationships.

2.   Remember what they say about making assumptions... Disruptive hypotheses provoke us to question standards and norms, the assumptions that put us in a box and disrupt innovation.  As Williams puts it- question the chiches.  Sometimes these “norms” we work within are so second nature that questioning them can be difficult.  You really have to diagram every step of the process, of say designing a project, and ask yourself what would happen if you shortened, lengthened, or eliminated one or more of the steps.  This works well as a tool for diagramming how you typically spend your day as well.  How many needless steps are you taking that eliminate time for things that would feed your soul and spark your creativity?

Time, managed
Our biggest downfall as creatives is our ingrained failure to place a value on our time.  Perhaps this comes from our days in the studio where professors encouraged the all-nighter and we were introduced to the idea of constantly second guessing our ideas.  As we move forward into practice, we repeatedly provide clients with multiple options and encourage the design and redesign cycle.  This is enough of a downward spiral, but is becomes completely toxic when we cross over into devaluing our time in every aspect of our lives.  Mike Myatt, a leadership coach, has some great insights into this phenomenon and how to better value the resource that is our time that I have adapted to relate to our life as architects:
1.   Make space for creativity by allowing yourself to focus.  It can be difficult enough to hit your “zone” without being constantly being dragged down by distractions.  I know it’s bad when I read and reread the same sentences over and over without comprehending them because I am reading with my eyes while my mind is literally thinking of a hundred other things (how is that even possible?). I start to seek out activities that are distractions as a cover for the fact that I am distracted.  Multitasking is overated.  Make the time to do just one thing and allow yourself to be in that moment. That includes unplugging yourself from the world of electronica and its siren call to check the latest updates.

2.   Be organized and plan.  It seems counterintuitive to plan creativity, but this seeming oxymoron is actually the formula for jumpstarting your brain.  Make a plan and stick to it. We trawl around in our heads constantly monitoring our every movement, word and gesture.  The running loop of “shoulds” inside our heads so restricts our behavior that we exhaust ourselves doing it all yet getting nowhere - or at least not to any truly fulfilled somewhere.  It also leads us right to the derailment of procrastination.

3.   Meaningfully connect- and disconnect.  Engaging others fuels your thought process.  Collaboration is essential for architects.  But there is a difference between collaborating and sitting through the time suck of a boring unproductive meeting.  If an activity isn’t going to further an effort, don’t go there.  Learn how and when to say yes and no to avoid being sidetracked into activity that doesn’t accomplish your project goals, organizational goals or life goals.

Boom! and the aftermath

It's week two of novena one: Turning Points and Breaking Points.  This week, we focus on how to survive, even thrive, in the face of setbacks.

What do you do when the bottom falls out of your world?  When things in your personal life have sent you into an emotional tailspin?  You have to move on and keep functioning, but it’s not likely that your current state of mind will equip you for your high stress, creative job. We are often so demanding of ourselves that we don’t give our psyche the time and space it needs to recover.  I have been on kind of a marathon of life change and crisis that began nine years ago with the birth of my daughter.  A happy occasion, but a life changing one  followed closely by my chronically ill mother becoming critically ill, my chronically ill father needing support and assistance, a cross-country move, starting the highest stress job I ever had.  And things kept happening.  Repeated hospitalizations for both of my parents, my mother’s death just a month before my son was born, my father’s sudden death two years later, being the executor of his estate, going through a house full of 30 years of living, emptying and dispersing the contents.  This series of events only primed the pump for even more calamity in the form of dealing with a loved one’s addiction and mental illness and losing my job in the last year.

Sometimes losing myself in my work was the only way to stay sane.  At others, focusing on personal accomplishment made me feel like the rest of my life wasn’t so out of control.  I came across an excellent article on the subject of personal crisis for creatives on the 99%, one of my favorite websites.  Author Bernie Michalik makes some excellent points about forgiving yourself and allowing yourself to work through crisis. 

Letting go: the short term crisis
When something bad happens in our lives, we feel dislocated, removed from space and time of everyday events.  Michalik explores how to use this time outside of time to redefine who you are, and what you really want in life.  I will summarize some of the salient points here, but highly recommend you read his article:
1. This is an exceptional time in your life, don’t expect to be able to perform at the same level.
2. Pare down your life, focus only on what Michalik calls your “must-do-to-survive” list
3. Nurture yourself, in particular, get enough sleep to keep your reserves high.
4. Find your go-to people and use them.
5. Stay positive.  This too shall pass and you need to look for the good in every moment and allow yourself to appreciate even things as simple as a kind word or compliment.
6. Reassess.  You have just encountered a life-altering event.  Use the big-picture perspective that such times inspire to thin about your priorities, what they are now and what you want them to be.
7. Be grateful and acknowledge the kindness of others in your time of need.

Making piece: the long term chronic illness or situation
Yes, piece as in a portion of something.  Being disabled or chronically ill, or having to be a caretaker for someone who is, alters your energy, and availability for a long time, maybe even years. You need to put in place routines and support that allow you to compartmentalize your day enough that you can be fully present while you are in work mode and devoted to taking care of yourself/someone else at other times.  The trick is to be as fully present as possible in each situation. Some important resources I have found helpful include:
1. Finding a support group: you will be surprised at the advice, examples and knowledge of resources you can gain.  A group that I have been working with over the last few months has a great saying, “take what you like and leave the rest.”  This is the ultimate value of support groups- their ability to expose you to information.  Not all of it will apply to your specific situation, but some of it will, and you may find the portion that does immensely helpful.
2. Keep track of your goals and your path to reach them.  You may need to give yourself more time than you did in the past, but track at least once a week what you have done to work toward accomplishing each goal.  Why? Because our self-critical mind is impatient.  We feel like failures when we can’t just go out there and live our dreams.  We ignore all of the small things that we do, or wonderful things that are happening in our lives every day.  When focussed on our meta-goals, we also often lose sight of all the small accomplishments it takes to set us on our way. Taking weekly inventory helps us not only see what we ARE accomplishing, but helps us see the little ways we can challenge ourselves further.
3. Nurture yourself.  This seems counterintuitive, we don’t have time with all of the other demands, we don’t feel like it, we don’t deserve it.  However, the best way you can cope with any bad situation is by taking care of yourself, body, mind and soul.  It’s not selfish, in fact it is the only way you will truly shepherd yourself or your loved ones out of this time in your lives.
4. See that the struggle is the growth.  This term comes from a lecture I attended that covered the work of  Dr. Becky Bailey on Conscious Discipline.  I have written previously on how to use this approach to deal with clients, but think it is also applicable in situations where the “rules” of engagement don’t really apply anymore.  Instead of staying stuck in a situation that stifles your creativity, look at other non traditional ways you can find your creative outlet.  Try making a list of your definition of an architect.  Then look at it critically and determine whether some of these conventionally accepted definitions are even valid.  Define what it means for you to be an architect and how you, right now, can work toward that  goal.  A great recommendation from Bernie Michalik is to frame your goals in terms of 1,000 days.

It can seem overwhelming and like things will never get better when bad things happen.  But by staying positive and in the moment, adjusting yourself to what you can do right now, you may accomplish more than you think.  As much of a trial by fire as the last nine years has been, they have also been a time of my greatest personal growth, self discovery, and some huge professional accomplishments.  In the end, you may have to do some reassessing and redefine your role, but you only have to stop being creative if you want to.  Please share your moments of creative crisis and how you worked or are working through them.

Is it me? Crazymaking in the creative workplace

It's week one of novena one: Turning Points and Breaking Points and I am so excited to share the first insight: people who may be hindering your creative process.

Are you underperforming, or just being undermined?  As  architects, we define ourselves through our profession.  For us, it’s not just a career, it’s a vocation.  An attack on our job performance therefore becomes an attack on the way we define our core being.  Since our work involves evolution of ideas through criticism, are you being resistive when you feel that the criticism doesn’t ring true? I recently read a very life-changing book, The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulaiton Others Use to Control Your Life, by psychoanalyst Dr. Robin Stern, that addresses underlying causes and effects of manipulative behavior.  The term- gaslighting, first made popular by a  classic 1944 movie Gaslight with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, describes the ongoing experience of dealing with someone who repeatedly  attempts to redefine your reality; who twists around your words or actions to the point that you begin to question your sense of reality. In other words, someone tries to drive you crazy or undermine you and you allow them to do it, by buying into what Dr. Stern calls the Gaslight Tango.  Dr. Stern has graciously agreed to share her insights on workplace gaslighting to help you recognize it and empower you with tools to take action against its negative effects.
AM: Can you give a little more information about what gaslighting is and how it plays out in the creative workplace?
RS: Gaslighting is a form of manipulation where one person (the gaslighter) seeks to define the reality for another and to undermine his or her confidence.  This works by the gaslighter challenging your understanding of  reality and of your own actions and character. “do you really think you are experienced enough to take that on?”  (implication is that you are not!)  OR in another scenario “…. Not included in the client meeting?  Don’t you think you are being WAY too sensitive?”  The gaslighter creates an emotional charge, sometimes a hook, often with just enough of a grain of truth that you begin to question yourself; after all, maybe you are very sensitive! This buying into the gaslighter’s reality often leads you to  accept blame for the fact that the gaslighter is unhappy (or not giving you that opportunity, raise or promotion). And, what is key here, is that the gaslighter DOES NOT have to accept any responsibility; he may never even have to answer the question of why you weren’t asked to the client meeting – in fact, now both of you are thinking about how sensitive you are, instead!!  Gaslighting undermines your confidence and sense of reality because only the reality of the gaslighter counts and he/she succeeds in  imposing it on you. Creative people are particularly susceptible to this because their work is subjective and relies so often on approval and acceptance by others.  Creativity is an expression someone’s inner voice, so devaluing or criticizing creative work is very personal.  Creative work by its nature doesn’t rely on facts and structure and leaves more room for  interpretation – it is a perfect set up for a gaslighter who is all too happy to assert control over the moment, or reality.  

AM: In your book, you define three categories of gaslighters; Glamour Gaslighters, who are essentially flatterers, Good Guy Gaslighters, who appear to be on our side and never disagree, then resent our actions and undermine us behind our backs, and Intimidator Gaslighters, who are belligerent. Can you describe a basic profile for each type in the workplace?
RS: The Intimidator is the easiest to spot.  They tend to be confrontational, may intimidate you with anger or emotional outbursts, even with facial expressions.  They are bullies (using power over you to move you to compliance and agreement) and they gaslight by belittling your work at the same time that they use their power or position or greater experience to put down your creativity and  your efforts and to make sure you feel unstable about yourself and fear their outbursts.  Glamour Gaslighters will praise you often and psychologically seduce you with their charm, but when they are not praising you or using praise to deflect your perception, they are just as critical and just as insistent that they see the reality of your work, your efforts, etc. Like all gaslighters, they define  what a “good” employee should do and how a “good employee” would act. Wanting the praise of the Glamour Gaslighter, you will work overtime, cancel plans, and turn your life inside out to meet expectations.  After all, it’s what any “good” architect would do. And, it feels so good to get the praise and be with your Glamour Gaslighter when he is charming, that you are willing to allow those moments to deflect your attention from the otherwise negative interactions.  The Good Guy Gaslighters seem very reasonable on the surface and are very willing to negotiate.  However, they will constantly question your work and therefore cause you to second guess yourself.  You may even feel like you successfully argued your point, but be so unsure of yourself, or just so completely exhausted,  after dealing with them that you feel lucky to have been successful. Alternatively, they will make you feel as if you are not a team player if you question their game plan.

AM: So much of your book deals with the importance of learning to trust yourself and not be drawn into other’s perceptions of your behavior.  Our profession of architecture can be outwardly collaborative, yet inwardly competitive.  How do you differentiate between honest criticism and gaslighting?
RS: Constructive criticism and feedback provides you with useful information.  Gaslighting happens when criticism is followed by a challenge of your values and beliefs.  For example, you may be accused of being arrogant, not a team player, infatuated with a particular designer or style of design, a rigid thinker.  “ You might hear a gaslighter say: C’mon, we all know you are so bought in to xxxx’s style that you will say yes to anything like it”; the gaslighter using your positive attitude towards a particular designer as a way to say that you don’t know how to critically evalute a new piece of work. Anytime emotional attacks are intended to impair your ability to think rationally about the problem at hand or issues are brought up that have nothing to do with the particular item being discussed and you begin to second guess yourself and your ability, you are being gaslighted. As you will read later, you need to learn to step out of the Gaslight Tango!

AM: Will a workplace gaslighter most likely have a single target, or will they be an equal opportunity abuser/manipulator?  Are there behaviors that might encourage gaslighting, or responses to gaslighting that might exacerbate it?
RS: Any time that you idealize a person, opportunity or company, you are vulnerable to gaslighting.  Gaslighting can’t happen if you don’t feel in need of, or worse, that your worth is tied to the gaslighter’s opinion of you.  Most workplace gaslighters have learned through successful gaslighting encounters to deal with people and negotiate their way in the world by gaslighting.  They will throw it out there and see if you respond.  If you do, then they will repeatedly engage you in a manipulative way.  However, it is important to note that if you don’t initially respond, they may keep up their strategies (after all, that is just the way they relate!)  and over time, you may become vulnerable because they – and, then eventually you too -  build up a “case” for their point of view.  All gaslighters have an indirect and inauthentic communication style.  They are highly skilled at knowing how to manipulate. Therefore, it may be useful to confront your gaslighter directly about the way they interact with you and to say that you appreciate their input, but not comments that imply something negative about who you are as a person.  And, if after considering the idea of a conversation/ or confrontation, you think it would be impossible - or you try and encounter more manipulation - think about how important it is to you to stay at this job.  Are the pros still outweighing the cons?  Are you feeling anxious or depressed more than usual? Why are you staying there?  Is your job worth your psychological well being?  Can you avoid the gaslighter? If you can’t avoid him or her and even if you choose not to leave right now, think about your larger life plan and a possible  exit strategy. Do you need to stay another two years, five years?

AM: We often seek out mentors.  Because gaslighting is so insidious, how can you tell whether your mentor has your interests at heart, or is actually gaslighting you though their advice and guidance (i.e you have a lot to overcome- it’s a good thing you have me)?
RS: The relationship that you have with a mentor is a lot like one you might have with a trusted teacher or even a therapist. You are inclined to have confidence in the mentor’s advice because they (your believe) have a commitment to your professional development and often know things about you and your life.  A good mentor will ask you questions after making an observation and leave space for your thinking.  A good mentor gives you feedback in a way that is useful and can be "worked on" – and, after which you feel you know more about how to move forward and you feel empowered.   A gaslighter will put you down, undermining your sense of self and confidence. You will leave a feedback moment or session with a gaslighter feeling “less than”, depressed, confused and often going over and over the conversation.

AM: You state that a big part of gaslighting is related to a power struggle.  Learning to recognize when a conversation is not about the stated topic but about domination and judgement is key to avoiding gaslighting attempts.  Unfortunately, in a work environment, the power struggle bleeds out into how others in the office perceive us. What is your advice for working on a team project with a gaslighter?  Are there ways to create rules of engagement to minimize their gaslighting?
RS: It takes a lot of strength- a lot of checking in with yourself.  Do your best not to respond to the drama, and commit to avoid becoming emotional.  Instead, learn to recognize the power struggle (ie: you are going over and over the same thing, you feel challenged and defensive rather than listened to and understood) and simply state that you respectfully disagree.  One way to check yourself and get more information is to seek another opinion about what the gaslighter is saying about you; do others see the same thing?  Take in the information, sift through it and identify what is useful – if anything – to empower yourself to make a change if you want to. When you have to work with a gaslighter as part of a team effort, understand what kind of control you will have and how to limit your interactions with the gaslighter.   

AM: As architects, we tend to be overachieving workaholics.  How do you know the difference between manipulative flattery and a boss who genuinely appreciates your efforts and wants to praise and reward staff, but may have to call on them to rise to an occasion?
RS: Any time you are not sure if you are being manipulated or genuinely asked to do something because of your expertise, you need to step away from the situation to check in with yourself. In this example, if you are asked to work late, but, in doing so, you are going to have to cancel an long time plan (important commitment, vacation, etc.)  tell your boss you will think about it and give yourself some time to mull it over. Maybe it is a culture where you can’t say no to a request like that. If so, maybe that is not the place for you long term.  If you can say no, but, feel caught up in the flattery of having been asked, use the time away from the moment to check in about how important your previous commitment is – then, if you chose your first commitment, feel free to thank him/her for the praise and say no if working late will cause you to have to make other sacrifices in your life. If your boss tells you are really needed or you are the only one for the job, you may even let him/her know how much you appreciate the praise, but if you are challenged by a questioning of your commitment or work ethic,  state calmly (this is difficult but important!)  that you don’t agree, the reason you are refusing is that you just can’t work late in this instance is a previous commitment.  Be clear about your boundaries and don’t let your gaslighter misuse his “analysis” of your personality traits to draw you into an irrelevant discussion.  For example, you could say, “You may not be aware of it, but I am working very hard on this project – I will be happy to show you what I have been dong. Implying that I am not staying late because I am too anxious about saying no to dinner with my husband has nothing to do with my work.

AM: In your book, you discuss ways that we become drawn into gaslighting.  One way is by wanting to defend our selves against an attack,  something you call the “gaslight tango.”  Another way is through the “urge to merge”; to be “with” another in their perceptions and thinking – even at the expense of allowing someone else to define us and determine our self worth. Can you elaborate a bit on how these techniques might be used in the workplace?
RS: The urge to merge comes from our deep desire to be connected.  This can lead to taking on other viewpoints because we want to be aligned, and be seen as being aligned, with a person or company we admire. The urge to merge propels us in the direction of taking on another’s point of view – and, as you rightly stated, even at the expense of our sense of self. When confronted with gaslighting, we succumb out of a desire to have things work out and to align ourselves with the other. The gaslight tango occurs when you respond emotionally and question yourself instead of either challenging what was said or offering another solution.  Whether at the workplace or home, it is important to remember that you need never to allow someone else to put you down, to use your sensitivity or creativity as a way to make you wrong, or shame you into seeing his or her way.

AM: I love your term “emotional apocalypse!”  What kinds of emotional apocalypses can we expect in the workplace (aside from the threat of being fired)?  I struggle with the way professionalism can be defined, discouraging employees to speak their mind or take a stand or in fact display any emotion or passion.  This makes us especially vulnerable to an emotional apocalypse where we can be accused of being too aggressive, arrogant or emotional.  We can be told things that we can’t really verify like that others don’t want to work with us or that a client has complained about us.
RS: The gaslighter uses the emotional apocalypse, or threat of it, when you have resisted attempts to be drawn into his or her reality.  Emotional apocalypse can be a very personal thing – for some people  the threat of being rejected may be an apocalypse – for others there are other apocalypses. In the workplace, an apocalypse can include being ostracized or isolated from groups of co-workers or good  projects, having your work minimized or made fun of, not being invited to key meetings, assigned to insignificant roles on a project, being told you are not as good as you think you are. The key to being able to assert yourself in the workplace is to understand that the respect we seek from others starts with self respect.  When you respect yourself, you can assert your point of view while avoiding drama.  I recommend having a list of phrases that you can use whenever you sense escalation in the power struggle.  Saying things like “I need a minute to get my thoughts together,” or “I am uncomfortable continuing this conversation -  and I will get back to you about the project,” will allow you to exit the situation and avoid, for example,  the emotional apocalypse of humiliation.

Dr. Stern emphasizes that we need to preserve our self image and honor the creative part of ourselves.  “Gaslighting stops the creative process and makes us afraid to make mistakes.  Creativity is your voice, it’s the ability you have to interpret the world and see things in a new way.”  So how do we guard against being gaslighted?  “I use the term checking with your flight attendants to describe the process of checking in with yourself and the world around you,” says Dr. Stern.  “Whenever you feel that things aren’t right, look at other things unfolding around you, the emotional state of your co-workers, talk to other people you trust and listen to what they have to say about the situation. It’s important to do a reality check when you feel things aren’t right. To be sure, when people give you feedback on your work, it is NOT always gaslighting!!  Sometimes it important commentary that you need to pay attention to.  Constructive criticism may be very fair, and you may in fact, need to take another look at your work, or the situation at hand, but gaslighting is never fair.  You need to learn to evaluate each situation from an unemotional point of view, respecting your feelings but sifting through the information coming in to see if it is accurate and useful – as opposed to manipulation.” 

According to Dr. Stern, many of us inadvertently engage in gaslighting at times, motivated by frustration when we can’t get others to go along with what we believe is right or what we want.  It is easy to resort to emotional manipulation when we can’t get what we want any other way.  Gaslighters however, routinely engage with others in this way, with the intention, conscious or not, to destabilize them and leave them unsure of their reality -- gaslighters create a truly toxic environment for others.  Dealing with them effectively requires us to know ourselves and preserve our sense of reality. “We must be aware of and responsible for our part in  maintaining relationships --  that includes being responsible for our communications, with others  --- you can’t go wrong taking the ‘high road’ – and,  being firm and kind” says Dr. Stern.  “And, you never have to swallow your integrity.”

Robin Stern is an author, educator and a psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City