I want to talk about compassion at work.
But first I want to tell you about Mary. I’ll call her Mary because that’s not her real name.
Mary worked for the same company for more than 30 years. Right up until the company folded last year. Mary is suddenly out of work, with no clue what to do next. She’s scared shitless. She feels angry and hopeless. Part of her also feels relieved and excited, but that part is a very small part. Most of the time she feels frustrated and cheated and defeated and paralyzed – “like a downward spiral, a black hole”, she says.
I asked Mary, “Is there anything specific that triggers that black hole feeling?” Her specific answer to that question isn’t important to this story, but her reaction is.
Her face fell, then crumpled. Her shoulders caved in.
I had pulled the thread that desperately needed pulling. Mary unraveled.
Have you ever been a witness to someone’s emotional breakdown? It feels like it’s happening in slow motion. You can actually see the wave of anguish rising up and through their body. It’s a physical reaction. Our bodies help us process and release so much.
Mary cried. She cried because she had to. She cried because she was so fucking exhausted from the effort it took not to cry. She cried because it was time to really feel it, and time to let it go.
I wanted to reach out and hold her hand. I wish I had, but I found myself thinking, Is that too much? Is it unprofessional? I offered her a tissue instead – that and all the warmth and kindness that I could offer. I held her heavy, frightened, tired heart. Just for a minute. That was all she needed.
Work is an emotional thing. It’s emotional, but the work “system” isn’t really built for it. We feel things like fear and pain and compassion, but often we’re not encouraged to show it. Not at work. It’s not “professional”.
Is it unprofessional to shed a tear at work? Many would say yes.
Is it unprofessional to offer someone your hand at work? Many would say yes.
Most of the time, the notion of professionalism is a good thing. It keeps us civil. We all seem to agree on the roles and the rules.
On the other hand, professionalism also keeps us at arm’s length.
I want to work in a world where it’s okay to really feel things, to shed a tear, to let it all out, to have a meltdown. Maybe not in the middle of a board meeting, but privately and with someone who feels safe.
And I want to work in a world where I don’t second-guess myself for wanting to offer someone my hand. Even at work.
We’re people first, professionals second. Maybe that means we cross a professional boundary sometimes, but if it does is that such a bad thing? I don’t have the answer, but my gut tells me it’s worth the risk.