when family comes to work

One of the things about being a minister, or working in any kind of volunteer organization, is that you start to see really clearly how the lines between work and home get blurred. Volunteers, after all, are not in work mode–they are on their own time, doing something for fun or to contribute because they feel it is important.

When people come in feeling like they’re not working, however, it means they often bring fewer boundaries and less formality with them. Sometimes, that’s awesome. It allows a kind of bonding and camraderie that is rarely possible in the workplace. Sometimes, though, it means that people behave badly–in ways they would never consider appropriate if they were at work.

We’ve almost all done it. And when that happens, it’s often because something about the situation is reminding us of something from our past, from home, from an old family pattern. We might not even be aware of it. In fact, usually we’re not. We respond from a sense of threat and from the gut, with only a vague awareness that it feels icky before we act.

And usually that action only makes it worse, because we’re reproducing a pattern from home, one that was strong enough to get echoed forward in time.

You’d think this would be less true in the workplace, where you try to be on your best behavior. But what I’m seeing, especially as a coach, is that family systems and patterns get played out just as often in formal work environments, although the way they play out might be a little different.

That’s the bad news. The good news is, if you know about it you can fix it.

Once you start trying to notice it, you might see it in a physical reaction–a tension in your belly or the way your shoulders creep up to hug your ears. Or you might just realize that whatever you’re feeling is out of proportion with the experience you’re having.

Then you have a few choices.

You can change the physical first. Turns out that forcing yourself to smile can improve your mood. So can standing straight, shoulders back, feet firmly planted. Or raising your arms in the victory pose. Amy Cuddy has a great TED talk about that.

If that’s not working or not your style, you can go for the emotional, remind yourself that this situation is different, that you’re safe, and talk yourself down.

Or you can take a timeout. The inital biochemical wave of panic lasts about 90 seconds, whether it’s from your boss asking to speak with you later or a tiger chasing you across the savannah. In that moment you lose higher order thinking, creativity, and your sense of humor, among other things. After that, if the threat has passed, you can either retrigger the chemical cascade by telling yourself the situation is terrible, or you can take a deep breath, relax, or even meditate to calm down. That will give you the rest of your brain back.

Sounds simple enough, right?

Now the tricky part is that for most of us it’s nearly impossible to see the family connection from inside the situation. We’re just too close–and too triggered. And that’s where it’s good to get help.

There are tons of resources out there, too. Plenty of books and articles, if those help. But often you need a person with some perspective–a friend, a coach, or a therapist. There’s no shame in getting help.

That bears repeating: there is NO shame in getting help, and I don’t just say that because I’m a coach. We need help. As humans we’re made to live and connect and grow in community. And as we’ve slowly moved from villages and extended families to isolation and hyper-self-sufficiency, we’ve lost the incredible gift of outside eyes.

We’ve lost it because we are somehow ashamed to be anything less that perfect. But we need to see ourselves and each other as three dimensional, capable of beauty and grace and redemption without perfection. And in the cases where friends are not available for that, we can, with total grace and confidence, pay for help.

And that’s where true strength lies: not in success when everything is going right; not in toughing it out and pretending we’re fine when we’re hurting, but in knowing when we need help and having the self-confidence to ask for it.

Getting support is what makes us truly robust, truly reliable. And when you can see what’s going on, you can find a way to make it better, which makes life better for everyone. Most important, though, it frees you up to really be present in the world, to give and share what you have to give and share, so the world can benefit from your brilliance.

And that’s truly a gift. For all of us.