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"There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."
Earnest Hemingway.


The Unseen Pain

I recently had a recurring pain which I have since learned is due to a severe sinus infection. I have had it before. It seems to hit me around October. This time it really hit me hard. I would describe the pain as having a hot poker stabbed into my face under my left eye and next to the nose, which is followed by pulsing electric shocks spreading up to my hairline and out to my ear. It is literally eye watering. It pops up randomly but chewing and talking can trigger it. Which is a problem when you talk for a living….

I tell you all that not for the sympathy, (but feel free to send flowers, cards and treats) ;-) I tell you because it made me think… 

In the beginning stages as the pain level was building, I could push my way through meetings and facilitations without anyone noticing that I was experiencing pain. I managed my pace, stopping for a breath when it pinged or grabbed my seat under the table if it was a whooper and rode through the pain with no one being the wiser, but as the pain got worse I couldn’t my hide my response as I would wince involuntarily and grab my face and my eye would start to leak, and it would hit with such a force it would take my breath away, eventually I had to explain to people what was happening so I could take a moment to recover.

The interesting thing was, even though I was embarrassed about making a fuss, everyone was very caring about it and encouraged me to stop and manage it rather than to push through it. Some just sat with me and patiently waited and offered care as I dealt with it. Some were practical and went for a glass of water or offered me a tissue or just touched me to comfort me. Not one person got irritated and frustrated.

Very often we make assumptions about people by their behaviours, but in my experience behaviours, especially unhealthy ones, can be an outward expression of something totally different on the inside. In the beginning stages of the pain, it was probably a 6 or 7 and people might have picked up that I seemed to be distracted or disconnected and they would have been right, even though I was probably smiling and looking at them, my focus was on me and managing the pain, my physiology would have shifted as I tightened up and breathed through the pain, thinking I was getting away with it, but they would have felt the shift I am sure. And because they didn’t know the real reason, they might have left the meeting feeling that I wasn’t myself or maybe even a bit disconnected or just off. Because they didn’t know what was really going on, they would have walked away with a story about why that meeting felt off.

Over the last two years as people have had to deal with all sorts of things, some that may even be very painful, I have watched some different behaviours coming from people over social media. There have been a few people whose personal brands have changed from inspirational contrarian to bitter ranter, the change has been so remarkable and it has been jarring to the point where I have had to unfollow them for my own head and heart space sake. 

But the lingering sense, which is from a place of compassion rather than judgement, is what on earth has happened to tip the scales for them, and my guess is they are in world of pain and this is the outworking of it. I don’t have a relationship with them to approach them and from the tone of their conversation I don’t think they would be open to it. But do sincerely hope those who have some emotional capital with them would send them a text or give them a call to say, “Hey, are you okay?” or “Need a coffee, your posts seem off”. Yes, they might get a “mind your own business”, but it might be all they need for a pattern interrupt.

It reminds me of a coaching friend years ago who reached out for a coffee and chat because he had noticed that my social posts were getting rather negative and edgy and he knew me enough that he knew something was up and he was right. As we chatted or rather as I ranted and spewed toxic blaming and self-pity all over the place like a broken record, he suddenly leaned forward looked me straight in the eyes and said “nice boobs”. 

Now, before the ladies freak out and start a protest, this man is one of the most decent men I know who adores his wife and is a devoted family man, so when he said that to me, it was like a bucket of ice cold water thrown over me, I was shocked to the core because it was totally out of character. I stopped talking and just stared at him in disbelief. And that was why he did it.  Then he said if he had a glass of cold water he would have thrown it at me, I was in a toxic loop and he had to interrupt the momentum, he then told me with incredible care and honesty, the hard truth about what he was seeing and because we had the relational capital and trust, that was a pivotal point in my life and he stopped me from not only damaging my brand but personally stopped me from taking a very dark turn in the road. The crazy thing was I was unaware that my pain was showing up to the rest of the world, and being misunderstood and damaging my brand. (Disclaimer: Even though it worked as a treat that day, I would discourage men from trying this tactic as it just isn’t the right day and age for it.)

As leaders, we are not immune to pain and the outworking of it. All of us carry wounds from life. And because leaders have an impact the repercussions can be huge. And so it is imperative that we deal with our internal stuff and that we have people in our lives who are willing to tell us the truth in love. Your internal unresolved fear might be driving decisions that are slowly killing your company. Your internal unresolved anger might be playing out in a numbing way that has you in a freeze pattern that is stealing your ability to be decisive. Your internal sense of being overwhelmed might be playing out in controlling and micromanaging everything and everyone. Your internal fear that you are not enough, might be playing out in not allowing anyone around you to shine.

As leaders, we cannot afford to not do the internal work that is required. We cannot allow ourselves to silently deal with the pain and let it escalate. We cannot ignore behaviours that are out of character. The danger is that it is scary when we don’t feel ourselves, and we don’t know why and if we are not open to listening to those around us or are precious or insecure about being challenged, instead of hearing the feedback and making the adjustments, we become defensive and then even more dangerously start denying the pain and shooting the messengers. Eventually, the messengers will stop coming and your leadership will suffer. 

As we wind down the year, take the time to do an emotional stock take. Are there any behaviours you know are out of character? Are there some dark spaces that are growing? Do you have a constant and new emotion you have been pushing down or managing? Book yourself in with a professional and talk it through. It took me two weeks to see the doctor because I thought I could manage it and it just got worse, they have the knowledge and expertise to deal with it quickly. It has been a few days on the right meds and I am feeling the pain easing.

If you have a mate or family member that is behaving out of character, love them enough to reach out without judgement and get curious about what is going on with them. Encourage them to chat with someone. Let’s look out for one another, it has been a tough few years.


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