What’s Your Mess to Own?
One of the things that makes life both magical and complicated is that there is no such thing as a perfect human being. Try as we might (and some of us are trying mightily), we mess up from time to time. We react in the moment. We say and do stupid things.
It’s not just you – we all do it (if someone tells you otherwise, be suspicious – they’re either a cyborg or they’ve no self-awareness. Because if they’re human, they too make mistakes).
Mistakes in of themselves aren’t the only big problem. Yes, we hope that as we grow and learn and evolve that we’ll become more mindful, make fewer of them, and when we make them they’re not as ugly. But since we humans, and we come with these unwieldy things called feelings, we know we’re bound to make them from time to time. The key to being and bringing your best isn’t just about the mistakes, it’s also about what follows.
We don’t like to deal with the mess of our mistakes. It makes us not feel good about ourselves. We get embarrassed. Or self-righteous. Or just weird. When we know we’ve said or done something that is not representative of who we are we’d like to pretend it just didn’t happen.
Memories are funny – we tend to safely pack away the times we’ve shape-shifted ourselves into demon-like-creatures, spewing toxic slime throughout the workplace or all over the people we love. Once we’ve justified our actions (“I was angry.” or “Well…he shouldn’t have….” or “If they’d just do what I told them to do then…”) we move on. So should everyone else, right?
But it doesn’t really work like that. People remember.
As I write this, I can think of many times I’ve reacted that have left me feeling less than proud. I remember one night last December (believe me, I don’t have to reach that far back, this is just a better story than some of my more recent ones…) when my kiddo kept getting up in the middle of the night asking me for something. It was the night before I was leading OnStage Leadership, so I had my alarm set for 4:30am the next morning. I had dutifully put myself to bed at 9:30 that night so I’d be rested and ready to go, but around 11pm I hear, “Mommy…I can I have a glass of water?”. “Sure, Honey” I say, dragging myself from my slumber.
Then around 1am…”Maaaaahhhhhm! I can’t sleep!” Grrrrrrr. I am now mad at both my husband for traveling and not being there to take over and at my son, the sleeepless-wonder. I walk to his room and sternly say, “Jeremy, I’m sorry you’re having trouble sleeping. Have you tried counting sheep?”
“That never works. Will you sing to me?”
I remember so many times when I’ve laid down beside my child and have sung him to sleep thinking, what a miracle this is – I am so lucky to be here doing this – I have to tell you, I was not thinking those lovely things at that moment.
“Fine,” I whisper in frustration, “but only if you promise you’ll go to sleep and stay asleep.”
Then at 3am I feel a tap, tap, tap on my shoulder….”Mom, can I sleep with you? I still can’t sleep.” I pretend he’s not there as he crawls in next to me. And he wiggles around. And kicks off the covers. And elbows me. And finally…
“Out!! OUT!!!” I scream. “Mommy has to get up in an hour and a half and I MUST SLEEP!!!!” I usher him into his own room, like some possessed alien. “STAY IN BED AND BE QUIET!”
And then, at 3:15am as I lay there in the dark, feeling my heart pounding in my chest, it hit me. The yuck. The awareness that even though I was so tired and had what felt like an immense responsibility on my shoulders, I had just totally messed up. I was not the mom I wanted to be. I felt ashamed, and sad, and disappointed in myself.
You see, no matter what the circumstances, no matter how justified we are, when we behave in a way that’s not congruent with our best we know it. We feel it. We cannot escape ourselves. We carry the shame, and sadness, and disappointment around with us like weights – not seeing them for what they are – assassins of our self-belief and efficacy. We cannot be and bring our best if we don’t deal with the messes that we’ve made.
I tiptoed back into Jeremy’s room and he bolted up in his bed, alert, like a deer in the wild. “Mom? Is that you?” he whispered in the dark.
“Yes, Honey,” I whispered gently. “I….I’m so sorry I yelled at you. It was wrong of me to yell like that. Will you forgive me?”
“Of course, Mommy. I’m sorry too. I didn’t mean to keep you up.”
“I know,” I said, crawling in beside him. Within minutes he was sleeping soundly.
When my alarm went off at 4:30am in spite of the early hour I was glad. I was glad that I had taken the time to make things right. How could I teach what I teach, and do what I do, and be who I want to be if I hadn’t? The answer is – I couldn’t.
Parenting is a great school for learning how to clean up your messes – and so is work. How often do you find yourself snapping at someone when you’re frustrated, or stressed, or behind on a deadline? Or hear yourself calling someone out in a meeting (Let the public floggings being!)? Or making blanket threats (“If you don’t hit your numbers heads are gonna roll!”)? Or saying snarky comments in lieu of dealing with the root problem? What messes have you made in your world?
Maybe it’s time to clean them up.
People are amazing creatures. They have an enormous capacity for forgiveness when someone has the courage to own their mess. But if that same person leaves the mess for someone else to clean up, their memory is long. They may not tell you what you’ve done that fractured their trust and belief in you, but they have filed it away as evidence of who you really are. Of what they can expect. They’ll carry a wariness into the relationship like a shield. They’ll hold back and play it safe. Or they’ll get the heck out of dodge. If you really care about results, you need a different outcome.
Clean it up. People know. You know.
©OnStage Leadership, 2014
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Kimberly Davis is the Founder/Director of OnStage Leadership, a full-day experiential leadership workshop.
Want to get clearer about what you stand for so you can increase your awareness around what you need to clean up? Join us at our upcoming session of OnStage Leadership: NYC – May 15; Dallas, TX – July 24. Register Now.