Monday, April 27, 2009

How I Got Unstuck and Found Freedom

“Being ‘pattern aware’ is an important component of mature leadership,” says Sylvia Lafair, author of the recently published book, Don’t Bring It to Work: Breaking the Family Patterns that Limit Success. Her book is an exploration of how patterns that were created to help us cope with family situations end up tying us in knots (and “nots”) in our careers. You will absolutely recognize yourself and your colleagues in Dr. Lafair’s “13 most common destructive patterns in the workplace.”

So let’s get personal here. I’ll own up to a pattern I wrestled to the ground to illustrate how we get stuck in family baggage and how I found the way out. Dr. Lafair says there are 3 steps to becoming pattern aware and finding the way OUT:

1. Observe your behavior to identify patterns.
2. Understand the origins of those patterns.
3. Transform behavior by taking action.

I had no trouble identifying my non-serving patterns, but it took a while to understand how I came to be a world-class “martyr” (one of the 13 patterns). The book describes a martyr as someone who “will do everyone’s work, bend over backwards, go above and beyond the call of duty.” As one of my colleagues said, “[I] took over-functioning to a new level.” If that sounds like a good person to have in the workplace, you aren’t factoring in the guilt exacted by martyrs, who love to suffer and let everyone know, over and over, how hard they are working and how guilty others should feel for underappreciating them. Yeah, that used to be me. Over the years I must have annoyed quite a few people, who were probably thinking to themselves, “We’d be glad to pitch in if she’d just ask for help.”

The book relates the typical family experience that creates the martyr pattern: “Parents could not fulfill their dreams or gave up their dreams to help their child, and the child takes on the burdens.” Now my pattern was making more sense. Neither my father nor his father was able to fulfill his dreams. My grandfather had creative writing and musical talent that was set aside to earn a living as a self-employed roofer; he was electrocuted in a roofing accident when my father was only 4. My father was studying to be a doctor when he ran out of money and went to work for a steel foundry, which was horribly unsuited to his gifts even though he became successful. My mother gave up her career as a nurse to be a homemaker, because that’s what most women did in the 1950’s. Both my parents pinned all their unfulfilled hopes and dreams on me, their only child, and I spent most of my life doing my best to realize everyone else’s dreams.

Now came the really hard part: transforming my martyr (and sometimes victim) pattern into one that would better serve me, my family and my colleagues. To get unstuck, I went back to my family history through a process called Sankofa Mapping (described in the book) and discovered wonderful, positive legacies passed on by my ancestors. Sankofa is a West African word that means “heal the past to free the present.” Wikipedia states that it “symbolizes one taking from the past what is good and bringing it into the present in order to make positive progress.” That’s exactly how I used my new understanding of my family history.

The story that stood out for me was that of my great great grandfather, who had been a leader of tenant farmers in Ireland. In a last ditch attempt to seek redress for injustices, he led the tenants in a collective lawsuit against the landlord. Although the court ruled in favor of the tenants, their demands bankrupted the landlord. My ancestor, along with the rest of the tenants, lost his home and livelihood. As the story was told to me, he said to his family, “We’re going to America. There’s no future here.” With their last few dollars and an undying faith in God, he, his wife and 10 children came to the United States to seek a better life.

He could easily have fallen into an annoying litany of “poor me” or “you owe me,” but instead he stepped up to his role as family/community leader and expressed gratitude for the opportunity he found in a new land. His heirs continued to provide strong yet compassionate leadership in a variety of fields from business to education to missionary service in developing countries.

Reminding myself of that story of their strength, persistence and faith in the face of almost overwhelming odds has given me alternate patterns with which to carry on my own leadership legacy. Dr. Lafair says that the martyr transforms into the “integrator” who asks for help and gets others involved in sharing the burdens. Instead of carrying my family burdens on my back, I can now stand on the shoulders of my ancestors as I move forward in my own journey and ask others to walk beside me to help carry the load.

By dropping the heavy load and the poor me excuses, I’m becoming—at 60—the person I was always meant to be. And it feels great! Ultimately, as Dr. Lafair points out, transforming our patterns is about freeing ourselves to live fully—not only in the workplace, but in all aspects of our lives. Who doesn’t want that kind of freedom?