Sunday was graduation day for my coaching class. As I boarded the Q train to Manhattan, I was half dreading it. We’d all been asked to make a short presentation about what the program and our colleagues had meant to us. My immediate response was an eye-roll. I hate this kind of thing, I thought – the sappy language, the forced emotions. I managed to fulfill the obligation by finding a kind of clever, snarky poem I could read, and I did get a laugh. Job done.
But as I watched my classmates make their presentations, some of which involved heartfelt displays of acting, singing, dancing, personal poetry and videos, I realized once again that I’d taken the easy way out. And, I realized, I’d lost out in the process.
Hiding behind a wall of cynicism is not just something I do in coaching class. My response to frustrations at work, for example, has often been to withdraw, make snarky comments or otherwise join in a generally negative office atmosphere. While that’s protected me in some ways from taking disappointments personally, it’s also kept me from really engaging in a positive way with some of the really wonderful people who work there.
I don’t know if it’s because I was trained as a lawyer and a journalist, both professions where emotional distance and a critical eye are considered essential to doing a good job. (In the age of online journalism and social media, it’s even worse – the snarkiest posts get the most eyeballs.) Or maybe it’s the way I grew up – my parents were both doctors, another profession where emotional involvement is forbidden, and critical judgment prized.
Whatever the reason, the result is I’m not someone who displays deep emotions very easily. I always though that was helpful, at least professionally – no one wants to be caught crying in the office, for example. But increasingly, I’ve come to realize it’s also an impediment. Sure, I can come up with a snarky response on Twitter pretty quickly (though not nearly so quickly as some), but when it comes to face-to-face communication and connection, with co-workers, classmates or anyone else, it’s a barrier. I’ve also come to realize, mostly through coaching, that genuine connection with other people is something I really deeply value. My snarkiness has been getting in the way.
Not that criticism or sarcasm doesn’t have its place. As Alan Henry puts it in this post I came across: “There’s a difference between being occasionally sarcastic and a little derisive in your head, but when negativity becomes your default reaction, you have a problem.” Henry cites the “wake-up moment” of Anna Holmes, founding editor of Jezebel, who once tweeted:
Henry goes on to list all the bad things snarkiness and cynicism can do, including:
- Kills your productivity
- Drains your passion for your work
- Makes you hate what you do
- Makes you prejudicial and prone to leaping to conclusions without cause
- Is linked to cardiovascular illness and heart disease
- Closes your mind to new ideas and experiences
- Poisons your relationships
- Erodes the foundations of democratic society; and
- Is unethical
On Sunday, it mostly just made me sad.
Learning to become a coach has begun to crack me open. A year ago, I wouldn’t have had those tears in my eyes and I probably wouldn’t have realized what I’d missed. I would have just been relieved when it was over, and my unexamined tension relieved.
This time, as I sat through our graduation ceremony – a candle-lit, spiritual music-filled affair – I felt both grateful and a bit disappointed. Yes, I had completed the program and learned valuable skills as a coach and am now certified and eager to help others. That’s what I came here for. But by holding part of myself back, by maintaining some of my critical distance, I had in some ways kept myself from fully participating in the experience. As I looked around the room, I saw 34 amazing people who I’d come to know some really meaningful things about, but whom I hadn’t really come to know.
Maybe we never fully know other people, but I’m increasingly realizing that the more we open ourselves up to them, the more they open to us, and the more we share the world together. And that makes it a much less lonely – and far more fun – place to be.
I’m not going to be really hard on myself about this: we all protect ourselves in various ways, and I’ve always been on the shy side. Dramatic performance about my innermost feelings was not going to come easily for me. That’s okay.
And I’m slowly getting better. All weekend I was dreading that time at the end of the final class when everyone has to hug and kiss goodbye, worried no one would really care to say goodbye to me or that it would all feel fake and I would want to run and hide in the bathroom. Instead, I just took a breath and slowed down. I decided I would just be real. No one was watching me or expecting me to perform. So I could decide, who did I want to say goodbye to, and what did I want to say? I found that when I let myself actually face those feelings, I had a lot to say, to a lot of people: about how much I appreciated what they’d brought to the class, to me, and to the whole 9-month training experience. And it turned out, I genuinely felt, and wanted to express, that each one really brought a lot. And that I truly appreciated it all.
When I could let go of my shyness and fear and the snarky shell I wear over it, I could genuinely share what I was feeling. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to connect with everyone I wanted to. But I did manage to hug a whole lot of them. And that felt great.