Their Feelings? Not Your Problem

Inside my heart, I hate telling people no or that I do not want to do the thing they request. I avoid telling people no and ensure that my nos are as gentle and diplomatic as humanly possible.  Fundamentally, I feel guilty any time I set a boundary that carries any possibility of making someone else feel rejected, disappointed, or otherwise negative.  For me, boundaries pose difficult and stomach-churning quandaries. They are difficult to figure out and comprehend.  In addition, complicated cultural, family, and personal influences make boundary setting unpleasant, for many of us.

But, last night, an acquaintance called to invite me to attend a support group of which I have some familiarity and no interest.  After a few minutes of talking about how much the program has done for him, he continued in the script, asking me a very open ended question along the lines of, “what matters the most to you?”

In that moment, I knew what was happening and that I needed to firmly but gently establish a boundary. The recruitment script has been exquisitely designed to generate a sense of trust and welcome.  The pointed question served as a grammatical invitation (imperative) from the speaker to the responder to accept a premise and engage more deeply in the conversation.  Therefore, common politeness requires us to answer questions, not deflect them. I was very tempted to choose the *polite* and *nice* route of responding to the question asked. I immediately felt guilty for NOT responding even though I had no interested in sharing deeply personal feelings with someone I, frankly, hardly knew at all!

In that moment, a quite, powerful voice from my childhood spoke up. In my family of origin’s family system, a woman who sets boundaries is a b#$%!. We are to share when asked, restrain ourselves from imposing too much, and ensure that what we share is pleasant or helpful to those who deign to pay attention to us.  If asked to help, we are to do so eagerly, and gratefully for the opportunity to be of service.  If asked to retreat, we are to be shamed for having imposed upon other people.

This pattern is the center of my own struggle with internalized sexism.  It was invisible to me until late in 20’s when I asked my mom about her interest in our genealogy. One afternoon, I asked my mom to draw the basic family tree and tell me more about her grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and influences. At least three times, she got to a woman and took a breath before summing her up this way,

“Yeah, she was a bitch.”  After several repeats, I realized I was hearing a pattern, so  I asked,

“Mom, when you say that, what do you really mean?”

Then, she started telling hilarious stories. In each one, the woman in question had done nothing more harsh than refuse to be bullied, stood up for herself, chose based on integrity, or simply ignored popular opinion.  One of my great-grandmothers sold her house and moved out of own in the middle of night, literally.  She had rejected the neighbors’ hatred and sold to the first Jewish family to live in her exclusive suburb of New York City. Evidently the entire neighborhood called her names for years after, and the family story claimed she only sold to *that* family because they were willing to overpay to get into a *good* (read: WASP) neighborhood.

So, basically, in my family, bitch means a woman with boundaries.

From then on, mom and I claimed bitch as an endearing term of respect and a fundamentally good thing for a woman. However, knowing better does not entirely remove the influence of childhood teaching, even as it lessens its sting. Internalized sexism (i.e. my experience of gender expectations and how I impose them upon my behavior) often manifests and the most powerful of my influences.

I am not alone in this struggle. Our globalized but primarily western culture continues to teach and expect outsiders – anyone of lesser status in the traditional sense – to make the people around them comfortable. Feminism tells us that women are not responsible for men’s feelings, and this teaching exists because most girls were taught at young age to tend the feelings of (everyone, but especially) men and boys around them.  Honestly, I find this most real in hierarchical settings: people with more power or standing in a group reward the newer or less powerful people who make them feel good about themselves.

In fact, hospitality exists as the explicit counterpoint to this implicit cultural expectation: the insiders will make room for outsiders, as an act of benevolence and goodwill!  This virtue would not exist if the opposite assumptions of exclusion and tending the powerful were not embedded within how our culture trains each one to behave.

Again, it’s less true than it was for prior generations, but that does not eliminate the influence.  Women are trained to be hostesses in any space; girls are still encouraged to show their admiration by asking a boy about his interests rather than imposing her interests upon his time. This people pleasing is subtle, rarely direct or obvious.  Sometimes it means that I can choose my favorite option, but only if I attend to the feelings of the person who asked.  At other times, it means making a special effort to empathize with someone’s feelings, even if this person is not close to me or someone who would reciprocate support in any way.  The most nefarious examples occur when power disparities, privilege, or hierarchies come into play.  All of my childhood training tells me to ensure I am tending the feelings of a person who could make my life better or worse on a whim.

I can tell someone no, but only if  I do so in a way which makes them like me more, feel good about themselves, and attends to their potential feelings of disappointment.  If they react badly, I must have done a poor job setting my boundaries!

I’m writing all this internal struggle, not because I have an answer.  But because when I name the struggle, and consider the influences, I can determine how to respond rather than be controlled by them.

What conflicting influences make it more difficult for you to do simple things like say no, claim your own preferences, and tell others that they do not get to run over you for their own amusement or comfort?

Thank you for teaching me

Much of what I’ve learned in life I have learned by negation.

I thought I was an extrovert, until I lived with someone who would plan to be busy at least 6 evenings a week and felt deprived if she hadn’t talk to several good people during each and every single day.  Then I thought I was an introvert until I remembered the people I know who are happy to spend weeks without serious social interaction.

I now believe I am an ambivert (someone who likes some of both solitude and relationships, gets energy from a balance of internal and external processing, or simply tests near the middle of Myer Brigg’s scale from I to E).


So, I want to say thank you to those who have taught me so much.

To the executive director who trusted a board enough to depart without a clear succession plan but with a strong chair in place.  Thanks for teaching me that one strong leader is not enough to generate a sustainable committee.

To the boss who was too afraid to confront power time and time again, thank you for showing me the consequences of not being true to myself.  Your fear showed me the alternative to the consequences of speaking out and occasionally getting slapped back.  I’d rather be my true self and get things done than try and please people but still get treated badly.

To the coworker who tried to smooth everything over with an underlying solution that “the boss gets his way,” Thank you for showing me what happens to a person who chooses to support hierarchies.  When you cower while reducing harm you may be enabling the worst behaviors.  I’ve known two versions of this person, never makes waves, tries to make it a tiny bit better.  Thank you for teaching me not to wait to claim my power, that only working in my designated sphere of influence is too often indistinguishable from upholding the abusers.

To those who protected the abuser and made a thousand excuses.  Who believe that it didn’t really happen, or that the accuser is exaggerating or making it up. I have no words of conciliatory kindness. You are avoiding a difficult conversation, and have no excuse.  You are telling yourself that you have insufficient proof, or no responsibility.  You are saying, but we cannot rush to judgement. You are wrong. Step the fuck up. Do an investigation. Do not use confidentiality as an excuse for secrets and hiding the truth.  You are not protecting the abused by keeping the waves small.

Face the community and admit you made a mistake. That it happened, and you were wrong. That these are the steps which you will take to correct the error and remedy the past ills.  And maybe the community will tell you, it’s not enough.  If they do, go quietly. It is no shame to face, confess, and repent for years. The shame, what makes you a bad person, is when you do not even try, when you hide your errors and protect your buddies.  We can no longer tolerate your lies.

About Leadership and Leading


Nonprofit leadership is a bizarre thing.  I’ve been through some interesting challenges.

Once, a few years ago, I had a work situation go all sixes and sevens.  Belly up.  Fucking ridiculous.  I had honestly been despairing and half-heartedly looking for work for almost nine months at that point, but not with any real ambition or plans.    I had begun to look at graduate schools options (again!), and I knew I wasn’t going to last until my initial goal date.

See, things were bizarre.  There were a number of meetings in which I found myself thinking this organization really just exists to reduce enough harm that no fire alarms will be signaled. And that our parent company did not want us to be effective.   One project that I completed included one word which had almost twenty years ago been a buzzword to mean “radical progressive trouble maker.” My boss delayed the publication of that work for almost three months dithering about whether it was too scary to publish, even though the purpose of the project was at the center of our mission, AND experts in the field had reviewed and given high accolades and unconditional agreement of the sentence and use of said term.

Then, my boss asked me my option about strategy one day, and I offered it.  Not tactfully, because I struggle with that, but honestly and not harshly.

A week later in my annual review, I was criticized for offering opinions on strategic planning.  I realized the next day that I was being punished for having seen what she had refused to see previously and being right.  She wanted to be the idea generator.  Oops.

After I gave notice, I made a really stupid decision.  I went to the boss’s office and asked her if we could talk. Part of the reason I was leaving was I truly believed she wants the best for our parent company, and I had some observations to share.   Honestly, after I’d been fussed at for being right strategically, what made me think that conversation could happen?

So, I sat down and talk with her.  And I cried, because that’s what I do when I’m angry or sad or tired. I cry.   And then there was a fire drill, which ended our meeting.  And my boss went to HR and claimed I’d yelled, screamed and threatened her.  She maintained that lie until the day I left.

Gaslighting – she would look at my face and try and tell me that I’d threatened her. Gaslighting – telling me that my concerns were all based on my own mental health.  Gaslighting – pretending that my annual evaluations for the last two years had been anything but “exceeds expectations” because she came to realize I saw her moments of inability or deceit.

That was when I stopped caring.  I started showing up and pretending to care.  I got a lawyer who ensured I would not lose anything when I quit.

And then I moved jobs, because I was young, and it was easy to find other work (pre-crash… things were different).

And my next boss right after that?  A micromanaging, yelling, terrified bundle of anxieties who could not reign in spending or sign off on a thank you letter.   A guy who thought his personal layout style was some kind of standard, and who once looked me in the face and said that my experience with a board of directors never happened.

Somewhere along the way, even as I  kept telling myself that people treating me badly  does NOT mean I “asked for it,” deserve it, OR could prevent it by being a better person,  I began to lose confidence in my abilities.  Lost confidence in my abilities to function as a human being, in normal relationships.   Internalized the conviction that I was like a jellyfish – never hostile or meaning to hurt anyone but with cells that AUTOMATICALLY shoot out poison if brushed against.   

Because why else would I have repeated struggles with bosses?  (I’d struggled with previous bosses, but never this bad).  CLEARLY it was me.  CLEARLY I was the pattern here, the commonality, the factor that could be changed.

I don’t have a happy resolution to this story.  I’m still working through my feelings.  BUT I have some skills and tools that are helping me.   That’s actually why I wrote this post: to put down in writing what might be helpful for someone else.

(1) Someone else’s bad behavior is NEVER your fault.

Gas-lighting is always the choice of the person telling lies.  Never justified and never acceptable.  Responding to someone else’s pain with gas-lighting is a second level of evil that pounces upon a vulnerability simply because it’s available.  As the person being mistreated, it’s not actually possible to “nice” a bully into reforming.  If you are bullying someone else, it’s not their fault that you have bad reactions.

If you’re over a certain age, it’s your responsibility to learn when your feelings are overwhelming and find healthy, nonviolence, nondestructive ways to feel them, not let them fester or ignore them.

If someone is treating you badly, you didn’t ask for it, cause it or deserve it.  I don’t care WHAT you did – they are choosing to respond badly.  You did not make them do it.

(2) Don’t blame your team for your failure to lead.

Micro-managers who cannot complete their own tasks are not bad at their jobs because their subordinates fail to instill confidence.  If you’re the leader, than LEAD.  Stop waiting for your employees to magically understand what you want or become stronger.  If they aren’t finishing the task, ask yourself (or your team!) what other tools they need and PROVIDE THEM.    IF it happens repeatedly, and they show no interest in improving – let them go.   and DO NOT punish the competent because you’ve known a few lazy slobs.  Learn to distinguish between the two.  And if you can’t – stop being a manager and become a doer, a developer, or self employed.  Discernment, project management, articulation of vision, goals, expectations and clear measures of success, are all basic leadership skills.

If you don’t know how – get help.  Take a course. Find a coach. Read a book. Ask someone.

(3) Patterns are not always patterns.

Randomness happens.  Look out, prepare, be smart.  But sometimes shit happens.  Sometimes you think you’ve found a healthy work environment and you end up with a painful, mean colleague.  Sometimes you win the lottery: not often.   Sometimes,  two abusive bosses in a row does not mean that you were a terrible employee, sometimes it’s means life is hard, and you were unlucky.

After that bad year, it would be easy to diagnose myself as broken, or the entire nonprofit industry as a waste of time and full of abusive, incompetent, power hungry bullies.  But that isn’t true.  People go into social work and nonprofits because they want to make the world better.  People are broken, mean, sinful or stupid, but they are usually doing their best.  And it’s trite but true – you don’t know what pain or burden they are carrying.

My last boss?  The mean micro-manager?  He was in pain all the time from gall bladder stones.  And he was so worried about the organization we worked for that he scheduled a laparoscopic surgery even though he was a very high risk patient who should have planned to get traditional surgery with the six weeks of recuperation that entails.  He literally lost his life because he wasn’t willing to go an extra mile to get the best care for himself. He died from surgical complications because he treated himself with the same pushy, mean, harsh demands that he made of us.    It’s impossible not to have compassion for that kind of misery.  May he rest in peace, really.

(4) Sometimes, Patterns are Real.

There IS a leadership crisis right now.  Maybe it’s the generational conflicts been boomers and millennials.  Maybe it’s the pressure of a slowing economy and the natural tightening of nonprofit budgets as a result.  Maybe it’s a failure of npos, boards, funders, and grantors to prioritize or invest in leadership development, but there is a crisis.

Too many micromanagers.

Too many bosses with zero training.

Too many who don’t know much about casting a vision, delineating goals, or characterizing and describing expectations.

Too many executive directors who walk around panicking that they are going to get fired for a few wrong decisions.

Too few mentors.

Too many organizations running on shoe strings so small that they can not afford continuing education or coaching or even workshops and webinars.

Too many expensive webinars and conferences not suited for shoe string budgets (yes –  FUNDERS – free workshops make a difference. If you do not invest in those who research and develop training courses, there will be none available).

BUT we can make a difference.  I’ve had several great conversations recently, with leaders at the Georgia Center for NonProfits, an organization entirely dedicated to strengthing NPO leadership, and other consultants and coaches who spend sixty hours a week each strengthening leaders.  I’ve seen grant applications that offer more than 5% or 10% budget for “overhead”.  I’ve seen challenges to the “overhead vs. services” model of judging a nonprofit budget.

The pattern? We need to do more.  Find those exciting voices.  Listen. Add your voice.

What’s your prescription for better leaders?

Nihilism in 2018


So, it seems that 2018 has become the year in which the dumpsters fires are so common that culture as a whole simply looks down and scampers past, hoping not to get caught in the flames and smoke.

A part of me would like to argue that 2016 in America was the end of our (white) liberal fantasy of moving toward a multicultural, anti-racist, post-sexism, kumbaya cultural progress.  “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice” we reminded ourselves, forgetting the King was shot down by those who believe the moral arc of the universe demands purity, and a rigid hierarchy of haves and slaves.  But that fantasy was already dead. This simply put another nail in the coffin.

Regardless, for many 2016 stripped away the veneer of false hope. So, 2017 was the year of the protest. Women’s march. March for Science. Register to vote. Get on your feet. The Oscar’s were full of “shame on you” speeches …

But 2018?

Parkland shooting.

Soros, Clinton, Obama – all recieved pipebomb mail in October.

The despair is beginning to sink in, become enmeshed with our daily lives.

We have become accustomed to an “economic recovery” in which stocks rebound and “unemployment rates” are tiny, but labor force participation has fallen and poverty rates are NOT falling.

Despair and nihilism.  That seems to be the current theme of 2018.

But in the last few weeks, I’ve seen something; some hope.  IT’s all summed up in one word:


I don’t have enough readers for it to matter, but I’m going to say it anyway, because JUST ONE MATTERS: