The workplace is like an incubator for the ego. The fact that we care about our work means that we often become identified with it. Our sense of self-worth can become wrapped up in it, even if the job is not our chosen field or career, but just a way to pay the bills. Whether we go to a jobsite, work from home or are doing the essential work of raising children full time, we can find our perceptions about how we are doing feeds a sense of solid self. We want people to approve of what we are doing, and feelings of disapproval can be absolutely shattering.
As a result, colleagues who disapprove of our work or our work habits can easily become a focus of a lot of anger. Most people have at some point or another had that “difficult” colleague or boss who is critical or unappreciative. And most people can relate to that feeling of anger and outrage that wells up when faced with those attacks on our sense of solid (hard-working) self.
In Buddhism the antidote to the poisonous qualities of anger is said to be compassion, also known as“metta” or loving kindness. It is easy to see that anger is a force, but in her book Real Happiness at Work, Sharon Salzberg says “compassion is a force,” using this bold statement as the title to one of her chapter sections. We often think of kindness as a weaker response to difficult situations than the intoxicating, strong feeling of anger. But when you begin to practice compassion, the results are pretty mind-blowing. It is a transformative force.
Dealing with a colleague who was particularly difficult for me several years ago, my initial response was anger and self-righteousness. I wanted to defend my territory and fight back against what I perceived was not just unfair criticism, but just plain unkindness, undermining my work with what I felt were unfounded complaints to a supervisor during a very challenging time in my life. The feelings were intense and unfamiliar for me. While I’d was no stranger to anger, I was not used to feeling this in the workplace, where I’d always been well-liked and gotten positive feedback.
Luckily I had some friends who were practitioners who offered me some surprising feedback when I ran the situation by them. Instead of agreeing with my outrage and feeding the fire of my anger, they suggested a few things: find out what is going on with this colleague. Maybe she wants your attention or approval? Maybe she is in pain in her own life… become curious about her, they offered. At the same time, I was reading Sharon Salzberg’s book Loving-Kindness, and I began to practice metta meditation for this woman. She became my “difficult person” during my contemplations.
What happened was astonishing. In wishing her well and watching where my thoughts and feelings travelledduring those contemplations I learned a LOT, not about my colleague as much as about myself and my own behavior. I realized that the defensive attitude I’d developed was actually quite aggressive, and I’d been out to prove her wrong by “outdoing her” in my performance – yuck. That felt embarrassingly childish and ugly to notice in myself, but I followed the instructions to let go of self-judgment, and I continued to investigate.
I realized that I’d been totally shut down to her at work, emotionally, communicating in only the most clinical, cold way after I learned she’d been complaining about my work. As I began to wish her happiness on the cushion, I found myself wondering about her at work and reaching out. It was quite sudden, like a dam bursting. Suddenly we were having lunch together every day, and despite the stress I was feeling about my own life, I began to take the time to just be more friendly and collegial. Wrapped up in my obsessive thoughts about the hard times I was going through, I realized I’d stopped communicating with my colleagues. As we reconnected, I learned what was going on in her life, and realized we had so many things to share – about our work, our teenage children, our partners, our aging parents. We were actually facing many of the same challenges and painful experiences. Letting go of my defended self long enough to reach out to my “difficult” colleague, I found myself with an unexpected friend and support. Letting go of the need to defend myself was also just an immense relief. I felt fluid, soft, relieved of some of the heavy burden of self-ness.I won’t say it was easy and it definitely felt like I was “swimming against the stream” in my own feelings at first. It felt a little forced, but the simple formula of the Loving Kindness Meditation offered a doorway out of my defended self and into a surprising world of connection – to those around me as well as to my own feelings, which, like everything, were not as solid as I’d imagined.
Sometimes I’ve heard the instruction to go lightly when you choose your “difficult person” in metta meditation. And clearly if you are dealing with a history of abuse or great harm, you need to be in a safe place with support to go there. But I think we can’t be afraid to go to the most challenging places. The hardest things are also the gold and where the real transformation happens. Compassion is the force that takes us across the river safely, into a world where we truly belong to each other, and where the edges between us dissolve into interdependence.