Oftentimes, I’ll find myself feeling as if I have the weight of the world on my shoulders–an experience in life that is equal parts daunting and overwhelming. And this year, that weight has felt even heavier than usual, as I would end each long workday feeling completely exhausted and with seemingly more to do than when the day started.
During COVID-19, my weekly therapy appointments have had to take place outside of the pristine and comforting walls of my psychologist’s Flatiron office, and instead, they are happening through the computer screen in my living room. Ultimately, I think it was the sea of Post-it notes covering the desk below the monitor, scribbled and covered with to-do’s in my signature “encrypted” handwriting that really served to reinforce and amplify my sense of angst. I went on and on and on about how I “am behind on this and that,” and “I owe this person X and this person Y and this person Z, and I can’t get it all done.” And after I’d gotten all of that off my chest, I paused and noticed my therapist, who slices through my challenges with the precision of a 3-D printer and the speed of a boxer’s punch, paired with all the compassion of a funeral home director, musing. After a few healthy moments of silence, he suggested that I ask myself one simple—yet powerful–question …
“What do I owe myself?”
Owe myself? Was he even serious? I’m so in over my head right now, how the hell does he think I’ll possibly have time for something else?! I had an immediate visceral reaction to the question, which we both recognized as a ping that we were onto something powerful. So, after releasing the tension from my jaw, I started to answer the question–and there was a lot there.
I know I’m not alone in being primarily concerned with what I’m doing for others. From my experience, this is a thread that runs through the entire HR community, as we are leaned on to be the ultimate in nimble, unwavering and compassionate service providers–both operationally and emotionally. So many of us have witnessed firsthand the strong bond between a senior executive and an HR head or business partner. It’s a deep but one-sided connection dominated by the executive’s needs. When I was leading an event in Portland, Oregon, last summer, I asked each participant to make a rough drawing depicting their needs that were currently not being met. One bighearted HR leader in the group was completely stymied by this request, sharing that her mind was totally preoccupied with the unmet needs of her colleagues, clients and close family, rather than her own. She, like me, hadn’t even allowed herself to consider what she needed.
More from Ben Brooks: The biggest risk facing HR leaders? Not taking enough risk
Within an organization, there are many ways to wield power and influence, and many HR professionals will rely upon a combination of referent and connection power. On the referent side, we generally seek to be likeable and to get along with our internal clients and colleagues, as a way of earning and protecting our own seat at the table. And we stand on our connections to high-ranking executives–the invitations we receive to key meetings and sensitive conversations–as another major way to get things done. It’s easy to see why this is effective, but this coach had never really assessed the cost of this dynamic.
“What do I owe myself?”
When we ignore or consistently deprioritize our own needs and concerns for the sake of others, we are wreaking havoc and harm on our own ability to both have an impact and to be satisfied. This is often easier to recognize in others who are vibrating in a constant state of anxiety, exhaustion or burnout. If we subordinate our needs, this can breed resentment between us and those who are close to us–even if we are the ones who are putting ourselves last, and not them. Most people I know who get into the field of HR do so to have an impact–something that is very hard to achieve, if you never level up beyond the reactive transactional frenzy that has you logging off at the end of the day feeling more like a survivor than a victor.
The poetic irony of my situation, though, is that I know better! My company helps coach others on how to prioritize themselves, set boundaries, self-advocate and get their needs met; all of which are mission-critical inputs to achieving a satisfying career and life. But anyone who’s ever worked with a coach before will surely realize that knowing doesn’t make a difference … it’s the doing that does.
So I’m getting busy doing what I know works. Saying “no” or “not now” to new opportunities when I’m already over capacity. Setting realistic deadlines for myself. Starting my day by taking care of the most important things to me, before I serve others. Establishing better boundaries. Asking for help and delegating activities more. Reducing scope and complexity. Speaking up for myself–often with myself–whenever something is out of joint. Showing myself grace and compassion whenever I inevitably turn out to be less than perfect. And stopping myself frequently to reflect, pull up, and apply my scarce time, energy and mindshare to the things that are most important to me; the things that I owe myself.
As I’ve shared in previous columns, there’s never been a bigger moment for HR and its professionals to rise than right now. It can be tempting to fall into old roles of abandoning our own needs, priorities and wellbeing to deliver for others, but we must remember that taking care of ourselves is a courageous act and one that also creates permission for others to do the same. Putting on our oxygen masks first helps us to take care of so many others. So I encourage you to prioritize yourself. To truly own your satisfaction at work and integration with your life beyond your job. This is, in fact, your most important job. You can start right now by asking yourself the same question: What do I owe myself?