“Well that’s an easy opinion for a 20 year old girl to have but no, that won’t fly”
My first experience with being made to feel small in my corporate world came early in my career. I was in a meeting and finally gathered up the courage to suggest a more human way of dealing with a team that was underperforming.
And that was the response I got back.
My palms started sweating, my face got red and it took every ounce of me to not burst into tears right then and there. I somehow managed to keep a straight face and respond with:
“Ok, it’s an idea to throw on the table but no problem if it doesn’t seem like the right solution”
To this day I don’t have a clue how I managed to sound that composed. Because inside I was feeling deep embarrassment, humiliation, insecurity, shame, worthlessness and self doubt.
Over the next decade of my career I noticed these comments that would trigger me would continue, the theme changed as I aged and my life circumstances changed, but there they were under a new guise:
“Single people don’t really get the challenges though on this”
“As a woman it’s probably hard for you to get what’s really going on with this team of guys”
“Oh boy, pregnancy hormones strike again!”
When someone says something triggering to us, something that makes us feel small, insignifiant and like we aren’t able to contribute… it is dangerous in so many ways. It breaks the trust we have with that individual and potentially the whole team. It makes us less likely to speak up and bring our unique expertise in the next time. It can hurt our mental health and wellbeing.
It’s not ok.
But what to do?
As I’ve worked with leaders and teams over the last decade I’ve come to see that I was not unique in my experience or my reaction. We have all at some point or another had our self worth be called into question, whether purposeful or not, by someone at work.
The next time this happens to you, and there will be a next time, I want to offer you some coping strategies to help you deal.
1. Find a Calming Practice
Start to play around with what actions you can take that will calm your physiological state and bring you back to baseline.
So for me, it’s stepping away from all screens and technology and going for a walk. For some people it’s calling someone they trust to vent. For others it’s deep breathing. For others it’s locking themselves in a cubicle and blaring Iron Maiden in the noise cancelling headphones.
Figure out for you what are the steps you can take – and these are actions you do, not an intellectual exercise – what you can do that will calm your body down to be able to think clearly again.
2. Get Intensely Curious
Now that you’re calm, I want you to get into full on Sherlock Holmes level of curiosity. Bring out that inner toddler of yours who asks ‘what’s this’ and ‘why’ to everything.
Get super curious about what happened. Why did that comment get to you? What part of the comment do you believe (because we’re always triggered most by the things we secretly believe about ourselves)? What might that person’s intent have been? What part of the statement is true? Was there a social cue you missed?
Phone a friend, grab a journal, type it out, speak out loud to yourself. Really get curious about what happened, what meaning you made out of it.
When it comes to feeling small and insignificant, awareness is power. The more awareness you can have over your own internal state the more likely you are to build that resilience muscle!
3. Have a Grown Up Conversation
And for the hardest one on the list… you have to address the comment with the individual who said it. Not in the moment, but soon after. Once you’ve calmed down and gotten curious about your own reaction.
This is so hard for us to do for so many reasons – not wanting to rock the boat, wanting to appear totally unaffected and cool, wanting to be able to just be ‘resilient’ and brush it off. But the real work and the real depth in work relationships is having these uncomfortable grown up conversations.
So here’s the deal, you have to let this person know (1) what they said (2) what story you made up about it and (3) how it affected you. They have a right to know.
And you know, 8 times out of 10 they will be horrified that they made you feel that way and it will be a relationship building moment. It will make you both better professionals.
…Ok and yes, 2 times out of 10 the person is so deep in their own self worth issues that they will just knock you back. That’s hard, but not your stuff. You may still have put a little chink in their armour so they will think twice before a comment like that again.
And remember, the goal of this grown up conversation is to take back YOUR power, not to convince or influence the other person of anything. That’s their stuff and their professional development to work on.
Due to my many years in corporate land I can tell you for certain that dealing with these moments are not comfortable, easy or fun. They are hard.
But to really step into your own power, to bring your full self and full set of gifts and expertise to your work, and to protect your mental health, you have to find a practice that works for you to both prevent feeling small and deal with it when it does happen.
What resonates for you? What are you going to try differently on Monday?
Let us know in the comments!
Jess Critchlow has spent over a decade working in various Consulting, Training, HR and Management roles in organizations across Canada and the United Kingdom. She is now the Consultant and Trainer at Light Up Work, a consultancy that works with small and medium-sized businesses to finally get their leadership and team dynamics working for them. She is a TEDx Speaker and self-described ‘Leadership Super Geek’ who is passionate about helping people see the tangible business results that come from figuring out the human element in our work.