No Bullshit Buddhist Advice: Can I be seen for who I am?
No Bullshit Buddhist Advice is a new weekly column on Turning Wheel Media. NBSBA welcomes questions about everything. We’ll answer with a little bit of common sense, a medium amount of humor, and some Buddhist-y advice. To submit questions anonymously, please go here.
Dear No Bullshit Buddhist Advice,
I’m really frustrated–here’s the story: I work as a youth and young-adult counselor in a social-justice oriented ministry in a major city in the US. I love what I do: I feel engaged in a life of service. But I often get weird, subterranean pushback from both coworkers, and clients especially, about…how to put this…how I should be. Not in a professional context, but what my personality should be like to do this kind of work. Wait, sorry, I’m still being really vague. I feel like some of my clients and coworkers feel like I should be interested only, or primarily, in spiritual matters and issues of social justice; that I should dress very simply (some of my style is a little outrageous); and that I should basically just line up with their idea of monkishness.
It’s really frustrating. At times it affects my ability to really be present with my clients, and also bond with my coworkers. Any tips?
We’re not all Flat Stanleys, are we? I would be frustrated too, if I found that many of the people I encountered on a daily basis didn’t see me for who I am, or actively wanted me to be someone else, especially if their desires had nothing to do with the role I played in their life (e.g. I could understand if my boss wanted me to be nicer to people if I had to talk to clients on the phone all the time, unless I worked for a S&M dungeon 1-900 number). What I am glad about is that it sounds like you are not trying to fit into the mold they present for you. You are not engaging in the dissociative process by which you become someone you are not for the purposes of your job. That is fucking awful, and makes daily life full of misery, instead of joy. Keep it up, kiddo.
What you are after, simply, is recognition: the other person sees you for who you are–and accepts you as is. It was what connected my and my BFF since high school (pays to be two weirdos at a tony, East Cost boarding school with boys named Chip whose last names are followed by multiple roman numerals). It was what connected me to my sweetie when I found him on an internet dating site talking about his admiration for Guy Debord (yes, and we are now in the process of creating another human! Exciting!). What I mean to say is that it is natural to want to be around people who understand and see you for who you are. It sounds like you don’t get that from your clients sometimes, or your colleagues.
There are two avenues to address with your frustration: the first is altering your perspective or attitude in order to make their judgments less bothersome; second, how to kindly interact with them to address what you are feeling. I’ll start with the latter since the first is actually WAAAAY harder, and I like to work up to things.
To address the “subterranean pushback” (great turn of phrase, btw) you are receiving from your coworkers, try to be open, honest, and non-judgmental. You can address this proactively or when you next feel the weirdness envelop an interaction. I hope that your practice or group has outlines or guidance to dealing with difficult topics between coworkers. But maybe that’s wishful thinking. Of course, I’m not privy to the specifics, but it could be as simple as asking your coworker, “Does it seem weird to you that I am in love with pop culture but working a job like this?” or “Sometimes it feels like everyone stares at me blankly when I talk about the new Beyonce record” or what-have-you. As with many things, body language and tone of voice are 90% of the interaction; the words uttered just a few. So…don’t do it by email or on the phone! And even if your coworker says, “Yeah, it is weird to me that you keep talking about the Bruno Mars Super Bowl performance,” it will be out in the open. You guys can chuckle about it, if you can both be benevolent with one another and the situation! Wouldn’t that be nice?
Also, their focus on spiritual and social justice matters probably has more to do with them (what they like, what they feel comfortable discussing, whatever image they want to project) than with them judging you for glittery suspenders or your sports jersey. Again, I’m just guessing on the outfits.
As for your clients, I can’t help but wonder why they might want you to act/look/behave a certain way. I can understand them expecting you to–especially if this is their first time with counseling and it being in a semi-spiritual setting. Maybe the closest thing they previously experienced was a priest doing confession, or something like that. I would be careful to make sure you distinguish between their expectations and their desires. If you feel they truly do want you to behave or present differently, it’s worth addressing with them or your supervisor for ideas on how to handle it.
With both your coworkers and clients, it’s a call to practice loving-kindness. I consider loving-kindness the most bandied-about of the Four Sublime States (my personal fave is equanimity; we’ll get to that shortly). There, the Buddha calls embracing all sentient beings impartially. That’s the important thing. Even if these people cause you frustration, or even perhaps judge you or bear you ill will, try to impartially embrace them. The first serious Buddhist teacher I ever had always told me the people who annoyed me most were my teachers. It (and they) still annoyed me, but I knew she was right. And that awareness supported my journey to some modicum of peace with them, and my annoyance too.
Can you sense a transition? I first talked about how to try to address your interactions with these people. Subliminal to all that was the idea that through understanding and openness, you could elicit some change. This is NOT guaranteed. What then? It’s changing your perspective or attitude so that their behaviors do not cause you so much consternation. Now I get to talk about equanimity! Did I mention it’s my favorite?
Equanimity is also one of the Four Sublime States. I think of it as balance combined with flexibility; a resilience grounded in the observation of the world without judgment. Equanimity has the potential to control excess: both joy and hate; love and frustration. This is not to say that equanimity is some sort of muffler for the intensity of daily life. Practicing it is trying to be very close and very far at the same time: close enough to know and experience what is going on, and far enough to have the perspective to not flip your lid, to put it bluntly. Trying to practice equanimity (for me) just goes like this: be annoyed by thing X, recognize annoyance, watch thought pass, dribble in some loving-kindness for myself, think about total perspective as a way to root myself out of this suffering through annoyance, breath deep, watch annoyance recede. Lather, rinse, repeat. At all points of this practice are the possibility for distraction and failure. Sometimes that happens (more when I am tired, upset, annoyed) and sometimes, well, I am simply perfect (I joke).
In short, practicing equanimity is one of the best ways I can think of to lessen your suffering in situations like this. It’s not easy, but neither is being frustrated.
Wishing you much luck, NFS!
P.S. Just one more sundry tip: make sure to spend time being with and connecting to the people in your life that you do feel really accept and understand you and love you for who you are. It will recharge your batteries, and make you smile.