Most of us want to feel good all the time. That makes sense – it sucks to feel fear, loneliness, shame, or grief. But, we run into problems because almost no one wants to feel good about harassment. Almost no one wants to feel good about death. Harassment and death exist, so sometimes we want to feel crappy.
The people who want to feel good about those things are sociopaths. So, if you are being harassed and you feel terrible most of the time, the good news is that you are human. You probably want to feel terrible about harassment.
We get stuck, though, when we think that the harassment is in control of our feelings.
Your thoughts create your feelings. Nothing in the outside world creates your feelings. You can know this is true because if someone you love is living in another state and dies, you do not feel grief at the exact moment of the death. You feel grief when you learn about the death and think a thought about it.
Most of the approximately 60,000 thoughts we have each day happen on the unconscious level. That is why it seems like our feelings come from the circumstances of the outside world. Most of our thoughts are so patterned and unconscious that we do not even notice them.
But, the world is as sharp as a knife. The Buddhist monk Shantideva says, “Where would there be leather enough to cover the entire world? With just the leather of my sandals, it is as if the whole world were covered. Likewise, I am unable to restrain external phenomena, but I shall restrain my own mind.”
What he means in our context is that harassment is not going to go away, at least not overnight, but possibly not ever. Violence is not going to go away. Discrimination is not going to go away. To use the hand washing analogy, people understand now that hand washing saves lives, but we still fail to do it and spread germs. Germs are not going away. Similarly, it is unlikely that discrimination will just disappear in our lifetime. This life is supposed to be sharp.
But, that does not mean you need to feel terrible. Managing your thinking is like putting shoes on to walk out into the world instead of trying to cover the world in padding. You can try to pad the world, but you will probably end up trapped at home because there is not enough padding to make the world soft.
Usually, what I see with my clients is that they think that their harasser has to change what he is doing in order for them to feel better. But, this is almost always demonstrably not true. For example, I had a client whose boss would come up behind her quietly and put his hand on her shoulder. She experienced shame, terror, and overwhelm just in that second of him putting his hand on her shoulder. But, she also had a teenage son. I asked her if she would feel shame, terror, and overwhelm if her teenage son put his hand on her shoulder, and the answer was obviously, no. She chose to think that her boss putting his hand on her shoulder was a power play that meant she was trapped and did not deserve respect. With her son, though, she chose to think he might not understand that she didn’t want him up in her business. She told me she was frozen in fear with her boss, but she would easily tell her son not to touch her.
Those two different thoughts create very different feelings, but the action initiating them is the same. And I hear you if you want to say that a boss touching her is very different than her own child touching her. The point, though, is not his behavior. The point is that she had power over what she was thinking about the behavior. And those thoughts created her feeling, not the outside circumstance of someone touching her shoulder.
I remember in law school, I was in my first-year criminal law class, and this very loud, blustery, fragile man raised his hand to complain about something, probably study materials for our final. I was telling someone about it later, and I said something like, “Zach doesn’t like the study materials because they hurt his feelings.” What can I say? It’s fun to be a jerk sometimes. I love consulting with lawyers about developing a career defense plan because they are so uncomfortable when I tell them that part of it is identifying feelings. Lawyers hate feelings. It’s hilarious.
Most professionals hate feelings, though. Now that I think about it, maybe most humans hate identifying feelings. Most of us choose numbness rather than the wild rebellion of our bodies when a feeling passes through.
So, if you are in that camp, you are not alone.
Here’s why it’s important to practice identifying feelings: Your feelings motivate what you do or don’t do. If we feel sad, we do nothing. If we feel motivated, we get things done. You don’t get to feel motivated all of the time because life includes both positive and negative, and our brains are drawn more towards negative (remember that identifying the negative kept our ancestors alive) than positive.
If you think you can do the hard work to overcome harassment in your life without experiencing your feelings, good luck, but I have not seen a way.
There is no feeling that is wrong or bad. Some are painful and some are comforting, but resisting any of them creates all kinds of stuckness, drama, and chaos.
Right now, your thoughts are already creating your feelings, and your feelings are motivating what you do or don’t do. You are already in control of your feelings, even if it does not seem that way. If you need to make a change in what you are doing in order to have your best possible reaction to harassment, that starts with shifting your thinking.
We learn to allow feelings to have space by literally just sitting and purposely choosing the feeling. So, for example, if you are feeling anxious when you think about going back to your work, it is likely that on some level you may be resisting how you feel. Resistance looks like, “Oh my god, get over it! You’re fine! Stop even thinking about it! No one else has a problem but you.” Allowing the feeling looks like, “What if it made sense for me to choose this anxiety? What would it look like to choose this anxiety on purpose?”
We usually don’t want to choose negative feelings because we are convinced that they will last forever and we’ll get sucked into a spiral if we choose them. But, if we can choose them with compassion, and really understand they are just a sensation in your body (less painful than a broken leg, usually), they really do not last forever (or even as long as a broken leg). It is actually when we resist the feelings that they tend to last, and then we get stuck in doing nothing. We get into that negotiation with them, where we are both trying to shut them down and trying to prove they are our only option. Allowing that they are one reasonable way to feel lets us move on to consider our other options.
When we have a repeating pattern of holding ourselves back and trying to ignore harassment, it can feel like there are no other options. There are always other options.
If you want to make real change in your personal experience, and (I hope) real institutional change through your experience, you will need to take huge action. As Tony Robbins calls it, “massive action.” Responding to harassment is not for the weak. It is for true warriors who are willing to fight for justice, not just for themselves, but for our mothers who suffered the same or worse, for our friends who know what we are going through, and for the little girls who will come after us.
The good news is that taking massive action does not mean your harasser has to change or that you have to pad the world so that it is comfortable for you. But it does mean creating the exact life you want. Sound daunting? It is hard work, but it is so worth it. You creating the exact life you want is rebellion against harassment, and it creates its own institutional change.
If what you want is to be successful in your profession based on your hard work and dedication, while your harasser has to back down and get out of your life, that is absolutely a result you can create by managing your thinking. Managing your thinking creates the feelings that will motivate the massive action to create the results you want. Taking massive action means continuing to take action, despite failures and discomfort, until you get the results you want.
Trying to ignore harassment makes space for harassment and often rewards it. The actions my clients usually decide to take are to talk, take up space, set consequences, create success in a specific way to them, and be willing to fail. Those actions move my clients forward and crush the harassment around them. They create the results that my clients want, no matter how other people behave. You may think you are not capable of that, but everyone is capable of that. Your thought that you can’t do it is the only thing holding you back.
This is a selection from Career Defense 101: How to Stop Sexual Harassment Without Quitting Your Job. For a free copy of the book, visit www.CareerDefense101.com. Or you can purchase online via Amazon or Barnes & Noble (paperback $16.95, hardcover $24.95).