|BossWoman eNews – July 2005
Combining prosperous work lives and balanced personal lives
Welcome to the July 2005 edition of Susan Robison's free
e-mail newsletter for women business owners, executives, and
Our goal is to bring you news, insights, and information about
leading a balanced and prosperous life while making a
difference. If you are on this list you have been a client, an
advocate, or attended a workshop. Pass this newsletter on to
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In this issue, you'll find:
- Alchemy and Containment
- BossWoman coaching
- Up and coming workshops
1. Alchemy and Containment
This month I am going to reveal a professional secret that I
discovered many years ago. This secret is the answer to the
most frequently asked question I get about being a
psychologist, namely, “Doesn’t it get you depressed that your
clients have all these problems and can’t find the right job
(substitute: mate, baby, publisher for their books, producers
for their records)?” The answer is “No!” You might think I am
a cold, unfeeling robot because I am not up at night worried
about my clients’ problems until you hear the secret of why I
don’t get stressed by their problems. If you already know me,
you know that I am a very compassionate person – just the type
who would be prone to burnout and secondary stress from the
many groups and clients with whom I work. But I sleep just fine
because I know the secret of alchemy and containment and
how it applies to human behavior. Once you apply this secret,
your stress level will also drop.
Alchemy, an ancient practice started simultaneously around the
world in the single digit centuries in Egypt, China, and other
countries, aimed at turning inferior metals into gold, the
perfect metal. The alchemists thought they could mix the right
chemicals and concoctions together to transform cheap metals
into perfection. Every era has its “Get Rich Quick” scheme and
alchemy didn’t work any better than modern day schemes. At
least it didn’t work to make gold out of cheap materials but
the side result of the process was that the alchemists found
that any chemical reaction needs an intact container which does
not react to the chemicals within during the experiment. The
science of chemistry branched off from metaphysical alchemy in
the 16th century and began to use the precursors of Petri dishes
and test tubes. Reflecting on this history, I devised the
Robison Principle of Alchemy: get clear on whether you are the
container or the experiment. Like the alchemy experiments of
old, when it comes to human change, the container for the
experiment must be of an inert material so that it does not
interact or melt down while the experiment is going on.
Now you too can sleep well and avoid melting down while your
clients, customers, patients, employees, friends, and family
members come to you with a continuous supply of problems.
Here is how you can think about their problems: These problems
are not my problems. I am merely the container for those
problems. Yes, they are difficult problems and I feel compassion
towards the people with those problems because I sometimes have
problems of my own, but my job is to contain my clients’
problems so the action of change takes place where it belongs -
with my clients inside the container. If I act as a container,
change takes place to transform the person or group inside their
own experiment. If I get involved in the experiment, no one is
containing the reaction and things get out of hand. In addition,
if I am not clear about the difference between the container and
the experiment, I can get so invested in the clients changing
that I am doing their work.
Getting Clear about the Container vs. the Experiment
Get clear about when you want to be the container or the
experiment, and you will have discovered the single most
important strategy for reducing your stress level. You will be
able to remain calm while people all around you are losing it.
The key in dealing with people is how you answer the question,
“Who needs to change here?”
Take traffic for example. How much control do you have over the
guy three cars ahead of you who is wandering around trying to
find a street address? If only you could beam him a message,
“Pull over, you idiot, and let us pass you.” But you can’t and
wishing makes as much sense as trying to create gold out of
What makes more sense is to realize you are merely a container
on this change. While you would like all the other drivers to
drive perfectly, you can’t make that change. Instead, your job
is to stay calm and drive defensively. That tourist might stop
suddenly or make a weird turn so you should leave plenty of
distance between your car and the car in front of you. You will
get to your destination a few milliseconds later than you
planned but you will be as cool as a cucumber.
Sometimes you are the experiment. It is you that needs to change.
Maybe job or relationship changes have happened and you are in
the middle of a transition to a new normal. Maybe you are
repeating some dysfunctional patterns that are no longer working
for you. Maybe there are new learnings you need to apply to your
work. Even when you are making changes on yourself, you can still
make most changes without being emotionally reactive. You can
still imagine that your own experiment is happening in a
container that does not let things get out of hand. You can
prevent emotional breakdowns and meltdowns by soothing yourself
while you make those changes. Here are some tips:
- Change one thing at a time if possible. Don’t overwhelm yourself.
- Make the changes planful if possible.
- Keep as many things stable in your life while you make the change.
- Evaluate how you are doing and then adjust your expectations.
- Change always takes longer than we expect.
- Get someone to serve as your container, a coach or therapist,
who can stay calm and guide you while you are making the change.
- Use the Alexander technique for your emotions. This technique
borrowed from dance and movement therapy says that you should
expend only the minimal amount of energy needed to get from one
place to the next – any more is a waste. You don’t need to
scream at the dry cleaning lady about the blouse that is ruined
when all you need to do is ask her to pay for a replacement.
Start with the lowest level of energy to affect the other
person. If this doesn’t work, increase the amount of energy you
expend to take the next step, such as asking to see the manager.
How do you influence change in others without being emotionally
reactant? By being clear that while you want change in the other
person, you cannot produce it. Only other people can change
themselves. What you can do as the container is to set the tone
and the parameters for the change to happen without you having
to enter into the turmoil.
Doris, a mother of a middle schooler, wanted her son to
straighten up his clutter in the living room. When I asked what
might serve as a reward for him, she said, “Money,” but she was
philosophically opposed to paying him. We devised a way to use
his interest in money to help him makes changes while she
remained the container for his changes. Here is what she said
“I would like our living room to be less cluttered. I would like
you to pick up your clothes, books, shoes, etc. by 9 o’clock
Thursday evening. If you can’t get that job done when the
cleaning lady comes on Friday, she will put all of your clutter
into the Buy-Back Box. You will be charged $1 for each object to
buy it back. Do you think you can pick up your clutter once a
week by Thursday evening?”
He fused and fumed about things not being fair and created his
own experiment to see if she would get upset. He didn’t clean
up, but she didn’t get upset. As threatened, the cleaning lady
put the boy’s CD’s and basketball shoes into the Buy-Back Box
while his mother remained a calm container. The next week, he
used his allowance to buy back those items and cleared his
stuff out of the living room by Thursday night. Doris felt less
stress, the living room was clean for the weekend, and her son
was building up good habits.
Here is an example of how alchemy applies to work: Ashley, a
marketing vice president for a large real estate corporation,
had been unclear in her requests to her employees about
completing tasks in a timely fashion. “It sure would be nice
if…” or “I wonder if…” She got clear about being the container
and realized that good leadership sometimes required different
kinds of containers for different people. Melissa, for example,
needed a gentle touch.
“Melissa, when do you think that you could have that report on
“Probably by Tuesday.”
Melissa worked independently and met her deadline.
With another employee, Don, Ashley needed to use a firmer hand.
“Don, that report needs to be on my desk by Thursday. If it
isn’t, you will have to come in on Saturday to finish it. I
will stop by to check on your progress.”
Ashley had to remind herself that she was the container and
should not react with the chemicals in the experiment. This
was particularly hard when she left the office at five o’clock
Wednesday evening after talking to Don. She was tempted to go
back to him and say, “Why don’t I give you an extension for
Instead she said to herself, “He had all week to work on this
report. If he spent less work time shopping on eBay (a
frequent complaint from coworkers), then he wouldn’t need to
spend his Wednesday evening burning the midnight oil to get
the report done. If he works more effectively, this report
can be done during normal work hours along with his other
tasks.” By remaining the container, she walked out of the
office guilt free. Don’s report was on her desk Thursday and
Don looked a bit ragged all day. The next Wednesday, Don
placed the report on Ashley’s desk at 4:58 and left the
office at 5.
- Where in your life are you confusing the container with the
- Where are you getting upset in order to get results just
because it is what you have always done?
- What could you do to calm yourself while you allow the
chemistry of change to happen for the other person?
Keeping the Container Whole
The ancient alchemists discovered that their containers were
useful for other chemical reactions besides the gold
experiments such as mixing herbs and potions. However, the
containers needed to remain intact for the right chemical
reactions to occur. If the containers were chipped or worn
out, the chemicals seeped into the containers and reacted
with them. Your container needs to be whole in order to
effectively contain the experiments going on around you.
First, you have to construct the container and then you have
to maintain it. One of my business coaches, Mark LeBlanc
says, “You can’t think outside the box until you have a
box.” It seems paradoxical that creativity happens best when
it is contained. In her book, “The Sounds of Paper,” Julia
Cameron, writer, poet, and film-maker says, “Artists need
structure, and many times we must devise it for ourselves,
setting up work schedules and deadlines in lives that are
too wide open to be productive.”
Your container will be made up of elements that work for
you, that keep you from being reactive to each situation
around you and wearing yourself out. You will need certain
elements including rituals and practices that you can set
into motion and follow without thinking and deciding about
them on a daily basis.
To keep your container whole, you might use any of the
Clients often ask how I manage my own stress. For my
container, daily morning and nightly prayer/meditation are
essential. This rituals form the parentheses of my day. The
length of time and form of the rituals may change but the
solidness of the doing does not. I also write in a journal
and do physical exercise daily. On these practices I aim for
seven days a week and usually hit six. I also attempt to
touch base with the key people in my life daily and the
actual contact rate depends on their availability. I am
usually successful in connecting with them five days out of
seven. I have a bedtime ritual that tells my body and mind
that I am gearing down for sleep. I also talk to myself
when my emotions start to spin out of control. I don’t aim
to be perfect on all of these practices but in combination
they help me keep my container whole.
- Schedules for your various activities so you let the clock
make the decision on various items in your lifestyle such
as when you leave work each day or when you clean your
- Health practices such as nutritional plans, exercises,
or weekly massages that keep your energy high in order to
accomplish whatever you want.
- Spiritual practices such as prayer, worship, yoga,
- Accountability buddies that you meet with for exercise or
to report on getting projects done.
- Reading materials that inspire or educate.
In her “The Sounds of Paper,” Julia Cameron says,
“We must become for ourselves the good mother, gentling
the turbulent or despairing heart.”
- What practices or rituals help keep you in your container
- What changes are you trying to force on others in your
life? How can you be the container only?
- What other things could you explore that would have an
instant destressing effect?
You are the container, not the reaction.
Gentle yourself like the good mother you are,
2. BossWoman coaching
About the publisher: Susan Robison, Ph.D. is a
professional coach, speaker, author and seminar
leader. She loves to coach women who want
If you are feeling stuck on the way to your ideal
life, give Susan a call for a complementary
half-hour coaching session.
- work-life balance,
- career transitions,
- building your business or practice,
- time management,
- increasing productivity.
She provides keynotes and seminars to business
and organizations on the topics of:
She offers her audiences a follow-up coaching
session because she knows that workshops don’t
- leadership strategies for women,
- work-life balance,
Contact Susan for your coaching, speaking, or
seminar needs at Susan@BossWoman.org or at
3. Up and coming workshops
I am currently booking workshops for the fall and
winter. Contact me if your group needs a speaker on
the topics listed above.
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© Copyright 2005 Susan Robison. All rights reserved.
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