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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 professionals.

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 others who might be interested. This e-mail list is not sold or exchanged. Details on subscribing (and unsubscribing) are at the end.

In this issue, you'll find:

  1. Alchemy and Containment
  2. BossWoman coaching
  3. 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 cheap metals.

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.

The Experiment
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.
The Container
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 to him.

“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 my desk?”

“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 that deadline?”

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 experiment?
  • 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 following:

  • 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 bathroom.
  • 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, chanting, etc.
  • Accountability buddies that you meet with for exercise or to report on getting projects done.
  • Reading materials that inspire or educate.
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.
  • What practices or rituals help keep you in your container mode?
  • 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?
In her “The Sounds of Paper,” Julia Cameron says, “We must become for ourselves the good mother, gentling the turbulent or despairing heart.”

You are the container, not the reaction.

Gentle yourself like the good mother you are,
Susan Robison

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 improvement in:

  • work-life balance,
  • career transitions,
  • building your business or practice,
  • time management,
  • increasing productivity.
If you are feeling stuck on the way to your ideal life, give Susan a call for a complementary half-hour coaching session.

She provides keynotes and seminars to business and organizations on the topics of:

  • leadership strategies for women,
  • relationships,
  • work-life balance,
  • change.
She offers her audiences a follow-up coaching session because she knows that workshops don’t work.

Contact Susan for your coaching, speaking, or seminar needs at Susan@BossWoman.org or at 410-465-5892.

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.

To start receiving the BossWoman e-Newsletter send an email with “Please send BossWoman” in the Subject to: Susan@BossWoman.org.

BossWoman e-Newsletter is intended for informational and educational purposes only. Coaching should not be construed as a form of, or substitute for, counseling, psychotherapy, legal, or financial services.

© Copyright 2005 Susan Robison. All rights reserved. The above material is copyrighted but you may retransmit or distribute it to whomever you wish as long as not a single word is changed, added or deleted, including the contact information. However, you may not copy it to a web site without the publisher’s permission.

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