The indescribable comfort of being (well) known

Just last week, I was telling my wife, Franny, how exciting I have become about writing.  Ideas and images fill my mind.  Words are my friends.  I hold them to me as though they are palpable. They know no bounds.  They slip into my mind when I’m driving, walking, going to sleep.  Every day feels like I’m learning more about the craft.  There’s a passion that has taken me over at an age when I expected to be cooling out.

As I talked, I noticed a familiar, sly smile on Franny’s face—prelude to a full scale roast.  “Oh,” she began, “this is nothing like when you built all those organizations, built the house in New Hampshire, wrote your books.  I’ve never seen anything like it.”  My defenses began to rise—she was making fun of me, after all—but quickly fell away, and I began to laugh with her.  My pleasure in feeling known, and being known lovingly, overwhelmed the defensiveness.

We do this for each other.  We know the characters and the narratives in each other’s lives.  We don’t have to be caught up, filled in, or taught.  We’re almost always ready for the next episode.  It’s an unspoken intimacy that the books on love don’t attend to enough, yet it offers an indescribable warmth and security.  Even couples in the midst of difficulties often find comfort in being known.

I was a couple therapist for about thirty years.  And I taught the craft to younger clinicians for twenty-five of those years.  The object was generally to help couples work out problems, regain—if possible—their lost passions—and to become better friends to one another.  Nowhere in the standard clinical curricula we assigned was there much in the way of people bearing witness to each other’s lives.  Yet, with each passing year, I have come to appreciate this simple, quiet action as one of the most powerful and enduring qualities of long relationships.

Bearing witness is not the sole possession of marriage.  Friends, siblings, and colleagues also get to know us, develop stories about us, and place current events into those stories.  The importance of siblings, generally our longest relationships, often grows over time. They share our memories; they embody the continuity of our lives.  Recently my cousin Jonny said that his life could be divided into three phases: youth, when family was closest; adulthood, when friends and colleagues took center stage, and old age, when the centrality of family re-emerged.  Now he ached for the safety of his children and grandchildren and felt almost held by those who have known him, over the decades, as pretty much the same old Jonny.

I think what he means is that his sense of security depends in good part on being recognized, known and appreciated over time.   Let me elaborate that point.  Our identity, our sense of who we are in the world, is made up of narratives we build in order to define who we are in the world.  Harvard President, Drew Gilpin Faust, puts it:  “We create ourselves out of the stories we tell about our lives, stories that impose purpose and meaning on experiences that often seem random and discontinuous. As we scrutinize our own past in the effort to explain ourselves to ourselves, we discover — or invent — consistent motivations, characteristic patterns, fundamental values, a sense of self. Fashioned out of memories, our stories become our identities.”  When people confirm these stories by action or word, they make us stronger, surer.

People don’t always share our preferred narratives, which can be disruptive and painful.  What then?  We negotiate with them until there is a tacit agreement about who we are.  “I’m a person to trust,” we might say, and with time and experience, they may believe us more or less. With each new setting that we enter and with each new stage of life we begin, the narrative must be adjusted.  Sometimes this is a relief, as when we move from an unsatisfying work situation or relationship into one with greater potential to become and to be seen as the person we want to be.

These negotiations are partly intentional but also take place below the level of consciousness.  For instance, when we meet a new person, we often tell our life story.  We don’t think of ourselves as inventing the narrative, but we do find ourselves emphasizing things we like about ourselves and de-emphasizing or excluding what we don’t.  These new encounters present opportunities to re-invent ourselves.  But only partly. The stories are largely the same.  They become filters of sorts between what’s most deeply inside—hidden or protected or barely known—and how we want to be seen.

The socio-linguist, Charlotte Linde, puts it this way “In order to exist in the social world with a comfortable sense of being a good, socially proper, and stable person, an individual needs to have a coherent, acceptable, and constantly revised life story.”    These stories are “…created, negotiated, and exchanged.”

Let’s return to the experience of bearing witness.  There may be not a more reassuring experience than when an important person in our life consistently assures us that the person we think we  are and want to be is essentially the person we really are.  For that moment, we need not even revise or negotiate.

However, and this is a big however, being known is not always comforting.  It can also be disconcerting, infuriating, even frightening when people, like spouses, relatives, and friends, “know” you in ways that you don’t want to be known.  You might want people to love your energy, but they see you as frenetic and unfocused.  You might think yourself kind but others find you ingratiating.  When key people “know” you “incorrectly,” and when you can’t convince them otherwise, through word or action, then you either enter an identity crisis—who am I—or you distance yourself from them.

Being “known” can feel like a prison. For example, when people don’t expect much of you, you often don’t produce.  When people see you as irrational, you often fall prey to that expectation.  In other words we either accommodate to expectations—how we are known—or run from them.  This is frequently the underlying cause of divorce: the need to escape debilitating or dismissive views of ourselves.  So, too, the rebellion or flight of teenagers, who want to be taken seriously and as separate people, not extensions of their parents.  Escaping the prison of being known presents the possibility of being known by others in a more positive and enabling light.

The way that we bear witness to another person’s experience can be ignorant because we haven’t taken the time to really know them; and it can be self serving.  We know them in a way that makes us feel better about ourselves.  For instance, their flaws make us feel more virtuous or superior.

But bearing witness can also be life affirming.  It is affirming when it is generous, when it seeks out the best in a friend or spouse.  It is affirming when it is capacious, that is, when you recognize who the other person is and you know that you don’t see all that the person is.  This gives them room to change and grow.  To bear witness well means opening  the prison doors and letting go of the rigid or self serving views that we hold of others.

Bearing witness generously is important through the life span but it may be most important to people in the midst of life transitions.  This is where old people, midlife travelers, and adolescents, for example, share a heightened intensity of experience.  Each of these cohorts may have been assessing their lives, very conscious of how they are seen—known—and very much needing encouragement to move confidently into the next stage of their development.  The comfort of being known by someone who really likes who you are is immeasurable.

Aging and Identity

Dear Michael,

During the last few years, I’ve wondered how I would feel when I no longer worked at my profession and was no longer part of the community of people I worked with.  Now that retirement is here, I am still wondering if I will feel uncomfortably isolated and untethered.  It’s far too early to tell, but, since you’ve also retired recently, I thought to share some of my immediate responses.

No doubt, there is a lot less stimulus.  It’s not just the level of noise and activity but, more importantly, people to interact with.  Of course, I see friends and family.  But the contact is less automatic and scheduled than my work day, less ritualized.  I don’t have a Finance or Strategy Committee meeting each month.  I don’t have staff people to hold accountable.

I feel relieved by the freer schedule.  There is less rush, fewer people to please, less need to perform, and fewer needs to fill.  That, in a nutshell, is a big part of why I retired.  I also love being by myself.  It’s quiet.  My writing, exercise, and conversations with friends aren’t interrupted.  I love being unobserved.  It gives me permission to be myself, no matter how strong or weak or goofy or serious I feel.  Invisibility is a kind of freedom and a protective veil to me.  I breathe easier.  My muscles relax.

I know that isolation is considered a problem in old age.  It has direct ties to illness and depression.  This is especially true for men.  Women do a much better job of building networks of friends and acquaintances; their lives don’t change as much with retirement.  Men, who are much more identified with their work and much less connected to friends and relatives—especially in intimate ways—have a harder time.  According to research into illness and social networks, for instance, when wives die husbands tend to get very ill or die themselves within the first year.  Not so after the death of a husband.  Women generally find enough compassionate support to sustain themselves.

Like most research, this speaks to the general person.  I’m not that person.  I do have people to turn to.  But the diminished volume and regularity will likely challenge my ability to adapt.  And the challenge that most interests me is that of identity: who I am in the world.  Who am I now that I’m not working and not with colleagues?  Most of every day, I’m not important to anyone but myself. People don’t seek me out as much, ask my opinion, await my agreement before acting. My sister-in-law tells me that this is mainly a man’s problem, and she’s probably right, but that’s ok.  There are enough of us to make this an interesting theme.

Throughout our lives, we know who we are partly through other people’s responses to us.  Do they think we’re nice or mean, interesting or dull, sexy, smart, funny, sane?  We can’t come to a completely independent opinion on these matters.  We don’t live in padded cells.  We don’t just take in other people’s opinions.  We try to influence them.  For example, we try to put our best foot forward, hoping that’s mostly what people see.  Over time, though, they see more than our best.  We try to act like we want to be, but we don’t always succeed.  We correct people who see us in the “wrong” light.  We work hard to live up to other people’s expectations.  We shy away from people who have poor or divergent opinions about us, and we gravitate to those whose responses to us are aligned with how we want to be known.

Eventually, we more or less come to an agreement about who we are.  That agreement forms the basis of stable relationships.  With time, these stable relationships tend to grow more plentiful and prominent.  They emphasize parts of our personality and de-emphasize other parts.  As they grow stable, the relationships become more supportive of our identity, which is our public face, mediating between our deep character and our behavior.

Psychologists talk about negotiations between the story we tell ourselves—this is who I am—and the stories that others have. The net result of these negotiations is our identity.  Unlike character, identity is not immutable.  Every time we meet someone new or confront a new situation, we have to reestablish that identity, or try to reestablish it.  But it is never completely the same again.  The very act of trying to remain the same changes us because we have to adapt to places that fit the view of both others and ourselves.  It can be hard work, generally passing through periods of ease and stability and periods of instability.

During stable periods, our identity holds us, gives us the experience of a solid self.   This works a little bit the way that the psychoanalyst, Donald Winnocott, believes mothers hold their babies and, thereby, create children with the opportunity to build sturdy lives.  When we know who we are and we feel relatively pleased and safe in that identity, then our lives can proceed with some sense of security.  Other people see the consistency and think you authentic.  There isn’t much negotiation to do.

Unstable periods are different.  They take the form of what psychologists call identity crises, such as the periods we call adolescence and midlife.  In the midst of these crises, we often feel uncertain and needy.  We may not know how to break out of our confusion, how to convince enough people to see us how we want to be seen. Our actions careen all over the place.

Combined, retirement and old age often precipitate identity crises.  The only difference between aging and adolescence seems to be that we older folks have our eyes open.  Our bodies change; we gain freedoms; we feel like we are searching for something that isn’t yet clearly in sight.  We may want to take charge of this change, as we have during other crises, but it often feels like the changes are happening to us and out of our control.

I have a number of friends who seem quite content in retirement.  They cherish their freedom, the time for long-delayed activities, the absence of work-related tension.  I hope to be one of these lucky people.  But there seems to be unfinished business.  Getting to the other side of the identity crisis seems to require of me that I answer certain kinds of questions.

One set of questions has do with an assessment.  I have mostly completed my life’s work.  My children are on their own, doing well, and raising their own broods.  My professional career is behind me.  I’ve done what I’ve done.  But is it enough?  Did I do well enough?  Can I be proud?  Where should I tuck my failures?  What should I do with the remaining anxieties?  No one else is very interested in this report card.  So I often find myself in dialogue—and in negotiations—with myself.  And not just my current self.  I want to know how my younger self would evaluate me.  It goes something like this: “Did I fulfill those aspirations that you had for me?  Did I live according to the values that firmed up by the time you were a young man?  Would you be proud of me?”

Sometimes I seem to be in dialogue with a much younger, less filtered self.  When I am alone, which is more often these days, I day dream.  I muse about the child that I was, the way that I ran and laughed and swam in the sun.  Somehow, I feel that I need to bring that child back into my current identity.  I don’t have to work now, which means I don’t have to keep him at bay and I can play.  He’s not an interference.  But yielding to him can be confusing.  At such times, my identity grows a little chaotic.

So I’ve got work to do.  I need to complete my self-assessment, the good and the bad, and come to conclusions that leaves me at least somewhat at peace.  And I need to reintegrate the child in me.  I think then I will have navigated this developmental crisis and be prepared for a time of stability.


Forming a Leadership Identity

Leaders make demands on others, often requiring trust, sacrifice, even obedience.   Sometimes the demands initiate a productive process.  At other times, they create frustration and confusion. How often have we observed people in leadership fail because they do not connect well with their staff.  They may be smart, experienced, forceful.  When no one seems to be listening, they might talk louder, explain themselves at greater length and in many different ways, ask deputies to intervene.  To no avail. Not only aren’t people listening, they may be resisting.  Why? Because connectivity and influence require legitimacy, and somehow they don’t have it.

Where does legitimacy come from?  Position.  “I’m the boss.”  Among other things, the position at the top has cultural currency.  Leverage.  “I control your job, your salary.”  Skill and knowledge are important, especially when clearly perceived and aligned with organizational aims.  A track record of being right helps a great deal.  Honesty and consistency matter more than many leaders know.  Legitimacy requires many forms of currency working together.

In traditional societies, being at the top of the hierarchy may be enough to overcome the deficiencies of other currencies.  In modern merit-based societies, however, currency has to be earned, and it depends as much on the sense that  leadership is consistent, thoughtful, moral, and motivated by the “right” reasons as it does from position and power.

There is something about leaders who do what they say and say what they do, who are pretty much the same inside and out, that makes them trustworthy.  This quality of being yourself, even when it is hard to do, represents a kind of internal or psychological alignment, comparable to the structural alignment of effective organizations.  Let’s call this internal alignment authenticity.

Authenticity comes from a clear sense of who you are in the world: your identity.  Erik Erikson taught us how individuals form their identity, more or less clearly, more or less solidly, as they navigate their adolescent passage.  He also taught that there were a series of “identity crises” that continued to define our adult years.  The emergence of an authentic leadership identity works in this way.

Every leader develops an identity, a self image, a story that s/he tells to herself and to others that more or less unites her internal experience and her external behavior. “In order to exist in the social world with a comfortable sense of being a good, socially proper, and stable person, an individual needs to have a coherent, acceptable, and constantly revised life story.”  Lynde.  The stories are revised to better account for internal changes, new people, and new places.  As you tell the story, for instance, people respond positively and negatively to various parts, and the story teller adjusts the story to get into sync with the audience. There is nothing counterfeit about the activity.  We are social beings.  As Lynde puts it, these stories are “…created, negotiated, and exchanged.” Much of the adjustment is subconscious, but some is intentional.

To put this another way, the identity story forms a bridge between the leader and her staff.  At its best, the story links the inner person to the leadership role in a way that frees the leader to call upon her best and to call upon it often. At its worst, leadership identity is so false or inappropriate for a particular organization that it undermines even the leader’s best attempts to get things done.

Identity is not exactly character—who we are down deep and in mostly unchanging ways. It is not the part of us that is hard wired.  Identity is the person we present to both ourselves and to the world, who we and others know us to be.  Since it is both a private and public thing, identity, unlike character, is constantly shifting here and there, constantly being negotiated with those who we regularly interact with.  For those with a strong identity, the shifting is minimal.  Those with weak identities seem like chameleons.  But all identities change with context.

Among the most coherent stories about leadership identity that I have heard is that of Sister Margaret Leonard, formally the Executive Director of Project Hope, an admired and successful organization, built to care for the homeless.  Here’s how she describes the moment when she recognized herself as a leader.

About forty years ago, Sister Margaret was asked to join a leadership council. While she agreed to attend, she was a little awestruck by the other members and, at first, too shy to speak.  With time and the welcome of others, Margaret grew more comfortable and, by the end of the week’s retreat, began to speak up.  It turned out to be an exhilarating experience for her and it boosted her confidence.  She could hold her own with other leaders.  But when she returned to New York City, she “had to explain to my staff and my colleagues what it meant that I was a leader when I still didn’t completely think of myself that way.” This was a daunting task.  With a twinkle in her eye, she continued, “It just took me about six years to dispel my doubts.”

At the end of that period, though, she still didn’t feel entirely right calling or thinking of herself as a leader.  Why?  She didn’t fit the cultural imagery she had absorbed since childhood of the powerful, assertive, charismatic people—men and women—who could claim the authentic mantle of leadership.  Someone like Moses on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Then a friend brought her up short.

“Margaret,” she said, “you’re a servant of God, are you not?”

“Yes I am,” said Margaret.

“You serve the poor and homeless, do you not?”

“Yes I do.”

“And you serve the Sisters who work with you, do you not?”

“I do”

“Then you’re a servant leader, no doubt,” concluded her friend.

“That’s true. I am that,” said Margaret.

At that moment, something deep within Margaret relaxed.  Finally, the role she played, the responsibility she assumed, and the image she had of herself came together.  She no longer felt self-conscious about being a leader.  She could simply lead, without the internal static of doubt and dissonance interfering with her teaching and decisiveness.  She had come to what I call a leadership identity that fit her and aligned with the organization and culture in which she worked.

In essence, our identity is a story that says what is important in our lives.  Here’s how the historian, Drew Faust puts it: “We create ourselves out of the stories we tell about our lives, stories that impose purpose and meaning on experiences that often seem random and discontinuous.  As we scrutinize our own past in the effort to explain ourselves to ourselves, we discover—or invent—consistent motivations, characteristic patterns, fundamental values, a sense of self.  Fashioned out of memories, our stories become our identities.”

Stories of leadership identity are told and retold until they become part of the lore of an organization or political movement, so real that they define leaders to themselves and to others, so powerful that leaders, or their stories, come to embody their organizations and causes.  Thus Gandhi becomes “mother India”; During World War II, Churchill becomes the British nation and its resistance to Nazi tyranny.  And, in a lesser way, Sister Margaret Leonard became Project Hope, with its generous welcome to all comers and its gentle but fierce dedication to the empowerment of homeless and disenfranchised women.

The leadership narrative is not something one makes up out of whole thought.  It may emphasize certain things about us and not others but it is not fiction.  Leaders have to believe the narratives as deeply, maybe more deeply, than anyone else.  When leaders believe and when the narrative fits with the culture and objectives of an organization or movement, then the bridge of authenticity has been built and the leader is enabled.