The Elephant’s New Clothes

I think I have lost my ‘edge.’

For the last few months, I’ve been dealing with an issue at work. I’m tempted to lay out all the gritty details, but let me see if I can reduce it to nutshell size. I volunteered to facilitate a project called “Elephants in the Room.” My department’s upper management (directors and above) wanted feedback from the lower three quadrants of the department (managers and below) to get some visibility on and hopefully address some of our most pressing issues. I didn’t get a lot of input from my management, but I was told multiple times that there were “no wrong answers.” So, I asked everyone to provide me with their #1 pain-in-the-ass issue through a survey generator to keep all responses anonymous, even to me. Then, at a large company meeting in the summer, we (managers and below) sat in a room for an hour and a half for what was supposed to be a confidential discussion of the feedback I received. So was it desired, and so it came to pass. Only… there was a problem. You can probably see it coming. I feel like I should have, in retrospect. But…

Apparently, it never occurred to the directors that the #1 bugaboo for someone might be one of them. Apparently, the directors thought that if something that inconceivable happened, surely I would be smart enough not to include it in the discussion. Apparently, I thought that “no wrong answers” was a phrase people used literally. And apparently, this was one of those circumstances where the naked emperor asks, “Now honestly, tell me, what do you think of my new tracksuit?” and what I was supposed to say was, “It looks expensive and perfectly tailored. May I go now, dear leader [backs slowly toward the door, with eyes firmly fastened to said emperor’s toenails]?”

I said I wouldn’t lay out the details, but there you have it. Someone from our meeting told several directors including the person at the center of the complaint, and it pretty much went to hell from there. I was in big trouble; I fucked up and I was going to hear about it. Publicly. And often. I promise I am getting to the point, but there are three things that I want you to understand before I proceed (things that I can’t seem to get across to the department head or to the HR representative… yes, the naked emperor called HR):

  1. It was not personal. We didn’t name the individual (not that anyone had to; it was obvious.) It was about how one person’s gap in knowledge is causing bottlenecks in workflows.
  2. The issue came up, we rephrased the complaint into something more general and constructive and moved on in a matter of minutes. I didn’t realize there was a problem until a week later when the “meeting to address the situation” was called.
  3. It wasn’t one comment from one person. It was four. Four in a group of twenty people. 20% of the group listed this as their #1 pain point in their work life.

Just sayin’.

I have been in four meetings about the “elephants” meeting in the last two months. I got through them okay, but after each meeting, I was wrecked. Thank The Goddess that these meetings were on Zoom because ugly crying was involved. This is what I’m saying about my ‘edge.’ That carefully crafted “take no shit” work persona that I used to wear like an Armani suit? That’s just fluff and moth holes, now.

When I was first promoted into management, my male boss gave me a book titled The Girl’s Guide to Being a Boss (Without Being a Bitch). (True story that has nothing to do with this story, but wow, right?) I knew I needed to “toughen up,” but I also knew that if someone thought “What a bitch!” when I stood up for myself or my reports, it wasn’t about me. Instead of trying to singlehandedly rebrand that word for all working women on planet Earth, I decided to picture myself as a ladybug. A cute and feminine force for good in the ecosystem, who is also armored against her predators. And that worked really well for me. Fifteen years ago, I ran a department and I dealt with complaints left and right. I sat in tough meetings and faced tough criticism. I fired people. I made other people cry. I DIDN’T CRY.

I am a manager, after all. I *need* to be able to take the kind of criticism that I’m getting right now. This is basic Corporate America 101: take your lumps and cash your check; tomorrow is another day. But the limited time I have spent around other people and this kind of conflict in the last several years seems to have allowed me to shed my exoskeleton. I haven’t faced the relentless day-to-day corporate political force that eroded my soul down to a smooth stone surface. I’m all squishy now, and when you poke me, it hurts.

In the first “Elephants” meeting with the HR rep, I thought I could make her understand the three salient points listed above. Also, I hoped to remind her that they named it the “Elephants in the Room” exercise. What did they expect? But she cut me off as I tried to give her my side of the story and said, “The directors want to move on.” This was not a surprise. The person behind the wheel is usually ready to “move on” sooner than the person under the tires. But I needed validation. I didn’t get it from the head of the department, and clearly, I wasn’t going to get it from HR. That was a bitter reptilian turd to swallow.

Ever since that meeting, I’ve been thinking about validation. Why do we need it? Why is it so miserable to need it and not get it? What does it even mean to seek validation? The Latin root, ‘valere,’ means “be strong, be well, be worthy.” The word ‘validate’ first appeared in the 1640s and means “to recognize, establish, or illustrate the worthiness or legitimacy of.”

This implies to me that seeking validation is to find strength in the recognition of our legitimacy. That seems like an honest and worthy pursuit. So why then, when you search for quotes about “validation,” are you made to feel like a complete tool for wanting it? Here are a few examples:

“All bad behavior is really a request for love, attention, or validation.”
― Kimberly Giles

“The woman who does not require validation from anyone is the most feared individual on the planet.”
― Mohadesa Najumi

“If you ever look for validation it should be from within yourself.”
― Nahashon Harrison

None of that feels right to me. Maybe we are talking about different things. Maybe there is a type of validation that you get from the number of likes and followers you get on social media which is fleetingly gratifying, and another kind of validation that you get when someone listens to you with all their attention, as if what you are saying matters. That’s the thing I’m talking about. That is transformational. Here are a few quotes that I found that get closer to what I am talking about:

“When I was 13, I told Henry Winkler I wanted to act. He said, Do it and don’t let anyone stand in your way. His validation just made it all the more true. I haven’t stopped thanking him since.”
― Marlee Matlin

“Trauma is personal. It does not disappear if it is not validated. When it is ignored or invalidated the silent screams continue internally heard only by the one held captive. When someone enters the pain and hears the screams healing can begin.”
 Danielle Bernock

“Just like children, emotions heal when they are heard and validated.”
 Jill Bolte Taylor

The idea that you can get this type of validation from within is lovely, and I think that we can, some of the time. But I don’t like the bravado of the “seeking external validation is for losers” quotes. It reminds me of something that Dr. Bruce Perry wrote in The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog; And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook. “For years mental health professionals taught people that they could be psychologically healthy without social support, that “unless you love yourself, no one else will love you.”…The truth is, you cannot love yourself unless you have been loved and are loved. The capacity to love cannot be built in isolation.”

That isn’t very empowering to think about, but I think it’s right. We are social animals and there are things that we need to feel secure in our environments. We don’t need to be praised for everything we do once we have outgrown our toddlerhood. We do, however, need the legitimacy of our lived experiences to be recognized. It’s part of our humanity.

So what do I do with my work situation? Yesterday, I resigned from the project, saying that I think they need to start over with the HR rep facilitating. I honestly do think that is best, but I quit because this thing has become a major distraction and I need space from it. I haven’t been able to get upper management to truly listen to my side, much less offer any redemption. The thing is, I know I have some fault here; I would do it differently if I could go back in time. I could be more humble about that. And I have received several supportive messages from other coworkers on the project, including my actual boss. Perhaps that should be all I need. Is my problem my insistence on getting validation from the exact person who yelled at me? That might be the real issue, actually. With apologies to The Rolling Stones, I am not getting the validation I think I deserve, but I am getting the validation I need, if I just accept it.

As for my ‘edge,’ I think I’m happier without it. I don’t like feeling emotionally dysregulated because of my stupid job, but exoskeletons are heavy. They take a lot of energy to maintain. I think that is something that a lot of people are recognizing in the post-COVID 19 world. I read an article about CEOs who are disgruntled by how hard it has been to get their employees back into the office, but I don’t blame them for wanting to stay home. Commutes and pants are annoying, but that isn’t all. Spending all that time stuck in a cube farm where you can’t escape the politics and the drama? That shit is soul-sucking. CEOs might not agree, but they must admit: the point is valid.

About Rachel Lewis

I am a writer, ceramic artist, knitter, and stepmom. As a playwright, I had six short plays produced in showcases and festivals in Manhattan, Salt Lake City, and Austin. My full-length play, Locking Doors, was presented by Wordsmith Theatre Company in The New Lab Theatre (University of Utah) in 2005. I co-wrote a teleplay titled “Thank God I’m Atheist” which won the 2015 “No God But Funny” contest founded by the Center for Inquiry. My short nonfiction essay, “It’s Coming Down,” was published by the online literary magazine Halfway Down the Stairs. My essay "The Red Rock Chronicles" was published in Contemporary West magazine. I currently work in pharmaceuticals professionally and write recreationally, but dream of making the transition to write professionally and do pharmaceuticals recreationally. I am a Utah native and live in Salt Lake City with my family and our Goldendoodle. I am working on a collection of humorous non-fiction essays and a second full-length play. Follow me at: @rachel_lewis_ut (Twitter) @rachel_lewis_ut (Instagram)

One response to “The Elephant’s New Clothes

  1. Gina Weaver

    Would that validation skills were taught to management more often. Validation is energizing while mismanagement turns capable people into messes. I’m sorry this happened to you, and it sounds like you are reflective and learning all the lessons that it can teach.

    Is the tough shell about ego? I believe the hardest shells protect the most fragile egos. I’m glad you don’t maintain a shell. You are honest and caring, and shelled people are vacuous, vapid egotists.

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