Values and pain

Values both cause and help overcome pain. This week, a personal event made me face a deeper, uncomfortable truth about work.

This week, I decided to take a step back from a friend I’ve known for years and had grown close to over the past months. Deep down, I admire them for many qualities and believe they have great potential. They’re someone I know I can help and support, and also enjoy spending time with. But then they did something that hurt me deeply.

My first reaction was to doubt myself. Am I overreacting?

Unlike younger me, this time I sought the second reaction, and tried to pinpoint why I felt hurt. I sifted through all the surface-level reasons, before settling on two things:

  • Was this behavior more than a one-off? This was not the first time this kind of thing had happened; it was a pattern. And not just towards me, but towards others. So I had to say, yes.
  • What was the core conflict? They had put me in a position I considered disrespectful—a position I believe someone with a sense of self-respect would walk away from. They didn’t see it that way, and thought I was overreacting. So, the conflict was one of values.

Ultimately, I could see our friendship being very challenged in the future by the pattern and the difference in values. I believe they may change; but for now, I decided I had to stop treating this person like a close friend.

Recovery

I felt pretty down in the early part of the week. It felt like a mini breakup. Then within a few days, the pain passed. It was faster than I expected, and that by itself was empowering.

The main difference this time, compared to past similar experiences, was that I sat down and explored the deeper reasons behind the conflict, and drew the line to personal values. Then there was no doubt I had made the right decision for myself, and that clarity let me move on. Not without pain, but faster.

A similar problem elsewhere

I could have ended the post here, but what happened here pointed to a problem holding me back in a totally different sphere: work. And that problem might apply to others.

This realization came from first admitting to myself that I’d done things differently this time, and it had turned out better for the long term and for me. To me at least, it was for the greater good.

What would I have done in the past? I would have spoken up but avoided substantially changing the friendship. I would have tried to preserve overall harmony.

An uncomfortable truth

The above reasoning revealed a general uncomfortable truth: that personal growth will inevitably lead me to hurt other people—for my undeniably self-centered view of the greater good.

What does "hurting people" here mean? I mean emotionally, not physically. There are the obvious examples: Breaking up with someone. Firing someone. Though awful, these are the rarer events, and it’s the more mundane but constant versions of pain-infliction that color our everyday. Like: Giving hard feedback. Deciding not to do something for a friend or parent when they really want it and will be upset at you if you don’t. In any zero-sum situation (like some professional settings), advocating for yourself means you are implicitly advocating for yourself above others.

These are often conflicts of values. At the very least, in some small way, you are saying: I value my view of the world more than I value your feelings in the short term. And these conflicts are impossible to ignore: the more people you can help, the more you'll have to say no to due to time constraints. The deeper your sense of values, the more you'll recognize conflicts of values.

Though what I call an uncomfortable truth might seem blindingly obvious to others, it wasn't until after I articulated it that I realized the depth of its impact on me. Avoiding this pain has been an underlying, up-till-now invisible reason why I’ve avoided taking on certain roles and responsibilities. As a natural empath, I avoid hurting others because I feel a lot of that pain in return. I’ve thrived in and stuck to roles where I can almost exclusively build up other people, and gotten good at that.

To some extent, I know I can’t become a completely different person. Nonetheless, I now know that uncomfortable truth will limit me if I don’t figure out how to deal with it. So, how do I deal with it?

How to deal with it (better than before)

Theoretically, if we accept there will be times we hurt others, we can do two things:

  1. Learn how to deliver pain as humanely as possible, and
  2. Learn how to recover from our own resulting pain.

There’s a lot written about how to deliver pain humanely. Just look in any management book or article about delivering feedback. It boils down to figuring out how best to handle a situation—which is sometimes picking the best of the bad choices—and then having a hard conversation. Easier said than done.

What I learned this week was about the second bullet: recovery.

Specifically, I realized:

  • Pain means I care. If I hadn’t felt bad, it would have been because this event wasn’t important, and this friend didn’t matter to me. In a small way, just recognizing this positive aspect helped me.
  • The way to overcome pain is to make progress. The only way is forward. We can sit with our pain, and accept it. But at the end of the day, we have to actively move on.
  • Making the right choice according to my values is progress. Thus, deeply understanding and believing in my choices helps me overcome pain. This is the crux. I recovered faster because I truly understood and believed in the outcome.

So perhaps the deeper question here is: What did that process of pinpointing the core conflict look like? What were the surface-level reasons I had to work past?

Since this is a personal event I’d like to keep out of the public sphere, I’ll try to answer that in a future post, somehow, in a different way.

And then there's the even deeper question, of course. How do you develop your values? That's a topic a lot of people have written about, even filled books with. I'm not sure I have much to add here. All I can say is I am gradually coming to understand, in a very personal way, the extent of why values matter.

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