Letting Go

The Executive Woman

Mar 27 2023 • 35 mins

The other day I posted on my social media channels an image I created showing 5 Things to stop doing TODAY.  There were a lot of comments from Women especially who felt seen in the examples I shared and in the “5 Things”. To give you some context, the 5 things to stop doing today are…

1.   STOP Being “nice” vs setting boundaries

2.   STOP Comparing yourself to others

3.   STOP Letting fear make decisions for you

4.   STOP Accepting less than you deserve

5.   STOP Allowing what happened TO you to define you

Reading through the comments I started thinking about the whole concept of stopping something or “Letting Go” and how it’s so easy to say and so hard to do, even when we WANT to, it’s not always as simple as we would like it to be.

I want to dive into each one of these areas, and how it’s shown up in my life, the lives of so many Executive Women I have interviewed over the years, and perhaps even your life and what we can do to start letting go of these habits & behaviors that are not serving us.

Going deep into each one of these would make for a very long podcast, and likely one where you might start nodding off, (I know with my attention span, I need things in bite sized increments) so I’m going to address each one individually over the next 5 episodes.  But first, today, I want to talk about why letting go of old habits and patterns can be so hard for us.  I did some research, because that’s what I do, I research everything and I know how hard I struggle to let go of things at times, especially when it means I am the one who has to change!

I don’t know about you, but one thing I’ve learned about myself is that I can be incredibly stubborn and as soon as I think someone is imposing change ON ME, and it’s not something I freely want to do, I can be quite the force…even to my own detriment (ask my wife, she could tell you a lot of stories about how stubborn I can be!).  I’m not proud of this aspect of my behavior and I work on it daily and while I know I still have work to do, I have gotten much better than I used to be.

I have learned, typically the hard way through a lot of heartache, self-doubt and frustrations to step back and allow people to show me who they are vs seeing them for who I WANT them to be.  I have learned to set boundaries to protect my peace and for the most part I’ve let go of the past and live in the now.  I’m proud of these changes because for years I would accept bad behavior from others, hoping something would change.

I spent way too long questioning myself, my worth, my expectations and even my own sanity as a result of being treated poorly by others.  It was very hard for me to accept that whether their intentions were to hurt me or not didn’t really matter, it was their actions and how I felt that mattered.

I would accept bad behavior for a long, long time, and then something would happen, often something small and in the big scheme of things inconsequential but for whatever reason, in that moment, whatever they did or said pushed me just too far and that something finally triggered my brain, or my heart, and like a switch, I was done.  Something just clicks and then, there is no going back.

I tend to be all in on something or all out, I’m not saying this is a good thing, I’m just being transparent.  I know myself pretty well at this point, and I know there isn’t much about me that’s tepid, and change is no different.

Change can be really hard, and making a change means we are letting go of someone, something or a framework that for some reason we have held onto.  Somewhere deep in the those dark, often scary places of our minds and hearts we know the change is needed, and yet, there is something keeping us tied to our current situation or mindset.  For me, I think it was often hard for me to let go because I felt like I was the failure and to acknowledge that I had yet again had a failed relationship meant there was something wrong with ME.

We stay in bad relationships, we continue to work for toxic bosses, we open ourselves up to disappointment and hurt over and over and we while WANT it to be different, we often stay right where we are.

But why?  Why do we do this to ourselves?  I want to reiterate…I am NOT a therapist or a licensed mental health provider, but I have lived, and I have experienced some things…and I observe and I am a lifelong student of the world, and here are some things I believe to be true…

1. Living in the Past is easier…for people who don’t like change, living in the past or repeating patterns of past behaviors and outcomes feels safe, even if it’s harming them in the present, there is a certain safety in the pattern.  The predictability feels familiar and provides a false sense of control.

Abusive relationships don’t typically start out as abusive.  Think about romantic partners, bosses, friends and even family members where the relationship started off beautifully.  You were so happy, your needs were being meet, if not exceeded.  During courtship, of any kind, whether it be a romantic relationship, friendship or a possible new job, typically the relationship starts off positively.

We are courted and shown the best they have to offer.  In personal romantic relationships we see their charm, we talk for hours, we have amazing fun experiences, there’s tons of affection, love notes, great sex, and we feel like the most important person in their universe.  In work relationships we are courted with the promise of a fantastic job title or salary, the great corner office, the autonomy we always wanted, the support and leadership we know is necessary for our growth and development, you name it…right? You get what I mean, we have all been there, we are introduced to the best and brightest members of the team, we are taken to dinners, flown to the corporate offices, maybe even taken to a concert or sporting event…whatever it takes to convince us this is the right job for us.

Once we are lulled into a place of believing them and loving what they have to offer, and we accept them and start getting comfortable, that’s when the power shift starts to happen and we begin to see the dynamics change.  Usually abuse starts subtly and grows over time.  Each time they treat us badly and we accept it, they grow more confident, and the next infraction goes a bit deeper and it continues over and over.  The abuser becomes stronger and more confident while the abused becomes weaker, destabilized and often confused while their confidence diminishes.

The abused hold on, clinging to the memories of when things were great, waiting for those moments to happen again, we long for that feeling, the rush of being wanted, admired and pursued. We hold out for the loving, wonderful person we fell in love with, waiting for them to return and make us feel adored once again.  Or at work, we keep holding on to the promise of the raise, the promotion, or work environment we were sold and believed in and when it doesn’t happen, we often start questioning ourselves first, BEFORE we start to question those around us.

The really strategic abusers know how to sprinkle in just “enough” of the good stuff for us to hold out hope that this is just a phase and things will go back to how they were, or they tell us if WE just acted differently, lost some weight, were more supportive, worked harder, or didn’t “make such a big deal” over little things, that they would then respond with the kindness, respect and fulfilled promises we deserve.

…and they rarely do…at least not in my experiences.  What makes it even more difficult to discern is that many abusers are 95% great in so many ways, and we hold so tightly to the 95%, we make excuse after excuse about how great they are “most of the time”, we hold on to the memories and moments of the good stuff and we turn a blind eye to the 5% of toxic, harmful behaviors, hoping they will disappear…but the 5% can be deadly, literally and figuratively.  The 5% can be so egregious that we experience physical harm or emotional and psychological damage that goes so deep it takes years to unravel.

We deserve to be treated with kindness, respect and dignity 100% of the time, period.  Kindness, respect and dignity are not conditional or carrots to be dangled in front of us as a reward for being a “good girl” and following their rules.  This doesn’t mean that relationships, of all kinds don’t have struggles, they do.  Afterall we are human and conflict is a part of growing and evolving, but conflict doesn’t equate to abuse, regardless of the type of relationship.

2. We also tend to romanticize our past and carry with us moments we loved, even if those moments become fewer and fewer and as a protective mechanism, our brains often hide the negative memories from us.  It’s like when you gather with a group of old friends or co-workers and you reminisce about “the good ole days”…or when you read or hear others talking about how great things were “back then”.  We tend to remember the highlights, the fun things and the good feelings.  We often forget about the not so fun things.  I can remember talking with my grandparents years ago, as they were complaining about how my generation didn’t care, we weren’t patriotic, didn’t have good work ethic etc., and how great it was to be of their generation.  While I am SURE there were great things about their generation, I also know there were NOT so great things…especially for women.  So I asked my Grandmother, “What was it like for you BEFORE you could get a checking account in your own name, without a male co-signature?  How did that make you feel?”  She responded, “I felt like I was constantly under someone else’s financial control, I could earn money, but didn’t have the autonomy to manage the money I earned, and your Grandfather is a horrible money manager, so it was really tough for a long time”.  I then asked her, “How did it feel when you and your best friend (who was a beautiful, brilliant, kind, loving and very dark skinned Black woman) couldn’t go to lunch and sit together at the lunch counter because Black people weren’t permitted there?”  She responded, “It was awful, she is my best friend, and we often had to hide our friendship…not because I wanted to, but to keep HER safe from others who might harm her”.  My grandmother then looked at me and said, “I get it, not everything from my generation was great and I’m very grateful for the progress we’ve made in those areas, anyway” Our brains often block out the negative things and hold onto the positive things, it’s just part of the human condition…we ESPECIALLY do this with past romantic relationships.  How many times have you compared a new love interest to someone you dated or were in love with in the past?  Oftentimes, our comparisons aren’t even real…we compare the new person to an idealized version of the person from our past.  We compare the new person to what we WANTED the person in our past to be, but that doesn’t mean that who they actually were…even when relationships become abusive, we often forget those parts and remember only the good.

I did this, many times.  It’s taken me years to figure it out.  I had a very bad habit of being attracted to narcissists…before I even knew what that word meant.  Growing up as I did, losing my Dad at 5 years old to suicide, then living in a house with an abusive alcoholic and a Mom who was, for the most part emotionally and physically unavailable, I craved attention. I wanted to feel important to someone else, I wanted to feel nurtured and cared for, I wanted to feel like I belonged to someone and they belonged to me…no matter what.  I also grew up knowing that my Mom, who divorced my Dad when I was about 2 years old because she believed he was having an affair, regretted her decision and still does to this day.  I grew up knowing my Mom longed to be with the love of her life and she deeply regrets being impulsive, flying to Haiti to get an instant divorce vs attempting to seek counseling and perhaps mend their relationship.  This is a whole story for another episode, but suffice it to say, there were many factors that influenced my romantic relationships and how I saw myself and how I ignored all the red flags that everyone else could see so clearly, all because I was searching to fill a void from my childhood.  I was searching for things I thought would make me happy, but in reality, what I was searching for no one else could ever fulfill.  I so wanted to be loved and feel a sense of belonging that I ignored horrible behavior and told myself time and time again that I was being too needy.  There were times when I would be almost ready to walk away and then I would think about my Mom and how she regretted walking away, so I would stay. I remember my very first girlfriend.  She was bigger than life to me.  I had known her for years, we actually grew up together, attended the same church and had been close friends for as long as I can remember.  As a kid, I had no idea what being gay meant, so to me, this girl in my life who I had known for so long, who I thought hung the moon was what a best friend was.  I was in my early twenties when our relationship changed from a friendship to a romantic relationship, up to this point, I had no clue I was actually in love with her.  I thought everyone felt the same way I did toward their best friends. I’ve since realized, I as wrong on that one! Thinking back on our relationship, I see so clearly now how I fell for her and why.  When she was around and placed her gaze on me, I felt like I was the most important person in the world.  She would go out of her way to spend time with me, even coming to the restaurant where I was waiting tables, just to sit and be in the room with me.  We would stay up all night talking, laughing, going on the sweetest dates and having so much fun.  We had all the inside jokes, we did all the things I loved to do, and we watched all the shows I loved to watch.  She felt safe, secure and easy because I had known her for so long and when I was with her, everything in the world felt right.  Then slowly, things shifted.  She wouldn’t call me like she used to, she would have “reasons” why she couldn’t have dinner, she stopped coming around and I noticed she was spending time with a lot of other people, and not including me.  When I would ask what was happening, I was met with, “what do you mean, everything is fine, I’ve just been busy, you’re making things up in your head…we are good”. But we weren’t good.  She was lying to me, and everyone else.  She was dating me and several other people, but none of us knew it. Suddenly the sun that radiated light in my world got very dark, and I didn’t know what to do.  I so wanted to feel the way I felt when we first started dating.  So, I ignored it.  I stuck around, thinking she would change, I relived all the good moments over and over and over, I kept hoping she would remember how great things were and want that back as well, …she never did.  It got so bad and so manipulative that at one point she denied we had ever actually dated, that we had been nothing more than friends, and that there was never a romantic side of our relationship.  This cut me so deeply.  I opened myself up to her, told her all my secrets, my insecurities and my fears, and all my dreams and desires for my future. I was vulnerable in ways I had never been and I was manipulated, gaslighted and made to feel like I was crazy.  I knew I wasn’t crazy, I knew I hadn’t made up an entire relationship in my mind, but there I was.  Eventually, after a year or so of the insidious roller coaster of being pulled in and then pushed away, catching her in lie after lie, I finally had enough and I left.  I moved out, got my own place and told her I never EVER wanted to see her again.  I was proud of myself and it felt great to put myself first.  Sadly, I didn’t learn my lesson completely on this first go-round, and I repeated this cycle several more times with others.  The specifics were different, but the patterns were the same and I had to own them.  It took me almost 20 years to figure my shit out before I was healthy enough to be in a truly healthy relationship.

3. We find satisfaction in a bad situation. In work situations, we are often told that finding the positives and focusing on those helps us to build resiliency and to learn how to find the good in anything.  And while I can see that to an extent, I also believe this can be a slippery slope of manipulation causing us to squash our own needs in an attempt to be seen as a team player, strong and resilient.  It’s so easy to get stuck in the “I’ll show them” mentality…and it’s NOT healthy or serving you in any way!

So many times throughout my career I have been told things like, “Once we see what our quarterly earnings are, we can revisit your compensation”…and then quarterly earnings are released, they are positive, maybe not stellar, but positive, I met and exceeded my goals, but there was ALWAYS a reason why my compensation wasn’t increased as it should have been…while at the same time, the company was offering massive sign-on bonuses, equity and more to new hires.  I used to actually take pride in being the “one who could handle whatever they throw at me, because I was going to show them I could handle it and they wouldn’t break me”.  If that sounds or feels familiar to you, I challenge you to reframe this RIGHT NOW.  Instead of the old thinking of “I can handle anything they throw at me…I’ll show them” Perhaps you might think this, instead…”I have shown them my capabilities.  I have nothing more to prove, my work speaks for itself and if I am not offered the respect or acknowledgment I deserve, I will choose what is best for me.  I do not have to handle everything they throw at me, because I deserve better.  I will continue to bring my best self, while holding healthy boundaries, which might mean finding a new employer who appreciates my contributions and pays me what I am worth”.

We earn our paychecks and we deserve equitable pay and compensation.  We deserve kindness and dignity in all we do and in every relationship.  Far too many of us wear being overworked and taken advantage of like a badge of honor.  It’s almost like we play a game with ourselves as if to say, “bring me your worst, and I’ll show you I’m stronger, work harder and don’t need anything or anyone”.  If this feels familiar, PLEASE STOP it right now.  You are not a Superhero, you don’t have unlimited reserves of energy, and you don’t need to prove anything to anyone.  You are completely amazing JUST AS YOU ARE!  Are you perfect?  Likely not, but remember, perfection is an illusion too, and if that’s your goal, you will never reach it so stop trying.  Admit to yourself and others that you are human and you need and deserve support, time, rest, compassion and understanding.

4. We can’t admit when we are wrong. Some of us cling to our past decisions and circumstances because we simply can’t admit we made the wrong choice. We are so married to creating a façade of perfection, that we stay in a bad situation or relationship to protect our ego…and remember, like I just said, perfection isn’t real…it’s literally an impossible target.  What’s perfect to one person is seen as flawed by another, so just stop it already!  If perfection is what you are seeking, then you likely have a much larger passenger along for the ride…and that passengers name is shame.

Shame can plays a HUGE role in perfection seeking behaviors, especially if you grew up in an environment where making mistakes was not permitted or worse, you received harsh punishment for making mistakes.  We can feel it impossible to admit we made a poor choice because we believe it somehow reflects on our character and we can’t shake that feeling of impending doom for admitting we were wrong.

What if, instead of remaining stuck in a bad situation, and beating ourselves up for a past decision, questioning our own ability to make good choices and the shame spiral that often comes along with these types of things…we reframe this one too.  What if you said…”At the time, and with the information I had, I made the best choice possible.  I now see things differently and realize this is no longer serving me and it’s time to make a new choice.”  This subtle shift in the way we talk to ourselves can have huge positive implications, because we are making a NEW CHOICE and by doing so, we are affirming our power and giving ourselves permission to make a needed change.

Another way people can become stuck is what’s called the sunk-cost fallacy. Meaning, we feel we have invested so much into the relationship, we must stick it out.  Business owners who invested huge sums of money into a company fail to get out when they should because of how much they already put in, thus sinking even more money into a losing endeavor.  Or an employee who is woefully unhappy at work, but has been there for 15 years and they love some of their co-workers and accomplishments, but are now have a new boss and are in an incredibly unhealthy space…they stay, hoping things will return to what they were, and afterall, they had 13 good years, the past two aren’t worth giving up on it, are they?  Sometimes, we have to cut our losses and move on.  Continuing to invest our time, money, energy and effort is no guarantee things will get better, especially in relationships.  If you aren’t met halfway, with equal amounts of investment, it is incredibly unlikely that the relationship will ever thrive.  I’m reminded of the lyrics in the famous Kenny Rogers songs, The Gambler…”You gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run”.  We have to asses our situations and relationships for what they are right now, not what they were in the past, or what we hope them to be in the future, but what they are in reality, today and then determine if its healthy to stay or if it’s time to go and if it’s time to go, empower yourself to take the next right step…FOR YOU!  We have to live in the present, not cling to what we believe was great about the past or beat ourselves up for the decisions we made.  We made the best decision we knew how to make at that time, and now we know better, and it’s time to make a better decision.

We can so easily fail to see and accept the present for what it is, because we continue to look at what it was.  Think about it like this…if you drive a car, you spend 95% of your time looking out the LARGE windshield in front of you, and about 5% of your time glancing in the relatively small rearview mirror.  There’s a reason for that.  Your view of what’s ahead and the possibilities of where you might go, the decisions you need to make and the outcomes you desire need WAY MORE of your attention than what you’ve already driven past or what’s behind you.

Your life is the exact same way!  Looking ahead can feel scary, especially if you’re like me and get caught up in the unending “what-if” cycle, but if I’ve learned anything over the years it’s that the “what-if” of possibility gives me options and I can influence what happens.  I play a little game with myself when I start to feel the “what-if” spiral kicking in…I will walk down the path of the very worst case scenario of what could happen, and as long as I know I can handle whatever THAT worse thing is, either by planning for a response to the worst case scenario or by making different decisions, then I know I will be ok.  I often have to do this over and over, but it works and helps turn off the spiral.

I have to accept that what’s in the past is over and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it.  That doesn’t mean I will always get exactly what I want, but I HAVE the power and ability to influence and make decisions that are best for me and make the next right move.  Giving myself deadlines to make decisions is also really helpful.  If I tell myself, I am going to do this, whatever this is, for the next 90 days, and if I do not feel differently, or see things change, I can accept that I did my best, I tried to make it work and I can then move on without regret or shame.  Setting and holding timelines can be a very healthy way to move past, and you’re giving yourself permission to move on.

Shifting our mindset to embrace the changes is key.  I have been quoted many times for the following, and I share it with all the people I coach and the teams I work with…I ask this question…

“failure to evolve causes what_________________?”

I usually give folks a minute or two to think about it and then I say, it’s a Universal truth, an evolutionary fact…Failure to evolve causes…extinction.  Species that fail to evolve become extinct.  Business that fail to evolve become extinct. Kodak and Blockbuster are prime examples.  Kodak held so tightly to the cash cow of film and film developing that they chose NOT to release the first digital camera, they HAD the plans, they could produce it, but they held back because they didn’t want to evolve their business model and they believed they could continue on as they were.  Until Fuji came along and introduced the first digital camera, and the rest is history.  In early 2000, Netflix offered to sell their company to Blockbuster for 50 million dollars, Blockbuster turned them down, holding on to their model.  Blockbuster had collected 800 million in late fees that year and were convinced this was the way of the future and, afterall, late fees were easy money and we all know what happened to Blockbuster.

Don’t be the Kodak or Blockbuster of your own life!  We have to recognize the cost of not evolving, becoming stagnant, of remaining in unhealthy relationships comes at a MUCH greater cost than the cost of making the changes necessary to live a life where you THRIVE!

We also have to recognize our OWN patterns.  Unhealthy relationships, especially personal relationships are a two way street, and while abuse is never ok, sometimes we have to look in the mirror and identify all the ways in which WE might be contributing to our own unhealthy cycles.

Breaking these cycles can be hard, especially if we don’t do the work.  We have to get really uncomfortable to recognize our own issues and their origins and then do the work to break our OWN patterns.