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“How would you like me to be?”


Have you ever been in a situation where you were feeling exhausted or just out-of-sorts, and a loving friend, partner or colleague said something like, “Chin up!” or “You just need to make time in your calendar for yourself”?

And that actually made things worse, not better?

Over the past days, I’ve been experiencing a spiralling sense of anxiety and overwhelming exhaustion. I couldn’t explain it even though I could. I could because we’ve been living through a pandemic for more than a year. And yet, I couldn’t because I’m one of the lucky ones.

I’ve been able to keep working from home and earning as an online facilitator, trainer and coach. I have an international network of colleagues and friends who are kind, intelligent and generous. I’m not in a caregiving role. And I have complete autonomy over the kind of life I want to live. Plus, I was having a relatively easy month compared to previous months of intense juggling.

At any rate, I was experiencing a growing sense of dread and confusion. And this was what I shared in a support group I belong to, and later with a couple of my BFFs. (Yes, it’s possible to have more than one BFF.)

The recommendations and questions came quickly.

“Do this…”

“Don’t do that…”

“What if you thought about it like this…?”

“Is it because of …. ?” 

Every single suggestion and question felt like flying gravel trying to shatter away my exhaustion. Instead, I felt my exhaustion harden against other people’s meaning of, and solution to, my weariness. So now, on top of my confusion about why I was feeling the way I was feeling, I also had to stave off these other meanings that did not belong to me. It was … exhausting.

My weariness felt unwelcome by people around me, who were doing their best to be supportive and caring.

“Are you feeling better?” came a day later.

I suspected that if I said, yes, there would be relief and potentially a welcoming committee: “Yay, she got over it! We knew she would!” Already, even the smallest sign that I was functional, and I was, was greeted cheerfully with, “Are you back?” 

And if I said no, there would be concern, and likely more pebbles I would have to ward off, making me even more worn out.

I said neither, not responding.

Instead, I said to myself, “I am exhausted. This is just the way I am right now. I am in no hurry to feel better even if others are. And I am only doing what my exhaustion wants me to do.”

What do you do?

So, what do you do when someone you care about shares a problem they’re having?

One of the best things a friend, Greta Irving, who is also a Clean Language-trained therapist, has said to me was: “How would you like me to be in this conversation?”

That allowed me to say what I most needed in that moment, so that she could support me in the way that I needed, not in the way that she thought I needed. She could bring to the conversation the support she was capable of, and I didn’t need to defend myself against any flying gravel.

Another Clean question that works really well is, “And when [exhausted / down / etc], what support or resources do you need?” Just trusting that a person knows themselves better than you do, is already a way of saying, “You’ve got this. And I’m here for you.” It’s a way of saying it without saying it. And it’s a way of caring without asking them to weigh and consider, on top of everything else they are already dealing with, whether your hypothesis or assertion or assumption works for them.

And it could just be that the person says, “Nothing. I don’t need anything from you. I just need to hear myself say this.” Or the person says, “I want to know what you think.” Or something else that is an expression of what they need.

A Clean conversation

Finding ourselves with some time together on a Zoom call, another friend and Clean Language facilitator, Sarah Scarratt said, “When you’re exhausted, what would you like? I could leave this call if you need time alone, or I could stay.”

I had already been bruised by gravel the day before. And I was tempted to be left alone because that’s what I wanted everyone else to do – leave me alone instead of pelting me with suggestions and cheers.

And I was also still trying to figure out my exhaustion. It felt like such a privilege to feel tired when I was one of the lucky ones during the pandemic. And not knowing was making me feel even worse.

And luckily, I knew that Sarah would know how to be Clean in our conversation. She would know how to keep her stuff out of my stuff.

And so, I asked Sarah to stay on that Zoom call. And she sat with my exhaustion and confusion, without hurrying them along. And she kept out of their way. She didn’t try and rescue me even when I cried from sadness and frustration.

And even when she shared her own experiences of the pandemic, she owned them as hers and did not try and use her experiences to make meaning for me. It’s like there’s my stuff in my space. And there was no attempt to deny or get rid of my stuff in my space. And then there was Sarah’s stuff and it was kept in her space. And there was no attempt to force her stuff into my space, or to make our spaces overlap, as a way to demonstrate care and compassion.

I am in a better place because of that Clean conversation. I’m still exhausted. And I’m less, not more, exhausted from learning how my exhaustion came to be and what it needs. My exhaustion felt blessed with the attention that Sarah gave it.

And that for me, is what makes a Clean conversation such a gift. It’s like someone saying, “You’ve got this. And I’m here for you.” And then doing just that.

About Jacqueline Ann Surin

Jacqueline Ann Surin's avatar

Jacqueline coaches individuals and organisations internationally to manage relationships without drama and to harness the positives in conflict. She also facilitates companies to build trust remotely so as to improve efficiency, productivity and performance.

A communications expert with more than 25 years’ experience, she is one of the leading Clean Language specialists in Asia, and is both an online and in-person facilitator and coach.

She is a Level 1 Clean Facilitator, and the first Level 2 Systemic Modeller in Asia. She has a Level 5 certification in coaching and mentoring from the ILM. She is also a certified NLP practitioner.

She is a specialist partner of the Singapore-based consultancy, BeInClarity, for whom she delivers several Clean Language solutions for individuals, organisations and companies.

She is also the Southeast Asian associate of Training Attention in the UK, and Change 3.0 in the Netherlands. She has worked in Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, the UK and Lebanon.

She has blogged for the Association for Coaching in the UK, and continues to contribute to the development of Clean Language and its applications through her writing at the Training Attention, Clean Learning and Clean Collection websites.

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