Forced flexibility from flooding, leaning into uncertainty, and my first concert. It was a big week!
These weekly updates share life with OCD as part of my Mental Work Health project to reduce stigma around mental health, especially at work.
Years ago, I worked remotely for Balsamiq. Prior to that, I had occasional flexibility in where I worked, but was usually in an office. We had a huge adjustment as a family with me working from home. Our four kids had filled up our little townhouse in Daybreak, so we had moved all the clothes out of the walk-in master closet in order to have a room as an “office”. Things got easier in our next house, when we had a real bedroom that I could use as an office.
One of our biggest struggles was the flexibility in hours. Balsamiq was a ROWE (results-only work environment), so I didn’t have a set schedule. But one of my responsibilities was support, so I had to be regularly available to answer customer messages.
This was long before I learned that I have OCD, and all I knew was that changing plans would break my brain a bit. Surprisingly, having our fifth child resulted in many plan changes and schedule disruptions. It was hard.
Much of that pain and difficulty came to mind when deciding to become independent earlier this year. I knew that I had grown and changed, and I hoped that I would be able to handle it now, but it was definitely a risk when I announced that I was available for consulting: Yes, I’m open.
As I have been working for myself for the past few months, I have reflected many times on what a miracle my progress has been. I feel capable of doing things that I couldn’t even dream of a few years ago. One of those has been navigating an uncertain and flexible schedule.
Recently, child #6, our 4-year-old toddler, forced some flexibility on me. He was trying to clean some of his toys in the bathroom sink, and pulled the faucet over so that he could reach it better. That meant that it was pouring straight on the counter instead of the sink. Then he walked out and shut the door. We didn’t notice what was happening until child #4, our 10-year-old son, came tearing up the stairs screaming about water dripping from the ceiling in his room.
I had never dealt with flooding as an adult before. Growing up, I remember our basement flooding multiple times, and having to pump out water and do annoying work to clean up. But I didn’t have a concept of how involved repair and restoration is.
The flooding happened on a Monday. So for the rest of the week, I had to manage repair contractors and deal with estimates and extra work. It was difficult for me to adjust my expectations of what a day would look like.
Then, on that Friday, I woke up and didn’t feel awesome. I was tired and stressed and didn’t feel like working. My wife asked if I could just take the day off. When working for Balsamiq in the past, that kind of question would send me into a mental tailspin. Adjusting my schedule and expectations last second like that was extremely difficult, and I felt so much internal pressure and guilt to do what she had asked regardless of how I felt about it. But this time, I thought through my day and said, “Ok!”
We decided to work on Saturday instead and spent Friday doing work around the house and other errands. It was the kind of day that would have usually resulted in me being extra irritated in the past. But this time, I was able to sit with my emotions and just lean into the change.
I was flexible.
Last week, I was discussing some of my struggles with my mastermind group. The problem I was having was not a lack of clients, but rather a difficulty in settling down to do the actual work for one of my clients. I explained that I had tried to get started a few times, but each time I found myself staring at my computer screen unable to make any progress.
My group was kind and supportive, and asked me to probe my own feelings. One of my friends asked if I really wanted to do the work. He said that he’s faced similar difficulties with client work, and usually realized that there was something about the client or the project that was turning him off to it.
One friend mentioned that he has read some of these updates, and is more familiar with my situation, and it sounded like OCD might be taking over a bit. Maybe I was just trying to get to the “right” number of clients, and I was forcing myself to take the work in order to check the box on the client acquisition stage.
As they pushed a bit and I thought about the situation, I realized that there were a few things bothering me. It was so helpful to get that kind of support in exploring the challenge I was having.
One of the last things they told me was to trust my gut.
Now, typically that is fantastic advice. Our unconscious brain is able to sort through situations in way that we can’t consciously, and we are able to have flashes of insight and intuition that only matter if we pay attention to them.
The problem is that my brain cannot be trusted.
The night after my conversation, I told my wife that I was planning on canceling the contract with my client. We were wrapping up the first month trial period anyway, and I was just going to say that it’s not working out for me. She was concerned but supportive, and trusted that I would make things work.
I told her about the conversation I had earlier with my group. One of my friends had said that if there were not clear reasons to work on the project, whether because I liked the work, or I was able to help and mentor others, or I would grow professionally or personally, it made sense to not take the work. But after thinking about it a few hours, I realized that wasn’t true. I said to my wife that the hard thing was that my mind and my gut didn’t line up. Intellectually, everything seemed great with the client and the work, but emotionally, I was feeling stuck.
The next morning, I was still feeling torn. Deciding to cut the contract hadn’t brought any peace. I went to my journal and started some free writing.
So what would it need to look like for me to be excited about it? In some ways, this is a hard line of questioning because it takes me back into logical/rational territory where I already think I should be doing. So rather than go further down that road, let’s back up and go down the emotional route.
When I think about working on [that client]’s stuff, how do I feel? I definitely find myself a little repelled. I am not excited.
Part of it is that I don’t know where to start. I can’t just sit down and start cruising on something, and it’s not clear to me where I would go next.
I am definitely afraid. I am afraid of not being enough. Of being a fraud. Of them realizing that I don’t actually know what I am doing.
It feels hot, like an iron that has been in the forge. I could grab it and start working it, but I know that I could get burned.
I scheduled a meeting with my client, intending to tell him that I was going to have to back out and stop working with him. As I continued to think about the situation, I was struck with the answer. I was afraid of the uncertainty. I realized that it was ambiguous and I didn’t have enough clarity, and that was triggering me.
As soon as that hit me, I knew I was right. It smelled, tasted, and looked like a shiny thought.
If there was no other reason, that would be enough for me to say that I should work with that client. I always need more practice with uncertainty, especially in a professional settings. It’s really good for me to have to sit with something that is messy and ambiguous, and choose to not flee.
So as I went into the meeting with the client that afternoon, I was curious. I didn’t know exactly how things were going to go. I didn’t even know exactly what I wanted to say. But from our previous interactions, I felt comfortable sharing some of this journey with him.
When we met, I told him that I had found myself struggling to work on his project, and talked through a little of why that was. I opened up and shared about having OCD, and how I am pathologically averse to uncertainty. He kind of laughed because he is on the opposite end of the order vs. chaos spectrum. He knew that it was ambiguous and uncertain, but that’s more of his personality and how he works.
Through discussing the situation openly, we decided that we would scope my involvement to be a little more specific and have more check-ins to make sure that I knew what to be working on.
And I would continue to sit with the discomfort.
Leaving that meeting, I felt fantastic. The peace I had been seeking earlier had arrived. This felt like the right path forward. I had recognized the lies that my brain was feeding me, and challenged them sufficiently to make my own decision.
For her 15th birthday, last week I took child #2 with her best friend to the Imagine Dragons concert in Salt Lake.
It was their first, and also my first real concert. As I told our friends, I went to many concerts as a teenager—I was just playing the tuba in them.
Kings Elliot opened the concert, and was followed by Macklemore. Finally, two and a half hours after it started, Imagine Dragons came on stage and played for two solid hours.
As expected, it was loud enough that I needed my ear plugs that I wear around our kids. It was long. And it was crowded. At the beginning, the sun was blazing and shining directly into our eyes. Later, rain poured on us. But overall, it was a great experience.
One thing that stuck out to me was that all three performers talked about mental health. This is truly something that is becoming mainstream enough to discuss openly.
That is great in so many ways.
We need to shatter the shame so that people don’t suffer in silence. We need to open the conversation, whether we are the ones struggling, or we are creating safe places for the people around us.
Wherever you are this week, I send you compassion. You are surely dealing with your own difficulties. Life can be exhausting and overwhelming at times. I hope we can both pause to share some kindness with ourselves and those in our lives.
Until next week,