*Note to the reader: Names have been changed. Despite the allusion to the contrary below, I am not, in fact, on a first name basis with my boss.
The Scene: A non-descript hallway in a non-descript office building. Poorly engineered overhead lighting does little to improve the appearance of the grayish, scuffed walls and beige, linoleum tile floor. Lulu exits the women’s restroom, and a slight man of about 45, with thinning brown hair and a tanned, lined face approaches from behind.
Michael*: Hey! I was just on my way to see you in your office. (A subtle emphasis is placed on the words, “in your office.” It is almost imperceptible.)
Lulu: (Thinking to self: “This can’t be anything good. Why does he need to talk to me in my office? Ok, wait, it doesn’t necessarily have to be bad. I will try to avoid jumping to conclusions.” She laughs nervously.) Oh, really?
Together, they walk toward another hallway, which intersects the first at a right angle, and Lulu opens a heavy, unmarked door. Michael follows behind as Lulu passes into a wider office space filled with cubicles. They pass a row of cubicles, toward another open door. Warmer, welcoming light streams from the entryway. As they approach, the soft, muted tones of Enya can be heard playing in the background.
Michael: Yeah, you know. It’s been awhile since I talked to you!
Lulu: Perplexed. Sounding innocent. Since Friday?
Michael: Yeah, well, you know. Three days! What’s been going on? That’s nice music!
Lulu: (Trying to hide embarrassment that she listens to Enya in her office. Makes a soft, chuckling, choking sound.) Yeah, it’s my after lunch, chill-out music. Um, things are pretty much the same.
They cross the threshold into Lulu’s office, which is richly decorated with a Tiffany lamp and an area rug patterned in gray and gold that complements the tones in the glass. An elegant table runner drapes over the top of a low bookshelf, forming a perfect surface for a rose-colored, ceramic pot of pink flowers, a decorative teacup, and a picture frame. A plaque that reads, “Believe – v. to have confidence or faith in the truth of,” sits next to the pot. A map of the world hangs on the wall above, and the remaining walls are covered in diplomas and certificates framed in heavy, dark wood. Lulu quickly maneuvers behind the desk and propels herself into the security of her familiar chair, while Michael more cautiously seats himself in a straight-backed chair opposite her. Michael leans back, picks up one foot, and places it on the other knee, allowing his leg to flop to the side casually. Lulu props her elbows on her armrests and tents her hands under her chin, lips pinched, leaning forward.
Michael: So, I was just wondering, you know, if it’s not too much to ask, and only if you’re comfortable, I don’t want to put you on the spot or anything, but would you tell me what it’s like to have an eating disorder, you know, from your personal experience. (He drags out the world “personal” emphatically.)
Michael: You know, if you’re comfortable. I don’t want to put you on the spot or anything. I just, I mean, you’re the only person I ever met with an eating disorder. I mean… what’s it LIKE?
Lulu: (Thinking to self: “WHAT… THE… … … … ?”)
Lulu: (Thinking to self: “Did the director of my division seriously just ask me to share my personal experience with binge eating disorder? Um… How is this going to factor into my performance stratification?”) Um. What?
Michael: You know, you just seem so open, otherwise I wouldn’t ask. You just seem like such an open person. (He repeatedly stresses the word “open.”)
Lulu: (Thinking to self: “Well, he certainly has guts… Is my mouth hanging open? I think my mouth is hanging open.”)
Michael: You know, we were talking last week, and I realized that I don’t really know anything about eating disorders. I mean, I’d like to understand better what it’s like for you.
Lulu: (Thinking to self: “Geez. Well, I’m the one who is always saying that I want to increase awareness and break down stigma… I just didn’t think it would be with the head of my division.”) Well… what do you want to know?
Can you imagine my shock, mingled with horror, mingled with speechlessness, when the above occurred just before Halloween? We ended up speaking for an hour! Historically, my division chief and I did not have the most open relationship, to use his adjective. It wasn’t as though I thought that he meant me any harm. I believed him to be very well meaning, but I also found interacting with him feel forced and awkward. However, our mutual courage to be a little bit vulnerable might just be leading us both to an improved understanding, to borrow from one of my favorite authors/researchers/storytellers, Brené Brown.
On the subject of Brené Brown… as my division chief and I were chatting again last week (about the dicey topic of my future professional plans – dicey because I don’t have any at the present moment, which is not something I am eager to confess to my career-focused boss), he interjected with, “Hey, do you like TED talks? Have you seen these TED talks by this woman Brené Brown on shame and vulnerability?”
My reaction was essentially to think, “How the fudge do you know about Brené Brown?” Except I didn’t think the word, “fudge.” Fortunately, what actually came out of my mouth was something to the effect of, “I would pretty much attribute my success in recovery to discovering her work. They made us watch her video on vulnerability, and then I read her book, The Gifts of Imperfection while I was at Walden, and it was a definite turning point.” I didn’t go into how research demonstrates that it is critical in establishing and sustaining eating disorder recovery for a sufferer to be able to learn self-compassion. We needed something to talk about the next time we chat! But, prior to Brené Brown, I didn’t know what vulnerability, shame, and self-compassion meant. (There are more resources about self-compassion and ED recovery on my favorites page).
I’m pretty sure Michael didn’t realize just how much of a compliment he was paying me when he told me that I seemed to practice the appropriate degree of vulnerability that Dr. Brown discussed during her TED talk. He confessed that, despite watching the videos several times, he struggled to fully understand exactly how and why vulnerability was necessary for establishing human connection, and why connection was necessary for leading a wholehearted life (he admitted that he was stuck on the “necessary” bit). “Would you mind going over them with me?” he asked. “I think I can find the transcripts online,” he continued. “It might be helpful if I could highlight them, and I could write down some questions. I think I would understand it better if I could discuss it with you.”
The transcripts arrived in my email inbox the next day. I’m looking forward to our next conversation.