Sawubona: I See Your Wholeness, Do You See It As Well?

I was in a lap lane Saturday, swimming next to an awesome instructor (about my age) who was walking slowly and holding the heads of the little-littles while they practiced kicking on their backs. Their expressions were ones of wonder and awe at this new experience in the water.  
Shortly thereafter, another group of slightly older little-littles clustered by the pool steps, gripping the floats tightly that wrapped around their waists.
So, began the instructor to his new group, you’ll be swimming from here to the end of the pool and…..and suddenly, from the mouth of the smallest wee-boy erupted a whale of a cry, with his distress echoing with startling depth and complexity of sound.
Turns out the instructor thought he was teaching a higher level and with this realization, he moved into the hovering bodies like a soft summer breeze rippling through the garden: My bad, he said compassionately. I got ahead of myself! No swimming to the end of the pool. I got you. You got this. We got this together. Upon which the wailing subsided and the class commenced.

I See Your Wholeness

His presence with the kids reminded me of the Zulu greeting Sawubona, which literally translates as “I see you.” I see your worth, your value, your dignity, your fear, experiences, passion, pain, strengths and weaknesses, and your future, too. You are valuable to me. It is a powerful experience to be seen.

How Do We See Our Own Wholeness in Wailing Weeks?

I’ve had a couple of wailing weeks with technology, and it’s landed me in a place of powerlessness, unpredictability and utter frustration. Microsoft Office and Outlook keep clashing and crashing, and every day there’s a new gremlin. Smart minds still can’t find the logic and meanwhile, I lose access to my desktop for hours at a time.

Deadlines amass. Meetings have been rescheduled. I’m embarrassed and even ashamed at times. Why don’t I have a better handle on this? Why am I not more proficient? What’s wrong with me?

Compassionate Leadership: For Others, and for Self

I’ve been preparing for a workshop on EQ and Psychological Safety and enjoyed a piece from the Center for Creative Leadership: Compassionate Leadership Is a Choice, and It’s All About Action.  

Just as in the practice of Sawubona, Compassionate Leaders:

“…are able to see and acknowledge the whole person in context and seek to grow that person (not just solve their problems). In doing so, they uncover hidden talents and find new ways to leverage the skills and contributions of others.

I wondered, then, how do we practice compassion for ourselves to uncover our own hidden talents? How do hold ourselves, mess and all, in wholeness, and like the swimming instructor, keep our heads out of the water while continuing to kick?

Susan David, Harvard psychologist and author of Emotional Agility, notes in this brief video, How to Be More Self-Compassionate that self-compassion is not about being positive and moving on.

Self-Compassion is Not About Being Positive and Moving On

Yes, I am repeating myself because for high-functioning and high-thriving people, self-compassion can feel like a wallowing way of letting ourselves off the hook. We are competent. We are supposed to box our way out of discomfort or suck it up buttercup with positive affirmations.

But it doesn’t work that way. Embracing our wholeness means showing up for our difficult feelings and thoughts and walking with them. It’s creating our own environment of psychological safety, notes Susan David (check her out on Facebook or LinkedIn) for deeper discovery and solutions.

She offers three practical steps, upon which I’m elaborating:

  1. Speak to yourself in the third person. I always hear my mother’s voice who called me by my full name and find myself saying: “Okay, Bernardine, dear, now what do you need?”
  2. Keep your eyes on your own work and step away from comparison. We readily revert to self-criticism as if it will fix the problem. But it just makes things worse.  
  3. Own the reality of your story (rather than it owning you). Discover and let go of a particular narrative of your perfection.

To be emotionally agile means we still recognize and have hard feelings. Feeling powerless can be paralyzing. Self-compassion serves as a bridge to step out of shame and back into the fuller perspective of our hidden wholeness and pathways forward.

Every bit of you is valuable and rich in resources.


P.S. Technology is a socially acceptable place of powerlessness. But what about all the other taboos: illness, grief, loss, confusion, uncertainty? Teams and leaders that make space for all of these experiences create cohesive and thriving systems.

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