I’ve got a cough.
I’ve had it for about four years.
It comes and goes – but mostly it comes.
The truth is that I’m sick of it.
I’ve seen a naturopath, an herbalist and am working out whatever emotional causes there might be.
And when you go through sickness you start to notice things.
And one of the things you notice is how other people relate to it – what feels good and what doesn’t.
Here’s a deeper and more honest cut into this: I secretly feel ashamed of my cough. I hate it.
But I genuinely don’t know, for sure, what it’s about.
Maybe it’s because I’m not getting enough fat in my diet (had my gallbladder out a couple of years ago and it wasn’t working for ten years before that). Maybe it’s about not expressing grief. Maybe it’s a fungal or viral infection. Maybe it’s acid reflux. Maybe it’s all of the above.
I don’t know.
And I’ve been living with it for four years.
And so, it’s puzzling when people will come up to me and – with almost no diagnosis at all – tell me exactly what the ‘real’ cause of it is. With so much certainty.
Let me tell you what the emotional impact of this is: it’s shame.
I feel like I’ve not done enough. Like I’m stupid. Like I’m lazy. Irresponsible. And maybe those things are true.
I felt the same thing when I was dealing with my gallstones. No one had answers – but everyone had advice. A dear friend of mine had rheumatoid arthritis. It was crippling for her. And one day a friend who’d been giving her energy work said to her, ‘You know, I think your fear is getting in the way of your healing.’
She felt devastated. And ashamed. And angry.
Of course she was scared. Her hands were shrunken and swollen. Everything hurt. No matter what she tried – nothing changed. And she tried everything – raw vegan, raw animal products, chemicals, antibiotics. And nothing worked. After a while – you start to feel hopeless.
No shit she was scared.
But – as a practitioner – what do you do with the fear? Do you shame it? Or can you empathize with it? Can you let go of your agenda for their own healing long enough to love them right where they are?
And, what if loving people where they are is the most healing thing you can offer?
What if, when you encounter their resistance – you explored it with curiousity and not judgement. Just a sense of, ‘Wow. You’ve spent so much money but you don’t seem to be applying anything or taking your medicines – I’m so curious why that is! Let’s explore this.’ Perhaps you might help them uncover a block that ends up being the healing they really need.
When I’m struggling me tell you what I’m wanting: empathy. context. guidance. Those three things.
I’m wanting someone to be curious with me and explore what might be at the heart of it.
What I’m not wanting is: shaming, blaming, pre-mature advice.
What I’m not wanting is someone to say ‘shame on you‘. Not only does it feel terrible – it’s terrible marketing. And yet – it seems like this is how some people choose to market – by shaming people into action.
And this brings up a core ethical charge laid against so much marketing – the way it plays into (and helps to create) our insecurities. A lot of people are angry about marketing because of just this kind of thing.
This was all brought to my mind by a recent incident at a workshop.
I’d spoken with a man who was an holistic practitioner.
When we first met at one of my workshops he said, “It sounds like you’ve got XYZ from your dog.”
But i don’t have a dog. He’d misheard me.
Lesson #1: Be careful against diagnosing your clients too soon and losing credibility.
But this wasn’t so bad.
It actually impressed me that he had such an exact sense of it. I even felt excited – maybe he was right! Maybe my cough could be gone soon. I told him I’d like to book a session with him on the following day. But, as it was, I couldn’t make it. I saw him at another workshop the next day and expressed my regrets that I couldn’t make it.
He looked at me and said, “if i were in the business of making speeches – i would make time to take care of my voice.”
My silent, gut response: “bah. screw you. who are you to assume that you can fix me? who are you to assume you should know what my priorities are or should be – or that you has any idea what i’ve been up to – or that i haven’t been doing OTHER things to take care of my voice? You have no idea of the number of supplements I’m carrying in my luggage as I travel (so many) and the money I’ve spent on it – or how hard it is to remember to take the pills and how gross they taste. How there are so many that sometime I almost vomit.”
Lesson #2: acknowledging people’s struggles and what they’ve already done.
If instead he’d said, “I know how it can be. I’m sure you’re so busy on the road – but i’d love to see you. hmm. Is there any time we can fit it in? No pressure.”
Or, if when we first spoke, instead of jumping in with a diagnosis immediately he’d said, “You were saying you’ve had this cough for a long time. How is that for you?“
And then listened. Really listened. With empathy.
And when I was done, he might have said, “I can imagine so. I know when I’ve been sick I felt the same way. Here you are traveling and with a job that involves speaking and then you get this! . . . And now you’re carrying around half a bag full of medicine with you and it’s so hard to get it all organized and really stay on top of it. It’s like a whole other job. I’m sorry to hear your troubles. I know how overwhelming it could be. And I have some thoughts if you’re open to it – but no pressure.”
And, when I’d indicated that it was a good time and I would love to hear his thoughts he might have said, “Well . . . it seems to me that it may be XYZ. I’m not sure – but as I listened to it that kept coming up for me. And what I’d love to do is have you come in so we could explore it further. Would you be open to that?“
I would have said yes – and felt honoured in the process.
I would have had my dignity still.
Can our marketing build up people’s dignity instead of tearing it down?
Pressure makes us recoil.
And, here’s the thing, I know he’s right. But I also know life is full of so many priorities. So much beauty. And it’s hard to fit it all in. Sometimes I forget to take my medicine. Or I choose not too because it’s late and I just want to go to bed. The thought of spending all my time in ‘treatment’ is overwhelming
When people are in pain, they don’t always address it head on – they sometimes do other things too.
When I thought of him sitting there throughout the workshop thinking, “if only Tad had worked with me, he wouldn’t be coughing.” made me feel angry and defensive.
And then I’m startled at my own bristliness. My own defensiveness. And I’m reminded at how much shame people carry around their sickness.
Lesson #3: When people are sick – they are often also ashamed of their sickness. And they are scared.
If you can meet their fear and shame with love, empathy and curiousity – what might happen then?
And I wonder: how do we engage with people without shaming, pushing or judging? How can our words encourage and uplift while also empathizing and loving?
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