By Dr. John Townsend
“One of my stretch goals for this year is to lose sixty pounds.”
Allison, an owner of a small financial services business, made that announcement to her team on the first day with our leadership coaching program. It was a serious moment, for both Allison and the team. During our briefing meetings before the program’s launch, Allison had mentioned a long-term struggle with weight and how discouraged about it she was. So when she committed to an actual number and elevated the priority to one of the three stretch goals that members have for a given year, she was expressing a great deal of vulnerability and courage to the team. The group, in its turn, was moved by how open she was about her frustrations over previous attempts and committed to Allison to be there for her any way they could.
As I got to know Allison, I was struck by everything she had already been doing right about weight loss for years. Highly intelligent and inquisitive, she had researched body metabolism, nutrition, even brain chemistry. She had also created structures such as calendaring gym times, getting a trainer, and using the leadership team as an accountability system. And yet she had no pattern of success. She was stuck on the yo-yo cycle.
At the same time, I began noticing a pattern with Allison in our group. More than anyone else, she was the giver. She provided great financial solutions for team members who had money challenges, as she was highly proficient in that world. Not only that, but she was a relational giver as well. When someone was discouraged, stressed, or beating themselves up for some failure, Allison was warm and empathic and had the right encouraging things to say. She had an intuitive ability to feel what others were experiencing and go to the heart of the matter. And beyond that, between our monthly meetings, she was the one who reached out most often and most consistently to the team members via face-to-face contact, phone calls, and texts.
But there was another side of Allison’s engagement with her group. She never asked for anything relational. Her conversations were almost all about either the needs of the team or some functional need, such as how to parent her teen better or how to align her employees with the company’s vision. It was never about asking for support or just for someone to listen.
Though everyone appreciated how helpful she was, I and the other members began observing the dissonance with Allison. In our group sessions, one of them might say, “So how are you doing?” And she would adroitly divert the focus away from herself and onto others, saying things like, “I’m doing fine, but I’ve been concerned about you, Travis. It seems like what’s going on in your company and with your kids is a lot to bear, and it feels like it must be overwhelming.”
Fortunately, several members of the team were pretty mature in the emotional-relational arena and wouldn’t let the diversion slide forever. They were concerned about her. One of them finally said, “Allison, I have to be honest with you. I don’t feel as close in our relationship as I’d like to. I sort of know you, but I don’t think I really know you, at least not like I do the rest of the team.”
Allison was a bit hurt by this. She said, “I’m sorry, but I really don’t understand. I think I’m all in for you guys. I really am committed to you. You mean a lot to me, and this is a surprise.”
I took over at that point and asked the team, “Well, let’s get a baseline. Does anyone else have this experience of Allison?”
Most of the members spoke up and said something similar.
Now Allison was just plain confused. “What am I doing wrong?”
I said, “First of all, you’re doing a lot right, so let’s not lose sight of that. But I agree with the team that you shy away from being vulnerable with us and bringing your real needs to the team. I rarely hear you ask for support, listening, acceptance, or anything like that. And the problem is that people don’t really know us until they know our vulnerabilities and needs. I think the team knows your care, your support, and your encouragement. But it tends to end there.
Click to Tweet: People don’t really know us until they know our vulnerabilities and needs.
“I’d like for you to think about why it is that you don’t ask from this group what you provide to them. More to the point, I’d like for you to talk with us about what the feeling and experience would be if you did ask for support in some way.”
Allison was quiet and reflective. Then she said, “I think I’m just happier when I take care of people.”
I said, “Sure, that’s a good thing. But your team members are happy when you give to them as well, and you don’t have that kind of happiness. Keep exploring what you think the experience would be. I think it has some negative connotations.”
Allison said, “I think it would be a very negative experience if I asked.”
“Because if you guys had any sense, you would pull away from me. You don’t need one more needy, high-maintenance person in your lives.”
The group was surprised and saddened to hear Allison speak of herself with such harsh words.
I said, “That’s a pretty tough self-assessment, Allison. Is that how you experience the team’s needs?”
She began to protest. “No, not at all. I love you guys! I am so comfortable with the challenges you have, and I would never see you in a negative light!”
I knew I didn’t have to say anything more, because I saw the wheels turning in her head.
Her face reddened and she said, “So you’re wondering why the disconnect here?”
That led us into a great deal of productive but difficult team discovery with Allison about why she was so judging of her own needs but so gracious with those of others. She had grown up in a home where her parents needed her to be highly responsible and caring, above and beyond what a child should have to be. She was the one who, at eleven years old, would calm her mom down when she was upset. When her teenage brother, who was into drugs and acting out, had episodes, she made sure her dad was not too upset. The technical term for this issue is the parentified child. The child had to parent the parents. Allison was eleven years old on the outside and thirty years old on the inside.
One thing parentified children never do is ask for their needs to be met. The unspoken covenant in Allison’s family was that she was to be the sourcer and not the sourcee. The fear was that if she had a problem, was overwhelmed, or failed, it would bring the whole family down, as she was always the strong one, at least in her mind.
The lights quickly came on for Allison as she began to understand all this. She had no room in her head for her own needs. She perceived herself as a sourcer, a helper and supporter of others, a strong person without needs.
As Allison processed all this with the group, they began validating her needs, acknowledging how right and proper it was that she ask for what she did not have. They would say, “I’d honestly feel closer to you if you said you’d like to talk about yourself and what your struggles are” and “Now that I know a bit about your history, I feel a great deal of compassion for what it was like to have to be the glue for everyone in your home.” The group began to support her, reach out to her, and express compassion for her, doing what the body of Christ is supposed to do with each other: “comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Cor. 1:4). They did this from time to time, during the course of several days’ meetings.
At first Allison pushed back, saying things like, “Guys, I’m fine. Other people here have bigger challenges than I do” and “Can we get the spotlight off me?”
Then an amazing thing happened. During one session, Allison began to express what it had felt like to have to be the strong one, with no room for needs, and how hard that was. She had been getting it cognitively, but now it was happening emotionally. And she started having feelings of loneliness, sadness, and being overwhelmed and beyond herself. The group had been pouring relational nutrients into her and challenging her beliefs about herself, and she began feeling safe enough to acknowledge what was true.
This changed everything for Allison. She became more open and vulnerable about her career, her marriage, her parenting, and her childhood. She brought up struggles and asked for support. In a sense, she truly joined the team, because she now related to them as they were relating to her and each other.
And she began losing weight. Gradually and consistently, the pounds began dropping off. Allison had the aha experience of realizing that the only place she could go for her needs was to food, rather than relationship. Food had always been the comfort and support for stress and struggle, and it protected her from having to take relational risks. But as she became more comfortable asking for her needs, the food was much less necessary.
With all the weight loss structures and strategies she already had in her life, the missing piece was what is technically called “internalizing the good” from others. It has been several years since Allison went through the program, and she is still maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle.