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Stephanie Dowrick thinks about work

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Countless people draw on work for identity as much as income. But this can leave people feeling immensely vulnerable to others’ decisions and whims. Far greater freedom can come from consciously deciding that no matter what your work is, what most positively affects your wellbeing are the values you seek to express through your work (paid or unpaid) – and your identification with those values. Everyday Kindness author Dr Stephanie Dowrick writes here about those attitudes – and the freedoms they can bring.

Many of your choices of attitude and behaviour today and every day will centre on “work”.  And how you think about and experience “work” will dramatically affect your feelings of well-being, self-confidence, optimism, your physical and emotional health, and even the quality of the relationships you have through your work and way beyond it. How you think about work will literally drag you down – or build you up.

However much time work takes (and it’s usually a lot), your thinking about work is likely to take even more time. But to what effect?  Do you think mostly about the problems and difficulties that emerge in your workplace (and there may be many)?  Do you think mostly about the losses: of time when you could be doing other things; of the dreams of work satisfaction that may never be realized; of the prestige or income that might have come your way but did not; of the applause that has come your way, yet doesn’t ever quite “hit the spot”?

Or could it be that you are a “lucky one” whose work genuinely enhances your life (and perhaps others’ lives also)?  Work may even the source of your greatest ease and satisfaction, where you can be least self-conscious and most yourself. That’s also possible.

Perhaps your work is constant, unpaid and barely noticed (unless it’s not done)?  Paid or not matters. It matters a great deal in a world in which money is a highly charged currency. We know that, for many, money is a currency that is intricately tied to identity, self-worth, judgements of others. So perhaps it is comforting to recognize that at a deeper level those differences matter a little less. People can be enormously well paid yet strikingly lacking in inner stability, confidence or generosity. And without in any way romanticizing poverty, or underestimating the stresses of barely getting by financially, we also know that some people whose jobs are largely invisible or under-valued find and express great strength in what they do (at work, and in life more generally).

“Work” is one of the primary ways in which we engage with the world beyond ourselves and also reflect the world and values “within” ourselves. In that context of a life unfolding, whether it is paid or unpaid, over-looked or over-applauded, “work” becomes a constant learning about who you are, what matters to you, how willingly you can co-operate with others and grow into your future rather than resisting it.

Poet David Whyte writes, in The Heart Aroused: “Work always has been, along with our closest relationships and our marriages, one of the most difficult, self-sacrificing, self-revelatory things we can do in our lives.” Is that true for you?

We use the word “work” also about our relationships… perhaps to say, “I am willing to make an effort here for the sake of someone else, as well as for my own benefit.” I write a great deal about work (and relationships) in my recent book, EVERYDAY KINDNESS. I protested there somewhat about using the word “work” when many relationships would benefit from less effort (strain, earnestness) and far more appreciation, tenderness, fun. But I am also aware that “work” itself can benefit from less effort, anxiety, stress… instead risking a far deeper and less conditional commitment, at least while one is there. My little washing-up story in FORGIVENESS AND OTHER ACTS OF LOVE demonstrates this: doing a familiar, banal job with care and focus is infinitely more rewarding than  rehearsing yet again your exhausted and exhausting resentments.

Small shifts in attitude can create significant changes for the better.  Among them:

* Value what you do and especially HOW you do it…above and beyond your pay packet (if you have one).

* Take pride even in modest work. In fact, especially in so-called modest work!  It is often what makes most difference in the lives of people around you (carers, parents are top of the list here).

* Set small daily goals. Let yourself feel some satisfaction as they are achieved.

* Check what values you are choosing to express at work, no matter how apparently “powerful” or “powerless” your job. Your true power is choosing to do and be the best you can.

* Check that when you make your career or job choices you consider where you are most likely to find a co-operative, meaningful environment. Not everyone has this choice; if you do have it – this is a privilege that can be more powerful than extra money or apparent “prestige”.

* Think about what “success” really means for you at this time…and satisfaction. Do not be ruled by others’ definitions – create your own.

* Throw yourself into work while there – wasting as little time as possible on resentment. (See my “washing up” story in Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love.)

* Maintain clear boundaries between work and not-work so that you are not entirely colonized by it.

* Where you do feel overwhelmed by work or worries about it, use your journal to vent AND to plan. Or seek professional help.

* Make small but powerful choices through each day about how you will behave and how you will influence and affect other people. (See Choosing Happiness for many more ideas.)

* Support a culture in which friendliness is the norm and bullying and intimidation become impossible. This is peace-making at its most truthful.

* Develop your twin capacities for strategic and creative thinking…no matter how modest your work appears to others. Regard at least some of the problems as knots to be unraveled.

* Behave honourably and fairly; treat others as you wish to be treated. Yes. The “Golden Rule” is vital at work, too.

* Accept others’ gratitude gracefully but don’t risk depending on it.

* Find ways to work more effectively and efficiently (for your sake, and not just because your organization demands it). Do this regularly.

*Learn as you work (about the work itself but also about your own needs and behaviours). In that context, all work…at home, at “work”… becomes enriching, honest spiritual practice.

* Co-operate with other people; offer generous support and appreciation; curb your envies and fantasies about how “easy” others have it. We rarely know the truth of others’ circumstances.

* Make the parts of work you most enjoy your priority – energising rather than exhausting yourself!

* Notice your self-talk around work, and also the way you talk to others about your work (self-pityingly, resentfully, with enthusiasm or gratitude?).

* Audit your work life on a regular basis: asking yourself what’s necessary, what is not; where do you need more insight or training; what could you learn to make the work more interesting; how effectively are you co-operating with others; what is replenishing you; what needs to change?

* Plan and make daily lists. The beauty of these is not just to set priorities but also that your choices will become evident to you… Choosing is vital if you are to “own” your day…your work…your life. Then, no matter what you are doing, or how it is noticed or whether it is rewarded, you remain free.

* Find balance inwardly, surrendering yourself often to “not-work”: to creativity, prayer, reflection, social and relationship joys; to your awesome sense that you are playing your small part in a universe far greater than any one of us; to the truth that your influence and decisions matter.

Dr Stephanie Dowrick’s books that are particularly helpful on the subject of work are Choosing Happiness and Everyday Kindness. You can comment on this article on Stephanie Dowrick’s Facebook page.