Mistakes will be made, but not by me

Note: This post references an event that happened in the past.

In concept I love the idea of failure as a means of growth. It’s how you iterate on products, on what you like, on who you are. I also feel comfortable taking responsibility for those failures. If we’re in a team setting and something goes off the rails, I feel comfortable taking responsibility publicly or outside of the team because I feel confident that the failure is not a reflection of who I am. It’s just a thing that happened.

There’s a different kind of failure. One that goes down to shaking your core belief of who you are as a person, one that breaks your internal narrative. I had a few of those growing up, and they always made me sick to my stomach. I would because physically ill, at times for months at a time when something triggered a memory of what I did. Something that triggered the memory that my internal monologue was a fraud.

I often associated that feeling with my anxiety. They were just overblown reactions to events. Having a better handle on my anxiety now, I thought I was done with those days. Nowadays when something bad happens, I know what I did and I understand my actions and the events that lead to it. Even when making mistakes, which I still regularly make, they don’t make me rethink who I am as a person, they are just mistakes.

Recently I did something that, from a 3rd party perspective, would probably be characterized as being in bad taste. But given the context, one I knew of, and had just not thought about at the time, was devastating to someone else.

I was stuck in my own head, thinking only of how current events impacted me, how I reacted to them, how I felt about them, how I could tell myself a story to make me at ease with the events that happened. A shitty self defense mechanism that jokingly downplayed someone else while up-playing myself. A few things made this even worse that I didn’t realize at the time and didn’t even think of it until it was flagged to me. I then thought it was bad but, perhaps as a self defense mechanism, told myself it wasn’t that bad. I told myself there was a confluence of events, it wasn’t just me, I wasn’t wholly responsible, multiple things came into play for this to happen, you know?

When the realization of the effects of my actions fully dawned on me, I felt that same feeling I felt so long ago. I wasn’t sad or angry…. I was disgusted.

I was disgusted by the juxtaposition of the story I tell myself, that I’m compassionate, that I help others, that I, overall, make the world a better place with the impact of what I said had, and will probably keep having on someone else. I robbed them of their safety, I robbed them of the ability to enjoy a moment, enjoy a memory, by poisoning it. When something like what I did would happen to me, I would ruminate on it for days, weeks, even months. I know the effects of what I did, and it is so diametrically opposed to the story I tell myself that I became ill.

Another part of me feels ashamed and embarrassed to even be thinking of how this impacted me. Just another demonstration of the shitty behavior that lead to this. I want to apologize, I want to fix things, but I don’t know how to convey that in a way that doesn’t focus on what the impact has been on me. Quite the selfish apology wouldn’t you say? I wish I had a time machine to undo what I’ve done.

I felt embarrassed I didn’t even realize what I was doing, that I was cutting in a wound I knew existed. Why had I not considered others when I spoke then? I know a few of the reasons I tell myself, but they are all trivial, they don’t undo anything, they don’t fix anything, they won’t even help ease the pain I caused in others. It’s all just stories I tell myself to minimize my actions. To try to tell myself that this event doesn’t condemn me to be the terrible individual it makes me feel like I am.

Even an apology feels shallow and empty at this point. Just Another selfish act to help ease my pain. To help me rebuild this narrative I tell myself about how, on the whole, I make the world a better place. The problem is, I don’t know of a better solution. Self inflicted pain and torture won’t make it better for them, it’s just more internal narrative fixing. How can one apologize and make amends after this?

I can only see a consistent set of small actions, repeated over an extended period of time, towards them and towards others to try to pay down this debt. To try to help heal as many wounds as I can because I can’t heal the one I inflicted.

Remember the Past to Appreciate the Present

I really loved the Mass Effect video game, the whole trilogy in fact is amazing. One thing I still remember clearly is finishing Mass Effect and having this song come on during the credits:

From the start of the guitar to when the lyrics kick in, the song always spoke to me. While I was perhaps slightly better than in the past in 2008, it was still a pretty big mess. The feeling of longing, nostalgia and what I’ll call hopeful despair that I took from the song really made an impact on me at the time.

I identified with the lyrics, I had always up to that point struggled with being able to be a “full” person on my own. That I shouldn’t need anyone else that I used as a crutch. My happiness, my wisdom, my actions, they shouldn’t rely on there being someone else there with me (in particular as a romantic partner).

And I need you to recover
Because I can’t make it on my own

M4 Lyrics

A few books got me to accept the impossibility of that task. That humans were not built to be that way (by this I mean, being alone, not that the traditional concept of relationship is for everyone).

Once in a while the song comes up in one of my playlists. And it reminds me, in an almost nostalgic way, of the times when I really didn’t have my shit together.

Sometimes it’s good to remember the past to appreciate the present.

Mental Health in the workplace

I got one of the best compliments Yesterday. Someone I worked with previously is interested in starting discussions around mental health at their new workplace because of how much it helped them when we worked together.

I mentioned a bit of what happened (most of this was not done by me, I was just one small part of the events that happened) and I thought it might be helpful to share here.

It first started with someone saying that during one of the company meetups they would have a 1h thing where people can just come and chat about mental health in a random room. There were a few people who showed up. We decided to create a private slack channel where people could just talk openly about mental health. Word of mouth started spreading, especially among people who were like “Well, it’s not really _that_ bad, I don’t have a diagnosis, etc etc”. We welcomed them all.

I (and I’m sure many others) had follow up conversations with folks who were mentioning going thru rough patches. Since I was quite open about it, often mentioning in the #watercooler channel if I was feeling depressed or anxious and taking a break, lots of folks send me DMs just asking me about it and just wanting to chat. Sometimes it was about them, sometimes about a loved one.

I’d ask them all if they wanted to join and convinced them that even if it “wasn’t that bad” they should join. At another team meetup I did a lunch thing where folks could come and eat lunch one day with others and chat about mental health (or just listen).

It was just to see others who were also working thru things. You didn’t need to talk or anything, you could just listen. I did a bit of an intro of why I think it’s important and some of the things I struggle with, a few other people spoke, some didn’t (but they often would send me a private message saying thanks later).

When I left, it’s one of the things people told me they appreciated the most. To have someone who they saw as senior and a leader talk about this. It made them feel like it was “okay” to feel that way sometimes.

I’ve started doing talks in workplaces about this as well, if you (dear reader) think it could be useful for your workplace, I’m always happy to give a talk. I don’t charge anything but I ask that the organization make a donation to Kids Help Phone. For some organizations, donations aren’t possible so I send an invoice and make the donation myself.

I’ve done this talk in workplaces and at conferences such as Confoo and the feedback has always been very positive:

“6/5 Sensitive topic explained simply and with humour”

“Great personal touch”

“Good energy, interesting perspective and personal anecdotes”

“Very good talk. Honest, straighforward, helpful.”

“Important topic presented in a funny manner”

Confoo 2016 feedback

Stéphane’s candid testimonial on mental health issues was truly engaging. With his great sense of humour and genuine presence, Stéphane puts his audience at ease, making participants receptive and open to tackle what can sometimes be a heavy topic. Having “just a regular guy” come in to share his knowledge of mental health, sprinkled with personal anecdotes, made us feel like we were having a conversion with an old friend. We learned lots of great tips and tricks to prevent or deal and were inspired to talk about mental health more openly.

Great talk, Stéphane, thank you!”

Gabrielle Michaud,
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada / Government of Canada

If you or anyone you know wants to chat about mental health, I’m always happy to listen.
Spoiler alert, I’m not a professional and will probably recommend you talk to someone a bit more qualified.