Special Solo Episode: The Crisis of Charisma
Anticipating needs, sidestepping disruptions, and maintaining stability are all vital skills when you’re running a creative, client-facing business; however, they can also come with a dark side. When left unchecked, this kind of conflict avoidance can spiral into repression and denial of one’s own truth. In this special episode, Lorilee unpacks her peacemaking tendencies in an effort to understand their roots and embrace the messy, muddy, middle of real, authentic life.
“Crisis of Charisma” is an excerpt from ‘Cultivator and Creator: An autoethnographic study understanding the addicted artist’, which you can read in full at lorileerager.com.
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Lorilee Rager: Hey, I’m Lorilee Rager, and this is Ground & Gratitude. It’s a podcast about designing the life you want… one that not only grows but also gives.
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Before we start the show, I want to tell you about our sponsor, Her Bank. Her Bank by Legends Bank goes well beyond banking. For me, they have filled in the gaps in areas like financial literacy and helped my own confidence when it comes to banking and business decisions. Trust and relationship are really first and foremost for Her Bank. Visit Her-Bank.com to learn more about banking from a woman’s perspective. Her Bank is a brand of Legends Bank, and Legends Bank is member FDIC equal housing lender. Now onto the show.
So today, it’s just you and me — another solo episode. A few years ago I put a name to this thing I’d been doing all my life — people pleasing — I found out it’s actually a pretty common behavior for creatives. Anticipating and catering to client needs can help us do our jobs better – but it also comes with significant drawbacks. So, I want to share how I found a healthy way to embrace and understand this part of me in the hopes that it resonates with you. So I hope you like it. Let’s get into it.
I’m one of those people who gets stopped by the grocery bagger for 20 minutes listening to their woes in the heat of summer while my ice cream melts. I make friends easily — but not always on purpose. I simply put my phone away, remove my sunglasses, and ask, “How is your day treating you?”Sharing a smile and some sweet southern hospitality with a stranger in this busy world just feels natural. But, I’m often left cleaning melted ice cream out of the carpets of the trunk. or eating mayo on my sub when I had asked for mustard. You won’t catch me disturbing the sub shop teen, as they already seem distraught enough with the condiment crisis. It’s my job to comfort them and eat the mistaken mayo.
I’d call this my crisis of accidental engagement with a dash of charismatic obligation. And — for better or worse — it’s been a theme in my life. As I explored my behavioral patterns and personality traits in my graduate research, this accidental charisma was a big clue to my cultivation as a graphic designer. I needed to know more about this “crisis of charisma,” so I turned to behavior assessments like the DISC Language, Myers-Briggs, and Enneagram Types. And it became clear that my personality is geared to avoid conflict and keep peace among others.. In short, I am a “grade A” peacekeeper and people pleaser.
Early on, at the farm there was plenty of evidence of this. My self-appointed job was to keep my father calm and the crops happy. Yes, tiny me actually felt she had the power to do both. What can I say I was a pretty confident kid,! Another way to put it? I was terrified of conflict. As a designer this avoidance continued as I tried to keep my professors and later clients happy and calm with the perfect design. I followed instruction and criticisms to a tee while attempting to be the most agreeable, compelling, and charming kid in the class. I avoided direct questions and statements. I observed discussions, never participating or dissenting in case I rocked the boat. This strategy I now understand was about control. It was meant to try to maintain the peace and preserve my own internal need for calm and steady. I got really darn great at acting overly interested in an idea if it kept someone comfortable and talking..
I convinced myself that conflict of any kind wasn’t good, nor was it lady-like, as my mother liked to remind me. No matter the situation, I assumed going against the grain would invite someone to blow up on me like my father often did. My role was clear: be a little lady, say your prayers, and keep everyone happy. Do what you’re told, do as I say and not as I do, and be seen and not heard. From class to client meetings, this meant smiling, shutting up, and following the prompt. Being a southern female raised in the church I was led to believe it was wrong to be disagreeable anyways, and I sure didn’t want to add that to my many other sins.
I allowed people to project onto me my whole life. It’s not exactly a rare phenomenon — we all simply project our own issues on each other. Learning about my behavior style I’ve found that I seem to take in those projected feelings from others a little deeper than most. Yet, as designers, this is a skill I now see as valuable. Because in the profession we’re expected to pick up those pieces that are projected on us.
Let me tell you a quick story from Author Mark Nepo in The Book of Awakening. Mark and his wife visited an ice cream shop where loud nearby customers made him uncomfortable. He asked his wife “Do you want to leave?” She replied “No. I’m happy here. Do you want to go?” In that moment he recognized his own tendency to project. And so did I. But still, I never complained. Not about the therapy sessions dumped on me as a designer by clients, by unhealthy parents, by other relationships. And I denied to myself that I was projecting my own fears of conflict which, in turn, worked my body and mental health into a very unhealthy depressive-addictive state of burnout. But I was forever keeping the peace that was killing me.
I came to find out that this peacekeeping tendency of mine is actually pretty common. It’s even a key characteristic for Enneagram type 9s like me. The Enneagram combines traditional Christian-based wisdom with modern psychology so we can better understand each other. Tools like this and others have helped me get to know my own self better. They’ve helped me overcome my fear of conflict, communicate better, and build more successful positive relationships. What I’ve come to realize is that I want to speak with more strength, truth, and confidence in all areas of my life.
Now before you go nodding off on me like after Sunday dinner, I’ll explain here where things start coming together. Early in my research on behaviors and personality, I read the book The Highly Sensitive Person by Dr. Elaine Aron. I connected how accidental charisma is a tool used to avoid conflict. Aron recommends if you fear conflict, that you can start off a hard conversation by simply being honest and making a statement up front to calm the tension. The thought of honesty is a new soft beginning for me and it helps balance out that pesky accidental charisma, anxiety and conflict avoidance.
This honest to God truth telling is a theme throughout my learning journey. Laura McKowen dedicates an entire chapter to “the truth about lying” in her memoir Quote:
What you’ll find—what I’ve found—is that the truth is ultimately life-affirming. Even when it’s ugly and inconvenient and has the potential to dismantle your life. It feels like relief and freedom, I believe (and this is my pseudo-scientific woo-woo explanation) because the energy of truth is in integrity with the energy of the Divine. Not in a “this is good and now you’re not bad” way but in a “this is real and therefore you can stand on it” way. The truth has a soft-click sound. It is a release valve. The truth is uncomfortable but expansive; lying is uncomfortable and confining. You know the difference when you feel it.
End quote. The truth is life affirming, and I’ve seen it. Through my focus in recovery on such honesty, reading and applying these tools has helped me feel calmer, more hopeful, and genuinely more grateful.
I have noticed that this honesty manifests physically on the body in a positive way, just like not being honest had negative effects. I began to see small changes, less anxiety and less of a need to box up my feelings. I began to feel more steady, even physically in my core. Using these understandings and methods to engage in conflict conversations has even helped to clear my skin. I used to deal with these red splotchy blotches all over my neck constantly.
Reading Dr. Aron’s advice to make a statement of clarity was like an aha moment for me. If you’re a highly sensitive person like me, it’s a wonderful way to safely take those first steps toward speaking up when you’re ready. Simple statements like, “I know this is going to be hard to talk about but it’s important to me that we have this talk” can make all the difference when having hard conversations. Expressing my feelings was honestly the most terrifying thought I used to have. Now it’s like a breath of fresh air. I know how to approach conversations that I would have likely avoided. Keeping these emotions boxed up left an opening for anxiety triggers to creep in: regret for being in an uncomfortable position, shame for not honoring my own personal boundaries, and creating a reason to drink that night. This cycle of regret, shame, blame, and abuse all seemed to circle back to my accidental charisma.
By exploring the behaviors and personality characteristics of the Enneagram Type 9, I gained a deeper understanding of how I work as a designer and how I numb as an addict. Areas in my life revealed themselves even where I didn’t realize I struggled: self-care, authentic truths, and old beliefs and systems I was afraid to confront. That avoidance caused me to live an unwell design life. This work also helped me to understand how stressful life on the farm had been for everyone, and see more clearly the toll the pressures of feeding the world had taken on my father. This was a mirror onto my life now as an adult, running my own graphic design business and carrying these inherited habits that had been negatively affecting me as well.
My study and work has revealed the cost of toxic positivity and people pleasing. Bypassing real feelings can transform into alcohol addiction, work addiction, and compulsory gratitude in an attempt to deny the muddy mess of real life. This inspired me to focus on a new practice of healthier habits and rituals. I gave myself permission to make a safe space mentally, physically, and spiritually in both life and design to nurture myself. I now have a better understanding of the liminal space I occupy each day: to stop trying to control or predict the next future design emergency and keep it from happening. Instead, I am grounded here in the present.
Living this mentally well life free from addiction is no side project. We don’t have to live in disorder. We can handle a lot more in life than we give ourselves credit for. It seems like we only hold on to the worst thing that happened today, or the biggest failure of the week, or feeling ashamed for eating that last bit of Grandma’s chess pie before bed. That negative self talk, that unhealthy blow up on a co-worker, the road rage at the old tan Buick that pulled out in front of you… it’s all taking up energy we don’t have to spare.
I had believed what society told me, that you have to be one way or the other in your beliefs and feelings. You must be either/or, black or white, up or down. You aren’t allowed to change or feel conflicting emotions at once. To box it up. You should never dwell on the negative, like the anger and grief you feel. It’s optimism versus pessimism, introvert versus extrovert, instead of overcoming the split to see all that’s in between. Now I believe that there’s no need to feel shame about the hard stuff, or hide from it, or numb it. You don’t need to be ashamed of the Southern drawl and twang of country music in your voice. We all want to “find out who we are and do it on purpose,” as Dolly says. This journey is the messy muddy middle of real authentic life.
And I don’t have to deny my roots of gratitude or my peacemaking skills to live in that life. But these tendencies don’t have to come at the expense of healthy core emotions like grief, anger, and fear. Denying these feelings, boxing them up, and avoiding them means they will only resurface later in unhealthy forms. I can now embrace the Enneagram Type 9 Peacemaker role and embody its strengths. From my Enneagram Institute online assessment, quote:
“Type 9 exemplifies the desire for wholeness, peace, and harmony in our world. Nines are easygoing, emotionally stable people. Because of their peaceful demeanor, Nines have a talent for comforting and reassuring others and are able to exert a calming, healing influence in difficult or tense situations.
I asked Joel Hubbard, the speaker and co-founder of The Art of Growth, his thoughts on how gratitude comes up for a Type 9. He told me, quote “The 9 tends to be hopeful and grateful for and toward others but not for the self. Gratitude for the 9 is comforting. It is much easier to choose gratitude than to be driven by dissatisfaction, appetite, strong passion or desire as these can be disruptive.” End quote. I thought, “Disruptive!? No ma’am! I spend my days avoiding disruption.” He had described how 9’s like me need a calm, steady inner water. This makes perfect sense as to why I naturally choose gratitude: it’s the most comforting path to peace.
I had wondered why in a stressful situation, or after a bad day, do I naturally turn to gratitude and optimism versus anger? Why am I known for never holding a grudge or wanting revenge? Why aren’t I primarily driven by dissatisfaction, appetite, or strong passion as Joel mentioned?
Now it makes perfect sense to me as a designer. Type 9’s choose gratitude because it’s comforting when all the other responses are too scary for us. That is why we stay quiet and compliant in the face of clients who are verbally abusive or want to jazz up the design with curlz font. It’s the same reason us artists tend to undervalue our work: we avoid disruption for the client and hold the friction inside of us. But avoiding conflict has consequences; the feelings grow inside of you and become unhealthy, turning into addiction, anxiety, explosive anger, and more.
The only solution to the suffering you are feeling today is to no longer squash it. Surrender.
Stop holding it in and understand the freedom that comes in being honest, open, and communicating clearly how you feel. Acceptance and growth are in the mess and the mud, and there’s no template, no liquor hard enough, no harvest big enough to fix what you stuff down and deny. It’s not going away, no matter how many files you make or fields you plow.; It’s right inside of you. No matter the mess it makes, if it’s your truth, it’s allowed.
Thank you for tuning in to this solo episode of Ground and Gratitude. You can read this piece, find more information about the show and listen to past episodes about the power of honesty, the perils of toxic positivity, and much more at GroundAndGratitude.com. Be sure and join me next time for more honest conversations exploring what it means to be a creative in this world, and how to bring all the love, joy and laughter back to the process of design — oh, and life too. I’ll be sitting down with singer-songwriter Lauren Morrow. We’ll talk about exploring universal truths through music and personal storytelling.
This episode of Ground and Gratitude was produced by Kelly Drake and Anna McClain.