A Deepening Sense of Self

Image by Greg Rakozy

Over the last five years, I’ve been searching for a new type of creative and entrepreneurial environment.

A space that enables me to do more of the work that excites, moves, and nurtures me (as a solo-entrepreneur that wants to do good things in the world) while offering me access to other entrepreneurs so that we might work together to offer clients our combined experience and varied skill-set.

A structure that brings together autonomous but community-orientated individuals, housing in its very structure all the beauty of belonging (sweetly described by Brian Stout in his vision behind planting the seeds of Building Belonging), and enables us to do more of the work that energises and inspires us.

A system much like celestial bodies within a galaxy, with groups drawing together and then dispersing in response to the internal and external environment; autonomous in nature but grouped when necessary, and responsive to both internal and external needs and stresses.

With Enspiral, an ecosystem of purposes, I’ve come close to what I’ve been looking for. And while I haven’t yet found the second piece of the puzzle, I’ve certainly found a space that brings the heart of community to the mind and drive of social entrepreneurship.

After two decades of working life, it’s crystal clear what I need and what I’m looking for to enable me to be my most creative, inventive, driven, and happy self.

But, similar to how I am now married and in the right relationship for me, the reason I’m so clear on what working environment suits me is having spent so much of my working life in all the wrong environments (and much of my adult life in the wrong relationships). I don't think everyone has to experience what they don’t want before they know what they do want, but that’s been my path (cheers universe).

And what stands out, now that I’m at the point of being in good places in both of these areas of my life, is just how similar the core aspects of my experiences in work environments and in my most intimate relationships have been.

Lessons in relating

Like many of us, I grew up observing and experiencing relationships that were not always healthy.

For me, this was a mother who was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and depressive, someone that didn’t see me beyond what role I played for her, and who was in and out of frightening psychiatric facilities; and a father that tried his best to normalise our childhood but who didn’t know how to recognise or deal with his children’s long-term trauma. I was at boarding school when I was seven years old and spent a lot of time crying down the phone asking to be taken home.

I didn’t know what healthy relationships looked or felt like.

My late teens and twenties were spent oscillating between toxic relationships that relived my experience of relationships as suffocating spaces where I recreated childhood dynamics and having relationships with people that felt safe and undramatic but had no future or spark.

In my thirties, I withdrew from relationships completely, fed up with finding myself feeling depressed, suffocated, unable to be myself and therefore unseen by the other. But there was also a wonderful sense of ownership in my singleness since it gave me space and time to reflect on the behaviours and dynamics I had been unconsciously creating, and craving.

For the first time, I started to develop a healthy sense of self.

Diving deep into the psychology of relationships — devouring books like Attached, An Uncommon Bond, and Evolutionary Love Relationships — my desire to be in a healthy and life-enriching partnership strengthened, concomitant with an understanding of how I could create and nurture it.

Enriched, nervous, and slightly resembling a newly-born fawn staggering around for the first time, I started dating. I’d not only learnt what I did and didn’t want, I knew that if I married the tools I’d gathered with the wealth of information I had about what not to do I might be able to build something really special.

My relationship history could be summed up in three steps: I’d lived and seen what I didn’t want, had done an immense amount of inner work to process it and gathered information about what I did want, and started to practice it. (Although my husband helps. A bit).

As in relationship, so in work

The funny thing about my experience of work environments is that I grew up with a dad who ran an award-winning company that people wanted to work at. They valued new ideas and unexpected solutions and they awarded and recognised good ideas and potential. They didn’t care about titles and they promoted from within, never boxing anyone in by their past experience. They were creative and fun. And they rewarded generously.

Sadly, I’ve never found that kind of culture anywhere that I’ve worked.

In my experience, most work environments have no idea how to support human beings and truly enrich their lives.

Much like the majority of my relationships, my working life has been spent feeling suffocated: stuck, undervalued, and unseen; encouraged to hide certain aspects and instead adopt an uncomfortable and rigid persona and not having opportunities to be myself.

Environments where extroversion, self-promotion, exaggeration, not showing any weaknesses, always getting it right, and being consistently productive equalled success. Environments where it doesn’t get any easier the higher up the ladder we get since we have more at stake, we’re further trapped in the persona we’ve created, and we’re even more dependent on our salary to provide for our expanded financial commitments and outgoings.

Environments where, because of structures and hierarchies, we’re not encouraged to challenge others when we see behaviour or actions that we feel uncomfortable with, especially with the people that manage or hire us. Our boundaries are constantly overstepped and unasserted since our job will most likely be at risk if we speak up and assert them.

We’re also expected to spend our days Monday to Friday in production mode, for nine or ten hours at a stretch (if we’re lucky), ignoring natural rhythms and cycles, terrified of what the repercussions might be if we have health issues or something else in our life urgently needs our attention for a prolonged period of time. Even if we receive a kind and support response to our problems, we sense there’s a line waiting, where support becomes some kind of HR process, with the threat of losing our job hanging over us.

It’s unnatural. Inhumane. Suffocating. And very, very unhealthy.

Something else is possible

Much like I did when I started to explore how the kind of relationship I wanted could be created and nurtured, I followed breadcrumbs to people and groups that are working in or helping create life-enriching organisations: from Reinventing Organisations, to Freedom.Inc, and on to Holacracy and Sociocracy 3.0.

Having met my husband, I became self-employed, and together we created 17DM Creative, the small creative agency that I am very much in love with.

I can work when I choose to. I can bring more and more of myself into work that is joyful and creative, work that has uncovered and honed skills I didn’t know I had. I can honour my boundaries since I don’t have to answer to anyone else in how I work, or when; or who I choose to interact with. I put as much trust in my gut responses, my feelings, and my heart, as much as I do my thinking mind.

My life feels more complete since my work has morphed into being just another aspect of being myself.

But, along with all the joys, I’ve found self-employment limiting and isolating. At times, it’s financially scary. And I miss the energy and pleasure of being part of a group; the sharing of new ideas, the pleasure of shared success.

Becoming self-employed was like choosing to be single: for a while, perfect. Then, somewhat lonely and incomplete. Looking deep within to uncover exactly what it is that I crave.

A space that enriches my heart and my life

My equivalent of a healthy, loving partnership is an ecosystem of socially-focused entrepreneurs. People that are curious, self-aware, committed, and creative, while committed to nurturing a sense of community and belonging.

My working history could also be summed up in three steps: I’d lived and seen what I didn’t want, have done an immense amount of learning and reflection to discover what I do want and what tools could help me find or create it, leaving me with the tools and wisdom to navigate ever closer to a space that I know will work for me.

I have the same feeling about this kind of working environment as I had when I met my husband: I’m nearly home.

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Anna-Marie Swan

Anna-Marie Swan

Organisational design, governance, facilitation, and strategy. https://annamarieswan.com/