Helena Clayton | You matter



You matter

07 Feb 2021, Posted by Helena Clayton in Work as Love in Action

In January 2021, here’s what I’m hearing over and over again in my coaching and in my group work:

I’m working 7am – 8pm and it’s still not enough

I’m doing two people’s jobs and they still keep giving me more work

It’s overwhelming and I’m not sleeping.

The way I’m working is, effectively, self harm.

I have meetings back to back from 7am until 7pm, and then I do another hour or so after dinner.

It’s early Feb now and the first 30 min gap I have in my diary is mid March

I don’t work with frontline NHS staff.  These are not their voices.  These are people in the middle of other organisations … regular high street brands, a housing association, the public sector, manufacturing.  Not especially senior.  And in roles not especially linked to the pandemic.  Just regular people doing regular jobs.

One of the reasons I got interested in researching love in leadership was that I looked at the organisations I was working in and with and they felt loveless.  At best they suffered from benign neglect and worst they were described as brutal and harsh.

And I read that as very much an issue of leadership, and of management.  What were leaders doing that created cultures like that?  What acts of leadership create and perpetuate that system?

In some ways that has changed.  Because of COVID, I’m now seeing more evidence of empathy and a concern about how people are feeling as we go about our working lives.  There’s a more human undercurrent running through many of our departments, in the ways that we perhaps more regularly check in with colleagues about what’s going on in their wider lives, a greater focus on and conversations about well-being and stress and burnout and how to support people.

But at the same time a) right now workload and workplace challenges feel crushing.  And b) I no longer feel that it’s only a leadership issue.

Yes, sure, there’s a HUGE job to be done to create cultures that are generous and human and nurturing. And to give people manageable workloads. Really, I can’t stress that enough. But it’s also the case that each of us has a responsibility to create these micro cultures for ourselves.  As well as our leaders and our organisations ‘doing this to us’,  what are we doing to ourselves, I wonder. How are we each contributing to our own pain and struggle we’re experiencing right now?

There’s a great need for nurture right now.  And my default is compassion.  But there’s also a space for loving challenge.

A side story: when I was in my 20’s I was weeping to my therapist saying how agonising it was to have calls with my ex who had treated me so badly and even though I had broken it off with him still called me all the time – despite me pleading with him not to because they were so painful.  My therapist had little sympathy.  She just said ‘why do you take the calls?’

So how do we get in our own way?  What might be the contribution we’re making to what we have now that we don’t want or like?


I wrote last month about sacrifice and how it was a core part of love to give something up so that someone could have more.  And to put aside our own wants and needs and be in service of others.  But two things:

First, yes, on a social-political level, work has sacrifice right at the heart of it.  For many of us it’s part of the deal.  We save what we love doing for the weekend.  We watch the clock until 6pm. We give up a huge amount to be at work – time with our kids, time in nature, we forgo pieces of our identity, we suppress parts of who we are so that we fit in.

But, as Jordan Peterson asks, where are the limits of that? It may be part of our western Christian ethics to sacrifice now for the future, but how far is each of us willing to go for that unknown future?

And also, you matter.  You matter.  You. Matter. I see heaps of people accepting meeting after meeting because someone puts them in their diary so they have no time for their own work.  I hear folks say they love to sing/run/cook but they don’t do it any more because other people’s needs come first.  I meet people who are already seeing the signs of exhaustion and burnout and push on regardless, overriding what their body is telling them.

You matter.  Peterson suggests that we should treat ourselves like someone we are responsible for helping.  It seems we believe other people shouldn’t suffer – but we don’t apply the same thinking to ourselves. Here are some things he says:

You are not simply your own possession to torture or mistreat. This is partly because your being is inexorably tied up with that of others and your mistreatment of yourself can have disastrous consequences for others.

We deserve some respect.  You deserve respect.  You are important to other people as much as yourself. You have some vital role to play in the unfolding destiny of the world.  You are therefore morally obliged to take care of yourself.

You should take care of yourself and be good to yourself in the same way you would take care of, help and be good to someone you liked and valued.

And one of my favourites:

To sacrifice ourselves [to a higher good] does not mean to suffer silently when some person or organisation demands more from us, consistently, than is offered in return.  That means we are supporting tyranny and allowing ourselves to be treated like slaves.  It is not virtuous to be victimised by a bully, even if that bully is oneself. 


Self care.  Self compassion. Self love.

If you thought talking about love was toe-curling, try talking about self love.  But it’s not just the stuff of women’s magazine.  It’s not about bubble baths.

The radical feminist Audre Lorde said ‘caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare’.

It seems to me that the time for self care is now.  And here’s what I’m wondering:

  • Where are you on the ‘sacrifice spectrum’? Be honest. Does your life (and the work part of it…) feel intentional and choiceful  – or have you tipped over into suffering silently and resenting it?
  • Could it be that you are bullying yourself? How does it feel to imagine you might be?
  • Ask yourself: ‘what would my life look like if I was caring for myself properly?’ That’s a question directly from Peterson, and I like it.
  • What are you role modelling to your children by working all these hours? What are you demonstrating to your kids about what matters in life?
  • If a definition of addiction is something we do compulsively, we find comforting and difficult to stop – and that also has a negative impact in some way – could it be possible that your working patterns are an addiction?
  • It’s said that addiction is a longing for connection, a way to meet an unmet need? What connection do you long for that you fulfil with overwork?
  • How in touch are you with your inner voice that sooths you and is nurturing and compassionate? One that provides a counter balance to the harsh and vindictive inner critic who finds you wanting and not enough?
  • Where are your boundaries? When did you last say no to something? What could you say no to that could be a tiny yet vital act of self preservation? What are you willing to risk saying no to, and what could be the rewards of doing that?
  • If you scored yourself on a scale where 1 was Compliant and 10 was Rebellious, where would you put yourself? And how does it feel when you look at that score?
  • What will you take 100% responsibility for, in what your life is like right now?
  • Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. That means ‘shit will always happen’.  But it’s how we respond to that that makes the difference.  What’s the pain that’s inevitable in your life right now?  But what’s the suffering that only you are creating?

Someone said to me the other day: ‘I don’t want to sacrifice myself to prove myself of value’.

I didn’t want that for him either.  But good love includes good boundaries.  It includes not giving too much away.  Not sacrificing what keeps you vital and alive.  Not starving yourself of the oxygen you need.  It includes giving yourself a break.

I don’t think this is a problem of the individual, by the way. There are historical and systemic and political forces at play that keep us stuck in these ways of working.  As Sarah Jaffe’s new book (exploring ‘how devotion to our job keeps us exhausted, exploited and alone’) lays out so well, we have been socialised to think that work is supposed to bring fulfilment and that joy and satisfaction is available to us if we work hard enough at it. And we may rightly fear challenging the way things are right now in the middle of this pandemic with its great insecurity.

So I certainly don’t have any easy answers to this complex issue.  But I do feel that we may need to work on cultivating our No as part of strengthening our capacity for self care and self compassion.  Because we matter.

If there’s no self-love then it’s not love.  And it’s also not leadership.

Helena x



Jordan Peterson: someone I find very difficult to read as I find him and his writing problematic!  I’m not sure why, but I think I can’t shake the fact that I think he writes for men.  But once I get past that, I like that he makes me THINK.  His quotes above are from 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos

Sarah Jaffe: have just started her book ‘Work Won’t Love You Back‘ and it looks excellent.  If you saw How To Do Nothing:Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell as my book recommendation the other month, then this is in similar territory, I think.   Exploring how we’ve been tricked into the tyranny of work … and how we might redirect some of our attention. 

Gabor Mate:  he’s THE guy on addiction, IMHO, and anything of his is worth reading or watching.  He takes a deeply human and compassionate approach to the topic and I learn so much from listening to him. 


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And detail of my Leading from Love programme is here … with just a few places remaining for the March cohort.

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