Businesses are all about relationships, right?
Sure, I think we can all agree on that to one extent or another.
But what exactly do we mean by that?
Most often, a business’s relationships are understood in terms of customer service, promotional partnerships, and management structures. They’re draped in the same words we use to describe our time and money: optimization, efficiency, investment, opportunity.
That’s not the language we use to describe our relationships with the people we genuinely care about, though. Most of us don’t want to optimize our marriages or see our friendships as opportunities for advancement.
We want to connect.
To relate. To belong. To nurture. So what happens when we apply this same motivation to our business relationships?
This month, I’ve got a series on relationships for you. We’re going to explore the obvious—our relationships with customers, with our teams, and our colleagues. We’re also going to explore the not-so-obvious—our relationship to ourselves and our businesses.
As I mentioned, much of the talk about relationships in business is couched in the language of optimization, opportunity, and even domination and exploitation. When Gary Vee says he’s “crushing it,” it’s not really an “it” he’s crushing but a “who.” When we talk about likes, shares, clicks, and eyeballs, we forget that there’s are living, breathing humans on the other side of that metric.
Our capitalist culture has taught us to reduce all of these interactions to their ability to help us earn more and get ahead.
We’re taught to value individualism, speed & efficiency, competition, ownership, hierarchy, and the myth of the meritocracy. Jennifer Armbrust, who you’ll hear from later in this episode, describes these traits as part of patriachy and the masculine economy. Jennifer proposes a different type of economy, the feminine economy. In the feminine economy, we value abundance, gratitude, empathy, care, collaboration, and interdependence—the roots of true relationship.
It’s tempting to think that, because we’re small business owners, we’re always on the side of good, honest, sustainable business.
But since the patterns of domination and exploitation are baked into our definitions of power and success, we don’t get a free pass. Small business isn’t the solution to our problems but it can be a vehicle for pursuing business relationships in a more human way if we’re willing to examine how we do business and what that means for the people we’re in relationship with.
This is one expression of how Jennifer describes feminist entrepreneurship. She writes in Proposals for the Feminine Economy:
Feminist entrepreneurship requires that we quit equating masculine principles with success and power, and feminine principles with inadequacy and weakness. To do something as audacious as call your business “feminist” requires showing up every day with humility, heart, intrepid creativity, criticality, courage, self-love, and a passion for growth. It requires accountability to yourself, your business, and to the larger social project of dismantling patriarchal & oppressive systems.
How we understand the relationships we form in business and how we pursue nurturing those relationships can be a huge step in the direction of doing business through a feminist lens.
You might remember that one of my commitments for this year is to Practice Belonging. In many ways, the practice of belonging is a feminist pursuit. It’s my attempt to cultivate a deep knowing of our inherent interdependence and the abundance of our collective existence. It’s a reminder that I am not separate from my community or the people I’m in relationship with, nor do I need to prove myself worthy of acceptance or care.
To practice belonging is to practice appreciation, acceptance, and love outside of a rubric of success or material value. To practice belonging is to dismantle tactics and strategies based on domination or exploitation and to rebuild genuine relationships that I can fully participate in.
But to do that, I have to belong to myself first. I have to reexamine my relationship to the many different layers of who I am, how I show up, and what I want.
In this episode of What Works, I’m exploring how getting into right relationship with yourself can help you get into right relationship with your business. In the process, we’ll examine learning to enjoy the process (instead of just the outcome), setting stronger boundaries, using boundaries to do business your way, and making your business your #1 ally.
Tara McMullin: Businesses are all about relationships, right? Sure, I think we can all agree on that to one extent or another, but what exactly do we mean by it? Most often, a business's relationships are understood in terms of customer service, promotional partnerships, and management structures. They're draped in the same words we use to describe our time and money: optimization, efficiency, investment, opportunity. But that's not the language we use to describe our relationships with the people we genuinely care about though. Most of us don't want to optimize our marriages or see our friendships as opportunities for advancement. We want to connect, to relate, to belong, to nurture. So what happens when we apply the same motivation to our business relationships? I'm Tara McMullin, and this is What Works, the show that explores how small business owners are building stronger businesses beyond the shoulds and supposed-tos.
This month, I've got a series on relationships for you. We're going to explore the obvious; our relationships with customers, with our teams, and with our colleagues. We're also going to explore the not-so-obvious, our relationship to ourselves and our businesses. As I mentioned, much of the talk about relationships in business is couched in the language of optimization, opportunity, and even domination and exploitation. When Gary Vee says he's crushing it, it's not really an it he's crushing but a who. When we talk about likes, shares, clicks, and eyeballs, we forget that there's living, breathing humans on the other side of that metric. Our capitalist culture has taught us to reduce all of these interactions to their ability to help us earn more and get ahead. We're taught to value individualism, speed and efficiency, competition, ownership, hierarchy, and the myth of the meritocracy.
Jennifer Armbrust, who you'll hear from later in this episode, describes these traits as part of patriarchy and the masculine economy. Jennifer proposes a different type of economy, the feminine economy. In the feminine economy we value abundance, gratitude, empathy, care, collaboration, and interdependence, the roots of true relationship. It's tempting to think that because we're small business owners we're always on the side of good, honest, sustainable business. But since the patterns of domination and exploitation are baked into our definitions of power and success, we don't get a free pass. Small business isn't the solution to our problems, but it can be a vehicle for pursuing business relationships in a more human way, if we're willing to examine how we do business and what that means for the people we are in relationship with.
This is one expression of Jennifer describes feminist entrepreneurship. She writes in proposals for the feminine economy, "Feminist entrepreneurship requires that we quit equating masculine principles with success and power and feminine principles with inadequacy and weakness. To do something as audacious as call your business feminist requires showing up every day with humility, heart, intrepid creativity, criticality, courage, self-love, and a passion for growth. It requires accountability to yourself, your business, and to the larger social project of dismantling patriarchal and oppressive systems." How we understand the relationships we form in business and how we pursue nurturing those relationships can be a huge step in the direction of doing business through a feminist lens.
You might remember that one of my commitments for this year is to practice belonging. In many ways, the practice of belonging is a feminist pursuit. It's my attempt to cultivate a deep knowing of our inherent interdependence and the abundance of our collective existence. It's a reminder that I'm not separate from my community or the people I'm in relationship with, nor do I need to prove myself worthy of acceptance or care. Sebene Selassie writes in her book, You Belong, "We learn that appreciation, acceptance, and sometimes even love are connected to how we measure up. How could this not affect our sense of belonging?" To practice belonging is to practice appreciation, acceptance, and love outside of a rubric of success or material value. To practice belonging is to dismantle tactics and strategies based on domination or exploitation and to rebuild genuine relationships that I can fully participate in.
But to do that, I have to belong to myself first. I have to re-examine my relationship to the many different layers of who I am, how I show up, and what I want. I'm reminded of the story that Shirin Eskandani told in episode 282 about how she had devoted her life to belonging as a professional opera singer, always working for a higher accolade or better part so that she felt like she was enough. And the realization that even achieving her dream couldn't make her feel like she was enough.
Shirin Eskandani: My childhood dream had always been to be an opera singer and to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. I come from a super musical family. It seems like a really odd dream when you say that, but I just knew. And so I just pursued that dream with so much passion and love and joy, and really singing was the joy of my life. I grew up in Canada, went to a great school, undergrad. There I was like a big fish in a little pond. I was really talented. I was highly productive, highly driven, highly motivated kid. And so all of those things combined, I really did really well there. But what it also meant was I'd never addressed all those inner insecurities, right? Because I was always just depending on being the best. As long as I'm the best, everything's fine.
And so I moved to New York, I got accepted into a really great master's here. I realized that everyone here is the best, and everyone here is super driven, everyone is talented. Not having that identity of being the best took me into a tailspin, where all those insecurities took over. I'm someone who is a perfectionist, I would say like a recovering perfectionist, because those tendencies don't go anywhere. I'm an overachiever, a people-pleaser. And so I started doing the work from that place.
What's unfortunate but also fortunate about those mechanisms is that they actually get us very far. They're rewarded in our society, right? And so I was creating the career I always wanted. I was working full-time in the US and in Europe as an opera singer. From the outside I was a success, doing the things I wanted to be doing, but my life didn't feel the way that I thought it was going to feel. I was exhausted. I was miserable. It never felt like it was enough. No matter what I achieved, all I could focus on was what I should be doing better and what my colleagues were doing. So it was just this endless cycle of achieving and never feeling like enough. I was pretty much on the verge of burnout. I didn't know what burnout was at the time, but I was really just saying, "Okay, I can't sing anymore, because that thing that brought me so much joy is now making me miserable."
My agent called me, this was in 2016, and he said, "Shirin, the Metropolitan Opera wants you to sing in Carmen next season." Like literal childhood dream come true. Nothing could have been more perfect about this dream. Nothing. This was a moment I dreamed of for so long as a young girl. I thought it'd be filled with so much joy and happiness. And as a young woman in my twenties, I'd say to myself, "If you ever get this job, you'll know you're good enough." I'll never forget being on that call and having that initial moment of joy and then realizing, "Oh my gosh, this isn't enough. I still don't feel like I'm good enough. This isn't enough to prove to me that I'm a success or that my life is fulfilling." I didn't have any of those feelings that I thought I was going to feel, and it made me realize that no external circumstance will ever make us feel the way that we want to feel. That responsibility isn't on the outside, isn't on what we do, but it's on what we're doing on the inside.
And so I had a year and a half to prepare for when I sang at the Met. In that year and a half, of course, I worked on my craft, but I also worked on my mindset, my emotional health, my spiritual health, my mental health. I was doing mindset work and mindfulness, and I started working with a coach. All of those things combined really transformed my life to the point where I say that my biggest success in life wasn't singing at the Met, but it was singing at the Met and enjoying every part of that process, which included the moments where I didn't do so well, which included the moments where things did not go as planned. But I had built up such incredible resilience, I had built up such a great toolkit to take care of myself and navigate those hard moments that I could just be in the joy of it.
Tara McMullin: I love how Shirin describes her biggest success as enjoying every part of the process, even the parts that didn't go the way she wanted them to. Instead of constantly striving to measure up and feeding into what Sebene Selassie calls the delusion of separation by competing and comparing, she realized joy and satisfaction. She found a way to transform her relationship to herself. I asked her for more details on how she made this mindset shift.
Shirin Eskandani: As a first-generation immigrant kid, I grew up with a lot of struggles and difficulty, and I think that's what I saw and the mindset my family was in. And so it's always about expecting the worst, always thinking that you're the one who can fix everything. So if something goes wrong, you're a failure, this is your fault, it was because of X, Y, and Z. And so mindset work really transformed my life, which was like, "Okay, really get clear on how you are thinking. Really write down all of those thoughts and work through them. Is it true that you're a failure? Is it true that you are not worthy?" These are really big, big questions that take time to sift through, because there's always going to be a part of you that's like, "Yeah, you're a total failure." And it's working with all of that and finding the truth that you can find right now.
Whenever I do mindset work, it's tough because I think in the world of coaching, we see a lot of affirmations, positive affirmations, which is go from, "I'm a failure" to, "I'm a success," or, "I am enough." But if for 30-plus years you've been saying to yourself, "I'm a failure," you can't go to I'm a success the next day. And so what I do with my clients and the work that I did was I say, "Okay, those are Mount Everest thoughts, great thoughts, thoughts that we're working towards, but you got to just work your way up to the next summit." I always say, "Reach for the best feeling thought you have access to."
I think that's where I didn't connect with a lot of the coaching work, was that they were saying these things that I really wanted to believe and I couldn't. And it was making me feel worse, right? It wasn't helping me feel like a success. It was making me feel like I was a failure at trying to be a success through mindset work, which was doubly difficult. So that for me was really pivotal, was reach for the best feeling thought you have access to right now, that's going to make you feel just a little bit better.
Tara McMullin: Another area where we can really examine our relationships with ourselves is around boundaries. Are our boundaries, even if we have them, strong and steady? Or are they porous and changeable? Our boundaries tell us a lot about how we value ourselves and how confident we are that sharing our needs won't alienate us from others. Boundaries in many ways are about being seen with our own needs instead of always morphing to meet other's needs to our own detriment. And to be willing to be seen, we have to have a good relationship with ourselves. Adrienne Maree Brown writes in Emergent Strategy, "Interdependence requires being seen, as much as possible, as your true self, meaning that your capacity and need are transparent. Meaning even when I don't want to look in the mirror, I am, and I choose to be open to the attention of others." I asked Nicole Lewis-Keeber, my go-to expert on understanding the interplay of my relationship to myself and to my business about boundaries in episode 248.
Nicole Lewis-Keeber: Well, we can be clear with people about what is okay, what is not okay, what my role is, what your role is, what you can expect for me and what I need from you. The clearer you can be, the better the relationship will be and the less bumping up against those boundaries will happen, because you created a clear container that people know how to move through. That sounds so simple but it is not, because we are not taught how to do that, right?
Tara McMullin: Yeah.
Nicole Lewis-Keeber: Yeah, no. No, no, no, no, we are not. So I think that's a really good place to start. And you must start with yourself first and know what it is that your boundary with yourself is around having this client or doing this new work like, what is the boundary for you first? Self-inquiry is a really great thing. When we work for other people, sometimes they tell us what our role is. We get a job description, and we have meetings about deliverables. There's actually a lot of clear information that we're getting that we don't realize, that helps us kind of move through. When you're someone who's working for yourself maybe, or developing a new company for yourself, you have to do that work with yourself first and be very clear about, "Okay, so I have decided that I want to work with this type of client or do this type of consulting or do this type of work. How will I know that I'm being successful? What will it feel like to be successful in this relationship and what is not okay with me? Again, I know it sounds simple to say, "Ask yourself these questions," but this is super important because it's foundational and boundaries need foundations, right?
Tara McMullin: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Nicole Lewis-Keeber: And they have start with you.
Tara McMullin: Boundaries have to start with you. You have to know what you want and have some level of confidence in your enoughness to set those boundaries. We're going to take a look at how strengthening your boundaries can have a big impact in how your business runs and how it supports you in just a minute. But first, a word from our What Works partners.
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Once you've started to shift your relationship to yourself away from comparison and striving, and once you've started to assert your own needs as boundaries, some pretty amazing things can start to happen. Suddenly you start asking yourself creative what if questions about your business and how you relate to it. You stop trying to prove that you're doing this whole business thing right, and you start wondering how you can do this business thing your way. Mindy Totten shared a remarkable example of this shift at work in episode 190. Mindy had been working six days a week trying to be everything to everyone in her bodywork business, because she believed that that was just the way it had to be done. But a conversation with a client suffering from ALS inspired her to approach things differently and reconsider her relationship with herself and her business.
Mindy Totten: So the first thing that I did, since I was trying to offer everything to everyone, was really focus on the modality that I loved, which is this craniosacral therapy. So I made an actual date, from this date forward I'm no longer taking any massage clients, hot stone massage, none of that other stuff. I'm only going to do what I really love. And of course, anytime you do something like this, of course, it's like walking off a cliff, right? But what does Joseph Campbell say, jump and the parachute will open?
Tara McMullin: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Mindy Totten: But I'm the kind of girl who likes to make sure the parachute is all hooked up and the lines are not crossed or anything. But I knew that if I made that initial shift that it would either work or it wouldn't. And then I would know. What ended up happening is, of course, I got more people coming in. So then I'm still working six and a half days, but I'm doing the work that I really love. So that's terrific. When I say six and a half days, I'm not working 12-hour days or anything seeing people seeing clients. But you know how it is, all of us who have our own business... "Oh, you're so lucky. You have your own business, you can set your own hours." Well, I'm working all the time. So I knew I had to shift that as well. I went from a six and a half days down to four days. To do that, I really didn't have to make a huge shift, Tara, to my clients. I had to make an internal shift.
I didn't make any big announcement. I didn't put a letter out there or anything. I just started saying, "Okay, from now on, it's Monday through Thursday." Every once in a while I would work a Saturday, because there's some folks who that's the only day they can come. So I thought, "Okay, again, it's either going to work or it's not going to work." People would say things to me that were so far out of my realm of reality, they'd say, "Oh, okay, you don't have anything Friday, let me rearrange my schedule so that I can... " I was like, "Wait, I could have been doing this all these years." That was really helpful for me.
And then when I was doing four days I finally said, "You know what? I want to do three days." In the meantime, you know how life happens, a series of things opened themselves to me, and my husband and I were able to buy a teeny tiny 600 square foot place at the beach. It was just a couple of years later after I had that epiphany. And so there was a place to actually go to live this dream, this vision that I had had. So then it became easier, it was like, "All right, I want to be down at the beach. So let me go from four days to three days."
To do that, I did have to be more visible, more vocal with that change. So I let people know. I remember this one girl in particular, Tara, I was so terrified because she had been coming to me weekly for a decade. I sat down, and I said, "Starting in July," this was couple months out, "I'm only going to be seeing clients on Tuesdays and Wednesdays." I said, "So I'm going to need to move you to Wednesday starting in July." And she goes, "Oh, do you want to just start doing that next week? That would be better for me."
Oh, man. The difference between then and now is before I'd see a client at 9:00 in the morning and then I wouldn't have another one until 1:00. And so between 10:00 and 1:00 I would dilly dally. I would try to work on the practice. I would try to do the accounting. I would try to do the graphic design. I would try to do a little bit of outreach. And then the person would come at one, and I was a little scattered. So I don't feel like I was doing my best work then. So as I condensed the number of days that I worked, I was able to really be present for my clients and my work improved, and so their outcomes also improved.
Tara McMullin: The kind of shift that Mindy made is just one way that developing a better relationship with yourself first and then your business can play out. I've also seen it play out in new business models or types of offers. I've seen it play out in making big investments that help business owners make a much bigger impact and realize their vision. And I've seen it play out in how people grow their businesses and build their teams.
Often, if not always, when you start to work on your relationship to yourself as a business owner and your relationship with your business, it inspires a sort of identity crisis. You might start to realize that you're more indispensable as the leader of the business than as a provider, the way you've always thought about yourself. You might start to see the ways you're really creating value, and you might even start to see how your assumptions or worries have allowed you to make things so much harder on yourself than they had to be, all because of the role you thought you're playing in your business. I asked Alison Pidgeon whether she'd gone through this kind of identity crisis building up her practice, Move Forward Counseling, in episode 147. Yeah.
Alison Pidgeon: Yeah, that's a great question. So yes, that definitely happened. Obviously, my whole background was getting a master's degree in counseling psychology and working in the field for a long time just providing therapy. When I first started, a big chunk of the income coming in was from me seeing clients. And so it was even hard to see from a financial standpoint, like, "How could I stop seeing clients, because so much of my own personal income was coming from that." And then I had a meeting one day with a business coach and sort of came to the conclusion like I'm holding the business back because I can't be the CEO. I don't have the time and the space to think about these big picture things and where is the practice going because I'm seeing clients.
And then I just realized like, "Oh, I have to stop seeing clients and hope that I put everything into play so that the other therapist will then start making up for the loss of income." Which did happen, there was a little bit of growing pains there. But eventually it did and then I was able to see, "Oh yeah, it's much better for me to be the CEO. That's actually what I enjoy doing rather than seeing clients all the time."
Tara McMullin: Alison realized that to nurture her relationship with her business she needed to step fully into this new role. And when you're so used to belonging to the role you've been in, whether that's as a coach, a therapist, a writer, a marketer, a lawyer, or a consultant, you might first feel a twinge of anxiety at the risk you're taking. But even if much of your work doesn't change, stepping into that new role puts you into a healthier relationship with your business, and that always works out for the best.
Now to finish things out here, I want to delve deeper into this idea of being in relationship with your business. So often we see ourselves and our businesses as one in the same, and whoa boy, does this limit our creativity, our leadership, and even our ability to care for ourselves and for others? Jennifer Armbrust, who I mentioned earlier, described this internal shift that allowed her to see that she was in relationship with her business in episode 133.
Jennifer Armbrust: My main gig was still consulting, working one-on-one. I didn't actually really see that shifting. It wasn't like I was like, "I'm going to start a school and make this my whole new pivot business." But I was instead like, "Oh, I think I have this curriculum in me, I'm going to write this and put it out there." It was really under-priced, and it just suddenly like became more successful and bigger than I could have imagined. And that was a good shift for me because it's such a different way of working, to teach and to create online curriculum and to be working with 20 people at a time instead of sitting with one person. So that was the first piece of it.
And then I think as I got in it and was teaching and writing and creating content... Again, I want to surf. I want to travel the world and surf. I was like, "I can see a vision and the value of creating a framework for feminist entrepreneurship. It doesn't exist right now." I feel like I had to get to this crossroad and look at the two paths and be like, "Okay, Jennifer, are you going to do it by yourself? Or are you going to create the structure that allows you to co-author that framework with other people? And it a no-brainer for so many reasons. First of all, because the very principles of feminine and feminist ideas says together. It doesn't say like, you're the hero that creates the genius idea. It says like, "We do this together because what we know together is more powerful and more important than what one person can figure out."
And then it was just a time analysis thing where I was like, "I don't want to work 80 hours a week, which is what it's going to take to make this framework. So that was, that was the big shift and the big split of like, it's not about me anymore, it's about I hold the vision. I know what I want to make, but I need to do it with other people." I'm really just trying to own that my new job is to create something bigger than myself and something that actually where I don't have to do the work too, where I can create a creative space where we're generating ideas or we're generating answers, where we're cultivating a framework for feminist entrepreneurship. And my job is to create that vessel.
Tara McMullin: Seeing your business as separate from you is the first step in creating the space to receive help, to have your needs met, and to collaborate with others. And when you spend time getting to know your business as separate from you and nurturing your relationship to it, it can start to provide for you the way you've been providing for it. Jennifer Armbrust again.
Jennifer Armbrust: I am really interested in this idea of having a relationship with your business and that your business has a spirit. I mean, maybe not every business, some businesses are just mechanical profit machines. But I think if you're leading a purpose-led business, there is actually kind of like a soul to your business. There's a spirit to it. I am just taking that and running with it. I do this practice of actually mentally talking to my business, like, what do you need? How can you help me? Here's what I need. That is really helping me know what to prioritize, what to make choices about. I know it sounds so woo and crazy, but I will tell you, the proof is in the pudding. When I did this with clients, they love it. It's just this feeling of, "Oh, I'm not alone. I'm in partnership. I'm in partnership with my business, and we're doing this together." And then it's a lot clearer to know what steps to take, what to do, what doesn't need to get done. And it's fun, right? It's fun to be like, "Oh my gosh, what if my I business is my imaginary friend?" Because you are kind of in an imaginary relationship with your business.
Anyway, we all know that, anyone who's been in business, you're in this thing. And some days it's good and sometimes it's bad. So for me, I created a little space, again, my physical space is so important to me as a way of embodying the things I care about. So in my new office, there's like a little cubby hole. That's dedicated to my business spirit. Mine has its very clear personality, and I know what it looks like. So there's like a little representation of it in there. I've got some notes, some little intentions and reminders and just some spirit stuff that I like. And it's really close to my main working space.
So I look up at that and I'm just like, "Oh yeah, sister. Connect with sister, ask sister, just be present. And sometimes they'll be like, "Oh, come on, sister, bring me some clients." You know?
Tara McMullin: Yeah.
Jennifer Armbrust: They're there to help. Your business wants to succeed. Your business came to you with the express goal of existing in the world, so I think your business is your number one ally.
Tara McMullin: Is your business your number one ally? I think this is such a provocative and important question. What happens when we start to see our relationships to our businesses differently? What happens when we allow our businesses to care for us? What happens when we work in a container that can actually meet our needs, even our desires, instead of a container that keeps us in the draining role of full-time caregiver? What happens when your business becomes your number one ally?
I think for most of us, this is a work in progress. It may even be a job that's never quite finished. As we work on our relationships to ourselves and our relationships to our businesses, I know that we can find confidence, ease, and agency through our mutual support. Today's episode featured clips from interviews with Coach Shirin Eskandani, business therapist Nicole Lewis-Keeber, bodyworker Mindy Totten, Move Forward Counseling founder Alison Pidgeon, and Sister founder, Jennifer Armbrust. Visit the show notes to find links to them and their full What Works interviews.
What Works is produced by Yellow House Media. Our production coordinator is Sean McMullin. This episode was edited by Marty Seafelt. Our production assistants are Lou Blazer and Kristin Ronnebeck. Learn more about Yellow House Media and the Standout Podcast Club at yellowhouse.media. What Works is recorded on the ancestral land of the Susquehannock and Conestoga people in what is now known as Lititz, Pennsylvania. The Yellow House is located on the unseated land of the Ktunaxa nation, within what is now known as the Flathead Valley of Montana.
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