This is the second post in the boundaries series, which provides tools for coping with a workplace that unequally levies emotional labor expectations against your colleagues. You can see all the posts in this series so far right here.
I wrote a piece last month called On Becoming a Presence in the Software Community. The piece challenges the narrow understanding of impact that exclusively includes, essentially, somehow getting famous. I shared how my admiration for colleagues has shifted from their most recognized accomplishments to their skill at being present with others—and the way that this has changed who I admire.
In one example, I talk about a household name in tech who extended grace to a somewhat less famous person who had asked to meet with him, and who showed up to the meeting having had an especially tough day.
On that post, a commenter articulated an important point:
I’m fortunate that two people I knew only from their online presences and their books have become, if not full on coaches and mentors, at least people I can send an email to with a question or a thought and get a solid reply back…
I still can’t imagine unloading on them about personal challenges. Perhaps I’m blocking opportunity for a more real connection, but I am afraid to cross that line if they’re not willing, and there’s no real way to know if they’re willing without crossing that line.
This concern is completely valid. Our interpersonal and professional educations do not teach us how to determine if people are willing to do things with us without crossing boundaries, which leaves room to wonder whether such a thing is even possible.
Today we’ll talk about a technique I use for this. I call it assisted processing.
When I’m emotionally exhausted, frustrated, or bereft, sometimes I need some support. If the cause of my exhaustion, frustration, or bereftness comes from work or the tech industry, then I find it most helpful to seek that support from a colleague who won’t require as much explaining to understand what I’m going through.
Assisted Processing is Not An Alternative to Therapy
This brings up a critical distinction between assisted processing and getting a therapist:
- A therapist’s job is to coach you on healthy ways of managing your thoughts and emotions. They teach you frameworks to cope, protect yourself, broaden the opportunities you notice, and give yourself space for growth. They’re skilled professionals with lots of training on how to do that. An assisted processing partner is not (necessarily). An assisted processing partner provides a second set of eyes to help ground your perspective, but they’re not responsible for guiding your growth.
- If you’re in tech (or any field that isn’t therapy), therapists don’t necessarily know your industry or how to do your job. An assisted processing partner may be able to provide you with industry-specific ideas or frameworks that a therapist wouldn’t.
- Usually, a client has an ongoing relationship with a therapist where they compensate the therapist to help them achieve some goals. By contrast, assisted processing is asking a colleague to help perform some emotional labor for an individual instance, typically for free. To ask someone to do this regularly for a long time can become an imposition. Think of it like asking someone to help you move a couch. Your friend is happy to help you come move the couch one time. If you called them every week and asked them to help you move the couch. they would probably lose enthusiasm for the task and might feel like you are using them.
So there are two takeaways that I want to make ultra clear before we move on:
- An assisted processing partner is not an alternative to a therapist.
- Neither a therapist nor an assisted processing partner is responsible for the way you manage your emotions. That’s on you, always.
Who makes a good assisted processing partner?
- Your boss or a colleague
- Maybe at your company, but I tend to prefer mentors and colleagues outside my company. This is because colleagues sometimes already understand company history, political factors, or other environmental forces that contribute to your distress. When your partner is unaware of these environmental forces, then their response to the story you tell forces you to uncover and articulate them.
- This is critical: they must have similar or greater structural power to you. Managers, no conscripting your reports into this job. Straight white women, no enlisting your queer black colleague. Dudes: do not go find your lady friend to do this for you. The power dynamic and social precedent in these situations makes it too easy for “processing partner” to turn into “person who I make responsible for my feelings.” Once again, that person is you. You are responsible for your feelings.
Depending on the cause of your distress, you might have a few processing partners. If the cause is technical, for example, you might want a partner who is more technically senior than you. If the cause is racism (including feedback that you have demonstrated racism), I recommend finding someone who shares your race. You want someone who is not likely to bear the burden created by whatever thing you need help processing.
How do I ask someone to help me process something?
I do a couple of things before approaching a processing partner. First, I get at least one night of sleep, which I find makes the idea of processing this thing myself feel far less daunting. Then, if I can, I do some research on whatever is causing my distress. For me this consists of some web searches, mostly. Has this thing happened to other people? How common is it? What do other people who have experienced this have to say about it?
Once I have done this work, I’ll approach a processing partner. “Hey, this thing happened that upset me. I slept on it and I did some research. Feel free to say no to this, I know you’re busy right now, but might you have space to talk through it with me in the next few days so I can get to a plan of action?” I ask if they have space for this. If we have power over this person, they cannot exactly say no, even if we think they can because we trust them or some baloney like that. That’s why a processing partner has to have equal or greater power than us: so they can revoke consent to this emotional work without facing consequences from us.
What do I do with my processing partner?
When you talk to your processing partner, it is your processing partner’s job to listen to you without validating your animosity. You get to be upset…at first. Being upset has its place. However, you do not get to act out because you are upset.
It helps if your processing partner has also googled the thing that upset you beforehand. That can prevent you both from ending up in some embarrassing, uneducated places. For example, suppose a black woman tells you that your comments in the kitchen about mammies are racist. You google it and you see that there is history behind this kind of thing, but you go to your processing partner and your processing partner has no idea. You could accidentally find yourself in a situation where your partner is all “Oh, I’ve never heard of that, sounds like hypersensitivity to me,” and that is both a) untrue and b) not helping you in the long run, even if it makes you feel better in the short run.
Ideally, your processing partner can listen while you talk in circles (which is absolutely useful). If you’re far enough along on the processing route, they can help you think through what to do next.
It could be a tough conversation, but when you allow yourself to be honest and vulnerable on this topic with someone you trust, you might find yourself hurting less by the end of the session.
Our interpersonal and professional educations do not teach us how to determine if people are willing to do things with us without crossing boundaries, which leaves room to wonder whether such a thing is even possible.
I use a technique for this called assisted processing. When I’m emotionally exhausted, frustrated, or bereft, sometimes I need some support. If the cause of my exhaustion, frustration, or bereftness comes from work or the tech industry, then I find it most helpful to seek that support from a colleague who won’t require as much explaining to understand what I’m going through.
An assisted processing partner is not an alternative to a therapist, and neither a therapist nor an assisted processing partner is responsible for the way I manage my emotions.
I choose processing partners with similar or greater structural power to you, and I ask for their help in such a way that they can refuse without facing consequences. A good processing partner can listen to me without validating my animosity. It could be a tough conversation, but I have learned when to be honest and vulnerable with someone I trust to cope with things.
If you liked this piece, you might also like:
The Listening Series (IMHO, my best series so far on interpersonal skills for technologists. Also contains pictures of cute birdies)
Leading a Software Rewrite at your Company (in case you have to do that)
UI Design for Programmers (this post is really old and my writing style was rougher, but I still find myself thinking about the ideas it discusses)