The Standard You Walk By
Somatic Lessons to Boost Your Visibility
Lately I’ve been thinking about how somatic wisdom can help us to manage pain, both emotional and physical. And I’ve come to believe that cultivating the wisdom of our body can also be helpful in addressing another key issue that many of us struggle with in our careers: visibility.
Few know more about this than Colonel Diane Ryan.
As an officer in the US Army for over 29 years, Colonel Ryan led combat deployments in Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom and later joined the faculty at West Point, eventually becoming director of the Eisenhower Leader Development Program. She is currently Associate Dean at Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University. Yet despite her stellar career, Diane struggled throughout her years of service to have her presence acknowledged in the most basic way: the military salute.
“In the military, saluting a senior officer is a practice that has existed going back to the days of knights in armor, so I could not let it go,” she said of the enlistees and fellow officers who failed to salute her when they passed by. “Every time a man tried it, I forced myself to look directly at him and say simply but very firmly: ‘Hello! Maybe you didn’t see me?’ Even when it seemed obvious the guy was doing everything possible to avoid me, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I saw no sense in trying to humiliate him, which would only up the ante. But I always made myself hold my ground.”
Diane was inspired to stick with this effort by a senior officer who told her early in her career, “The standard you walk by is the standard you set.”
In other words, if you let something go—if you simply walk by it—you establish that as a baseline for what is acceptable. This is how misbehavior and micro-aggressions become entrenched. While you are not responsible for someone else’s refusal to acknowledge you, you are responsible for holding them to account.
Diane did sometimes wonder whether extending the benefit of the doubt to enlistees and fellow officers intent on showing disrespect constituted a kind of pleasing behavior. But she maintained her approach because it was so effective.
She knew from experience that triggers can blow up quickly and believed that diffusing them was usually the best first line of defence. Her method combined strength with grace, which is what giving someone the benefit of the doubt amounts to. Grace is grace precisely because it is unearned yet freely given.
In situations like these, no matter how awkward or disrespected we might feel, we must declare with our hearts, our minds and especially our bodies: I am here; I have the right to be where and who I am. And I have the right to be acknowledged.
So Diane kept her focus on setting a standard. This is a helpful practice.
Doing so requires that we:
- Not ignore disrespectful behavior
-Acknowledge that this can trigger us
-Recognize our own discomfort
-Detach from the feeling (observe the pain)
-Give those who trigger us the benefit of the doubt– even if we don’t believe they have earned it
-Clearly and calmly claim our space
In fact, the road to visibility starts with a simple recognition of our fear— fear of making a statement, standing out, risking offense by confrontation. Because fear augments the pain that being disrespected can stir up, dissociating from it by asserting our physical, somatic presence offers a powerful way for us to move forward.
Just ask Diane Ryan.