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What My 3 1/2 Year Old (and a Candy Cane) Taught Me

Have you ever heard the phrase “Put out into the world what you want to get back”?

Some people call it Karma. Some call it the Law of Attraction. But it really comes back to this idea that if you show up in the world in a certain way, it seems to come back around to you. 

I’ve never really thought about this in terms of a burnout mitigation strategy until recently — and I learned it from my 3 ½ year old. 

While we were putting away our holiday decor this year, my son found a candy cane, and he really wanted to eat it. He asked me to help him open it, and I said what I usually do to positively promote independence and growth: “You try first. You can do hard things.

He sat down and tried and tried. Finally, he lamented, “Mommy, I tried really hard, but I can’t get it open!” 

I told him I would help him and started trying to unwrap it.

Now, I don’t know if you’ve unwrapped a candy cane as of late, but I felt like I was trying to open one of those hard plastic security cases that you have to cut open — without any scissors. 

First, I tried using my hands. When that didn’t work, I huffed and went and got scissors. Even using the scissors, I was struggling.

I must have been visibly frustrated because my son said, “It’s okay, Mommy. You can do hard things.

It was a really proud moment to hear a key phrase of my parenting philosophy repeated to me in context.

But it also almost brought a tear. 

The holidays were really rough for me. My mom passed away in March and she was a Christmas fanatic. The grief had felt all-encompassing the entire holiday season, and I hadn’t really reached out for support because I felt like I had to hold it together as the “strong” one in the family.

I think I was so frustrated with the wrapper because I was also processing other really hard things by myself, and I was feeling so overwhelmed. 

The candy cane wrapper was the last straw. A tiny little thing turned into a mountain of frustration. 

In reflection, I realized that it felt so good for someone — even my 3 ½ year old in a completely different context — to say "you can do hard things."

I needed someone to see my pain and to encourage me.

I had two big takeaways from this simple exchange:

  • The things we say to each other matter. Even the littlest things. 

           The messages I give other people may come back to support me in a time of need, so I need to                model for other people the way I want to be treated. 

           In the workplace, that means that I talk to people the way I want them to talk to me. 

           I eliminate unnecessary busywork that I wouldn’t want to be tasked with completing. 

           I support people on my staff in ways that I would want to be supported in their position.

  • I must ask for what I need.  

          The power of social support — even from spontaneous interactions — is so underestimated.

          If you do nothing else this year to support your emotional health at work, seek out social support. 

          And it's okay, and sometimes necessary, to tell co-workers exactly what you need.

          "When you see me overwhelmed, I need you to acknowledge my experience and tell me it's going            to be okay."


         "When you see me overwhelmed, I need you to acknowledge my experience and ask what you can          do to help. I need you to NOT tell me it's going to be okay because it feels like gaslighting."

Whatever you need to hear, ask for it.

Let safe colleagues into your hurt and frustration. And let's be honest — burnout includes a lot of hurt and frustration a lot of the time.

When we start inviting safe people into our tough spaces, don’t be surprised when they ask you to show up for theirs.

That’s how a beautiful system of social support is born.

 Jen Johnson, Momma, PhD



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