06 Mar Hakuna Matata: Befriending the Mean Girl in My Mind
By Katy Craig
I didn’t want to start off my co-facilitation of a 6-day retreat in Kenya by introducing myself to all of the smart, inspiring participants while wearing a bright blue Hakuna Matata t-shirt with giraffes on the front.
But sometimes the universe – and blizzards and airlines – have other plans.
Unfortunately, after the worst January snowstorm in thirty years’ worth of Colorado history, countless missed connections, rebookings, and missed rebookings, my checked bag didn’t greet me in Nairobi despite my taking three days to get there myself.
It would have been a singular phenomenon if it had.
Fortunately, I was psyched to be going to Kenya at all, excited about the women I was about to meet, thrilled about those I was working with, and wearing a beaded bracelet my nine-year-old had recently made me that said PEACE (a word I said to myself in varying degrees of intensity over my unexpected 30-or-so hours of additional travel).
And that was the first thing I noticed: I was uncharacteristically zen.
I mean, I try, but I also tend toward the slightly nervous business traveler. The one who feels a responsibility to her clients, wants to deliver, ensures she’s prepared and organized…or you know, at least on time.
That said, my colleague and I had arranged to travel in advance. We had prepared rigorously so even if I was going to arrive with the participants instead of the day before to enable extra grounding and onsite organization, we were ready, and she met news of my misfortune with nothing but empathy and support. I had even carried on three days’ worth of food that meets my medically necessary dietary requirements. I was proud of my preparation and flexibility…and that my having recently taken up running had allowed me to all-out sprint with my 40 pounds of carry-ons to make the last flight in my series of missed connections.
But you know what they say about pride…
As I watched everyone else’s bags circle the Nairobi International Airport conveyor belt once I finally arrived, I thought, “How often do I just assume things will work out?”
Seeing how intricately complicated my own flight path had been and realizing that I was just one amongst thousands of travelers descending upon airports still out of practice from the pandemic, it occurred to me that maybe I should examine my expectations and practice being grateful when things actually do work out as I’d hoped, rather than feeling frustrated when they don’t.
That night, I was grateful to have a hotel room to sleep in for a few hours and to have thrown an extra pair of pants into my carry-on at the last minute even though I hadn’t lost a bag in 15 years. And while the only tops I had were a long sleeve shirt and sweater that were just perfect for the aforementioned record-breaking snowstorm I’d left at home, I was fairly certain the Nairobi hotel gift shop would have a t-shirt I could pick up. Something like the nice, understated solids I’d packed to appear as professional and approachable as possible in greeting our impressive participants. Maybe even a beautiful batik blouse that I could wear for future facilitations that would always remind me of Kenya.
I pressed my face up against the darkened window of the gift shop at 1:30 that morning, saw a stack of shirts in the back, and went to bed relieved that I could get a fresh shirt after four days’ of wearing the tired old one wholly unsuited to eighty-degree weather.
THE RESIDENT MEAN GIRL, REGINA
It took about three seconds the next morning for me to freak out.
A quick look showed me the array of gift shop offerings, most of which I’d be swimming in. Then, in my size, a selection of t-shirts with cartoon monkeys on them, a smattering of swahili phrases translated into graphically handwritten English, and the top two contenders: a soccer jersey with KENYA emblazoned across the front in intense green capitals, and the bright blue shirt with two giraffes and Hakuna Matata embroidered on the front.
Instantly, I was at war with myself.
Part of me said, “I would totally wear those. They look really comfortable and they’re so fun!”
Then the stereotypical mean girl from high school who lives in my mind scoffed at me. “Are you kidding? You can’t meet all those smart, remarkable women wearing that.”
And the freak out ensued.
I let that first scornful, self-judging thought unravel the feebly woven PEACE I’d been clinging to for the past four days. I gave in to my sleep deprivation, my jet lag, my disappointment that instead of reveling in the wonders of a wildlife preserve in Africa, I’d been eating SmartPop in a hotel about two feet from JFK in a downpour. For 12 hours.
And I’d packed so carefully! I’d resisted my free-spirited urge to wait until the last minute and had planned ahead, choosing just what to take – or not – with particular thoughtfulness. It wasn’t fair! I shouldn’t have to meet these women I wanted to like me while looking like a buffoon.
My resident mean girl, who I’ve named Regina in honor of Tina Fey’s movie, sensed weakness and went in for the kill: “Oh my God. They’re going to think you’re a bouncy, bubbly, air-headed, Bubblegum Barbie. What a dork.”
Thankfully, Regina and I are no strangers.
So, after indulging in a few minutes of cold sweating in the middle of the gift shop, I called up my coach training and reminded myself that she wasn’t speaking fact. These were her opinions.
I pressed pause on her tirade and had a little talk with myself. “Of course Regina thinks I’m a dork,” I said in my mind while pretending to peruse some beaded jewelry and handcarved sculptures. “Regina thinks everyone is a dork.”
Then I turned back to her with the actual facts: No, this wouldn’t have been my first choice, but now I had two options, and I could either continue to wear the same hot, stale, long-sleeved shirt I’d been wearing since Denver, or be bold and start the workshop off a lot more physically comfortable and therefore more present with participants and focused on the intentions of the week.
“You can’t meet them in that,” Regina helpfully reiterated.
And suddenly, I saw her ridiculousness and countered, “Actually, I think I can slip into the restroom, pull it over my head, and physically put one foot in front of the other to walk into the lobby.”
“But are you sure you want to?” Regina scrunched up her nose.
And I thought, “Yeah, actually. Given the alternative. And it might be dorky, but it’s my favorite color and I not-so-secretly like it. Also, it’s kind of funny, and two of my top values are play and gratitude. So…yeah. I’m going to embrace the ridiculousness of having my careful packing turned on its head and be thankful that I have a short-sleeved shirt at all.”
And as it turns out, the ridiculousness was compelling.
DAY FOUR ME
I introduced myself to the women in the lobby, explained my baggage situation and said, “So…this isn’t how I’d intended to present myself. This is more of Day Four Me, wearing a Hakuna Matata t-shirt and psyched to safari.”
The t-shirt was a talking point, an unexpected way of putting us all at ease in those first few jet-lagged hours of knowing one another…and in the rest of the week as it so happened.
As my bags missed their connecting flight…a couple times…we laughed together that the person they’d met in the lobby really was Day Four Me.
And Day Five Me.
And Day Six Me.
So consistently Me, that the women told me they wouldn’t recognize me when my own clothes finally did show up, so I’d have to wear a nametag.
Then, when that day did arrive and I spiked the t-shirt into the laundry basket in triumph (thank you, wildlife refuge for having a laundry service!), the women said they missed it.
So did I.
It’s now become a much more meaningful souvenir of winning a small battle with myself and choosing to step into my values as I navigated uncertainty…before facilitating a workshop that not-so-coincidentally talked about managing our limiting beliefs, living in alignment with our values, and creating our own next chapter in the face of ambiguity.
So ultimately it was a little triumph (but hey, I’ll take my triumphs where I can get them), and it was also a crash course in checking my assumptions and bolstering my empathy. I often tell coaching clients that self-management strategies may be simple, but simple isn’t easy. Living the relatively minor frustration of not having my creature comforts for barely a week reminded me just how “Not Easy” can feel, as well as how life can help us reprioritize.
What I’d thought was so important the week before turned out to be unnecessary, and my inadvertent “realness” on Day One ended up being a hot route to connection.
Why would I have ever wanted to hold that back until Day Four?
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