I’ve been meaning to write about this for some time, especially since one of the emotive words I’m hearing most often in coaching sessions during the pandemic is “frustrated”. We all have good reason to feel that way right now — more than usual. But I’d like to tell you two stories.
First, yes — my family is wonderfully weird
Growing up, we had a thing in my family that we called “ISBAT Syndrome”, with the acronym standing for “I should be able to”. I’ve never seen it referred to anywhere else (please correct me if I just haven’t found it), and have therefore assumed it was something we came up with for our own familiar expediency. When one of us felt like we were beating our heads against a wall, it became useful shorthand for expressing that sense of injustice and powerlessness. For us, it could apply to anything from being unduly thwarted at work or school to not being able to find our keys on an already bad day. It was a multipurpose running joke that helped to normalize a lot of situations. I hadn’t used it in years, but was reminded of it in a conversation with my mom a few months ago, and have been thinking about it ever since.
Most of us have ISBAT moments, and I see this a lot among our Listers, as well as the other “real world” groups that I work with regularly. It’s an honest expression of frustration when life doesn’t go your way, and that feeling is one of the most human things about us. If you think you’ve never hit the ISBAT wall, you’re probably repressing it pretty hard. While we teasingly referred to it as if it were a disease (and it does rule some people more than others), it’s actually an extremely normal part of life. It’s quite telling that it pairs well with “Life is not fair,” which is one of the most useful lessons I have cherished from early childhood. (Thanks, Mom!)
ISBATs in the wild
How many can you name in a minute? Here are just a few:
- Artists should be able to perform in a virus-free world.
- I should be hired because I’m good (!), whether or not I have a website.
- We should be able to make a decent living when we’ve worked for decades to build our talent and expertise.
- I should be able to record my performance without extraneous noise.
- Singers should get paid when the orchestra does.
- Arts administrators should be able to wear just one hat, and earn a living wage doing it.
We could build quite a varied list, and that’s just within our niche profession. But creating a list of woes doesn’t serve either the problems within that list or the bigger picture issues that they might illustrate. Holding on to your ISBATs isn’t actually useful, as they’re either moments to discard or issues to really fight for. This reaction doesn’t tend to crop up for the stuff in the middle, and it’s crucial that you learn to tell the difference, so you can decide when to take action… and when to take a breath and move on. Here’s an example, from a young singer who hadn’t developed this clarity yet:
Is everything truly negotiable?
I was recently reminded of a particular series of incidents from quite a few years ago. A singer came to me wanting to know how to get a job with all the perks that he might even have deserved. In a series of very calm, seemingly rational discussions, he asked for advice on how to negotiate everything from a parking spot, to paid time off, to a guaranteed annual raise of more than 15%. It came out in these conversations that he had been reading books on negotiation, and didn’t understand why those techniques weren’t working with his boss. (To be fair, Getting to Yes was not in his list of titles, and would have helped him see both sides more clearly. It is highly recommended.)
The problem was that he was trying to get these add-ons for his weekly church job, and while what he asked for was a very creative attempt to make up for appallingly low wages, it was clear that it would never work. In the end, he decided to just find a better job, and found one — without the perks, but with enough of a pay increase that he was able to let the rest go… and be a happier staff singer as a result.
This particular singer used the situation to learn discernment in his professional life, and has done well in the years since then. Others have not been able to learn the same lesson, and some will probably always struggle, as for some people, arguing is like a tic you just can’t cure. But if it’s possible to hear yourself and hear the other side more clearly, it will help you in every area of your life. It may even help you have a life.
I’m not suggesting that when faced with adversity, we should just accept our lot and move on — absolutely not. But I encourage you to choose your battles, directing your precious energy and focus at the important ones and ignoring the rest. Acknowledge your ISBAT moments and learn to decide, quickly, whether it’s a big one… or something that can fade away without much significance. You’ll be better, happier, and more prepared to tackle the big stuff that really matters, like race and gender equity, standing up for yourself in abusive situations, and being able to work safely. If you’re hunkering down to protest smaller issues, you might need to check yourself and see where your energy is going.
The bottom line
Don’t let your ISBAT run your life. Take a good look at the complaint and be ready to pat the little monster on the head to send it packing… unless it really matters.