May 16

Living Above the Line

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By Bethany Davis, Director of Industry & Regulatory Affairs at FoodState

The Diagnosis
In April of last year., I was three weeks postpartum to the day. Due to extreme anemia during my pregnancy and vitamin deficiencies, coupled with a dicey family history, I was rushed into a colonoscopy despite my desire to continue lying about the house snuggling, nursing and napping with our new family addition.

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To ensure breastfeeding stayed on track I forewent any sedation (not the norm here in the U.S., but not unheard of overseas). The nurses and doctor were used to folks being zonked out during the procedure, rather than trying to stay relaxed and chatting through the discomfort. At some point during the procedure, everything went real quiet. I said, “everything okay doc?” No one said a word.

At that point, I got a bit of a sinking feeling in my stomach. Turned out there was a very large, intrusive, cancerous tumor at the junction of my small and large intestines.

So there I was: 32 years old with two small kids and a cancer diagnosis. You’d think that was enough to deal with, right? Well, a few weeks later I found out the cancer is driven by my genetics. My tests came back positive for Lynch Syndrome, an inheritable condition that heavily predisposes me for many types of cancer all over my body. . . .The protocol calls for me to be aggressively screened every year. What’s more, my siblings, extended family and even my two little boys might have Lynch Syndrome as well.

Okay, I thought, is this the part where I get a pass to freak out?

My Response
To tell the truth, I didn’t freak out. There are a lot of ways to look at this scenario, but I think I have FoodState to thank for a large part of my strength in dealing with all this. FoodState offers executive coaching and leadership training. For the last couple of years I’ve been participating in weekly executive coaching phone calls with our corporate coach and group training sessions. These sessions focus on best practices for how to handle conflict, including stressful situations, in the workplace.

Over the past year I’ve been going deep on what we call “above the line” thinking. Based on the work of theologian Sarah Sumner, the basic idea is that there exist two types of thinking: above the line and below the line. Now, below the line thinking is not bad per se. Most people are thinking below the line most of the time. Maybe even 90 percent of the time. Below the line thinking is based in fear or extreme emotion.

Here are some common below the line behaviors:

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Now to go a bit deeper on below the line behavior, here are some of the beliefs, behaviors and statements we see with below the line thinking:

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There are three main personalities that tend to describe these below the line behaviors:

1. The “hero” seeks out appreciation and plays out their role by applying a “solution” to the “problem.” Heroes rely on finding problems so they can fix them and conflicts so they can resolve them. The hero can’t flourish when things are going smoothly.

2. The “villain” feels their position is absolutely correct and only searches for evidence that supports their claims. They seek out people to criticize and look for where to place blame. The villain stifles open discussion and keeps the attention on the problem.

3. The “victim” is one who is overwhelmed or powerless. The victim plays out their role of pain and suffering as well as defeat. Once in this role, the victim is able to feel special as he or she waits for someone else to fix the problem.

Each of these three roles plays off of the others. And if you have all of these roles playing off each other at the same time in your organization (or in your personal life), it can prove extremely difficult to get things done. In meetings at FoodState we go below the line sometimes but we acknowledge it and may even say, “Okay, I’m going to go below the line for a minute here!” And that’s okay because we are all human. The key here is that we all recognize that when someone is below the line nothing will get done: there are no solutions below the line.

When I got my medical news, on that first day, I spent some time enacting not only one but also maybe all of these below the line mindsets. For example, I tried to tell my mom everything was going to be totally fine, being really strong for her (hero). I found fault with the way the doctor delivered the information (villain). I certainly had my own internal dialogue and focus going on even when people were explaining a series of important things to me while I was at the hospital. And if I’m being really real about it, there was almost an indulgence on my part on the amount of immediate, sympathetic attention this diagnosis brought on (victim).

All of these things crossed my mind on that day. I played into all three of these roles, speed-round style.

I had to ask, what did any of this accomplish? Is being a victim and existing in a woe-is-me mindset helpful? Is that good for my kids to be around? Does getting angry and playing the villain help? I can’t really control the situation by simply telling my mom that it will all be fine and acting confident about it in the absence of work or changes that need to be made. It was a very emotional day, and I could see by the end of it that I didn’t like how all that energy was making me feel. I was exhausted. All the worry and pity that people had in their eyes when they spoke to me actually made me more anxious.

So, I willed myself to move my thinking above the line. Here’s what I mean:

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I was able to shift my thinking fairly quickly. Now, I’m not going to pretend that I had above the line thinking all day long, every day, for the better part of last year. But I also can’t express how much this lesson in leadership helped me. I began to see my doctors and nurses as my allies. I acknowledged control of my body and my mind and took 100 percent responsibility for the disease.

I got curious. What could I learn from this situation? What positive outcomes could I extract from it? Well, one positive outcome was that a legion of family members got tested for Lynch. And many of them, including my brother, cousin and several uncles, were all found to have Lynch Syndrome. Now they will be closely monitored and screened, saving their lives or, at the very least, extending them by many years.

I shifted away from feeling that I was entitled to a healthy body and toward commitment to see how I might do so much more to optimize my health, wellness and state of mind. I was able to let go (on most days) of a belief that I had a small amount of time left to live with my sons, husband, family, and friends. I became more willing to accept that I truly have enough of everything, including connection, appreciation and love—that I am a fulfilled person.

My Future
A few weeks ago I had my one-year CT scan. Some small spots showed up on my liver and lungs. If I had not received this training from FoodState and not been actively focused on trying to exist above the line for the better part of a year there are a lot of unproductive ways I might have reacted.

I might have lost sleep worrying that my boys will grow up without a mother; or that my husband will have to raise them on his own or be lonely. I might have worried about how we could possibly make things work financially with me out of work, or dead. I could have been so emotional and distracted that I couldn’t do my job while the doctors investigated the results or I could have started eating or drinking in unhealthy ways to deal with the stress.

But I didn’t do any of those things. I sat tight and waited for more information. I honored my rhythms for rest and renewal. I played with my kids. I planned a fun vacation with my family and friends. I felt all the expected feelings but I didn’t give them all of my power. I felt them and then I let them go.

I am happy to say that after some further testing they pronounced the new masses benign—this in spite of my Lynch Syndrome. There was nothing to worry about at all. I am so happy I didn’t waste my time or energy worrying. Something I enjoy the most about my job at FoodState is that our mission is to improve lives and inspire others with our great brands. Above the line thinking isn’t just a philosophy about work. It’s about my life.

If you are interested in learning more about Above the Line/Below the Line thinking and how it can impact your company in a positive way, or if you want to learn more about Lynch Syndrome, reach out to me at bethany@foodstate.com

Bethany Davis

Bethany Davis M.S. is the Director of Industry & Regulatory Affairs at FoodState.

  1. Paul Kratka 17 May 2016 |

    So well written and so poignant Bethany! As a died-in-the-wool, wired into my DNA, career ‘below-the-liner’ this was profound for me to recognize – THANK YOU!

    Would love to see Part 2: Above The Line unpacked in more depth

  2. Chelsea Mckmay 17 May 2016 |

    Absolutely phenomenal. Really enjoyed this read. Honest, informative, applicable, well written.

  3. Kristin Papanickolas 4 Jun 2016 |

    Incredible! This is so well written. Thank you for being so open and honest about your experience and sharing the positive energy that comes with Above the Line thinking. Glad to hear you are doing so well! I hope to remember this when faced with challenges.