Dealing with Your Stuff

By Michaela O’Donnell

April 15, 2020

De Pree Journal

On a recent FaceTime call with some of my best girlfriends, one of them ministered to the rest of us by reading some COVID memes aloud. My already funny friend took pleasure in delivering each one with perfect comedic timing. Just before she shared my favorite meme, she took a deep breath, arched her eyebrows, leaned toward her camera phone, and smirked as she read “Daaaaaang! Last week was a long year!” We laughed and cried and laughed some more at the absurdity and truth of it all. We swapped stories of how much our work, along with the rest of our lives, had changed overnight. Programs halted. Events cancelled. Money lost. Hard decisions around every corner.

For the last two years, much of my work at the De Pree Center has been about helping Christians prepare for a changing world of work. I’ve taught that one thing that can help people thrive is to think and act like an entrepreneur. Even though not everyone will own a formal business, we can all adopt an entrepreneurial mindset. That’s because the core of what entrepreneurs do is this: seize opportunity and create value in the face of risk. 

Right now, seizing opportunity isn’t just some nice idea, it’s survival. Our business and programs and freelance careers depend on our ability to sift through the noise and pursue what’s worth pursuing. Crucially, you cannot do this work if you’re not dealing with your stuff. And, if you don’t deal with your stuff, you’ll poison the process of creating value.

What do I mean when I say your stuff? I mean your baggage, your issues, and your trauma. I mean your anxiety, your broken relationships, and your fear. I mean the stuff that’s underneath the things you do that bug the people on your team and in your home. I mean the shadow side of your strengths. I mean your coping mechanisms. I mean all of it! We’ve all got stuff. And, it’s all roaring to the surface for us all in these times. It probably started rising to the surface the moment you really wrapped your mind around the coronavirus. It settled into your stomach or onto your shoulders or in your frown lines as you saw grocery store shelves empty and waited in line for paper products.  And, it came out in full force when you were told that we’ve got at least a another month of this. Or that your job isn’t safe.

Because we’re human, we can’t help but bring our stuff into our work. That’s just part of what it means to live and breathe and feel and relate. But our baggage can work against us. It can work against the mission of our organizations and even the work God wants us to do. Our stuff can poison the good fruit.

Depending on what your stuff is, you may have mentally checked out from your work because you’re feeling depressed and overwhelmed. Or, you might have just gone into overdrive, working yourself to the bone because somewhere along the way of life you learned that you’re the “problem solver.” Or, maybe because chaos is hard for you, you’ve taken the reigns on a bunch of myopic things you can control. Left unchecked, our stuff just breeds more baggage.

And, here’s why it matters. We cannot seize opportunity and create value if we do not deal with our stuff. That’s because seizing opportunity has a lot to do with another entrepreneurial capacity—the ability to convert empathy into imagination. Creating value has a lot to do with moving toward others, understanding their world, and then responding.  In order to empathize, we’ve got to be able to at least momentarily bracket our own biases and emotions so that we might enter the world of someone else. This is the fruit tree from which organizations and leaders need to be picking from right now. But it’s really hard to get to that work if we don’t acknowledge our stuff.

In my experience, my stuff comes from my pain. My guess is that much of yours does too. Which means that dealing with our stuff looks a lot like grief. Think about it, whether we’re mentally checking out, hoarding goods or getting myopic in our work, maybe these are all just ways of grieving?

Grief can make it especially hard to want to practice empathy. That’s because empathy doesn’t sideline pain. Instead, it brings it front and center. When we move toward the needs of others, we can expect to experience both the pain of others and also our own pain. It seems almost counterintuitive to open ourselves to others pain when we’re grieving so much ourselves.

But, what’s reassuring is that accepting our own pain helps us have compassion for pain in others. Brené Brown’s research affirms this in a way that I have witnessed more anecdotally. She writes, “The better we are at accepting ourselves and others, the more compassionate we become.”[i] In other words, the better we deal with our own stuff, the more we can empathize with others. And, the more we empathize with others, the more we can face our own stuff.

In order to seize opportunity and create value, we’ve got to be able to convert empathy into imagination. In order to practice empathy, we’ve got to be able to have compassion for ourselves. In COVID times, that partly means acknowledging past pain that has created today’s stuff.

Let me also be clear here that dealing with your stuff is not a one-time thing. It’s also not a linear process. It’s not as if we can deal with our stuff once, and then be ready to lead with empathy so that we might seize opportunity. No, dealing with our stuff is a constant, life-long thing. It’s just that in this time, when so much of our stuff is likely coming to the surface, we need to be especially active in acknowledging and dealing with it so that our stuff doesn’t poison the good fruit.

That day on the phone with my friends, as I laughed and cried, I felt like I got to acknowledge and even release some of my stuff. Partly this came through the funny memes my friend read. But also, it came through empathy. Hearing what my friends were feeling was such a mirror to my own feelings. The whole conversation gave me some critical mental space to think about the next year—eerr, I mean the next week. And, it helped me to re-center the task of empathy we collectively look towards to seize opportunity and create value in the face of risk. 


[i] Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are (Center City: Hazelden, 2010), 16.

Michaela O’Donnell

Mary and Dale Andringa Executive Director

Michaela is the Mary and Dale Andringa Executive Director Chair at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership. She is also an assistant professor of marketplace leadership and the lead professor for Fuller Seminary’s Doctor of Global Leadership, Redemptive Imagination in the Marketplace progr...

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