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Being the Lifeguard Versus Empowering Groups

Imagine a public swimming pool with dozens of kids and adults splashing on a warm summer evening. (I know that may be hard to imagine right now in a pandemic with Texas frozen over, but bear with me.) Suddenly, there’s an emergency! A teenager gets a leg cramp in the deep end, struggles to stay afloat, and cries out for help.

My first instinct is to be the lifeguard. For the past 40+ years, I’ve been the responsible one. The perfect eldest daughter. The rescuer. The problem solver. The hyper-achiever. The leader. The Stanford-educated, PhD-pedigreed smart kid with the right answer to any question. I worked hard to cultivate that identity. I’m the one with the most training, the most experience, and the most leadership -- right? Of course I should be the one to jump in the pool with my official lifeguard whistle and Ray Bans to save the drowning teenager.

What I’m learning, slowly, in repeated lessons that the universe keeps putting before me over and over, is that there’s really amazing power amongst the dozens of other kids and adults in the pool, if only I open my eyes to see it and cultivate it. There is amazing power in groups.

I serve do-gooder leaders like myself and I see the same pattern in oh so many of us. Our hearts crave to serve, so we serve everyone else at the expense of ourselves. Pretty soon we’re holding the whole world on our shoulders.

If you find yourself in this position, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is being the lifeguard costing you?

  • What are you getting from it?

  • How could you get that need met in a healthy way?

  • What else is possible?

What is being the lifeguard costing you?

There are massive costs to me when I play the lifeguard every time.

When I play lifeguard, I strip everyone else of their power. Others come to rely on me to save the day… so I save the day. Every time. I tell myself that if I don’t do it, then nobody will. Then I get resentful that nobody else is helping out. In the end, I’m bearing the world on my shoulders. I’m carrying my responsibilities and everyone else’s besides. I become overwhelmed, stressed, and busy busy busy. My to do list is suddenly full of everyone else’s tasks, and my tasks get pushed back day after day after day. I end up constantly multitasking, putting out fires, working nights and weekends, not sleeping well, juggling, and hating every minute of it.

Worst of all, when I fall into this pattern, I have nothing left at the end of the day. I know I should be exercising, eating well, doing my mindfulness practice, and taking brain breaks (yes, Irene the brain break guru has days where she doesn’t do a single brain break). But I don’t.

The costs are different for each of us.

What am I getting from it?

This is a tough question for me. The quick answer is that I get to be the hero -- that person with special powers that swoops in to save the day. On the surface that feels good.

But if I really dig further, I have this deep place in me where I crave belonging and can get a little sideways when I try to prove my worth in order to belong. Being the hero fuels a twisted sense of belonging. The little gremlin inside my head, the one I’ve named Ego, is saying, “They need me! They are asking for me! I belong!” The moment someone says, “Thank you,” Ego celebrates.

But if they don’t say, “Thank you” (which happens often), Ego rears up and rampages, “Can’t you see how hard I’m working for you, you ungrateful, lazy #@%#! Here look at this massive list of everything I’m doing!” I hate to admit it, but for months I listed all the stuff I’d been doing for other people on the staff meeting agenda so that the team could “appreciate” all the hard work I was doing for them. Embarrassing. Bad gremlin!

For me, being lifeguard creates a false sense of belonging. What I’m really getting from this pattern is approval, and only sometimes. Clearly, this is not a healthy pattern.

What’s really going on is that I’ve manufactured my own problem. When I swoop in to save the day as the hero, everyone else lets me do it, which creates more dependency on me to keep saving the day in the future. I get some approval, but not real belonging which is what I actually want.

How could you get that need met in a healthy way?

Brene Brown says in Gifts of Imperfection: “Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.” Thus, to get my need met in a healthy way, I must start with self-acceptance.

Grumble grumble. That’s hard. Still working on it. The gremlins in my head are troublesome.

  • I’ve already mentioned Ego, who demands approval, appreciation, awards, and achievement. He always thinks he’s right and can get righteously judgemental towards others.

  • There’s Little Irene who was bullied in middle school and is still sad, lonely, and hurt. Little Irene freaks out if she thinks she’s being excluded and never feels good enough.

  • And there’s Hermione, my brilliant perfectionist and hyper-achiever who must get an A+ on every assignment, needs a meticulous action plan with every detail mapped out, and has an indexed, prioritized to do list for everything. When her brilliant plans go sideways, she has a really hard time adjusting.

Learning to accept and love Ego, Little Irene, and Hermione for who they are will likely be a lifelong project. I am still learning to talk back to Ego and make him wait before swooping in as the lifeguard to save the day. I am still learning to give myself the approval I’m seeking from others. I am still learning to recognize that I am good enough just as I am.

What else is possible?

Being the lifeguard is not the best solution to every problem, especially when it becomes a habit. For me, the alternative is to embrace the power of the group. When I draw upon the collective experience and talents of the team, then the weight is distributed across many shoulders. It’s easier to stay motivated when there are others moving the same direction. Most importantly, each and every individual in the group rises when they are empowered to solve the problems closest to them. In fact, according to Charles Duhigg, author of Smarter, Faster, Better, distributed leadership and harnessing the power of the group is essential to the most successful and productive companies and teams.

Personally, I have witnessed the power of groups in many settings.

  • The scientific laboratory where I did my PhD thesis research was this amazing force of brilliant minds figuring out the neural circuits underlying learning and motivation from all these different perspectives.

  • I saw it with the team of teachers at Chrysalis when our collective wisdom was so much more than the sum of the parts.

  • And I saw it in the intimate support groups that I’ve been part of through the Center for Mind Body Medicine which taught us self-care and resilience skills, but more importantly, grew a real community that made me feel deeply connected to these other amazing humans on the same journey.

In the larger world, the COVID vaccines could never have been developed without everyone’s collective wisdom and partnership -- scientists, lab techs, managers, publishers, leaders, CDC, WHO, all working together and sharing knowledge. Perseverance would never have landed successfully on Mars if any one individual tried to be the hero every time there was a snag. The Civil Rights Act would never have passed if Martin Luther King tried to do it all.

In short, instead of being the lifeguard and carrying the world on my shoulders, I could choose to empower the group. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” -- attributed to Margaret Mead:

Read More

I’m halfway through Brene Brown’s Gifts of Imperfection. Why did I never read this book before?

Want to meet the amazing scientists and engineers behind the Mars rover Perseverance? Check out this video series. It’s awesome what a group of motivated, hard-working, curious people can do!

Going Further

I have two groups underway right now that I’d love for you to join!

Self-Care and Resilience Support Group

Are you feeling stressed and overwhelmed? Then join me and the amazing Jessica Loucks to learn science-based tools to reduce stress, manage overwhelm, and build resilience. More importantly, become part of an intimate community where we can overcome life’s challenges together. The community we build over eight weeks is medicine for your mind, body and soul. We meet on Zoom Mondays 4-6 PM Pacific Time for eight weeks starting Monday, March 1 (skipping April 5th for Easter). Email me at if interested.

Inquiring Minds Book Club

Are you an open-hearted adventurer looking for a warm, safe tavern on a long, drizzly, lonely road, then join the Inquiring Minds Book Club! My goal is to build a trusted circle of curious, brave-hearted souls who might enjoy the feel of a buzzing tavern or cafe full of fascinating stories and ideas. We are all mid-career professionals who love to read books on leadership, personal growth, and science. (Psst... We're all busy. To read or not to read the book is up to you. No judgement.) We meet the last Thursday of every month, 4-5 pm Pacific Time. You are not expected to show up every month, but I hope it quickly becomes the one Zoom meeting you would be devastated to miss. Learn more HERE!


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