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What a Jar of Buttons Is Teaching Me About Trust

For most of 2021, I felt defeated as a disabled woman in tech. Sexism and ableism were in every part of my life at a level I'd not experienced before. I'm very used to seeing both on the internet, but even that became too much. In a job I held for most of the year, I suffered pay discrimination, biased treatment, and sexual harassment. When I escaped that situation, I knew I'd have a lot of healing ahead of me but I had no idea how much.

One thing I've learned about what I went through is that far more people than I thought have a similar experience. What we went through may not have been very similar, but the effect of the trauma was. I think it has something to do with being in a survival mode, where all you can really think about and focus on is making it through. I think this is also a reason it can take so long to fully realize we're in traumatic situations.

As soon as we're out of immediate danger, the full gravity of a the situation can set in. We can slow down and think about what happened because we're in a place that is safer than before. In the first several weeks of my job I currently hold, I was anxious all of the time. The list of things contributing to that is long, but here are a few things that are top of mind:

  • Pressure to do well in a new job at a well-known company in the industry I work in. I would consider this a normal pressure of being a working person.
  • Waiting for the other shoe to drop, because it always has. If you don't know what this phrase means, I think the explanation on is good.
  • Expecting toxic behavior and having a guard up ready to protect myself. In the past, I've been called names, gaslit about facts clearly backed by documentation and timestamps, bullied into changing my mind (or caving into pressure, rather), severely under-leveled and underpaid, held to different and unexplained standards than men on my team, not taken seriously when reporting issues, ignored in team channels whether asking for help or proposing a discussion, and more. These things didn't just happen at my previous job, they've happened in many places. But the level of toxicity in that environment is the highest I've experienced.

I've seen the same therapist since right before the pandemic started. We have talked endlessly about the occupational dimension of wellness. We've talked about it so much, we also talk about overwhelming that dimension has been for me over the years.

Skipping ahead in my story a tiny bit, we joked last time we spoke that we have nothing to talk about now since my work stress is very low now.

When I told my therapist about the struggles I was having, where I felt anxious immediately after sending messages in team channels, was spending a lot of time figuring out how to word messages in what should be easy conversations, she asked me if I'd heard of Brené Brown's marble jar metaphor. You can see her explain the metaphor in a talk on her website, but the gist is this: when people do even the smallest thing that improves your trust in them, it counts as a marble towards the marble jar. The more the jar fills up with marbles, the more you trust them.

The lesson is that trust is built over time with seemingly small and insignificant moments. After taking some time to think and process the metaphor, I decided I wanted to make rebuilding trust a prioritized and visual experience. So I decided to get a jar but fill it with buttons instead of marbles. Dropping a marble in the jar would've been too noisy of an experience, and this endeavor could double as a cute and fun button-collecting journey. I picked up some regular-sized colorful buttons and some much larger diamond-looking buttons. I designated the extra special buttons for trust-building moments that made me feel incredibly valued and grateful.

So far, this experience has been exactly what I need. Looking for all the good in my days had a similar effect to gratitude journals, I assume. I am looking more towards the good things than the bad, but not in a way that subscribes to toxic positivity. I'm still keenly aware that some bad things might happen, but I'm not expecting them to. I'm retraining my brain to look at situations in a more balanced and healthy way.

Examples of moments that are button jar worthy:

  • Getting thanked for vulnerability from multiple managers on my team. Many of my previous experiences involve being told that I'm too emotional. Vulnerability has been the main thing that's brought me closer to the majority of people I know, so it's a relief to know that vulnerability is so valued.
  • Teammates engaging in discussions I start, and doing so in genuine and authentic ways. In previous experiences, I've often gotten silence or dismissive responses. When teammates engage kindly and with interest, it shows we have a mutual goal to learn together and teach one another.
  • Getting asked questions about accessibility. This is the first time I've been asked about accessibility regularly at work. It is so refreshing to be asked questions about my area of focus that is so deeply personal to me as a disabled person.
  • Having normal conversations in code review. Code review is one area that I have a hard time in because in my experience, they either weren't a part of the development process or they weren't done in healthy ways with the right intentions. Seeing teammates regularly give each other compliments, share resources, discuss pros and cons, and being treated with all of that same kindness... it's hard to describe how valued it makes me feel.

To add to the very last point, I even found myself putting buttons in the jar for things that had nothing to do with me directly. Seeing teammates treat each other with kindness and respect showed me how they would likely treat me as well.

In the new year, I plan to keep doing what I'm doing. I don't really subscribe to annual resolutions. I'll do this until it's not valuable for me anymore, which I hope is far off because I'm excited to see the jar fill up with buttons and become a really beautiful item on my desk. I want it to be a constant visual reminder of how far I've come on this journey to healing.

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