Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Why Are Relationships So Frustrating?

Can you see that everything in your reality appears to you as one of two categories? Either you think of it as yourself (or belonging to you) because you have control over it, or you think of it as part of your external environment, because it is not under your control. A "relationship" is where these two categories meet. A relationship is formed when you interact with the external environment, and you have some influence, but most of it is outside your control. That's what makes the relationship experience interesting and exciting (but sometimes also frustrating). Other people are just a specific instance of your external environment, but a special one, because of all the things in your world; they are the most like you. Therefore, your interactions with other people also have a special significance to you.

Maybe you are looking to other people for acceptance; that is to say, you want to be accepted by them. You might say to yourself, "Why should I change so that other people will accept me? I am what I am. They should learn to deal with me as I am." You have a strong desire to find someone who can accept you just as you are: totally, completely, and fully. At the same time, you also want to achieve full self-acceptance, to feel totally comfortable and "at home" being yourself. But you continually struggle with the challenge of accepting others as they are. Right now, some people in your life are exhibiting qualities that you don't want to deal with. They may pass judgment on you, criticize, nag, complain, or fail to give you enough respect and consideration. In short, they just don't do what you want them to do. Am I wrong about these things?

The essential challenge for you is to recognize that being accepted by others, accepting yourself, and accepting others are not three different things, they are in reality the same thing, because acceptance is a state of mind regarding the way you interact with your environment. Acceptance doesn't come from outside of you, it comes from within you. It is your willingness to just allow things (and people) to be as they are. Think about water flowing around rocks in a stream. Sometimes the water flows gently around whatever obstacle it encounters and continues downstream unhindered. This is your mind in a state of acceptance. Sometimes the water hits the rocks forcefully and churns back on itself, creating a frantic whirlpool that goes nowhere. This is your mind in a state of non-acceptance. While being accepted by others is not something you can directly control (and you only frustrate yourself by trying), accepting others and accepting yourself are your free choice. Once you choose the path of acceptance, you are then also free to perceive your environment as being accepting of you, because you are no longer demanding anything in particular from it.

My motivation in writing this is to help you clarify your thinking and stay on a productive path. Realize that you will keep meeting the same problems in different relationships until you figure out that the frustration is itself presenting the learning experience you need. You could turn right now and ask yourself, "What is the real cause of the things that frustrate me? What am I trying to change that is outside of my control? What can I learn about myself from these experiences?" I would love to hear you reflect on your feelings, respond to those questions and unlock the personal growth that comes from doing so.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

It's Summertime and the Living is Easy

I didn't really mean to take the summer off, but it just happened that way. I really thought after I stopped working on June 1st, I would have a lot more time for this blog. However, it turns out that I actually had a lot more time for relaxation and recreation. The weather here has been unusually cool for summer and it's great to be outdoors—swimming, walking, biking, and trying to keep up with the copious amount of zucchini coming out of our garden. I think up until this week, we had the air conditioning on only about four days so far this summer.

For those of you who remember my "Changes" post, you will be heartened to learn that my father-in-law is doing quite well. In spite of having an advanced aggressive cancer, he has responded well to chemotherapy (so much so that he has to take another 12 week round). He even resumed playing golf about two weeks ago.

After I stopped working, I made a conscious decision not to rush into doing anything. I often get a restless feeling, like I should be doing something, and sometimes I will start a project out of that feeling, and get caught up in it. But now I have a different problem, which is mental inertia. I've become so relaxed, that it's hard to get started on anything. Nonetheless, I want to resume regular postings, so my new goal is to put up at least one post every week so I can get back into the swing of things.

I would especially like to thank all of you who have been reading my blog for the past six months, and particularly those of you who have taken the time to leave comments. Your encouragement and support has been very much appreciated!

Finally, I would like to leave you with these insightful thoughts from the book, The Lost Art of Listening, by Michael P. Nichols:

"The yearning to be listened to and understood is a yearning to escape our separateness and bridge the space that divides us. We reach out and try to overcome that separateness y revealing what's on our minds and in our hearts, hoping for understanding. Getting that understanding should be simple, but it isn't.

The essence of good listening is empathy, which can be achieved only by suspending our preoccupation with ourselves and entering into the experience of the other person. Part intuition and part effort, it's the stuff of human connection.

A listener's empathy—understanding what we're trying to say and showing it—builds a bond of understanding, linking us to someone who understands and cares and thus confirming that our feelings are recognizable and legitimate. The power of empathic listening is the power to transform relationships. When deeply felt but unexpressed feelings take shape in words that are shared and come back clarified, the result is a reassuring sense of being understood and a grateful feeling of shared humanness with the one who understands.

If listening strengthens our relationships by cementing our connection with one another, it also fortifies our sense of self. In the presence of a receptive listener, we're able to clarify what we think and discover what we feel. Thus, in giving an account of our experience to someone who listens, we are better able to listen to ourselves. Our lives are coauthored in dialogue."

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Ten Minutes of Honesty

Babies are born honest. They cry anytime they're upset, and they spit out food they don't like. We adults spend many years working to make them less honest, and in many ways that's a good thing. "Be nice." "Don't complain so much." "Say you're sorry." We want our kids to be considerate of others, polite, and unselfish, even if they have to hide their real feelings to achieve it. But it's a difficult thing to teach a child the difference between situations when it's okay for them to express their true feelings and situations when it's not okay to do so. Sometimes, it's even hard for an adult to understand the difference.

My daughter is nine years old now. I figure I have no right to brag about my parenting skills until she's at least 18. I know the really tough years are still ahead of us. She's the feisty kind and is always trying to push the boundaries. A couple of weeks ago, she said to me, "Mom, there are things that I don't feel like I can tell you." I asked why not. "Because you might not like it," she said. "You mean like when you complain too much and I tell you to stop?" I asked.
So, we made a deal. At any time, she can ask for ten minutes where she can tell me anything, and I agree that won't get mad, I won't lecture, advise or punish, I won't tell her not to say things like that. I promise that I will take off the "Mom hat" and just listen.

This time, she has an interesting assortment of things to reveal. She tells me about a minor mistake she's covered up so she won't get in trouble. She tells me about some mean things her friend said to her last year (actually she had told me that at the time too, but she forgets). She tells me that sometimes she feels like she doesn't love me when I get mad at her. She tells me about the boy who kissed her in the hallway when she was in kindergarten and it was so eeeeeewwww! I tell her that I had the same problem in kindergarten, there was a boy who was always trying to kiss me and I hated it. She tells me that one of her online friends from SmallWorlds is 16, and how this friend said she had a boyfriend who was always trying to "feel her all over", so she dumped him. She tells me how annoying it is that the boy her same age, who lives next door, gets upset over some really trivial things, and she describes how they were playing 20 questions, and he got enraged because she and another kid guessed the object he was thinking of right away. At the end, she says, "Mom, I really like it when I can talk to you like this."

I know that as she grows up, I will need to take off the "Mom hat" more often. I will have to learn to trust her judgment, and be willing to listen to her tell the truth about her feelings. I will have to learn to stand by quietly as she makes mistakes and learns from them. It will be a difficult thing for me, I know. We went to an amusement park last week to celebrate the end of her school year, and she insisted on riding every ride she could by herself. "I like to feel independent," she said.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

How I Met My Husband

One of the most daunting aspects of dating is the rejection. It is never easy to be on either end of a rejection, so the fear of being rejected or of having to reject someone else can make people very hesitant to even try. When I was young and single, I was not at all comfortable being upfront or obvious if I was attracted to someone. I found it even hard to talk to guys I found attractive, because the attraction created an extra nervousness and awkwardness for me that would not have been there otherwise. So for the most part, I ended up with boyfriends who picked me, rather than ones that I sought out.

Throughout my twenties, I was mainly focused on educational goals anyway and was not looking to "settle down". I didn't feel like I needed to give too much thought to the long-term prospects for a relationship, and it was enough for a relationship just to be enjoyable and satisfying in the present. I didn't get married until I was 31, so it's fair to say I "circled the buffet table a few times before I decided what I wanted to put on my plate", so to speak.

The last one of the several romantic relationships I was involved in before I met my husband lasted for seven years. It almost ended a few times because I really knew deep down that it wasn't right for the long-term. There were breaks over the years where we saw, or at least tried to see other people. But the truth is that it's hard to end a relationship that is generally comfortable and loving if there is no animosity to use as a push-away. It was too easy for us to keep drifting back together, rather than working to meet other people.

The pattern finally ended when I accepted a job that moved me about 250 miles away, and I knew if we were ever going to successfully break up, having this distance between us was our best shot. It was especially hard for me because I didn't know a soul in the new town. I had one friend from college living about 85 miles to the south of my new location, and I reconnected with him and drove down there on some weekends just to have something to do.

The first few months there were sad and depressing. I was grieving over the loss of this warm and supportive relationship. I was lonely. I was working on adjusting to the expectations and requirements of the new job, including what was the most difficult aspect for me--giving presentations and speaking up in meetings.

My ex-boyfriend, John and I were still talking to on the phone at least once or twice a week, and he suggested I try I had never heard of it, and in fact, the service was not even a year old. At that time, it was a very basic service-you wrote a description of yourself, and answered a few questions about the type of person you were interested in, but there were no images. It was also heavily male-dominated at that time. I think the listings were something like four or five men to every woman, and what's more they were often geeky guys-guys who were really comfortable with computers, which it stands to reason would be the earliest users.

The truth is that I have always been attracted to that type. I think it's the intellectual aspect--it's always been high on my list, as I wrote about in What Women Want. Intelligence and geekiness just seem to naturally go together. I have a story about that, which I will tell at the risk of digressing. Many years ago, when I was still together with John, and he insisted on introducing me a guy in his neighborhood that he had grown up with. This guy (I can't even recall his name) was a magnet for women. John was somewhat bewildered by this. He couldn't figure out why girls were always calling him and chasing after him, so he wanted me to check this guy out and tell him, from the female perspective, what qualities made him so appealing. We went over and hung out with him and his girlfriend du jour for a while, and after we left, John wanted to know what it was exactly that made this guy so great. My answer? Absolutely nothing. I had no attraction to him whatsoever. I thought he came across as vapid vain, and empty-headed, all total turn-offs to me. Sure, he had good looks, but I wouldn't have given a guy like that a second glance under any circumstances. This came as something of a surprise to John--I guess he thought if you were attractive to some women, you were attractive to all women. But it's not so. Every woman has her own preferences, and you should never underestimate the power of "chemistry". I don't really understand what causes "chemistry", but I know it when I feel it.

So, returning to my main story-after feeling really empty, disoriented, and emotionally drained for a couple of months, I woke up one morning finally feeling clear. It was like the clouds had parted and the emotional hang-over had come to an end. I finally took the plunge and put a listing up on I was living in a very rural area and I didn't get very many matches at first. I found I had to go up over 85 miles to start getting matches, because at that point I was able to pick up three metropolitan areas. Then there were a lot of matches, and it took me a long time to read all the listings. I didn't have my own computer at the time, and I would stay at work after hours to read through all of them. It took me a while to narrow down the hundreds of results to four individuals who seemed really promising. At that point, I was feeling very determined that I wanted to be with someone who was totally and completely right for me. I did not want to get sucked into another comfortable, but not-quite-right relationship that I would have a hard time breaking off. I knew that I would need to be assertive. I would need to actively look for what I wanted in a life-long partner, and I would need to be decisive.

I had four matches that seemed ideal, and I began to correspond with all four of them. I didn't intend to be connecting with all four at the same time, but the first one was slow to write back, and I took this as a sign of no interest, which it turned out was a wrong assumption. But I got the idea that not everyone I contacted would write back, so I should not just focus on one person.

Being ideal on paper and having a enjoyable correspondence doesn't necessary mean there's chemistry, as I found out, when I had the first actual meeting. The first in-person date I had through was with Ken, and he was very sweet, friendly, and fairly attractive. I really liked him as a person, but there was no chemistry, and I realized it immediately. We met at a park about half way between our homes, a 45-minute drive for both of us. We spent a couple of hours walking around, talking and getting to know each other, but I knew from the first moment it was not going to work out. At an earlier point in my life, I would have told myself that this was something worth exploring. He was clearly a terrific person, so maybe if I gave it a chance it could develop into something over time. But those days had passed. I was no longer willing to go down that road. Now, it was all or nothing, and I wanted it all.

Being single as long as I was, I had done my fair share of rejections. With a rejection, I want to start out as subtle as possible, because hopefully the other person is having the same realization, which is that it's just not going to work out. Sometimes, it doesn't go that way, and it's necessary to be more direct. With Ken, it was easy. At the end of the day, we embraced, and said how great it had been to spend a few hours together, which was entirely true, and looking into his eyes, I saw he knew what I knew, and it was such a pleasant relief to find that we were both on the same page. No hard feelings.

The second person I met in person turned out to be my future husband. After meeting the first person, I was so hopeful that it could happen so quickly, but it did. I was immediately attracted, and it took less than two hours for me to feel certain that we were going to be together always. The best way I can describe it is to say that in previous relationships, I had the sense that my love had boundaries. I felt like, okay--now I know what this relationship is doing for me, how it's meeting some of my needs, but I also know what it just can't be-you know, I had this sense of what needs were not going to be met. But when I finally met my husband, those boundaries just disappeared. I felt, for the first time, the sense of limitless, bottomless, uncontainable love. I knew there would be no end to it. And there has been no end to it. Our first date was on the fourth of July of 1996, and we have been married for eleven years. It's still inconceivable to me that we won't be together always.

So, that's my story, and here are a few things that I hope you will take away from it:

1. Sometimes you need to be assertive and determined to get what you want, and take decisive action-coasting along letting things happen to you just doesn't get the job done. Once you make up your mind that you will work hard to get what you want, it's often easier than you think it will be.

2. Rejection is just a state of mind. If you're looking for the person who's totally right for you, and the person you're with is doing the same, then it's either happening or it's not. Ideally, both of you will know it. Don't be afraid to be honest-you may meet someone who is a really wonderful person, but is just not right for you, and it's okay to say so.

3. Don't fall into the trap of thinking you're not attractive. Attraction is a matter of personal preference, and everyone's preferences are different. Too many people think they have some big flaw that makes them undesirable-they're too short or not smart enough or not pretty enough, but even if the flaw is real, be assured that there are lots of people out there to whom that is one thing that just doesn't matter. After all, my ex-boyfriend's neighbor seemed to find lots of eager women who didn't mind vain and vapid. Exactly what they saw in that guy will forever remain a mystery to me.

4. Never underestimate or try to fight "chemistry". I think there's a part of you deep down that better understands what you want and need than your thinking mind does. I believe there is such a thing as "true love"-it's not just that there's a good fit and a better fit, but there really is a totally, completely right person out there for you, and when you meet that person you will know it, and he/she will know it too. Respect the secret magic.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Fundamentals of Emotional Intimacy: Managing Conflict

Anytime people come together, there are differences of opinion, values, needs and desires. Finding a method to resolve those differences has been a major challenge for every civilization and organization. Personal relationships present the same kinds of challenges. It's difficult to share your life with someone else, and manage disagreements in a way that leaves both of you feeling positive about the relationship.

I came from a family where my mother had a very passive-aggressive style and tended to become emotional during any kind conflict. I've found that that style is not very productive, and I've learned to use a more rational, goal-focus style instead. Yet, we humans are emotional beings, and sometimes it's hard to control the way we express our feelings.
Recognize that if you're in a highly emotional state, you will transmit that state as you communicate. It's nearly inevitable. We all easily pick up on the emotions of those near us. If you're angry and you start expressing that, people near you will probably start feeling angry too.

Here are a few tips that I've learned over the years for handling conflict in a way that promotes a positive outcome.

1. Be aware of the topics that are hot buttons for conflict in your relationship. Some of the typical problems for romantically-involved couples include money, sex, in-laws or other relatives, raising children, and division of household work. Remind yourself that before you begin talking about any of these issues, you will need some extra planning time to make sure the discussion goes smoothly.

2. Before you start the conversation, think about what kind of resolution you want. Say it to yourself in words. It may be something like, "I want her to acknowledge that this is a difficult situation for me, and I am making a sacrifice", or "I want us to divide up the chores so that I don't have to do so much right after I get home from work". Don't start a discussion until you know what you want and have a goal clearly in mind. If I just need blow off some steam, I find it helpful to preface my complaints by saying, "I just need to vent about some things that are going on. I don't expect you to solve these problems. I am just looking for a little empathy"
if indeed that is all I want.

3. Think about how to get what you want with a win-win arrangement. What can you give in exchange for what you want? Sometimes it is as simple as giving praise and gratitude.

4. Warn your partner if you're about to bring up an emotional topic. Say something like, "I want us to discuss this, but I'm worried that you might feel defensive" or "I just want you to understand how I'm feeling about this." You're essentially telling your partner that she/he might need to exercise some emotional restraint during the discussion. Your warning will help your partner tune into your feelings, and make it far less likely that the conversation will deteriorate into a fight.

5. Stop after every statement you make and allow your partner time to respond. Listen carefully and repeat back what you hear him or her saying in your own words. This is where good listening skills become very important. A lot of conflict arises simply because we feel we are not being heard, and we often begin to repeat the same message more and more loudly in an effort just to be understood. Showing that are listening and understanding stops this pattern and keeps the discussion productive. Ask that your partner listen to you too. If you feel like you're not being heard, stop and say, "Can you tell me in your own words what you think I'm saying." Often you'll find your partner is reading more into your meaning than you really intend, and has been reacting to that inference rather than what you actually said.

6. Make requests rather than statements. "I think you should help out more with the laundry" is not a request. "Could you please help out more with the laundry?" is a request. Use your best manners with the people you love. This is the place in your life where being polite pays off the most. When you make a request, say why it's important to you or how it will help you out. Also mention if it will improve the relationship, like "I will feel less stressed if you help out with this chore, and I will then have time to relax with you after dinner." Your partner is most motivated to help you when he or she also benefits directly.

7. Become more self-aware of your own emotions and how they affect the relationship dynamic. Pause between the point where you feel the rush of emotion and the point you begin to communicate, and consider how your message will be heard and received. Then ask yourself what kind of response you are likely to get based on your past experiences.

8. Express your feelings without assigning blame. Rather than saying, "You have no right to talk to your mother about me that way", say "I feel angry and hurt when you tell your mother about our problems even though you haven't talked to me first so that we can work out a solution."

9. Create rules to clarify your agreements and prevent further conflict. Ideally, rules provide both freedom and limits. Regarding money, my husband and I have a joint bank account. We generally agree that we can each spend up to a couple of hundred dollars a month on personal purchases without consulting each other. If one of us wants to make a purchase for more than that, we discuss it in advance. If one of us wants to buy an item for the household, or for our mutual use, we discuss it first. I know some couples that maintain separate bank accounts. They have agreements about what bills get paid out of each account. The point is to find rules that you and your partner both feel good about and that will reduce future problems.

10. Don't avoid conflict, but manage it. The problem with not speaking up when you disagree is that over time, you become increasing annoyed and resentful. It's called passive-aggressive behavior because you remain passively angry until you can't take it anymore and then you explode. Resolve that you will talk to your partner about the things that bother you when you first notice them. If you're worried about being confrontational, approach it this way--first, ask probing questions to find out how your partner is feeling about the matter. This will get the conversation going, and give you something to respond to. Focus on giving responses that both allow you to reveal your feelings, and that address the points your partner is bringing up.

11. Look for hidden rewards in your conflict patterns. Some couples fall into a mode of conflict that has positive consequences for one or both of them, and this motivates them to keep the conflict going. This can happen if one person consistently wins the fights and other concedes or apologizes. Then the reward of gaining a sense of power can keep the fights going, but it also creates an undercurrent of resentment, and causes the relationship to deteriorate. Make-up sex is also a reward that can encourage regular conflict. If you have these kinds of rewards built into your relationship, change what you do after a fight. Make it a point to celebrate every day or week of peace and harmony that you create for yourselves.

Are there other conflict managements strategies that work for you? What are the disagreements that you have the hardest time handling in your relationships?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Transition Continues

Today has been a lazy day for me, the first lazy day I've had in a long time. I've finally settled into something of a routine, even though it's not yet an ideal one. When I resigned my position, I agreed to work a 30-day notice, but I'm taking nearly all of my available vacation days as I do it. This generally means I work half days all week. My daughter and I do the parts of home school that require me to actually teach in the morning, and we bring a backpack filled with work that she can independently into the office with us. My daughter is able to work quietly at the table in my office, and we can both get our jobs done.

When we first decided on the home school option last summer (actually it's a cyber school, but there's not too much difference except for the requirements of having a structured curriculum), we had asked my father-in-law to fill in as the teacher until one of us could be available, which we had initially planned to be in January of 2009. My father-in-law had been a physical education teacher at the high school level for several years in his early career, but we knew that supervising a head-strong third grader who was well accustomed to getting everything she wanted from "Pop" would be very different. As it turned out, it went far better than we expected. Pop was able to be firm with her, and I played the role of relationship coach for both of them. In the evening, I would listen to her complaints about their day, and then translate them into positive suggestions for him, and in the morning, I would listen to his complaints, and do the same with her.

It was interesting to see how they were both complaining about the same things but from different perspectives. One of the big ones was his complaint that she didn't pay attention enough. She would begin playing with her pencil or whatever, and stop focusing on the work. Her complaint was that Pop kept saying she wasn't paying attention when she felt she was. I explained to her that there were certain things she did that Pop took to mean she wasn't paying attention, like looking around the room or focusing on other objects, and if she didn't do those things, he wouldn't draw that conclusion. I also encouraged Pop not to nag her about paying attention, but instead look at the book in front of her and ask her a question about the lesson that would help her see what she needed to do next.

After a couple of months, the relationship seems to be working so well for both of them, that we decided that there was no need for either of us to stop working at the end of 2008. It filled Pop's need to have something useful to do and to spend quality time with his granddaughter, and she was getting quality instruction and work that was challenging to her, both elements that had been missing when she was attending public school.

There's really nothing more to tell about Pop's condition. He has started chemotherapy, but it's too soon to know if it will be helpful. He is trying to adjust to his new lack of mobility--walking with a cane and being unable to drive. He was still playing golf regularly up until two months ago, so it's a big change for him.

Monday, April 27, 2009


On a personal note, things have been totally crazy around here for the past couple of weeks. My husband's dad was diagnosed with cancer ten days ago, and he was in the hospital most of last week for tests. He is planning to start chemotherapy later this week, but because of the cancer type and stage, his prognosis is not good. I'm turning in my resignation letter at work on Wednesday because my father-in-law had been handling most of the home schooling for our daughter, and he won't be able to continue.

Right now, I'm home schooling in the morning and working in the afternoons, but taking my daughter (and the work that she can do independently) into the office with me. I've been working full-time for the past thirteen years, so becoming a stay-at-home mom will be quite a change. I feel sort of like I'm in a dream sequence now, where I'm called to respond to an urgent situation, and I become so focused on planning and doing necessary things that everything else gets tuned out.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

What Women Want

I have the impression that many people who find my blog may be interested in learning how to initiate romantic relationships. While I write about relationships more generally, I think much of the advice is also very useful for those working on romantic relationships. However, in our culture, and especially on television and in magazines, there is a lot of emphasis on superficial qualities, and it leads many people to assume that if they don't have these qualities (like good looks, a sleek new car, quick wit), there's at a serious disadvantage in the relationship "market". I don't think that's true at all.

Maybe young people, who are still dependent on their parents for support, have the luxury of focusing on the more superficial qualities. But a woman who has been out on her own for any serious length of time, and has experienced the ups and downs of life, generally has a more well-thought out list of "desirable" qualities. Of course, I am married now and have been for eleven years, but when I was looking for love, these were the top eight qualities on my list:

1. Being open-hearted: being deeply in touch with his own emotions, and able to express love in a generous and unselfish way

2. Being honest and trustworthy

3. Being on my intellectual level: able to have a conversation with me that I find stimulating, and able to rationally challenge me to think about things in different ways

4. Being responsible and reliable, especially with money and household chores

5. Having a good sense of humor, and not taking life too seriously

6. Being even-tempered: not getting too upset or moody over life's little setbacks, able to "go with the flow"

7. Being emotionally supportive: having good listening skills

8. Not being controlling or overly possessive

As it turned out, I married a man who has every one of those qualities. It is entirely possible to get what you want in a partner, if you are willing to really work at finding the right person, and not just sit back thinking you should wait for destiny to send someone your way.

Please help out (whether you're a woman or a man) and comment with your list of most desired qualities in a partner, so that all those readers here who are looking for love can get a realistic idea about what personal qualities are likely to have the greatest appeal.

Friday, April 3, 2009

A Message From My Dream to Yours

We each walk around in our own dream, and so does everyone else we meet. We are continually trying to pull others into our dream, to get them to play the parts we want them to play. Or else we're trying to invade their dreams, to ride in like the hero on our white horses. But the thing is, every dream only has one hero, and that hero is always the dreamer. The truth is, if you want to be in someone else's dream, you've got to learn to play a supporting role. We just can't assert ourselves into the world and expect it to revolve around us. Just stop for a minute and think about who you really are. Only in your own dreams can you be perfect and perfectly wanted. But, and here's the really unspeakably beautiful thing, you have the power to walk into someone else's dream and make them feel perfect and perfectly wanted, if only you choose to do it.

You are driven to get out there and work for what you want. You feel that you need to work like there's no tomorrow and everything depends on you. And you take the reins off your desire and let it fully bloom, until you're all desire and it consumes you. Until the wanting in you radiates like the sun, and fills your universe. But you will realize that ultimately you're not going to get what you want, you're going to get something else. Then the urgent question of your existence becomes: what will you do with that something else?

Today is a good day for confessions, and I have one. I love people. I generally don't tell them I love them, but I do. I'll pass someone as I'm walking, and I'll say "Hi, how are you?", but in my mind, I really think it as "I love you". I think it at people I know and at people I don't even know. Sometimes when I'm too distant to be heard, and I'm just waving at someone from afar, I catch myself mouthing the words. I would like to say it for real, but it just seems socially awkward, and I'm not sure people would believe me anyway.

Do me a favor, will you? This is a personal request from me to you, and it's really important to me. The next time someone says to you, "Hi, how are you?", just pretend it's me saying "I love you." Okay?

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

What Does It Take?

It is a given that every human being wants to be loved. Babies are born seeking the warmth and comfort of their mothers, and infants will die of neglect if deprived of human contact. Some people reach a place in their lives where they feel unworthy of love, and they stop seeking it. I guess all of us feel that way once in a while, but some unfortunate people seem to get stuck there. Perhaps they give up and withdraw from human contact. Perhaps they decide that even negative attention is better than no attention at all, and they begin to cause problems for others so they can feel like they are at least somebody who matters.

What does it take to reach people who are angry or controlling, those who choose their actions mainly to make themselves feel important, and to help them to see that there's a better way?

What does it take to be the sort of person who is capable of looking past the annoying exterior of such people and speaking directly to the lonely hearts inside that have given up on being loved?

What does it take to remain steady in our faith that we are deserving of love even when we fall far short of being the good people we would always like to be

These are the things that I desperately want to know.

Monday, March 30, 2009

What You Are Is What You Get

There is a bible verse that people like to paraphrase that basically says whatever you sow, you also reap. The concept here is that your actions have consequences, and you will have to face those consequences in the future. It seems somewhat similar to idea of karma, which appears in various Eastern religious and spiritual practices.

Over time, I've come to take the fundamental principle of this as "what you are is what you get". I understand it to mean that whatever thinking is going inside you also becomes your way of being affected by things outside you, and in actuality, it's all an extension of you. In my last post, I wrote about learning not to judge, and how if we can learn to accept our own feelings without resistance, then we are also learning to accept the feelings of others without judgment. Therefore, our relationships with others will become different, just because we've changed something inside ourselves.

Another example linked with judging is that being judgmental creates self-consciousness. Why is this so? Because if you are constantly judging other people, you will assume that they too are constantly judging you, and you will try to imagine what their judgments of you are like. Then, you react to those imagined judgments by trying to manage your "image", that is to say, by worrying about how others see you. And if you stop judging others, what happens? You forget to worry that they might be judging you. In fact, the whole concept of judging begins to disappear from your mind, and the result is that you will have much less self-consciousness about how others perceive you.

All of the "insides" and "outsides" have similar linkages. If you're a deceitful person, you will start to wonder if others are deceiving you too, and you will grow suspicious and have trouble trusting anyone. So, if you want to build trust with others and feel like you can rely on them, work on becoming a completely honest person. If you never really listen to anyone else at work, but just look for opportunities to promote your own ideas and plans, you will begin to feel like no one is taking you seriously. Why? Because to convince other people of the merit of your ideas, you need to form ideas that fit with their understanding of what's going on. If you don't listen to them talk about what they think is happening and why, you can't refine your ideas in appropriate ways nor be persuasive in explaining why your ideas will succeed. In other words, if you want to be listened to and taken seriously, you will want to learn to listen to and take others seriously.

Really everything that irritates or frustrates us about others or about our situation is a clue to something we need to pay attention to inside ourselves. Once we figure out how to address our own thoughts and actions from the inside, then the outside problems will heal themselves.

Have you ever changed something in yourself and found that your reality changed as well?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Fundamentals of Emotional Intimacy: Learning Not to Judge

For me, these past couple of weeks have been dominated by the theme of judgment. It just seems to be coming up everywhere in my life. Because of the economic situation, we have an environment of uncertainty and absolutely unavoidable budget-cutting at work, and this week I listened to one of the leaders of our institution telling me, almost tearfully, how very hard it is for them to make those tough decisions and be considered "incompetent" because of it (it's a college, not a financial firm, in case you're curious). I also was quite a bit annoyed with my husband yesterday, an annoyance primarily caused by my strong belief that he shouldn't be the way he is--in other words, an annoyance caused by my judgment of him.

One thing that's becoming much clearer to me is that people, including me, use judgment as a way of reducing anxiety. When you're in a situation where something unpleasant or painful is happening to others, it's very natural for your sense of empathy to kick in, and you start to feel their emotions. If you don't want to go down this path, you can stop it with a thought that separates you from the other person. Typically, such a thought is like, "This (bad) thing is happening to them because of something they did, and since they essentially brought this onto themselves, they don't deserve my sympathy. I'm not like that. I don't do those kinds of things, so the bad thing won't happen to me too." In other words, when you judge, you categorize someone else as "not like me", and you make yourself feel protected. Then, having created this sense of separation to protect yourself from the discomfort of really understanding their feelings, you turn around the next day and wonder why you feel so lonely and isolated.

So, the impulse to judge really arises from the desire to avoid pain. This is one of the things that make close personal relationships really challenging. When you're intimate with others, and you expand your self-identity to include them, you get an emotional stake in the events of their lives. Then, when they become involved in a difficult situation, the desire to pass judgment may intensify for you because their pain is your pain. The intimate relationship prevents you from disengaging from the emotional connection, so you try to reduce the pain with the limited tools that are available to you, including judgment. It's often easier for us to listen to acquaintances vent about their problems than it is to listen to our most beloved friends and family. With a casual acquaintance, you know that at the end of the conversation, you can get up, go home, and be comfortable again. It's much easier to willingly let yourself experience someone else's pain if you know it's for a limited time, and you feel like you're free to break away when it starts to get rough.

But, here's the good news. If you commit to the practice of accepting, allowing, and fully feeling your own emotions, even the unpleasant ones, without resistance, then you are also practicing the skills needed for a fulfilling intimate relationship. When you can allow yourself to experience your own discomfort without turning away from it, then you also have what it takes to allow yourself to fully empathize with the pain of others without passing judgment. When we refrain from judgment, as John-Michael so eloquently wrote just a couple of days ago, we create "an open and receptive Space that welcomes" others. Being able to offer that kind of precious space, where people feel free to reveal their vulnerabilities and imperfections without fear of being judged or labeled, will deepen your relationships in ways that are amazing and beautiful.

As you make judgments today, can you go deeper and see what emotions you're trying to protect yourself against? Can you be courageous enough to experience those emotions just as they are?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Goodbye Self-Pity

I’ve been caught up for the past few days in the emotion of self-pity. Both my husband and my daughter have had the flu over the past couple of weeks, and thanks to being spared from the affliction myself, I became their designated caretaker. This means that I did a lot more work than I normally do, I endured two cranky people while I did it, and I gave up other activities that I wanted to be doing. So, as the whole episode finally wound down, I found myself feeling kind of resentful—poor little me, working so hard, giving up so much, and getting nothing for it.

At the same time, I’ve also become more aware of how my thoughts sometimes function as a means of distracting myself from uncomfortable feelings that I don’t want to deal with directly. Often, instead of allowing myself to fully experience a bad feeling, I would focus my attention on the future, making some plan for a new activity, getting excited about it, and mentally preparing for it, as a way of avoiding having the very unpleasant experience of really processing the emotion. However, I purposefully didn’t allow myself to redirect in this way, and I tried allowing the feeling of self-pity to just be as it was. This created another kind of dilemma though, because the feeling really wanted to express itself. Resentment always seems to want to be compensated for its suffering. In my case, the impulse was to say something to my husband that would make him aware of how inconvenienced I had been by his illness, and would motivated him to do something nice to make it up to me. But, I did not permit myself to do this.

Coincidentally, I have been reading Gina Lake’s fantastic blog this past week, and her post on Getting and Giving in particular resonated with me. Because of it, I’ve developed this solid determination that I’m not going to allow this “I’m lacking something and I need to get it to feel better” way of thinking hijack my own ability to create happiness for myself. So here was a perfect test case, and I drew the line. I would feel the emotion, I would allow the emotion, I would accept the emotion, but I would refuse to be controlled by the emotion. If you’ve tried this, you probably learned what I did, which is that emotions that don’t get their way tend to grow stronger and more obnoxious, at least for a while.

I ended up doing a fairly lengthy meditation on the emotion yesterday, because I know from experience that if I meditate on a bad feeling long enough and with enough focus, it will eventually become (in a paradoxical way) pleasant to experience. So, I held my attention on the feeling itself, and on my desire to find a way to live peacefully with this emotion, but still not let my actions be controlled by it. I probably meditated about an hour and a half in the afternoon, then again at bedtime, until I fell asleep.

The weird thing was that when my husband came to bed in the middle of the night, he inadvertently woke me up, and even though I’d been asleep for a few hours, I felt as if I’d been meditating the whole time. I had this intense feeling of being totally aware of my body and its energy, as if for the first time. I could feel both its heaviness and its insubstantiality. I felt my own insignificance, like I was nothing but a speck of dust in an infinite universe, and yet I felt every bodily sensation as if I were the only thing in existence. It seemed a lot like being born anew and having a very primal self-awareness. Then, I began to worry that it might not go away, and I would remain in this kind of consciousness for the rest of my life, making it very hard to get anything done. But it did pass, both the self-pity and the hyperawareness, and I am feeling just fine now.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Fundamentals of Emotional Intimacy: Taking Risks and Listening Deeply

This post kicks off what will be a several part series on the basics of creating and nurturing close relationships. I have found that The Talk Book by Gerald Goodman is a terrific resource for learning to initiate and improve relationships. It was written in 1988 and is out of print now, but believe me, it is well worth the effort to track down a used copy. Far more than inspirational, it is a practical guide to mastering the basic techniques of personal communication, explained in detail, and it includes specific exercises for increasing your skills. It absolutely demystifies the process of developing close, personal relationships. There are six components that Goodman identifies as important for communicating in close relationships. Two of these are personal disclosure, and the use of reflection.

Personal disclosure is the first key to intimacy, and is defined as “… taking risks…by disclosing an unvarnished truth, a private thought, an embarrassing impulse, a romantic feeling, an undignified desire, the first rush of love, or any confession of classified information that might make someone think less of us or put us in emotional jeopardy.” Goodman masterfully guides us through the art of disclosure by examining some film and real life dialog that illustrates how disclosures affect feelings. By disclosing our private thoughts, we demonstrate that we trust the person we’re talking to, and that we’re willing to take the risk of allowing ourselves to be known, just as we are. These kinds of personal self-revelations make our acquaintances feel comfortable in revealing similarly private feelings, and can sometimes lead us into a deepening spiral of disclosure matching. Goodman provides examples that clearly show the links between what we’re saying, what we’re feeling, what we’re thinking, what we’re holding back, and how the relationship evolves as a consequence of these choices. He warns us against the pitfalls of the premature disclosure, in other words, talking about something very private too soon in a budding relationship. Premature disclosure puts pressure on the listener, and can cause discomfort when it happens too early in the “getting to know you” stage of a relationship. Another warning is about flooded disclosure, that is when our urgent need to talk about our private concerns overwhelms our consideration for our listener. While this may be deadly to a newly forming relationship, Goodman also draws our attention to the inherent beauty and usefulness of flooding as an emotional release, and shows how lending a willing ear to someone’s flooding can be a deep act of caring.

Reflections are defined as mirroring back what someone is saying without adding interpretation, judgment or analysis. Reflections give people the feeling of being understood, and encourage them to further open up about themselves. Being able to meaningfully reflect the thoughts and feelings of another person is closely linked with empathy. A good way to increase our empathy for others is to take the time to imagine in detail what it’s like to be them. Goodman also illustrates how distortive reflections arise when we, as listeners, want things to be different than they are, and we want to project our own views onto what is being said. This denial of reality results in a feeling of separation for both the listener and speaker. By working to accurately summarize what someone is saying, we give them the opportunity to correct any misperceptions we have about them or their feelings.

As I read this book, I remembered some moments where I felt deeply connected with another person, and I was able to see how these moments were created through disclosure and reflection. By disclosing our private thoughts and feelings, we allow ourselves to be known by another in all our imperfect humanness, we communicate that it’s okay to be vulnerable, to show our flaws, and we give others permission to do the same. By providing reflecting statements, we say, “I hear you. I understand your experience. It’s okay to tell me how you’re really feeling.” One of my favorite quotes from The Talk Book is Goodman’s observation that “What we do know is that the disclosure of empathy and the reflections of empathy can blend giving and taking to a point where the become the same. And that’s where love starts.” By becoming aware of how the basic mechanics of disclosure and reflection work in building emotional intimacy, we can confidently create the conditions that make it possible.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Surrendering to Love

“For one human being to love another: that is perhaps 
the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test 
and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.”
~Rainer Maria Rilke

The movement towards emotional intimacy is the process of getting close enough to someone to truly know them--and through them to really know yourself. Because when you invite honesty, when you are open to it, then the person in front of you will respond by showing you exactly how they see you, by showing you what you really are. If you cause them any discomfort, they’ll tell you so. Being able to open yourself to this requires an enormous amount of faith--in them, surely…but even more importantly, faith in yourself. You must trust yourself not to turn away if you don’t like the you that’s being reflected. To make this commitment, you must see that your capacity for love is greater than your fear and greater than your desire to feel secure. It will require great courage.

My advice to you is to fan the flames of your love, make it burn as bright as it can. Shine your love on anyone you can--your spouse, your children, your parents, your friends, casual acquaintances, even complete strangers. Steel your resolve--can you love them enough to give up your personal desires, to reign yourself in? If it comes down to a choice of their happiness or yours, will you sacrifice? Will you mercifully, tenderly, lovingly surrender what you want to bring them joy? Can you love them more than you love your own self-image?

Day by day, as your heart softens, you see more clearly how much you have to give. You see that love isn’t in what they do for you, or what they say, or how much they give you. It’s not about getting something back. Love is in what you can be for them. Yet, there is a responsive flow back to you. When you get it right, you can tell just by the smile, the twinkling of the eyes, the ineffable warmth, once you get tuned in to these subtleties.

Gradually, you push your heart to expand. To fully express your love, you must see others as they truly are, and put away your expectations and projections, so that you can be what they really need. You find that to fully show your love, you need grow your awareness to include all the others in their lives, and help them improve those relationships as well. To fully express your love, you find that you must acknowledge reality as it is and not live in the narrow view of self, because you can only respond well to the situations that you see accurately. You willingly turn away from jealousy, envy and greed because you find they just bring pain to yourself and to those you love.

Your generosity and capacity for love increases. You dig deep into your soul, you call up your compassion again and again. You pray “Love, help me see what needs to be done, help me know what to say, help me to respond in ways that bring comfort and joy to those I care about.” You keep on trying, even when you think you’ve really messed things up. You’ve let someone down, you beat yourself up, you pick up the pieces, and you give it another go. And you keep right on trying, even when you have to swallow your pride. You affirm that you won’t give up on them, even when the going gets tough. When it hurts, you chalk it up to learning.

You feel woefully inadequate to this task, but you know, deep down, that it’s the only path that’s really worthwhile. You let your heart lead the way. Suddenly, you begin to overlook all the little shortcomings, the petty disagreements, the disappointments, and the moments of frustration because they just don’t add any joy to your life, so there’s no need waste one unnecessary second dwelling on them. Now, the big obstacles fall off into irrelevance.

You’re throwing your whole self into it now, and your heart is on fire. Your patience and your willingness to persevere become infinite, and you vow to never give up on anyone you love. You will always be there for them, no matter what. One day soon, you will drop through the hole in the bottom of your heart and into the ocean of love that fills the world. If you can love even one person truly and fully, you will find that you must love everyone else and love everything that is, just as it is, because only then can your love be complete. You stop seeking anything for yourself because you discover that it’s all been yours anyway, right from the beginning.

Only you can walk this path, only you can realize that in the end, all your desires have been nothing but the desire to be loved, and being loved is nothing other than becoming love. At the bottom of it all, we are all one, and that one is love.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Nothing Else

I’ve had three really intense spiritual experiences in my life, each of which left me profoundly changed at the core of my being. The last one happened about three years ago. It was an ordinary day and I was leaving work. I was driving out of the parking lot, and I passed one of my coworkers walking to her car. I smiled and waved at her as I normally do with people I pass on the way out. About 30 feet or so behind her was another woman whom I did not recognize at all. However, I began smiling and waving at her too. At first, a look of utter bewilderment crossed her face. I knew she was thinking, “Do I know this woman? Why on earth would she be waving at me?” but I went on smiling and waving anyway. Then, she broke into a beautiful radiant smile, and I knew that she understood that we didn’t know each other at all, but it just didn’t matter. Suddenly, this overwhelming feeling of knowing beyond any doubt, that the universe is filled with love—knowing that, in reality, nothing else ever has been nor ever will be, enveloped me. Behind this woman’s look of confusion, behind her radiant smile, was a deep longing to be recognized and loved. It’s a deep longing in me too, and in all of us. It’s an aching need that is, at once, the desire to be loved, the capacity to give love, and love itself. It relentlessly urges us to reach out to one another, deeply yearning to connect at the level of our vulnerability and our imperfection, trying urgently to show each other the truth that just can’t be told.

It’s too easy to get caught up in the presentation of ourselves. “Am I acceptable? How do they see me? What does it mean when someone waves at me? What does she want? How should I react? Will I look like a fool?” But truly, love is simple, love is obvious, love doesn’t expect anything, love understands your confusion, love patiently waits for you to drop your self-doubts, and let it in. Nothing and no one you seek out can ever convince you that you are loved, until you are willing to see it for yourself. Only one thing hides behind a radiant smile or a look of utter bewilderment. You are love.

Can you see it?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Challenge of Overcoming Shyness

Shyness is a problem that I’ve lived with for most of my life, and still live with now, but to a far lesser degree than in the past. I’ve always felt self-conscious and awkward in social situations, but one of the biggest problems for me has been making phone calls. I never had any trouble answering the phone, it was just making calls that terrified me. If I made a call, the first thing I had to do was explain why I was calling. I had to sound calm and professional, and make sense. I found that really hard to achieve when I was sweating profusely, breathing at twice my normal rate, and shaking like a leaf. Fortunately for me, email came into common usage around the time I began my professional career. I found that I could easily substitute email for any phone call. Well, almost any phone call. Every now I then, I had someone coming in with a name and a number on a little slip of paper, saying “I told this person that you would give ‘em a call.” Ughhhh!

The turning point came when I decided to sign up for a research study on social anxiety. Of course to get into the study, I had to make a phone call and set up the initial appointment! (Here’s an important word of advice to anyone out there trying to recruit volunteers for a social anxiety study: USE MAIL-IN CARDS!) Having overcome that one big obstacle, the experience went very smoothly, albeit with lots of paperwork for me to fill out on every visit. I met the diagnostic criteria for social anxiety disorder, which seems to be distinguished from shyness only in that it must have the additional effect of causing a person distress or of being debilitating in some way (so people who are happy with their shyness wouldn’t qualify). The study’s purpose was to investigate whether a combination of medication plus therapy was more effective than medication alone or therapy alone. I was randomly assigned into one of five treatments: fluoxetine alone, therapy alone, fluoxetine with therapy, placebo with therapy, or placebo alone. I received a container of pills, so I immediately knew that I was either in the fluoxetine group or the placebo group. At first I wasn’t sure what I taking, but after about two weeks of pills, I went in for an evaluation. The psychiatrist asked me many questions about whether I detected any difference in my anxiety level, and I could tell by the way she reacted to my answers that she’d concluded that I was in the placebo group.

After several weeks, the study ended and I was officially told that I had been taking a placebo. However, the study stipulated that every participant was entitled to a real treatment, so at that point, I was offered a choice between six weeks of therapy or six weeks of fluoxetine. Since I personally dislike taking any medications, and I wanted a permanent change, I chose therapy.

The cognitive-behavioral therapy had two basic components. One was to examine and counteract my negative self-talk, and the other is to confront my fears in a graduation and controlled way while the therapist provided lots of encouragement and positive reinforcement. I was asked to write down my thoughts when I got anxious. Many people with social anxiety talk to themselves in a negative way: “She’s not going to like me. She thinks I’m an idiot”, and so on. I didn’t have very much of that, although I do tend to assume that people won’t be very interested in what I’m saying. The second component was more useful for me. It consisted of making a list of goals. I had to write out the things I was afraid to do, then rank them in order from easiest to hardest. Then each week, I had to do one or two things from the list, beginning with the easiest, and report back on how it went. So, I began making phone calls. The easiest kind of phone call for me to make is the short business phone call, so I started by replacing some of the interactions I would have normally done by email with the phone call. One really useful thing for me is mental rehearsing. If I was having trouble making the call, I would relax, breath deeply and imagine what I would say in detail. I would also imagine getting a courteous response. After a few iterations, I was able to feel calmer about making the call. I moved from there up to making social calls, but just with the intent of asking a question, not extensive chatting. My therapist and I got along quite well, and she kept asking if I wanted to keep on coming, which evidently wasn’t a problem within the constraints of the study, so I ultimately had about 20 sessions with her.

One the most valuable things I gained from the therapy experience was getting reassurance that my social skills are actually pretty good. I had this lingering fear in the back of my mind that maybe I grated on people somehow, that it might actually be unpleasant for them to talk with me. But I asked my therapist that, and we had practice conversations, which both of us seemed to enjoy greatly, and she told me that my social skills are fine. Knowing that it’s someone’s job to tell you the truth means that you can have total confidence in her answers. My hangup is just fear really, and the only way I’ve found to diminish fear is to do the thing I fear and see that it’s not so scary after all. It was really helpful to me to go through the experience, and to learn that my fear really doesn’t know best. The fear was telling me that something bad might happen, but when I pressed on through the fear, the bad thing never came. I learned to challenge my fears and not be ruled by them. I’ve also come to distrust strong emotion in generally. I find if I’m feeling calm and relaxed, my intellect and my intuition work pretty well and can be relied on, however, if I’m upset, fearful, angry, or even highly elated, then my judgment needs to be questioned much more carefully.

What’s been really helpful to you in overcoming a fear or negative experience in your life?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Prayer for Today

May my heart be soft and my vision clear.

May I have the strength to see things just as they are, and not retreat into self-deception to appease my emotions.

May I show generous compassion and respect to those who have great wisdom, to those who are seeking wisdom, to those who are just faking it, and to those who are utterly lost in confusion, for I too am all of these.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Emotional Balance

You may recall that on January 19th, in my post The Goal, I said that I wanted to take a closer look at why I don’t share particular thoughts with others, and question whether my reasons are valid. I’m happy to report that I’ve been doing that, and finding that I’ve often held back for no good reason at all. Once I started examining this self-censoring process at the level of individual thoughts, I found that I either couldn’t think of much justification for holding back, or I had a vague sense that someone might react negatively to my comment. If I had the fear of negative reaction, I’ve generally challenged myself to reword the comment in another way to make it less objectionable, or to just say it to see if I really would get the reaction I was expecting.

Because I’m now examining my thoughts and feelings in greater detail now, I’m also noticing something else that’s really important. I’ve become aware of how I shape my own emotional states through expectation. I’m finding that if I say or do something expecting that it will have a positive result (like someone will be pleased or impressed), most of the time the reaction I get falls short of the expectation, and I feel disappointment. On the other hand, if I have a negative expectation, like someone will frown at me in response to something I say, then I tend to restraint myself. If I don’t actually say it, then my assumption never gets tested, and it’s as if I did get the negative reaction (thanks to my own imagination) because I never gave reality the chance to disprove my belief.

By being able to observe these states inside myself, I’ve been developing emotional balance, and I can feel when I am emotionally centered, and when I am starting to get off-balance. When I sense myself beginning to imagine a specific positive outcome from something I’m doing, I now know that I’m setting myself up for disappointment. When I sense myself beginning to imagine a specific negative outcome, I now know I’m setting myself up for fear and self-restraint. The ideal state seems to be uncertainty. In the state of uncertainty, I am receptive, curious, and sensitive to meaningful feedback. In the state of uncertainty, I can change my plan in appropriate ways as new information becomes available. But one of the many hazards of being human is that humans don’t like uncertainty. When we’re trying anything new or different, we like to have some sense of what the risks are, and what the payoff will likely be. We like to be secure in thinking we understand the probable consequences of our actions. But, ironically, thinking we already know the likely outcome may keep us from seeing the actual outcome, or may lead us to disappointment because the small positive we achieve fails to measure up to the big positive we expect.

Staying emotional balanced means not letting yourself get too far into either a positive or a negative expectation. If you can’t maintain an attitude of uncertainty, at least try to balance out the positive and negative expectations. If you’re imagining you’ll get a big reward from something you’re working on, stop to think about what could go wrong and how you might deal with it. If you’re imagining a negative outcome, stop to ask yourself why you think this will happen, and whether you could possibly be wrong.

What strategies do you have for staying emotionally balanced?

Friday, February 6, 2009

Another Hazard of Being Human: The Popularity Game

When I was a kid, I was what was then known as “shy”, now called “having social anxiety”, an affliction that involved, paradoxically, both wanting to be with people, and being very afraid of them. If you’ve ever been a kid, you probably know that school is the worst possible place to try to develop social skills. I had a few friends when I was in elementary school, and those friendships were pretty good. However, once I got into junior high, friendship became a competitive sport called popularity. Like any other sport, it had some basic rules, which I didn’t really understand, and lots of injuries. I decided I didn’t just have the stomach for the game. In the many years that have gone by since I was that age, I’ve come to realize that neither my school nor my experience was really unique. The basic dynamic gets reenacted in schools throughout this country, probably even throughout the world. Putting a bunch of immature humans together in close confinement, with no way to effectively escape each other and very little adult supervision, is just a bad idea.

In the junior high social scene, there are always a few individuals who cement their social standing through fear and bullying. If, like me, you endured junior high, I’ll bet that sentence just made one or two faces appear in your mind. In my school, their names were Mary and Amy. During the first half of the first year of junior high, Amy had been my friend, and I swear to you, she was a nice person. That was before she became Mary’s minion. One day, she abruptly turned to me and said, “I don’t like you anymore and I don’t want you hanging around with me.” That was the moment that I began to seriously distrust other people. Up until then, I had recognized and was willing to accept that some people wanted to be friends with me and others didn’t, and I was fine with that. Suddenly, I was confronted with the reality that someone who I liked and trusted could just one day stop liking me. Now, of course, I know that it happened because of Mary’s jealousy. Once Amy and Mary became friends, Mary insisted that Amy drop me so she wouldn’t feel so insecure.

Mary also seemed to dislike me forever afterward, and would take every possible opportunity to embarrass me in front of others. One day, I wore a new pair of shoes to school. “Are those your grandma’s shoes?” Mary asked loudly from across the classroom, “ Cause my grandma has a pair just like those.” My strategy was to try to remain invisible. I stopped talking to anyone or trying to be friends with anyone, because I felt like there was no one I could trust. I bought clothes like everyone else wore, not because I liked them, but just so I could avert the chance that someone would notice I was “different” and draw it to everyone’s attention.

However, I did make the mistake being one of only two girls in a drafting class, and that, I learned is a very bad thing. The other girl changed out of the class after about a week, and I was the only one left. The teacher, apparently a smoker, would disappear for about 15 minutes during the last half of every class. There were a couple of boys who would persistently tease and harass me from the back of the room. They would ask me if I was having my period, whether I used pads or tampons, and try to convince me that I had blood stains on the back of my pants. Later on one of the other boys from that class (not known to be part of the teasing group), came up to me and said that his friend, Roy, liked me and gave me a note from Roy. I asked myself what the odds were that Roy was sincere. I couldn’t know. I asked myself what the odds were that they were setting me for another joke and more humiliation: “Ha ha, you really thought Roy had a crush on you.” I decided it wasn’t a chance I could take. I told Roy’s friend, “Sorry—not interested.”

Truthfully, it has been a long road back from those early experiences. I’ve always had a difficult time accepting friends. Sometimes, I just can’t believe that someone would actually just want to sit and talk with me. I tend to ask myself, “What do they really want?”, or I start to feel like I’m imposing on their time. It’s only been during the last few years or so that I’ve made real progress in that area (I’ll tell you more about that later on).

Now, I have a daughter who is eight years old. We are fortunate to be able to homeschool her. When people who learn about our decision ask me, “But what do you do about socialization?”, I want to respond, “Oh, you mean the experience of having your peers torment and humiliate you until your self-esteem is beaten to a pulp, and you conform to their wishes just to “fit in” and try to survive another day? That’s actually the aspect of public school that we’re most happy she’s missing out on.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Trying to Help Difficult People Be Less Difficult

Today a terrible argument occurred in the hallway outside my office. It began when one of my coworkers became irate at my boss for not notifying him promptly that a morning meeting had been canceled. It was a very painful thing to have overheard. He was yelling and swearing, and not even pausing to listen as she tried to explain her side of the story. It made me angry that he ambushed her in such a vicious way on something so seemingly trivial, and also angry that I had to listen to the whole thing. My boss’s secretary also got involved, telling this guy how rude and condescending he was, and that he owed her an apology. I sat at my desk for a while afterwards, contemplating the whole thing—the anger, the defensiveness, the unwillingness to listen, and how much pain the guy was causing my boss, everyone within earshot, and, in reality, himself as well.

I eventually decided that I wanted to go down the hall and talk to this guy about his outburst. It didn’t seem right to just let it pass without letting him know that what he did wasn’t okay. What I wanted to say was basically, “You should really go to an anger management class, and learn to behave yourself in a professional manner”, but I decided that would just probably just provoke an argument between him and me, and not do anything to prevent further incidents. I tried to consider his perspective. I have been angry many times and I know what that feels like. I would also guess that because he’s not the kind of person whose inclined to give other people the benefit of a doubt when things go wrong, he probably has a lot of insecurities.

Anyway, I did manage to speak with him about the matter, even though it made me nervous to do it. I tried to explain to him that there are ways for him to express his feelings that will create the opportunity for others to respond in a sympathetic and caring way. However, he had been expressing his feelings in a way that incited defensiveness and conflict, and I said I didn’t think that was getting him the kind of response he really wanted. I told him he needed to learn to handle his anger in a better way, so that he could bring a greater atmosphere of compassion and understanding into his relationships with others.

He seemed to regard me somewhat suspiciously. He calmly told me a bit more of his back story, that is, the problems he had incurred as a result of not knowing about the meeting cancellation. I told him that because he was now expressing his complaint in a calm and rational manner, I could sympathize with his difficulties, and I thought my boss would have been sympathetic and apologetic too, if only he had related his story in that way, rather than by losing his temper. He clearly wanted and tried to divert the conversation into getting me to agree that he was in the right, and to concur that my boss should have handled the issue better. I said that I was not saying his complaint was not legitimate, but my point was just that he had the choice between expressing his feelings in a way that would probably get a compassionate response, or in a way that would probably result in defensiveness and conflict, and that choice was his to make. Then he thanked me and I left.

Have you ever intervened in someone else's conflict? Was your approach successful?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Loving Difficult People

Of all the challenging relationships in my life, by far the most difficult is the relationship I have with my mother. I suppose it’s natural to have more problematic relationships with the family that you are born into, because forever afterwards, you get to choose your relationships, and move away from people who cause you pain. The one characteristic that gives me the most angst is my mother’s tendency to be very judgmental. The letter that follows is what I would like to say to her, but probably never will:

Dear Mother,

The one thing that I would like to change about our relationship is to have you accept me and value me as I am. As an adolescent, there were many times when I wanted to talk to you about my feelings, particularly why I believed certain things, and why made the choices I did, but you have been very critical of me for thinking and acting differently from what you wanted. So, I have not felt good about disclosing these kinds of things to you, lest it upset you and make you feel disappointed in me.

Sometimes it seems you are sad that we don’t have a closer relationship, and I feel sad too, but it seems like the choice for me is either pretend to be someone I’m not, or to distance myself from you. I’ve always wanted to hear you say to me, “I know that even though you’re not like me, you are capable and competent to live your life in your own way. I know you have good judgment and good intentions, and I respect you for who are.” I don’t believe you will ever respond to me this way, but that’s okay. I’m going to accept you as you are, and stop expecting you to be different. Whatever kind of relationship we can have is okay, even if it’s very superficial and casual. I don’t want to make myself feel bad anymore by expecting something of you that’s unrealistic.

I still love you in spite of everything, but I cannot express my love by allowing you to continually rely on me for emotional support. I almost never agree with your position that various other people in your life are responsible for your problems, and treat you badly. I think that you create most of those problems for yourself and you could find better ways to interact with others if you really opened your mind to the possibilities. However, you become very defensive and angry if I try to suggest ways for you to see others’ points of view. I’m sorry that this is not what you want to hear. I wish I knew how to make our relationship better, truly I do, but I am out of ideas. I think you are actually very angry at me for being so distant from you, and you would like to tell me so, and that it’s all my fault…but how would that help us really? I feel like you want more from me that I am able to give. I’ve always hoped that as time passed, you would become a happier person, and be able to gracefully accept what life has to offer, but if that’s happening at all, you certainly hide it well. At least I can be grateful that I’ve learned a few valuable lessons from the way you’ve lived your life:

  • Blaming anyone else for my unhappiness is pointless, it’s up to me to find a way to be happy.
  • If I get upset when people tell me the truth, they will stop.
  • If I think most people think and believe the same things I do, I’m probably wrong.
  • By relying on others for emotional support without giving anything in return, my presence becomes an unpleasant burden.
  • It’s better to prepare children to face whatever life brings, rather than try to protect them from it.

In some weirdly ironic way, it's like you unknowingly sacrificed your happiness so that I could learn these things. I am very grateful. Try to understand that it’s hard for me to be in a relationship with someone who expresses love in a way that hurts me, and I think I’m doing the best I can for you under the circumstances, at least I sincerely hope so.


Who are the difficult people in your life and what would you like them to know?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Mirror, Mirror, Be My Friend

This week I’ve been thinking about the distinction between and underlying unity of self and other. Everything in our reality appears to us in one of two categories. From my perspective, I consider everything I encounter as either 1. myself (or belonging to me) because I have some control over it, or 2. not me or mine, but a part of the external environment. The definition of “relationship” is where the two categories meet. A “relationship” is born when I interact with other people who are part of my external environment, and I have some influence on them, but no real control. That’s what makes the experience interesting and exciting (but also potentially frustrating).

In my relationships, I would like to be accepted by others, just as I am. I also want to achieve full self-acceptance, to totally know and feel “at home” being myself, but I struggle with being able to accept others as they are.

The essential challenge for me is to recognize that being accepted by others, accepting myself, and accepting others are not three different things, they are in reality the same thing. However being accepted by someone else is not something I can control, whereas accepting others and accepting myself are actions I can freely choose.

Anytime I feel like I’m meeting resistance in another person, that is to say, someone is not doing what I want him or her to do, I need to ask myself, “What is it I want from him or her that they can’t give me?” I read the book, Loving What Is (by Byron Katie), a while back, and that helped me develop my thinking about the way relationships function as a mirror. If I feel like I am disappointed in someone, what that really means is that I am actually disappointed in myself, and that feeling will go away if I can face the truth that what I am expecting from that person is unrealistic. It is my expectation of them that creates the disappointment, rather than anything they did or failed to do.

What are some of ways others have disappointed you? How does that relate to your expectations for them and for yourself?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Signs of Love

I have a wonderful relationship with my husband. We have been married for 11 years, and I am still as in love with him now as I was the day we got married. The main four ways that we show our love for each other are:

1. listening to each other and returning a meaningful response
2. striving to meet each other’s needs

3. being trustworthy and dependable
4. being physically affectionate

When my spouse does these four things, I feel and believe that he loves and cares for me. Other people have different ideas about what they accept and expect as signs of love. Some want to be given gifts, or to be allowed certain types of freedom, or to be protected, or to know that their partner does specific things only for them and for no one else. It is important to realize and be conscious of the fact that this is an emotional contract you make with your partner. A mutual understanding and agreement about how you will show your love for one another is the most essential kind of compatibility that you should insist on in a long-term relationship.

I’ve been noticing that when my husband and I have some kind of difficulty in our relationship, or when I have some problem in any another type of relationship, it almost always traces back to my thinking that something this person is doing (or not doing) is a sign that they don’t care about me (or about my feelings). But because different people express love in different ways, I always try to find a small gap of doubt in that conclusion. Never let yourself become convinced beyond any doubt that someone doesn’t care about you. Just assume that your ways of showing love are very different from their ways. If someone is not meeting your essential need to feel loved, why would you want to be with them?

It’s too easy to fall into the trap of first thinking, “I love this person, but they aren’t showing enough signs of caring about me”, followed by “If this person doesn’t love me, maybe I’m not lovable”, followed by “So there must be something wrong with me”, followed by “If I could only get this person to show that he or she loves me, then I will be reassured that I’m really lovable.” This chain of thinking is a big mistake, and a recipe for continued frustration. Never allow yourself to think your way down this path. I’ve done it a few times, and it leads to nothing but pain. Now, I short-circuit this kind thinking right after the first thought. If anyone I love is not showing me recognizable signs of love or affection, then obviously he or she has very different ways of showing love that I do. Trying to get closer to such a person is pointless, because I won’t get any fulfillment from a relationship with someone who doesn’t express love in a way that I can recognize---period, end of story! Of course, I’m still lovable, I’m just not compatible with everyone, and I am free to show my love for others even if I’m not seeing any evidence whatsoever that they’re feeling the same way about me.

It’s been useful too, to realize that when someone is making demands on me, or criticizing me, what they are really saying is, “Show me that you care about me in a way I can recognize because what you’re doing now feels like a lack of love”. Understanding that the action itself is not truly the problem is very liberating. It gives me the freedom to think about our relationship issues from another perspective, and to envision creative solutions. In most relationship situations, people don’t really want control, they want to know that they are loved.

What are the expressions of love that you can understand and relate to? Why are they important to you?