Newfound Respect for My Right Brain

This video changed the way I think about myself.

Before:  Values cognition, ability to think, solve problems, an active mind.  I define myself based on my ability to think.

After:  We are complex creatures connected to each other.  The right brain is just as, or even more important than the left brain.  We are not just the products of our thoughts, though that often defines our reality.  Also, why use only half of my brain?  That makes me only half as smart.

No, I didn’t get all of this from this video but this talk started me down a path to exploring other perspectives about the human condition.  It’s a relatively new path for me so I’ve drawn few conclusions.

What do you think about her message?

The New Year’s Resolution Revolt – Just Say No

calvin-hobbes-new-years-resolutionsYou don’t need a New Year’s resolution.  I like you just as you are.

In fact, the whole New Year’s resolution premise is inherently flawed.  You are not.

The premise is that you have to do something better and different next year, and it’s something that you’ve been struggling with this previous year.  As if something about swiping your calendar to the next page is going to improve your resolve.

You’ve already been working on it, why create a promise to yourself that statistically speaking you’re likely to break?

Set yourself up for success instead.  I wish to start a New Year’s Resolution Revolution. Instead of focusing on how we’re going to do better next year, we’re going to focus on, and be grateful for, how we are doing right now.  I don’t know about you, but the people I know respond better to praise and encouragement than judgment and criticism. And just because the criticism about you comes from you doesn’t mean it’s constructive.  I’m working toward my strengths, not focusing on my weaknesses. My weaknesses are not going to change and my strengths are not going to improve by trying to change who I am.

I’m going to be the test subject for my Revolution.  Here goes:

  • I am doing a good job channeling my new-found energy and creativity in a positive way.
  • I am growing as an individual: personally, intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally (note I left off “physically”).  I didn’t even know I had growth available on all those measures until it happened.
  • I am reinforcing my relationships with my family, my closest friends and am building connections with some new friends
  • I am focusing on using my empathy, compassion, and strategic thinking more effectively for mentoring my students
  • I am open to the possibilities, and in so doing, clarified my knowledge and passion in new areas
  • I am better at applying my philosophy of providing active love to myself, instead of just applying that to others.

Areas I can do better:

  • Not going to dwell on it, just keep trying to do the best I can without self-recrimination.

In 2013, I’m going to spend my time, energy and resources continuing to build in these areas of success, and maybe discover new ones.  In particular, being open to the possibilities, taking a chance and investing in unexplored, but possibly scary areas, has been the most transformative aspect of 2012.  I don’t want to make a resolution.  I don’t want to limit myself to a preconceived notion that may or may not be right for me.

I believe that all of us, every single one of us, has talent and potential in abundance. We all have good in us.  We all try our best to be our best.  Since we are flawed humans, by definition, we will not always achieve our potential, so it is our responsibility to discover and cultivate our potential to the best of our current abilities.  Actualizing our potential does not occur by blaming self or others, self-criticism, unrealistic expectations, seeking external cures for internal ails.  It comes from forgiveness, gratitude, optimism, positivity, not only for ourselves but for others.  If we wish for growth, we should provide nourishment, not toxicity.

This year, if you must make a resolution, resolve to feed yourself and others spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, creatively.  You accomplishments may surprise you.  Happy 2013!

Redemption in the Modern Era

 There are certain themes about the human condition that are absolutely timeless.  These themes are told across the centuries in ageless tales, many recount the human struggle with ourselves.

I’m struck once again by the eternal struggle for forgiveness and redemption in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable.  You know the story:  Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread to save his starving nephew and pays for his sin literally until his dying day.   Ironically, his quest for redemption begins when an act of forgiveness and love causes him to turn his life around.  Lest he forgive himself prematurely, he is also hunted across the decades by the vindictive zealot cop Javert.

Valjean lives a humanitarian life defined by kindness and generosity, but he cannot escape his self-recrimination for his sins.  He even leaves his beloved Cosette to spare her from the shame resulting from the possible discovery of his secret past.  He ultimately learns upon his deathbed that the value of his life is defined by his love for others, not by his mistakes.  “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

Judging by the red eyes and the sniffles next to me in the movie theater, modern audiences still resonate with the theme.   The human need for redemption and forgiveness is as timeless as the story itself.  It seems we are all haunted and chased by our own guilt and Javerts.  What is our sin for which we must endlessly suffer?

In Les Miserables, the French judicial system judges Valjean’s crime worthy of a lifetime of condemnation.  However, Valjean’s crime may seem heroic to some, as the crime of stealing food pales in comparison to saving the life of another.  In real life, morality or doing the “right thing” is rarely black and white, so why do we punish ourselves endlessly for situations that oftentimes are grey?

I suspect we carry these feelings of shame and guilt because of our subconscious Javerts who chase and hound us, often without our knowledge.  Somewhere in our young lives we come to believe that we are inadequate, unlovable, shameful, or undeserving, and creating our own Javert to reinforce that theory.  These beliefs are often self-fulfilling:  I am unworthy, so I act unworthy, and then people treat me as unworthy, which reinforces my sense of unworthiness.  In this way, we define our own reality.  Any information that supports our own Javert is data that confirms our theory.  Any contradictory information bypasses our attention as irrelevant.

Valjean also ignores the evidence that demonstrates he is a good man.  The people he cares for, the lives he saves, the jobs he provides, and his courage to do the right thing, did nothing to assuage his sense of shame of being a tainted man as judged by a harsh and unforgiving judicial system, and perhaps more importantly, himself.  Valjean has to be on his deathbed to see the truth and feel forgiveness.

Despite a lifetime of the self-righteous and blind pursuit of his prey, Javert discovers the truth, also ironically after experiencing Valjean’s forgiveness.  After spending decades being unable forgive and to see Valjean’s goodness, he finally realizes he spent his life condemning and pursuing an honorable man.  Now Javert is unable to forgive himself.  The pain is unbearable and he throws himself into the raging river.

One reason to study history is to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.  But authors such as Hugo show us that we are still making the same mistakes of centuries long gone. We need not follow the path of Javier and Valjean, blindly pursuing a harsh, (self-imposed) justice that is oblivious to contradictory information.  We need not believe that voice of condemnation, whether from outside or within.  We can break the cycle of judgment, choose love instead of pain, and give the gift of forgiveness to ourselves and others.

Your Shadow Self

split_personality_by_jenajumbled-d428dqcSometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. Actually, I feel safe in generalizing that we consistently, predictably, inevitably don’t know what we don’t know. There is so much about our physical world that is unknown, and that world is for the most part, largely observable and measurable.  Now consider our emotional/psychological world.  Much of that world is by definition, unconscious.  This is undiscovered territory.

When I am open to exploring this undiscovered territory, I feel like I uncover something new about myself all the time.  I know I’ve also made many assumptions about myself that I have eventually found to be completely wrong, assumptions in place and unquestioned for literally decades.

I know a lot of people who seem to be more certain about who they are, what they can do, what they know, than I am.  Are other people’s beliefs about themselves just more on target than mine? Or is it that they have not yet begun questioning their own long-standing assumptions?

There are certain assumptions that I have made that I think have been good for me.  I have always thought I was fairly smart, kind of cute, kind of fun to be with, sort of unconventional, pretty outspoken, a hard worker, a caregiver.  Those are mostly good assumptions and helped me be an effective at my job and mothering (I won’t draw conclusions on the wife role I played for so long).

But there were also other assumptions that I think served only to confine me to thoughts and actions that were safe, but not necessarily true.  For instance, I’ve always thought I was not creative, not artistic, not intuitive, not empathic, not attractive.  Is there anything wrong with that?  I mean, what does it really matter how I view myself and my capabilities or assets?

Some labels that I thought were good were actually sometimes bad.  Often, I used the caretaker label to create an unnecessary and unhealthy burden on myself and dependency in others.   The outspoken self sometimes over-compensates and isn’t able to self-advocate.  The hard worker sometimes doesn’t know how to relax.  Being invested in my smart self sometimes means that I over-value cognition when other talents, such as intuition and empathy are just as or even more important.

Probably a bigger problem with my prior assumptions was that I was quitting in areas “I was not good at” before I even started. I closed off to myself whole worlds of creativity, artistry, intuition, spirituality and empathy.  I just knew I wasn’t good at those things.  So why try?  These parts of myself that I could’ve been exploring, cultivating, nurturing have just languished for decades.   So have the same parts of my human potential. If this was my approach when I went to the gym, I might focus only on my strong upper body muscles and neglect my weak legs and buttocks, leaving me looking like some kind of female, tree-swinging primate.

At this point in my life, I want to try to recognize and cultivate ALL my strengths and interests, rather than being an intellectually, psychologically and emotionally lopsided, knuckle-dragging orangutan.  I still don’t know what all my latent strengths are, but I have a much better idea of them than I used to.  Some of these strengths and interests, like writing about and cultivating positivity and optimism in others, were not ever on my radar until recently.  Once I was open to both self-discovery and not being so darn left-brained all the time, this passion came out of hiding.

I didn’t even know that I had these self-defeating and obstructive self-assumptions, self-images, self-perspectives.  It’s easy to understand why they were there.  By questioning my own assumptions about my hidden talents, I may also have uncovered unacknowledged, hidden liabilities.  Way too scary to go there.  So scary, I didn’t even know it should go onto my To Do When I’m Not Terrified list.

So, all those things that I don’t-know-what-I-don’t-know are there to protect me from myself.  They  keep me in my safe little assumption-cocoon where I don’t have to face the possibility of being worse than I already am.  They also prevent me from facing the possibility that I’m better than I think I am.

It took me way longer to get here than it probably should have.  But it’s a journey that I began only when I was ready to embark.  I had to be ready to confront whatever I might find, good or bad.  I had to be ready to admit that no one is perfect, least of all me.  I had to be ready to forgive myself for just being human.  I had to be ready to focus on my potential, not my shortcomings.  I had to be ready to free myself from the burden of the unfair assumptions made by myself and others that I have carried for decades, and the feeling of freedom and empowerment that resulted from this release.  I had to be ready to nurture all of me, not just the little pieces that I allowed myself to recognize.

The interesting thing about being open to all of my possibilities is that it’s like the Matrix.  Once you see what your true (relatively speaking) reality is, you just can’t go back.  And you really don’t want to anyway.  The weather is nice in the undiscovered territory, come out to play.

Fear: Friend or Foe?

fear

Caving to fear

“I’m not sure I want to do that,” “I’m not ready for that,” ”I just need to do it this way,” “It’s not so bad.”

World: meet my unacknowledged fear.

My unacknowledged fear wears a clever mask so I can hide it from myself.  I camouflage it because I’m not ready to recognize it, much less deal with it.

There’s nothing wrong with that fear.  Everyone has fear.  Fear has many good qualities, like preventing you from doing something dangerous or rash.  I would’ve driven my adorable, sporty 2-door BMW coupe at 85 mph (it liked that speed) all the time, but fear required a safer speed.  Fear has kept me safe and sound, still united with my driver’s license to this day.

But sometimes fear has just prevented me from doing the right thing, taking good care of myself, or following my heart or my dreams.   Whether starting or changing something in my life, those scary decisions involved change, and therefore risk. It’s not always easy to tell when I’m being wise (“Look before you leap”) or stuck (“Strike while the iron is hot”). How do you tell when fear is helping versus hurting you?

Take relationships, for example.  All relationships, even good ones, go through rough spells.  You may have wondered during those times whether to ask for different behavior, or even a complete change like breaking up.  It can be a scary decision, especially if you’re in love, have invested a long time with your partner, have children or property together, or if you’re dependent on him/her.  What if the relationship is salvageable?  What if this is the love of my life?  What if I can’t find a job or a new partner afterwards?  What if I ruin the lives of my children?

There are no easy answers to these questions, but they can be thoroughly evaluated with hard work, honesty, courage and forgiveness.  If you wonder if your relationship is salvageable, then do everything you can to salvage it.  Salvage may involve couples counseling, which when done well, will require you to look at yourself honestly to determine what role you are playing in your troubled relationship.   Dependence also may require that you look inside to determine why you became dependent and accept the consequences of becoming independent.  Making sure your kids are OK likewise means being honest with yourself as to what they will need, financially, psychologically, and emotionally, and providing that to them.  For example, it might feel really good to blame or punish your partner, and much easier than taking responsibility for your role, but your children will pay the price for that toxicity and vindictiveness, not to mention your unresolved issues.

Each of these scenarios involves a tough decision, and difficult, sometimes scary action. If you are not ready to do the right thing in the right way, then maybe fear is standing in your way.   If so, then you have a choice.  Which is more important, my relationship/children/quality of life/dignity or protecting myself from my own fear?

The same sort of reflection may be required for starting something new, like a new relationship, a move to a new state or city, or a new job.  For example, when I finished school, I had a choice as to whether to pursue what I felt was my challenging, impossible dream job, or the safer, less risky good job.  Of course, at the time, I wasn’t really identifying my fear for what it was.  It was disguised as issues about money, job duties, or lifestyle.  I might’ve fooled my friends but a nagging part of me wasn’t buying it.

I realized that fear of failure was the only thing standing in my way of doing what my heart was telling me to do.  It boiled down to this.  Which was more important to me, avoiding failure or pursuing my dream job?

It was a defining moment. I decided I could not let fear chart my course in life.  Instead, I should construct my life based on my desires and realistic appraisal of the likely consequences of making a mistake.  What was the worst possible outcome?  I would’ve had to find a new job and admit I couldn’t do it, a small price to pay for pursuing my dreams.  In contrast, choosing fear would’ve meant I quit before I even started.  That’s not the behavior of a successful, self-actualized person.  In addition, by choosing fear, I would forever have had to live with the regret of not believing in myself when I was given that chance.

“Follow your bliss”  – Joseph Campbell

In either case, whether choosing something new or choosing change, unacknowledged fear can tip the scales in ways that may cause us to unintentionally make choices that are not true to our principles or heart’s desires.  It takes wisdom, courage, and even forgiveness to acknowledge the fear, and to honestly and realistically incorporate it into our decision-making.  Your fear can either be your voice of reason or an excuse to not take risks.  Use it wisely.  You are its master, not its slave.

My Age, My Asset

I made the mistake of looking at myself in the mirror during aerobics class.  Chicken wings, muffin top, apple-shape.  Sounds like a smorgasbord, instead of the effects of one too many.

My self-esteem is as good as the next woman, but sometimes I can’t help but cringe when I look in the mirror.   We always hear about the unrealistic expectations of beauty we have that are perpetuated by the media.  I have been no exception to that influence, as you’ve probably figured.  It was much worse for me when I was a teen and young woman than it is now.   I know better, now that I am in my ripe middle age, that these supermodel images are not reasonable standards. That doesn’t stop me from going there sometimes.

Wrinkles, grey hair, double chin, cellulite.

Young men and women these days still seem to have especially high standards for their appearance.    I guess when you’re at your physical peak, it’s natural to have really high expectations.  The problem is, those expectations too easily become unrealistic.  So when young people should most be enjoying their Aphrodite- and Adonis-ness, they are spending their time feeling inadequate.  What a waste of an opportunity to be vain.

“Youth is wasted on the young” – Mark Twain.

Therefore, I wish to tell all the young people I meet  to enjoy their youthful beauty while it last.  Be proud of it!  Wear fun, flirty clothes while you have the figure and the youth.  Enjoy your strength, your good health, your beautiful, full head of hair and skin.  All too soon, it’ll be gone and you’re going to long for that level of imperfection.

Sagging, age spots, dry hair.

As I was bemoaning my lost youthful perfection when I was in my 30’s, it dawned on me that I was making the same mistake I made when I was in my 20’s.   I realized that I would never be satisfied with my appearance if all I did was compare myself to some unreasonable standard (supermodel, 20 year old).  Instead, I should have considered how I was looking pretty good for my age, or even better, compared to a 40 year old.  To only focus on my shortcomings  ensured a constant feeling of inadequacy.

I can make a better choice.

Wisdom, smile lines, inner beauty.

We don’t have to be slaves to our and society’s unrealistic expectations.  We don’t have to constantly focus on what we lack or how we don’t measure up.  We can choose our own perspective and our own reality, and focus instead on what we have to offer.   I now choose to see myself as looking pretty good for a 40-something, and really fantastic compared to a 50-something.  Thirty-somethings are for 20-somethings to compare themselves to; those beautiful creatures not on my yardstick.  I choose as my role models the gorgeous older female celebrities who have chosen to stay real:  Jamie Lee Curtis and Susan Sarandon.

Confidence, poise, character, style.

There are advantages to showing my age.  My grey hair is my platinum highlights, and they don’t cost me $75 at the salon.  I can afford $75 at the salon if I choose to make a change, and I now have the confidence to dye my hair purple if I want.  I don’t feel the need to dress or act to conform to some external standard.     I understand that beauty comes from within and feel confident enough to share that part of myself with others.  I know to look for that inner beauty in others as well.  The reality of my chicken wings?  Well, maybe I should stay in the back row of the aerobics class.

silver sneakers

Aging gracefully

A Defining Moment: Discovering the Hidden Gifts in Chronic Pain and Illness

One of the best days of my life was when I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a disorder of severe muscle pain and fatigue.  Strangely, I can’t say the same about when the symptoms went away approximately 20 years later.

It’s complicated, as people tend to say about things they don’t understand well.  I suspect it has to do with the unexpected journey and the lessons learned that the chronic pain and illness required.

The fibromyalgia pain started first in just a couple of muscles.  It then increased in the intensity and number of muscle groups involved, eventually involving almost every large muscle group.  The days where my energy level crashed to the point where I felt like I couldn’t move also became more frequent.  Later, the migraines began, eventually occurring about 15 days per month.

Fibromyalgia treatment was difficult, since at the time, it did not have the benefit of a designated drug to give it credibility or a treatment plan.  Considered a rheumatic disorder, my rheumatologist didn’t even have it on his differential diagnosis.   Thus the 8 year search for the name of, and thus a possible treatment for, the enemy.  The day we looked the enemy in the eye for the first time, was the beginning of my journey.

Certainly, stress exacerbated the symptoms.  At the time, our lives were crazy like so many ambitious, young couples:  building an academic and a medical career, two small children, a McMansion in the suburbs, and family support hours away.  And I couldn’t move, much less get out of bed.

No way was this sustainable.  It was the perfect storm, and something had to go.

It was a defining moment.  The ones that really show who you are, and what you value, and which put you on a course that could change your life.   The prize:  my sanity, health and my family.  The price: my newly-acquired tenure that I’d spent my whole education and career trying to obtain.

After the room and my head stopped spinning, I then devoted myself to getting us back on track.  First:  me.  Rest, exercise, healthy diet, a supportive physician, friends, leisure activities, time to discover who I am without a career, time to discover who I am (period), rediscover my passions, experiment out of my comfort zone.  Second:  kids.  Fortunately, they were doing well.  The extra time with them and becoming more involved in their lives was a big boon.  Third:  marriage.  Take the pressure off both of us, counseling, time for fun and relaxation together for a change.

The end result:  a balanced life.  Me, emerging as a whole person.  No longer taking for granted just being pain-free or having energy to do what I want.   New life breathed into a troubled marriage.  Closer relationship to our boys.  A feeling of empowerment that I can improve our quality of life despite a big pay cut.  Oh, did I already mention the balanced life?

These gifts would not have been possible without the pain and illness getting to the point of debilitation.  I was in my own Denial Land and only a Hurricane Sandy could force a reconciliation of my expectations and our reality.

Now I’m pretty much pain- and fatigue-free except for an occasional bad day. This was partly due to the balanced life and reduced stress, but also key were some medical interventions, and possibly the separation/divorce.  I’m still enjoying the benefits of those life choices, even if the marriage did not work out and I’m still trying to rejuvenate what was a discarded career.  Still, it was the right choice for me and my family, and to have made another choice at the time could’ve taken us down a path with consequences I’m not sure I could’ve lived with.

A friend thoughtfully observed recently that my outspokenness is commendable, but has a down side. I said I didn’t think it has a down side but it definitely has consequences. Such is the choice with life’s decisions, big and small.  Living according to your principles has consequences, not what I’d consider a down side.  Not living according to your principles, combined with the resulting guilt and self-doubt, is far, far worse.

lonely journey

Holiday Reductionism: Scrooge-y or Sanity?

I love Christmas as much as the next gal.  OK, maybe I really don’t.  It’s not that I don’t like Christmas.  It’s just that I like other holidays more.  Am I the only one that doesn’t feel like Christmas is the End All-Be All holiday?  Just saying it makes me feel like I’m blaspheming.

Thanksgiving is a much better holiday in my opinion.  The focus of Thanksgiving is on loved ones and food, period.  What else matters?

Maybe Christmas is like Thanksgiving on steroids and with a different theme.  It’s family and food, but it’s also religion/spirituality, decorations, gifts, Christmas movies, dancing reindeer, plus-sized men with white beards.  With each of these additions, potentially comes time, effort, expense and worst of all, stress.

As a recovering perfectionist, in the past I had to do all of these things in spades.  My perfectionist tendencies were peaking around the time our kids were pretty young and career-building was in full swing.   The end result was adding one more straw to the proverbial Wise Men’s camel’s back.

In post-Perfectionland, I still love Christmas decorations and parties.  Other people’s.  I love the music, the embellished sweaters.  Ditto.

Don’t get me wrong, I do still participate in Christmas, but in a very scaled down way.  I don’t spend as much money on gifts as I used to, shopping may happen by mail.  The tree is smaller and simpler, so is the décor and gift wrap.  There aren’t as many parties to go to because of the economy, but if there were, I would say No to all except those involving the people I care most about.  Christmas cards?  What Christmas cards?

I don’t think our neighbors appreciate our minimalistic approach to exterior holiday decorating, which has pretty much been boiled down to a door wreath. We found some covertly-added holiday-themed ornaments in our yard a couple of years that I suspect was the work of a mischievous neighbor.  They’ve either gotten used to the minimalism, they decided we’re hopeless, or the home baked cookies assuaged their need to supplement.

The end result of Christmas down-sizing: I can actually relax during December and enjoy the spirit, the décor, the music, the craziness without getting caught up in it.  I look forward to the Salvation Army lady at the grocery store (where are they this year?).   I can enjoy the time with my family because I’ve had my work-out, some sleep, and time to write. I don’t feel guilty, resentful or stressed.  Does that make me Scrooge or Sane?

sleepingsantas

Conflict: Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t

conflict_workshop

I wish I had a dime for every conflict that didn’t end well.   Seemed like, no matter my intentions or resolve, disagreements almost always ended badly.  The knock-down-drag-outs usually left one or more people feeling hurt, and the relationship different afterwards.  The let’s-pretend-this-isn’t-an-issue had different intensity and duration, but still produced the same hurt feelings and damage in the end.  Conflict of either type can be particularly insidious because the trigger for each fight may vary so it feels like a new argument, but it may actually be masking the same underlying emotional battle.

If two people care about each other, and/or if the relationship is important to them, then why do we keep making the same mistake, the same way, over and over again?

I can only speculate as to the answer to this question.  I know for me, I have made the same mistake in the same way because I had approached the conflict the same way every time.     Things have only improved when I changed the one thing I have control over: me.

“Insanity:  doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” – Albert Einstein

First eye-opener is that every success or failure in the relationship is due roughly 50% to me.  Whether we’re having fun and/or being productive, all the way to dysfunction-galore, it’s half my responsibility.   It’s not all his fault, no matter how “right” I think I am.  This most difficult step requires I assume responsibility for my share, then act accordingly.  Usually it means I examine my motivations, fears and desires and take ownership of them. My fears and insecurities are my responsibility to manage, not my partner’s to fix, heal, or placate.

For example, for decades (talk about stuck) I had arguments with someone close to me that always went the same way. What seemingly should’ve been a reasonable discussion would deteriorate into name-calling and finger-pointing. I could never understand why, but admittedly the topics that triggered the reaction were predictable.  I spent all that time feeling it was her fault, that she needed to change, not me.  Yet, even though it was predictable I couldn’t help but stepping into that same landmine repeatedly.  Now, who’s fault is that?

Things changed when I took a step back to ask myself how I was contributing to and reinforcing the dynamic.  I realized that I have a need to be heard.  It didn’t matter how reasonable I thought my position was or how calmly I stated my feelings, as it was creating an emotional reaction in my loved one. So, I was putting my need to be understood ahead of my relationship.  I couldn’t make her listen to me, why was I insisting on it?  Sounds like I was the problem, not her.

So I decided to change the rules of the dance (this is the second part of making a change). I would no longer tell her how I felt or what I wanted.  Instead, I acknowledged her needs and desires, but was clear and calm about what my boundaries were:  what I am willing to do, or what I wouldn’t do (determined by me as to whether I’d feel resentful afterward), without judgment or explanation.  Knowing and clearly communicating about my boundaries (and sticking to them) meant I would neither get angry nor martyr myself doing something I couldn’t happily do.

When  I refused to participate in the same argument, the conflict dynamic itself had to change.  We were then able to move into a collaborative style of problem-solving since we were no longer pushing the other’s hot button.  Ironically, by giving her what she needed, I was able to get what I needed.

Interestingly, in some situations I tend to go straight to talking it out, but in others I might try to avoid the issue.  Avoiding, or even acquiescing every time may preserve the appearance of peace, but the damage is still done.  Neither approach solves serious or long-term problems or really avoids causing resentment or bad feelings somewhere in the relationship.  Changing my approach means reaching out to the other with an open mind and respect for their feelings, with the goal of understanding.  It helps to request the conversation in advance and have them choose the time and the place.  Oh, and I bring chocolate.  Lots of it.

Damned if you do and damned if you don’t?  Maybe.  If handled with love, respect, clarity, and personal responsibility, conflict can be a growth opportunity for you, your partner and your relationship.  Conflict can enable people to right wrongs or make important course corrections.  It can help each come to a better understanding of the other, result in better decision-making, and reaffirm the bond and commitment between the pair, whether in a personal or professional relationship.

Unfortunately, successfully managing conflict, or anything else in the relationship, is still a shared responsibility.  It is possible to approach disagreements with the spirit of openness and collaboration, but if your partner is still avoiding or fighting to win, all you can do is keep trying different approaches to engage them in collaboration.  Be creative.  Take a chance. If  they then continue to insist on fighting or stonewalling, your only option may be to accept that the dynamic won’t change and work within that reality.  You can always try again another time, as people do change, especially if they observe successful change in others.

I’m better at conflict now – I have better tools in my conflict management toolbox. It is still far from perfect – I can still get my buttons pushed way too easily and fall back into old habits.  But I  forgive myself for not having this nailed down.  I forgive others too for where they are in their journey to be a better person. I celebrate when we make progress.  After all, in the conflict dance, it still takes two to tango.

Sticking Out Like A Sore Thumb, But in a Good Way

race

Diversity

In retrospect, being a member of a small racial minority is both like sticking out like a sore thumb and being invisible at the same time.

Actually, it wasn’t an issue for me at all while growing up in New York state.  It just didn’t seem to matter.  But all that changed when we moved to Texas, back in the ‘70’s.  I know parts of Texas are very different now but at that time when we were living in Houston, there just were no Asians living there.  My freshman high school class had 1000 students, 6 of us were Asian.  The ones that arrived later were primarily recent immigrants.  Thus I/we stuck out like a sore thumb, not to be mistaken for a rose among the thorns.  I didn’t look like anyone else, I didn’t act or think like anyone else.  I didn’t talk like the people that looked most like me.  This was an adolescent’s worst nightmare.

The Texans of the era responded to me with a sort of friendly-unfriendliness:  “WHERE. ARE. YOU. FROM?” (loudly and slowly).

Me:  “From Houston”

Them:  “NO. BEFORE. THAT.”

Me:  “New York?”

Them: “NO. ORIGINALLY.”

Me:  “I was born in Georgia.”

Them:  “Oh….. well you speak really good English” (not so loudly or slowly by this point).

Me (to myself):  “Fortunately for me because I don’t speak Chinese.”

This conversation happened more than you might suppose.  Once a week, probably.

Or I love this one too:

Them:  “WHAT. IS. YOUR. NAME?”

Me:  “Sue.” (I was “Sue” then.)

Them:  “SOO?  DID I SAY THAT CORRECTLY?”

Some days I felt that even the friendly-unfriendly queries were better than just being ignored.  When I wasn’t an ethnic curiosity, I was just invisible.  Waiters would take my order and my money, eventually, but service above and beyond that was not readily available to me, but usually there for my table mate.  I couldn’t get a refill, a cup of coffee, a correction of my meal, an extra napkin to save my life.  Usually I’d be saying “excuse me!” to the waiter’s back, after he checked to make sure my companion had all she needed.  The same was true at butcher and deli counters.  If it didn’t have a pull-number system I was only served after everyone else there had been taken care of, and even then sometimes I had to remind them that I was still there. The net effect was that I believed that others’ needs were more important than mine, that I didn’t deserve attention or equal consideration.  Since I had no confidence, that extra time did give me an opportunity to eloquently formulate the wording of my request, “Uhh.  I’d.  Like.  A.  Pound. Of.  Salami.  Pleasethankyou.”

Everything changed for me when I moved to San Francisco for school.  There I was ignored.  Just like everyone else, hallelujah!   It was an actual epiphany to realize what it was like to be just like, and treated just like, everyone else.  I didn’t have to wonder if I was getting treated a certain way because of my race.  I finally started to meet some men who didn’t think I was just a cute kewpie doll-geisha-anomaly.   I learned to speak up at deli counters and cash registers all over the city, and even told other customers who tried to cut ahead of me where they should go (to the back of the line, of course).  I would have never done that in my Texas days.  I felt my confidence grow in leaps and bounds, and I don’t take that confidence for granted since I haven’t always had it.

Living now in Virginia I had worried that my kids would also feel marginalized because of race.  It’s not clear to me they even recognized they were different while growing up.  One son asked if we were Jewish. Another didn’t even have words to describe people of different races.  Later, as their self-awareness grew, they stated that it’s cool to be Asian.  I agree.  I really love the Asian accents now, whereas when I was a hormonal teenager I just found the accents annoying.  Now I’m the embarrassed one because I can’t speak the native language of my parents.  If I hadn’t spent so much time rejecting my heritage back then, then maybe I could’ve benefited more from it.

I guess the only regret I have now about being a minority now is that it’s difficult to cultivate my heritage when there are so few Chinese people in the community.   I would like to attend a great big Chinese New Year’s celebration each year.   I want someone to commiserate with about how annoying/wonderful Chinese parents are or how awful the Asian restaurants are around here.  I want a friend who has a supply of dried scallops or fermented black beans in their pantry in case of an emergency.  I would love to try to learn Mandarin again and have someone to practice with who won’t laugh at my miserable accent.

Regret aside, now, I wouldn’t trade being Asian for anything.  I love my heritage and the cultural influence it has had on me, particularly the emphasis on food, family, education and more food.  I love playing Chinese Mother and plying my visitors with an array of treats and home cooking until they’re about to burst.  I treasure my mom’s dresses she made when she was still in China.  I like looking distinctive as it gives me an edge when I wish to be remembered or be noticed (downside:  I have to be on my best behavior).  People also think I’m more intelligent than I really am (because we’re all so smart). Plus, Asian women age well, particularly useful right about now.  It helps I don’t get the Where Are You From questions anymore.  And now when people stare at me, I just assume it’s because of my radiant smile.

Question: All these years I have never formulated a proper response to Where Are You From?  What should I have said?