Do I Stay or Do I Go?

Most people in relationships will eventually ask this question at some point.  After all, intimate relationships are almost ordained to eventually produce conflict as discussed previously*.  So if conflict is inevitable, then how do you know whether to call it quits?

Gooood question.  I wish I knew the answer.

Though I have no answer, I do have some thoughts on the matter, which should not be a surprise to those of you who are regular readers of this blog.  After all, what else are blogs for?

  • If you are being physically abused, leave.  If you are laying your hands on your partner in an unloving way, get to a therapist immediately.
  • If you are only staying because you’re afraid of being alone, consider healing yourself and learning to enjoy your own company instead.  Invest that energy in bettering yourself rather than making due with a sub-standard situation. Once you are more whole, you’ll be in a better position to create a better relationship.
  • I don’t believe the “soul mate” notion.  Relationship theory says there are many people who would be a love match.  However, that doesn’t mean you can make it work with every one of them.
  • It takes two to make it work.  If only one of you is interested in trying, you have to decide whether you can live with that person exactly as s/he is.  Also consider the possibility your partner is trying, even if it’s difficult for you to recognize their efforts.
  • Assuming s/he is trying, is change happening in a meaningful way?  If s/he is not going to change, does his/her behavior violate your minimum standards? If so, have you clearly and consistently communicated those standards?   This is an important step.  It’s worth investing in a therapist to make sure this message is clearly delivered.   If you have done so and the behavior is still occurring without sign of improvement, ask yourself why you’re with someone who doesn’t respect what you need.
  • If s/he is changing, but slowly, then know that change can be difficult.  Consider what your role is in that change process.  Are you changing too? Sometimes we unwittingly make it more difficult for our partners to change by ourselves refusing to change or improve.  Remember, it takes two.
  • If you are married and/or have children, I feel that marital therapy is a must before you, in good conscience, should consider dissolving the marriage.  Yes, it can be expensive, but it’s cheap compared to a divorce, especially if you consider the potentially unnecessary emotional toll on the children.

Do not make the mistake of believing that only one of you has to change. Relationship expert Harville Hendricks believes that our emotional wounds dictate who we fall in love with.  Our love interest somehow replicates the wounds we received when we were children, and our subconscious belief is that our new love is the self-actualized/improved/healed version of our primary caregiver.  Trouble happens when we find that in actuality, they continue to replicate the hurtful behavior from our childhood and push our hot buttons.  Therefore, the role of marriage and relationships is to provide the forum for us to grow by providing what our partner needs.  In other words, by giving my partner what he needs, I will heal the places in me that are incomplete while simultaneously providing a salve for my partner’s emotional wounds so he has a better chance of healing them.

Beautiful, isn’t it?

The “downside” is that you have to face your own wounds and take ownership of them.  Scary stuff.  But the prize is opening up and healing that scared kernel/grapefruit in the pit of your stomach while simultaneously improving yourself and your relationship.  It’s kind of like going to the dentist:  it’s not as bad or as hard as you had feared.  Your fear itself is much worse than the actual treatment.  Most of our phobias and fears are just devilish constructs of our left brain – you WILL survive after facing your demons.  You will probably be a happier and healthier person afterwards too.

If you don’t heal those childhood wounds, you’re setting yourself up to face the same problem with your next partner.   Like the budget deficit, you’ll just be kicking that can down the road to the next relationship.  If you’re not ready to deal with it now, perhaps that will be your choice.

So, are you and your partner (both collectively and individually) worth drumming up the courage to deal with this now?  I’m curious.  Talk to me.

*Additional Reading – Blessings of a Dysfunctional Marriage, Single Again After Twenty-Two Years, What Every Couple Should Know Before Getting Married, Who Do You Love?, A Workability quiz

Decisions

Decisions

Do Things Happen For A Reason?

Trial by fire

Trial by fire

As a person who considers herself more spiritual than religious, I’m probably the last person who should be tackling this question.

So, I won’t.

Instead, I’m going to defer to the wise rabbi, Harold Kushner, author of Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.  It’s a great book – you should read it.  Really.  But for the purposes of this blog I’ll cut to the chase.  Kushner says this question of “Why do bad things happen?” is really the wrong question.  The question should be:  How do we respond when bad things happen?

I’d like to expand his thesis to just ask:  How do we respond to life?

In a way, having an easy life is really not always an advantage.  For example:

  • If you grow up smart, you don’t have to learn how to study.
  • If you grow up surrounded by loving people, you don’t have to learn how to be alone.
  • If you grow up beautiful, you don’t have to learn to develop your inner beauty.
  • If you grow up being taken care of, you don’t have to learn how to care for yourself or others.
  • If you grow up sheltered, you don’t have to learn empathy for others who differ from you.
  • If you grow up rich, you don’t have to learn to do without.
  • If you grow up with harmony, you don’t have to learn to deal with conflict.
  • If everything always goes your way, then you don’t have to learn how to struggle.

Having advantages doesn’t preclude developing these characteristics, any more than growing up without them automatically confers them.   Rather, there are just more opportunities to learn these traits when life is difficult. 

So if life is hitting you like a hammer, will you break or will you forge into steel?  We have a choice as to whether to view events, whether good or bad, as opportunities for growth and improvement, or whether to become complacent, closed-minded, cynical, depressed, rigid, or judgmental.

Therefore, so-called good fortune can lead to a bad outcome and bad fortune can lead to a good outcome, or visa versa.  So, who are we to judge whether an event is fortuitous or unlucky?  What really matters is whether, on a daily basis, we are choosing to create good or bad outcomes out of the events in our lives.

Maybe, we should really change Kushner’s question to be:  Are you creating purpose out of things that happen?  If not, why not?

Related blogs –  Falling Up (Or, Breaking Down is Hard to Do), and When Helping Becomes Hurtful

The Darker Side of Nice

Keeping a safe distance

Keeping a safe distance

No one has ever accused me of being too nice.  It’s not that I’m not nice (here we go), it’s just that you will usually hear from me if I disagree with you or if I think something is amiss or unfair.  A shrinking violet I am not.

I’ve lived in the South most of my life, and my not-niceness is definitely not Southern.  We Southern (and Asian) women are expected to not create trouble or conflict.  It’s just not nice or ladylike.  My family falls into the not-nice category in the same way.  You generally will know exactly where you stand with us in a matter of minutes.  When I have brought boyfriends home, they were just shaking in their shoes.

I’ve always admired those people who can keep their mouth shut.  They seem to just let grievances slide off them like water off a duck’s behind.  What equanimity.  What poise.  What patience.

What a façade.

The trouble is, the anger, resentment, bitterness is still there (except for the few that are really not bothered by such things).  It just tends to come out in less obvious ways.   Think:  the meeting where everyone states their agreement verbally or by silent assent but afterwards complains about the decision.  The relationship where everything is fine and dandy, but everyone knows about how mistreated someone is except the person who is supposedly doing the mistreating.   The chores or tasks that are either poorly done or never get done because someone is “too busy” or “forgot”.   The offhand comments which seem benign on the surface, but have an edge or are really hurtful.  Overlooking obvious opportunities to be helpful (“why didn’t you just buy one for me too?”)

Insults and injuries, if not resolved, take their psychic toll. In the absence of overt (hopefully, civil) conflict to resolve the insult, one may then resort to the equivalent of sniping from a safe distance.  A sniper can get shots off without having to risk being held accountable.  With conflict, even if emotions may tend to run high and into uncomfortable territory, at least the issues, including the conflict style itself, can be addressed and then resolved.  Trying to fix a problem with someone who denies anything is wrong is nearly impossible. I’m not certain, but I think mind reading skills are required, and last I checked, that is not one of the five human senses.

Sniping in relationships, whether personal or professional, is also not conducive to a productive or intimate relationship.  Being unwilling to discuss uncomfortable issues is not being honest. Without honesty there cannot be trust or intimacy, and the depth of the relationship will be confined to the equivalent of a wading pool.

To my family: I love you and thank you for always being honest with me.  I value your transparency and willingness to be authentic.

To all the too-nice people out there:  I love you dearly too.   You are so easy to be with and I love that about you.  But it’s OK to tell me what you really think and want.  I want to know.  I want you to trust that our relationship can withstand your truth.  In fact, our relationship will improve and deepen because of your willingness to be honest and up front with me.  I won’t let you down.

Can You Spare Some Change?

“The only constant is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.”  — Isaac Asimov

Change* is inevitable.  Change is hard.  Change is scary.  Change is difficult.  Or does it really have to be hard, scary and difficult?  Maybe change can be a joyous, wonderful discovery?

We often make unexamined assumptions about the events in our lives and their likely consequences.  But I have been proven wrong about my assumptions so many times that I’ve come to the conclusion that our assumptions are really just choices based on whether we view events with optimism or pessimism.  We too frequently mindlessly buy-into sometimes counterproductive positions such as “change is hard/scary” when we can really choose a healthier interpretation of an inevitable or necessary change.

These mindless assumptions we make are also self-fulfilling.  If we assume change will be hard, then our resistance to the inevitable or to making a necessary change just makes the transition more difficult.

“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.” M. Scott Peck

I don’t believe I have been any more change-receptive or change-adverse than the next gal.  Most of the time it took fairly drastic measures to break through my denial and allow me to see that the consequences of maintaining the status quo was worse than the change itself. Only then could I do or accept what was inevitable or necessary.   This was true pretty true much across all aspects of my life – nothing was immune from my denial.

But each time, I have found when I have made a necessary change (or accepted the inevitable), it was never as bad as I expected.  In fact, there were instances when the change was so profoundly liberating that I could not imagine in hindsight why I was so resistant to the change in the first place.  Clearly, I was the one making the change unnecessarily difficult.

My most recent major change was divorce after a 20 year marriage.  The degree of liberation I felt, both physically, mentally, emotionally and psychologically was unbelievable.   In my wildest fantasies I could not have predicted how much better I’d feel, and that I could channel that time and energy to explore and invest in myself and discover my life’s passion.  I felt like I was reborn and 10 years younger.

So here’s the problem with resisting change:  During my state of resisting, I could neither envision nor be receptive to the range of opportunities that could result from the change.  If I only focus on my fear and pessimism, I will create the worst-case scenario I most fear.  If I envision and act on the best possible scenario, and am open to the unknown, I may go places beyond which I was able to dream.

“There are more places in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”  – William Shakespeare

*Other reading about change:  Change Agent, You, Growth and Change:  The Human Symphony

 

Change, for a change

Change, for a change

Falling Up (or, Breaking Down is Hard to Do)

alice-falling-down-rabbit-holeRecently I had another* young woman crying in my office.  She had been in an ongoing conflict with another student, and the resulting discussions had her feeling completely off-balance and unsure.   Like everyone else who is surprised to find herself in a bad situation, she has participated in the dynamic with good intentions and a belief that she is not responsible for the conflict.  She was In the Box with her classmate but didn’t know it.

When we told her she was equally responsible for the tension that had been escalating in the lab, she was caught completely by surprise.  She felt she was being treated completely unfairly, that this was in no way her fault.   Despite her protestations, she was now having trouble working and concentrating, seemed to be in an ongoing tailspin, and could see no way out of her growing despair.

Her situation reminded me of the times in my life that I felt the same way, though sometimes to different degrees.  Once when I really felt like I had hit rock bottom was right around the time I was going up for promotion.  I had spent the previous six years as part of a dual-career marriage with two small children at home, trying to survive – no, succeed – in the publish-or-perish academic game of roulette.  The stakes were either tenure or my walking papers, with no middle ground.

Unfortunately I was not managing the work-life balance at all.  My health was down the tubes, my marriage was seriously on the rocks, though work was progressing well enough.  I didn’t realize I had a problem until one day, out of the blue, I just burst into tears while walking down the street.  In hindsight, I was probably depressed and creating my chronic pain conditions from my out-of-control stress.  Clearly, my self-awareness was nil and my denial absolute.  My lack of awareness meant I was probably taking out my stress, frustration and resentment on those around me while thinking I was being helpful and loving.

At the time, I felt my situation was hopeless:  I was stuck in a ridiculously demanding job and in an unhappy marriage with no end in sight to my miserable situation.  I did not feel I could change jobs or get a divorce with two elementary school-aged children at home.  I had no one I could really talk to since I rarely felt safe sharing my vulnerabilities with others.  I was on my own.

The breakdown was one of the best things to ever happen to me.   Hitting rock bottom was the beacon that broke through my denial about my life and my role in creating my situation.  I soon realized that I was at a crossroads:  to either continue my blame and denial game, or to do whatever it takes to fix my life.  Continuing to feel that bad did not feel like an option so I pulled myself together and made a plan to regain my sanity and save my family.

That decision caused me to begin a lifelong journey of introspection, self-care and self-discovery that has led me to find my life’s passion.  I am grateful that this crash occurred while I was still relatively young.  The crash forced me to get off a negative and destructive path and instead, to follow the light.

When facing a set-back, a disaster, a change, no matter how bad or hopeless it seems, we all have a choice.  We can either choose to continue our downward spiral or to view the event as an opportunity to grow and improve.  Shawn Achor, in his book The Happiness Advantage, calls this choice falling up, i.e. creating opportunities out of setbacks.  Falling up is a hallmark of successful people.

Thus, I told my student that I’m really happy this happened to her while she’s in school with supportive people here to help her, since a conflict of this nature was inevitable given her false self-image.  I also felt she was lucky that this happened to her at such a young age as I was at least a decade older when I was first forced to really confront my demons and finally set out on a healthy, happy journey.

I’m not sure yet but I think my student has decided that she will fall up too.  I will be here to fall with her, either way.

*This is a surprisingly frequent occurrence in my office, but since criers usually come back to talk some more I have to assume that I am not the source of their tears.

Time is a Wonderful Thing to Waste

Time Mis-Management

Time Mis-Management

Sometimes I can’t relax because it makes me feel guilty.  I have so much to do and sometimes I can’t manage it all without feeling stressed or inadequate.

Our employers are paying us to work 8 hours a day, so we should be productive virtually every one of those 480 minutes, right?

We’re paying a lot for our tuition so we should be studying or going to class roughly 16 hours per day, 7 days per week, right?

We have so little time with our children, and to be a really good parent, we should devote almost every minute, 24/7, to engaging and stimulating our children, right?

When I line the arguments up like that, it’s fairly easy to say, “well, not exactly.”  But this is the modus operandi for many of us.

We have turned into a guilt-ridden society where we equate productivity with personal value, as if by putting our noses down and working as hard and fast as we can, we can prove that we’re somehow worthy or good.  Problem is, with our nose to the grindstone it’s difficult to see where we’re going.  Working all the time also means we become one-dimensional and fail to tend to ourselves or our relationships.  Nor are we providing ourselves the important downtime we need so we can work efficiently and creatively.  By definition, you cannot always be working at maximum productivity.  Otherwise there is no maximum –  or minimum, for that matter.

I am not advocating you slack off and quit trying.  I am suggesting that we find a balance between work, play and rest, and do so by using our time wisely and prioritizing what’s really important. Nose to grindstone 24/7 is like driving all day without checking your route.  You may get where you were headed in short order, but if you end up in the wrong place, then you’re worse off than if you’d not started out at all.

Translating this approach to our lives means that we may take for granted our major life decisions and tactics.   We can only look objectively at our lives when we have the time and equanimity for in depth introspection and reassessment.   This level of introspection is not possible when we’re chasing and stressing about minutiae. Honestly and deeply reassessing periodically is important to know whether you’re on the right track or even if you should be on the track at all.

  1. What am I really doing?
  2. How am I doing it?
  3. Why am I doing it?
  4. Why am I doing it this way?
  5. Who am I doing it with, and why?
  6. Who am I?  Why do I believe that about myself? (Go back to question 1)
  7. Am I doing what I love?  If not, then why not? (Go back to question 1)
  8. In what ways are my actions/choices/perspective improving my life? Making my life worse? (Go back to question 1)
  9. In what ways are my actions/choices/perspective improving the lives of others?  Making their lives worse? (Go back to question 1)
  10. In what ways am I closing my mind to improving my life or the lives of others? (Go back to question 1)

This is not a linear process at all. The answer to one question should raise new questions for further exploration.

“We don’t see things as they are.  We see things as we are.”  Timethief, commented on The Other Side of Ugly blog, The Issue, 3/20/13
Byron Katie, in her book Who Would You Be Without Your Story, suggests using inquiry to re-examine our assumptions about our life by exploring the assumption in the reverse.  So, if I believe that my boss is treating me unfairly, I should turn it around and explore how my boss treats me fairly, or how I treat my boss unfairly. This approach forces one to get way from the grindstone and observe oneself and one’s life from the balcony instead.

So – goofing off, chatting with colleagues, going for  a walk, taking a break, reading a trashy novel or watching TV,  hugging your kids or dogs or spouse are good for us and our productivity.  Even more important is finding time for gratitude, forgiveness, joy, love, and reflection.  Unless you stop to get a bird’s eye view of the maze that is our lives, you may not realize you’ve been running in circles, going backwards, or even headed in the wrong direction.  What I know now is that if I accept and love myself, I can really happily focus on what is most important to me.  And I have all the time in the world to do that.

…. And A Random Act of War (Part 2)

War or peace?

War or peace?

I’ve had war in my heart.  I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s what it was.

You’ve likely had war in your heart too if you have viewed others as:

  • Inferior or wrong
  • Irrelevant or incapable
  • Mistaken
  • Mistreating or ungrateful
  • Judgmental or threatening
  • Your audience
  • Advantaged or privileged

If you have one of the above feelings for another, likely you are treating them as an object.  In other words, you may be treating them as an obstacle, a vehicle, or just plain irrelevant, rather than a human with feelings, needs, hopes and cares.   According to the Arbinger Institute’s Anatomy of Peace, you are now “in the box” with this person.

To view another as an object is to war with them in your heart.   You are also warring with yourself because on some level you know that it is wrong to betray your sense of right and wrong.  The internal war causes you to justify or defend your  feelings or actions and/or blame or demonize the person you have just objectified.

In addition, to have war in your heart is to invite others to war with you.   If you are in the box, it is difficult for the other to do anything other than be in the box with you and objectify you in return.  Conflict results.  The conflict is further intensified between the sparring partners as they feed off each other.  Others may even be recruited to reinforce and escalate the conflict in desperate attempt to self-justify.  Pretty soon the whole family/office/community/nation is involved in your spat.  In A Random Act of Peace (Part 1), I wrote about how one act of love or forgiveness can make a profound change.  Here, one act of dehumanization can escalate conflict into some version of war.

Though the choice to get into the box may not be conscious or premeditated, it is still a choice.   Therefore, we also have the choice to get out of the box and cultivate peace in our hearts instead.  To do so, we must recognize and accept our own tendencies to get in the box in certain ways, either through the Better Than box (others as inferior, wrong, incapable, irrelevant), the I-Deserve box (others as mistaken, mistreated, ungrateful), the Must-Be-Seen-As box (others as judgmental, threatening, an audience), or the Worse-Than box (others as advantaged, privileged).   Then, it is our responsibility to get out of the box by mentally or physically returning to safe and supportive circumstances where we easily and naturally feel out of the box (like your “happy place”).

To stay out of the box, we should reconsider the situation and then do the right thing.  Only out of the box do are we able to recognize and act on what we sense is the right thing to do.  For me, I may feel someone else is wrong or ungrateful, then spending time with supportive friends or in my bathtub returns me to a more peaceful, more forgiving  place where I can see my own fingerprints on the tension and conflict I perpetuate.

Instead of dealing  with problems after we haplessly create them, we should be proactive in making sure things go right from the beginning.  We begin by keeping the peace, starting in our hearts and extending into our homes, workplace and communities.  Essential to the peacemaking and peace-maintaining process is building strong relationships, listening and allowing oneself to be influenced by others, and helping others to also foster peace.

I know through personal experience that giving up my story involving judgment and criticism of both others and myself can provide a profound shift to peace of mind and peace in the heart.  I also believe that once you find peace in your heart, it is imperative to then try to foster peace in others. It’s as simple as being willing to reexamine your own M.O. and be open to others’ perspectives.   Foster your peace within your heart and change your corner of the world.