My Reaction to Stress: Like Night and Day

This blog may sound like I’m whining.  Or maybe it won’t.  You decide.

In the last two months we:

Put our home of 16 years on the market and will be giving up the family home where our children grew up Have the opportunity to downsize and move to place we really want to live
House on market means dogs have to go stay with Ex No muddy feet to wipe or midnight whining to go to the bathroom
Have children who are struggling with decisions about their education, and therefore their future Have children who are taking the time to reconsider their path and make sure they are on the right track
Had a parent have a major and sudden illness, and almost died Had a parent have a health event, where the recovery phase might mean he can become stronger than ever
Had students who, for administrative reasons, faced the risk of deportation Had students that stepped up to advocate for themselves and realized that they have the power to make changes that affect their lives
Had a choice to take a job out of state, and potentially leaving our home, friends and family Had an opportunity to move out of state to meet new people and enjoy new professional challenges
Had to deal with the possibility of an out of state move with my sweetheart Learned that uncertainty and stress can forge a relationship to be even stronger
Was told that a major collaboration was ending Was told that a major educational opportunity was opening
A new grant opportunity came up suddenly that required a brand new, university-wide project be conceived of and proposed before the 2 month deadline The brand new project had a dream team of talented, committed people and we now have the makings of a fantastic project
Had a major grant deadline the day of our annual graduation.   Four more family graduations follow in the ensuing 5 weeks. Learned that graduation goes on without me.  Four more family members graduate in the ensuing 5 weeks.
Had a beloved assistant of many years announce her pending retirement Have a chance to hire a new assistant who will have new ideas, novel (to me) experience and style

 

Yes, life has been crazy lately.  When people ask what’s new, I just shake my head.

But this is life, in all it’s chaotic glory.  I remember years ago, my dear and most amazing friend Lisa told me that she doesn’t have stress in her life.  “How can that be?” I wondered.  Any one of the above could’ve and would’ve freaked me out back then.  The difference to me now is striking, as despite all of the above happening virtually simultaneously, I really did not stress until 2 nights before the grant deadline where I had to pull the first all-nighter of my life to get it done on time.

Back then, the column on the right was vanishingly small.  The column on the right now makes all the difference.  The column on the right is not my delusion or wildly- and naively-optimistic thinking.  The column on the right is choosing to view events not as stressors, losses, setbacks, or disasters, but rather to view them as opportunities and chances for growth.  Note that the column on the right avoids trying to control people or situations; rather it embodies acceptance of reality.

The column on the right has many advantages.  First, I did not unnecessarily add stress to those around me. I was a calming influence for the most part, not an anxiety-provoking one.  Second, by staying calm I was able to be more effective in each circumstance than I would have had I lost control.  Staying productive, focused and effective reduces the overall stress in the end rather than escalating it.  Third, I still was able to have a great quality of life despite the confluence of several potential making-me-crazy  situations.

I wrote recently about stress and how it really is simply a matter of perspective, which boils down to a couple of simple choices.  The first choice is whether to accept reality without judgment.  We have a tendency to want our lives to go smoothly and everything to come easily and naturally.  Comfort and ease are not conducive to growth.  Trial and tribulation inspires change and improvement.  So which is really better?  It’s not for me to judge.

The second choice is whether we choose the negative or positive (column on the right) interpretation of the events in our lives.  We have nothing to lose and everything to gain by choosing the positive. So – what’s it going to be – whine or get engaged with a great opportunity?  You decide that too.

Love Thy Enemy and Other People You Can’t Stand

love-your-enemy-probably-doesnt-mean_

We all have that person/people we just can’t stand to be around.  They wronged us.  They’re selfish, demanding, controlling, mean-spirited, and/or negative.  When we’re around them, they make our blood boil and we just want to bolt or wallow in a chocolate binge.

I was never sure which was more upsetting – being near someone I couldn’t stand, or the fact that I couldn’t stand being near them.  I mean, why should their presence upset me?  Ruin an otherwise lovely event or meeting?  (I realize “lovely meeting” is an oxymoron but you know what I mean.)  It just makes it worse when that person seems completely oblivious to their effect on others.

The problem with this scenario of allowing someone else to rock my boat – justified or not – is that I’m giving away my power.  In other words, I’m allowing someone else to control how I feel.  If I spend five minutes, no  – one minute, feeling any less peaceful, content or happy with my life because of someone else, then I’ve let that someone “win.”

Illegitimi non carborundum” (translation:  don’t let the bastards get you down) – World War II British army intelligence

The solution is to avoid going there in the first place.  I realize that’s easier said than done, but I feel like it’s well worth the effort.

First, realize that by treating that person as a problem, obstacle or a happiness/joy black hole, I am objectifying  them.  Dehumanizing them.  I am treating them like an object, a thing, not a person with feelings, dreams, and (this may be a stretch here sometimes) good intentions.  Sounds like I’m the person with the problem.

Second, view that person instead with compassion and empathy.  Usually if someone is acting so unreasonably, selfishly or negatively it must mean that they are struggling with their fear, control issues, confidence or ability to see the world as a loving place.  I imagine them as a scared child, and see that their actions are being driven by their hot buttons, not their better angels.  He who has never acted or spoken based upon their hot buttons can probably never understand this concept, but I would hazard a guess that we’ve all been there, done that.

In addition, remember that the characteristic in someone else that drives you nuts is the thing you hate/fear about yourself.   A friend recently said, “but I hate lazy, ineffective people, and I don’t think I’m lazy or ineffective.”  This would fall into the latter category of something you may fear you may find in yourself.  For example, people who are driven to work hard and excel may have an underlying belief that tells them they are not worthy/lovable/valuable/a good person unless they demonstrate their competence and productivity.  Such people may work very hard to avoid their feelings of incompetence – a feeling they hate in themselves.

Third, forgive that person.  It’s easy to forgive them when I see their scared child.  I’ve said in this blog many times that “Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself” (Suzanne Somers) and I truly believe that. Forgiveness lightens the spirit and opens the heart, regardless of whether I think they deserve it.  It’s for me, not for them.  Plus, I’ve  just identified that quality in the person that I fear that I may share with them.  So, I can forgive yourself, while I’m at it.

Finally, approach that person now with love, compassion, and empathy. Once I do the above three steps, the last step is surprisingly easy, because I am no longer judging either of us, and now I can bring my best self to the dynamic.  You may be surprised how healing, powerful and affirming it is to approach difficult people with love and empathy, not only for you but also for the person you are no longer treating like something you found on the bottom of your shoe.  They may also just find that you’re not being as difficult as they once thought and forgive you too.

My assistant’s tag line on her email has been “I choose love.”  And she does.  And so should we all, especially when it’s hardest to do.

Lean In/Lean Away

Leaning

Leaning

Are you biding your time?  Are you coasting?  Have you given up?  Is it not your responsibility? Or, maybe you’re trying too hard?

In Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, the author advocates that both men and women lean into the roles that they are perhaps not fully engaged in.  Women will often lean away from their work roles for a number of reasons, according to Sandberg, such as feeling it is not their role, trying to be polite/team players, anticipating maternity leave, or feeling like it’s cheaper to leave the workforce than pay for childcare.  Sandberg states that, in contrast, men lean away from the traditional female roles of parenting and housecleaning.  For equity and the benefit of all involved, men should lean in toward their home and family roles and women into their work and professional roles.

Apparently, Sandberg got a lot of heat for this book.  I’m not sure why exactly, except to maybe surmise that whenever you generalize, you will potentially be wrong about someone.  And gender roles are a hot topic, so while I generalize all the live-long day on this blog, I haven’t really touched upon these hot gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or political affiliation topics.

But I digress.  What I really want to point out is that maybe Sandberg was too specific in her request for both men and women to lean in and engage.  There are men who are disengaged and women who are engaged in some areas and not others in the workplace.  At home, it’s the same dynamic – some ways women are disengaged (stereotypically, with finances) and others in which men are more engaged (stereotypically with the TV, haha).

Once, during a professionally restless time period, I was looking for a new job.  One job in particular seemed like it had a great deal of potential and a likely job offer, but the timeline just streeettcchhed on, even more so than the usual academic search.  During that time period, there was a tendency to disengage, not only from my work, but also from my local relationships.  I had more than one person tell me, “oh you’re leaving so I guess we won’t plan to get together.”  I did not end up taking that job, and so leaning away for the almost 10 months that the search process spanned would’ve meant 10 months of treading water,  lost productivity and opportunity to grow relationships.

I have also heard others just talk about wanting to wait until…. graduation, their new job, retirement, when their kids go to college, their next vacation….to be happy, start caring for themselves, de-stress, quit rushing, enjoy themselves, try something new.  Isn’t that a long time to wait to be happy or satisfied?  Why not aim for satisfaction and engagement every day?

I don’t really have a problem with leaning in.  Fortunately, during that job search I possibly even over-compensated and worked harder.  When I did not actually leave, I had both feet fully engaged at work and some terrific projects and opportunities that had developed during that time period – which honestly was part of the reason I decided not to go.  In hindsight, it would’ve been a huge mistake to lean away for so long, especially since I ended up staying.

But, I think there’s a whole subset of us who tend to lean in too hard sometimes.  We’re euphemistically called, “intense.”  We are also less charitably called, “pushy” or “demanding.”

Intense people sometimes need to lean away. I know my teenaged boys and my sweetheart sometimes just need some space.  That is not my natural inclination, and, in a way, to lean in with them means to lean away physically, psychologically and emotionally.   There are similarly situations at work that also just require time, letting situations ripen, working the process, letting go, or self-reflection instead of pushing pushing pushing.  Sandberg would say that women who push are “aggressive” while men who push are “assertive.”  I’ve been called aggressive more than once, as you can imagine.  My goal is to temper it with diplomacy and hopefully a growing amount of wisdom.  A dose of humor and positivity never hurts either.

So, as with all things that we endeavor to do, we should be conscious.  Where do we lean in?  Where do we lean away?  Where do we need to adjust and step in or step back?  I know some feel overwhelmed by these choices, but these choices are where our power is.  We have very little control in our lives, and the only thing that we can control is ourselves.  If we focus mainly on what we can control, instead of what we cannot, we can be more powerful.  Applying wisdom and intentionality to what was previously unconscious allows us to be more effective and happier in our lives.

So go for it.  Lean in.  Lean away.  We will all be metaphorically bobbing to and fro as we experiment.

I know some people are afraid to make a change because they might make a mistake.  What if you ARE making a mistake now, and by not making a change, you’re prolonging a mistake that could’ve been fixed years ago?  Doing nothing is not the same is doing no harm.  Remember, the sin of omission is just as bad as the sin of commission.  Don’t assume inaction is safer than taking a chance.  The worst case scenario is that you learn a lesson.  So what do you have to lose?

Beauty and the Beast

our natural tendency to groom

our natural tendency to groom

I’m as vain as the next gal.  I like healthy skin, a good haircut, a trim figure etc.  It’s important for me to look good and try to present a well-groomed, clean and attractive image.  The amount of money I pay for my hair each month embarrasses me.  But I also have a daily routine that, aside from soaking in my luxurious bubble bath each day, comprises about five minutes each morning and evening.  That’s my patience limit for grooming, and some might rightfully argue that I should do more.

I guess I don’t understand why anyone would want to do more.  Even 5 min, twice a day, seems like a lot.  Anything that you do every day adds up to real time over a year, as that 10 min/day translates to 60 hours per year. 60!  And all that money!  According to statistica.com, the US cosmetics market was more than $53 billion dollars in 2011.  Billion!  That amounts to approximately $150 per person in the US, including every man, woman and child.  You can buy a lot of raisin bran, or prenatal vitamins for that matter, for $150.

Yes, it’s important to be attractive, but at the risk of sounding like a plain girl’s rationalization, I wouldn’t go too far out of my way to be a beauty, a hottie, a fox – in the same way that I do not have on my To Do list to become rich, powerful or famous, or even to be liked, for that matter (I think my students will attest to that).  If any of those happen in the course of my endeavors, fine.  But they are not among my primary or even secondary goals.

My goals have more to do with making a meaningful contribution, having a positive impact on people, and having fulfilling, intimate relationships with friends and loved ones. In some ways, being too beautiful, rich, or famous can stand in the way of finding and creating intimacy.   You hear about all those famous, rich and/or beautiful people who feel utterly alone.  They are never sure if people are with them for who they are versus what they represent.

“She’s so lucky, she’s a star/But she cry, cry, cries in her lonely heart, thinking/If there’s nothing missing in my life/Then why do these tears come at night/Lost in an image, in a dream/But there’s no one there to wake her up.” – Britney Spears

I had a brief stint in a relationship (sort of) with someone who seemed to idolize me.  Fortunately, this has not been a recurring trend in my life.  Sure, it was flattering for about 5 minutes, but then, over time, it became apparent that he was more infatuated with my image, what I represented, rather than just me.  He wasn’t really interested in getting to know me, or understand me, and I knew in that instant that we could never be anything more than just friends.  At the most.

A girlfriend from high school, Monique, liked to talk about being “average above-average.” That’s my happy spot for many things.  I want to be reasonably attractive and modestly adept at most things.  I’m OK being disgracefully incompetent at others, but there’s a small number of things I want to really excel at.  My personal mission is to use active love to grow and improve the people and institutions I serve.  I’m not sure where department store cosmetics and manicures fit into that mission – I believe that money is better spent donated to nonprofit organizations that I support, or using that for personal or professional development for me or a family member.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t take care of ourselves and spend the time and money to look good.  Not at all.  In fact, having a well-groomed and polished image is for many people a prerequisite to professional success.  And some people just inexplicably enjoy grooming, probably like I enjoy shopping.  But I wonder if we sometimes cross that line where appearance becomes more important than the substance.  I think we’re selling ourselves short in that situation.  We each have so much more to offer the world than how we look.  That’s where the “money” is.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us”  – Marianne Williamson

A Mother’s Day Gratitude, Long Overdue

I have to confess I was not the most grateful daughter.  As a teenager, I’m sure I gave my mother several sleepless nights and ulcerating moments.  I think it sometimes requires that we become parents ourselves before we realize the full scope of what it means to be a parent.

I’m sorry, Mom, for all those times I took you for granted or got frustrated or impatient with you.  I have learned that being a Mom means worrying and working 365 days a week, 24 hours a day, but the Thank Yous only come on one day per year.

So here we go.  Thank you Mom for:

  • Doing the tasks no one wants to do
  • Doing those tasks without complaining
  • Saying the things that no one will say
  • Saying those things despite knowing you’re going to take the heat for it
  • Putting our needs ahead of your own
  • Putting our needs ahead of your own and often sacrificing a lot to do so, without making us feel guilty
  • Stepping up and doing that something extra for us
  • Stepping up and doing that something extra for us without any expectation of thanks or acknowledgement
  • Teaching us that we can all change and grow, no matter what our age
  • Teaching us that we can all change and grow, and not lecturing us about it
  • Always trying to do the right thing for us kids
  • Always trying to do the right thing for us kids, even though it feels like it will break your heart.

Happy Mother’s Day Mom.  I’m going to try to be a better daughter, 365 days a year, and not wait until Mother’s Day next year to try to be the daughter to you that you deserve.

Mom and me

Mom and me

Your Daily Legacy

Genetic ripples

Genetic ripples

When considering our life’s legacy, it would seem that most people think about their kids, their job, their community service and the corresponding long-term impact.  As life’s ripples go, these are indeed the ones that will have the largest and most noticeable effect on others.

But what about the smaller ripples?  You’ve heard of the butterfly effect:  how an apparently insignificant event in one part of the world can cause ripples across the globe.  We see this effect play out in the human drama all the time:  a tourist or reporter, in the wrong place at the wrong time getting arrested and creating an international incident (Louisa Lim), or a single person’s act of defiance (such as the man blocking the tanks at Tienanmen Square in 1989) or courage (Rosa Parks) inspiring the world.  In this era of instant and global communication, a single blog, tweet or posting can also cause baby ripples that eventually magnify into a tsunami.

Our lives are made up of an infinite number of baby ripples, that together, can cumulatively create the equivalent of a tsunami.  Often these baby ripples are created without our notice.   As a parent, I’m acutely aware of how what seems like an innocuous statement can have lasting impact on a child.  That impact can be either positive or negative.   Either way, it’s all too easy to have a profound influence on someone’s world view or self-perception, and not even realize it.

We also can unwittingly impact others outside our family, ranging from friends, colleagues, acquaintances, or even mere strangers.  This impact may also be positive or negative.  Sometimes a kind word, look, or gesture can have a tremendously positive impact on someone who is struggling, while a cruel, careless or unkind word, look, or gesture can also have a tremendously negative impact on someone who, up until that time, has been doing well.  In Anatomy of Peace, the Arbinger Institute contends that war (manifest as dehumanization) begins within the heart of a single person.  That person’s hate recruits others to hate as well, until you have the tsunami of war.

Even if we do nothing against our fellow man, our mood and emotions affect others. Ever notice how moods are contagious?   We may not notice the impact of our anger, depression, aggression or hostility on others, but that does not mean those emotions are not contagious.  Similarly, our joy, gratitude and acceptance can positively influence how others feel.  I have heard some people say that if they’re unhappy, then they want everyone else to feel it.  I have to ask the question:  Why?  Isn’t life hard enough without you contributing to that?  How does that really help you?  Is that really the legacy you wish to create?

So, what kind of wake are you leaving, as you create baby ripples in your life?  What is your legacy… in this moment?  Is it something you’re proud of?

How to Have a Difficult Conversation

Finding our voice can be a difficult task, especially if we’re afraid of hurting someone else’s feelings or appearing needy, whiny, demanding, or inappropriate.  Yet, stating what we need or believe is essential to being authentic, having intimate relationships and resolving both spoken and unspoken conflicts.  Having a difficult, but necessary conversation is an important skill, and the how-to of it has been broken down into manageable parts by Patterson, Grenny, MacMillan and Switzler in the book Crucial Conversations:  Tools for Talking When Stakes are High.    Everyone I have ever talked to who has read this book has loved it, so I’m going to summarize the steps here. You might decide you can do this and wish to go get the book for more detail.

Admittedly, it is a somewhat complicated process, but you can practice parts of it at a time and improve bit by bit.  There are some parts that you naturally do already, and parts where you might need some practice and more guidance from the book.  Even if you don’t do all of it, just improving elements of your approach to difficult conversations can make a difference.

1.  Start with Heart – Figure out what you really want to achieve and focus on that.  Be honest with yourself, and refuse the Sucker’s Choice.  In other words, avoid the lose/lose scenario, such as “She must  change or she doesn’t love me.”

2.  Learn to Look – Ever look back on a conversation that has gone south and only in retrospect notice when it happened?   Learn to notice when a conversation becomes crucial – you or your partner may go to silence (avoiding, withdrawing) or violence (forcing meaning into conversation such as “this must mean you….”, controlling, labeling, or attacking).

3.  Make it Safe – Approach the conversation with mutual purpose/goals and respect:  “Lord help me forgive those who sin DIFFERENTLY than I”.  Even diametrically opposed groups often have very similar goals.  For example, if you’re about to begin yet another argument with your spouse, remember you both really have the same goal of having a happy marriage, and that you’re both trying your best (even if it doesn’t appear that way).

If you find yourself in a tense conversation then first, APOLOGIZE for anything you might have done to contribute.  I realize this step is extremely difficult (or way too easy) for some people.  Remember it takes two to tango, and no matter how right or culpable you believe you are, you both have contributed to the problem, even if one person only played an unwitting role in a misunderstanding.  Then offer CONTRAST – say both what you want and don’t want to accomplish with the conversation.  For example, you can say “I don’t want you to feel like I’m trying to change you or be critical, but I do want to make sure we clearly understand each other.”  Next, CRIB – Commit to mutual purpose (such as being able to communicate openly in a civilized manner), Recognize the goals/purpose behind their approach (they want the same thing), Invent a mutual purpose (such as having a peaceful and productive working relationship), Brainstorm new strategies (such as agreeing to engage in conversation before the situation gets too hot).  In other words, treat your partner like a partner, not an obstacle or a problem, in resolving your tense situation.

4. Master Your Story – Notice your role in this drama and reinterpret your role, avoiding the victim, villain and helpless roles.

5.  State Your Path – Share your facts, tell your story, and ASK FOR others’ paths, using tentative language, such as “It appears to me that the way you see this is…  Where did I misinterpret?”.  Invite their feedback and contribution.

6.  Explore Others’ Paths – Invite their facts and ask them to retrace their path to their conclusion. Use ABC  – Agree, Build on what you both agree upon and Contrast the areas where you differ.

“Most arguments consist of battles over the 5-10% of the facts and stories that people disagree over”

7.  Move to Action –  Decide how to decide how to move forward together.  According to the authors, there are four methods for decision making:  command (one person decides), consult (get someone else to help us decide), consensus, or vote.  CONSENSUS may not always be possible or desirable.  Don’t pretend everyone will get their first choice, but agree to allow no martyrs, undermining after a decision is made, or I Told You So’s.   Agree in advance to come up with a decision everyone can support.  End with ACTION – who, what when and how to follow up.

Like all complex skills, this will require a phased approach and practice.  At least you’re trying to improve, as pretty much the majority of us can do better in handling difficult conversations.