Adversity. It’s All Good.

“If you live long enough, you’ll make mistakes. But if you learn from them, you’ll be a better person. It’s how you handle adversity, not how it affects you. The main thing is never quit, never quit, never quit” – William J. Clinton

I don’t believe in “good things” or “bad things.”  When good things happen, we have a tendency to coast, enjoy, relax.  That’s great!  We should all be able to relax and enjoy the fruits of our labor.   However, the downside of everything going right is that we lack the incentive to grow.  After all, why change when we’re comfortable and happy?

Not that I would wish “bad things” on anyone.  Rather, I wish that everyone would view setbacks, adversity, mistakes as an opportunity to reflect, learn, adjust, and grow.  According to Jonathan Haidt, author of the Happiness Hypothesis, the growth opportunities resulting from adversity are most impactful for young people – teens and twenty-somethings – as they derive the most benefit from adversity compared to someone in mid-life.  Good thing for them since they (particularly the teenagers) often seem to generate a lot of it!  Our Baby Boom generation hasn’t helped much either by providing this economy and deficit as they’re trying to launch.  But I digress.

In short, we can all benefit from adversity and setbacks, but young adults potentially can derive the most growth from these opportunities.  I know from personal experience that my feelings of isolation, rejection, invisibility, unfairness, self-loathing all helped me as a young woman forge into someone with determination, conviction, drive, and accomplishment.  Back then, I had a choice as to whether to use that adversity to forge myself into a stronger person, or to just allow life to beat me down.

Yes, this is an important lesson for all of us.  And we should not overly-protect our young people from this lesson.

When our kids were in daycare (preschool age), there was a child who was overly aggressive and acting out superhero antics (think:  can of whoop-ass) on the other children.  His parents defended the behavior saying that they think children should get used to this kind of behavior since “it’s a hard world out there.”  This is true, but we have a duty to protect our children when they’re pretty much defenseless.  The point is that age-appropriate lessons and consequences should be imparted on our young.  We should neither beat them down at a young age no more than we should helicopter-parent protect them into their twenties.

As is often the case with this blog, this helpful advice falls into the category of “easier said than done.”  With kids, not only do their needs and abilities change with age, but each child is different.   It takes true wisdom to find the right balance, and true wisdom is rare and fleeting.  After 20 years of parenting, I can list a couple of examples where we made the tough decisions as parents, that in hindsight were spot-on.  I can list dozens more where we missed the mark, but we did try to learn from every mistake.

The parenting moments I’m most proud of had to do with requiring our children to abide by their commitments, stick it out instead of quitting, when it would’ve been easier for all of us to just let them quit.  They wanted to quit scouting at one point – now they’re both on the verge of becoming Eagle scouts.  One wanted to quit the language immersion program they entered – now he’s fluent in French and ended up having a fantastic and memorable experience.   Another wanted to bail on a promise to go on a difficult, weeklong backpacking trip – now he loves backpacking and even led a backpacking trip last year for freshman pre-orientation program.

Despite a year of smoothly managing change and upheaval, currently I am struggling with my own feelings of victimization and anxiety regarding the combination of our imminent move and the fact that our old house has not yet sold.   It’s neither logical nor helpful, and inconsequential compared to what others are going through.  Yet here I am.  I am realizing now that my growth opportunity has to do with managing my anxiety around financial issues.  To be at peace with the financial aspects of this situation will be a milestone for me.

As a strengths coach, I will rely on my strengths to manage this anxiety and learn from it.  My Strategic is lining up resources for the worst case scenario, my Relator will ask for support from my friends and family (especially Chris to help be my barometer for monitoring my feelings), my Connectedness will find meaning in the lesson, my Ideation will continue to look for creative solutions to anything that might arise.   I can trust myself and my relationship to manage what comes my way.  There now, don’t I feel better and more confident already?

The Baseline of Misunderstanding

We see the world through our lens

We see the world through our lens

The heart and mind are the true lens of the camera” – Yousuf Karsh

We are like photographers, clicking images and impressions of the world, others, and ourselves.  We believe that we are objective and virtuous photographers, and we believe that the images that we capture reflect reality.

If our cameras were 100% objective, there should be no misunderstandings or mistaken memories.   Despite all evidence to the contrary (how many times have we found we were wrong about a memory or had different but logical interpretations of the same event?), we continue to go through life believing that we understand reality as it is.  Perhaps our certainty is some kind of mental and emotional adaptation that prevents us from feeling overwhelmed in the vast complexity of our lives.  A useful adaptation, for sure.

However, I also know that the more sure I am, the more likely I am to create problems for myself and others.  Honestly, I give a lot of credit to my Ex for living with me as long as he did during a phase of my life when I was so sure about so much.  At the time, I was not very open to others’ reality or being wrong in general.

Being open to someone else’s reality – that is, how they interpret the world through their unique lens – is a good start to avoiding misunderstandings.  If both parties are open and motivated to understand each other, then perhaps it is sufficient.  I have a found, however, that communication skills can transform a relationship.  What I don’t mean by communication skills is selecting the right words in the right sequence to describe your interpretation of reality.  That is merely the starting point.

Chris and I decided to be very intentional and proactive about communication, especially around sensitive topics.  These sensitive topics are where misunderstandings are most likely to occur as our emotions fog and distort the lens of our camera.   We went a therapist who specializes in imago relationship therapy, where the foundation is communication skills.

Every week Chris and I commit to some quiet time where we talk about the week’s photographs of our relationship – both the positive and the more difficult aspects.  Both will arise over the course of the week, but by being proactive and positive about our communication, we circumvent many problems.  But not all of them.

Recently we were discussing a sensitive topic.  Because we did not complete the conversation in our intentional conversation-mode, we walked away with a misunderstanding and probably some hurt feelings.   The follow-up to that conversation shed a bit of light, but led to yet another misunderstanding.  The third conversation revealed to us our common objectives and overlap in desires.  So, despite having “graduated” with advanced couples’ communication skills, we had two misunderstandings when discussing a sensitive topic.

What would’ve happened if we weren’t communicating intentionally and proactively?   The old Susanna, and the old Chris-Susanna would likely have had a lot of anger, resentment, blaming, and a big fight out of one or both misunderstandings.   There may have even been more than two misunderstandings in the old communication mode, and we probably would’ve generated even more during the course of a fight.   The irony would be that it would’ve all been unnecessary since we had almost identical goals and desires, but our emotional lenses distorted the message each of us were trying to convey.

The skills we learned are somewhat of a cliché, but they do work if done correctly.  It took Chris and me several sessions with the therapist to master this technique, so I don’t recommend you try this at home without some type of coach, book, or resource, and a commitment to honor each of its components (a great book is Crucial Conversations).  Taking shortcuts in the process undermines it. The rules are:

  1.  Only one person may speak at a time, and their narrative continues until they have no more to say.
  2. The speaker phrases their message using sentences starting with “I” instead of “you.”
  3. After each narrative, the listener says “What I think I heard you say was…” and they summarize what the speaker just said.  They end with, “is that right?”  The speaker then has the opportunity to correct any misunderstandings that might have occurred.  The listener reflects back what they heard in the correction.  This is repeated until the message is clearly and accurately heard by the listener.
  4. Since the listener is reflecting back what they hear, the narratives should be in digestable chunks limited to roughly 3-4 ideas at a time.
  5. When both parties concur that the listener has understood the message, the listener says, “is there more?”  Then the speaker goes to their next narrative chunk and the above is repeated until the speaker has no more to share.
  6. Speaker/listener change roles and repeat the above.

We practiced these skills over and over.  It sounds easy but when you are dealing with emotional issues, it is difficult to avoid defending or blaming.  Practice taught us to honor the process and each other’s courage and willingness to participate, and we work through it step by step.

There are two additional critical elements to this process.  The first is easy.  We begin each of these conversations with appreciations for each other.  So each week we convey to each other, using the process,  all the things that the other has done the previous week that was appreciated and that made us feel loved.  It’s a wonderful, affirming practice, and has become an important and anticipated highlight of our week.

The second element is harder.  We are usually communicating at the mind level of the camera, but to be really effective we must go to the heart level.  Nancy, our therapist, would ask us to dig deeper into the emotional reasons and background behind our perspectives.  This deeper dive is the process where we talk about our fears, needs and desires behind our emotions, values and beliefs.  I believe communicating these elements is essential for couples to really understand each other.  Though these deeper, emotional elements are often difficult to discuss, the deep discussion also can transform a relationship to where we really see each other clearly, possibly for the first time.

Though I believe most people probably will need a coach to be really good at this, I also think that a person who is sincerely committed to the process can learn and master much of it on their own.  Without these tools, during conflict I have often felt like I was powerless to do anything other than fall back into a childish, tantrum-like state.  Instead,  I think this process has taught me what it is like to finally grow up and start to be an adult around emotional issues.

The Trouble With Self-Esteem

Don’t get me wrong.  I feel as good about self-esteem as the next gal. In fact, I cultivate it in myself (and others) as much as possible.  Who couldn’t use a little additional self-esteem?

After all, people with high self-esteem (will call them/us HSE for simplicity) are confident and feel good about themselves pretty much all the time.  HSEs are accustomed to being talented and accomplished and they know stuff/do stuff/get stuff done.  It’s all good, right?

Well.  Sometimes HSEs can go a bit over the top.  Everyone knows someone who is never wrong, who is always doing the most fascinating and interesting things, does everything perfectly, is incredibly successful, knows everything… and doesn’t mind telling you about it.   Ad nauseum.  Endlessly.  Tirelessly.  Without taking a breath. Or perhaps we’re not telling you about it directly; we might intimate our obvious excellence, superiority or cool-ness in indirect ways.  That smirk, that tone, that choice of words.  We don’t even know we’re doing it.

So, think CAREFULLY and answer these questions as honestly as you can.

  • When was the last time you complained about what a slacker or loser someone else was?
  • When was the last time you described another as clueless, awkward or on the wrong track?
  • When was the last time you told (or implied to) someone about your accomplishments, qualities or talents without them asking? (this may masquerade as fishing for compliments)
  • When was the last time you interrupted someone because your idea or thought was better or more important than theirs?

We are all imperfect and flawed humans.  We all have less-than-charitable or -honorable feelings and we exhibit behaviors we are not proud of.   And sometimes we need to self-promote and self-advocate if we’re trying to market ourselves intentionally.   To me, the question instead is whether we are in denial or aware and accepting of our human imperfections and flaws (over the top HSE in this case) and use that knowledge to try to grow.   Denial results in poor self-awareness and failure to understand how we are perceived by others.  My own self-acceptance of my flaws is much better of late than in my youth (OK, as a younger adult), but it is still a struggle sometimes to avoid my know-it-all condescension.

With that in mind, let’s consider your responses to the questions. If you quickly listed many examples in answer to the questions, then perhaps you are already very sensitive to how you are perceived, and are not the braggart/bore that you might think you are.    Consider the possibility that you’re too hard on yourself.  Instead of focusing on how you’re falling short, perhaps accept or even embrace the fact that we’re all flawed and imperfect.  Consider forgiving yourself for being, well, human.  Having these feelings are natural and unavoidable.  What you do with them is what you can control and manage.

If you took your time and then listed a surprising number examples to the questions, then perhaps you just had an Aha moment.  Consider continuing to improve your self-awareness of your behavior in regards to your feelings of self-worth.  Next time you want to brag, interrupt, complain or teach, then stop and observe the urge. Where does that come from?  Or, you might already be aware of this tendency in yourself and have already been working on improvement.  Good job!  Keep it up!

If you were unable to think of any examples of the above, then perhaps consider the possibility that such behaviors are so ingrained and natural to you that you are unaware of them.  Perhaps you need to improve self-awareness and your willingness to consider that you’re wrong, acting judgmental or superior, or just being plain inappropriate.   If you are feeling defensive now, stop and consider the source of that feeling (remember:  I don’t even know you.  Nor am I really “talking” to you.  This is a blog.)

To me, these exercises in self-awareness are a battle where my warm, snug cocoon of  denial is battling my fear of confronting my flaws.  Warm cocoon vs. Fear.  Seems like a no-brainer.  On one hand, in my cocoon I feel so good about myself and am self-righteous.  I’m confident.  I’m certain.  I’m all alone and annoying as hell in my holier-than-thou little bubble. On the other hand is me summoning my courage to look objectively at myself.

If my courage wins, then I can acquire wisdom.  Wisdom, in my definition, is being willing to learn from our mistakes.  In this scenario, I trade my cocoon for the courage to be  vulnerable and say, “I’m sorry,”  “I was wrong,”  “That was insensitive of me.”    Being authentically human (with all the attendant flaws) will actually deeply and genuinely enhance my feelings of self-worth.  Thus, I learn to balance HSE with humility, one battle at a time.

Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness, Explained by Clichés

Wealth and happiness

Wealth and happiness

Don’t you love those Aha moments when something you’ve always known intuitively but couldn’t understand is finally explained?  Money (and other stuff) doesn’t buy happiness.  We all know that, but how many of us live that?  Our consumer-driven society pursues and values money as if it is the ultimate prize.  “He who has the most, wins.”  As if winning is even the most important thing.

Those that are fabulously successful are not necessarily happier than anyone else.  But why?

In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt explains that when we make a step closer to a goal, we receive a little burst of dopamine, a neurochemical that mediates pleasure.   Every time we progress, move forward on our journey, jump over yet another hurdle, we get that dopamine reward.  However, the dopamine reward is short-lived and is most effective when its release occurs right after the accomplishment.  In other words, a major accomplishment will still only provide a relatively small and transient burst of dopamine despite the magnitude of the prize because you probably worked long and hard toward that goal.  Then, after a few hours or days, you’ll be wondering, “Now what?”

So undoubtedly we’ve all experienced this anti-climactic response to a major accomplishment.  For me, tenure was the ultimate anti-climactic experience.  I think I actually became depressed, because I didn’t like the answer to the  “Now what?”   Twenty-two years of education and six years on the tenure track.  I’d call that delayed gratification to the Nth degree.  And the reward (the path to professor) was something I could not fathom pursuing.

Therefore, money, stuff, or tenure does not buy happiness. But the journey does.  Each step closer to a goal gives us that burst of dopaminergic happiness.  Maybe that means we should really just be in the present moment rather than saving our joy for the future.

I hear this notion from my students over and over.  “I’ll just be satisfied/happy/content/quit worrying when I graduate.”  Nope.  It doesn’t work that way and now I know why.

So let’s really live by the other tried and true adage, “Life is short.  Eat dessert first.”  Chocolate cake anyone?

Dealing With Mesothelioma While Raising Lily

All,
I am reblogging this posting to remind everyone about the dangers of asbestos exposure and to refer you to the ACVRC. The ACVRC is a national campaign dedicated to protecting the rights of cancer victims and their families as well as raising awareness about this vicious disease.

In an effort to better educate other parents on ways to keep their little ones safe from asbestos. (See recent blog: http://www.cancervictimsrights.org/back-to-school-asbestos-edition/) Asbestos exposure is preventable if the proper precautions are taken. We must work together to make the public more aware of the dangers

Silver Lining

By Heather, guest blogger

We have all experienced times when life seems to change dramatically. I experienced it when was 36. Experiencing all possible emotions, I felt extreme joy in extreme sadness within a short period of time. On August 4, 2005, Lily was born. Those who have had kids know the joy that comes with the birth of a child, and I cannot express the joy my husband and I felt. Unfortunately, that joy was soon to be dashed.

A month after the birth of Lily, I went back to work. However, something felt wrong; my energy was zapped and I was constantly tired. In addition, I was losing between five to seven pounds every week. This is obviously something thats normal for new moms, but my suspicion remained. Unfortunately, I was right-and something much worse was actually happening.

After enduring a battery of tests, I was diagnosed with…

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Formula for Influence and Persuasion

I love psychological formulas as they describe what seems indescribable.  And one of the qualities that seems beyond quantification is influence and persuasion.  But maybe it’s not?

Clifton StrengthsFinders* describes 34 strength themes that we all have, but to varying degrees.  They categorize these themes into four domains:  executing, influencing, relationship building and strategic thinking.  If you’re particularly good at one of the above domains, chances are you have some of your dominant strengths in the respective category.

Influencing is the domain that is the biggest mystery to me, so I looked at the strengths listed in that category:  activator (starting things), command (taking control/making decisions), communication (verbal and non-verbal), competition, maximizer (strive for excellence in self and others), self-assurance (belief in one’s own ability to achieve things), significance (want to be important in the eyes of others), and woo (love meeting strangers and winning them over).  Approximately 25% of the strengths are in the influencing theme, and some themes not listed here can have influencing qualities.  For example, one can inspire others with their futuristic vision (futuristic) or passion for their idea or cause (belief), though those are primarily (but not exclusively) categorized as a strategic and executing theme, respectively.

Therefore, the vast majority of us have an influencing theme or two that we use every day, though we may not realize it.  As such, we all have the ability to influence and persuade.  The qualities involved in persuasion are varied but include being able to get things done (activator), or done well (maximize), and motivation to win (competition) or win others over (woo).  An element of confidence (command, self-assurance) and ability to communicate also facilitate this skill.

The beauty about strengths work is that by focusing on our strengths, we increase our happiness, engagement and effectiveness.  We also realize that we can’t be good at everything, as our strengths results are given in a list from strongest to weakest.  But we can use our strengths strategically to help fill in some of those gaps at the bottom of the list.

I’ll bet you have strengths that you use to fill in your gaps, but don’t realize it.  For example, I’m probably slightly above average in my ability to meet people and make a good connection with them such that we’re exchanging business cards at the end of the exchange.  But woo is probably #30 on my list.  This skill just does not come that easily to me.  It takes effort and concentration on my part, and I rely on some of my other skills that involve gathering information, using it creatively to make connections, and my desire to form deep relationships with and develop people to approximate a woo-type strength.  Voila.  A new tool for my toolkit.

Being a strengths coach is so much fun because I can help people strategize about how to use their strengths more effectively (strategic is my strongest domain).  I’m even practicing turning that strategic eye toward myself – it’s so much more fun, easy, and effective compared to focusing on my weaknesses.

Part of my goal with this blog is to influence others to take a personal journey of acceptance, forgiveness, and gratitude.   This is not my strongest domain as I’ve already pointed out.  But, I’ve used my activator to get this blog and this entry started, my command to make decisions about what to write, and strategic about how to write it, and my belief in the value of these concepts in people’s lives.  To the degree that I have influenced your thinking, then I have used my strengths effectively.  To the degree I have not, well, I’m a work in progress.

*Also see:  Uncovering Hidden Tools, Everyone’s Unique Awesomeness, Those That Drive Us Crazy, Do As I Say,

(Un)conditional Love and Break-Ups

I think about the nature of love and loss of love every time I hear of a divorce or break-up.   If we assume it’s a given that divorce and break-ups will happen, then within this context, how do people go from “death do us part” to “I hate you and never want to see you again”?  Why not (as we used to say in middle school):  “It’s been real.  It’s been nice.  It’s been real nice… but it’s time to part ways”? (I added the last part.)

A good psychologist would undoubtedly provide a long, thorough and logical thesis on the subject of love turning to hate.  Or perhaps such transitions boil down to a few key ideas, such as failing to take responsibility for one’s own role in the relationship.  It’s hard to imagine how else one goes one extreme to the next without vilifying the other in some fashion.   It’s also hard to imagine how to demonize someone else whom I perceive to be only 50% responsible for the demise of the relationship.  However, if they’re the villain and I’m the victim, then it’s easy to go there. I might feel innocent and vindicated, but how will I learn to be more effective in my next relationship when I choose the same sort of partner?

To me, love is not connected to a switch that we flip on or off.  My love for my ex friends, boyfriends, husband and in-laws do not shut off because we’ve decided to not spend our time together any more.  And if I don’t vilify them, I think there is a tendency for them to not  vilify me (though clearly not a guarantee).  We can then part ways amicably and wish each other well on their new path.

Many people think my relationship with my ex-husband (and my boyfriend from college for that matter) is odd.  We still do an occasional holiday together, hang out together at celebrations and events, enjoy chatting and catching up around our co-parenting conversations.  We neither go out of our way to see each other, nor do we avoid each other.

I don’t know for sure how he feels, but I will always love him and have his back.  Yes, I wish he could’ve done more to help us resolve our relationship issues that led to our break-up, but he tried his best and that’s all I can ask.  I could’ve done more too, I am sure, and he seems to have forgiven me for my shortcomings as well.  In this manner, perhaps we are able to maintain our “love, honor and cherish” part of our vows, even if “death do us part” went by the wayside in terms of our daily living arrangements.  I don’t feel we’ll ever be completely separated.  After all, we do share our children, and someday we’ll share grandchildren if we are so blessed.

Continuing to honor part of our vows is some consolation from the divorce.  But having a real partner and ally out there in the world, instead of an enemy, even if it’s primarily from a co-parenting perspective, is a big plus in the good karma column.