Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Back to Square One

Back to Square One

One of the joys of being human is that you never have to worry about having life all figured out. At times, you may feel like you know what to do and what path you are on, but when that reptilian brain kicks in, everything you’ve been working on towards self-management and self-knowledge comes undone.

And so it goes when my sense of responsibility is affronted.  According to Clifton StrengthsFinders, people with the responsibility theme take psychological ownership of their promises.  I admit I have a love/hate relationship with this theme.  This profound sense of responsibility means I’m utterly reliable, but the psychological ownership part can be a heavy burden and drive me and others crazy.

For example, I HATE to be late.  Just HATE it.  Chris and I had an appointment recently, and he was still getting dressed past the time when we should’ve left.  As we get close to, then exceed the planned departure time, my anxiety level goes through the roof.   As it turns out, the person we were meeting was even later.  Regardless, being 10 minutes late just does not matter in the scheme of things (and I know this) but I said I would be there and letting go of that is hard for me.  In this case, Chris is the victim of my promptness compulsion/obsession.

Even worse, I can torture myself for hours, even engaging in a sleepless night riddled with guilt and anxiety if I feel like I’ve contributed to or caused a costly mistake that affects others.  If it’s my own mistake and I am the sole benefactor of the fallout: no problemo.  But if I’m impacting others, I feel I’ve let them all down and am a terrible person.

In those moments (or hours as it may be) it just doesn’t help that much that I know that perfection is not possible, that I’m in the “basement” with my responsibility theme, that there are no bad events, just failure to turn them into opportunities.  I know these things to be true with all my being.  Yet, there I sit, wallowing in guilt and anxiety into the wee hours.

(Big sigh.)

This is my journey.  Sometimes I feel I’ve made great progress and sometimes I feel like I’m camping out at square one.  Maybe being at square one will motivate my responsibility tendencies to work even harder at letting go.  Does that sound like a contradiction?  Yeah.  Me too. Marshmallow anyone?

Setting Boundaries With Toxic People


“You teach people how to treat you” – Dr. Phil

Think what you will about Dr. Phil, but he has a few good lines that are really applicable to our lives. This quote is one of my favorites, because it reminds us that we do not have to feel powerless when it comes to our relationships.

It’s easy to play the victim or helpless card, where we tell ourselves that we can’t do anything about how someone else is treating us.  It’s true we can’t control someone else’s behavior, but it’s also true that we can set clear boundaries and adhere to them.

For example, if a friend is constantly criticizing your parenting style, how you do your job, how you behave in your romantic relationship etc. then you don’t have to endure it in silence.  Or perhaps you have asked them to stop criticizing you, but if you allow them to cross the line again without comment, you are teaching them that they do not have to respect your boundaries.

Here is an example of a conversation you might have with Debbie Downer, “Debbie, I love you very much, you are my dear friend.  But I want you to know that your criticism of my parenting style is very hurtful to me.  I’m not saying that you’re wrong, or that you’re not entitled to your opinion.  You are entitled to your opinion and you’re entitled to express your opinion to whomever you want.  And I know your comments are given out of love and concern for me and my kids.  But when you criticize me, it hurts my feelings and I want you to stop the criticism.  I also want you to stop criticizing me to my family. I’m doing the best I can and your comments are not helpful.”

The more calmly you can say this, the more effective you will be.   You may even want to give her advanced notice about the need to talk so she doesn’t feel ambushed.   If you have a conversation like this, consistency afterwards is also very important.  Don’t follow this conversation with a request for her opinion about your parenting style.  Don’t say stop, but then tolerate subsequent criticism in silence  (you may have to repeat the conversation if they regress.)

You may be reluctant to venture into a difficult conversation with your buddy because of the potential damage to your relationship.  Consider the damage that is already occurring to your relationship while you feel criticized and your feelings ignored.  Also consider whether the friendship is worth keeping if it cannot withstand a dose of honesty or request to respect boundaries.  A true friend will want to honor your wishes and strive to be sensitive to your needs.  Also ask yourself:  if the roles were reversed, would you want to know that you’re hurting your friend unintentionally?  I thought so.

The Upside of Losing Control

People seem to like to say they know they have no control, but continue to act as if they do anyway.  Certainly there are some things we want to be able to control: whether we’re employed, making a sufficient income to meet our needs or even wants, whether opportunities become available to us, the outcome of our grades or projects, whether our backyard has sufficient drainage so it won’t flood.    Indeed we have profound influence on the likelihood we can achieve each of those goals, but in the end, circumstances beyond our control may have the final word.   You know that 100-year storm will hit as soon as you’ve upgraded the drainage system to handle a 50-year storm.

Then there’s the stuff that we know we should not even try to control, namely, other people.   We have no control over how others think, feel, or act.  Heck, we can’t even control our own feelings half the time, nor should we try.  The feelings just are, and we can either manage them or be a slave to them.  In addition, we often do not understand someone else’s feelings (even if we think we do) since their hot buttons and filters on the world will differ from ours.  Yet here we are, trying to control that which we poorly understand and which we have no control over.  Cool.

Ditto for how others think.  Often we do not understand, and in some cases cannot understand, why others think as they do.  Nor do we have any control over their thoughts or opinions.   If you add to the mix that some people – for instance – will not like or respect me no matter what I do, no matter how sweet, smart, friendly, pretty, or cool I am, then trying to get them to change their opinion of me is pretty much a waste of time.   That’s not to say I give up trying to be my best, or continue to try to improve to improve my communication skills, the effectiveness of how I interact with others, etc.  Not at all.  I just don’t invest too much of my time or energy into worrying about how a subset of people perceive me or trying to change their mind about something they believe strongly in.

The above does not necessarily apply to my loved ones or the people I work closely with.  I invest much time and energy into those relationships, and if something goes wrong, I will engage in a critical conversation with them about our issues and make sure I understand their perspective.  But the grouchy gal down the street that I don’t have to work with? Not so much.

The same goes for trying to control what others do.  My sister constantly gets frustrated because my parents just won’t take care of themselves.  Yeah, me too.   I get frustrated too if my child doesn’t turn in his homework.   I want my parents to be healthy and live a long life and my son to make good grades, but I can’t make them do what they don’t want to do.  If that means they die at a younger age or don’t get into college or graduate school, that’s their choice.  I’ll be encouraging and supportive for their journey of self-actualization, and I won’t encourage or reward (intentionally anyway) a self-destructive pathway.  The rest is up to them.

You may say this sounds cold and callous.  After years of trying to take control of everything in my environment, I now contend that this is dealing with reality in a healthy way.  While I spent all those years trying to control everything around me, my life and health were going down the tubes.  In my dictionary, that would make me a hypocrite in addition to being an unrealistic butt-insky.   The recovering control freak in me still has a tendency to do too much, say too much.  However, now I know that the more I attend to my own journey, the better others can attend to theirs.

Also see Healing the Perfectionist and Control Freak

Evolution, Not Revolution

Four terrific kids

Four terrific kids

A snapshot of each holiday gathering is like time-lapse photography capturing the evolution of both family members and the family itself.  With each new frame, the subjects, and the relationships between the people develop and change.  Sometimes the differences between snapshots are dramatic, sometimes subtle.

I reflect upon these changes with the recent family gathering over the holiday.  This year, my youngest son, his girlfriend, Chris’s daughter and her boyfriend, join us at the beach.    All together under one roof for four wonderful days, this is our first time cohabitating for longer than the time it takes to enjoy a meal together.

What a difference a few months make.  I guess you can say Chris and I have been together a “long time” according to the perception of teenagers.  When we started dating we were working through the emotional turmoil of separation and divorces. Since then, not only have we worked through that transition, we have also invested time and energy into strengthening our relationship.  This upfront effort has paid off to create a smooth, comfortable and companionable partnership that would be apparent in our couples’ portrait.

A more dramatic change would be evident with the picture of the kids.   The divorces after our respective 20+ year marriages were understandably traumatic, and being introduced and acclimated to new surrogate families was a big, and not so easy transition.  Yet we progressed, within a pretty short timeframe, from “I’m not ready to meet anyone,” to hanging out under one roof as if we’ve been  palling around for years.

Frankly my style tends to be to push forward without looking back, but that style does not work for everyone.  Sometimes just patience and acceptance is the best way forward, Chris reminds me.  Evolution, not revolution.   Living in the land of Patrick Henry during Independence Day, I am now channeling my inner Darwin and celebrating changes that are more incremental than dramatic.  Viva la difference!

Those That Drive Us Crazy

We all seem to have our own behavioral hot buttons, where certain behaviors absolutely drive us crazy.  Which of these behaviors drive you nuts?

People who are always in slow motion.

People who are always in a hurry.

People who want to debate everything.

People who never want to talk about anything remotely controversial.

People who always have an opinion about everything.

People who never seem to have an opinion on anything.

People who have never met a stranger.

People who just want to hang with the people they know.

People who rush headlong into things.

People who take forever to make up their mind.

People who always seem to be busy.

People who never seem to be doing anything.

People who can never remotely even bend a rule.

People who think there are always exceptions to the rules.

People who seem like they’re always trying to impress you.

People who don’t seem to care what you think about them.

I know.  Me too!  They all drive me nuts. Every one of them!

I’m kidding, but a good half of these folks used to really drive me nuts.  Patient, I was not.  Not that I eradicated that demon, but I have a new perspective on these annoying people.  These commonly annoying traits are also called strengths.  Yep, they are actually human qualities that can be used to great advantage when applied properly.  Especially the traits that are driving you crazy!

Granted, it is our responsibility to use our strengths in a balanced and appropriate way to their maximum possible benefit, and that can be a struggle sometimes.  But what if everyone else was just like us?  We’d all want the same job, majors and classes, solve problems the same way, we’d care and think about only a narrow range of topics.    We’d all be bad at singing but good at math.  There would only be a couple of types of aerobics classes and we’d all want to be taking it.  The Lindt hazelnut chocolate bars would always be sold out.  Not good.

So I’m the impatient, opinionated person who always wants to explore ideas, even controversial ones.  I can have my head in the clouds and then act on ungrounded ideas.  Therefore,  I benefit from being with others who are more deliberative and grounded in reality though it often feels they’re putting a cramp on creativity and production.  I tend to want to follow the rules, but need reminding sometimes that the human element is important too and to try to find ways to appropriately manage both.  I’m fairly shy but appreciate those who will go up and talk to anyone.

The bottom line is:  if they’re driving me crazy, I probably need to partner with them the most.  And visa versa.

So relax.  Take a sip of your margarita, and take a fresh look at the person who has been pissing you off.  They may just save your hide one day.

Making the Change That You Know You Should Make

This has to be one of the hardest things to do ever.    Why is it so hard?

I’m certainly not qualified to answer this question, but since I’m a 100+ blogger – hey, I’ll give anything a shot, right?  My short answer is that I believe we get into bad emotional habits which are hard to recognize because they’ve become unconscious and ingrained.  We get stuck because we have not developed new, healthier habits or new tools to replace them.    You know the saying, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  Maybe that hammer has served us well for so many years, but at some point we may want, I don’t know, a wrench?  We may also keep defending our ability to get by with that hammer until reality finally breaks through that wall of denial.

Some changes were so hard, and my denial so deep, I had to hit rock bottom to really make the change.   Rock bottom produced an acute awareness of my raw feelings, the painful truth throbbing in my chest, and as a result, an acceptance of my new, unvarnished reality.   “Need is the mother of invention”;  when you realize you have to change, you will.  The other good thing about rock bottom and change is that once you do it, it gets easier each time because you start to wonder what you were so afraid of.

If you haven’t hit rock bottom, perhaps you can avoid going there.   Yes, be smarter than me!  These strategies have helped me convert what I know (in my head) into what I believe (in my heart) to make a meaningful change.  When our heart knows the truth, then we can make that change that our head has been lecturing us about.

Anticipate hitting rock bottom.   Go there virtually and in great detail in your mind so you can feel it.  Afraid of having a heart attack because of your lifestyle?  Envision actually having a heart attack, from the physical pain of the event, to the feeling of being close to death, to actually dying and leaving behind your loved ones.   Or maybe you survive but are severely disabled.  Include in the consequences how you’ll feel in twenty years when you look back upon your decision to preserve the status quo, where you knowingly accepted this tragic and inevitable outcome.

Feel every bit of the pain.  If you can do it without getting defensive or explaining, just listen to those who are impacted by your behavior.  After a heart attack, how will it make them feel to be left behind or left with an invalid?  What are the real world consequences?  Excavate all the consequences – financial, emotional, personal, and professional.  Don’t intellectualize, feel every bit of it.

Consider the consequences of making the change.  This is the same envision exercise as the above, but envision actually making the change.   Feel the satisfaction, the success, the health, the empowerment of taking charge of your life.  Some of the consequences of making the change may be negative.  What is the worst case scenario (be realistic here)? How does it compare to preserving the status quo?   How will it feel when you look back in twenty years on this decision?  Whenever I have needed to make a decision about a relationship, when I realized I was better off alone (worst case scenario) than staying in the relationship, then I knew it was time to go.

Do some soul-searching to discover your inner truth. Turn off the brain and search for answers with your heart.  If you can’t turn off your brain, then you’re not exercising your inner wisdom/heart/right brain enough.  When I shut off my thoughts, I can find clarity about my values, beliefs, and feelings, and then apply to the situation in a calm, logical manner.  When I’m clear about my values, I usually decide that I would rather live with the worst case scenario of doing what I need to do, than living by values I can’t abide by.

Recognize what isn’t working and try something different.  Accept that the hammer isn’t working, hasn’t  worked, and won’t work.  Brainstorm and think outside your usual box.   What  new tools can you use or find?  You have many more than you think.  It may take some research (why I love self-help books). You have to be calm and not-freaked-out to do this well (see above).  For example, deciding I will stop arguing means that the other arguer will now have no one to argue with. Du-uh.

Get a fresh perspective or help from a wise friend to find a different point of view.  Distance yourself emotionally during this exercise and imagine yourself on a balcony or as an impartial third person observing yourself and/or your life.  What can you see when you look at your situation dispassionately?  This strategy allows me to see how ridiculous my behavior can be, all justified by… who can remember?

Consider changing your story (Byron Katie).  For every difficult thought you are feeling, flip it 180 degrees and find the truth in the resulting statement.  For example, “Joe is mean to me.”  Now say, “Joe is not mean to me,” “Joe is kind to me,” or “I am mean to Joe” and explore the truth of those statements.  You may surprise yourself if you do this exercise with complete honesty.  Recently, I was feeling unappreciated, and when I flipped it 180 degrees and examined where I actually was appreciated, I felt so much better.  Our truth is relative, so we don’t necessarily have to keep believing what we’ve been thinking.

Convert a negative goal (I want to stop doing X) to a positive goal (I will start doing Y). Then go do it.  And do it some more.  For example, “I want to stop trying to control Joe,” to “I will focus on my own problems.”

Finally, remember that we often magnify the negative consequences of the unknown a la “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.”  This may not be true.  You might find an angel on the other side.  Go find out.  She may just give you a bunch of power tools.

Angel or devil of change

Angel or devil of change