Calm During the Storm

Calm waters

Calm waters

One of the markers of growing up, IMHO, is to remain calm during provocation.  In the past (and occasional present), my reaction to a negative stimuli such as an angry, disrespectful or thoughtless person was to respond in kind with anger or disrespect.   Imagine a two-year old having a tantrum but trying to maintain a calm demeanor.   That’s me at my worst (well, except for when I actually lose it.)

There’s nothing wrong with that reaction per se; we feel how we feel.   But now that I’m in my middle years, I would prefer to take a steadier approach to life’s turbulence.  I don’t feel good, content or effective if I’m simply wrestling with turbulent and negative emotions.  And by caving into or even fueling those emotions, I’m likely to escalate the situation to where one or both of us then does or says something that we both will later regret.

If only there were a pill for this kind of thing (or is it Valium or Prozac?)  There’s just no quick fix for controlling or managing  what can be destructive emotions.  But I do think practicing a few concepts or exercises has helped me over the years.

  1. Interpretation – Just because I interpret an action or words in a certain way (disrespectful, thoughtless, hostile), does not mean they were intended that way.  This may be someone else’s usual MO (or not at all directed at me) and I’m reading too much into it.  See Eeny Meeny Miny Mo – I Choose Fear.
  2. Forgiveness – Even if someone intended disrespect, aggressive, passive-aggressive or selfish behavior, it does not mean I have to get upset about it.  By believing that everyone is trying their best given their unique circumstances allows me to let go of any negative reciprocal feelings I may develop. See Finding Forgiveness and Tit for Tat Played Out.
  3. It’s not about me – You’ve heard of projection, right?  Projection occurs when I have an emotion such as resentment but then accuse someone else of being resentful.  I project because I perceive that emotion is coming from outside rather than from within.  I’ve had people yell at me and accuse me of how angry I was while I sat and watched them.  The irony and hypocrisy was lost on them.  Not that I’ve never made similar accusations myself…
  4. Perspective – Here’s where I step back and ask myself what the end goal is.  Is it my goal to be right?  To get my way? Or to foster my relationship in light of a challenge?  I don’t know about you, but when I engage in a prolonged and/or heated argument about who is right, even if I get a concession, I end up feeling a bit dirty afterwards.   It feels like I just bullied someone into agreeing with me.  That makes me an a**hole, not “right.” Also, if I “win” then that means I had to make someone else “lose.”  Life is not a zero sum game and I refuse to play it that way.
  5. Quality of life – When I’m in that tantrum-ish state, I’m just not happy.  I’m neither my best self nor am I being the person I want to be.  Peace of mind has becoming a priority to me since I’ve spent so long squandering it.  I also refuse to give away my power to have peace of mind to someone else.
  6. Reflects Poorly on Me – That emotional tantrum is just plain unattractive and reflects my juvenile mentality.
  7. Setting an Example – It’s particularly damaging to cave or escalate that tantrum when children, students or people I mentor are present.  I am demonstrating that I believe my needs and beliefs are more important than someone else’s.  Is that the lesson I want to teach to others?
  8. Meditate and journal – Doing these exercises regularly helps to get out of one’s head where these destructive beliefs and messages germinate and flourish.  When I’m feeling particularly antagonistic to someone, I meditate on wishing them peace, joy, and love.  I open my heart to their pain and humanity and, in so doing, am open to my own.

This effort, like everything else I do in my life, is a journey.  A work in progress.  Part of the forgiveness element includes forgiveness for myself when I  respond poorly to someone else and their best effort.   They’re doing their best.  So am I.  And that is good enough for me.

Thinking (T) versus Feeling (F) – A Marriage Made in Heaven

One of the reasons I love the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is because I have learned how the other half think.  As an extrovert (E), I now know that introverts (I) get their energy from being alone, whereas I get energy by being with others (a common misconception is that E/I refer to outgoing versus shy, respectively).  Those introverts are just not as annoying when they go escape for alone time now that I understand how they’re wired.

Same with those other MBTI dimensions.  Until I understood how others function, I would get frustrated with them because they were different from me.   Perceiving (P) folk like to keep things open-ended, but Judging (J) folk like myself like to make decisions and have closure (“why can’t you just make a decision, already?”)  Intuiting (N) folks tend to be big-picture types whereas Sensing (S) are more detail-oriented (“why do we have to keep going over the details?  It’s so BORING”).

The same holds true for those feeling (F) people.  F’s make decisions based on how a situation or decision feels, whereas  Thinking (T) people like myself make decisions based on thinking things through.   But with the T/F and all the other MBTI dimensions, not only have I learned to understand the other types, but more importantly, I appreciate and value them.  I mean – who better than a detail person to have around when you hate dealing with that stuff?  It really makes sense, when you stop feeling annoyed, that having both types provide input is ideal for the best outcome.

But the cool thing is that there is scientific evidence for the benefits of having both sides of the T/F dimension.   I know, you’re thinking:  “what possible benefit can there be to having F’s around?” (just kidding!).   Turns out there is a part of the brain that’s responsible for emotionality called the ventromedial prefontal cortex (vmPFC).  Patients that have damage to their vmPFC do not have the same emotional response to stimuli that others without brain damage have.  So while I might get excited about the idea about choosing a vacation destination, they will simply impassionately review the list of thousands of options and make a decision.

In other words, they would score off the charts on the T side of the MBTI.

They make great decisions, right?


Those thousands of vacation destinations have to be evaluated individually by whatever criteria the patient selects.  Imagine having to do that with every purchase at the grocery store, every turn you have to make in the car on your way to your destination.  Every decision becomes prolonged and laborious.  Now imagine having a difficult conversation with a loved one about a sensitive subject but without your emotional radar.  Imagine having to navigate a political situation at work.  As you might imagine, these patients tend to make terrible decisions or no decision at all, and have unhappy relationships.  In other words, even us unfeeling T’s rely on our emotions for even our most mundane decisions.

It’s so obvious now the value of  both T and F (and all the other MBTI dimensions), which means we don’t have to fight over different styles any more.  We also get to quit relying on only half of our brain, or half of our population for decisions and planning.  I don’t know about you but the number of brain cells in my head are not increasing, so it’s time to recruit all of them to the task.  Maybe that’s what makes us wiser in the end.

Travel and Transitions

Flying the friendly skies

Flying the friendly skies

I’m weird in the sense that I love things that most other people hate, such as the part of travel that is the trip itself.  Long lines, bad food, crowds, cramped seats, delays, etc.   Admittedly these are not my favorite parts of the trip, but the travel portion of the trip brims with possibility and change.

Like with any other transition, whether moving to a new home, starting a new job or relationship, trips connect one experience to another.  Home to vacation, or possibly to off-site work.  When I make the mistake of simply indulging my impatience to get to the next phase, I miss out on what is a potentially a gratifying and rewarding experience.

Take the waiting for example.  I don’t love waiting.  I’m actually an impatient person so you’d think the getting-there-2-hours-early –to-wait-in-line routine would drive me nuts.  Most of my life, it has.  But what I do love is giving up control of my experience to something so basic and simple as waiting.  There is no one asking me to solve problems, nothing demanding my attention, no guilt about not going to the gym.   There I am, alone in the security line with a hundred other people.  I am just being.  Observing. Sensing.  Letting my mind wander.  Checking in with how I feel.  In short, waiting becomes a meditative experience where I practice letting go of control.  Recovering control freak that I am, I need all the practice I can get.

No matter how many times I’ve been to a certain airport (or one that feels exactly like it), the airport experience is always new.  Different time of day, size of crowd, mood of crowd, restaurants, shops, menus, etc.  Inevitably the plane will then take me to a relatively unfamiliar city which will undoubtedly be different from my home town.  No matter how sleepy or quiet, the visit will be an exploration of land, people and culture that will be filled with the unexpected.  Even driving across my own state brings regional accents, foods, and practices that makes me re-examine what I take for granted.

Besides the landscape and culture, one of my favorite parts of travel is the close proximity to strangers.  I know, you’re probably ready to institutionalize me.  But I have a tendency to put my head down and forge through my day.   Travel makes me stop and look around.  When I put my head down, I forget to appreciate the mystery and wonder of each person that walks by and that we’re all connected in this beautiful world.  People watching, chatting with strangers, eye contact however brief, are all reminders of this invisible but precious connection.

I have much to learn still about myself and our world.  Travel to whatever destination requires that I stop and be open to whatever comes my way.  This state of openness means that I receive new information (from within or from without) that I may be otherwise closed to.  What better way to learn than that?

Back to School

Back to school!

Back to school!

This year, back to school takes on a whole new meaning.  For the first time, there’s no bus schedule (well, a different bus schedule), PTA night, fee night (replaced by a big tuition bill), teacher meetings etc since my youngest is now off to college.    Since we moved out of the suburbs before the ink on his diploma was dry, we now live in the city within shooting distance of the university.  His yellow school bus is replaced by the city bus to campus, and on the first day of school he called in a panic because he didn’t have the $1.75 bus fare.  Different worries, for sure.

But the boys are not the only ones back to school.  After swearing I’d never ever go back to school, guess who has her backpack packed this Fall?

Part of me feels crazy for doing it and a part of me feels I have no choice but to follow my passion in positive psychology.  After being out of school for 20 years and having written hundreds of exam questions for thousands of students, I’m going to be on the receiving end of voluminous reading and writing assignments, uninterpretable test questions, vague academic assignments, and unreasonable professors.  Turnabout is fair play.

I can’t wait!

However, I am noticing that, like re-entering the dating scene after a 20+ year hiatus, things are different now after the early 1990’s since I’ve been a student.  I admit I’m having a bit of a culture shock with the re-entry as a student into the education system.  There’s the online course management system, there’s a discipline I have no formal background in at all, there’s students that are 20 years younger than me (though many of us are mid-career), there’s the distance element to this program, and it’s a fancy-schmancy private school (with accompanying sticker shock) when I’ve always been educated (and worked) in public institutions, literally my entire life.

I’m also continuing my day job since it is an executive graduate program where we meet in person once per month, with online interactions in-between.  So, my 20 years of experience juggling commitments will be an essential and useful skill for me to be able to manage both full-time programs.  I have also picked up other skills over the 20 years I’ve been in the work world that will hopefully help offset the disadvantage of being unable to devote 100% of my time to the program, such as critical thinking, writing, and a great deal more wisdom than in my 20’s.

Even the logistics of taking notes is different.  Do I use my iPad, my laptop, paper/pen?  Just for some perspective, I didn’t get a personal computer until graduate school and it was the Mac II, with 1 MB of memory.  Post-It notes and email became widely available only after I started my job in 1993.    I actually used to take notes using a fountain pen, which back then was quaint.  Today it’s positively pre-historic.

Mac II computer

Mac II computer

I liken the re-immersion into the modern dating and graduate student world to an Epcot Center roller coaster ride:  scary, exhilarating, fun but also interesting and delightful.  Positive psychology teaches us that stimuli that are enjoyable but not challenging (eating chocolate, watching TV) provide positive emotion that is short-lived, but those that also challenge us will provide growth and long term enjoyment.  I’m already enjoying the ride!

Sibling Rivalry

It’s as old as the story of Cain and Abel.   Fighting, sparring, competition, anger, resentment.  Harold Kushner in How Good Do We Have to Be? states that the concept of original sin refers not to the Adam and Eve story, but rather from the belief that there is not enough love to go around.  This belief, he says, is the basis of sibling rivalry.

Furthermore,  the personal and family issues that we fail to resolve are passed to our children, which now become the family legacy.

But must it be our destiny?

My guess is that these sibling relationships are formative, i.e. where we learn to have intimate relationships with non-parental others.  Not everyone is lucky enough to have parents or other role models and mentors that can provide early guidance as to how to love and accept others despite their differences and close proximity.   If we don’t learn these skills as a child, we will hash them out in our friendships and love relationships.  And that can get ugly.

Additionally, some of us are slow learners and late bloomers.  We will struggle with sibling and romantic relationships alike.  Some of us may have more than one attempt to get the marriage-thing right. And unlike marriage, your sibling will always be your sibling, even if your spouse may not be there ‘til death do you part.  Therefore, since – though it may not feel like it – your sibling will always be “there”, and whatever issues you don’t resolve will get passed to your kids, you might as well try to make the relationship the best that you can.

Here’s what I would’ve told that bratty teenaged/twenty-something Susanna:

  1.  Reality – Just because you’re sure “this is how it is” does not mean that your perception is actually reality.  Your sibling has a completely different reality which is just as valid.  You’d try to understand her reality if you weren’t so stubborn and/or feeling hurt.
  2. Favorites – There are no favorites.  Mom and Dad love us equally, but treat us differently.  Duh.  We are different people.
  3. A Problem – If you think your sibling is a problem, then it’s really you who are the problem.  Focus on how you can be more loving and supportive because that’s all you can change.
  4. Someday you’ll need to depend on each other – Don’t burn that bridge.
  5. An asset – If you’d quit being so full of yourself, you’d learn that your sisters are really actually quite amazing and wonderful people, whose differences are really an asset to you.  Stop judging what you don’t understand.  Stop thinking you understand because you have no clue.
  6. There are very few people in this world that will always be “there for you” – Stop taking that for granted and treat this special relationship with the respect it deserves.


Like everything else I write about in this blog, this by no means suggests that I have the best sibling relationships in the world.  In fact, my sister recently told me, “…and I don’t think we really like each other.”  However, the fact that she was able to say that to me reflects how far we have come.  She trusted me enough to hear that in the spirit for which it was offered.  Besides, who ever said that “like” has to come with “love”?

“Have a Good Day”

Great day

Great day

No, it’s not another insipid platitude.  It’s your homework assignment.  It should actually be a mandate in each of our lives.

Here’s what you do.  Each day for 1 month, record what made that day a good day.  It can be a small thing or a big thing, such as “met with friend,” “discussed a project,” or “started a new job.”  Also, rate each day on a scale of 1 to 10 where 10 is the most conceivably awesome day.

At the end of the month, review your entries for trends as to what made you the happiest.  Read between the lines a bit if you need to.  For example, my best days include having a meaningful conversation with a student, colleague, or acquaintance, or meeting with a good friend.  Both involve a connection.

Finally, the fun part:  include the things that make you happy into all of your days.

Simple.  Genius.  Wish I thought of it.  Rather, this exercise, “Have a Good Day” is from Christopher Peterson, Primer in Positive Psychology.

Have a good, no, an amazing day!

Bias, It’s Not Just for Fabrics

Cutting on the bias

Cutting on the bias

Bias.  We all have it.  We don’t tend to recognize it, except in others.  Even when it’s pointed out to us, we tend to deny that we have a selective reality.  Bias is an in-born tendency that has us finding justifications to defend our perception of reality, and then calling it basic logic or morality.   When was the last time you had an argument about something that cannot be proven one way or another?  For me, much too recently.

This tendency, to see bias in others but to be blind to our own prejudices,  contributes to another human tendency – hypocrisy.   At the risk of being a hypocrite, I wish to explore this topic anyway with hopes that we can all learn from it.

Here’s how it works, according to Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis.

  1. We have a gut feeling in response to a situation.
  2. We then selectively find evidence to support our feelings and ignore any refuting evidence.  This absence of logic increases when we feel threatened or the stakes are high.
  3. We then brand our feelings as logical or moralistic, but often the viewpoint is actually self-serving.  Remember, this dynamic occurs on a subconscious level, so we are not aware that we are justifying feelings, not logic.  People who view themselves as highly moral are no more likely to make moral decisions than those that do not view themselves as especially moral.  When behaving immorally we may overcompensate and trumpet our virtue to give the appearance of virtue, to ourselves and others (I believe this type of hypocrisy is especially apparent in politics.)  “She doth protest too much,” – William Shakespeare
  4. We also tend to be exceedingly forgiving or generous with our own self-assessment.  The good news here is that this tendency tends to make us happier, healthier and better liked.  On the other hand, when our self-esteem is threated (someone reveals our hypocrisy), we may lash out to defend our delusion.
  5. We may then use should statements.  After all, we are uniquely able to see reality, and we are above average in intelligence and moral compass.  “This should happen,” “He should do that,” etc.   Such beliefs cause anger and resentment when the should fails to occur.
  6. Believing that we see the world in a uniquely unbiased way allows us to develop constructs and absolutes like good and evil.  The bad news here is the combination of our generous self-assessment and good/evil absolutes, can cause us to believe that the end (eradicating what we believe to be unambiguous evil) justifies the means.  “He deserves it,” “She had it coming,” “They have no right to…”

Given that we are all in this delusional bubble together (but also separate, since I know reality and you don’t), how can we learn from this?  Haidt recommends cognitive therapy:  write down your thoughts, recognize distortions in your thoughts, and find a more appropriate thought.  He also recommends training the mind with meditation.

I think it’s also useful to know what the red flags are to help identify when bias and hypocrisy are at play.   Pay particular attention to 1)  should statements or beliefs; 2) feelings of certainty; 3) self-justifying or defending ourselves or our position;  4) feeling like we’re on the moral high ground.

With fabric, when you cut on the bias (45 degrees from the direction of the threads), the fabric is more stretchy and resilient compared to when cutting against the bias.  Similarly, by improving our self-awareness and our tendency towards bias and hypocrisy, we can become less hypocritical, and more accommodating and responsive to the perspectives of others.