The Blessings of a Dysfunctional Marriage

All – I thought I’d repost this old blog. Someone told me this was post-traumatic growth – probably true. In the end, we have a choice to buckle or grow from our trauma, but then, that’s a pretty obvious choice, isn’t it?

Silver Lining

This twenty-year marriage had a happy ending: divorce.

It’s not what you think, completely.  Yes, the divorce was the right thing to do and we all felt better afterwards, or we would not have made that difficult decision.  But despite the many years of struggle and anguish, Dave and I had a good marriage.  Let me explain.

I should start by saying that Dave and I had what is probably a typical marriage.  Like most couples we were attracted to each other and fell in love because of our unidentified and unmet emotional needs.  We felt “complete” with each other because our partner reflected a chance to heal our emotional shortcomings.  Trouble begins when the euphoria wears away and you’re left primarily with the challenge of actually healing yourself.   The opportunity that is marriage is that it provides the laboratory, lab partner and the incentive to avoid an “F” to…

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Making Good Use of Negative Emotions

I know from personal experience that negative emotions can produce positive change.  After many years of being in denial about the discrepancy between reality (bad wife, bad marriage) and my perceptions (good wife, good marriage), my psychic discomfort finally reached a point where I could no longer ignore the elephant in the room.

When I finally accepted the painful reality that major changes were needed, I made some tough decisions and acted on them.  What ensued was a blossoming of creativity and productivity that was enabled and characterized by positive emotion, growth and meaning.   My migraines and fibromyalgia dissipated, my joy returned, and I found a new level of engagement with and passion in my work.  I got to know myself again, this time without the martyrdom.   This growth phase was neither planned nor anticipated.  Rather, it occurred organically and continuously and surprised the heck out of me.  Now, the absence of that psychological and physical pain in my daily life is enough to make me want to do the Sound of Music twirl on the hill.

In some respects, my pre-divorce marriage and life were not too bad:  a “nice” husband, financial security, a beautiful family, and a comfortable lifestyle. Without the feelings of loneliness, despair and resentment, I may have passively continued in this comfortable-enough, pre-change situation indefinitely.  The antithesis of “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” (Harry Truman) is “If you can stand the heat, stay in the kitchen.”  Which I did, for 20 years.  In hindsight, I do not believe the decision to change (divorce) would have happened had I not felt consumed by negative emotions.

Psychic entropy, the opposite of flow, occurs when life’s reality interferes with your goals and intentions.  When your viewpoint finally becomes clearly at odds with reality, the resulting discomfort and negative feelings that result may cause re-evaluation of perspective and change, as it did for me prior to the divorce.    This transition to actually considering change is difficult, especially when the stakes accompanying the change are high.  For me, introspection and self-discovery have become essential tools in denial-management.  Increasing my awareness of buried feelings of sadness, despair, frustration, anger, or resentment provides an early warning system for psychic entropy and whether change is needed.

Despite my successful experience with change thus far, I’m still no change expert.  At least I know now that having good self-awareness allows me to be more proactive about detecting and solving problems in my life instead of requiring that negative emotions consume me before making needed change.   But if you do have to go there, don’t let those negative emotions go to waste.  They’re there for a reason:  get out of the kitchen.


See also:  Can You Spare Some Change; and Making the Change You Know You Should Make

All:  Don’t forget to send me questions or topics you’d like for me to discuss.  Go either to this blog, email me at or to the Talk to Susanna link on the left.  Thanks!  Look forward to hearing from you!

Sharing Positive Emotions: An Experiment

This week’s assignment in one of my classes was to select a positive emotion such as gratitude or kindness, share it intentionally and note the effects.  I had three group interactions where I shared a positive emotion, though it was only intentional two out of the three times.  The results were mixed, but I believe I still learned a valuable lesson from this exercise.

My first intervention was unintentional: I had a feeling that I should share my electronic assignment list for the distance learning period with the class.  I sent it out and immediately got many, many expressions of gratitude.  I also noticed that others then shared what they’ve been reading or compiling for assignment organization.  I then wondered whether this was an uptick in sharing or whether I was just now noticing sharing that was already occurring.    Thus, I went back and reviewed the postings on Facebook for the class (I had only just joined so I didn’t know) and saw that sharing has been ongoing through the entire distance period.    I did notice, however, that after I started sharing, I then was more inclined to keep sharing with others.  In other words, sharing had a larger effect on me than I think it had on the group.

The second interaction that I reflected upon was a small group meeting that I had with the team for our new student development program.  I shared with them excitement for my ideas that I had gotten from class and how I wanted to integrate them into our program.  It did not surprise me that my enthusiasm was shared by the others.  I noticed the team smiled more, they spoke in an animated manner, and made supportive statements in response to hearing about the project.  They expressed gratitude and a wish to participate.  Awesome!

The third trial was at dinnertime with my family.  My son and my partner are similar in personality and our dinnertime conversation is rarely serious.  After a few rounds of lighthearted banter and teasing, I shared my gratitude for how they each enrich my life.  I received a lot of sarcastic and disbelieving comments (good-naturedly) since they thought I was just playfully trying to maneuver my way out of the doghouse and onto their good side.  They weren’t taking me seriously, though I was being serious with my affirmations.

My conclusion from this limited exercise is that I suspect that groups that are already high in a certain positive emotion are less likely to noticeably respond in kind.  I think my class and family are already quite accustomed to sharing and positive affirmations, respectively.    Perhaps positive emotion in groups reaches plateau and it’s difficult to increase after a certain point.   

In contrast, I believe at work we’re comparatively short of inspiration and excitement and are likely on the escalating part of the asymptote.  Therefore, I think my colleagues are more responsive to my attempts to grow these positive emotions in our discussions.    Therefore, I will especially be more intentional about sharing excitement, gratitude and kindness with groups that tend to be lower in positive emotion.

Though we were instructed to introduce an emotion into a group for class, I’m not sure I’m the origin of the positive emotion in either case.  It seems just as likely that my class and  family created the positive emotion in me, not the other way around.  Positivity resonance theory would suggest a positive feedback loop with regards to positive emotion; perhaps naming the origin of the positive emotion is semantics at this point.   Regardless of whether I’m the instigator or beneficiary, I will continue to share positive emotion with others.  Not only is it fun, but helping others feel better is an opportunity I can’t resist.

All:  Don’t forget to send me questions or topics you’d like for me to discuss.  Go either to this blog, email me at or to the Talk to Susanna link on the left.  Thanks!  Look forward to hearing from you!

Using Character Strengths Every Day

You all know I’m a big fan of looking at people through a strengths-based lens.  I can’t help it.  Once you understand what the strengths are, you just can’t help but to see how incredibly amazing every single one of us are.  It’s addictive to see everyone in such a positive light.

But the Clifton StrengthsFinders is not the only strengths assessment.  The University of Pennsylvania Center for Positive Psychology has their own strengths test based on character strengths (VIA Survey, free on   Though the test is constructed similarly to CSF, the VIA is based on the characteristics that cultivate well-being.  CSF was constructed to help people be engaged and successful.  In my opinion, they’re both two sides of the same coin, just coming at the same thing from different angles.

Since I’ve been trained as a Gallup CSF coach, that has tended to be my angle, but I’m interested in also developing and exploring my VIA strengths.   My top five VIA strengths are forgiveness/mercy, capacity to love and be loved, gratitude, industry/diligence/perseverance, honesty/authenticity/genuineness.   Just for reference, my CSF strengths are input, intellection, relator, ideation and strategic.    Both are equally valid in my mind.

But I haven’t really focused on my VIA strengths.  They seem to be more oriented to my personal life, but are they?  Does that mean my CSF is oriented to my work life?

I will argue that both sets of strengths apply to all parts of my life.  After all, I don’t divide myself into my work-self and my home-self.  They’re one and the same and I’m the same person regardless of the setting I’m in (thus my “genuineness”… but that’s true for all of us).

How can I use forgiveness and love at work?  Interestingly, I feel the Arbinger Institute philosophy of treating others as I would like to be treated applies.   My forgiveness allows me to treat others as people, not obstacles, pains-in-the…neck, or problems.    My reluctance to objectify them to something sub-human allows me to overlook small grievances that might otherwise interfere in a smooth working or professional relationship.

Perhaps finding ways to use love at work is less obvious.  I think most of my colleagues would recoil a bit if they were told that they had to use love at work to be engaged and successful.  I say that because I recoiled a bit when I first thought about it, and I’m a pretty touchy-feely person, don’t you think?  It may not surprise you to know, however, that my personal mission is to use active love to help people and organizations in my life become the best possible versions of themselves (click here to learn more about active love).  Shortly after I identified my mission, I was able to identify my passion:  developing people and thus the organizations they serve.

I think academics are drawn to teaching and research because of that service mentality.  We are serving mankind via our scholarship and research.  We’re serving our students through education and learning.  Every organization, really, has to have some type of meaningful mission to be successful, and that meaning tends to relate back to serving people or some aspect of our planet.

If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.


All:  Don’t forget to send me questions or topics you’d like for me to discuss.  Go either to this blog, email me at or to the Talk to Susanna link on the left.  Thanks!  Look forward to hearing from you!



Imposter Syndrome and Not Measuring Up

Sometimes I wonder what it would take for some people to decide they’re enough, they’re lovable, they’re valuable to the world.  You probably know these folks too – they’re the fantastically talented, successful, kind, beautiful ones.  That pretty much encompasses almost everyone I know!  Yes, I know some pretty amazing people.

So why are they the last to know how amazing they are?

I truly believe every single one of us is full of talent and potential.  It’s simply up to each of us to find and cultivate that talent to be our best selves and apply that to our mission and purpose in life.    And we don’t have to have the same traditional yardsticks for success:  salary, job status, popularity, GPA, or level of education.    There are many criteria for being a successful human being, including contribution to society, kindness, wisdom, well-being or other such virtues.

The people who I know who feel inadequate feel that way even despite success by traditional measures.  These are highly educated, successful, and nice people!   The US Department of Education website is down because of the government is shut down (errrrr!!  No comment!) but what I can gather is that a vanishing small percentage of the population have graduate degrees.  These Ph.D. and professional degree holders/pursuers are the ones that I am referring to.

I believe it has something to do with our explanatory style, an important component of optimism.  These incredibly talented, smart and nice people compare themselves to the others who are more successful, smarter, more attractive, more hair, or whatever.    Why not instead compare yourself to those who are less smart, successful, attractive?  Or, how about don’t compare yourself at all?  I know in some areas I’m “more” but in other areas I’m “less.”  There will always be something that I can point to and feel like I’m not measuring up.

I’m not saying I never have those feelings.  I spent too many years feeling inadequate to completely let go of that bad habit.  Instead now I focus on what I’m grateful for and trying to improve in the areas that I have some growth potential.  Ironically, when I quit judging myself and others, I have been able to feel like “enough” since I am now not wasting my time and energy on something so counterproductive.

What areas of your life can you change your mind and decide you’re actually “enough”?  Or even “pretty darn good!”?

All:  Don’t forget to send me questions or topics you’d like for me to discuss.  Go either to this blog, email me at or to the Talk to Susanna link on the left.  Thanks!  Look forward to hearing from you!

Rediscovering Your Authenticity

Have you ever thought: “Who am I and what have I become?”  I had this identity crisis when one day I had this sinking feeling that I turned into my mother (with all due respect, Mom).  It’s not every day that we really stop to ask “Who am I” and “Who am I becoming?”  Maybe if we did stop and ask those questions more frequently we wouldn’t be so surprised when we find out who we have become.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that, after spending so much time blindly charging forward, I didn’t like where I ended up.  When I finally awoke to that reality, I had to re-orient myself.  Who am I?  What do I want?  What do I need?  Who or what am I trying to become?

To help me look forward, I felt I needed to start with my past.   I believe that, when we are young, we hide parts of ourselves that we decide are somehow undesirable: that rebellious girl; that scared girl; that sad girl; that outspoken, opinionated girl. The problem is, when we pack away those parts of ourselves we also pack away pieces that we might otherwise have chosen to keep.  In other words, it’s hard to surgically remove only some parts without also taking out other pieces with it.  For me, I unwittingly packed away my vulnerable girl, my joyous girl, my creative girl, and my accepting girl, when those “bad” parts were ordered away.

It was scary to uncover those parts that I gave away, but  simultaneously liberating to reunite with those lost parts of myself , both good and bad.  It was also hard to know how to begin the uncovering process.  I went on an  expedition to uncover my authentic self (Excavating Your Authentic Self, Ban Breathnach), the person I was before the hiding began.  Ban Breathnach recommends you go back to your memories, mementos, photos, videos, family stories, recollections of friends, meaningful places, or anything else that will help jog your memory of your former self.  When you gather your treasures, you can reconstruct who you were, what you dreamed about, and the things that used to bring you joy.

Interestingly, I dreamed of being a teacher one day.  I loved to read, cook and dance (all still true).  I had much wonder and love, and a vivid imagination.  Though the girl Susanna is much less complex than the woman I am now, recommitting to those things that I loved helped me to ground myself so I could reconsider the direction of my life from more solid and joyful ground.  Instead of asking myself, “Who should I be?”, I asked, “Who do I want to be?” The latter question led me in a direction such that I can now ask “Who will I be?” since my own passions and interests (instead of someone else’s expectations or needs) are now dictating my direction.  I don’t know where this passion will lead me, but I do know that by approaching my life with openness and courage is leading me down my authentic path.


All:  Don’t forget to send me questions or topics you’d like for me to discuss.  Go either to this blog, email me at or to the Talk to Susanna link on the left.  Thanks!  Look forward to hearing from you!

digging for buried treasure

digging for buried treasure

Contempt and Miley Cyrus

The public tends to be fascinated with celebrities, their personalities and activities.  I know it has something to do with living vicariously through their beauty, success, talent, or whatever.    If I wish to adopt those qualities, I can mentally associate with that celebrity or sports team.  It’s not just a sports team.  It’s my sports team. Their victory is my victory.  OK, harmless enough.

It’s interesting then when a celebrity has a coup de grace.  The celeb du jour on the falling star (or rising, as some may argue) is Miley Cyrus.   Seems she’s the gal that we love to criticize, despise, scold, or feel contempt for this month.  Similarly in our personal lives, there is often a person we love to gossip about.  It’s deliciously sinful and indulgent.  It’s so much fun to focus on someone else’s bad judgment, mistakes, and faux pas.

Scandal is so much fun because it elicits our feelings of contempt.  Contempt is so gratifying because it allows us to feel morally superior without any responsibility (Jonathan Haidt, Happiness Hypothesis).  For example, if I criticize someone at work, then I have some sense of responsibility to do something about it – either fix the problem or elicit constructive discussions about the problem so that we can fix it together.  The same is true in my personal life.  Any problems are my responsibility, either directly or indirectly.

Have you ever been the subject of scandal or criticism?  When we’re criticized, we feel it is unfair, unfounded, and they just don’t understand.  Yes, it’s easier to judge than to try to understand or empathize with someone else.  So when we are feeling contempt for others it’s because we are indulging in a gratuitous exercise in judging, failing to empathize or understand.

In addition, we’ve probably made similar kinds of mistakes in our own past, since we’re more likely to be bothered by the things we hate about ourselves when we see them in others.  We are, in fact, hard wired for hypocrisy (Haidt).

I know, I hate to be a killjoy.  All the fun we’ve had gossiping and feeling contempt truly reflects more poorly on ourselves than it does the person we’re complaining about.  For me, it’s a lot like eating a bag of French fries.  I can’t really enjoy them since I know they’re so bad for me and will likely make me feel sick later.  Feeling contempt for others is pretty much the same thing for me.  It makes me feel sick to my stomach to be such a judgmental hypocrite. Now when I eat French fries or gossip, I indulge in one or two bites, then move on.  I’m human, after all.

Good thing there are so many other ways to have good, clean fun. How about complimenting someone or expressing gratitude for one of their good qualities or good deeds?  Their reaction, especially if the compliment is unexpected, is way more fun than even complaining about Miley Cyrus and her growing pains.

All:  Don’t forget to send me questions or topics you’d like for me to discuss.  Go either to this blog, email me at or to the Talk to Susanna link on the left.  Thanks!  Look forward to hearing from you!