Grouchy Day. OK!

Sometimes I just don’t want to find positivity and the silver lining in my day.  No.  And I’m not sure we should have positive, upbeat days every single day.  I do think we should try most days to do so.  If we’re spending more time being negative than positive, we run the risk of being the subject of the eliminating-negative-people-from-our-lives goal that we hear from others around us.

No, we don’t want to be that toxic person, but we also don’t want to be Pollyanna-ish.  Basically, we want a good balance.

What comprises a good balance?  A good balance:

  • allows us to be genuine and authentic with our feelings and emotions, both positive and negative
  • gives us time to process the negative emotions and savor the positive
  • allows us to use negative emotions to create positive change
  • encourages us to find that silver lining without ignoring the real risks and downsides to a situation
  • helps to inform us when something is going wrong, or right
  • doesn’t dwell on the negative more than is necessary to detect, learn and grow
  • respects that we’re human and that we will have a wide range of emotions.  Experiencing all the emotions allows us to experience the whole range, since we can’t just select the positive emotions and eliminate the negative.
  • acknowledges that we can’t necessarily help how we feel but we can also understand that we may have conditioned ourselves to over- or under-react to a situation.  Considering a situation from different perspectives might help us to determine whether we’re responding proportional to the situation.
  • accepts and forgives those emotions in ourselves and others.  Acceptance allows us to constructively channel and manage those feelings.

So today I’m feeling tired, a little annoyed and overwhelmed.  That’s OK.  I need a grouchy day today and some time to decompress, process and intentionally and proactively relax.  By giving myself what I need today, I will be ready to re-engage in a positive manner tomorrow.

Ever-Eluding Self-Awareness

Self-Awareness and Johari's Window

Self-Awareness and Johari’s Window

You know what an asymptote is.  It’s a curve that gets closer and closer to some threshold but never actually gets there.  That’s what self-awareness is like.

I’ve been sort of priding myself on my self-awareness lately but I’m pretty much clueless despite having worked hard on this area for the past 20 or more years.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m far better than I used to be but I’m always going to be a work in progress on this.  Actually, I kind of like it that way.  It’s like getting an unexpected gift, or being able to hide your own Easter eggs.  I’m always in for a surprise about myself.

I’m not so sure what’s so great about certainty.  People like control and knowing with certainty.  I get that since I used to be that way, and still am to some degree.  But I like the unexpected discoveries that life, others and yes, even myself can provide.  The reason:  I’m not nearly as imaginative and optimistic as the actual way of the world.  For example, life is more amazing and rich than I could’ve ever imagined.  I have more dimensions and depth than I ever gave myself credit for.  If it’s true for me, it’s certainly true for others.

I suppose my life and I could also go in the other direction:  more awful and ugly than I could imagine.  Yes, I know that’s true too.  Where there’s yin there’s always yang.  To me, it’s just a question of where you focus and whether one views those awful, ugly things are permanent, pervasive and personal.  I would add that the ugly part is relatively small compared to the beautiful and good because I choose to make it so. I choose to focus on the positive and the beautiful and enrich and grow those parts.  By accepting and forgiving the ugly, I take the power and toxicity out of them, thereby diminishing them.

Consider Johari’s Window, which describes our awareness as being in one of four quadrants:  known to self/known to others (widely known); known to self/unknown to others (private self); unknown to self/known to others (blind spots), unknown to self/unknown to others (the unknown).   From this perspective, assuming that all our knowledge is roughly evenly distributed, 50% of what can be known about ourselves is a complete mystery to us.

Wow.

Imagine now you focus on the richness and beauty of that unknown to self element, while lovingly accepting and forgiving the rest, what would you get?  Who would you be?

Just imagine.

 

The Right Amount of Optimism

Like so many other qualities, optimism is one that you want to have in the right amount.  Too much optimism and you may be viewed by others as naïve or Pollyanna-ish.  Too little and you’re viewed as a grouchy naysayer.

What is the right amount of optimism?  Should the level vary depending on whether you’re referring to your personal or professional life?

According to researchers, pessimism is linked to greater incidence of physical and mental disorders.  Optimists, those who expect better outcomes, have better health and achievement, probably due to better coping and health strategies. So the data suggest it’s better to be an optimist.

How does one improve their level of optimism?  I think it helps to understand the psychology of optimism in order to be able to optimize optimism levels.  First, we should understand that what we know and how we interpret the world is subjective.  That’s not to say we might not have strong opinions about our world.  Understanding that our interpretation of events, the meaning we assign to those events, and even our understanding of the world itself is not an exact science.  Predicting the future, or even understanding the past, therefore is subject to a wide range of interpretation.  Finding the right level of optimism means focusing on the favorable side of that range while not ignoring the pessimistic side.  As mom used to say, “hope for the best, prepare for the worst.”

The way we interpret events and motivations can be cognitively broken down further into three categories.  First, optimistic people tend to view setbacks as limited to that event, but opportunities as pervasive.  For example, if I’m an optimist, I might say that the mean person is an anomaly, but nice people are everywhere.  Second, optimistic people tend to believe that setbacks are temporary and opportunities are permanent.  For example, as an optimist I might say that my job loss is a short-term setback until I get my fabulous new job.  Finally, optimists tend not to personalize setbacks.  In other words, my job loss was due to personality differences with my coworkers, not because everyone hates me.

Psychologists don’t really talk about self-fulfilling prophecies, but I will.  Our belief system tends to create the reality that we believe exists.  In the above examples, if I believe mean people are everywhere and that everyone hates me, how will I interact with the world?  Will I be friendly and cheerful, or defensive and sulky?  Which is likely to be treated well by others?

Confirmation bias means that I will also only notice the mean and unkind gestures because that confirms the pessimism bias I have in place; I will tend not to notice the kind and friendly gestures that are offered to me.  I will see what I expect to see.  For instance, New York and Paris are considered to be full of the rudest people in the world. I personally have never met a rude person in either city.  They have been nothing but exceptionally kind to me – they’re my favorite places to visit!  Am I being an unrealistic optimist?  Well, my experience shows that finding only kind people is within the realm of possibility.  So, thankfully, no.

This self-fulfilling reality actually has been documented in the classroom.  Teachers that believe their students have high potential tend to have more successful students.  Similarly, I believe when we approach others expecting them to be their best self, then they likewise tend to rise to that expectation.

So encourage your optimistic side, staying within the bounds of reality.  You’ll be healthier, more successful, and yes, happier.  That is in and of itself good enough reason to have a positive outlook!

 

Resources:  Optimism, Over-Rated; Seligman, Learned Optimism, Schneider, S. (2001). “In search of realistic optimism.  Meaning, knowledge and warm fuzziness,”  American Psychologist, 56, 250-263.

Alone Again, Sort Of

So close, yet so far.  Photo credit tonyconigliophoto.com

So close, yet so far. Photo credit tonyconigliophoto.com

Chris and I have been together for 3 blissful years and now I’m alone again.  Well, not exactly.  Chris will be doing a lot of traveling now, so though not single, I will be spending a lot of time on my own again, reminiscent of the post-separation days.

This will be much easier than those days.  First, I have a wonderful, supportive and close relationship with my sweetheart, and though not physically present, he’s there for me emotionally and in every other way every day.  Second, I don’t have the trauma of this major life upheaval to deal with.  Third, Skype does wonders for when you’re missing someone.  Amazing how that live image makes such a big difference in terms of feeling like whether you’re together.

Nonetheless, the physical separation is not easy for anyone, especially for an extrovert and relator (someone who loves to build intimate relationships).  My pups are always a balm for loneliness and are great company in their own right and my sweet little house is soothing to me in the way the big family house really cannot match.  Plus I can draw on my experience from being alone before to plan my strategy.

Last time I was on my own, I used that time to focus on the things that fed my soul.  I didn’t have too many single friends back then.  Now I have a few, so I can try to spend more time with them.  I have a lot going on at work and school now, so I’ll be able to savor and enjoy the additional free time I will have to study or work (I know that sounds odd, but that’s how I feel about work right now!).   There are also a few things that I have given up in the past year or two for school and my, at the time, new relationship.  The gym, dancing, leisure reading, meditation, vegging out in front of the TV, window shopping, going to matinees, journaling and baking are all going to be on my agenda again.

In short, whether I’m in a relationship or not, it is my responsibility to make sure I get what I need.  I can’t wait to see my sweetheart again, but I’m also looking forward to indulging this other part of me too.  And knowing that I’m doing that while he’s pursuing his dream makes it all the sweeter.

Creating Your Legacy

Journeying into the future.  Picture credit tonyconigliophoto.com

Journeying into the future. Picture credit tonyconigliophoto.com

Envision yourself 10-20 years in the future being honored for your contributions at a nice dinner party.  What would the guests say about you?  How have you impacted their lives or the world?  Imagine this in as much detail as you can.  Who is speaking?  What emotions do they have?  What specifically are they saying about your impact?  How did you accomplish it?

Now, who do you have to be and what do you have to do to make that a reality?

Who do you have to be may have to do with acquiring skills, education or experience.  Though not necessarily a simple task, it may be relatively straight-forward compared to organizing your inner world to be or become that person who is being honored at that dinner.

For example, becoming a parent is, sort of, logistically straight forward for most people.  Being a good parent is much harder and can be difficult to define.  Getting a job in sales is fairly straight forward.  Becoming the top salesperson is more difficult and the path may not be obvious.   In other words, getting started on the right path to your dream can be easier than actually making the dream a reality.

However, articulating your goal regarding the impact you want to have on others may help orient your internal world toward that objective.  You might envision that you want your kids to say that you were always there for them, physically and emotionally, when they needed you.  You can then orient yourself to notice and prioritize those opportunities to make that a more concrete reality.  You might say that you want to be the type of salesperson that helped people find just the right product for the needs, giving them peace of mind.  You could orient your internal world accordingly, and take exquisite care to make sure each client had just exactly the right product.  In this way, you can begin or continue your journey toward your goal but ensure you’re facing in the right direction.

Paul Coehlo, author of the Alchemist, describes this authentic goal as a personal legend.  Once you identify and state your personal legend, according to Coehlo the pathway to achieve your personal legend will unfold before you and beckon to you.  You will find you have powers you did not know you had as you pursue your personal legend.  If you do not pursue your personal legend and instead rest on your laurels, you will stagnate and forget what your goals are.

So identify your personal legend.  Simply articulating your authentic desire may help you begin a new journey with surprising results!

Making YOUR Dream a Reality

Martin Luther King had a dream, but somehow I doubt that early in the process he had any idea of the magnitude of his ability to change the country and even the world.  That’s the problem with our dreams: they are bounded by our ability to imagine them and they only come true if they come from an authentic desire.

There’s no question in my mind that MLK’s dream was an authentic passion that came from his sincere desire to improve the world based on his unique perspective, talents and vision.  For example, have you had dreams and desires that, no matter how hard you struggled to achieve, did not seem to materialize?  ‘I want to be a rich doctor’ is not an authentic desire.  It has to do with achieving a superficial level of status as opposed to an authentic desire to contribute something meaningful to the world.

Identifying your authentic desire is a powerful exercise, not only to give yourself something to work toward and focus on, but also in terms of changing your view of the world.  Once you identify your purpose, the opportunities and invitations that have been present your whole life but that have gone unnoticed suddenly become like an irresistible beacon to engage with your passion.  Those invitations are everywhere; simply being open to their presence and being willing to pursue their call can change your trajectory toward realization of your authentic desire.  The path to achieving your desire may be very convoluted, which means that planning it out in advance may be somewhat of a futile exercise and could even impair your ability to notice subtle invitations that are in line with your authentic desire but out of synch with your preconceptions or plans.

“Man plans and God laughs.” – Yiddish proverb

To follow your authentic path requires a willingness to be spontaneous and go with the flow.  Confucious, Daoism and Czikszentimhayli, a leader in positive psychology, speak to this importance of this spontaneity in the pursuit of one’s authentic goals.  Joseph Campbell, comparative mythologist extraordinaire describes this as being willing to “follow your bliss.”  In other words, let your passion take you where it will.  The outcome is likely to be greater than you can even imagine, so don’t restrict your potential by the limits of your imagination.

On this MLK Day, honor Dr. King’s dream by honoring and embracing your own.  Who knows? Maybe you’ll end up changing the world too.

 

More Blind Spots – In An Accepting Way

I’m a recovering control freak.  And I’m proud of it.

Not of the control freak part.  Of the recovering part.

Just like alcoholism or any other mental health issue, control freak and perfectionism (oh yeah, I am a recovering perfectionist too) are things that we sometimes want to bury and pretend do not apply to us.  No sir.  That’s not me.  Why?  Because it’s too scary to go down deep and explore the source of those feelings and behaviors. On some level, we’re afraid of what we might find.

For me, I had to face a personal truth.  I believed that I would not get what I needed unless I was perfect and was in complete control of my environment.  Of course, both are a complete illusion, but I was under this self-induced spell.  The spell put me in a little reality bubble that was snug, safe and well-defined, and clearly did not include my deep-seated and unacknowledged fear.  That bubble also did not include the fact that everyone except me was aware of my control freak demon.

The thoughts that have the most power over us are the ones that we do not acknowledge, so I was subconsciously ruled by this fear.  Only when we bring our worst fears to light do they lose their power.  In the light of day, those fears assume their proper magnitude.  Much like the Wizard of Oz, when we pull back the curtain on our most basic and fearful assumptions can we see them for what they really are:  a farce.

I’m not saying that I always get what I need and I never inappropriately predict when I’ll be let down.  I’m simply saying that I do not have to create a self-fulfilling prophecy for myself that continues to feed and reinforce my worst fears.  It’s not the end of the world or a personal catastrophe if my worst fears come to be.

I’m also not saying this is an easy journey.  After so many decades of practicing an ingrained behavior, I had to re-examine all my usual habits and reactions in light of this grey-colored lens with which I viewed myself and my world. I had to re-engineer my habits and reactions now that my lens was neutral, or even rose-tinted.  Still, despite all this self-knowledge and progress, there are days I can’t help but go there.

Recently I did a self-assessment exercise about my personality style.  I came up “analyzer” – you know – thoughtful and think before I speak.  Part of the exercise is to invite others to comment about you, and one reviewer said I was a “driver”.  On good days: goal and task oriented, visionary and high expectations of self and others.  On bad days: argumentative, fears losing control and judgmental.

There’s that control freak again.

I don’t view these results as a personal failure.  Rather, these results reflect my continuing journey to care for that scared inner me that still allows myself to go there on bad days.  In fact, I’m pretty proud of myself in that when I saw the feedback, I laughed.  Not because the results were ridiculous, but because I knew they were true.  And that I was completely, 100% ok with that.   No defensiveness, no anger, no fear.  To me, that’s a sort of a milestone, that my better angels are starting to prevail over my inner devil.  Age definitely has some advantages.