250 Blogs and 1 Degree Later

Something about a milestone makes you want to sit back and reflect. So after having completed my 250th blog and now starting on a fresh Word document (no, not all 250 blogs are on one Word document), I thought I’d take a retrospective of the last 1.5 years since I’ve started blogging.

In November 2013 I primarily wrote about my kids and my failed marriage. Though my focus was quite different back then given that I’m now an empty nester and about to be remarried, I’m struck by how I was talking about the principles of positive psychology throughout the blogs even then. Forgiveness, gratitude, perspective, growth, acceptance, pride, relationships and love.

Yet I’m not the same person I was back then. Yes those heart-felt emotions are still there. But now I’m aware of the body of evidence and work that surround those concepts, what they mean for our well-being, and how science shows that those emotions are not accidents. Or they don’t have to be.

Fortunately for me I’ve been an amateur positive psychologist my whole life. I’ve learned and applied those principles in a world where I am the primary subject. Just like any other area where you’re re-inventing the wheel, it was a long and slow learning process only recently accelerated at warp-speed by going back to school. I remember one of the best days of my life was when my girlfriend told me my perspective was all about this new field of positive psychology, and then suddenly I had something to sink my teeth into.   Now I feel like I’m trying to live by those principles every day, every minute, and I could not feel more joyous or engaged with my life.

We are practitioners, not clinicians. I don’t do therapy, though I do have coach training (which is distinctly different from therapy BTW) from outside the program. Instead, we focus on the good things in our lives and on ways to build them both in individuals and organizations in order to grow well-being, a concept distinctly different from ‘happiness.’ We do not diagnose, analyze the past, or treat mental illness.

In school, my mission to help others become the best possible version of themselves crystallized. Sort of. Like any other calling (as I view callings), I have a direction, and now I have the tools. I have this blog, and the pedestal of the lectern, and hopefully venues in the future through which to live my mission.

In this manner, I can change the world, one person at a time. How about you?

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A New Phase

I’m entering a new phase of life again.  The last time this happened I was going through separation and divorce.  This time, I’m finishing school and finding ways to use my new knowledge and skills.  I’m also getting married to an amazing man in a couple of weeks.

Loss versus gain.

However, any kind of change, even the good kind, can be stressful and difficult.  I’m not really worried about the stress and difficulty that will accompany this gain phase.  As the title of this blog implies, I view all ‘problems’ as opportunities for growth and change and so they don’t really stress me out any more.  Rather, I approach them with curiosity and creative problem-solving.  I have learned that when I do so, I tend to find a better path forward and am able to create an enriching experience instead of just feeling resentment and grief.

In addition, I think it’s a mistake to view this new phase as a new phase; as they say, the only thing that stays constant is change.  Change is constantly around us whether we choose to recognize it or not.  In fact, I feel like the entire last four years has been a process of continual change and growth leaving me now in a place that is beyond anything I could ever have dreamed about.   (Yes, I am marrying a very brave man who is willing to marry someone going through so much change.)

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” – William Shakespeare

If I take to heart the wisdom of the Bard, and I always try to, then even judging change as good or bad is a questionable practice.   Like problems, change can be viewed either through a lens of joyous discovery or resistance and despair.  While I believe the outcomes are much better when taking the former approach, I also believe that I am simply happier – regardless of the outcome – when I practice acceptance and interest during change or problem-solving processes.

And now, I will have a new spouse and great new tools with which to interpret, manage and enjoy them with.  I have a fresher and wiser perspective than I once had so the changes will not be as stressful as they were four years ago. I have a deeper appreciation for all the abundance, beauty and love around me and I a bottomless gratitude for all the blessings in our lives.  If I don’t take those things for granted, I won’t be as resentful if I must one day lose them.

I’m also wise enough to know that having expectations attached to positive change is also a set-up for disappointment.  Rather, I will approach the change with curiosity and openness and a willingness to go with the flow.  The latter is a huge step forward for me as a recovering control-freak and someone whose bottom strength is adaptability.   The secret:  I haven’t changed who I am but rather shift my perspective of needing control to feel safe to instead focusing on the pleasure of discovery and the challenge of finding opportunity and beauty in all things, ‘good’ and ‘bad’.   After all, I would not have been in this unimaginable place if I had limited my reality only to the places and things that I can imagine.

I like the metaphor of the butterfly.  In the chrysalis or caterpillar stage, the creature is safe within a narrowly defined world:  the cocoon or the leaves.   Once transformed, the butterfly ventures out to explore the wider world.  Either way, the butterfly can get eaten, but at least the flying version has the freedom to explore and enjoy until it’s time for the next, inevitable phase.  And that ultimate loss is just part of life as well.

We are that butterfly.  We can stay in the cocoon or continue to crawl in the tree, blindly looking for leaf after leaf to eat.  Or we can fly away and explore the limits of our existence.  Go out  (or in) and explore.  Enjoy the journey.  Don’t be afraid.  Life is too short and too beautiful!

Changing Others

This blog is all about change and growth in oneself.   Each blog has been a different (sort of) topic on this subject for now 18 months and counting.   In other words, the multitude of topics on the subject indicates that change, even positive change, is not easy.  And if you’re reading this blog that means that change is desired or being contemplated.  Congratulations!  Considering change is the prelude to actual change or growth and I commend you for your efforts to grow and improve!

What about when the change needed involves someone else?

I know that you know that you know this (read that again, aloud to yourself), but I still think it merits saying that we cannot change others.  Yet we know what’s going on for them.  We know what’s right for them.  We know what they should do.

If only they knew as well, so they can do the right thing.

We don’t know what’s right for them.

We barely know what’s going on for ourselves since our self-knowledge is limited at best.  In addition, last I checked, even the most empathic person cannot read minds.  To complicate matters, we also tend to confuse our own feelings for someone else’s, a phenomenon called projection.

In short, we are not perfect.  We usually cannot know what it’s like for someone else, and even if we can, we cannot know what is the right course of action for that person.  Even if we did know the right course of action, everyone must create change in their own timeframe.  Remember, change is not easy and people only change or make change when they’re ready.

Frankly, if we are spending time in that space of thinking we know what’s right for someone else, it’s probably a sign that we instead should be attending to understanding our own reality and  creating our own action plan.

I realize that this advice is easier said than done.  But next time you realize that you are spending time deciding what someone else should be doing, ask yourself honestly (put away all your defensiveness) whether the deficiency you note in them is also present in you.   Then consider your action plan in light of this new information.

We are hard-wired for hypocrisy, so don’t feel bad.  You also don’t have to admit your hypocrisy to anyone else if you don’t want.   I promise, I won’t rat you out.  After all, we’re all in this together.

Starry-Eyed Idealist

Be practical.  Be realistic.  Be careful.  Don’t trust others.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.  I know.  I don’t want to get burned or get my hopes up unrealistically.

But I also don’t want to live my life feeling like I can’t trust and hope.

We learned in school about realistic optimism:  being optimistic in a realistic way.  I think those authors were providing caution to people like me who tend to assume the best intentions from others and the best possible outcome.

I understand the theory and even agree with it to some degree.   However, there are two problems with that concept from my perspective.  First, what is realistic to one person is unrealistic to another.  In other words, we are not a good judge of our own reality.  On one hand, we might be unrealistically optimistic, but we may likewise be unrealistically negative or pessimistic.  I know anecdotally that a large number of us have a negative ticker tape dialogue running through our heads:  I’m not good enough.  I’m not deserving.  I’m unattractive.  No one likes me.  I’m not deserving.  I’m not smart/good at math/good at athletics.  I don’t belong.  I’m not loved.   We notice those things that confirm our belief (confirmation bias) but ignore the data that refute it.  In so doing, we create our own reality.

Running through my great, 50-year old wisdom is my ticker tape that I don’t belong and that I don’t have many friends.  I used to actually say that aloud.  And I would always notice when I’m not included or when I’m alone, each observation confirming my belief.  But some time ago I decided to challenge that belief and look for instances where I do belong, when my friends reach out to me, when I’m included or even celebrated and seen authentically by my friends.  Back then, I might’ve thought it was realistically optimistic to hope that I would have outside my best friend circle (3-4 people generally; this fact did not sway my belief mind you) another circle of at most 3-4 modestly good friends.

As you might guess, when I started intentionally looking for signs of friendship and affection, I started to see it everywhere.  Now I feel I have friendship in huge abundance – not that I’m ‘popular’ by any means – but that I have a wide circle of friends and affectionate acquaintances.  The graduate program that I’ve almost just completed expanded my circle of friends by more than 37 people.  In the old days, my ticker tape would’ve had me feeling like they’re not friends/they don’t care for me like the other classmates/we’ll never stay in contact.  I’m not naive enough to believe that all of us will be buddies forever, but with some effort I will be able to maintain contact and friendship with several of them and even expand the circle to other alumni and people in the positive psychology community.

In addition to not being a good judge of our own reality, the second problem with realistic optimism is that it will cause us to play it too safe sometimes.  Innovation takes leaps of faith, and if we all quit dreaming, where would our dreams be?

I can hear the naysayers out there saying that I’ll be disappointed or hurt by being hopeful or optimistic.  My answer to that is that I’d rather put myself out there to be hurt and disappointed on the rare occasion than to live my life without trust, intimacy, love or hope.  Yes, I’ve been burned, but I can honestly say that I’m more likely to be pleasantly surprised.  Life is not supposed to be free from pain or disappointment.  It’s part of the human condition and to close ourselves to that pain also requires that we close ourselves to pleasure and joy.

So when someone accuses me of being a starry-eyed idealist, I thank them for the compliment and say I would’t have it any other way.

 

Learning Patience

Our strengths are our weaknesses (and fortunately, visa versa, because I’d be in big trouble!).  My creativity, zest, and desire to get things done are great assets – until they’re not.  Put me behind a slow driver or in front of someone who doesn’t get it or wants to deliberate, or in the middle of a slow, boring process and I’m at my worst.  Impatient, antsy, impulsive and hyper are adjectives that have been used to describe me.

I’ve figured out a way to turn that frown upside down and turn my liabilities into an asset.  I’m not talking about the upside of the creativity/zest/activator.  I’m talking about the downside.

I like to use the story of the Buddha – sorry, bear with me once again – as a metaphor.  The Buddha liked to keep a student nearby who was impatient, antsy, impulsive and just generally annoying.  Someone once asked him why he insisted on keeping the student so close by and the Buddha said, “She is not my student.  She is my teacher.” (haha I am the Buddha’s teacher!)

I’ve always told that story in relationship to difficult people, but in this context I’m telling it in relation to myself and when I am my own worst enemy.  One of the things I have had to struggle with the most in my lifetime is that voice in my head (mine, that is) that is constantly somewhere else.  That voice is in the past being unhappy about something.  That voice is in the future worrying about something.  That voice is in the present complaining about something or someone, usually myself but often someone or something else.  Unfortunately/fortunately the antidote for that voice is being present, and meditation is the best exercise for that.

I have to admit that I don’t meditate that much these days but I do work at being present on an ongoing basis.   The little devil in me in the form of impatience, boredom or annoyance are the perfect cue to practice being present:  I’m not exercising either these days (but I will.  soon!) so I do some isometrics.  I stop to practice gratitude and appreciation of the beauty around me.  I use my compassion for someone who is going as fast as they can or doing the best that they can.  I stop and think about my loved ones.

I’m embarrassed to say that these opportunities to practice being present are all around me as I’m frequently resisting the urge to be bored or annoyed.  I’m proud to say, however, that I think I’ve reached a milestone because an usually long and tedious responsibility has recently become a pleasant and enjoyable occasion.  I imagine my being present also improved the experience for those around me as I stopped fidgeting and looking completely unengaged.

I can’t help but reflect once again that our shortcomings are our opportunities.  If we fail to look at our shortcomings we are missing out on probably what we need the most to cultivate our well-being.  I once was unable to look at my shortcomings at all, but by thinking of them as strengths on an effectiveness spectrum, I can see them for all that they offer.  Where in your life have you been stuck and given up looking for a solution?  You have the tools and skills already.  Take  a fresh look and make it happen!

Love/Hate Dynamic in Relationships

You know that thing in your partner that you first loved, now hate (or something in between)?  You’ve probably suspected if not known that the love/hate dynamic is very common and real.  Relationship expert Harville Hendrix describes this phenomenon as the imago.

Imago refers to our tendency to seek partners that reproduce our childhood wounds.  On some level, we find comfort in the familiar, even if the familiar is the behavior we find hurtful.  We seem to be experts in using our Spidey Sense (we usually call it ‘chemistry’) to know who will be able to reproduce those wounds for us.  That person makes us feel complete and whole because we yearn to be with someone who has learned to curb their wounding tendencies.

That is, until we discover that they haven’t curbed their wounding tendencies.  They still open those same wounds, but maybe in a different or somewhat improved way.  In addition, these are old wounds they’re opening up, and so we continue to have a visceral response to them.

The good news is that you can ditch that partner that causes you to curl up into a fetal position.  The bad news is that you’re going to keep being attracted to the same type of person after you’ve sent your old partner packing.  Then you’re back to square one, just several years and maybe several partners later.    The good news (#2) is that nature intends for you to learn how to deal with these issues (thus the multiple chances).  The good news (#3) is that your partner is the perfect foil for you to rise to the challenge of dealing with those wounds because as you rise to meet the needs of your partner, you simultaneously heal yourself.  That’s pretty amazing, don’t you think?

For example, if my wound has to do with me feeling unlovable, I will be very sensitive and reactive when someone is not affirming.  Maybe they don’t notice I went to a lot of trouble to cook dinner or plan a vacation, but oddly I will be attracted to that type of person.   But I may have a tendency to not put forth effort to avoid the risk of being rejected or criticized.  Notice this is a self-fulfilling prophecy because I am unlikely to be loved if I am not exerting myself in the relationship

On the other hand, he may have his own issues – he is used to feeling deprived, so will tend to notice deprivation not generosity, and thus tends to be critical rather than complimentary.  I can help him heal his wounds but being proactive and calm about meeting his needs instead of withdrawing even if I am not complimented or thanked.  By being able to take the risk of giving without expectation heals my own unlovability while helping him manage his deprivation.  His job would be to see the love and contribution without criticism and allow himself to be vulnerable enough to be cared for.  In so doing, he would be healing his wounds and also helping me to do better with my unlovability.  Thus, the imago is potentially a healing partnership where both parties collaborate to heal themselves and each other.

More good news (#4) is that by finally dealing with these issues, you’re likely to give your kids a better chance of dealing with their own childhood wounds.

The bad news (#2) is that this is not easy work.  As discussed in many previous blogs, that self-awareness and inner work is scary and hard.  We have to be willing to accept responsibility for our unhealthy perspectives and behaviors and be willing to make changes.  Those of us who are (recovering) perfectionists, this means accepting our humanity and flaws.  Those who are considering embarking on this path of self-discovery might be comforted to know that they are not alone with regard to their flaws.  I felt an odd sort of comfort knowing that these books that were written describe thousands of people just like me.  We’re all on the same path of discovery; we’re just in different places of the journey.

The alternative is living for years with strained relationships where we are constantly in a  love/hate, blame/self-justifying cycle.  When I’m in blame/self-justifying—mode, I just feel like I’m building a wall around my heart and it’s difficult to let anyone in.  As Dr. Phil says, “would you rather be right, or happy?”  I would go so far as to say, “would you rather be right/alone or happy/healed/nurturing/loving/supportive?”  You have nothing to lose (though it may feel like you do) and everything to gain by opening your heart up to love, acceptance and forgiveness.   Be brave. You’re not alone.


The Things They Never Tell You About Being A Mother

Being a Mom isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

It’s so much better.

I never want to take for granted the gratitude of others.   But for me, Mother’s Day is also about celebrating one’s children and being grateful to them for enabling me to be in the best role I’ve ever had.

Here’s why I’m grateful to my children on Mother’s Day:

  • Yes, being a parent can be exhausting.  But for me, it was an energizing experience overall.
  • Yes, sometimes I just wanted them to go to bed or go to school, but mostly I looked forward to every chance I could just hang out with them, get a hug or hold their hand.
  • Yes, sometimes it was just hard work, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else, doing anything else, ever.
  • Yes, sometimes it was just yukky, particularly during the diaper or barfing (yes we had that) stages, but I loved seeing my naked baby several times a day and getting to play with his tummy (there wasn’t really an upside to the barfing stage, in retrospect, aside from the great stories I can tell – subject for another blog).
  • Yes , sometimes it was just frustrating and aggravating, but there was 10x as much joy as frustration. Besides, there was a lesson about myself to be learned during those times though I admit it took me a long time to learn them.  I had as much growing up to do as they did, and they were my teachers.  If you think about it, kids can only do what they can do.  So blaming the kid is like blaming a dog for barking or pooping:  it only reflected my need to control or my unrealistic expectations.
  • Yes, sometimes I felt it was a thankless job, but I know how they feel about me and the unique role I played in their lives.  Any time they willingly choose to spend time with me feels like a thank you note in disguise.
  • Yes, sometimes those life stages were difficult and challenging, but I thought they were all amazing and I enjoyed every one of them (some more than others).  It was an honor to watch them grow and transform through each stage.
  • Yes, everyone told me how much work it is raising kids but no one told me what an utter and complete joy it is.  I loved almost every minute of it and, now that they’ve flown the coop, the time with them is ever more precious.

So you Moms out there who are fortunate enough to still have your kids at home:  savor the moment, all of them, and find the silver lining and personal lessons during the challenging times (if you’re not already).  Perhaps the mothering experience will be more than you bargained for too.  Happy Mother’s Day!

Photo credit: tonyconigliophotography.com

Photo credit: tonyconigliophotography.com