Jumping to Conclusions

It’s oh so easy and deliciously fun to jump to conclusions about others’ motivations, especially when we can feel indignant and justified while making others out to be petty, small-minded, or selfish. We can decide they’re a jerk, an a**hole, a biyotch, or (favorite expletive) and feel superior to them.

It’s great fun until someone else does it to us.

But that’s different, we say.   We’re right.

What I’ve learned is that everyone has their perspective which is just as valid as our own, regardless of whether we understand it or agree with it.  Failure to at least try to understand someone else’s perspective can be damaging to morale and relationships and undermine a group’s effectiveness.

I have to admit that some people are particularly difficult to understand and it may be tempting to just write them off as narcissists, selfish or small-minded. And I may not always be wrong when doing so. After all, even a broken clock is right twice per day. So for all of those times (since I can’t ever really know when I’m right) when I find myself indulging in negativity, complaining, or self-justification here’s what I try to do.

First, I must acknowledge that I form some judgment or assumption when I form a conclusion.   There may be a belief attached to that. For example, if my friend is in the habit of offering something to me that she knows she cannot deliver, I may decide she’s manipulative (a judgment/assumption/conclusion). But if I examine my underlying belief (it’s her job be honest with me so that I feel safe or valued), I can see what the real issue is and have a conversation with her and/or make a decision about what her friendship is worth to me.

Second, I can examine my own role and potential hypocrisy in this situation. It’s easy to cast blame on others, but much harder to take ownership of one’s own contribution.   A great starting point for this self-reflection is as follows: if I’m accusing her of manipulation, there is probably some element of manipulation that I myself am employing such as getting mad if she doesn’t do what I want.

I also may be hiding a belief from myself that is potentially unflattering. For example, my underlying belief in the above scenario might really be that my affection for her is predicated on her doing something for me.  I may be very unwilling to admit this to myself and instead rationalize the conflict to say it’s about honesty.   I can test my assumption by asking myself whether her company alone is sufficient for me to continue our friendship. Or perhaps I pressure her to do things for me that she’s not comfortable doing? Is this her way of getting me off her back?

Finally, I can also do an exercise where I envision other reasonable explanations for her behavior. She might simply be an unrealistic and overly optimistic planner who is sincere in her offers at the time.   She might have every intention of making that promise work, but later find she’s too busy or overwhelmed.   She might be misusing one of her strengths if she’s tired or stressed out. In other words, I am now looking at my friend from the point of view of her humanity, not her failures.

These exercises are not necessarily designed to get someone else off the hook after behaving poorly. They are intended, however, to help one get a new perspective on what was previously a very one-sided internal dialogue.

There are multiple benefits to making this effort in such situations. For example, trying to see the conflict from another’s perspective will smooth the way when discussing the issue with them. You’re less likely to make her defensive if you’re not leading with an accusatory tone. Also, it’s much easier to forgive someone when you consider or realize that you have contributed an equal or significant part to the problem. And that forgiveness, as Suzanne Somers once said, is a “gift you give yourself”. That gift to yourself is peace of mind and the power to retain your equanimity and positive emotion.

Therefore, engaging in such exercises means that you can potentially be rewarded psychologically and emotionally for your efforts. Like other skills, these actions get easier with practice, as do the concomitant benefits. So what do you have to lose besides your premature conclusions and resentment?

What Are Men Good For?

Let me count the ways.

This extremely loaded question can only be asked and answered by a pro.  (And that is not me BTW.)   In his book, Is There Anything Good About Men?  How Cultures Flourish By Exploiting Men, social psychologist Roy Baumeister asks and answers this question.

Baumeister describes the way men and women differ in the social domain:

–       Women are more social and less aggressive than men stereotypically but are slightly more aggressive in close relationships

–       Men are more aggressive in general; they value relationships less than women

–       Women are more motivated to build intimacy

–       Men may be more social to make a superficial network of relationships

–       Men are more helping in communities; in intimate relationships women are more helpful than men

–       Women are more emotionally expressive which fosters intimate relationships; men are more evolved to lie to gain advantages

–       Women lean towards promoting equality and commonality; men (and large groups) lean towards equity (based on contribution) and distinction.  Of note, commonality, communal and cooperative behavior are better for intimate relationships, but are less advantageous in economic systems

That wasn’t so bad, was it?  I’ll bet you were ready to get pissed off.

Maybe you are pissed off.   And just think how pissed off you’d feel if you replace the word “Men” in the title with the word “Women.”  I know some of our classmates, when hearing this lecture, reacted strongly to the lecture.  However, I don’t believe we have to interpret these trends as black/white or all/nothing.  They’re just trends, tendencies.  Not rules.   We humans are so complex and unpredictable that we defy rules.

Even if generalizations and stereotypes are more true than false (as defined by more than 50% do X or Y), it doesn’t mean that we, as individuals, have to reinforce and subscribe to the stereotype.  I can lie too and defy the trend.  I can choose distinction over commonality in some situations and break the mold.

The point is, in the end we have autonomy as long as we have awareness.  It’s harder to have autonomy when I allow my subconscious processes rule my behavior and never question those processes or choices , especially when those choices give me a poor outcome.

So whether you agree or disagree with Baumeister, perhaps Baumeister’s work can help raise your consciousness about the topic so that you can decide whether to defy the stereotype.



Imposter Syndrome

Working in higher education, I am pretty fortunate to be running with a well-educated crowd. Therefore, it always surprises me when people confess that they have the imposter syndrome. MD. PhD. DDS. Pharm.D. JD. It doesn’t matter.   No matter how successful one might be, they could be thinking, “someday someone will figure out that I shouldn’t be here.”

The imposter syndrome is frequently associated with the failure schema, according to Tara Bennett-Goleman, author of Emotional Alchemy. People who harbor the failure schema believe that their successes are undeserved and they feel like a failure despite their successes.

Like many schema, the failure schema can drive someone to be an overachiever to compensate for their feelings of failure. It’s almost as if they are trying to prove to themselves that they are successful, but never really manage to do so until they learn to manage their schema and challenge their core, and sometimes subconscious, beliefs.

This is true of all schema, by the way.   We will continue to view our world and ourselves through our schema filters, coloring all of our assumptions and beliefs, and inevitably becoming self-fulfilling prophecies   unless we challenge those beliefs.

I confess I have not thought much about the failure schema since I’m usually surprised when someone says they have the imposter syndrome. To me, they’re usually just fabulously successful people.   But among these fabulously successful people are also people who cannot get off the dime on certain tasks. They don’t exert themselves in certain areas. They don’t speak up for themselves. They don’t take risks. They don’t reach for or take opportunities outside of their comfort zone. They seem like they’re perfectly happy letting things ride or letting others take the lead. Sometimes it may seem like they’re trying to undermine everyone else’s efforts.

I don’t mean to say that everyone who has trouble getting started on tasks have a failure schema. That would be too easy. Nor do I mean to point fingers. After all, we ALL have schema, and if you were to deny it, it would make me think you have a perfectionism schema. Ha! Don’t you love the circular logic?

Thankfully I don’t have the failure schema. I feel like I’ve earned my successes and my failures.   And now that I’ve been through a masters program in a subject I’m passionate about, I can also see that I’ve been somewhat of an underachiever myself in certain areas. So I’m not here to judge. I’m trying to understand the various ways we flawed but amazing humans interface with each other and the world. I’m here to try to understand how I can be more supportive of others on their journeys, as they have been of mine.

In fact, I think the strengths approach (e.g. StregnthsFinders, VIA) provides great tools to help those with imposter syndrome learn to value themselves for who they are, as opposed to what they’ve accomplished. Perhaps that can provide a toe-hold to internalizing a sense of wonder and appreciation for oneself instead of criticism. Then maybe they can see what I see in them: a freakin’ amazing person!

Celebrating Life

photo credit:  tonyconigliophotography.com

photo credit: tonyconigliophotography.com

Think back to the last time you had a near-death experience or had just recovered from a nasty illness or setback.  Remember how you felt?  You probably felt exuberant, so alive and grateful to be living.  That feeling is elating.

What separates that moment from any other?  In other words, on a daily basis we tend not to be acutely aware of how precious and beautiful life is, but perhaps we should.

Perhaps we should.

If you think about it, it’s a huge miracle that we exist in the way we do at all: sentient beings living cooperatively on this beautiful planet, enjoying the benefits of culture, technology, health and affluence (mostly).  That we have plentiful and delicious food, entertainment, employment and education (mostly).  That we have friends, loved ones, and even great colleagues (mostly).  That our bodies even allow us to sense the glory of nature, smell delicious food or aromatic flowers, feel the softness of a child’s skin or kitten’s fur, taste the sweetness of a ripe piece of fruit, and hear a classic symphony.   Yes, it’s a true miracle.

Instead, what do we focus on all day?  Our problems, what we don’t have in our lives, what are loved ones are not doing or providing to us, our discomforts, our failures, our shortcomings.  I can hear some of you thinking:  yes but I have financial problems/a bad boss/a chronic illness/an abusive relationship.  I’m not saying our lives are perfect.  I’m saying that we have so much to be grateful for despite our problems.

This focus on the negative is not a bad thing necessarily.  It can be adaptive and good, but only to the degree that we are solving that problem by focusing our attention and energies on it.   But at that point when we are simply worrying or complaining instead of finding a solution, we’re wasting precious time, energy and the opportunity to savor our incredible lives.

If you’ve been living your life this way, you don’t have to feel bad.  The past is the past, and all you have control over is this very moment.  So in this moment, what do you choose?  Pain and heartache?  Or joy and gratitude?

You may have squandered some of your past but don’t squander your now, and your future.

What do you choose?

Benefits of Being Open

When’s the last time you got mad or critical or said No without thinking?   Weeks, days, hours, minutes?

I define being closed as either forming a snap judgment or even being unable or unwilling to reconsider a thought-out position. Being open, in contrast, means keeping one’s mind open even after forming an opinion.

Being open is hard from for many reasons for a lot of people, but so worth it. It’s hard because it takes time and energy to think out your opinion with care.   It also requires that you might have to say you were wrong (OMG!).   It’s simply faster and easier to have a few set of rules by which to live your life and apply them all around. To me, these are called principles and I have always felt applying principles is a good way to live your life.

Until it’s not.

When those principles start creating havoc in your life, it’s time to re-evaluate the process. I’m not saying we should abandon our principles when convenient. Rather, I’m saying that life is very nuanced and sometimes other factors that we may not have considered may be more important in some situations. These are called blind spots.

For example, as an administrator in higher education, I strive to treat all students the same way. We have rules and procedures and students must follow them, otherwise everyone will want an exception. Then what good are your rules? But adhering so rigidly to the rules when exceptional circumstances occur also sets a bad precedent, not to mention runs the risk of being unfair or inhumane.   A student who must leave immediately to attend to a family crisis should not be penalized because he’s not here to make the proper requests via the required and endless paper (yes, paper) work.

Like so many things in my life I’ve had to learn this lesson the hard way.   But since then I’ve learned that my life and the lives of those around me just goes much more smoothly and successfully when I’m not wedded to an idea or outcome. Simply by reserving judgment or opinion also allows room for positive emotion like curiosity and serenity when I might have chosen resentment or disgust in the past. In other words, forming no opinion, unless I must, actually requires less energy than making a snap decision and sticking to it. And I have a better outcome. How good is that?

In the category of embarrassing admissions, my ‘adaptability’ strength was at the bottom (#34) in 2005 and 29 out of 34 in 2013. So you can see I’ve made some progress and am demonstrating that we can change, evolve and grow.  Being low in adaptability, like most of my other ‘lesser strengths’, simply means I have to put some effort into exhibiting that trait since it does not come naturally. Some more recent acquaintances are surprised when I tell them a certain strength is low for me. It makes me proud to know that I can manage my ‘opportunities for improvement’ effectively sometimes.

I’m even more proud when I see others learn that lesson and find the same satisfaction in improving in areas they never thought they could.   So indulge me and work on a skill you once believed you could not change, then let me know how it goes. Simply ridding yourself of the belief you are powerless is a powerful and enabling move. Replace it with the belief that you will change and grow. Yes you can.

Webucator’s Most Marketable Job Skill Campaign – Emotional Intelligence

No, emotional intelligence (EQ) is not a line item on your resume.  But EQ impacts all of your interpersonal interactions (and their impact on you) as well as how you interview and promote yourself to others.  Employers may not be looking for emotional intelligence directly in your resume or letters of reference, but your ability to manage yourself and get along with others will nevertheless come across loud and clear.

For example,  if you can’t work well with others, it may show as a lack of productivity since so much of what we do requires teamwork and cooperation.  The tone of letters of reference will also reflect whether you are emotionally intelligent, since if you cannot manage yourself or others, that deficiency is likely to come across specifically or in the tone of the letter.  Lack of EQ will especially come across loud and clear in the job application and interview stage.  Those with good EQ will seem the type others wish to work with and the interview is likely to go smoothly.  They will demonstrate that they respond effectively and appropriately across various situations in school, at work and during the application and interview stages.  A good EQ is also required of good managers and leaders.

That’s not to say that those who lack emotional intelligence are doomed to a lifetime of unemployment.   But if I’m lacking EQ then my talent and productivity will have to be considerably higher to make up the deficit.  The level of EQ required also will vary depending on the position and the person doing the hiring.  And a high EQ is no substitute for actual competency or hard work.  However, the ability to know and manage emotions is a basic life skill that provides the baseline for success in our personal and professional lives.

Not high on EQ?  Don’t worry – unlike IQ, EQ can be learned and developed.   It takes some introspection and some work, but it can be changed.  If you are already high in EQ, then good for you! Keep growing your EQ skills, they can only serve you well.

Note:  Some websites such as Webucator offers free training to improve your technical skills that you can use to supplement the array of soft and technical skills that you can use to market yourself to future employers.


Who Are You Without Work?

I’m at the state in my life where many of my long-time colleagues are beginning to retire. Even looking back to my Dad’s retirement, it became clear to me that those who don’t have an active and full personal life will struggle to transition into retirement.

Part of the issue for those folks is the loss of their professional identity as well as just how to fill their time.   Filling the time can be hard. I spent roughly three years working 20-30% time while my kids were young and by the end of it, I was ready to go crazy.   There was also a definite transition period where I reconsidered myself from initially as a full-time tenured professor to part-time working Mom. It did not actually take that long, as I recall, but I also hadn’t spent most of my life with that identity at that point in time.

We’ve had a taste of that discretionary time this week as Chris and I vacationed in Paris. This week, we’ve had no agenda. No plans. No obligations. We can cook if we want, or eat out. The hotel maids clean our room. We can be as hedonistic as we want …. though hedonism gets old pretty fast (note: it hasn’t gotten old just yet).

I admit it’s been impossible to completely turn off work. Jet lag has meant we’ve had hours of being awake at odd hours and, well, I might as well go through my email. But we’ve largely turned off the work brain and just focused on being together, exploring and being present. Even my passion for positive psychology and training has been shut down this week.

Sort of. I know you’re thinking about me blogging this week but the blog is more for me than for you. I often will start writing without an end in mind; indeed I have no answer for this question that I posed to myself as I sat down to write. I know I am still ‘me’ without my day job but not sure who I am without my passion, as it so completely defines me right now.

The good thing about a passion though is that I can do it anywhere, whether my employer chooses to support or condone it, or whether or not I’m on vacation. My passion is my pleasure and my joy and provides meaning to my day and my life.   I like that it’s not dependent on a title or position at work, or the approval of someone else. I never thought I’d be one of those people that say that they will always want to work, because work to them is play.

Perhaps when our job is our passion, we jump out of bed to go to work each day, we can’t believe we get paid to do this work, and we never want to retire.

I realize that only 30% of people have that feeling about work.   Another 30% are perfectly happy with the status of their work being a career, not a passion, and another 30% are searching.   I don’t believe everyone must have an calling/passion to be happy. However, after our work and family raising responsibilities diminish we may struggle to find that meaning in our daily activities and could potentially leave a gaping void.  So even if you’re not searching right now, pay attention to what brings you joy, ease, and excellence. You may want to fall back on it some day.

Cultural Humility and Perspective

Aside from just being a lot of fun, foreign travel changes the traveler. For example, Chris likes to say that everyone should travel abroad so they can experience what it means to be in the minority.

Unfortunately, the stereotype of the obnoxious traveler can occur, I believe, when we enter another culture without the proper respect and appreciation for our host country. Foreigners sometimes criticize cultural differences (or similarities) rather than embracing them, and thus may come across as arrogant and unpleasant. For example, I overheard Americans commenting at length about the graffiti observed from the train… as if the French shouldn’t have graffiti when we have it all over our major cities.

As a minority who was born and raised in America, I’m pretty sensitive to being a racial minority but oblivious to being a cultural minority. In other words, a Caucasian traveler in the US may feel culturally conspicuous as the customs or language of the host country may be vastly different from their own.

When in the cultural minority when I travel, I find the language barrier mortifying.   I have never been very good at learning other languages, including the one that I should be able to speak (Mandarin, since I’m the daughter of Mandarin-speaking immigrants; this is particularly embarrassing for me). It’s almost worse when the locals speak English yet I can barely speak a word of their language while I’m visiting their country. To me, this disparity feels intensely disrespectful and I’m all the more impressed with others who are at all fluent in a language other than their native tongue.

In addition, foreign travel gives one a fresh appreciation for differences in culture and custom resulting in a new perspective of one’s own customs (What? We have to weigh our own fruit?).   There is so much about our own culture that I completely take for granted, so being submerged in another culture reminds me that many perspectives and approaches are equally valid, valuable and important, not only across countries but between cultural backgrounds within our own country.

Unfortunately, those differences are all too easily misunderstood (No, we’re not stupid. We’re ignorant). I believe a disadvantage of being American is that for most of us, foreign boundaries are all too far away and we often take for granted that the American way is THE way. Even if we don’t feel that way, it’s too easy to fall into complacency about our cultural assumptions. The problem with that complacency is that we are a large and extremely diverse country and it’s too easy to make assumptions about how ‘it should be’ when it may not necessarily make sense for another American with a different cultural sensitivity.

This subject came up recently when discussing what it is like for international students at our university. In other words, how can we accommodate and respect the cultures of those students but yet set certain standards on campus? We’re walking a fine line where we expect foreign nationals to respect and abide by our cultural norms while trying to respect theirs. The university setting is just a microcosm of our culture at large… we face the same issues on a national and even international scale.

I don’t really know the answer to such questions as I’m simply a pharmaceutical scientist and positive psychology practitioner. Perhaps the first step is to simply try to understand someone else’s perspective, withhold judgment as much as possible, and try to find the upside of that perspective even when we disagree with it. After all, isn’t that how we would want to be treated?


Princess For A Day or Three

I’ve never understood the girlish fascination with princesses and being a princess.  Raised by Chinese immigrants in America, I was familiar with the concept but never really got it.  I think I was nearly 40 before my parents ever referred to me as their princess.  Back when I was growing up, the princesses in popular culture looked nothing like me:  I looked more like the evil stepmother.

The culture in Texas in the 70’s and 80’s also reinforced my sense of not being special.  Rather, I was pretty invisible, usually being ignored in restaurants, at deli counters and by men in general.

I’m not writing this as an ode to Poor Me.  I’m simply observing the juxtaposition of those expectations of usually fading into the background with my experience in the last few months where I have been Princess Galore:  50th Birthday Party (surprise party, no less), Graduation and a wedding, all in about 6 weeks.   Center of attention.  Photos.  Toasts.  Gifts in abundance.  Pampering.  Friends and family from afar.  Compliments and congratulations.

Wanting to hide beneath the covers.

Don’t get me wrong.  It was pretty sublime and there is literally nothing better than having those that you love most surrounding you and helping to celebrate the most important moments of your life.   I wouldn’t want it any other way and am so incredibly grateful to my loved ones for taking the time and effort to join me/us.  Truly, I feel so unbelievably blessed and fortunate.

But being a Princess is not the normal state of affairs for the 99.9% of us.  At some point we go back to our daily lives where we instead try to make other people feel special each day.  If I got too used to being Princess, I’d feel deprived and resentful for not being doted on like that on a regular and frequent basis.

So I feel that being a Princess once in a while is pretty freakin’ amazing, but I’m glad I was not raised to expect it.  Instead, when Princess happens, I can view it as a special gift from a loved one and savor every precious moment.

We get married!

We get married!