Up On A Pedestal

You’ve never had delusions of perfection, or you’ve given them up some time ago. Bravo! But what about your perception of perfection in others?

I know that no one believes that others are incapable of mistakes. That’s not the kind of perfection I’m talking about. I’m talking about the kind where one believes that another is lacking in character flaws, is a super star, and/or somehow manages to explain away ongoing, egregious behavior. It’s also the kind of perfection that leads one to believe that someone else is better or more important than they are.

That being said, there’s nothing wrong with giving your loved ones the benefit of the doubt and seeing their best side every day. I’m all for that. But putting someone up on a pedestal means being blind to their shortcomings as well as their needs.   For example, if I can’t see the shortcomings of my best friend, then I won’t be positioned to help her when she is open, receptive, or even asking to make a change. If she’s “perfect as she is” then I may not believe that she has any room for growth and may unintentionally discourage that growth. In contrast, believing she is “awesome as she is” allows room for growth.

Another way that the pedestal can be a bad for relationships is that it may be a barrier to real intimacy. For example, if you cannot see or understand the things that I struggle with, we can only communicate on a superficial level. I know that it feels gratifying to vilify your friend’s boyfriend when she complains about him. But when the same pattern emerges repeatedly over time and across the different men that she has dated, reinforcing her belief that it’s always someone else’s fault is not helpful.

Another example of pedestal behavior is viewing the other through the lens of who you think they are. I once had a friend who frequently said, “You must think that I’m….” even though I assured her repeatedly that I did not think that way. This type of behavior is a barrier to intimacy because she would not see who I really was, but rather she chose to see me only as she wished to see me.

The pedestal may include viewing another as a super-human who can handle and excel at the impossible and who doesn’t need any help or time off. I have seen this pedestal belief result in completely unrealistic expectations of another. For example, a superstar may be expected to take on an unreasonable load at work, home or school, without any help, sympathy or support. Again, this belief fails to see the person for who they truly are and stands in the way of an intimate relationship.

I’m not at all suggesting that we look for or focus on the flaws or limitations of our loved ones. Rather, I’m suggesting that we:

  • Stay open, curious, and nonjudgmental to whatever struggles, virtues, vices, and achievements that our loved ones bring to us
  • Be supportive without being critical or dismissive
  • Listen carefully when they share their true selves
  • Avoid giving advice unless asked (unlike this blog, but I assume you’re reading of your own volition)
  • View the relationship as a partnership, with both parties having equal standing

If you are lucky enough to have someone who is that special in your life, then do your part to see them for who they are. That super star may not need much, except a sympathetic ear and someone who understands them, flaws and all.

Your Attention, Your Reality

Someone told me recently that they have a complete grasp on reality and they call it as they see it. The inference is that others don’t have an accurate perception of reality. And thus the beginning of endless disagreements and arguments.

In fact, there are thousands of things that we can focus on at any given moment, including what we see, smell, touch, hear or taste. We can also focus on something that’s in our mind, past, present or future. So at any given point in time, what we choose to focus on is a choice. If I’m focusing on how loudly the clock is ticking, someone else watching TV may say the clock is not loud at all. We have different realities, and we’re both right.

We also have different realities when it comes to interpreting others’ behavior. I sometimes get this weird habit of noticing how wet or dry someone’s mouth is while talking. I’m not proud of it. It doesn’t happen that often. But when it does happen, I have a hard time not focusing on it. Just like if I said, “Don’t think of white polar bears.” What are you going to do?

Likewise, if I get fixated on someone else’s positive qualities, say how smart or clever they are, then I will just marvel at how wonderful and talented they are. I will have positive emotion (admiration, inspiration, enjoyment) and will share that emotion with others vicariously.

Or I can choose to get fixated on some negative quality. It might be that they incorrectly conjugate their verbs, have their bra strap showing, or that they’re somewhat clueless to social cues.   I might even decide they are narcissistic or self-absorbed. Confirmation bias says that I will notice cues that support my theory  and ignore those that refute it.  Pretty soon, I’m digging deeper and deeper into my negative and critical belief to where pretty soon I’ve decided that person is just not a worthy human being. Contempt, disgust, resentment abound. Now what am I sharing?

Others may be completely unaware of this person’s shortcomings. Well, I have a firm grasp on reality. They do not.

So here I am, frustrated and contemptuous of someone else’s narcissism, smug in the knowledge that I know reality but others don’t. How’m I doin’?

Does this sound familiar? I’ll bet we’ve all been here at one time or another.

It’s a natural tendency. But we don’t have to be a slave to our tendencies. Instead, beware of what you notice and focus on in others. That belief and focus defines you, not them. When you find yourself focusing on someone else’s shortcomings, just catch yourself in the act and switch your perspective. Find something to admire and love in that person.  Now your reality includes people that are good, talented, kind and loving.   And that’s a much nicer world to live in.

The Best Stage of Life

As a parent, I spent a good amount of time longing or planning for the next phase: when they sleep through the night, when they are potty trained, when they are in school, when they are driving, when they leave for college.

As an adult, I spent a good amount of time longing or planning for my next phase: when I finish college, when I finish graduate school, when I get married, when I buy a house, when I start a family, when I get tenure, when I retire.

I spent far too little time living in the present moment, appreciating and savoring it.   Somehow I kept feeling like the next stage would be better, while the current, amazing and wonderful stage was somehow not good enough.

As time went by, however, I started to realize that the current stage was pretty cool, even if considered typically “bad”. I loved the Terrible Twos and studying for my oral comprehensive exams. Even when things got difficult during the marriage, I relished the challenge of figuring out how to step up and surmount.  I loved the challenge of each stage: somehow having the hurdle seem ridiculously high allowed me to let go of any of my own expectations about the outcome.

That’s not to say the results were always that great, or that the challenges didn’t take their toll. But I loved every phase of the boys young life (some I loved more than others) and for each of my own, I can really appreciate the value of what those challenges brought to me:

  • Baby and pre-school – Incredible innocence, authenticity, growth and change. They turn from little blobs into tiny people with their own personality and we have the honor of watching them discover their world and experiencing everything for the first time.
  • Elementary school – Their personality, cognitive skills, social skills and physical ability continue to develop. They begin to discover the nuance and depth of our world, and understand how they fit into the world.
  • Middle school – Admittedly this was my least favorite stage but it was also fun. The social relationships become most important and they begin to separate themselves from their parents. It was fascinating watching them experiment and navigate the parental separation as they simultaneously form their identity with their peer group. The physical transformation during this stage is also remarkable – you literally can’t recognize many of these kids after they go through puberty.
  • High school – They experiment with adulthood as they step out into the world with more confidence. Where do they fit into the wider world? What are their world views and how will they influence their world? You can start to have real intellectual conversations with them as they bring their own unique insights to the world around them.
  • College – They are coming into their own intellectually and are starting to explore their professional selves. They are also learning how to live on their own and manage their own affairs as they literally leave the nest.
  • 20’s – This is the decade where we struggle to establish ourselves professionally and start our family. I had the most potential and was at my physical peak in my 20’s, but had probably the lowest self-confidence. Ironic.
  • 30’s – This decade is a blur, building career and family simultaneously. This was the hardest decade for me, as I was starting to realize that my self-awareness and expectations were creating the perfect storm. Pity the fools that knew me!
  • 40’s – In this decade I make a breakthrough in my inward journey where I finally realize that my life is not going to be as I had planned it and I step out of my own self-imposed box. Just knowing the box is self-imposed was a big step for me and it freed me to rediscover myself. School this time around is for the pure pleasure and enjoyment as opposed to the end result of obtaining a credential.   We also switch to becoming caregivers for our parents.
  • 50’s – To be written….

Probably the biggest accomplishment for me is just living in the present and enjoying the stage I am in.   It makes absolutely no sense living for a future that may not exist, especially when the present stage is so full of wonder and is so fleeting.

So the Best Stage of Life is the one you’re in.  Go ahead. Savor the present. I dare you.


Our Unique Genius

I believe that each one of us have some unique genius. I don’t mean an overall DaVinci-good-at-everything genius, or even genius that you could put in a jar or on a Tshirt and sell. I mean that there is something each of us is unbelievably, jaw-droppingly good at.

Since becoming a StrengthsFinders coach, I believe this more than ever. It’s hard not to be completely in awe when looking at someone through the lens of their strengths.

But it’s really more than our strengths. Remember, according to Gardner, there are 9 different types of intelligences though we tend to only measure only IQ.

Then there is the thing that we long to do and are passionate about. If you were to draw a Venn diagram (hm, not a bad idea; maybe I’m good at figuring out new applications for the Venn diagram) you could see where they all intersect and voila, there’s your genius. Your pattern of strengths, passions and excellence are all as unique as your DNA.

So, what is it for you? Do you know?

If not, why not?

Gardner's intelligences

Gardner’s intelligences


Being A Problem for Others

Thought Exercise:

1. When was the last time you felt ‘put out’ by someone else? Maybe they didn’t give you the service you wanted at the store. Your friend was talking too much. A colleague won’t do his job. You kid keeps acting up.

2. Now consider when the last time you considered how you were someone else’s problem.

(crickets chirping)

Most of you probably were able to give an example of each and maybe many of you found it easier to give an example to the second question.

But for those of you who had difficulty with the second question, I ask that you consider the possibility that you may be perceived as difficult without knowing it.

Most of us are not trying to be difficult. It just comes naturally to me! We just get caught up in our own, narrow perspective and have trouble seeing it from someone else’s viewpoint. The more certain we are of our perspective, or of being right, the more likely we are to be a problem for someone else.

Wow. Say what you really think, Susanna.

I know being wrong is pretty scary for a lot of people, especially those of the perfectionist persuasion.   The problem is, everyone is wrong at some point. And even if hypothetically it’s possible to always be right, life and perspective are not black and white. That’s why eyewitness accounts vary so much – we tend to notice and interpret things differently, so our world views and realities differ. I used to have endless arguments with people about the best flavor of ice cream, or something equally subjective. You see, I hate being wrong!

However, I have also learned that by taking the approach of being less certain about my claims that I don’t have to feel like I’m wrong. In other words, if someone makes a claim that I disagree with, I try to take the tack of, “well, I don’t know for certain, but feel pretty sure that Cherry Garcia is the best flavor in the world.” That way, when I’m proven wrong (which is pretty much all the time), I hadn’t staked my ego and self-respect on the line and can concede graciously. For example, the claim “all Red Sox fans are evil” maybe could use a little room for doubt?

I love Byron Katie’s technique of flipping the assumption to create room for doubt and other perspectives. To flip my previous assertion, “all Red Sox fans are evil”, I can flip it and say “all Red Sox fans are good” and examine the truth in that statement. Even better, I can explore the grain truth of the statement “I am evil,” referring of course to how I’m judging strangers based on the flimsiest of rationales.

When I can see the grain of truth in the “I am evil” statement, I can now see how I am creating a problem for others. If I practice this exercise whenever I get stuck in the blame game, I can see my role in the problem and move to fix it.

After all, my actions, assumptions and feelings are all I ever have any control over. And by being able to shift my views and habits to be more balanced, I will be less likely to be stuck in a victim or blaming mindset, and more likely to feel empowered and ironically, in control.

Now that I feel better, let’s go watch baseball!

Dealing With Stress

The risk of stress on our well-being is not only intuitive but a reality. Elevated blood pressure and cortisol not withstanding, when under stressed, we make poor choices that then could impact our physical and mental health, our relationships and possibly even our finances.

I used to deal with stress by just trying to suck it up. I’d hold it in until I couldn’t stand the pressure, and then the smallest thing would set me off. It made me, and others, feel like I was a big byotchsky. And rightly so.

When I wasn’t taking it out on others, I was taking it out on myself by getting depressed and probably eating or spending too much. Other types of self-destructive behavior may be extra-marital affairs, watching too much TV, spending too much time on the computer, or drinking.

Now, I feel like I’m much better at handling stress. Yes I feel stressed sometimes but it’s not very often that stress gets out of hand. The past year, though glorious in many ways, was extremely intense and had the potential for unbelievable stress given my full time job which included launching a major new initiative, a full time degree program, a move, a marriage, a major birthday, an empty nest, and a death in the family, all at the same time. But I feel like I was able to manage the stress pretty well. I feel quite proud of just managing the stress levels with some grace.

I’m not completely sure of the reasons for the change in me but here’s what I have been working on:

  • Not living in the past – Stress comes in part from harboring resentment or regret about the past. I feel the past has helped me to be who I am now even if I didn’t realize it at the time, so I’ve abandoned all my regrets and disappointments.
  • Not worrying about the future – I have really very little control over the future. Accepting this reality means I can let go of my expectations about the future and stop worrying. I haven’t mastered this one but I’m much better at it.  For the most part, I worry about the future when I decide to spend time considering the future, as opposed to letting that worry drive the mental agenda all day.
  • Being present – This is the result of letting go of the past and not worrying about the future. Meditation has helped me tremendously to train my brain to be in the present. My monkey mind is vastly improved. That monkey mind just creates unhappiness for me, so I work on keeping it at bay.
  • Judging people – I used to sometimes assume the worst about people, which would make me very upset, especially if that person I was judging was me. I’ve accepted my humanity and imperfection while continuing to try my best. Others are also trying their best. And that’s good enough for me.
  • Judging situations – Situations are only bad if we can’t find the opportunity hidden within them. I find the silver lining in every situation so they’re all good. The situations that seem the worst have the largest opportunity for growth.
  • Accepting what is – So if you’re living in the present and accepting the present moment, you’re basically accepting life as it is. Fighting it in any way just creates stress. That doesn’t mean you make no effort to change unacceptable situations. It just means that you don’t fight the reality of a situation or judge it. Instead you choose your response rather than reacting from a place of anger, fear or sadness. In other words, I can create a boundary, a consequence or make a change either from a place of resentment or a sense of trying to do the right thing.

I realize I’m making it sound easier than it is. It has taken me years to get to this point, and I still have a long way to go. However, I think the effort is well worthwhile because I am now happier and more peaceful. In addition, I feel like I’m more productive and effective since I’m spending less time and energy on counterproductive feelings and actions and more on finding solutions and opportunities.

Failing to manage my stress is akin to spending all my energy bailing out a sinking boat instead of just stopping, putting the boat in dry dock and fixing the holes. If you’re stressed right now, then stop and consider whether you’re bailing or repairing. If you’re bailing, then go find your dry dock and make yourself whole.  Then chart a course and sail away. Your health, well-being and peace of mind will thank you.

The Life We Lead

Follow your own lead

Follow your own lead

“We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” – Joseph Campbell

When I look back on my life, I’m pretty appalled at how much of my life decisions were made without thought or reflection. What to study. How to act. What to say. What not to say. What to try. What to reject. All of those decisions, big or small, add up to me moving in a particular direction to become a particular person.

But it was all good. Right?

True, it’s been a good life. But not an authentic life. The problem was that I was living the life that I thought I should live, instead of the one that I needed to live.

And I’ve learned I’m not alone.

We all grow the same in the sense that we absorb the rules and expectations from society, our family and friends. Along the way, we even develop our own rules and expectations and we usually don’t even stop to question our numerous assumptions. Those assumptions then shape us as we develop around those boundaries.

Most of those assumptions are good and true. We want the rules of the road and a civilized society. However, the rules that are personal and important, whether big or small, should also be made with the same care that (most of) the rules of civilized society are made. Instead, those personal rules are often just adopted unconsciously from without or within and then never questioned.

Here are some unconscious rules that we may live by:

  • I should never do anything to upset someone else
  • I can never let someone down or disappoint them
  • I should always do what I think my (spouse, parent, employer) wants me to do
  • I deserve to always have the best
  • I need to feel right
  • I need to feel better than others
  • I need to always appear (smart, competent, attractive, successful)
  • I need to believe that others are better or more deserving
  • I can’t let others know who I really am
  • I can never be loved for who I am
  • I will never be (successful, liked, attractive, loved)
  • I will always be (uncoordinated, stupid, irrelevant, unlovable)
  • I’m responsible for someone else’s (happiness, success, feelings)
  • I shouldn’t show others that (I need them, I can’t handle it, I approve of them)
  • I should always present a happy face
  • I must be vigilant
  • I can’t trust others

What I’ve learned is there is a grain of truth to all of our beliefs. But the problem occurs when we turn that grain into a desert, where pretty soon we’re overcome by our so-called truth until we feel smothered, isolated and barren.

“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” – Joseph Campbell

I believe the trick is to bring all of our assumptions to the light, and then question them. Replace “I should” with “I shouldn’t” and explore the truth of that statement of opposite.  Then go back to the original statement and flip the verb or adjective to it’s opposite.   So, “I should always present a happy face” becomes “I shouldn’t always present a happy face” and then, “I should always present a sad face.”

If you take this exercise seriously you can find the truth in all three statements, even if it’s just a tiny grain of truth. Then you can see that we have nuance and options, and we don’t have to stick with the same, tired repertoire. Having choice that is conscious and free from undue influence is liberating, and opens us our authentic self and the life that is waiting for us.

Lead your life.  Literally.  That life may surprise and delight you.

“The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” ― Joseph Campbell