Three Critical Tools to Thrive in the Face of Challenge

Though there are aspects of my life that were and are challenging in a way some can never understand, I consider myself unbelievably fortunate to have had such a great life.   I’ve had every educational opportunity and have always had a safe neighborhood and sufficient, if not abundant, food, shelter and healthcare. I have so many loved ones in my life and have, for the most part, been able to live my life as I see fit.

Not true for much of the world.   There is some real suffering out there, almost all of which makes my troubles pale in comparison.

We often forget that our troubles and the unfairness in our lives are so relative (think: first world problems).   The snub at work, the fight with my spouse, my weight gain, my hair loss, my moderate medical issues, my fender bender, my financial worries, even the loss of a loved one, are often relatively minor issues in the greater scheme of things.

Knowing that and feeling that are two different things.

Here are 3 really important tools for putting that challenge where it belongs in your life.

First, perspective. If you’re reading this blog, then you likely have electricity, a computer or cell phone, and shelter. You may even have some of the types of challenges listed above, and some real concerns. We all do. Consider how much of the world has serious, life-threatening issues that they’re dealing with on a daily basis. How do your challenges and concerns compare to that?   What do you have to be grateful for, right now? What in your life is more important than your immediate concern?

I am not implying you should not take action or feel good about a bad situation. Just consider that maybe it’s not as devastating as you might perceive it to be.  Once you’ve gained a healthier perspective, you are more cognitively prepared to decide the right course of action.

Second, growth.   Challenges become a serious problem if we allow them to defeat us.   Challenges are opportunities to learn, grow, improve and make positive change. Sometimes that positive change we must make first and foremost is acceptance of the problem and the reality of our situation.   When we accept the reality of our situation is when meaningful change (in ourselves or our situation) is possible. For example, when I accept my health issues are related to my lifestyle, then I can begin to make real changes to improve.  When I accept that I can’t control someone else’s behavior, then I can decide how I will respond to it.

Third, presence. There is a lot of talk about mindfulness these days and I totally believe that much of our unhappiness is caused by not being in the present moment. If I’m stressed or anxious, I’m probably worrying about the future. If I’m angry, depressed or sad, then I’m living in the past. In the present moment, I have access to wonder, joy, delight, love and inspiration.   I have negative emotion too but I don’t dwell there like I used to.   Sometimes mindfulness itself is the best possible growth opportunity for dealing with stress and challenge.  Mindfulness means that I’m aware that I’m not being present, I can adjust my perspective, and focus on my current growth/change goals.

I don’t believe all the hubbub around mindfulness is just a populist trend or overrated. When I’m not being present, I spend most of my energy with my head spinning in a dozen directions, or I can feel out of control emotionally.  When present, I can decide what to focus on and how I want to feel, rather than being swept away by internal forces. Most importantly, my challenges feel surmountable and even like the opportunities that they are.

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Our Personal Relay Race

c700x420The brilliant Jane Dutton at University of Michigan’s Ross School for Business, and author of Exploring Positive Identities and Organizations: Building a Theoretical and Research Foundation, studies how employees create a positive self-definition, or a positive identity, at work and beyond.   She states that the pathway to creating a positive identity can be described by the acronym GIVE: growing, integrated (the different sides of who we are), virtuous and esteemed.

These days, instead of lists, I think of everything in tables since it allows more depth into each item on the list.   For GIVE, I’d then think about GIVE with respect to each domain of our life, such as professional, emotional/psychological, physical, spiritual, relational, and financial for example.   That list of 4 now expands to 24 items, which is officially overwhelming.

That’s OK, I’m not trying to say that we have to attend to each of the 24 items every day or even every year. However, thinking about GIVE in a comprehensive manner, gives us options and food for thought.

In fact, I think a productive approach to this might be to think about the possible domains for GIVE as a personal relay race. For example, this spring, I’m working on growing my positive identity at work, but this summer, I’m working in the physical domain.   I can maintain the “IVE” parts from each domain all year, but growth takes intentionality and effort, so I’ll pass the baton to focus on different aspects at different points in time.

Growth mindset has been on my mind a lot since reading Carol Dweck’s Mindset book (see my blog from 5/24/26 to review).   It’s difficult to have a positive identity without acknowledging your ability to grow. Since our mindset is contextual, perhaps thinking about ourselves from the perspective of the different domains we can get a better sense of where we have self-limiting, fixed mindset.

Even within those domains, there is much granularity.   I know that I personally have fixed mindset mostly in the creative endeavors, I guess a subset of the emotional/psychological domain. Even in the physical domain, I feel I’m pretty flexible, except in my hamstrings. Recently, I have noticed that I can now start a yoga or PIYO class with the ability to bend over and touch the ground from the start of class, which is clear and hard-earned progress for me. Yes it’s taken probably a year of regular attendance to stretching activities, but it shows that I can grow even with regard to my hamstring flexibility.

Such beliefs are common in the gym; I frequently hear instructors needing to tell others how hard the workout was in the beginning and that it became easier with time.   Even as someone who (more or less) stays in shape most of the time, I find that when I start an unfamiliar class, program or activity, it’s almost always hard at the beginning, even if I’m fairly experienced at it. I have literally been going to aerobics classes my entire life, and even going to a new aerobics instructor means a learning curve at first.

In other words, expect that growth will be difficult but definitely possible and easier over time. Once you’ve made some progress, then you can set yet another new goal, which will again starts off by being difficult. As you pass the baton from goal to goal or domain to domain, you’ll see that you will make great progress over time. You’ll be a more accomplished and resilient you, more virtuous and esteemed than ever!

Our Not-So Hidden Humanity

It’s true there are a lot of jerks out there. They cut in line. They tailgate. They yell obscenities.   They don’t acknowledge you when you hold the door for them. They don’t say hello or thank you at their cash register or service counter.

And that’s the minor stuff inflicted on strangers.  Yet that is the stuff that can bring us down and ruin hours or even days, especially when feeling stressed out like often happens while traveling.

Yesterday, as I was making my way to DC on the train, I was exquisitely tuned into the opposite phenomenon: acts of kindness and humanity in strangers. Here’s what I observed:

  • A large group, waiting patiently in line, not crowding each other
  • A gate agent going out of her way to help out-of-towners
  • Travelers volunteering helpful information to those that seem confused or lost
  • Strangers smiling at other people’s children
  • Parents making sure their own children have their needs met
  • A parent teaching his teenage son to give up his seat for female passengers
  • An offer to help me with my bag when the escalator wasn’t working
  • Passengers seated by an out-of-order restroom informing others when they approach
  • Someone asking to make sure I wasn’t injured when my bag fell over
  • My seat companion sharing with me her love and pride in her children

Granted, all of the above are small stuff too. But those small gestures of humanity, kindness and generosity of spirit are everywhere.  They demonstrate our unseen but tangible connection with each other that so many people create so naturally.

Sometimes I am resistant to feeling that connection with others because I’m pretty shy.   It’s easier to stay caught up in my head or my cell phone than to allow these micro-connections to be made or observed.  By being open to seeing or receiving such gestures of connection, I am inspired to seek connections too.

Being open to these beautiful, small gestures, I feel a great sense of hope, pride and affinity for my fellow man.  What could’ve felt like a disaster – late train, late night, turned into a gift.

 

‘Not-A-Minority’s’ View of Diversity

During the 3.5 years I have been blogging, I have not spoken about race or minority status hardly at all. I guess I’m not a good advocate for the underrepresented, since I’d much rather listen than talk about this subject.   Everyone has such a unique perspective, and I can learn so much by just letting others share their experience and beliefs without having to advocate for my own.

I have to confess though that part of the reason I don’t talk about it is probably much like other people: it makes me uncomfortable.   When I was living in Texas and talked about how I was treated differently for being Asian, I was told I was imagining it or being paranoid.   Now I just feel like it will be perceived as whining even when I know it’s not imagined.   Either way, feeling like it is unsafe to talk about mistreatment is its own form of abuse.

Diversity itself is diverse given we self-identify in so many ways: race, ethnicity, gender and gender identity, religion, disability, age, etc. Furthermore, each group has its unique issues and concerns, all of which are valid even if we don’t understand or agree with them.  Since our issues are so unique, we minorities often don’t even understand each other, which can lead to disharmony or even conflict.  Until we truly try to understand each others’ unique reality, we will struggle to work effectively and collaboratively together.

I feel the discussion could benefit from shedding light on our unique perspectives.  Here is a sliver of some of issues minority groups face.  This list is not comprehensive because I don’t fully understand other groups’ issues (and plus I’m trying to keep this blog-sized), so please share your experience so that can be added to the list, or corrected where I’m wrong or inaccurate.

  • Blacks are treated with a high level of scrutiny by police and shop owners
  • GLBTQs have to decide every day who to come out to and how (the shopkeeper, a colleague, etc.)
  • Muslims are treated with suspicion in general
  • Women feel vulnerable in places and situations that men take for granted, and often feel unwelcomed in certain leadership ranks
  • Jews are treated like they are greedy and untrustworthy
  • Asians are sometimes not considered a minority, even by other minority groups, but are still excluded from many ranks, disciplines, and social groups.  We are not believed to be US citizens.
  • Hispanics are assumed to be academically unqualified and poor.  They are believed to be illegal immigrants.
  • The elderly are treated like they are invisible or can’t hear
  • Members of the majority may be generically grouped as bigots (‘you whites,’ ‘you men’), even if they are advocates and proponents for the underrepresented

This list does not even include violence, murder, discrimination, bullying, imprisonment, and harassment based on minority status.

The conversation around Trump’s statement that Judge Curio’s Mexican heritage made him unqualified for the job is upsetting on several levels.  Though many Republicans said that Trump’s comment was racist and wrong (Republican leader Paul Ryan stated this was the racist comment was “textbook”), a poll reported on MSNBC stated that 66% (!) of Republicans did not think that comment was racist.  Several who ‘spoke out’ against it merely said that he shouldn’t have said that.  Kind of like: you never tell your wife her dress makes her look fat. Even when it does.

Oh wait. I thought we were all just being paranoid?

Racism and bigotry is alive and well but I believe that much of it is flying below the radar. If you ever catch yourself telling a woman or a minority that they’re being overly sensitive, making something up, or the mistreatment is their fault, ask yourself – really ask – whether unconscious bias is present.

Before you reject the presence of unconscious bias out of hand, realize that we all have unconscious bias (thus the term). Admitting we have such biases take courage because it requires we face an unstated fear. But like other fears, they hold much power when in the dark but diminish in the light.   Being open, accepting and even compassionate for someone else’s reality, and your own, can lead to much insight, growth, love and healing. We all deserve that.

Breaking the Ego

Our 4-month old wild-child puppy Kennedy has finally gone into obedience training. Be calm. Walk on a lead. Sit. Lay down. She struggled and fought against the inevitable, thinking she could best the leash, the GentleLead, her daddy and an expert trainer combined. She cried. She fought. She felt sorry for herself.

She eventually gave in.

The trainer said, “You see, we have to break her ego.”

Wow.

Now that’s profound.

What is the ego? The ego has several meanings, including our degree of self-confidence or, in Freudian terms, our sense of personal identity. Part of the personal identity comes from the interplay between the conscious and unconscious, according to Freud. Our unconscious being what it is, often we forget that we are driven by needs, beliefs and assumptions that we are not aware of.

Modern psychology is revealing that that unconscious is even more at play than we suspected. Jonathan Haidt, author of the Righteous Mind, states that the unconscious drives all of our behavior while the conscious unwittingly then back-justifies the decisions made by the unconscious.   It is for this reason that some question whether we really have free will or are we simply slaves to our unconscious (another WOW).

One area that we seem to struggle as a species is acceptance.   I am not in financial ruin. My health is fine. My husband still loves me. My best friend treats me respectfully.   My weight gain is temporary. My alcohol use is under my control.  I am getting enough rest.

However, when we’re in denial of reality, reality fights back. I get another bill, now with interest and penalties. I get a sinus infection. I argue with my husband over the new bill and sinus infection. My BFF makes another unreasonable demand then gets mad at me. The zipper on my very expensive designer dress broke.

You get the picture. Sometimes life has to break our egos before we accept what is.  Only after we accept it do we have a fighting chance to change it.

Our older schnoodle Romeo knows his limits and opportunities. He knows his place, his limits, what he can do and should do, and as a result he has a very good life. He’s peaceful and happy. He’s well-cared for.  He gets to sleep in the big bed. He’s a successful dog. It is partly a matter of reward, but it is also just as much about not fighting against the inevitable and knowing how to work with what is.

Our lives are the same way. I don’t know if there’s a Great Master in the Heavens who is trying to put a GentleLead on all of us, but I do know that when I fight reality, I spend a lot of time in the proverbial crate. Showing gratitude for the good in my life instead of constantly focusing on what I cannot change gives me access to life’s treats and privileges. I become a successful human.  I work for what I want, need, and believe in based on what’s real, not how I think life should be or how others should be.

Kennedy is doing much better now. She’s not chewing up our electronics or making flying leaps off of strangers and loved ones. She has a wider area she can roam in the house and more time to do what she does best: loving and delighting us all, especially Romeo.

She’s going to be just fine.

This is Silver Lining’s 450th blog.  Thank you for sharing your journey with me!  

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Five Big Ways to Develop the ‘Right Brain’

Now that I’ve committed to this topic, I feel some ambivalence about writing about how I have been working to develop my ‘right brain.’ It’s not the literal right side of my brain because the neuroanatomy is actually much more complicated than that – beyond my knowledge. ‘Right brain’ is shorthand for the noncognitive side of me.

My ambivalence is not around my lack of enthusiasm for but rather the vastness of the topic. I’m not sure I can do it justice in the space of approximately 500 words but will give it a try:

  • Being present – I don’t feel this area is over-rated and worth every bit of effort I’ve ever committed to it. Being present means that the constant chatter in my head is quiet most of the day and I can really pay attention to what matters. I also am not wasting energy on counterproductive or destructive thoughts so I have more energy for positive and generative activities.
  • Examining and challenging my beliefs and assumptions – My beliefs and assumptions are the primary source of the negative chatter in my head that then creates a cascade of stress, negative emotion, and conflict. I’ve been learning to own my reactions but not let them own me, which leaves me feeling more peaceful.
  • Positive emotion – When the chatter in my head is diminished, I can attend to how I feel. I’m still not fantastic at being aware of my deepest feelings, but my internal radar is more sensitive than it used to be. I can acknowledge my negative emotions, and then intentionally foster the positive.
  • Being aware – I’m trying to be more in touch with how my body feels underneath the emotion. Usually I take the sensation of my body for granted. Now I try to more often savor the sensation of being alive, open, and relaxed. It totally affects how I feel walking on Earth!
  • A sense of connection – Feeling open and more present allows me to connect to the whole. Not only is this a source of awe and inspiration, but it also provides a sense of comfort.   The sense that my purpose on earth is connected to something bigger than me also motivates and excites me. This is the spiritual journey I have been on for several years.

Many of my right brain activities have me using and developing my VIA strengths. My top strengths are gratitude, forgiveness, perspective, ability to love and be loved, and perseverance.  Additionally, I have been developing spirituality and continue to work on leadership. I use my curiosity to explore my world with openness. I pursue these endeavors with a sense of honesty/authenticity, honoring what is right for me and what works for me, rather than trying to impress or please someone else. You can do a free VIA strengths assessment at viacharacter.org to identify your best tools for developing your right brain.

There. I guess that wasn’t so hard. I used self-regulation to just sit down and do it, and perspective to reign in the scope to a manageable size. Add a sense of accomplishment and gratitude to my right brain for all its help.

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Exercising My Whole Self

Old habits die hard, especially when they are taken for granted. Most of my life I have taken for granted my “right brain” (emotional and creative side), and I have since decided to try to be intentional about developing and exercising that side of me.   Maybe I can be twice as smart than just developing the cognitive side of my brain!

Since then, I have done much to explore and foster my Self that exists when I shut off the cognition (subject for another blog). I doubt I can come even close to saying that I’m twice as smart, but I’m much more….. satisfied? Intuitive? Confident? Inspired. Joyful. Peaceful. Connected. Complete. It’s hard to say with much specificity, but I do feel different, and in a good way.

Accordingly, my exercise routine has also evolved to be more comprehensive. I used to be a cardio, and/or a weights-only type of gal. However, my cardio and weights routines often focused on the same set of muscles each time. For example, most people know to do sit-ups or crunches, but often forget to exercise the opposing muscle group, the lower back. I am trying to mix up my classes more so that cardio and strength training do not over-focus on the same muscles.

Even assuming I attended to all my muscle groups, cardio and strength training really only covers half of the desired exercise outcomes for me these days.   My routine must now include my inner self, ie my ability to be present, connected and not only strong, but flexible muscles.   Each week I try to do tai chi, which works on my balance/core and connection to the universe, yoga/pilates/piyo which works on core/flexibility as well as connection, and walking which provides a little cardio while connecting me to nature and to Chris and puppies.

Skipping the emotional/spiritual workouts leaves me inclined to worry, ruminate, obsess and feel more stressed and isolated. Skipping cardio/strengths leaves me just feeling less energetic and a bit flabby. When I practice the combination, I feel strong, flexible and peaceful.

Not that I always have time for 4 classes per week plus walking. I try to mix it up a bit each week and combine activities (walking with loved ones) for a win/win and to have a balanced portfolio over a several week time-frame.

This journey has taught me that there is yet more that I am missing, even in my attempts to be holistic. I don’t even include beautifying or cleaning the environment (fortunately I have a maid), which is another important element of my world. I don’t make much time for the piano or music, and creative expression is limited to blogging for the most part. I know as our knowledge and wisdom grows, my concept of holistic will also change, and so will my practices.   My challenge will be to continue to stay open and balance maintaining a routine with avoiding getting into a rut.

What else am I missing?   What types of exercises do you do to build and grow yourself holistically? What is the value to you, if any, of broadening the focus beyond our muscles?