8 Tools For Thriving During Change

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Embrace change!  Photo credit

The only constant is change, yet we often fear, dread, or fight change. It’s a natural tendency since, as a species, we tend to be wary of threats to our wellbeing, and change is just as likely to bring challenge as opportunity.

In addition, we have a certain change style, where our affinity and comfort with change ranges from low to high. Conservers prefer to take a measured and incremental approach to change, whereas Originators like rapid and broad change. In the middle are Pragmatists who prefer change that is practical and effective. Each style has its advantages and disadvantages; respect for and understanding of our own and others’ change styles can help change occur more smoothly and effectively.

We do not always have the luxury of the pace and extent of change matching our change style.   Often change is faster or slower, broader or narrower, than our comfort would dictate. When change is not under our control, it will feel challenging.   As with any challenge, I use my main Go To Tools to help turn that challenge into an opportunity:

  • Be mindful and present – Plan for the future but don’t dwell on it. Worrying about the future creates anxiety. The present moment elicits neither sadness, regret, nor anxiety.
  • Take care of yourself first – Rest, exercise, a healthy diet, and time for play are good antidotes to stress.
  • Reflect – Change is scary. Acknowledge your fear, anxiety, distress, or sadness. Feel it. Put a name to it. Feel it some more. Then let it dissipate.
  • Identify and challenge your belief or schema – What is the belief that is causing your emotion? If it’s a negative emotion, then name and challenge your belief or schema.   Introduce doubt into that belief. If it’s a positive emotion, then savor and amplify your optimism.
  • Identify the downside of the status quo – What’s bad about maintaining the current situation? What opportunities will pass you by if you resist change? What damage can occur by failing to grow?
  • Find a positive perspective – Your negative feelings result from focusing on the worst-case scenario. Instead, consider what is the best possible outcome.   Imagine it in full detail. What does it look like? How does it feel? What did you learn? How did you grow? What is the pathway to this outcome?   What challenges might you encounter, and how would you surmount them? What would your future self, who is enjoying this positive outcome, say to your current self?  Say it to yourself. Repeat as necessary.
  • Identify your strengths – Given this ideal outcome, identify what strengths (either StrengthsFinders or VIA) that you can use to achieve this outcome and surmount those obstacles. Make a plan.
  • Identify your support – Who can help you on this journey? Maybe you need a sounding board, a sage, a playmate, a home team, a cheerleader. Enlist their support, and be specific about what you need from them. Continue to communicate with them so they understand what their roles are as the situation evolves.

Now, go get ‘em! You have a positive future, go create it!

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How To Be A Good Friend: Part 3

We all know the importance of communication in a relationship. When things are going well, good communication keeps things on the right track. When things are going wrong, you need to talk it out.  You just need to communicate more, right?

Yes and no.

When a relationship is having conflict, it’s probably not the amount of communication at issue, but the quality of both the communication itself and the internal world of the participants that is causing trouble. For example, if I think I’m right and you’re wrong, communicating that in greater quantity will not help the relationship.

What comprises quality communication in a relationship? Here are 8 components of quality communication:

  • Being present – You’re not worrying about your kids, your job, or even what you’re going to say next. You’re giving your partner your undivided attention to both their words and nonverbal communication. Being present also means being calm. If I’m pissed off or terrified, I am likely not being present.
  • Listening to understand – When you listen to understand, you’re trying to grasp the meaning of their words, not just the literal, surface content. You’re dispensing with any assumptions you may have made about their perspective or motivation. You listen with a clean slate, hearing between the lines, not taking every phrase literally.
  • No judging – Everyone has a different internal world, none better or worse than another. Respect the other’s reality, and they are more likely to respect yours.
  • Don’t take it personally – If discussing a difficult topic, this issue likely, at its emotional care, has nothing to do with you (see below).
  • Don’t interrupt – Let them completely finish what they have on their mind. You’ll get your turn, hopefully, later.
  • Reflect back – Summarize what you heard (again, without judgment or taking it personally), and ask if you got it right. Receive corrections and edit until it’s right then ask if there is anything else.
  • Go deeper – For intimate relationships and/or conversations, ask your partner to explain why this particular issue is so important to them to get to the painful (or joyous) belief behind their feelings. Try to avoid using the word “Why”: “Help me understand why this is so painful/wonderful for you.” Reflect their response back.
  • Ask – Ask if they’re willing to hear your perspective. If so, then share your viewpoint being as authentic as possible, avoiding blame and judgment on the other. Remember, your interpretation on your view of the world is your choice.  You’re entitled to your opinion, but remember that it is your opinion, not fact.  Share the feelings elicited by your partner’s behavior or words and the pain at the source of those feelings.

For example, I might say to my partner “When I was telling you how excited I was about my promotion, I felt hurt and ignored when you interrupted me and changed the subject. Giving me adequate air time, especially during important moments, helps me feel valued and appreciated.”

The deeper you can authentically go into your wounded, vulnerable place, the more impactful the communication.     In your vulnerability is where it becomes clear what is the real issue, buried deep beneath the surface argument. (Please see any of Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability if you’re unsure the benefit of making yourself vulnerable).

The quality of your internal world is also critically important to good communication. Your internal world is related to the Arbinger Institute’s concept of being in the Box and your mindset. Briefly, when I am in the Box, I am focusing on my own needs, wants and desires and justifying that position by mentally and emotionally diminishing the other to be irrelevant, a problem or a means to an end. When communicating, I’m more concerned about being right, being heard and understood, or not being blamed or criticized.   My mindset is inward, focused on my own needs.

In contrast, when out of the Box, I view others needs, wants and desires as important as my own. I’m communicating to first understand, and then to be understood. I’m deeply interested in the speaker’s needs, wants and desires so as to be helpful to them, or at least, to do them no harm.   I respect their boundaries as well as my own. My mindset is outward, focused on understanding their needs, and trying to help or support them in a way that does not violate my own boundaries.

Given that this is neither easy nor simple, I find it helpful to take a strengths-based approach to communication. I use my Relator to motivate me to deepen my relationships, and I use my Capacity to Love and Be Loved and Consistency/Justice and Perspective to maintain a positive energy during difficult conversations.   A mindfulness practice is essential for staying present. I view improving on this critical skill part of my lifelong journey where I continue to learn and grow, using large doses of Forgiveness when my partner and I fall short of our expectations.

How To Be A Good Friend: Part 2

In addition to balance, healthy relationships also need boundaries.   Identifying and enforcing boundaries can be difficult, especially with adults. In contrast, identifying and enforcing boundaries with kids and pets seems pretty evident: don’t break things, eat your dinner, go potty in the right place, etc.   With adults, appropriate boundaries are more difficult to name, establish and enforce, yet critical for creating positive relationships.

What is meant by boundaries? Boundaries have to do with knowing what behavior is and is not OK with you. Communicating and enforcing those boundaries is what Dr. Phil means when he advises us “teach others how to treat you”. For example, violence and abuse of any kind should not be tolerated, and a clear boundary should be conveyed and enforced as necessary. On the other hand, verbal abuse may be subjective, subtle and insidious.   If someone makes you feel bad about yourself, diminishes your value or worth through words or gestures, or tries to control you, it may be verbal abuse.

It’s not just verbal or physical abuse that may require establishment of boundaries. Failing to respect one’s feelings, property and requests may also cross a boundary. What’s tricky here is that it’s easy to assume that others should know your boundaries. Some are probably no brainers: if I loan you my car, don’t damage it in any way; if I give you a gift or do you a favor, say thank you.  A relationship that has balance would also require some reciprocation.

However, the appropriateness of most interactions and dynamics are subjective. I may not care if you return a book I loan you unless it’s my favorite book, or expensive.   Sarcastic comments may not bother me in general, but comments about my kids may upset me. This is why communicating your boundaries is important. It’s not fair to assume the other can read your mind or understand the nuances of your preferences, no matter how well you think they may know you.

If you’ve communicated your boundaries and they still insist on crossing them, then you have new information about the level of trust and safety in your relationship. You can then use that data to determine how you wish to enforce your boundaries.   With someone who does not return my property in a timely manner and in good condition, I may decide to no longer loan them my things. With someone who always arrives late, I may choose to let them know that next time I will start without them. With someone who is always negative, I may choose to limit the length of our visit.   With someone who continues to be verbally abusive or critical, I may choose to end the relationship or interact only by email.

In the end, its up to you to decide how important that boundary is to you, and what is an appropriate response. Failing to enforce a boundary tells the other that your boundaries are not important to you, and thus that boundary should not be important to them.  Consider your kids and pets. Inconsistent enforcement is ineffective. For them to really learn to respect a boundary, that boundary has to be enforced every time, and preferably with patience and love. Communicating with patience and love is more likely to create a spirit of cooperation and deepen the intimacy with the other.

How To Be A Good Friend: Part 1

Positive relationships are essential for a good life, yet we are rarely taught how to create good relationships. Likely we have learned relationship skills by observing those who were similarly unschooled. I learned and practiced a lot of dysfunctional behaviors for a long time without ever even knowing there was something wrong with my unhealthy beliefs and practices. Creating a healthy relationship is such a fundamental skill, I believe relationship skills should be taught in K-12 Health class.

We tend to have many types of relationships, some casual and others intimate. However, the skills for creating good relationships are fairly much the same, though the relationship itself may dictate the degree a given skill is employed. A key element to all good relationships, regardless of the depth of commitment or closeness, is balance. In other words, there has to be give and take across the various facets of the relationship such that there is sufficient reciprocity in the long run.

Creating balance can be tricky since assessing balance is subjective. The relationship should not be transactional, in other words, I-call-you-only-if-you-called-me-last-type of behavior.  For example, I know Chris does way more for me than I realize, so if I only focus on what I do for him, I will over estimate my contribution to the relationship.   Also, if I only focus on the picking-up-around-the-house scorecard, for example, I contend I will always win by that measure. But he does so much for me in other areas, which I ignore at the peril of our relationship.

Therefore, when taking stock of relationships we should try to account for all of the ways we give to each other. I may only focus on the money or time I spend on a relationship, but there are other types of relationship currencies that may go unseen, yet should be accounted for. Here are 3 relationship facets, often unseen, that may affect your relationship net balance:

Affirmation –

Friends often have a tendency to either blindly affirm or refute their friend’s stance or behavior.   For example, if I complain about how I’m treated at work, my friends might either just say “Yeah, what jerks. You’re not doing anything wrong and look how they’re mistreating you.” Or they might say, “You never seem to get along with your boss. Maybe you’re too sensitive or stubborn.”

Though the former approach may seem more supportive at face value, both approaches lack balance and objectivity. They both contain judgment (either for or against), and neither help the other learn, grow or find solutions. The approach may even make the situation worse by reinforcing and validating dysfunctional beliefs or behavior.

Instead, a good friend invests effort in listening to trying to understand, and helps the other explore options and responses without controlling or dictating the outcome. Showing unconditional support for the other, without blindly affirming or judging their behavior, is a loving and helpful way to balance affirmation for your loved one.

Effort –

All relationships take effort, including initiating and planning get-togethers and keeping the energy lively and positive. The latter might include finding interesting topics to discuss or things to do, or constructively managing conflict when it arises. The care and maintenance of the relationship should be shared; if the burden falls almost exclusively on one side, then the friendship may not be a partnership unless reciprocation occurs in another area.

Some young people are surprised to learn that good marriages require a lot of effort, not in terms of paying the bills and taking care of kids, but in doing the hard work of creating a successful relationship. No one ever told me this. I’m telling you now in case you haven’t heard.

Intimacy –

Open and honest sharing of oneself and one’s feelings is an important element for our closest relationships.  There is no one right level of intimacy for a given relationship since everyone has different needs and styles for sharing. Regardless of the degree of intimacy, relationships should have balance with each person contributing in a way that works for the relationship. For example, if one friend does all the listening and rarely shares, it may be a red flag that the relationship is one-sided. That dynamic may work for the pair if reciprocation occurs in other areas.

Since relationships run the gamut from casual to intimate, partnerships to dependencies, a good relationship does not necessarily need to have all of the above facets to be positive or healthy. Rather, healthy relationships tend to have a global balance across the various ways that the partners give to each other, thus enabling its sustenance and success.

Understanding Personality Types and Using Them To Your Advantage

Until you understand yourself, you cannot understand others. Understanding others allows you to influence those that are different from you, which provides a sense of empowerment and confidence in your ability to impact your life.   Therefore, self-awareness is a critical part of personal and professional development.

There are numerous personality tests designed to improve self-awareness but with varying levels of validity. For example, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, though a popular instrument, does not have as high of validity as the Big Five. StrengthsFinders (one of my favorites) has been extensively studied but by the Gallup organization that sells the instrument, leading some to question its validity.

Regardless of degree of validity, I feel the concepts themselves are helpful to understanding oneself and each other, and using that understanding to grow and improve. For example, the MBTI tells me that I have a preference for closure compared to others that have a preference for staying flexible and open-ended. I never really thought about those differences prior to taking the MBTI except to judge the flexible-minded as being indecisive. After learning about this style difference, I have since noticed instances where making a fast decision led to a less-than-stellar outcome. I’ve learned that creating a more balanced approach by judiciously and selectively employing the opposite style allows me to become more effective.

In essence, being aware and understanding the advantages and disadvantages of my default style allows me to be more mindful and intentional about my decisions, perspectives and approaches. Learning and understanding others’ styles also helps me to appreciate their unique talents and perspectives instead of judging and criticizing them. By appreciating and employing, not judging, those differences, we create a more harmonious and effective group.

But self-awareness is hard. After all, a blind spot by definition means I lack awareness of a certain aspect of myself. Excavating those blind spots is scary. What if I find something terrible?

There is nothing to be afraid of. When we understand the facets of our personality, we find that we have the same traits as other people.  Sometimes we struggle with our traits, just like everyone else. Shining a light on them allows us to understand and optimize, whereas ignoring and hiding leaves us stuck and unable to grow.

So be brave. Explore. Learn. Be open to even subtle feedback from others. You may even find an amazingly wonderful You that is waiting to be discovered.

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The wonderful sides of You

Your Call to Embark on Your Hero’s Journey

Almost every great story follows the format of the monomyth, or Joseph Campbell’s description of the Hero’s Journey.   But it’s not just a great story in a book or movie. The Hero’s Journey has to do with our daily, even ordinary lives as well.

My masters capstone was on callings. During my research, I have come to believe that a calling is really just our sense to pursue our own Hero’s Journey. That Journey is comprised of distinct phases, most of which are not easy. Pursuit of the Hero’s Journey requires that we face our inner or outer demons, grow and change.  The story of Luke Skywalker is perhaps the classic example of a Hero’s Journey, and compelling and universal for that reason.

However, given the epic nature of the Skywalker tale, the images of the Hero’s Journey are always in a circle, as so astutely pointed out by The Sage Abyss. Does that mean Luke has to repeat the cycle again and again? Doesn’t he just go home and retire? Get book deals and interviews and live the good life?

Apparently not.

I suppose each Hero’s Journey cycle isn’t necessarily of the epic scale of Skywalker. But look at the Harry Potter tales. Harry apparently had at least 7 Hero’s Journey cycles while at Hogwarts, each rising to their own epic proportions.

Thankfully, each of us are not likely battling the likes of Darth Vader or Voldemort, though our own challenges may feel that way on certain days. As I look back on my life and the times that I felt called to pursue a scary path, I realize that each one represents a Hero’s Journey cycle. The turning points in my life include deciding to value myself when others were trying to control or devalue me, moving away to graduate school 1500 miles away, choosing an academic career, choosing to stay in academia each year when I felt on the brink of failure, choosing to give up tenure and research for a healthier life, choosing to separate from my husband of 20 years, going back to school to focus on positive psychology, and choosing to distance myself from those who were trying to subjugate, devalue and control me (note the cycle there too).  Each challenge resulted in greater growth and wisdom   That’s 9 or so cycles, and I’m only 52.

Buddhism tells us not to get attached to things, situations or circumstances because all things are impermanent. The Hero’s Journey tells us that each phase of the cycle is temporary (as long as we don’t get stuck indefinitely) and that upon completion of the cycle, the cycle will later return in another form.   I suppose we can resist our own Hero’s Journey cycle and insist on staying stuck in one place. After all, the devil you know…

Choosing to stay stuck in one place may feel safe in the moment, but it’s much like financial investing. I’m worse than an amateur when it comes to money but even I know that doing nothing with your money (savings account or mattress methods) means that I’m missing out on financial opportunities. The stock market historically yields 8% interest, so as long as you can stomach the swings, over time you’ll do much better than your mattress.

Same with your life.

Monomyth says your life will cycle, but over time, you’ll grow and reap the rewards of your investment. It’s scary. You have to be brave and ride out the downturns but the reward will be yours in the end.

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Hero’s Journey cycle

The Ludicrous Beliefs That I Live By

I’ve not always been so great with acceptance. I spent much of my life overly critical of myself and trying to change things for which I have no control. And as obvious as it may seem to me now, I never really examined those beliefs about what I can change or what is out of my control. Making those beliefs conscious is really helpful in understanding how we sometimes let ludicrous, unconscious beliefs drive how we feel and what we do.

In the spirit of bringing our unconscious and ludicrous beliefs to awareness, I am listing some for consideration. In what ways are the following statement(s) true in your life? Pick a few statements and really reflect to what degree you believe the following to be true:

  • I can change someone else’s beliefs or behavior
  • I can’t change or grow  with regard to (my work, my relationship, my money…)
  • I shouldn’t change or grow with regard to (my work, my relationship, my money…)
  • They should change
  • They can’t change
  • I should have a say in how others live their life (our dependents aside)
  • I should be (richer, more attractive, more successful, more appreciated….)
  • Someone else should fix that or pay for that
  • I should help them
  • I should not help them
  • I should fix or pay for that
  • I am a failure/unattractive/unlovable/not safe/undeserving/entitled/important…
  • I need to be viewed as successful/attractive/generous/smart/….
  • I deserve …
  • I’m better than/more important than (friend, colleague, loved one, stranger)
  • I’m worse than/less important than (friend, colleague, loved one, stranger)
  • Life should be fair
  • My feelings/opinions should matter to others
  • They should realize this truth
  • I was harmed by (event, person)
  • I need (thing, event, person)
  • I’m bad at….

Just because a sentence or sentence stem here resonates with you doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a ludicrous belief.  This exercise is simply intended for you to find more clarity and challenge your pre-existing beliefs.

For example, you might be completely correct that fixing the potholes in your community is not your job.  Perhaps it’s worth really considering whether the statement is as black or white as you might believe (in this case, 100% not your responsibility).   If your potholes are not getting fixed, then maybe you need to be the one to report it to local officials and advocate for better roads (perhaps, now 10% your responsibility).

A less obvious example may be your belief about your role in a suboptimal relationship.  Do you abdicate all responsibility for the trouble in the relationship?  Or do you believe it’s all your fault?  Are you trying to change them or subjugate yourself?  Do you believe it’s only they who need to change?  What would be a more balanced view of the problems at play?

Now, I need a cup of coffee and a piece of chocolate for all this hard work. I will be irrevocably harmed by not getting what I rightfully deserve.