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.

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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.

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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Mid-Life Transitions

I’m feeling old this week. Whenever I get up, there are a few moments where I feel stiff all over. I’m having tendonitis in my shoulder, and so I have limited range of motion. I’ve had some dental work recently and don’t like how that feels in my mouth. And I’m just a bit tired and physically slow so it’s tough to keep pace with my exercise class.

As they say, aging is not for the weak-hearted, but it sure beats the alternative.

It’s also hard to believe that I’m at this mid-life stage. You know, it seems like almost yesterday…

It’s tempting sometimes to long for my younger self, especially when I look at the gorgeous and strong young people around me. But I’m never one to want to go back. So far, I have always liked the Older Susanna better than the younger.   I was once as cute and strong as these amazing young people around me, but I didn’t appreciate it then.   I might as well have had the body of a 50-year old given how I felt about my appearance.

The same trend continues when I look across my life domains. I’m kind of jealous of the young people that have the stamina to entertain, go out with their friends, and to volunteer/work till all hours and their mental acuity. Yet I also like feeling like I don’t have to do everything, and be everything to all people, at work and at home and that I can turn the ticker tape in my head to off or mute. I also like the feeling that I am secure in my relationships with my friends and family. I can let those relationships be what they are and just enjoy them.

In summary, I enjoy my life so much more given that I take so much less for granted. I’m also much better at being present, so I’m less worried, stressed or upset about the past or future.

I think the hardest part for me professionally is feeling a lack of mentors.   I have always actively developed and valued relationships with those more experienced and wise than me, and had several that I could go to when I needed advice or an ear. My mentors are all, well, retired or I’ve moved to different areas of interest. I AM the mentor now for a number of people. But who advises me now?

On the personal side the hardest part is missing the daily interaction of the larger family. I understand that as we age we tend to become increasingly isolated, especially as our friends and family start to pass. Isolation is a potential threat to our wellbeing. Yet I also enjoy having a quieter house and that time to myself that an empty nest provides.

In the end, life is full of trade offs. I don’t envy young people. They have their struggles, most of which I do not want to return to. I don’t envy those older than me either, even if they are retired. I’m sure that comes with its own opportunities and challenges. I guess I’ll just enjoy where I am now, for one day it will feel as fleeting as my youth.

Susanna’s Comparative Life Table

  Body Career/ Intellectual Relational Family Personal
Youth – Assets Physical peak, form and function Education fresh, mind alert and active. Plenty of mentors Energy for socializing and entertaining All potential, yet still able to enjoy all those great moments Relatively more idealistic
Challenges May over rely on strength and stamina

Relatively low body image

Relatively poor at prioritization; tries to do it all Relational skills still in development Daily challenges of raising children; still having conflict with siblings Relatively low self-confidence and fewer emotional resources
Mid-Life – Assets Efficiency, strategy. Better appreciation for assets Experience, patience, better able to prioritize. Giving back as mentor Skills well developed; perspective on what’s important Enjoy fruits of child-rearing Self-confidence and self-awareness
Challenges Beginning loss of function Must prioritize. Mentors harder to find. Meet relatively fewer people, less opportunity for “hanging out” Daily challenges of managing parental care May be less apt to change, beginning loss of function

Message to Asian Parents

Growing up I was told that Asian kids are just smarter.  This stereotype seemed to be buffeted by all the hyper-accomplished Asian students with the perfect GPAs and mix of extracurriculars (BTW I was kind of just average or above-average or so all around). Indeed, Asians tend to be over-represented in institutes of higher learning and highly technical fields.   However, I’ve never seen any data that shows that Asians are any smarter than people originating from other continents.

Asian students do have a secret weapon though: their parents. It’s maybe not so much the parents per se as the culture. At least speaking for the Chinese American culture, it was simply a given that we’d go to college, and probably graduate school. We’d have a sport, learn Chinese, and play a musical instrument. Being cool wasn’t important, but your GPA was. Indeed, some of my Chinese American childhood friends went on to that Ivy League school and are literally world-famous.

For some of us, that formula and pathway works perfectly well; we’re 100% suited and passionate about a career in a STEM discipline, or maybe law. For the others of us, well, too bad.

Asian parents, I know you want the best for your children and economic security is paramount. I ask you, though, to weigh the degree of economic security (do they really need to make in the high 6-figures to be secure?) against the psychological cost of doing a job you don’t love. For me the toll was psychological, physical, and relational. My body and life were shutting down because I couldn’t keep doing that job.

Parents, I’m not saying that you encourage your kids to throw caution to the wind and hop a bus to LA in hopes of being the next “It” girl.   What I am saying is that maybe our young people should be encouraged to pursue that passion and dream but have a reasonable Plan B ready to go if that dream doesn’t work out, preferably one that allows them to pursue that passion at least as a hobby.

I didn’t tell you earlier that one of my Ivy League Chinese American friends ended up pursuing a non-traditional path (non-doctor/lawyer/engineer) and became world famous anyway. Many of the parents I know would not have supported that path, but fortunately for him, his did. In other words, it is possible to follow your heart and dreams and achieve that economic security. Had he pursued engineering, he might be secure enough, but would he be as happy or successful?

I know from my own experience that pursuing my Plan A (which temporally came to me in late life) not only means that I’m passionate about my job, but that work enriches my personal life and wellbeing too. And that’s worth all the money in the world.

Students Teach the Teacher

We sample Cuban food

We sample Cuban food

In study after study, positive psychology shows us that healthy, positive relationships are essential to our well-being. Relationships enable success, productivity, and the creation of positive emotions such as connection and love. In addition, all the success in the world is meaningless if you have no one to share it with. Thus, relationships also provide the foundation for meaning in our lives.

I have always felt particularly blessed for the friends and family in my life. The belief that love is synergistic, enhancing surrounding relationships, rather than a zero-sum game allows me to expand my circle rather than limiting it to a few. As a result, I feel rich in the most important way possible.

The idea of (platonic) love and relationships in the context of teaching has been an evolution for me as I’ve progressed from classroom teacher and advisor to more of a mentor/trainer/coach.   The latter has allowed me to explore anything and everything often in depth with the students, and in the process transforms the relationship from teacher-student to fellow travelers. The advantage of this co-education with post-baccalaureate learners is that we truly can engage on a peer level, which may not be available with younger students.

Meditation at Maymont

Meditation at Maymont

Earlier this week, we completed our summer outings series for students who have participated in our student development class, part of a larger program called VCU BEST. The idea behind VCU BEST is that we strive to educate the “rest” of the student beyond the academic portion of the brain. As such, we gather each summer for optional outings designed to explore our humanity and connection to each other and the larger world: a nature walk, comedy club, meditation, yoga, ethnic cuisines, feeding the poor and, most importantly, bonding with each other.

As I sit among this remarkable group of young people, I cannot help but feel so blessed to be among a group that is willing to both influence and be influenced by each other. Realizing that this is my work, my job, my vocation and avocation, to harvest the richness of the human experience, is a humbling responsibility and a joy. Thank you fellow travelers. Thank you world!

Serving dinner to the poor

Serving dinner to the poor

Are We Responsible For Others?

This ambiguous and loaded question may have elicited a gut response from you. I would guess the answer is probably yes since anyone who is caring for or supervising another will feel appropriately responsible for the health and wellbeing of that person. Without you, someone may go unfed, unclothed, or unemployed. If you don’t do your job, whether or not a salary is involved, someone else may have trouble meeting their basic needs. When it comes to children, those basic needs go beyond food and shelter and include intellectual, psychological, social, spiritual and physical development. Not only are parents responsible, but it’s one of the most important roles we’ll ever play.

However, where do the lines of responsibility fall beyond the above circumstances? Are we responsible for making sure our adult family members, friends or co-workers make the right choices for their health, safety or wellbeing?

What about our neighbors and those in the community? Does it matter if people in the community are living in poverty or are suffering if we don’t have to witness their pain each day?

I’ve surprised myself to realize that my opinion on these matters have done a 180 over the years. The old me would’ve spent a lot of time trying to control and influence those around me to do the ‘right thing’ while feeling fairly sheltered from the issues in the community or even nation. My little bubble was pretty small and I was going to make sure it and everyone in it was just right.

I’ve since learned that I unequivocally do not know what is right for other people, no matter how wrong I may think they are. (This pertains to matters that affect only them – I reserve the right to have an opinion when others may be adversely affected). These days, I try to be more curious about their perspective, explore their assumptions and beliefs with them, and start a dialog rather than telling them what they should or should not be doing. Instead of getting them to conform to my definition of happiness, I now try to support them as they pursue their own. As a result, I am a better listener and support for the other, rather than a judgmental antagonist.

I also feel very differently these days about the strangers around me. I’ve blogged before about how we’re all connected in an unseen, unknowable way. Though I still have a tendency to be a bit in my head (constantly amusing myself with the interesting swirl of thoughts), it’s harder for me now to treat the occasional stranger or the person on the news as someone who does not affect me.

This notion is difficult for some people to understand – I still struggle with it. Just imagine, for instance, how it feels when you walk into a room full of angry or upset family members. Then imagine if that anger or fear continues below the surface for months or years, even if that family lives far away. Now imagine that the emotion is joy or peace. What impact does that sustained emotion have on you? It’s not something you can see or touch, but it has an impact on others whether they’re in the same room, same neighborhood or different state. It’s stronger the closer the bond, but make no mistake, it exists even if you’ve never met the person.

My current reaction to the question above, are we responsible for others, is a bit of confusion. It’s a complicated question and the answer is not what I once thought. I suppose 20 years from now it may be 180 degrees different in yet another direction. Stay tuned!