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.

Acceptance Through Cost Averaging

One of my earliest financial planning lessons was on the concept of cost averaging. The idea is that you automatically invest a fixed amount each month into your mutual funds or stocks. When the stock market is climbing, then you’ll watch your stock value grow. It’s the quintessential buy low, sell high. A great idea!

When the stock market is falling, it’s still a great idea to buy because now you’re getting more shares for the money. Your number of stocks will grow. When the stock market climbs later, you’ll have even more stocks to take advantage of that growth. Another great idea! In other words, whether stocks are rising or falling, you’re doing the right thing by continuing to invest every month. Even better, you can just set it up and forget about it.

However, for this model to work, you have to have the stomach to stay in the game when the market falls.  I know some who have a hard time with this approach because they can only see the downside of the falling market.  Their tendency will be to sell, not invest, when the market is falling, i.e., buy high, sell low. Not a strategic financial management plan.

What does this have to do with well being? The cost averaging analogy applies to the ups and downs in our lives, the good times and the bad. When times are good, you can just sit back and enjoy the ride, savoring the experiences and positive emotion.  When times are tough, like the market, there are really good opportunities if we can see the opportunity. During tough times, we have an opportunity to learn important life lessons, make critical changes, and foster our personal growth. People rarely make needed changes when times are good. Change and self-investment occurs when we’re uncomfortable or miserable, not so much when we’re feeling joyful or at peace.

Thus, when bad times hit, it’s a golden opportunity to learn and grow. When good times return, we have created additional internal resources, and we can enjoy those good times all the more, especially since they were hard-earned. The trick is, we have to see the opportunity hidden in the tough times and invest in ourselves. Otherwise, we may do the psychological equivalent of buy high, sell low.

So you see, there really is no such thing as “good” or “bad,” it all just depends on your perspective. Pessismists will view the downside of even a growing stock market and optimists will see the upside of the falling stock market. How will you see the ups and downs in your life? Remember, your perspective is a choice.

Acceptance/Complacency Sweet Spot

One of the strengths that I value the most in myself is my strength of perspective.   Not only does perspective give me the ability to find the silver lining in all situations, it also helps me to try to understand the nuances between concepts like acceptance versus complacency.

On one hand, acceptance is important for having a sense of peace and healthy relationships (i.e., accepting others for who they are). On the other, if we move into complacency, resignation and apathy, we are likely settling for mediocrity and defeat. To me, the difference between the two is whether or not we have given up on change. Do we believe change can still happen? Are we working to grow in a positive direction? If the answers are no, then perhaps we’ve become complacent.

Less clear cut, perhaps, is how complacency and acceptance applies to our relationships. How can I be accepting of someone if I hope for change from them?

I believe the answer depends on our focus. Are we focusing on who they are versus what they do? Who they are is a combination of their strengths, beliefs, values and history, and includes the beautiful and necessary dichotomies of light/dark, “good”/”bad” for all of these traits.   In other words, we’re simply imperfect humans and we’re all striving to find that sweet spot where we can make best use of our strengths, values and beliefs to live the best life possible. Each of us has a different makeup, and thus, different struggles. One person’s struggles are no better or worse than anyone else’s. To accept that in others is accepting who they are.

Accepting who they are is different from accepting what they do. It’s not unreasonable to expect and nurture growth in yourself and others in a way that honors one’s individuality and unique dichotomies while also moving closer to our most effective expression of our strengths and values. It’s when we give up on improving our behavior is when we become complacent, apathetic and mediocre.

That focus on changing others’ behavior should also be balanced with an equal or greater focus on our own change and growth. By modeling the growth we wish to see in others, we can be more influential advocates for the future that we wish to realize.

My perspective strength also tells me that our human shortcomings are prerequisites for growth and positive change. If we believe ourselves to be perfect and refuse to accept our failings, then we are in essence embracing complacency and mediocrity. When we have a perfection mindset, growth and change are unnecessary, undesirable and even impossible.

In sum, by believing in our own perfection, we are not embracing excellence, we’re justifying our complacency. By accepting, and even loving, our humanity and shortcomings is when we can make real positive change happen.

Is This What It Means to Thrive?

People have been looking at me strangely lately. I don’t blame them. I’d be suspicious too if I saw what I’m doing/saying these days.

When people ask me how my day/weekend/holiday was, I have an unusual response. I use words like joyful, blissful, inspiring.

(Turn around, walk briskly away, and call 911)

I can’t help it. It’s just how I’m feeling these days.   The smallest thing makes my heart go soaring, or makes me tear up. I feel I’m overflowing with abundance and gratitude, and my optimism has few limits. I’m energized and have a bounce in my step. I’m thinking really clearly and I feel I can tap into my creative juices in a blink of an eye. I’ve never felt more love and in love for my friends/family and with my husband, respectively.

Maybe this is what it must mean to really thrive.

Perhaps I’m an extreme (head) case, or going through a really great spell, I don’t know. All I know is that the experience of being alive feels like a miracle almost every minute of every day.

I don’t think that one must be in a state of almost constant bliss to be thriving. I do, however, think that it goes to show that a recovering perfectionist/control freak can make big and meaningful changes for a better quality of life. I am that person who, at some time in my life, dropped out of graduate school, quit a full-time tenured job, and got a divorce. Not exactly the world’s best resume.

We can grow to make changes and improvements. Failure, pain and disappointment are not necessarily bad things; in fact they often provide access for a much-needed change, including inviting bliss into one’s life.  Maybe we’ll all be looking at you strangely soon too.


6 Keys to Balancing Optimism /Pessimism

From the keyboard end of this blog, it’s pretty easy to talk about theory and advice. Effective practice is an entirely different matter. In fact, writing helps me to better understand my challenges as often as it is sharing hard-earned wisdom.

Finding the right blend of optimism/pessimism is one case in point. I can go either way, depending on whether I have had my hot button pushed or some unresolved emotion simmering beneath the surface. When I have my emotional house in order, it tends to be pretty easy for me to stay on the positive, optimistic side.

Some folk lean toward pessimism even without that simmering emotional undercurrent.   Either way, I think it’s important to keep in mind the following concepts when trying to find balance:

  1. Have perspective – Recognize that all events are neutral. We assign meaning and value to them, which are purely subjective. In other words, there is no hard and fast rules regarding whether to take a pessimistic or optimistic view on life events. Likely you are choosing your perspective more out of habit than any real thought. Be more intentional and less emotional about your interpretation of events. If you tend to one extreme, practice viewing it from the other.
  2. Optimize strengths – Your strength might become your burden if you misuse or over use it. Those with a positivity strength may be unrealistically positive, and those with a problem-solving (restorative) strength may be overly negative. Develop your toolkit such that it allows you to take a more balanced perspective.
  3. Learn optimism – Optimism can be learned (see the book Learned Optimism for more details). There are 3 parts to optimism: pervasive, permanent and personal. Optimists tend to think good things are pervasive (universal and ubiquitous), permanent, and to a lesser degree personal (the result of one’s behavior), whereas bad things are not. Pessimists tend to believe the opposite.   Consider these factors and challenge your habitual thought patterns. For example, thinking my good luck and good health will last forever is unrealistic. In order to take good care of myself and increase the odds of good health and longevity, I must recognize the risk involved in an unhealthy lifestyle and act accordingly.
  4. Put limits around your habit – Thoughts and focus are a habit. Recognize your habit to think in a given pattern, then give yourself permission to indulge in that habit but define an end point. Then spend some time deliberately practicing the opposite behavior. If that’s difficult for you, partner with someone who can help you find more balance. Schedule that balance into your day, process or project so you are sure to follow-through each time until it becomes your new habit.
  5. Evaluate before you speak or act – You might be going off on one extreme internally, but be deliberative about how you express yourself. Reflect to find a more balanced perspective or delivery method for a given audience and situation. For example, thinking through your points before speaking or acting and finding a more neutral tone can make you more persuasive and effective. Notice people’s reactions when you act more deliberately. Do they respond in a more favorable manner? If so, keep it up. If not, try something a little different.
  6. When in doubt, err on the positive – Well-being expert Tom Rath (author of Are You Fully Charged? The 3 Keys to Energizing Your Work and Life) recommends that we spend 80% of the time being positive. This will improve your interactions, relationships and productivity.

As with all habits, they take time, effort and commitment to change. Reflecting on what you plan to do, anticipate opportunities to practice the change, and reflecting again afterwards will help make theory a reality. In addition, writing and discussing your plans and outcomes add another level of commitment to your new goals. In the end, change is about good old fashioned hard work. Pretty soon, your new behaviors will feel natural and you’ll wonder what the big deal was.

Out of Our Comfort Zone

Living and practicing according to my new passion, positive psychology, frequently has me outside my realm of familiarity.   Right now I’m at the first annual Appreciative Education conference in Myrtle Beach SC. I’m looking for a professional home for my interest in creating a positive university and curriculum in higher education.

The conference, though very eye-opening and informative, has me surrounded by folk who are in the related but different field of appreciative inquiry. Like positive psychology practitioners, they are practicing and embodying a philosophy of positive inquiry and inclusion, especially in the area of student affairs and advising.

I’m feeling like a fish out of water. The backgrounds are different. The language is different. The world view is different. I feel uncomfortable.

I’m not sure what I expected. This whole journey into positive psychology practice has made me uncomfortable but exhilarated. I’ve had several dreams in the past several months where I’m sliding/flying/driving/barreling out of control to some destination, where I eventually safely arrive. A fitting metaphor.

However, I was gratified and in my comfort zone yesterday when attending a session on Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, which I feel is very much a part of our daily lives though often on a subconscious or supra-conscious scale. A participant suggested that we could potentially choose to view each day, in addition to our life, in terms of the Hero’s Journey cycle of separation-initiation-return. Indeed, Campbell’s Hero puts herself out there to pursue her calling, encountering challenges and obstacles, but also help along the way. The theme reflects a life journey, but also maybe a journey that we should intentionally undertake each day.

One of our distinguished alumni recently told our students to do something every day that scares you just a little.   This young man, so accomplished at a young age, is a hero in both the figurative and literal sense. I believe these words of wisdom reflect an invitation to us all to pursue our Journey on a daily basis.

What will you do today that will separate you from your old life/way of thinking? What trial or challenge will you endure in order to grow and return “home”, in some way different?

Today, I’m presenting my construct of the Hero’s Journey and how it relates to student career development to this conference of professional advisors and student affairs thought leaders. I can’t decide if I’m really confident and excited, or terrified. More like both.

I don’t know what the outcome will be obviously, but I will return home tomorrow somewhat changed, but definitely enhanced by the engaged and talented crowd here. Thank you Appreciative Education participants for helping me along on my Journey today!

(a special hello and thank you to Cheri!)

Ripple Effect

Causing waves

Causing waves

I’ve known about the ripple effect for some time now but haven’t given it a whole lot of thought until recently. Here’s an example of the ripple effect: I may decide to change my dress right before I leave for an interview across town, leave a bit later, then get caught right behind an accident that just happened, and then miss the interview, which then impacts my future. A seemingly harmless decision, but with significant downstream consequences.

Another type of ripple is when something seemingly small happens that may affect a lot of people. For example, penicillin was serendipitously discovered by Alexander Fleming. Fleming’s astute observation then changed the course of medicine and pharmaceutical drug discovery.   Climate change is another example of a small shift (say, a 1 degree change in temperature) having far-reaching consequences.

I think back on my life on the events that rippled through my life: A supporting or loving gesture from someone influential in my life, like a loved one or a mentor. The receipt of a grant or award. Failure to get a grant or award. Running into someone at the store. An introduction by a colleague.   Most such ripples were positive, but not all of them.

I now think back on my life and sometimes hear about the ripples I have unwittingly caused. Most often they come from students or my children, but sometimes my friends or family. Usually they mention a conversation or advice that has stayed with them over the years and that has influenced their thinking or course of action.   You never know when something you say or do strikes a chord, good or bad.

Or do you?

I think we can be really much more intentional and proactive about creating the type of ripples that we want to perpetuate. It’s taken me a long time to figure this out since, as an ethnic minority growing up in Texas, I felt mostly invisible and insignificant most of my life. But now that I feel powerful and strong, I know that I have the ability to create lots of small ripples every day.

It’s my responsibility to make sure they’re positive ripples. It’s also my responsibility to use my strengths, talents and passions to do good every day. Blogging is one example of how I try to create positive ripples every day. Helping others along their personal journey through mentoring, teaching and training is another.   So is showing my love to those around me, and being the best possible role model that I can be.

The benefit to me is a feeling of deep meaning and connection to those around me. I feel woven into the fabric of several communities.   Also, the recipients of the ripples reach back to me and create ripples in my life, thus strengthening our connection. Ultimately, I hope to better our little corner of the world, just a smidge. One ripple at a time.

Mindless Entertainment?

I once participated in an icebreaker game where you anonymously shared a secret about yourself and everyone had to guess who the secret belonged to. My secret? I was a soap opera junkie (well, it was specific to the former All My Children).

No one guessed me. No one.

That’s because those that know me think of me as a fairly serious-minded, no-nonsense intellectual. No way that I’d like such mindless entertainment like a soap opera.

Now that you know my little secret, you may not be surprised that I also love Millionaire Matchmaker, America’s Top Model, Project Runway and have been obsessed with American Idol during certain seasons. Other reality TV shows: not so much.

In short, I defy the intellectual stereotype by watching decidedly un-intellectual TV.

Why do I like these shows? Mindless entertainment? Or something more? After some reflection, I believe that such shows speak to a deep part of me that yearns for something, whether something I love to do or the impact I wish to have on the world. It’s not something that I yearn to be, per se.  At least not for me.  If it were, I would be obsessed with So You Think You Can Dance or Top Chef.

No, I think for me it has to do with the idea that no matter who you are, we are all on a journey to find the best in ourselves. What’s striking about each show is that an individual may seem very ordinary at first glance but we then find that they have something extraordinary inside. The contestants, even oftentimes the models, appear as ordinary folk until they open their mouth, cut a square of fabric, or get in front of a camera.  Some even appear to be a ‘loser’ until they’re in their element. The ones that learn and grow are the ones that win the competition.

The opposite is true for the millionaires. On the surface they seem like they have the perfect life, but underneath they are also just like everyone else: on a journey to make the most of their lives.   And when it comes to relationships, we’re all the same. A boorish jerk who is a millionaire is not much more likely to be in a successful relationship than a boorish jerk who is poor. Some of them learn, grow, and then ‘win’ by finding love.

Each show features a challenge, where to be successful, the individual must undergo a transformation to discover the best in themselves. We all yearn to do so, regardless of whether we’re the poor little rich girl, or simply the poor little girl. We all have it in us.   It’s not always so obvious. It’s not always something that’s encouraged by our loved ones or our culture. But we all have a shining thing that we do….we all have a shining self that we can share…if we can find the courage to uncover it.

What shining thing do you do? How do you bring out the best in yourself for others?   What’s blocking you from doing so?  Bring your inner Simon, Heidi, Tyra, or Patty to grow past it.  Return to your life transformed. You win.

When You’ve Changed

You know how the You that you are right now feels entirely natural? Probably you’ve been that version of You for a long time, and she feels right to you.

Well sometimes that You is actually You v.2 (or some larger number), and though she may feel natural to you, she may feel different and alien to other people.   Granted, any feeling of weirdness in your relationship may actually originate from Her. Maybe she’s moved onto v.2, not you. Or maybe you both have changed.

The more that you change, the more that you may feel awkward around those that have always felt comfortable to you. On the other hand, you may find that people who previously escaped your notice or were annoying may now seem fascinating and compelling, since you may now see them in a new light.

That new light also applies to those that you know well, and that new perspective may or may not be flattering.

Yes. Trouble.

The reverse is true too. As you change, others will see you in a new light, and they may or may not like what they see. But once you have a new perspective on life, it’s hard to return to the old one. Evolving into yet another new perspective or belief system, i.e. You v.3, is possible, but there’s no guarantee that the new belief system will make that relationship comfy again.

But you know, life happens. Our lives change. It’s inevitable. Change may mean that we have to redefine our old relationships on new terms. However, those new terms may improve the relationship, especially if we’re leading the change with our newfound wisdom and patience.

However, I feel it is important to do a gut check during all this change. If your increasing wisdom and patience is causing more fights and tension with loved ones, maybe you’ve not yet grown your wisdom and patience. You may be growing in other directions, which may be a good thing, but realize that your change may not make much sense to others. Perhaps an extra dose of forgiveness and gratitude (both for yourself and those around you) would help smooth the interaction until you do find acceptance, positive perspective and patience from your change.

Imagine yourself as the teenager in the house. That teenager is undergoing rapid change. Don’t you just wish she’d show a little patience, tolerance and openness?

Coincidence and Inevitability

Susanna rising from ashes

Susanna rising from ashes

Whether or not you believe that God or some universal order influences the trajectory of our lives, you have to admit that the paths that our lives take can be pretty remarkable and unexpected.

We hear stories like this all the time. ‘If I had left a moment sooner…’, ‘If I hadn’t been there…’, ‘If I hadn’t gotten sick…’ We also hear stories about how a seemingly benign life event also puts someone on a new life path or journey. Then suddenly, our lives can be completely different, whether on the outside, inside, or both.

Harold Kushner talked about the philosophy of our individual lives as threads in a tapestry, where on the backside, they seem to twist and turn seemingly without order. Only when one flips the fabric over does one see that pattern that is created.   Regardless of whether you believe there is a pattern, the tapestry analogy may reflect the course of so many of our lives. We may not ask for it. We may not want it. We may do our best to fight it. But most of the circumstances surrounding our lives are not in our control. Some events have the impact of irrevocable change to our internal and/or external world.

The role of wisdom in change is knowing when and how to fight and knowing when to accept. Self-knowledge also helps us to understand when we’re fighting change because the direction of the change is bad or because we are defending the status quo out of fear. Unfortunately, most of us must learn the hard way to differentiate and decide. In the meantime, here are my suggestions for managing change:

  • Play devil’s advocate with yourself and understand the holes and shortcomings of your beliefs about the change in your life.  Don’t go through the motions of arguing the reverse side with the conclusion forgone. Instead, really try to see it from the other side by distancing your opinion from your emotions. This exercise will help with your ability to persuade others and strategize going forward.
  • Include in the devil’s advocate exercise the belief that you have control over these events.  If you realize that you don’t have control, start processing your grief and your strategy to manage the change.
  • Be open to the opinion of others. Getting defensive will only reinforce their belief and blind you to what you may be missing. Use the truth of their argument, even if it’s only a kernel, to reconsider your thoughts and plan. Honor the notion that their perspective is their truth.  It doesn’t have to be your truth or a universal truth for you to respect their viewpoint and consider there may be some validity to their opinion.
  • Consider that change gives you a new vantage point of yourself and the world.  You may not like the view from that new perch, but a new perspective is an opportunity to learn, grow, and re-strategize. This view may allow you to launch into a new direction that you were not able to consider from your previous vantage point.
  • Be honest with yourself about the feelings this change is creating. If you’re fearful and anxious, ask yourself why.   What is the worst-case scenario (within reason)? What is the best possible outcome? Now, create that best possible outcome and embrace it for the adventure that it is. Your improved attitude will increase your odds of achieving it.
  • To reinforce your new positive attitude, consider the successful endings that have occurred with others’ stories about change. Creating successful change is about resilience. You can become more resilient, especially if you embrace change as an opportunity.

The recovering control freak and perfectionist in me still sometimes rebels against the unknown or change. Some days I feel it’s all I can do to stay present and optimistic with life’s changes. But it is well worth the effort since my precious energy can then be directed at finding the path to the best possible outcome instead of spinning my wheels. Then, I feel like the phoenix rising out of the ashes. Envision that!