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!

Them Old Walls

The crack in my walls

The crack in my walls

I liked having my walls up. It was a safe, predictable and comfortable place to be.   Very little bothered me, including my own and others’ behavior. I didn’t tend to feel too much at either end of the emotional spectrum. At the time I thought I had above average self-awareness, but in retrospect, my blind spots would swamp the side of a barn (thus, the nature of blind spots). In fairness, I imagine there’s probably always room for improvement in the self-awareness department.

I’m in a different space now, thankfully. I’ve been breaking down the walls that separated my consciousness from the emotions from both self and others. As a result, I believe this Neanderthal is much more sensitive to the emotional nuances emanating from others and from within. I’m picking up on feelings and nuances that I never noticed in the past. As a result, my desire to spend time with people has shifted in interesting and not so comfortable ways.

The good news is I can now tell that there is much more kindness, generosity, and love than I’ve ever noticed before. It’s not unusual for me to cry these days, not because of sadness, but because I’ve been touched or inspired by an almost commonplace act of love or kindness. And to think that I used to pride myself on never being one of ‘those crying women’. Not only do I love those crying women, I’m proud to join the ranks.

The bad news is that I’m also much more aware of pettiness, ego, put-downs, and self-delusion than I ever used to. I am seeing those around me in a new light, and I’m sort of amazed by how oblivious I was in the past.   Though I notice these all-too-human shortcomings more easily, I don’t react to them the way I used to. Perhaps in the past for them to rise above my wall and into my awareness, they had to have been pretty egregious.  I’m more reluctant now to spend time with those that are on the constant emotional offense, since I feel my walls going back up and defensive a la the old Susanna.

I believe my growth (growing up?) has given me a new and broader vantage point that includes a higher self-awareness, and thus, awareness of those around me. I am grateful to feel more alive to all of my feelings. Though I am more aware of my negative emotions, I more acutely feel the positive as well. Joy and gratitude on steroids. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

The Upside of Negativity

When viewed from a strengths perspective, personality characteristics are neither good nor bad (or: they’re all good!) but fall on a spectrum depending on how optimally the strength is used. The Restorative strength, according to Gallup’s Clifton StrengthsFinders, is the problem-solving strength where individuals are talented at identifying and solving problems. A useful strength indeed and one that is essential for most households and organizations to be successful. Certain professions, such as law, law enforcement, maintenance and repair, biomedical sciences and research, are all about identifying and solving problems. What’s not to like?

But like all strengths, Restorative has its downside. When improperly used, this strength can cause people to be pessimists and negative.   It may not surprise you that pessimists tend to have lower life satisfaction and actually are less successful than optimists in almost every discipline except law (I’ll leave it at that). In addition, negativity, where someone complains or criticizes to excess, can be hard on relationships since no one likes a Debbie Downer or Negative Nelly (what are the male equivalent nicknames?).

Aristotle says that wisdom entails exercising the optimal use of our strengths. A wise person with the Restorative strength will therefore be adept at using positivity and optimism to offset their negative and naysaying tendencies. A measure of self-awareness is necessary to realize that one may be overusing or misusing a talent in one situation that is necessary and encouraged in others.   Therefore, I’m going to make a blanket request to all of us whose livelihood depends on solving problems: pay attention to how often and how long you complain, criticize or cast doubt.   What are people’s reactions to your efforts to problem-solve and -identify?

Even if others seem ok with the use of your strength, try switching to a more positive tack as soon as you catch yourself indulging your Restorative unnecessarily. Observe their reaction to that shift. Which do they respond most favorably to? On balance, which feels better to you? Are you using Restorative as effectively as possible?

The answers to these questions may or may not cause you to consider a change. But the advantage of Restorative is that you know that the questions are worth asking, regardless of the outcome. After all, detecting and solving problems in our own behavior is also worth it, isn’t it?

Energizer Bunny Takes A Break

Novels. The newspaper. Mindless TV. Naps. These activities have increasingly become my reality over the last few weeks since I’m currently not initiating any new projects and school is over.

The pace is going to drive me nuts.

You see, I have a problem. My strengths of Zest and Activator mean that I love to get going and I have lots of energy to do so. When I’m apply this energy towards something that I love, then I’m just in bliss.  Pure heaven. School provided the perfect outlet for those strengths. It was incredibly intense and I had no life, but with work it provided an endless stream of fun small and large projects that required my energy and attention 16 hours per day. I did not know that I could work that hard for that long (we barely had 2 weeks off at Xmas) and I loved it! It was like crack for my Activator and Zest strengths.

Now I’m regrouping and getting caught up on other things. Being patient and in wait-and-see mode is not my forte. In other words, I’m reigning in the Activator and Zest into something more Real World. Last time I had a major transition, I spent the time meditating, reflecting, learning about myself, and using writing as a tool to help me decide how to move forward. I took care of myself and tried new things. It was a blissful and enlightening period and so I welcome this opportunity once again!

But not quite yet. I have a few more Modern Family and Homeland episodes and my Lisa Gardner book to finish.

Planning Your Future

Mr Toad's wild ride

Mr Toad’s wild ride

As a young girl, I used to envision what my life would be like. The dream was probably just like the imaginings of every other little girl, more or less: beautiful family with amazing children, handsome husband that doted on me, upper middle class and living in a nice neighborhood, job that provided meaning, respect and a comfortable living.

I had expectations around each of those things. The children were amazing, but that necessarily meant respectful, talented, attractive, smart, good students, etc. And so it was for each item on my list.   In other words, I had a fairly detailed idea of how things should be.

You know what they say: Man plans. God laughs.

There’s nothing wrong with having a vision for what you want your life to be like. But now that I look back, I know that it’s ridiculous, at best, to be psychologically invested in each of those details. At worst, being so tied to a particular outcome is damaging to self and others.

I had to learn that lesson the hard way. Sticking with the kids example, those of you who have parented probably realize that getting them to fit into the stereotype of the perfect child will likely only produce the opposite effect. Not that we can’t encourage and teach them to grow up in a certain way.   In the end, they must decide how to live their own lives. Failure to accept that reality can damage the relationship and teach our children that their authentic selves are unacceptable or not lovable.

We may also be drawing the same conclusions about ourselves when we fail to meet our own narrowly defined expectations.

Now, I try to use the metaphor of aiming my life toward the broad side of a barn, or maybe more appropriately, a small city. I know the general direction and I steer there, but realize that many detours (whether obstacles or opportunities – you can’t always tell the difference) will divert me to possibly a better path. Aiming for too narrow an objective can create frustration and damage and cause us to miss something wonderful that we previously haven’t considered as an option.

In other words, sometimes life is even more rich and wonderful than our wildest imaginings. Why would we want to limit life to only what we can picture at that young and naïve age when we first envision our perfect life?

Life is a beautiful journey full of unknown surprises and wonder. Sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.