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.

On the Verge of Death

What if you had a 50% chance of not waking up tonight and every night thereafter?

A 50% chance means that you can’t give up your job, move to Nepal, or do anything else really drastic because you still have to live your life.

Or can you?

In other words, if your odds of dying each day are pretty substantial, I’d bet that we would get our priorities in order and live each day more fully.

If we have a horrible job or relationship, we may decide it’s no longer worth suffering, and make a change by either improving it, fixing it, replacing it, or removing it.

If there is something that we’ve been longing to do or have, perhaps we would strive to do it or to obtain it.  Perhaps that something is a motorcycle, a trip to a special place, a visit to a special person, forgiveness, or peace of mind.

If we have something that we’ve been longing to remove, maybe we’d decide to get rid of it.  Unwanted weight, debt, anger or resentment might be on top of the list.

If there is something you’ve been taking for granted, take a moment to appreciate it.   All those moments don’t add up to that much time in a day, so go ahead and indulge.   Perhaps it is a loved one, your good fortune, something that you do well but have failed to recognize, the taste of your morning coffee, or the beauty of the craftsmanship of your spoon.

Take a moment to give it some serious reflection, because in the end, we don’t really know our chances of living to see the next day.   Odds are hopefully in our favor, but you never know.

Now, make a list of the things you’d do differently, and go do them.

Are You Fixed or Growth Oriented?

Before you answer this question, it probably requires a bit of explanation.  A fixed mindset refers to the philosophy that we are who we are and that we cannot change.  A growth mindset believes that we can grow and improve.

The advantage of a fixed mindset is that a person is fairly consistent across time and situation.  If you’re marrying someone with a fixed mindset, you’re likely to have the same person more or less for decades to come.  It’s predictable and you don’t have to worry about that person changing too dramatically as you get into your golden years.

The other advantage of a fixed mindset is that you don’t have to worry too much about who you are.  Introspection and self-assessment is a waste of time, as is the notion of trying to change someone else.   A tendency to accept others as they are is an especially nice trait!

The disadvantage of a fixed mindset is that fixed individuals are less resilient.  If you think about it, the ol’ self may work in many situations, but if additional skills or perspectives are needed, it may be more difficult to manage if you believe you cannot rise to meet the new situation or adjust your viewpoint.

I’ll throw out another disadvantage, which is purely from my perspective.  If I had a fixed mindset, I might be stuck as I was when I was 20-something.  Those of you who have been reading my blog know that my 20-something was not someone to brag about.    I guess others were more likely to be perfectly formed and accessorized in their 20’s to deal gracefully with all of life’s situations.  I sure wasn’t.

‘Course, I would surmise if you’re reading this blog, then you’re probably of the growth mindset and I’m somewhat preaching to the choir.  But like the other personality types, you growth folk can use this information to better understand the other half of the world that doesn’t love self-help in some fashion.

I know.  No one is perfect.  J

Optimism 101

Are you annoyed by those pesky folk who always think things are going to come out OK? If so, then maybe you are a pessimist, a person who tends to view the glass as half empty.   Perhaps you also like to argue with optimists that you are right, that we should all take a more cynical view of the world and our future.

Actually, it’s a pointless argument. The glass half full analogy illustrates the concept nicely. Both parties are right. So it’s merely a matter of which way you choose to view it.

And yes, it is a choice. You may have an inherent tendency to go one way or another, but you do not have to be a slave to your tendencies.   That choice is both a blessing and a curse, because it means you can change but it also means it will take effort.

“Why should I change? It’s worked well for me all my life,” you might ask. I’m so glad you did (even if maybe you didn’t)!

Optimists do better in life. They’re more successful (with the exception of lawyers), more resilient, they have a longer life and better health, especially with regard to depression. They make more money than pessimists. I also suspect that people would prefer to work with and be with optimists. I would also add on a personal level that I feel much better in general when I choose an optimistic perspective. Feeling negative makes me feel pretty lousy.

So if you’re a life-long pessimist, how do you change?

  • Challenge catastrophic thoughts – Treat those thoughts as if they were coming from someone else and challenge them. Not landing the job does not mean I’m a failure. It may mean that the job market is competitive and/or I need to beef up my resume or interviewing skills.
  • Use your strengths – Using your strengths also decreases depressive symptoms. A free strengths test is at authentichappiness.com or workuno.com, or you can pay for the Clifton StrengthsFinders which provides a detailed report and analysis. Once you get your strengths assessment, commit to using them intentionally every day.
  • Challenge your perspective – Pessimists think good events are temporary and local but bad things are permanent and pervasive; optimists are the opposite.   If you’re not sure where you stand, take the optimism test at authentichappiness.com. It’s free! Then pay attention to how you interpret yourself and your world view and challenge those pessimistic thoughts. Keep doing it, and you may see a shift in your pessimistic tendencies.
  • Read a book – The book on the subject is Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman.   He says it so much better than I ever can.

Those of you who are still skeptical about the value of being more optimistic can also consider the degree of optimism that you may wish to achieve. Scientists also advocate that optimism stays within the zone of realistic, as opposed to endorsing the extreme that may result in passivity and unrealistic thinking (as in: this warrant for my arrest will turn out fine so I won’t do anything about it).   So more is better, but only to a point.

I contend there should also be room for dreamers and out-of-box thinkers. We need to be able to dream to make big changes, but do so responsibly. So you are the judge of how you walk that line. Dream big and then take a realistic optimistic approach to achieving it. The odds are in your favor.

Benefits of Being Open

When’s the last time you got mad or critical or said No without thinking?   Weeks, days, hours, minutes?

I define being closed as either forming a snap judgment or even being unable or unwilling to reconsider a thought-out position. Being open, in contrast, means keeping one’s mind open even after forming an opinion.

Being open is hard from for many reasons for a lot of people, but so worth it. It’s hard because it takes time and energy to think out your opinion with care.   It also requires that you might have to say you were wrong (OMG!).   It’s simply faster and easier to have a few set of rules by which to live your life and apply them all around. To me, these are called principles and I have always felt applying principles is a good way to live your life.

Until it’s not.

When those principles start creating havoc in your life, it’s time to re-evaluate the process. I’m not saying we should abandon our principles when convenient. Rather, I’m saying that life is very nuanced and sometimes other factors that we may not have considered may be more important in some situations. These are called blind spots.

For example, as an administrator in higher education, I strive to treat all students the same way. We have rules and procedures and students must follow them, otherwise everyone will want an exception. Then what good are your rules? But adhering so rigidly to the rules when exceptional circumstances occur also sets a bad precedent, not to mention runs the risk of being unfair or inhumane.   A student who must leave immediately to attend to a family crisis should not be penalized because he’s not here to make the proper requests via the required and endless paper (yes, paper) work.

Like so many things in my life I’ve had to learn this lesson the hard way.   But since then I’ve learned that my life and the lives of those around me just goes much more smoothly and successfully when I’m not wedded to an idea or outcome. Simply by reserving judgment or opinion also allows room for positive emotion like curiosity and serenity when I might have chosen resentment or disgust in the past. In other words, forming no opinion, unless I must, actually requires less energy than making a snap decision and sticking to it. And I have a better outcome. How good is that?

In the category of embarrassing admissions, my ‘adaptability’ strength was at the bottom (#34) in 2005 and 29 out of 34 in 2013. So you can see I’ve made some progress and am demonstrating that we can change, evolve and grow.  Being low in adaptability, like most of my other ‘lesser strengths’, simply means I have to put some effort into exhibiting that trait since it does not come naturally. Some more recent acquaintances are surprised when I tell them a certain strength is low for me. It makes me proud to know that I can manage my ‘opportunities for improvement’ effectively sometimes.

I’m even more proud when I see others learn that lesson and find the same satisfaction in improving in areas they never thought they could.   So indulge me and work on a skill you once believed you could not change, then let me know how it goes. Simply ridding yourself of the belief you are powerless is a powerful and enabling move. Replace it with the belief that you will change and grow. Yes you can.

250 Blogs and 1 Degree Later

Something about a milestone makes you want to sit back and reflect. So after having completed my 250th blog and now starting on a fresh Word document (no, not all 250 blogs are on one Word document), I thought I’d take a retrospective of the last 1.5 years since I’ve started blogging.

In November 2013 I primarily wrote about my kids and my failed marriage. Though my focus was quite different back then given that I’m now an empty nester and about to be remarried, I’m struck by how I was talking about the principles of positive psychology throughout the blogs even then. Forgiveness, gratitude, perspective, growth, acceptance, pride, relationships and love.

Yet I’m not the same person I was back then. Yes those heart-felt emotions are still there. But now I’m aware of the body of evidence and work that surround those concepts, what they mean for our well-being, and how science shows that those emotions are not accidents. Or they don’t have to be.

Fortunately for me I’ve been an amateur positive psychologist my whole life. I’ve learned and applied those principles in a world where I am the primary subject. Just like any other area where you’re re-inventing the wheel, it was a long and slow learning process only recently accelerated at warp-speed by going back to school. I remember one of the best days of my life was when my girlfriend told me my perspective was all about this new field of positive psychology, and then suddenly I had something to sink my teeth into.   Now I feel like I’m trying to live by those principles every day, every minute, and I could not feel more joyous or engaged with my life.

We are practitioners, not clinicians. I don’t do therapy, though I do have coach training (which is distinctly different from therapy BTW) from outside the program. Instead, we focus on the good things in our lives and on ways to build them both in individuals and organizations in order to grow well-being, a concept distinctly different from ‘happiness.’ We do not diagnose, analyze the past, or treat mental illness.

In school, my mission to help others become the best possible version of themselves crystallized. Sort of. Like any other calling (as I view callings), I have a direction, and now I have the tools. I have this blog, and the pedestal of the lectern, and hopefully venues in the future through which to live my mission.

In this manner, I can change the world, one person at a time. How about you?

A New Phase

I’m entering a new phase of life again.  The last time this happened I was going through separation and divorce.  This time, I’m finishing school and finding ways to use my new knowledge and skills.  I’m also getting married to an amazing man in a couple of weeks.

Loss versus gain.

However, any kind of change, even the good kind, can be stressful and difficult.  I’m not really worried about the stress and difficulty that will accompany this gain phase.  As the title of this blog implies, I view all ‘problems’ as opportunities for growth and change and so they don’t really stress me out any more.  Rather, I approach them with curiosity and creative problem-solving.  I have learned that when I do so, I tend to find a better path forward and am able to create an enriching experience instead of just feeling resentment and grief.

In addition, I think it’s a mistake to view this new phase as a new phase; as they say, the only thing that stays constant is change.  Change is constantly around us whether we choose to recognize it or not.  In fact, I feel like the entire last four years has been a process of continual change and growth leaving me now in a place that is beyond anything I could ever have dreamed about.   (Yes, I am marrying a very brave man who is willing to marry someone going through so much change.)

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” – William Shakespeare

If I take to heart the wisdom of the Bard, and I always try to, then even judging change as good or bad is a questionable practice.   Like problems, change can be viewed either through a lens of joyous discovery or resistance and despair.  While I believe the outcomes are much better when taking the former approach, I also believe that I am simply happier – regardless of the outcome – when I practice acceptance and interest during change or problem-solving processes.

And now, I will have a new spouse and great new tools with which to interpret, manage and enjoy them with.  I have a fresher and wiser perspective than I once had so the changes will not be as stressful as they were four years ago. I have a deeper appreciation for all the abundance, beauty and love around me and I a bottomless gratitude for all the blessings in our lives.  If I don’t take those things for granted, I won’t be as resentful if I must one day lose them.

I’m also wise enough to know that having expectations attached to positive change is also a set-up for disappointment.  Rather, I will approach the change with curiosity and openness and a willingness to go with the flow.  The latter is a huge step forward for me as a recovering control-freak and someone whose bottom strength is adaptability.   The secret:  I haven’t changed who I am but rather shift my perspective of needing control to feel safe to instead focusing on the pleasure of discovery and the challenge of finding opportunity and beauty in all things, ‘good’ and ‘bad’.   After all, I would not have been in this unimaginable place if I had limited my reality only to the places and things that I can imagine.

I like the metaphor of the butterfly.  In the chrysalis or caterpillar stage, the creature is safe within a narrowly defined world:  the cocoon or the leaves.   Once transformed, the butterfly ventures out to explore the wider world.  Either way, the butterfly can get eaten, but at least the flying version has the freedom to explore and enjoy until it’s time for the next, inevitable phase.  And that ultimate loss is just part of life as well.

We are that butterfly.  We can stay in the cocoon or continue to crawl in the tree, blindly looking for leaf after leaf to eat.  Or we can fly away and explore the limits of our existence.  Go out  (or in) and explore.  Enjoy the journey.  Don’t be afraid.  Life is too short and too beautiful!