Civil War Post-Traumatic Growth

Recently I visited the Tredegar National Civil War museum on the banks of the James River.  My homework assignment was to visit and cultural museum and write about what the museum said about well-being.  The museum is housed in a beautiful old ironworks building that I have never visited even though it is adjacent to my favorite spot in all of Richmond.  The facility originally manufactured railroad and locomotive parts beginning in 1830, but during the Civil War the facility made blankets and stored patterns for casting munitions.

Once I entered the museum, I realized with dismay that a museum about the bloody and acrimonious Civil War would not be an easy study in well-being.  The park ranger that chatted with us did not help with my assignment as he focused on the political tension and negative emotions that fueled the start of the conflict.  Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but feel that the exhibits, presented in as neutral a political tone as possible, was about post-traumatic growth enabled by focusing on the positive aspects of this bloody and divisive conflict.  For example, the exhibits avoided mention of the impact of brother fighting brother, the number of casualties, and the economic devastation of the South.  Instead, it showed the brave blacks that fought for the cause, the abolitionists that helped slaves, the hospitals with a high success rate, the artistry of the photos taken at the time, the success of the region prior to the war, the hopes and dreams of each side, and the traditions of the region.

To me, I felt there was much pride displayed regarding the identity of Richmond during this era.  I believe the positive explanatory style on display helps us to accept and psychologically manage what was our horrible history, and allows us to move forward and grow from the experience.  Indeed, today Richmond is a beautiful and thriving city that is not defined by the mistakes of the past.  We still have racial and ethnic tension – we were the capital of the Confederacy after all – but Richmond has largely made peace with our chequered past and managed to retain Southern pride without the angry overtones that accompany the defeated.

Despite having ended more than a century ago, I know the echoes of that terrible conflict still resonate in our region.  The symbols of the war are a source of pride for some but a continued source of pain for others.  What more can we do to heal those old wounds?  How can we find the best route going forward  incorporating, not ignoring, the lessons of the past?  How do we do so honoring all sides involved?

Changing A Difficult Person

We have all had times in our lives where we are confronted on a regular basis with a difficult person who is making our lives miserable.   Perhaps you are doing so right now.  The situation is especially trying if that person is unavoidable and/or impacts our future.   Maybe you feel trapped and can’t escape that person without unacceptable consequences.  If so, here are some suggestions for how to deal with that person.

–          Consider their scared inner child – First, let’s give this person the benefit of the doubt and assume they are not evil.  If you cannot do that, then skip the list and go straight to the conclusion.  Next, know that most obnoxious behavior is the result of fear or insecurity.  They fear being invisible, not good enough, not lovable, not worthy, unimportant, and so forth.  Imagine them as a scared child with these feelings and try to find your compassion and empathy for that scared child within.  You likely have some of the same kind of fears, so while you’re at it, be gentle, compassionate and loving with your inner child.

–          Projection – Have you ever heard the saying that the thing that bothers you most about someone else is the trait you hate in yourself?  Hate that control freak because they won’t allow you to control your own environment?  Hate the vain person because they look better than you?  Hate the competitive person because they’re always trying to get one step ahead of you?  It sounds obvious when I state the concept in this manner, but take a step back and listen to your complaints about others and ask yourself how that is true in you.  Which brings us to….

–          Hypocrisy –   Don’t feel bad.  We are ALL hypocrites.  It’s hard wired in us.  Read more about it here.

–          Examine your behavior – Consider the following:  how are you likely to treat someone if you view them as a problem?  Like you trust them, communicate proactively with them, inquire about and wish for their well-being, ask their advice, share the credit, say positive things about them when they’re not there?  Yeah.  Right.  The very belief that they are a problem means that you are likely being a problem for them too.  “Well they started it” works on the playground, but you’re an adult. It’s your choice as to whether to perpetuate or fix this problem.  After all, it’s your future and serenity that’s on the table, not theirs.  Right?

If you do all of the above, then you will have changed the problem person.

How do I know that?  Because the problem person is you.

Hear me out before you close this window out.

I’m not saying the other person has no fault or responsibility.  Au contraire.  Rather, I’m saying that you each have 50% fault and responsibility (approximately) in this situation but you have 100% control over your own thoughts and actions.  You can’t change him, but you can remove yourself from the equation as a problem in a real way, and invite him to do the same.

What do you have to lose?  You have only peace of mind, serenity, and possibly a new ally to gain.

The Family Jewels – Our Strengths


Despite becoming a  StrengthsFinders coach in June, and learning about the character value strengths (VIA; this fall, I admit I have not really thought of my family of origin much in strength terms until now.   Observing and noticing strengths is something I tend to do when I’m with someone, as opposed to reflecting back on their actions and behaviors retrospectively.

Since Mom passed away, the only way to assess her strengths is in hindsight.  The family went through old documents and photos, and shared memories of her.   During this memorial, I listened for the strength themes that emerged.  They are so obvious in hindsight, but I never really stopped to think about them before that point.  Instead, I have had a tendency to be more aware of how our similarities would often come between us.  For example, we’re both so stubborn and fireworks can happen when two people are not flexible in their life view or approach.  Thinking of Mom through a strengths perspective makes me realize how much she really gave to me.

  • Zest – my crazy energy and drive comes from her.  The character strength zest apparently increases the likelihood that I will sense my calling – to help others be the best possible versions of themselves.  Possibly I would not even be here pursuing my calling if it were not for her.
  • Perseverance/focus – this is the stubbornness I mentioned above.  We’re gritty.  We don’t give up, sometimes even long past when we should.
  • Input – going through Mom’s stuff, I realized she collected tidbits of information on endless pads of paper.  She probably had every phone number she’s ever written down.  Most of the information is in Chinese so I can’t understand it.  I have endless pads of paper too but keep my information on paper lists and hundreds of Word documents.
  • Ability to love and be loved – I couldn’t always see it as such, but Mom was always trying to help others grow and to be better people.  This is my personal mission as well, though our styles are very different.
  • Ideation – Mom was an extremely creative cook.  I didn’t acquire that as much as I would’ve liked, but my interest in trying new things comes from her.

Thanks Mom.  There is more of you in me than I realized, and they are shared traits that I treasure even more.

Benefits of Being Wrong

Admitting fault

Admitting fault

It just sucks to be wrong and eating crow.  You lose face.  The other gloats and you are embarrassed for being inadequate, stupid, incompetent.  And that’s just when you’re mistaken.  If I thought the play started at 8 pm but it started at 7 pm, then I’m mistaken.  This kind of mistake is fairly irrefutable and black-and-white.  We might’ve argued about it before we missed the play, but likely not after.

Then there’s the type of wrong where you did something that was hurtful, offensive, insensitive, humiliating or rude.  Classic Susanna is to assume someone else in the house misplaced something, left trash on the countertop, or left the milk out of the fridge.  Couldn’t be me.  It’s then hurtful when I accuse someone else of losing something that I didn’t put away.  But even worse  – this one hasn’t happened for a while – is to accuse someone of unloving or selfish motives only to find out I was completely wrong (“you forgot my birthday!” when an elaborate party was in the works for example).

These scenarios, though greyer than simply being mistaken about an easily proven fact, are still relatively cut-and-dry compared to the really subjective missteps we all make on occasion.   For example, I could engage in the same obnoxious behavior accusing someone of being selfish or unloving, but now based on a he said-she said scenario.  We cannot necessarily prove either of us right or wrong, one way or another.  Yet we may engage in an escalating conflict until we have World War III in the middle of Home Depot.    Given that the vast majority of conflicts take two (even the so-called victim or martyr in an argument has culpability too), the entire dynamic is simply harmful and counter-productive to the relationship.

In addition to the strong likelihood that we both have fault, being able and willing to acknowledge one’s own role in the dynamic can have surprisingly positive outcomes.   If I’m willing to acknowledge that I got upset prematurely (sensitive people can sense this even if I say nothing), used a judgmental or harsh tone, chose a wounding word, picked an argued about something inconsequential, then I am taking responsibility for my actions.  Paradoxically, when I acknowledge my role, even if it’s slight, I then develop a sense of honor from my actions, especially if I acknowledge my role to my sparring partner.

Honor is not the only benefit from finding my own culpability. I also am diminishing my hypocrisy and judgment, both tendencies of human nature.  Perhaps most importantly, I am also mitigating the damage to the relationship in which I have carefully invested in until the moment that I just lost it.  Finally, because it is also human nature to reciprocate, most people are subsequently willing to find their own fault in the argument.  Both parties can walk away feeling like they were treated fairly.

Honor.  Avoiding hypocrisy and judgment.  Restoring a relationship.  Reciprocity.  Sounds like a win-win-win-win to me.

Setting Boundaries With Toxic People


“You teach people how to treat you” – Dr. Phil

Think what you will about Dr. Phil, but he has a few good lines that are really applicable to our lives. This quote is one of my favorites, because it reminds us that we do not have to feel powerless when it comes to our relationships.

It’s easy to play the victim or helpless card, where we tell ourselves that we can’t do anything about how someone else is treating us.  It’s true we can’t control someone else’s behavior, but it’s also true that we can set clear boundaries and adhere to them.

For example, if a friend is constantly criticizing your parenting style, how you do your job, how you behave in your romantic relationship etc. then you don’t have to endure it in silence.  Or perhaps you have asked them to stop criticizing you, but if you allow them to cross the line again without comment, you are teaching them that they do not have to respect your boundaries.

Here is an example of a conversation you might have with Debbie Downer, “Debbie, I love you very much, you are my dear friend.  But I want you to know that your criticism of my parenting style is very hurtful to me.  I’m not saying that you’re wrong, or that you’re not entitled to your opinion.  You are entitled to your opinion and you’re entitled to express your opinion to whomever you want.  And I know your comments are given out of love and concern for me and my kids.  But when you criticize me, it hurts my feelings and I want you to stop the criticism.  I also want you to stop criticizing me to my family. I’m doing the best I can and your comments are not helpful.”

The more calmly you can say this, the more effective you will be.   You may even want to give her advanced notice about the need to talk so she doesn’t feel ambushed.   If you have a conversation like this, consistency afterwards is also very important.  Don’t follow this conversation with a request for her opinion about your parenting style.  Don’t say stop, but then tolerate subsequent criticism in silence  (you may have to repeat the conversation if they regress.)

You may be reluctant to venture into a difficult conversation with your buddy because of the potential damage to your relationship.  Consider the damage that is already occurring to your relationship while you feel criticized and your feelings ignored.  Also consider whether the friendship is worth keeping if it cannot withstand a dose of honesty or request to respect boundaries.  A true friend will want to honor your wishes and strive to be sensitive to your needs.  Also ask yourself:  if the roles were reversed, would you want to know that you’re hurting your friend unintentionally?  I thought so.

Dear Difficult Person



It’s me again, here to get under your skin.  I realize that my behavior or mere presence can be annoying to you, as your reaction is angry, defensive, disrespectful, contemptuous or passive-aggressive.

However, whatever you do, behind that façade of unreasonable, smug, churlish (I admit I had to google that word since I wasn’t sure what it meant) demeanor, I see the real you.  And that you is a beautiful, amazing person. Your behavior cannot blind me to your true spirit.

I can also see that, like the rest of us, you are doing the best you can, even if I don’t understand your choices.  I know that you are abiding by what you believe is right, even I don’t understand that either.    I know that sometimes you use anger,  hostility, or manipulation to protect yourself from your own fear or feelings of loss, just like I do, and that you might blame those feelings on me.  I also know that we are both on a journey to understand the experience of being human and finding meaning and purpose in our lives.

So Dear, Difficult Person you are my brother, my sister, and we are partners in the most human and worthy journeys of self-discovery and self–actualization.   Even our very conflict is an opportunity for us to grow and learn more about ourselves and each other.  After all, I wouldn’t want to deprive you of a learning opportunity.

The Darker Side of Nice

Keeping a safe distance

Keeping a safe distance

No one has ever accused me of being too nice.  It’s not that I’m not nice (here we go), it’s just that you will usually hear from me if I disagree with you or if I think something is amiss or unfair.  A shrinking violet I am not.

I’ve lived in the South most of my life, and my not-niceness is definitely not Southern.  We Southern (and Asian) women are expected to not create trouble or conflict.  It’s just not nice or ladylike.  My family falls into the not-nice category in the same way.  You generally will know exactly where you stand with us in a matter of minutes.  When I have brought boyfriends home, they were just shaking in their shoes.

I’ve always admired those people who can keep their mouth shut.  They seem to just let grievances slide off them like water off a duck’s behind.  What equanimity.  What poise.  What patience.

What a façade.

The trouble is, the anger, resentment, bitterness is still there (except for the few that are really not bothered by such things).  It just tends to come out in less obvious ways.   Think:  the meeting where everyone states their agreement verbally or by silent assent but afterwards complains about the decision.  The relationship where everything is fine and dandy, but everyone knows about how mistreated someone is except the person who is supposedly doing the mistreating.   The chores or tasks that are either poorly done or never get done because someone is “too busy” or “forgot”.   The offhand comments which seem benign on the surface, but have an edge or are really hurtful.  Overlooking obvious opportunities to be helpful (“why didn’t you just buy one for me too?”)

Insults and injuries, if not resolved, take their psychic toll. In the absence of overt (hopefully, civil) conflict to resolve the insult, one may then resort to the equivalent of sniping from a safe distance.  A sniper can get shots off without having to risk being held accountable.  With conflict, even if emotions may tend to run high and into uncomfortable territory, at least the issues, including the conflict style itself, can be addressed and then resolved.  Trying to fix a problem with someone who denies anything is wrong is nearly impossible. I’m not certain, but I think mind reading skills are required, and last I checked, that is not one of the five human senses.

Sniping in relationships, whether personal or professional, is also not conducive to a productive or intimate relationship.  Being unwilling to discuss uncomfortable issues is not being honest. Without honesty there cannot be trust or intimacy, and the depth of the relationship will be confined to the equivalent of a wading pool.

To my family: I love you and thank you for always being honest with me.  I value your transparency and willingness to be authentic.

To all the too-nice people out there:  I love you dearly too.   You are so easy to be with and I love that about you.  But it’s OK to tell me what you really think and want.  I want to know.  I want you to trust that our relationship can withstand your truth.  In fact, our relationship will improve and deepen because of your willingness to be honest and up front with me.  I won’t let you down.

Falling Up (or, Breaking Down is Hard to Do)

alice-falling-down-rabbit-holeRecently I had another* young woman crying in my office.  She had been in an ongoing conflict with another student, and the resulting discussions had her feeling completely off-balance and unsure.   Like everyone else who is surprised to find herself in a bad situation, she has participated in the dynamic with good intentions and a belief that she is not responsible for the conflict.  She was In the Box with her classmate but didn’t know it.

When we told her she was equally responsible for the tension that had been escalating in the lab, she was caught completely by surprise.  She felt she was being treated completely unfairly, that this was in no way her fault.   Despite her protestations, she was now having trouble working and concentrating, seemed to be in an ongoing tailspin, and could see no way out of her growing despair.

Her situation reminded me of the times in my life that I felt the same way, though sometimes to different degrees.  Once when I really felt like I had hit rock bottom was right around the time I was going up for promotion.  I had spent the previous six years as part of a dual-career marriage with two small children at home, trying to survive – no, succeed – in the publish-or-perish academic game of roulette.  The stakes were either tenure or my walking papers, with no middle ground.

Unfortunately I was not managing the work-life balance at all.  My health was down the tubes, my marriage was seriously on the rocks, though work was progressing well enough.  I didn’t realize I had a problem until one day, out of the blue, I just burst into tears while walking down the street.  In hindsight, I was probably depressed and creating my chronic pain conditions from my out-of-control stress.  Clearly, my self-awareness was nil and my denial absolute.  My lack of awareness meant I was probably taking out my stress, frustration and resentment on those around me while thinking I was being helpful and loving.

At the time, I felt my situation was hopeless:  I was stuck in a ridiculously demanding job and in an unhappy marriage with no end in sight to my miserable situation.  I did not feel I could change jobs or get a divorce with two elementary school-aged children at home.  I had no one I could really talk to since I rarely felt safe sharing my vulnerabilities with others.  I was on my own.

The breakdown was one of the best things to ever happen to me.   Hitting rock bottom was the beacon that broke through my denial about my life and my role in creating my situation.  I soon realized that I was at a crossroads:  to either continue my blame and denial game, or to do whatever it takes to fix my life.  Continuing to feel that bad did not feel like an option so I pulled myself together and made a plan to regain my sanity and save my family.

That decision caused me to begin a lifelong journey of introspection, self-care and self-discovery that has led me to find my life’s passion.  I am grateful that this crash occurred while I was still relatively young.  The crash forced me to get off a negative and destructive path and instead, to follow the light.

When facing a set-back, a disaster, a change, no matter how bad or hopeless it seems, we all have a choice.  We can either choose to continue our downward spiral or to view the event as an opportunity to grow and improve.  Shawn Achor, in his book The Happiness Advantage, calls this choice falling up, i.e. creating opportunities out of setbacks.  Falling up is a hallmark of successful people.

Thus, I told my student that I’m really happy this happened to her while she’s in school with supportive people here to help her, since a conflict of this nature was inevitable given her false self-image.  I also felt she was lucky that this happened to her at such a young age as I was at least a decade older when I was first forced to really confront my demons and finally set out on a healthy, happy journey.

I’m not sure yet but I think my student has decided that she will fall up too.  I will be here to fall with her, either way.

*This is a surprisingly frequent occurrence in my office, but since criers usually come back to talk some more I have to assume that I am not the source of their tears.

…. And A Random Act of War (Part 2)

War or peace?

War or peace?

I’ve had war in my heart.  I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s what it was.

You’ve likely had war in your heart too if you have viewed others as:

  • Inferior or wrong
  • Irrelevant or incapable
  • Mistaken
  • Mistreating or ungrateful
  • Judgmental or threatening
  • Your audience
  • Advantaged or privileged

If you have one of the above feelings for another, likely you are treating them as an object.  In other words, you may be treating them as an obstacle, a vehicle, or just plain irrelevant, rather than a human with feelings, needs, hopes and cares.   According to the Arbinger Institute’s Anatomy of Peace, you are now “in the box” with this person.

To view another as an object is to war with them in your heart.   You are also warring with yourself because on some level you know that it is wrong to betray your sense of right and wrong.  The internal war causes you to justify or defend your  feelings or actions and/or blame or demonize the person you have just objectified.

In addition, to have war in your heart is to invite others to war with you.   If you are in the box, it is difficult for the other to do anything other than be in the box with you and objectify you in return.  Conflict results.  The conflict is further intensified between the sparring partners as they feed off each other.  Others may even be recruited to reinforce and escalate the conflict in desperate attempt to self-justify.  Pretty soon the whole family/office/community/nation is involved in your spat.  In A Random Act of Peace (Part 1), I wrote about how one act of love or forgiveness can make a profound change.  Here, one act of dehumanization can escalate conflict into some version of war.

Though the choice to get into the box may not be conscious or premeditated, it is still a choice.   Therefore, we also have the choice to get out of the box and cultivate peace in our hearts instead.  To do so, we must recognize and accept our own tendencies to get in the box in certain ways, either through the Better Than box (others as inferior, wrong, incapable, irrelevant), the I-Deserve box (others as mistaken, mistreated, ungrateful), the Must-Be-Seen-As box (others as judgmental, threatening, an audience), or the Worse-Than box (others as advantaged, privileged).   Then, it is our responsibility to get out of the box by mentally or physically returning to safe and supportive circumstances where we easily and naturally feel out of the box (like your “happy place”).

To stay out of the box, we should reconsider the situation and then do the right thing.  Only out of the box do are we able to recognize and act on what we sense is the right thing to do.  For me, I may feel someone else is wrong or ungrateful, then spending time with supportive friends or in my bathtub returns me to a more peaceful, more forgiving  place where I can see my own fingerprints on the tension and conflict I perpetuate.

Instead of dealing  with problems after we haplessly create them, we should be proactive in making sure things go right from the beginning.  We begin by keeping the peace, starting in our hearts and extending into our homes, workplace and communities.  Essential to the peacemaking and peace-maintaining process is building strong relationships, listening and allowing oneself to be influenced by others, and helping others to also foster peace.

I know through personal experience that giving up my story involving judgment and criticism of both others and myself can provide a profound shift to peace of mind and peace in the heart.  I also believe that once you find peace in your heart, it is imperative to then try to foster peace in others. It’s as simple as being willing to reexamine your own M.O. and be open to others’ perspectives.   Foster your peace within your heart and change your corner of the world.

A Random Act of Peace…. (Part I)

Campaigning for peace, Ronny Edry

Campaigning for peace, Ronny Edry

After spending a week in the modern crossroads between Islam and Christianity, I reflect upon the literally endless conflict based on religion or ideology that continues to wrack the world.  Like our own country, Turkey is such a fantastic example of how differing ideologies can co-exist peacefully, but often clash.  East and West, Islam/Christianity/Judaism, traditional and progressive, old and new.

Peaceful coexistence fails when we focus on differences that separate, not differences that enrich, oftten in the presence of much commonality.  Such divisions are further reinforced by both small and large quarrels and insults, ancient and recent, real or perceived.  Most of us feel helpless to improve even a small part of it.

But are we?  Are we really as powerless as we feel?

I have written in several blogs* about how we create our own reality.  If we believe we are powerless, we become powerless.  If we believe we are impactful, we can create change.

If anyone embodies this simple belief in creating change, it is Ronny Edry.  Ronny Edry believed, with a small gesture, he could spread love to the people that he was raised to believe were the enemy.  Edry is an Israeli Jew who also happens to be a graphic designer.  He created a poster saying “Israel loves Iran” and posted it on Facebook.  The image went viral and it spawned thousands of similar images from other Israelis.  Soon, images saying “Iran loves Israel” were appearing all over the internet posted by Iranians, followed by citizens from around the world showing their love for their so-called enemies.  People across warring boundaries started communicating and becoming, yes, friends.  Then, remarkably, they started visiting their new friends in “enemy territory.”  Ronny Edry envisioned love and created it with a single image.

Ronny Edry believed a single act of love can make a difference.   We all have the capacity to believe in and create random, and not so random, acts of love, kindness, compassion and forgiveness.  We all have the potential to make a difference and change our corner of the world.  It starts with believing we have the power.  And we do.

*I’m Rubber and You’re Glue, Self (un)fulfilling Reality, Uncover Your Truths or Suffer the Consequences.