Thriving During the Trump Presidency

Last week I attending an inspiring and beautiful tribute to the late Martin Luther King Jr (thank you Office of Institutional Diversity and Michelle Garfield Cook!).   I did not realize prior to that event that I was carrying a large load of grief and sadness for the upcoming presidential transition.  Dr. King’s vision never seemed in so much jeopardy.

Yet I’m trying to maintain my sense of optimism.  Here’s what is helping me:

  • 20% of the US is freaking out right now, which is a different 20% that freaked out when Obama was elected. We felt they were being unreasonable and over-reactive at the time, and so I probably am overacting to some degree as well.
  • We’ve had 8 amazing years with the Obamas’ wisdom and grace. His election, twice, says as much about America as this current election.
  • Even if Trump may not be the best mechanism for needed change, change will happen. Change is usually painful and difficult, and the lower we fall, the more change we will be willing to undergo.  For that reason, I usually celebrate the opportunity when someone hits rock bottom, and I will celebrate this now, given that most of us are in agreement that something is broken in Washington.  Good change will be informed by understanding, compassion, justice and an aspirational vision for a better future.
  • All this catastrophizing I’ve been doing is causing me pain. I remind myself that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”  (Shakespeare).  My thinking is causing me pain so I’m trying acceptance.
  • Acceptance does not mean being passive. Acceptance means I understand that our reality is changing and that I should take whatever action I can to create a positive outcome.  I keep trying while also accepting my limited ability to make an impact.  I will use my negative emotion to motivate me, and use my strengths to contribute the best way I can.  For example, I have not felt the urge to blog now for 6 months and now I am once again inspired to do so.
  • All things are impermanent.  The Obama presidency had to end, and so will Trump’s.  We will survive, and even better, our post-traumatic growth will be spectacular.

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    Growth and beauty during adversity.  Photo credit

Part 2: Thinking-Feeling Spectrum – Our Alien Brain

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In Part 1, we discussed the Thinking-Feeling spectrum and the presence of the dynamic interplay between T-F despite our T or F preference. If we only factor in one set of data, we are unaware of the unseen influence of the other half on our internal experience and our external world view.

My own experience affirms this notion. As a person with a strong T tendency, I have not always been in touch with my feelings. Even now, though my self awareness is much improved, if I have emotional garbage flying beneath my radar, I tend to be more reactive, less patient, more judgmental, and more impulsive. I back it up with logic and explanations and accuse you of being unreasonable.   The thoughts in my head were pretty much absolutely true, no matter how unrealistic, dysfunctional, or abusive they were. They would then invisibly fuel my emotions in this treacherous downward spiral, ensuring my misery.

Hudson: “We’re on an express elevator to hell, going down!”

I’m less of an F but can imagine the same dynamic, but in reverse, holds true. We hold many unconscious beliefs that impact how we view the world and ourselves and thus how we feel. If we are unaware of those beliefs, we cannot see how they drive our feelings.

In other words, we often disassociate our thoughts from our feelings, as if there is an alien in our head (or heart) with which we have no connection. And unfortunately, as a T, I’m here to report that the thoughts in our head do not represent a friendly alien. At best, that alien is complicit in justifying our automatic behavior (see Haidt’s Righteous Mind). At worst, the alien is a constant stream of negativity, fear and anger that damages ourselves and others.

Ash: You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.

Lambert: You admire it.

Ash: I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.

Unlike the movie Aliens, we just can’t take automatic weapons and blow out the scary alien in our head.   But we can tame them. It’s not easy at first, but improves with practice.

Ripley: How do we kill it, Ash? There’s gotta be a way of killing it. How? How do we do it?

Ash: You can’t.

Parker: That’s bullshit.

First, be present. Being sad or angry means we are living in our past. Being worried or anxious means we are living in the future. Living in this moment we have everything we need. Notice dysfunctional thoughts and feelings. Acknowledge their presence but don’t give them any power by believing them to be real or permanent.

Kane: Quit griping.

Lambert: I like griping.

Second, be mindful. Notice when you are not being present. Come back to the present moment when you find yourself straying.

Third, toxic recurring thoughts should be challenged. Those thoughts tend to be very one-sided, so be open to exploring other perspectives (see Katie’s Who Would You Be Without Your Story).

Finally, find a more balanced perspective using your forgiveness and gratitude.   Remember that the alien in your head is here to steal your peace, and the bigger, braver part of you, your Riley, is here to restore it. Think of that alien as the holy-terror child within that needs to be heard and validated, but doesn’t get to make the decisions about your life and peace of mind.

That’s how you teach the Alien some manners.

Ash: There is a clause in the contract which specifically states any systematized transmission indicating a possible intelligent origin must be investigated.

Parker: I don’t wanna hear it…

Brett: We don’t know if it’s intelligent.

Parker: I wanna go home and party.

Dallas: Parker, will you just listen to the man?

Ash: On penalty of total forfeiture of shares. No money.

Dallas: You got that?

Parker: [chuckling] Well, yeah.

Dallas: All right, we’re going in.

Parker: [to Brett] Yeah, we’re going in, aren’t we?

How To Be A Good Friend: Part 2

In addition to balance, healthy relationships also need boundaries.   Identifying and enforcing boundaries can be difficult, especially with adults. In contrast, identifying and enforcing boundaries with kids and pets seems pretty evident: don’t break things, eat your dinner, go potty in the right place, etc.   With adults, appropriate boundaries are more difficult to name, establish and enforce, yet critical for creating positive relationships.

What is meant by boundaries? Boundaries have to do with knowing what behavior is and is not OK with you. Communicating and enforcing those boundaries is what Dr. Phil means when he advises us “teach others how to treat you”. For example, violence and abuse of any kind should not be tolerated, and a clear boundary should be conveyed and enforced as necessary. On the other hand, verbal abuse may be subjective, subtle and insidious.   If someone makes you feel bad about yourself, diminishes your value or worth through words or gestures, or tries to control you, it may be verbal abuse.

It’s not just verbal or physical abuse that may require establishment of boundaries. Failing to respect one’s feelings, property and requests may also cross a boundary. What’s tricky here is that it’s easy to assume that others should know your boundaries. Some are probably no brainers: if I loan you my car, don’t damage it in any way; if I give you a gift or do you a favor, say thank you.  A relationship that has balance would also require some reciprocation.

However, the appropriateness of most interactions and dynamics are subjective. I may not care if you return a book I loan you unless it’s my favorite book, or expensive.   Sarcastic comments may not bother me in general, but comments about my kids may upset me. This is why communicating your boundaries is important. It’s not fair to assume the other can read your mind or understand the nuances of your preferences, no matter how well you think they may know you.

If you’ve communicated your boundaries and they still insist on crossing them, then you have new information about the level of trust and safety in your relationship. You can then use that data to determine how you wish to enforce your boundaries.   With someone who does not return my property in a timely manner and in good condition, I may decide to no longer loan them my things. With someone who always arrives late, I may choose to let them know that next time I will start without them. With someone who is always negative, I may choose to limit the length of our visit.   With someone who continues to be verbally abusive or critical, I may choose to end the relationship or interact only by email.

In the end, its up to you to decide how important that boundary is to you, and what is an appropriate response. Failing to enforce a boundary tells the other that your boundaries are not important to you, and thus that boundary should not be important to them.  Consider your kids and pets. Inconsistent enforcement is ineffective. For them to really learn to respect a boundary, that boundary has to be enforced every time, and preferably with patience and love. Communicating with patience and love is more likely to create a spirit of cooperation and deepen the intimacy with the other.

Giving Without Burnout

The old adage, “it’s better to give than receive” is really true. Givers are not only more successful than takers, but givers also experience more positive emotion than those on the receiving end.

There are limits to giving; givers that give indiscriminately risk burnout. Instead, givers should give in a way that benefits and feels good to them so that they can keep on giving. For example, effective givers communicate their needs and ask for help and buy-in from others to help them to continue to give successfully.

Good giving is also authentic. What are you passionate about? What type of tasks and roles do you enjoy and allow you to excel? What type of impact are you yearning to make on the world? Give in a way that feeds your soul.

Giving should feel energizing, meaningful, and constructive. If you’re giving in a manner that is sapping your soul or creating a lot of negative emotion, then it’s likely unsustainable, unhealthy or not useful. For example, if you’re giving to someone who is a perpetual taker, then your efforts are likely to have little impact on the recipient’s growth or neediness level regardless of your level of personal sacrifice. Your efforts and energy just will continue to disappear into a black hole with no apparent impact.

Instead, consider your time and effort as a precious commodity, even though they don’t show up on a balance sheet. Be as (or more) judicious with your time and energy as you are with your other resources. Plan how you can use them in ways that benefit both you and others. If you’re not getting a good return on your investment, try a different approach or perspective.

For example, for the perpetual taker/complainer, give them a limited time to vent, then affirm their feelings (“wow, it sounds like it’s been a really rough time for you”). Then switch the direction of the conversation to focus on how they will create a solution. Keep redirecting the conversation to their solution instead of trying to fix the problem for them or allowing them to continue to complain. In doing so, you might help them to stay in a generative mindset and find their own solutions. In addition, they may eventually see that you will no longer solve their problems for them. That’s a nice win-win, isn’t it?

In addition, change your perspective if you’re feeling guilty about continuing to invest in what feels like a black hole. Preserving the dysfunctional status quo is not a good gift for either party. By continuing to invest in a situation that is not improving, you are withholding resources from others that could actually benefit and grow from your investment. Instead, consider giving to someone or something that has a need that is limited in time or scope and/or where the solution can result in an impactful change for the recipient. Wouldn’t that feel so much better and more constructive?

Finally, consider the idea that a gift that makes you feel resentful is not really a gift. It actually may harm the relationship in the long run.  Such a gift could also be hurting the recipient if you are enabling bad behavior or helping them to avoid a problem or a time-bomb that needs their attention. In other words, look to the long-term consequences of your gift and ask yourself whether it is having the intended or desired benefit to you and the recipient.

In conclusion, finding new strategies and perspectives can make giving a joyous experience again. When giving is pleasurable and energizing, then that’s an effort that is sustainable, beneficial and generative. When it is not, then it’s time to make a change in either action or perspective. After all, you wouldn’t want to deprive yourself of one of life’s greatest joys, would you?

Resilience Squared

Never underestimate the enemy, as they say. I will add: Never underestimate your loved ones.

I don’t have any enemies that I know of, but even if I did I wouldn’t spend a lot of time thinking about them. Maybe I need to spend more time thinking of my loved ones and their capacity for growth.

I think I’m pretty good at that, generally. But I realized today that I have had a blind spot when it comes to the elderly. My assumption had been that after 50-60 year marriages, the widowers would simply wither away after their wives died.

Anecdotes of this nature abound, but stories of rebirth and flourishing, not so much (at least in my circles). I have witnessed now in 2/3 cases, these widows in their 80’s experience a resurgence in their well-being (the 3rd instance, I just don’t know enough about). It’s not so much that I didn’t think they had it in them, or that people can’t bounce back. Not at all. I just didn’t realize that it can happen late into the golden years.

My sense is that both men have always been pretty resilient. Both were pioneers and adventurers, setting off to unknown and far away lands to start a new life. Both were dutiful husbands for decades in a way that fills me with admiration and wonder.   Both were suddenly on their own rather unexpectedly. But after an adjustment and mourning period, something changed.

Grandad, still mobile and energetic, created a new life at the senior center. Soon he began hitting the town with his buddies. He continued to bake bread for the ladies, and pretty much had a great time.   He created a new life centered around his friends in the community, and lived a very full life for several more years until he passed.

We are almost at the 1 year mark since Mom died. After a difficult year of declining health, Dad had a little procedure that seemed to reverse the course of the illness, rewinding the clock by at least a year. He’s not as mobile as Grandad was, but today his spirits may never have been higher. He’s made a host of new friends and has a cadre of devoted caregivers that literally dote on him. He’s going to be 86 this year.

Dad and I talked about perseverance last night. He and Mom had ventured to this country on their own, knowing no one, mustering internal and external resources that I’m not sure that I possess. That they had the courage to create a prosperous life here with no money and no friends is a testimony to their grit and courage.

I tell my students that we faculty are really no different from most of them. The main characteristic for professional success, in my opinion, is just not giving up. My Mom used to call that stubbornness. I call it grit and perseverance.

Grit has gotten some good press lately. Angela Duckworth, positive psychology professor at University of Pennsylvania, reports that grit is a better predictor of academic success than IQ. I suggest that it’s a predictor for life success as well, as evidenced by our little family. It’s never too late for us to remake our lives and flourish after a setback. That’s living (though aged) proof.

Our Shared Journeys

There is no better way for me to spend a day than working on student or faculty development. It’s my passion. It’s what I live to do.

And when someone tells me that the work has been helpful or impactful, then I’m filled with an overwhelming sense of gratitude and awe for this journey that we’re on. I know that, perhaps from the student’s perspective, I’m there to help them. Indeed, I am. But to me, it’s so much more.

You see, what I’ve learned over the last four years since I started this work is that we’re all on this journey together.   I’m significantly older than most of my students, so I have had more time to learn on this path that we share. But in so many ways, the students are the brave ones, the wise ones, the tenacious ones, the creative ones, the compassionate ones, the forgiving ones, and I learn from them.

In addition, you know the saying, “see one, do one, teach one”? Teaching is the highest form of learning. When I sit down to write a blog, I’m learning more than I teach. When I teach, I am often learning even more than the students.   For that reason, combined with the potential to make an impact, teaching to me is an unbelievable privilege. You can serve while being served.

I still wonder at my path sometimes, starting in pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences and ending up helping people on such a personal journey. The first day of our new class for young biomedical scientists, GRAD611 Professional and Personal Development, I talked about the journey and I can see faces trying to recall the last day to drop a class without penalty.   Therefore, it was especially gratifying by the end of the semester when the students were fully engaged in the class and even willing to come to the optional activities without nagging. That feeling continues on now that we’ve finished the second course, GRAD615, Biomedical Science Career Seminars.

So students and readers in the blogosphere, thank you for giving me an amazing reason to jump out of bed each day. Every step on this journey together is sacred to me and it’s an honor to walk by your side.

See the VCU BEST website:  rampages.us/vcubest/

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.