Acceptance/Complacency Sweet Spot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Perfect Moment

Opening the acceptance letter. Receiving your diploma. Getting your first job offer.   Saying “I do”. The first cry of your baby.   Sitting down to relax for the first time in your new house. Receiving a promotion or professional recognition. The retirement party.

Our lives are sprinkled with events that mark the achievements and highlights of our careers or lives.   Such events are so seminal in our lives, we may have a tendency to focus on achieving that end goal (“I just want/need to….before I can….”) before giving ourselves permission to be proud of ourselves or feel that we can relax.

That perfect moment can be so elusive and so far away, spaced years apart and requiring long intervals of sacrifice and hard work.

Wow. It seems like a long time to wait to allow oneself to feel satisfied or proud.

What about these moments? A Technicolor sunset. Hearing your child laugh.   Observing a kind gesture. A moment of connection.   Holding the hand of a loved one. Snuggling with your puppy. Enjoying your coffee, just the way you like it. Observing a master at work.   Listening to your favorite song. Watching an egret fly over the river.

There are perfect moments all around us. Sometimes we have to wait for it or go get it. Sometimes that moment is right there and but we’ve grown immune or desensitized to the wonder, beauty and joy around us.

The perfection that we seem to most often take for granted is the miracle of our own life and existence. Think about the physiology that enables you to walk, talk, eat, sleep, breathe, think, love and daydream. Think about this earth that nurtures and sustains us. Think about the galaxy around us that we only have barely begun to understand. Really, every moment that we’re blessed to be on this earth is perfection.

The perfect moment is now. Really, what else do you need right at this very moment? I thought so.

Need To Be Seen As

The power of subconscious beliefs is that they drive our behavior, perspective and feelings without our knowledge. Neuroscience and psychology research demonstrate that our gut has a lightening-quick reaction in response to our subconscious beliefs, and then our head justifies and rationalizes our gut beliefs.

Your first thought may be, “well, I don’t do that.” If you believe that you’re above all that, please keep reading.

Arbinger Institute suggests that self-justification falls into four main types: Better Than, Worse Than, I Deserve, and Need to Be Seen As. You may have a Need To Be Seen As _________, or perhaps feel Better Than if you believe that others, but not you, are driven by unconscious beliefs. This need may be to appear to yourself or others as perfect, knowledgeable, right, better than, smarter than, more talented than, and so forth.

I can go to any of those four types of self-justification, but I have my favorites. I like to feel smart and competent, even when I’m not, so I tend to go to Better Than when working in my areas of comfort. It comes pretty naturally to me, and it feels pretty good until I realize that I’m probably acting smug and arrogant. Then I feel rotten.

When it comes to the family, I definitely tend to go to the Need To Be Seen As. I Need To Be Seen As a good wife and good mom. Any suggestion to the contrary can be met with Mama Bear; as you can imagine, she’s neither pretty nor a good wife/mom.

I think that perhaps some (but not all) who spend themselves into an unsustainable debt do so to provide the outward appearance of success. Their Need To Be Seen As Successful will put them right into bankruptcy.

In each case, we are neither Better Than nor Seen As A Good Mom/Wife/Successful. Quite the opposite. So in this manner, our fears once again become our self-fulfilling prophecies.

Our subconscious beliefs or icebergs are so powerful when undetected, but they lose their power and potency when brought to light. Awareness of the impact of our icebergs can also allow growth as we start to make decisions and view the world without the bias of that iceberg. We really become powerful as we live our life based on love, kindness, forgiveness, generosity, inspiration and wisdom instead of fear, entitlement, and self-justification.

What kind of self-fulfilling prophecy will result from that?

Feeling angry, anxious or smug as signs of self-justifying with Better Than or Need To Be Seen As Right/Perfect. I have found from my experience of living this way for many years, it is a relief to take ownership of these icebergs and try to manage my human nature more effectively.

If you are deciding that you have been self-justifying too, know that you’re in good company and one step closer to becoming better company.

Up On A Pedestal

You’ve never had delusions of perfection, or you’ve given them up some time ago. Bravo! But what about your perception of perfection in others?

I know that no one believes that others are incapable of mistakes. That’s not the kind of perfection I’m talking about. I’m talking about the kind where one believes that another is lacking in character flaws, is a super star, and/or somehow manages to explain away ongoing, egregious behavior. It’s also the kind of perfection that leads one to believe that someone else is better or more important than they are.

That being said, there’s nothing wrong with giving your loved ones the benefit of the doubt and seeing their best side every day. I’m all for that. But putting someone up on a pedestal means being blind to their shortcomings as well as their needs.   For example, if I can’t see the shortcomings of my best friend, then I won’t be positioned to help her when she is open, receptive, or even asking to make a change. If she’s “perfect as she is” then I may not believe that she has any room for growth and may unintentionally discourage that growth. In contrast, believing she is “awesome as she is” allows room for growth.

Another way that the pedestal can be a bad for relationships is that it may be a barrier to real intimacy. For example, if you cannot see or understand the things that I struggle with, we can only communicate on a superficial level. I know that it feels gratifying to vilify your friend’s boyfriend when she complains about him. But when the same pattern emerges repeatedly over time and across the different men that she has dated, reinforcing her belief that it’s always someone else’s fault is not helpful.

Another example of pedestal behavior is viewing the other through the lens of who you think they are. I once had a friend who frequently said, “You must think that I’m….” even though I assured her repeatedly that I did not think that way. This type of behavior is a barrier to intimacy because she would not see who I really was, but rather she chose to see me only as she wished to see me.

The pedestal may include viewing another as a super-human who can handle and excel at the impossible and who doesn’t need any help or time off. I have seen this pedestal belief result in completely unrealistic expectations of another. For example, a superstar may be expected to take on an unreasonable load at work, home or school, without any help, sympathy or support. Again, this belief fails to see the person for who they truly are and stands in the way of an intimate relationship.

I’m not at all suggesting that we look for or focus on the flaws or limitations of our loved ones. Rather, I’m suggesting that we:

  • Stay open, curious, and nonjudgmental to whatever struggles, virtues, vices, and achievements that our loved ones bring to us
  • Be supportive without being critical or dismissive
  • Listen carefully when they share their true selves
  • Avoid giving advice unless asked (unlike this blog, but I assume you’re reading of your own volition)
  • View the relationship as a partnership, with both parties having equal standing

If you are lucky enough to have someone who is that special in your life, then do your part to see them for who they are. That super star may not need much, except a sympathetic ear and someone who understands them, flaws and all.

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.

The Hypocrisy of Hypocrisy

Hypocrisy

Hypocrisy

So, turns out that we humans are wired to be hypocritical.  According to Jonathan Haidt, author of the Happiness Hypothesis (and references therein), our opinions and perspectives are driven by our feelings, then justified by our consciousness.  Since our feelings are neither logical nor rational, then we are routinely defending and justifying our visceral feeling and proclaiming it to be reality.

I don’t know about you but that concept stopped me short.  Like everyone else, I’ve been right there feeling like a smart, rational person who makes informed, reasonable decisions.  Though I sometimes indulge in complaining about people that we love to complain about, a part of me feels hypocritical as that criticism says just as much (or more) about me as it does the one I’m griping about.  So, on some level, I have looked for hypocrisy in my own life, but not like this.  I had thought that I was living my values of being trustworthy, a good citizen, a hard worker, ecologically-minded, fairness, opportunity for all, responsibility, and loving my neighbor.  Where have I been falling short of living my values?

This is going to take more reflection than I have been able engage in up until now.  In the meantime, here is where I will be more attentive:

  • More random acts of kindness
  • Walk more, drive less
  • Shop the farmer’s market more regularly
  • Volunteer more
  • Be more deliberate when making decisions that affects others
  • Give more to charitable causes
  • Be proactive about finding opportunities for helping those that are struggling

I think just knowing that we are wired for hypocrisy will make me more aware and cautious about my certainty.  As an opinionated person, I hope this means I will approach subjects with a more balanced approach and engage in conversations or thought processes with a more open-minded attitude.

There are the gentler spirits among us that already struggle with voicing their opinions.  They do not want to offend or make an error.  To you, I also refer to Haidt who talks about satisficers versus maximizers.  Maximizers tend to perfection and excellence, and take extra time to make decisions.  Satisficers tend to be satisfied with “good enough.”  The latter often do not make as many good decisions as maximizers, but they are happier.   Satisficers are content falling short of perfection.  So, given we are prone to hypocrisy and error, being imperfect is human nature.  We are wired to err and have faults.  The question is just whether we forgive ourselves and others, and move on productively, or wallow in our shortcomings and failures.  It’s just as bad to turn that criticism inwards as it is to deflect it onto others.

Even this very blog is hypocritical.  I don’t always practice what I preach.  I recentlywrote about a sleepless night filled with self-recrimination.  Rather than begin every sentence with an “I don’t know but I think that….,” we can just have a mental astrick by our thoughts that say, “maybe.”  Or not?

Parenting – A New Low

Bad parenting

Bad parenting

It’s easy to write about the highs of all these personal development concepts and applications I love – how good I feel, how empowered.  It’s harder to write about the lows.  I wrote recently in the Way of Being (WOB) blog how my view of a person determines the quality of our interaction.  If I view them as a real human being with feelings and needs instead of an obstruction, an irrelevancy or a means to an end, then I am more likely to be effective in my interactions with them.  After all, who would you rather work or cooperate with?  Someone who treats you as a person or someone that treats you as a problem?

I have also mentioned in the Must Be Seen As blog, I’ve always felt it was important to be seen as a good mother.  As with so many things I fear, such fears end up being self-fulfilling prophecies if I am not careful.  My fear of being a bad mother means that I try too hard to be seen as a good Mom:  dedicated, invested, proactive, supportive, and worst of all, right.   Needing to be viewed as this super-mom means that my kids must be terrific too.    After all, if you are perfect parent, then your kids should be perfect too, right?  When they’re not, my Must Be Seen As self rears its ugly head and I go into judgment mode: “The Kid won’t step up/work hard/take responsibility.”   A genuinely supportive parent might say, “The Kid is doing his best and I will be as supportive as possible.”

Take, for example, a more neutral comment delivered to a struggling child, “What went wrong?”  Such a statement can be said either with accusation and judgment or with sympathy and curiosity.  The latter treats the listener as a person whose feelings and needs are important, so the recipient is more likely to respond in a relatively positive, non-defensive manner. The part that has not been evident to me is that one can still feel and convey judgment and criticism while maintaining a calm demeanor and tone of voice.   And I’m never fooling anyone despite that calm exterior and quiet tone if my WOB is wrong.

Now I understand why the right action delivered with the wrong WOB results in an unexpectedly disappointing response.   In the past, I would be like, “What’s with the attitude?”  Now I understand that, even if done calmly, if executed with the wrong WOB, it will not go well.  And I would be in the wrong.  One of the little jokes I tell is that parenting is an experiment where you don’t get the results until your kids go into therapy when they’re 30 and find out how much you screwed them up.  I have always said this only half joking.

My belief that this scenario will actually occur keeps increasing the more my self-awareness increases.    My shortcomings as a parent, as a partner, as an employee, as a daughter, as a sister, as a friend, are so glaringly and increasingly evident where previously I have felt like I’d been doing ok.

In the past, this failure would’ve eaten at me, and I would’ve felt like the most miserable human being on the planet (a real first world problem.)   Now I know that I’m just a mere, imperfect mortal like everyone else and that it’s more important (and realistic) to learn from our mistakes than to never make them.  Now, I also can forgive myself as well as others when mistakes are made.

The rest of the experiment-ending-in-therapy story that I don’t usually relay has to do with me hoping that my kids will forgive me when they finally realize just how lousy of a parent I really am.  I have long since forgiven my parents for less than perfect parenting since they try their best, just like me and everyone else.  If my kids also realize that I was doing my best, flawed as it was, then perhaps they will forgive me too.