Needy People

Sometimes I feel like everything would grind to a halt if I weren’t keeping things running, and that no one appreciates me or what I do.   Do you ever feel this way?

I don’t actually feel this way too often these days though in my younger years I used to feel like this was more often true than not. I felt that those around me were needy, were unable to take responsibility for themselves (well, some of those someones were children), and that I had to do everything without thanks or acknowledgment. I felt powerless to change it because even asking for help or improvement seemed to make no difference. More importantly, asking for help also required that I admit to myself that I’m not Wonder Woman. I felt powerless and trapped.

The feelings that ensued included resentment, anger and despair. Such negative emotions are good because they signal the need for a change. I had to have a mega-ton of negative emotion before realizing that I was unable to change their behavior, so all I can do was change mine.

First, I had to recognize what I can and cannot control and influence. Though I was successful to some degree teaching my children to be self-sufficient, with adults I have to rely much more on influence. Either way, I had to learn that my ability to control others was zero and that it would be a responsibility that I would not want anyway.

Second, I had to realize what role I was playing in others’ helplessness. The more that I did for others, the more that help became expected or needed. Stepping out of the way and allowing others to be uncomfortable, fail, or flounder permits them to learn their own lessons. Stepping back also provides me a little sanity once I can find the balance of (mostly) avoiding Told You So with compassion for their struggle.

Third, I had to learn to acquire some perspective on my expectations. Is it the end of the world if someone forgets their homework, doesn’t make an A, the event isn’t flawless, or I look or appear less than perfect? Going from 95 to 100% is not worth the resulting exponential increase in stress. Consider the cost to benefit of “settling” for 95%.   I believe those around me feel it’s a good trade!

In short, I learned to stop being a martyr (that’s what it is) and quit doing things that would cause me to become resentful.  Most of the time, others were not even asking for my help. I just did them and then got mad at others because they were not sufficiently appreciative of my sacrifice.  Who is the needy one now?

Taking the Fear Out of Self-Awareness

That inward journey is scary. You never know what you will find.  Will I like what I discover about myself?  Will I hate it?  Will I find that I’m fundamentally flawed and deficient if I go there?

Perhaps we can agree that even the most saintly heart on the planet experiences envy, greed, selfishness, aggression, hate and despair at one time or another.  We are human, after all, and being fraught with imperfection is a truth we all share.  Ignoring that fact is kind of like ignoring the fact that my teeth will rot (and will give new meaning to the phrase ‘dragon breath’) if I don’t brush them.  Sticking my head in the sand about what is universally true does not change that reality.  Similarly, accepting our imperfections will not magically make them worse either.

I argue that our imperfections are not a problem; they are, in fact, an opportunity for growth and improvement.  In addition, our imperfections make us beautifully human and relatable.  I was talking to a student recently who described a peer as ‘perfect.’  This perfect young lady was so intimidating, no one could imagine dating her.  How does she share her fears, insecurities and struggles when no one can imagine that she has any?  How do you share your fears and insecurities with someone that doesn’t have any?  How can you feel seen if no one can see you?  Distancing yourself from emotions is a recipe for emotional isolation.

Instead, I argue that we should we focus on our strengths instead of our imperfections.  Our imperfections are there.  We accept them.  But trying to fix our weaknesses feels defeating and counterproductive because it is.   In addition, what we may call our weaknesses are sometimes actually strengths that are being poorly used.

Identifying and optimizing use of our strengths helps us feel energized, successful and authentic.  We can also develop strengths we didn’t realize we had and expand our repertoire of skills.  Finally, we can use our dominant strengths to improve in the areas we’re not so strong.  In this way, we address our weaknesses without giving them power.

Yes, this is about power.  Our personal power.  By refusing to acknowledge or accept our personal truths, we give power to what we will not name or discuss.  By shedding light on our Voldemorts and managing them in a positive way, like Harry Potter we reclaim our power and ability to grow and change in ways we could not have imagined.

Now what’s so scary about that?

Reflections of Myself in My Dog

Chris and two of the pups

Chris and two of the pups

I have a theory that the dogs that we are attracted to are the ones whose personality is most like our own.   Case in point.

I love all three of our dogs, but the ones that’s always been nearest to my heart have been my little, perky, affectionate, extroverted, always-by-your-side dogs.  My previous little white version of the above was named Max, and after he passed we adopted our new little black version, Romeo.  Both were small dogs with this outgoing and extremely social personality.  I can’t help thinking that they are both so much like me.  Indeed, if I were a dog, I would want to curl up in the lap of my loved ones and lick them on the cheek all day long.  Yes, it can get annoying, which by the way is why I don’t do that to my loved ones.

The other thing I’ve noticed about our new little Romeo is that he gets so excited and carried away by life he’s literally running in circles as he’s walking on the lead.  He moves forward, but at great expense of energy and after many mis-directions.  I think I’m more focused than Romeo in most aspects of my life.  But I do think with smaller things, as I’m buzzing around from room to room on various multi-tasking errands, that I often end up going in circles because it’s harder for me to focus on small tasks.   I end up moving forward but more often than not, I’ve done a lot of tail-chasing in the process.

Romeo also likes to bark like crazy at the greyhound who is about seven times bigger than he is.  It’s a completely futile endeavor.  Mostly Obie ignores him but sometimes he snaps at him when he loses patience.  I liken the behavior to my own tilting at windmills; I can’t help myself by taking on the Goliath to my David, but it’s sometimes it just the principle of the thing.

I’m probably completely guilty of anthropomorphizing, but I also do think sometimes it’s easier to see patterns in others before we recognize them in ourselves.  Sometimes that other needs to be someone as non-threatening as a dog to be able to see those patterns.  But I need not only see the dog’s downsides.  I mean, foolishness and inefficiency aside, what’s not to love?  I don’t expect my dogs to be perfect, nor do I need to expect myself to be perfect either.  We’re both lovable, just as we are.

It came to me that every time I lose a dog they take a piece of my heart with them, and every new dog who comes into my life gifts me with a piece of their heart. If I live long enough all the components of my heart will be dog, and I will become as generous and loving as they are. – Anonymous

 

A Perfect Balance of Talent and Virtue?

We all want to have talent and virtue in abundance.   Aristotle believed that happiness is not possible without excellence or virtue.  So give me talent and virtue.  Lots of it.   But is it possible to have or overuse talent and virtue to where they become a bad thing?

Aristotle also believed that virtues such as courage and temperance are best when exercised in balance.  Too much courage, he says, makes someone rash and belligerent.   Too much modesty can make someone shy.  Extremes of virtue (too much or too little) then become a vice.   Instead, Aristotle contends, that we should use reason to exercise our virtues like Goldilocks does: “just right” (he didn’t quite say it that way).

Similarly, the Clifton StrengthsFinder identifies the top 34 strengths that people use to be successful.  We can think about our strengths as either being in the “balcony” or the “basement”.    The former refers to optimal use of our strength, the latter when we are using our strength ineffectively or even counterproductively.  For example, my Input strength gets in my way when I start asking too many questions.   I need the data.  The 411.   This can be disruptive, annoying and intrusive when I’m in the basement with it, but I can also be a glorious source of useful information when my Input is exercised correctly.

Again, I would contend that reason, or I would call it wisdom, is what separates the basement from the balcony, the virtue from the vice.    The right balance is circumstance-dependent, so the same formula doesn’t work in every situation.  Wisdom and experience allows us to find that sweet spot as much as possible. But since every situation is different, we’re unlikely to hit it every time.  Or are we?

Let’s suppose for a moment that all  the talents and virtues are identifiable and quantifiable and that there are 100 of them.  I have all 100 and I use them all the time in just the right manner.  In other words, I’m perfect.

Yeah, right.

I know some of you think that you’re pretty darn close to that, or should be.  I know that because I used to be that way too.  This is perfectionism, and the need for perfectionism is the opposite of acceptance.   Acceptance is an important virtue and as humans our reality is that perfection is neither possible nor desirable.  First, perfection leaves no room for growth or improvement.  By definition, that’s stagnation.  What’s perfect about that? Second, stagnation and the smugness that often accompanies people who think they’re perfect is downright unappealing.  .  Third, everyone has a different interpretation of reality, and so even if you’re objectively “perfect,” someone will disagree.    Finally, the tendency to believe one is perfect will prevent one from actually seeing where a fix is needed.  So, which is more likely to be closer to perfect, something that is never improved upon, or something that undergoes continual improvement?  It’s ironic, then, that belief in perfectionism actually encourages the opposite.

This is the folly of human nature.  It takes wisdom to recognize and learn from it, forgiveness to feel OK about it, and humor to laugh at it.   This is how we thrive.

Easter Bunny, Lazy People and Other Myths

I don’t believe in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy or Prince Charming any more.  Happy endings only happen if you create them.

I also don’t believe in lazy people, mean people, stupid people, people who don’t care or who want to be negative, trouble makers and other miscreants.

This is not to say I don’t believe in anything.  I do believe that climate change exists, that we should reduce our national and personal debt, that everyone is inherently lovable, worthy of respect and full of talent.

I’ve frequently written in this blog about perfectionism and not being able to say No.  To me, it’s really easy to understand that emotional and psychological approach to dealing with feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy, as I’m a recovering perfectionist/control freak  myself.   Those that choose to view us compassionately see us as being driven by needing to prove ourselves repeatedly, despite our achievements and talents, and only focusing on how we are not quite good enough.  We’re also easy enough to deal with (in my opinion) – just get out of the way and let us take care of everything.  You have to admit, it has its advantages.

What about the opposite extreme?  Lazy, sad, unmotivated, dysfunctional, rebellious ne’er do wells.   They have some inherent character flaw that makes them this way, right?  Or maybe they don’t want to change?

This question came up in the Inspired2ignite blog.  Denise Hisey talks about Kurt Cobain’s pain and depression driving his creativity.  She also asks the thought-provoking question:  Would he have wanted it to be different?  What a great question.  Thank you Denise!

It had me thinking about the people I know who might be considered lazy, depressed, selfish screw-ups and so forth.   I often hear those accusations that this is “just how they are” and “they like being that way.”  I do agree, that this is how they are.  I mean, if they weren’t that way, they’d be something else.  There’s a level of acceptance implicit in that statement that belies our lack of control over most of our lives and especially someone else’s.

I don’t like that statement, however, because it implies resignation that we cannot influence or guide others, or that the other cannot or does not want to change.    This may also be true since the readiness to change happens on a unique, individualized timeline, and they may or may not ever reach that point where they are ready.  But I believe that everyone wants to be happy, optimistic, productive and successful.

What stands in the way of people being happy, optimistic, productive and successful?

I suspect these folks are stuck in dysfunction/underfunction for the same reason I was stuck in overfunction/enabling:  it’s how they deal with their self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy.  Let me explain.

I work hard to prove I’m competent and needed; they may avoid tasks to avoid demonstrating their incompetence.

I try anticipate what people need and problems before they occur so that I can believe that I’m a good person; they may avoid initiating activities to avoid feeling like they made the wrong choice.

I was a good student because I wanted to believe I was smart;  they may avoid working hard in school because if they failed it would prove that they’re dumb, not indifferent.

I was always the good girl because I wanted approval; they may avoid conformity because they want to avoid rejection for who they really are.

The other hard lesson I’ve learned over the years is that we overfunctioners are often unwittingly reinforcing these underfunctioning behaviors.  For example, my need to prove myself constantly then makes it hard for the underfunctioner to step up.  I mean, why would he take a chance if I will do everything and he doesn’t have to risk making a mistake? It’s a win-win.  I can prove how competent and worthy I am, and he doesn’t have to stick his neck out.  I can say he‘s lazy and he can say I’m uptight.  We’re both invested in this dysfunctional dance while pointing the finger at the other.

A classic family or group dynamic is the Problem Child scenario.   It’s so tempting to blame our problems and unhappiness on someone who is causing trouble, like the Problem Child.  But that Problem Child behavior is often reinforced by the family because it provides a convenient distraction and decoy to avoid tackling the real issue, whether it is abusive behavior, addiction, mental or physical illness, financial issues, etc.  Problem Children are also often expressing the emotions that the group is unwilling to confront.  For example, the Problem Child may be having difficulty adjusting after a family catastrophe, but is merely expressing the anger/fear/grief/sadness that the individual family members are trying to suppress.  Their failure to acknowledge the problem and feel the emotion is preventing the PC from working through her feelings.  Ironically, the family reinforces PC behavior because it allows them to stay in denial.

If you’ve read to this point I hope you can see that perhaps I’m not completely in Denial-Land myself, that there are things I DO believe in.  What I believe is that everyone, regardless of how they assuage their self-doubt, wants to be happy and live their life to their fullest potential.  We each have unique ways of expressing our fear, sadness and doubt, and that just because we may not understand each other, does not mean we have to judge one another.  Rather, by using forgiveness and compassion and looking at ourselves to see how we are contributing to the problem, perhaps we can help both ourselves others – both over- and under-functioners – find that peace and self-actualization we all deserve.

That being said, you under-achievers are not off the hook.  You have to find the courage to step-up just as much as we over-functioners have to find the courage to let go.   Remember, these are all self-fulfilling prophecies.  If you fear on some level that you are incompetent, your actions will subconsciously control you until you have proved to others that it is so.  (Note to all:) Caving to your unconscious script/story is worse than any failure you might experience by taking a risk. 

“The only real failure in life is the failure to try.” – Sven Goran Eriksson

“I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” – Bill Cosby

“I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.” – Michael Jordan

“Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t waste energy trying to cover up failure. Learn from your failures and go on to the next challenge. It’s OK to fail. If you’re not failing, you’re not growing.” – H. Stanley Judd

Laziness

Laziness

Healing the Perfectionist and Control Freak

Perfectionist

Perfectionist

Someone needs to tell the perfectionists and control freaks out there that they are making everyone else miserable.  We don’t need your stinkin’ perfection!

You know those the traits that you find most frustrating in others are the really the things that you hate about yourself?  You know what I’m saying.

Hello, my name is Susanna and I’m a perfectionist/control freak.

In my defense, perfectionism is considered sort of a virtue in our society.   Perfectionists do a great job with the things they choose to focus on.  Every detail is considered, every inch of the car, yard, or kitchen in perfect condition, everything beautifully decorated or presented.  Forget about the rest of your lives or relationships, they play second fiddle to the perfectionist/control freak’s obsessions.

I thought I was so clever during  interviews to answer “I’m a perfectionist” when someone asked me what was my biggest flaw.   That’s right, turn that frown upside down and turn my shortcoming into an asset!

Yeah, right.  I hope they saw right through my little charade.  What I should’ve said, if I was really truthful, was that I’m too insecure to tolerate human imperfection from myself or anyone else.  Or, it’s too scary for me to consider that I might not be perfect because that might mean I need to change, or worse, that I’m an unworthy human being.  Or maybe I’d say that the world is too scary to me, and so I have to try to control everything in it to feel safe.

But if I had said those things, I probably wouldn’t have gotten the job or admitted to school because then I just sound like a head case.

I know the truth now.  When students or prospective employees tell me somewhat proudly about how they’re perfectionists, then I know they’re full of it.  They’re still in denial about how miserable they’re making themselves and others, how counterproductive that philosophy is toward their work and their relationships.  On the surface, they may look completely put together – articulate, poised, well dressed, well groomed.  But inside, they’re a mess just like I am.

Or I was.  I’m in the recovery phase, and to shake off that delusion of control and perfection was not pretty.

First I had to take a hard look at myself to determine how I was contributing to my dysfunctional life and relationships. Simply examining my expectations of myself and my loved ones and putting them into realistic context for the first time was a sobering experience.  This takes a fair amount of honesty that doesn’t come easily.  I had to do it because my marriage was falling apart and I was becoming ill.  If you haven’t reached rock bottom, then this step takes a huge  amount of courage and maturity.   If you’re the type that is never satisfied with yourself or others – maybe this should be your wake-up call.

Underneath my unrealistic and unfair expectations I was imposing on myself and others was also my hateful self-talk.  This talk was not at all conscious.  It was this inner slave-driver that kept saying something like, “if you’re not perfect, you’re not going to be OK, you will not be acceptable or worthy of love.”  This voice was absolutely relentless but totally subconscious. If someone tried to tell me I was being over-the-top, I just brushed them off as being too lax.  After all, I had high standards.

I think the most important step for me was then to forgive myself for being, well, commonly human.  Sometimes I’m wrong, sometimes I make mistakes, sometimes I’m clueless – oh well.  I’m just like everyone else.  Strangely, when I forgave myself, I was able to forgive others for just being commonly human too.

I’m having this control freak/perfectionism conversation with myself when 9/11 happened.  The remnants of my  illusions of control came tumbling down with the towers.  How’s that for finding a silver lining out of an unimaginable disaster?  It is a small one but a silver lining nonetheless.

Now I am a recovering perfectionist/control freak.  I have learned to be more comfortable with those now-occasional  feelings of not being good enough, realizing that quality of life, balance, healthy relationships and working on that which is most important is a much preferable approach to controlling a few things to perfection.  I have really, truly learned that my loved ones love me anyway, maybe more, when I’m not trying to be something that I’m not, or make them into something they’re not.  I have embraced the parts of me that suck, for those are the places I can grow.  My blind spots are still my blind spots, I can’t do anything about that but try to be open to finding them.  I’m much more accepting of the uncertainty of life, and the unimaginable possibilities that accompany the unknown.

“There is much more in heaven and earth Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy” – William Shakespeare.

I have a much, much lighter feeling in my chest.  That tightness that comes from always believing something is wrong, something is wrong, I’m bad/wrong, is gone.  In its place is an openness to exploring the beautiful nuance that is the human struggle to find our place in the world, and the way our lives open up if we don’t try to control it.  My remaining perfectionist/control freak tendencies are focused on balance and quality of life.  That is really where the money is.