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 3: Thinking-Feeling Spectrum: Befriend Your Alien Brain

In Parts 1 and 2, I wrote about the thinking-feeling spectrum and how our tendency to prefer T or F leaves a shadow tendency that seems to play a strong but invisible role in how we feel and behave.    I likened it to an ambivalent, sometimes hostile alien that resides within us, sometimes exerting a negative influence on us, without our knowledge.

Your alien thoughts/feelings can actually work for you, but you have to befriend it and become its ally.  Like a temperamental child, the alien within wants to be recognized and heard.  Failure to do so means the alien will ramp up the stakes, screaming and thrashing at me until I acknowledge its needs. Like an unruly toddler, that internal tempest wreaks havoc and damage until it is heard.

The hardest part is acknowledging the alien’s existence and dysfunction.  But have you noticed that when you listen to a toddler and truly try to understand their world, they get strangely calm and cooperative?  You can then negotiate with them, “I know you want to go have an ice cream sundae but we don’t have time to do that now.  How about I give you an apple right now, or a cookie when we get home? Which do you want?”

Our inner alien is the same way.  “I know the way your co-worker talks to you makes you feel unimportant and inferior, just the way your parents did when you were a child.  You can believe it and feel angry and resentful, or you can go to the gym and work through your frustration and realize that this isn’t about you.  Which would you prefer?”  Suddenly, inner alien is cooperative, because she just wants to be heard and acknowledged.   She’s your Lifelock monitor who alerts you issues (have you seen those commercials?) but it’s your responsibility to deal with the problem.

Make no mistake: she will scream in my head until I do.  Furthermore, I’ve learned that she’ll scream at others through my tone, behavior, perspective and choices without my knowledge.  Others can sense her, even if I can’t.   Others refer to my alien as the b***.  Now you know what I’m talking about.

I’ve learned this lesson the hard way as I’ve spent many years in denial about my aliens.  I don’t always know they’re there, or if I do, sometimes I just can’t quite wrangle and calm them.  It gets easier with practice and time.  Now, I feel like I mostly have cleaned house, though I do still relapse and invite those crazy little devils back into my life.  Living without them though is an amazingly light and freeing feeling.  There are few things that I have done that have had such a profound impact on the quality of my life.  And like all things I have been afraid of, shining a light on them always seems worse at first than it really is.  They’re not scary in others.  You see them.  You know what they need to do.  Do the same for yourself and exorcise that troublemaker.

Part 1: Thinking-Feeling Spectrum: Our Self-Concept

Who are you?  Really?

Do you believe that you are the sum of your thoughts, knowledge and beliefs? That your identity is entirely dependent on those thoughts?  If so, what happens when you change your mind, beliefs or knowledge?  Are you the same person?

Or do you believe that you’re a feeling, emotional being who happens to have thoughts and ideas?  What happens if you don’t have an emotional reaction in a given moment or are stuck in depression? Who are you then?  What does it mean if your emotional reactions are context-dependent?  Are you still you?

One way to think about the questions above is from the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator’s T (thinking) and F (feeling) personality types.  We are on a T-F spectrum in terms of how we tend to make decisions, whether using our head or our feelings. I also think about the T-F spectrum as the mechanism by which we interface with reality.   I’m guessing that T’s tend to use their head to take in information, both about themselves and others, and use that information to decide who they are.  Similarly, F’s view themselves and the world through the lens of their feelings, using that information to define themselves.  (After all, I’m a T and this theory makes sense.)

However, I don’t really like the binary nature of that scale.  We all think.  We all feel.  Trouble is, we may not be very aware of the end of the spectrum that we are unfamiliar with.  Ts are often unaware of their feelings and Fs are often unaware of the thoughts and beliefs underlying their feelings. This is where we get into trouble.

Thoughts and feelings are interactive and synergistic.  Our feelings are profoundly influencing our thoughts, and visa versa, even if we don’t realize it.  That complex dynamic then determines our behavior  (I’m feeling more F-ish today, and this feels right.)

Being in touch with both our thoughts and feelings help us to have a more complete understanding of who we are, how we feel, why we think what we think and why we feel what we feel.  Our habits of thought, feeling and behavior that define our personality, in the end, are really just habits.  We can break and change those habits, yet we’re still the same person underneath, aren’t we?

I like the person you are – that combination of your hidden and portrayed self.  It’s one of my gifts to see the best in others, including that hidden part of you.  I also hope for your growth and improvement in your life’s satisfaction, sense of authenticity and empowerment.  Changing habits that are maladaptive does not change who you are, it merely helps you be a better version of you.  You can be happier, more peaceful, have better relationships, and improved health by taking a holistic and appreciative view of yourself and your world.

All that being said,  the question of Who am I? remains unanswered especially if you acknowledge that most of our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are malleable.  I am not a theologian or philosopher, so I will leave that question to those wise scholars.  As an applied positive psychology practitioner, I reflect on that T-F dynamic and how we can use that self-knowledge to create the best possible life.

But I think I’m out of space.  I feel I must finish this discussion in my next blog, Part 2: Thinking-Feeling Spectrum – Our Alien Brain.  Perhaps the outcome of your thought-feeling dance will be for you to join me.

8 Tools For Thriving During Change

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Embrace change!  Photo credit

The only constant is change, yet we often fear, dread, or fight change. It’s a natural tendency since, as a species, we tend to be wary of threats to our wellbeing, and change is just as likely to bring challenge as opportunity.

In addition, we have a certain change style, where our affinity and comfort with change ranges from low to high. Conservers prefer to take a measured and incremental approach to change, whereas Originators like rapid and broad change. In the middle are Pragmatists who prefer change that is practical and effective. Each style has its advantages and disadvantages; respect for and understanding of our own and others’ change styles can help change occur more smoothly and effectively.

We do not always have the luxury of the pace and extent of change matching our change style.   Often change is faster or slower, broader or narrower, than our comfort would dictate. When change is not under our control, it will feel challenging.   As with any challenge, I use my main Go To Tools to help turn that challenge into an opportunity:

  • Be mindful and present – Plan for the future but don’t dwell on it. Worrying about the future creates anxiety. The present moment elicits neither sadness, regret, nor anxiety.
  • Take care of yourself first – Rest, exercise, a healthy diet, and time for play are good antidotes to stress.
  • Reflect – Change is scary. Acknowledge your fear, anxiety, distress, or sadness. Feel it. Put a name to it. Feel it some more. Then let it dissipate.
  • Identify and challenge your belief or schema – What is the belief that is causing your emotion? If it’s a negative emotion, then name and challenge your belief or schema.   Introduce doubt into that belief. If it’s a positive emotion, then savor and amplify your optimism.
  • Identify the downside of the status quo – What’s bad about maintaining the current situation? What opportunities will pass you by if you resist change? What damage can occur by failing to grow?
  • Find a positive perspective – Your negative feelings result from focusing on the worst-case scenario. Instead, consider what is the best possible outcome.   Imagine it in full detail. What does it look like? How does it feel? What did you learn? How did you grow? What is the pathway to this outcome?   What challenges might you encounter, and how would you surmount them? What would your future self, who is enjoying this positive outcome, say to your current self?  Say it to yourself. Repeat as necessary.
  • Identify your strengths – Given this ideal outcome, identify what strengths (either StrengthsFinders or VIA) that you can use to achieve this outcome and surmount those obstacles. Make a plan.
  • Identify your support – Who can help you on this journey? Maybe you need a sounding board, a sage, a playmate, a home team, a cheerleader. Enlist their support, and be specific about what you need from them. Continue to communicate with them so they understand what their roles are as the situation evolves.

Now, go get ‘em! You have a positive future, go create it!

Karmic Balance Sheet

I believe in karma. Maybe it’s hopelessly naïve of me to think that some kind of reckoning happens somewhere, sometime, based on how we live our life and whether we’re good to our fellow man. Some believe it happens in the afterlife, but I believe it happens right here on earth during our natural lives.

This notion is hard to reconcile when we see a**holes who are successful, enjoying the fine life, while many good-hearted people struggle to pay the bills.

We know that money does buy happiness, but only up to the point where our basic needs are met.  Above that, happiness depends on our personal characteristics rather than our external circumstances.   Therefore, being materially successful is no guarantee for happiness or a sense of wellbeing. In other words, material wealth is not a good surrogate measure for success if defined in terms of emotional, psychological or spiritual abundance.

If we view success from an emotional perspective in terms of whether we have love, friendship, meaning and purpose, or a sense of peace and satisfaction with our lives, the karmic balance sheet makes more sense. If I wrong someone, even if I don’t acknowledge it to myself, I sense this injustice on some level. The Arbinger Institute says I will tend to create conflict to justify my actions, and negative emotion results.

Carrying negative emotion and creating conflict creates further problems that manifest in my own life. For example, I know when I’m grumpy, especially if I don’t acknowledge it, things tend to go wrong, people tend to resist me, and I tend to get more frustrated and angry. Though I may have gotten that sale, job or promotion and thus the sweet new BMW at the expense of someone else, I will in some manner pay the karmic price.

Disconnecting our definition of success from material wealth provides a currency that balances justice in the world. Good prevails. Doing the right thing pays off. Good people “win” because they sleep with a clear conscience and enjoy a sense of peace, meaning and purpose. Changing our definition of success means that we value what is most important, including recognizing the unsung heroes that actually help make the world a better place.

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Profits and Loss (photo source)   

 

Fate or Free Will?

How much of our lives are dictated by free will versus fate? I bet that everyone’s answer is different, depending on how much value one places on the cognitive versus the mystical. An evidence-based person will lean strongly toward the free will side, whereas a highly spiritual person may choose fate. I imagine that the truth probably lies somewhere in between.

After all, we don’t have complete control over our lives. Where we are born, into which family, and with what genetic make-up have a huge impact on who we are and our life’s trajectory. Yet we also know that major life choices can be agonizingly difficult since those choices may have repercussions for years to come.

Finding that balance in the fate/free will life perspective is tough too. Erring too far on the fate side may make someone complacent about their life, whereas erring too far on the free will side may make someone feel overly responsible and need to control.

What matters, in my opinion, is how we handle the events of our lives, regardless whether they emanate from fate or choice. For example, the best way to grieve after the loss of a loved one is to find or create meaning in the loss. The loss can become a path to growth or wisdom, or a motivation to do good deeds. In his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Harold Kushner makes the case that when we focus on why, we’re asking the wrong question. Instead, he asks us to focus on now what?   What good will come out of a bad situation?

It’s not just loss that is hard. Even positive change can be difficult to adjust to and even traumatic. You’ve heard the stories of how winning the lottery is just as likely to ruin one’s life as it is to create happiness and wellbeing. Those winnings can either be used to create meaning and purpose and to elevate others, or it can be used to create infighting, division, resentment and fear.

Regardless of whether an event is subjectively good or bad, emanated from fate or choice, in the end we’re left with deciding what next? Do we learn, grow, improve, or take action? Or do we become complacent, fight with each other, blame someone else, or fall into depression? Do we learn to make better choices or learn to let go and be more accepting of what we cannot control?

Undoubtedly in my lifetime, I have tended to err excessively on the side of free will. My challenge continues to be able to lean into accepting and embracing the parts of my life that are driven by fate and beyond my control.   I must believe that, just like every other part of my journey to become my best self, the future can be even more spectacular than I can imagine, so I should not try to control it.

Perhaps those of you who err on fate must learn to be more proactive and involved in determining your destiny. You have more power than you realize. Use it to grow kindness and wisdom in yourself and your world.

The Past Is Not What You Think

Remember that old game of telephone where a message gets passed from person to person and comes out bizarrely different at the other end? Our memory is just like that.   Our memories mutate over time because each time that we access our memory, we are actually accessing our last memory, not the original event.

I haven’t looked for the data that shows that each mutation is influenced by our opinions, focus and biases, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case.

I’m as certain as the next gal that my memory of the past is pretty accurate. Yet I keep proving myself wrong.   I can recall at least one instance where I wondered if I had done X, and searched my memory banks for that action. After several repetitions of that, I was pretty sure that I had done X (I could then visualize it) only to realize later that I had completely fabricated that memory.

Maybe this is the definition of crazy.

A more concrete example has to do with my journal. I don’t tend to like to read back on previous entries….ewwww…. but on occasion I do. Sometimes I am frankly appalled by the difference between what I wrote versus my memory of that event. Though that entry is a snapshot in time, and my memory is perhaps focused on a slightly different moment in time, it still does not quite explain the considerably rosier recollection of the “me” in my head compared to what I wrote in my journal.  I can’t even accuse someone else of twisting the facts or misremembering.

The recurring theme in this repertoire of life lessons has to do with certainty. I have less and less of it as I age, which given how opinionated and certain I have been most of my life, is probably a very good thing.   The less certain I am, the less judgmental and controlling I need to be, and thus more open to other ideas and realities.

You may not agree that we should operate with less certainty. But trust me…???