Connectedness Strength – Scientific Evidence

‘We are all connected’ always had a squishy, metaphysical, woo-woo kind of connotation to it until I learned about it as strength that helps people to be successful.   There are times that I have also had that sense of connection, completion, one-with-the-universe (OWTU) feeling though I usually have not associated it with any specific use other than feeling great.

But there is new research around this phenomenon, which is called coherence.  Coherence refers to connection – whether between individuals and their environment or within one’s self.  The phenomenon of coherence results in positive emotion and a sense of unity or oneness.  Physiologically, coherence produces synchronous communication between heart and brain.

Since this psychophysiological connection appears to be mediated through the vagal nerve, coherence can be indirectly measured through physiologic variables such as  heart rate variability (HRV).  HRV is believed to sensitively reflect heart-brain communication and to be a strong measure of health and well-being, especially as it relates to heart health and stress management.  Apparently, HRV reflects the balance between the sympathetic (flight-or-flight) and parasympathetic (housekeeping) nervous systems.

Personality types (as measured by the Big Five and temperament inventories) influences one’s ability to maintain a low HRV (the less variability, the better).     For example, do you tend to respond to stress with fight-or-flight or a sense that you are OWTU?  Your personality, to some degree, dictates that response.

Ah, I feel a bit vindicated now!

But I’m not off the hook. Though we may not want to change who we are per se, we may want to moderate and manage our personality so that we may be most effective in all aspects of our lives.  That’s sort of what maturity is all about, right?   Indeed, I spent much of my misspent youth doing the fight/flight response to some of the smallest of life obstacles instead of responding with equanimity and wisdom.

Given that I do have some choice in my behavior, personality not withstanding, I can foster this connectedness strength, even though it’s not high on my strengths list. For example, coherence is produced by slow, deep breathing, relaxation, sleep and positive emotion such as appreciation.    For me, simply being mindful and using perspective helps me to cultivate a healthier response to stress.  As you might imagine, responding with aggression or avoidance tends to have the opposite effect.

In other words, effectively managing stress fosters that heart-brain coherence and ultimately, health, resilience and well-being.   In a wonderful and ironic win-win, the sense that we are all connected also helps me to take life in stride.  Our interconnection also implies that I have a responsibility to you to maintain my equanimity in the face of adversity.  I shouldn’t give you my emotional crap.  And visa versa.  So if you can’t take care of yourself for your own sake, do it for those around you.  It’s not selfish to take care of yourself.  It’s necessary for all of our benefit.  Our heart-brain connections thank you!

Resource:  http://www.heartmath.org/research/research-library/research-library.html

 

Coping Toolkit

It’s been 6 months since I’ve started a full-time graduate program on top of my day job.  Despite having several advantages going in, like having an empty nest and a flexible schedule, it still has been a challenge.  Though it’s been busy, I have felt pretty calm and in control after an initial adjustment period, and I feel I’ve been able to enjoy the program without getting too stressed out.  Here are some useful tools in my Coping Toolkit:

  • Get organized and pace yourself – Getting that calendar and overview of scope of work organized was an absolute necessity.  I also like getting things done early, so I work hard on the front end so I don’t feel rushed later.  If something unexpected comes up (like a forgotten assignment), then I have some leeway.
  • Prioritize and shift – The gym routine has completely gone out the window but I’ve substituted it for walking the dogs with Chris when possible.  I’m not in as good of shape but the dogs are and I have a little extra time with my sweetheart.  I’ve also had to prioritize certain social gatherings – my BFFs get first priority and I do the rest as I’m able.  Then I don’t worry about it. Other lower priority items have to go, and if I’m too tired, busy, or feeling overwhelmed, I beg off without (or rather, with minimum) guilt.  My downtime is a priority to make sure I can cope.
  • Satisfice – Satisfice means do just enough to get a really good result.  No perfectionism here.  Just thinking it should be enough doesn’t work:  I had to build this into my routine.  For example, when I think an assignment is good enough, I go ahead and turn it in so I can’t keep editing until it drives me crazy.    I’m also trying not to look at my grades.  Any external evaluation has the potential to drive me nuts, so I avoid it unless necessary.  I can’t please everyone so I try to please myself in terms of the work and work quality.  When I do need others’ feedback, I remind myself that this is for improvement and a useful outside perspective.  Speaking of which…
  • Perspective – This is the most important one.  I am here for my own education and gratification, not to please the grader.  I approach the assignments from what I want to get out of it, not as to whether I’ll get a good grade or not (you may not have that luxury if you’re not in graduate school).  Granted, if you’re trying to balance work and home life, you do have to please your boss and family to some degree.  Make sure you know what those expectations are instead of guessing what they view as acceptable, good or excellent.  Then find a way to balance them both or negotiate to where you can both be satisfied.   Remember that you can’t please everyone, nor is it your job to do so.  Others sometimes just have to learn to deal with disappointment and their own unrealistic expecations!
  • Self-awareness – Implicit in perspective is having self-awareness regarding self-talk and beliefs.  Usually it’s my own self-talk and my counter-productive beliefs about myself and the world that are really my source of stress.  I’m so accustomed to them, I take them for granted as being true.  By putting unrealistic and unhealthy expectations on myself and my performance, I’m actually decreasing my quality of work.  So, what is it that I’m saying to myself all day?  What beliefs do I have that create anxiety, anger, frustration and disappointment? When my buttons get pushed, likely an unhealthy belief system is at play and it needs to be brought to consciousness, understood and contested.

So school has been an education, not only in terms of content but also my ability to successfully manage a huge workload without driving myself and others nuts.  I know I don’t want to maintain this pace forever, but knowing that I have the tools to handle what comes my way makes me feel confident and capable.  What are your most important tools in you coping toolkit?

Events That Are Torture (But Really Aren’t)

Painful dentist visit - LIttle Shop of Horrors

Painful dentist visit – LIttle Shop of Horrors

I’ve noticed another trend in my behavior when writing my last blog.  No, not creating multiple grammatical and typographical errors, I don’t tend to notice them (give me a break, I majored in science and my parents are immigrants.)  I realized that I don’t tend to find events that are supposed to be torture to necessarily be torture.  Quite the opposite.

In my last blog I wrote about how great moving can be when that event is commonly (and rightfully) viewed as painful and awful.  I realized that this is a recurring theme for me regarding supposedly tortuous events.  I won’t go so far to say I’d recommend them to anyone, or would want to do an encore of any of them either, but I found these so-called painful experiences to be far more positive than I had anticipated.

For example, most people hate going to the dentist.  I don’t love it per se, and don’t go when I don’t have to, but relaxing in that comfy chair with someone attending to me, no interruptions, is in it’s own way a mini-refuge.  A very scaled down version of going to the spa, so to speak.  My smile does look great when I leave.  Plus I love the staff there.  They are like family to me and I look forward to them brightening my day.  (BTW I don’t feel the same way about going to the gynecologist though he’s pretty awesome too.)

I loved changing diapers (no I won’t change the diaper on your baby!)  We chose to use cloth diapers with the babies while I was at home with them, so they had to be changed frequently.  Yes it was stinky sometimes, but I loved being able to see my sons in their naked glory, get them clean and fresh once again, several times a day.  I had to be completely present during the experience or I might miss something (phew!) or get soaked.  The number of days one’s kids allow them to be undressed by a parent are limited and fleeting.

I also found my oral comprehensive exam (the formative, 3 hour oral exam with your committee of 5 faculty for the doctorate degree) to be a really great experience as well.  I don’t know about other programs, but we generally had the luxury of taking 3-4 weeks to do nothing but prepare for the exam.  During that time, I read anything and everything I wanted regarding my dissertation.  It was pretty much focused and uninterrupted (except by the 1989 San Francisco earthquake) and I luxuriated in the once-in-a-lifetime freedom to just learn about whatever I wanted.  During the exam itself I enjoyed giving the presentation (another thing I enjoy doing that others hate) and the Q&A session felt empowering to me because I did a good job answering the questions.

I would even go so far as to say the divorce fell into this category.  No, I wouldn’t have chosen a divorce for me or anyone else compared to a successful marriage, but for a troubled marriage it was the right thing to do.  I’m also very proud of my ex and me for how amicably we parted, and so the divorce was a positive, not devastating experience for our two teenaged sons (I realize there may be some rationalization on our part here).    The post-separation period, though literally terrifying, was a liberating experience for me filled with growth and discovery.

Maybe such traumatic events are really only traumatic if we believe them to be.    We can “horribilize” them and make them worse than they are, or we can find the opportunity and turn the event into a neutral, if not positive and enhancing experience.

My younger son started college this summer and he talks about how much “fun” exams are.  I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Adversity. It’s All Good.

“If you live long enough, you’ll make mistakes. But if you learn from them, you’ll be a better person. It’s how you handle adversity, not how it affects you. The main thing is never quit, never quit, never quit” – William J. Clinton

I don’t believe in “good things” or “bad things.”  When good things happen, we have a tendency to coast, enjoy, relax.  That’s great!  We should all be able to relax and enjoy the fruits of our labor.   However, the downside of everything going right is that we lack the incentive to grow.  After all, why change when we’re comfortable and happy?

Not that I would wish “bad things” on anyone.  Rather, I wish that everyone would view setbacks, adversity, mistakes as an opportunity to reflect, learn, adjust, and grow.  According to Jonathan Haidt, author of the Happiness Hypothesis, the growth opportunities resulting from adversity are most impactful for young people – teens and twenty-somethings – as they derive the most benefit from adversity compared to someone in mid-life.  Good thing for them since they (particularly the teenagers) often seem to generate a lot of it!  Our Baby Boom generation hasn’t helped much either by providing this economy and deficit as they’re trying to launch.  But I digress.

In short, we can all benefit from adversity and setbacks, but young adults potentially can derive the most growth from these opportunities.  I know from personal experience that my feelings of isolation, rejection, invisibility, unfairness, self-loathing all helped me as a young woman forge into someone with determination, conviction, drive, and accomplishment.  Back then, I had a choice as to whether to use that adversity to forge myself into a stronger person, or to just allow life to beat me down.

Yes, this is an important lesson for all of us.  And we should not overly-protect our young people from this lesson.

When our kids were in daycare (preschool age), there was a child who was overly aggressive and acting out superhero antics (think:  can of whoop-ass) on the other children.  His parents defended the behavior saying that they think children should get used to this kind of behavior since “it’s a hard world out there.”  This is true, but we have a duty to protect our children when they’re pretty much defenseless.  The point is that age-appropriate lessons and consequences should be imparted on our young.  We should neither beat them down at a young age no more than we should helicopter-parent protect them into their twenties.

As is often the case with this blog, this helpful advice falls into the category of “easier said than done.”  With kids, not only do their needs and abilities change with age, but each child is different.   It takes true wisdom to find the right balance, and true wisdom is rare and fleeting.  After 20 years of parenting, I can list a couple of examples where we made the tough decisions as parents, that in hindsight were spot-on.  I can list dozens more where we missed the mark, but we did try to learn from every mistake.

The parenting moments I’m most proud of had to do with requiring our children to abide by their commitments, stick it out instead of quitting, when it would’ve been easier for all of us to just let them quit.  They wanted to quit scouting at one point – now they’re both on the verge of becoming Eagle scouts.  One wanted to quit the language immersion program they entered – now he’s fluent in French and ended up having a fantastic and memorable experience.   Another wanted to bail on a promise to go on a difficult, weeklong backpacking trip – now he loves backpacking and even led a backpacking trip last year for freshman pre-orientation program.

Despite a year of smoothly managing change and upheaval, currently I am struggling with my own feelings of victimization and anxiety regarding the combination of our imminent move and the fact that our old house has not yet sold.   It’s neither logical nor helpful, and inconsequential compared to what others are going through.  Yet here I am.  I am realizing now that my growth opportunity has to do with managing my anxiety around financial issues.  To be at peace with the financial aspects of this situation will be a milestone for me.

As a strengths coach, I will rely on my strengths to manage this anxiety and learn from it.  My Strategic is lining up resources for the worst case scenario, my Relator will ask for support from my friends and family (especially Chris to help be my barometer for monitoring my feelings), my Connectedness will find meaning in the lesson, my Ideation will continue to look for creative solutions to anything that might arise.   I can trust myself and my relationship to manage what comes my way.  There now, don’t I feel better and more confident already?

Acceptance, Suffering and Opportunity

Blogging has been an opportunity for me to push myself beyond my comfort zone.  First, I’m talking about my deepest fears and insecurities to anyone with an internet connection.  Lately, I’m just talking about my ignorance.

And what a vast topic that is.

I have mentioned several times that, as a traditionally left-brained person, I have been exploring my right brain lately out of curiosity, novelty, experimentation, and even new-found respect.  But for me, it’s fairly unexplored territory, though old, familiar ground for many of you.

My latest foray into the right brain has been through the spiritual guide, Eckhart Tolle, and his book A New Earth.   I’d like to start in a place of comfort and confidence, acceptance, before moving into the relative unknown, and that is coincidence.

Tolle reiterates what I believe is one of life’s truths:  that failure to accept reality, what is, is the source of suffering for self and others. For example, if we deny that gravity, taxes, or death exists, if we do not accept what is, then we will suffer. There are so many other truths in our lives, though perhaps less evident, that we also fail to accept and therefore create suffering.

“Life is difficult.…. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult.” ― M. Scott Peck

We fail to accept that we are not perfect, merely human.

We fail to accept that we cannot control our environment or other people.

We fail to accept that we have to take responsibility for ourselves, our own feelings and our lives.

We fail to accept that we can choose our perspective, and therefore, happiness and peace over stress, anger and resentment.

We fail to accept that we can take action or speak out, and use our power instead of feeling powerless.

We fail to accept that life on earth is precious, and should be protected and treasured.

This I know for sure.

Here’s where I’m less certain.

Tolle states that everything that happens is meant to happen, because it did happen.   There is also what appears to be the magic of coincidence when we are in an acceptance mindset.  According to Tolle, when we are not accepting what is, we are creating resistance within, which creates resistance from the universe.  Events and circumstances do not “cooperate” when we are in resistance mode.  When we release resistance and become open, then the universe opens up, coincidences happen, events become favorable, and our paths open up.

Part of acceptance, according to Tolle, is detaching from our Ego identity* (I call it the left brain).  When we do so, then we can access our connection to the unmanifested – the energy that unites all lives and matter in the universe.  I call that the right brain.

I have found through an informal and decidedly unscientific survey that most people believe that there is no such thing as coincidence – often referring to fate, divine intervention, or something along those lines.  I believe it is some spiritual version of “when one door closes, another opens.” I have found that, in my personal experience, this addage to be very true.  I also know that when we are in an open, unresisting, accepting mindset, that we are able to notice and take action when that new door opens.  Sometimes that connection is not even remotely subtle… but maybe that’s just coincidence?

If we are closed, then we do not notice the open door, and an opportunity is lost.   In other words, if our Ego is tied to a certain identity or path, our true path will not be evident to us since we are closed to that option.  Our true path is communicated to us through our right brain, through our Being, not out Ego.

So, please forgive my amateur reflections on this subject.  I am in acceptance mode regarding my ignorance and am open to the wisdom of others.  And the wisdom will come.  It always does.  Eventually.

*Ego v. Bliss – A Standoff,  My Ego and Me

De-Stress in One (Sort of) Easy Step

Stress relief

Stress relief

I don’t believe in stress anymore.  I think it’s highly overrated so I suggest you just dispense with it.

I’m not talking about the low amounts of stress that cause you to be productive, meet deadlines and do a good job.  I’m talking about anything beyond that, because then, by definition, the stress is counterproductive.  Don’t wait until you feel your life is out of control and your health and happiness are suffering to fix this.  Or maybe you’re reading this because it already is.

I used to do stress to the nines, complete with stress-related pain conditions and being grouchy and irritable.  All that stress was standing in the way of enjoying my life and feeling good each day.  I’m sure being with me was no Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grande Jatte (this is how I imagine communal serenity).

Sunday afternoon

So I gave up stress for Lent.

Well.  Actually, I gave up stress for me.  To benefit me.   Giving up stress for Lent just sounds better.

I’m wasn’t sure what stresses other people so I did a little web surfing and found some causes of stress:

  • Problems – health, financial, unemployment, emotional, social/relationship
  • Unhappiness with situation – social (such as loneliness), career
  • Major life changes
  • Conflict between belief/values and life choices/situations

You may wish to add a bullet or ten to the list yourself.   But to me, it boils down to a simple bit of wisdom, from my man The Bard:

“Expectation is the root of all heartache” – William Shakespeare

Perhaps that sounds simplistic, but I believe most of human grief is self-generated and based on unrealistic or unfair expectations of self, others and the world.  Often these expectations are subconscious drivers of our behavior and feelings until they are brought to light, examined, questioned and even challenged.

Let’s re-categorize the above stressors into types of expectations:

Now that you’ve boiled your stress list down to one factor that you probably didn’t even realize was controlling your life, you can now deal with the stress in your life in a constructive fashion.

Find the balance between being accepting, but willing to change your perspective and the circumstances of your life.   In other words, if I don’t like my job, it’s because I’m having unrealistic expectations about myself, others, or my circumstances.

It doesn’t mean I should be passive about the status quo.  I can work to improve my situation there or to find a new job.  I can negotiate new salary, duties, space.  I can ask for and create changes that I think will improve the work environment.  However, until circumstances improve, I do not allow myself to get stressed or upset about what I cannot or have not yet changed.  If I feel taken for granted at work, I focus on ways that I am appreciated.   If I feel underpaid, I focus on ways that I am rewarded well.  (See (Uncover Your) Truth or (Suffer the) ConsequencesThe struggle itself is a gift and much can be learned from that endeavor.

The same is true with the difficult people in your life.    Accept them as they are, because like you, they are trying their best.   They, like you, deserve your forgiveness and compassion for being human.  Focus on how they are meeting your needs instead of how they are not.  It’s OK to try to influence people, but don’t tie your peace of mind to the outcome.

You can give up stress because you don’t need it.  You don’t want it.  Just do one thing:  Change your perspective.

Don’t you feel better already?

When Helping Becomes Hurtful

Helping

Helping

With our success- and perfection-driven culture, the often unspoken expectation to be “unselfish” and “care” for others, and the competitive economy, it’s no wonder that people seem to have difficulty finding the right balance between doing too much for (enabling) versus just helping or guiding others.  You know you’ve likely crossed the line into enabling when the person you have been helping becomes increasingly dependent instead of increasingly independent and/or one or both parties have resentment resulting from this arrangement.

It’s a tempting trap, especially for well-meaning parents.  For example, dressing your child and making them breakfast every morning may feel helpful, caring, a requirement for a minimally-competent parent.  But if by the age of 15 your child still cannot or will not dress or feed themself, then maybe you’ve ventured into the enabling side of the equation.  By then it’s mostly too late and you get to try to teach a hormonal, entitled teenager to grow up.

It may be more difficult to identify when enabling occurs between adults, since those tell-tale developmental milestones like puberty are fewer and farther between.  A classic enabling example is the spouse of the alcoholic calling in sick for their partner – thus helping the patient avoid the consequences of a binge and the motivation to get  treatment.    A less obvious example might be a spouse who spends on luxury items beyond the family means.  Instead of setting and enforcing real boundaries, an enabling partner may take a second job, make cuts in necessary and/or important expenses like education or retirement to provide a continued source of funding to the spender, or perhaps do nothing as the debt piles up putting the family at escalating financial risk.  The behavior is enabling because it is neither questioned nor stopped, and the cash flow is maintained at great expense (pun intended) to “enable” more spending, possibly at the expense of the partner or the family itself.

My own version of enabling has to do with caregiving.  My sometimes subconscious script and self-talk dictate that I “must” take care of not only myself but those around me.  For years I told myself I was being a good Mom, wife, daughter, friend, employee.  I would rarely ask people for help, and instead eagerly carry their load or fix their problems.  I did not require them to help me when I needed help,  to do their share, or fix their own problems.   So how did they respond?  You got it.

This dynamic was unbeknownst to me, though obvious in hindsight.  What I thought was a selfless gift was really just me caving to satisfying my emotional script at the expense of those around me.  By failing to both teach, have reasonable yet high expectations, and enforce age- and role-appropriate actions in those around me, I was encouraging the lowest common denominator behavior.  That is no way to develop the best behavior, talents and independence of others.  To add insult to injury, it was not uncommon for me to get stressed and then resentful for – you got it – no one helping me.   A lil’ darling, wasn’t I?

I don’t mean to sound too harsh or judgmental about my behavior back then.  After all, I was doing what I thought was the right thing for those around me, misguided though it was. The dynamic was in my blind spot, so by definition, was outside my awareness.  Now that I am aware of this disabling and counterproductive tendency, I am more sensitive to the impact of my actions.

If only awareness is enough.  Instead, it is only the beginning of trying to find the right balance for helping others without protecting them from the age-appropriate consequences of their choices.   To complicate matters, what each person needs or views as help is as individual as they are, and subject to change.   I also must focus on finding and maintaining my own balance of asking for help/being independent.  I know when I’m stressed out and reacting by being grumpy to the family, I am not doing a good job balancing my enabling/vulnerable spectrum.  Being willing to tell others I need their support is a good strategy to counter my enabling tendencies, and not just waiting to do so when I’m already stressed out.   Otherwise it’s like a pop quiz – they were not expecting it, they won’t know what to do, they’re like to resent the sudden change in expectations and unlikely to do well.

This is one of the many facets of my personal journey.  On some measures I’m pretty far ahead, others I’m way behind.   I have a feeling the road ahead for me is much longer on improving this enabling issue than it is behind me.  I’m moving forward; don’t judge me for where I am now.   More importantly, don’t judge yourself if you have not yet mastered this or another skill.  At least we know more now than we used to, and we’re getting more proficient.   We will be better parents, spouses, friends and workers as a result, and help model healthy behavior for the next generation.  We have to walk before we run, run before we can fly.