A strategy shift

Chastise yourself much? Scold yourself for not doing the right/healthy/calm thing, hoping to move yourself into good behavior? This thinking runs through my head at times: “What were you thinking? You know better!” As a culture, we have a too-ready acceptance of this process, i.e. that the best way to bring misbehavior in line is through correction and scolding, especially when applied to ourselves versus children. It’s a time-honored tradition, as this quote suggests:

Some are kissing mothers and some are scolding mothers, but it is love just the same, and most mothers kiss and scold together.——-Pearl S. Buck

Recent research looked at the effectiveness of this type of negative thinking in motivating behavior. Participants were instructed to focus on one of two options when facing a decision about eating a piece of chocolate cake. The first group focused on how badly they would feel if they broke their diets and ate the cake, while another group zeroed in on how virtuous they would feel if they resisted temptation. The study participants who connected with pride over making the healthy choice actually could resist the unhealthy food choice, while those who scolded themselves dove right in. Perhaps the scolding made them feel badly, ramping up the craving for comfort food?

This seems like another case of adults adopting a strategy that we would not practice with children. We know to correct gently and focus on what children have achieved, rather than rant about mistakes.

(Though we’ve swung the pendulum perhaps too far with children, fearing scolding will warp their little psyches. I’m not advocating harsh treatment of children by any means. But I am reminded of a story from my family’s early parenting days. My toddler daughter scribbled a picture; Dad oohed and aahed. So she scribbled another one. He oohed and aahed again. This went on for twenty minutes, as the drawings regressed to just a pink line of crayon across a whole sheet of paper. Daughter was clearly testing out the fatherly admiration society, not producing art for her own sake. )

Let’s apply these rules about shaping behavior in our own heads. Next time you need to motivate yourself, focus on how you will feel better with triumph, rather than selecting shame as the motivator. I’d love to hear how this works for you.

No one was ever scolded out of their sins. ——William Cowper

It’s all about the ratio

We fallible human beings are inveterate black and white, all or nothing thinkers–especially when stressed. Either everything is good, wonderful, 110% perfect– your life, your parenting, your relationship, your job, your holiday, last night’s sleep, your weight, your food consumption–or everything is a mess and you are a dismal failure. One minor slip, and (fill in the blank) is all shot to h*)). One cookie wrecks the diet, so may as well have six more. One cranky moment where you snap at a child or loved one, and you are a wretched parent/partner. One hour–or even two–of restless tossing and turning at 3 a.m. ruins your whole night’s sleep. One traffic jam in an eight hour journey or one rainy day dooms the whole vacation. One missed deadline and you’re a terrible worker. If none of this rings true for you, sign off right now and go crack open a well-deserved bottle of champagne. You are perfect–or at least your thinking is!

If any of the above thoughts have ever crept into your embattled brain, consider one of my favorite phrases:

It’s all about the ratio.

Our lives aren’t judged by any single moment of success or failure, but by the ratio of wins to losses, grand slams compared to falling-flat-on-face-in- mud moments. Bad mommy moments to tender bedtime stories. Decisions that worked versus backfired with a vengeance. Judith Orloff says there are no wrong choices–some just lead to more painful paths than others.

When you are feeling badly about some completely human action you have blundered into, stop. Take a deep breathe. Do the math. There are 168 hours in the week. “Oh well” if you got sucked into sulking for one of them. You need to ingest 2000 extra calories to gain a pound. One cookie is only 1/10th of that. There are 365 days in the year, eight hours in a night of sleep, 100 assignments in a college career. Etcetera. You get the picture.

Self-compassion comes into play again. Forgive yourself, your errors; maybe even define what you can learn from them. Then refocus on your successes by calculating the ratio. Embrace the fact that we’re all doing the best we can, given our circumstances at any moment.

Standards to bear–or not?

Last week, I wrote about the common human misperception that everyone around us shares our world view. When we believe that others think like we do, we stumble into dangerous territory, full of land mines of expectation.

You may recognize this thinking glitch in your own life. We expect others to hold themselves to the same standards that we enforce for our own behavior. “That idiot driver–he should use his turn signal.” “My mother should want the best for me–not be competitive and threatened.” “My friend should say thank you.” “My partner should put some thought into what would make me happy.” “The kids’ dad should play with them when he has them, not park them in front of a movie.” Who says?

Yes, in an ideal world, we would surround ourselves with people who acted just as we strive to act. What happens when reality hits, and many we encounter simply don’t behave in the way we would? It’s a certain recipe for frustration and anger.

In this situation, it’s helpful to take a deep breath and release that expectation. The standards are in your head. The target of your frustration can’t hear–or maybe does not adhere to–those rules in your head. Short of learning Jedi skills to instill the desired thoughts in that person’s head, you really have little control over them. But you do have control over your thoughts–that the party in question “should” (fill in the blank.) That’s all you can control–your expectation of others.

To release that expectation, try saying “huh–imagine thinking that way.” No time to judge; that judgement only fuels your anger. The situation just is. What other people expect of themselves is none of our business. Expect others to be who they are, to act according to the rules in their own heads. That’s what they’re going to do anyway. When you switch your own thinking, you can then either a) ask them to do it differently, in a very direct manner or b) realize that there can be any number of acceptable approaches to the problem at hand.

Control what you can: the thoughts in your head. Let go of the rest. That’s truly the full scope of your influence, after all.

But if you locate a Jedi mind training course, let me know. I’ll be right in line, signing up with you.

Who’s in my head?

Never ceases to surprise me when a client says some version of “last week you said X, and I can’t tell you how much that helped me. As a result, I’ve made shift Y in my thinking/behavior. I feel completely transformed.”

As I try to control any visible chin-drop-mouth-hanging-open expression, I conduct a search of my memory, to retrieve what I thought I said. Too often, I recall nothing. I remember what the client said–just can’t pull up my own words, the nuggets that my client has so eloquently restated and imbued with wise meaning. Maybe I really do deserve the credit. But I think it’s much more likely that my words clicked for the client, activating some inner wisdom based on his/her own experience.

The process of therapy, just like life, is not the same for me as it is for my clients. The way our brains work leads us to believe that everyone around us is experiencing the world in the same way. Think back to the ancient (okay, 1960s) kid game “telephone.” Sitting cross-legged on the floor, the first child whispers a phrase in the ear of the second child, perhaps “dogs don’t bite.” By the time the words have worked their way around the circle, retold through progressive whispers, the phrase has been transformed into “frogs don’t fight” (though often much more hilarious than that meager effort on my part to recreate the process.)

Who is in my head? Only my unique collection of world view, lessons, and beliefs that color my perceptions. I was comparing notes with a friend about our shared yoga class and the passage of time. She related how it drags on and on, with constant clock-watching and exasperated repetition in her head of “aren’t we done yet?” My experience, on the other hand, engaged in one of my favorite activities of the week, is “wow, an hour gone already?”

It’s often a matter of selective attention. We tune into what fits with our internal framework, or the instructions we have, whether from the brain or externally, as illustrated in this fun video:

Consider this with wonder. While we are all connected and share numerous experiences, each moment is processed through the filters of meaning in our heads. There’s no one in my head but me.

Remembering this allows me to extend greater patience and grace with others, rather than frustration over a pile of “shoulds.” Next week, I’ll say more about avoiding the pain and anger of that particular pile of expectations.

NOT a happy phrase

My college daughter has a button on her backpack:

Makes her momma proud! Because this phrase, “that’s so gay,” is another phrase to challenge. Only this time, rather than affecting one’s personal well-being and self-esteem, these words represent an attack on approximately 4% of the population. In current usage, this phrase does not imply that something is happy and carefree. By linking with the accepted usage of “gay” meaning homosexual, “that’s so gay” has been adopted as a derisive term, meaning stupid. In the minds of many, gay and straight, this use is an objectionable slur on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) individuals. Hence the button on my daughter’s backpack.

Let’s call for a little clarity in communication. If something is stupid, call it that. Better yet, find another word. Thesaurus.com found 76, including brainless, dazed, deficient, dense, dim, doltish, dopey, dull, dumb, dummy, foolish, futile, gullible, half-baked, half-witted, idiotic, ill-advised, imbecilic, inane, indiscreet, insensate, irrelevant, laughable, loser, ludicrous, meaningless, mindless, moronic, naive, nonsensical, obtuse, out to lunch, pointless, puerile, rash, senseless, shortsighted, simple, simpleminded, slow, sluggish, stolid, stupefied, thick, thick-headed, trivial, unintelligent, unthinking, witless. So many words with unkind roots! Maybe we could strive to object to stupidity in some other way. A simple “I don’t like that” or “that bothers me” might be an alternative.

Some might argue that words are just words–but much of this blog, and my life’s work, is dedicated to showing the power of words. And questioning phrases such as this, refusing to use them, is one way to challenge the thread of hate that is a cultural undercurrent towards LGBTQ individuals.

Want to challenge hate even more directly? One of my dedicated readers, Debra Boopsingh, has shared a proud moment that I want to pass on. Debra, and the Vision Forum at her church, have arranged for the NO H8 compaign to come to Dallas. If you’re unfamiliar with the campaign, it is an effort to promote and raise awareness for marriage equality and anti-discrimination. Check it out here, and join with us in spreading the word about this powerful campaign for human rights. Mark you calendars and sign up now.

Redirect your kindness

You pride yourself on being a really nice, kind person, right? You strive to treat others well–from your children to the overworked store clerk. You feel guilty if you snap at a loved one or overreact with the slightest harrumph after waiting unattended in the doctor’s office as the minutes tick to hours. Yet, in your own mind, you verbally assault yourself for perceived errors and experienced feelings, easily hurling aspersions of “stupid,” “weak,” “lazy.” Simply fill-in-the-blank with your favorite personal insults. Or maybe you deny your own needs, pushing yourself to the brink doing for others while neglecting your own sleep, exercise, nutrition, or fun.

Where’s your self-compassion? Your ability to treat yourself as well as you hope to treat others? Self-compassion is the new hot topic in wellness and happiness. Psychological research is building the case that self-compassion is the most important life skill. Children who learn to treat themselves kindly, withholding harsh judgments of self, become more resilient, brave, creative, and energetic than kids who learn to chastise themselves. If you’re a parent, chances are you agree that you want to teach your child(ren) to talk kindly towards self–even while you continue your internal self-bashing.

Kristen Neff, professor at University of Texas at Austin, is leading the charge against this current trend of beating ourselves up as a form of motivation, in our relentless pursuit to achieve. She found that being self-critical was perceived as a way to keep one’s self in line, supposedly protecting ourselves from sloth or failure. It backfires, leaving us depressed, discouraged, or anxious. Why wouldn’t this be true? We avoid chastising children in this negative way that we adopt so lightly in our own heads for just this reason. We accept that if we verbally berate others, they will feel badly.

But we can’t seem to adopt the same grace toward our own human failings. We have tempers. We make mistakes. We hate. We open our mouths at times when we’re tired, hungry, cranky, and $%*#!! escapes that we’d rather censor. Purposely and mindfully cutting yourself some slack is one place to start. Forgive yourself for being a regular imperfect person with powerful feelings. Talk as nicely to yourself as you would to a loved one or friend. You know how to do it–just aim it at yourself, rather than reserving the kindness for others. Accept your emotions, insecurities, and overreactions, withholding judgment.

Self-compassion is not all about words, though. It’s also about self-care: resting when you are tired, knowing when you need a break, asking for help, having a good cry, or scheduling in some fun. Grace toward yourself can be in the form of a massage or a night off, too.

To quote Judith Orloff, MD, on self-compassion: “we make progress when we beat ourselves up a little bit less each day.” It’s just baby steps: being honest about and accepting our human feelings and mistakes while avoiding the leap into overreaction and self-judgment.

Like quizzes? Here’s one on self-compassion developed by Kristin Neff. And the New York Times offers some of Neff’s tips for implementing self-compassion here.

Upon being a good citizen

The big fat “should” parading through my office and my life lately is that “I should be an informed citizen”–and that implies keeping up on the latest world/national events as a key component of good citizenship.

Who says?

Now, caveat emptor, what I’m about to write might sound like one big rationalization coming from me. Oh well. I’m the one that burst out laughing years ago when my spouse was talking about a coworker being shipped off to Kazakhstan on business. My husband is a teasing sort, enjoys making up new words, and I was certain this was a country in that vein. Kazakhstan? Really? I swore he was making it up; he swore it was a real place. I’m also the one that found out about Bin Laden’s capture/death from the tile guy, the next morning. I’m clearly not Ms. Carrie Current Events. Guilty as charged.

But I’m also a fairly sensitive person. Pain imbues much of life sitting in my office each day. I began my career working with emotionally, physically, and sexually-abused children. And I had to make a conscious decision, again years ago, that the news–especially with video involved–was too much on top of all that my work required me to encounter. Ditto for television shows, films, and books that are packed with harm and pain. NOT entertainment, and too much a toll on my emotional equilibrium.

Therefore, I avoid most of the news. I educate myself about issues that I can affect, by voting or writing letters, following through to control what I can within the political process. But aside from practicing loving-kindness meditation for the world’s people and donating to charities which support my philosophy as they do good in the world, what influence do I have? I really don’t think reminding myself about terrorism or natural disasters contributes to my value as a person.

If you’re also a sensitive type, as many are, and this element of our lives, with the 24 hour news cycle that cable TV and the internet have wrought, stresses you, cut yourself some slack. Find another way to contribute to your world and turn off (or tune out) awareness of the violence out there. With no shame.

And if you need fodder for conversation at the next party or even the evening dinner table, check out Good News Daily or, my favorite source of the week’s news, Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me on NPR.

International Women’s Day

March is Women’s History Month, and today is International Women’s Day, devoted to celebrating the economic, social, and political achievements of women, past, present, and future. In fact, this year is a banner year, being the centennial celebration (1911-2011.)

My favorite saying about women in history is “well-behaved women rarely make history.” Translate this adage through the lens of this blog: women history-makers were excellent at disputing cultural shoulds.

Any woman who has ever made history began by rehearsing in her head, debating and talking back to the status quo, asking “who says?” before finally moving into execution of her famous act. The kind of questioning that I live by, and hope to encourage through this blog.

Many ill-behaved women have made history by challenging cultural ‘shoulds.’ Rosa Parks didn’t listen to the bus driver order her to give up her seat to a white passenger. Elizabeth Blackwell and Maria Montessori became the first women physicians(U.S. and College of Rome, Italy, respectively). Who says women had to be nurses? Sally Ride was the first woman in space, topping the accomplishment of a Ph.D. in astrophysics! Who says women can’t do math? And to think that women who applied to be astronauts in the early days of the U.S. space program had to wear high heels and hose during qualifying tests (pre-panty hose, that would mean a garter belt, too!) That brings to mind another adage about women in history: “Don’t forget Ginger Rogers did everything (Fred Astaire) did backwards . . . and in high heels!”

Psychologist James Prochaska has determined that there are stages in the intellectual process of change, steps we must engage in before we can finally act. These stages are precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance. Stroll through the lists of women in history, and imagine the challenges to traditional thinking that were necessary precursors to action. I’m guessing that considerable time was spent contemplating those changes, revising a few assumptions, before these women came close to preparation and action.

We need to cut ourselves some slack if our process of talking back to the status quo, in society or our own heads, takes some time. Find your own pace, time to contemplate and prepare. And maybe, in honor of International Women’s Day, forget being well-behaved and make a little history of your own today. Join the ranks of the history-makers by revving up the chorus of ‘who says?’ in your life.

Talk back–and tell me how you honored the tradition of the day.

Feelings: trusted signals?

“Trust your feelings”–truth or fiction?

We’ve all heard this old adage. We use this phrase to urge others to act on gut feelings, usually suggesting that the recipient will “just know” the answer they need. These cultural underpinnings imply that actualized, emotionally healthy persons wisely let feelings be a guide.

Since my mind constantly locks onto these discrepancies in our use of language, I issue a hearty “who says?”

Sometimes, yes, we do want to trust our feelings. However, like so much of our thinking, this phrase is dangerous if we lock into feelings in a black and white way. Feelings aren’t always an indication of “Truth.” Feelings aren’t always effective guides. Take two of the most common feelings: guilt and anxiety.

In most cases, guilt is not factually-based in wrong-doing. Most of our guilt is driven by inaccurate beliefs, largely fueled by a powerful “should.” “I should be happy, I wanted this baby” when you’re overwhelmed by depression, grieving the freedom of pre-baby life. “I should spend more time on X,” when in actuality you find X boring–or you’re doing the best you can to allocate time to X. “I should feel thankful for Y,” when you’re overwhelmed by stress and having difficulty focusing on the positive. We plague ourselves with guilt for not feeling some prescribed way, rather than trusting a favorite adage of mental health professionals, i.e. that “feelings just are.” Maybe it’s ok to be where we are. Maybe we don’t need to second guess our experience.

Anxiety is an even more powerful signal that we seem to cast as reality. If I’m worried about something, we reason, there must be real danger. We give anxiety such power, translating the biochemical process of stress revving through our bodies as a signal to be heeded. Just like guilt, irrational beliefs (e.g. “it will be a catastrophe! Everything will be ruined!”) abound. Much of the time, worry and anxiety are based in conditioned responses. Our bodies habitually respond with this runaway action. As Rick Hanson says, maybe the tiger in the bushes isn’t really a tiger. We’re paying on that debt we may not owe. We’re anticipating future angst, to use a Bible verse (Matthew 6:34) shared with me this week: “Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.”

I preach (and try to practice myself) to first stop and evaluate, and then hopefully, to dismiss anxiety and guilt. Is this a real worry? Do I truly have anything to feel guilty about? Call it what it is: energy spent in a direction that is not necessary or helpful. “It’s just anxiety–not reality.” “I have no need to feel guilty–I’m doing the best that I can do.” Talk back to those feelings, saying what you would tell a friend. Offer yourself self-compassion, which I’ve taught for years as self-care, and now has credibility, with mention in The New York Times.

The majority of the time, there’s no magic message in anxiety and guilt. Let those feelings go.