Truth or consequences

One of the hardest tasks in life is being true to one’s self. However inadvertent, most little girls are taught to value niceness over self-affirmation: “Did you make your friend cry?” “Don’t make Mommy mad.” “Be a good girl and smile”. While it is admirable to be a kind, considerate, nurturing person, too often we make this a priority at expense of our own needs. When generation upon generation parents with this goal of creating “nice” girls, models and skills are lacking to teach:

  1. How to balance our own needs with the needs of others.
  2. How to be strong and secure in oneself, able choose what works for us in the face of others’ disapproval.
  3. How to preserve sense of self against the ever-constant societal expectations for women to please, serve, or nurture others.

This lack of a strong model of “this is me, warts and all” leads to the biggest mistake that I see in relationships: sacrificing one’s self for the sake of the relationship. Women aren’t silly putty, forming to the container created by others in their lives. Accepted common sense in relationships (thanks, feminist movement!) asserts that we must be willing to compromise. We know that partnerships involve give and take, negotiating so that each party’s preferences are met at times. Too often, in our ever-present all or nothing thinking, however, we confuse this healthy compromise with sacrifice. There needs to be a balance between compromise over issues and sacrifice of personality preferences that leads to loss of self.

Let’s explore this. Person A loves to entertain, and Person B, (partner of person A) is extremely shy. Person A can compromise, and agrees to only invite two guests to dinner at a time. This might be an acceptable give and take. However, if Person A does not wish to stress Person B, so gives up entertaining all together, this is a sacrifice that may lead to resentment. In a recent episode of the award-winning drama House, MD, a couple was treated who were allegedly asexual. They each had agreed that sex was not important to their marriage. House, in his relentless style, pursued this problem until he discovered a pituitary tumor in the husband which had rendered him dysfunctional sexually. When treatment restored sexual function, the wife revealed that she was not actually asexual. She had chosen this path for the sake of her husband.

Granted, this arrangement appeared to be working for this TV couple. However, too many women sacrifice similar parts of themselves, to appear to be something they are not, for the sake of the relationship. I have yet to see that this is a workable model for relationship success. The challenge is to be yourself in all realms of your life. We want to surround ourselves, in significant partnerships and friendships, with others who can accept us as we are and enable us to be our best selves. In this month of love, that’s the truth for which we want to strive. I’m my own unique me, and my choices make me who I am. My goal is to affirm that, regardless of others’ reactions. This is truly one of the most difficult–yet ultimately rewarding–challenges of life.

Be yourself. Know in your heart that you are acting in a way that works for you. And feel the strength grow within you as you do.

Truth in advertising

The phone rang. I still have a land line, though callers on that line other than political, nonprofit, and home remodeling solicitors are few. So I check the caller ID before I pick up. And this is what I saw:

I was literally rolling on the floor laughing. How transparent! I didn’t pick it up (hmm, did I really need to clarify that point?). The machine did, promptly recording a message about the super low interest rate I could receive on my credit card if I’d just call promptly. I wondered how this happened. What company lists it’s business name as “phone scam”? Really?!?

The more I pondered, however, the more impressed I became. How freeing, to be able to be completely honest about who you are. Moving through life, how often do we truly embrace this concept? It’s a socially-accepted construct to put our best self forward. Everyone wants to look like they’re breezing through life, no problems, loving their lives, ever-confident. Sounds like another version of pretending to be superman/woman to me.

It takes so much energy to hold up that mask. Exhausting after awhile. It also distances us from each other. We back off on sharing trials, angst-ridden moments, frustrations, fearing that we will look weak. Certainly we are the only ones stumbling, since no one else talks about it. Must be we are deficient. The problem seems our ability to excel–not the less-than-honest story-telling.

When I turned 50, the impact of having lived half a century felt heavy. I no longer wanted to put on a front, hiding my true self. And I ran with the sudden impulse to present myself as I am. Some friends drifted away, confused looks on their faces as I spoke up in matter-of-fact ways they’d never witnessed. Some activities I let slide. I got pretty good at saying “I don’t know” and “I’m sorry, I screwed up” and “I disagree” and “Please don’t treat me that way.” I started honestly living my full warty self.

I’m human. I make mistakes. I’m good at many things and lousy at others. Being honest about who I am is freeing, and while difficult at first, appears to take less energy eventually, leaving more for creating the life I want to live. Proclaiming the equivalent of “phone scam” in my own life is not a single event, however. It’s a step down the path to living the right life. This step for me was important ground work for growth, for embracing self-compassion, for building a life infused with joy.

Once is enough

Self-compassion is a favorite focus of mine–with the goal that we all want to beat ourselves up a little less each day. In our human habit of black and white thinking, there’s the tendency to think that means letting ourselves off the hook for any mistakes. That would be dysfunctional, unhealthy, like we’re getting away with proverbial murder.

It is healthy to evaluate our failures in order to correct our course and grow. But need to punish or judge ourselves, for character building, exists once. But only once. Would you have a criminal punished again and again? Isn’t that what we do when we relentlessly chastise ourselves for our human failings?

The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz addresses this human tendency to make ourselves pay for a mistake thousands of times. Other creatures make a mistake, learn from it, and move on. True justice, says Ruiz, is paying only once for an error. True injustice is repeatedly punishing ourselves, through guilt, shame, and self-derogatory talk.

When I was a teenager, learning to drive, we had a three foot diameter maple tree on the absolute edge of our home’s driveway. This tree abutted the black top–no grass for buffering error. Backing the car out of the driveway meant the tree loomed and teased, begging me to scrape up against it, every time. Most of the time I drove my dad’s VW Beetle, so it was easy to miss the tree. After I’d been driving some months, my dad let me drive the big fancy sedan, necessary to haul our little Sunfish sailboat, to the local lake. He was so worried about me taking the big family car and driving an hour away, boat on top. I promised I’d be so careful, and I worried all day, even making my friends walk farther across the hot parking lot in bare feet, boat in the air, so I could park FAR away from other cars. All went well. No scrapes for the car, all the way to the lake and back. We unloaded the boat, and I had to back the big car out of the drive once more to let my sister out of the drive with the VW. The sickening sound of the driver’s side front fender on that tree, on this final backing, is forever burned in my brain. As is the shame. My dad wasn’t even that mad–but I felt terrible. Even though my big sister had driven this same big sedan into a HUGE ditch the year before, miles from civilization in a Canadian campground, and she’d survived.

Not only do we punish ourselves on multiple occasions for the same flaw, we often punish those we love as well: every time we remember their mistake. We label, categorize, and judge–based on one incident. Whether we are judging ourselves or others, once is enough. Talk it out with yourself or your loved one, and let it go. If it recurs, revisit the issue. Otherwise, offer some compassion, remember the ratio of good to bad, and move on.

I think I’m ready to let go of that visceral memory. Here it goes: floating away like an errant helium balloon. Have any of your own balloons to release? Join me–I feel better already.

Perfect is a given–Perfectionism, part 2

Perfectionism. The state of being perfect. In part one of this series on perfectionism, I referred to two definitions of perfectionism: 1) that perfection involves being disappointed in any aspect of our lives that is not exactly as we’d wish, vs. 2) a religious belief that moral or spiritual perfection exists within this human life. So which is it? Are we imperfect beings living imperfect lives, with the quest for perfection a crazy-making path? Or are we and our lives perfect already, just as we are? Makes my brain fuzzy, so I’m infusing a little philosophy into this blog today as I briefly explore the concepts underneath definition #2.

Not having much schooling in philosophy and/or Eastern religion, the idea that perfection already exists in the universe has been slow to dawn on me. Eons of writers, from Buddhists to Christians to atheist scientists, have expounded upon the idea that the universe represents perfection already, especially the perfection of nature. American author Alice Walker asserted “in nature, nothing is perfect and everything is perfect. Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways, and they’re still beautiful.” Likewise, Walt Whitman exclaimed about the perfection of the universe, saying “All the things of the universe are perfect miracles, each as profound as any.” German mathemetician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz wrote that God (substitute higher power or source, if you wish) created the universe from infinite choices, saying “the actual world, as the result of all these claims, must be the most perfect possible.” Even fellow psychologist Wayne Dyer, Ph.D., much later to the table but inspired by the Tao Te Ching, writes “Everything is perfect in the universe – even your desire to improve it.”

Courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory on Flickr

These collective views suggest that the universe– and by definition, this includes it’s inhabitants and the progression of their lives– is already perfect. We can embrace this perfection, trusting that the overall plan of the universe is much bigger than our individual minds can comprehend. Who says our meager human brains have a handle on how things should be? In the words of Caroline Myss, “human logic is not divine logic.” At times, believing that “everything happens for a reason” and that all in our world is working out perfectly, the way it is meant to be, can open us up to feeling the boundless possibilities within ourselves. We are already perfect, even in human-scale imperfections.

Perhaps the distinction is big picture, world-view perfection, versus concrete Martha Stewartesque, perfectly-folded-napkins-on-the-exquisitely-dressed-holiday-table perfection. This philosophy says that we can take comfort and affirm our value in our implicit rightness of being and doing. The belief that, at any one moment, we are all doing the best that we can–flaws and all– has infused my entire practice of psychology. Even while it’s hard to apply sometimes in my own life. Remembering this in your daily life can be life-affirming: we’re all perfect, just as is.

Wand targets, #1

In an effort to organize this blog, I’m launching some new categories. Admittedly, who really knows why I have a sudden need to provide order, after a half year of randomness? The need to organize usually arises out of feeling out of control, like when the house is such a mess that you suddenly just have to tear into (and straighten) the junk drawer. With the tidy drawer in front of you, you breathe a sigh of relief and accomplishment, feeling like you’ve grabbed the reins on your runaway life. I’m in the process of developing new writing projects in other venues, so the “to do” list is expanding, like one of those toys that magically “grow” into a slimy, disgusting object that you can’t wait to pitch into the trash once the children aren’t looking. Grow a dinosaur, grow a boyfriend, grow a cowboy–whatever your heart’s desire. But I digress. . .

New category number one is “wand targets.” If you could wave your trusty magic wand, and forever banish hated experiences and minor aggravations, what would be the target? What would vanish from your life? Tops on the list for most fallible human beings is the experience of being wrong. It’s a fairly universal state that we unanimously hate. Jokes in sitcoms and comedy routines abound (okay, often about men in particular) aimed at our discomfort uttering the phrases: “I was wrong” or “I made a mistake.” I continually tell myself, and clients, that making mistakes is NO BIG DEAL. To err is human, after all. I recommend repetition of the mantra “I’m only human. People make mistakes” as a way to stop the judgment, substituting a verbal pat on the back instead. You’re doing the best you can do. You can’t expect to be right 110% of the time.

Journalist Kathyrn Schulz has written Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. which offers an in-depth, and surprising, look at this issue. Schulz explains that we detest being wrong because of over-generalization and absolute, all or nothing reasoning. Just the sort of meme–thinking traps–that I like to ferret out and expose. Most of us react negatively because being wrong seems to confirm our inherent flawed nature. When we make a mistake, we feel stupid, useless, incompetent. We zero in on the error, convinced it represents the total package of who we are, rather than one slip. Underlying the shame and disappointment are thoughts such as “what an idiot I was.” Even deeper underneath that brain chatter is the belief that “I must be perfectly correct and successful at all times, or I’m a loser.” Being wrong equals failure, in our minds.

Schulz offers an affirming counter view: that error is the fundamental human condition and should be celebrated. Drawing on cognitive science, Schulz says that mistakes in judgment and actions and the ability to make correct inferences are a result of the same process. We can’t be right without sometimes being wrong–because the underlying mechanism is the same. Inductive reasoning is the path to most decisions. We collect facts, fit them together, and draw a conclusion, assuming that it’s right. In terms of probability, most of the time it is. But sometimes, the facts don’t fit together in the anticipated way, and we’re surprised–and often offended that our process failed us. Schulz suggests acceptance of the fact that inductive reasoning itself is fundamentally, unavoidably fallible. But fallible does not mean useless.

The process of language learning is an example, says Schulz. Tiny kids learn to add the suffix ‘-ed’ to words to create the past tense, through inductive reasoning when listening to adults. Most of the time, this rule is successful: “walked” or “played.” But it’s not universal, as we see when children relate how they “sleeped ” or “eated.” Inductive reasoning has a high hit rate–with a healthy dose of misses.

It’s still the best our brains have–with a proviso, says Schulz, that she calls the paradox of error. To prevent error, we have to embrace the possibility that mistakes are inevitable because of how our brains work. Mistakes are an intrinsic part of a fundamentally sound system–not a reason to chastise yourself or others. Brings us back to the mantra, true all along. Everyone does make mistakes. This reassurance is not based simply in a generic, feel-good, esteem enhancing philosophy. It’s a scientific fact about human physiology. Update the mantra: “I’m only human–that’s how brains work.” It’s not just talk of empty reassurance; it really is the best we can do.

Inspiration from Jessica

Perhaps you’ve seen this hilarious youtube video, Jessica’s Daily Affirmation? If not, treat yourself and be inspired–or if so, watch it again.

Like Jessica, we simply ooze with self-confidence and self-love when we’re small. Last weekend, attending a family wedding, the biggest source of entertainment (after the bride, of course) was the new baby in attendance. Finley’s a charmer, seven months old, gladly beaming and flirting as long as he’s on his sweet momma’s lap. He was truly the center of attention, having as many as ten adults at a time oohing and gooing at him, working to evoke his seductive smile. Making him happy just made us happy.

Adorable great-nephew Finley

Smiling babies, after exercise, might just be the quickest route to increasing endorphins–at least when we’re not their primary caretakers and can hand them back. It’s easy to see how kids transfer that love and focus of adult attention into Jessica’s ability to affirm herself.

Then something mysterious happens; the balance shifts. Our parents don’t want us to be spoiled brats, to monopolize the room endlessly, to turn into narcissists who brag. We internalize the idea that nice girls are humble, deny compliments, mutter “oh, this old thing?” about our dresses. Too often we exclaim “this hair?” when we might do better to laud our tresses, as does Jessica of the flowing golden ringlets.

This idea of narcissism as negative is largely an idea of Western culture. I’ve just completed a week long training/retreat on mindfulness meditation, and came away with several key reminders about narcissism. It’s a character flaw only when taken to excess. In typical all or nothing thinking, however, women in particular view self-love as negative, rather than realizing that a healthy dose makes us feel good. In cognitive behavior therapy, the school of thought that most guides my clinical work, the related concept is self-efficacy. Jessica’s statement of self-efficacy is “I can do anything good!” Finally, in Buddhist psychology and related Eastern philosophies, narcissism or self-love is central to feeling good. Simplistically, for the sake of brevity, we suffer when we don’t love and embrace ourselves fully rather than recognizing our infinite perfection as part of, one with, the perfect universe.

You don’t need to plow over others with your evidence of self-love–but at least shower it upon yourself. Stand in front of the mirror, chant your gifts, strengths and beauty. Daily. And don’t forget to underscore your sentiments with a resounding clap. Yeah, yeah, yeah!!!!!!

Nobody’s business

Listening to an audio presentation by Wayne Dyer, Ph.D., and Christiane Northrup, M.D., I was struck by this quote: “what others think of you is none of your business.” How much energy do we spend wondering–or fretting–about others’ opinions of us? As if we need that information–especially if it’s positive–to affirm us? If we perceive that someone’s opinion is negative, we feel rejected, even worthless. And even may revise ourselves to be someone that we’re not.
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Naked in the woods

I’ve just had the delight of Mother’s Day weekend with my two grown daughters at Gray Bear Lodge in the hills of Tennessee. The event was a Red Tent retreat, named after the ancient tradition of women separating themselves from the rest of the tribe during menstruation, resting, recuperating, and nurturing each other in a separate tent. If you’ve not read Anita Diamant’s great book by the same name, check it out. Who says this is an out-dated tradition? Imagine the reduction in stress levels if once a month we retreated from the world to spend time in connection, sharing stories, laughter, and pampering, with our sisters, mothers, and daughters. Let alone in a setting like this.

Healing abounded in the woods: scenic beauty, sauna followed by cold plunge in spring-fed creek, sand shower, rock pool and hot tub, natural facials–all anticipated and welcome experiences. Unexpected aspects of the weekend abounded–like group drumming. My less than musical self could keep time slowly, and even enjoyed it once I got out of my rational head.

Most wonderful– and most surprising of all– was the afternoon spent by this pristine waterfall, sunbathing in the buff. Two dozen women, all ages and shapes, easily shed clothing and communed comfortably together. No judgment in the air, either woman to woman or in any woman’s head. No air-brushed models here. With a few young exceptions, these were Rubenesque bodies that had birthed and breastfed babies, weathered life, cradled dying spouses. Cellulite be damned, we all reveled in soaking up the warmth radiating from sunshine on the table-size rocks. We waded into the freezing water, stumbled across the stones, and rubbed green-tinged mud all over. After the mud dried, we scrubbed it off until our skin glowed pink and alive.

The lack of self-consciousness and total acceptance flowed as freely as the cadence of our leader’s drum on the hike to the waterfall. And caused me to reflect on how rare–and powerful– it is, to free ourselves from our body image obsession (does this look good on me? is my butt too big?) and immerse ourselves in complete acceptance. Who says we can only feel beautiful if our bodies fit some arbitrary, waifish standard?

The phrase repeated throughout the weekend about our generous bodies was “goddess flesh.” As in (as we sank cross-legged onto the floor for meditation) “reach under your buttocks, adjust your goddess flesh so you can sink in and get comfortable.” This is a phrase we all can adopt each time those self-critical, culture-driven appearance obsessions pop into our heads. We’re all goddesses–embrace this body that works for you, which is all it needs to do.

And if you want to protect this lovely spot, check out the Gray Bear Land Trust.

The panty conversation is growing. (creeping?)

Looks like I’m not the only one talking about panties as a women’s issue. Check out Linda Lowen’s entry this week, with her link to Love it, Linda!

Celebrate Wednesday and go buy yourself a new pair of panties–comfortable and sexy if that appeals to you. I’m preferring SteinMart for good deals these days. The amount spent is anotherdie-hard, drummed-into-me-at- an-early-age standards. Paying $15 for something that weighs less than an ounce and will be enjoyed by few stretches my envelope a bit. I feel even more empowered by discovering a sexy, lacy, COTTON thong for $3! As Dirty Harry would say, “go ahead, make my day.”

I don’t want to brag, but . . .

“I shouldn’t brag, but . . .” Fill in the blank: “I just paid off my car/student loan/house.” Or maybe “My child made it into the gifted program/the select soccer team/Harvard.” Hardly a day goes by without this example of how women are conditioned to minimize their successes, to hide their skills, to quash their good news. This is so deeply ingrained in us. Who says? Why shouldn’t we take pride in our accomplishments?

Examination of this question is personal of late, as I think about the need to announce blog launched, books published, radio show to debut — at least if I want followers. Humility was drummed into me at an early age, growing up as a preacher’s kid. Even as I sit in solid mid-life (if you’re counting years, nearly two thirds into my life, statistically) it is hard for me, as for the women I listen to throughout my life, to even announce my achievements, let alone with pride. Women I know have written admirable books, started social movements, reigned as national experts in their fields, created art that inspires, raised remarkable young adults. And the norm is to hem and haw and softly mutter about what we’ve done, lacing the speech with apologies and detractions. The equivalent of “oh, this old thing?” when someone compliments your brand-new dress. Those admonishments in our heads to be nice and not brag never seem to quiet entirely.

And why is this? We want to be nice girls. Nice girls don’t brag. Good girls don’t toot their own horns. This modesty is not for modesty’s sake, however. Nice girls are programmed to be cautious and concerned about the feelings of others. Isn’t that what it’s about? We don’t brag (or even proclaim deserved pride) in our accomplishments because we don’t want others to feel badly. We don’t want others to feel that they come up short. So we downplay our triumphs and miss an opportunity to boost ourselves up.

I’m not saying we should model ourselves after those who constantly broadcast their own victories, however shallow or magnificent, and are seemingly incapable of any topic beyond their own gold stars. As I often remind clients when talking about this life-changing switch to self-affirmation, I’m not that powerful a therapist that I can turn a self-effacing person into a narcissist. Nor is that the goal. Just calling for a little balance, swing the pendulum ever so slightly towards positive feelings about self and away from minimization of life’s prizes. Good friends and loving families want to celebrate with us. They realize that we’re not proclaiming ourselves “better than.” We’re trying on some well-earned self-praise and want to share the joy, not shouting nyah, nyah.

Let’s trust that others will share our pride. Let’s affirm that we deserve to feel good about our hard work. Let’s remember that there’s plenty of happiness to go around and our wins don’t jinx our sister’s chances. Let’s inspire with our strengths, moving other women toward their own dreams, rather than viewing life as a competition. Let’s embrace each other’s bragging, rejoicing not just in the lauded event but in the boost to esteem that healthy bragging brings.

Oh, and by the way, please spread the word about my blog. If you like my message, pass it on to your friends. And look forward with me to the launch of my radio show, “The Sanity Hour,” beginning February 22 at 7 p.m. CT on HerInsight radio network. I’ll need guests, if you want to share my fifteen minutes of fame. Link coming soon!