Monthly Archives: February 2015

No need for condolences

No need for condolences.

 

Last week my brother died. Well sort of. And let me tell you if you haven’t already figured it out, this is going to be a strange blog post.

So was Leonard my brother? Yes. And did he die. Yes. But I say sort of because Len was 14 years older than I, and severely mentally retarded. He had been institutionalized since before I was born, and although I would see him once or twice a year when I was pretty young, he really had no clue of who I was, and I had pretty much the same feeling about him. I remember once when I was about 4 years old that he had a little wind up car that he zoomed through my massively wild curls of hair. My mother had to painstakingly cut it out. That experience provided no incentive to strike up a more meaningful relationship between him and my 4 year old self.

At some point Leonard was moved to a facility in a small town in the middle of Missouri.   I pretty much didn’t see him for several years. I think the last time was shortly after my first son was born 15 years ago. I drove my mother to visit with him. He was pretty wild and so a visit really only lasted for about an hour. After that, he began to pace like a caged animal wanting to return to his natural habitat.

Leonard knew our oldest brother a little more so, and my sister Rose. For several years now Rose has been Leonard’s legal guardian. She had to bear the responsibility of making end of life decisions for him, and it was Rose who called to tell me he had passed away. I feel badly for her. But I don’t feel badly for me because it is not more sad for me than the passing of any other person on earth that I don’t know.  I don’t even feel badly for Leonard, because this past year has been tough for him physically and I have to believe he is no longer suffering.

But I also feel badly for his “family” and that is what this post is really about. The physician who provided the last of care for Leonard told our sister that his room was graced with constant visitors. When Rose communicated to his casework Connie, that Leonard’s funeral should take place in the town where he has lived the last 30 plus years, Connie broke down in tears on the phone. She told my sister that it’s what they all so badly wanted, but didn’t have the right to ask for. Rose said, and I agree with her completely that “they are his family”. They have loved him and cared for him all of this time. They knew him. They will miss him.

That experience made me think about the definition of family, and some of the stories that belong to people I have worked with over the years. The woman whose son doesn’t call, or acknowledge her on mother’s day but the other “family” who has adopted her. Does she have a right to consider them as family? Or the man who has raised the daughters of his wife, but never legally adopted them out of respect for their “father”. What should he call himself?   There is the young woman whose parents lived a considerable distance away, and she was comforted and supported by the parents of her roommate. Yet, she tried to always respect the boundary of not being “real family”.

Having lost my own father at a young age, and not finding my mother as a particularly helpful source of guidance about the world, I have said many times that I feel as though I’ve been fortunate enough to have been nurtured by a number of other parents over the years. Some were professional, some more personal. But in reality, even those I call professional existed primarily because the other person extended a fondness towards me. They are someone who was willing to give extra of themselves to help nurture me along on my journey. As a mother myself these days, I recognize it as the same maternal instinct that wells up within me about someone, for whom, I want to go the extra distance.

So all of this, I guess is to say that family does not for me, fit into a neat category as defined by blood relationships. When a family adopts a child as their own, we don’t see the relationship real only because it is legal. Rather, we assume that once the child is welcomed into the family, there is no longer a distinction despite the lack of shared bloodlines. Why then, if this fact is true, must other family relationships be limited by the same definition?

 

Have you enlarged your family over the years? Are their family members who love you that you won’t legitimize without legal or proof of a blood test?

 

 

Do you have any bad habits?

Do you have any bad habits?

Scientists estimate that roughly 40% of the actions people perform each day aren’t actual decisions, but habits. The good news is that habits can be changed if we understand how they work.

Habits are the result of neurological patterns that become “hard wired” in our brain. Once that wiring path is established, we no longer have to engage in thinking about a behavior. It comes naturally to us. Therefore, if we want to change a behavior, we have to do something to “interrupt” the existing circuit.

The circuit, if you will, consists of a couple of static variables. First is the trigger, second is the behavior and third is the reward. My husband often complains that our dog wakes him up in the morning to go outside. There is a trigger, perhaps one of us stirs or daylight breaks through the window. Snickers begins to bump our bed on Ben’s side of the bed as if it was the boat in Jaws and she is a circling shark. And then he goes into the kitchen, opens up the door, lets her outside and feeds her. And that is what we call a double reward. So it has become a habit.

The interesting observation for me in this circuit however, is that if Ben is out of town, I usually have to wake Snickers up. She will be in a deep peaceful sleep much past her usual wake up time. I often have to call her to get her to go outside, and if I don’t put down food (in the garage) she will jump back up the step to go back in the house without even having gone out to go to the bathroom. She has figured out there is no reward in that behavior, and thus ignores the trigger. My boat is safe from dangerous attack. Before you start to think my husband is just a wimpy pushover, I should confess that the kids have me much better trained to provide rewards.

I imagine if we were to look at brain scans of our dog (not something we do with any regularity), we would find a neuropathway (for those with a science background, forgive me if my grasp of this sciency stuff is childlike), that she has a circuit that gets tripped not only by the light coming in or a sound, but it must also have the information available that someone who cares (my husband) is also home and available. So, Ben being home is also a part of the trigger. She may see the same light of day, but the absence of Ben contributes to a fail in providing a strong enough trigger to motivate behavior.

What does this mean in human terms except that we can do it 7 times slower? Well, it means that if you don’t like a particular habit, you’ll need to examine both your triggers and your REWARDS. Habits don’t really go away in the sense that the brain doesn’t “lose or expunge” them, they just become more like abandoned roads. They still exist, but they become the road less traveled so to speak.

Most of us don’t like to give up our rewards. Even ones that stopped making sense to us along the way. Sometimes what started as a reward for one reason has now become a reward in the sense that it gives us a feeling of familiarity or continuity and so we continue to strive for that. So, any attempt to change a habit means to put triggers in place that will still provide a payoff for us. And, the payoff can’t be so far in the future that, its remoteness strips away our will to earn.

 

As is the case with nearly every blog I write, the key to making progress in habit change begins with mindfulness. Habits don’t change when we are rushed, unprepared, and unable to think clearly because we are depleted and or exhausted. Mindfulness means to start first with understanding what you are doing now, why you want to change, creating a plan with accountability and support and THEN implementing behavior.

Have you had any success in changing habits that you would like to share? What helped you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lucy

I’d like to tell you a story about Lucy the dog. While married to my first husband, we owned two female German Shorthair pointers. I had not been familiar with the breed prior to owning them, and in fact, was even a little intimidated by their size and muscular build. But I immediately fell in love with them because of their gentle and lovable nature.   Things were great until we decided to add a third dog into our household.

Lucy was the runt of her litter. We selected her in part, because she was so tiny and that seemed initially to only add to her adorableness. She was timid and cuddly and I carried her in my lap the whole ride home in my lap to introduce her to her new family. But almost immediately upon introducing her to the other two “girls”, we saw a side of Lucy we had not yet seen. The tiny little ball of white fur began hissing and snapping at our other two dogs almost like she was possessed. We snatched her up and tried again at different intervals with little success.

Within a day or two we took Lucy to our vet, the same one who had cared for our other dogs and knew us fairly well. Our vet checked Lucy out despite Lucy’s lack of cooperation. Our vet deemed Lucy to have a poor temperament and recommended we take her back to the breeder as soon as possible. We were stunned and confused as to why we had not seen this side of Lucy before.

Not yet willing to give up, we took Lucy to a doggie behaviorist. Yes, I’m still a little embarrassed to admit that, but it’s true. I was grasping at straws about what to do with Lucy. But as it turned out, the behaviorist turned out to be incredibly smart and helpful. She told us that Lucy’s temperament was just fine. The problem as she saw it was that, Lucy was so tiny, that in the presence of two big dogs (who had obviously arrived at the party long before her and knew the routine) Lucy felt frightened and intimidated. And so, she protected herself with the only productive resource she had: hissing and growling. It’s not as if she had the skill to take either of them on in a physical fight. The behaviorist suggested we separate Lucy from the other girls until she got a little bigger and stronger before leaving them together again. We took her advice and ended up in a short time with three dogs who loved being together.

I am often reminded of this story when I work with some people. I especially recall a family from a few years ago. The husband and son viewed their wife and mother as aggressive, bitter and controlling. It was clear when we worked individually, that this woman, not only did not see herself the same, but felt rather helpless in the relationship with the other two. Similarly, a newlywed woman told me recently that, she often feels like a burden to her husband and not worthy of his time, even though he describes their relationship as her not wanting to be around him.

When I hear these types of stories, I am reminded of Lucy. It describes for me that, it is often a sense of helplessness and insignificance that fuels people into behaviors that, come across as powerful and overbearing to others. When we are the recipient of such behavior, we want to shut them down. Unfortunately, that is the very approach that reinforces their starting feeling and spawns more of the behavior from them that we don’t want. It becomes a perpetuating cycle.

The behaviorist suggested we help Lucy become bigger and stronger to feel less intimidated. It’s hard to think of how to find the willingness to do that with/for an individual that feel is already emotionally pummeling you. The key however, is to try and consider that their outward strength, may possibly be a reaction to feeling vulnerability, intimidation or fear. This shift in your thinking doesn’t require that you put them on the couch and psychoanalyze the other person. In fact, you don’t even have to be “right”. By simply shifting how you respond to the other person you interrupt the cycle. When you aren’t resisting, there is no need to keep fighting. I’m not suggesting you lay down and take a beating, but rather, you use the encounter as an opportunity to learn something more about the other person and what is motivating their behavior. Questions like “I can see that you are really upset, can you help me understand how it feels like I may be contributing to that for you? This is an example of Stephen Covey’s “seek first to understand and then to be understood principle. I genuinely believe it’s one of the single most effective tools in developing and maintaining strong communication with another person.

 

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My Brilliant Audience

A big part of blog writing motivation for me is the comments that you guys make. They challenge me, gratify me, and most of all inspire me to think. Last week was no exception and this comment from “K” in response to “more spring cleaning” got me thinking: “When you say it could be interpreted as cold to withdraw from some people, a lot of people will agree and dislike that advice overall. But when you spend a lot of time and energy on a person who is wasting those resources of yours, how much time are you taking away from others in your life? Time is a much more scarce and precious asset than money after all.” I think in part this struck a nerve because I’m a little guilty myself. My job is in the helping profession. And while it’s easy to look at my schedule in terms of the hours I sit in my office during any given day, there is a lot of other work activity that can easily fill my day from returning phone calls and emails to writing reports… and even blogging. Yes, blogging. All of these are things that are necessary, not because I have a boss standing over me, but because I feel like they are part of what enables me to feel like I’m doing my job to the best of my ability. They are important to me. But these are the tasks for which there is not a billable hour attached to them. And without that, it means there is not a clear start and stop time. I have to monitor this effort from within. When I’m successful at doing that, life hums along pretty well. But despite what I know in my head, I too can get backed up on obligations and I have to make choices I often don’t like in order to work my way out of overload. A client I haven’t heard from in a long time drops me an email. And days go by before I respond. I owe someone a follow up to a conversation and I take much longer than seems reasonable. A colleague or friend asks me to participate in an event that will take a considerable amount of time with little or no payback. And when I don’t manage it well, the people who suffer are primarily my husband, my kids and ME. As K so wisely pointed out in the comment “Time is a much more scarce and precious asset than money after all”. And time, once passed, can never be made up or recovered. You can do better going forward, but you can’t get back what you gave away.   While fortunes can be made, lost and made again, the clock only moves in one direction. I’m not suggesting that you or I should neglect our responsibilities in order to spend more time with people we love. I am however, floating this as a reminder to myself that sometimes the job, social or even family tasks are things we often assign to ourselves with arbitrary standards of acceptability. Sometimes, those standards are such that while each individual task may seem reasonable, the weight of the whole is unbearable and undoable. The most logical way I know to address this is of course mindfulness. It’s Steven Covey’s Sharpening the Saw. It’s taking stock. Look in the mirror, look at the people you believe you care most about. Are they (and you) getting enough of you compared to that which you give to others? I hope you didn’t find a lot of typos when you read this post. I’m not going to proof it. I could, but I think I’ll go say goodnight to my kids instead.