Tag Archives: relationships

If The Shoe Fits

A number of years ago a woman came into see me because she was incredibly frustrated with her husband.  She sat down and began telling me that her husband recently told her she was crazy!  She obviously found this very hurtful.  I agreed and asked her to provide some context.

She went on to explain that they had been eating dinner at home.  When he finished his meal he pushed his plate forward a bit, stood up from his chair and began to leave the table.  She quickly told him that he needed to put his plate in the sink and that is when he told her she was crazy.

I asked her if this was an unusual act for him and if he normally put his own plate in the sink.  She quickly responded saying “NO! That’s the problem.  For twenty years he has been leaving his plate on the table for me to put it away.  But on that night I had had enough and told him he needed to do it himself.  And that is when he told me I was crazy!”

I looked at her and told her she was crazy!

I’m not usually so blunt, but this was so blatant, and yet she was unable to see what was happening.  For 20 years she had been teaching her husband that she would take care of his plate.  She may not have liked doing it; she may have thought it unfair, but she was actively maintaining an expectation for 20 years.  And then one day she changed the rules and became angry with HIM for not jumping on board when she changed her expectations and his.  She never considered the possibility that he may have some surprise, much less aversion to the new rule.

Everybody knows that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of crazy.  But another definition is abruptly changing the rule that you have personally contributed to designing and maintaining.  So is expecting everyone else to acquire the same level of motivation and commitment for that change by osmosis.

I am seeing a number of women in particular right now who seem to be struggling with getting their husbands to accept new rules because dynamics have changed for these women.  Some have gone back to work, others have started a family.  In some cases these women have simply matured in their needs. As they get more pressured for time, or simply grown tired of continuing to do for their husbands what they may have eagerly signed up for in the past, they want their husband to “want to change” in the way their wives want them to change.  What many women (and some men as well) fail to consider is that their partner was in part attracted to them because of the very behaviors they now want to abolish.  Imagine that you go to a store that gives you free stuff for years.  You love the store until one day they say no more free stuff, and let you know that you are greedy because you keep coming in and expecting them to continue the practice.  Maybe the store has a very good reason, like it can’t make a profit by giving away free stuff anymore.  Regardless of the rationale, you’re likely to feel a bit cheated or at very least surprised by the change in policy.  (If you want proof, talk to someone who is this week absorbing the new Starbucks rewards policy!)

At the start of this type of discussion with me, a woman usually wants me to help her figure out how to get her husband to change.  It doesn’t take long for me to help her understand that the only one who she is capable of changing is herself.

I’ve made this discussion gender biased for the sake of expedience, but the reality is that the dilemma is gender neutral.  We all begin teaching others what our rules for engagement are from our very first meeting.  If a pattern is embedded in our relationship that no longer works for us, it is up to us to take responsibility for how it began.  Our partners (romantic or otherwise) can always introduce a behavior to us, but we are the ones who give it permission to stay in place by what we do in response to the introduction.  When we make room for it to stay, stay it will.  And when we are the initiators of a behavior because we want the other person to think about us in a particular way, then we alone are the ones responsible for maintaining that behavior.  We are responsible for coming come clean about our motives and make recommendations openly and honestly about having changed our willingness to continue the practice.  We also have to be willing to accept the consequences of changing expectations for both us and our partner.  If I have always been willing to work overtime off the clock because I wanted my boss to think I’m a great employee and I elect to stop that one day, my boss may change his opinion of me, or even worse.  I have to be willing to accept that possibility.

How about taking a look at some of the patterns that, you may be less than thrilled with in your relationships?  Can you identify how you either initiated them or made them possible to stick by your behavior?

The young, the old and the truth

Last weekend we went to visit my father in law who is now in an assisted living facility.   Our son Andrew took along his cello and played a mini concert for the residents just before their lunch.  Now that my father in law has been living  there a few months, my sister in law Cristie has become a staple in their community as well.  She introduced us to all of the other residents, clearly knowing them each by name and story.

In Tuesday’s with Morrie, there is a point in which Morrie realizing his condition has deteriorated to the stage where he now needs help in the bathroom to wipe himself.  He says to Mitch that we come into the world needing help wiping and we go out the same way.  The only difference in between is that we have the illusion that we don’t need the help.  The point is we all need relationships including those where we are vulnerable.

Morrie’s wisdom came back to me again this weekend as I watched the residents.  While I’m a proud mother, I realize objectively that Andrew is not playing at the level that should have garnered the excitement and praise he received from the residents.  But like little children excited about someone dressed up in a dinosaur costume, the residents were delighted by Andrew’s performance.  And I don’t think it’s because they are losing their faculties and lost the ability to discern.  It’s because they are now not encumbered with all of the gazillion tasks that those of us in between childhood and aging call life.  We are focused on getting the dog to the vet, cleaning the house, mowing the grass, getting our nails done and working to support all of those privileges.  So often, we prioritize these tasks over relationship.  And more often, we complete them to show we are competent, and sufficient without the help of others.

Younger people see old people as a group different from themselves.  Older people see themselves as the same as they always were.  They know their bodies have aged and they may perhaps even feel a bit wiser, and possibly more content.  But they don’t see themselves as “old”.  More specifically, they include an identity of the young men or women who hung out with friends, danced at parties, liked a particular kind of music.  They reminisce about the things they once did not as something long ago forgotten, but as a part of themselves they still know, and more importantly part of themselves they still want to know. 

I watched the residents form into social groups over the course of the visit and remember similar observations from when my own mother was in a nursing home.  The women still group together in little clicks.  They talk about relationships, updating each other on who is who and what “who” is doing now.  The men are more likely to couple of in pairs or remain single.  They watch TV or read.  But if you look at the same gender distribution of a gathering of younger people, you would probably see similar patterns. 

A little later in the weekend Bens father asked my brother in law about a recent handy man project they had previously discussed.  My father in law wanted to know where his bucket of tools was so he could join right in.  The reality is that his bucket has been gone for some time; it was sold with his house.  But in his mind, he still sees himself as capable, ready to grab a screwdriver and do what he has always done when the need arose.  He wanted to put into motion the feeling he has in his mind’s eye.  He sees himself not as a man hanging out in a “home” until he dies.  He sees himself as productive, useful and resourceful and still important to his son in law.

Children make a picture with their hands and they too feel productive.  And most of the time, we encourage these feelings through our praise.  We hang the picture on our refrigerator and say good job. 

But in the middle of our lives we have the illusion that we have only so much time to “get it right or get it done”.  We rarely stop to recognize that we are the same as we were as children.   We need the same encouragement and permission to allow relationships to take precedence over accomplishment.   We ignore this fact out of fear that our significance will fade into old age where we will be relegated to the home of productive lives passed.  We defend against the fear that our vulnerability might be exposed.

Perhaps the alternative lies in seeing ourselves less as separate entities that shift from one stage to the next measured by our achievements and milestones.  Perhaps there is value in retaining the child and younger parts of ourselves in our current states.  Doing so would surely increase our vulnerabilities, but it would also afford us a proportionate amount of authenticity.

The circle of life

No blog last week because I was on vacation.  My family and I went to Disney World once again. I can’t remember which number trip this was, but it’s been a lot over the last 10 years.  Neither Ben nor I had ever gone to Disney as kids, but we took our sons in 2005 as the first time for all of us.  It was Disney’s 50th anniversary, the year of magic or some cute slogan to announce the wonderful new array of changes.  We had a blast on that first trip which began our Disney love story.

After that we went a few more times, mostly enjoying each of them.  There was a point in which I noticed that we would start to move towards a particular familiar ride and my oldest son would say “nah, I’ll ride it next time”.  That’s when I began to realize we were going too frequently and the boys had begun to take the privilege for granted.  We stopped going for a few years.  Last fall we planned a trip and the boys decided working on their grades wasn’t important to them.  Much to their chagrin, we cancelled the trip about 2 weeks out.  So this spring break adventure was the follow through of a carrot we used to encourage their academic efforts.

We knew in advance of going this time that, there have been some changes at Disney.  For the first time ever in my adventures there are Starbucks at the parks.  We also got these really cool bracelets in advance that are programmed as your park ticket, your hotel key and for “convenience” your credit card.  We knew that a couple of our favorite rides were down for renovation, yet we boarded the plane with familiar enthusiasm and anticipation.

This experience at Disney however was sadly, not so terrific.  A few months back one of my many brilliant clients commented that there is a life cycle to everything.  His words came back to me quickly as I realized that for us, Disney was now in hospice.  I got my first clue when I entered the hotel room and there wasn’t a towel origami creature on the beds.  I love Disney towel origami and always look forward to the surprise that waits at the end of the day.  I simply noted that it wasn’t there but didn’t see it as a harbinger of things to come.

And come they did.  Another of our favorite rides closed the day we arrived.  Several other rides broke while we were on them.  The park was insanely over crowded not simply because it was spring break, but because with a water park also closed and fewer rides, people crowded to what remained available.  I could lament about a number of other annoying experiences but you can read plenty on some of the blogs about Disney complaints.

But this blog entry is anything but a Disney rant.  My message today is really about the experience as a metaphor of life.  As my client said, everything has a life cycle.  The problem isn’t that Disney is cost cutting at its customers expense.  The problem is that I wanted it to stay the same as it was 10 years ago.  Back then I could better tolerate long walking and lines because the newness and excitement sustained me through frustration.  I wanted it to stay the same as when my children were excited and dazzled by every character and parade buying the magic that Disney was selling.

And speaking of my children, something more important happened on this trip.  Our son Alex, now 16 kept ditching us.  I found it frustrating because it didn’t fit my expectation.  I also found it irritating that he would leave us, and then call me 10 times, insist we come meet him at a location and then essentially ditch us again.  It felt selfish and rude until my mature mind came back online.  I realized that my confused expectations were again at work.  The reason Alex left us is because he is 16, not 4 and he needed to be away from us to do what he wanted to do.  The truth of the matter is that we too needed to be away from him because we wanted to do other things.  At the point that I realized this, the trip became considerably more enjoyable for all of us.  He stopped calling me every 10 minutes, and when we did meet back up he was in a great mood willing to share what he had experienced.  Life had moved further around the circle.  Regardless of what Disney does as a company, the experience has changed as it should and will never be what it once was for us as a family.  But there are other experiences which lie ahead for a family with two young men which will undoubtedly contain a different kind of magic.

Perhaps I would have figured this out sooner in the trip if the “Circle of life” ride at Epcot had not already been closed before our arrival.  Or perhaps I would have thought this through had I not been clinging to my expectations.  But, it’s like the Buddhist saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”  I wasn’t ready until our last day.  And just for the record, I never did make it to any of those Starbucks!

 

It started with a penny and turned into a fortune of wealth

 

I met my husband through a personal ad.  Yep,  honest.  Our first face to face meeting was at the St. Louis Science Center.  We met there to watch the movie Everest at the OmniMax.

After enjoying the movie,we walked around a bit and talked.  Okay okay, since it was 17 years ago this month, I can say we walked around and began the process of falling in love.  But while we were there Ben walked over to the squished penny machine and purchased a commemorative Penny.  (Big spender right?).

The next smashed penny we purchased together was at our wedding in Sedona, Arizona.  He made me close my eyes and he guided me over to the machine that he had previously spied.  And since that time we have made a habit of getting a smashed penny on pretty much every adventure.    I don’t know how much money we have spent on smashed penny’s as each one costs .51 cents.  But it’s  been a very wise investment.  Each serves as a reminder not only of the event where we make the purchase, but of the way it all started.  The way building our fortune began.

So let me tell you about our fortune.  Shortly after I had our first son, I was ambivalent about going back to work.  I was concerned that it would be problematic financially if I stayed off for an extended period.  Ben told me at that time in response to my worrying “Mary, we are the wealthiest people I know.”  He was referring of course, to the immense joy that had just come into our lives- a healthy beautiful baby.  We were both healthy, we had a roof over our heads and not much to complain about.  He was right.

Our fortune has continued to grow- both with our second son, and our lives in general.  We have relationships we value, the opportunity to laugh often, and Ben and I are both lucky enough to have work that we both feel passionate about.  Are we lucky?  Sure we are.  And we work at it; somedays more than others.  But more than the presence of any of these gifts, or the absence of any significant tragedy, is the presence of an attitude we both work towards embracing as often as we can.

Whatever is or isn’t we have control only over that, which we think and conclude about, what is and isn’t in our lives.  Every event that occurs is subject to interpretation.  You can feel victimized by events or blessed by them.  It’s always a choice.

Easy to do when the good stuff is happening.  Harder to do when its not.  But growth occurs in BOTH circumstances, and again, good and bad are relative terms, often arbitrarily determined by our own personal filters.  Bad is determined by “I’m not getting things to happen the way I want them to”.  But when we let go of insisting that life result in very precise circumstances as we deem appropriate, we position ourselves to just open up to whatever life actually is.  By removing the pre-determined outcome, we need not be thwarted because something didn’t turn out the way we planned.

This post is redundant if you’ve been reading for a while.  It’s not that I don’t have other things to write about, but rather this is an idea that I feel we all need frequent reminding.  The world is bombarding us minute by minute with the opposite message and so this one is easy to ignore.  Unfortunately, doing so results in our ignoring the tools for creating our own contentment.

I don’t always like Ben and he doesn’t always like me.  The house is often messy, something breaks, I lose my keys.  The kids fight with each other and skip out on their homework.  I don’t think anyone wants to make a reality TV show about us.  We aren’t that interesting.  That said, we are still, as Ben declared “The wealthiest people we know” and it began with one penny.

The Best Friend I Never Met

There is a somewhat obscure movie called About Schmidt starring Jack Nicholson.  In the film Nicholson plays a recent widower who has to find a life and identity for himself, after a lifetime of being reasonably disengaged.  Prior to her death, he had predominantly relied on his wife to execute any responsibility of personality.

One night after his despondence began increasing, he finds himself up late watching TV and sees a commercial soliciting money for poor children in a third world country.  By donating one is assigned a specific child to begin correspondence with.  The remainder of the movie includes letters he sends to the child on the subject “About Schmidt”.   As he introduces himself presumably to give the child a sense of who is making a donation, he is simultaneously introducing himself as his own life is evolving.

Shortly after becoming pregnant with my first son, some form of communication came to us, I don’t remember exactly how it began.  It was from a friend named Maureen who had shared the same dorm floor with my husband in college.  Ben and Maureen stayed in contact loosely over the years, usually through a Christmas card.  But somehow, that particular communication introduced Maureen to me and we realized we had much in common.  We were both pregnant with our first child; I was due with Alex in January, she was due with Bella in April.  Maureen also had a Master’s degree in Social Work.

Over the years, we have exchanged many letters and emails.  I next had Andrew, she next had Sarah.  We shared tales of motherhood, challenges and joys of being older moms.  We talked about growing older, family changes, work and occasionally the state of the world.  We offered and still do offer mutual support and reminders of a shared history as we both traverse this stage of life.

But the irony as you’ve probably already guessed is that Maureen and I have never met.  It almost happened one time when we were going to be in Kansas City, but unfortunately our travels there were always short stays and already over packed with family obligations.  Somewhere along the line, however, Maureen and I have figured out that seeing each other across the table at Starbucks is not a requirement for us to have a meaningful friendship.  (I’m pretty sure she is reading this now with a bit of surprise).

I think this kind of a relationship is not necessarily common or easy to find.  Historically, I’ve often found it hard for me to stay connected with people I don’t see often.  Perhaps one of the things that makes this work more easily is that neither of us has expectations of the other.  If too much time passes between exchanges, one of us asks for something at that point and the other grants it, or at least lets us know when we can.  And regardless of how much time passes, we seem able to pick right back up in step and move from there.

I’m sharing this post as a way to think about how important it is to have support in one’s life and that it isn’t always necessary that it come from traditional sources.  Schmidt found writing to an unknown child when exploring his unfamiliar parts.  I write to someone I clearly think of as my friend, having never met.  The similarity in both cases is the willingness to share honestly and to give mutually. 

Perhaps the most important ingredient in finding support is the willingness to seek it out, or the willingness to accept it when offered.  Schmidt could  have changed the channel.  I could have acknowledged Maureen simply as Ben’s friend and let it drop there.

That type of willingness comes from a belief that you have something of value to share and/or a belief that you deserve to have your thoughts and feelings heard.  If you aren’t in that place yet, I encourage you to reach out anyway and let the response of another teach you that it’s so.  Perhaps just focusing on giving the gift to another will help you find it within in yourself.

And to Maureen- maybe someday… but until then- Thanks for 16 years.

 

Power Struggles 101

When my eldest son Alex was a baby and also when he was a toddler,  he was the easiest child in the world.  He had a period of about two weeks after he turned two,  during which he got somewhat feisty.  My husband and I looked at each other and concluded, “Oh this must be the terrible twos.”  It lasted about two weeks and we thought “Hmm, I guess that’s over with”.  Life went back to easy.

In contrast, our second son had a temper that was obvious from the start. He apparently takes after my side of the family.   I don’t recall a time when Andrew ever went into time out without having to being restrained.  He would rage about it being Monday or any other thought that came to mind.  He would rage for not having a reason to rage. When I tried to discipline him, he would hit me.  Flabbergasted, I would hit him back.  He would hit me harder and I would get a little firmer with my slap back.  Then he would haul off and smack me. And I would…..

Nope- here is where the story changes.  Somehow I knew to pull him in close and put his cheek next to mine and that would almost always calm him down.  Okay, the reality is I knew I could not smack him harder and perhaps out of not knowing what else to do, I tried the cheek thing and it worked so I went with it.

I learned from that strategy something about power struggles which, I try and remember still to this day.  As much as I want to stay engaged and make my point louder than the person I am power struggling with, the smartest and most effective thing I can do is counter intuitive for me in those moments.  It is to try to do nothing or find a way to join them.  I don’t choose this out of defeat, but as a way to keep the ball moving down the field.

Everyone knows the definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome.  Continuing to engage in the same behavior of whatever I’m doing to keep the struggle active is therefore crazy.  Participating in such a way to enable the other person to keep doing that, which keeps the struggle active is crazy.

Even though I say I try to remembering this, I usually remember it AFTER I’m locked into the power struggle.  Then I remember it and try to implement it.  But the other night I had a cool experience, at least from my point of view.  My eldest son (no longer the easy toddler, but a hormonally charged Aspergian 15 year old boy) asked me for something that he was pretty sure I would say no to.  Of course I said no, as I was prepared for this.   He went to the next level of debate and yours truly said…

“NOTHING!”

Those of you who know me can appreciate the Herculean effort it took to keep my mouth closed.  I just sat there while he looked at me.  A few moments passed and he repeated himself with a bit of a twist in another attempt of engaging me to spar.  I calmly replied that, “I had nothing to add as I had already stated my answer.”  With that my son walked away.

What Alex saw was a resolute, immovable parent that was not going to argue with him and wonder into new topics or pull out my litany of reasons to defend my response.  I must tell you on the inside of me, there was a giddy cheerleader type character high fiving myself that this actually worked.  But once I settled myself down, I realized that it worked because I had ended the crazy power struggle—not by winning, but by refusing to repeat the same behaviors that lock it in place.

One small step for parenting.  One giant leap for my own sanity.

Do you find yourself locked into power struggles with people?  How often do you notice that it’s the same argument over and over?  Is there anything you are willing to do differently without the focus on attempting to change the other person’s behavior?

 

Is everyone dying?

My son introduced me to a campaign on the internet that he had recently found and was trying to implement for himself. I’m reporting this second hand without checking sources, so forgive me if I am a little off. The premise is to “Treat everyone like they are dying”. As Andrew reported, when you think of someone as dying, you might try to be a little nicer to them and even consider holding back criticism you might otherwise have leveled. Andrew likes this idea as a goal for himself, with the exception of treating his older brother this way- but that is another story for another blog.

In our discussion, we both agreed that in reality, everyone is dying and so the thought process really doesn’t require much of a mental leap. This concept is another great example of how a small shift in perception can have a significant impact. However, Andrew and I tended to disagree a little, as to what degree we interpreted, which party is the point of focus. For Andrew, the significance is seeing the other person differently. For me, the emphasis is seeing your-self differently. Neither of these is right or wrong, nor better than the other. The end goal is met in both cases and it makes for a happier world.

I suppose I was predisposed to my position because of the strategies I often take with couples. These are the steps that are elucidated in the book “Managing from the Heart”. In particular, this strategy of seeing others as dying parallels the step “See the other persons loving intentions”. When you can see another person as having a positive intention for choosing an action, it is a lot harder to stay angry and/or defensive with that person, even if you disagree with the action. By aligning with their potentially positive intention, it gives you a more open and willing stance from which, to negotiate alternate behaviors for you and them.

But the reason I want to point out the emphasis on self rather than other, is that it reinforces the concept that we only have control over ourselves. Again, while the outward goal in the moment may produce the same result in behavior, there is a difference in the use of our energy. When I choose a kind comment because I see the other person as dying or lovingly intended, I still choose a kind comment. But when I choose a kind comment because I see myself as, one who strives to choose the kindest comments in situations, I believe there is another level of pay off in personal satisfaction and sense of agency. It is consistent with a mindful approach of awareness of what I have control over. Moreover, if the other person seems hell bent on proving their intentions were, in fact, not loving, or they don’t seem to be dying soon enough, it doesn’t have to change my behavior. In other words, what the other person does or doesn’t do does not have to determine how I choose to behave. More importantly, I don’t even have to try and create a story about them to get to my final position. My final position is the same as my starting position with this strategy.

Again, I’m not condemning the “see the other as…” approach. I like it and I teach it when possible. But it is a starting place or a falling place when the mindful of one’s own posture is either undeveloped or weakened. In the end, the only person we can truly directly impact the thoughts of with any measure of accuracy is ourselves.

I’d love to hear your feedback and comments, as well as, any experiences you have with this approach.

 

 

Can we talk about sex?

Can we talk about sex?

Yes we most certainly can but we often don’t.

Guys, think about this scenario: -your wife makes you a new dish for dinner and afterwards she asks “How did you like it?” She wants feedback because she wants to know whether she should make it again or change it anyway before she does. You say things like “Needs a little more spice” and “I like this part but not that part”, or “It was totally delicious.” Hopefully you used phrasing that was clear, helpful, complementary and thoughtful of the effort she put into cooking the meal. She, on the other hand, is hopefully receptive to hearing the feedback because she wants to please you. If so, she can take the information you provided into consideration and next time make the meal even more delicious and to your personal liking.

Gals now it’s your turn. Imagine this: You go to your hairdresser and she says what “What would you like?”   Now admittedly there are occasional times when you don’t know and might tell her to surprise you. But more often than not, you have the placement of every curl down to a science.   In fact, you may very well pick up the hairdresser’s tools and show her exactly how you want it done.

 

I have long fantasized about writing a book or at least book chapters with the following titles: the male version would be, You Can Have My Penis But Not My Heart and the woman’s would be, You Can Have My Vagina But Not My Heart.   These titles represent for me the idea that, so often people give up their bodies without really giving to the other, what’s in their heart about what happens to them in terms of emotional satisfaction. More specifically in this blog it refers to the unwillingness to give of one’s desires that will result in satisfaction.

Of course food and hair are not as intimate as sex. On the other hand, food and hair are not as intimate as sex. That wasn’t a typo. The argument is that we don’t want to “talk” about something so intimate… but then why are willing to DO something that is so intimate? It’s easier to talk about things that are less intimate because we may feel shy or even embarrassed or we don’t want to upset the other person. Yet, the idea is, if we are engaging with something so intimate, we should be doing that with someone with whom we feel safe and very close. These are the people we need to trust and believe will trust us, thereby making talking a very safe act.

If we are having intimate relations with someone we believe loves and cares about us, then why would we withhold information that would enable him or her to make that the best experience for us? Similarly, why would we not seek out information from them to increase our confidence insuring our efforts are as close as we can get to providing them with the best experience.

This week, how about taking a risk and starting a conversation or two about S-E-X.

 

 

 

Commas save lives

As a Craftaholique, I’m always looking for funny T shirt sayings. One of my favorite finds is

Let’s eat Grandpa.

Let’s eat, Grandpa.

Commas save lives.

 

 

Such a small thing can change the meaning of an intention so drastically.

 

Communication can be a tricky thing. It is so often the presenting item for which, people come into my office asking for help. And, like the comma shift above, very often the solution they are looking for isn’t a major change, but rather a tweaking of smaller behaviors.

 

Two of these we can easily focus on are intent and tone.

 

Can you recall a time when you intended to ask someone a question, but it came out like a declaration? Often, you know that is what has transpired because, rather than answering your “request”, the other person goes into a defensive mode. You might reply with, “I was only asking”, which falls on deaf ears as the other person is walking away frustrated and mumbling “It sure didn’t sound like a question!”

 

I am so familiar with that one personally, that I often hear myself prefacing my speech with “This is meant to be a question, regardless of how it may come out!” I have found that doing so clarifies my intent and prepares my listener if I feel a little confused about how to get the question out. More often than not, my listener is more receptive and forgiving of my fumbling because my intent is deemed genuine.

 

There are many other examples where clarifying your intention upfront can be very useful, but your intent has to be sincere. In other words, saying , “I don’t want to hurt your feelings but….”, does not let you off the hook. Most likely, you know you are about to say something hurtful but you’re trying to get a pass.   Sometimes we feel we have to say things that will be uncomfortable for the other person to hear. If we choose to do so, then we have to acknowledge that there will be a reaction.

 

Another communication game changer is tone. Some people are lucky to have a more steady tone throughout most of their dialogue. I am of Italian heritage. We don’t have that genetic make-up. My tone goes up and down like a two year old playing on a xylophone. And, I’m lucky enough to have the facial and body movements to support the rise and fall so there is no denying what state I’m in when expressing myself. Helen Keller can read me loud and clear.

 

As a result, I have to work a little harder to make sure that my tone is expressing what I hope for it to. In other words, if I’m in a frustrated mood about situation “A”, and I try to express something to someone in situation B without making an internal shift, I’m likely to use a tone (with supporting features) that conveys an unrelated frustration. An easier way to say this is, man gets mad at boss and comes home to kick the dog!

 

Tone, however can creep in and wreck a discussion in far more subtle ways.

-asking a question with a tone of suspicion or disbelief?

-offering a compliment with a trace of sarcasm or feigned enthusiasm

-providing support while distracted with something else.

 

In any of the examples, the way to improve our skill set begins with mindfulness and expands with practice. An exercise in mindfulness includes noticing the reactions others have to our declarations, and even asking for feedback when we aren’t sure. Obviously, those around us don’t want to be our constant communication coaches, but when asked with sincerity, our request for feedback may also be viewed as a genuine interest in knowing the other person’s experience communicating with us. They may even appreciate our desire to improve our skills in interacting with them. However, even when we don’t ask for feedback, we can step back and notice whether their responses to us indicate clarity of understanding what we thought we were attempting to communicate.

 

Practice means to start with clear intentions and be thoughtful about our speech rather than to give license to whatever we want to say when we want to say it.   The following quote* sums it up:

“If you propose to speak, always ask yourself, is it true, is it necessary, is it kind?”

 

So, while commas may save lives, a little extra care in communication may save relationships!

 

*There is a debate as to the origin of this quote. It may be Rumi, Buddha or someone’s Aunt Ruth who stitched it on a pillow, but it is clearly not mine.

 

 

 

 

Now that I can hear, can you?

First, another thanks and round of applause to the wonderful comments I’ve received the past couple of weeks.  My readers are incredibly awesome and insightful people!  Not everyone posts their comments publicly- but they are all fantastic!

I learned a new word this week. I mean really learned it instead of just having heard it before and tried using it in a sentence. The word is “ineffable”.

Maybe you already know what it means. The dictionary says “too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words.

But I realize now that it is the word I haven’t been familiar with enough to describe the experiences people often share with me. A feeling, a condition, an experience so great or extreme that they find it difficult to capture in words.

In a blog a few weeks ago I tried to describe someone’s physical pain. This week someone described the tragedy of losing a loved one far more prematurely than expected. Others try to describe to me a fear of a situation looming, the dread of lingering past betrayal. Sometimes they try to describe a longing for something that seems out of reach, a lover or a child to name a few. For the record, the longing for chocolate is not ineffable. Rather, it is well documented by many including me.

My job is often an attempt to help people describe in words that which is indescribable. The goal is to help them feel understood, to share, if only for a few minutes that someone understands the weight of their burden. No one asks me to take the burden home with me, only to be heard and quite possibly to find a way to manage the feelings with a little more ease or at least grace.

I recall back when I worked in residential eating disorder treatment, the residents were often anxious around fat people. Some were disgusted, others literally terrified. It was as if, sitting next to someone fat put them in danger of catching the same. I find people’s reactions to intense feelings much the same. They grow impatient when listening to another, or worn down when they have to hear the same thing more than once. I believe this is most likely due to either not wanting to have to think about the same situation potentially occurring in their own lives like a contagion. Others may have a sense of inadequacy from not knowing how to respond appropriately. Of course, there are situations where we simply don’t care about the person or the subject, but these are not the ones I’m thinking about in this blog.

It is our human nature to want to be understood. Words; the construct of language is perhaps our best attempt to unite us. But what happens when words cause us more distance because of their inadequacy? What happens when the experience is ineffable?

Maybe the simple demonstration to not speak, but rather just to stay with another is an alternative. What might happen if we allow someone to describe something so ineffable to us and we don’t leave? What if we simply reached out our hand to theirs or put our arms around them. Maybe the best we can do is hand them a tissue. Don’t underestimate the value in simply being present with another who is in pain. Sometimes the value lies in the fact that they can see us sitting in our own discomfort and our willingness to stay as a model to help them tolerate something within themselves. Maybe it simply will make them feel less alone.

Someone recently introduced me to a video called “It’s not about the nail”. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s worth the 2 minutes or so watch. It’s another way of addressing the power of listening. And maybe, through the practice of listening to others with compassion, we will become more willing to do the same for ourselves.

 

The Business of Marriage

The Business of Marriage

Imagine this if you will. A guy named Joe opens up a restaurant near your neighborhood. Not only is it your favorite food type, it’s absolutely fantastic food. Joe is a phenomenal chef. The prices are fair and the service is good. You try out the restaurant, enjoy it immensely and decide to go back on a regular basis.

Joe is a great success. So much so, that he decides to open up a second location and a third. You’re happy for him. On the other hand, it now means that Joe isn’t spending quite so much time at the first location. You can’t count on him coming out to the table each time to ask you about your meal. But when he does, he promises you that the place still bears his name. “You can trust him,” he says.

And at first, everything seems normal. But after a while, you start to notice that the servers don’t seem to be as friendly as they used to be. They aren’t familiar since many of the more seasoned crew have gone on to the other locations. The new staff doesn’t know you. You have to tell them what you want each time, unlike the original team who used to bring you your drinks as soon as you sat down because they already knew your favorites. You start to feel resentful for having to leave a tip for unexceptional service.

Sometimes when you go in, they are even out of your favorite dish. They don’t seem to be as prepared for the crowds. You try and alter the time you eat getting their earlier and earlier in hopes that you can enjoy your meal. Sometimes it works but usually it does not.

And the more time passes, it doesn’t even seem like you get the same quality of ingredients or consistency of preparation. It’s almost like you don’t even know this place any more.   You begin to patronize Joe’s place less frequently until you stop going all together.

You entered into a contract of sorts with Joe. And when Joe stops delivering what you felt you had agreed to, you are ready to pull out of that contract. Who wouldn’t?

This metaphor very closely resembles many of the stories I hear about marriage. I see relationships very much like a business contract that two people enter into. They make agreements based on their individual desire to receive certain benefits of marriage. As long as things stay exactly the same everyone is happy. The only problem is nothing ever stays exactly the same. Especially marriage.

Kids come along. Jobs come along. Extended families, illnesses, deaths, financial challenges, purchasing homes, relocations and the list goes on, comes along. Not to mention the fact that what we desired originally also changes. And some years into the marriage, people find themselves frustrated that they aren’t getting enough benefit for the price they feel they are paying. Sometimes they feel blatantly ripped off.

It’s easy to look at your partner like “Joe”. How he or she is no longer keeping their end of the bargain. And perhaps that is accurate. If that is the case, are you justified in just dining across town without bringing the problems to the attention of the owner to see if they might be resolved? Joe may not be aware of the issues and while that’s not your responsibility, it is impacting your dining experience. Perhaps some honest but constructive feedback could help Joe maintain the success he strived for from the beginning.

But its also worth considering that you might be the “Joe” in the relationship. Have you lowered your standards because you are taking for granted that your partner must be okay with the changes if he or she is still hanging around? Do you make justifications of why you no longer have to give your partner what you used to? You may be a whole lot busier than you were in the beginning and have less energy, but simply assuming your partner doesn’t want or need the same level of interest in him or her that they used to get, could be a very unfortunate path. Even if you can’t keep that pace up, it still requires a renegotiation of that original contract and some empathy for your partner, rather than, putting in substandard ingredients and hoping they won’t notice. Or worse still, not caring if they do.

 

This week, how about taking a look at key relationships and ask yourself if you are giving what you agreed to when you said “I do.”

 

 

 

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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and More Spring Cleaning

In my last blog I talked about spring cleaning. Hopefully you had a chance to either get started, or at least think about things that you hold on to for perhaps less productive reasons than is useful. In that same vein, I’d like you to take this thought process a step further and think about the clutter more broadly. Cleaning out closets is useful in making more room, either to find stuff, or for different stuff. I’d like to propose that there are other ways that our lives can get significantly cluttered and could use attention. The two that come to mind most quickly for me (from personal and professional experience) are time wasters and unproductive relationships.

The easy bandwagon to jump on is electronic drains. Whether it’s a night lost to Facebook, Pinterest, others social networks, video games or merely web surfing, people can lose a lot of time and receive little if anything back for their time. But those are obvious. What is more subtle, yet equally if not more insidious, are the things we spend time on that, fail to add real value to our lives, and rather, suck away precious time. What makes these items harder to identify is that it usually isn’t the “task” that identifies it as a problem, but rather the way we feel about the task. For example, if I made pasta from scratch because I loved doing so, I was putting healthier options on my table, saving money, my family felt valued when I did so, or any one of these reasons, then it might be time consuming, but there is a payoff. If on the other hand, I made fresh pasta from scratch for my toddler, who was going to eat 3 bites, and my husband could care less about the quality difference, then I should question whether or not this was a good use of time and energy. I’m not sure this is the best example, but I’m pretty sure that we all engage in some pretty questionable activities, and often they have a smell of “perfectionism” to them.

The other category of relationships is something near and dear to my heart. I’ve noticed that a number of my relationships have changed over the past few years and it has largely been my own doing. I’m not feeling angry, but rather more willing to let people go then I once was. That at times, has also included some pretty terrific people. But at the end of the day I’ve had to come to terms with the reality that every day is limited by time, as is the entirety of my life. Out of that awareness, I accept the responsibility and the opportunity to make the most of what is available to me. So, terrific or not, I’m more willing to let people go in favor of spending the time with either other people or activities that are helping me to create the best experience of this thing I call my life.

Personally, I would tell you that if someone had said the paragraph above to me 10 years ago, I would have thought that person to be cold, friendless and void of the capacity to have meaningful relationships. So please, don’t think as a result of one reading, I would expect anyone to make such a radical change. It has been a work in progress and still continues for me. But that said, I find that the quality of relationships I do keep, continues to improve, because I come to them more available, more willing to honor the work of maintaining them. It’s because I know they are mutual, and with less resentment. In turn, I feel more rewarded and valued by the people in those relationships, as well.

I hope you’ll take another look at clutter in your life and see if there are mental closets that need a little combing through as well.

 

Truth or Story

 

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There is a well circulated story that takes place on a subway. It involves a man sitting, seemingly oblivious to onlookers who watch his young child act repeatedly obnoxious to other passengers. Finally, one annoyed passenger says to the father “Mister, your child is out of control, can you attend to him”. The man looks up as if awakened from a stupor and says “Oh I’m sorry, we just came from the hospital where we lost my wife; the boy’s mother. I guess he is probably reacting to that the only way he knows how.”

 

No one is to blame in the story. The passengers have a right to be bothered by the child’s behavior. Yet, once they put his behavior in the context of a larger story, they are most likely willing to develop a stance of compassion rather than judgment. Supposedly, Fred Rogers, the beloved children’s television host, carried a quote from a social worker in his wallet. It said “Frankly there isn’t anyone you can’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.”

 

We all have our stories. But that means that so does everyone else. People can’t know that we are cranky because we are experiencing loss of someone important to us, crisis in our financial lives, are have recently learned of a downturn in our health. They can only see the outward symptoms, a shortness in our tone, a snarl in our voice or our seeming indifference when they speak to us. And its similarly difficult for us at times to find consideration for another’s valid story underneath their poor behavior towards us.

But perhaps the most effective tool is not actually trying to develop a better moral stance, but rather to take a selfish approach. Perhaps instead of trying harder to be a better person who will listen to others, it may be more useful to listen to yourself and work from there outward. Work on why you feel resistant. Work on why you feel the need to be penetrated by another’s foul mood. Work on the shortfall of staying true to yourself and your own thoughts when someone else is ranting around you.

Is it possible to stay in a good mood when someone else is not? Is it necessary to put people behaving in a certain way in a neatly packaged category in your mind so you can dismiss them as not worthy of your time? Is it easier to say “that person is uneducated or a b#@% or associated with the political party you despise”, so you can eliminate them from your attention? Focus on what affect you perceive them to be having on you and see if you can learn something about an area that may be causing you fears you are not aware of. Fears that may be directing some of your own behavior.

 

 

 

 

 

The Safe Appeal of Disorder

 

 

 

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Let me state clearly at the start that this blog has zero to do with a political opinion. It is merely a political event that introduced me to a thought.

In the recent news stories about the conflict in Gaza, I heard a quote that really grabbed me. It comes from former prime minister of Israel Golda Meier.

Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us. I thought it was such a powerful quote. And it got me thinking about other areas in life that it might be useful. Of course my mind naturally wondered to my work and the conflicts I see for people I work with. So I changed it to this:

Until you love yourself more than you fear imperfection, disorder will remain.

You can quote me on that.

A person with an eating disorder will abuse themselves to any length in order to achieve a body that they believe will gain them acceptance or legitimacy. The result is reliance on a chaotic system of eating and exercise that not only precludes any other area of their life, but often results in malnutrition, injury, and even self-abuse.

A person who lacks confidence in their ability at work will ignore their personal boundaries and work themselves to oblivion at the expense of their personal life or personal self in fear of having that inadequacy exposed.

A person who ignores themselves to help others in order to win status is forced to function at the mercy of everyone else’s beck and call. It is easy to get caught up in chaos and frenzy only to realize that one has little to show for all of their efforts. They may find themselves in middle life feeling empty of anything to measure their life by, especially if the people they have served have outgrown the need for them.

A person may remain in an unhappy or even harmful relationship with another because they do not feel deserving of happiness or peace. As a result such a person may deny their needs on any level in order to tolerate remaining in the relationship because they fear they are unjustified in the eyes of others to ask for more.

So what does it mean to love oneself? And how does that eliminate disorder?

Loving oneself means to make decisions based on self care as a priority over decisions that lead to approval or acceptance from others if the actions required for either are in mutual conflict. So, if I have to decide to eat because I’m hungry, or not eat because I feel too fat and unacceptable to others, self love means to eat- but eat well and appropriately for the highest level of self care- drowning one’s self in a container of ice cream is not self care.

It means if I have to choose between going to bed when I’m exhausted or reading email from my boss because I’m trying to get promoted, it means go to bed. Sleep well and then be prepared to work to the best of my ability tomorrow.

I’m confident that I’m not sharing any new earth shattering news with anyone here. We all know these things. But we get afraid. And then we get busy. Out of our fear we fill our lives with a million things that we think, or at least hope will make us happy and fit in. And then those things fill our time and our psyche to such extremes that we are too saturated to even think about what is good for us, much less find the time to implement those strategies. But as Meier so eloquently brought to light- we always have a choice. And until we value one thing more than another, change will not occur.

 

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He’s just not that into you.. and she may not be either

 

 

 

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Several years ago I wanted to do a little remodeling project in our house. I wanted to add in some bookcases to separate a wall between the living room and my office, and add French doors to close the office from the foyer. And I wanted to have this project done before my son’s upcoming birthday party.

I got a recommendation to use someone at the church we were currently attending. I called up “Joe” and asked him to come and bid the project. He said he would be there Sunday after church. Great! Except that he didn’t show up.

My husband (the logical Aspergian thinker) said “That’s not a good sign”.

But I said (the non Aspergian, emotional based decision maker).

“Well, he probably got busy, let’s give him another chance. “

And so we did. He came out another time, proposed a bid and we mutually accepted. He scheduled to begin on the project within a few days. And he did. See how smart I am?

But then the project started to linger. And linger. Bad weather caused the trucks bringing the doors to be delayed, and he scoffed “Didn’t I know he didn’t work on Sundays?” (hmmm, had he not originally scheduled to bid the job on a Sunday?) His helper has the flu; he was having trouble getting the right color paint mixed.

My son’s birthday party came and went. Coincidentally, it was a “Bob the Builder” theme and the little boys were going to be building bird houses in our garage. When the guests arrived through the front door in the foyer and saw the bright yellow “DO NOT ENTER” tape hanging over my door-less office, they thought it was merely part of my extravagant decorating scheme to create a construction themed ambience.

But I was growing increasingly less enchanted with my contractor. And I had recently finished reading a book that was popular at the time called “He’s just not that into you” by Greg Behrendt.

 

Greg is a pretty funny guy and was working at the time as a writer for Sex and the City. He wrote this book as a reaction to hearing his female co-workers, talk endlessly about this guy or that, whom they were sure would call. Greg was certain (from a guy’s perspective) that, the men in discussion around the break table, had long moved on. Greg garnered his hunches from his own behavior and from that of his male friends. He felt in a nutshell that men made up all kinds of lines that they fed to women—- largely because they could. The book was his “coming clean” of sorts and saying “Girls- if you don’t expect better behavior, you won’t get it. See the excuse he gives you as just that–àan excuse, and probably a pathetic one at that- and move on. Quit giving men the ammunition to beat up your heart by believing that if you just become a really good doormat, he’ll see the error of his ways and come back and give you the treatment you deserve.”

Now, in case I sound horribly sexist—I believe this goes for BOTH genders. It’s what we do as people. We always set the “rules of engagement” in our initial contact with people. We tell people from our first interactions what we will and won’t tolerate. Consciously, unconsciously, verbally and non-verbally. Sometimes it’s a romantic partner or a casual friend that’s not into us. And instead of letting go, we try to do 100% of the effort to accommodate the relationship? Sometimes it’s any number of the people we try to do business with. Do you ever find yourself settling for a lot less than you intended to accommodate the person you are trying to give your business to?

 

So with this knowledge in the back of my brain, I heard myself finally say the things my husband knew on day one. Our contractor, was just not that into…. Our project or us.

And so I called him up. And I gave him my expected completion date. I don’t care if it is you or someone else… but if it can’t be you, I’m moving on. I no longer care what the reasons are- I simply want it done.

Guess what? The work got finished on time. Even with storms, flu and uncooperative paint.

 

 

Stick em up

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Many years ago, while married to my ex-husband, we went to the bank to take care of some financial business. We were waiting to talk with someone and they said it would take a little while so we sat down in the lobby and started to wait. After some time passed, I got up and walked across the room to check in with a clerk, putting me about 20 feet away from where my then husband continued waiting.

As I stood near the clerk’s desk I noticed a man walk in. He was wearing a corduroy blazer even though it was summer time. He did not have any remarkable features that made him stand out. He walked up to the teller, and pulled out a shot gun and said out loud “this is a robbery.”

My immediate thought was exactly this:

“Oh, he must have gotten a gun for Christmas and he is showing it to his friend.”

I do not know what was going through the teller’s head, but she was obviously startled and her reactions were slow. Annoyed, the man now yelled in a much sharper tone, “This is a F—ing robbery”. He then turned and yelled to the rest of us to get on the ground face down. It finally registered to me that they were not friends and I quickly complied.

I’ll save you the rest of the detail except to say we were all safe, he was arrested as soon as he walked out the door and all turned out well. I believe the man was convicted. Yes, it was scary for a bit, but I had no resulting trauma and I doubt anyone else did either.

I’ll borrow a quote from Joshua Prager to introduce why I’m sharing this story. “And it was then I understood that no matter how stark the reality,the human being fits it into a narrative that is palatable.”

Let’s go back and look at that a little more closely. It was summer. The man was wearing corduroy. I could have said “no fashion sense” or “wow I bet he is going to get hot”.

He pulled out a gun. People don’t show their guns to friends in banks. And let’s not forget that given it was summer, why would someone be showing a Christmas gift now?

My intention here is not to highlight my mini psychosis. Actually, as strange as the idea sounds, my mind was doing something to keep from going crazy. And I did not do this simply because it was protecting me from potential trauma. This is what the mind does in everyday situations. When information comes to us that we can’t understand, information that, we don’t have a “template” for, our minds translate it into something we do understand. That is what helps us feel connection to whatever is around us.

I had a template for people making bad fashion choices so that created no confusion, I simply ignored that information. But once I saw the gun, I was at a loss. I did not have a template for bank robbery. So my mind tried to make it palatable by choosing Christmas. It was only after the robber yelled, bursting my protective bubble, that I had room for an alternative view, and probably because it kicked in the fight or flight response allowing me to move rather than think.

But here is the important part. As I stated earlier, this is what the brain does. So if I am in a conversation with another person and they are saying something I don’t understand, my brain creates a story that makes more sense to me. And this happens with big and small stories alike.

Someone tells us about a tragedy in their lives. We reduce it down to something more manageable that we can relate to. They feel discounted.

We tell someone about a fantastic experience we just had. They hear it was like their own trip to the grocery store last week and we feel unimportant to them.

Our partner wants us to “listen” to their feelings about a situation and we hear a practical solution that we offer in our own minds.

As the author of a story, we have to become conscious that our audience does not share the same set of templates in their head as we do. That means the responsibility is placed on the author to create as much detail to make it clear to the listener so they don’t have to rely solely on imagination from their vantage point.

As the listener of a story, we have the responsibility of suspending our current knowledge to try and better understand what the author wants from us. To suspend what we think we know in favor of what we might learn. It is when author and listener come together bearing that responsibility with a focus on the other person, the best stories of life are shared.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ginger Blah Blah Blah

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The question is what are we hearing? We all have a tendency to hear the parts that make the most sense to us. We hear the parts that fit in the story we are writing for our lives at the time. This is true when we are having a dialogue with others by the motives we bring. It can also occur between the voices in our own head- the difference between what our eyes experience,  and what our ears hear.

 

Let’s say I really want my husband to take me to Europe this year.

Hubby: Guess what honey, I got my bonus this year. That means we’ll be able to put the new roof on comfortably without touching our savings.

Me: Or take that European vacation we’ve always wanted to

Hubby: I don’t think we can do both.

Me: You’re right, your bonus isn’t that big. We can just wait until next Spring to do the roof with your next bonus.

Hubby, well I was planning on doing the roof this year. I mean Europe isn’t really a necessity, and the roof is important for keeping our investment in the house solid.

Me: You never want to do what I want. I’m just not important to your list of priorities. I’m always last.

Now in case you’re wondering if this is about me, we actually have a new roof on our house and I don’t want to go to Europe. But in the example, the wife hears stuff that simply isn’t in the dialogue and doesn’t hear stuff that is. Unfortunately, if the husband’s motives are pure, he is potentially trying to show his wife her value by making smart money decisions and protecting their investment.

Here is another example:   If I’m writing a story about a great guy who is going to fall in love with me, take care of me forever and grow old with me in the rocking chairs on the porch, then my hearing filter goes like this:

Event                                                                                My filter tells me

He is drinking excessively                                            wow- he just likes to have fun.

He is working at McDonalds                                        he is so humble, titles aren’t what matter

He is yelling at his mom                                               he is a really emotional guy.

And this works the other way too- If my story is I’m a piece of crap and no one values me- my filter works like this:

Event:                                                                                         My filter:

Nancy invited me to go with her and her and         i’ m sure she felt like she had to because

her friends.                                                                                I was standing there

Ginger’s owner believes Ginger is hanging on his every word. Ginger on the other hand, is only hearing the parts that seem relevant to Ginger. And why? Because most likely, Ginger came to the exchange with a motive. In her case, get out of trouble, and get her owner to play fetch with her.

Are you aware of any motives you bring to conversations? If so, think about how they filter what you hear. If the conversations are ones that take place in your own head, think about how your pre-conceived ideas about yourself or what you are doing color what you hear back from yourself in the moment. To be a really good listener, means to be attuned to what the speaker is saying, or present in the moment of what you are observing without past judgment attached.

 

Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. Steven Covey

Love me tender

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If you have been in a relationship for a while, this one is for you. If you are newly in a relationship, this one’s for you. And if you are not in a relationship but hope to be at some point, this one’s for you.

Boy meets girl. Boy is excited about girl. He thinks about calling her and imagines her on the other end of the line happy to hear from him. He feels good. They go out, have some fun. He goes home, thinks about her and feels good a while longer. Repeat, repeat, repeat.   He picks a daisy for her and brings it to her. She smiles. He feels good.   He leaves a little origami bird on her windshield. He tells her things he hasn’t told other people. He is a happy camper.

Girl meets boy. Girl is excited about boy. She waits hoping he will call, thinking about everything they talked about. He calls and she is happy. They go out, have some fun. Repeat Repeat repeat. She gets to know his preferences. She cooks a meal for him. He likes it. She is happy. She knits him a sweater, thinking with every stitch how happy she is to have found him.

Boy and girl get married. Its good. They have kids. Its better. And then… its not. He has more demands at work. Boy comes to girl looking for relief from the outside world. Girl has been taking care of kids all day. Taking care of boy is not the next thing on her agenda. She wishes he would notice her workload and help out. Frustrated, she zones out, maybe a glass of wine, and a couple of hours of bad TV. After a bit, he stops looking towards her and instead gets lost in hours of internet surfacing to relieve his stress. She wakes up from her numb and sees only that he ignores her every evening.

Inevitable? I don’t think so. Maybe they didn’t have a good foundation. Maybe they weren’t ready to get married. Maybe a bunch of things.

Or maybe something much more simple. When I work with couples, I frequently use an exercise that I borrow from Harville Hendrix who wrote “getting the love you want”. It goes simply like this:

This week do something nice for your partner. Even if you don’t like your partner very much. Do something that you know would make them happy.

Often people will initially resist because they don’t feel warm and fuzzy about the other guy (or gal). But the real target of the exercise is the doer-not the receiver. Because it works like this: when we think on our own about doing something for someone that we know is going to make him or her happy, we have a good feeling about OURSELVES during the anticipating. We like ourselves because we feel powerful and/or effective in knowing that we have the ability or creativity to impact another person in a meaningful way. We fast forward our mind to anticipate the other person enjoying our efforts. We make our selves feel good.

Unfortunately, many of us get settled into a relationship and we stop thinking about how we can make the other person feel good, and instead begin expecting them to meet our needs, usually leaving us disappointed, or even disillusioned. But the real tragedy is that we lose a vital part of ourselves in the process. It is the part of us that we ignited to make our own self feel good and effective. We blame the sense of loss on a shortfall of the other person. Some partners confuse “completing a checklist of tasks assigned by our partner to avoid getting in trouble” as trying to make the other happy. While that may avoid an argument, it does little to make us feel good about ourselves, because there is no “original thought from within to promote feeling good about our own nature—- except compliance which doesn’t have much gusto.

Let me make the argument another way. When we have a new baby (or a puppy), we love it immediately. It hasn’t yet done anything to deserve that love except show up. We don’t really know its personality or potential yet, but we bestow good feelings on to it. We voluntarily make a huge deposit into an emotional bank account that, has their name on the title, and see them as rich—- even though its with our emotional money.

So, if you are a boy, or a girl who isn’t feeling quite so yummy about your relationship, I want to challenge you. When is the last time that you made a deposit in the bank of your partner? Not for his or her benefit, but so that you can feel rich yourself? That’s what you did in the beginning. When our boy made the origami bird, he imagined himself as effective and it felt good. When our girl knitted the sweater she felt significant to another person, long before he knew the sweater existed, or she saw it worn. They weren’t waiting for the thank you certificate to arrive before the feeling good started. We have the capacity within us to feel good about ourselves and our connection to another, long before the receiver of our efforts acknowledges them. In fact, their acknowledgment is only icing on the cake. Don’t make it the cake or the reason to do something.

If you are still new in a relationship or aren’t yet in one, then consider this for future reference. There is a saying “a smart man knows that the things it took to get a woman, are the same ones needed to keep her”. I would suggest that smart partners know that the part of yourself you engaged and enjoyed when you begin a meaningful relationship needs to be nurtured by you throughout the relationship if you want to continue feeling satisfied. That responsibility remains with you, not your partner.

 

 

 

 

Ain’t Misbehavin- Or are they?

Aint Misbehavin- Or are they?

 

 

 

 

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Do you have days, (weeks or years) when it feels like someone or everyone is just not behaving “right”? Of course, right as defined by you.

The reality is we all have to sometimes experience relationships where the other person’s choices and behaviors can make us pretty darn unhappy. Sometimes we simply choose to walk away. But what about when that person is our spouse… or our boss? Yikes.

One of my favorite stories comes from Psychiatrist Harriet Lerner formerly of the Menninger Clinic in Topeka. It’s a personal story she told at a lecture many years ago about an encounter she had with her then 4 year old son Matthew. Lerner walked in her kitchen to find Matthew cutting an apple with a very sharp knife. Here is her account:

 

Lerner: Matthew, put down that knife. You’re going to hurt yourself.

Matthew: no I won’t

Lerner: Yes you will

Matthew: No I won’t

Lerner, pauses to think and comes back with: “Put down the knife because mommy is afraid you will hurt yourself”.

Matthew: “That’s your problem”.

Pausing again, realizing her son has once again outsmarted her strategy to change his behavior.

“You’re right. And I’m going to take care of my problem by taking the knife away from you.”

 

I probably think of Lerner’s story about once a week. It helps me to pause and think about “who has the problem?”

I’ll give you two recent examples.

The other night my son Alex and I went to dinner at a family friendly Mexican restaurant. The hostess seated us in a section where we were the only two people. About halfway through our meal two couples entered with small children. The waiters began setting the table up for a larger group. Within minutes blood curdling screams began to flood out of various children while they ran around the table as if someone had ignited a flame to their hair. Perhaps they were only looking for a way to put out the potential flames, but the parents responded quickly by ordering larger Margarita’s.

First thought- Those are awful people with big problems.

Second thought- I have a problem in that I am not enjoying the atmosphere where I’m eating.

I had a couple of choices. I could have yelled at them, or even asked them nicely to muzzle their children with duct tape. I could have asked that they buy a round of Margaritas for Alex and me, but he is underage and I had to drive home.   I could have asked to be moved to another section of the restaurant. But in reality we were fairly near completion of our dinner. So we finished up and left. We solved our problem. But it also turned into a great discussion with Alex, about how he and his brother behaved in restaurants when they were small. He asked how we had handled things in the past and we had an enjoyable ride home talking about stories.

 

Next scenario: My husband has a gift for calling me at the most inopportune time. Seriously, it’s like he divines the perfect moment when I’m in the car, about to go through the drive through or the news anchor is finally going to tell the story he has been teeing up through 5 commercial breaks. If you’ve ever been around me when my phone rings, I have a very dramatic ring tone to signal my husband is calling. A man with a deep dramatic voice says “Oh no, it’s Ben calling, what does he want… what   does     he   want? While dramatic music plays. (Yes, if you’re counting, that IS a lot of drama).

I mean this guy has a real problem right? Wrong. He’s just calling at the moment he either wants to tell or ask me something. The problem is mine. It’s that I obviously forget the phone has a silent option, or better still that to date, no laws have been passed mandating the picking up of a call when it comes in.   The problem has to do with why I feel compelled to answer it and interrupt MYSELF. (But I’ll figure that out on my own time)

I get it, these are small examples and when it’s your boss grinding on your last nerve more days than not it is harder. Or how about when you have a mother-in law that can rival Mrs. Wollowitz from The Big Bang Theory. I’m not suggesting a simplistic solution here. Only that you begin to look at what parts of tough situations you can have an impact on versus exhausting yourself with trying to manipulate those you cannot. And when you can’t take an action, you can still employ some of the techniques discussed in the last couple of posts, regarding the relieving of tension through philosophies of meditation and yoga.   At very least, when you feel you can’t DO a behavior to change your frustration in the moment; you can at least NOT DO something. With a clear head and reduced tension you can at least pause and use the pre-frontal cortex of your brain. This is where logic and reason are stored, rather than the Amygdala’s fight or flight response. The latter can prompt you into ordering larger Margarita’s or throwing your cell phone out the window. And remember, although Silence is Golden and Duct tape is Silver… it should still never be used on children.

 

I hope you enjoyed todays post And if you did, that you’ll forward the blog on to someone else. As always I appreciate your feedback, comments and challenges!

 

does it always have to be about me?

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Is its always about me?

I picked up my son from school today. He got in the car, moaned a bit and turned his body completely away from me. I asked him if he was okay and he ignored me. I asked him again and he continued to ignore me.   I asked him if he was upset with me or if something happened at school. Still no answer. We sat in silence on the ride home.

He entered the house, put up his backpack and sulked into the living room. His dad greeted him, and he offered little if any response. About 10 minutes passed. I was preparing dinner in the kitchen. Andrew came into the kitchen and without saying a word, barreled into me with an 11 year version of a bear hug. I hugged back still not saying a word. He was fine the rest of the evening.

When my husband and I first married he had to travel frequently for work. I soon learned that when Ben is on a job site he is extremely focused and compartmentalized. He has to have reminders to check in, although after 15 years with me, this has become a bit more natural for him. But back then, it was like pulling teeth to get him to remember that he was now part of a team and the other half wanted to know where he was from time to time. He would give his all to the job and by the time he got back to his hotel, often late in the evening he was pretty much shot. By the end of the week I would be missing him and happily awaiting his return on Friday evening. He on the other hand, would walk in, barely grunt a greeting, and pass me by, almost as if I was a ghost. He would go bed and crash for the night. He did not seem happy to see me.

The first couple of times this happened I wondered what on earth was wrong. Was our marriage already over? What happened on the road? Was he mad at me?

But then on Saturday morning he woke up and was his usual self. There didn’t seem to be any issue.

And then it happened again. And again. But after a couple of times I began to figure out that he was neither having marriage remorse nor a split personality. It’s Ben. As I said earlier, when he works… he works hard. And so by the time Friday night came around and he returned home, he had nothing left to give to anyone… including himself. So he did the best job he could of taking care of himself, which was, to go right to bed. After a good night’s sleep replenished his emotional stock, he was himself, still in love with his wife and our relationship proceeded as normal.

Fortunately I figured out fairly early into this process that I had a couple of choices. I could be mad, hurt, retaliatory or a host of other delectable feelings that don’t resemble my adult self. I could be dramatic- and at an earlier time of my life I probably would have been. But when I thought about what was happening, it was easy to separate his need to work the way he did and our relationship. Whether or not he could/should have worked differently is a different subject. The reality is that if his work habits were encroaching on our relationship, then we might have needed to look for a different alternative. But instead, I was able to take the route of adjusting my own expectations. Instead of planning for an ultimately disappointing reunion on Friday, I told myself that my husband wasn’t coming home until Saturday morning. Because in truth, that is the soonest the guy I loved would be showing up, even though the grumpy imposter was sharing our space. The Friday night arrival was basically a zombie not capable of giving me a high five or a gee I missed you so.

I’m not suggesting my son’s behavior is a “chip off the old block” here. But the similarity is that I can now more easily see that people can have there own brand of muck going on that causes their mood to flatten and it doesn’t have to be about me, just because I am the one in the room at the time.

I used to get very frustrated at the phrase “don’t take this personally”. I couldn’t understand how when you are the only person in the room to receive the message, how do you take it any other way? But I realize now that in fact, someone can be telling you something about themselves and where they are and it doesn’t have to be about you.. or in the example above, … me.

My son obviously was having a hard day or a hard hour or minute or whatever. He needed space. More importantly, the LAST THING… and I must repeat here (for my own benefit), the LAST thing he needed was to take emotional energy away from whatever was bothering him to focus on my insecurity or guilt or whatever I could conjure up to feel responsible for his mood. That’s not to say that when we’ve truly caused a problem for another we shouldn’t try work to figure out if we need to repair something

This is a situation in which to apply Covey’s seek first to understand. We can ask the other “are you okay, is there something you need from me” rather than assuming it’s about us and we need to go into fixing mode, even if we don’t know what we are to fix. If the other person isn’t ready to talk, then we have to learn to be patient and wait to see if the problem gets resolved without our input. Sometimes, that is the hardest part of all.

The toilet paper up or the toilet paper down? That is the question.

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Without taking space to debate that here, I’m pretty sure there are legitimate arguments for both positions. Each of us grows up with a story of the way we think the world should operate. We are exposed to a plethora of sources and experts who make some minor adjustments on those stories with each passing day, but even those sources are subject to interpretation by our own sense of what is correct.

Couples of course have to negotiate these things on a day to day if not minute to minute basis. Parents have to do this with their children. Employees with employers and so forth. Every time we come into contact with another person, there is the potential for conflict or harmony depending upon the degree of disparity between our stories of truth and our insistence to hold on to them.

With any relationship, it is important to remember a couple of things.

First, once you unite, the integrity of the relationship itself takes precedence over the integrity of the individual. Sorry- it’s in the contract. Sometimes you have to be willing to give at the individual level in order to sustain the relationship. Note the word sometimes.

Second, remember the other person has a legitimate set of reasons for holding an opinion that may differ from yours. More can be gained by trying to listen to those reasons rather than focusing on the end result.

Third, you can dump this partner and try again, but chances are high that you will have other differences with the next guy or gal. That may not be enough of a reason to stay in a relationship in and of itself, but at very least, its important for you to spend some time trying to understand what you cling to before repeating it somewhere else.

And finally,

Is there something you can learn from not doing it your way? Is there a chance to grow that you are avoiding by staying in the safe zone? Is there a gift you can give to another who needs this more than you do right now? Do you need to let something go in order to get something so much more? There are great players- but there are great coaches behind them, whose names we might never learn.   Sometimes, it is more valuable to be in the backseat so someone else can shine… even when you’re sure you are right.