If you have ever shopped at Whole Foods, you have been asked this question. I always say, "Yes, thank you," because, really, what's the point of saying you couldn't find that heavenly cheese that they had last week?
Yesterday was different. Waiting in a long line, I repeatedly heard the cashier ask, "Did you find everything you were looking for?" and it got me thinking, did I?
It's often said you have a better chance of finding what you want if you know what you're looking for, and , in large part, that is true. Still, it's possible to foreclose on life, to lock into a position without having experienced options. If you push your cart about for a while, wander the aisles, you can find all kinds of interesting things on the shelves.
Never having had a list or plan for my life, I mostly stumbled into things. But I did prepare myself to have good things happen. I liked learning, I valued physical well-being and I paid attention to relationships. A lot of the time I was scared, still am, but I tried new things.
So, putting my groceries into the car, I concluded that, "Yes," in my own circuitous way, I found a lot of what I wanted in life. I wasn't always fully aware of, or appreciative of it at the time, and everything didn't arrive at the times I woulld have liked. Some of the things I most valued, I wasn't able to keep, but my little life-review left me feeling pretty good. And life is never over until it is; I'll keep shopping because I do want to find that amazing cheese.
Yesterday I had a couple in my office and one word from the session jumped out and continues to ring for me today. The word was "just;" in particular, the phrase was, "I just want you to understand..."
We have a tendency to think this way, that to ask someone to "just understand" is a modest expectation. I don't think so. To truly understand other people we would have to know everything about what makes them tick and to be privy to all their inner workings. Even people who are in long-term marriages can't know every unconscious motivation or dynamic in the other. Hells bells, we can't even know all the unconscious workings in ourselves.
To some extent or another, our understanding of another person is limited. Asking someone to understand our position is, in fact, a pretty substantial request and, sometimes, an impossible task. Instead it might be better to start here: "You may not totally understand but I am asking that you accept what I am saying anyway."
If you want to buy a cigar, don't go to a health food store. The same logic applies to friendships. If you need to talk, don't go visit Rosie. Rosie is the friend you have fun with, lots of laughing but the spotlight is on Rosie. If you're in anxious mode, don't visit Brian who is always on the edge. Brian makes you feel good about yourself when you are able to say things that make him feel better, but today you're the one who needs to feel better. And if you're feeling on top of the world, don't visit mournful Carol. Sometimes you find her views on life intriguing and she's smart and you learn things from her, but she will bring you down. Go Visit Alan. He's supportive and a pretty good listener and the fact that he doesn't have much of a sense of humor doesn't count today.
If you do go to the health food store, don't have a fit when they say no cigars. Having been there a few times, you already know it's not the right place.
People have fits when friends don't deliver what they want...and that never works well. Not only do you not get what you need, you can lose a friendship that has some value in your life. Then, the next time you feel like cutting lose and laughing, there is no Rosie to go to. Why should we expect one friend to have all the things we need in friendship...that is about as rare as finding cigars in health food stores. Be smart and don't shop in the wrong store. (Also, stop smoking )
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I've never met Joe but I'm curious about him. A friend of mine has been telling me about him off and on for years. Most recently, she bumped into him at a fund raiser, not unusual as they share a number of friends. Susie introduced Joe to her boyfriend, they chatted and then she excused herself and went to the powder room. It was empty except for a young woman who had her face pressed into a bundle of paper towels, her body shaking with sobs. Susie, good person that she is, asked if she could help, but got waved off. Nevertheless, she stuck around until the woman calmed down and she could ask her what she was crying over. "Joe," she said. "I'm crying over Joe."
At this point, in the telling of the tale, both Susie and I laughed. "Another one?" I asked. "Another one crying over Joe. What DOES this guy have?"
I've seen pictures, and Joe's a good looking guy but not drop dead. He doesn't have a brilliant career, lives mostly paycheck to paycheck and has enough flaws that you wouldn't say flat out that he's a nice guy. But Joe's got something. Something magical that I have never been able to define. And that's charm.
What is charm? I wish I knew. From what I've observed and read and what people say, I know some of charm's components: using people's names when you meet, having a ready smile that pushes up into your eyes, an open countenance that says I want to know you, the ability to listen, pleasing looks and voice, sexiness, good posture, freely complimenting others, excellent manners, and on and on.
Well, you may have a very nice personality and a good heart and all these attributes, but still not be charming. And you may have only a few of these attributes and still be charming. And you can't fake it. You can have a charming moment or two but I'm talking about sustained charm. It's more than the sum of its parts. It's a special ingredient, a drop of nectar straight from the gods. It's part of the magic side of life. A charming person can lift or break your heart. Who has not cried over Joe?
Sometimes I think that all relationships should come equipped with dark glasses. Or some kind of filter that blurs your vision. After all, everyone has eccentricities and habits that could easily be annoying, especially if you noticed every little thing. And--ouch--the same goes for you; there are things about you that could annoy people too.
You could choose to "confront" annoying quirks and habits every time you encountered them but I doubt that would leave you much time for anything else. And I also doubt you would keep most of your friends. Or, you could focus on the irritants without saying anything and silently build up a storehouse of bad feeling which would likely create substantial distance between you and the other.
Neither of these options seems like a good idea to me. Instead, next time someone you care about does something you find annoying, try this: SQUINT.
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The other night I had the pleasure of going to a reading by the poet Jane Hirshfield. She read a short poem (see below) that got me thinking about how many different kinds of aloneness there are.
The most obvious way to think about being alone is related to being single, as in not in a romantic relationship.
Then there's the aloneness of being in a romantic relationship that is not working, one where communication has broken down and in which you do not feel seen or valued or understood.
Or, the relief of the rare experience of having some time alone in your own house when it's usually full of people and noise.
Single or partnered, there is the aloneness of being by yourself in the awesomeness of a redwood forest or under a sky bright with stars....or, sadly of being in the process of dying. You can think of this kind of aloneness as an existential experience.
So many people say they are afraid of being alone. And I do think there is a strong tendency to put a value judgment on the word and the experience i.e. alone=bad. In my mind that kind of black and white thinking restricts our experience. Instead of thinking in better vs. worse terms, consider that aloneness has its gifts and its challenges, just like any other state of being.
Here is the short poem that got me thinking:
Vinegar and Oil
Wrong solitude vinegars the soul,
right solitude oils it.
How fragile we are, between the two good moments.
Coming and going unfinished,
puzzled by fate,
like the half-carved relief
of a fallen donkey, above a church door in Finland.
Have you been calling yourself names again? Imagine telling a friend or child that they are fat or stupid or incapable. Not likely, yet the harsh parent within you may feel quite free to beat up on you, on your inner child. Your conscious, active mind hardly notices these attacks, especially if they've been ongoing. But hearing bad things about yourself on a regular basis is undermining. The next time you make a mistake or don't live up to expectations, pay attention to what you do and say to yourself.
Self-attack can be painful enough that you may alleviate the pain by turning it outward. Your scolding parent makes your inner child want to protect itself and, as children do, you look for someone to blame. Now you have a mess. You hate yourself, hate someone or something outside of yourself and are moving away from the truth of what actually happened.
I'm not a fan of positive self-reinforcement in the form of untrue messages. You're not the best, at least not for any extended time. Rather than pumping yourself up artificially, I think it's better to raise your awareness and gradually get rid of the name calling and harsh criticism; getting to the point where you can speak the truth without being mean about it.
I also like creating a few messages that have the voice of a good parent,i.e., supportive and directive. I have two that are simple but work for me.
"I'm doing the best I can." Saying this is reassuring and true. Being able to take in the message alleviates the anxiety that goes with pushing oneself when nothing more can be accomplished. That doesn't mean I've accomplished a great deal. Maybe I'm having a 20% day as compared to 100% day but that's OK. My message is about me, not a task.
My second message is quite opposite of the above.I dislike the state of procrastination though I can dwell there. I'm as good as anyone at putting ice cream or a nap between me and a task. But I'm uneasy, aware of working at being distracted. It all gets better when my good parent shows up and says, "Try harder". Once heard, the procrastination is acknowledged and it's difficult to settle back into sloth. It's a kind message because it says "try". It allows me to say, "OK, I'll try a little bit". Almost always, that little bit gets me going. I don't mix my two messages. If I'm doing my best,I don't tell myself to try harder.
I stumbled on these good parent messages that work for me. Best of luck in finding yours. And, by the way, you don't have to have had good parents to find a good parent within yourself.
I saw this youtube clip of the comedian Louis C.K. on another psychology blog. (I must sheepishly admit that I cannot locate the name of that blog so if you are out there and reading this, please let me know so I can send readers your way.)
What I really like about this bit on fatherhood is how he readily acknowledges his own limitations as a parent and yet has some pretty darn good wisdom.
This morning I was talking to a client about how important it is to be able to say 'no'. There's the obvious stuff about boundaries and how we need to be able to say 'no' in order to protect ourselves against potential harm. It's analogous to the pain reaction you'd have if you put your hand on a hot stove. Without boundaries and the ability to act on them by saying no, we could get badly burned.
But we were talking about something different this morning. We were talking about how you need to be confident in your ability to say 'no' in order to be able to say 'yes' wholeheartedly. I'm sure you know how it is when someone agrees to something but then makes it clear in indirect ways that he or she really wanted to say 'no.' It might be passive-aggressive behavior, a pouty mood, withdrawal. The 'no' just has a way of seeping out no matter what.
On the other hand, if we feel free to say "no", our "yes" is uncontaminated. Personally, people who are able to say both "yes" and "no" in this wholehearted way seem more trustworthy to me. If you ask your friend to feed your cat while you're out of town, it would feel a lot better if you absolutely knew that she would say no if she chose to. And if she said yes, she meant yes.There would be no need to waste energy wondering how she really felt.
Any meaningful relationship should be able to accommodate 'no' as an answer sometimes, even if that results in disappointment or worse. What you get in return is the ability to relax with confidence that when the answer is 'yes', it's really 'yes'.
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If I could put a tattoo on the hands of my clients, friends and self, it would be one word. A word undervalued, misinterpreted and underused. And it's not love. This word is not the least bit exciting, doesn't call up images of adventure, joy or expansion. Doesn't intrigue, doesn't speak to a higher or lower self and doesn't fuel creativity. It's definitely not sexy.
I'm being a bit coy for as soon as I write the word you may stop reading. I hope you don't because the word, for all it lacks luster, can bring goodness into your life (and no, it's not money).
"Moderation" is the word. Leaving now, are you?
Moderation is that place between extremes. Between high and low, loving and hating, gorging and starving, flaunting and hiding, ecstasy and despair, freedom and confinement and, you get my point.
You don't live any length of time without experiencing some extremes in life and who would have it any other way. But moderation has its place. The middle ground brings stability, improves health, reduces stress and keeps families together.
Moderation means you can have some but not all. Try applying this idea for a day. It means you will have one doughnut, not six (reach with your tattooed hand). You will speak your mind and get your point across without demolishing the other. You will have fun without losing the next day to a hangover.
There are people who seek to live life at extremes, in fact, they disdain any other way. But most of us find our well being in the middle ground, the happy medium. To practice moderation is to live a balanced life. It doesn't mean that feelings aren't intense but actions that follow are considered and restrained with the desire to not hurt others, our selves included.
"You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection."
Playing backgammon with my mother was, shall we say,
interesting. If she won, she was adamant that backgammon is a game of skill; if
she lost, she was equally insistent that it is a game of luck. It wouldn’t have
been so challenging if she did not have such a strong need for others to agree
with her conclusions. That’s what made me a little batty.
What I see more clearly now some years after her death is
that she needed to construct that house of cards (to carry on with the
metaphor) in order to protect what was indeed a very fragile self concept. Even
something as meaningless as a board game was a threat that she needed to guard
herself against. It’s a natural and valuable instinct to protect ourselves from
perceived threat and exposing what could be viewed as weakness can make us feel
very vulnerable. Without thinking, our defenses can go up. The challenge is to
make distinctions between what are real threats and what are simply encounters
with our humanity.
How hard it must have been for my mother to feel threat at
every turn. How much easier her life would have been had she been able to
accept her very human limitations.
You may have heard the rule of thumb that if you say it more than twice, it's a complaint. Well, we all complain, some of us more than others. When someone is annoyed or has been treated unfairly, telling a sympathetic listener can take away some of the sting and offer some second hand justice. Up to a point. If the story is told too often, it can reinforce the hurt...or the enjoyment of exposing the bad guy. Think of the divorced person who five or ten years or forever is telling the tale of the "Horrible Spouse". Or the guy in the office who cannot resist demonizing the boss, over and over again. And then there is the friend whose company is enjoyable until the friend starts in on another friend or a relative, listing faults and flaws, betrayals, ingratitude and advantages taken.
Bad bosses and obnoxious people and flawed friends are plentiful so, of course, it's understandable that one needs to vent. But when venting is intensely focused on one person, when it's so repetitious that it is a staple in someone's conversation, there is something deeper going on. This is especially obvious if the person focused on, for one reason or another, disappears and a new person takes the place of target.
A lot of people can own some of this kind of behavior. But, more often than not, if they try to explain it to themselves, rather than gaining insight they start listing even more awful things about their target and conclude that no one could help but feel as they do.
To get out of this tangled mess, two questions are helpful. The first is: "What purpose does this behavior of mine serve in my life?" Asking this question places the problem with the complainer not the target.The second question is:"Do I need an enemy?"
That is, do I need a nail on which to hang my anger, frustrations and disappointments? Do I need someone to belittle in order to feel superior? Do I feel threatened by someone whose power I try to diminish with ridicule? Do I need an enemy who takes up so much of my emotional energy that I cannot (don't have to) get on with my life?
Last night I watched a Navy Seal interviewed about BUDS (basic underwater demolition). It's the training they undergo at the start of their stints. One thing that was clear to me was that I would never, EVER be a Navy Seal. What is required physically and emotionally is flat outside my range---waaaaay outside. It's hard not to be awed at such a test of mettle and to feel like quite a wimp in comparison. But then I got to thinking about strength and courage and how we all have many opportunities to confront fear and make choices that contribute to a strong and positive sense of ourselves. Next time something feels a little scary---even if it's a small thing like sending back an incorrect order at a restaurant----ask yourself this question: what would make me feel proud? I bet you will know the answer and that if you take that action you will contribute to building a stronger and stronger self-concept (your inner Seal??).