Web Camel Transport 46

The Happiness of Association

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Swami Vivekenanda, an Indian Hindu monk who died in 1902, was quoted as saying:

“The rain drop from the sky:

If it is caught in hands, it is pure enough for drinking.

If it falls in a gutter, its value drops so much that it can’t be used even for washing the feet.

If it falls on hot surface, it perishes.

If it falls on lotus leaf, it shines like a pearl and finally, if it falls on oyster, it becomes a pearl. The drop is same, but its existence & worth depend on with whom it associates.

Always be associated with people who are good at heart.”

Our associations bring us up close and personal to other beings—people and animals as well as manufactured and natural environments where qualities of architecture, air, water, noise, light, spatial dimension, and so on, converge.  We will never be alive in a vacuum, so we cannot be completely impervious to our surroundings, although great variability exists in how much we absorb or how sensitively we experience the interpersonal and environmental elements around us.

As in the above quote, different associations co-construct the use or meaning of a rain drop.  The rain drop has no absolute, inherent meaning or function.  As the rain drop associates with its interactive environmental partners, meaning and function unfold as an expression of the association.  How we behave, think and feel as people, often takes on characteristics in response to those with whom we associate.

My litmus paper test for a great relationship results in liking the “me that I am with you.”  In other terms, we tend to like people who we feel bring out the best in us, whether in the workplace, in our neighborhoods, in our couples or with our friends.  We tend not to enjoy hanging out with others when we feel less than our best—when our argumentative or cranky or judgmental facets come to the foreground.  If I enjoy feeling smart or funny or feisty or understanding or helpful or curious about others, or admiring of others, then I enjoy interacting with those people who co-create those personal experiences for me.

Intuitively, parents feel clear about this and often, to the disgruntlement of their adolescents, forbid their children to hang out with peers whom they see as troublemakers or “bad influences.” What a teenage boy might elect to do, as an associate of his parents, might differ dramatically when he immerses himself in a group that enjoys playing pranks, sometimes just this side, or the other side of legal.

Although there are differing theories of “crowd” or “herd” mentality, some common elements include the submergence of individual identity into the shared identity of the group.  The contagiousness of the energy in the group, like being born out to sea by a series of powerful waves, moves us along and may, temporarily influence us to behave in ways we might not, were we to have reflected on our own.  Over the years I have seen many young people who would never have thought of bashing their neighbors’ mailboxes had they not been with a group of their friends in a speeding van, awash in beer and laughter.  It is very difficult to distinguish oneself from a powerful encompassing influence.  Our desires to be insiders rather than outsiders, to belong, and to feel accepted, also contribute to going with the crowd.

Gangs also represent powerful groups with whom a person might associate, generating a sense of identity as part of an entity greater than oneself, and therefore more powerful, and perhaps more successful materially or in terms of a status to which one can aspire.  Like a fraternity one does not have to live in isolation.  One can feel known, can belong, feel accepted, and there’s a context for aspiration to unfold.  As many have written, the downsides to gang membership—violence and early death, drug dependence, a lack of real traction in the greater society, etc.—make it a mostly dysfunctional alternative to more positive associations.  Having said that, family dissolution, poverty, lacks in education and opportunity as well as few positive role models and mentors can make any positive associations out of reach if not non-existent for some youth.

In two powerful novels, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, and King Rat, by William Clavell, individuals in a context dissimilar to the one in which they were raised, take on status, motivation and behavior that would not have shown up otherwise.  In the first instance, British boys on a deserted island form their own society to maintain some order and to work together.  Increasingly, chaos takes over with violence, superstition, and murder.  In King Rat, an American corporal and prisoner of war in a Japanese internment camp in Singapore during World War II, takes on a powerful status within the camp that he never had nor would have had in his civilian world.

The positive power of associations, on the other hand, gets expressed in cohesive sports teams and work groups who accomplish things well beyond what would have resulted from isolated individuals working independently.  Often a pep talk precedes a game or an inspirational speaker jazzes a sales force to aspire to new heights.  This energy offers a positive contagion and spreads throughout the group.

Historically, agricultural work groups often sang songs together to unify their repetitive processes, as well as to lighten the load of such exhausting work.  Collective singing alleviates isolation and monotony.  The cohesive group focuses on the pleasure and meaning of the songs. Rhythmic chants or songs on vessels also kept rowing crews together.  Their synchronization propelled the boat along.  Today coxswains provide a similar unifying, pacing count.

Associations—singing groups, exercise classes, writing groups, brainstorming cohorts, etc.—also put wind in our sails.  We get a boost from our compatriots and harness their energies to our own.  The synergy helps us when our personal energy would otherwise drop.  We go one more step, produce another page, or try once again to get the harmony just right.

Environments too have associative components.  In a theatre or chapel we keep quiet.  At a nightclub we dance up a storm and yell to our friends over loud music.  In a classroom we respectfully wait our turn to speak.  Where we go and where we live often begin to fit us like old clothes.  Whether a tent in the trees or a mansion, when we live or work someplace long enough, we might develop a real fondness for the place that houses us, or houses our efforts.

April is National poetry month, and I was so struck by this gem of a poem by C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933).  I will quote the whole introduction to the poem from poem-a-day, sent via the internet from Knopf:

“Daniel Mendelsohn writes in his introduction to Complete Poems, by C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933), that he lived in a seemingly dull and ordinary fashion: “The cluttered, déclassé surroundings, the absence of aesthetic distinction, the startlingly conventional, to say nothing of middlebrow, taste: Cavafy’s apartment, like his job, gave little outward sign of the presence of a great artistic mind—the place from which the poetry really came.”

In the Same Space

House, coffeehouses, neighborhood: setting
that I see and where I walk; year after year.

I crafted you amid joy and amid sorrows:
out of so much that happened, out of so many things.

And you’ve been wholly remade into feeling; for me.

Cavafy’s feeling-infused surroundings reminded me of the year I lived in a small yellow, and yellowing room, in the eaves of the farmhouse on Mica Farm.  Sun had bleached most of the wall paper but for brownish stains where leaks from an old roof had toyed with it.  Some old wicker furniture—a chair, a stool—had cracked, flaking off some of the white paint.  The bed sagged and creaked, the mattress literally desiccating into dust.  From the windows under the eaves a vast expanse of meadow to a woods in back, and across the horse pasture in front, apples trees and then the road.  We had only planned on staying for two months, at the most, while waiting for the all-important certificate of occupancy so that we could move into the new home we were building. I cried when we left.  The shabby room with its wide planked pine floors had somehow entered my heart, and its quiet perch over the spread of land under it, nested me gently and I had come to sleep well there.  I realized that almost any place can come to feel like home, even a single room.

An association is an energetic whole that contextualizes its component parts, the size and the power of which varies a great deal.  Associations can have materiality—families, workplaces, neighborhoods, places of worship, recreational groups, teams, and so forth.  But we can also associate virtually and psychologically, with particular systems of religious or political doctrines or social, cultural and tribal beliefs.  The complicated part is that each component is both modified by and modifies the other constituents in a way that can only be understood as creating a unique phenomenon or system with its own functioning, traits and energetic output.  This cannot be dissembled as a summation.  The adage, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” captures this idea.

Marsha Linehan, the master mind behind Dialectical Behavior Therapy, developed a unified set of concepts to help people diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder.  Highly sensitive persons who respond and react intensely to emotions might experience “dysregulation”—a difficulty calming and soothing amplified affective states.  DBT promotes integrative notions like “rational mind” and “emotional mind” coming together in an overlap called “wise mind.”  Informed by both feeling and thought, it is possible to accept what happens in life, as well as the consequent feelings that arise from those situations, but to lightly free oneself up from being ruled by those feelings.  The philosophical term “dialectical” generally describes the possibility of a new result, concept, or understanding, arising from opposing, or seemingly opposing points of view.  Sometimes known as ‘thesis’ and ‘antithesis,’ these polarities in thought, cause creative friction when opposed, often generating unique possibilities and outcomes.  In the Hegelian notion of dialectic things are seen as contradictions.  Other terms that describe a dialectic are proposition and counter-proposition.

In DBT, one dialectical notion concerns the idea of “radical acceptance” of oneself as one is, of one’s emotions, and the slings and arrows of life, while, at the same time, “changing” one’s behavior and approach toward these.  On the surface, if one accepts oneself, how would the need to change arise from that?  The dialectical tension between these two creates opportunities to hold oneself in high regard while continuing to embrace greater empowerment (over the emotional and behavioral outputs generated in the context of disappointing, hurtful, or otherwise upsetting events or interactions).

Even our words live within matrices of association, and often breathtaking poetic images and metaphors wake up our consciousness to new experiences by taking words from different matrices and juxtaposing them. I was remembering the book, The Act of Creation by Arthur Koestler which talked about matrices of association.  Take a word like “shade,” in a poem called ‘From Blossoms’ by Li-Young Lee.  ‘Shade’ lives in a matrix of associations like light and dark, perhaps trees and foliage, clouds, etc.  But in the poem Lee offers us a delicious rendition of eating peaches (“peaches” from a matrix of associations having to do with fruit, etc. and ‘eating’ has its own set of associations):  “O, to take what we love inside, to carry within us an orchard, to eat not only the skin, but the shade. . .”

To eat the shade of the day.  How extraordinary, novel, uplifting, expansive.   To carry an orchard within us.  We can feel our imaginations soar as we take in the sense, the meaning, the connections we haven’t made previously in our lives.

James Joyce wrote sometimes in a “stream of consciousness,” where thoughts tumble out as idiosyncratic associated contents.  “Thought is the thought of a thought.” (Chapter 2, Ulysses).  Journal writing, and even the mental chatter that goes on in our heads most of the time have repeat concerns and themes but also ramble on in paths, however circuitous, that describe our associative capacities.

As we go through life, we have ever greater numbers of experiences that reinforce or modify our thoughts, opinions, impressions and feelings about many things.  You could say that our previous thoughts and experiences get enriched or altered by succeeding contexts of experience which, like concentric circles, redefine the contents at their centers.

Just like our literal associations with other people can grow, forming more vast and complex networks (we all know about the value of networking professionally/occupationally) so can our intellectual and emotional associations grow and mature.  Creative solutions to life problems as well as to challenges in engineering, science, and the arts, often come from cross-fertilization.  Cross-fertilization is identical to the notion of previously dissociated matrices of words or thoughts, now coming together to create something entirely new.

Our associations can happily inspire us, buoy our energy, drive and determination; can contribute to a whole greater than we can build on our own, and also prompt us to rethink and re-examine our thoughts and feelings.  On the downside we can get carried along on a negative stream of thought, belief, and action.  When that occurs, changing our associations can help us advance new perspectives and develop ourselves in more positive ways.

Camel Saddle:  Who do you count among your closest associates and why?  In whose company do you feel like your best self?  What beliefs do you hold dear?  What beliefs might you question in light of new experiences and newly associated people, ideas and feelings?  In what groups or communities do you experience the most synergy?

Web Camel 45

It RRRReally Works: The Layer Cake of Communication

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Even if we became the most articulate, classiest speakers ever, it would not totally solve the problem of “poor” or unproductive communication between any two people—a couple, a boss and employee, two friends, a parent and child.

Communication is behavior, but more like a layer cake of behavioral outputs that rivals the complexity of an orchestral composition.  We have the powers to conceal or reveal, to exaggerate or trivialize, to assign meaning selectively, and to spin.  We can also manipulate, persuade, leverage, blackmail, threaten, or even brainwash.  We are always “selling” our story, even when we are selling the real, organic, true story.  Even when we aim for honesty, transparency and disclosure as operating principles for our own lives, we cannot help but interpret what happens in our worlds through our own subjective lenses.  People who have an extraordinary ability to empathize can entertain multiple stories as interpretive options, even when different from their own.

We utilize these verbal strategies or storytelling modes to advance the outcomes we hope to attain as well as to avoid unwanted outcomes.  For example, John doesn’t tell his wife, Sally, that he has another out-of-town conference because he wants to avoid her anger—at the demands of his job, at the lack of John’s assertiveness with his boss, and because of the stress of dealing with their three small children alone after a full day of work for her.  John is a good man, a hard worker, and loves his wife and children.  He already feels upset about his sheepishness in standing up for himself with his boss, and so, in subtle and not so subtle ways, he attempts, perhaps unconsciously, to manipulate his wife’s emotional output because when Sally gets angry and frustrated, that really upsets John.  Sally too is good at minimizing the breast tumor with which she was diagnosed so that her mother of 80 wouldn’t worry too much.  It is operable, treatable, with a high probability of an actual cure, but she has no guarantee.

When we speak with other people we express ourselves from our own point of view because we are the protagonists on our life’s stage.  Whether in conflict with anothers interest or assisting them in their aims, we have the tough job, when communicating well, of trying to understand and articulate our own wants, needs and opinions while, hand in hand, we also understand the wants, needs and opinions of the other party.

In addition, as in the example of John and Sally, our personal narratives and our history of emotional experiences greatly influence what we choose to communicate as well as how we communicate.  In large part, effective communication involves the co-creation of mutually beneficial outcomes and positive emotional experiences or experiences which uplift, educate or enlighten, even when painful.  Unproductive communication may include using others as targets for our unleashed anger, frustration, resentment or other stress; hurting another person’s feelings to get revenge for perceived affronts, or to temporarily make ourselves feel victimized, elevated or to simply let off steam. So an important layer of communication emphasizes its function as a complex expression of information, values, feelings, opinions, aims, and both cultural and personal narratives—the core stories of our lives.

On the surface, communication contains musical and choreographic elements in addition to words, like volume, inflection, speed, accompanying bodily gestures and facial expressions as well as amount of eye contact, and spatial proximity between conversants. The environment also plays a role in which dyadic communication takes place—a doctor’s treatment room, an office, a living room, a mountain top, a crowded public place, etc. The defined roles of each participant in a discussion (doctor-patient, lovers, friends, parent and child, boss and employee) establish the relevant conversation etiquette, as well as the fund of allowable topics.  Since etiquette and socially appropriate topics may vary across cultures, inter-cultural communication may require some additional education and sensitivity to avoid conferring offenses where none were intended.

A lot of available material on communication offers strategies for effective communication, as well as cautioning us on deleterious exchanges.  John Gottman, a psychologist who has studied couple’s communication for decades can reliably predict a couple’s demise based on some core premises:  that couples must have a five-to-one ratio of positive to negative exchanges as well as the ability to communication without the “four horsemen of the apocalypse.”   He defines these as criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

“Criticizing” attacks or puts down the person with whom we are speaking.  In my office, I often see criticizing as the result of power struggles in which people get locked into a paradigm where someone needs to win at the other’s expense, or when someone must be right and the other wrong.  This black-and-white mentality can blind us to an alternative paradigm in which multiple perspectives can offer enriched understandings or interpretations of a situation.

“Contempt” or derision constitutes a form of attack on anothers self or character by name-calling or other insulting language as well as gestures and facial expressions like eye-rolling or derisive laughter.  Belittling, humiliating, shaming, and character assassinating come under this heading.

“Defensiveness” in my opinion, stands as the most prominent barrier to productive communication.  I believe we humans come into the world hardwired to protect ourselves from perceived physical and emotional attacks. It requires hard work to master the art of non-defensiveness;  to remain open minded and curious about what someone else thinks (particularly about us) without gearing up for battle. Defensiveness can appear as cross-complaining (turning the tables, as in, “but you always leave the lights on upstairs.”) or making excuses or attacking back or disagreeing without trying to see the other person’s point of view.

Gottman’s last “horseman” is “stonewalling,” the cold shoulder, walking out and slamming the door, the silent treatment, disconnecting emotionally.

Because communication is a form of behavior with verbal and non-verbal constructs, the “four horsemen” exemplify the kind of behavior we call “acting out.”

On the surface level of discourse, the acronym, RRRR, may help to prompt generally productive, effective communication:  Receive, Repeat, Reflect, Respond.

Receiving communications from others with full attention, openness and curiosity is a prerequisite for good communication.  Without listening well—focused on the speaker rather than on what one wants to say—one simply can’t respond well.  Defensiveness can prevent us from being good listeners:  We are so primed to feel attacked that we are already preparing our firing squad before fully comprehending what is being said to us.  But we can practice listening better by adjusting our bodies—releasing tight shoulders, breathing more deeply, slowing down our processing speed, giving ourselves permission to take the time we need to respond so that we can use our post-listening time for building our responses.

Repeat back, in some fashion, what has been said to you.  When we reiterate what we understood, you satisfy your conversational partner’s desire to feel heard and understood.  I believe that the desire to feel understood is one of our fundamental interpersonal desires.  Whether or not someone agrees with us, when we have an experience of feeling understood or sympathized with, then the wheel is greased for us to reciprocate.  Sometimes “repeating back” is referred to as part of an “active listening” process.  In this process repeating back may require additional questions of the initial speaker, not to advance one’s own agenda, but to simply clarify or unpack the initial speaker’s point.

Reflect:  Absorbing what someone says, openly and with full attention, and validating your understanding of their communication, is best followed with a moment of reflection.  During this time, we process and digest our understanding and compose what we think, feel, and ultimately want to say in response.  Responses are different than reactions, because reactions often emerge half-cocked, ill composed, and lacking in attunement. Gottman’s four horsemen are sub-species of reactive communication.  When we reflect, we allow our brains/minds to link our feelings and thoughts and values productively.  When we speak, from a rootedness in our integrity, the result is often the best possible, particularly in a trying conflict or other situation.

Respond to the other speaker, even if you disagree, with the best you can offer.  If you have taken the time to reflect, your best may include your values of kindness and consideration, of allowing the other person’s concerns to influence you, of dignifying their communication with respect, and of putting forward your own thoughts and feelings with sincerity and clarity regardless of the outcome.

For myself, I often affirm that I will communicate/act to the best of my ability and remain open to all outcomes.  Because we cannot control all outcomes, trying to manipulate them underhandedly often backfires—we lose credibility and the trust of others—and undermine the possibility of effective communication down the road. On the microcosmic scale of our own interpersonal conversations as well as on the macrocosmic scale of political and media communications the same principles hold.  If we learn that we cannot trust or believe in what someone says, or they are neither transparent nor forthcoming, then we continue to feel stressed and unsettled.

As one of my clients often says, “What we say and what we do is who we are, and who we are, we are forever.” I’d like to give us a bit of legroom, as masterpieces in the making, to continue to master the art of non-defensive, impactful and productive communication.

Camel Saddle:  How does insecurity or defensiveness tend to skew your communications to others?  Do you avoid, minimize, speak in vague terms, or attack?  What aspect of your communication do you seek to improve? What do you want your communications to others to reflect about you—honesty?  Clarity?  Directness?  Consideration for others’ opinions? Etc.

 

Web Camel Transport 44

In Praise of Fear

Friday April 7, 2017

We tend to give fear a bad rap.  People committed to mindfulness or spirituality often tell me how angry they feel at themselves, or guilty, when they experience fear.  But fear, perhaps our most primitive programming, alerts us to perceived danger.  At the DNA level, the cellular level, and the conscious level, survival motivates us most prominently.

Fear, a powerfully intense emotion, both expresses and reveals to us a potentially life threatening situation to which we require the appropriate orientation—one of alertness, attunement to environmental cues, and readiness for action.  Everything else recedes in those heightened moments of fear when all of our energies unite and deploy us into fight, flight, or freeze mode.

For most of us living in the Western world comes the luxury of pursuing a satisfying life beyond the basic attainment of survival, food and shelter (which makes the poverty of some in a rich country all the sadder).

We want not only to subsist, but to live life to its fullest, and to that end we imbue our families, our other relationships, our work, and our situation in the world at large with meaning.  We crave a sense of purpose, and hope to make some helpful footprint in the vast and unfathomable expanse of time and ancestry.  Just as our aspirations supersede survival, so does the potential for fear accompany us along the way.  We fear not just the loss of a food supply, but the potential of losing out on a plum job to the competition. We fear a fall in social status, not being picked for the team, getting less than an A or B on a paper in school.  We fear social humiliation, rejection, or that our contribution will not be good enough, or that we will not be attractive enough or measure up or get ahead.

The desire for a full and rich life, as an elaboration of the instinct to survive, comes with its counterpart, a more elaborate set of attendant fears.  Want and worry go hand in hand.  Worry, anxiety and fear we generally experience as uncomfortable, but, like excited motivation, these feelings activate us and often play a key role in helping us to succeed when they don’t rise to an overwhelming level of complete distraction or paralysis.

Fear isn’t really our problem.  It’s how we cope with fear and what we do after fear has warned us of possible impending doom that can undermine us.  To start with, a negative narrative about fear, as if it has no right to a presence, presupposes a largely incorrect assumption that we humans can and should only feel “positive emotions;” that somehow “fear is bad;” and that if we feel fear then we must be less evolved than our more mature and spiritually developed counterparts.

We might turn this around by respecting fear, ours and others’.  Fear is by its nature a measure of challenge.  Some of us measure risk or challenge more accurately than others.  For some people, fear amplifies or overstates the level of risk or challenge.  On the other hand, for some people–say someone cavalierly using a circular power saw without protective eye wear or gloves, or someone whose doctor says COPD or lung cancer is immanent if they keep smoking–fear underperforms in its alert messaging.

If we can imagine our fear like a protective and loyal dog who barks at a stranger or strange circumstance, this may help us to identify fear as an ally, albeit a sometimes overzealous one.

In Cognitive Behavior Therapy, there’s an intervention in which we identify our “irrational” fears.  I object to the use of “irrational,” because no one has ever told me about a fear that has no logic to it.  It is possible for a plane to fall from a sky.  It is possible one’s symptoms could be cancer.  It is possible you will fail to get the job.  It is possible you’ll get romantically rejected.  It is possible you could drop your baby.  It is possible someone followed you in the store. But when fear feels strong—adrenaline rushing, muscles tense, shoulders hugging the ears, breathing shallow, etc.—then fear overstates the case.  Intense fear makes the possible seem probable.  Possibilities are definitely not probabilities.

Intervening with ourselves by learning to calibrate our fear can help us respond to stressful situations less intensely.  We only want to use the most efficient amount of emotional  fuel to deal with the situation.

What often amplifies fear has to do with our long held narratives about our lacks—of competence or fortitude or fitness or approval rating. With fear’s volume turned up, thinking through problems gets more difficult, or even taking one step forward can seem insurmountable.  We may even tuck the overdue bill at the bottom of the pile of papers to avoid facing it.  Similarly, people whose anger flares hot, provoked by even the smallest of inconveniences, may have to work hard to recalibrate.

One client, Bill, a young man in his mid-twenties, finished a certificate program, got a job in his field and moved into a studio apartment of his own.  Shortly after that he had a fender bender which, even with doing part of the fixing on his own, required the loan of a car from his father for a week and a hundred dollars from his mother.  Having been the subject of parental criticism in the past as well as currently, Bill barraged himself with negating comments: “I’m a failure;” “No one in my family has any respect for me.  I’m just a f-up to them;” “I’ll never get anywhere at this rate.” These thoughts came with a deep depression and suicidal ideation. While I sympathized with Bill’s current misfortune, I noticed his black-and-white thinking.  Bill’s narrative turned an undoubtedly stressful situation into a complete catastrophe, and because he had driven the car and gotten into an accident he saw himself, as not only the cause of this accident, but a worthless human being.

I asked Bill to take a deep breath, to bear with me, and to let me know what he honestly felt were his accomplishments of the last two years.  When he had finished telling me his exemplary list, I asked whether he had noticed the black-and-white thinking that had erased from his mind all these great things, and made it seem like he’d done nothing deserving of praise.

I asked Bill whether it might feel useful to him, to ask himself, “What is the gray here?” when he found himself spiraling down.  When we next met several weeks later, Bill seemed quite a bit cheerier.  His vehicle was fixed, even though it needed more work—which would cost more money on his starter wage—but he said he had been asking himself about the “gray,” and realized that even though he didn’t have a brand new free car, at least he didn’t have an undriveable one. The gray wasn’t all that bad since in a few weeks he would be paying back the loan to his mother.  He had also spent time with a friend who thought it was pretty “sick” that he had his own pad and a great full time job in his field.

Recalibration may involve developing the facility to note when a small present situation triggers a larger response to a past problem.  Fear or anger revs up in the moment, just in case what happened in the past stands a chance of recurring—the present partner will also leave us, the boss will call us in to let us know our job has been eliminated, the phone call will produce horrific news, etc. For people who have been unfortunately traumatized in the past, “triggering” may happen frequently.  Anything—a sound, a sight, a smell, an interaction—can all cause triggering.  At times, trauma makes it particularly difficult to distinguish present stressors from past ones in the moment something is taking place.

Intense fear prepares us for worst case scenarios and often overpowers our ability to stay fully present and engaged in the now.  Our heightened response, like road rage, an expression of the influence of older narratives playing out in our minds, as well as our general level of stress.

Of course, our brilliant imaginations consider multiple case scenarios so that none will take us unawares. This is a gift.  But remembering that past and present can collide emotionally may help us to ramp down overblown fear responses to present situations that don’t warrant them.

In Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a creation of Marsha Linehan’s for working with people diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, “dysregulated” emotional output can respond to the use of DBT skills—journaling, changing the scenery, listening to music, soothing self-talk, etc. When practiced over time, these strategies gain utility.

Mediating the emotional output of fear with powerful, and often short (and short-circuiting), thought-input helps, as a kind of re-storying about ourselves (our character within our story).  As an example, when fearful ask yourself: “How would a calm and wise person act in this situation?”  When angry, ask yourself: “What would a patient and wise person do in this situation?”  Similar questions help in two ways.  First, by slowing down our experience so emotions don’t get on a runaway train.  And secondly, by maneuvering us toward a reservoir of conscious resources and past situations that would be helpful in the current situation.

Once we have stepped over the threshold of fear to engage ourselves in the venture ahead—tying a tourniquet to save someone’s life, taking the test, acting our character’s part onstage, parachuting from the aircraft, getting married, going to another country alone, learning something new and difficult—our engagement in the process, our supremely focused attention, allows fear to recede into the background.

 

“I have learned that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear.”  Rosa Parks

It would be remiss not to say that emotions, and particularly fear, are infectious.  In a crowd of scared people, we feel scared.  The definition of emotion is movement outward.  The energy of fear can grab us by the neck, squeeze the air from our lungs, and cause our hearts to thump loudly and fast like a drum beat loud enough to alert everyone around us.  Because fear is so primal an emotion, and because it flags things that matter to us, we can easily get manipulated to do things, say things, or behave in ways that would otherwise surprise us.              While I, in no uncertain terms, do not want to turn this psychological article into one about politics, it seems noteworthy from a therapist’s office, how many clients feel fear about things that matter to them and their families through the lens of the collective bigger picture—will their jobs remain secure, will they have health care, will their children get a quality public school education, will there be arts experiences for their children who paint, play the violin, or dance.  Will one’s sexual orientation or gender, or ethnicity, or country of origin, undermine their rights in this great nation.  Will the air remain clean for the baby on the way, and for that baby’s baby born sometime ahead?

We fear things, both close to the chest and at large, that seem threatening to our healthy lives and livelihoods, to our safety and security and to that of our children. Our vulnerability around fear leaves us open to manipulation, thought insertion, and fear mongering.  Mediating fears that go beyond our individual and family lives, fears that concern more collective concerns, often require us to seek the comfort of others and the inspiration of those who can help us see potentials beyond the provocations of our fear and inspire us with the power of collective voicing and collective actions.  Whether for our own lives or for the lives of those around us, taking action on something we hold dear, turns down the volume of our fear.  Only if we experience helplessness and hopelessness will fear have unfettered reign.

If you play a role as a parent, a boss, or another authority figure, it may be beneficial to remember that scaring someone into something—dominating their behavior by cultivating their fear—does not have as much power, in the long run, as helping others to use their own powers of thought, reflection and compassion as cultivators of productive behavior, at home, in school, in the workplace, and in society.

Camel Saddle:  What worthy challenge scares you the most?  What are your tendencies in terms of coping with this fear?  Do you avoid, procrastinate, get angry, self-condemn, feel depressed, get distracted?  On what exceptional occasions have you faced or conquered this fear?  What encourages you the most?  What is some useful self-talk to get you up close and personal with what you most want and most fear?

In the movie, ‘We Bought a Zoo,’ Benjamin Mee says, “You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.”

 

 

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Yes Happiness

Wednesday March 15, 2017

“yes is a world     and in this world     skillfully curled    live all worlds.” ee cummings

A favorite little phrase, and packed with meaning, cummings’ stanza expresses the stamina of yeses to open doors of possibility.  When we say “yes” to meetings, adventures, trying our hands or our minds at something that scares us, then wondrous vistas and opportunities as well as creative expression await our arrival through those doors of YES.

When we say “yes” to something that might thrill us but also produce anxiety, we will have gone through an emotional maze of reasons why we might want to avoid such a challenge, or bar ourselves from the attendant risks involved.  But finally, perhaps with trepidation taking the backseat to curiosity or ambition, we take the leap of faith.  We say, “yes!”  Most great human ventures come with risk.  The oft stirred cold feet of betrotheds, standing at the threshold of their marital life together, as an example.  Or the wary investor about to press “buy” on these promising mutual funds.  Or, the shy actor auditioning for his largest role yet.  Or the quiet employee seeking fairer compensation for her diligence and brilliance.  Or the person scared of heights facing the rock wall finally.

When we have wrestled with all of the “no’s,” and “yes” has claimed the victory, then we decided on “yes.”  We align ourselves with “yes,” and that “yes” represents our best self, pushing the envelopes in which we have wrapped our dreams and aspirations, our hopes and our curiosity.  This is a decidedly different kind of “yes” than the yes of our people-pleasing selves.

Some yeses, when they issue from a place of people-pleasing, happen on autopilot, reflexively, reactively.  They have nothing in common with victorious yeses which are proactive, and often hard won.  To have a good “yes,” one must have a good “no.”  If “yes” exists as the only one of those two words in our vocabulary, then yeses, habitual yeses, can take over our lives and dominate our efforts and how we spend our time.

Except in rare circumstances, even if you are one of those people for whom serving others constitutes your main purpose, no one needs to service others at the expense of oneself.  When serving others—saying “yes” to others—on a routine basis means depleting your personal resources of time, energy, emotional and physical well being, then saying “yes” has turned into a bad habit.  The consequent and inevitable anger, resentment, and feelings of deprivation that yes-people experience illustrate a misalignment in relating to oneself.  If you find yourself too busy, too fatigued, too stressed, or too harried or overworked to do everything you need for your self-care and well being then your life raft looks like NO!!!  “No” to others when “yes” to yourself has a dignified place in your embrace.

One young woman, Sally, said she felt angry at herself for being such a people pleaser who put herself last.  “I’m not cheap about spending money on others for gifts when I want to show them my love and appreciation.  But I find every excuse not to buy something for myself.”

She had recently started a boot camp class and needed exercise clothing.  Yet, “I made every excuse for why I should save the money instead.”  Sally had a talent for evaluating the benefits of purchases and I certainly didn’t want to discourage such useful reflections.  But at the same time, she acknowledged that she placed great value on her health.  Appropriate exercise clothing was part and parcel of accomplishing that goal rather than a frivolous purchase.

Often, virgins at giving a “no” to others, require a concrete reason to say “yes” to themselves.  It is far easier to protect one’s time, energy and quality of life if you have something you really want to do, like Sally’s wanting to take the exercise class.  Another client, who thanklessly, both at work and with her elderly parents, spent all of her time and energy, found it nearly impossible to set any boundaries on her altruistic output until she wanted to take a class in psychology, something she had wanted to study for years.  Between class attendance, studying, and homework, she finally found herself capable of guarding her own resources of time, energy, and emotional output.  She had a reason to say “no” to others.

But shouldn’t our rest, our peace of mind, our freedom to be spontaneous or to relax be reasons enough?  It may take some time to work up to embracing those more abstract notions of wellbeing.  But people-pleasers have to start somewhere, and it often begins with simply slowing down the automatic process of saying “yes,” and instead, going through a decision making process.

Because Sally had the ability to think through the issue of the exercising clothing, she saw that this purchase would manifest an investment in her health. She felt able to tolerate the discomfort of making these purchases for herself. Sally and I discussed the often misunderstood notion of selfishness among people-pleasers.  People-pleasers tend to associate anything they want or do for themselves as selfish.

In my view truly selfish people almost always put themselves first, even going so far as to discount or diminish the needs and wants of loved ones as well as failing to consider whether or not higher order principles or values might prevail.  Extremely selfish people have taught themselves not to care too much about the impact of their selfishness on others.  Sometimes, in the background of such a person, deprivation—of love, of attention, of care, of things—shaped experience, and the prevailing narrative of the world took on a dog-eat-dog theme.

Some selfish people function like battering rams.  Battering rams prove difficult to deal with, particularly for people pleasers who, eventually, might find themselves at the very limits of their envelopes to keep saying “yes” to a person who constantly exploits their kindness and generosity.  Even people with the ability to say “yes” and “no” find battering rams difficult, since the need to constantly apply boundaries gets inconvenient if not exhausting after a while.  People who, sadly, ask too much of others, eventually find doors closing in their faces, subjecting them to feelings of rejection and abandonment, without realizing how they have co-created the problem.

Taking a healthy and buoyant interest in oneself I call self-interest.  I encouraged Sally, and encourage those like her in that respect, to revel in healthy self-interest.  To be interesting to oneself in all of one’s possible expressions exercises one’s fullest capacity to live wholly and well. Sometimes it proves difficult to balance one’s self-interest with caring about the interests of others, but keeping that question alive fosters emotional freedom and decision-making capacity.

Someone who shares and also listens well, who gives to others but receives from others with enjoyment and appreciation, who gladly does service to and for others but does not shy away from asking for favors on occasion, models sterling emotional freedom.

Compassion fatigue is the professional equivalent of what many people experience on a daily or weekly basis in their personal lives—an overextension of one’s servicing of others’ needs and wants to the detriment of oneself.  Sequelae often include feeling drained, exhausted, wiped out, resentful, exploited, trapped and frustrated.

To deeply want what one wants, but to be able to take into consideration the impact of those wants on others and on the planet, and to make decisions on the basis of that, as well as on one’s highest principles, results in the best possible yeses and the best possible no’s.

Camel Saddle:  Are you a person who tends to say “yes” out of habit?  If you were to think more carefully about your yeses, would you revise any of them?  Or, do you say “no” with an equal lack of careful thought?  How would you like to recalibrate your yeses and no’s to be more fully aligned with the ways you want to show up in your life for yourself and for others?

 

 

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Settling for Happiness

March 11, 2017

“Love is the affinity which links and draws together the elements of the world…

Love, in fact, is the agent of universal synthesis.”

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881 – 1955)
French philosopher and priest

Love does make bridges and link people.  Love allows us to embrace “otherness.”  But continuing to love another person the way we loved them at the beginning of our relationship does not happen as Hollywood fantasies would suggest.

When we fall in love, we often fall dramatically; we experience a euphoric sense of connection and attraction to another human being and dance together to create a bond of mutual interest and eventually attachment.  Over time, a relationship–like everything else that lives–develops and matures.  The heightened and intimate revelations of the courtship phase may give way to other kinds of closeness that feel comfortable and nest-like.  And with ongoing togetherness a beautiful gift of companionship and trust may coexist with some sadness or grief over the loss of that gorgeous intensity at the beginning comprised of novelty, lust and relational ambition.

At some point, staying with one’s partner constitutes a decision.  We feel lucky if chemistry still unites us, but it won’t unite us strongly enough, all by itself, over a long period of time.  After ten, fifteen, twenty or more years, we will inevitably decide whether to settle in for the duration, because we feel differently about this other person than we did so long ago.  We experience our love differently—in some ways more than, and in some ways perhaps less than before.

When people refer to settling (“I don’t want to settle this time,” or, “Am I just settling?”) the question floats in the air:  “Is there someone better for me?  Is there someone who will make me happier?  Is there someone who is a better match?”

Certainly no therapist would encourage someone to settle for something as negative as maltreatment—abuse, neglect, derision, malicious manipulation, forced isolation, brain washing, pattern of disrespect and invalidation, and so forth.  But there is, indeed, some realistic settling that has to do with our ability for tolerating “otherness.”

“Otherness” refers to how we experience people, since everyone else is not me.  We see our partner as having quirks, habits of thought, levels of emotional expressivity, different degrees of awareness, as rather more self-minded or other-minded, as messy or chronically late or lazy about doing chores, as too strict on the kids or too lenient, as having different levels of interest in sex, as relatively grumpier and moodier or not good at putting up with our grumpiness and moodiness.  Our partners ski or not, like car shows or not, want to spend all their time with us or not enough time with us, are nurturing or tell us our problems are not theirs to worry about.

Some of us have a wide window of tolerance for typical kinds of differences we observe between ourselves and our partners, and for some of us that window has more narrow measurements.  We have fantasies about our perfect partner and often, in real life, our partners fail to subscribe to, or look like our fantasies in hundreds of little ways or in hundreds of moments throughout our relationship. We are all perfectly imperfect and so is our match.  And what would we even mean by finding someone we could call our perfect match?  Is that person much like us?  Very different from us, but only different in the ways that we admire?

The couples I meet in my therapy room, even couples who have lived with one another for a long time, and who feel devoted to their partnership and want to work on growing their connection as well as understanding their disconnects, agree sub rosa to an ongoing life in which they must agree to disagree sometimes and agree to dis-argue about those things which distinguish them in less than felicitous ways.  They settle.

We settle for this perfectly imperfect person who is not me-like enough at times, or who could have left a lighter footprint—meaning, washed the dishes or did the laundry we are now having to do.  We settle for a relationship in which our lives together don’t always feel harmonious, seamless, in tune, or give us the delicious love or consideration or thoughtfulness or conversation or mutual interests or personality flavors that we prefer.  We settle for an imperfect match.

The good news is that we tend to grow, ourselves, and to really develop our interpersonal skills right at the edges where our desires and preferences do not get met!  We develop greater adaptability and strength, and all of the personal traits we hold in high regard—patience, sacrifice, tolerance, understanding, empathy, flexibility, kindness, integrity, etc.—when we experience friction between ourselves and our partner.

All beings shrink, erode, degrade, and sink over time.  Our bodies shrink in height and muscle mass just as sand erodes from a cliff, as shore gets swallowed by the sea.  We are all subject to gravity and to wear.  Our “fur” thins like that of the Velveteen Rabbit, from love and exertion, from disappointment and fatigue, and from work.

Settling is mostly about tolerating differences, even appreciating them, and discovering flexible and adaptive ways to interact with our partners that incorporate our differences and make the most of them.

We feel somewhat attracted to “otherness,” which is novel and exciting, but the counter tension we experience runs also:  “Why can’t you be more like me?”  When we live with someone who has marked differences, there are multiple, even subtle ways in which we try to cajole, beg or request that they be more like us.  Take a talkative partner and a quieter partner.  Often the talkative partner will “try” to get their quieter partner to open up and talk, thus developing greater skill and adeptness in getting others to open up.

We tend to advance our own skill sets with someone who functions in a way seemingly “opposite” or different from ours.  Quiet individuals learn how to guard their secrets better, on one hand, or on the other, benefit from learning to become more transparent and revelatory with their feelings and thoughts.  Partners “stretch” each other through the friction and interaction between their differences.

When it comes right down to it, settling serves the function of maintaining a couple over time.  The gift of settling has to do with the cultivation of tolerance for differences, the development of empathy, and the flexibility to see things from our own, and the other person’s perspectives.

In some instances, a person may not find enough room, emotionally, to settle for differences that seem too marked or too much of a polar opposite.  Sometimes the energy match is too strained—a highly reserved person and an intensely effusive one, as an example.  Or each person’s fundamental beliefs feel too different to reconcile—be they religious, political, related to parenting, or to life’s priorities.

That we co-create all of our relationships means we have both accountability for, and are the beneficiaries of, what gets created.  Settling involves, not only the more passive giving in to the gravity and significance of a relationship but also involves active processes of developing one’s emotional intelligence about the other person and learning to tolerate and appreciate their otherness.

Camel Saddle:  For what in a significant relationship have you settled?  What qualities or quirks about you must your past, present, or future partner likely have to tolerate (and hopefully appreciate)?  What are the differences you find easier or harder to live with in another person?

 

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Dancing Happiness

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

We say “Jump for joy,” because joyous bodies move. Babies inherently know how to move to music. Youtube has an abundance of cute-baby videos, including of babies dancing upon waking up to music (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Mruxjn__Oc)s).

Our cells respond at the most intimate and microscopic level to the vibrations of music—the lullaby voice, the choral voices of our community, the calling and responding voices that connect us.  All dancers dance for joy, those without any formal training and those who have mastered the utmost technical challenges. Music itself expresses emotional tenor; or we invest our listening of music with a panoply of emotions.  But our emotional life, our joys and excitements thrive even without the addition of music, and inspire our bodies to move in concert with our moods, the weather, and the needs of our physical persons (have you ever watched a cat or a dog wake up in the morning and stretch luxuriously?).

Dancing–wholeheartedly dancing–turns on the artspirit.  Our artspirit consciousness requires no additional discipline to quiet the ‘monkey chatter’ of our minds.  In mindfulness meditation we quiet our bodies and learn to gently bring our focus back to the breath, to the next-to-nothingness between each interruption by these sweet or ferocious monkeys that chatter, chatter, chatter all ‘mind’ long.  But when we dance—on stage or at the disco, or in the country line or in a trance dance or in the fitness studio or even while listening to the radio—we interrupt the monkey chatter and let our bodies take over. What a beautiful conspiracy the elbows, knees, hips and shoulders achieve in heightening our experience of living while shutting down the opposition—the naysaying, judgmental, catastrophizing, list-making nags that occupy our own minds and plot our every hour. How euphoric and exotic a transport on two little feet, our muscle memories bringing back a choreography or allowing us improvisational freedom.

Dancing increases our perviousness to the energy around us, just as our pores open.  Our edges expand.  We reach beyond our reach.  We see beyond our seeing.  We feel beyond our smallness. Dance can embrace us in an all-encompassing experience, as completely in-the-moment.  On some level dancing is tribal, and those who move to the same music become our extended families, become part of the history of our laughter and singing.

The arts of dance may require hours upon hours of dedicated discipline and practice, honing and fine tuning every joint in the body, every muscle, every rhythmically beating cell.  But on stage great dancers let their bodies think for themselves, and their bodies become conduits for the artspirit.

At a nightclub or a wedding, we dance for joy; moved, almost as would be a puppet, by the pump and sway of the music, and by the surrounding waves of exuberance.  Like runner’s high, we can dance like there’s no tomorrow, or, as the saying goes, “like no one’s watching,” yet not feel the exertion of it–the hard breathing, the pressure and madness of the blood, the sweat making slippery our arms and legs and shining our faces with shear, unadulterated glory.

Much of our lives we pursue the stated, the mandated, the mundane and necessary.  We forget to play.  The ludic escapes us in its full bodied manifestations.  More and more today, we get our dopamine squirts from watching television and playing video games, or from endlessly posting our selfies on Facebook and Instagram.  We get our fill from these two dimensional or three dimensional look-alike adventures.  But there is little texture to it.  It does not feel like grass or a gust of cold air, or the warm press of a cheek, or smell like damp leaves in the thawing of winter, or tax our calves with the ache of accomplishment after a long walk or a challenging hike.

I feel wowed, awed and impressed by the brilliance and continuing technological innovations of our age, but like everything we can imagine coming into being, we cannot anticipate all of the potential ramifications, or how aggressively the downsides will vie with the upsides for ascendancy.

Martha Graham, a queen of modern dance in the twentieth century made many quotable remarks about dance, but I love this one:  “Every dance is a kind of fever chart, a graph of the heart.”  Mikhail Baryshnikov, one of the preeminent ballet dancers of the twentieth century, who came to the United States from Russia, said, “I found that dance, music, and literature is how I made sense of the world.”  And many have written about how the arts, and here I speak about dance, give shape and voice to our most human experiences in this world.  Football players dance after scoring a touchdown.  Dance has been used to celebrate weddings, births, to bring rain, to enter a trance, to celebrate deities. To flirt.  To prepare for war.  To honor peace.  To captivate and entertain.

I spent much of my life involved in dance—recreationally and then professionally—and as I segued into a chapter of life after dance, the transition felt profoundly difficult, even grievous.  I could barely watch a dance concert without crying.  But over the years I realized that dance had become part of me in some integral, hard-to-articulate way, but surely as a filter through which I honed my observations of body language and rhythmicity, of gait and gesture, of posture and expressivity.  And of the subtleties of resonance or awkwardness in how people connect interpersonally.  Grace is, after all, not something fancy or complicated, but the efficiency of movement for its outcome’s sake, whether utilitarian or aesthetic.

At three years old I asked my mother for dance lessons, interrupting her as she napped.  I didn’t know anything about dance as an art form.  The top of her bed and my face met.  I remember that, and my paternal grandmother playing “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt suite, prompting a three year old’s rabid dance to such profoundly driving music.

My mother made good on my request. From a converted barn in Lexington where Isadora Duncan style “free” movement was encouraged to the Cambridge Ballet School in Harvard Square, to a long succession of dance schools and styles and graduate education and teaching contemporary dance and choreographing in a University to writing dance reviews, my love of dance evolved.  For many years I lived, breathed, slept and thought about dance. And went as far in the field as I could, given the anatomical limitations of my feet and back that made a professional performer’s life just out of reach. Yet dancing was always good therapy and I was able to bring that to patients in an acute hospital setting. Moving their bodies animated them and moving together with others brought them into community in a powerful way, where isolation had prevailed.

In spite of that, I had had enough experiences rehearsing and performing to know the sensation of heightened euphoria, when the music and the muscle memory take over your body, and you attach to an energy beyond that of yourself.  You move, in the moment, electrified, and perhaps a bit electrifying to watch. Perhaps, like the adrenalin rush of a sky or cliff diver, the physics that govern our bodies seem somehow suspended, and in this magical landscape of the stage, or the nightclub, we leap, balance, accelerate, float, and fly as if defined by a different kind of magic.

Last night my three sisters and I attended a dance concert at the Portsmouth Music Hall. The Momix company’s ‘Cactus.’ The tensile strength of the dancers, utilized playfully in the slithering, darting, staccato and sensual movements of the animated desert creatures—lizard, snake, fan tailed birds—as well as the suggested tribal dances of courting, fighting, or rain-making for an indigenous culture—captivated us.  At times two dancers, intertwined, cantilevered, or extended from each others’ bodies in silhouette, created the image of a creature, plant or animal, with jutting or wheeling appendages.

In some dances long poles, like vaults, suspended the dancers a bit longer and higher than gravity would allow without these extensions.  And so we found ourselves lifted into the arena of brilliance and light that imagination occupies:  the extraordinary.  Accomplished by ordinary humans doing ordinary grunt work.  Over and over again.  Try happiness as a form of dance.

Camel Saddle:  What are your best experiences dancing?  What were the messages you received about dancing while growing up?  Did you feel inhibited about moving your body or encouraged to express yourself in movement?  Have you ever “lost yourself” while dancing, and become one with the music and the movement?  Are there other experiences that have captivated you in that same way?

 

 

 

 

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Purposing Happiness in the Old Grist Mill

Saturday, February 4, 2017

 

Existential questions—what is the meaning of life?  What is my purpose?  What makes me happy?—have generated thousands of exploratory books and papers that sit on the real and cyber shelves of bookstores and academic journals under categories such as Philosophy, Psychology, and Self-help.

A recent conversation with a client, Leandra, got both of us thinking more deeply about ‘purpose.’ How do we find it?  Is it even something to be found?  How do we understand the meaning of purpose in our individual lives?  Is our narrative about what constitutes purposeful pursuits limiting or expanding for us, and is this narrative subject to editing?

Leandra, a highly intelligent, professionally employed woman, found her job rather stultifying.  It paid the bills, allowed her to live in a nice house in a nice community.  It made use of her advanced degree. She could do it well, but without any moments of pizazz. It required a lot of discipline on her part to harness herself to the tasks involved.  Although other activities, outside of work, held interest for her, she complained of an inability to stick with anything.  She tried guitar lessons, dance, pottery, rock climbing.  Initially all seemed to kick start some real enjoyment and engagement, but inevitably she would discontinue.  Without any continuity, she fell into a numbing process of searching for the activity that would finally capture both her imagination as well as her commitment, and compensate for her boredom at work.

For a while I scratched my head.  Why did Leandra short circuit her involvement in any of these avocations which she supposedly liked?  Did she lack discipline or commitment to anything besides work and her family?  Did she simply get bored easily?  Would she continue to peruse the smorgasbord table of life’s offerings until she found something of greater attraction still?

Finally, she pondered what made her lose interest, and came up with the notion that, at some point she would ask herself what use this activity had. If she decided it lacked utility or purpose, other than self-indulgence, then she would lose steam or completely drop the activity.  In our continuing conversations, we considered whether purpose might be less about our evaluation of the status of an activity—as useful or important–and more about how we engage ourselves in whatever we do.

If one’s purpose isn’t found in the smorgasbord of life’s offerings, but in how fully we offer ourselves to the work we choose, then purpose involves a personal process of developing our investment, our dedication, and our increasing mastery to something.  That kind of attention illuminates, hones, and connects us more and more meaningfully to that with which we place our hands, minds, and hearts.

The activity itself—its vitality or offering of purposes—exactly mirrors our evaluation of it.  When we are “in the flow,” and fully engaged, then we are investing that action with purpose and meaning.  We become full of the activity and the activity becomes full of us.

The purposing of life expresses us at our most creative.  As Victor Frankl said, “we are meaning making creatures.”  And happiness thrives on such investment; not only our sense of pleasure, but our satisfaction in self-expression, as well as in making a contribution beyond ourselves to others.

Happiness is more of a how than a what; how we live life, as well as love, appreciate and invest ourselves in what we do and those with whom we share our sorrows and our joys. The purposing of happiness happens on the wings of commitment, engagement, exquisite mindset, willingness, openness to experience, and so forth.

In contrast, a bottle cap opener has no inherent purpose—though perhaps the steel’s active electrons “purposefully” move heat and electricity through their dance.  We invest bottle cap openers with utility.  We manufacture them to amplify the hand’s strength (Oh gosh, and the teeth for some brave souls) and better calibrate the angle of leverage.  A bottle cap opener, like any inanimate object, requires human intention and action to make a positive difference in our functioning.

My mother died in September of 2016, just a few months ago, leaving her legacy of optimism with me and my sisters.  Legacy comments, though casual, often sounded like this:  “It may be hard for you right now, but you’ll figure it out,” or “But you’ll keep trying, I know you.” Or, “Can’t you adjust your perspective?”  And often, “Well, make sure to take care of yourself.”

This latter comment has finally sunk in.  The fundamental embodiment of our developing capabilities and intentions requires us to take care of ourselves.  Whether we are purveyors, conduits, channels, transmitters, embracing arms, or fonts of love, knowledge and rides to soccer games, our constitutions require nourishment, sleep, exercise, breathing room, inspiration, and renewal.  This is not just ‘a thing.’ This is the real thing.  We are animate and live on borrowed time.  Our lives are on short loan from the universe so we must spend down our energy and time wisely.

The moment after my mother received her diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, as gently as possible from the young oncologist she would meet only once, she could not remember the term, ‘pancreatic.’  She kept asking us to repeat the name and knew her denial process kept it from her.  Even as she lay bedbound during those last few days of her life she perked up.  “Sometime I want to write an essay on denial.  It’s amazing how I can’t remember the name of this cancer.”  An infinite regression of denials? Or is this purposing happiness, to see her ‘denial’ from an alternate perspective.

When all else failed—to conquer a problem, rectify an injustice, get the guy, get the job, win the award—she’d say, “It’s all grist for the mill.” The ultimate in recycling, upcycling, in turning lemons into lemonade.  The ultimate in purposing happiness. At the last moment, there are still things to ponder, to write, to contribute. Even if we will not be around to finish them.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861 – 1941) wrote, “We live in the world when we love it.”  We are most alive in our world when we love it.  Love is that purposeful energy that renders the grass its greenest green, and makes us call the sounds of a bird ‘music,’ and the laughter of our babies inspirational.  One of my clients, Glyndi, says, “If I know you I love you.”  Love, and purpose, are connectors.  We connect ourselves to our world with love, and invest our devoted attention to the ever-evolving harmony-and-chaos of our lives with purpose.

When we love, we feel open, excited, willing, ready, available, forgiving, insightful, understanding, capable, curious, motivated, courageous, revelatory, cooperative, generous, and connected.

Another voice supporting the notion that purpose is in the “doing” of something rather than the “what” we are doing, Mark Manson (Sept 18 2014 https://markmanson.net/life-purpose), writes movingly about parenting.  Any parent has impact, is an “influencer.”  Here is a quote from his online article:

“Parenting ineluctably demands that one address the greatest, founding philosophical question: What is a good life? As we go about answering it live in our words and actions over long years, we will at least know that we have been spared the one great fear that otherwise haunts us and usually manifests itself around work: that of not being able to make a difference. There will not be the remotest danger of lacking impact, only of unwittingly exerting the wrong kind. We will be the biographers, coaches, teachers, chefs, photographers, masters and slaves of our new charges. Our work will lend us the opportunity to show our worst, but also our best selves in action: it is the particular words we will find, the touch of our hands, the encouraging look only we will be able to give, the swerve towards lenience or the brave defense of principles that will make a decisive difference to the sorrows and joys of another human being. Who we are every day, the specific individuals we will have matured into, will have an unparalleled power to exert a beneficial influence on somebody else’s life. We will – in our role as parents – be terrified, exhausted, resentful, enchanted and forever spared any lingering doubt as to our significance or role on the earth.”

Just like a simple bottle cap opener requires application to activate its purpose, so too do we generate purpose, and the satisfactions of feeling purposeful, from the application of ourselves to whatever we are doing.

Perhaps, those of us who have jobs we love, and do things we love, have an enormous privilege—to feel contributory, even if in a small way, even beyond our own families; to feel engaged fully; to feel lifted and inspired and masterfully in development with what we do. Not everyone has the luxury of pursuing what calls to them, or the opportunities for education and mentorship or encouragement. But when we invest ourselves fully in whatever we are doing we meet ourselves at the places where our strengths, intelligence, and inclinations manifest themselves.  This is where we find direction.  All experiences are grist for the mill, and that purposes happiness.

 

Camel Saddle:  To what activities do you fully apply yourself?  In what do you get so lost that you are found in your most creative and activated expression, fully alive in the moment?  To what might you pay more attention, in order to generate more purposeful direction?  What thoughts do you spin that hold you back from your loving, attentive and purposeful connections?

 

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Joyful Sadness:  The Happiness of Both/And

Friday, January 27, 2017

As my mother lay dying, my three sisters and I moved into her house for the twelve days between her cancer diagnosis and taking her last breath.  She grew sleepier by the day, finally confined to her bed, no food for over a week and then she refused even the sips of water we offered every hour or so with a straw.  Her oral medications were switched from pills to liquid forms.  But when she opened her eyes or focused for some moments, she knew we were there.  Several times she said, with a slight smile, “I hope you are enjoying getting to know one another.”

We human beings have multiple capabilities, including the ability to feel several emotions at the same time.  Sometimes that seems confusing, chaotic, contradictory, or inconvenient.  But this is the gift of a large and complex brain, and a largely complex set of abilities to analyze and appreciate the different aspects of the human situations we co-create.  According to the famous autistic expert on animal behavior, Temple Grandin, most animals feel only a single predominating emotion at a time.  Your dog wags his tail when you come in—happy.  Or fears you in the moment when you express disappointment in his toileting accident.

On a daily basis we might experience moments similar to these:  “I am so relieved to get my tooth crowned now but the sound of the drill terrifies me;” or “I was ecstatic to see my sister but annoyed that she took her sweet time getting here.”  Or, “I felt so grateful that my boss gave me the raise, but I got impatient when he yacked my ear off about his new vacation home.”  Or, “I really didn’t want to invite her, she’s an attention hog, but I felt too guilty not to.”  Or, “I was ecstatic that my daughter got invited to the prom, but so tired I didn’t love picking her up at 1 AM.”

Participating intimately in my mother’s later stage illness, dying and death, opened an appreciation for the beauty and the difficulty that our mixed emotions can produce.  My mother, herself, offered prime examples. Even prior to her diagnosis she struggled with the mixed feelings that arise in the aging process, when the roles and responsibilities with which one’s identity is so bound up, have to be relinquished to the younger generation.

A woman of great independence—and widowed since the age of 42 when our father died—she had had some difficulty passing on the baton for many things, like hosting family occasions.  Finally, after several years of complaining about the exhaustion of entertaining, while on the other hand finding it impossible to give up the matriarchal role, she yielded the ladle and roasting pan to us.

Instead of cooking, she offered advisement, recipes, and family stories to spice up our homes as we segued, as subtly as possible, into our collective new role as the hosting generation.  The handing over of tasks and roles one has played dutifully and with great ceremony does not come easily to everyone, and to our mother it did not. These roles and tasks defined a large part of her self-identification.  Along with the roles of host and matriarch, come other aspects of identification such as physical strength and stamina.  The loss of any function is difficult for most people, including the need to treat one’s body as more delicate and breakable, as slower and less graceful than in one’s younger years.

When my mother felt too ill to fend for herself, she said she would accept our care, even deserved it. In a strange way, her illness became an occasion of sorts. We gathered together.  On her generosity, we relished a Chinese meal at her dining table while she lay in her bedroom enjoying the sounds of our talking and laughter. We let her know of our appreciation and she smiled, then went back to sleep.  My sisters and I slept over there in twos, or three of us, and finally all four, helping to clean our mother, wipe her mouth and her brow, change her diapers, reposition her, and refresh the sheets and blankets. Rub her hands and arms and upper back when she could still enjoy the “love.”

A couple of times she said, while reaching for my hand, “I’m not ready.”  That was all.  As if there were something I could do to alter the burden of this ending chapter.  All I could say was, “I know.” And witness her leaving–unfinished, unprepared, in disagreement with her cancer’s terms.  But I wanted, so desperately, to change her outcome, and felt so powerless to do so.

“I thought I had a few more years,” she had said earlier, when she learned of her pancreatic cancer. In moments of denial the word, “pancreatic” eluded her, even with the mnemonic of “something in which you fry eggs.” Still, she could not get beyond, “pan.” But said she would one day like to write an essay about such denial.  Her own experience of the cancer interesting to her, peaking her curiosity, as she continued to express her voluminous curiosity about our personal worlds and the world at large.

We did not feel ready for her to leave us.  But we also hoped she would go soon when the cancer made a mess of her body—edemic, leaking, purpling, blocking, paralyzing, and punctuating with pain–and determined to shut down all the miraculous organs that for 88 years had supported each of her eagerly waking days.

Finally, only the brain and the heart and the ferocious lungs powered on, attached to their beautiful living body, even as that body washed off the human shore toward the vast sea of nothingness and, for us, such heart wrenching grief.

We both wished her to live, and then to die as her suffering, and ours, increased. As the inevitability of her dying soaked the sheets and our hands and our lives with tears, we gathered around her bed, as her eyelids lifted open for a moment, to witness her last breaths, and to gently place her limbs in a comfortable position.  We watched as silence permeated every cell of her body, this body in which each of us had grown toward birth, attached and unknowing.

The extraordinary hospice nurse who visited, counseled and helped us in these last weeks, spoke of experiencing these moments as a joyful sadness.  Really, a one word experience—“joyfulsadness,” the both/and of it inseparable.  To be lovingly of service in these most intimate ways, to help usher our mother from this life into stillness, honored her.

And then, my mooring gone, I felt lost and uncertain in this world without my mother.  Sad and disoriented, I felt like a stranger in my own life. Even though I have my own family, the experience of belonging dislodged like a foundation crumbling in an earthquake.

Our urgent or extreme human situations are rarely black-and-white.  Often chaotic, with multiple aspects, we feel pulled in different directions emotionally.  Caretakers of ill loved ones frequently find themselves worried, under-slept, hypervigilant, zealous, and also angry, resentful, needy and so forth.  This is a completely typical emotional mess!

Nowhere will we find more both/and’s than with regard to parenting.  We feel both elated and exasperated when Johnny runs into the house with his soccer victory trophy in one raised hand and his muddy cleats on the white rug.  When Suzy gets too shy to continue dancing in her end of year recital we feel deep empathy and raging embarrassment as well as guilt for having raised a genetically shy child, or not having coached her enough in thinking of her audience in their undergarments while onstage.  We feel angry with our adolescent son or daughter for undermining our authority by getting into a disrespectful dispute with the school principal but we admire and feel proud of their grit and passion.

In a 2014 Psychology Today article online, Leon Seltzer, PhD, writes: “All feelings–vs. thoughts–have a certain physiology to them. You cannot experience an emotion without at the same time experiencing a corresponding bodily sensation (or sensations). And each of your emotions reside in a particular place(s) in your body–their “native home,” as it were. Unless, that is, you feel an emotion so intense and overpowering that it’s all over your body–perhaps like a heavy, almost suffocating, wool blanket, or an electrical surge, or a violent internal earthquake.”

I woke up one night to go to the bathroom and as I passed the windows I thought, Mom is missing the moon.  Spectral, pale, the ghostly white moonlight seemed not to move.  It did not flow or sweep or swim or stream into the room.  Suspended, as if between breaths or in some undecided state the light, simply there, accompanied me as I walked, somewhere between sleeping and waking fully, across the floor boards and the Persian prayer rug and then between the two closets and past the mirror on the door.  It did not follow me nor take shape.  It did not weigh me down.  The light seemed, more like a primer, an undercoat, the anonymous preparatory, diligent emptiness before the first words of a poem, or the brush of a painting.

I missed my mother as she would miss this and many other moons; and felt glad for the quiet aching.

Camel Saddle:  What is a both/and moment for you with a partner, a child, a parent, a work situation, how you balance your life?  How does it work for you to honor each of these sometimes colliding or competing emotions?

 

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Anxiety’s Golden Key

Friday January 6, 2017

We don’t want to experience anxiety.  We want to get rid of it.  We speak about anxiety, or depression for that matter, as if it were a thing, an albatross, which has perched on our shoulders, occupied the pits of our bellies or frenetically taken over the bellows of our lungs.

We imagine anxiety as something fundamentally disconnected from us.  Like an evil alien from another planet it wants to occupy our psyches and our bodies.  When, as is the way with the medical model, we consider anxiety pathological, or like a disease entity, then, logically, we pursue means to get rid of it.

We might meditate, take a walk, do yoga, make love, drink, or punch pillows.  We can also distract ourselves with a movie or a book if we have the concentration, or get prescription medication.  After all, our brains have gone loco, gotten hijacked, dislodged.  We walk the tightrope of too much adrenaline and cortisol coursing through our veins, threatening to throw us off balance, make us sweat, palpitate our hearts, and cause hyperventilation and even fainting at worst.  Sometimes anxiety, like a drum beat that won’t quit, just expresses itself in pacing, wringing hands, or just plain jittering.

Anxiety demands our attention in a powerful way.  But we have the capacity to listen, to watch and to reflect on what our anxieties ask us to consider. In effect, anxiety offers us a golden key to rooms of possibility we might consider.  When we commit to paying attention to the sometimes provocative sensations of anxiety, instead of trying so darned hard to get rid of them, we might learn more about the ways in which our perceptions of possibility have locked us into one room full of rocks and hard places. Whatever our anxious perspective on life and on our own particular life, this drives the ways in which we respond to, or react to the situations which we find problematic. We, the heroes and heroines of our own scripts, can benefit from listening to our prompters in the wings–like anxiety–holding out its golden key.

Clients often mention that they wake up feeling stressed, even before anything has happened that day.  And lo and behold, I feel glad to share with them that their CAR (cortisol awakening response) is functioning as it was meant to; to help ready them for the oncoming stressors of the day.  The CAR, bolstered by several areas of the brain, functions to remind and rev us for the requirements of our day, and this readying, this servicing, while initially uncomfortable—like mom waking you when you were thirteen and wanted to sleep-in rather than make the bus for the first period’s test in geometry—remains doggedly, and ultimately helpful.

There are many kinds of anxious experiences, of course, and many sources to stimulate anxious reactions, but the CAR reminds us of our programming, our wetware, our inherently benevolent and protective modus operandi.  

When we experience our moments of anxiety as only moments to avoid, then we miss the golden keys offered to us.  Anxiety’s golden keys open windows and doors onto landscapes and skyscapes of beauty in which our bearings in the world reside. Our willingness to hold onto these proffered keys, and to employ them in processes of opening, of following, and of exploring can lead us to understand what matters to us most.  And to how we might address those highly prized concerns that currently stand at risk.

Here is one small example:  Jane could never make up her mind about which restaurant to go to.  Her partner complained of always having to decide.  Jane felt an almost excruciating nausea when called upon to choose.  Chinese?  Thai?  Italian?  Even telephoning a restaurant triggered a cascade of bodily sensations and anxious feelings.

When Jane and I explored what lay in the room beyond her anxiety about making a decision on cuisine, it turned out that her real horror concerned waste, or wasting.  As a conservationist at heart, it mattered a great deal to her that she like the food she ordered so that she would eat it.  Food going to waste, furniture going to waste, landfills growing exponentially, concerned her and she recycled everything possible with intense religiosity.  Jane had grown up poor, with a striving single mother, and nothing could go to waste.

Through Jane’s willingness to use anxiety’s golden key to open up her real fear—that of wasting—and her serious conservationism, we were able to see her anxiety in a positive context.  This immediately lessened Jane’s anxiety—no longer a pathological villain—and to help her think through ways to increase mindfulness and thoughtfulness about conservation without a punishing self-narrative that said she was incapable of making decisions.

Anxiety, depression and other mood states don’t arise in a vacuum but in a context of environmental stressors and triggers.  Anxiety actually connects us to our living world.  Otherwise, impervious, we would not feel anything, nor would we feel connected to what goes on around us, both in our own worlds and in the larger world beyond our own families, friends, coworkers and communities.

Milos grew up with a very strict and impatient father who frequently criticized Milos’ efforts.  If Milos hammered a board onto the deck incorrectly, dropped a bag of nails, or got deck stain on his jeans, he got harshly reminded of his imperfect behavior.  As a married adult Milos continued to berate himself, frequently and vociferously, whenever he forgot his wallet, or his computer froze, or he ran late to a job.

He extended this anxiety about imperfection to his wife, and this often resulted in angry explosions which seriously threatened their marriage.  In therapy, he felt both saddened and mystified by his wife’s intolerance of his outbursts.  His narrative was, “That’s just who I am.”  In his self-narrative, if he were to muzzle his explosiveness, he would not be himself.

Over the course of several conversations, he was able to identify that he had anxiety, on one hand, about not being allowed to be himself, and on the other hand about losing his wife because she thought he was a bad person.

After several more conversations we opened a door that helped Milos to tell his story differently.  He was a man who valued hard and expert work.  He held himself to high standards.  It mattered to him to leave his customers, and his wife, pleased with his efforts.  He realized that he had left no room for imperfection along the way; no detours, no second chances.  He realized, most importantly, that he was not just “an angry person,” or a bad person, but a man whose angry outbursts expressed his strong desire to do things well and to please people important to him, professionally as well as personally.  He could respect himself for those values.  And he began a chapter in which he afforded himself a bit more latitude to accommodate the roadblocks, unanticipated breakdowns, and moments of miscalculation that influence all of our lives.

As in Milos’ case, most of us have experienced painful interactions in our childhoods.  Often, the present circumstances of adulthood trigger off, not only present frustrations and responses, but also the more intense feelings, sensations, and even behaviors that took shape around those earlier experiences.  Present insults and injuries, like “all roads, lead to Rome.”  So we may find ourselves panicking or more despairing than would seem relevant to the incidences experienced in the present.  Sharon, when confronted with her boyfriend’s dismissive comment, as an example, suffered from feeling “not good enough.”  Her reaction, amplified by the triggered theme of feeling less-than, came across as out of proportion to what the present situation called for. Reengaging in our present, as if “refreshing the screen,” can function like a new room, once the golden key of anxiety or depression allows us to open it.

Sometimes anxiety bowls us over and we feel overwhelmed, crushed, beleaguered.  But anxiety, just like a great big shaggy dog that greets us with two paws barreling into our chest, means well.  Anxiety and depression can be dogged indeed, tenacious at reminding us of what we need to keep track of; what problems we need to solve;  what courageous actions we need to embrace in order to get out of a slump or over a hurdle or through a judgmental filter.  Our bodies, including our brains, do not rest easy when we have work to do, the work of living.

Mindfulness, the Zen-like way of acceptance, of loving what is, of abundant awareness within the present moment, requires us to exercise discipline.  It is an art form.  Mindfulness and awareness in the moment do not come naturally.  Our minds chatter, skip beats, point daggers, race to finish lines, confuse us with ambiguity, scare us with worries, or stun us with the beauty of poetry, architecture, music, or mathematical calculation.  When we feel enrapt in the present our minds do not fill with worry about the future or regrets about our past. But no one lives moment-to-moment that way.  The mind cannot be static.  It is vital, and responsive to the environment with more than simple awareness.  We have brilliant minds that imagine different scenarios, problem solve, rehearse, remember, and so forth.  We bring all of that to bear on the various situations in which we live, work and play.

We can think of anxiety as an example of how our bodies talk to us.  The sensations and feelings of anxiety can occur with speed and potency, but be preverbal or nonverbal.  Our bodies, on alert, tell us that something important is happening but it may take a while to translate this experience into a cohesive narrative.  People anxious about driving on a highway do not want to get killed or to kill someone else.  In a high volume, high speed, traffic situation, accidents seem more likely.  This is not, as some would say, irrational thinking.  But higher levels of anxiety make us think that a merely possible situation is the probable one.  There is a big difference between what is possible and what is probable.  People with less anxiety who drive on highways are willing to take the risk because they have calculated the risk as not that high, not that likely.

When speaking to a group of others, some people feel anxious because remembering what they want to say is important to them; presenting well and making it worth the audience’ time is important to them; and perhaps winning social approbation or validation feels important.

Anxiety before taking tests also has to do with what matters to someone.  He or she wants to do well, wants to succeed.  Someone who has insomnia might feel anxious about going to bed because getting a good night’s sleep seems important to going to work the next day and meeting one’s obligations in the world.

Caring about these things is endearingly human and engaged.  And if we want to feel less anxiety then we can allow ourselves to feel informed by it and choose to do the feared thing more often so that we build more confidence. Sometimes new contexts allow us to see things differently.  If we can downgrade the significance of social acceptance, for example, we may find ourselves more able to do something we believe in, even if it comes with the price of some popularity.

As a “bodymind,” of course anxiety and depression have an expression neuro-chemically.  Low serotonin, for example, tends to reduce the enjoyment we cull from our experiences, even when before these amplified mood states, those experiences enhanced our senses of wellbeing and gladness.  Stress, and its consequent chemical productions of adrenalin and cortisol, rule.  When we get stressed, particularly over a longer period of time, its chemistry dominates, and dampens mood, creates irritability, and fosters anxiety.

Some people may require medication to re-balance their neurochemistry enough to begin a process of unlocking new doors of thought and feeling. When we have narrated our lives in ways that renders us locked in—to a particular job or company, to a role within our family, to the way we spend our time, to servicing the needs of others at the frequent expense of ourselves—then we can begin to view anxiety as a knocking on the door, and as a key to places with breathing room to explore, to grow, and to nurture our lives.

Camel Saddle:  When do you experience most anxiety?  If you let it speak to you, what does it say?  What matters to you so much that anxiety offers you prompts to take it seriously?  Is there work to do on this matter that anxiety wants to unlock for you?

 

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De-Voting:  Deconstructing the Process

Friday, December 9, 2016

Like many many others, I have been reflecting about the 2016 vote and the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency.  But rather than analyze the demographic that voted Trump president—the white males over a certain age—and the probability that some common themes  speak to that demographic like, it is time for a change, America belongs to white males (of course many Trump supporter deny racism or sexism as a motivation), women should not be presidents, undocumented Mexicans should go back home,  American jobs should stay in the US, for example–I spoke with my own tiny community of clients in therapy.  Voting, after all, involves a psychological process involving affect, beliefs and decision-making.

In that quiet, safe setting, I have the opportunity and privilege to listen, in more detail, to what motivated individuals to vote for one presidential candidate over another—some voted for Hillary Clinton, some for Donald Trump, and some for a third-party candidate.  In this microcosm of voters, not one person seemed happy about the choices on either side of the aisle. The reasons for that unhappiness concerned two distinct aspects: the perceived questionable characters of the candidates, and fears that the concerns most highly valued by these voters, might not adequately be promoted by either one or both, of the two main candidates.  Only a couple of people were single issue voters.  Most had multiple concerns.

When you deconstruct voting—the process of coming up with a decision about whom to vote for—you begin to see its multidimensional structure.  We, as voters, pick a human being for the role of President, but the process of assigning to one’s chosen human candidate (I guess no dogs will ever run for President), those qualities which represent important and various interests a voter holds dear, is complicated.  How do we rank in order of importance, the perceived character integrity of the candidate versus how successful we think he or she will be in deliverables we want?  Where in the order of priorities do we place fitness for duty and past work experience?  Where do we rank our prejudices (which we might not even realize as prejudices, such as “a woman just can’t be President)?  To what degree do we value the importance of keeping money in our pocket or the state of the environment, or the value of thinking forward to the health and welfare of our future generations?

The dimension of character integrity has never reared its head so profoundly and with such pronouncement as it did in this election.  My clients did not “trust” that one or both candidate’s public personae aligned with their “back room” persons-on-the-ground. And yet, few realized that the “person” for whom they would ultimate cast their vote cannot but be anything other than an illusion, a brand built by campaign managers, an almost caricatured version of media sound-bytes and images strung together.

Not only did we end up voting for these abstractions of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, but it is an incredibly abstract process to make the intellectual leap from what matters to you, to voting for one of these “animations.”  Our great, wizard like imaginations, allow us to fill in the blanks—and there were lots and lots of blanks—about the candidates, their platforms, and what they might accomplish in the trenches (I do need to give Hillary Clinton points for a clearer, available, published platform).

Although there are likely additional determining dimensions for the process of casting a vote, a second most important one, and it sometimes ranked above character, is what matters to us.  What matters—well-paying jobs, secure borders, equal opportunity, affordable healthcare, trade relations with other countries, pro-choice/pro-life, gun rights with/without regulations, big government/small government, etc.—express our deeply rooted values and beliefs.  We have a bias toward thinking that our values are “right.”  And we imagine that our values and beliefs, what matters to us, will have a big impact on our own personal quality of life as well as on the life of our country, our society.

We feel it imperative to defend our way of life, and in this election, we saw and see this playing out with vehemence, and in some cases, sadly, with aggression.  Clients reported to me that they were subjected to harassment in work places, that they themselves had “de-friended” former Facebook friends, that Christmas parties had been cancelled due to extended family antagonistic divides along Blue and Red lines.  This election created antagonism; a competition that became a battle.

As the perceived character of the candidates intersected with the desire to vote on what mattered to individuals, voters sometimes opted to overlook perceived character flaws so they could vote for their deeply held concerns.  And sometimes, voters could not overlook perceived character flaws in whom would have been their candidate, and voted in an alternative manner. And this resulted in quite a few people who voted without much satisfaction in so casting their ballot.  Or they voted with the hope that. . .”Trump’s advisors will rein him in,” as one example. Or they voted with the caveat that they, themselves, were not racist.  Or sexist. We might call these defensive votes, or we defensive voters.  Insecure voters. Among my little community, the happiest voters were the ones whose imaginations overrode data. An absence of accurate information did not stop some people from voting for the candidate they imagined and personified, almost like we personify stuffed animals, planets, or cars.  They took poetic license in visioning the country they imagined might evolve from such a vote.

One of my clients wondered how we might vote in this country if, during the debates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had been in separate booths, headphones on, and had only been allowed to respond to the questions asked, and had not heard each others answers.  If there had been no mud slung back and forth, what might we have thought, platform concern by platform concern.  But in this past election, issues of national and international concern wove wildly between issues concerning character. This prompted many debates between friends, family members and coworkers where apples, oranges, and gosh knows what other kinds of fruits were slung back and forth chaotically.

The other day I pulled a book from my bookshelf which I had not perused for a long time, on Values Clarification (Values Clarification by Sydney B. Simon, 1972).  In the introduction it says, “A value has three components—emotional, cognitive and behavioral.  Our values are based on our feelings.  We don’t just hold our stronger values; we care deeply and passionately about them.”  We are most often recruited or “inculcated” into our beliefs and values, but upon becoming aware that we have some choice about what values to which we subscribe, we may rethink the ones we have unconsciously inherited.

The introductory chapter goes on to say, “Finally, we act upon our values.  We don’t just say some things are important to us, but those beliefs or preferences are clearly and consistently discernible in how we live our lives.” (p.10)

This is simply an anecdotal attempt to deconstruct some elements of the psychological process of casting a presidential vote. The 2016 election highlighted for me the difficulty that many sincere voters experienced in navigating the intersecting of the dimensions of candidate character and voter-held values, and therefore, of the meaning of their votes.  It also illustrates how abstract such a process as voting is, and how much cognitive fill-in must occur, to translate what one values into a vote for a candidate who is just a confusing conglomeration of invented descriptors.

Camel Saddle:  What are the values you hold most dear? How do you live those in your private and public life? What is most important to you about the character of those you vote into office?  What elements of public life affect you the most—economically, educationally, in terms of your health, your job opportunities, your safety, etc.?