Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Peacekeepers Beware!

It is my privilege to know some extraordinary people in whose company I feel especially relaxed and peaceful, and to whom I say a reluctant goodbye when the time is up.

What these friends have in common is a generosity of spirit, an openness to life and adventure, and a great sense of humor. I have never known them to have a petty or nasty argument with anyone, although they very much enjoy a heated discussion on principal or on an educated point of view. They are also the voice for reason among quarreling friends and colleagues, and each in their own way exudes a presence that inspires one to stretch oneself, as if to somehow become more noble for the sake of all mankind.

I think that most of us have, on occasion, facilitated peace in our immediate world by clearing up misunderstandings between family members and among friends. Or perhaps by diffusing a tense situation at work. It comes naturally to people who don't shy away from confrontation for the right cause. If you count yourself in this group, you're doing well.

I have chosen my friend *Lisa's story to warn peacekeepers of another kind. Lisa is married to Bob and has children from a previous marriage to Frank. Frank was physically abusive whenever something didn't go his way, or when Lisa gave him a “look” he didn't like, or when the wrong music was playing on the radio. In order to keep the peace, Lisa obeyed her husband in everything and tried to avoid anything that might cause him to become violent. Frank though of himself as having “class” -  he always apologized after he beat her up, sometimes there were even tears in his eyes when he proclaimed that “he could never live without her.”  On occasion there were flowers.  Every time was the “last time,” and Lisa kept the peace until the next time. She finally ran away with her children when the violence had escalated to the point that she believed he would kill her.

She married Bob a day after she divorced Frank. At first, Bob seemed different. He was highly educated and espoused strong views for women's rights. He welcomed her children, as long as they obeyed the rules in his house. It was always his house, even though Lisa worked a full time job. (So much for women's rights.)  Bob had a temper, and it became evident very quickly that it became much much worse when he drank alcohol.

Lisa, being an experienced peacekeeper, tried to cover all the bases that could start trouble. Her boys were teenagers at the time and she did their chores when they “forgot,” covered their tracks when they broke things in the house by wrestling and rough-housing while Lisa and Bob were working. To keep the peace, she wouldn't punish them for anything they did. To make a long story short, Bob's anger with the past, present and future, grew steadily worse with time as did his drinking. After calling his wife every obscene name in the book and accusing her of not contributing s--t, he, like Frank, apologized. She accepted to keep the peace. Lisa started having severe anxiety attacks with bouts of depression, and kept them secret for fear of being called crazy.

Bob left Lisa. Lisa's sons have left her as well. One doesn't speak to her at all, and the other has just grown distant. Lisa tried to stay close with them as they grew older and never criticized or gave an unwanted opinion. She knew how to keep peace, but not how to get respect or keep love.

The purpose of the story is a warning to all women who seek peace at home at all costs. Know that you will be bearing all the cost, but you will get no peace. The problem with Lisa's life is Lisa. Whatever the reason for her low self-esteem may have been, she gave no cause for anyone to treat her better. Instead, she gave the men in her life the power to grow more and more violent in their outbursts to her, because she became ever more afraid. And stayed!

If someone you are close to has a bad temper and you tolerate it to keep peace, ask yourself, “Do I really have peace or am I just afraid to stand up for myself? What do I think would happen if I spoke my mind? What if I threatened with consequences?"

You maybe in a very dangerous place if you are experiencing fear.  Leave while you can and seek counseling.  Feeling less important than someone else will make you a victim over and over again.

Learn to be a peacemaker for yourself.  All good things come from that.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

When Distraction Is Welcome

In the weeks before Christmas when it was time to send out the cards, I’d often see my mom take a bunch of them along with her address book and put them in her purse. She took them to work the next day, and wrote them during her lunch hour with the chatter of co-workers all around her. Then she mailed them on the way home.

These particular cards required more than just a greeting because they were for family members in my mother's native Germany. To this day, my mom has long bouts of homesickness, and in order not to succumb to it when writing to people back home, she used the distractions of the lunch hour at work to keep her thoughts from dwelling in the past. It was a very useful tool.

When my son was born at only 29 weeks, I lived for two long months in the Neonatal ICU, fixated on the instruments that measured his vital signs. When the alarms went off because he had stopped breathing (which he frequently did) and I saw him turn blue before my eyes, I went into a complete panic. I responded automatically in the same way to all the other alarms going of in the unit for babies in distress. Emotionally, I was a mess to put it plainly, but on those days when I had the company of my husband or my mom in the NICU, I felt a calming relief. They also provided some more lighthearted distractions with talk of work, family, neighbors and Hollywood gossip. (That last one would be more from my mom.) Their positive attitude (sometimes faked) helped me back to temporary sanity.

A former colleague used to rush off to her sister's house after work, to be there when she opened her mail. Her sister had just gone through a nasty divorce (when aren't they?) and whenever she got a letter from the attorneys or her ex, she was afraid to open it alone for fear of reliving the nastiness and hurt. She was determined to move beyond it all, but it was too recent for her to feel she could trust herself. With the distraction of her sister's presence she found she could keep it reasonably light, and deal with the letters as “just business.”

It is practically impossible not to succumb to sadness and anxiety if you are alone and have nowhere else to focus.  Calling on friends and family to simply “be around” during the tough times can provide a much needed barrier between you and the darker places your thoughts want to take you.

I am not suggesting here that we distract ourselves from all difficulties and problems, quite the opposite actually. You may have noticed that no one mentioned in these examples, walked away from their responsibilities. What I am saying is, that when a difficult situation arises in which we could become the cause for our own pain, because of the thoughts we usually associate with it, then it is a kindness to ourselves to seek distraction from them. It is helpful and wise.

It is not noble to suffer needlessly. Help yourself every time you can.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Where Are You Now?

It's my birthday and all sorts of thoughts are going through my mind. Other birthdays, parties in my childhood. What was my favorite present of all time? Am I living the life I wanted? Are my parents still proud of me? Am I proud of me?

Getting another year older often makes people think about where they are in life. Have they done all they could do to feel successful? Have they failed to reach their aspirations and dreams? For older individuals there is the natural concern of time running out to still make “it” happen.

Rating your success or failure at any time by comparing it to others’ makes it a competition, and gets you nowhere near the truth of where you are now, nor does it give you the reliable feeling of satisfaction that you are looking for.

The fact is, there will always be more and less successful people than you. The idea that you have done better than some one else may give you the temporary rush of being a “winner,” but that feeling does not have the longevity you hoped for, and eventually you will have to go out and look for your next opponent. And on it goes.

Feeling a failure because of some one else's success is an unnecessary painful road to go down. What does someone else's achievement have to do with your worth? Hard work and talent do not always make the limelight. Luck, and being in the right time and place, play their role.

Success, when measured by status or prosperity alone, will not give you the constancy of happiness you hoped it would, because it can be taken away in a flash by events impossible to predict. Turn on the news on any given day, and there he is, the famous actor or entrepreneur of yesterday standing in the soup line today. How is he to think of himself now?

Where are you now is a question that’s about you, and only you. Success as we usually think of it, is irrelevant here.  Do I like who I am at this point in my life is what I am pondering on my birthday. Am I growing in the ways that make me feel whole and into someone I can rely on when the waters get choppy? Looking over my past and the painful bumps of my own making, I wonder what I have learned from them. Have I incorporated it into who I am now? Has my empathy grown for others who are hurting over past mistakes? Have I grown in value in my own eyes? Do I have the generosity of spirit I so admire in others? And finally, have I shed enough fear to say 'yes' more often, and say 'no' in the same spirit, when enough is enough?

We are works in progress, you and I, two steps forward and one step back. Whether you are aware of them or not, deliberately participating or not. Changes are occurring within you, based on the choices you make, the opinions you hold dear, the insights you gain from reflection, and the ideas you accept as worthy of believing.

Look at the past with compassion, and see how much you have grown. Each step toward the self you want to be is a success, and it will bring more and more inner harmony that is untouchable by circumstance or time.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Same Content, New Title

Dear Readers,

I'm changing the title of this blog to "Peeling The Onion," to better reflect its content and message.  When I first created the "Great Tips" blog, I thought of it as a place where I would offer exactly that - brief tips and strategies for tackling everyday goals.  But over time it's evolved into something more.  Something better and more meaningful, I hope.  

I'm also changing the frequency of the posts - there will be new posts once a week, on Tuesdays.

Thank you so much for following my blog, and please continue to join in the conversation with your comments and questions!

all the best,

Monday, August 8, 2011

Do One Thing At A Time

A frequent topic of conversation at the talks I give, and also among some of my friends, is how to motivate yourself to get out of bed in the morning when you're feeling so awful and weighed down by the size of your Must Do list for that day.

Others may not experience that feeling until they open up their e-mail Inbox and see the long list of messages requiring action and response.  But no matter how you become aware of the mountain of work ahead, the physical reaction usually is a tightening of the neck and stomach muscles, followed by a sense of fatigue and dejection. 

(There may be some fortunate individuals who love everything about what they do - who thrive on being busy busy and don't start off their day with a sigh. I’d envy them, but have not yet made their acquaintance.)

For most of us the internal clock is ticking away the time we have to get things done, and our nagging inner voice keeps reminding us of what still lies ahead, suggesting various consequences for failure. They are all terrible. This is obviously not the way to live a reasonably happy life, and if this resembles yours and you have had enough, then here is a proven way to change that.

Draw a little on Eastern philosophy, and “when you are doing the dishes, do the dishes” - meaning that you should focus only on what you are actually doing at the time. Banish all thoughts of what still needs to be done, or that there is a need to hurry. In this way, we can slowly break old habits of thinking and working. (If this sounds hard, remember, practice makes the master!)

Doing “one thing at a time” will improve your performance, reduce mistakes, increase your focus, slow your heart rate, and significantly lower the wear and tear of stress on your body. Plus, you’ll find that there is something organic and satisfying about focusing only on the task at hand.

My mother once met a southern gentlemen visiting for his son's graduation at the University of Pennsylvania (where I was also graduating).  He was experiencing some anxiety about the general speed of life in the Northeast. Expressing his preference for the slower pace of the South to Mom, he said, "You know, we do get it done."

So will you. You will be amazed, once you are in the flow of “one thing at a time,” at how much you do get done without feeling run down and exhausted by it.  But the simple fact that we can really only do one thing at a time seems to somehow get lost when we allow ourselves to think about all the day’s work at once.

So, on waking in the morning, remind yourself that you have a new way of dealing with whatever comes.  If you apply your efforts to thinking this way, it can truly change your life, no matter what size your mountain!

Good luck with your goal!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Of Course You Can Learn Anything!

My little girl is starting kindergarten this fall.  She is very excited to go.  Preschool has been a wonderful learning experience for her, and her expectations are all positive. Much in contrast were my feelings about an approaching new school year when I was young.

From 1st grade to probably my junior year in high school, my summer vacation was over when August rolled around. I spent that month worrying myself into frequent panic attacks and general anxiety. I believed, each and every summer, that this was going to be the year I would be confronted with a challenge that I could not easily learn.  I was afraid I would no longer be considered “smart.”

School takes up the greatest part of our lives when we are young. Then, when we get home from school, we get on the phone (this starts pretty early) and talk about it to our friends. How “smart” we think we are has a powerful influence on how we learn, and the shaping of our fragile self image.

My erroneous belief then was that if you learn something quickly, you were smart - and if it takes a while, then you're not smart. Sadly, this assumption was shared by most educators in the past (and parents, too), and its negative impact on students and the adults they subsequently became is impossible to measure. (For more on the science of "learning,” I highly recommend the book Succeed by Heidi Grant Halvorson.)

This post is about motivating our children, to learn without stress and feelings of inadequacy. Madison Avenue is the best proof we need to convince us of the power of using the right language. Let's use it in helping our children, and ourselves.

We already know better than to call our kids dumb, or “not too smart.” (In addition, let's make it a deadly sin to think of ourselves in those terms!) Let's face it, we can't motivate or inspire with phrases like, "Maybe this just isn’t your subject," "I can't believe you don't get this!" and "What's wrong with you?" Not at all helpful is giving the order "Do your homework!" like it's a punishment.

Instead, encourage your children with phrases like, "take your time,” "why not read it a couple more times?” and "practice makes the master.”  You might give an example of someone successful they admire - a favorite teacher, or a famous sports figure or musician – who had to learn and practice to become who they are today.

When they struggle or feel anxious, remind your children of all that they have already learned, as evidence that they can learn “anything and everything” else.  While we teach them patience and practice, we might just learn it for ourselves.

My mom used to reassure me during my moments of panic that everything new I would face was no different than learning the ABC’s - that it would be just another new idea and no more difficult than anything I had learned so far. I dismissed it as “mom talk.”  I have discovered that she was actually right.

Tasks or subjects we think of as “complicated” or “hard” are those that require learning more than one idea or fact.  But even difficult subjects are still learned as one idea at a time. The use of a computer is still rejected by many adults for being too “complicated,” (to which most kids today would say "What?") when in fact it's no more than learning one step (idea) then learning the next step (again, one idea) and so on until you reach the last step. Even the geeks and computer wizards learned it all one step at the time.

All school subjects are taught as a new idea based on ideas already learned. As adults, we acquire the skills necessary for our jobs in the same way. What makes us successful? We have practice! When you think of learning in this way, it will take the apprehension out of taking on new responsibility, retraining for a different job, or even going back to school.  After all, look what you have already learned!

I am not overlooking the fact that there are individuals who may be genetically predisposed to “get the idea” quicker than others. But that’s far from a guarantee for success, or a happy and well-balanced life in the future. (I am sure that there are some very high IQs on Riker’s Island.)

I do know what it takes for anyone to "Succeed,” and that is patience, practice, and encouraging reinforcement. Remember that ABC’s are just the beginning of your learning journey, and there really are no limits as to where it can go!

Good luck with your goal!

Monday, August 1, 2011

What Did I Get Myself Into?

In preparation for a talk I gave recently I came across some old notes on some really interesting data. It has to do with something psychologists call temporal distance – specifically, the fact that how we see an activity depends on how far we are from it in time.  (Stay with me, because this will begin to sound familiar.)

What that means is that the plans we make for a happy event (let's say a big party or an exotic vacation) are more exciting and appealing in proportion to the distance into the future that they are to occur. In other words, the further away in the future a good thing is, the better it will seem - and the less we will consider the practical aspects (the work!) of making it happen.

It’s also true that its appeal and the excitement lessen with its approach in time, as the practical aspects begin to take center stage. When the day is finally here, we ask ourselves, "How did I ever get myself into this?"  Have you said that? I know I have.

So what happened? Well, the closer you get to the event, the more you have to start dealing with all the hassle of pulling it off, so that’s what you are focused on. Let's take the exotic vacation. When it’s six months away, it sounds like a great idea – an amazing adventure.  But as the departure date draws near, questions pop into your mind: Does the passport need updating? How long will that take?  Will we need shots to go to this place? I hope no one has a reaction.  What kind of first aid kit should I pack?  Can we drink the water? How hot does it get? What clothes should I pack? Does it ever get cold, like at night? Should I bring food like crackers in case the offerings look suspect? Who is going to drive us to the airport?

When it’s cold and snowing, you dream of a big party in the spring in your backyard. You excitedly think of all the things you loved at other parties you went to last summer, and plan to incorporate all those ideas in yours. You will knock their socks off! This is going to be FUN!

Spring comes and the party date grows near.  You realize you really should paint the guest bathroom- it could use some freshening. The garden needs a big clean up, any volunteers? No?  What types of food should you serve?  You need to write the menu. And make a shopping list. This will take at least two carts, who can you get to help you? You need to go to the liquor store – but first, you need to figure out which mixed drinks you will make ? What is that thing Dan always asks for?  How many invitations did you send out? Who is really coming? Will you buy or borrow chairs?

You get the idea, because you have lived it. We all have. And the great party you had dreamed about giving may not feel that “great” after all.

Sadly, you cannot get rid of this bias - good things will always look better in the future, and it is human nature to dream big. There is only one thing you can do to reduce your “Why did I agree to do this?” problem:  You can force yourself to think about feasibility.

You can make yourself look at all the details, and the work it will entail, in advance – preferably when you are making your decision in the first place. After considering everything - the space and time it will take to create an event, your skill set, your finances, and your nerves under pressure – then make a decision that takes the whole picture into account, not just the fun bits.

Good luck with your goal!