Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Never Say Or Think “I Should Have…”

Living in the present and being content with who you are is the foundation for a good life. Everything else is extra.

Having said that, however, we all know that most people have not yet made peace with themselves. They judge themselves harshly (creating guilt) for their decisions and actions made in the past, and now seek to find their worth in worldly achievements, fame, and exchangeable relationships. None of it gives them lasting satisfaction. Some succumb to depression and withdrawal from society, and frequently self-medicate through substance abuse. I shouldn’t have done that is the theme that underscores this misery.

Sadly, they are unaware that the reasoning behind that thought is misguided, and even illogical. Here is why:

1)  All decision and actions are based on what we believe to be true, at the time they are

2)  Some psychological studies show that people have a very difficult time remembering      
what it was like when they didn't know what they know now. For example, at some
point in our lives we learned that the world was round and the moon traveled around it, but we don't remember what it was like not knowing that.

3)  So, going back over the past armed with what we know now, it is difficult if not impossible to judge ourselves fairly. What happened then was based on what we knew then, the circumstances then and our feelings and beliefs then.

Therefore, it follows quite logically, that we should not judge from our present circumstances, from our knowledge and the beliefs we hold now, decisions made in another time and place.

That is not to say we can't learn from the painful and unfortunate events in our lives. When presented with similar circumstances now, it would be wise to say, "What could I do differently?” Should is always a judgment of some kind, could opens up possibilities.

If you are someone who carries pain and self-hatred from the past, remember that you truly don't remember the person you are judging now, it's quite impossible. Instead have compassion for his experiences, no doubt he did the best he could with whatever knowledge was available to him then. All you really need to think about is what you could do from now on.

It's all about learning anyway. So try to look at the past with a more gentle eye from now on.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Who Do They Think They Are?

Have you ever said or thought it? I know I have, plenty of times. "Who does he think he's talking to?"  It's our gut reaction to someone crossing the boundaries of courtesy, getting too personal, or making an inappropriate request.

If you are not someone who quickly loses his temper when feeling put upon (not recommended), or aren’t able to take the high road with a classy response, you may need some help when dealing with an overly “entitled” individual.

Jenny (not her real name) is my best friend in town. Everybody knows her and her husband Joe (not his real name) for the wonderful neighborhood parties they give. They are also the go-to couple for help and advice on anything home and garden.  They are softies, always willing to lend a hand.

The day before hurricane Irene went over our town, everybody was rushing around with last minute errands, bringing in the outdoor furniture and everything else that could become airborne and battening down the hatches. Lots of phone calls went back and forth. The anxiety in the neighborhood was palpable. The threat of flooding, and having one of the old trees along the sidewalks crashing down on our houses was real and imminent.

It was getting late into the evening. Their family fed and everything secured, Jenny, Joe, and their three young children along with grandma were huddling in front of the TV, watching the Weather Channel. Then the phone rang again.

It was a neighbor who rarely occupied the house next door, preferring to live up state in a home over-looking the river. She informed Jenny that they had just decided to leave the river house after all, and would she please strip and wash the sheets on their beds, because they themselves would be too tired to do so when they arrived. Thank you very much.

Jenny said yes. She felt slightly nauseous and upset. "What do they think they are?" Looking at Joe for support. In reality, Jenny was very angry at herself. She gave a lot of thought to what had just happened, and why she had agreed so automatically.

Was it just that she had failed to come up with a better response quickly enough? Although that might be partially true, as many people are momentarily stunned when confronting the unexpected, Jenny readily admits that she may not have the “stuff” to say "no."

If you, like my friend, doubt you could say "no" when an improper request is made of you, then the answer to, "Who do I think I am?"  is what you need to explore.

"No, I would be uncomfortable doing that," is an excellent reply. Any follow-up "Why?” can be answered with, "I already answered that'.  Of course, silence is also an option. Do what feels more comfortable to you. Do not explain yourself more than that.  You never need to justify treating yourself with respect.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Ideal Friends

When I was young, the times I spent with each of my friends usually centered around a particular activity we both enjoyed doing. For instance, I loved going to the movies with “A”. We were joined at the hip for seeing every funny movie that came to the local theater. Our standards were very low -  the dumber, the better.  “A”  and I had the same funny bone, and watching something silly together was always more hilarious than watching it alone. Often people in the audience would shush us for being too loud, but trying to suppress our laughter in that setting only made everything twice as funny. I'm sure we were very annoying. I'm sorry. We were very young.

Around that same age (10 or 11), a few girls from the neighborhood and I formed a private club. Meetings were held in the attic above our garage. We were all fans of the Judy Blume books, and Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret was our favorite. We learned a lot about our approaching womanhood from Judy Blume.  And even though we were at least a year or two away from getting our first periods, we decided it was best to be prepared, and voted at one of our meetings that each member should stock up with the required provisions now.

All my pocket money went to the local pharmacy for the next few weeks. We proudly compared our purchases at meetings, evidence of our advanced maturity.  I remember feeling greatly embarrassed when my Mom found some of my stash and couldn't keep herself from laughing. When she finally stopped, and said it was all really very cute, my complete humiliation was achieved.

There were friends I liked to hang around with because they were funny, and others who made good phone palls when the weather kept us in. I realize now that I had no real “bosom buddy” friend, someone I could trust with my innermost secrets, until I went to college.

I met “C” on moving-in day and “J” just a few days later. The three of us became roommates a year later, and lived together until graduation. We grew to trust each other completely. We shared in our disappointments and small triumphs, and told each other the most intimate details of our lives. I don't think any one of us quite appreciated at the time how precious our friendship was and how hard it would be to duplicate with someone else when we grew older. After graduation, we became distanced by miles, but a phone call or a visit brings us right back to where we left off. I value that very much.

In my professional and social adult life I have made some casual friends, similar to the kind I had when I was very young. But sadly, too many of the people I meet seem to find it impossible to let go of an image they have created for themselves, and their conversations circle around what they own. The latest car, the biggest home (at the best address of course!) and simply the best designer, darling!!  When bragging becomes apparent in stories of travel, charity work and encounters with the rich and famous, I am so turned off that any type of true friendship becomes out of the question.

Another person I try to avoid is the “advice giver.” I met a classic example of this type recently at someone else's home at a housewarming party. Our host and hostess took their guests on a tour of their newly renovated home with some justified pride, telling funny little anecdotes about their mishaps and miscommunications with the contractors and workers. The aforementioned adviser took every opportunity to interrupt the stories we enjoyed with, "Oh, honey, you know what I always do?" followed up with whatever it was she had done.

We all began to hate her quite openly, and tried to discover who had had the nerve to bring her. The last room to be shown was a redecorated guest room. Holding the arm of our hostess, the lovely lady told her, “You know, this could be a pretty room, if you painted it light green and changed some of the furniture." Enough said.

Every morning at my daughter’s preschool, a small group of happy children along with their sleepy parents gathered in front of the school, waiting for the door to open. It was very early in the day, so I usually just waved a weak hello to the other moms and kept quiet, thinking of the coffee waiting at home. "Do you give your kids a bath everyday?" someone asked over my shoulder one day. With a haughty “I beg your pardon!” on my lips and one eyebrow raised to underscore the point, I turned around to face the offender. I was greeted with a big smile from one of the moms I had casually chatted with at one of the many preschool birthday parties. Still smiling at me she added, "I don't."

I knew immediately that I could be friends with this women, and we have in fact grown to be very close – the first new bosom buddy I have made in a long time. There is no pretense in my new friend, despite her impressive credentials. She has the same casualness talking about her goof ups as she has about her accomplishments. I find that so attractive.

If you find yourself still looking for a really close friend, allow yourself to be vulnerable with others. Sharing our foibles makes us relatable, pretending perfection does not. Take a chance. Your instinct will tell you who that contender may be.

After reflecting on the friends (and non-friends) of years past, I’ve concluded that a good friend is a true treasure because,

He will listen to you when you need to be heard.
And will not judge you harshly because she knows your heart.
He will never cross boundaries.
She will not give unsolicited advice.
And he won’t keep track of how often you call, or how long it's been.

Genuine friendship does not require “work,” nor is it in any way related to the words “should” or “ought.”   It simply is.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Passive Aggression Anyone?

One of my dearest and closest friends - my children call him Uncle Shawn - is hands down our favorite guest. He is a great storyteller with a bit of the devil in him. Quite a bit, actually. He makes us laugh until we cry.

Shawn lives in New York City. After teaching for a few years he is currently working on his Ph.D. For as long as I have known him, Shawn has suffered from two great shortages in his life, one being spendable cash and the other is patience with his mother. This very proper lady flew into JFK one day for an impromptu visit with her son, and very naturally expected him to come and fetch her from the airport. Shawn, like most New Yorkers, does not own a car. Resenting her visit in the first place, and minding very much the cost of a round trip cab fare in the second, he settled his inner conflict by picking her up in a U-Haul - the cheapest option available to him.

This is the only funny instance of passive aggression I know of. However, his mother didn't think it very funny at all, which of course was his point.

A familiar passive-aggressive scene (perhaps all too predictable to some) is the husband who does not want to visit his in-laws this weekend, according to the long-standing plan. We will find him sitting in front of the TV until his wife and children are fully dressed and ready to go. His wife, having learned from experience that he will make them late again, had shouted reminders to him in regular intervals, while working on the kids and her own outfit. Not hearing any movement from the TV room, her shouts become more angry. At the door a furious argument ensues, or she may be crying about his indifference to her feelings. Either way, he is content. Making her miserable was the price she had to pay for “making him go.”

Passive aggression can often be seen in young children who are told to share their toys with siblings or other children. They will throw the wanted toy in the opposite direction, or hand over some less attractive substitute.  Or, among adults, it can be the recently cooked meal - now sitting in the trash can- waiting for the hungry person who forgot to warn he would be late. Or the colleague at work who drags his feet, because he doesn't like to work on a team.

All these different behaviors occur when the perpetrator knows he or she really ought to do a specific thing or go to a previously agreed-upon place, because it is the right thing to do. Now they just resent having to do it. They will hold someone responsible and make them pay.  Payment can be extracted by making you late for something important to you, through digs and low-blows to your self-esteem, or even by deliberately embarrassing you in front of others. P**sing on your parade in some way will make things even!

The closeness of your relationship to someone who behaves this way toward you, the frequency with which it occurs, and the extent to which they will go, will be the deciding factors in your response to it.

For the valued long-term relationship where this behavior is infrequent and only annoying, I recommend simply ignoring it.  Don't take the bait! If you don't give them the satisfaction they seek, they will eventually see it as a fruitless endeavor.

In other, more serious situations, ask yourself, "What is at stake here?"  Ignore it, or take a permanent walk?