Sunday, August 1, 2021

just relax already!

"Come on! Just relax already!" -Every person who ever attempted to calm you down  

In attempt to win the award for ‘Understatement of the Year’ I offer the following. We are living in an age of uncertainty. Between the global pandemic, the upcoming elections, and school being conducted through zoom many people have experienced a higher level of stress and unease over the past few months. There is an abundance of articles, podcasts, and lectures on how to deal with this. However, navigating the relationships of our friends and family who are experiencing this is an issue that has been somewhat neglected. It can be difficult to watch the suffering of those we care about and a common response is to try and fix the problem. Often, our initial reaction is to tell the person to ‘just relax’. Your intentions might be good, but this is an ineffective approach. It tends to backfire and cause more harm. When was the last time someone told you to relax, and you found it helpful in calming your nerves?

 The concept of validating people’s feelings is talked about in practically every book about communication, parenting, and self-work. You can utilize this strategy for yourself and those you care about with a two-step technique. First, give the person permission to be where they are at. We are so accustomed to offering solutions and trying to solve the problem because it’s difficult to sit helplessly and just watch. Without being condescending, you can say ‘That sounds really hard. I don’t know how you’re managing’.

In I Thought it Was Just Me (But It Isn't) (2008), Brene Brown references nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman's four attributes of empathy which can be helpful in situations such as these.

  • To be able to see the world as others see it—This requires putting your own "stuff" aside to see the situation through your loved one's eyes.
  • To be nonjudgmental—Judgement of another person's situation discounts the experience and is an attempt to protect ourselves from the pain of the situation.
  • To understand another person’s feelings—We have to be in touch with our own feelings in order to understand someone else's. Again, this requires putting your own "stuff" aside to focus on your loved one.
  • To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings—Rather than saying, "At least you..." or "It could be worse..." try, "I've been there, and that really hurts," or (to quote an example from Brown), "It sounds like you are in a hard place now. Tell me more about it.”

The second step is to simply be quiet. Full stop. This is going to require some self-control on your part. Silent pockets in conversations feel awkward. We avoid them at all costs by repeating ourselves, changing the subject, or ending the conversation. Instead of moving on we can choose to be in the moment. Challenge yourself to see how long you can sustain that for.

You can use these steps on yourself as well when you feel worried or fearful. It is important to understand that these feelings are your body’s way of telling you ‘I don’t feel safe’. Imagine a conversation with a friend that goes like this:

Friend ‘I don’t feel safe!’

You ‘Just get over it!’

We can agree that this relationship needs some work, and most of us would never treat our friends like that. So why is it ok to do this to ourselves when we’re stressed?

Does this voice sound familiar? ‘Just relax. You’re fine. Other people have it worse than you.’ You deserve at least as much compassion and kindness that you would give anyone else. As a result, the pain never goes away completely.  Bessel van der Kolk MD in his book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma talks about how your body and mind are more connected than you think. We don’t like to deal with painful emotions like sadness or anger. But suppressing them or shoving them under the rug just leads to more problems. Only by confronting your demons can you begin to heal from them. What if, instead of managing your stress, you chose to heal it? Imagine stress as a charge in your body and your goal is to neutralize that charge.  

When you acknowledge the discomfort, your body can then let it go of it. It’s as if your body is saying ‘Hey! He’s finally listening to me and acknowledging my reaction.’ Like the way you feel after venting to a colleague. Nothing about the situation changed but we feel so much better after being heard.    

This idea is relevant in parenting as well. We sometimes forget that children’s feelings are very real. Next time your child complains that they are scared or don’t feel well, instead of saying ‘Don’t be scared! It’s ok’ or ‘You’re fine- you don’t even have a fever.’ attempt to validate them. A common misconception is that by acknowledging their feelings it will lead to them taking advantage of you. This doesn’t have to be the case. ‘I know you’re feeling afraid Leah. The first day of school can be scary. Sometimes we do things even though they are hard for us.’ Or ‘Your knee is really hurting you, huh? Thank you for telling me Ben. We’re going to the grocery now- come buckle your seatbelt.”

After explaining this concept to a friend of mine, he began to spontaneously yell at me to ‘JUST RELAX!’ in the middle of mundane conversation without any warning. This effectively brought my stress level from zero to 100 in a matter of seconds. While he found it extremely entertaining, I am still working through the trauma.


Wednesday, June 2, 2021

stupid questions


"If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid." -Epictetus

Dan Ariely is the author of Predictably Irrational and Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University. He does research in behavioral economics on the irrational ways people behave, described in plain language. Dan discovered that when teaching large classes (an average of 500 pupils) the students were afraid to ask questions. Consequently, Dan would start the semester by taking a few paragraphs from postmodern literature and randomly adding in words and phrases about economics and behavioral psychology. To give you some perspective, Wikipedia defines postmodern literature as ‘a form of literature that is characterized by the use of metafictionunreliable narrationself-reflexivityintertextuality, and which often thematizes both historical and political issues’. (If you didn’t understand the definition, well….join the club.) He would then begin the lecture by saying “Let me start by explaining what behavioral economics is …” and proceeds to read this nonsense out loud for 5-7 minutes. Predictably, everyone would start taking copious notes.  No one questioned the information.

Then Professor Ariely stops and asks the group ‘Why didn’t you stop me? If you don’t understand, just ask. Don’t look at other people- assume that you’ll help others and that others don’t understand just as much as you do. Everyone is thinking the same thing. But no one has the guts to change it.”

Rocket scientist Ozan Varol says that “dumb” questions are the starting point for innovation. This comes with a disclaimer: Dumb doesn’t mean stupid. It signifies the basic. It means fun-dumb-ental. Asking a dumb question requires taking a complex concept and asking a seemingly simple question that has no easy answers. Change almost always begins with a dumb question. Here are a few that changed the world: What makes an apple fall down to the ground, rather than go up? What if the Earth revolved around the Sun, rather than the other way around? What if suitcases had wheels on them?

Malcolm Gladwell, author of the  international bestsellers The Tipping Point and Blink (2005) traces his inquisitive nature to his father’s inclination to ask dumb questions:

“My father has zero intellectual insecurities. It has never crossed his mind to be concerned that the world think he’s an idiot. He’s not in that game. So if he doesn’t understand something, he just asks you. He doesn’t care if he sounds foolish. If my father had met Bernie Madoff, he never would have invested money with him because he would have said, ‘I don’t understand’ a hundred times. ‘I don’t understand how that works,’ in this kind of dumb, slow voice.”

Humility and genuine curiosity are perhaps the most under rated attributes to expanding your knowledge. The minute you wake up and think you know everything- you know nothing

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

yellow brick roads

“We judge others by their behavior. We judge ourselves by our intentions.” (Ian Percy)

Results matter. What if someone gave you all the ingredients to a lemon meringue pie beautifully arranged on a platter. How appreciative do you think you’d be? They’d probably have been better off not giving you anything at all- ‘cuz you probably think they’re a moron now (rightfully so). Good intentions are like cotton candy- they shrink to nothingness if they’re let out of the bag. But of course it’s simpler when we evaluate ourselves to add all those could’ve would’ve should’ves to score brownie points.
I’m not quite sure that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. (I could verify it for you when I get back.) For one thing the intentions of a decent person usually result in some sort of action. Conversely, someone who is desensitized and accustomed to evil will have a different definition of ‘good’. And secondly it’s puzzling why the road to hell would be paved at all? Is it to give the evil a false sense of security? Or one last leisurely stroll?
Of course judging others is a salve to our conscience (and boy, do our conscience’s need soothing). So essentially we suffer by minding our own business. Suddenly our faults our staring at us in the face and we have nothing to deflect the shame and truth of it all. Yes, our priority is survival- but at what cost to our relationships?

Monday, August 8, 2011

cliff diving and post-it notes

“For disappearing acts, it's hard to beat what happens to the eight hours supposedly left after eight of sleep and eight of work.” (Doug Larson)

There is a preconceived notion that organized people generally accomplish things more efficiently than those who are, shall we say, not the sort who make detailed lists and carry around leather bound planners.
Some of the people who we might consider ‘flaky’ have all necessary information compartmentalized inside their head. They may choose to do things in a way that’s not the obvious approach- but who are you to say that it’s not well planned? You can only take half of the credit for getting a job done. Lots of people rush to finish because they crave the rush that comes along with crossing an item off of their list. The other half- and perhaps the more important-is how it’s done. I find that if one is less pressed to finish their consultation at precisely 3:57 which will give them three minutes to prepare an afternoon coffee (with one sugar and no cream, decaf mind you) and arrive on time for the meeting in room 201 on the 7th floor INSERT BREATH HERE then one might have been more likely to notice that despite the wrinkled suit the client was just let go had potential to earn the company close to a half a million dollars.
Preconceived ideas in general tend to conceal a layer of falseness. Woe is to those of us that have taken on lemming characteristics and rely on society to draw conclusions for us.
Comments, as always, are welcome.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

circuses and hell

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.” (Philip K. Dick)

Imagination is one of those G-d given gifts which I venture to say is underappreciated. Most of our greatest fears revolve around pain. The agony of humiliation haunts us in our sleep. The sound of the dentist’s drill makes our toes curl. The permanent ache that buries itself deep within after the death of a loved one and threatens to obscure our outlook on life forever…
I ask you to pause for a moment and paint a picture in your mind’s eye a clown. His shoes are made of plastic, oversized and bright green. His face is coated with a thick layer of white paint and his eyes are exaggerated with dark black circles. His nose is made of cheap red foam and his rail thin body is swimming in a colorful polka dotted jumpsuit with ruffled yellow cuffs. The curls of his neon blue wig bounce with every step he takes. Unless you’ve got coulrophobia, the thought should bring a smile to your face.
Dante must've known this when he wrote Inferno. He used his imagination to conjure up a detailed description of fear stripped raw. Hell. No wonder his work has been the subject for philosophers and the inspiration for countless artists for well over six centuries.
The same way you created an image from nothing, you can create a feeling of well-being and security just through channeling the power of your mind. Who wouda thunk it? You’re safe haven is at the tips of your fingers.
Imagine that.

Friday, July 29, 2011

rainbows and FBI

"By all means let's be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out."
(Richard Dawkins)

We like to think that as individuals we are non-racist and tolerant people. We consider it a compliment to be called open-minded. And yet there’s a contradiction. Imagine you are going to a town many miles away where the customs are exceedingly different from anything you’ve ever seen or heard of. Being in custody of the Witness Protection Program, you arrive not knowing what to expect. Looking around, you are nearly blinded by all the vibrant shades of Prussian blue, cadmium yellow, sea green, and countless other shades that you didn’t even know existed. You take a second look – something seems to be missing.
Apparently in this place the color black is not accepted as a wearable color. Passersby are staring at your black slacks and a few muttered derogatory sounding words directed at your polished black dress shoes.
So you think to yourself, ‘What is wrong with these people? Can’t they be more open-minded? ’ After you finish bashing these people in your head, consider this. You are the minority. You just encroached on their territory, a complete stranger, and you want them to adapt to your differences. You should be grateful that you weren’t lynched. You should be open-minded to their way of living. I know you’re surprised that the world doesn’t revolve around you. Consider this; acceptance of differences will get you farther than an open mind.
(Maybe you should call the person in charge of your case anyways and request a destination change.)
You are invited to comment below.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

vodka on the rocks and roller coasters

“After the game, the king and the pawn go into the same box.” (Italian Proverb)

What do you choose to do when you spend time with friends?
(a) Go out to eat
(b) Go out for drinks
(c) Amusement parks, bungee jumping, or rock climbing
(d) I don’t go out with friends- quality time for me consists of phone conversations and emails.
(e) What friends?
May I question society’s equivalence of money with fun? The more expensive the dish you know, the smaller the portion. That says something. (I’m not sure what…) If there’s one area where the lines of the caste system blur it should be in the form of entertainment we choose.
Ever considered baking chocolate chip cookies, eating the dough and baking what’s left? What about the board games? Checkers is quite stimulating if you play it right, and some oldies like monopoly, balderdash, boggle, and scrabble can really get you going. Apple to apples, Banangrams, Cranium, and The Settlers of Catan are some of the newer ones that you might want to add to your closet if they’re not already there. I applaud those of you who enforce a ‘Family Game Night’, and recommend that everyone strongly consider it.
You don’t have need to do this with your family but you’d be surprised how much more pleasure you’ll get from playing a brain game or fiddling around with finger-paint (I know you think there’s an age limit on that, but you’re wrong) than a pricey martini and speeding ticket. Comments are welcome below.