The Benefit of Doubt

Over the last few years I’ve become a close observer of how I interact with other people.

That sounds kind of stalker-esque and creepy.

What I mean is that I’m a lot more aware of what parts of a conversation I’m responsible for, what parts are completely out of my control, and which parts are imagined and therefore none of my business.

Yesterday I heard that I had been left off a list – I didn’t get the invite. It was a pretty big deal – big event, big emotions, old baggage. It was unintentional. Nothing was meant by it, but my mind didn’t want to let it be. It really wanted to turn this into something. It didn’t need me to raise a ruckus about it, but it wanted to chew on it and make it mean something hurtful. I turned to my friend literal listening.

What is literal listening?

blond-blurred-background-cars-825982Literal listening is paying close attention to all of the words that are actually spoken, asking for clarification as needed and, here’s the kicker, not inserting any additional words, interpretations, subtexts, feelings, hostility, or anything else you might be inclined to insert. You take in and respond to exactly what is said.

The key question to literal listening is: “What is (or was) actually being said? What words were used?” Notice there’s no: “What did so and so REALLY mean?” in that formulation. Literal listening assumes that speakers will say what they mean and that listeners will ask for clarification as needed.

Why is literal listening useful?

Literal listening protects our feelings, our energy levels, keeps us from wasting time, and allows us to focus on what is true and necessary. Literal listening does all of this by preventing us from getting into someone else’s business, and by that I mean what they think of us. Let me back up a little here because I don’t think I’ve talked about this for a while. I firmly believe that what other people think of me is absolutely none of my business. It is an idea I personally got from a writer named Byron Katie, but I know it’s around in other places as well. What people have in their heads about me is their problem, not mine. When I spend a lot of time interpreting, inferring, assuming, and detecting, I am actually invading their privacy; let’s face it, while there seems to be less evidence of it these days, adults do self-edit sometimes, and that’s a good thing. If the person you are engaged with has chosen NOT to tell you what they think of you, shouldn’t they have that option? Mightn’t it be better that way?

The important effect here for the late night mind monkeys. Literal listening strips away all of the grist for our rotten story weavers and lets us simply face the facts as we actually KNOW them to be.

When is literal listening helpful?

Literal listening is particularly helpful when we’re interacting with the people in our lives who are difficult or with whom we have baggage: maybe we even know they don’t like us be we are tied to them in some way that makes no contact unavoidable. Maybe we know we don’t like them but haven’t quite managed to rearrange our social circles yet. Maybe it’s a co-worker who is difficult and unpleasant. Maybe it’s a boss who tends to be short with praise and long on condescending looks and deep sighs. Clearly there’s stuff there, but do we really want to enter into the kind of conversation we would have to have to clear it all up with ALL of those people? Would we even have that opportunity? I’m pretty sure there are a lot of work environments where team counseling is not an option. I know there are family situations where that would take years.

Literal listening allows us to engage with the people with whom we have baggage, real or imagined, and still accomplish the things we need to accomplish without taking on more emotional burden.

It allows us to interact with people with whom we have insecurities and maybe old wounds without taking on more hits.

It allows us to continue to function and take responsibility for what we do and say in environments that feel emotionally charged.

It allows us to find some room to simply be and be ourselves and requires adults who have a problem with that to actually come out and say something.

ask-blackboard-356079For me literal listening gives me a way to rewind the tape when my story teller gets rolling. When I am deciding what people think of me, what they REALLY meant, why they did what they did or said what they said or what they REALLY think and then looking for evidence for all of that horrible stuff, I can take a big deep breath and ask myself: “Do I know any of that? Is it true? Was it actually said? What WAS actually said? Am I creating a problem by invading his/her private thoughts? Am I making myself suffer by trying to figure out the subtext?” I can benefit from the doubt that arises when I ask myself these questions.

That doubt allows me to stop the storyteller, and to thank her for trying to protect me all of the time. I can give her a pat on the head and suggest she take a nap while I review the words that were spoken and remove all of the meanings I’m so tempted by old wounds and insecurity to add. I can choose, even if someone really IS being rotten, I can always choose to not take that in and make it part of me, and oh my how much better that feels.

 

Connection and Cupcakes

baby-beautiful-bed-266061I have a secret.

I’ve been cheating.

I’ve been cheating on my children.

I’ve had the biggest Mom crush on a little girl at church for the longest time.

I’ve watched her since she first appeared snuggled in her car seat.

I’ve watched her as she moved to crawling, to standing, to walking holding hands, to running (everywhere), and now to dancing without reserve.

I have cooed to my sister, squeezed my husband’s hand and encouraged him to watch too.

We have all been on the sidelines of her experience, cheering her on without her even knowing we existed really.

It has been kind of lovely.

And could only be topped by finally getting in.

My little friend came to a party at our house last night and through the magic of a few American Girl Doll accessories and Littlest Pet Shop figures, I got to have a conversation with her at long last.

We spoke in hushed tones about the ribbon on the fox’s head and the fact that everyone loves cupcakes. Shen entrusted me with a story about her day. I assured her it sounded spectacular. And then the moment passed.

But this morning, I saw her again in church and when she stopped in the middle of a twirl, she made eye contact, danced a little in my direction, gave me a big smile and a wave. Just like that I am part of her world just as she has been part of mine. Just like that we are connected.

It got me to thinking about how simple and small connection really can be. It’s finding something in common (even if it is your daughter’s toys). It’s asking about the events of the day. It’s assuring people that they are having as much fun (or not) as they think they are. It’s making eye contact, and saying hello in the way that is most assuredly you.

cupcake-delicious-dessert-917302We have so many opportunities to connect and yet so many of us feel disconnected, sidelined, lonely.

Sometimes all it takes is the willingness to have a quieter conversation about cupcakes, because really, who doesn’t love cupcakes?

Teaching Her the Most Important Thing

My daughter came home with a story today.

She said a friend had pushed her aside physically on the way to complete a classroom task.

adolescent-adult-back-view-710743I say friend with a lot of hesitation and air quotes because this particular girl was at one time the best friend, the slumber party friend, the every day lunch companion. This girl was the secret keeper, the note writer, the one my daughter was sure she would miss the most when they go to different middle schools. Then we had a long period of hot and cold, like a confused faucet. Slumber party on the weekend and the icy treatment a few days later with no explanation. I realize I was only getting one side of the story, but honestly I found it hard to keep up with what the status of their relationship was on any given day.

I encouraged my daughter to ask questions. “How can I when she won’t talk to me?”

I suggested that she make a conversation a prerequisite to returning to the relationship when the ice melted. “I will, just not right now.”

We talked about the fact that you teach people how to treat you.

We talked about how lovely forgiveness is but that it doesn’t mean you have to let someone continually hurt your feelings.

I asked if she needed me to intervene in any way. The look on her face told me we are both well past and not anywhere near that stage. “I am too old for that.” I said that was okay with me unless things changed, escalated, became physical or took on aspects of bullying instead of just being a really bad friend. She nodded, not in approval, but more like “Yeah, I knew you’d say that.” My girl talks a lot and yet so many things can go unspoken.

This pattern continued for most of this school year, without any real escalation and certainly no physical contact. And here we are 3 days before the end of school and this girl, who I’ve been trying very hard NOT to say unkind and childish things about all year put her hands on my kid. I know better than to demonize her, and that I’m STILL only getting one side of the story, but my hackles are up. I want to get in touch with this girl’s Mom so bad I can taste the conversation. She is a very reasonable woman, by the way. I don’t know that we could fix anything, but I have no reason not to talk to her other than my daughter’s wishes expressed in the past.

My girl is out playing with friends. And that’s probably best, because it’s giving me a few minutes to stew in my discomfort. And having had the opportunity to stew, I see that I’ve been handling her problem the same way I so often handle mine.

I’ve come at it with a list of practical suggestions and solutions. I’ve instructed her in qualities that I think will help her in the long run. I’ve said the things she knew I would say. I’ve let her know she has choices. Don’t get me wrong. There is really nothing wrong with any of these things, except that in whipping them all out so quickly I’ve glossed over the most important thing, how all of this made her feel.

We’ve had some tears throughout the year and I don’t just tell her to suck it up, but I see now that my desire to get her past the discomfort and into solutions may have given her feelings short-shrift. I’ve been demonstrating to her that the important thing is to figure out a solution rather than making it safe for her to acknowledge and experience how she feels so that a solution can develop or unfold over time.

“How can a solution to someone putting their hands on your kid unfold over time?!” If you’re inclined to scream this at me, rest assured, I’ve got that track already going full volume up in here. And I will honor that message by asking her more questions over dinner, trying to discern what we’re really talking about here. And will see what, if any, next steps are necessary, but there is another discussion I want to have with her.

beautiful-female-girl-35839After her brother has finished wolfing down his food and has run out to play soccer in the front yard, I will sit with her and ask her how she’s feeling. I will ask her what it’s like to have this girl, the former BFF, treat her this way. I will let her know that its safe to feel whatever it is and that I can sit with her if that would help. I want to teach her strength through practicing and learning that she doesn’t need to be afraid of experiencing any feeling. I want to teach her gentleness with herself. I want to teach her that there are always people who will sit with you in your grief, sometimes you just have to figure out who they are. I want to teach her that the most important part of this WHOLE thing is how she feels and who she is in this moment. I want to teach her what it feels like to accept and honor herself and all of her feelings.

And as I do this I remind myself to slow down, to notice when I am skipping the hard parts and moving straight to solutions for my own discomfort, to see when I am applying spreadsheet logic to a wound as though it is any kind of appropriate bandage. I see the pattern for both of us. I’m working on it, slowly and with my heart rather than solutions in mind.

Wish me luck. I’m going in.

When We Hide Things

In all of this hue and cry for authenticity, it’s fair to question who we should tell what and how often. Vulnerability is one thing; martyrdom another altogether.

I’ve been thinking a bit about it though, and have some thoughts about this very human tendency to hide bits of ourselves from the world.

What I’ve discovered in my recent vulnerability experiments, in which I reveal more than I usually do and wait for the other shoe to drop – very scientific, is that an interesting thing happens when I let more of me up to the surface.

bottle-close-up-focus-905894Aside from the obvious win that I don’t get pointed out and laughed at like some recurring nightmare about a high school play gone wrong (is it just me?), when I bring more of me to the surface, barriers lift. I don’t really understand why it works, but I’ve come to think of it like this. When I hide parts of myself, to protect me OR to protect the other person, what I really do is create a wall. I’m only hiding the details. That person likely knows I’m not all in – if we’re not close they just think I’m reserved (if I’m lucky) or maybe even snobby. If we ARE close, that person knows I’m keeping something from them. They may not know exactly what it is, but they know I’m holding back. They know I am not fully engaged. They may even know what some of those thoughts and feelings are by virtue of knowing me so well, but when I hide them I shut those folks out. I am not protecting them from anything. I am letting them know that I don’t trust them with me. I am not just keeping something private; I am limiting engagement.

So what’s the thrust here, tell everything to everybody? No. Clearly not, unless that’s who you are. First tell yourself. Tell yourself what you’ve got hidden away. Unpack those boxes and bags and filing cabinets. Be honest with yourself about what you’ve put in the attic. Some of it may not really even be worth hiding anymore, kind of like old Aunt Gertrude’s ashtray. Some of it may have been hidden so long that you forgot it was up there; some of that might be things you really could use now, like a small box of keepsakes from your mother-in-law who has since passed away. What do you have in perpetual secret storage?

After an initial inventory, you might find it interesting to pull some of those things out and take them for a test drive. Gently share some piece of yourself with someone you love. Try on an old hobby or pastime. Find those pieces you’ve kept hidden and see what you can do with them in the light of now.

bonding-daylight-enjoying-708440.jpgAnd as you do, notice what happens to your sense of connection. Notice how you feel being around other people. Notice what it’s like to be in a room without quite so much to hide. Notice what it’s like to have a conversation without checking yourself every 5 minutes to be sure you haven’t revealed yourself. Notice how problems become problems you can tackle with others and grace becomes a divine gift to be shared and enjoyed rather than just a moment of isolated forgiveness.

It is true that not everyone deserves your story. I believe that. I also know that keeping too much of that story inside is like keeping yourself locked in a tower. Are you sure you don’t want the key?

 

Face Value as a Starting Point

I had to block someone on Facebook yesterday. It is the second or third time I have had to do that – maybe that’s a lot. I don’t know.

Here’s what happened. I posted something admittedly provocative, about something I feel very strongly about, gun violence in schools. What I posted offered no policy prescriptions, it was simply a photo that demonstrated the severity of the problem in a stark and moving way. Within 5 minutes someone who was in my friend circle (I think because of a tenuous music booking connection from a few years ago) but from whom I had never heard before (despite plenty of other provocative posts) decided that I was calling for a repeal of the second amendment and to throw a bunch of memes at me by way of arguing.

In retrospect, I feel a little sorry for him. He – let’s call him Phil for the sake of reducing ambiguous pronouns – clearly did not know what he was getting into.  That was my face value response. The other part of my face value response was that this was a conversation that would not go anywhere. I was familiar with the predicted path of Phil’s argument and had no patience or sympathy for the viewpoint I assumed he had. I also suspected, based on some experience, that his interest in my point of view would be limited and would likely include some version of “libtard.” That was my face value assessment, plus a load of assumption and some knee-jerk reacting.

Being clear minded about all of that – self-aware about my judgments and my knee jerkiness on this subject in particular, I decided to try to engage. But I determined to try very hard not to beat him up. I determined not to paste the wall with graphs. I determined to ask questions. I proceeded to explain that if he was up for a policy discussion, I was in. If he wanted to meme toss, I was not interested. And so it began.

attractive-beautiful-beauty-1024403Phil staked out a few positions, avoiding actually saying “libtard,” but only just. And I felt the thrill of the self-righteous as I demanded respectful interchange and grilled Phil about policy positions. I pointed out the errors in his logic (with glee that I attempted, but likely failed, to hide). I brought him back to what I viewed as the central question as he attempted to shift the context of the discussion. I gave counter-factual for the facts he presented. I was pretty logically disciplined.

A very dear old friend jumped in and I felt bolstered by having an actual attorney arguing with me, until my wonderful attorney friend raised the point that I so wish I’d focused on all along. My friend got right to the heart of the matter and said he was sorry that Phil was so afraid – and he said it in a way that made it clear that he meant it sincerely – no sarcasm, no ill-will, just wow – I’m so sorry you are hurting.

And that is where my face-value assessment fell short. Because I had been right about ALL of my predictions and all of my assumptions. I had been right about exactly how this would go. What I failed to see was that my response to Phil was as much a part of that equation as his idiotic arguments (yep, still feel that way). What I failed to see in all of my super self-righteous generosity about engaging in this conversation even though it would go nowhere is that I did very little to try to chart a different course. I was careful not to insult him. That was my concession.

What I failed to do was choose love. What I failed to do was expand on a more loving perspective even when it was presented to me. When my dear old (he’ll really love that I’ve called him old twice now) friend demonstrated sympathy, rather than pausing and breathing and checking my course, I just let my circuits get a little fried, judged myself for not being that nice and proceeded with my policy discussion.

Just as Phil wasn’t interested in hearing my demands for government action, I wasn’t interested in understanding his heart. I wasn’t interested in leading with love. I  wasn’t interested in asking the one question I now wish I’d asked instead of peppering him with specific policy questions (a shitty but easy thing for someone who’s had a lot grad school to do). I just wish I’d said: “Yeah Phil, you do sound really scared. Why are you so scared? What makes you scared?” Not in a you don’t have any right to be scared way, but in a I know it sucks to be scared and I am willing to listen to your fear kind of way. I am willing to love you in your scaredness (autocorrect really wanted that word to be sacredness, which I find both charming and ironic – the lesson continues) even though I disagree with you wildly on something that is connected to my deepest and truest fear. I alluded to my fears, but it was in all caps to convince rather than to share, to connect, to love. Phil continued arguing after both of his opponents had declared their intent to leave the field. “We’re not getting anywhere and it’s late.” He kept going and got more heated and a little more personal, both in his interpretation and his assertions. That’s the end for me, but looking back I can see how that happened. I’m not saying it’s all my fault, but I can imagine how it must have felt.

And now it feels like the opportunity to do better has passed, although that’s rarely ever completely true. I have admittedly blocked Phil and am unsure (to be perfectly honest) that I would like to change that as I was exhausted by this whole thing (and my ego still wants that to be about him). But I want to pause and realize that my problem from the get go wasn’t that I took him at face value and responded, but that I stayed right there. I didn’t allow my assessment and understanding to change even when it became clear that face value was not enough, not this time.

art-beach-beautiful-269583Face value is a great starting tool, especially when the other party is not revealing more; it can keep us from delving into other people’s personal thoughts and obsessing about our own choices, but face value has its limits. Love demands awareness when it’s time to make adjustments. Love demands not just listening but hearing. To quote a favorite songwriter: “Love reaches out,” not with facts and an agenda, but with curiosity and openness.

I can’t undo the exchange I had, and even now there are parts of it that I feel pretty good about; but today I will try again, with more open ears to reach my ever more open heart.

On Being Heard

All my life I wanted to be heard. I wanted to be heard by the mother who was on her 4th child, the second “pleasant surprise,” and was just beginning to wrestle with the notion that motherhood might not be her only or most beloved goal. I longed to be heard by my father who for many years was largely absent due to work and then emotionally unavailable as his marriage crumbled. I craved being heard by my siblings who noisily jockeyed for position at home.

backlit-beach-clouds-289998I longed to be heard and had no idea that I always could be but that turning to everyone else was a losing game. I had no idea that what I needed was to sit quietly and tend my own inner flame, to hear the heart and soul whispers that I had no words for, to honor my own longing to be valued, to love and care for myself deeply and thoroughly.

My constant outwards reach for attention and affirmation took me to some places that in retrospect, well sometimes not even in retrospect, were pretty dark. I made choices that didn’t serve me because they promised some kind of attention that at least for a little while felt like love. I made pretty big decisions that I thought were destined to make me good enough to merit a seat at the grown ups’ table with all of the seemingly glorious benefits that conveyed. I self-destructed in myriad small ways in an attempt to prove that I was worth noticing, worth admiring, worth listening to, worth loving.

And it all fell on deaf ears – not because my family doesn’t love me but because in the scenario I created I really kind of needed them to NOT love me. You see all of that approval and attention seeking wasn’t a reflection of a deficit of their affection, but a grim revelation of my own complete and utter lack of self-esteem. I hate to use that term because it makes it sound so, I don’t know 1970s. There was a whole movement about that, right? I may have more to say at a later time about THAT, but really that’s what it boils down to, right?

If I had enough self-esteem – a sense of self-worth, I wouldn’t need all of this outside approval for everything. I’m not saying I wouldn’t need any attention or interaction, I’m just saying I might not need so much (in quantity) and not getting it wouldn’t mean so much (like a reinforcement of basic flaws). All of that trying fell on deaf ears because my own ears were deaf to messages of approval. Even if they had approved or attended or given me applause, I would not have heard it because it wasn’t enough to drown out the voice of the critic in my head. It couldn’t be enough to make me feel like I was enough.

afterglow-art-backlit-556665I had forgotten you see. I had forgotten who I am. I had forgotten that like each of you I am a miracle. The moment of my conception was a moment of biological and cosmic interplay that has never occurred before and will never happen again. I had forgotten that it is perfectly normal for me to be “different” from whoever I am comparing myself to and to be grateful for that difference, even at times when its usefulness was not so clear. I had forgotten, in all of my trying, that I was okay. That I am loved. That I am whole. That my purpose here is mine and no-one else’s. I had forgotten that I am stardust.

And so I reached out for reminders. I begged for confirmation of my value. And in doing so I made choices that diminished my own magnificence by confusing it with other people’s desires. I longed for proof, always seeking it from the outside rather than starting the work within, the work of building trust in myself, of listening to the small still voice that says “Yes, you can,” the work of loving this body/mind and life as the container for all that I am and all that I can be here and now. That is the work I have undertaken in the last several years.

What comes from this work is a glowing fire of confidence and self-assurance, a quiet knowing of enough-ness, a tenderness for myself and all of my choices past and present, and a deep felt sense of really being okay. It’s okay. It’s all okay. I don’t need anything from you. I delight in your company. I delight in your you-ness. And here in this space I want to assure you that you are also a miracle, that you are stardust, that there is a small still voice inside of you.

If your need for love and affirmation is falling on deaf ears, I’d love to help you listen.

Asking for Help – It’s Good for Them Too

pexels-photo-242148-2I was sitting in choir at church this past Sunday and one of the littles out in the seats started itching around a bit, chatting loudly, stirring things up – normal 5 year old stuff. I saw her Mom, another choir member, getting agitated and worried and JUST as she got up to go take care of it, two older girls (say 11 and 12) buzzed in, took the little one and her pal in hand and took them out of service to engage them elsewhere. They signaled Mom: “We’ve got it,” and it made my heart full in so many ways. It is always good to see a Mom of a little one get a break, but it also made my heart full watching those girls take charge of the situation, and be trusted by the adults.

Mom could have insisted on taking care of it, and likely missed out on her chance to sing with us. She could have insisted on being the one to attend to whatever the need was, but she didn’t. She chose to allow the help, and those girls did a great job. And the pride showed on their faces later.

As I think about myself and my husband, I acknowledge that we don’t ask for help as often as we perhaps could. It seems easier sometimes to just push through than to figure out precisely what you need and then ask the right person, etc, etc, etc. But really, asking for help doesn’t just do good for the person receiving the help. It does good for the helper and most assuredly for the relationship between the two.

If you don’t believe me, think about a toddler. They are SO eager to help. Sometimes they are so eager to help that they make a right mess of things (ALL of the clothes in the basket: dirty and clean frolicking together), diaper cream ALL over instead of on the rash, cookie dough everywhere instead of just on the pan. They so want to help.

We imagine that it changes as kids grow older, but I still find that when we pose something to my kids (twin 11 year olds) as a problem that we need help with rather than say as a failure on their part to do their share (which would likely be both fair and accurate), the willingness goes up dramatically. What is it about being asked to help that does this?

I think there are messages inherent for plea for help:

  1. I trust you to help me,
  2. you are capable (grown enough) to help me,
  3. I also need help sometimes (a great equalizer),
  4. I feel safe showing you where I’m not perfect,
  5. everybody needs help sometimes,
  6. you are good at things, and
  7. you are a contributor to this world we share.

Too often I see parents, Moms especially – sorry, doing everything because it’s easier to just do it or they want their kids to have free time in a world that is dominated by schedules or they know that a child’s help might mean a different outcome than what they are going for. But what messages are we sending when we never ask for help?

  1. I don’t trust you to do this right,
  2. you are incapable of helping me,
  3. I don’t need anybody’s help because I’m grown up,
  4. I can’t admit when I need help
  5. grownups shouldn’t need help,
  6. you aren’t really good at things I need done, and pexels-photo-461049
  7. you can’t contribute here.

Yuck.

I’m sure there are other reasons we don’t ask for help. Stories we’ve written for ourselves about what parenting is about, what help means, what vulnerability costs, what it means to be an adult. And wrestling with those stories can take time.

So for some of you, maybe it’s easier to start by understanding that asking for help is helping your child, your partner, your friend or your sibling write a better story about themselves and about what it means to need help. How much easier would it all be if we could just learn to ask and to offer help and feel good about it? How good would it feel to nurture and learn to trust interdependence?

No, You Really Can’t Make Him Change

I got a newsletter today from an outfit that does self-improvement and personal development work and I was intrigued by one of the articles. The headline wondered if one partner can change without leaving the other one behind. It caught my attention because my husband and I are both in the middle of major life shifts (me opening my practice and him going to seminary), so I was curious to see what they had to say about the impact these big changes can have on relationships, and I was intrigued by this idea of being  “left behind.”

How to change your husbandIn the article I found the usual handwaving at the idea that we can’t change other people. It was brief and implied that the idea was assumed. Like, “of course you can’t change anybody else, only yourself.” And then the article proceeded to describe how you might actually be able to change your partner if you do it right – indirectly and by setting a good example, you know being a great role model for your child, I mean partner. You can praise them and be kind so they WANT to change. You can ask supportive questions rather than giving advice so that your partner will feel supported in pursuing change. You can make changing with your partner FUN, again so that your partner will want to change. So we can’t change other people but we sure can try to make them want to change?

What would happen if we just decided that we can change and our partners can be whoever they need to be? What if only one person changing doesn’t mean anyone is being left behind? What if sharing a life path with someone doesn’t mean being cemented at the hip but pursuing our own interests and coming together in enjoyment and fulfillment? What if we stopped asking other people to change when we are uncomfortable?

Don’t get me wrong. I think couples can change together, grow together, share their learning and inspiration. We do it all of the time, but constantly wanting my husband to change in specific ways tends to lead to a great deal of disappointment on my part and confusion and irritation on his.

What if instead of putting all of this time and energy into leading that horse to water, we just stopped to take a nice long drink (not as a role model but for refreshment) and checked out our thoughts about our partners? What if we decided to accept them and believe that adults get to be who they are? What if we decided to change our thoughts and our feelings and let our partners be to develop and grow in their own way, at their own pace, in their own time? What could flourish in a relationship with that kind of space? What could you accomplish if you weren’t so worried about inspiring your partner’s growth?

Complete yourself

You can lead a horse to water, or you can trust your partner to know when she is thirsty and let her sort it out for herself. That doesn’t mean you can’t be supportive. And it doesn’t mean you won’t inspire each other to grow. What it does mean is that you won’t be hinging your own happiness on whether or not your partner jumps through hoops or folds the laundry or goes to law school. What it means is that you get to be whole, and so does your partner. Two whole people, with whole hearts and separate identities – together by choice for mutual celebration and support. Sounds pretty good to me.

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The Path of “We” and “Me”

I went to a masquerade ball on Saturday night. Yes, that’s what I said.

I hesitated to go. My husband is away for monthlong classes at seminary. It was EXCEEDINGLY cold (not really conducive for ball-wear). And I had a great lunchtime event that I felt like called for a few hours of putting my feet up.

But my friend wisely said: “Your children are with your sister. My husband will drive us both. C’Mon Cinderella. It’s time to have some fun.” And so I did.

photo-booth-wedding-party-girls-160420And I had SO much fun. I danced like I haven’t danced for YEARS. Got all sweaty haired and disheveled. I felt the freedom of doing something that was fun and doing it exactly the way I wanted to do it. I drank champagne. I nibbled on divine snacks. My girlfriend and I tried to figure out who was who behind all of the masks. And when the songs were right, we tore it up.

People expressed some sympathy that Scot couldn’t join us.

But honestly, he’s having SO MUCH FUN doing his thing. He calls all excited about theology… I try to keep up.

Last year I saw this month long requirement of his as a huge burden. I was angry. Not necessarily at him because that felt mean, but at the school for running things this way, at the extra work I had to do, at the inconvenience of it all.

This year there’s something different happening. A coach friend shared a vision of relationships as a path, and that sometimes there are divergences on the path – like when you’re hiking and there’s a little side trail that avoids the big rock in case that’s not your jam. She said people are often afraid of those divergences – what if we grow apart? But here’s a question I’d offer instead: what if we stop growing at all? What will we miss out on if we never take that divergence – if we always stick on the “we” path and never sidestep for a “me” minute?

When I was at the ball I noticed a young woman (her gown was fabulously sparkly) who very clearly LOVED to dance. She was dancing and singing along with the music most of the night. Her partner in crime was NOT as enthusiastic. And so, she spent a good bit of that dancing in a sort of muted way next to her partner’s chair. When she couldn’t stand it anymore, when the song was just too good ,she’d rush to the dance floor without him. I also saw him graciously concede a few times and join her for a slow song.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd I couldn’t help but wonder if she wouldn’t have more fun if she just followed that side path a little more often. If she wouldn’t feel more like herself, and he wouldn’t love the confidence and magic that comes with that feeling, if she could just trust that the “we” path could survive a few more minutes of unrestrained “me.”

How about you? Which path are you on? Do you like your reasons for being there? Do you feel like yourself? It’s worth a moment to consider.

I’ve done that. I’m going to go dance some more.

Rewriting Your Family Stories for the Holidays

There are so many great things about the holiday season, and for many folks that includes spending time with family. For many, that particular part of the puzzle is more complicated than just straight-up joy. There may be a variety of reasons for that complexity, but I guarantee that if there’s baggage there, there are also stories.

A friend of mine likes to say that one of the reasons that our family is so good at pushing our buttons is that they are the ones who helped sew them on in the first place. Our families of origin are co-creators in some of our worst stories. The negative things we tell ourselves are sometimes just echoes of things we were told as kids. The negative ideas we have about relatives may have been formed on the basis of one particularly bad interaction, or a pattern that held 20, 30, 40 years ago. Those stories don’t age well. Our stories get more entrenched the longer we let them stick around, and our ability to see evidence that suggests that we’re wrong diminishes over time.

have a better holiday with your familySo there’s the holiday dilemma for many people. There are still these stories about who we are, about who they are, about the way “we” do things, and then we’re all supposed to get together and have the best time we’ve had all year, which I’d like to point out, is also a story.

Here’s the thing. All of that stuff is optional. All of it, from the bottom to the top. Getting together with your family is optional  – and I hear all of you saying: “but you don’t understand, you don’t know my family. I could never get away with that because….” Yeah. Optional. You can choose not to participate. Might there be consequences? Yes, but it’s still optional. And the way those consequences impact you? Also optional. But I realize that kettle of fish might be too big to consider just this minute.

Let’s assume that you still want to get together with your family, just without so much tension or anxiety or whatever form your holiday complexity takes. You can totally choose to do that. It may take some practice, but it is totally do-able.

First you’re going to need to become a keen observer – not of what everyone else is doing wrong or saying wrong or being rude about – but of what’s going on in your own head and how it impacts your heart. You need to notice what you are thinking about these people and about yourself. You need to notice what assumptions you are making. You need to notice how you are interpreting what they say (even when you have tons of evidence from the past that points to your interpretation being absolute truth). You need to notice what you are thinking that is hurting you. Examples of family stories you might want to pay special attention to: your “role” in the family, how you’ve “always” gotten along or not gotten along with so and so, the way so and so REALLY feels about you, anything you need to prove to anyone, your level of responsibility for the happiness of others – am I hitting anything for you yet?

Here’s the secret about this first step: if this is all you do, it will still help SO MUCH. When you become an observer of your thoughts and feelings, you are far less likely to get caught up in them and react/act impulsively/co-create drama. When you become that observer (the watcher), you give yourself a little emotional distance and it becomes infinitely easier to allow multiple interpretations, to see other perspectives, and to simply allow other people to be wrong, rude, or hurtful without it having to mean anything to you personally. Watch yourself with curiosity and compassion and your family gathering will be a whole different ball game. Notice how things change. Notice the amount of personal power there is in how you respond and react (or don’t).

If you want to take it a bit further, you’ll need to acknowledge that the things that you are thinking may not be actual facts. They may be opinions and you could be wrong. They may be assumptions that you’ve been making for years. They may be someone else’s garbage that you’ve decided to lug around. If you’re like me the idea of just being wrong doesn’t really help, but it sure does when I realize that means I get to decide to think and feel something different. I’ve talked a lot about this thought changing business, but it’s rarely as transformative as it can be when we decide to take on our family stories, those carefully sewn on buttons.

 

So what can you do once you’ve decided that maybe the things you are thinking aren’t serving you? How do you think something different? You choose and practice new thoughts.

And here’s where you think I’m going to hand you a bunch of really sunshiney affirmations – no worries on that front – like, at all,. When you choose to believe something different, you don’t just decide to feed yourself a really pretty sounding lie – even though to be fair you may have been feeding yourself an ugly lie before. When you want to change how you think, you need to choose a new thought that is better than the old one, but still believable. Sometimes you need to give new thoughts a test drive – is this something that’s going to cause me to constantly argue with myself or does it bring a little relief, a sense of possibility, a little compassion to myself or others. You have to choose to actively practice a thought that will improve your situation but that maybe isn’t quite the rainbow glitter unicorn of a thought you’d really LOVE to believe if it wasn’t so incredibly outlandish.

When you feel your old story rearing up, remind yourself that it’s a choice, and actively think that new thought. Remind yourself that you aren’t responsible for everyone’s holiday or that you have no idea what they think of you. Remind yourself that you don’t have to revert to your 14 year old self. Remind yourself that you get to decide who you will be both within and outside of the family.

Reduce your family dramaAnd then notice how you feel. And notice what happens to your complex family gathering. Notice as your ability to enjoy increases and your stress level decreases. Take heart in your capacity to change yourself and, oftentimes, everything around you, just by changing your mind.