Humiliation and Other Choices

A few days ago I stepped in it with a friend. I inadvertently hurt her feelings, and after she expressed that to me, I apologized. In explaining why I had upset her so much, she told me that she was COMPLETELY humiliated. I tried to put my coach ears away (they are often not helpful when interacting with friends and loved ones) and simply offer my regret at the way things went down. My intent clearly was not the same as the impact here.

adult-alone-beautiful-808711When the conversation was over, however, I had to cycle back to that feeling that she had, humiliated, and to consider what it has to tell us about our thoughts and our feelings. Let me start at the beginning. A lot of folks think that their feelings come from an external event. Something happens, and then we have a feeling about it, and then we have thoughts that come from those feelings or are about those feelings or something like that. But that model has the steps all mixed up. Truth is the feeling about an event comes from our thoughts about it, what we make it mean. The event is facts that we could all agree on. And then we think things about it. And then we have feelings because of those thoughts…. Yeah, okay Julia, so what. Who cares?

Well, I care, and if I tell you why, you might care too. The notion that our feelings come from our thoughts means that we have some say in how we feel. If we are simply reacting to external events all of the time, there’s not a lot we can do. We often can’t change external events; we certainly can’t change other people, so if we’re reacting to them all the time, we don’t have much wiggle room. But the thoughts that we have about things that happen? THOSE we can change.

So if we feel humiliated, embarrassed, ashamed – there is a sort of family of feelings here – are we simply reacting to the event? No, we are reacting to what we think about the event. Stuff happens and then we think, what? For humiliation, maybe something like: “I look like a fool. I look like I don’t know what I’m doing. People think I’m not good enough.” It’s all about how people perceive us. And maybe, if we’re really practiced at humiliation, embarrassment or shame, we skip the other people part and go right to some ugly thought about ourselves: “I’m not good enough. I’ll never get it right. I always mess up.” The bad feeling comes from the thought.

In addition to being a life coach, I am a musician. I know a lot about that humiliation/embarassment business. I used to be a total perfectionist about preparation and performances because I was terrified that I would make a mistake, that I would look foolish, that I would be not good enough to perform in front of other people, much less get paid for it. I was sure that the level of scrutiny they were giving my performance was similar to my own, that they were judging each note, each phrase, every strum. I was sure that their attention was solidly focused on what I was doing, rather than on their food, their drinks, their date, their friends.

guitar-music-musical-instrument-34074.jpgWhat I found over time is that if I allowed myself to relax into it, if I stopped worrying so very much about what they thought about me, if I released my version of their assessment of my performance, I could actually enjoy myself much more. This is the moment where making music for me becomes about more than the actual music. It becomes magic and it involves the way that I feel, the way my singing partner and I feel together and the way I see THAT experience float out into whatever audience might be there. It feels entirely different. When I make mistakes from that space, they seem such a small thing, a brief millisecond that passes almost as soon as I notice it. When something doesn’t go as planned, it’s within the creation of this new thing, this new moment that will never happen again.

And here’s the really cool part, when I stop worrying so much about what everyone thinks of me, I feel more joyful and THAT makes everyone have a better time. I am humiliation-proof AND I create an experience that everyone can enjoy. THAT is the magic of paying attention to what you think. That is the magic of minding your own business.

Do you. Engage with it. Be there in the moment. What they are thinking about it is none of your business, and likely is nowhere near as bad as you think it is. What moment could you make if you stopped worrying about it?

xo,

julia

The Earth is Slippery: Aztec Wisdom… Yeah, You Heard That Right

A few weeks ago, on our annual nerdy vacation at The Chautauqua Institution, we got to hear some really great lectures. Well, we always hear really great lectures, but this year I was paying extra special attention. I even took notes – yeah, I was serious about the nerdy vacation comment. As the weeks have gone by since we were there, it’s been interesting to see which ideas have really stuck with me. Some lectures seemed really great when they were delivered, but didn’t really have any staying power; others seemed kind of so-so when I was listening, but took root. One of the ideas I heard was both – it struck me at the time and it keeps coming back because I find it just so darned useful.

The speaker was Sebastian Purcell, a professor of philosophy at the State University of New York (SUNY) Cortland. His presentation was on Aztec philosophy as a a guide for happiness in the modern world. I admit I was skeptical, because the idea of looking to the Aztecs for guidance on happiness didn’t really fit with my limited understanding of Aztec culture. So I guess I was ripe for the picking. The idea that got me was this one: The earth is slippery.

You’re like, really? That’s the big idea? That the earth is slippery? And what the hell does that mean anyway? What?

Slide1Yeah. That’s it. It was a core part of the Aztec worldview to believe that the world is slippery, which means we will fall down. We will make mistakes. Things happen that are out of control that will push us over. Bad stuff happens, and sometimes its our own fault, and sometimes it’s not. The earth is slippery. We can only take so many steps without risking a fall every now and then. Can you see where we’re going here? Professor Purcell pointed out that this idea meant that bad or unpleasant things that happen can often be chalked up to error rather than a lack of reason. In other words, sometimes stuff just happens and everyone makes mistakes no matter how hard they try, no matter how good their intentions, no matter how right their purpose.

Is this revolutionary? Well no, if we’re focused on the messages we explicitly give our children when they are hurting because they’ve messed up and we’re trying to comfort them, but ALL of the OTHER messages (that we give them AND ourselves) are pretty different aren’t they? The messages we send and receive say that the world is drowning in opportunity, that all you need to do is work hard enough (well, and harder than the person next to you), and you will succeed. This very American dreamy message is complicated. There’s an element to this lesson on perseverance that I am TOTALLY down with. Pursuing your thing doggedly is the best way to “succeed” at it – whatever “succeed” means. There’s also a dark side to our failure to really embrace the idea that the earth is slippery.

The dark side of not embracing the slipperiness of earth is that when things go awry, it is all our fault. When things don’t pan out, we are flawed. When we’re not achieving what we want, we need to reexamine everything from our actions to the very foundation of the dream itself. These are all versions of the big one, the giant yuck, the grandaddy of all self-abuse: when bad things happen, I deserve them because I’m not good enough. If the earth is not slippery, we fall because we are clumsy, careless, lazy. If the earth is not slippery, we fail because we are not determined, because we aren’t smart enough, because we are unworthy. If the earth is not slippery, our blame can only be placed on ourselves.

Slide2There are times we are at fault. There are times other people make things hard for us. There are times our institutions fail us. There are times when bad things happen that have nothing to do with our worth. There are times when things don’t work out. There are times when the earth is slippery. If we can just acknowledge that, we can get on with the business of our recovery, our work around, our new approach, our get back up and try again without the full on inquisition of our souls. Sometimes we fall because the earth is slippery.