Trying to Fix Others to Make Yourself Feel Better

When I met my husband, he was going through a divorce. He’d recently moved with multiple pets into an old, crumbling house that had been a college rental for years.  The pets were insane and both the house and yard were a wreck which nobody had attended to for years.  The hedges were overgrown, the yard was weedy and full of construction dirt from his first major attempt at fixing the foundation.  His personal life as well as the house, the yard, the hedges were all a big, wild mess.

Within a short time of moving in, a neighbor knocked on his door.  She lived more than a block down the street in an extremely tidy house with an equally tidy yard.  She announced that she and “the other neighbors” had been talking about his messy yard, and that it bothered all of them.  At one point in the conversation, she said to him, “I don’t know if you are depressed, or what is going on in your life, but if you cleaned up your hedges and your yard, you might feel better about yourself.”  He responded quickly with, “No, you would feel better if I cleaned up my hedges and my yard.”  This comment cut right through to the heart of the matter: she did not care what my husband was going through, she just wanted him to change his property’s appearance to suit her desire for tidiness and order.  She said that maybe she would come back one day and weed his yard.  While she never actually did so, her response made clear that she had such a strong desire to not have to look at my husband’s messy yard that she was willing to put a great effort into changing it to look how she wanted it to look.

Years later, we found out that this woman’s personal life was much messier, dangerous and out of her control than my husband’s yard was.  Inside her home with its orderly, perfect exterior was a frightening interior overrun with severe domestic violence that she was unable to escape from, change, or control.  The messy yards and the loud children and the wilder people in her neighborhood were too much for her to bear because they reminded her that she was not in control of her life.  She was doing her best to find some sense of order and sanity by trying to get others to clean up their acts; it was too overwhelming, painful, and seemingly impossible to clean up hers.  She was so attached to her role of sane person in control that she couldn’t reveal to anyone that her life was exactly the opposite.  She needed help but instead of asking for it, she tried to alter everyone else so that she could look outside of her turmoil and see a sane world.

There are many ways that we might have a little bit of this neighbor in ourselves when we try to get others to do things that would make us feel better about ourselves, but we frame those things as being better for them.  We might even throw an ultimatum in there, to get them to make those changes.  Doing this often ends in frustration because it is impossible get people to change to suit us.  Instead of attempting the impossible, look within and ask, “Is this really something that would be good for me, would make me feel better?”  If you are trying to get someone to do something for “their own good,” whether they are your partner, friend, child, ask yourself, “Would I feel better if they did this?”  If the answer is yes, the next question to ask is, “What feels bad in me that needs to feel better?”

Let’s say that you are trying to get your reluctant partner to get therapy, because you think it would make them feel better (but actually you are hoping it will make them act better).  Would you feel better if your partner got therapy?  If so, then something in you is feeling bad in the relationship.  What is that thing that feels bad?  Do you feel unheard because your partner doesn’t listen to you?  Do you feel ignored because your partner is too distracted: by work; by pot; by the Internet; by something other than the relationship?  Do you feel shut out because your partner can’t share their feelings with you?  What part of you is attracted to this sort of relationship to begin with?  You might have some success in getting your partner to go to therapy, and maybe your partner will come out of it as a better listener who is more attentive and who can share their feelings with you, but unless you address and change the internal part of you that fits the bad listener who is inattentive and withholds feelings, your partner will no longer fit, and the relationship will end.  You can’t make your partner change to become the person you wish you were with, but you can change yourself.  It is work well worth your time and the rewards surpass the effort.


Disengaging from the Silent Treatment and Engaging with Each Other: An Experiment for You to Try

I’ve written extensively about the silent treatment on this blog.  I wrote my first post about it because I was receiving the silent treatment myself, and I felt that my energy would be better spent writing about it than trying to get the attention of the person who was giving it to me.  The person giving me the silent treatment at the time was not someone I had an intimate relationship with, so it was easy for me to disengage.  I had nothing to lose if that particular acquaintance ended, and it did end.  I had no idea that the original post would touch a nerve in so many people who receive or give the silent treatment in much more intimate relationships than the one that inspired it. I have learned quite a bit from those who have commented on this blog about their experiences, and those comments have pushed me to look more deeply at the silent treatment from different angles than I’d originally written about.  Sometimes these comments show me that there is more to say about something; that one post is only the beginning of the story.

Recently, a person commented on the post I’d written about disengaging from the silent treatment.  This was a post directed at both the person giving the silent treatment and the person receiving it, with suggestions for how to disengage from the dynamic of the silent treatment and how to redirect focus away from the person on the other end of it, to one’s self. The person who commented was receiving the silent treatment from her partner, was feeling distressed, and was looking for help.  Part of her comment jumped out at me: “I am trying to just go on with my daily things, work, house cleaning etc. Trying to show that it is not getting to me.”  This was not what I was trying to encourage when I wrote the post about disengaging from the silent treatment.  That post now feels incomplete because it only addresses how to disengage from the silent treatment but it does not talk about how to re-engage with either the person giving it or the person receiving it.

If someone is giving you the silent treatment, they likely feel that they can’t get to you any other way.  Another way to say “get to you” is “have an impact on you.”  The person giving the silent treatment is doing so because it has an impact.  This person is angry or hurt, and wants to have an impact on you and this is the only way that they know how to do it, the only way that works.  It is a waste of energy to pretend that they are not having an impact.  By pretending that the silent treatment is not having an impact, you are giving yourself the silent treatment too.  Do not ignore yourself just because your partner or friend or whoever is ignoring you.  Feel your feelings.  Attend to those feelings.  Treat yourself the way you want your partner to treat you, and prepare to talk to your partner about what it is you want to happen that is different than this.  Prepare to hear your partner talk, even if what they have to say might not be easy to hear.

If you are giving your partner the silent treatment, it is likely that they have done something to upset you and that you feel that there is no other way to make them stop doing the thing that upset you.  You might be afraid of telling your partner what they have done to make you angry enough to stop speaking to them altogether.  It might feel easier to let them rage until they’ve worn themselves out or let them apologize enough times, but it doesn’t actually solve the problem if you don’t tell them what the problem is. Prepare to talk to your partner, even if what you have to say will be hard for them to hear.

When you are changing a dynamic in a relationship, it can be scary and quite difficult to know how to do it.  If you are on the Internet reading articles such as this one, it is because you are looking for help, which is a very positive thing to do.  The downside is that whoever writes the articles does not know you or your partner. I know some things about the silent treatment and its many different manifestations, but I do not know you or your partner’s particular situation and history.  I am writing this post as a sort of springboard to get you started in talking with your partner on either side of the silent treatment, not so much as an endpoint that solves your problem.

Before trying to approach your partner from either side of the silent treatment, ask yourself if it is safe to do so.  Some commenters have described the silent treatment as part of an overall physically abusive relationship.  If you are in that situation, it may not be safe for you to be with your partner, and if you sense that this is the situation, no article about the silent treatment will help you.  If you are in a physically dangerous situation, you need to seek help from experts in the domestic violence field in your area.

If it does feel safe to try something new and approach your partner from either side of the silent treatment, then I offer the rest of this post as an experiment for you to try.  Before speaking to your partner, write them a note saying that you are trying to do things differently, but you don’t know where to begin.  Let them know that you have read a blog post that has some suggestions, and invite them to sit with you and read it together, in the same room.  Let them know that there are some ideas in this post that you would like to share, and that you would like to know what your partner thinks of these ideas, whether they resonate or whether they do not.  Just because this post resonates with you, that does not mean it will with your partner, but at the very least, you can share your perspective and offer to listen to theirs.  If you can agree to listen to each other without attacking or interrupting or name calling, just listen, you are at a great starting point.  If this feels impossible to do, it might be time to look into couples counseling, just to help you get started.

If you are caught in the dynamic of the silent treatment with your partner, it is important to understand that both of you contribute to it and that each of you needs to change something in yourself.  This is not a matter of right or wrong, and if you get stuck thinking so, you won’t get very far.  This is a matter of two people who want to have an impact on each other who don’t know how to in any other way.  If you are open to talking to and hearing from your partner about how you have impacted each other negatively, the chance for change is good.  The silent treatment only exists if two people are engaged in it.  Each person plays a role.  It is common in relationships to focus on what your partner is doing wrong, but harder sometimes to look inside and see how you’re contributing.  If you are the person giving the silent treatment, examine your behavior.  Ask yourself why you want to inflict pain on your partner by withdrawing into the silent treatment.  Do you need to learn to speak more?  If you are the person receiving the silent treatment, examine your behavior.  Do you need to learn to listen more?

One way to learn to talk and listen better is to stop talking altogether and instead, read and write, which brings me back to the experiment part of this post.  If you are reading this and imagining yourself writing a comment here, what would that comment be?  Instead of writing it here, both of you take a moment and write that “comment” and give it to your partner.  Know first that I have a policy of not approving comments that are mean-spirited or involve name-calling, so when you write the comment to share with your partner, imagine that it is being moderated by a therapist, and write it in a way that conforms to the moderation rules on this site.  It is totally possible to express anger without being mean-spirited or calling names, but if you feel tempted to do so, replace the mean-spirited words such as “stupid” with the phrase “I feel angry, or “I disagree” and replace any names you want to call your partner, such as “asshole” or “bitch” with “I feel angry.”  When you are done, agree to give each other some time to really read the comments you have written to each other.  Let each others’ writing sink in for a while.  Sit quietly together, and then decide together whether you are ready to speak, or if more writing is in order, but continue to stay with each other.  Understand that both of you have some big, ugly feelings and it might take a while to get them out.  This is just a first step toward transforming the overwhelming dynamic of the silent treatment to a new way of communicating.  If it works, keep doing it, and feel free to share the results here.  If it doesn’t, keep looking for ideas and trying things because that is how you grow!


Having a Real Impact, Not Just a Virtual One

When I was a little girl, probably about 8 years old, my friend and I were running around in the grocery store, completely oblivious to our surroundings and the people in those surroundings.  We were tearing through the aisles laughing loudly in a fun, wild bubble of our own, when suddenly from outside of our bubble a man spoke to my friend.  He was calm but very commanding, so much so that he got our undivided, awed attention.  He said to her in a kind, appreciative voice, “Thank you so very much for going behind me instead of running in front of me when I was looking at the items on the shelf.  I really appreciate it, just as much as I appreciate it when people say “Excuse me” if they do have to go in front of me while I shop.”  He said nothing to me, who had run right in front of him, and I was mortified.  I’d had no concept that I was impacting anyone negatively because no one had ever said anything to me, or had even looked at me, really.  I wanted to be like my friend from that day forward.  This man had a powerful impact on me: in the grocery, I have never since been able to pass between someone and the grocery wall without either going behind them or saying “Excuse me” if I have no other place to go.  My children have been taught to do the same.  If you’ve ever shopped at a grocery just before Thanksgiving, you might appreciate the behavior that man was advocating for when he spoke to us.

This man could have ignored us and then complained to other people his age about “kids these days” who don’t have any respect for anyone.  If he had done so, neither I nor my friend would have learned about our impact and our behavior would remain unchanged.  He could have shouted at me and I would have run away from him in fear.  He could have berated me and called me a name, and I might feel some shame but I still wouldn’t know what I did wrong.  He could have told me that what I had done that had upset him, and given that I was 8, I probably would not have had the capacity for empathy that one grows into as they get older.  I might have changed my behavior, but it would be coming from a fear of getting in trouble more than a desire to do the right thing.  This man really knew something about kids.  When he told my friend how she had positively impacted him, I wanted to be her.  I wanted to have that sort of impact on him.  I tried to have that impact on everyone I ever passed at a grocery store from then on, and I really appreciate it in a way I might not when others treat me with the same respect he was asking for.

This man is on my mind today because the word “impact” has been on my mind in a big way lately.  We  have gotten to a place in the world where many people do not feel like they have an impact on things, on each other.  When you don’t feel like you have an impact on anyone, on the world around you, you start to feel invisible.  If you are invisible, you might think that nothing you do matters, since no one can see you.  If you feel like you have no positive impact, that you are invisible to others who are hurting you, you can feel quite helpless and stuck.  If you feel that you have no negative impact on others, you will keep doing things that hurt others without knowing it.  The person who feels that they have no positive impact might get angrier and angrier until they blow up at the person who has never been told what their negative impact is.

Until that man spoke to us in the grocery store, my friend and I felt invisible; no one was acting like they could see us, so we could run and laugh and do whatever we wanted in the store because nobody seemed to care.  If that man had not taken the time to speak to us, he might have continued to be invisible to us.  Back then, if there had been cellphones and social media, he might have gotten on Facebook or Twitter to say something about the rude kids who’d just run past.  He’d have spread his belief that we were hopelessly inconsiderate to others who feel the same way, and we would have no idea.  Others who related to him would possibly bond online about kids these days and then would see us or others like us as unreachable, inconsiderate little brats.  Even without social media, he could have just said nothing to us, then gone home to complain about us to his family, but he chose to speak to us and by doing so had a great impact that continues to have power almost forty years later.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about balance on the Internet and how the lack of balance in the use of social media has created an illusion of having an impact while robbing many of us of a real impact.  Using the example of the man in the store, imagine that the man at the store had said nothing to the kids who’d upset him.  Instead, he got on Facebook and posted about what had just happened and maybe he threw in some opinions about “kids these days.”  Let’s say that all of his friends who are about the same age as him feel the same way, and they click on all those little reaction buttons and post tons of comments.  He’s had an impact!  He wrote something on Facebook and his “community” responded!  There are smiley faces, there are frowny faces, and there is a conversation.  The problem with this is that the kids are not included in this conversation and have no idea that they had this impact that has now grown into a firestorm.  In fact, now when those kids do something else awful, he knows how to get more reactions on Facebook about how awful the kids are, and he will get more responses, and he’ll feel like he’s having an impact somewhere.  The kids don’t change, but now there might be an increased feeling of hostility that these kids are meeting up with in public.  And this man’s community has now bonded over the kids’ bad behavior, so now they are a bit dependent on the kids being awful in order to keep their feelings of togetherness going.  Not only are the kids not getting an opportunity to see what their impact has been, an opportunity to grow and change, but now they are expected to stay stuck in their awful behavior so people on Facebook can come together and complain about them.

Social media can be a wonderful tool to bring people together, but when it is out of balance with reality, it can become a weapon that divides.  Next time you are about to post on Facebook about someone who has upset you or is not like you in the real world, whether you are a Gen-Xer complaining about a millennial, or a small town American complaining about an Elite or vice versa, or you are one white liberal complaining about some other white liberal who is doing it wrong, or if you are someone who feels ignored by that person in the weight room who is talking to someone while sitting on the bench; whoever you are, try this challenge I am about to throw down.  If you are impacted by someone in the real world, whether positively or negatively, resist the urge to bypass letting them know their impact.  Notice yourself composing your Facebook or other social media post about the person who is in front of you and, if it is safe to do so, muster up a commanding presence and speak to that person calmly and respectfully about their impact on you.  Then, if it works out in a good way, or even if it doesn’t, go ahead and share on social media what it was like to do this, and maybe it will inspire others to do the same.  If everybody does this, we will all have a real impact.

For more on having an impact, go here.


Empathy: What it Is, What it Isn’t

Years ago, a friend and I were walking across a street because the light was green and we had that little walking symbol saying it was our turn to walk. Midway through the intersection, the car we were walking in front of started forward for no apparent reason; the light had not changed. We yelled loudly to let the driver know that she was about to run us over, and we were understandably upset since we both felt that we’d almost gotten injured or killed. Instead of apologizing, the driver screamed at us: “Have a little empathy! There’s a war!” (the Iraq war had just begun that day) and then drove away. Funnily enough, I’d automatically empathized with her even while she was unknowingly driving forward. Who hasn’t been so distracted that they make mistakes in traffic? In fact, my empathy for her distracted state made me understand that this person wasn’t purposely trying to kill me, which helped. Even so, my friend and I were entitled to react the way a person reacts when they almost get hit by a car, when they are reminded of their mortality. What she really was asking for wasn’t empathy at all; she was asking for absolution and sympathy. She was asking that we not let her know the negative impact that her actions had on us, and she was angry with us for not making her feel better for almost hitting us with her car. What was entirely missing from the equation was her empathy for the people she had almost run over and her empathy for herself.

According to the Oxford Living Dictionary, empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Some people confuse the word “empathy” with the word “sympathy” which is defined as “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.” In the situation that I just described, empathy allowed me to understand and not take personally the action of this distracted woman who almost hit us. It enabled me to know automatically that she was driving distracted and because of that understanding I was able to yell to her to let her know I was there, the way I would wish to be yelled to if I were about to hit a pedestrian that I couldn’t see in front of me. My empathy may have saved my life, because knowing what it is like to be distracted in a car made me know what a distracted person needs in order to be brought back to focus. Her lack of empathy caused her to feel like a victim: she had no understanding of why we yelled at her, so she took our yelling personally as if we were attacking her. If she’d had empathy, she’d have understood the impact of her actions because she’d be able to imagine what it would feel like to be a pedestrian in the path of a moving car. If she’d had empathy, she’d have treated us how she’d want to be treated if the tables were turned. Most likely, that means that she would have apologized for scaring us and almost running us over. If she’d had empathy, she’d not be asking us to let her off the hook for being a human; she’d be able to do that for herself, and she would be able to accept her mistakes and learn from them.

Empathy is not acceptance, it is not permission, it is not even forgiveness. It is just understanding, and understanding is power.


Reaching Out to Others in a Real Way

When I was in college, I shared a house with roommates, some of us a bit crunchy and wacky, on a street where we were the only college students. The man across the street from us sent a clear message that he did not want us there, from the moment we moved in. He posted a ridiculous amount of “No Trespassing” signs all over his property. The only time he spoke to me in the two years that we were neighbors was when he felt I was trespassing and he angrily told me to get off of his property. We could all feel his hostility. We all made jokes about him and his signs and I felt strong urges to rebel against them.

One morning, I was feeling extremely low: I had just injured myself the night before and was hobbling out the door on crutches. The first thing I saw as I left the house was that neighbor, who was furiously posting even more “No Trespassing” signs. I hobbled past his house near tears, and the next sight I saw was the couple who lived next to the anti-trespassing man. They were a couple in their eighties, and I had not yet met them. I felt them staring at me and I assumed that they were similarly unhappy with us college kids living on their street. I continued to hobble past them when I heard one of them say something to me that I could not hear, so I stopped to ask what he’d said. They wanted to know how I’d hurt myself, and if I needed any help, and they expressed sympathy to me. In that moment, I felt that there was more to our neighborhood than hostility toward our household. I felt more welcome.

Over time, I got to know this couple: he was the town’s former police chief, and she was an avid quilter. He had an incredible rose garden that he nurtured with all of his heart and he often would make bouquets for me. She showed me a quilt that she’d made for him for their fiftieth anniversary from all the ties he’d worn during his career. If these two had not reached out to me over our age, lifestyle, and political differences, I would have never known the welcoming love that was in our very own neighborhood. I would have assumed that we lived in a place that was hostile to our kind. I also felt motivated to be more respectful of this couple who had lived here for so long.

Many years have gone by, and we now live next door to a group of young college kids. They have a small front yard that we can see clearly from many places in our house and yard, and they like to be outside quite a bit. Sometimes they like to do things in their front yard that I don’t want to see from my home, and that I don’t want our children to see, because these neighbors are not terribly shy about their bodies or how they share their bodies with each other. I talked to their landlord to let her know that we will be building a taller fence, because this seems to be the solution to the privacy issue. I realized this morning that I haven’t talked to any of the people living there and that if I don’t, this fence could make them feel as unwelcome in their home as I felt with the “No Trespassing” signs that were aimed at us. I did something just now that I am out of practice with: I walked over and talked to one of them. I let her know that we are building a fence so that we and they can have privacy and that I wanted her to understand that we weren’t building a “Fuck You” fence. She understood and we talked a little more and now I know these people much younger than me and different from me a little bit more, and I hope that they feel more welcome in our neighborhood.

We all can easily have a positive impact on people who are not just like us, and we can allow them to have a positive impact on us. I mentioned that I am out of practice with talking to the neighbors. To be more clear, I am out of practice with talking to the neighbors and strangers that are different from me. I have gotten lazy about it, and a large part of this laziness comes from my habits on social media. I can have conversations all day long with like-minded people of about the same age as me and political leanings as mine when I am on Facebook. I can unfriend or hide the feeds of people who are not like-minded. This is fine to do if I am needing a place to go that is my happy place, but it should not be a substitute for interacting with the diverse real people of the world. When we don’t even look at each other because we’re afraid, or lost in our phones, or just out of the habit of talking to people who are not like us, we increase feelings of isolation and insulation for ourselves and others. If someone is different than me, it is easy to silence them on social media, or tune them out, or rage at them or about them in a way that I might not if we were face-to-face. I feel strongly that it is time for me to spend less time on screens and more time making eye contact with and talking to neighbors and strangers, not just the ones that look like me or act like me, and especially the ones who might feel the least welcome where I feel the most welcome.


Some Thoughts on Grief

Today seems like a good day to write about grief, since a good portion of our country is feeling profound grief due to the election outcome.  Most people do not deal with grief very well, whether it is their own grief or the grief of another.  It is not something many of us have been taught about or given good examples of.  So, when we lose something or someone, it can be difficult to know what to do or how to grieve.  Some of us are afraid that the grief will overwhelm us and we fight it.  Some of us don’t fight it but then don’t know how to ask for help when we are stuck in the grief.

A crucial thing to know about grief is that we all have our own grieving processes with their own paces and times, and that there is no right or wrong way to grieve.  There are many ways to avoid feeling the grief to begin with, but even in the avoidance, there can be wisdom.  We may not be ready to grieve or in a place in our lives in which it is safe to grieve.  A person in a war zone cannot afford to grieve in real time, whereas someone who has stability and support and time can.

There are some traps that keep us from getting to a place that we can grieve, and if we are indeed ready to grieve, it is good to know what our traps are.  These are in no particular order, nor is this an exhaustive list, but here are some traps that come to mind:

Getting stuck in wishing things were different.  It is a trap because we are preventing ourselves from facing the loss in front of us by trying to go back in time.  Things are not different and we are sitting here with something that needs our attendance.

Getting stuck in blaming and pointing fingers before we allow ourselves to feel grief.  It may be someone’s fault, but the injury needs our attention first.  Feel the grief and let it pass when it is ready to pass.  If there is someone to be held accountable, you will be much more clear about it after you grieve.

Beating ourselves up for something we could not have foreseen that we wish we’d done differently.  If we could have foreseen these things or done them differently, we would have.  Now we won’t do them again, but before we can move forward, we need to feel the sadness and the grief and the shame.

Trying to minimize or discredit our grief by saying that someone else has it much worse somewhere else.  That may be true, but by allowing ourselves to feel real grief (which is not the same as feeling sorry for ourselves) we can connect with others in the world through shared grief.

Bypassing grief altogether by withdrawing into or flinging angry cynicism.  This is a way to keep ourselves isolated from others by either throwing our pain at them like a hot potato, or shrinking away from them by retreating into a bitter cave.

If we are ready to move past our defenses and feel safe enough to grieve, it is important to know what our style and pace of grieving is, and what kind of support we require.  I am a person who grieves by talking it out with someone I trust deeply and then crying, violently and for as long as I need to cry, which has varied from one big episode of tears to weeks of crying jags.  I don’t want advice, I don’t want to be told that everything happens for a reason, I just want to cry.  I cry until the tears dry up, and I am immediately launched into problem-solving mode.  This is my way and I’ve grown comfortable with saying so.  My husband has a much slower and quieter style of grieving that requires less contact.  We’ve learned to respect each other’s grief processes and paces and we each know how to ask for what we need, because we know how we grieve.  I ask to be held while I cry, and I ask to be heard while I talk and talk things through.  He asks for the time and quiet space he needs.

Knowing how we grieve helps us to let others know how to help us.  This is important because when we communicate our needs to others, even if we need some space, we allow them to support us.  It is important to feel that support when we grieve, and it is important to be able to give that support to others when they do.  The grief will someday pass, and when it does, our energy will be freed to move us forward again.

For more on grief and loss, go here.


Learning to Have a Balanced Relationship with the Internet

Earlier this year, I noticed that my relationship with the computer and the TV screen was out of balance. Both were getting more of my attention than the people and things in front of me. It took a family road trip during spring break for me to become aware of what was going on. On this trip, we brought along board games and a 1000 piece puzzle. When we weren’t out exploring the natural beauty around us or eating delicious food, we worked on this puzzle or played board games. Somewhere in the middle of the week, I noticed that we did not once turn on a TV and we barely checked into social media, nor did we have any desire to do so. I decided that I wanted to keep some of our vacation with us when we got home.

We cut back drastically on our TV time, and I cut out much of my unnecessary computer time. Our habits changed. I noticed that, as I got accustomed to having more quality time in my days, I started to relax more. Things calmed down. I started reading books more, doing puzzles, playing games, and feeling more patient with my children. Then this election season started heating up. This has been an unsettling election season for everyone. It has filled me with a sense of anxiety. Most people I talk to share that same feeling. People who are voting differently than I am are also expressing anxiety and frustration. Until just recently, I noticed that I was dealing (or not dealing) with these feelings by slipping back into the habit of getting on the computer and letting my time and energy get eaten up by it. I noticed that doing so increased my anxiety and frustration and even feelings of disgust, while simultaneously decreasing my motivation. It was a big energy suck.

A couple of weeks ago, I caught myself in the middle of getting online for no good reason. I realized that these computer sessions were robbing me of large amounts of my day in small increments, and leaving me feeling terrible. Fifteen minutes here, fifteen minutes there: I added those times up and realized that every day, I was losing at least two hours of time mindlessly surfing through election news and that no good was coming from it. I decided to change things up a bit. I’d been meaning for a while to practice all the songs on piano that my children are learning, but I hadn’t found the time to do this. Now, many times when I feel a temptation to go online for no good reason, I sit down and practice the piano. It takes about 30 minutes, and it really feels good to learn this instrument. I also have a great appreciation now for how hard my children have been working to learn it themselves. I don’t feel terrible afterwards, either. Instead, I feel inspired.

I imagine that balancing screen time with life will be an ongoing challenge for me, but I feel like I have more tools to deal with it than I did before. I still check in with the election numbers, but in a much more balanced way, and I am sure that after this election something else will be a draw for me. I am not about to get rid of my Internet access, so I have to change my relationship with it. The challenge is to know where the line is between empty activity that drains me and more meaningful activity that informs and motivates me.

Knowing the difference between positive and negative online behavior is key. It starts with awareness and intention, and goes further if you have other options to choose from. If I am going onto the Internet with no awareness of my inner state of being and no intention at all, I can easily get sucked in. If I don’t know what else to do with myself, I can easily get sucked in. Maybe I am uneasy about something already, but I haven’t checked in with myself. Perhaps I have 15 minutes to kill before I go somewhere. I open the computer in a state of uneasiness with no real goal in mind. Maybe I look at some polling numbers that increase my uneasy feelings. Then I click on an article that talks about those numbers. Now I’m feeling downright anxious. I get on Facebook, unconsciously seeking some sort of camaraderie to make me feel less anxious. Instead, most of my Facebook friends are posting about politics and not in a feel-good way, and then on the “trending” side of the page, there is some article about some horrible thing some person did to an innocent child. My anxiety has shot up and my belief in humankind has tanked and now I look at the clock and realize that those 15 minutes have passed and I have to rush out the door because now I am late. I bring all that anxiety with me to wherever I am going, and none of it was necessary.

If I enter the vast world of the Internet with awareness, intention, and a list of options other than the Internet to choose from, things go differently. If I build in a moment to ask myself how I am feeling, I might discover any number of things. Maybe I am hungry, maybe I am stressed, maybe I feel great, maybe I am bored. Knowing what I am feeling is important because it is possible that there are things I need to address in myself before I can go online. If I am hungry, eating is a better choice for me than going online. If I am stressed, I’d be better served by taking a moment to address the underlying causes of my stress. If I feel great, I might want to spend some time just feeling great. If I am bored, this could be a great time to play the piano.

If I still feel like going online after checking in with myself, the next question to ask is what I want to get out of going online. Knowing my intention helps me when I am tempted to drift into the sea of online options. I can refer back to my original intent if I notice that my mood is sinking. If it is a recipe I am looking for, then I try to stick with that. If I am looking at election news or something similar, I ask myself if I am going online to quell my election anxiety or just for information. I can get information online, but only I can deal with my anxiety, and I have options for that: sitting quietly, meditating, talking it out with my spouse, and so on. Am I going on Facebook to see what my faraway friends are up to today, or am going on because I feel lonely? If it is from loneliness, then I need to give myself attention rather than give my attention away on the computer. Once I’ve checked my mood, my intentions, and my other options I feel like I am in charge of my Internet sessions rather than it being the other way around. I spend less time swimming in circles in the vast online ocean, and more time in the real world. I have more time and energy to spend with my family and friends, to pursue more inspiring endeavors, to do something tangible and real in the last moments of this election, and even to write posts in this blog in hopes of inspiring others to join me in spending more time in this lovely reality that exists beyond the Internet.


The Power of a Sincere Apology

I have been wanting to write this blog post for a few years now.  The original inspiration for this post happened back when my daughter was in preschool and a classmate bit her.  When I asked her teacher if the classmate had been told to apologize, she said that they don’t encourage insincere apologies at that school.  While that answer didn’t satisfy me, it intrigued me and launched me on a quest to try to figure out how to teach my children exactly what a sincere apology is.  On this quest, I’ve observed my own defenses around apologizing, I’ve witnessed my children exploring all manners of insincere apologies, I’ve been the recipient of insincere apologies and I’ve watched politicians apologize insincerely just for appearance’s sake, mostly because they got caught doing something.  In fact, today my daughter overheard me talking about Trump’s recent “apology” about the taped conversation where he was caught demeaning and sexually objectifying women.  She wanted to know whether or not his “apology” will now get him elected.  I suddenly felt inspired to write about the difference between sincere and insincere apologies, so here I am doing so.

Insincere apologies come in various forms.  There is the apology that is meant to silence the anger of the person who has been wronged.  When this happens, the person who has been wronged is flipped into the position of wrongdoer if they aren’t silenced by the apology.  If they are not satisfied with the apology, they are met with an indignant form of “What do you want?  I said sorry!”  Another kind is the apology that is actually a plea for comfort.  When this happens, the person apologizing doesn’t really own what they have done, but wants to hear “It’s okay,” because they want to know that they are okay, that the person who is hurt still loves them.  The person who was wronged gets flipped into the position of comforter.   A close relative to this sort of apology is the kind where the word sorry is followed by justifications and evidence that the wrongdoer is actually “a good person.”  In this scenario, the wronged person is made invisible, eclipsed by the need of the person apologizing to clear their name.  Trump’s “apology” is a good example of that sort of apology.  He talks about how he is different now, but never once mentions what he did wrong then, or who he wronged.  There is also “Sorry if you feel hurt,” which makes the wronged person seem crazy and overly sensitive and there’s the “Sorry, but…” which turns the apology into an accusation or an excuse that absolves the apologizer.  The most transparently insincere form of apology is an aggressive-sounding “Sorry!” which sounds more like an insult.  The insincere apology comes in all these different varieties, but the result is the same:  the wrongdoer avoids culpability and at the same time invalidates the feelings and the experience of the wronged person.

A sincere apology demands accountability from the wrongdoer and validation of the wronged person.  This grows from brave self-examination and a willingness to hear from another that you have had a negative impact, that you have hurt them, that you have been imperfect.  This is not for the faint of heart.  When you truly apologize to someone, for a moment you give control of the situation over to the person you’ve wronged, because in order to truly apologize to someone, you must permit that person to express how you hurt them.  To sincerely apologize, you need to acknowledge the pain you caused the person you are apologizing to.  If you are truly sorry, you offer to make amends to the person you hurt, and you let that person decide what those amends could be.

If you are not ready to do all of the above, then you are not ready to apologize, and you could use a little more time to examine what’s going on for you.  You may notice yourself wanting to take any of the paths mentioned above to the insincere apology, and wisdom can grow from that noticing.  You might notice that you are about to say “sorry” but what you really mean is “Please tell me I’m a good person.”  You need to hear that from someone, but not from the person you are apologizing to.  That someone is you.  If you can tease out what you need to do for yourself from what you need to do for the person you wronged, you can move forward.  Acknowledge your goodness to yourself, and acknowledge your wrongdoing to the person that you have wronged.  To accept your humanity is to open up to the greater humanity.  This is the power that lies in the sincere apology.


Gossip versus Troubleshooting

My daughter has entered a grade level where she and her classmates are trying to work out some complex social dynamics. Children huddle and talk about some other child that they don’t like. I have been trying to work through my own emotional reactions to this so that I can find a way to talk about it with her without scolding her for it. I confess that some of my attempts to do so have been unsuccessful. There is history here: I am sure that I am not alone when I say that I have scars from this sort of exclusionary behavior. I also have engaged in it myself. I still struggle with finding the difference between talking about someone just to gossip, and talking about someone in order to find ways to solve a problem that I am having with that person. There is a big difference between gossiping and troubleshooting.

I grew up believing that to talk about someone behind their back is gossip, period. A teacher once said that even saying something nice about someone behind their back is gossip. I’ve learned over time that talking about someone who isn’t there can sometimes have a positive impact. A person in an abusive relationship can gain quite a bit by talking about it to someone else. In my psychotherapy practice, my clients discuss many of their relationships with me, so that they can navigate the issues that they are having with people in their lives and come up with solutions. Sometimes, we all need to discuss our feelings about someone with a person who can help us sort out those feelings and then figure out what to do. This is productive and much different than gossip.

Gossip is not productive. No problem is being solved when we gossip about another person. If anything, we want that outsider to continue to be offensive so that we can keep talking about him or her. A while back, I noticed that I was engaged in similar behavior via Facebook. I might be out for a bike ride and get angry with someone who was being dangerous or inconsiderate, and I would notice myself already composing my Facebook status about that inconsiderate person, rather than say something to them in real time. I made a rule for myself: no posting about someone on Facebook or venting to someone else as a substitute for confrontation. As a result, I’ve spoken up for myself more and I’ve learned that most people rise to the occasion. Posting on Facebook rather than speaking would have robbed me of a chance to learn that.

I am still working on this while trying to help my children with it, but I think I am getting better at navigating this particular problem. Here are some good questions to ask when tempted to talk about someone behind their back: Can I directly address the person I am upset with about what they are doing? If the answer is “yes,” then do so. If the answer is “no,” then ask this next question: Am I talking about this person in order to seek help in solving the problem, or am I locking the problem in place by gossiping? If it turns out that I am gossiping, there is another question to ask: What do I get out of having the situation locked into place, and is that something I actually want? These questions hold great potential for inner change and external connection if they are answered honestly.


In Praise of Criticism

When I hired our children’s piano teacher, he stated clearly that he expected us (the parents) to participate in their lessons so that we could help our kids practice in between.  The biggest struggle with practicing at first for both of them was being told they’d made mistakes.  There were several power struggles in the beginning, because neither child liked being told that they had made a mistake, that they’d played the wrong note or held a note for too long or not long enough.  It was hard work for me to hold my ground through their sometimes volatile resistance, and it was hard work for them to accept the criticism.  I explained that mistakes teach them how to play.  I explained that they couldn’t learn much of anything without making mistakes.  I explained that I love them even when I am showing them where they missed the mark.  I explained that making mistakes does not make them bad people.  Learning to accept criticism has been just as important as learning how to play the music itself.  We are all impressed with how much they have learned as a result of being able to accept criticism.

I’ve heard people speak out against praising children too much, or even at all, because they can become addicted to praise.  I do not agree with this stance, and I do not withhold praise, but I do think that praise without criticism in a relationship is meaningless and that the converse is true as well.  And I don’t mean that they should happen simultaneously: I have never been a fan of the criticism that starts out with a compliment.  That always feels like a bait and switch to me.  In the course of helping my kids learn piano, if I only praise my children when they hit the notes right, they have no idea that they have ever hit them wrong.  If I only criticize my children without telling them what they are doing right, they have no idea that they have ever hit them right.  I want them to trust fully that when I say that they did a good job, I mean it.  When I tell them that they made a mistake and need to work harder, I mean that too.  They can trust me to reflect to them how they are doing.

The ability to give and accept healthy, truthful criticism is crucial for the growth of any good relationship.  Healthy criticism addresses behavior; unhealthy criticism attacks a person’s being.  Because so many people have had the unhealthy kind of criticism, it can feel painful at first when you are on either end of the healthy kind.  Like everything, it takes practice.  You might be afraid of being seen as harsh or mean when you want to tell someone that their actions affected you negatively.   You might feel unlovable when someone tells you that your actions impacted them negatively.  The important thing to remember, whether giving or receiving criticism, is that criticism alone does not change who you are as a person; it does, however, give you the opportunity to learn about yourself and that learning can transform you into a more truthful person.   You do not become a harsh being when you tell someone that they did something that hurt you, you merely have let that person know that they had an impact.  You do not become a bad person when you discover that you hurt someone unwittingly, you merely have found out that you had an impact.  What you do with that awareness makes all the difference.  If you face your fear of criticizing, your criticism can transform a relationship that was previously not hitting the mark.  You will find out whether your partner or partner-to-be can handle your truth.  If you’ve been given criticism, and if you know yourself well enough to understand that you’ve missed the mark, you have an opportunity to change behaviors that may have kept you from being able to be in a good relationship.  On either side of criticism is a golden chance to learn more deeply how to live and love truthfully, and that is worth all the risk and vulnerability involved.


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