Archive for June, 2007

The Family Garden

Thursday, June 28th, 2007

Holding HandsSummertime is the season for family vacations, family cookouts, family reunions, and visiting relatives. Whew! That’s a lot of family.

It can seem like visiting a well-planned flower garden, or a fearsome jungle filled with quicksand. I know people who look forward to the chance to renew family ties, and people who dread the very thought of seeing Aunt and Uncle So-and-So again.

It’s all relative. (Pardon the pun.) The more you like the people you’ll be seeing, the more fun you’ll have. But sometimes a sense of obligation gets in the way of just enjoying people.

When you go see your friends, you’re conscious that you choose them because of what you like about them. Sometimes we forget there are things to like about our families because we’re so busy thinking we ‘have to’ be nice to them.

It’s true there are many different kinds of people in every family gathering. Nowadays the problem is complicated by the variety of lifestyles. Divorce, remarriages, and blended families make for a multiplicity of personalities and interests. But instead of getting hung up on having to like all these people, why not relax and try to see the good things in each of them?

You may be so used to your own relatives that you haven’t given yourself a chance to see how you’ve all grown over the years. You may be so familiar with your family that you have your own expectations about them. And these assumptions become Self-Fulfilling Expectations, making us see the glass half-empty instead of half full.

Take the time to listen and look with the same courtesy you’d give a stranger. You might be surprised at how much more interesting they’ve become. Meeting new relatives through remarriage or family blending can make you nervous too. But don’t think of it as a chore or obligation. Pretend it’s a club or party that you’re thinking of joining. Instead of worrying about how they see you, look for what’s fun about them.

I was lucky enough to be welcomed into a family that already had a lot of love and tolerance for all its members. They taught me a lot about how families can let people grow and change, while still holding on to the special relationships developed in childhood. New members came and went, each judged on their own merits and each given the benefit of the doubt.

But even if your family has trouble adapting to changes, you can take a big role in encouraging a better family atmosphere. Start the ball rolling by taking the time to let your favorite relatives know how much you appreciate them. Then practice listening to your least favorite relatives and make it a treasure hunt to find something to like in every one of them.

See your family as a garden, with new plants coming up all the time. Stop worrying about your own image and don’t feel forced. Make it a conscious choice to weed out the negative thoughts and feelings that have sprouted over the years. You’ll be surprised at the richness of the crop you’ll harvest when the summer season is over.

Choosing to have a good relationship with your relatives takes effort on your part. A little consideration goes a long way toward ensuring pleasant family get-togethers. Look at your family members with a new perspective, and see them as potential friends. Find something to like in every one of them, and watch the family garden burst into bloom.

Fitting Into Nature's Scheme of Things

Thursday, June 14th, 2007

Red CloudsYou know what they say: ‘Everybody always talks about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it.’ Baloney! We do lots of things about it! Watching Californians in the summertime is a study in a glorious variety of summer strategies to cope with the weather.

When exposed to the particular vagaries in this state (i.e. a million microclimates), you learn fast where your escape hatches are. Temperatures and humidity levels vary widely from town to town. Add summer heat and water shortages and you have a simmering cauldron of discomfort if you’re not careful.

Temporary breakdowns are so common that they’re not even considered creative around here. The number of people going home from work because they just can’t cope reaches epidemic proportions this time of year. While sunshine is a positive characteristic, it can be a bit too much of a good thing, especially when accompanied by triple-digit temperatures.

Some people recommend technological coping strategies, but these tend to be impractical. Air conditioning, as we all know, was designed to test your adaptability by plunging you from tropic heat to sub-arctic temperatures instantaneously. Besides, apart from putting you into shock and making it necessary to wear a winter coat over your summer suits, who can afford the electricity? Who can afford the gasoline, if you happen to spend hours in the local traffic jam?

Scientific studies have shown that the low pressure areas preceding a storm result in increased depression in the general population. Scientists are not clear whether this is a result of being trapped in a temperature inversion along with all that air pollution, or a result of being trapped in your office with 20 or 30 other hot and steamy people who’d rather be at the beach. Lethargy and apathy combine with staring out windows for a scene right out of a zombie horror movie.

And it doesn’t take a scientist to see the increased anxiety in those living in areas prone to fires. Crankiness and terminal irritability can accompany any of these patterns. Calling in sick by pleading a summer cold is the best coping strategy for not spreading the epidemic of poor mental health, unless, of course, you really have a summer cold. In that case I’d advise going in to the office. After all, you can be miserable there as well as anywhere else.

The list of creative pathologies, however, is both long and fascinating. For example, the sudden compulsion to take one’s clothes off and lie motionless until one is the color of a fresh-cooked lobster. Or the less anachronistic alternative of wearing paper goggles while being sprayed from all sides with sunless tanner, so you can turn terra-cotta instead of orange. Then there is the obsession to find out exactly what causes heat prostration by jogging on the side of the road until the sweat leaves a tangible trail behind you.

More creative (and lazier) souls may develop the hobby of driving down well-jogged paths while rating participants on a scale of one to ten. The muscular hunk in skin-tight shorts? 10 of course! The stout gentleman puffing along with a red face? You guessed it! Or grab a board with wheels or wax and get hit in the face with water or wind (or both) to lower your body temperature.

Some creative responses boggle the mind. Many of us put on woolen suits or corsets and petticoats to recreate the Civil War. Then we battle for hours in the hot sun while inhaling clouds of black powder smoke. Why we do this in the heat of summer is a good question. Although having to dry a rain-soaked canvas tent does put a damper of recreating in cooler seasons. Ren Faire addicts are in a similar dilemma, with heat stroke coming in only barely ahead of damp and muddy.

Affordability is the only obstacle to backyard swimming pools, month-long vacations in other climates, and similar escapist strategies. But those are so average. Let’s all hear it for the creative and somewhat crazy ways to survive the summer!

Have You Been Less Than Perfect Today?

Tuesday, June 5th, 2007

Rock GardenHave You Been Less Than Perfect Today?

A lot of readers found a chord touched by the book excerpt on Self-Fulfilling Prophecies (SFP). But I wrote that book from the perspective of a manager working with other people. Being a business manual, it was focused on the Other rather than the Self. It’s important to look at what we expect of ourselves, and how we fulfill that prophecy. In this article, we’ll explore the effect of high expectations; next time, we’ll explore the effect of ones that are too low.

But what about the expectations we have of ourselves, the SFP’s that affect every day of our own lives? Let’s talk today about tending your own garden. (With apologies to Voltaire.) I don’t mean literally, of course, but figuratively. Nor am I referring to those people who should be told to ‘Mind your own onions,’ as the French would say. (Of course, they say it en francais, naturalement.) No, I’m talking about setting limits to what you can expect from yourself.

Sometimes people forget the value of their own gardens. Instead of focusing on the joys and achievements of just getting through an ordinary day, they feel guilty because they haven’t been awarded the Nobel Prize or made the front cover of Time Magazine. They measure their self-worth by a mythical ideal of fame and fortune. (No, 10 seconds on YouTube doesn’t count!) The unreality of this boggles the mind. (I can say it this harshly because I often fall into this trap, and I’m the pot calling the kettle black.)

You can’t judge yourself by how many people are cheering for you. Hitler got millions to cheer for him, which doesn’t say much for the value of public opinion.

You can’t judge yourself by how much you’ve accumulated. Do I even have to mention Howard Hughes or Ferdinand Marcos?

You can’t judge yourself by age comparisons either. As the musical satirist Tom Lehrer once exclaimed in mock dismay, ‘When Mozart was my age, he’d been dead for ten years!’

Do you have to be perfect to matter in this world? If so, then no one matters, because famous people are not more perfect than the rest of us! (As recent news stories confirm!)

Making a positive impact on your small corner of the world may do more for world peace and happiness than a thousand famous efforts. Why make yourself a martyr to unrealistic expectations? If you compare your achievements to impossibly high standards, you are setting yourself up for low self-esteem and chronic disappointment.

I have found that reading honest accounts of famous people’s lives to be a good corrective for this kind of self-abuse. Measure for yourself decades of struggle against a few moments in the limelight. Can you really say that isolating a specific chemical is more valuable than raising a couple of happy, healthy children? What about heroes who neglected their families while they pursued a single goal? And then there are heroes who pursued lofty goals because they had lost someone special.

It can be an easy way out to ignore mundane responsibilities while pursuing lofty goals. If you do both, then you’re a rare person. As a veteran of the sixties, I have to admit that I feel I’ve accomplished more in raising three sons and helping my clients understand themselves than I ever did at marching and protesting. In the long run, my actions in my sphere of influence, my garden, have had more impact on the world than all my protesting over other people’s actions

Protest what’s wrong with public actions if you don’t approve of them. But don’t neglect your own impact while you do. Be fair to yourself. Give yourself credit for tending your own garden. You don’t need blue ribbons to prove it’s a beautiful place to be.

Climbing Out of That Barrel

Friday, June 1st, 2007

Unless you’re exceptionally lucky, you know what it’s like when the proverbial bottom falls out of things. It’s such an epidemic that we have lots of words to describe it: the pits, the dumps, so far down it feels like up, on our knees, flat on our back. Okay, okay, you get the picture, and it isn’t pretty. Some days it seems like we have more expressions for being down than being up. (Hmm, maybe we should take a count.)

This article isn’t about ‘Why Bad Things Happen to Good People,’ that’s already been done. Nope. I’m thinking more about why overwhelming things happen to ordinary people. And when you get to the bottom of that barrel, the worst thing may be finding those ugly clawed crabs — the kind that keep grabbing at your legs and dragging you back down again every time you try to pull yourself up.

Suddenly we want an ‘Easy Button’ — a minister, a therapist, a book — any magic potion that will take away the pain and make all the bad things less overwhelming. But nothing is easy at that point! And don’t let your friends fool you. Someone says ‘ But it will end,’ as though that makes the current pain go away. But it doesn’t!

One of the phrases I personally hate most is ‘God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.’ I find that highly debatable, especially since I can’t read Creator’s mind and right this minute may be totally unable to figure out what He/She was thinking when She/He decided to dump all this stuff on me at once!

It’s always fun to find like-minded people, and recently I read some great thoughts on the subject, so I’ll quote from Ellen Degeneres’ book ‘The Funny Thing Is.’ On page 126 she says:
‘1) What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. (Translation: what doesn’t kill you puts you in a whole lot of pain and makes you cry a lot and want to crawl into a hole forever and live with rodents.)
2) Adversity builds character. (Translation: you become bitter and angry and people hate you even more.)
3) God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle. (unless God’s in on it and doesn’t like you either.)’

Besides, most of your friends are going to get tired and cranky themselves because you don’t just cheer up at the sound of platitudes. Nobody likes to feel powerless to help. Well, sometimes we just have to grieve! Like it or not, we will have to cry it out, and nobody can say how long that will take.

And part of what makes the grieving so tangled and agonizing is that your feelings aren’t simple. They are all mixed up with sadness and grief, and even actual physical pain. You know, like ‘kick in the stomach’ or ’stabbed in the back’? Then add in the anger, the fury, the rage over how unfair this all is. Why me?! Multiply by the agony of wondering whether it’s happened to you because you did something wrong, you didn’t see the danger signals, or worst of all, the nagging fear that you are just so bad and worthless that you deserve all the rotten torture the universe can throw at you! Did I mention the feeling of powerlessness that compounds the problem?

These complicated feelings are what makes it so difficult to somehow swim past the hurricane around you. Your fear itself may add to the pain, agony, and guilt to make your feelings overwhelming. And let’s face it, it’s really your feelings that are overwhelming, not the outside events.

While there is no ‘Easy Button, ‘ there are things that can help. The most important to remember is that if you can make a 10% improvement in several areas, the cumulative effect may get closer to a 100% improvement!

Summoning every resource available to you is the beginning step, as long as you don’t assume that any one of them is the only solution. Talking to a psychologist or counselor helps. Choose a professional with a great deal of experience. Since they are not emotionally involved in your situation, they can use that objective view of options to help you plan your strategy for climbing out of the barrel. Their compassion and understanding of the ranges of human behavior can also be a comfort to you. You are neither alone nor unique. Human beings get upset when they are overwhelmed.

If you have a spiritual advisor or group that you respect and trust, you may also find some comfort in speaking to them about finding a broader meaning to the catastrophe that is happening to you. Talking to someone or reading books may help you remember that there is a greater meaning in all our lives. You may not figure out what lesson you are supposed to learn, but just considering the possibility that there is a greater lesson may bring about a small measure of reassurance and stability.

When I’m knocked on my butt by some terrible events, I personally find comfort in remembering the Chinese proverb: ‘Those whom the gods love, they teach with a heavy stick.’ I may wish the blows to get my attention weren’t so heavy, but it comforts me to believe that someday I will understand the lessons that seem so invisible right now!

As we’ve discussed before, this is a good time to make a plan. Break the overwhelming into small pieces and pick one small thing that will improve just that one piece. Setting priorities is important, but don’t be afraid to start with the lesser problems first. Getting back some sense of control will help you get your footing again.

And don’t listen to the ‘crabs’ who try to pull you down with discouraging words. Or to well-meaning friends who say ‘you’ve cried enough. Get over it.’ If you hide your pain and anger, and force yourself to move on before you’re ready, you may lose the chance to learn the lessons and find the meaning inherent in your current catastrophes.

It’s your life and your pain, and little by little, you’ll find yourself reducing some of your suffering to a manageable level while you learn just how powerful you can be in the case of disaster. Take it one step at a time, cry when you need to, and take the time to look at the things that have happened. Just don’t listen too much to those who tell you what you should do. Consider your options and choose for yourself.