Friends and family in distress are all around us. From the workplace to the dining table to yoga class, we hear their stories. Their in-laws are driving them crazy. They have toxic co-workers and cope with bizarre office politics. Their stress is palpable.
And we want to hear about it. We want them to talk to us about it. Why do we do this? Is there something wrong with us? Not at all.
Wanting to talk with family or friends about their problems isn’t the same thing asschadenfreude, which translates from German as “harm-joy,” where we take actual pleasure from another’s misfortune.
There are healthier, kinder parts of us that want and even like to hear about the woes of those we care about. Why is that?
We feel closer when we share our difficulties. When my friend reveals that she is divorcing, I feel special. She chose me confide in. I tell her how terrible I felt during my divorce and that it’s now a distant memory. My assurances relieve her. I feel good about being supportive. Our bonds deepen in such intimate conversations.
We want to know we’re not alone. Misery indeed loves company, and when we know that our friend’s sister-in-law is an alcoholic, we feel better about our nosy, opinionated mother-in-law. Neither of us has a perfect family and we feel better about that.
We do it out of curiosity. Let’s face it. We’re intrigued when we learn how our friend caught her boyfriend cheating. It’s flat-out interesting. While we don’t wish misery on our friends, when it inevitably comes their way, we want to hear about it. It doesn’t make us bad people. It simply means we’re human.
But there are ways to have friend-in-need conversations that support others and strengthen our connections with them. Here are a few simple guidelines to help negotiate this tricky terrain.
1. Don’t ask, don’t tell. Recently, I was having dinner with a friend who is divorcing after a long-term marriage. I wondered how it was going, but I remembered how, when I was divorcing, I treasured those times when I could relax with a friend and not think about it. So I avoided any topic that might remind her.
It’s so tempting to bring up the juicy topic, but just don’t. We all need down time from our difficulties. We need to relax and enjoy our social encounters. Trust that your friend will talk to you about a problem when and if they are ready.
2. Don’t pour gasoline on the fire. “UGH–what a GIANT drag! What a waste of time that you have to deal with this.” I recently erased those words from a text I was about to send a professor friend who is dealing with a student she suspects of cheating on an exam. She’d asked me for advice. I answered her question and let it go at that. She knows it’s a drag and a waste of time. My reminding her serves no useful purpose. We can be authentically helpful and supportive without inflaming a situation.
3. Don’t mine the conversation for pain. If your friend tells you that her son has gone into rehab, don’t ask what drug he was addicted to or whether insurance is paying for his treatment. Trust that if your friend wants you to know, she will tell you. While human curiosity is normal and natural, there is a time and place for it. This isn’t one of them.
4. Keep it under your hat. Assume everything that a friend in need tells you is absolutely secret. Tell no one, even if you weren’t asked to. You may be tempted to tell your sister that your neighbor’s husband had an affair with the nanny and you might know for a certainty that your sister won’t breathe a word of it to anyone, but just don’t do it.
When we spread stories about our friends in need, we compromise our Integrity–that quality of choosing honesty, principled behavior, and walking our talk. The momentary pleasure of sharing juicy details of another’s life is not worth it. You won’t feel good about yourself in the long run, and you’re letting others know you can’t be trusted with their secrets.
5. Don’t offer advice or suggestions unless you’re asked. Telling your friend with a cheating spouse that you know the best divorce lawyer in town might do more harm than good. Your friend may be hoping for a reconciliation. Such uninvited solutions have the potential to increase a friend’s stress and anxiety and undermine their confidence.
6. Do support their feelings. Whether they’re angry, sad, worried, or anxious, people’s feelings are always valid. Statements like “I understand,” or “I get it,” are far more helpful and supportive than, “Don’t be so sad” or “You don’t have anything to worry about.”
When we affirm another’s feelings we show them that we’re listening and that we understand what they are going through, without adding to their woes. It helps us understand that our feelings are normal and that we’re not alone.
7. Do give the gift of presence. One of the greatest gifts we can offer another is our undivided attention. Put down your cell phone, stop multi-tasking, and really show up to listen. This simple yet powerful act is one of the most precious gifts we can offer a friend in need. Often just “holding space” like this is extraordinarily comforting and healing.
So the next time you’re talking with a friend or family member who has hit a rough patch, remember these simple guidelines. And when you’re the one in need, be sure to reach out and ask for exactly what will help you.
Life’s challenges don’t spare any of us. Having someone supportive accompany us on all or part of that journey can make a huge difference in how well we go through it. We are social creatures, and having friends-in-need when we’re troubled is powerful medicine.
Tags: compassion · connection · stress
(This article is reprinted from The Huffington Post, where I’m now blogging.)
The day before Thanksgiving, I stood in a long line at LaGuardia Airport waiting for a taxi. I’d flown to New York to spend the holiday with my family. The couple just ahead of me was finally sent to a taxi, but they quickly returned.
The woman began to shout at the dispatcher. “That driver doesn’t know where we’re going. We’re not riding with her. We have to make a connection.”
Behind her, a frazzled female cabbie was waving her arms and yelling in a thick Russian accent. “I didn’t refuse to take them. I know where we’re going. They didn’t give me a minute to think.”
“We’re not going with her,” the woman said, more loudly than before. “Get us another cab.”
The dispatcher turned to me and asked, “Where are you going?”
His eyes were stony.
“Brooklyn,” I said.
“Go with her.” He pointed to the female cabbie. My heart sunk. She was still waving her arms and trying to be heard above the woman, who was still insisting that they needed another cab.
“I didn’t refuse them,” she yelled over her shoulder as she led me to her cab. “I didn’t refuse.”
I considered going back to the dispatcher to ask for another cab. But before I could, the cabbie grabbed my luggage, stuffed it into her trunk, and slammed down the lid.
She took a few steps in the direction of the dispatcher and yelled again, “I didn’t refuse them.”
The dispatcher waved his arms at her like he was shooing a dog. His face was expressionless.
“Okay,” I said to her firmly. “Please just forget about it. It’s over. I’m with you now.”
She turned to me. Her face was contorted with anguish. “I can get in trouble if I refuse a fare. I didn’t refuse them.”
We got in the cab. She was still muttering about it as we pulled into the heavy traffic. “I can get in trouble. I didn’t refuse them.”
This woman is clearly crazy, I thought. This ride is going to be miserable. She’ll get us in an accident if this continues. I fastened my seat belt and tried to reason with her.
“Well,” I said. “There’s nothing you can do, now. At this point, all you can do is forget it.”
She ignored me and continued to mutter. I contemplated asking her to pull over so I could get out. But we were already on the expressway, in heavy traffic in an area I wasn’t familiar with. I’d just have to hope for the best and see if I could get her to calm down.
“I understand,” I said in the soft, soothing voice I use with upset clients. “But there is nothing you can do right now.”
I might as well have been talking to a wall. Her muttering continued.
I spied a lanyard printed with the words “Albany Law School” hanging from her rearview mirror. I asked her who went to law school.
Her voice softened. “My son. He just passed the bar last week.”
“Wow! Congratulations, Momma,” I said, relieved that I’d distracted her.
For the rest of the ride, we talked. As we did, she relaxed. I learned that she’d emigrated 35 years ago and had driven a cab ever since. Her husband left her when her son was 2 and she raised the boy by herself. We even talked about the incident at the airport and how much pride she took in maintaining a complaint-free record.
I relaxed, too, and observed her impressive driving through the clogged streets. She was by far the most skilled driver I’d been with on that ride I’ve taken dozens of times.
My dislike of her turned to admiration. That same dogged determination with the dispatcher was surely the same quality that had gotten her through what had to be impossibly tough odds–a single immigrant woman with a young child, enduring an arduous job, never giving up.
I recalled my own tough years as a single mother. It was so hard there were times I didn’t know how I could continue. Except that I had two kids, so there was no choice — I had to continue. Yet I was a lawyer with advantages I was sure she could only dream of — a decent income, a comfortable home, household help.
And right before my eyes, this woman transformed from an unpleasant, perseverating crazy person, to a courageous, tenacious champion. I was transformed too. My anxiety about riding with her had vanished. I was relaxed, happy to have met her, and grateful that my trip was off to such an auspicious start.
At the end of the ride, she jumped out of the cab and took my luggage to the sidewalk right in front of my daughter’s apartment. No other cab driver had ever done that for me — they typically just dumped my bags onto the street and took off. I smiled, thanked her, and gave her a generous tip.
The lesson for me was one I continue to experience over and over — the power of social connection is phenomenally transformative, even in brief interludes with strangers. When we can drop our assumptions about others, when we take the time to get to know them, they nearly always magically transform into amazing people.
Social connections transform us, as well. They’re one of the most simple, direct, and important ways we can lift our spirits, improve our physical and mental health, and lengthen our lives. Even a fleeting connection like the one I shared with this cab driver can be powerful.
So as the holidays unfold, and as we shop, travel, and prepare to deck the halls and celebrate, chances are we’ll find ourselves in the company of an unpleasant, frazzled crazy person. If so, perhaps you can find a way to engage with them and connect. You might find, like I did, a wonderful surprise waiting for you both.
Tags: compassion · connection · noticing
It was one of those important and tightly-scheduled days where everything needed to go as smooth as silk, so of course it didn’t.
My daughter and 20-month old granddaughter were coming to visit me in Miami from New York for my birthday. I had allowed a thirty-minute window before rush hour to get the baby’s car seat from my storage unit. Then I’d have just enough time to tidy the house, start dinner, and drive to the airport.
Lesson #1: Expect the unexpected, especially when it’s really inconvenient. We set ourselves up for stress and turmoil when we don’t allow time and space for unforeseen events.
I vaguely remembered having some confusion about the storage unit key the last time I was there, so I grabbed the box of extra keys from my desk and drove off. I congratulated myself for my brilliant foresight—every key I owned was with me.
When I got to the storage unit and couldn’t find the right key, I began to worry. In my upset and rush, only found one key that was the right size. But it said “Ace” on it, so I assumed it was a duplicate key from the hardware store. Since I’d never duplicated the storage key, I left without trying it in the padlock.
Lesson #2: Don’t make assumptions when you are upset or in a hurry. Your thinking isn’t as clear when you are stressed.
Lesson #3: Don’t give up without trying, especially if the effort is minimal.
On the way home, my worrying increased. I couldn’t imagine where that key was. I considered a rapid succession of possibilities–my desktop, a purse, my jewelry box, a bowl in the kitchen. I forgot to quiet my racing mind, even though I teach and practice mindfulness and stress management.
Lesson #4: We perform better and think better when we’re calm. Take de-stressing action at the first sign of upset. Disconnect from unhelpful thinking, regularize your breathing, and allow your body to relax.
Instead, I rushed home and rummaged through every nook and cranny that could harbor a key. No luck.
My heart began to pound. Thoughts flooded my mind: Where is the nearest baby equipment store? Do I have time to buy another car seat? What if I can’t find one nearby? Can I get one delivered by tomorrow? That will cost a fortune! What will we do in the meantime? We’ll be stuck in the house!
I caught myself and stopped the runaway train in my mind. I focused on my breath and grounded myself by feeling my body. I began to calm down.
Lesson #5: Better late than never.
I looked through the key box once more and picked up the Ace key. That has to be it! I didn’t even try it! How dumb! How hard would that have been? I shouldn’t have been in such a rush! What’s wrong with me?
Lesson #6: Let yourself be human. Humans make mistakes. Irritation and self-scolding only drive up stress levels and make mistakes more likely.
Again I calmed myself, then drove back to the storage unit. The key fit! The door opened! Life was good!
My daughter’s plane would be landing momentarily. I texted her that I was on my way, dragged the heavy seat down to my car, and headed for the airport. At a red light, I opened my purse to get my phone so I’d be sure to hear her text telling me where she’d be waiting.
But I couldn’t find my phone. I pulled off the road and searched purse, pockets and car. No phone.
I remembered that I’d texted her just before I took the seat to the car. Ack! I bet I left it inside the unit.
My thoughts raced more intensely than ever: I’m going to be late! The airport will be bedlam! I need my phone to know where she’ll be! I won’t be able to find her! How did people ever find each other at airports without cell phones? This is a disaster!
In an instant, my hands began to tremble and I was no longer able to think clearly.
Lesson #7: Stress begets stress. Cortisol—the hormone that prepares us to run or fight for our lives when we’re in fear–has a half-life of about an hour. This means that an hour after an initial stress response, half the cortisol is still revving us up, and an hour after that, half of that half is left, and so forth. Each time we react stressfully over a short time frame, more cortisol is dumped into our systems before the prior load has dissipated. So our reactions come more quickly and more powerfully. By this time, after multiple doses of cortisol, my reactions were swift and overwhelming.
I turned around and headed back to the storage unit for the third time. When I arrived, I raced upstairs through the warren of hallways and opened the door to my unit. The phone wasn’t there. I felt the blood drain from my face.
I remembered that a group of men were down the hallway when I’d picked up the car seat. I must have left the phone on the floor in the hallway and those men—those thieves—took it! If they get through my ridiculously simple password, they’ll have access to my bank account information. My identity will be stolen! Why didn’t I use a better password? Why did I keep information like that on my phone? The weekend is ruined!
I urgently felt the need for a plan, but I was so confused. Halfway to the airport, I turned around. I’d go home, call my daughter, and ask her to take a cab. Then I’d delete the confidential information from my laptop and hope it would sync to my phone before those thieves messed up my life.
My heart thundered as I crawled through rush hour traffic. My mind was reeling: This is taking forever! My daughter must be exhausted. I bet the baby is starving! And my phone is gone! Those thieves are laughing at my stupidity! This will take weeks to sort out! I blinked back tears.
Lesson #8: Stress can hijack us emotionally and cognitively. By this time I was exhausted and my thinking was very compromised. Driving in this state could easily lead to an accident.
Luckily I calmed myself enough to realize that driving was my only priority at that moment. Everything else could wait until I got home. It wasn’t easy. But I got very present and focused on my driving.
Once again, I began to calm down. At a red light, I saw the clear purples, pinks and blues of the evening sky. I remembered the beautiful birthday gift of my daughter’s visit. I thought about reading stories to my granddaughter.
My thinking cleared up: Everything is going to be okay. The only thing I know for sure right now, is that my daughter has to take a cab and my phone is gone. Whatever else happens can be straightened out when and if it happens.
Lesson #9: Keep things in perspective. Identify what is really at stake, not what your runaway mind is imagining.
About a block from my house, I heard a pingggggg that sounded exactly like a text coming in. A few moments later another pinggggggg. It was a text. My phone was somewhere in the car!
I pulled into my driveway and found the phone lodged deeply under the passenger seat. I didn’t waste a moment trying to figure out why I hadn’t found it earlier. I called my daughter, apologized, and asked her to take a cab.
Tears welled up in my eyes again, and I laughed aloud at the same moment. All that for nothing! Except perhaps a good story of how not to deal with unforeseen events, stress, and upset.
Lesson #10: When all else fails, find something to laugh about, including yourself. In the School of Life, laughter always earns you extra credit.
My stories could wait. I had just enough time to shower and get dinner ready before my special guests arrived. But before I did that, I went inside to my desk and put a label on the storage unit key. That fake duplicate key would never fool me again.
Tags: fear · laughter · self-criticism · stress
A couple of years ago, I began participating in Lip Service, a literary event here in Miami, similar to NPR’s The Moth, where storytellers share true personal stories in front of a 600-person audience.
I’ve done several shows and have exposed some very revealing, very tender parts of my life and my inner world. And it scares me silly every time I do it.
Why? you might wonder. Why stand in front all those strangers in a dark theater, with a video camera rolling, revealing your secrets?
When I began, I had absolutely no idea why. The moment I heard about Lip Service though, a strong pull came over me and I thought, “I want to do that. No, I have to do that.” I knew I had to, even though I’d never done anything like it. I’d done lots of public speaking before, but it was professional and carefully curated. Safe.
This would be different. Risky. Messy. Scary. But despite my reservations, I listened to that inner voice and now I know why my intuition was so spot-on.
Telling the whole truth about yourself is the most liberating thing you can ever possibly do.
When I explore my personal struggles, large and small, the places I’ve been hurt, confused, or upset, I can dig down to the radical truth about myself and the situation.
I find my mistakes, my bruised feelings, my anxieties, to be sure, but as I keep exploring, I also find the places I was not seeing reality clearly. My vision unclouds and the truth shines through.
I look at my childhood with new eyes and see where I carried the pain and chaos from it into adulthood. And how I don’t need to do that any more.
I find solutions to problems I thought were unsolvable. Sometimes the solution is simply to get it off my chest and out into the world.
I see the humor and the everydayness of things I thought were Oh-So-Huge and Dramatic and Terrible.
I find forgiveness for those who wronged me and see where I needlessly harbored resentment.
By admitting my vulnerability, I understand myself better. I find my true voice, my authenticity. I don’t have to pretend or hide with anyone, even myself.
Ultimately, it’s deeply compassionate work.
Sharing those urgent places with an audience makes it even more powerfully transformational. It leaves me feeling courageous and proud of myself.
Audience members tell me how they understand how I felt and that they relate to what I did. They say that my story helps them understand their own stories.
There’s a lot of healing in knowing we’re not alone, that we’re not the only one who feels afraid, guilty, or foolish. We’re all in this together.
Even when something frivolous gets under my skin, if I explore why I’m obsessing about it, something deeper and universal is invariably revealed.
Last May, I went onstage for Lip Service and told a lighter story about me, myself and my hair. As I learned, even a light story, when looked at truthfully, can have depth and meaning to it.
So here it is. I hope you enjoy it.
“Back to the real world tomorrow,” my friend Jen lamented. We’d spent the last ten days in Peru with a small group of friends, sampling the restaurants, art galleries, and nightclubs of Lima, and exploring the Amazonian jungle. We’d laughed and talked and been completely absorbed with our adventure. Wi-fi was almost impossible to access, and we’d been truly disconnected from our daily lives.
But if life at home with our jobs and laundry and email is the real world, then what is the world we’ve been in? And why do we resist leaving it?
On our bus ride back to the airport from our lodge in the rainforest, I had the great fortune of sitting next to one of our guides. Carlo, a bright, cheerful man in his mid-thirties, is an expert in the traditional herbal medicines of the jungle and had given us a tour of the lodge’s medicinal garden, deep in the rainforest. He’d shown us plants that cure a wide variety of ailments, from arthritis and cancer to headache and difficult childbirth. He had a sweetness that made listening to him a delight.
Carlo had pointed to a small square indent in the ground, about six feet on each side. He’d lived in a small structure on that spot for a year, he’d told us. His mentor had instructed him to do so as part of his training as a medicine man.
On the bus ride, I asked him to tell me more about his experience living alone in the jungle. He said he went to the lodge only for meals and stayed in the jungle the rest of the time. It had been a spiritual journey for him—a time to go inward and to come to terms with adulthood, with life, with himself. He learned to communicate with the plants as well, by living with them and observing them.
He left his jungle house the day a jaguar visited him, scratching at his thin walls.
“Did you enjoy your time alone in the jungle?” I asked him.
“Very much,” he said. “It was very spiritual and I learned many things.”
“Were you sad to leave?” I asked.
“Oh no,” he said. “The jaguar was a sign. It was time to go.”
For Carlo, there was no thought of “back to the real world.” He hadn’t resisted staying alone in the jungle, either. For him, each was simply the right time to move on to his next experience. He told me he’s now married and has two young children. He said he loves his life now as much as he loved his year in the jungle.
What if we could approach our experiences and transitions like Carlo, without resistance? What if the line between “the real world” and “vacation world” was not subdivided into drudgery and stress versus fun and freedom? What if, when our vacations are ending, we could see it as Carlo did when the jaguar arrived, as time to go?
I think that there’s a key element that, at least for me, allows an ease in transitions between adventures and “the real world”: gratitude.
Gratitude is the foundation that allows us to enjoy and appreciate every aspect of our lives. Gratitude for our adventures, gratitude for the opportunity for us to see beyond our routine experience, and equal gratitude for our daily lives. Gratitude for life itself and for all it brings.
I think Carlo would agree.
A friend and I were talking about an adventurous trip we’re both considering. We both had some reservations about it and we were discussing the pros and cons.
“I don’t want to count on it until I’m sure that I’m going,” he said. “I don’t want to get my hopes up and then get disappointed.”
“Why not?” I asked.
He couldn’t give me a reason.
The next day we spoke again. “I changed my mind about not wanting to get my hopes up,” he said. “Your question made me realize that I’m on fire about this. It would mean so much to me to do this. I want to be excited about it. I am excited about it.
“I realize that growing up, my enthusiasm was often dampened. My parents really meant well, but they always disregarded my excitement. I think they wanted to protect me from hurt, so I’d say the glass was half-full and they’d warn me it was half-empty.
“I’m ready to reclaim my natural joy towards life.”
It was a beautiful moment, and from there, the rest of our conversation was filled with our excitement about the amazing possibilities that could unfold if we took the trip, as well as some honest reflection about our hesitations.
But we don’t always realize what my friend did, do we? We often keep ourselves from getting our hopes up and stop there. We stop short of getting excited about possible new adventures, opportunities, or good news. Whether we’re contemplating taking a trip, getting a promotion, or finding our dream home, we so often temper it with, “I don’t want to get my hopes up.”
This robs us of the joy that’s available in the anticipation, deliberations, and decision-making.
That joy and excitement is like rocket fuel, and propels us with the energy, focus, and drive to take the steps we need to move forward. It enhances our motivation and performance. And it feels great, too.
We do the same thing when bad news is on the horizon. When waiting for results from a medical test, for example, how often we prepare ourselves for the worst, not wanting to get our hopes up. And then we wait in dread and terror.
I challenge you to ask yourself why–why shouldn’t you get your hopes up? Can you find a single valid reason to dampen your enthusiasm, optimism, or joy?
We think that we’ll be better prepared by not getting our hopes up. We fear that it will hurt worse later if we’re optimistic and then don’t’ get what we want.
But the truth is this: disappointment now does not prepare us for disappointment later. It doesn’t protect us from hurt later, either. It only generates negative feelings right now. If bad news comes, we’ll still feel crappy later.
I once told a client that she might as well go slam her hand in a car door right now, just in case she might slam her hand in the door next month.
Because that’s exactly what we do when we don’t let ourselves get our hopes up, isn’t it? We generate pain and negativity right now when the event we dread may never happen.
Disappointment about what might happen feels heavy right now. And it’s totally useless. If we get what we want, we’ve felt terrible unnecessarily, and if we don’t get what we want, we’ve felt terrible leading up to the bad news.
And in doing so, we deny ourselves moments, days, weeks, lifetimes of excitement and enthusiasm. We rob ourselves of the very stuff that energizes us and propels us towards rich and fulfilled lives.
So how about it? What joy or enthusiasm are you holding back from? What bad news are you suffering about before you get it? What possibility are you failing to celebrate?
Then, ask yourself why. Why not get your hopes up? Why not imagine yourself in the situation you dream of? Why not imagine the best possible outcome?
The only thing you’ve got to lose is today’s pessimism, anxiety, and pain. If you don’t believe me, you can always try the car door test.
Tags: desire · fear · happiness
December 9th, 2014 · 3 Comments
“Daddy? Daddy? Daddy! DADDY YOU WEREN’T LISTENING!”
“Yes, I was,” my father answered. “You said that you have a spelling test and you’re going to have a Christmas party at school.”
“You’re just being a parrot.” I’d say. “I don’t want to talk to a parrot! I want to talk to you, Daddy.”
I had this conversation with my father many, many times in my childhood. It was always the same. Even as a small child, I knew when he wasn’t really listening, even though he could repeat my words back to me with the precision of a tape recorder.
But I knew when he wasn’t present. And it didn’t feel good. It felt empty and bewildering. It made me question the value of what I had to say.
The times when he was really listening and engaged were wonderful and felt very different. And I remember them distinctly. It’s what I always wanted from him, more than a new bike or a doll or a potholder loom. And it was the one thing that was so elusive in our relationship–his presence.
It’s the same thing we want from each other as adults. We want more than a warm body pretending to be with us. We want a here-and-now presence, where we know the other person isn’t distracted, multitasking, or politely waiting for us to finish talking so they can have a turn.
I recently led a workshop on presence and asked a group of about 50 women what they wanted for the holidays. They initially said things like “a clean house” and “finishing the holiday cards.” After we dug down a bit, here’s what they said they really want:
- to enjoy their favorite people
- to re-connect with folks they haven’t seen or been with lately
- to show appreciation for others
- to show love
- to feel connected to others in a meaningful way.
In other words, as these women discovered, what we want is each other. We humans are social creatures. Our relationships matter to us. The human connection is one of the major cornerstones of high life satisfaction.
And now when we are here at that “most wonderful time of the year,” it’s easy to lose sight of that. We get busy decking the halls, cooking up a storm, shopping ‘till we drop, and partying like it’s 1999. And we forget why we’re doing it in the first place.
The good news is that the easiest and most delightful way to both get and give the gift that everyone really wants, is not with our presents. It’s with our presence. It’s a gift that is 100% free and the stores never close.
And here’s an extra bonus—when we give the gift of presence, we’ll never have to dread those credit card bills in January.
There was a surprise waiting when I went to yoga Sunday morning. We regular students keep our mats rolled up on a bank of narrow shelves in the back of the studio. The shelves had gotten so crammed full that if one mat was pulled out, a half dozen other mats came with it. They call ‘em sticky mats for a good reason.
While our teacher Natalie was on vacation, some of her helpers moved dozens of nameless mats up to the tiny front check-in area and piled them on the floor. When I arrived, a half-dozen people were scrambling through a candy-colored jumble in search of their mats. I stood back to let the crowd thin out.
Within a few minutes, only one woman was left ahead of me. She was bent forward at a ninety-degree angle, pushing, pulling and struggling. She straightened up, turned towards me and heaved a big sigh. She was young and beautiful, but her brows were kitted and her mouth contorted. “This is so stressful,” she said. “And I came here to get rid of stress.”
“Take your time,” I told her. “It’s only a mat.”
She smiled weakly and turned back to her plight. About ten seconds later she retrieved a bright fuschia mat and hurried into the classroom.
There was a time when I would have reacted exactly like that. I would have forgotten that I was young and beautiful. I would have forgotten that I was healthy and strong and had two incredible arms and legs. I would have forgotten that it was a blazingly brilliant Sunday morning in Coconut Grove, and that I had just walked in a light breeze under mahogany trees filled with dancing leaves and trilling mockingbirds.
Yep, I would have started yoga class upset and frustrated because my mat had been moved and it took me an extra minute or two to find it.
Stressing out is virtually our national pastime. Eight in ten Americans report workplace stress. Seventy-five to ninety percent of all doctor’s office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints. Forty-three percent of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress. Almost half of us lie awake in bed at night due to stress, and about two-thirds of us will have hypertension by the age of 60.
Granted, people sometimes face serious and stressful problems–a life-threatening illness or the loss of a loved one. But how many of us are stressed because we arrive at yoga class and the mats were moved? Or because we jump in our cars to go to the grocery store and an accident ties up traffic for five minutes? Or because we’ve misplaced our keys? Or the dryer won’t start?
Our stress response is provoked over and over all day long, from things no less trivial than these. Then, the “stress wiring” in our bodies becomes stronger and more efficient. Over time, it takes less and less of a circumstance to push us into a stress state. The “set point” for our stress response to kick in actually lowers and we respond by pumping out stress hormones from smaller and smaller provocations.
In short, we create a hair-trigger stress-response system by reacting so dramatically and consistently to trivial inconveniences. We’re not very happy campers, either, while we are going about creating both acute and chronic health problems.
What’s the answer? One obvious solution is immediately available to all of us. If something is going on that you can’t control, let it go. Arguing with reality never succeeds—we always lose the debate as well as our health and well-being.
If the mats have been moved or the traffic is tied up or your flight is taking off late, let it go. If the rain is messing up your hair or if the lack of rain is drying out your flowerbeds, let it go. Two or ten or twenty extra minutes, frizzy hair, and wilted flowers are not worth compromising our happiness or our health.
Next time something unexpected happens and you’re delayed or inconvenienced, you might want to remind yourself that you are uselessly (and perhaps harmfully) stressing about something you can’t control.
When it was my turn at the mat-pile, I found two identical Mandukas—thick, grey, high-end talismans owned by those who take yoga very, very seriously, or like me, just need some extra knee cushioning. I considered what to do for a few seconds, then heard Natalie’s sweet voice. Class was starting.
It was time to take my own advice. I grabbed one of the two mats, pushing aside thoughts about whose sweat and grimy footprints other than my own might be lingering on it. When I get home, I told myself, I’ll have a hot, soapy shower and scrub the mat clean. Then I’ll write my name on it with a black marker so this won’t happen again.
“After all,” I reminded myself, “It’s only a mat.”
February 21st, 2014 · 8 Comments
I’ve spent most of my life doing my best to avoid mistakes. At all costs. It seemed like a good strategy–a good way to stay “out of trouble” and the best path to success. Then some smart, successful, and very talented people began encouraging me to make mistakes. On purpose.
It started about fifteen years ago in a portrait photography workshop with a well-known, gifted teacher. She gave me a weird assignment: spend a week taking photographs the wrong way. Cut off heads, hands, and feet in awkward places. Get too close, overexpose your shots, and ignore the rule of thirds.
It was hard to do. It felt strange. But by the end of the week, I was experimenting and shooting with way more spontaneity and abandon. Many of the photos were useless, but a few were downright lovely. Beautiful Mistakes.
Photography has always been easier and more fun since then. I shot the photo above this post last summer in Woodstock, New York. I was with my family and the backseat of the car we’d parked next to was so Woodstock, chock full of 60’s hippie stuff—drums, tie-died t-shirts, Indian blankets. I wanted a photo of it and I had only a few seconds because everyone was hungry and waiting for me. I grabbed my iPhone and quickly took one shot. I didn’t realize the reflection of the car window would show my hands and the trees behind me. But I think the result is far more interesting than what I’d planned—a Beautiful Mistake.
Then I met Martha Beck, my wonderful mentor, who insisted that not only should I break the rules I’d been operating under, I should create my own rules. At every turn over the last eight years, Martha has lovingly been in my face, pushing me to trust my inner guidance, make my own rules, and be willing to fall flat on my face.
Martha introduced me to improv in our Master Coach training. Improv can only be done successfully when you are willing to look like a complete idiot. You must be totally spontaneous–improv moves way too fast to plan anything. It was fun and I thought it might help me with my perfectionism and “avoid mistakes at all costs” tendencies.
So I took a couple of improv classes locally with Carey Kane here in Miami. At first I dreaded my turn. My lines often fell flat. But the more I did it, the more comfortable I got with looking like a complete idiot. By the end of the classes, I was consistently having fun and sometimes zinging out some pretty funny lines.
Now I’m in a memoir writing class with the awesome Andrea Askowitz of Miami’s Lip Service. Each week, we’re given a couple of provocative prompts (a time you wish you spoke up and didn’t, how you edit the truth when talking to friends, a time you knew you shouldn’t have had sex and did anyway). We dive right in, writing spontaneously for ten minutes without editing anything.
Then the real fun begins—we read our stories aloud to each other. We give each other feedback—what’s interesting, what needs clarification, what doesn’t fit. We cannot criticize our own work or skip our turn. The only comment Andrea allows us to make before we read is, “This is the best thing I’ve ever written.”
The stories written by my classmates are consistently poignant and horrifying and heart-wrenching and funny and often downright brilliant. They seem to feel the same way about my stories. We discover things about ourselves we weren’t aware of. We’re often surprised when the group laughs or cries when we read something we thought was stupid. We see ourselves in each other’s stories—the universal messiness and glory of being a human. Each week, I fall more deeply in love with these wonderful people who are so willing to expose themselves in the name of creativity and self-exploration. The mistakes of our writing and the mistakes of our lives are on full display and it is truly beautiful.
I’ve discovered that my willingness to make mistakes has served me far more than my commitment to avoiding them. Here’s a list of some of the advantages I’ve found in my adventures in Beautiful Mistakes:
1. Creative projects are much easier and more interesting.
2. I’m bolder and have more self-confidence.
3. I’m more spontaneous and self-censor less.
4. I don’t cringe so much when I goof something up.
5. I have more fun at everything I do.
6. I’m more willing to try new things and to experiment.
7. I’m better at brainstorming when I work with a group.
8. It’s easier to apologize when I’m wrong.
9. I’m more vulnerable which makes my relationships richer and more authentic.
10. Best of all, I feel a greater connection and love for others and a huge tolerance for their mistakes.
It’s been a pretty good payoff, I think, for doing things wrong. These days, I can’t wait for my next Beautiful Mistake. How about you?
A coaching colleague recently asked this intriguing question in a private online forum. Here’s my answer:
QUESTION: When you realize your head is up your ass and has been there for quite some time, how do you go about the process of removing it and moving on with your life?
ANSWER: What a wonderful question! It’s actually an essential question for those of us born with heads and asses. We do indeed stick our heads up there from time to time. How to remove it and move forward is essential to the ability to live bravely, fully, and joyfully.
Here’s how to do it:
1. Give yourself a big gold star for realizing where your head is. Our proprioception–an inner GPS that lets us know where our body parts are without seeing them–is especially challenged when our heads are up our asses. Not only is it dark in there, we’re in a state of utter confusion. Many of us spend a lot of time with our heads in that dark crevice and never even know it. So recognizing that your head is up your ass requires accurate proprioception under extremely challenging circumstances. Congratulations!
2. The removal process is done in a straightforward way and with the kind of tenderness you’d use with your bewildered elderly aunt with dementia when she’s wandered out of the nursing home and gotten lost. Be kind. Be gentle. Be patient. The extraction might be a little painful, so remind yourself of the great pleasures and possibilities awaiting you.
3. Welcome all emotions as you go about your task—rage, tears, anger, sadness, fear. Whatever arises is perfect. Feel it all the way through. Run, howl, growl, wail, and dance it out of your body. Shake your fists and stomp your feet. Some ugly, discordant music can be very useful. This is all best done once your head is freed from your ass.
4. Don’t waste any time or energy telling yourself that your head should never have gotten up your ass in the first place, how you knew better than to put it there, how you didn’t listen to your body, did it again, ignored your intuition, blew off the red flags, etc., etc., etc. Coulda, shoulda and woulda will only keep your head firmly stuck right where it is and delay your progress. Don’t do it.
5. Same goes for blaming others—don’t waste your time or energy. It doesn’t matter one whit that someone else lied, tempted, cajoled, fooled, cheated or tricked you to into putting your head up your ass. Blame is a distraction. Whatever shameless, exploitative, narcissistic, or manipulative thing anyone else did is done and over. File it under “Good to Know” and move on.
6. At least for now, don’t spend time pondering how your head got up your ass, how to keep it from getting up there again, or any of the larger lessons that can be learned from your adventure. The deeper meaning and the life lessons will reveal themselves when your head is completely out of the dark and your eyes have readjusted to the light. Then you can look back with curiosity and wonderment and maybe even learn something.
7. Celebrate! Celebrate that you have a head and an ass and that they found each other! Celebrate that hard as your head tries to convince you that it has all the answers, it really doesn’t, and now you have rock solid evidence that many of your other assumptions can safely be rejected! Celebrate that on some level, your ass was only trying to help out by providing a refuge! Celebrate that your spirit has been in search of experience and has achieved it’s goal! Celebrate the Holy Fool that you are!
8. Reconnect with the most luminous parts of yourself–your heart, your soul, your essence. Go for a walk in nature. Buy flowers. Sing in the shower. Look for the beauty all around you. Inspiring commencement addresses are particularly useful right now. Like a recent college graduate, your head has been stuffed to the brim with learning, but you don’t quite know how you are going to use it in the world. Revisit books, poems, quotes or works of art that moved you in the past.
Once you’re purring along nicely again in your beautiful life, realize that it’s probably not the last time this will happen. Putting our heads up our asses seems to be an inevitable part of the human experience. We forget, misjudge, goof up, and inevitably do it all over again. Successful living is more about process than avoidance—put head up ass, notice, remove, rebuild, learn, repeat. Over and over through a lifetime.
It’s not a bad way to live if, over the course of time, we can we discover it more efficiently and get it out with more dignity and aplomb. The sooner we just go ahead and admit it and begin the extraction and rebuilding process, the greater the chance our head will stay firmly upon our shoulders more of the time where it does us the most good.
Happy New Year!