Check Thyself

More off the cuff than usual today, friends. It’s been a year so far, with few signs of relief upcoming. Breathing deeply:

Do you speak and act out of fear and a strong desire for control, in situations where you cannot have it?

Signs that this may be happening to you:

1. Your muscles get tense

2. Your chest feels tight

3. You feel your heart thumping

4. Your ears ring

5. Your speech becomes louder, higher pitched, faster

6. You feel ANGRY, especially if it’s sudden and intense rage

7. You interrupt people and start gesturing more

8. You feel self-righteous

9. You feel certain that everybody around you is stupid, ignorant, and/or either out to get you personally or totally corrupt and willing to destroy anything in their path to forward their own interests

10. You feel physically, mentally, and emotionally drained after a brief encounter

What else?

Words spoken and actions taken in the throes of active emotional hijack can wreak lasting damage on our relationships, social function, and collective culture. The emotions themselves, however, are temporary. They serve to call our attention to something we need to address, something important to our safety, security, and well-being.

How we address the somethings is key to our personal and relational success or failure.

Self-awareness and self-regulation are the core skills to train in here.

Some tips (from dialectical behavior therapy [DBT] and elsewhere):

–Ride the waves of emotion like an expert surfer—balance atop them as they complete their natural journey to dissipate on shore, delivering you to the beach again and again

–Check the FACTS of the situation–distinguish between what can be observed and described objectively and what you assume/judge/project subjectively–recognize how you may have it wrong

–BREATHE. Deep breaths stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, lowering blood pressure and heart rate, countering the activating effects of fight or flight. Slow, steady breathing grounds us and allows us to see, hear, and think more clearly

–Ask yourself, “How will what I’m about to say/do really make things better in the long run, and at what cost?”

–Slow down. Count to ten. Call a time out. Step away. If it’s worth saying or doing, it can wait this little bit.

More and more I see impulsive behaviors, in reaction to acute on chronic individual and collective stress, destroying relationships and shredding our social fabric. It’s so frustrating, mostly because I see it as so preventable.

Self-awareness and self-regulation:  The concepts are simple. The skills acquisition and execution constitute a lifelong pursuit of wildly imperfect mastery.

YES, things are shitty everywhere. YES, we are justified in our fear, anger, frustration, impatience, and dissatisfaction.

AND we can choose, at any time, to manage these intensely uncomfortable emotions in ways that either connect us in solidarity and cooperation or divide us in mutual denigration and destruction.

Recognize emotional hijack. Breathe through it.   

Let us speak and act from our core values ahead of impulsive, fearful, and self-righteous rage.

And let us thank one another for the effort.

Read more along these lines from one of my heroes, Brene Brown.

I See Myself In You

“I can’t imagine…”

“I can’t understand…”

“I can’t relate…”

“I would never…”

When you think or say these phrases, what is the context?  What message are you harboring, or trying to convey—connection or distance, or something else? 

Can you truly not imagine, understand, or relate?  What if you tried harder (or at all)?  How would it affect you if you could imagine, understand, and relate, or if you would ever, under certain circumstances?  How would this altered relationship to the situation (and person) feel?

I have written before about what happened when I said, “I can’t imagine” to a black classmate.  It was humbling.  I submit that we could all humble ourselves a little more these days.

Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch, Loveland, Colorado

My last pre-pandemic solo trip was to Loveland, Colorado, for the last retreat of Leading Organizations to Health, Cohort 11.  It feels cosmically fitting for my first solo trip since COVID to be a return for the first in person LOH alumni gathering in this time, last weekend.  OMG, friends, it was the next best thing to going home.  Other than our leaders, I had only met my fellow alums over Zoom these last two years.  And now I have 8 amazing new friends.  Though separated by occupation, specialty, generation, and geography, we all speak fluently the as yet rare and reverent language of relationship-centered leadership.  This is my tribe.

We start our sessions with poems.  Please Call Me By My True Names by Thich Nhat Hanh spoke deeply to me, especially these lines:

I am the twelve year-old girl, refugee in a small boat,

who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate,

and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.

Whoa.

I have written on this blog many times about seeking, honoring, and really exercising our shared humanity —35 posts appear when I search the site for the phrase.  Even since I started blogging 7 years ago, though, it feels ever more urgent that we practice this every day.

This card hangs on my kitchen cabinet.

This week my good friend Donna asked me to re-articulate my Why.  Again, I’m sure it was cosmic inspiration that moved her.  Have I ever written my Why statement here?  It was ‘to optimize relationships with and between all people I meet.’  And by optimize I meant to make more understanding, more connecting, and more meaningful.  Today, I think I have to be much more specific:  

My Why is to help us all see at least a part of ourselves in every person we meet. 

I intend to practice and model this first myself—to really internalize the truth that I am myself and also every other soul—that we are all born with the same needs, the same aspirations, the same set of possibilities.  Each of our unique, complex constellations of birth circumstance lottery, serial life experiences, and intrinsic wiring shapes us in ways we can only partially understand in our thinking brains.  What we have not the capacity to think or speak, often can only be felt.  And when we contact another soul who has also felt what we feel, or who can imagine, understand, or relate in some way, WOW, how healing is that?  I bet we can all recall at least a few instances when those deep, meaningful connections occurred across apparently wide gaps of background, class, or other social construct.  And why do we remember?  Because we were moved, alerted, and maybe a little alarmed?  Or maybe we have forgotten, because to come too close to someone’s experience that makes us uncomfortable can trigger a distancing reflex—self-image-protecting, perhaps.

In recent years I have internalized the admonishment to never say, or really even think, “What is wrong with you?”  Rather, I remind myself to ask, “What happened to you?”  In every context, this one switch opens the door to curiosity, imagination, understanding, relationship, and connection.  It allows space for our deeply shared humanity to surface and teach me what I need to know, or at least to prompt humility ahead of blind judgment and dismissal.  Substitute “them” for “you” in these sentences, and see how easily and willingly we throw away whole groups of people with our in- and out-group identities and ideologies.

May we all see a part of ourselves in every person we meet, especially the ones who make us say, “I can’t imagine, I can’t understand, I can’t relate, and I would never…”  Let that seeing move us to put down our judgments and take up empathy, compassion, and connection instead.  We will all be better for it.

Place Holder: Elizabeth Lesser’s Wisdom

From Elizabeth Lesser’s FB post

Hiya, friends! There’s a lot going on right now and my relationship with this blog is evolving… transforming? Not sure when I’ll be back with anything of my own that’s worth sharing. I’m confident it will all come in its own time.

Meanwhile, please enjoy Elizabeth Lesser’s Facebook post from today, which speaks directly to my soul. Maybe you’ll resonate as well, and it can bring you comfort and peace as it does to me.

ODOMOBaaT, my peeps. Until next time.

***

I still have abiding hope for our times. I have it because I am a student of history and I know that human communities have struggled through other desperate times: famines, disasters, droughts, floods, and plagues; the fires of war, genocide, slavery, despots, and dictators. Like the mythical phoenix bird, we have risen from the ashes many times before. Eras of destruction have been followed by those of recovery and peace, creativity and great leaps of ingenuity.

I was born in the 1950s, an era that came out of the global brokenness of World War II. To many, the 50s were a time of healing and rebuilding and stability. But to others, they were a time of racism, sexism, and stifling conformity. The 50s gave birth to the 60s which, on the one hand, brought freedom, justice, and liberating creativity, and on the other hand went too far and too fast for many. It has always been thus—cultures swinging back and forth between brokenness and breakthrough. Humanity winding its way through growth spurts and amnesia, destruction and advancement, but always moving, always changing, and, from my point of view, always being offered a choice: to languish or to rise, to perish or to mature into a more magnificent expression of life.

Can we rise? I am eternally optimistic that we can. I have seen people change; I have changed myself. I know it is possible. Even neuroscience is confirming this. Brain scientists once believed that by early adulthood the physical structure of the human brain was fixed. But newer research has revealed that our brains never stop changing—that from childhood on, new neural pathways are formed when we learn new information, change old patterns, or confront physical and emotional trauma. This is called neuroplasticity, and it confirms for me that we are equipped to respond creatively and constructively to stressful and difficult times—that it is possible for all of us, as a species, to create new pathways in our collective brain.

Sometimes it feels way too exhausting to keep carving those new pathways! But I like the way the poet Rumi gently chides me to keep on going, to stay optimistic, to head toward what’s possible:

Drum sounds rise on the air,

and with them, my heart.

A voice inside the beat says,

I know you are tired,

but come.

This is the way.