Attune and Differentiate:  One Week’s Synthesis

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Friends, don’t you just love when an idea you resonate with recurs in your consciousness from disparate sources in short order, further deepening its meaning?  I share three pieces with you this week, which all deepened my commitment to embracing the paradox of attunement and differentiation.

CO fall 2018

First, I listened again to Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness.  I highly recommend this book to help us all, conservatives and progressives alike, engage (not avoid) one another this election year with a lot more compassion, civility, and mutual respect.  Throughout the book Sister Brené shares personal stories as well as evidence from her research that define true belonging, which I think of as another expression for self-actualization and self-transcendence.  In her words:

True belonging requires us to believe in and belong to ourselves so fully that we can find sacredness in both being a part of something, and standing alone when necessary. But in a culture that’s rife with perfectionism and pleasing, and with the erosion of civility, it’s easy to stay quiet, hide in our ideological bunkers, or fit in rather than show up as our true selves and brave the wilderness of uncertainty and criticism.

Attune and differentiate:  these two practices are not only not mutually exclusive, they are essential and integral for whole person and societal health and well-being.  Read the book to adopt her four practices to advance true belonging, for yourself and for all of us:

  1. People Are Hard to Hate Close Up. Move In.
  2. Speak Truth to Bullshit. Be Civil.
  3. Hold Hands. With Strangers.
  4. Strong Back. Soft Front.  Wild Heart.

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Second, I met Massimo on Ozan’s last Inner Circle Zoom call.  He is a designer and facilitator from Italy—thank you again, Ozan, for connecting so many of us all around the world!  Massimo has launched a blog, which resonated with me because he also advocates finding your voice (differentiating) as well as finding a community of belonging (attunement) as a reason to write:

…Meet new people and to interact with them

Learning adventures can make you feel on a solitary path, too much unbalanced on the input, reading and digesting side without much interaction. Expand your network, look for more interactive exchanges with whom might provide an alternative, critical point of view compared to yours. Exposing your opinions leads self-selecting people to network and resonate with you. Find your tribe. We need many and none at the same time. You need different communities where to manifest and explore your interests. On the other hand, you need to better focus on creating those which are more fertile ground to nurture your continuously changing interests and aspirations.

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Third, I read David Brooks’s article in The New York Times on the ethos of Scandanavian education.  Eloquent as usual, he synthesizes a complex set of ideas into language we can all understand:

19th-century Nordic elites…realized that they were going to have to make lifelong learning a part of the natural fabric of society.

…(Their system) is devised to help (students) understand complex systems and see the relations between things — between self and society, between a community of relationships in a family and a town. 

…Nordic educators also worked hard to develop the student’s internal awareness. That is to say, they helped students see the forces always roiling inside the self — the emotions, cravings, wounds and desires. If you could see those forces and their interplay, as if from the outside, you could be their master and not their slave. 

…Their intuition was that as people grow, they have the ability to go through developmental phases, to see themselves and the world through ever more complex lenses. A young child may blindly obey authority — Mom, Dad, teacher. Then she internalizes and conforms to the norms of the group. Then she learns to create her own norms based on her own values. Then she learns to see herself as a node in a network of selves and thus learns mutuality and holistic thinking. [See Changing on the Job by Jennifer Garvey Berger for more on this theory of adult development.]

Scandanavians…have a distinctive sense of the relationship between personal freedom and communal responsibility.

(Meanwhile, in the United States…) If you have a thin educational system that does not help students see the webs of significance between people, does not even help students see how they see, you’re going to wind up with a society in which people can’t see through each other’s lenses.

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In 2020 more than ever, we need to cultivate much stronger relationship skills.  We must identify and honor our core values and stand up for them, even when attacked by those closest to us—perhaps even especially then.  How we honor our best selves determines how we honor others.  When we show up at our most honest and authentic, we can call forth the same in others to meet us.  We can relate as fellow humans, inextricably connected, mutually interdependent, and all in it together.  Once we realize this, we can know in our hearts that we truly belong to ourselves and to one another, and we can more easily get on with the world’s most important work—connecting humanity in health, safety, and love.

The Mark You Make

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Friends, Ozan has written another book!  I know it may seem like it, but he’s not paying me to promote his work, really!  He has offered perks for Inner Circle members, however, like an advance digital copy for preordering, and signed copies when the book is released next April.  In considering what I would ask him to inscribe to my friends in the books I will give them, I realized yet another evocative dimension of my relationships.

If you were to describe your friendships to a third party, or make a meaningful introduction in service of connecting two amazing people, what would you say?  I call it ‘connecting fellow Awesomes,’ and it’s always a pleasure and privilege to serve in this capacity.  I thought to ask Ozan to write to one friend something like, “Cathy thinks the world of you—happy to make such a positive new connection!”  Then I thought, this friend has really made a mark on me.  Then I thought of the mark Ozan has also made, in just 9 months of virtual contact.  And then my mind was blown with the realization of my cosmically marked-up self—the finger, hand, and footprints of all those whom I have contacted.

Years ago I attended the orthopaedic surgery resident graduation dinner with my husband, a happy and fun annual event.  At the end, mingling with faculty and trainees, one of the graduates looked at me and his eyes widened.  “You’re Dr. Cheng!  You were my teaching attending during my third year medicine rotation [7 years prior] at [the hospital where I used to work]!”  I was gratified that his expression was cheerful, rather than distressed or awkward, surprise.  He went on to tell me that I held the team to a high standard of discussion, and that he appreciated my presence and teaching.  I will always remember this encounter with pride and appreciation.

In the past year three patients from my past have resurfaced and told me the positive difference I made it their lives.  I remembered two of them so clearly, both their faces and their names (after 20 years and thousands of patients, I can usually only remember one or other).  Talking to each of them reminded me of all that we had been through together, and I was glad that I had done my job well.

But what about those for whom I have not been a great doctor?  I have had my fair share of patients who left me, for various reasons.  I know I have been seriously disappointing for many.  I wonder how many times I have contributed to patients’ negative overall experience of medicine, and further widened the divide between doctors and patients in our fraught and flawed healthcare system?  Sometimes I look back on my early years of practice and cringe a little—all the writing I do now on empathy, compassion, curiosity, openness, and humility results from years of lessons learned in real time, on real people.  I’m definitely much more adept at it all now than in the beginning.  And I’m still learning—I still get triggered, still fall into old, counterproductive thought and behavior patterns.  Sometimes it feels like I will never be good enough, or enough in general.

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I also think about the people whose marks on me were/are hurtful, dismissive, and otherwise wounding.  It reminds me of carvings I see in the trunks of the beautiful aspens I walked among this weekend.  Did the folks who made them set out to harm the trees?  If they thought the tree might die from their knife marks, would they think twice?  Maybe they were overcome with their profound experience in nature and just wanted to mark it in some way, especially if they shared it with someone they loved (so may initials with plus signs and hearts)?  Sometimes we just want or need to be right, competent, respected, and acknowledged.  So we mark our encounters with stubbornness, aggression, or even violence (in its many forms, overt and cloaked).  Like the strong and flexible aspens, I bear scars from such encounters and still continue to thrive.  Such marks have taught me how to care for myself, and also how not to be toward others.

In the end, how do I reconcile these relationship phenomena?  Sometimes we can see and know the mark we make on others.  Many times we cannot.  Nobody is perfect.  My whole life I will scrape and nick those around me, hopefully never with malicious intent.  I can only hope for their generosity and grace, and forgiveness.

Sister Brené Brown, once again, helps me continue.  In her book Rising Strong, she describes a choice, a mental attitude, that can help us all suffer less.  If you have not read or heard the book, I highly recommend it—it’s my favorite of the 5 of her books I have read.  Assume, she says (with the help of her pediatrician husband), that we are all doing the best we can.  That’s it.  We are all imperfect.  Our circumstances mess with us, our patterns mess with each other, and sometimes it can feel like a strange and inexplicable miracle that we have not all killed one another already.  But choosing to give each other this one, simple, and at times colossally difficult benefit of the doubt, could be what saves us all.

We simply cannot extricate ourselves from each other.  So we can just do your best to take care of one another.  And be prepared to apologize, early and often.

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All Hail Your Dark Side

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What triggers you?

I don’t mean your pet peeves (please, stop using “there’s” when speaking about anything in the plural).  I mean what gets under your skin and affects you viscerally, really hijacks you?  I’m talking about the thing that escalates you so fast or intensely it’s like an out of body experience—you know you’re overreacting, you know it’s irrational, and yet all you can do is sit by and watch it unfold, powerless to control or direct it.

I had the pleasure of self-witnessing two such episodes recently, and it’s all so fascinating I had to write about them!

Bad Mom

A leader whom I deeply respect has asked me twice, in separate conversations, with slightly different words, how I manage my time.  The second time his words were, “How do you prioritize?”  Interestingly, I immediately altered his question in my mind to What do I prioritize?  I answered easily both times about strategies for handling emails, task lists, time with family, workouts, etc.  But after the second time I started to worry.  What’s behind this questioning?  Is he worried for me about something here?  Does he think I’m neglecting my family for work, and/or my clinical duties for all the extracurricular stuff?  Does he think I can’t handle it?

Over the next several days I had to chuckle with that sly, knowing expression when I realized it didn’t really matter what he was thinking.  The question, repeated, was a stealth trigger for my Bad Mom fear.  It wasn’t that I worried about his concern for my work life balance.  It’s that I was worried for it, and that I secretly question, more than I like to admit, whether my kids really feel loved enough by me.  This despite my previous blog post claiming that I actually don’t question it!  Blaaaaahahaha, how cosmically ironic!  Looking back, the article that incited that post touched pretty much the same trigger, and it has taken me this long to see it (better late than never).  How fascinating!

In my defense, I really do think I’m a good mom—mostly.  But like being a good leader, it’s definitely not always easy, and that I question my competence/proficiency/mastery does not necessarily detract from my real, ever developing, occasionally flourishing skill set.  Thanks to this new awareness of the Bad Mom Trigger, I have adjusted my strategies and tools, and rebalanced, for now, time and energy between work and home.  I look forward to receiving more gracefully the signals for future opportunities to readjust.

Canned and Rote

Last year I was leaving an evening work gathering.  A nice man saw me departing, got out of his seat, and approached me, apparently to introduce himself.  He said he had heard my ‘shtick’ something something something—I did not really hear anything else, as my abhorrence of that word had made me stop listening.  I think I was polite, and I exited with as few words exchanged as possible.

Readers of this blog know how much I admire Brené Brown.  Followers of Brené also know that her work is always evolving, new theories testing, refining, and building on prior ones, always with deeper and more meaningful understanding and application in relationships.  So I was deeply offended when I recently heard someone refer to her presentations as ‘shtick’ and ‘spiel.’  These words feel dismissive, mocking, and pejorative to me.  I have only heard them used in a disrespectful way about a speaker or their speech.  But why should I be so offended on Brené’s behalf?  She knows the value of her work; she does not need me to defend her.

Of course, as usual, it hit me later:  I identify with Sister Brené, so I took these words personally.  To me, shtick and spiel are how we describe presentations, and thus people, who stopped learning and growing long ago.  We utter these words and roll our eyes at having heard it all before—nothing new here, folks.  David Litt has said that when preparing a presentation ask yourself, what is the one thing you want someone in your audience to tell their friend about your speech the next day?  If the words ‘shtick’ or ‘spiel’ appeared within a hundred yards of someone describing my work—if someone thought I had not prepared but just shown up with canned, stagnant drivel—I would be mortified.  I pride myself on constant learning, self-awareness, and self-improvement.  I want every audience to feel that my presentation was uniquely relevant to them, that I worked hard to meet them exactly where they needed me.

I understand that everybody may not see or hear these words the way I do.  I can respect that and monitor/manage my reactions from now on.  But wanna trigger me?  Tell me you heard my spiel.  Go ahead, I dare you.

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Debbie Ford and Your Dark Side

OH it’s all so funny, the things that trigger us.  Because if we don’t laugh we will absolutely cry.  Or pick fights with our spouses that last weeks on end.  That’s what happened to me when I read The Dark Side of the Light Chasers about 10 years ago.  I was young yet in my adult development journey, and I had a few (just a few) more emotional hang ups than I have now.  On page 69 of the paperback edition she lists negative words like greedy, liar, sleazy and freak, and suggests an exercise:

Take a few minutes and identify any words that have an emotional charge for you.  Say out loud, “I am _____.”  If you can say it without any emotional charge, then move to the next word.  Write down the words that you dislike or react to.  If you are not sure that the word has any charge for you, close your eyes for a minute and meditate on the word.  Repeat it to yourself a few times out loud and ask yourself how you’d really feel if someone you respected called you this word.  If you’d be angry or upset, write it down.  Also spend some time thinking about words that are not on this list that run your life or cause you pain.

I didn’t get through the whole book back then, so I don’t know what she wrote about ‘embracing your dark side,’ ‘reinterpreting yourself,’ and ‘letting your own light shine.’  But I think I have figured it out for myself, at least a little bit.  It’s about self-compassion, acceptance, growth mindset, forgiveness, connection, learning, and joy.

Every light casts a shadow, and we need both light and dark for balance in life.  I’m learning to hold it all a little more lightly (ha! Pun!).  Debbie Ford felt too heavy for me ten years ago.  I’m looking for a new book this week.  Maybe I’ll pick hers up again and see how it feels.  …Makes me a little nervous, actually.  I wonder what I’ll find this time?