We Are Really Bad At This

turkey human car tracks

Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch, Loveland, Colorado, March 2019

How many truly meaningful and fulfilling conversations do you have in a day?

How many such relationships do you have?

Though I wrote my Pit Crew post almost a year ago, its ideas recur regularly.  I have linked to it on multiple subsequent posts.  I share it with patients and reference it in conversations often.  My patients are leaders of large corporations and organizations.  My colleagues and I lead teams in the hospital, the medical group, and the medical school.  My friends lead their families and communities.  When I think about our health and its consequences, it’s about taking care of those for whom we are responsible, ourselves included.

Are you generally the one who always takes care of others?  How does this affect your style and effectiveness as a leader?

Who Takes Care of You?

I estimate that about 20% of the time when I ask this question, my patients say that nobody takes care of them; they do it themselves.  They don’t mean that nobody cares about them.  It’s that they don’t really depend on anyone for counsel and/or support.  They hold everything together themselves.  I always have mixed feelings when the conversation takes this turn.  On one hand I feel admiration and respect, especially when they seem generally healthy—apparently unaffected by physical, mental, and emotional dysfunction.  On the other, I get curious.  How do they sustain this Lone Ranger method?  And what does it cost them?  I believe we all need tight, vulnerable, and safe connections through which we can get raw and real, and work through life’s ultimately messy sh*t.  We need others, even if it’s only one or two, to help us truly hold it all together.  My default assumption is that if we don’t have such connections, we are not living into our full potential.

And today I feel cynical.  I think we are getting really, really bad at taking care of each other.

Driving to work this week I wondered to myself, why do we feel the dearth of mental health services so acutely these days?  Is it that more of us are living on the psychological razor’s edge of mental health and illness?  Are we not diagnosably mentally ill but simply, profoundly, stressed to our limits of sanity and function?  Is that why none of my patients can get in to see a psychiatrist or therapist for weeks to months?  Is that why physicians are increasingly leaving the profession and killing ourselves?  Why do we feel so hopeless?

It’s easy to blame social media.  And I do, partially.  The cruelest irony lives here.  My non-evidence based impression is that cyberbullying bears equally life-threatening consequences as face to face bullying.  If you know of evidence to support or refute this premise, please share.  Negative interactions on social media, which rage so easily like wildfires, are now understood to contribute significantly to the rise in loneliness across the country.  Worse, cultivating truly positive relationships via social media is much harder and more complex, even deceptive.   So on balance the risks and harms of social media may far outweigh the benefits.  There simply is no substitute for personal, physical contact, for sharing the same space, breathing the same air, experiencing another’s full presence.

Worse yet, too often we can’t even get that right!  Ozan Varol wrote about this in his last post, “3 Ways to Be Insufferable In Coversation.”  They are:  1. Always turn the conversation back to yourself; 2. Pretend to listen; and 3. Ask no questions.  How many people have you already met today who do this on the regular?  If you’re honest, how many times today have you committed these relational sins?  It’s okay, we all do it sometimes.  As GI Joe says, knowing is half the battle.  The other half is doing something about it!

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Smart Museum of Art, Chicago, July 2019

So what do we do?

First, Attend.  Pay attention.  How much time do I spend on social media?  What do I get out of it?  When does Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) drive my scrolling?  Am I really connecting?  Or am I stalking, comparing, judging, flaming, agitating the echo chamber, and otherwise wasting time and energy?  How can I set alerts and redirect my routine?

Second, Intend.  What is the best use of my time?  If I want to see how my friends are doing, rather than check my Facebook feed, why not call them up?  Send a text, photo, or—gasp—a handwritten note just to say hi, I’m thinking of you?  It may cost you time, energy, and $0.55 in postage.  But aren’t your real friends worth the investment?  You can do it on social media too—if you slow down and think about it first.  Consider the return—brightening someone’s day, feeling that personal connection.  Dopamine drives FOMO, and is also associated with addictive behaviors.  Bonding behaviors elevate oxytocin, the hormone that mediates empathy, safety, and connection.  There is even evidence that higher levels of oxytocin correlate with increased longevity of romantic relationships, or even a person’s own life span (could not find a reliable, peer-reviewed source for this claim—I just believe it intuitively).

Third, Get Curious.  This was the first skill I (re)learned in life coaching, ‘way back in 2005, and it serves me well every single day.  If we let go of the competitive, scarcity-based thinking that surrounds us, what more could we learn?  What novel and inspiring stories could we hear from anyone we meet, or even our closest friends?  If we listen to understand rather than to reload and refute or one-up, what vexing problems could we solve, together?  Just wondering about it makes me feel lighter and more optimistic, what about you?

Subscribe to Ozan’s newsletter, the Weekly Contrarian, to get his list of solutions to conversation insufferability this Thursday, 9am Central Time (I have no financial interests in Ozan’s site; I just really admire his work and the community of critical thinkers he has convened).  And today, I challenge us all:  Monitor our attitudes and facial expressions.  Manage our self-absorption for a few minutes at a time.  Look strangers in the eye and smile as if they’re already our friends.  Ask a Facebook friend what they did this weekend that really made them feel alive and well.  Let’s all get our caring on, shall we?

 

The Hard Conversations

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NaBloPoMo 2018:  What I’m Learning

Life is about learning.  Learning requires acknowledging lack of skill, knowledge, understanding, or all three and more.  Boundaries, curiosity and non-judgment make it so much easier; too bad we tend to lose these natural traits (or they are trained out of us) early in life.  Then we have to relearn them as skills.  What happens when we reacquire boundaries, curiosity and non-judgment?  We get much better at having the hard conversations.  What makes conversations hard?  Not sure?  Just think of the conversations we avoid.  What are we actually avoiding?

I resist apologizing when I don’t want to admit that I misunderstood, that I made wrong assumptions that led to behaviors that hurt people, that I was not my best self.  I worry that people will think less of me and not trust me, not include me in the future.

I avoid giving negative feedback because I don’t know how the other person will take it.  Will they crumble in a heap of self-flagellating despair?  Will they lash out and attack me, verbally or physically, threatening my safety?  Will they disparage me to others, try to split our colleagues between us, sow discord and undermine our culture?  I worry that I will lose control of the situation.

We resist conversations about politics, religion, and issues like abortion because they can escalate in a nanosecond, filled with emotional tumult.  These are precisely the exchanges during which we blow past all of our boundaries for civility, language, tone of voice, and rhetoric.  We lose all interest in understanding what the other person thinks or, more importantly, how they feel.  We stop relating.  We judge everything out of their mouths as oppositional, ignorant, and unworthy.  We worry that we will lose our status, self-efficacy, agency, or our friends.

* * *

My friend Earnestine * has migraines.  Over the years she has worked out their patterns: timing, location, aura, duration, and triggers.  She hydrates, protects her sleep, and, most importantly, manages her stress with vigilance.  This way she generally avoids medications and keeps her symptoms under good control.  Recently she got caught in an unavoidably stressful situation with family.  A migraine hit her like a Mack truck out of nowhere.  She could barely walk, stumbling around, hanging onto walls and railings.  Her speech may have been slurred.  Thankfully she was able to escape to a friend’s house.  Her childhood friend, also a sufferer of headaches, offered her a handful of pills—her own prescription medications.  Earnestine struggled for the right words, and not just because her head was splitting.  If she refused, would she offend her friend, who has just rescued her from serious family chaos?  Would she trigger indignation, anger, resentment, rejection?  E found her personal values and boundaries tested, unexpectedly.  She felt ambivalent, as the core values of connection with a friend and right use of substances clashed.  She desperately desired relief from her pain, and she also needed to set an example for her boys, who were watching her response—what would she want them to do if one of their friends offered them ‘relief’?  Somehow through the fog, she found a way to acknowledge her friend’s generosity, and also explain that she was not comfortable taking someone else’s prescription medication.  She maintained her boundaries and stayed curious to monitor her friend’s and her boys’ responses.  Since that time, she continues to hold her friend in non-judgment, understanding that although she would not ever do the same, her friend’s intentions were loving.

I tell this story because I see it as a perfect example of boundaries, curiosity, and non-judgment in action:  Holding space for one’s own needs while attending to the needs of others and our relationship with them (both her friend and her sons).  Earnestine practices honoring her boundaries, which can, in some ways, be equated with her core values.  When they are challenged, she can stay in curiosity and explore the feelings that get triggered. She can withhold judgment on the feelings and simply experience them in the present moment, asking what they are trying to tell her.

This combination of boundaries, curiosity, and non-judgment, practiced regularly in small, everyday things, prepares us to face the harder situations and conversations with greater confidence.  We can trust ourselves, even if we don’t walk into any given situation knowing the right answer, to find it when we need it.  On the other side, these skills help us look back with fewer regrets, because we brought our best selves at the time.

I have learned to recognize opportunities to practice these skills, and now I resist apologizing, giving negative feedback, and talking about politics a lot less.  In fact, these are precisely the scenarios in which I can really test and hone my skills—sharpen them and improve my relational dexterity.  I almost look forward to them—sometimes.

It’s all a continuous journey, is it not?  Will we always face our fears with heroic courage and the perfect words and behaviors?  Hell. No.  AND, every day is a new chance to try.  What hard conversation might we come closer to doing better tomorrow?

*Not her real name