Emotional Intelligence, Self-Development, self-perception

I’m going to step outside the usual heavy-thinking kinds of posts I normally write to offer a brief glimpse into the entirely-human world of Therapists As Human Beings. (I know most of you cognitively understand that we’re humans, but it’s surprising, in a no-not-really-kinda-way, how often clients in particular expect us to have our shit together in particular ways. Since it’s not often that folks who deal with us professionally get the chance to peek behind the curtain and recognize the foibles that make us just like everyone else, if you’re someone who doesn’t WANT to know that your therapist is human, might I recommend you click THIS LINK instead.)

So, disclosure: I turned 50 in May. I am part of the generation that didn’t grow up with a lot of childhood conveniences we take for granted in this day and age. Sometimes when in our middle aged wisdom and experience we encounter something that a schoolkid takes for granted, we can feel somewhat crushed that we’re not managing the experience as well as someone a tiny fraction of our age.

In preparation for a camping event over the Labour Day weekend, I bought a case of juice boxes at Costco. I have almost never used juice boxes, but a case of small square servings of fruit-sugared liquids is an excellent thing to take camping when you normally run into liquids/convenience issues on primitive sites. In the course of loading out, the case never made it into the vehicle and was, perforce, awaiting my return. Ergo, I’ve been drinking my way through the case of juice boxes for the last week.

And lemme tell you, nothing levels an adult ego like realizing that your “brain the size of a planet” and five decades of developing hand-eye coordination and grad-school-honed intellect and three decades worth of professional problem solving… it’s all for naught when for a week straight your Facebook posts read, “Days Since Last Juice Box Incident: 0”. Even after being scolded and schooled by a seven year old this past weekend on “Juice Box Best Practices”, I have still managed at least once a day to forget how these lethal little liquid grenades work, somehow. Much of this week’s laundry is comprised of Fruit Punch Fatalities.

So what’s going on here?

It’s both everything and nothing, really. From a mindfulness perspective, it’s the observation that I am apparently not in my best moment when it comes to maybe 60% of my juice box encounters; when you don’t pay attention to corporeal, mechanical details, it’s easy to grasp a thing that doesn’t do well when grasped. It’s a humbling reminder of vulnerability and openness to our own internal narratives around who we are and what we believe we *SHOULD* be capable of. It’s easy to feel humiliation when admitting we can’t do something a child can do in their sleep (those of you trying to teach senior parents to program a PVR, use a computer, or manage a smartphone, have almost certainly seen that humiliation in action in your parents, for example). We don’t as a species generally like admitting our failures and weaknesses, and for certain professions, those human weaknesses when exposed feel like nails in the coffins of our professional presentations to our clientele.

I’m of the (potentially contentious) opinion that embracing humility, on the other hand, is a way of maintaining balance within our sense of authentic presence. Most of us understand there is a difference between humilation and humility, but don’t always have a clear understanding of the difference:

Definition of humiliate:
humiliated; humiliating
transitive verb
:to reduce (someone) to a lower position in one’s own eyes or others’ eyes :to make (someone) ashamed or embarrassed :mortify

Humiliation is a terribly painful and destructive emotional state. It ranks very high among the things that people are afraid of. It is an overwhelming experience of shame and being degraded, usually in the eyes of others. Sometimes a person can be intentionally humiliated by another, in a sadistic attack that is intended to strip away all dignity and self-esteem. —
Michael Jolkovski

Definition of humility:
noun
:freedom from pride or arrogance :the quality or state of being humble

Humility, on the other hand, is a relief. When individuals are able to gracefully accept that there are limits to their power and importance, and to not collapse into despair, shame, or impotent rage, this is a developmental accomplishment. It marks the move from fantasy to reality, from omnipotence to competence. It is a gift at every stage of life — when a 2-year-old can accept that they are not actually in charge of everything, or when an aged person accepts that they need to a depend on others in a way they haven’t before. There’s a key element of being at peace. Contrary to humiliation, humility gives a person their dignity and equilibrium back. —
Michael Jolkovski

There is a great deal of ego wrapped up in our adult concepts of who we should be, how we should function, what we should be able to do. To have our ego confronted with persistent failures on simple challenges — if a seven year old can wield the juice box so effortlessly, why am *I* awash in apple juice accidents?? — is almost guaranteed to feel like we are lesser, touching on that degradation mentioned under “humiliation”; our incompetence is being judged by others, we feel, and judged harshly. It feels like hot burning shame; “I’m 50 friggin’ years old, I drive a car and work and pay taxes, WHY CAN I NOT OPEN A DAMNED JUICE BOX WITHOUT CATASTROPHIC FAILURE???”

(That may or may not be an actual quote.)

There is a choice we can make when we are awash in the struggle around what we feel we SHOULD be able to manage, and what we actually experience. We’re going to feel what we feel, and if it’s the hot wash of shame and humiliation that hits us first, then so be it. But when that tide recedes, we can choose how to respond to the experience: we can judge ourselves as we imagine others are judging us, and stay bogged down in the peach punch-stained hell of our own humiliation and misery, or… we can sit with a seven year old Subject Matter Expert who probably handles more juice boxes in a month than I will handle in the course of my lifetime, and be open to what this child can teach us. In my case, I was amazed that this child had significantly more patience with me than I had been having for myself. He showed me how to carefully lift the top corners of the juice box and how to hold it so that I had some firmity of grip without grasping the weaker sides and inadvertently squeezing. He showed me twice, once on my juice box, and again on one of his own.

For myself, I could choose to be embarrassed by the necessity of this educational curve ball, or I could hold myself open to the teachings in spite of feeling more than a little ashamed at its necessity. As the definitions above suggest, one of the chiefest tenets of humility is the relief in accepting that one HAS limitations, of letting go of the ego-wrapped expectations and SHOULDS bolstering my flawed self-definition. It’s okay to be embarrassed. But we can choose, to some extent, whether that embarrassment parlays into shame and humiliation, or into humility and vulnerable authenticity.

Being able to own and embrace my own failings is, for many therapists, the largest resource pool from which our working compassion for others comes from. Sometimes we forget that we’re also flawed, and I can guarantee every one of us has flaws we actively WORK TO FORGET, because hey, no-one ever ENJOYS confronting or exposing our secret shames. But sometimes sharing them allows for a bonding experience, an opportunity to let in others who have similar flaws and weaknesses. Sometimes we can exploit our own vulnerabilities for comedic value (this is my own usual modus operandi; Virginia Satir would likely say this is my irreverent/irrelevant stance coming into play, and she’s probably not wrong; I’m okay with allowing many of my flaws to be seen, but I will spin-doctor the hell out of the presentation to increase the chances of my audience joining me in that witnessing in gentler, more tolerable ways.) Being able to separate out humiliation from humility allows us more of an opportunity for reflection; humiliation and shame are reactive default stances that close us down without much recourse for active decision-making. Humility leaves us open and relaxed in our understanding of limitations, and hopefully open to opportunities to learn from those with something to teach us, regardless of our expectations. “See the world through a child’s eyes” is a cliche because it’s true; they see and experience things so much more differently than we do that it’s good to be reminded sometimes they can teach or re-teach us so much.

So I’m going home to do more laundry, and contemplate the remaining juice boxes as a lesson in humility. They are a good reminder, in their own inauspicious, ticking-time-bomb kind of way, that what we expect of ourselves can sometimes be subverted by the simplest of things, and we can either flagellate ourselves mercilessly with shame and humiliation for failing those expectations, or we can be open to the lessons they can teach us with embarrassment rather than shame, and humility rather than humiliation.

(BTW, the Peach Punch is my favourite. Because you needed to know that.)

Self-Development, self-perception

Personal disclosure time: I’ll be 50 on my next birthday in a few weeks. Given the massive upheavals in my own personal and professional lives as I crossed that invisible threshold into “middle age”, I’ve felt fairly attuned to the cultural narratives we have around the “mid-life crisis” and the weighty expectations for “achieving dreams”, for better and for worse. I may not have acquired the jaunty red sports car as part of my transition, but when I replaced my beloved but aging Elantra last fall, I admit I *did* go out of my way to ensure my next vehicle was red. I’m still waiting for the equally-sporty blonde to show up in my life, though.

I had a realization this past week, along the lines of achieving dreams, that I have finally achieved the dream I set for myself ten years ago when I set out on the path to become a full-time, self-supporting therapist “eventually”. In doing so, I also confronted the fact that, having now achieved my dreams (dreams I didn’t even know I really had a decade ago), I was suddenly facing a gap where the driving ambition of my life has firmly resided for the last decade. It was like popping the hood on my shiny new(ish) car and finding the entire engine block had disappeared overnight. Lemme tell you, when one is talking about the subject of “the dreams that drive us”, it’s actually a terrifying thing to recognize you’ve hit the achievement milestone and the rest of your future ahead lies under a thick and obscure fog that spells out, “So now what??”

Something I was reading recently really drove home the power these Dreams can have on us. David Wexler (2004), quoting earlier research from Levinson (1978), writes,

Levinson’s research (1978) identifies a crucial aspect of […] adult development called the Dream. If you […] have lived through young adulthood with a vision of how your life should be, then you have been guided by the Dream. This stage of adult life is dominated by a push toward productivity.

This sense of purpose, while very challenging and often difficult to fulfill, is very organizing. You are guided by clear goals and themes. The obstacles are tangible, the achievements (for the most part) measurable.

The increasing awareness of your ticking clock at midlife, however, often causes the values that governed this Dream stage to lose their hold over the order of things. Two types of disorientation and disillusionment can occur.

[…] The first type of crisis strikes when you wake up one day and realize that the Dream is not going to happen. You face the often sobering realization that what you see is what you get. […] You may fear that there is nothing to look forward to except for a slow deterioration and narrowed possibilities.

[…]The second type of crisis affects you if you have achieved your dream–but suddenly find it meaningless. It does not fulfill you: “So what? Now I am successful. I don’t feel any happier.” (pgs. 76-77)

My own recent epiphany was closer to the second option than the first, not so much because the achievement had lost meaning (don’t get me wrong, I love the work that I do, and expect to keep finding the meaning in it until I’m too old to keep doing the work) as because I am definitely at that “So what now?” stage. I also came face to face with recognizing that achieving Dreams of this magnitude are also a profound privilege; not everyone gets to reach these kinds of pinnacle in spite of all their efforts, and there are a lot of bitter and disappointed people in the world who judge themselves harshly for that perception of failure. Admittedly, I often look at my choice to toss my IT career out the window in favour of grad school and a slow career change path as the start of my actual mid-life crisis. I had hit the wall in a hard way in my job of the time, and realized it was never going to go anywhere, and that even changing jobs and companies was simply going to be a case of “same shit, different basket”… and I was done with that basket (or so I thought, but that’s another story entirely). So I *get* both sides of the “ticking clock” that Wexler describes above.

These kinds of discussions are starting to come up in my client work more directly now, or maybe this is just the attunement I spoke of earlier. Sometimes it’s a client (or a client’s spouse) talking about a midlife affair; often it’s a midlife recognition of dissatisfaction and a sense of stagnation. Often it’s a question that preoccupies people to the point of distress: “I did everything my family/culture/society at large expected of me as an adult, what am I not happy? Why do I feel so restless??” The restlessness becomes a kind of emotional agitation much of the time, manifesting as depression as the disillusionment takes hold, or sometimes coming out as a kind of generalized anger at the world (or partners/families) as a sense of failure or profound disappointment turns outward rather than reflectively inward.

Sometimes we can achieve a Dream as a plateau and find there are a whole raft of new Dreams that we can now set from there; and sometimes we hit the plateau and it’s all we can do to lie there gasping for breath before we can even roll over and notice there’s more to see from here. Sometimes we hit a plateau and see nothing but fog. And sometimes those plateaus never happen. The paths forward all seem to involve the same piece of work: reorientation, and (if necessary) redefinition. Wexler refers to the need to “regain vitality” (pg. 77) as a critical response to this state of Dream recognition (fulfilled or unfulfilled), and the need most people will have to both look inward at the initial signs of distress, and making smart choices about what we do in response to identifying a state of even mild distress. Midlife affairs are a common response to seeking revitalization, for example, but often involve a lack of awareness about the internal distress, and certainly point to making choices that might be incongruent with previously-stated personal values. This is a great example of learning to differentiate between the feelings we have, and the actions we CHOOSE to engage in reaction or response to them.

I don’t yet know what the path off my own current plateau looks like, so I empathize completely with my fellow human beings stuck in the same place. Right now I’m still lying on the rocks trying to catch my breath. I’m aware there’s a vista to appreciate now that I’m here, but I’m also aware I can’t stay here forever; I’ve never been much of one for choosing stagnation. I just need some time to figure out next steps so that I can make smart choices, and as I figure that process, I’m trusting that it will help clarify how to have similar conversations with people around me on their own plateaus.

Article links, Emotional Intelligence

Hola! How did it get to be September already!??

As one might guess from the lapse in blogging, it’s been a busy summer of the “it all just got away from me” variety, complicated in July by the unexpected need to buy a new business computer, and the hairy adventures of getting everything (almost everything) migrated over. Client work has been slowly and steadily increasing, and there is a massive stack of professional reading and development that is just waiting for me to have time to dig into it.

Time. “Ay,” as Hamlet says, “there’s the rub.”

We all have such excellent struggles against Father Time, especially over the summer when there may be vacatin plans to pep for and make up for afterwards, or more travel on the local front, more get-togethers, more gardening or cleaning the pool. Those with kids have the complexities of everyone else’s schedules to work around on top of all of that, and suddenly, it’s September all over again. Not a bit of wonder that for any of us (even those of us without kids), September is the month that feels like things calm down just a little bit, settle back into normal routines, steady schedules.

A friend pointed me recently to an excellent blog by Geneen Roth (of “Women, Food, and God” fame) that provided a nice little reality check on the efforts we put ourselves through chasing the kinds of success we think will make us happy, that we believe will buy us the time and freedom to do whatever we want… only when we get there, to that pinnacle of whateverness we’ve been chasing, we find that *staying* there comes with its own rigorous demands, and that the freedom we thought we’d earned i as far off in the distance as ever it was… just like any other horizon.

It’s not hat I’m not a fan of “chasing your happy”, but I’m a bigger fan of what happiness expert Martin Seligman came to see as “flourishing”, which allows for more tolerance of the not-happy, more development of tools for coping and self-soothing in adversity, than a fixated pursuit of happiness tends to allow. reaching the pinnacle of success won’t buy you happiness if you’re a burned-out husk of your former self when you get there.

So as we all roll over from the summer’s chaos into whatever September brings for you, now is as good a time as any to take a page out of Geneen’s book (or blog, in this case) and reflect a while on this:

“It turns out that the true extraordinary isn’t reserved for special people or big achievements or red-carpet-moments. It’s extraordinary to write a book, and it’s extraordinary to eat a grilled cheese sandwich with tomatoes and mustard. It’s extraordinary to meet a famous person, and it’s extraordinary to meet the eyes of a grocery store cashier. When I pay attention to what is in front of me, the seemingly ordinary things are backlit with the extraordinary: the hum of the refrigerator, the yellow sponge, the trill of a finch.

“Now, instead of lurching forward, I step back. Instead of looking for the extraordinary, I look at it. If I get breathless or anxious that I am falling behind and that everyone else will get there before me, I remind myself that the top is just a square of earth you pass on your way down. And that no moment, no place, is better than this breath, this foot touching the cool floor in the middle of the night.”

Have a great September!