All posts by Dr. Diane Urban

I Cut, You Choose

Growing up, whenever my sister and I had to split dessert, my very, very wise father had a wonderful rule that ensured we’d be fair to each other. He would say, “I cut, you choose.” Such a simple statement made sure that, whoever cut into the cake, cut it as evenly as possible. Otherwise, the other person would clearly choose the larger slice. The point was always to remember that when we choose to divide something, we need to keep the needs/wants of the other person in mind. Over the years, as I enjoyed my fairly distributed slices of cake, I realized that sharing is an interesting concept.

According to Dictionary.com it can be a noun, an adjective, or a verb. For example, when used as a noun it might refer to the part allotted to or belonging to someone, such as a share of stock. When used as an adjective it might refer to sharing data online; as an idiom it might refer to sharing the losses or profits of a company. As a verb, it is used to indicate a division or distribution of something, such as sharing food. What is most interesting is that the definition does not indicate or require that the division/distribution of the item must be done equally like my father suggested. We just like to think that it means everyone gets an equal amount. Well, we like to think that most of the time.

Sharing, to some extent, is natural. It is based on empathy. A child will offer a favorite object to a parent, sibling, or another child if that other person seems distraught. Sharing is also taught. We share food with our children and they learn to share with us. We do not always want their soggy, half eaten offering, but it is important to demonstrate the reciprocity of sharing. Sharing can only happen between or among people; it is not a solitary action. As children grow, we encourage sharing. We tell them to share their toys with others, to take turns, to give a cookie to everyone at the table, to invite everyone in the class to their party.

We not only encourage our children to share, sometimes we demand it of them. If there is a toy they do not want to share, we take it away from them saying, “If you won’t share then no one can have it!” What we fail to realize is that we do not always model that behavior. There are many things we ourselves will not share with everyone. We do not share our cars with every friend; they must be a very particular “status” of friend. We do not share our favorite piece of jewelry with every friend; we must really trust them to return it. Most of us do not share our significant other allowing them to have an intimate, sexual relationship outside of what they have with us. So, a child who does not want to share a special toy feels the same way. If they will not share anything, well, that is a problem. But, it seems to me that to really help them understand sharing, we have to help them understand why they are willing to share some things and not others.

It is important for all of us to examine what makes some “things” – including our feelings, vulnerabilities, secrets – sharable while others are not. The answer is not easy because what we are willing to share varies for all of us. For example, some families purchase duplicate toys so that siblings won’t fight because the need to share has been eliminated. We have multiple televisions, computers, mobile devices of all kinds, so we don’t have to share what we are watching or what music we are listening to – we can all have what we want. I am often concerned that this need to make everyone happy at once will impact our thinking about the power of sharing: it increases our connection to our fellow human beings, allowing us to influence the life of someone else.

If we are given the option to detach ourselves at an early age, it can affect our ability to share as an adult. It is interesting that for many people, it is easier to share (or over-share) what we are doing on social media, rather than to share one’s feelings or to share what we perceive as our weaknesses with those closest to us. Sometimes we fear that what we share will put us at some kind of disadvantage. It will mean we have less – less food, less time, less information that gives us status. It seems that this is a powerful concern in our world today. If I share my wealth, I won’t have enough for me and mine. If I share my knowledge at work, someone younger who can be paid less than I am being paid will replace me. If I share my vulnerabilities, someone will use that against me.

Such thinking is present in our personal relationships and in the larger societal picture. The healthcare debate has become one where we segregate the ill into a separate pool so that the healthy can pay lower premiums. We will let the ill, who have less resources than the healthy, pay more than the healthy do. We will call that fair because we do not want to share the benefits that our health has given us nor do we want to share the burden of the cost of healthcare. I am guessing, however, that when poor health hits “home”, our perspective about sharing will change just a bit.

I say that because it is actually common that when we have the largest amount of something, we don’t really want to share equally. We want to keep the largest portion for ourselves. It seems to me that when we have the largest amount of anything, those very wise words “I cut, you choose” encourage us to consider the reason for our hesitancy to share, allow us to amend our decision based on the facts of the situation rather than on our fears, and, most importantly, guide us to a decision that allows us to embrace our humanity.

“I cut, you choose.” ~ Jerry Chiappise

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The Joy of Parenting

Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are often billed as days for children to “pay back” parents for all they do for them all year. Parents forgo personal desires for them, devote themselves to them, and struggle for them. Some parents see Mother’s and Father’s Day as a reimbursement for all the sacrifices and struggles. While mothers and fathers certainly deserve love and attention, the term “payback” makes parenting sound like a chore rather than a joy. I like to think of it differently.

For me, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are opportunities to sit back for a moment and reflect on the wonders of family. Instead of rushing around, we have the opportunity to observe the love that surrounds us. On such days, we indulge in the luxury of watching our family. We watch our toddler share their blanket, or their cookie, or their toy; in other words, we watch them share their heart. We watch our teen struggle to say, “I love you” with a card. Whether that card is funny, near silent with so few words, or two pages of heart-felt words that are not said on any other day, we watch them learn to share their heart and expose their vulnerability to others. We watch our adult children navigate the world of including their significant other into their family while they also navigate how to become a part of someone else’s family.

Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are opportunities to celebrate our successes – the times we parented with poise and grace, the times we said and did just the “right” thing, the times we were able to provide just the right amount of support. It is also a time to celebrate our less successful days – the times we yelled, the times we hurt their feelings, the times we said all the wrong things, the times we provided the wrong support (too much, too little, the wrong kind). These are, after all, the times they had to learn that they could stand on their own and figure out the world on their own, and survive the curveballs that life would throw at them. These are the times we taught them the power of forgiveness and the continuity of love. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are days to celebrate our strengths and weaknesses as people, as sons and daughters, moms and dads, as siblings, and as members of our family.

They are days to express our gratitude to those who have shared their love with us. I am grateful to my mom for showing me how to be strong on the outside when inside I may want to cry. That is something that has been so helpful to me professionally and personally. I am grateful to my dad for showing me that I deserve to be treated like a princess – like a person who is confident, respected, loved, listened to, admired, and fun to be around. I am grateful to my husband for helping to create a family bound together by love, respect, fun, and mutual support. I am grateful to my “mom friends” who shared growing up with me (our children’s growth and our own). I am grateful to my children for helping me see that parenting is not a chore; it is a joy.

I wish you all a day of reflection. Happy parenting!

  • ~”Parenting is a journey that takes us from total responsibility for another person to the development of a responsible person” Diane Urban, PhD ~

If you enjoy reading my posts, please subscribe using the sign-up box at the bottom of the page. Once you sign up, you will receive a confirming email. When you respond to that confirmation email, you will get updates on any new items I post. It is my hope that these blogs are a starting point for great discussions and shared ideas. I look forward to reading the comments you post.

 

Feeling Safe in an Unsafe World

 

There is anxiety about the safety of pesticides on food, lead in our water, road rage, terrorist attacks, school shootings. And the list goes on. Feeling safe in the world today is not easy. We are confronted with so many situations that make us anxious. The situations and the anxiety they provoke are on a continuum, but it seems that the uncertainty of our safety has resulted in an almost constant state of anxiety. Sometimes we are well aware of our anxiety; at other times, it is below the surface, but can be easily pulled to the top. So, how can we help ourselves and the young people in our lives cope with this world of uncertainty?

I need to stress that feeling safe is different from being safe. We cannot always control the reality of the world. Parents cannot eliminate pollutants, lead in water, road rage, and so on. They can, however, help children develop a sense of trust in the world. We do that from the moment we hold our newborns in our arms; we make them feel safe. When we hold them and feed them, we let them know that their needs will be met. When we respond to their cries, we let them know that their communication has meaning and they can trust that communicating will have a positive consequence. When we reassure them by going in their room when they are calling us, we let them know that we will do what we can to keep them safe. As they get older, we let them know that we trust that they can take care of themselves, meet their own needs, and make good decisions about their own health and safety. This process is ongoing; even as adults, we know we need to trust our safety to others sometimes (our physicians, our lawyers, our significant other, our own children).

This development of trust, therefore, is a critical factor in feeling safe in an unsafe world. It can be enhanced by various strategies:

  • Recognize the impact of the availability and representativeness heuristics. Heuristics are “rules of thumb” that we use to make our “everyday” decisions. They allow us to make decisions quickly and efficiently. For example, the availability heuristic is based on the “rule of thumb” that if something is easily recalled, it must be important. For example, when we search for a gift for our significant other, our search is not random. We start with the things we “know” they like; that is, we start with the things we easily recall about their preferences (he/she likes movies, theater, sports, gardening and so on). The representativeness heuristic is based on the “rule of thumb” that if something is easily available, it must represent the bigger picture. If we stick with the “problem” of getting a gift for our significant other, then a gift we selected in the past (which is easily recalled/available to us) becomes representative of their preference for future gifts. (If they liked the flowers last time, flowers come to symbolize or represent the category of “appropriate/good gift”). Thus, the easier it is for us to think of something (the more available it is to us) and the more we think that it is the “rule” (representative of the total situation), the greater impact it will have on our thinking. In essence, these heuristics combine to form the basis of a stereotype. Based on the example that comes to mind, we generalize to the larger group. So, if we watch the news and see stories about bullying, illness, murder, and terrorism, then we will think of these things often and come to believe it is the way the world is. If we hear stories of helpfulness, kindness, and compassion, then we will believe that the world is full of such attributes.
  • What we are exposed to via all forms of media, influences what is available and representative. We need to make a conscious effort to seek the balance – that is – to seek out the stories that remind us of the safer parts of our world. When we are talking to children and teens, we need to make it a point to mention the daily kindnesses we experience. Sometimes that is difficult for adults to recognize, but such things happen every day. Someone picks up something we have dropped, someone offers us candy while at a meeting, someone offers a seat on the bus or train, a baby offers their blanket to a parent, someone offers condolences, and so on. These “simple” acts are as much a part of human nature as any horror we hear about on a daily basis; in fact, they are the norm while the horrors we hear are the deviance from the norm.
  • While it is important to teach our children about stranger danger, it is also important to let them know why we, as adults, can talk to other adults we do not know. The same way they make friends with other children in school or at the library or in the park, we can make friends with other adults in the supermarket, or at the park. Let them know that when they are grown-ups, they will be able to make friends with other grown-ups. After all, this is the basis of all future intimate relationships. Relationships without trust are fragile at best.
  • Once we hear something that makes us feel unsafe, and the anxiety begins, then we must control the anxiety. The first thing we need to do is calm our body down. This is best accomplished by taking a few deep breaths and concentrating on breathing (rather than on the event that caused the anxiety). The second thing to do is “think good thoughts.” We need to have a “go to” list of happy, good thoughts that are easily available to us (this can be those pictures of kittens and puppies or the list of kindnesses discussed above). Third, we need to have a “what if” plan – a plan of what we will do if the thing we are worried about really happens: if that bully at school is trying to get you alone, you will ask the teacher if you can stay after class to talk or offer to buy a snack for a friend so you are walking with someone else; if there is a terrorist event that once again eliminates cell service and electricity, we will have a specific meeting place set up and we will get there as soon as possible, etc. Finally, as an adult, you will model feeling safe. You will breathe, say good things about the world, talk about how you will handle things if they do not go as we would hope. You will not be afraid.

The world we live in bombards us with realities that are frightening.   As adults, we feel it on a daily basis. We need to remember that the children and teens in our lives have an even more difficult time dealing with these realities. We need to let them talk about what they are feeling when the see the children in Syria living in the rubble, when they see the children of undocumented immigrants crying as their parents are arrested for minor infractions, when they see parents crying because their child was born ill because they were bitten by a mosquito when pregnant, or crying because their child was a victim of a school or random shooting. We need to help them process these thoughts cognitively and emotionally. We need to provide them comfort and reassurance while we also model how doing even a small act of kindness can make a difference in the world. We need to let them know that these events, while easily available to us, are not representative of the human race. Humans are born with the capacity for empathy and retain that capacity throughout their lifetime. We need to make it clear that the instances of empathy, kindness, and compassion are representative of who we, as humans, really are.

~“Looking down, you’ll see just shadows. Looking up, you will see the sun” – Jon Gilbert ~

If you enjoy reading my posts, please subscribe using the signup box at the bottom of the page. Once you sign up, you will receive a confirming email. When you respond to that confirmation email, you will get updates on any new items I post. It is my hope that these blogs are a starting point for great discussions and shared ideas. I look forward to reading the comments you post.

The Immigration Dilemma – Part 2

As the conversation about immigrants continues in the news, I would like to add the humanist view to continue our conversation. A psychologist in the humanist tradition is concerned with the discrepancy between our ideal and real selves. As an ideal American, we embrace the downtrodden, we allow anyone and everyone to pursue the American dream, and we are a melting pot of cultures. Our real selves – the Americans we are – might have some reservations about these statements. We may have fears that if we allow these things to happen, there will be “less” for “us” – fewer jobs, fewer chances to achieve the dream, and an end to whatever American culture really is. We fear that sharing what we have will result in our own destitution.

A humanist would examine these issues via the “shoulds” we say. We should help; we should look out for ourselves; we should help only the children. For a humanist, the dilemma is resolved, in large part, by changing the word “should” to “need” or “want”. We should help becomes either we need to help or we want to help. We should look out for only ourselves might become we need to consider our own situation as well as that of others.  The idea is for all of you to play with the spoken and implied “should” statements you hear and say. This will help to reconcile the ideal and real selves that make up the American you are.

In that spirit, I am connecting with a guest writer for my blog. He is an adjunct professor earning his PhD in sociology and he is my son. I hope his words will inspire you to think critically and humanely. I hope it will facilitate your exploration of the question of our real and ideal selves and help you to decide the kind of American you want to be and the kind of country America needs to be.

Thoughts on the Immigration Ban: A Challenge to the American Conscience

By Nicholas Urban, PhD Student – New School for Social Research

I very rarely speak out in a public sense because I know that the words we say to each other in public are often “empty”, and that the “verbal jousting” of political rhetoric that occurs at dinner tables, restaurants, and social media, are just a “game” that we like to play with our friends and families. But we have to stop playing this game and put down the ideological masks we use to play it in this moment.

These walls that are being constructed are not rhetoric. They are real.

As a American, a sociologist, a catholic, and countless other identities I could list out, I have been taught that empathy and compassion are requirements of membership in the human race. Empathy and compassion are at the core. Furthermore, they are the very essence of the notion of “human rights” in a democracy. In the United States, the phrase in our constitution “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is not a suggestion. They are inalienable rights.

I have read and studied for the effects that fear (both justified and unjustified) and instilling hatred can have on populations. I have read how, as a result of this fear and hatred, neighbors can – willingly – murder their neighbors in the name of an ideology, ethnicity, or culture. I have met holocaust survivors and Rwandan Genocide survivors. I have listened to them talk about their experiences. I have cried countless times as I struggle to comprehend how we as human beings can justify standing by and doing nothing as men, women and children are slaughtered in the tens and hundreds of thousands. I have grown disheartened as I have seen a growing sense of fear of the “others” around the world translate into walls and bombs.

I implore you to watch videos of “barrel bombs” being dropped on Syrian cities – bombs that are unguided and indiscriminate, and thus kill indiscriminately. I implore you to think what the conditions must be like for a person to risk their lives and safety to cross the southern border of the United States in search of a better life. I implore you to imagine your life as one of these people. I implore you to think of what it must be like for a person your age and gender, of what it must be like for a family, or what it must be like for a small child. Just for a moment.

And then I want you to think of why someone would want to become an American.

To those that say “what of the risks to our safety and security”, I reply that there are risks associated with every action and non-action we take in our personal lives and as a society. There are no guarantees that an immigrant will not become radicalized or a criminal, just like there are no guarantees that those of us who are already American citizens will not become radicalized or a criminal. Stating otherwise just creates a false dichotomy and inspires fear and hatred of the 134,000,000 people from the seven countries affected by the immigration ban, the 11,000,000 undocumented immigrants residing in the United States, and the 122,000,000 Mexicans that share our southern border.

There are real problems that we have with border security, immigration, and terrorism. But there are compassionate solutions to illegal immigration and the refugee crisis in Syria. We can achieve our safety and our security and simultaneously maintain our American values of compassion and empathy. Simply creating walls where there should be none because of fear and hatred of the “others” goes against every value and ideal that we have and hold dear not only as Americans, but also as human beings. It is just not the right thing to do.

If you enjoy reading my posts, please subscribe using the sign-up box at the bottom of the page. Once you sign up, you will receive a confirming email. When you respond to that confirmation email, you will get updates on any new items I post. It is my hope that these blogs are a starting point for great discussions and shared ideas. I look forward to reading the comments you post.

The Immigration Dilemma

The issue of illegal immigration has clearly become a contentious issue in our society. I hear people discuss the issue from a political point of view, an economic point of view, and a personal point of view. I see the arguments getting more heated as the stakes continue to get higher for all of us. When I listen to these arguments, I see that the arguments stem from two very different psychological theories and believe viewing the issue through this lens can help us resolve it.

On the one hand is a point of view that says those who break the law need to be punished; the immigrants need to be sent back to where they came from. On the other hand, is a point of view that says such an action will break up families, send hard-working people back to unsafe homelands, and wreck our economy. The first perspective is rooted in a behaviorist philosophy, the second in a cognitive one.

Behaviorist’s focus is on behavior and its consequences: a behavior that is rewarded is repeated; one that is ignored is reduced to the point of elimination. The most scientific of all the psychological perspectives, behaviorists consider only what can be observed and measured. That simple principle leads them to focus on behavior and eliminate thought and emotion as factors that must be considered. They demonstrate that a rat or a dog will greet us at the door, sit by our feet, walk by our side, because we train them to do so by feeding them. In other words, behavior is the consequence of rewards. There are no shades of gray.

What does this have to do with illegal immigration? Well, for a behaviorist, we must provide consequences for an action or the action will continue to occur. A behaviorist’s view would go something like this: If America allows the illegal immigrants to stay, then we reward them for breaking the rules of entry into our country. Behaviorists contend that they will simply continue to do what we’ve trained them to do. In other words, this “law breaking” behavior, once rewarded, would be generalized, resulting in other laws being broken. In order to prevent this, all who have come illegally must have a consequence so that they (and others) learn to obey the law.

On the other hand, the cognitive perspective believes that a person’s thoughts about the future determine current behavior. For example, if a person believes s/he will succeed in college (a future goal), s/he’ll enroll (a current behavior). If a person believes s/he will not succeed, s/he will not enroll. For cognitive psychologists, everyone is a scientist collecting evidence to confirm or disconfirm their beliefs. The world, consequently, is always a shade of gray.

From this perspective, illegal immigration can be considered a series of thoughts. Americans holding this view think that we do not have to punish those who came illegally; we can instead control current illegal immigration by giving a reasonable goal for future entry. That is, if people know that the process will be streamlined and fair (if we give out enough work visas, for example), they will stop coming illegally. Cognitive theorists would consider the emotions involved in separating families. They would consider the thoughts that were involved in choosing to come illegally – the decision to leave their families behind, to risk all the danger in getting across several borders, the thought that their only chance for a better life was to come to America. These thoughts lead to the idea that illegal immigrants are a part of our heritage; we draw in those who are in search of a better life.

While I have a theoretical preference, I respect the other side. Both have valid points and both have arguments that are worth addressing. It is not until we develop a cognitive-behavioral perspective that the issue can be resolved.

It is time for us to solve this issue – to decide if we believe that humans are the sum total of repeatedly rewarded behaviors or if humans are the sum total of their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. It is time for us to stop the name-calling and finger pointing and move, instead, towards working to find a solution that addresses the very real problem of violence so severe that humans would go to such extremes to escape it. It is time to come up with a humane plan.

 

 

If you enjoy reading my posts, please subscribe using the sign-up box at the bottom of the page. Once you sign up, you will receive a confirming email. When you respond to that confirmation email, you will get updates on any new items I post. It is my hope that these blogs are a starting point for great discussions and shared ideas. I look forward to reading the comments you post.

 

The Answer

We all crave “the answer”.

What made a relationship with a friend end? What made a relationship with a significant other end? Why did (someone we know but don’t particularly like) end up with such a great partner? Why is school so hard? Why am I always the one who gets in trouble? Why don’t you ever yell at (insert sibling name here)? Why did I – or someone I care about – wind up with a chronic or terminal illness? Why am I alone? Why can’t people leave me alone? Why am I unhappy? Why don’t people believe in climate change?

So, what is the issue we need to consider? It is that there is no the; there is no one factor that could account for the event in question. The answer really rests in accepting that we must seek out answers.

Let’s start with a fun one.   Why am I always the one who gets in trouble? We have all either said that as a child or heard a child say it. From the child’s point of view, it is a fact that he is the only one who gets in trouble. The reason he will give for that fact is that the parent favors the other sibling. Of course, parents see it very differently. Parents will say, “Yes, I do reprimand ________ more often because he/she is older, knows or should know better, is the one who takes it to an extreme, is the instigator…” In other words, the parent is considering multiple reasons. Why? Again, one might be tempted to give one reason, but I can think of a multitude of reasons: the parent has a broader view of the situation, the parent is older/wiser/more experienced, the parent is trying to justify their unfair practice. Yes, that last one is a bit of a game changer. It opens up an entirely different path of possible reasons for why something is happening.

Let’s consider another. What made a relationship with a significant other end? Over the years, I have had countless clients grapple with this question. Again, the search begins with a quest for the thing that went wrong. I was too pushy. They were selfish. They cheated. I was young. Drugs/alcohol. I wasn’t ready. The timing was off. Finances. He didn’t give me flowers. She gained a lot of weight. The sex wasn’t the same. I lost interest. We had kids. Monogamy isn’t natural.

Each one, at first glance, seems like a reasonable explanation. Once we consider the reason as reasonable, our search for understanding comes to a close. However, when we decide to examine the answer in greater depth, we quickly see that, once again, many paths emerge. For example, “I was pushy” leads to another question: Why were you pushy? The answer to that one can be: my needs were not being met; I felt like I was not a priority; our energy levels were very different; we enjoyed different things; we had different goals; I thought he/she was unmotivated. Each of these answers lead to further questions such as: Why would you want to be with someone who did not meet your needs? Or did it make you happy to be with someone who had a different energy level? What does it mean that they were unmotivated? Each question represents different problems and different categories of issues that would have had to be addressed in order to keep the relationship alive or justify its end. The questions represent the futility of looking for the reason.

I will add a little psychological science here too: correlations are a common tool used in the social sciences. A correlation represents an association between two variables/events. For example, there is a relationship between number of hours one studies and success on an exam. However, that is all we can say. We cannot say that number of hours studying causes success on an exam. It is tempting, but it is not what a correlation allows us to do. After all, a person can spend hours studying the wrong material and therefore do poorly. Or someone can spend hours studying, then become so anxious that one’s memory is negatively impacted and therefore performs poorly. Or a person can have an eidetic memory, not have to study at all, and do very well. It is far more productive to search for the multiple factors associated with success on an exam because causation is more likely to rest in the grouping of factors.

Why am I going on about this? Well, in part, because it demonstrates our desire for simplicity over complexity and for causation rather than association. To bring it back to our earlier examples, a child associates getting in trouble with a parent favoring a sibling and then comes to see that as the cause because the child is unable to understand that is a combination of factors – none of which have to do with favoritism. A person hurt by the end of a relationship associates “I was pushy” with the breakup, attributing causation to that single factor of pushiness, rather than looking at the whole picture.

So, when we are tempted to find the answer, let’s remember that real life is not based on multiple choice and the identification of a single correct answer. Let’s remember that even sophisticated multiple choice tests give us options – you know those answer options we so dislike such as “all of the above”, “only B and D”, or “none of the above”. The fact is: life is more like that. Even more so, it is like an essay question where we choose the facts to consider and present and with those choices, we select a path for our response, a path for our future. So, embrace the question, generate even more questions, and have fun finding the answers that will bring you satisfaction, acceptance, and, hopefully, a joy-filled future.

If you enjoy reading my posts, please subscribe using the signup box at the bottom of the page. Once you sign up, you will receive a confirming email. When you respond to that confirmation email, you will get updates on any new items I post. It is my hope that these blogs are a starting point for great discussions and shared ideas. I look forward to reading the comments you post.

The Day After

statue-of-liberty

The day after.

Although not a complete sentence, it does conjure up immediate associations in us. Some of those associations are filled with regret (the day after an argument, the day after a night of excess, the day after a night one can’t remember) and some are filled with joy (the day after meeting someone special, the day after a big win, the day after a night one will remember forever). It seems to me, the words “the day after” mark an association with a passion for something or someone.

For many of us, this election was marked with passion.

Now, on the day after, we need to wash off any regrets we may have and focus our passion on the future.

Democracy is not really about Election Day. It is about involvement. It is about the daily passion of working toward making our nation the best it can be today, tomorrow, and in the years to come. The only way to have leaders who lead with integrity, commitment, insight, and awareness of the needs of the people is to be actively engaged in the process.

So, in the “days after”, write to your legislators. Write to your President. Tell them how you feel, what you think is the right choice on issues. Tell them your story. They cannot, and do not, make decisions in a vacuum. They make decisions based upon the information they receive. If you do not participate in the dialogue, then you cannot complain about the outcome.

No one person, not even the President, determines policy in our country. We have an awesome system of checks and balances. So, today – the day after – channel your passion into a commitment to be involved in forging our future. Volunteer in your local political party, attend meetings held by your local legislators, write to your elected representatives. If all that seems like too much, then commit to watching more than one news channel or reading more than one newspaper so that you are committed to achieving a balanced view on the issues we face through an open mind. Regardless of the extent to which you do so, make involvement in our democracy an important part of your life.

We, the people…the day after – and every day – determine the present and the future. Embrace that responsibility with the degree of passion commensurate with the challenges that lay ahead.

If you enjoy reading my posts, please subscribe using the signup box at the bottom of the page. Once you sign up, you will receive a confirming email. When you respond to that confirmation email, you will get updates on any new items I post. It is my hope that these blogs are a starting point for great discussions and shared ideas. I look forward to reading the comments you post.

Wish for a Better Future

wishing-well

We make wishes all the time: at 11:11, when we blow out our birthday candles, when we find a fallen eyelash, when we throw a coin into a well. It is part of human nature. Wishes can be wonderfully optimistic, but they can also be reflections of disappointment or regret about the past rather than optimism about the future. They are wishes such as “If only I had known…” or “If only I had or had not…” or “I wish I could have done things differently”. These are wishes that keep us anchored to unpleasant experiences, rather than inspire a future propelled by what our experiences have taught us. In other words, when we wish that we could have done things differently, our focus is on what we have already done rather than on what we will do going forward.

We’ve all said some variation of “if only”. For example:

(1) “If only I had known how angry she would get, I would not have mentioned ____ today. I would have waited until she was in a better mood.”

(2) “If only I had known he was cheating on me, I would have broken up with him months ago.”

(3) “If only I had not gone to bed so late, I would have been able to do better on the test/job I was assigned.”

(4) “If only I had been more attentive, she would still be dating me.”

(5) “If only I had known that the company was going to go out of business I would have started looking for work months ago.”

(6) “If I had known that today was the last time I would see him, I would have said I loved him when he left for work. I wish that had been the last thing I said.”

In these “if only” scenarios, we tend to use information that was not available at the time we made our decision. This newly available information suddenly becomes a basis for evaluating the merits of our past decision.

However, we cannot lose sight of the fact that our decisions in the moment are based on how one sees the situation at that time. Why avoid mentioning something if you think the person is in a good mood? If you trust someone, why break up with him/her? If you think the next day will be routine, what is the harm in staying up late? If you think you are making someone happy, why change the way you treat them? If you are happy in your job and have no information on the financial position of the company, why change jobs? Did the person know you love them, even though the words were not spoken that morning?

It is often hard to remember the factors that influenced our decision at the time and the consequences of our decisions are sometimes so upsetting to us that we search for how we could have avoided them. It is as if the newly available information is so compelling that it “demands” that we use it as a way of evaluating the merits of our past actions. It is almost as if we get stuck in the wish that things could have been different and in searching for a way to change the past, we wind up turning our back on our future.

I have talked to so many people who ask over and over why they have done something. Why was I so quiet/talkative/sensitive/insensitive/pushy/obedient? These statements are really all variations of “I wish I were different” and the ultimate quest is to find the reason for one’s behavior, the one thing that could have changed it all. While it is important to reflect upon our past actions and learn from those actions, wishing we could change the past does little to foster that learning.

When the statements we make move from the past (“I wish I were”) to the future (“I want to be”), the potential for learning from the past is increased and the potential for change in the future is enhanced.

It seems to me that in order to truly learn from the past, and move on from it, we need to focus on the evidence we collected at the time. Asking ourselves why we behaved a certain way (rather than wishing we had behaved differently) allows us to carefully examine that evidence and determine what we may have overemphasized and what we may have overlooked. Most of the time, we seek confirming evidence, that is, evidence that supports our hypothesis. If we love someone, we look for evidence of their goodness; if we dislike someone, we look for evidence of their meanness. In doing so, we emphasize the evidence that supports or confirms our view. This is a valuable and important part of decision-making and evidence collection. However, if we overemphasize the confirming evidence, we may fail to consider evidence that disconfirms our view. A parent may say, for example, “My kids are great!”. They then seek and find confirming evidence (good grades, politeness) but overlook disconfirming evidence (they are in their room studying and cutting themselves because they are depressed or anxious).

The collection of confirming and disconfirming evidence is important to effective decision-making but to truly learn from the past, the other question we must ask ourselves is “How do I want to behave next time?” This clearly shifts the focus from the past –which we cannot change – to the future, where we can change how we behave. Wishing we could have been more attentive will not bring back the person we were dating; however, being more attentive to those who are in our lives or who will come into our lives can enrich our relationships going forward. Saying, “If only I had known he was cheating on me, I would have broken up with him months ago” does not help one move forward; it keeps one focused on the pain of the past and the uncertainty of the future. This particular statement also points to the inherent irrationality of using today’s information for yesterday’s decision. That is, at the moment, the relationship was good so there was no reason to break up. If one had had the information, then – and only then – does breaking up begin to make sense. Again, reviewing the confirming and disconfirming evidence one used as a basis for trust is useful; focusing our energy on wishing we had done things differently does little to help one learn from the past and does even less to help one move toward a brighter future.

My wish for you is that you make your wishes dreams that can come true, and not lists of past regrets that cannot be changed.

“Do you know why a car’s windshield is so large and the rear view mirror is so small? Because our past is not as important as our future. So, look ahead and move on.” – Unknown

If you enjoy reading my posts, please subscribe using the signup box at the bottom of the page. Once you sign up, you will receive a confirming email. When you respond to that confirmation email, you will get updates on any new items I post. It is my hope that these blogs are a starting point for great discussions and shared ideas. I look forward to reading the comments you post.

First Day of School Jitters

I think we can all remember the anticipation of a new school year. The excitement of beginning anew, the anticipation of seeing old friends or meeting new ones, waiting for the letter that tells us what homeroom we are in and who our teacher would be. I think we can also all remember the jitters before school as well – the butterflies in our stomach, the dread of not having any friends in our class or not meeting new ones, the fear that our teacher would be the “awful” one, and the fear that this would be the worst year of our life.

What we need to keep in mind is that although we know that it will all be OK (because somehow we survived school), we need to keep in mind that our children do not know this. For them, the anxiety is real and our job is to keep it at a healthy level – a level where it motivates them to do their best, to rise to a challenge, and to pursue personal growth. When anxiety moves beyond the healthy level, the costs begin to outweigh the benefits. Personal growth is replaced by sleepless nights, upset stomachs, poor concentration, and the development of separation fears. To help us remember what they are feeling, it is important that we remember that the feelings, thoughts, and anxieties that the children have on the first day of school are really the same as those we feel on the first day of college or the first day of a new job, or even the anxiety we feel upon the return to our “established” position after a vacation. We manage these jitters because our past experiences with this type of anxiety have inoculated us, making us better able to withstand it. Children don’t have the multitude of experiences we have so they cannot call upon them as evidence that this situation will work out okay too. So, what can we do?

As parents, we can:

  • Familiarize them with the environment they will be in. Take advantage of opportunities that the school district provides where children can go into the building and look around. Familiarity eases anxiety. For young children, it is learning where things are, how to find their room, or what their teacher looks like. For middle school children, it is learning how to use the lock on the locker. For teens, it is knowing where their friends will be, who they will have lunch with, who will have study hall with them.
  • Give them a sense of control. Let them know that you believe in their ability to handle the situation and give them strategies for doing so. If they are worried about whether you will forget to meet them at the bus stop after school, reassure them that you will be there and then let them know what to do in case you are not. Let them know they are safe so they feel in control.
  • Give them a sense of predictability. Let them know what the schedule will be like. This is important at every age. The kindergarten child wants to know what they will do when they walk in the room and what will happen after that. The tween and teen wants to know what “specials” are on each day, what after school activities they will have each day, and when the school vacations will be.
  • Understand that as school becomes more imminent, their anxiety about it will increase. So, we need to prepare beforehand so that the night before is as stress-free as possible. Make sure all the items your child needs are available and put in the backpack so there is no last minute uncertainty about whether they will be “in trouble” for not being prepared. (Getting things ready beforehand also relates to giving them a sense of control and increasing the predictability that the first interaction with the teacher will be a positive one).
  • Help them reframe their anxiety. While my own children would get so frustrated with me when I said this, it is still one of my favorite phrases – and one I have all of my students repeat before an exam – “I’m not worried, I’m excited!” Of course, they do not feel excited at the moment and it seems to be negating their reality, but, anxiety and excitement have the same physiological effect on our body; they both activate our fight/flight system. The label we give that physical event, however, changes our reaction to that physiology. So, excitement raises our belief that the situation will turn out positively, while nervousness makes us focus on how we need to protect ourselves from what is about to happen. The focus changes the strategies we use in the situation and excitement leads to better strategies for handling the jitters we feel. If they are worried because last year was a tough one for them, reframe it as “This year is a new year”; remind them of the other positive changes that have happened and help them build on that (i.e. they can now tie their own shoes, or drive their own cars). Help them to understand that if some things have changed, school can too.
  • Recognize that as school becomes more imminent, your own anxiety will increase. We need to handle our worries so they do not increase our children’s worries. If you are worried about their safety in school, talk to school administrators about it. If you are worried about their academic preparation, reach out to the teacher and find out about the support systems that are available. Most teachers offer after-school help and in many states, the American Federation of Teachers has a homework helpline that can be a wonderful resource.  If you are worried that your schedule is tight and you may miss their bus drop-off or pick-up, then contact the PTA and ask if there are other parents with that concern and form a committee to help each other. If you are worried about the “bad influences” out there, remind yourself that while peer influences increase as our children get older, our influence is never wiped out. If you stay emotionally connected to your kids, they will hear your advice even when you are not there to give it.
  • You may experience separation anxiety. If you feel the separation anxiety, if you feel that sense that time is moving too quickly and your “baby” is gone, remember that every phase of life brings its joy, and this will too. Recognizing the joy in the moment allows us to form beautiful memories of the past and positive hopes for the future. I always find comfort in the idea that growing up does not mean they will not need us; it means they will need us differently.

If you happen to be a teacher and you are reading this, there are, of course, things you can do as well to reduce your students’ anxiety. You can have a welcome note on their desks when they arrive so that they immediately know they are joining the community of your classroom, a place where you will treat each other with respect. Invite them to write you back so you can learn more about them. Have a week of changing seats rather than assigned seats this way you can see the dynamics among the various students and they can realize that the potential for their social group is larger than the few people who sit near them. Have everyone say only their name on a daily basis for the first week so everyone learns names – and the shy students practice speaking without feeling any anxiety about what they have to say or remember (such as trying to remember all the names that have already been said – a task that terrifies many students). Talk to your colleagues about other class community bonding activities they utilize so that you can further ease your students’ beginning of the year anxiety.

Whether you are a parent, a teacher, or a student, a new school year brings new anxieties. I imagine that even reading these strategies caused some anxiety. Anxiety lessens, but never disappears – and that is a good thing because at a healthy level, anxiety helps us grow. So, remember what I said – every time we are anxious, it inoculates us from future anxiety. While we may experience jitters in a variety of settings over our lifetime, the jitters do get less. The anxiety decreases and the anticipation/excitement increases. Our coping skills improve because we increase our experiences and are able to apply the knowledge gained to other situations.

I hope these strategies will help you to enjoy the coming school year or whatever new situation you face. Keep in mind the best advice I know for handling a new experience:

“You’re off to great places. Today is your day. Your mountain is waiting, so get on your way” -Dr. Seuss

If you enjoy reading my posts, please subscribe using the signup box at the bottom of the page. Once you sign up, you will receive a confirming email. When you respond to that confirmation email, you will get updates on any new items I post. It is my hope that these blogs are a starting point for great discussions and shared ideas. I look forward to reading the comments you post.

You’ve Got to Be Taught to Hate and Fear

Over the last few days, I have heard random people list their hatreds. People hate (insert food). They hate (insert weather). They hate (insert animal).   They hate (insert political candidate/person). They hate (insert religion). They hate (insert ethic/cultural group). They hate (insert sexual orientation). They hate (insert occupation). “Hate” is an incredibly strong word and while it may seem okay to use it when describing momentary discomforts (like the weather) or preferences (such as one food versus another), the word has much more significance when used to describe characteristics that one cannot choose (such as place of birth) or the core values of others (like religion).

Every time I hear the word, I think of a song from the musical “South Pacific”. The musical is set during World War II, a tumultuous time that defined my parents’ youth and early adulthood. My father fought in the war. My mother watched her brothers, cousins, and friends go to war. So, the musical (and its lessons) stuck with me.  One song in particular declared, “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear…You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are 6, or 7, or 8…. You’ve got to be carefully taught” (Rodgers & Hammerstein). I grew to understand that hate was a strong word, a word that caused “terrible things” and I carried this lesson into my professional understanding of hatred.

Psychologically speaking, hate and fear do go together. They are both emotions and as such, they are both physiologically based. They are set in motion by the hypothalamus and trigger our autonomic and endocrine systems to activate. In essence, they both involve the arousal of our “fight or flight” response. Our respiration changes, our perspiration changes, our muscle tension changes, our digestion is impacted. They also both have a cognitive or learned component that helps us cope with the “fight or flight” response. The physiological responses are similar: the cognitive element is based on how we define the situation we are in, and the definition is based, in large part, on what we are taught by our families, our friends, our society as a whole. Just as Rodgers & Hammerstein warned us in “South Pacific”, our culture and our own experiences can teach us to fear or to hate just about anything.

Yet, fear and hate do have their differences. Fear is defined as a response to a serious threat to our well-being. Hatred is defined more loosely – as we can see by the number of ways we are able to use the word in a sentence. Fear is a closed system, by that I mean it often turns us insular; the goal is to protect ourselves. Sometimes, this may include protecting those we care about, but in either case, it tends to reduce the size of the circle. We must protect ourselves and those we love from what is “out there” – an idea that blends well with the development of hatred. Hatred is the justification for reducing the circle: we must keep those things/people out because they will hurt us. As the circle tightens, the mechanism for keeping others out must be enhanced.

Before you know it, we consider building walls, believing they can keep us safe. Humans have been doing this for centuries. We have built forts, castles, and electric fences – all designed to keep “us” safe and “them” out. In this physical sense, walls are seen as a way to protect us and enhance our sense of well-being. Clearly, in some ways this is true. It is better to live in a home than on the street. However, psychologically speaking, walls have a very different connotation. Walls keep us from sharing who we are, they stunt our growth, and they keep us from going outside of our comfort zone. They are things we hide behind. They are things that block us from our emotions, from our ability to see inside (or let others see inside), or from moving to a new or better place. By building these walls, we limit our ability to achieve our full potential. In a psychological context, walls isolate us, make us feel that the only one we can trust is ourselves, lead us to feel more fear because we KNOW we cannot survive on our own.

I can go on and on about psychological walls, but I think Paul Simon gave a remarkably good summary of what it is like to live inside the walls we build: “I’ve built walls, a fortress deep and mighty, that none may penetrate. I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain. It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain. I am a rock, I am an island…A rock feels no pain, and an island never cries” (Simon, Paul. EMI Music Publishing, Universal Music Publishing Group). Whenever I hear that song, I feel sad. Ironically, even though Paul Simon doesn’t want to care about anyone, the words evoke empathy and I share the pain of his situation. If we were all to build walls, we would block out that key human quality of empathy, something even infants are capable of experiencing. If you have ever been in the presence of a group of newborns, you would know that when one cries, they all begin to cry. It would seem to be a collaborative effort setting out an alert for the adults “out there” to come and do something to help. Toddlers will share their blanket with others who are in distress. The fact that these behaviors are present without training speaks volumes about their survival benefit; our instincts tell us we need each other.

Fear of other humans is not innate; it is, as I said before, taught. The fact that we must teach “stranger danger” speaks volumes. I am not suggesting that we eliminate teaching our children about the danger of some strangers, but I am cautioning about how far we have taken this. We need to consider how the fear of others has grown too expansive. We need to evaluate the criteria we are using to define strangers and question the validity of these criteria. We need to carefully consider how much fear we instill in children when we tell them that physicians, police officers, teachers, babysitters, relatives, all possess some element of danger. We must consider what this level of fear is doing to us. When our neighbors become defined as strangers, when we don’t look at the people we pass in the corridors at work, when we assume that most people are evil, we create a world where our fight or flight system is always on, where our bodies are physically taxed, and where our emotional life is drained. We add to our stress because when we do need to reach out (we are sick and need someone to get our medicine; we lost our wallet and need money for public transportation; we are lost and our phone is out of battery), our circle is so small that those within it may not be able to or available to provide the needed assistance.

It is crucial that we expand our thinking and come to recognize that there are billions of good people “out there”. We cannot be fooled into thinking that the “bad” we see on the news on a daily basis represents all of humanity. We know that is not true. My heartfelt belief is that we need to develop mutual dependence and recognize that we are not meant to survive on our own; we are meant to survive and thrive as a group.

 

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”  -Edmund Burke

 

If you enjoy reading my posts, please subscribe using the signup box at the bottom of the page. Once you sign up, you will receive a confirming email. When you respond to that confirmation email, you will get updates on any new items I post. It is my hope that these blogs are a starting point for great discussions and shared ideas. I look forward to reading the comments you post.

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