Tag Archives: emotional intelligence

Courage

I’ve been thinking for some time about courage.

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Oxford Online Dictionary defines courage as “the ability to do something that frightens one.”

As I explore definitions, articles, memes, and quotes about courage online, much of what I read seems superficial and uninspiring – nothing I want to write about.

As always, I did find gold. An article from Psychology Today lists characteristics of courage. My comments are in parentheses.

  • Feeling fear yet choosing to act.
  • Following your heart.
  • Persevering in the face of adversity.
  • Standing up for what is right. (Understanding that we’ll never all agree on what is right.)
  • Expanding horizons – letting go of the familiar.
  • Facing suffering with dignity and faith.

Forbes published an article entitled “10 Traits of Courageous Leaders” that also caught my eye. As far as I’m concerned, these courageous traits are not specific to leaders. Again, my comments are in parentheses.

  • Confront reality head-on. (Reality has become subjective. ‘Alternative facts’, anyone? I think of this as the willingness to see things clearly and accept the world (and others) as it is.)
  • Seek feedback and listen. (Refusing to answer questions or hear feedback is a red flag. So is the inability to shut up and listen.)
  • Say what needs to be said. (Authenticity)
  • Encourage push-back.
  • Take action on performance issues. (Ooda loop: Observe, orient, decide, act.)
  • Communicate openly and frequently. (Authenticity)
  • Lead change.
  • Make decisions and move forward. (Ooda loop again.)
  • Give credit to others. (Gratitude, appreciation, acknowledgment.)
  • Hold people (and yourself) accountable. (Integrity)

Most will agree that courage is a good thing, an attribute we want to have, an attractive quality we’d like others to see in us. The hardest part of courage, it appears at first look, is simply overcoming our fear and taking action anyway. Then everyone will admire, like, and respect us.

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From the bottom of my scarred heart, I wish that was so. Maybe it is so for others, but my experience with courage is that the people closest to me, whose opinion I’ve most cared about, have called some of the most courageous choices I’ve ever made cowardice, and I’ve paid a steep and ongoing price for those choices, even though from my perspective they were the right things to do.

Perhaps the most powerful way to think about the traits and aspects of courage listed above is to consider whether they are present or not in our own relationships, groups and communities. Most of us will pay lip service to the idea of courage, but when it comes to taking courageous action, we are severely discouraged from doing so, and we often do all we can to prevent others from doing so as well.

Let’s face it. Courage is damned inconvenient and uncomfortable. In fact, for many, it’s a frank threat.

This is a shadowy aspect of courage few talk about directly, with one major exception.

Artists.

For example, John Steinbeck wrote, in East of Eden: “An unbelieved truth can hurt a man much more than a lie.” To tell the truth, make courageous choices out of that truth, and be invalidated and/or disbelieved by those close to us is a terrible kind of pain. When others call our courage selfishness, cowardice, malevolence, irresponsibility or hysteria, relationships shatter.

Then I found this poem by Mary Oliver, one of my favorite writers:

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
Kept shouting
their bad advice—
though the whole house began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.

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It’s one thing to be a member of an in-group that provides support as we make choices. It’s a whole other thing to be cast out, scapegoated, or tribally shamed because others do not accept or believe in our fears, dreams, and authenticity, and thus cannot appreciate our courage.

Courage, I find, takes enormous courage.

As I contemplate courage, my relationship to it, and these points, two aspects stand out: The terrible loneliness of courage, and how subjective it is.

Fear is, of course, subjective, too. This came home to me particularly this week as I had a conversation with a young student about concerns and plans for schools reopening. I realized afresh, during our brief interaction, that we all fear things in the coming months. Some are afraid they’ll be forced to take a vaccine for coronavirus in order to attend school, or forced to wear a mask all day. Others fear equally there will be no vaccine, at least not a safe and effective one, and students won’t wear masks.

To be human is to know fear. We all have that in common. I wish we could stay rooted in that commonality and work together, but instead most people take it one step farther and fight about which fear is real and legitimate; not a successful strategy for problem-solving.

There’s an old proverb: “Fear and courage are brothers.” Most of us understand that courage can’t exist without fear. This is an aspect of courage that’s heavily underlined as I research. It doesn’t help us much now, though, when we fear so many different, if not opposite, things.

If fear is subjective, then courage must be, too. Right now we see a mad scramble as different groups work to legitimize their fears and invalidate those of others. Contempt, violence and broken relationships are the result, and we wind up more thoroughly divided than we started.

Courage, then, becomes something we each define for ourselves, rather than a concept we all agree on.

Because our culture has such low emotional intelligence, and fear is such a loaded thing to talk about honestly, the idea of courage becomes equally difficult to address and remains nebulous and elusive, a thing in the shadows.

Who would have thought how complicated courage is?

I have no grand conclusions. What I will say is that thinking about courage has softened some of my certainty that I can recognize and appreciate it in those around me. What do I know of what lies in the hidden places of others? I’m also reminded that, at the end of the day, the best friend and support we have is ourselves. Nobody can walk in our shoes but us, and that means nobody has access to the full truth of our experience, our fear, or the fullness of our courage. Our own love and approval may be all we get, and that needs to be enough.

Practicing courage, in spite of the price. My daily crime.

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Chocolate or Vanilla?

When I underwent emotional intelligence training, my coach asked me the question, “Chocolate or vanilla?” over and over. Now, my partner and I use that phrase frequently as we live our life together. It always makes me smile.

Life is ridiculously complicated. At other times, it’s ridiculously simple. Our experience lies in the heart of this paradox.

Chocolate or vanilla is about choice, and the recognition and reclamation of our ability to choose is the core of emotional intelligence.

Choice is about power.

One of the many seeds that inspired this post was this article that appeared in my news feed from The Guardian: “A Dirty Secret: You Can Only Be a Writer if You Can Afford It.” It caught my attention because my reflex now is to question all these kinds of assertions, whether they are a result of my own beliefs or someone else’s.

Is that true? I asked myself.

Upon reading the article, I discover the author is making a point that earning a living by writing is difficult. Agreed. Does that mean one is not a writer if they don’t earn a living writing? That depends on how one defines what a writer is. This circles around to identity. What is a writer? What is a real writer?

Why does it matter? If a person is compelled to write, they do so. Debating what a “real” writer is, making rules about what “counts” as writing (Editing? Tech writing? Poetry? Published writing? Unpublished writing? Writing for money? Blogging for free?). Gathering statistics about the high costs of publishing, editing, hiring an agent, advertising, etc., seem to me distractions from writing, even if it’s only for twenty minutes a day.

Is the issue about choosing to live creatively or about managing our expectations about such a life and feeling disempowered by the attendant difficulties in earning a living via our creativity?

The tone of the article bothers me because it’s focused negatively. It’s about being creatively disempowered because the world is the way it is. It’s all the reasons why writers can’t be successful (whatever that means) unless they have a certain amount of money.

I don’t accept that.

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Why not think about what is possible? Where is our power? The author states that space and time cost money. Is that true? We all have the same 24 hours in a day. We make hundreds of choices about how we spend that time. Some of our choices are unconscious, and some are not. The minimalism movement speaks to this. If our lives are so busy, noisy and cluttered that we don’t give our creative longings (or whatever else matters most to us) time and space, we’re the only ones who can fix that. And make no mistake, we can fix it. We have the power to simplify our lives and identify what matters most to us. If we want to. If we consent to.

As I observe myself and others navigate through their lives, it’s easy to pick out those who feel powerless from those who acknowledge at least some power. Note that power does not mean control. Power is “the ability to do something or act in a particular way.” Control is “the power to influence or direct people’s behavior or the course of events.” (Online Oxford Dictionary) Power is intrinsic. Control is extrinsic.

It strikes me that when we feel disempowered about one thing, we frequently expand that feeling to our whole lives. We feel victimized, stuck, fearful, hopeless and helpless. Often, we’re enraged by the unfairness of life. We desperately try to find a sense of control. Our default is to stay focused on all the places we have no power, no matter what the situation.

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That focus is a choice. It might be unconscious, but it’s still a choice.

Chocolate or vanilla?

I know we each have obligations, complicated lives, and most of us need to earn a living. As a single mother of two boys, I worked a full-time job, a part-time job, did volunteer work and took online courses to complete a college degree. Believe me, I know about being overwhelmed in life. During those years I also danced, told stories, wrote, and created visual art, because that’s who I am. I didn’t earn money with my creativity, but it was what kept me going in all the other areas of my life.

I understand that sometimes we are disempowered by addiction and/or other health issues, and we are unable to make choices because of it. In that case, we need help, and we can choose to get it. Or not.

Chocolate or vanilla?

As for space, writing can happen on a bed, on the floor, on a park bench, in a car, or in a Starbucks. In my life, I’m not at all sure where the boundary is between writing and living. I seem to always be doing both, whether or not I’m actually at the keyboard or with a pen in my hand.

Being creative is not the same as an ambition to get rich and famous via our work. If the goal is riches and fame, we’ve stepped out of our power. Then we’re going to need money, influence, professional support, and a lot of luck. Even if we do achieve fame, financial security and glory, however, let’s not kid ourselves. We’ll still need to manage our money and time, and we’ll still have exactly as much time as everyone else does.

We’ll still have to choose between chocolate and vanilla every minute, and if we refuse to choose, somebody else will choose for us.

We can’t reclaim or effectively hold onto our power unless we’re willing to question everything, and questioning everything is not supported in this culture. If we’re not living the life we want, there’s one important question to ask:

If we feel disempowered, do we want to feel differently? Do we consent to change?

Most of us will immediately say yes, of course we don’t want to feel disempowered! What a stupid question! BUT we can’t, because we have no money. We have no time. We have health limitations. We can’t find work, or we have work, but our boss hates us. Our commute is too long. We don’t have the space we need. Nobody loves us. Nobody cares. We’re alone. We’re too old. We’re too young. We’re too tired. We’re the wrong color or sex. Nothing and no one is the way we need them to be in order for us to live in our power.

The truth is that our personal power has nothing to do with the people around us or the way the world works. Only one person can fundamentally disempower us, and that person looks back at us out of the mirror.

Another unwelcome truth is that many people who feel chronically disempowered are getting some kind of a payoff for staying stuck in that place.

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This hidden payoff is a hard, hard thing to admit and excavate, take it from me. Our defenses rise, our feelings boil, our beliefs become more fanatical, all our old wounds bleed. Hidden payoffs are buried deeply in psychic war zones. Many of us never go there unless we’re forced to by some kind of a catastrophic, life-and-death situation.

I started this post on a Tuesday morning. I was sitting at my little workstation in my attic space next to an open window. The air was fresh and cool. It was misty out, and I could hear the spring song of birds. I opened my laptop and skimmed headlines about politics, COVID-19, and overnight killer tornados in Tennessee. There was the seductive content on my screen, manipulated by the media, Google, and advertising. Then there was the world outside my window, gentle, lovely, moist, and promising the new beginning of spring.

Chocolate or vanilla?

I shut the laptop, picked up a clipboard and pen, and began this post long hand, the old-fashioned way, in my chair in front of an open window.

Choice. Personal power. I am a writer. My daily crime.

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Restraint

An article in my news feed caught my eye this week: 7 Psychological Superpowers Few People Have That You Can Use to Set Yourself Apart. It sounded interesting—and it was!

The author proposes restraint as a superpower. Oxford Online Dictionary defines restraint as “unemotional, dispassionate or moderate behavior; self-control.” The ability to manage our own behavior is an important aspect of emotional intelligence.

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Understand that this does not mean making ourselves small, or silencing ourselves or others. It’s also important to think of restraint as an internal control. We have no power (usually) to restrain others, but we can develop self-restraint, which may influence others to be more restrained in their behavior.

As I think about restraint, it has two aspects. One is the choices we make as we interact with others. The other is the choices we make about our own attention; for example, we can learn to refrain (or restrain ourselves) from taking everything so seriously. This kind of restraint is invisible to anyone else, but it significantly changes the quality of our experience and life.

I’ve noticed, as I work with this blog, how the vehicle of social media seems to encourage saying more and meaning less. We seem to have a need to share our most mundane activities and decisions as though they’re filled with meaning.

A good example is the TLDR (too long, didn’t read) trend, which has long fascinated me. As I navigate through the Internet, reading my news feeds, researching and exploring links that interest me, I often stop reading articles and essays before finishing them. Sometimes that’s because I don’t have the time right then to do it justice. Sometimes I’m finding no value in it.

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It never occurs to me to make a comment indicating why I made the decision to stop reading. If I’m too busy to read a lengthy piece, why on earth would I pause to say TLDR about it, either aloud or in writing? Why is that important? Why does anyone care? Is such a comment a passive-aggressive way to say the writer is too long-winded? Or that the reader has an important and busy life? Or that literacy is elitist? It seems to me an utterly useless comment.

I also think it’s fun when people write comparatively lengthy comments about why they didn’t read. I have the same set of questions there. It’s impossible to take feedback seriously or have a good discussion with someone who hasn’t read the piece, so why bother saying anything at all? We read what we’re interested in, and we don’t read what we’re not interested in … don’t we?

As we become more embedded in social media and texting technology, we act as though If we have the ability to say something, we must. But does having the means to constantly share our thoughts and choices mean we should? Is it useful? Is it truly connecting? Is it meaningful?

I’m amused and appalled by modern dating. Younger friends and colleagues inform me that the norm now is to exchange frequent texts throughout the day in even a first date relationship. Romantic, meaningful texts like:

“How was your commute?”

(Icy. It’s February in Maine and it snowed yesterday, you jackass!)

“How’s work?”

(Distracted and interrupted because you keep texting me about nothing, Dude! You’re not a swimmer, you’ve never been here, and you don’t know anything about my job. What can I text you about work? Nobody’s drowned yet today. The pool is cloudy, and we don’t know why. Send chocolate!)

The parenthetic replies are mine. My friend was much kinder and more tolerant! Apparently, however, if texting like this doesn’t happen, one or another of those involved are hurt, or feel rejected or otherwise insecure.

Gah!

It makes me smile to think of restraint as a superpower, but maybe the writer is on to something. The article did make me think. I’m more comfortable listening than talking, but it’s evident after a few hours at work how lonely so many people are. They talk about their pets, their families, their health concerns, food, their pain, their history, their financial struggles, their work, their gardens, and the ice in their driveways. Sometimes their conversation is long, rambling, and interminable. I’m filled with compassion for them.

Many people of my generation and older are uncomfortable with texting, e-mail and social media. In fact, e-mail is now used much less frequently than messaging or FaceTime. My 30-something kids are scornful of e-mail and those who use it. They much prefer texting, which I do with them for the sake of staying in touch, though it’s deeply unsatisfying for me. I’d rather write long e-mails or talk on the phone (if I must; I hate talking on the phone!).

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Nothing replaces actually being with them.

People crave face-to-face conversation and contact (FaceTime doesn’t count), contact that can’t happen in a text with emojis. They’re so hungry that when they get it, they have no restraint at all. Everything comes out. Being “connected” through technology appears to be a toxic mimic for what we really need.

I wonder if part of what drives younger generations to compulsively send words into cyberspace is that same hunger for authentic connection, though unrecognized. In their loneliness and isolation, they send more and more impulsive, unedited, unrestrained words out into the world, longing for meaning, connection, and validation, but having no idea that their extreme oversharing is making them less connected, not more.

Superficiality is not connection. The ability to be in constant technological contact is not necessarily intimacy, security, love or meaningful in any way. Restraint seems to be a lost art. We’re better at it when interacting in real time and place than we are online, where it appears nothing is too mean or hateful to say, but we all say an awful lot of nothing.

I’m disheartened by how easy we are to manipulate, from click bait to disinformation to trolls. The Internet and tech provide us with endless tasty poisoned bait to nibble on, and we pick it up every time. Stimulate our fear, guilt, outrage, defensiveness or paranoia, and we’re hooked into long, pointless debates and arguments, competitions over who gets to be right, and spending our time engaging with the world in a way that makes us and our relationships neither healthier nor happier, but is probably quite satisfying for all the Cluster B and otherwise destructive, manipulative folks out there with agendas for power and control.

The mice in our house are smarter than that. They’ve figured out how to lick the peanut butter out of the trap without triggering it.

So much for human supremacy!

We all have feelings and impulses, and most of us have said things we regret later. I’m not suggesting it’s wrong to be lonely, or to want to be seen or talk things out. I do wonder sometimes if technology is taking us farther and farther from our ability to participate in healthy, authentic relationships, however. Publicly documenting our every move, choice and experience (with pictures!) and participating in the culture’s indiscriminate oversharing makes me wonder where this road will take us. We’re getting very skilled at monologues. Real discussions and conversations in which people both speak and listen? Not so much. We spend more time waiting to speak than listening and attempting to understand.

After reading this article, I’m paying more attention to what I say, and why, and to whom. The point of language (a symbolic system for sharing meaning) is communicating. If we have nothing meaningful to say, why are we speaking (or writing)? (What is meaningful? Who gets to decide? Never mind. That’s for another post!)

Why is just being silent or present as a listener or reader not enough? Must we find something to say about everything to everyone? Do we cease to exist if we’re getting no attention or validation or have no comment? Does everyone need to know about our TLDR choices? Do our private lives need to be public plays with stage directions?

Practicing restraint. My daily crime.

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