Tag Archives: labels

Lasting Happy

This week I finished reading Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman, Ph.D., which inspired several posts. See them here, here, here, here, here, and here.

In the concluding chapter of his book, Seligman poses a fascinating question. Is it possible that negative emotions such as fear, anxiety and sadness evolved in us in order to help us identify win-loss, or power-over games? These feeling reactions set us up to fight, flee, freeze, or grovel. If so, he speculates, might it be that positive emotions such as happiness evolved to help us identify win-win, or power-with situations?

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If this is so, and I know of no data that either confirms or denies it at this point, the stakes for understanding and pursuing happiness are even higher than I first realized. If we as a species can cooperate in such a way that everyone has an equal share of peace, joy, contentment, and happiness as we form communities and families, raise children, create and invent, work and learn together, we are actively creating a culture based on win-win, or power-with.

As I watched a violent mob storm the United States Capitol this week, and have absorbed what people are writing and saying about democracy and our Constitution, I recognize an epic struggle for power.

It occurs to me to wonder if democracy is not a destination, but a practice. The United States self-identifies as a democratic republic, but we are far from perfect in upholding democratic ideals, as the Black Lives Matter movement reminds us. The ideal foundation of a healthy democracy is equal power, which is to say equal voice. Some of us in this country may aspire to that, but we’re not there yet.

However, we’re closer to democratic ideals than many other areas of the world where people are engaged in bitter ongoing struggles for individual power and rights, as in Hong Kong.

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The thing about a democracy is that it depends on the consent to share power. This means individuals won’t get everything they want, all views will not be validated, all beliefs may not be supported, and each individual is subject to the power of the majority. It doesn’t mean we have no voice. It means our voice is not more important than anyone else’s.

Many millions of Americans were heartsick and fearful after the 2016 election. Many millions are clearly devastated by the 2020 results. This is democracy in action. We are each given a vote, but there’s no guarantee our hopes and desires will be supported by the majority.

I am struck, over and over, by the clarity of using power as a lens to view current events. Any individual who seeks power-over or win-lose dynamics is not fighting for freedom, justice, or democracy. They’re fighting for power for themselves and disempowerment for others. They may call their actions strength, courage, or patriotism, but that gaslighting doesn’t hide the bottom line.

A peaceful protest demanding equal rights is not the same as a violent mob intent on having what they want at any price, including human lives, regardless of the democratic rights of others.

If it’s true that we humans are at our best and happiest in win-win and power-with dynamics, our imperfect and battered practice of democracy is worth fighting for and strengthening. However, it’s a grave mistake to assume that’s the goal of everyone in this country. Individuals currently in power, as well as some others, do not want to see equal rights. They do not want a true democracy, in which everyone has an equal measure of freedom and personal preferences are subject to the will of the majority. They want absolute freedom and power, no matter the cost to others.

I have yet to see anyone who believes they have absolute power look happy. Arrogant, maybe. Boastful and triumphant, yes. But not happy. On the contrary, people I have personally known who force power-over dynamics have been weak, fearful, miserable, and emotionally isolated. I have not seen a happy face in all the footage from the day of the riot. Rage, contempt, stupidity and weakness, gloating, attention-seeking theater, mindless violence and a desire for destruction were all present, but I saw no peace, no contentment, and no happiness in that mob.

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Is a largely unhappy and unhealthy culture sustainable over the long term? Do we value control of others through fear, disinformation, and violence more than strength, courage, respect, cooperation, and happiness?

Democracy isn’t a free ride or an entitlement. A healthy democracy requires that individuals take responsibility for participation in sustaining it. If we want our constitutional rights to be protected, it’s up to us to protect the rights of others. Our personal freedom is not more important than the freedom of others.

Democracy is like tolerance; it’s a peace treaty that acknowledges and even honors differences within a framework of checks and balances so that one group cannot take absolute power. This protects all of us from authoritarianism.

Our constitutional rights do not include the right to incite or commit violence, the right to disempower or injure those we disagree with or don’t like, the right to destroy property, or the right to deliberately put others at risk during a public health crisis. They do not include the right to spread disinformation. Free speech excludes the incitement of violence.

Happiness builds social capital and resilience. It encourages broad-mindedness and cooperation. It’s self-sustaining, constructive, and creative. Supporting happiness in ourselves and others takes patience, courage, self-discipline, and strength.

Manipulating others through fear, rhetoric and disinformation is easy, and weak personalities employ those methods because they possess no other tools. Destruction and blood lust are brutishly simple and direct, giving an entirely false sense of power and control.

If we stood shoulder to shoulder and stripped away all our labels and identities until we were just people of skin, flesh, and bone, all living on the same exhausted planet, all with the same basic needs for connection, food, clean water, and shelter, what would we want for ourselves and our children? Would we choose to live in an atmosphere of violence, hate, and power-over, ruled by a mindless mob, or would we choose to create a more equal system in which everyone has certain freedoms but no one has absolute freedom or power, and in which everyone has a chance to participate, both through voting and service?

Do we want to concentrate on losing or winning?

Do we aspire to lasting happiness, peace and contentment, or chronic fear, anxiety, and despair?

It doesn’t seem like a hard choice to me.

My daily crime.

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Patterns and Labels

We humans make and seek patterns in everything we do. Sometimes we’re conscious of these patterns, and often we’re not. Discerning patterns is an evolutionary advantage that’s helped us survive, as the complex web of life is filled with them. A rudimentary example is patterns of color on dangerous reptiles, plants, fish and insects that warn of toxicity.

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We organize and sort patterns into objective taxonomies and hierarchies as we learn and strive to make sense of our world, and we label them.

I’ve been thinking about labels for years, and I’ve written about them previously. Our tendency to create labels and slap them on others has become more vicious and hysterical than ever before, and I’m concerned about this entirely divisive trend.

Language is an agreed-upon set of symbols. Nouns describe specific objects or ideas. Nouns are, by their nature, exclusive. That’s why they exist. A pencil is not a door. A tree is not a river. Labels are nouns, too, but they can be sloppy and imprecise, and they’re weighted with a lot of subjectivity and emotion. If we talk about a pencil in mixed company, we’re not likely to cause a scene. If we talk about being a Republican, or a feminist, or an anti-vaxxer, we’re asking for trouble.

Many people create and use labels as social weapons in order to convey hatred and contempt rather than specific objective meaning.

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The complex system we call life on earth is infinitely complicated, and we, as parts of that system, are also complicated.

Subjective labels are superficial, a mere glimmer on the surface of a deep well. They’re all about one-stop shopping and contain the emotional maturity of name calling. They often originate with individuals or groups who seek power over others. Anyone, regardless of education, experience, or expertise, can label anyone else, and frequently do, ruining credibility, reputations, and careers. Labels are limiting and confining. They concentrate a personal attack on one perceived aspect of a human being and ignore all the rest.

Patterns are deeply embedded, often invisible at first glance, but powerful and complicated. The ability to discern and learn about patterns requires critical thinking and a careful process of objective inquiry. We need precise language to describe the many dimensions of patterns. Discerning patterns is not a personal attack, but an observation of behavior and other characteristics (our own as well as that of others) that helps us survive.

Understanding and recognizing patterns gives us the power to manage them usefully and effectively.

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Many of us are aware of uncomfortable patterns in our lives. Some are caught in a loop of choices that result in health consequences such as obesity, pain, and addiction. Others are unable to find the right job, the right place to live, or the right partner. Many of us spend a significant amount of time making the same choices, over and over, and getting the same unsatisfactory results, because we don’t know what else to do.

As we are social beings, our relationships are important, and destructive patterns involving our connections with others can be devastating. Fortunately, there are smart, observant, thoughtful people in the world who recognize behavioral patterns, create tools and use their experience and education to support and teach others how to discern and effectively manage problematic patterns.

One such person is Bill Eddy, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a Certified Family Law Specialist who has more than 32 years of experience providing therapy, mediation, and representation for clients in family court. Eddy co-founded the High Conflict Institute and has become an international resource for managing high-conflict behaviors. He’s written several books, all of which I highly recommend. In fact, his book, BIFF, is an essential handbook for life as a member of the human race.

What I like best about Eddy is that he’s not a labeler. He uses precise scientific language to describe some personality types as context and background, but the thrust of his work is not in diagnosing or labeling, and he actively encourages students and readers to refrain from doing so. His goal is to help us recognize problematic patterns of behavior and teach us how to handle them effectively, kindly, and compassionately while maintaining our own dignity and healthy boundaries.

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Power-with and win-win, in other words.

Nowhere in his work have I seen Eddy suggest we self-apply his methods, but I have my own less-than-useful patterns and character traits, and his strategies help me manage those as well as the behavior of people around me.

In Eddy’s language, high-conflict behavior patterns include consistent:

  • All-or-nothing thinking
  • Unmanaged emotions
  • Extreme behavior
  • Preoccupation with blaming others

–(BIFF: Quick Responses to High-Conflict People, Their Personal Attacks, Hostile Email and Social Media Meltdowns by Bill Eddy, LCSW, ESQ.)

The beauty of Eddy’s tools is simplicity. Anyone who’s ever been hooked into an angry, defensive, escalating, and totally useless high-conflict interaction (and who hasn’t?) knows how exhausting, disheartening, and disempowering such interactions can be. Eddy’s approach is entirely different and much simpler, but it requires us to give up several juicy things.

In order to manage this behavior pattern effectively, we have to give up on winning and being right. We have to give up on taking things personally; trying to change, “help,” or control someone else; the satisfaction of personal attacks; and trying to please. We must learn to manage our own emotions, because two people, neither of whom can deal effectively with their feelings, will get nowhere. We must decide if we want to contribute to conflict or resolve it.

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In short, if we want to reclaim our personal power and manage difficult behavior patterns more effectively, we have to start with ourselves and our own behavior, feelings, and impulses.

Responsibility strikes again.

If we are stuck in a destructive relationship at work, at home, or in the community with a high-conflict personality and we feel helpless and hopeless, the first step in finding a better way is an honest assessment of what we want. If we want to continue to be a victim; if we want revenge or to freely express our frustration, rage, or contempt (as in throwing around labels); if we want to be validated or approved of; if we want to force others to see it our way, apologize, or be just, Bill Eddy has nothing to offer us.

If we’re stuck and committed to finding a better way, accepting that the person we’re dealing with has an observable, consistent pattern of high-conflict behavior and may not be interested in the same outcomes we are, and accepting responsibility for our own behavior, Eddy can show us the way back to our power and sanity.

Dealing effectively with high-conflict behavior patterns does not mean we have to be disrespectful, intolerant, or uncaring. It doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice our own integrity or boundaries. It doesn’t mean we have to stop loving people. Best of all, recognizing problematic behavior doesn’t mean we give up on the whole person. Many valuable employees and community members exhibit high-conflict behavior patterns.

In fact, Eddy’s tools apply to any human interaction, as they involve brief, informative, firm and friendly scripts appropriate and effective in all contexts, whether consistently high-conflict, potentially high-conflict, or entirely friendly.

Labels create and escalate conflict rather than resolving it. Recognizing patterns and learning how to work with them can help us resolve conflict.

What would you like to do?

My daily crime.

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Introversion

I’ve noticed the terms “introvert” and “extrovert” popping up frequently in conversations lately. As a lifelong introvert, I also notice a lot of misunderstanding about what the term means.

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I start, as you knew I would, with definitions. However, it happens that I disagree with the online Oxford Dictionary definition of introvert, which is “a shy, reticent person.” As I look at other dictionaries, I find that “shy” is widely used to describe introversion.

I’ve recently discovered a website called Introvert, Dear. I,D defines an introvert as  “someone who prefers calm, minimally stimulating environments.“ Now that’s introversion! I’m not shy, but I do get overstimulated.

Introvert and extrovert are, inescapably, labels, and regular readers know I regard labels with a jaundiced eye. These two descriptors are not black and white. Rather, each describes one end of a continuum, and we all have a place on that continuum at any point in time. We may slide back and forth, depending on context, but there is no perfect or normal place to be. We’re the only ones who can decide what’s perfect and normal for us on any given day.

One of the biggest and most obvious differences between introverts and extroverts is that extroverts recharge by socializing with others, while introverts recharge by being alone. Introverts are inward-turning, preoccupied with thoughts, feelings and experiences rather than external stimulation. Interestingly, science is discovering differences in dopamine production and reception may be related to introversion and extroversion, which is to say these parts of our personalities are neurobiologically and genetically wired in, like our eye color.

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Introversion is not a defect of character, a weakness, or something that needs to be fixed or changed. Many artists of all types, including some big Hollywood names, are introverts. I relish my way of being and have no interest at all in becoming more extroverted. I’ve frequently been told I’m no fun, which used to really hurt but now makes me smile. Nobody on the planet knows how much fun I have every day by myself!

Introverts are not necessarily socially awkward or shy. We may be quiet and reserved at times, but needing to limit our social interaction doesn’t mean we don’t need, appreciate and enjoy social connection. We don’t hate people, but we may struggle with large groups of people and noisy environments because of overstimulation. Most introverts don’t like small talk, not because we can’t do it, but because it feels empty and shallow. We want and are able to make a more authentic and meaningful connection and contribution.

What this means is that large gatherings like weddings, parties and reunions are a kind of nightmare for some introverts. Not only do we become overstimulated and exhausted, a wretched combination, but we are unable to contribute anything that feels authentic and meaningful, which makes the whole event a painful waste of time and energy we’ll need a couple of days (at least) to recover from.

(How do introverts throw parties? Buy snacks. Invite no one.)

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Which brings me to a sore spot in my own psyche. Feeling unhappy at large social gatherings does not mean I have nothing to offer. I have a great deal to offer, as do many introverts. Introversion is strongly associated with being a highly sensitive personality. Many introverts are intuitive, thoughtful, compassionate, creative people who are willing to explore life deeply. Because we choose only a few close connections, we have the time, attention and energy to be loyal, dependable, and good listeners and resources. We introverts give the gift of presence. Presence isn’t flashy or sexy or brightly colored, but it’s there, consistently reliable and steady. Sadly, presence is valued less and less in our culture. We’d much rather have a new phone, or a thumbs up, or a thing we bought in order to prove our affection.

A person who finds boundaries rude will certainly have trouble with introverts, because we need a lot of boundaries in this noisy, attention-demanding, chaotic, busy culture to protect ourselves. Introverts are often misinterpreted as being rude, cold, selfish, or stuck up because we must take care of our need for solitude in order to stay on our feet. This means we say no. Sometimes we say it frequently. For some folks, no is simply unacceptable for any reason. The fact is, I build and maintain boundaries with others because I want them in my life, not because I don’t. My no is not a rejection; it’s a choice to care for myself rather than care for another at my own (heavy) expense.

Some people define this as being selfish. So be it.

I’ve also received feedback that sensitive, introverted people “drive me nuts.” Here’s a newsflash: Those who insist on crowding us, drowning us out, violating and/or challenging our boundaries and being contemptuous of our marvelous sensitivity are driving us nuts! Please back off. Let us be. We don’t want to be like you. You be you. Allow us to be who we are.

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One of the superpowers of introversion is the ability to enjoy my own company. I am never bored when I’m alone, though I’m frequently bored by the conversation of others. I’m self-sufficient. I don’t need other people to validate me, soothe me or make me happy. (Oddly, some people appear to find this fact highly insulting!) I’ve known people who can’t bear to sit quietly in silence with themselves or anyone else. This is as appalling to me as my glorious hours of solitude are to an extrovert!

What, exactly, am I doing during those hours of solitude?

I’m calming my environment with natural light or candlelight rather than electric light. I’m listening to music I find relaxing at low volume or relishing the sound of silence or the natural sounds coming through my open windows. I’m exercising slowly, deliberately and mindfully, being fully present with my breath, pulse and muscles. I’m sitting with a cup of tea, quietly gazing out the window or with my eyes closed. I’m reading. I’m ignoring the phone and my e-mail because I’m busy not being busy. I’m processing my hours and experience out in the world—observations, conversations, thoughts, feelings, interactions. I’m playing Mahjongg solitaire and remembering everything works out in the end, one way or another, and there can be order in seeming chaos. I’m doing spiritual work, ritual, and practicing gratitude.

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I’m taking a walk. I’m swimming. I’m dancing with all the passion and sensuality I can muster (which is considerable). I’m sitting in the locked car in between errands, appointments, and working hours reading, or breathing, or dozing, or eating a take-out lunch.

I’m in my own soft bed with crisp sheets and heavy blankets. I’m reading. I’m sleeping. I’m just resting. I’m listening to the tick of the clock and drifting into a nap. I’m licking my wounds. I’m watching sunlight, moonlight, dusk or dawn steal across the ceiling and walls.

I’m writing, and writing and writing. All the time. Everywhere.

My hours of solitude make it possible for me to bring my best self into my treasured relationships. Ample solitude allows me to be fully present and supportive as a professional and team member at work. It allows me to push out of my comfort zone occasionally and do something more than ordinarily social, knowing I’ll have what I need to recover afterward.

It allows me to write.

I have delightful extroverts in my life. I value and enjoy them, and they drain me. I don’t think anything is wrong with them, and I don’t think anything is wrong with me. We have differing needs and personalities, and much to learn from one another.

Introversion. My daily crime.

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