The Type of Story We Tell

When faced with puzzling behavior, we often attribute reasons to it–some of them flattering to the person and some of them critical. Research has shown that when we consider the behaviors of people in our group, tribe, or community, we will create stories that show their behavior in a positive light, and the opposite, of course, for out-groups. It is difficult to remember that motivation is complex and multi-determined. We look for unitary reasons for whatever we see and particularly reasons that match what we already think.

The stories that we create, sometimes almost instantly, color how we see the world and reinforce our own biases and assumptions. It is comforting and reassuring to be right about what we think we see, and we are reluctant to get out of that comfort zone. Even within our inner circle of closest relationships, we sometimes attribute self-serving or destructive motives to the people we interact with. This factor underlies a great deal of conflict in marriages and between parents and children.

I was speaking with a young man in the throes of getting a divorce and he said, “All of my so-called friends have disappeared.” I said, “Maybe they are scared. Maybe they are afraid if you get divorced and they spend time with you, they will also get divorced. Or maybe they are scared they will say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing.” This perspective was new to this young man. He assumed his friends were false friends, and he felt like he now knew the truth about them.

His story left him isolated and bitter. My story gave him more hope and more ideas about how to manage this shift in his life. It is not so much that one or another of these stories is more true as it is that each story then leads to a different perspective in the world and a different action. We create ourselves as we go, and reality tends to conform to our expectation of it.

We do not need to deny real facts about what happens in the world, but we can recognize the difference between facts and interpretations. The facts are, his friends are reaching out to him less frequently. That is all. Probably the reasons are different for each person, and they are also probably complicated. He can feel wounded and rejected or he can feel compassion for them in their own lives. His freedom comes in how he interprets what he sees, how he decides to respond to it, and what kinds of inner subjective experience of the world he is practicing inside his own mind.

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I’ll Just and At Least

Okay, so it is the time of year for resolutions. I like the idea of aspirations more than resolutions, though. Aspirations are what we are moving toward. You cannot fail an aspiration, but you can fail a resolution. Anyway, that is not my point today. The point is, when you encounter resistance to your intention (which is not lack of motivation, by the way, but blockades to your natural motivation), one trick is to tell yourself, “I’ll just…” some small first step. For example, if I cannot get myself to exercise, I might say to myself, “I’ll just put on my exercise clothes and go to the gym. Then if I don’t do anything it’s fine.” It’s a way of getting around resistance without confronting it and without letting it win. “I’ll just do a little….” Kind of simple, but it seems to work for some things.

The other new year’s trick is “At least.” When you are telling yourself all the things you did not do or did badly, always, always end with “At least….” So it might be like, “I didn’t stick to my spending plan, I didn’t study enough; I forgot to do what I was supposed to…” There is always an ending that goes, “At least I cut back; At least I did a little; at least I thought about it….” Because after all, we don’t want to leave ourselves with a feeling of being disappointed in ourselves but instead, recognize our intentions and efforts, however inadequate we may think they are.

Motivation and success are built by pluses. So we have to recognize the pluses however small they are in order to ensure that we protect our relationships with ourselves. Ok. This isn’t exactly about long term therapy. But we don’t have to be deep all the time. Sometimes we have to be practical. At least we are trying to improve ourselves.

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The River that Runs Through It

Depression is a liar. It tells a story with great conviction. The story is this: “This depressed me is the real me. Sometimes I feel temporarily happier, but I know I will just return to this real self. I can fake it, but it’s not genuine. Nothing will ever change. No matter how hard I try, I’ll always be defeated. All I can do is just tolerate it.”

It’s a big fat lie. The truth is, life has its ups and downs. Good things will happen; bad things will happen. We will be selfish and destructive, and we will be heroic and talented. We will fall down and not want to get up. We will play and be joyful. And we will help other people and inspire them. We will be loved and rejected. Worried and confident. We will be depressed and happy.

Sometimes we think the river that runs through our lives is hopelessness or sadness or ultimate defeat. “That’s just how I am,” we say to ourselves. But that is not true. The truth is, the river that runs through us is the self that has continuity over our lifetimes. It is not our moods and it is not our actions. The river is the deep convictions and ideals we care about.

What we pay attention to grows in strength and consistency. We keep coming back to what matters. We put our focus on what we care about; we remind ourselves to inhabit the joy when it happens. We appreciate the good in our lives and recognize the losses. We get back up and keep making effort. And the quality of our experience gets better. Incrementally. Two steps forward and one step back.

And weirdly, the actual structure of our brains changes. The chemistry in our heads is altered. And we find, after all, that we are in charge of our lives. Not in the ways we thought. Not by controlling the world and not by giving up. Not by insisting on the outcomes we want. But by little by little constructing ourselves to be the persons we want to be and appreciating–not just accepting–the richness of this journey of being alive.

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It’s Ok To Be Where You Are

There need not be tension between acceptance and growth. We can accept who we are, the limits that we have, and the mistakes we have made without worrying that we will become complacent and stop trying to be better. There really is a developmental process to a life. It really will be different in different decades. We get better at life as we go along. We really are okay, and we really can continue to be better.

First we start with actually inhabiting the point where we find ourselves in our lives. We allow ourselves to be curious, to get to know ourselves in a sort of never-ending reflective delving. We know our self-knowledge will always be partial. We accept the understanding we get about those parts of ourselves that we wish were better. We learn to live with ourselves without self criticism, self doubt, or self destructiveness. We are who we are.

And we look forward, not backward. In which direction do we want our lives to unfold? Do we want more harmony and quiet? More adventure and learning? More challenge and mastery? Do we want to practice being better friends, better professionals, and/or better caregivers? What kinds of choices and efforts would move us the very smallest incremental step toward those wants?

Mostly we can drift along, reacting moment by moment to the vicissitudes of our lives, or we can be deliberate about making choices that move us in our desired directions. We may still have unwanted feelings, unfortunate experiences or misguided choices. But we will be in charge of our lives instead of helpless passengers in an undirected vehicle.

I heard an interview with Atul Gawande, the surgeon and author, who said, it is very difficult for him to accept that we will always be limited, our knowledge will always be partial, and our choices will always have uncertain outcomes and yet we still must act. We still must make choices and we still must be responsible for our lives. We have to learn to live with that uncertainty and with our own limited capacities.

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It Doesn’t Matter How Long It Takes

When we are striving for some outcome that we want, sometimes we lose motivation because we think it will take too long. I usually tell people that time will pass anyway so you might as well go after what you want. Whether it is a graduate degree or training for a race or learning a language, two years is going to pass anyway. You might as well build what you want to build. Embark on the ambitious goals. They are the ones worth doing. Plus, if you make effort, you grow, whether it is physical effort, mental effort or emotional effort. You will grow in the domains where you are willing to make effort. More effort, more growth. Up to a point, of course.

And this same rule applies in relationships. If you are engaging with someone you care about and have a commitment to, it does not matter how long it takes for that person to feel better. If your person is struggling with life, wallowing in a valley of despair, engaging in self destructive or isolating behaviors, it just does not matter how long it takes that person to get traction and get out of the depths. Since you are committed for the long term, you are just going to be there. No matter what.

To the extent that we tell ourselves that he or she ought to be better by now; ought to be trying harder; ought to take some responsibility; and so on, we are making it harder for ourselves on the journey. The magical trick in relationships is the simple admonition: “Be With.” Just be with that person in whatever puddle he or she finds him or herself in.

Alternatively, when we take on the emotions and problems of that other person, the relationship becomes about us and our reactions. We have difficulty tolerating the feelings that we osmose from the other person. This also interferes with genuine relating and it robs the other person of ownership of his or her experience.

When we tell ourselves we are exhausted, we can’t stand it, we are being exploited, used, and disrespected, we simply make it more unpleasant for ourselves to be with that person. When we can respect the integrity of that person, when we can allow the other person’s journey to unfold as it does, when we can appreciate that the gift is the ability to be a part of that person’s life, we can return to the inherent joy in the word “together.”

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Emotional Independence

I was listening to an interview with Thupten Jinpa, the translator for the Dalai Lama, on the podcast “On Being,” hosted by Krista Tippet (On Being). Thupten Jinpa was a Tibetan monk in the same order as the Dalai Lama, but at some point, he decided to leave the order, get married, and have children. This interview is wonderful and I highly recommend it.

Ms. Tippet asked Mr. Jinpa how he felt about those two lives: monk and householder. He said, “Being in a partnership is much more difficult than being a monk. And being a parent is much more difficult than being a monk.” When she asked him what he brought from his training as a monk that was helpful in his new life, he said, “emotional independence.” You realize after much meditation that your feelings are arbitrary and are created by you. At the same time, you do not take other people’s feelings personally. This is an important understanding: You have to be able to listen and understand without taking it personally and you have to be able to express your own inner experience without blaming the other person for it. In other words, you have to remain connected while being separate.

We find in our relationships we are constantly negotiating our needs for intimacy and our needs for autonomy. We long for close relationships, but we struggle with the complexity of being connected and not losing ourselves. As David Richo says, we need to learn to be adults in relationship. We look for our partner to manage our feelings, or we look to be “taken care of,” or we look for “support” or we look for that person to “meet our needs.” But this perspective means we are using the relationship for our own needs rather than that we are engaging for the benefit of coming to know another person deeply and appreciating them as the work of art that they are. It does not acknowledge the mutual encouragement and support we can provide for each other, as we are, when we are free to be ourselves, not out of obligation.

It is not that we do not care about each other. It is not that we ignore the impact of our thoughts, feelings, and actions. It is that we take responsibility for engaging with another person based on our own inner understanding of who we want to be in the world and what we believe is right. And we expect the other person to do the same. That means that the measure of my behavior, and the measure of my friend or partner’s behavior, is not how it impacts me or how it makes me feel, but whether it is aligned with my own or their own inner ideals. Only that person can know that. We trust that they will be responsible for that part of it. And we bring our own best selves, as much as we can, to the connection. When there is static on the wire of our connection, we can trust that something in that person or something in us is interfering with our feeling connected, and we can wait and trust that it will improve. The joy of being with can only arise from a genuine freedom of connection and an appreciation of the work of art that that person is.

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Regret is a strange emotion. It causes us to feel bad about choices we have made in the past. Regret can lead to serious unhappiness and a sense of helplessness since we cannot change the past. But maybe it serves an important purpose in reminding us that we will have feelings later about the choices we make now. It is not enough to make the choices that will make us feel good immediately. Sometimes we will have a better outcome and a better overall picture if we are able to weigh the value of the possible choices and their potential outcomes. But it is difficult to forgo feeling good right now in the hopes that we will feel better later. One of the ways we strengthen that capacity to make difficult choices is remembering that we do not like feeling regret.

Knowing that somewhere down the line, in five years or in ten years, we will look back at this moment and have an opinion about what we should have done or could have done, we can take into account the well-being of our future self and try to construct a better future even when those choices mean a more difficult present. And, of course, the way we do this is by reflectively considering the different factors relevant to our current choices. It is the time and space we take to be deliberate and thoughtful about our efforts that ultimately allow us to make the best choices possible given the current situation.

It can be helpful to imagine what our future self would want to tell us looking back at this moment. We can only know what we know; our understanding is always imperfect. But it does actually make a difference if we do our best to sort out the current reality; do some careful analysis, figure out the possible options and the outcomes of those options, and make an effort to work toward the future that we will be glad of rather than the future that is the easiest.

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Grief versus Fear and Anxiety

I am currently reading Jaak Panksepp’s wonderful book “The Archaeology of Mind,” which is an extensive explanation of emotional systems in both animals and human beings. One of the distinctions he makes is between grief and panic, which are responses to real losses and fear and anxiety, which are anticipations of losses. This distinction is a useful way of thinking about our own emotional responses to our lives.

Panksepp defines grief as a response to loss of significant relationships, which can lead to a sense of panic in situations that feel unsafe. With grief, the loss has happened already, and we are responding to the meaning of that loss. Because our closest relationships provide stability in our lives, loss of those relationships can leave us confused and lost. The panic is a result of this feeling of being unsafe.

On the other hand, fear is the feeling of impending loss, particularly a loss that feels likely to happen, and anxiety is worry about that possibility. When we experience loss, we mourn it by turning to our relationships with caring others, and we are “processing,” meaning expressing, understanding, and integrating the reality of that loss. It is helpful to be with other people who care for us at those times.

Fear and anxiety, however, are about things that have not happened. While they serve the purpose of alerting us to be careful and keep ourselves safe, these feelings are anticipatory and can become amplified beyond a volume where they are useful. We can see this when we see how we respond to these feelings. If they lead to problem-solving and life improvement, they can be helpful, but if they lead to paralysis and unhappiness, they are being used against us.

We cannot necessarily control what we feel, but we can use our understanding to decide which of our feelings is important information and which of our feelings is just making trouble for us. There is a feeling self and a thinking self, and then there is an observing self that decides which parts of what our minds generate is important, what part is accurate about reality, and what part does not match with what we know and who we want to be. We may still have to feel it or think it, but we don’t have to endorse it.

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The Search for Certainty

Because our brains are organs designed to recognize patterns, predict danger and keep us safe and functional, they seek certainty. We would like to be a able to predict problems so we can avoid them, or if that is not possible, solve them or reduce their impact. Our success in this effort is relying on our capacity to be certain about what is going to happen. This urge to be sure underlies much of how we organize our lives and how we perceive reality.

When we believe we have found some aspect of reality about which we can be certain, we are less anxious, we feel grounded instead of floating in uncertainty. Uncertainty is draining and anxiety provoking.

Because of this anxiety, we are relieved when we think we can know something for sure. WE have scientific studies that show one thing, and then studies that show the opposite. We develop strong opinions about what we read and we resist evidence to the contrary.

It is difficult to live with the reality that there is not much we can know for sure. We have evidence that things point in one direction, but proof as we see it, does not exist regarding human nature. Our minds and bodies are multi-determined, changeable, and vulnerable to influence. Our lives are a game of continual improv–changing our behaviors, beliefs, and emotions to respond to the changing understanding we have of the reality in front of us.

We can learn from other people’s experience and knowledge, but no one has the secret answer to long life, happiness and good relationships. Things change; we change. Our effort to be thoughtful about what we see and what we know, our careful reflection on what matters to us, and our compassionate response to the people around us can help us live in a way that is synchronized with our ideals, and, overall, lead to the good life we want. We just have to accept that there are no guarantees.

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Be With

Culturally, here, in the United States, we have a strong sense of responsibility for our lives, our thoughts, and our feelings. This is a great ideal because it creates motivation, creativity toward change, and ownership of our experience. Sometimes we react against this ideal because we understand it is not 100% accurate. We cannot always control what happens to us, and we have difficulty reconciling our sense of agency and responsibility with the circumstances of chance, fate, or luck. Sometimes we feel victimized by life. We work at understanding that while we cannot control everything, we do have a great deal of influence on how our lives unfold. In other words, it still matters that we take responsibility and do our best.

One problem with this view of personal responsibility is that when something happens that we do not want to have happen or when we have feelings that we do not want to have, we–and everyone else around us–believe we are responsible for those accidents of fate and for those unwanted feelings. In other words, if we are angry, depressed, anxious, irritable, frightened, disgusted or otherwise in an unwanted emotional state, we blame ourselves and other people blame us as if we have failed to regulate our lives.

The people around us may feel personally attacked, or personally responsible for how we feel, or we may feel that they are responsible for how we feel. In other words, unwanted experience becomes damaging to our relationships because we believe there is some cause in ourselves or in the people around us for the bad state of mind. As a result, We become emotionally isolated both in our minds and in real life.

This all leads to the concept that being in a bad mood is normal. And it should be allowed. And we should be willing to “be with” a person who is in a bad mood, or with other people when we are in a bad mood. Nothing is required. We need not cheer up. We need not cheer the other person up. We are conveying the understanding that we care about that person and that we care about ourselves, and that is not only when we are in the “right” frame of mind. It’s a simple notion, but not always obvious.

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