Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Acceptance Means Never Having to Say 
You're Disappointed

I suspect that most interpersonal conflicts are really based in disappointment. We're disappointed that the other person didn't do what we wanted them to do. Think about it. The last time you were mad at someone, why were you mad at them? 9 times out of 10 it's because they disappointed you. They didn't show up on time, didn't say the right thing, did something you disapproved of, or weren't there for you in the way you needed them to be. They didn't do, say, or feel what you wanted them to.

A friend is catering another friend's benefit event, and was feeling frustrated because people he had recruited to help him didn't come through. The day before the event, he had nobody to help him cook, prepare, pack, or deliver the food, and had to scramble to be able to get things ready. It occurred to me that one of the problems in the situation is that my friend hadn't counted on these other people's proven tendency to flake out. This type of thing had happened before with this group, and he had been left scrambling. At the very least, he could have followed up sooner and known earlier that the people in question weren't going to be able to help. In a sense, he had set himself up to be disappointed, because he had expected these people to act differently than they had in the past. This line of thinking made me realize that the best way to avoid being disappointed is to accept people for exactly who they are.

If your partner habitually forgets your anniversary, you view the upcoming anniversary with some anxiety, right? You believe he'll forget again, and you can taste the disappointment and anger, even before it happens. Then he forgets again and you get upset. "This happens every year," you say, "Why can't you just remember!?" Sure, if it's important to you, he should make an effort to remember. But if he doesn't, and hasn't for most years, isn't the disappointment you feel somewhat on your own shoulders, for expecting him to be someone that he isn't? In this case, you might consider taking his remembering on as your responsibility (writing it on the calendar in the kitchen for instance, or reminding him a few days before.) But how many of us (and I'm guilty of this as well) will actually avoid mentioning it or writing it down, as if to catch him forgetting, so we can be justified in getting mad? Isn't that entrapment?

The funny thing is that the people who disappoint us the most bitterly are often the people we know the best. This seems counter-intuitive, because if we know these people so well, why would we expect them to behave in ways that they never have? I have a friend who is almost always late when we make a date to go out. For years and years, I would boil, fume, and make snarky comments to her every time she was late. But eventually, I stopped expecting anything else, and now, not only doesn't it bother me when she is late, she's not late as often anymore. I used to feel uncomfortable around my mother because I felt that she rarely asked questions about my life or my work. It felt like she didn't care. But when I was able to drop the expectation that she be someone she wasn't, it didn't bother me anymore. I know what we talk about (movies, food, travel, family), and I know what we tend not to talk about, and I'm pleasantly surprised when we end up talking about something that goes deeper than our normal conversations.

How do we accept the people around us for who they are, and not for who we want them to be?

1) Understand who they are in the first place. I have a bad habit of trying to find psychological reasons that explain why people don't act the way I would in a situation. I can always come up with some seemingly sound psychological reason why Steve doesn't respond to the emotional content of my e-mails or Jodie never answers her phone and takes days to call back. But the reason why isn't important. How do they act? What are their patterns? That's who they are. End of story.

2) Practice gratitude for who they are.  Make it a habit of noticing what the the people around you bring to your life. Once, when a boyfriend hadn't done something I had wanted him to do, I was really angry as I got something out of the refrigerator to cook on the stove, and remembered suddenly that the he had bought and installed both the fridge and the stove for me, not to mention built my new, beautiful front porch. Yes, he hadn't done something I wanted, but he showed his love for me every day in other ways. That moment reminded me that, most of the time, it's "and" not "but." Not "I love you but wish you hadn't done that" but "I love you AND I wish you hadn't done that." Real love is not conditional on the other person always doing what we want. Can you drop your disappointment and see the other person's gifts?

3)Understand why you want them to act differently. If Steve doesn't respond in the way I would like to my e-mails, I need to think about what it is I need from him. Why does this disappoint me so? Is it because I want to feel emotionally connected in a way I don't? Do I need to feel reassured that I'm OK emotionally? What we're feeling is our mind's attempt to get us what we need, but maybe it's not really about this other person.

3)Take ownership of your expectations. Don't give those expectations to someone else and make it their responsibility. Of course, communicate your expectations ("I'd really love it if you could remember our anniversary") but if you've communicated it and the person doesn't meet them, then drop it. If it's a deal-breaker, end the relationship. If not, let it go and figure out how to make things work anyway.

It's tragically common that so  many of us spend so much of our conversations with one another complaining about other people. And why do we complain? Because the other people have disappointed us. Our partners, our parents, our kids, our coworkers. We always have a story about someone who's done us wrong. But what if, in fact, no wrong was done at all, and in fact what we're experiencing is merely the reality that other people aren't us? Once we realize this, we must face the fact that disappointment is normal and common, but we're the ones who lend it drama and pain. Can we let go of our attachment that our loved ones be different than they are, and simply appreciate and love them for who they actually are?

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Valentine's Day Musing

It's that day. The day when single people who think about such things, or even some of us who pretend we don't, grumble and gripe and pretend to be cynical about love, and those of us in relationships that aren't perfect do the same. I wonder if there are more fights between couples than normal on this day, as we take turns disappointing one another by not giving gifts or the right gifts, but not taking our lover to the right restaurants, by not proclaiming our love enough or in the right ways. Boy, what a ridiculous day! And most of us understand that Valentine's Day is merely an economic tool designed to make money for card companies, candy makers, and flower sellers, but even when we pretend not to care, many of us do. In my neighborhood, every street corner has sprung up with makeshift booths offering gigantic plush teddy bears in pink, white, and red, bouquets of carnations and roses shipped from Mexico, and piles of pink, white and red heart tchotchkes. I suppose the booths are there for the men who forgot to buy their lady something for the day and are now terrified of her wrath should they come home empty-handed.

But, as we all know, a day is what we make of it. I've always loved the heart symbol. I collect them. I have a bag full of heart-shaped rocks that I've found. I even have a string of mardi gras beads that are heart-shaped that I found in New Orleans a couple of years ago. Today is the day of the heart symbol. It's everywhere. Yes, it may be, as one blogger pointed out, also the shape of the engorged hindquarters of a lady baboon in heat (he's not bitter about Valentine's Day, though!), but it's a day - regardless of why it came to be or who benefits financially - where we celebrate love.

Love, as we also all know, is wider than the love between a couple of people who have sex together. We also feel love for our families, friends, pets, plants, the planet. Love is everywhere. It's in the art we see around us, the music we listen to, and the books we read. No act of creativity comes without love. No act of kindness does, either. So today, can those of us who can see beyond the media and retail hype of this day use the ubiquitous heart symbols to remember to appreciate and generate love of all kinds? Try a smile at a stranger. Try forgiving someone something, just for today. You can pick a fight with them tomorrow. Try letting go of bitterness about yet another "how I met the love of my life" commercial on TV. Try laughter. Try calling someone you've been meaning to call for ages, and just asking them how they are (and meaning it.) Create something and dedicate it to love. Just find ways to generate love today. And possibly, that love will last until tomorrow, and the next day, and to the ends of time. But start today.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Only the Lonely

I had a lonely day last Sunday. Not that I had a lot of plans originally, but the one thing I had scheduled was canceled, and Plan B also didn't work out. All of a sudden, I had no plans and nobody to not have plans with. All my life, I've been very sensitive to feelings of loneliness and isolation. It's not that I can't be alone - I can be and often choose to be alone, and I can enjoy alone time very much. In fact, I need a lot of time alone in order to stay balanced. I'm a classic introvert that way. But in this case, I wanted to be around people, and there were no people to be around. I've always felt a deep emptiness within me, and situations like this naturally exacerbate it. Being alone and not wanting to be alone bring up all those old, childhood fears and anxieties, all those thoughts of not being good enough, of being unloved and unlovable, of living in a world of scarcity and lack, and of wasting my life. In these situations, I sometimes get into a headspace where I feel bad because I'm not doing enough, not social enough, not creative enough, and not making enough of an effort to change the world. Sunday started out no differently, but ended very differently.

I sat in bed for awhile and read Going to Pieces without Falling Apart: A Buddhist Perspective on Wholeness by Mark Epstein. In the book, he talks about how  this profound sense of emptiness is a universal human experience and how the people who come to the author for therapy come there in distress from this experience. How hard we struggle to numb or distract ourselves from the void, through abusing substances, watching TV, shopping, staying busy, surrounding ourselves with people, overworking, ruminating and obsessing, or pursuing or obsessing over relationships. As I read, it dawned on me that this emptiness is a big reason why so many of us feel that we must keep moving: must find a partner, get married, buy a house, have babies, get promoted, buy bigger and better toys, take vacations, and worry and obsess over all of these things. If you think about it, discontent with our present situation is why most of us do anything at all. So in that way, this shifting empty feeling has motivated human to achieve everything we have, for better or for worse.

I realized that for my entire life, I have faced this emptiness because, for whatever reason, I never had the temperament to keep constantly busy, to be a workaholic, to create something major, or to have kids. I have friends, a wonderful close family, a home, a job, I write, and do the normal things that people do, but I've never had those big dreams that all the self-help gurus talk about following. So for that reason, I've never been able to escape that void for long, I've always wound up facing it, sitting with the sad empty feeling because no method of escape has ever really captivated me. I used to think I was immensely flawed for not meeting all of those developmental goals: for not getting married or wanting kids or a promotion, or for not wanting to write the Great American Novel or spending my life trying to save the world. Now I wonder if it's actually a blessing, because without knowing it, I was always learning to face this deep black hole that so many of us spend our lives trying to escape.

I had to get out of the house, and I had the idea to go walk around a local urban lake. I got dressed and headed out, bringing my book. I was still feeling lonely and uneasy, empty and bored. I felt restless. I got to the lake, and started walking. It had rained that night, and the sky was lovely and full of clouds in all shades of grey. The kind of sky I loved to watch. As I walked, the sun came out, and I sat on a bench to read. I lost myself in my book (The African Queen by C.S. Forester) and shed my scarf, sweater, and hat as the sun warmed me. After awhile, I walked some more, and, deciding I was hungry, went into a lovely little lakeside restaurant that always makes me think I'm in Switzerland. I had a salad and some sparkling water, and looked out over the lake as I read more of my book. As I ate, there was a rain squall, and I felt cozy and very lucky having decided to eat lunch right then. By the time I had eaten and paid, the rain was over and the clouds parted again, and it was sunny. The sun sparkled on the wet pavement and the earth and plants smelled good. I walked some more, and eventually walked around the entire lake. After that, I decided to go to another watery location - Jack London Square - and see if there were any movies playing that I wanted to see. There weren't, so I sat in the sun along the Alameda Estuary and read more of my book. A friend called and we chatted for a short time. I went into a nearby store and bought some useless things, and ran into another friend.  Then I went home and watched a movie and played with my cats and fussed around in my house. And by the time the day ended,  I felt fine. The loneliness and anxiety had left me, the void was no longer there. I was okay being alone, okay not having a grand scheme to fill my days.

This may not seem like a profound day, but for me, it was. What started out in emptiness and despair ended in peace and comfort in my own skin. For some reason, I was able to let go of that need to have a different experience than I was having, and I was able to stay with myself in my actual experience.When I let go of wanting things to be different, I was able to take things as they came and the pain eased.

Two days later, a friend sent me the following video and it all clicked for me. Loneliness is a feeling of being incredibly vulnerable, of not being protected from the vital truths of the universe:  that all of this "stuff" with which we surround ourselves is not important; that our lives and the stories we tell ourselves about our lives are just our attempts to avoid what we know, deep down, to be true: that each moment is the only reality. That there is nothing else, nothing to gain and nothing to lose. It's uncomfortable to be that vulnerable and to know what loneliness teaches us, so most of us avoid loneliness at all costs. But perhaps, loneliness is only painful because we think it's wrong to feel that longing, that restlessness, that wistfulness, that vulnerability. In the video, she tells us that it's important to stay vulnerable and open, even thought we're bombarded with messages about the terrible things that may happen to us if we do. On my Sunday, I was able to settle into the loneliness and found that it wasn't a bad place, after all.
Brene Brown - The Price of Invulnerability