Thankfulness and Gratitude

Hopefully, some of us are focusing on thankfulness and gratitude this week. Most every conversation I’ve overheard has been food related. Don’t get me wrong, I love talking about food. But I don’t really need a holiday to make that happen.

The Thanksgiving holiday is a great time to take a moment to notice how I feel about what I have. And not just how I feel about what I have, but what I’ve learned and experienced, and who I’ve known.

This became clear to me last night when I read an article celebrating a journalist with whom I worked 33 years ago. I was immediately transported back to how it felt to be surrounded by a quirky cast of larger-than-life storytellers.

It felt great. I hated my ad sales job, but I loved hanging in the newsroom listening to the banter. It took the distance of time to separate how I felt about the job from how I feel about the people. And recognizing that the feelings are the thing that stuck is instructive.

Without photos, I remember one pair of pants, one skirt, and one shirt I owned. I remember the house I lived in, but not my bedspread or where each picture hung. The things that stand out are people and events.

I don’t mean big events like trips. I mean things like a catfish in the bathtub, burning the furniture to stay warm, standing at a window at work watching cars slowly slide in the snow, learning to waterski with the kids, hugging my favorite customers, happy hour with friends.

Looking back, I appreciate each of those things in a different way than I did at the time. And I clearly recognize that what I possessed at any given moment has faded into the background.

As I practice gratitude this week, I’m using this insight to target people, events, and feelings rather than possessions. I will acknowledge my gratitude for the ease of having a car to drive to work, the feeling of security provided by food in the refrigerator, the warmth of a hug from the grandkids, the joy of watching them learn self-control, and the beauty of the sun through the palm trees.

I don’t know whether this shift in focus will change my experience of thankfulness and gratitude, but it feels like the right thing to do. If I’m given insight and don’t use it, I feel like I’m disrespecting something larger than myself.

Wishing you and your family the chance to make memories that help you feel safe, secure, peaceful, content, loved, and amused this holiday!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tomato Tomato

Tomato tomato – when I type it you can’t hear tomato tomahto. Same with aunt aunt or either either or neither neither. And when I use jk or ftw in a text, it can be easily misconstrued. (As can that b I end up typing instead of a period at the end of LOTS of texts without realizing it before I hit send. No, I didn’t call you a b! I swear, I didn’t – even though you have it in writing.) Communication these days may be faster, but it’s not necessarily more clear.

The truth is, I can often understand the raise of a two-year-old’s eyebrow above a mask more clearly than I can comprehend the intent of a tweet or the meaning of some texts. Sometimes even essays and news stories leave me wondering.

Context helps. If I know the sender, my initial response will be tempered by our previous interactions. Length helps. The more full the exposition, the greater the chance I’ll grasp an idea in its entirety. Precise word selection helps. But tomato or tomahto, I’m going to rely on my experience to interpret what you attempt to communicate.

As a listener, I can try to gain a greater understanding by putting myself in your shoes. But there’s a limit in that my experience and yours may be similar, but they will never be the same. If I overstep and insert too much of myself, I may miss your point entirely.

So, there will be misunderstandings. So what?

It’s true. There will always be misinterpretation, miscommunication, and misunderstanding. We can’t eliminate them entirely. But an attempt to grasp as much of another’s experience as possible accomplishes many positive things that contribute to thriving.

As we become better listeners, we find more common ground. I don’t think there’s any question we need to rediscover our common ground these days.

Feeling heard and accepted is easier when we share common ground. And those feelings make me more likely to hear and cooperate with you.

Experiencing your acceptance of me makes me more likely to accept and empathize with you.

We continue to live through a pandemic that’s pulling us further and further into opposing camps. It’s also highlighting systemic problems that need to be fixed.

Every day, we face choices that can have the effect of improving the future or tearing it down. What we do matters. It has an effect. We may not feel we can change the world, but we can certainly change someone’s day. And each person we touch will affect many others.

Sometimes, we may feel we must fight to defend our position. Fighting can contribute to the improvement of society. But we must be clear on our values, see our flaws realistically, and be able to envision the long-term effect of the battle we’re fighting. Knowing which battles to choose and how to wage them requires opening our minds and our hearts, listening carefully, gaining insight, and exercising courage.

Condemning, othering, labeling, dismissing, and jumping to conclusions based on today’s hurried, abbreviated communication is dangerous territory. Appallingly, I see some form of those every day.

As a culture, we’re precariously balanced. A fight over the pronunciation of tomato will not move us forward.

Putting in the effort to communicate well and consciously consider the effect of our words can help us thrive.

Curiosity is Empowering

Even if you believe it threatens your cat, curiosity is empowering. Actually, take it from a cat. Have you ever seen a cat that trusts your judgment more than its own?

Curiosity leads to greater knowledge.

Knowledge is powerful. Curiosity doesn’t have to lead you so deeply into a single field that you become an expert for it to be beneficial.

Perhaps you become an expert generalist. In the process you may recognize that you have learned the key to marketing to many diverse groups. That’s a valuable skill for every industry.

General knowledge can also equip you to understand the broad effects of policy or the interplay between multiple groups affected by urban planning. You don’t have to know how to wire a motor to understand the importance of the power it provides.

Curiosity can calm a restless mind.

My mind processes many things in rapid succession. It’s like free association in there all day long every day. That makes it tempting to be out of my chair more than I should be. But give me a computer problem, and I will sit for hours trying to puzzle through a diagnosis without realizing how much time has passed.

I’m so curious, I wind up in a concentration zone. And usually, I’m successful at piecing together a solution.

One way to gain power over restless thoughts is to get curious about a problem that needs to be solved. The time spent exploring, learning, and turning around the options will serve to focus your attention and calm the mind.

Curiosity can improve relationships.

Showing genuine interest in another’s life, interests, and feelings can build closeness and trust.

In the midst of an angry or hurtful exchange, becoming curious can give perspective and improve empathy. When you become curious rather than getting sucked into rage, frustration, or sadness, new insights may emerge that help you process the moment in a healthier, more productive way.

Knowing you can move in and out of a situation by using curiosity is a great tool and a powerful feeling.

Curiosity can help you forgive.

If you look back at the worst thing you’ve ever thought, done, or felt from a point of curiosity, it is easier to feel empathy for yourself. A shift happens when you ask, “I wonder why” rather than “how could I have?”

Wondering why is an exploration that can lead to insight. How could I have is an exploration that leads to blame. It’s a tiny shift in semantics and attitude, but it can have a tremendously positive effect, making it easier to forgive yourself. Once you’ve done that, it’s easier to forgive others.

Curiosity trumps denial.

Everyone lives in denial at some point. It rarely serves any of us well.

If you are ill, becoming curious about your diagnosis can help you forge a path that fits your priorities. Remaining in denial will leave you at the mercy of others’ recommendations and decisions.

If you remain in toxic relationships while denying that they’re toxic, you will never find resolution or improvement. Becoming curious about what you can do to help the situation can lead to behavioral changes that either help the situation or clarify that it should end.

When you feel you’re becoming overly stressed, using curiosity to determine how to reduce stressors can improve the quality of each day. It seems ironic that we have a tendency to run from problems rather than face them and ask, hmmm, I wonder why I feel that way; I wonder why that bothers me so much; I wonder how he feels when I say ______? Why avoid when just a tiny bit of curiosity can feel so empowering?

With so many benefits, I can’t think of a reason not to be curious!

Poor Mental Health or A Normal Response?

The past year has been, and continues to be, emotionally exhausting so how do you know if you’re experiencing poor mental health or a normal response? It’s difficult to watch the news any given day without hearing a story about increasing occurrences of poor mental health. Often, the slant of the story is geared to support a particular policy objective.

I find this rhetoric dangerous and unhelpful. It increases the chance that we will begin to catastrophize normal responses that are, in fact, temporary and healthy. This is especially true if we are already isolated and lacking support. And it’s hard to dismiss worry about our mental health when we’re bombarded by emotionally taxing events one after the other: pandemic, insurrection, natural disasters, infrastructure failures, police shootings, and mass murders.

We know we feel different. Many of us have never been through an extended period of disruption and trauma. If an expert appears in front of us and says these feelings reflect poor mental health, we’re going to believe them. The reality is much more nuanced. and nuance is not the forte of news reporting or social media.

Most of us cling to the idea that if we can just get back to normal, we’ll feel relieved and joyful. But an ongoing experience of trauma is not that easy to shake. Knowing this can help alleviate excessive worry about our state of mental health.

One thing that can provide perspective is to view the effects of trauma as wounds. Think of them like a sprained ankle or a broken bone. If you sprain your ankle, you expect it to swell, bruise, hurt, and prevent you from walking normally for a significant period of time. In order for it to heal, you understand and accept that you’ll have to do things differently for awhile.

This doesn’t usually mean you’ll be crippled for life or never be able to wear those cute heels again. It just means that it is normal and reasonable to change your daily routine to facilitate healing.

If viewing an emotional wound as a physical wound doesn’t work for you, try thinking of a friend who is grieving. Would you be alarmed if they get choked up at unexpected times or don’t have the emotional energy to hang out? No, you’d understand that they feel sadness and loss and need time to work through that before they’re ready for fun and frivolity. And, most likely, you’d understand that their capacity for joy may be temporarily hidden beneath a flood of tears.

The point of all of this is to remind you that certain “negative” emotional states can be a normal and reasonable response to circumstances beyond our control. They are not problematic or signs of poor mental health unless they become chronic, or we use poor techniques for dealing with them.

For example, depression is a normal response to change. Think of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, DEPRESSION, acceptance. Depression is an expected, normal phase that represents great progress through the process. But watch the news and you’ll think any amount of depression is a reason for desperation.

The quicker we become aware, acknowledge, and allow ourselves to feel so-called negative emotions, the quicker we can release them and return to a positive state of equilibrium. It is more difficult to do this if we view such states as catastrophic or as signs there is something wrong with us. All of us want to avoid feeling that we’re defective.

We’d often rather hide our distress than acknowledge it. And there may good reason for that. Expressions of vulnerability can make the receiver of the message also feel vulnerable. To avoid that feeling, they may turn away from us when we share our deepest feelings.

If you’ve ever experienced this, you’ll be less likely to attempt to share again. This cycle can result in a significant lack of support for those who are experiencing trauma and attempting to express its effects. And unfortunately, the research of Dr. Brené Brown has indicated that most of us are not comfortable in a vulnerable space.

That means many of us will find that we must be our own best advocates in the arena of mental health. So where do we start? In any moment that I am struggling, I like to first examine what is going well for me before deciding what needs adjustment. This helps give me perspective when determining what I need to do next.

The easiest way to do this is to view myself as a close friend, then ask myself a series of questions: Am I sleeping well and on a regular schedule? Am I keeping my environment clean and uncluttered at the level I would when I feel I am functioning well? Am I eating regularly? Am I making reasonable food choices? Am I making time to move on a regular basis – walk, run, swim, lift weights, row, do yoga, bike, etc? Has my alcohol consumption increased? Do I rely on medication more than I did before? Am I doing too much? Am I able to feel or am I numb? Am I making forward progress at work? Am I able to be alone and feel content? Am I able to connect with at least one person?

If my answers to those questions wouldn’t concern me if they were a friend’s answers, I let go of the idea that I am suffering poor mental health and address anything that may need to change from the point of view of thriving. If I’m not sure, I reach out to someone I trust to help me gain insight.

Mind you, I’m not suggesting that anyone avoid professional help. In fact, I’d encourage you to seek the advice of a professional in lieu of assuming you fit some profile you saw online. My purpose here is simply an attempt to provide a path to find balance to the rhetoric that has become increasingly pervasive and alarmist.

I can’t determine whether you are responding normally, adaptively, problematically, or in the best possible way given a particular set of circumstances. But I know it’s always worth believing in yourself and asking questions before accepting someone else’s take.

If you feel pain over something, that pain is real. If you feel sad about something, that sadness is real. If you feel angry, it is a signal that you feel a need to protect yourself. Accepting that these feelings may be normal and not an indication of anything other than a response to the circumstances in which you find yourself, can be a great start toward thriving.

In this cultural moment when we are all experiencing trauma and there is the cancel culture tendency to only accept a narrow range of beliefs and behavior, it is important to step back, take a moment, and give ourselves permission to feel how we feel even if it’s out of step with the majority. If you are an introvert and enjoy being able to work from home, it’s okay to relish in it just as it’s okay to feel sad about the loss of breakroom chats.

Trust yourself. Trust your process. Just because the world is falling apart doesn’t mean you are. Give yourself some time and space to learn whether you’re experiencing poor mental health or a normal response to a difficult circumstance.