The Lies We Tell Ourselves

funny-dating-memesI don’t often feel the lack of a man in my life, but occasionally, in the few spare minutes I have here and there, I realize that I really would like a partner. In these moments, I typically pull up the Bumble app.. Maybe there are other venues that work better, but as I said, I don’t want it quite enough to lay money down for it, and Bumble is free. So in these moments of weakness, I open up the app, and–let’s be honest–I go man shopping.

There are so very many problems with this. For one, my ambivalence to the idea of a relationship probably means it’s doomed before it ever begins. The fact that it really does feel like shopping…well, that’s just kind of sad and wrong. And, perhaps the biggest problem of all, is the fact that all you have to go on to find your next potential soulmate is a bunch of pictures and a postage-stamp sized bio… it’s pretty much inevitable that this becomes an exercise in lookism. And let’s be honest. No matter how good I might (or might not) look at 42, I can’t (at least in my head) compete with the bright, shiny new penny 20 somethings.

I am a confident, funny, and interesting woman in person. On paper…well, it’s hard to do myself justice. But online dating is just the way of the world these days. How else are we supposed to meet someone? I teach at a high school. Not like there are a lot of options there for obvious reasons. I go to a small church that seems to be comprised of 75% women and 25% married men. Again, no dating pool.

meet cuteI never was into the bar scene, and any guy my age who still is into the bar scene…well, let’s just say, I want a man not a boy and they are not to be found there. So, unless I’m one of the lucky ones to meet my soulmate at Whole Foods as we ponder which melon to buy and reach for the same melon at the same time… I’m stuck with an app.–despite all it’s shortcomings.

On Bumble, despite my education, experience, and general awesomeness, I am reduced to a picture. And let’s be honest, that is a cesspool of insecurity right there.

As if aging alone didn’t stir up enough phantom doubts of faded beauty, I have the lovely memories of past failure to spar with on a regular basis. As a woman who was cheated on, lied to, and eventually dumped, I often find my mind a battlefield. Luckily, as a professor of Psychology, I usually know how to win this battle.

how-to-practice-positive-self-talkI have long understood the concept of self-talk, aka. the narratives we tell ourselves in our heads. Because of this, when I catch a stray hurtful, self-defeating thought flitting through my brain, I pin it down, confront it with truth, and make sure that my emotions aren’t the ones fueling my self-concept, that truth is. I understood this long before I became a counselor or Psychology professor so, needless to say, at this point, I’ve gotten really good at it.

Despite this, I have struggled with my sense of self. Often times, I find myself wrestling with my worth based on my perceived worth in the eyes of others. Just a few days ago, I found myself feeling really cruddy as a result of this very thing.

online jokeThis weekend, in one of my rare “wouldn’t it be nice to have a man to talk to and who cared about me” moments, I pulled up the Bumble app.. As is too often the case, I was mostly underwhelmed. Let’s just say the dating pool looks more like a stagnant pond at this point of my life: the good ones are married, the newly divorced good ones are in some sort of midlife crisis and want to date a series of empty-headed, big-busted twenty year olds, which leaves mostly the socially awkward, unmotivated, and just plain scary candidates for the rather amazing single forty year old women out there. Typically, this is where I half-heartedly swipe right on a couple of guys who don’t look “too bad,” but leave me feeling no real enthusiasm in what has become an all too familiar routine of ennui.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve gone on dates. Quite a number of them. There even have been a couple guys who made it to a second date, mainly because I convinced myself that, though I still felt zero enthusiasm, they were “nice” and maybe, after warming up to them a bit, I might somehow grow some enthusiasm. Yep, I’m a die-hard optimist, but so far that optimism hasn’t panned out.

This weekend was a bit different. Every once in a while, I’ll run across a guy who I feel some enthusiasm for. Like any self respecting woman, I have my list of non-negotiables as well as preferences, and this guy seemed like we might actually have a shot at interesting if not soul mate.

bumble-vs-tinderSo, I swiped right, and sure enough…Boom! Match! He had swiped right on me too. I pondered a moment for a decent opening line, typed it out and hit send. And then I waited.

And waited…

And waited…

Guys only have 24 hours to respond on Bumble before the match disappears. And as the time ticked away, and there was no response, I found myself with a big question mark.

Why? What changed? Why did a guy, who thought I was a Match, change his mind?

But the thing was, there were no answers, not even potential answers, there were just questions.

The problem with this is that the brain is a meaning making machine. In the absence of answers, our brain makes up it’s own, and too often, it’s our insecurities that rule these narratives. And I am certainly no exception to this.

Woman-mirror-600x300I’ve been feeling a bit frumpy lately. I’ve gained a few pounds, I’ve gained a few wrinkles, and I got a haircut that makes me feel, well, kind of blah. So my insecurities piped up with their version of events:

It’s that picture you added–the full length one. Clearly, you must look fat. I mean, look at those arms! Tall works if you’re lean, but you’re clearly not lean, and that is all that comes across in that photo–very, very un-lean. Delete the picture. Hide yourself. You do better in person.”

negative self talkAll it took was that whisper through my brain, and my brain ran away with it. I found myself eyeing my figure in the mirror, noticing every ounce I’ve gained, every little soft spot. I found myself ditching my heels for flats, though I love my heels. Why accent my height, when my height is already so noticeable? I found myself changing my outfit–not once, but often several times–because I “looked fat.”

All because my insecurities wrote the script of their version of events and my brain which wanted meaning said, “Sure! That works! Makes sense. That must be the reason.”

But I literally have no clue what the real reason was.

Perhaps it was a busy week at work, and he was too distracted to worry about Bumble….

Perhaps he didn’t get the notification at all and so has no clue that we even matched…

Perhaps he just started dating someone and he wants to see what happens before he deletes the app….

Perhaps he’s really married, and his wife has gotten suspicious, and so he’s decided to lay low for a while…

Perhaps he doesn’t like educated women…

Perhaps…You get the idea.

the lies we tell ourselvesI literally have no idea why he didn’t respond, and the vast number of the possibilities have nothing to do with how I did, or didn’t, look in that dress.

And yet, I was so convinced that it was the picture, that I sent it to a guy friend asking for his reassurance that I didn’t “look fat.”

When this happened, I didn’t really see it for what it was. It was only as I was reading Brene’ Brown’s book, “Rising Strong” yesterday that I began to see this situation clearly.

Though I have a good handle on my inner self-talk, I have allowed what Jonathan Gottschall, a writer and English Professor, calls confabulation to act as a runaway train in my mind. He explains that there’s growing evidence that “ordinary, mentally healthy people are strikingly prone to confabulate in everyday situations.”

Okay, so what does that even mean?

Confabulation is a term often applied to individuals who have dementia or a brain injury. When these individuals have a “hole” in their story, they fill it with something that they decide is true, but is, in actuality, false. There is a growing pile of evidence that suggests that this is not a problem isolated to those with memory or brain trauma–it is an issue for all of us–on an ongoing basis.

Brene’ Brown goes so far as to call these stories we tell ourselves “conspiracy theories,” and I believe that is a fitting descriptor. A conspiracy theory, by definition is a story that is based on limited real data and imagined data that is blended together into a coherent and emotionally satisfying version of reality…isn’t that exactly what I did with the lack of a response and the picture? I had extremely limited, circumstantial at best, evidence. And yet it “made sense” if I bought into the validity of my insecurities…

I think if you are honest with yourself, you can quickly see where you have done the very same thing.

Perhaps it was a fight with your spouse. You interpret his reaction as unloving because you are convinced he doesn’t love you anymore…

Perhaps it was the “indifference” of your wife because she no longer finds you “sexually attractive” because you are feeling insecure about those love handles…

Perhaps it’s that your best friend doesn’t think your friendship is “important enough” to respond to your message because you are feeling like no one cares…

Perhaps it’s that old classmate who “pretended” not to see you at Target…

Perhaps it’s that you didn’t get the promotion because your boss “doesn’t respect women…”

stories

Could any and all of these be true? Possibly. But are they? Or are you allowing the 

runaway train of your insecurities to script the incomplete stories of your life? Are you buying into self-created conspiracies that confirm your doubts?

I think you should start taking a closer look at these scripts and asking yourself what parts are true, and what parts are conjecture.

I know I’m going to start paying a whole lot more attention to these stories. I want my stories to be based on truth, not fear and doubt. And, as we are learning, what we think is so often the truth we make.

 

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Are you a zombie? Am I? Would we even know if we are?

I watched “The Greatest Showman” the other day. It was a kind of spiritual journey for me. The sound track has been echoing in my head ever since. There were so many lessons, so many truths about living life embedded in the lyrics.

greatest showmanOne of the biggest is to simply wake the hell up.

In the song “Come Alive,” we hear a call to more. To figuratively “come alive.” To get off the treadmill and to become truly present in our lives.

To those of you who know me well, it’s a familiar mantra. I’ve often talked about getting stuck on life’s treadmill or the hamster wheel, but here in the middle part of my life, despite being aware of this tendency of human beings, I have often questioned if that is in fact where I am at: stuck in a rut, going through the motions.

     

     zombieYou stumble through your days

     Got your head hung low

     Your skies’ a shade of grey

     Like a zombie in a maze

     You’re asleep inside

     But you can shake away

 

    ‘Cause you’re just a dead man walking

     Thinking that’s your only option

     But you can flip the switch and brighten up your darkest day

     Sun is up and the color’s blinding

     Take the world and redefine it

     Leave behind your narrow mind

    You’ll never be the same

 

It goes on to say:

     And you know you can’t go back again

     To the world that you were living in

     ‘Cause you’re dreaming with your eyes wide open

Jackman is addressing a psychological truth here, though I doubt he even realized it.

brainOur brains are literally wired for novelty. Our brains are continually taking in so much stimulation that, if nothing changes, our brains decide that we just don’t need that information and so we don’t even perceive it. Essentially, our brain defaults to auto-pilot, or the zombie mode that Hugh Jackman refers to in his song.

What does this look like? Let me try to explain.

Have you ever been in a deep sleep, but bolt awake when the fan, the AC, or the furnace stops running? Why do you wake up when the background noise stops?

Because it’s a change. Our brain is listening to everything. Our brain hears the blood rushing through our veins, the ice dispenser when it drops ice in the middle of the night, the traffic on the street in front of your house. Our brain literally controls what we are aware of. It is continually making judgement calls on our behalf–and sometimes it gets it wrong.

For instance, if you’re a parent, you’re probably pretty familiar with conversations that go something like this:

“Gavin! Get down here! I have told you 5 times to pick up you backpack.”

“Geesh, Mom! Why are you so mad? All you had to do was ask.”

“I did–5 times.”

“No, you didn’t. This is the first time you asked.”

Sound familiar? It should, or something quite like it.

charliebrownThe reality is that, to kids, we are really pretty much like the adults in a Charlie Brown cartoon: “Waa, waa, waa, wa, waa…”

Our children are so used to the sound of our voices in the background that our brains literally tune us out. It is not your child deciding not to listen (or at least not most of the time), but their brain says, “Oh, this is normal, nothing has changed and so you don’t need to hear this.” But when mom’s voice switches to an angry tone the brain says, “Uh, oh. This you need to hear.”

Our brain does this in all areas of our life. What’s new, what’s novel, what’s different, it tells us is worth seeing. What is normal, expected, mundane–not so much.

This can cause an enormous problem in our day to day lives if we’re not careful.

Couple problems

One of the biggest and most common problems I have heard about in marriages is “he stopped seeing me.” I know that was the truth in my own marriage. The thing that we fail to understand is that that is not the exception–it is inevitable unless we make a conscious choice to keep seeing, to keep changing, and to keep our significant other in the forefront. He or she becomes “status quo” and in the language of the brain “nothing has changed” so we don’t need to notice or see, and we stop seeing.

One of the most frequent regrets I have heard people voice is not appreciating the time they had with their children enough before they are gone. It falls into the same category: once we get used to something, we stop seeing it and appreciating it. The adage “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone” embodies this truth. You really don’t know until something changes, the change being the person leaving–and all of a sudden, often when it’s too late, you are aware of just how much that person meant.

birth photoIf you’re a parent, think back to what you felt the first time your firstborn was put into your arms. Do you love him or her any less today that you did that day? But how often do you feel now what you felt then? It takes a choice, a determination to think about, and focus on those little people you love so much, and then it all comes flooding in.

My children are growing. My son turned 14 this year. I have four years left with my little fella (not so little anymore–towering over 6 feet tall). The years have sped by, and I am all too aware of the moments lost and not savored. I have made a choice to choose to actively see my children. To force my brain to think about and appreciate these little miracles I get to live with, at least for the time being, on an almost daily basis.

We do the same thing in all areas of our life. We get used to the routine. The job that once thrilled us becomes “normal.” The activity that once excited us becomes “mundane.” The landscape that once filled us with awe becomes the background. Emerson talks about this in his work “From Nature.”

 “To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At             least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the                       man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child.”

Jim Elliot QuoteEmerson didn’t know the neuroscience that caused this “superficial seeing” but he had certainly observed it–as have we all if we are honest.

One of the choices I have made this year has been to be more present. In this modern world we live in we are inundated with noise. Being present requires reflection, and reflection can’t be had when there is a little glowing screen in the palm of our hand distracting us. I’ve made the decision to put that glowing screen down more often. To put it out of sight. To mute it.

To be present in my world.

I’ve also made the decision to consciously see what my brain thinks I don’t need to see. Most days on my way to work, I prayed that God would help me see who and what I needed to see. I consciously looked for the divine moments, the real life moments I was put in this job to be a part of.

You have to understand, in the life of a teacher, the moments fly by. We are assaulted with questions and decisions, class after class, and if I don’t make a conscious effort to see my students, I can go through the entire day jumping from crisis to crisis and/or just hitting auto pilot through my lessons.

But I didn’t get into teaching just to fill young minds with knowledge. I became a teacher to make a difference.

By being conscious, I was able to help students with real trauma and loss in their lives. I was able to inspire some. I was able to let them know that there was someone there who cared. How many of these encounters would I have missed if I hadn’t made a conscious effort to see?

How many did I miss because I am still a long way from living this way every moment?

I want to live with my eyes wide open. I want to see what’s right in front of me. The people who matter the most. The people who need me the most. The possibilities that are right there for the taking–if I only have the eyes to see.

Do you have the eyes to see those moments in your own life? The ones that really matter? The ones that are so very easily overlooked?

If not, in the words of Hugh Jackman, stop being a “zombie in a maze, flip the switch, and come alive.”

I promise you, you won’t regret it!

 

The myth of perfection: being authentic in a photoshopped world

chris-hemsworth-thorAnyone who knows me, knows that I have a bit of a crush on Chris Hemsworth (a bit creepy I suppose being that I’m 40, but hey, we can all imagine, right?!). Blonds are actually not my typical type, but I make exceptions for the long-haired viking type. There is just something so ruggedly male about them. It’s that same quality that has me crushing on Clay Matthews from the GreenBay Packers and the vampire Erick from the Sookie Stackhouse books (something that did not carry over into the tv series sadly–no offense Alexander Skarsgard–perhaps if you were to grow your hair out it would help…). Nothing screams strong alpha male quite like a viking.

So it was with great anticipation that I went to see the new Thor movie, as much to gaze at Chris Hemsworth as for what I anticipated to be a great hero flick.

You can imagine my surprise when, for the first time, I did not find Hemsworth quite as drool worthy. It was not due to the fact that he was often portrayed unwashed and disheveled–something that can just heighten that maleness in my book. Nope, when I assessed my reaction, I realized that I found him too ripped. Yep, he had crossed over into meathead territory.

gym ratNow don’t get me wrong, I love a good representation of the male physique as much as the next girl, and some nice muscle definition is downright hot, but, there is this threshold, this crossing into the ridiculous–trying too hard category that, at least for me, makes a man far less appealing. And sadly, my crush has crossed over into that land of the unreal, fake looking land of the gym rats.

This made me think about society and our expectations of unreality in terms of ourselves and our significant others. When did we stop wanting to be, and to be with, someone who looks like a real-life human being and instead to be with a photoshopped, airbrushed, image of perfection straight off the pages of a comic book?

As a psychology professor, I often have to teach things such as self image and eating disorders. A number of years ago, I had done quite a bit of research on female self-image and eating disorders, but in prepping for a new course last year, I decided I needed to update my research and what I found surprised me.

In our modern culture, boys and men are struggling with their body image almost as much as women. The media is driving men to the same sense of being not enough as women. And the expectations are most often unrealistic and unattainable.

No where do you see it quite so obviously as the online dating world. Being a newb in terms of this new and not-so-improved dating culture, it has been quite a learning curve for me.

dating_checklistAt first I just found it very odd that so many men led with their height and weight statistics.

Then I started to find it a bit creepy how many made a point of listing just how frequently they went to the gym and for how long…

And then it started to get just downright icky as they listed their point by point preferences for a female as if they were placing an online custom order with Amazon. And of course, this always included an athletic and fit or slender woman who also wants to live in the gym and only eat healthy.

But she’s also supposed to be intelligent, independent, and have her own established career…

Hmmm…most women who hit that “intelligent, independent and established” mark are in their late thirties to early forties, and no longer have the ripped 20 year old body that so many of these men seem to expect. I think these men should maybe get really comfortable with the companionship of their Maxim magazines because last I knew, women were real and far too busy to spend the hours a day in the gym that are required to look like the airbrushed and photoshopped images found in those magazines. And if they’re not, well, they are likely as shallow and empty-headed as the hours spent in a gym would imply–or they are more interested in a sugar daddy than a real and authentic relationship.

As a woman with a more curvalicious physique, despite the societal messages trying to eat away at my sense of self, I typically feel pretty good in my own skin. Though, I have to admit, the dating scene did shake my confidence for a bit, that is, until I started to realize that, the bravado and the unrealistic expectations were often just a mask for a deep seeded insecurity.

When-youre-comfortable-in-your-own-skin...youre-beautiful.-Confidence-is-the-best-makeup-you-could-ever-wear.Yeah sure, there are some meatheads who just want some arm candy, but, most people are craving a real and authentic relationship with a real and authentic human being.

When it really comes down to it, Chris Hemsworth’s unnatural physique is far less appealing than a real man who works hard and doesn’t have the luxury of hours per day spent in the gym.

The media feeds us unreality, and when we buy what it is selling, we become dissatisfied with what is real and beautiful.

It’s time we started recognizing that authenticity is far more attractive than an unattainable perfection only achieved at the end of a plastic surgeon’s knife.

Be healthy and be you. You are unique and you are beautiful.

 

What kind of Divorcee are you (or would you be)? A libertine? A good enough? A crazy? And what does it say about you?

i_like_being_home_aloneComing home to an empty house…nothing but the stretch of silence. Hours without the sound of another voice…nothing but the whirring of the fan or the deep grumble of the dishwasher…

Does that scenario make you anxious and itchy, ready to call the first friend you can think of?

Or does it sound like a little piece of heaven?

Your answer to that question just might give some indication of what kind of divorcee you will be should you ever find yourself divorced.

Last year I taught a class called Lifespan Development for the first time. I had taken the course in grad school, but my focus was a bit different back then. I was still in my twenties, had only been married a handful of years, had already buried one child, and was pregnant with another that might also be sick. My focus was on the early end of lifespan development, not the what comes after.

DivorceThis time around, I had just turned forty and was also adjusting to the life of a freshly divorced/single person. My interest was piqued by that side of things. Particularly divorce.

Since I had to teach life and marriage after divorce as a part of the class, I decided I’d go ahead and do a little research. What I found was interesting.

Up to this point I had heard the newly divorced classified in two categories: the crazies (they went out a lot, partied seemingly endlessly, drank copious amounts, had casual sex, etc.) and the depressed (wept into their pillow every night and couldn’t get past what had happened). Being that I didn’t feel like I fit into either of those categories, my interest in the whole “what kind of divorcee I was” had quickly waned and I’d just gotten down to the business of moving on.

Until I found the the research of E. Mavis Hetherington. Her take on things seemed to be a bit more all inclusive.

Apparently, according to Ms. Hetherington’s research, we tend to fall into one of 6 pathways post divorce–not the two that everyone always talks about.

The first pathway is called the “enhancers” This group accounts for about 20 percent of divorced individuals and is mainly made up of females. These individuals become “more competent, well-adjusted, and self-fulfilled.” They tend to bounce back from stressful situations and can bring meaning from chaos.

Already I was liking the sound of this much better than my choice between crazy and pathetic.

dating_after_divorce_clotheslineThe next pathway is labeled the “good enoughs” and this group counts for a large number of the divorced. These individuals have average coping skills, show some strengths and weaknesses. They tend to initially make choices that enhance themselves or expand their careers, but in the end, they end up defaulting to what they had left–a marriage that was fairly similar to their first one. They settle.

I definitely did not want that to be me. No going backwards. No defaulting to the original settings. Nope. Not for me.

The next group is called the “seekers” and it accounts for 40% of men and 38% of women. These individuals hit the pavement running. They want to find a new mate as soon as possible and quickly find themselves in a relationship or even a new marriage. A few, settle down, and drift into one of the before-mentioned pathways and begin to become more stable and competent after the initial “craziness.”

Definitely NOT me. No need to fill the gap. Certainly not going to rush to fill it. Slow and steady wins the race after all!

The “libertines” (the name alone tells me this is not where I want to be) as the name suggests, just want to go out and have fun. They embrace their newfound freedom with a lot of partying and a lot of casual sex. Individuals in this group tend to settle down at some point and then join one of the other groups, eventually becoming more stable.

happy divorceThe next group is called the “competent loners” and makes up only 10% of the overall group of divorced individuals. They are “well-adjusted, self-sufficient, and socially skilled” having good careers, a good social life and lots of hobbies. Should sound like I’m repeating the “enhancers.” The big difference is that this group has little interest in sharing their lives with anyone else…hmmm. More on that in a bit.

The last group is the defeated. As the name suggests, these individuals really struggle with depression and recovery. Moving on is a major issue. They become stuck.

As I reflected on these categories, I found it very interesting. I have several friends who got divorced at about the same time I did. We each seemed to naturally pick our own pathway. Many of my friends very quickly found themselves in a new relationship. One is already engaged, one just ended a year long relationship, a few, have gone on a couple of dates, but aren’t in any hurry.

We all deal with it differently.

When I first read this list, I initially saw myself as an enhancer…but then I got down to the description of the competent loner. Which one am I?

The truth is, I still don’t know.

fresh-happy-woman-bed-wakes-up-morning-smiling-66521588I woke up this morning, alone in my bed, the silence of my house surrounding me, with a big grin on my face. I stretched luxuriously and thought about how much I like being alone. I LOVE being alone.

I love being accountable to no one. I love having whole days when it is entirely up to me what I want to do (though yes, often it ends up being work, cleaning and the mundane, it’s still my choice). No need to compromise. No need to share. What do I feel like doing? It has been so very long since I was able to focus on that question.

I love the freedom of choosing to leave the dishes in the sink, of ignoring the growing pile of laundry and not feeling like I’m letting someone down (not that Aaron would have cared mind you, but a good wife doesn’t do those things–but now I’m not a wife so…).

I thought that I would feel terribly lonely for my children on the days that they aren’t with me, but guiltily I have to admit, I instead find myself luxuriating in the alone time: endless piles of books, playing the piano, art, writing…all the things I was too busy to get to spend much time doing before, now I can immerse myself in them.

For a woman who had lost herself to motherhood for many years, I have had the opportunity, the gift, of being able to find myself again.

Do I want to give that up? Do I want to go back to a life of compromise and considering someone else’s desires as much (or let’s be honest, more than) my own? Do I want to give up long stretches of silences and hours of solitude?

SolitudeSometimes I say yes, and sometimes I say no.

For the right man, it would be worth what I would be giving up, but for the wrong man, it most certainly would not be.

And do I trust myself to see the difference?

For today, I embrace my solitude and trust that in time, that will be an easy question to answer.

What about you? Where do you fall on the divorce pathways? Where do you think you would fall, if you’re not divorced?

We can learn a whole lot about who we are, and shed some light on who we want to be, by considering where we fall and where we wish we would fall.

How Emotion Hijacks our Reason

20120818_mo-running-from-bearWe’ve all heard of the fight or flight response, and we get it. We see a grizzly in the woods and our instinct is to run screaming. Makes total sense (though it will get you killed, so don’t do it).

What most of us don’t realize is that we also have this same response to intense emotional situations. Feelings of shame and betrayal hijack our limbic system the same way that spying a King Cobra would.

According to Psychologist Brene Brown in her book Daring Greatly:

“When shame descends, we almost always are hijacked by the limbic system. In other           words, the prefrontal cortex, where we do all our thinking and analyzing and                             strategizing, gives way to the primitive fight-or-flight part of our brain.”

heart-mindThat instinct you have to run and hide after you’ve said or done something incredibly stupid? Yep, that’s the fight or flight response too. In his book Icognito, neuroscientist David Eagleman describes the brain as a “team of rivals.” In other words, in these emotional interactions, it is quite literally a battle between the heart (or our emotional selves) and our minds. That disparity between what we know in our heads and what we feel is a real battle, and whichever wins is going to call the shots in terms of our behavior.

Eagleman puts it this way:

away“There is an ongoing conversation among the different factions in your brain, each competing to control the single output channel of your behavior…the rational system is the one that cares about analysis of things in the outside world, while the emotional system monitors the internal state and worries whether things are good or bad.”
toward

Our response to these emotional confrontations isn’t that much different from the one with the grizzly. In classical psychology terms, Karen Horney’s theory that we move toward, move against, or we move away explains it best.

According to Dr. Linda Hartling’s research while at the Stone Center at Wellesley, in these types of situations, we tend to move away by withdrawing, hiding, and keeping secrets. We move toward by attempting to appease and to please. We move against by attempting to gain power over others through aggression, both verbal and physical.

The reality is, we likely do all of these in different situations with different people at different times. The important thing is to recognize it for what it is, our limbic system hijacking our reasoning.

We need to learn to spot it, take an emotional step back, and give our reason a chance to come back on line.

 

 

The Misinformation Effect:Why our memories can’t be trusted

Uncle Ron

We all have the uncle (or aunt, or grandparent, or wacky fifth cousin twice removed) who likes to reminisce about how “When I was a kid…” he used to walk uphill both ways to school, or she helped her mama with all the chores before she was asked, or he never disrespected his parents.

We fully recognize that their memory has taken on a tinge of unreality and, in response, we are ready with the prerequisite eye roll or groan, recognizing that “Uncle Rob’s memory is a few bricks shy of a full load.”

We fully accept that their memories are somewhat lacking.

But what if I told you that it isn’t just Uncle Rob and Aunt Cheryl? What if I were to point my finger at you, and tell you that your memory is just as false as crazy cousin Wally’s?

a1We like to think that our memories are ironclad. Often, in disagreements and arguments, we site our recollection of events as solid, irrefutable back up of our version of reality. We don’t pause to consider when our [spouse, parent, friend] refutes our version of the experience with their own version of events that we might be the one who is wrong. We tell ourselves he/she is simply wrong. They are remembering incorrectly. It happened the way we replay it in our heads.

But, if their memory can be incorrect, why do we assume that our own isn’t inaccurate as well? Why do we somehow believe that we simply are better at remembering?

False memories have gotten a lot of attention lately with the documentary series “Making a Murderer.” Anyone who’s on Facebook couldn’t escape the indignation that permeated half the posts several months ago. Many watching the series felt a sense of moral outrage that an innocent man could have had his life taken from him in such a way. How could such a mistake be made! It’s unacceptable! How does this happen?!

The truth is, it happens very easily. Rather than being the anomaly, a little digging shows that it is not an uncommon tale. Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has been pointing out this flaw in our memories and by extension our legal system for years. Check out her TedTalk on the subject here

Eye witness testimonies are frequently wrong. They are wrong, not because of some vindictive purpose of the witness, but due to the inherent flaws in memory.

Through a series of experiments, Loftus found that simple semantics changed the testimony of a witness.

a2If an individual was asked how fast a car was going when it “smashed” into another vehicle versus how fast a car was going when it “hit” another vehicle, the witness would raise the mph of the car because the word “smash” implies more force. Same accident, different wording equaled different memory of the events.

Loftus decided to take the susceptibility of our memory to alteration one step further. She decided to see if a completely false memory was planted, it could cause a person to believe something that they did not see or experience at all.

Through a series of experiments, she found that, absolutely, we can come to believe that things happened that did not happen. She calls this the misinformation effect.

For instance, if an individual is told that when they were very young he became separated from his parents in a mall and that he wandered terrified and lost, the individual is likely to begin “remembering” details of the event–even though it never actually happened.

a3Our memories are susceptible to suggestion. They can be altered.

As a Psych professor, I decided that my skeptical students could benefit from a little experiment of their own. They recorded a memory of their own in as much detail as they could remember and they were then told to rate the accuracy of the memory on a scale of one to ten. The memory had to be one in which another individual was involved. They were then to interview that individual and record their version of the memory in as much detail as the individual remembered it. They were then told to compare the two sets of memories.

The next part of the assignment was even more interesting. They were told to try to sew misinformation. The goal was to plant false memories and to see if they were believed. To aid the success of the experiment, they were told that they had to come up with plausible additions, things that easily could have happened.

The result of their experiment was that most of the students realized that their memory wasn’t nearly as reliable as they originally believed it to be. When they compared it to the other individual’s memory, they found things they had forgotten and many discrepancies between the two sets of memories.

Secondly, about fifty percent of the students were successfully able to plant false memories. It was far easier than any of us had believed to warp and change an individual’s memory of an event. In fact, it was a little disturbing to see how easy it was to alter a person’s memories and it left most of us with the uncomfortable reality that rather than looking at our memories as a movie played back in our minds, they should be regarded with suspicion and doubt.

So, what does this mean to you? The next time you are entrenched in your belief that your version of events is the accurate one, you might want to take a step back and reconsider–memory is malleable and downright faulty–and it is certainly not a hill for relationships to die on.

 

 

Being a Reluctant Hero: the true role of the parent

27d71d088b682abee8b4e7488530b1c4Last night I was snuggled in my bed with Arabelle. We were all cozied up in a pile of blankets trying to hold off the last effort of Winter to make any real impression on the north Texans this year. It was chilly, but honestly, I think he failed in his attempt–no real winter here this year.

Arabelle had her head on my shoulder and my face was nuzzled into her hair. It was one of those perfect moments that make life just so beautiful.

Unfortunately, the topic of conversation wasn’t quite so beautiful. We were chatting about all the pre-teen drama that little girls create, and boy do they create a lot!

As I listened to Belle’s tales of woe, I found myself thinking back to my own pre-adolescent years, and I wasn’t feeling very nostalgic! I cringed inwardly as the memories of awkwardness, insecurity, and immaturity came flooding back. Those years are just so hard! Doesn’t matter who you are: the outcast, the nerd, the average, or the popular, it’s just downright awful most of the time.

Everybody is insecure, uncertain, and too often hurtful to others, as they try to transition from a child into this strange new world of the preteen. Too often, out of that insecurity, girls can get really catty and be downright mean. I’d lived it, and now my precious little girl was living it.

images (1)I listened to Arabelle pour out her worries and struggles with a twinge in my heart. I wanted to protect her from these years, but I knew I couldn’t. At best I could help her get through them, and part of that would be helping my very sensitive and insecure daughter to not take things too personally, and to help her believe in herself.

With that in mind, when she began her litany of how she didn’t measure up, I countered with all of the wonderful and unique things about her. And I had a big list that I was determined would help her see her worth.

For every positive I laid out, she counteracted with its negative.

Finally in exasperation she sighed, “I wish I was like you! You’re perfect!.”

“Wait a minute, what?” I turned so I could look into her eyes.

“Well you are!” she answered back to my look of shock, and she began a long list of all my attributes.

Idownload (1) was a bit stunned. I sat up and blinked stupidly at her for a while and then finally said, “But you know how imperfect I am better than just about anybody! You live with me! You see the times that I’m impatient or when I lose my temper. When I’m not as thoughtful or as kind as I should be!”

“But mom, you always have a reason for those things.”

“But that doesn’t make them right! It’s still wrong that I do them!”

She shrugged. “I still want to be just like you. You’re my hero.”

Wow. I’m her hero.

I didn’t ask to be her hero. I don’t think I want to be her hero. But I guess it doesn’t really matter if I asked for it or if I wanted it–it’s what she’s made me–a hero, albeit a somewhat unwilling one.

Rather than feeling flattered by that pronouncement, I felt humbled and a little scared.

My mind flashed back to a conversation we had had earlier that day where I had done something that had so clearly echoed my own mother. “Ugh! Grandma just pulled a body snatch on me! Clearly that wasn’t a Mommy thing to do! How does Grandma do that?!”

Arabelle had laughed and said that being like Grandma wasn’t so bad.

I jokingly teased her that she needed to beware, because when she became my age, she would find herself echoing what I do and say in ways that she never thought she would, even in the ways she had vowed to never be like me. “It happens to us all,” I teased her. “I’ll do something and all of a sudden I’ll see a flash of my father doing the exact same thing in the exact same way…it’s kind of creepy!”

She was going to become just like me, the good, the bad, and the ugly. It hit me with a new clarity.

Contest-flier_1I’m her hero. She is watching me. She wants to be like me.

What I do and what I say, how I act and how I fail to act, all of these she sees, and many of these she herself will become. And in time her children, and her children’s children. Passed on from generation to generation…

The responsibility, when you really take the time to wrap your mind around it, is staggering.

All parents, at least all the good ones, realize that they are setting an example for their children. We understand that they are learning based on what we model, but I don’t think we fully understand what it means.

When we become parents, we really are like the potter with a lump of clay, but what we sometimes don’t think about is that, even when we are not actively molding that clay, we are still molding it.

In fact, most of the molding of that clay happens, not from our active working with the clay (active parenting), but rather from the inactive moments. The moments observed by those big, innocent eyes. Not only our observed actions, but our observed inaction. When we fail to act. When we fail to fight for something we believe in. When we let lethargy seep in and cause us to accept less than the best from life and the people around us. When we allow someone to ignore us, disrespect us, or knock us down, and we don’t defend ourselves. When we’re confronted with the obstacles in life and we don’t fight back, but instead give in.

All of these too are children see, and they will follow in our footsteps.

I find myself thinking of all the ways that I don’t want my daughter to be like me. Those are the very things that I need to work on. Yes, there are lots of ways I would be happy to have her follow in my steps I do many things well, but that doesn’t discount the ways that I want her to be better than me, more than I am.

4029757ce58eb958d4137859df44694fAnd I am realizing in a way I never have before, that the best way to do that, is to be more than I am. I need to become what I hope she will one do become, so that she has an example walking before her, one that I feel like is totally comfortable with her following–and I’m not there yet.

I know I can’t be perfect. I know I will fail and I will fall, and no matter how hard I try, those failures may hurt my daughter and she will carry some of that into her future. But I need to know that I did my best, that I became the best I could be so that she can be the best that she can be.

I didn’t ask to be a hero. I don’t deserve to be a hero.

I’d better do my best to become one though. There is a little girl who is watching me to see what heroes do, and one day she will echo the choices I made.

That’s an awful lot to live up to!

Mama to a Big Boy–a lesson in letting go

“Deez nuts!”

“Yo’ Mama…”

“Doritos and Mountain Dew!”

If that made sense to you (or if you at least recognized it–I don’t think I really understand it myself!), if you groaned and rolled your eyes, you just might be the parent of a tween boy.
Oh, and let’s not forget out about Pewdiepie, Sundee and Pizza Hut (and no, not the restaurant)… Household names, right?

Tween boys, I am finding, are a unique breed. Their testosterone goes into over drive, their sex drive rears its immature and somewhat awkward head, and all sense seems to go out the window.

It is an age of laughter (often derived from very inappropriate jokes), posturing if you’re lucky, and all out fist fights if you’re not, first crushes, first broken hearts–and the first time mom is shut out.

And I don’t like it.

As any mom of boys knows, there is a special bond between a mother and her son. Gavin was my biggest snuggler (and if you know Arabelle, that is really saying something!). I think I can say with confidence that I am his favorite person in the world. And I like it that way.

tween boyHe might get mad at me, but within an hour he’s coming up to snuggle with me on the bed or sit on my lap (and that, these days, is quite the fete with his long, solid body that seems to weigh at least a ton! My legs, and the arm he’s leaning on, go numb, but I’m not about to tell him he’s too big. Soon enough he’s going to be done with snuggles and cuddles on my lap as it is. I’m not ready to let that go until I have to–numb legs and all!).

Almost every night he asks me to take a walk with him. And on those walks, he used to tell me everything: his frustrations, his hurts, his first crushes–but not anymore. Mom is being pushed out of his private world, and I feel a pang in the vicinity of my heart. My boy is taking some of his first steps, a whole new group of firsts, and this time mommy has to watch from the sidelines. The first steps of true independence, of creating an identity away from mom and dad are starting now, and he won’t talk to me about it.

I know he had a girlfriend for the first time. I know she broke up with him five days later. And I know she hurt his heart. But he won’t tell me why or how he feels or how he’s really doing.

video-game-2_2362669bHe’ll talk about the latest Sundy video, or of Call of Duty and Mine Craft, endlessly, but ask him about matters of the heart, about matters that, well, matter–and I hit a wall of silence.

I know he likes a new girl. I don’t know her name. I don’t know if she likes him. I don’t even know if I know her.

I know his latest pranks, the latest scuffles and which teacher is the newest to find her way to his crap list. These are the things he tells me.

But the things that matter…? These he is keeping close to his chest. Who he shares them with, I don’t know–but I know it’s no longer me.

This is a weird thing. An uncomfortable thing.

No. No, that’s not it.

Let’s call it what it really is–it sucks. It is completely sucky, and it hurts.

It signifies the beginning for him–the first transitions into becoming his own man, independent and separate from our little family.  I want this for him; I want him apron stringsto fly…

These are his first steps as much as those first wobbly baby steps so many years ago. And I want to be there cheering him on like I did then, feeling the mixture of pride and the bittersweet pang of crossing a threshold.

But I don’t want to let him go!

But I have to…

It is a tug of war between what I want to do, and what I need to do.

This is a bitter sweet season of letting go. Whereas, my girls and I seem to grow closer as they near adolescence, my son is growing away. And I know, boys, when they grow away, they really do grow away from their mums.

I miss him already, and he’s not even gone…I’m proud of who he will become, but…I don’t want to say goodbye to the little boy that was.

 

When the Rose-Colored Glasses Come Off

When you are young, as with so much of life, you look to motherhood with a strong shot of romance and a healthy side of idealism.

mom and babyA co-worker brings a new baby into work, and everybody crowds around, oohing and ahhing at that amazing little miracle of life…and all you see is chubby cheeks and warm baby snuggles. (Not the tears–your own not the babies–and the 10th dirty diaper of the day or the growing mound of poo bespeckled laundry–again, not just the babies.)

You see the proud glow of a mother who watches her child achieve the winning goal, the special award, the winning medal…and you think of how brilliant your child will be and how proud he or she will make you. You see the look of pride you will wear and the look of envy the other mothers will shoot in your direction. (You don’t see the stress of playing chauffeur, the many dinners eaten in the car, the tears and arguments when said child doesn’t want to go to practice or is over-tired when practices translate into late, late nights of homework)

crying-babyYou see the mother soothing an adorable toddler’s tears away…(aww…isn’t she cute? —No, not really. After the fifth meltdown of the day, that cute baby voice is starting to sound like nails on the chalkboard and that little, red, howling face is the thing of nightmares)

To the young (and naïve) all of these inspire feelings of longing, a desire to be a participant in that moment, to be the mother, to feel the tenderness and pride. The rest of it is unknown or ignored. The rose colored glasses are on and the pictures of family bliss overshadow the known realities.

Maybe not everyone feels it, but many, even most, do. I sure did.

Outside_Looking_in_by_M_photographyI remember, before I was a parent, the longing I felt for a child. I remember the fear that I would never find a man I wanted to marry, or who would want to marry me, and the fear that I would never experience that–that I would be left on the outside looking through the shop window at what I couldn’t have, watching other women experience those moments. I would be on the sidelines–watching, wishing, but not participating.

For me, I got to experience this not once, but twice. I did meet a man, and we fell in love, and we had a beautiful, gorgeous, perfect little baby, and I felt the joy, the tenderness, the rush of pride, only to bury my beautiful little girl a year later.

Those moments on the outside looking in were all the more painful after that. Those mothers had what I had had, only it had been stolen away from me, and I feared that I would never have it again (the risk involved was just so great). I felt by turns angry and bitter, but most often, I despaired. What if, having known what being a mother was, I never got to be one again?

I remind myself of that frequently these days, so many years of chaos later. I remind myself of how much I wanted this, and how I almost didn’t get it.

When I lost Serena, I thought I knew what being a mother was. In fact, I thought I had a better picture than most, because I had experienced the joy being a mother was, but also the devastation it can bring. But the truth is, I didn’t really understand what being a mother was at that point.

look_at_life_through_red_tinted_glasses_by_andela1998-d68zvuuDespite losing Serena, I still wore rose colored glasses. My eyes and my heart were full of the tender moments, the warmth. My mind was filled with remembered snuggles, and the memory of that unique baby scent, the soft cheeks and that perfect little nuzzle spot just between the edge of the jaw and the neck…

I had not yet experienced the daily grind of parenthood. I hadn’t faced the discipline and arguments, the tears and “I hate yous,” the endless emails to teachers to try to turn zeroes into passing grades, the wrappers on the floor and bookbags in the doorway. These were not something I knew.

I didn’t yet understand that to be a mother was to put one’s self in the back seat, to place another completely and entirely above oneself. I did not know that it meant that my life would be filled with mundane moments of caretaking, or that the peacefulness of silence would be something I only fondly remembered, but never experienced.

I did not know that my wants, my needs, my own desires would be in such subjugation to the needs and wants of others.

I didn’t understand.

I wish I could say that I always handle it with grace, but I don’t.

I wish I could say that losing Serena makes me always remember to appreciate the gift I have in my children, but it doesn’t.

I wish I could say that I never feel angry, or bitter, or resentful of all that I have given up for this dream of motherhood, but that would be a lie.

I do feel resentful sometimes. Sometimes I’m angry. Sometimes I lose patience. Sometimes I wish that I could travel the world like I did before. Or I think fondly of a time when my to-do list wasn’t so long that it went straight out the door and wrapped around the block. There are those moments.

mom-daughter-share-ice-cream-607496-printBut there are also the other moments. The love, the tenderness, the laughter. There is the knowledge that I finally understand what the Bible is talking about, to truly put someone above yourself, to be willing to lay your life, not your death, but to lay your life down for another. That is so much harder.

That is motherhood–day in and day out.

It is grace. It is selflessness. It is sacrifice.

It is not perfection, but being able to admit when we’re wrong, and to keep trying when we want to give up, and sometimes loving the unlovable until they are lovable again.

I am not a perfect mother, but my children are perfectly loved, and everything I gave up cannot come close to everything I have gained from having them in my life.

I am lucky to be their mother. It is a privilege–sometimes I have to remind myself of that, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

What do you do with your cookie, and what does that say about who you are?

hand-holding-cookie-bite-taken-outWe’ve all had that moment when we’re about to take a bite of the last chocolate chip cookie, and we’re anticipating the burst of flavor that will come with it when our sister/brother/friend/son/daughter/etc. comes on the scene and says, “Oh! A chocolate chip cookie! I want one! Where are there?!”

What we do in that next moment is a window into who we are, a window into how we live our lives, and it is a window into our heart.

Do we, scarf down the cookie quickly, and only then admit it’s the last one?

mouthfulDo we shrug and say “last one” and then take a huge bite from the cookie?

Do we break the cookie in half and cheerfully offer the other half?

Do we offer the other half, but feel a tug of reluctance, begrudging the loss of half of the cookie?

Or do we cheerfully hand the last cookie to the person we love because we’d rather make them happy than have the cookies ourselves?

It’s such a simple thing, a simple test, and we have moments like these every day of our lives. How we respond in these moments defines who we are on a basic level.

I’ve watched this played out among my children. Gavin would scarf the cookie down without a thought, fearful that I would tell him he had to share. Arabelle would hand you the cookie. Lily would struggle somewhere in between.

Every year for Halloween (or almost every year–we made an exception last year) the kids pick a theme and we all dress up, even mom and dad, according to that theme. This year the kids chose Wizard of Oz, or rather the girls did, and Gavin graciously deferred to them this time. We spent weeks discussing who would be which character from the very first days of October.

wizardofoz_085pyxurzLily wanted to be Glinda, the Good Witch, so Arabelle agreed to be Dorothy. I went online and found a Glinda costume, purchased it, and two days later Lily excitedly tried it on. She postured through the house, admired herself in the mirror–she was thrilled.

But then, a couple of days later, she changed her mind. She didn’t want to be Glinda anymore; she wanted to be Dorothy. Arabelle graciously said she would be Glinda (luckily the costume also fit her) so that Lily could have what she wanted. No harm, no foul. Great.

But then a couple weekends ago, I promised Lily that we would go to the store to buy her Dorothy costume, and as we were browsing the costumes, we came to a beautiful Wicked Witch of the West costume. Arabelle’s eyes lit up. “Mom, can I be the Wicked Witch instead?”

I was stuck. We already had the Glinda costume (and Lord knows I can’t fit into it!). I had promised Lily the Dorothy costume…

“Well, hon, I guess that’s up to Lily. If she’s willing to be Glinda, you can be the Wicked Witch.” Remember, just a few days before, Lily was thrilled with the idea of being Glinda.

When Arabelle asked Lily if she wouldn’t mind being Glinda as they had originally planned, Lily started balling, “But I want to be Dorothy!”

Arabelle patted Lily on the back and put her arms around her. “It’s okay, Lily. You can be Dorothy.” Great response from Arabelle. I wwas so proud of her, but…

But it wasn’t okay. I watched as Lily, without a thought, accepted her sister’s change of heart. And I watched the disappointment bloom on Arabelle’s face.

I pointed out to Lily that she hadn’t even considered for a moment what it was her sister wanted and whether or not she should let her have what she wanted instead of Lily getting her way.

crying-little-girlShe began crying again, “But I want to be Dorothy!”

“Yes, I understand that. But Arabelle wants to be the Wicked Witch. Why should you get what you want instead of Arabelle getting what she wants?”

“I don’t know.”

“You need to think of what your sister wants too, Lily; you’re being selfish.”

There in the middle of Target she started wailing, “You called me selfish!”

“No, Lily, I said you were being selfish. You have a choice in whether you are selfish or not.”

But the problem was, she didn’t want to choose to not be selfish. Though Arabelle tried to pretend that she was okay with it, she had gotten quiet and was obviously sad. Lily cared enough to ask her what was wrong, but when Arabelle told her, Lily would start crying again, stating, “But I want to be Dorothy.” She didn’t want Arabelle to be sad, but she didn’t want to give up what she wanted to take away that sadness either.

The whole exchange really bothered me, and stuck with me. Later that night, I pulled Arabelle aside to tell her how proud I was of her, that her heart, her love and care of people, was something rare and beautiful. I marveled at how she always put others before herself.

support-groups-empathy-signHer response humbled me. She said, “If I have a choice between someone else crying, or crying myself, I’d rather be the one crying.”

Wow. I felt like that statement shined a light on my own shortcomings, my own failure to live up to the example of my nine year-old daughter.

Would I willingly take on pain and hurt to spare someone his/her pain? I would do it for my family. I would do it for my husband, my children, my nieces and nephews, my brother and sister, but would I do it for anyone? Arabelle would. I’ve seen her do it. And even if I was willing to do it, would I do it with the grace and openness of Arabelle, or would I begrudge the action and feel resentful?

I fear it would be the latter.

And then I thought more of Lily and her reaction. She doesn’t want people to hurt, but she doesn’t really want to give up her wants and needs to take away the hurt of someone else. She feels compassion, but it doesn’t translate to action.

How often are we like that? We see the pain of others, we feel badly, but we don’t reach out to them, we don’t try to ease their pain. We see what ISIS does to children, and we feel awful about it, but not enough to try to find a way to help. We know that there are motherless and fatherless children all over our own country, and we feel so badly, but we don’t want our lives rocked or altered by the needs of a troubled child in our own home.

Compassion without action is nothing but a mask concealing selfishness.

And my little daughter has held a light up to my own selfishness. I am humbled.

What kind of person are you? Do you give the cookie away or do you keep it for yourself?

I fear that I split it in half, but give it away with a twinge of regret or even resentment.

I need to do better. I need to learn the lesson my nine year-old is teaching me.

CAM01287-1Thank you, Arabelle, for your kind and generous spirit. I am so grateful God put you in my life.