hpim0552

Love, Actually

Barbara Fredrickson radically changed the way I think about the purpose of positive emotions in our lives.  I am forever grateful to have learned from her first hand in her positive psychology seminar at UNC.  It seems Dr. Fredrickson is at it again, this time discussing the experience we call “love” in her new book:  2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become. In her recent article on CNN she explains, “Love, as your body experiences it, is a micro-moment of connection shared with another.”  Love lives in the moment of our experiences with another.  Love can be all around us if we are open to it.

Why Vulnerability Must Proceed Love

For me in this moment, a highlight of her article is this explanation that love does not belong to one person.  When we are open to being moved by others, love can exist in many forms and come from many places.  And as with so many other things, we must first be open to being loved before we can experience connecting in love.  The first step towards connection must ALWAYS be taken by us, and that first step is ALWAYS towards – yep, feeling vulnerable.  And how could it be any different?  When we remain guarded and don’t show our true self, there is nothing that we put out for other people to be moved by.  But when we risk showing our true messy-beautiful self with the world “we open to the possibilities of making [our] prospects for love — defined as micro-moments of positivity resonance — nearly limitless.”

The full article is definitely worth the read.  I look forward to reading this book!

Hitting the notes on cue?  A work in progress.

Living life without fear of judgement?  Nailed it.

Defining Ourselves.  Defying Others.

“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” –Audre Lorde

So true, Audre.  And defining one’s self is no easy task.  First, this task requires us to know who we are and where we have come from.  That can be a challenge.

But the second part of defining ourselves can be even harder.  To fully define who we are, we must also be aware that parts of ourselves are still becoming, growing, shifting, changing, and existing outside of the world of things that can be adequately described by words (words!  Oh – rough instruments that you are!).  Ideally we are trees in Spring time.  Most of the self is sturdy and has been around for a while, but parts of our identity are just starting to shoot and bud.  Some of this new growth will become another branch of us, eventually easy to label, easy to see in ourselves.  Some of this new growth won’t become much at all.  But we can’t know the future.  We can’t know where all this growth will end up.

Our identities are a mix of solid and evolving parts of self.

Why We Must Know Of Our Inchoate Edges

When I first read this Lorde quote, I thought these were wise words to help protect me from people who aren’t looking out for my interests and needs.  Now I read a new layer in this quote.  It is sometimes the most well-meaning, supportive people in our lives who can accidentally squash us in their need to understand us.  This truth becomes most visible for me in the stories that I hear from people who are transitioning.

It is understandable that when a person decides to transition, supportive people will have questions.   These well-meaning people with their well-intended questions can be VERY insistent.

“Did you always know?”

“WHEN did you know?”

“You don’t look like….  “

“Won’t you miss….”

I recently read a great post about how other people’s insistence for a clean narrative about transitioning can block someone from understanding the often richer, deeper complexity of their story. Here is a sample from this super post (I highly recommend you read the whole thing!):

But it’s true that, before I said it, I carefully mined my personal history for examples of how I was never really a girl. And when I presented my decision to transition to my friends and family, it was with the “always knew” narrative well rehearsed. In that, I’m like almost every other trans* person I’ve ever talked to about the coming out process.

Why is “I always knew” the common narrative? Why do so many of us tell some version of that story even if it isn’t true?

There are several reasons that come to mind, and I think they all play a part.

These words make my heart heavy. Sweet Lorde, I wouldn’t be able to neatly answer many of the common questions people get when they are transitioning, and I’m in a relatively stable spot in my life!

So this post has two endings.

ONE.

I love my fuzzy edges. I look forward to seeing what I become. I embrace the journey.  Parts of me are easy to explain to others.  Other parts of me are hard to even explain to myself.  And when I think about it,  it’s the fuzzy parts of me which are hard to pin down with words that are my very favorite parts of me.

TWO.

Psychologists can get a pretty bad rap in trans communities.  If you are in the process of transitioning and looking for a psychologist, I want you to know that we psychologists aren’t all the same.  Good psychologists don’t see themselves as gatekeepers.  We don’t need to hear the “Right Story.”  In fact, I’ve never heard the same story twice.  I know my profession has created a problematic structure with “Gender Identity Disorder.”  But hey – I like to think of my profession as being a big ol’ dysfunctional family.  PLEASE don’t assume I share the views of my kooky relatives.

I largely see my role as helping keep you safe from being “crunched into other people’s fantasies and eaten alive.”  I largely see my role as helping you embrace your own story – including learning about the fuzzy, wonderful edges of your being.

Happy Birthday, Me!

It’s my birthday today, and I’m one of the rare people I know who actually likes birthdays.  So yay!  Happy day to me!  It’s funny to me that at some unspecified point – after you can get your drivers license and before you are old enough to run for congress – people stop asking you how old you are.  Or they may ask in a hushed and somber tone, “May I ask …?”  At least I have seen this habit with the women in my life.  It seems to be somewhat less true for men.

People, I am 35 years old today.  I earned every darn year and age spot that I have thus far, and hope to get many more behind me before I’m done. (Well, more years.  And I can accept that age spots are part of the package.)  I appreciate why folks aren’t always comfortable sharing their age, especially if they happen to be an actress in Hollywood over the age of twelve trying to get a job.  For some reason I’ve never felt the need to be demure about it.  Perhaps it’s because I was always somewhat of a pipsqueak growing up and I couldn’t wait to tell someone proudly that I was in fact 13, not 12.  Over the years it just became reflexive to say my age.  Just as it seems reflexive to so many people I know to keep quiet about it.  So please understand that I am not saying I am better than anyone for being so open about my age.  It’s just a quirk about me, one of the zillion things that makes me who I am.  And with this quirk I have a heightened awareness about this funny cultural practice of hiding our age like that family secret about the dog going to live on the farm.

Over the years, when I would respond to the question about my age I would add, “Oh, I don’t mind telling you.”  And oh the responses I have gotten…

“Well that’s because you are still young.  You’ll change.”

“If I were old enough I would also say it, too. I’m so embarrassed being so young at this job.”

“Well, good for you.  That’s brave, I guess.”

Consider the Alternative

People, any chance we can stop acting like it’s cute to not say our age?  It has become an unexamined habit that sends unintended messages.

By not sharing our age, are we implying to those coming up behind us that there is something wrong with our continued existence?  Are we embarrassed that we dare to still draw breath after our first gray hair?  Or that there is more value in one age than another?   You couldn’t convince me to be 23 again for all the free shoes in the world.  I’m glad to have done it, but what a confusing time!

Age is what it is.  As we get older, our stories grow more complicated, filled with joys, and fill with regrets.  There is no way around it.  But here we all are.  We are all on this journey together.  And as trite as the next thing may be, I always get tickled by remembering that each and every one of us has never been this old before.  Everyone is new to the age they are now.  With each age and stage, things shift.  Some things get easier.  Some things get harder.  But that’s the deal.  Almost everyone who has ever had the chance to live is no longer here.  And here we all are, a beautiful mix of ages and faces and bodies and dreams and hopes and challenges and even the occasional moment of joy.  Life is complicated.  That is the nature of the journey.  And even if the journey feels just too much at times take comfort in knowing that this too shall pass.  For now, perhaps try to enjoy knowing that today is one more day that you can take a slow deep breath, hear the birds singing outside, and try again.

So happy birthday to me.  And a very happy unbirthday to you, unless you happen to be Richard Gere, Debbie Gibson, or my mom (Happy Birthday, mom).

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A son likes to wear dresses.

A father has a problem.

And so he address the problem by going for a walk with his son in their new town, both dressed in skirts.  Did you just feel your heart melt a little bit?  Read the full article here.

I Heart Contradictions

July 16, 2012

Growth and Flourishing

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
US poet (1819 – 1892)

The Dangers of Consistency

We do a huge disservice to ourselves when we try to make sure we appear consistent.  Consistency is a dangerous illusion.   It is dangerous because when we start telling ourselves that we are one thing, then we start choosing what things we want to say and do in order to be consistent with that one thing.  And this is a great way to disconnect you from your inner drive towards growth and flourishing.

This concept is complicated but can play out in labels large and small.  Here is a small scale example. I tend to be a bit of a goofball when I am not working.  While in goofball mode on a recent trip to Florida I bought a neon green tank top that says, “I heart Fl. Lauderdale, Spring Break!”  It’s deliciously terrible.  I was wearing this tank top on the way to the grocery store the other day when I caught the thought in my head, “Oh no – what if I run into a patient?  I am a psychologist, for goodness sake!  Psychologists do not wear neon green spring break tank tops in public.”  I evaluated that thought for a moment.  Is this thought really true?  My job is to be a psychologist.  I am wearing this tank top while not at work.  So apparently psychologists do sometimes make terrible fashion decisions.  There is no position paper put out by the American Psychological Association on the merits of the neon color palette (thank goodness).   There is no problem here.

The Power of Observation

Instead of making sure all aspects of my identity are consistent, these following steps occurred:

  • I chose what I wanted to do in the moment
  • I observed my choices
  • I learned about myself (e.g., I dress differently in different settings)
  • I carried on with my life

Of course, in this example there was nothing serious at stake.  In other more important situations I would add the step of considering whether my actions could potentially harm myself or others.

And from this silly little example I added in the smallest of ways to the rich complexity that is me.

Authenticity Does Not Need Consistency

The dangers of trying to be consistent relate to staying connected with our authentic self.  There is a lot of chatter these days about the authentic self.  Sometimes I worry that this concept gets misconstrued as just another label to stick on our selves.  The authentic self is not a thing.  I prefer to think of authenticity as a drive towards growth.  We all have this drive, although if we have been out of the habit of listening to this drive then it can take some effort to uncover.  Growth means sometimes taking risks, doing things you haven’t done before, observing if that thing felt right to you, and then choosing whether or not you want to do it again.  The opposite of growth is first labeling your self, then choosing actions to be consistent with this label.  As you explore all parts of who you may want to become, different interests and forms of being may grow.  Like different branches on the same tree.  And in my case one branch prefers Talbots while the other branch prefers neon.

If you aren’t too busy, you might want to read this article about the traps we can set for ourselves by keeping so darn busy.

“The Perfected Self”

My attention was caught by two pieces in the media this week that, upon reflection, I find to be related.  First, The Atlantic has published a story called “The Perfected Self” about how to lose weight.  (It’s terrible.  I don’t endorse it.  But that’s a different topic.)  Second, the BBC this morning reported that British MPs are recommending children have mandatory body-image and self esteem classes because “girls as young as five now worry about how they look.”

Ugh.  Where to begin?

Here is a list of things:

  1. Comfortable airline seats
  2. An indestructible toy for my dog Zelda
  3. Your perfect self

Here is what these things all have in common:

None of these things exist.

Why Oak Trees Have Great Self Esteem

Yep, I don’t even know who you are but I know you aren’t perfect.  Why?  Cuz that just doesn’t even make any sense.  Can an oak tree be perfect?  Is there a particular way that all of it’s thousands of leaves can be arranged to finally reach perfection?  “Just move that one branch up a little to the left and….  Yes, perfect.”  No.  Ridiculous.  Doesn’t even make sense.  The same goes for you.

What on earth does being perfect even mean?  What if you spoke ten languages and were a master sushi chef?  You still could speak eleven languages and how do you do with soufflés?  And let’s be real.  When in the media we see the word “perfect” (or it’s favorite partner in crime, “better”) it almost always is talking about how you look.  Why is that?  It’s NOT because we owe it to our neighbors to make sure we always have ripped abs and perfect hair while we pick up our mail.  It’s NOT because Cosmopolitan wants to make sure you find happiness with yourself.  It IS because so long as we believe that we SHOULD be “perfect” or “better” by modifying our bodies then we are the “perfect” target audience for advertisers.

You are being lied to.  You are being manipulated so someone can make money off of you by ensuring you feel insecure about your self worth.  The truth is that you are enough right now.  Probably there are parts of you that you like and parts of you that you don’t like.  That’s what it is to be human.  This oak tree in my back yard lost a limb, but it’s still growing strong.  You too can continue to grow and thrive despite whatever your history or list of strengths and weaknesses.

You Can’t Teach What You Don’t Know

Truth.  There isn’t a call to have schools teach children how to make their beds because children learn that at home (well, that’s what my friend’s told me).  Body image classes are being recommended because children are not learning how to love their bodies at home.  The reason is because so many moms and dads struggle with their own body images.  We can’t teach what we don’t know.

We owe it to ourselves and our friends, neighbors, and most importantly the children in our lives to start critically understanding that it is dangerous to believe in the “perfect” self.  Such a mindset makes us look at ourselves AND others and search for flaws.  Ridiculous.  You were not put on this great earth to wander around noticing when someone in your life gets a new zit.  You were put on this great earth to do great (and no so great) things.  No go.  Do something.  Go do something for no reason other than because you want to do it.  Even though you still haven’t mastered your soufflé.  Even though you don’t like your upper arms.

The kids in your life will thank you, both for being a role model and from preventing them from having to learn about body image from their middle school health teacher (OMG – I can’t even image having sat through a class on body image taught by my middle school health teach who, looking back, I think was hung over about 50% of the time?  No thank you!).

Wow.  Ashley Judd just knocked my socks off with her response to all the haters who have been speculating about her recently “puffy” face.  Do yourself a favor and read this article, then share with others.  Here are the first few sentences of her kick-butt essay:

The Conversation about women’s bodies exists largely outside of us, while it is also directed at (and marketed to) us, and used to define and control us. The Conversation about women happens everywhere, publicly and privately. We are described and detailed, our faces and bodies analyzed and picked apart, our worth ascertained and ascribed based on the reduction of personhood to simple physical objectification. Our voices, our personhood, our potential, and our accomplishments are regularly minimized and muted.

What?  Ashley Judd, you need anything?  Can I get you a cup of coffee?  Help with your errands?  What can I do to give you more time to write more things like this.

She raises several important and interrelated issues in this essay and I won’t bother repeating them in a less well-written form here.  But I would like to expand upon one part of what she writes and put a challenge to you.

Ms. Judd says, “Patriarchy is a system in which both women and men participate…. It is subtle, insidious, and never more dangerous than when women passionately deny that they themselves are engaging in it. This abnormal obsession with women’s faces and bodies has become so normal that we (I include myself at times—I absolutely fall for it still) have internalized patriarchy almost seamlessly. We are unable at times to identify ourselves as our own denigrating abusers, or as abusing other girls and women.

I would add that the good and kind people among us, present company included, are in large part to blame for this climate of judgment and abuse.  Let me explain.  Part of what makes humans so unique is our ability to adapt to the culture around us without having to think about it.  It just happens.  If someone grew up in a time where there were no cars, they would be mystified if they were transported here and suddenly hurling down the road at 45 (or….  ahem, 55) miles per hour.  But we don’t give cars a second thought.  The same goes for the more invisible parts of our culture.  We hear judgmental comments about other people’s appearances almost from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed.  The unspoken subtext of these comments is “You are not good enough as you are.  You must change yourself to be acceptable to others.”  Such a toxic environment actually hijacks the part of us that makes us able to adapt and not freak out each time we go outside and see a car zoom by. This toxic environment shapes our brains.  We too are suddenly judging, staying constantly aware of the “imperfections” in ourselves and others.  (Don’t even get me started on how we decide what is imperfect!)  Through no fault of our own, we too are suddenly thinking judgmental thoughts about others.   Sometimes we say the thought out loud.  Perhaps more often we just think it and don’t share the thought with others.

Most harmfully, perhaps we don’t even admit to ourselves that we have these thoughts.  When you aspire to be a nice person, it’s hard to admit that you just had a not-nice, judgmental thought.  And so we ignore those thoughts because it seems like the only other option is to acknowledge that we aren’t a nice person. But there is another way!

You ARE a nice person.  And your brain is doing what it is supposed to do – absorb the culture and learn how to survive.  These two things are true at the same time.  But it is not enough to just keep our mouth shut if we think a judgmental thought about others.   Our thoughts can and do hurt us.  We must also learn to protect ourselves from the distorted thoughts that can come from our own minds. Change starts between our ears.

And so here is your challenge.  Create awareness within yourself.  When you are aware of your surrounds, you can change them.  Spend today looking for unwanted, judgmental thoughts.  Expect these thoughts.  They may come up when you are looking at a magazine in the check out lane, talking to a friend, or perhaps looking at yourself in the mirror.  When you find one, label it for what it is – an artifact of our culture – and let it go.  The more you practice, the more you will create distance between you and those harmful thoughts.   It is in this distance that we can more clearly see who we really are – not what others want us to be.  Watch out, patriarchy.  As we learn to see how you have confined us we can also begin to see how to set ourselves free.

Oh, I could write a whole long post about why perfectionism stinks so much because it tells you that if you are perfect enough then perfectionism will protect you but then it always turns out that perfectionism was the thing that was causing a lot of the trouble in the first place, and then I could talk about why it’s so hard to kick the habit of perfectionism, and then talk about the role of perfectionism in so much of our Stuff, like eating disorder behaviors and compulsive behaviors and addiction.  If I was feeling particularly wordy, I could talk about some of the research that shows what part of your brain gets caught by perfectionism.  Perhaps I could even throw in a case example, showing how perfectionism keeps us from being in connection with ourselves and others.  But I am not going to do any of those things.  I am just going to let this kid on Youtube show us how it’s done.  (And he’s from Durham!)