The Art of Being Human

Volunteers working on hundreds of Amazon donations received at Austin Pets Alive.

Volunteers working on hundreds of Amazon donations received at Austin Pets Alive.

We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness.
— Charlie Chaplan

This month has been a particularly difficult one. I've spent a good portion of it feeling outraged, sorrowful, hurt, disappointed, and confused. The events of the last few weeks beginning in Charlottesville and what played out on the national stage to the recent devastation from Hurricane Harvey have weighed heavily. The emotional, physical, mental and spiritual trauma of injustice and displacement leave its mark. To belittle and strip humans of their inherent dignity and worth is wrong. It's beyond wrong, it's evil. To lose one's home and sense of safety is distressing and overwhelming. It's traumatizing. 

To belittle and strip humans of their inherent dignity and worth is wrong. It’s beyond wrong, it’s evil.

To lose one’s home and sense of safety is distressing and overwhelming. It’s traumatizing.

As a counselor, I face stories of evil and trauma often. It's not easy for me but why I do what I do, how I can do what I do, is because of what my clients bring. Their resilience, their courage, their willingness to fight the lies and fight for restoration to find their voice, their freedom, their meaning is something to behold. I often don't feel worthy of this work but am greatly aware of its privilege. My clients show me what it is to be human in all its beauty, glory, sacrifice and triumph. 

My clients show me what it is to be human in all its beauty, glory, sacrifice, and triumph.

Earlier this week, I witnessed on a larger scale what it means to be human. My city and fellow Texans fulfilling the command to love one's neighbor. I feel inspired, encouraged, and amazed by seeing others seek to restore and speak into sorrow through whatever means possible. Yesterday, my sister and I arrived at Austin Pets Alive to see scores of volunteers organizing the hundreds of donated boxes that carried much-needed supplies to care for the 300+ animals that needed shelter

We went to Costco and you could feel it in the air: this powerful sense of taking up the cause because our fellow humans, though strangers to us, need us. So there I am in Costco inspired by the carts filled with bulk items waiting to be driven across cities along the coast just because that's what it means to participate in this being human. It means caring about others' misfortune and their plight. It means taking up the banner on their behalf. And while there are many who would seek to destroy, there are many more who make it their mission to build up. 

What it means to be human: caring about others’ misfortune and their plight, taking up the banner on their behalf.

And while there are many who would seek to destroy, there are many more who make it their mission to build up.

I am well aware that often times we rise to the challenge when we see humanity threatened and then easily return to states of selfish preoccupation. I'm well aware that across this country and countries over, there is horror occurring with little being done. I'm well aware that this post doesn't change the hate that was spoken (still spoken) and experienced or that highlighting local acts of kindness doesn't change that there is real suffering. This post isn't meant to minimize the pain.

In moments like this, when we're in crisis, I think it necessary to see what human agency is capable of (both for harm and for blessing). It's necessary that when we feel helpless and powerless to consider what is within our personal, social and cultural jurisdiction and ask what one's contribution is. How can your voice reflect what it means to be human and what action will it lead you towards?

I am confident goodness has the final say. So let us be a people and community that uses our words for this important conversation. 

{if you have not yet been able to contribute for Hurricane Harvey relief, please take some time to consider how you might be able to donate. Even looking around your pantry and giving your non-perishable food items will go a long way! I've included links above for ways you can help.}

Our Shadow Side

It intrigues me that great success is this brilliant light, but also every brilliant light creates a dark shadow. I think wisdom only comes when you can navigate both.
— Sting

If you've spent much time with me via this blog, you're well familiar with my philosophy that we learn to hide/cast away parts of us (personality traits, emotions, desires) that have been directly or indirectly deemed unacceptable. Those unacceptable parts are shamed deeply affecting our mental and emotional health. This collection of cast offs results in the formation of the shadow. What Carl Jung describes as the "dark" side of being human.

We decide that we only present the respectable part of our personality and hide the socially unacceptable parts of us which ultimately gets buried in our unconscious.

No one is without their own shadow. But the difference is one's awareness of their shadow. 

If we're not aware of what is happening within, it contributes to "self destructive behaviors so many individuals struggle with and are unable to control despite consciously knowing they would be better off not engaging in such actions...The task in life which thus confronts everyone is to become conscious of and integrate one’s shadow into one’s conscious personality: accepting it with open arms not as an abhorrent aspect of one’s self, but as a necessary and vital part of one’s being." (Academy of Ideas)

Way easier said than done. I am aware. I've said it before and I'll continue to say it: this process is not for the faint of heart. You must truly long for wholeness because only then will you work towards it. Many are unwilling. And they settle for an unexamined life becoming shells. 

We must be willing to see ourselves as we really are, not someone we assume or fantasize of being.

However, for those who dare venture to look they'll discover the shadow isn't all bad as we would like to believe (it would be easier if it was because it would justify keeping it in the basement). Recall that we hide any part of us that isn't acceptable to others. These can be positive traits: sensitivity, compassion, creativity, intellect, the list goes on. These aspects that would "lead to greater wholeness and harmony" are met with condemnation from others (family, peers, society) and in order to belong, away they went. 

When positive traits are relegated to the shadow, one is by necessity less than one could be...growth of the individual becomes blocked, and life becomes sterile.
— Academy of Ideas

In order to grow, we must accept those parts we've been afraid to recognize. Growth requires more than mere acknowledgement or awareness. We must be willing to see ourselves as we really are, not someone we assume or fantasize of being. Take an honest assessment. And that's where the real growth can begin take root. As you become aware, you can then internally negotiate which parts lead to wholeness and which parts detract. Because they are no longer hidden, you are able to determine what and who you want to be. You are not bound by the fear of what might be hidden in the shadows because you've taken your flashlight and revealed the truth. 

This is why you will hear therapist after therapist describe their clients as some of the most courageous people they know. They risk for the sake of growth and truly living an engaged and present life. 

Will you join their ranks?

Gratitude & Growth

"Painful as it may be, a significant emotional event can be the catalyst for choosing a direction that serves us- and those around us- more effectively. Look for the learning." Louisa May Alcott

"Painful as it may be, a significant emotional event can be the catalyst for choosing a direction that serves us- and those around us- more effectively. Look for the learning." Louisa May Alcott

Fifi made the list! My good friend, Ashley, texted me and told me her 2-year-old son, who affectionately calls me "Fifi" mentioned me in his prayers. Not only did I get a mention but I was first (a spot reserved solely for his dad). Ashley and her husband are teaching Jack to be thankful. Each night, he lists off the people/things (inanimate objects) for whom/which he is thankful. They are cultivating character development in this little person. That is the most significant thing happening.  In addition, Jack's brain is forming neuronal networks that are building a sturdy foundation that will serve him well when he begins to face difficult and disappointing things in life.

Last week, I came across this article on gratitude protecting against PTSD with the tagline, "In the aftermath of trauma, gratitude helps us grow". As someone who specializes in working with trauma, my curiosity piqued. (I define trauma the way Dr. Tina Bryson does, "anything immediately and overwhelmingly difficult" which will be different for different people. What is traumatic for me, may not be for you, but it does not make it any less traumatic.)

Trauma rocks us to the core and shatters our sense of safety (hence, the definition: immediately and overwhelmingly difficult). It causes us to seek a new belief system as we try to understand why this terrible thing happened and what it means for our worldview.

Post-traumatic growth (PTG), developed by psychologists Richard Tedeschi, PhD, and Lawrence Calhoun, PhD, is the psychological concept that the transformation following trauma leads to "develop[ing] new understandings of themselves, the world they live in, how to relate to other people, the kind of future they might have and a better understanding of how to live life" (Tedeschi).

Post-Traumatic Growth can provide a framework that trauma is not defining and a newfound hope can arise from the ashes of pain.

"Post-Traumatic Growth happens in the season after the trauma, when some people start to feel thankful to be alive, thankful that the trauma wasn’t even worse, and grateful for the chance to learn more about themselves," reporter Athena Dickau writes. Post-Traumatic Growth does NOT minimize or negate the trauma. This does NOT mean you must be thankful for the actual trauma.  It also is not to be misunderstood as the goal to achieve and bypassing necessary processing of the trauma. Rather PTG can provide a framework that trauma is not defining and a newfound hope can arise from the ashes of pain. 

In her article, Dickau highlighted a study conducted by researchers Julie Vieselmeyer and colleagues. The team sought to "discover whether gratitude can actually protect someone from the detrimental effects of witnessing trauma". They interviewed 359 students and faculty that were present or nearby during the campus shooting at Seattle Pacific University.

The results of the study showed that the individuals who already had higher levels of gratitude before the shooting were better able to turn their post-traumatic stress into growth. Dickau points out, "This is actually quite profound. It suggests that if we can help ourselves and others feel more grateful on a daily basis, we can actually prime ourselves to handle the trauma that life will inevitably bring."

If we can help ourselves and others feel more grateful on a daily basis, we can actually prime ourselves to handle the trauma that life will inevitably bring.
— Athena Dickau

Just like Ashley is teaching Jack to cultivate thankfulness we, too, must do the same.

Professor Robert E. Emmons defines gratitude as such: “Feelings of gratitude are anchored in two essential pieces of information processed by an individual: (a) an affirming of goodness or ‘good things’ in one’s life and (b) the recognition that the sources of this goodness lie at least partially outside ourselves.”

"So gratitude is recognizing that our life is a gift, no matter our circumstances and realizing that this goodness does not come from our efforts alone," writes Dickau.

As one study instructed participants, we also must "focus for a moment on benefits or gifts that you have received in your life. These gifts could be simple everyday pleasures, people in your life, personal strengths or talents, moments of natural beauty, or gestures of kindness from others. We might not normally think about these things as gifts, but that is how we want you to think about them. Take a moment to really savor or relish these gifts, think about their value, and then write them down every night before going to sleep.”

I would imagine that as gratitude deepens, you'll find positive responses in the areas that define Post-Traumatic Growth:

  • Appreciation of life
  • Relationships with others
  • New possibilities in life
  • Personal strength
  • Spiritual change

May we be people defined, not by our tragedies, but by our response to them.

{If you have yet to process your pain, my invitation awaits to sit and journey with you towards a healing transformation where meaning can be made of what has occurred. Please do not hesitate to contact me.} 

Manipulate Like a Boss

We are all travelers in the wilderness of this world, and the best we can find in our travels is an honest friend.
— Robert Louis Stevenson

All humans are manipulative. And if you're like me, you're already wincing and recoiling at this statement. Hang in there with me for a moment though. After clarifying and discussing with Dr. Steve Harris (my mentor's mentor), I want to offer what he so graciously took the time to share with me. So let's get our foundation set:

  • Fact #1: All humans are manipulative.
  • Fact #2: How the manipulation comes out determines the health of the person.

Still uneasy? Ok...maybe a clarification on the definition. Dr. Harris recognizes, "Manipulation as a word definitely gets a bad rap. But manipulation extends itself into many spheres as this definition shows:

Manipulation is the skillful handling, controlling or using of something or someone. Whether it's the sculpture you made in art class or how you convinced your friend to do your homework — both are considered manipulation."

Based on this, we can see that manipulation can have either an incredible result displayed throughout museums the world over or a painful, hurtful consequence laced with heartache and tears.

What does it look like in relationships? There are four forms of manipulation:

  • Seductive
  • Deceptive
  • Intimidating
  • Negotiating
Negotiation is the highest and most desirable form since it is more relational and mutually respectful.
— Dr. Steve Harris

The first three are focused only on my needs. Negotiation is the only healthy form of manipulation as it invites the needs of others (note: "invites" is radically different from "take responsibility for").  Dr. Harris expounds on this idea, "Negotiation is the highest and most desirable form since it is more relational and mutually respectful. The others, tend to be either less direct, one-sided, or misrepresentational."

He continues, "Although when manipulations are exposed, they more often than not, reveal something less than desirable. But with negotiation, it stops being one person's act upon another, but both people trying to benefit." (Think: Separate/Equal/Open)

We seduce, deceive and/or intimidate to protect ourselves, preventing another from seeing us. It's incredibly vulnerable to recognize our own neediness and it's another thing to share that with someone. We would rather get our needs met without taking ownership of them because it's less threatening to our sense of self. Yet we become bitter and resentful when the other does not meet our needs because we refused to offer them. We are so focused on what is and is not being met that we have little to no capacity to see or give to the other person. 

Dr. Harris points out no relationship is satisfying when both parties are "doing things to each other that may not be direct. We don't like hidden agendas. I think another thing that [we] don't like about manipulation is that something is less exposed, less direct, perhaps even less honest."

Another thing we don’t like about manipulation is that something is less exposed, less direct, perhaps even less honest.
— Dr. Steve Harris

We long for what is true and authentic; it provides safety, stability, and security. Trust is inherent and required for any thriving relationship. It's why betrayal and deception can shatter what seemed like a sturdy foundation. In order to create and establish trustworthy relationships, we will need to be open and honest about who we are, who we are not, our longings, hopes, fears, dreams, failures, triumphs, sorrows, joys. "Perhaps the healthier manipulation becomes, the less it is manipulation and more mutual respect or mutual cooperation--the manipulation is transformed," Dr. Harris.

Will we choose to be people of clarity and truth, honoring our needs by sharing them with another and inviting their needs to be known? 

We need to be open and honest about who we are, who we are not, our longings, hopes, fears, dreams, failures, triumphs, sorrows, joys.

Truth Handling

What’s the truth about you?

Depending on your story and life experiences, that question may feel loaded. It may have surfaced feelings of shame, embarrassment, disappointment, and loneliness. Or maybe you had the opposite reaction. Maybe you felt pride, confidence, and assurance. I wonder if the majority, though, felt uncomfortable with the question because of the answers swirling around inside.

For most of us, that question can feel threatening because it is tied to a negative belief we hold about ourselves. And to tell that version of the truth is exposing. 

Consider the following and see if any resonates:

  • I don't deserve love.
  • I am worthless (inadequate).
  • I am not good enough.
  • I am insignificant (unimportant).
  • I am different (don't belong).
  • I am powerless (helpless).
  • I am a failure (will fail).
  • I am inadequate.

My guess is that one or a few hit something deep within. It touched your shame and you want to hide. We may not consciously believe these things. On an intellectual level, we can easily find falsehood in these beliefs. But on a deeper level, that intellectual argument hasn't traveled down to our hearts nor has it made its home there. 

It's not a pleasant feeling to realize that part of our core self is made up of beliefs tied to shame. It's actually quite painful. But it is in this brutally honest place that we can amend those negative beliefs and cut ties with them.

They are willing to intentionally look at their pain, to feel their pain, to grieve the losses they’ve endured...they are opening a new world for themselves.

Early painful and difficult experiences in our life become the lens with which we later filter other experiences. They are self-defining experiences. They are foundational on which our struggles in life rest. Early on, we came to believe that we are insignificant, we don't belong and we're inadequate and it colored (or rather, stripped) our world, how we see ourselves and how we are to approach people in relationship.  

The process of diving into these pivotal moments in your story allows you to release yourself from the shame that has bound you. Dismantling shame's grip creates room to establish a new view of yourself. I've said it time and time again that this process is not for the faint of heart. My clients are some of the most courageous people I know; they are willing to intentionally look at their pain, to feel their pain, to grieve the losses they've endured. But it is here that they are opening a new world for themselves. A world that declares:

  • I deserve love; I can have love.
  • I am worthy. I am worthwhile.
  • I am deserving.
  • I am significant. I am important.
  • I am okay as I am.
  • I now have choices.
  • I can succeed.
  • I am capable. 

Let's begin to be truth-tellers to the reflection in the mirror. 

Honest Assessments

Let's just dive in, shall we? Travis Bradberry notes that, "Emotionally intelligent people don't just understand emotions; they know what they're good at and what they're terrible at. They also know who pushes their buttons and the environments (both situations and people) that enable them to succeed. Having a high EQ means you know your strengths and how to lean into and use them to your full advantage while keeping your weaknesses from holding you back."

Those with a high EQ know and accept themselves.

In summary, those with a high EQ know and accept themselves. They are honest with who they are and don't hide it from themselves or others. Which is a bold move.

Our culture promotes strengths and shames weaknesses and we have internalized this to the detriment of our own emotional health. You are not allowed to be weak. Weakness is viewed as a liability. So we learn to hide it or seek to compensate for the areas of which we are ashamed. 

When the StrengthsFinder personality assessment came on the scene several years ago, it turned everything around. It allowed for people to accept the areas they were not naturally strong and pay attention to where they were naturally gifted and talented. The example author Tom Rach gives is that not everyone can be Michael Jordan. I will never be Michael Jordan even if I practice 16 hours a day; I simply do not have what is needed (the natural ability, the height, etc.) to play at that level of perfection. Instead of trying to be him, can I divert that level of energy and commitment to hone in on and improve the skills that I already have? 

There must be an acceptance of natural limitations which can be difficult. We may dream of the type of person we want to be or believe we should be and to find that reality doesn't reflect our fantasy can be painful. We can fight it. We can try to be what we think should be. But you can only do so by shaming yourself for not living into what this fantasy is. 

What if you take an honest look in the mirror, bravely accept that you are finite and limited as a human in what you can do? What if you take stock of the incredible strengths you've been given, celebrate those, and cultivate them? 

Oh, the real and available possibilities...

Accepting The Unacceptable

The art of life is constant readjustment to our surroundings.
— Kakuzo Okakaura

We're still looking at Emotional Intelligence...and we'll be looking at it for a few weeks. Next up: Those who have high EQ embrace change.

Travis Bradberry explains this attribute this way: "Emotionally intelligent people are flexible and are constantly adapting. They know that fear of change is paralyzing and a major threat to their success and happiness. They look for change that is lurking just around the corner, and they form a plan of action should these changes occur."

The opposite of change is stagnation. You cannot grow without change. Growth reflects life. Without growth, there is no life. But we like the status quo. We try and maintain it; it gives us a feeling of power and control. Life sometimes acts as status quo's arch nemesis because it allows the unforeseen, unexpected, and unwanted to take place. Change can leave us feeling small, helpless, and powerless. But not all change has to be awful. There are many times we may even anticipate the change and want the change (marriage, child's birth, a new job, a move) but it still disrupts what was familiar and comfortable and requires adaptation to the new. 

You cannot grow without change. Growth reflects life. Without growth, there is no life.

How do we deal with any form of new, whether wanted or not?

We can lock down and refuse to move with the current fighting with all your might. This will cause some pain. The refusal to see and face what is happening around you requires a denial that disengages from the present. Worst of all: you stay the same. Stuck. 

OR

You can acknowledge the fear, sadness, anger, confusion, conflicted emotions, happiness, elation that is occurring because of the shift in what was once your normal. You learn how to control what you are able to and how to best take care of yourself, what you're needing to thrive, not just survive this transition. You discover that, though it is not always pleasant, you have the capacity to adapt and it didn't kill you. This informs how you walk through the next change. Best of all: you learn and you grow. Your story becomes more dynamic and rich. 

Digging Deep

I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.
— Eleanor Roosevelt

In looking at what it means to be a person of emotional intelligence, another characteristic is possessing a curiosity about others. 

Travis Bradberry says, "It doesn't matter if they're introverted or extroverted, emotionally intelligent people are curious about everyone around them. This curiosity is the product of empathy, one of the most significant gateways to a high EQ. The more you care about other people and what they're going through, the more curiosity you're going to have about them."

A desire to know about another suggests that other people's stories matter to you and you give time and place to ask questions in order to understand. There is an openness to others' behaviors and wondering what is tucked behind their words, choices, and actions rather than a rigid and closed judgment. 

When we close ourselves off to what another’s life can teach us, we miss out on how our lives can be stretched, challenged, grown and enhanced.

Those who make snap judgments about other people remove the option of curiosity. They have already decided about that person and denied themselves the rich opportunity of learning. This will affect not only how they see and relate to people but also themselves. When we close ourselves off to what another's life can teach us, we miss out on how our lives can be stretched, challenged, grown and enhanced. It also begs the question whether or not those who lack curiosity about others' possess it for themselves. I doubt it. I don't think curiosity can be confined or contained. I think that if you are curious about your own story and how it informs the things you see, hear, say, do and believe, that self-curiosity will externalize beyond yourself. You also cannot be known if you are unwilling to know (yourself or others). 

Will you explore within and without?