Seligman suggests that enduring or baseline happiness (as opposed to momentary) has much to do with our thoughts and feelings about our past, present, and future. He spends some time going over research about what comes first, our thoughts or feelings, but I won’t go into that here. What I know is that thoughts are not feelings and feelings are not thoughts, and my understanding of the science is that they’re so intimately connected neurologically and chemically we’re not yet sure which comes first or exactly how they influence each other.
As I age, I understand my past better and better. I like to think part of this is my own increasing wisdom and compassion. When we’re young, it’s easy to be judgmental, rigid, and unforgiving. It takes time and experience to gain perspective and accumulate our own history of injustices committed; not-so-great choices; and unthinking, unintended cruelties. If we are aging with grace and learning as we go, we also learn about patterns of behavior in ourselves and others. We figure out it was never all about us and the adults in our childish lives were not gods, but ordinary people.
The past is past, but our memories endure, and we’re all shaped in significant and sometimes painful ways by our childhoods. Some of us live in the past, repeating dysfunctional patterns and unable to move on. We believe our past experience determines our future experience. We know nothing will ever work out for us because we believe it never has. We’re hopelessly cursed, or doomed, or oppressed.
However, research clearly indicates that our past does not determine our future, and Seligman proposes that changing the way we think about our past can increase our present enduring state of happiness in powerful ways.
This is not easy work. In my own experience it’s a practice rather than a destination. It requires courage, strength, and determination to excavate our past, along with a good dose of honesty. It stretches our compassion. We must put aside our tendency to play the victim and take on some responsibility. I did not embark on this sort of work in order to be happy. I did it out of a desire to understand myself, others, and my experience; I wanted to heal. I also wanted peace, which is a defined component of happiness.
Shaking off the belief that our past necessarily determines our future, along with developing gratitude and forgiveness, are key in changing the way we think about our past. Seligman doesn’t write about acceptance, but for me it’s an additional important piece.
Gratitude. Forgiveness. Acceptance.
Looking back through these lenses is challenging, to say the least. Some of us look back on long years of pain and some at a few significant events, but if we are unhappy about our past it feels impossible to approach it with gratitude, forgiveness or acceptance, let alone all three. And we don’t have to, if we don’t care about being happy or healing or moving on.
I do care about those things, and I can attest to the relief of thinking about the past with gratitude for teachers and lessons learned rather than bitterness and anger. Forgiveness, though challenging, softens my tendency to curl up into a hard shell and never come out again. At the end of the day, others don’t victimize us and life is not against us. Life happens to us, and to other people, and we all churn around together, bumping into one another, sometimes with a kiss and sometimes with a knife. Life is chaotic and messy.
For me, acceptance is closely linked with forgiveness. Things happen. We all make choices. Most of us are doing the best we can most of the time. To be human is to be imperfect. If we cannot accept ourselves and others for the complex, inconsistent, occasional hot messes that we are, we are choosing to be chronically unhappy and dissatisfied, not only with life in general, but with ourselves.
The hardest work of all, for me, has been applying gratitude, forgiveness and acceptance to myself. I suspect a lot of people can relate to this. Underneath my hurt and anger with others about parts of my history are rage and abuse towards myself. As I heal that, my grievances with others have fallen away.
When I think about my past and learn how it influences my level of enduring happiness, I feel satisfied with how much work I’ve done and how far I’ve come. My goal at the time wasn’t happiness, exactly, but healing is healing, and I’m happier walking around with scars than I was with open wounds. I’m certainly much happier now than I’ve ever been before, which means I’m more peaceful, and peace was one of my goals.
The best part about working with our past is that we have all the power. We know where we’ve been and what our experience was. We can make choices about how we think about our history. We can refocus and reframe. We can consider our memories from the viewpoint of others who influenced us instead of just our own. We can forgive ourselves for what we did, what we said and who we were, and in doing so we can forgive others.
The past is over, but its influence is not gone. We can choose what that influence will be on our present and future. Will we let it drag us down and hold us back or make it part of the wind beneath our wings?
We humans make and seek patterns in everything we do. Sometimes we’re conscious of these patterns, and often we’re not. Discerning patterns is an evolutionary advantage that’s helped us survive, as the complex web of life is filled with them. A rudimentary example is patterns of color on dangerous reptiles, plants, fish and insects that warn of toxicity.
We organize and sort patterns into objective taxonomies and hierarchies as we learn and strive to make sense of our world, and we label them.
I’ve been thinking about labels for years, and I’ve written about them previously. Our tendency to create labels and slap them on others has become more vicious and hysterical than ever before, and I’m concerned about this entirely divisive trend.
Language is an agreed-upon set of symbols. Nouns describe specific objects or ideas. Nouns are, by their nature, exclusive. That’s why they exist. A pencil is not a door. A tree is not a river. Labels are nouns, too, but they can be sloppy and imprecise, and they’re weighted with a lot of subjectivity and emotion. If we talk about a pencil in mixed company, we’re not likely to cause a scene. If we talk about being a Republican, or a feminist, or an anti-vaxxer, we’re asking for trouble.
Many people create and use labels as social weapons in order to convey hatred and contempt rather than specific objective meaning.
The complex system we call life on earth is infinitely complicated, and we, as parts of that system, are also complicated.
Subjective labels are superficial, a mere glimmer on the surface of a deep well. They’re all about one-stop shopping and contain the emotional maturity of name calling. They often originate with individuals or groups who seek power over others. Anyone, regardless of education, experience, or expertise, can label anyone else, and frequently do, ruining credibility, reputations, and careers. Labels are limiting and confining. They concentrate a personal attack on one perceived aspect of a human being and ignore all the rest.
Patterns are deeply embedded, often invisible at first glance, but powerful and complicated. The ability to discern and learn about patterns requires critical thinking and a careful process of objective inquiry. We need precise language to describe the many dimensions of patterns. Discerning patterns is not a personal attack, but an observation of behavior and other characteristics (our own as well as that of others) that helps us survive.
Understanding and recognizing patterns gives us the power to manage them usefully and effectively.
Many of us are aware of uncomfortable patterns in our lives. Some are caught in a loop of choices that result in health consequences such as obesity, pain, and addiction. Others are unable to find the right job, the right place to live, or the right partner. Many of us spend a significant amount of time making the same choices, over and over, and getting the same unsatisfactory results, because we don’t know what else to do.
As we are social beings, our relationships are important, and destructive patterns involving our connections with others can be devastating. Fortunately, there are smart, observant, thoughtful people in the world who recognize behavioral patterns, create tools and use their experience and education to support and teach others how to discern and effectively manage problematic patterns.
One such person is Bill Eddy, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a Certified Family Law Specialist who has more than 32 years of experience providing therapy, mediation, and representation for clients in family court. Eddy co-founded the High Conflict Institute and has become an international resource for managing high-conflict behaviors. He’s written several books, all of which I highly recommend. In fact, his book, BIFF, is an essential handbook for life as a member of the human race.
What I like best about Eddy is that he’s not a labeler. He uses precise scientific language to describe some personality types as context and background, but the thrust of his work is not in diagnosing or labeling, and he actively encourages students and readers to refrain from doing so. His goal is to help us recognize problematic patterns of behavior and teach us how to handle them effectively, kindly, and compassionately while maintaining our own dignity and healthy boundaries.
Power-with and win-win, in other words.
Nowhere in his work have I seen Eddy suggest we self-apply his methods, but I have my own less-than-useful patterns and character traits, and his strategies help me manage those as well as the behavior of people around me.
In Eddy’s language, high-conflict behavior patterns include consistent:
Preoccupation with blaming others
–(BIFF: Quick Responses to High-Conflict People, Their Personal Attacks, Hostile Email and Social Media Meltdowns by Bill Eddy, LCSW, ESQ.)
The beauty of Eddy’s tools is simplicity. Anyone who’s ever been hooked into an angry, defensive, escalating, and totally useless high-conflict interaction (and who hasn’t?) knows how exhausting, disheartening, and disempowering such interactions can be. Eddy’s approach is entirely different and much simpler, but it requires us to give up several juicy things.
In order to manage this behavior pattern effectively, we have to give up on winning and being right. We have to give up on taking things personally; trying to change, “help,” or control someone else; the satisfaction of personal attacks; and trying to please. We must learn to manage our own emotions, because two people, neither of whom can deal effectively with their feelings, will get nowhere. We must decide if we want to contribute to conflict or resolve it.
In short, if we want to reclaim our personal power and manage difficult behavior patterns more effectively, we have to start with ourselves and our own behavior, feelings, and impulses.
If we are stuck in a destructive relationship at work, at home, or in the community with a high-conflict personality and we feel helpless and hopeless, the first step in finding a better way is an honest assessment of what we want. If we want to continue to be a victim; if we want revenge or to freely express our frustration, rage, or contempt (as in throwing around labels); if we want to be validated or approved of; if we want to force others to see it our way, apologize, or be just, Bill Eddy has nothing to offer us.
If we’re stuck and committed to finding a better way, accepting that the person we’re dealing with has an observable, consistent pattern of high-conflict behavior and may not be interested in the same outcomes we are, and accepting responsibility for our own behavior, Eddy can show us the way back to our power and sanity.
Dealing effectively with high-conflict behavior patterns does not mean we have to be disrespectful, intolerant, or uncaring. It doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice our own integrity or boundaries. It doesn’t mean we have to stop loving people. Best of all, recognizing problematic behavior doesn’t mean we give up on the whole person. Many valuable employees and community members exhibit high-conflict behavior patterns.
In fact, Eddy’s tools apply to any human interaction, as they involve brief, informative, firm and friendly scripts appropriate and effective in all contexts, whether consistently high-conflict, potentially high-conflict, or entirely friendly.
Labels create and escalate conflict rather than resolving it. Recognizing patterns and learning how to work with them can help us resolve conflict.
I stumbled across a parenting advice column in the online publication Slate recently. It caught my eye because the columnist responds to the parent’s question with another question: Whose needs are we talking about here, yours (the parent’s) or the child’s?
The columnist describes this question as one of the best pieces of parenting advice she ever received. I’ll go further and say it’s one the best pieces of relationship advice I’ve come across.
I’m a parent, a sister and a daughter. All are difficult roles I feel I’ve failed to play adequately, although I consistently ignored my own needs in favor of what I understood as my family’s needs and expectations.
Ironically, I realize now that by far my greatest failure in life has been a failure to honor myself and my own needs. Whether or not we can please others in any consistent way is debatable, but I discover that accepting responsibility for pleasing myself, though it feels odd and unaccustomed, fills me with joy and gratitude. My wants and needs are simple and few, and honoring them has been enormously healing.
This new behavior is also a source of anguish beyond words.
The anguish arises from a conflict many of us face at one time or another—a conflict of values. I value connection and being of service to others, which involves compassion, respect, tolerance and unconditional love. I also, for the first time, value myself. I’m stunned at the destruction that occurs when these values collide with the values of others.
Is it necessary to choose between meeting our own needs and meeting the needs of others? I suspect part of the answer to that question lies in the specific needs themselves and how we view them as a culture. Perhaps it’s just my bad luck that I’m a misfit. My need to not be tied to social media and a cellphone, for example, is just as important to me as the needs of others to be firmly embedded in social media and keep their cellphones in hand, but my need is not culturally supported. Fair enough. The fact that I’m slightly out of step from most other people in my culture is not a newsflash, nor is it something that requires fixing or changing. I view diversity and deviance from the social norm as strengths, not weaknesses.
As I’ve begun to stand up for my own needs, I’ve been told I’m cowardly, selfish, destructive and hurtful to those I love best, disappointing, stubborn and inadequate. I’ll own stubborn. I don’t take responsibility for being disappointing; it’s not my job to meet the expectations of others. As for the rest of those characterizations, they’re so far off the mark of who I am that I can’t take them seriously, although they cut me to the heart.
I don’t view managing needs as an exercise in all or nothing. I can usually come up with several ways to meet my own needs and support others in theirs. More often than not, however, I’m forced into an all-or-nothing framework, which feels like manipulation or intimidation, or both. That’s why the accusation of cowardice makes me shake my head. Refusing to give in to such tactics is not the act of a coward.
Why do we tolerate and support behavior that demands others be responsible for meeting our needs, but attack those who take responsibility for meeting their own? Talk about a sick society!
The hardest thing about being unsupported in meeting one’s needs is that there’s no recourse. Trying to explain to those who aren’t interested or are committed to misunderstanding or taking our choices personally is a waste of time and energy. Our only power lies in the choice between bowing to external pressure and abandoning ourselves or living with authenticity and integrity and accepting the consequences. I know what my choice is, but sometimes I don’t know how to survive the pain of it.
I wonder how many people are in exactly this spot; how many people move through their days and nights trying desperately to manage a balance between their own needs and everyone else’s, or agonizing over the tension between caring for others and caring for themselves when needs are not in harmony.
As human beings, we lead complex emotional lives. Needs are not the only variable. Boundaries can be very difficult to negotiate. We’re frequently unaware of how important reciprocity is in our various relationships. Ideals such as unconditional love and always being present for someone, no matter what, are lovely in theory, but do we owe unconditional love and support to those who don’t give it to us? Is it our job, in any role, to consistently put the other’s needs first in order to prove our love or justify being alive, or an employee, or a family member?
As a woman, I can’t think about needs without considering emotional labor. In any given relationship, who is doing the emotional labor of listening, practicing authenticity, organizing, scheduling, thinking ahead, staying in touch, practicing absolute loyalty, providing unconditional love or other kinds of support and nurture, managing feelings, and balancing needs? If that work is not shared or reciprocal, relationships wither and die, or the one burdened with the emotional labor does. There it is again—that choice, that terrible choice. Do we take action to save ourselves, even from our most beloved, in such a case, or do we ignore our needs and keep going until there’s nothing left of us because we are women who love?
Needs are not wrong, or a matter of shame. We all have them; we have a perfect right to get them well and truly met AND our needs are as important and not more important than the needs of others. We’re not all honest about our needs, however, especially needs to control and maintain power over others. Too often, we assume that others have the same needs we do. Those of us who want to live and let live and assume others are after the same outcome are frequent targets for personality-disordered people looking for prey, power, fuel or other benefits.
Whose need is this? Answered honestly, the question opens a door to better parenting and better relationships in general. The question is an invitation to intimacy, respect, power-with, problem solving, tolerance and unconditional love. It also shines the bright and sometimes terrible light of clarity on our agendas for others and theirs for us, and the true quality and health of our relationships. If we can’t or won’t identify, respect and support our own needs alongwith the needs of others, we’ll surely extinguish ourselves as a species.
I ran into a great question a few weeks ago: “What gives you courage?” I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
Courage, the ability to do something frightening or having strength in spite of pain or grief, is not the absence of fear. If we have no fear we have no need of courage.
Fear, in my experience, is multifaceted. My most private fears are about my own wholeness and worth. Then, there’s the fear of external forces, like a coward with a gun in the supermarket; the judgement or criticism of a loved one; or a personal loss, injury or illness.
Yet another kind of fear is one I suspect many of us feel right now, a sort of ill-defined psychic shadow, a general feeling of insecurity about the state of our world and the future. I try not to give it too much attention, but it’s always there, like a thin cloud between me and the sun. I know the only place I have power is right here, right now, in this moment, and I’m glad I’m typing at the keyboard rather than staring out the window and wondering what tragedy or catastrophe will be brought to my attention next and where it will all end.
Is that a kind of courage, staying intentional in the moment and managing our own power?
So, what keeps us going in times like these, in spite of our fear?
Oddly, the first thing I thought of was a poem I read as a teenager. All these years I’ve kept it and thought about the wagon wheel that did not break, the faithful dog, the innocent child. I’ve long forgotten where I came across it and I don’t know who wrote it.
Journal Note Long Ago
Crossing the wilderness or the sea I take with me nobody who is afraid nor do I want with me the memory of a man or woman who is afraid.
I am afraid enough myself now—there are shadows and ghosts enough now—in the meshes of my corpuscles—and so I must not ask others to go.
I keep the memory of a dog who was never afraid, a wagon whose wheels lasted, a child who had not lived long enough to know the meaning of the words Yesterday and Tomorrow.
The second thing that comes to mind about the source of my own courage also seems peculiar, but on second thought it might be a way of talking about faith. If and when I am able to identify The Right Thing To Do in any circumstance, fear ceases to have any power over me. I certainly feel it, and sometimes it seems I’ll be ground into oblivion by it, but as long as I’ve breath and a pulse I will do what I believe is right, come what may.
This is a trait fanatics and zealots of every stripe share with me, a fact which makes me pause and shudder. There is a difference, though, between a suicide bomber or the aforesaid coward with a gun and me. I don’t pretend to know what’s right for others, only myself. I’m not interested in having power over other people, forcing my ideology on those around me or taking out my frustrations on others.
My sense of The Right Thing To Do always involves my integrity and intuition, and is not weakened by the judgements and criticisms of those around me. My integrity and intuition are my own. Only I can maintain them. Without them, I am nothing.
When people talk about faith, I generally think of religion, which can be a staunch support for courage as well as a powerful motivator. However, most religions I’m familiar with require submission to a so-called higher authority, either human and/or sacred text (the author of which is frequently unclear and the original of which was written in a language and context I’m unfamiliar with). Many good people build their lives on a bedrock of religious faith and are sustained by it. That is not my way. I will not sacrifice my personal power to an external authority.
Information and learning give me courage. Literacy and curiosity are gateways to understanding, compassion and revelation. The beauty and complexity of our world and our universe, the remarkable experience of being human, the persistence of life, the perspective of history, the indomitable creativity of the human spirit—all these inspire me and give me courage.
My study and practice of minimalism has given me courage. The more objects and distractions I peel away from my space, time and energy, the stronger and more peaceful I become. Serenity, it turns out, has everything to do with living with less stuff, needing less money and concentrating on the undistracted and undiluted abundance of each moment. I don’t need nearly as much as I thought I did. Peace, joy, clarity and courage immediately flower in the space freed from stuff. I have what I need. I am what I need.
And that brings me to the last big ingredient in my particular recipe for courage. Learning to know, love and trust myself has given me courage. Part of this has to do with the gifts of aging. I’ve done a lot, seen a lot, made a lot of mistakes and collected a lot of scars. Every day I learn a little more and heal a little more. I have allowed my experience in life to expand my compassion, empathy, intuition, wisdom and ability to love. I’m a resilient, adaptable survivor, and I know, no matter what happens, I’ll do my best to my last breath.
A poem. The Right Thing To Do. Information and learning. Minimalism. Self-regard. Mix well.
The pool where I work is part of a rehabilitation center, which is part of a local hospital. There are actually two pools. One is a lap pool of about 84 degrees. The other is a large therapy pool, nearly as big as the 4-lane lap pool. The therapy pool is about 94 degrees. The pool patrons are a mix of the public, hospital staff and rehab patients.
As a lifeguard, I spend hours in an elevated chair watching people in the water and moving around on the deck. It delights me to be paid for doing what I naturally do in the world, which is to people watch. In an environment with a consistent air temperature over 80 degrees with more than 50% humidity, all of us — staff, patrons and patients — are necessarily without our usual armor of clothing, make-up and jewelry. We are physically revealed to one another to an unusual degree in a public place.
I’m struck every day by the humility of flesh, the wonder and complexity of our physical being; the almost painful innocence of small children with their rounded, unselfconscious forms; the incredible and paradoxical endurance, resilience and fragility of the human body, and the inexorable truths our unconcealed bodies reveal.
I’m touched by the everyday, patient, humble courage of people whose bodies are ill, injured and aging. I watch people participate in classes: Water walking, water aerobics, arthritis and fibromyalgia in the therapy pool, and swim lessons. I watch couples and families, caregivers and their charges, school groups and special needs groups. People come to lose weight, to rehabilitate after a stroke or cardiac event, to increase their strength and endurance, to recover from surgery or injury. People also come to socialize, to play, and to be inspired and motivated by staff, classes, music and one another.
Photo by Doug Maloney on Unsplash
Some folks swim laps. Others water walk and go through exercise routines with buoys, kickboards and weights. They come out of the locker rooms with walkers, canes and wheelchairs. Some need help getting in and out of the pool, or even down to the pool from the parking lot.
For the most part, people who make use of the facility are patient, pleasant and good-natured. Watching them, I wonder at their resilience. What must it be like to be so bent one can only see the floor? How does one cope when the only ambulation possible is to creep along with a walker? The joy and laughter of a wheel-chair bound young person with contorted and twisted limbs like sticks when she’s carried into the therapy pool make me weep.
There’s really no place to hide in the world, at least from ourselves. We all live in a body, and many of us struggle with loving them, including me. We spend an amazing amount of time, money, anguish and effort in disguising our perceived physical defects from the eyes of the world. We tell ourselves nobody can see our shame. No one can see how unlovely or imperfect we really are. No one will ever know.
Photo by Hailey Kean on Unsplash
But we know, and our shame and self-loathing poison our lives.
I wonder, as I sit in the chair, what is it about the people who use the pool that enables them to risk physical authenticity? Do they love and accept themselves as they are? If so, how have they developed that ability? Are they unconcerned with what others think of them? Are they like me, and simply resigned to their physical reality, feeling the benefits of using the pool are more important than hiding their appearance, but privately ashamed and embarrassed?
In thinking about this, I realize my own relationship with my body is complicated. On the one hand, I feel affection, loyalty and gratitude. I’ve never aspired to beauty, whatever beauty is. On the other hand, I cringe every time I see a picture of myself, which is not often, as I hate having my picture taken and avoid it whenever possible. I think I cringe because I wish I could protect that vulnerable woman from the eyes and criticism of others. I cringe because my deepest and most private shame is that my physical envelope contains some hidden foulness that makes me unworthy of physical affection and contact. I’m not talking about sex. Sexual attraction and desire are a whole different conversation. I’ve been good enough for sex, but not good enough for consistent loving, nurturing touch. Not good enough to hold.
Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash
In fact, one of the biggest reasons why I love the water so much is that it touches me.
The shame I feel around this is corrosive and chronic. It’s my intention that it also remain entirely invisible to any onlooker. The pain of this hidden vulnerability of mine enlarges the way I observe others in their bodies. It seems to me we must all have some degree of skin hunger that’s more or less satisfied, depending on our situation. We must all feel some degree of physical isolation and alienation at some point in our lives. Surely every body I see is worthy of care, of love, of touch and nurture, in spite of skin tags, scars, cellulite, bulges and sags, hair distribution or absence, aging, injury and disability, too many or too few pounds.
As I sit on the lifeguard stand, counting heads and scanning the pools, I keep coming back to courage. Courage and humility. The willingness to be seen without the comfort and concealment of clothing. The willingness to be physically authentic and vulnerable. Not a story of courage that will ever be made into a movie, but a kind of daily, humble heroism that touches and inspires me.
Samuel Zeller on Unsplash
As an observer, it’s effortful to discard childish judgements like “ugly” and “beautiful.” It’s hard not to apply an internalized rating system. I’m tainted by Hollywood, by digitally altered images and by my own private romantic fantasies. Somewhere underneath all the limitations imposed by that conditioning and brainwashing, I glimpse a vast compassionate wisdom encompassing all of us. Life, after all, is beautiful and miraculous. Doing what we can to care for and accept the body we have is an act of courage and strength. Allowing ourselves to be seen and vulnerable takes humility and heroism.
I wonder, somewhat uneasily, if we are no longer able to grasp the beauty inherent in our physical forms. We seem determined to approach the planet’s body, our own and the bodies of others as commodities and resources to plunder, manipulate and then discard when they become boring, worn-out, ill or (at least to our eyes) ugly. Perhaps we’ve lost the ability to appreciate and value everybody in every unique, individual body. Maybe our culture is so injured all we can do now is hate, judge and criticize not only ourselves but others.
Perhaps we’re determined to tear ourselves apart and nothing will stop us.
In the meantime, however, I live in a body, just as you do, and we all have a deeply private and largely invisible relationship with our structure of flesh, blood and bone. My choice is to remain present with the wonder and complexity of the human body, yours, mine and theirs. My choice is to enlarge my compassion and observation until I touch that edge of wisdom that acknowledges beauty and worth in all of physical life, be it human, tree or creature.