Saturday, February 25, 2012

Good In A Crisis: Book Review

This week, I finished a terrific, funny, and heart-warming new biography by Margaret Overton, called, "Good In A Crisis" (Bloomsbury Books, 2012). Overton tells the story of a five year period right around age 50. During this period of a few years, she copes with a difficult divorce, finishes launching her two daughters as a single parent, rebuilds her career as an anaesthesiologist, copes with her mother's aging issues, and deals with the death of close friends. In addition, she develops and comes back from a brain aneurysm. Remarkably, Overton achieves all of these things while retaining a wicked sense of humor.
The book tells a remarkable story of triumph with refreshing honesty. She often doesn't feel heroic. She can feel overwhelmed, angry, and fearful. She can laugh about mistakes made. She looks to redefine herself after the end of her long-term marriage, and tells funny, moving, and even some cautionary tales about her dating experiences on I love the descriptions of the dates, including one she identified as Eeyore, due to his tales of woe. I giggled over Overton's reflections about growing older ,and her discomfort with people whose faces look a bit odd after plastic surgery, just slightly android.
The story is set in downtown Chicago, where Overton lives and practices at a hospital. There is a reference to her not giving up hope. After all, she is a Cubs fan, and we know how they do hang onto hope. The book gives you a slice of life in downtown Chicago, as she reclaims a neighborhood after her divorce, multiple moves, and tries to create a sense of home again.
Overton is a great study in reinventing yourself and your life after loss and unexpected change. She keeps her sense of humor, despite the gravest of circumstances. Overton is not only a physician, but also has an MFA in Writing. This is her first book. I hope there will be others.
I enjoyed Overton's openness, vulnerability, and wit. It's a quick read that makes you reflect about the humanity and fragility of life, and on some of the random hits that happen. Sometimes ALL we can choose is our attitude: to go forward and try to get polished up by the experiences, rather than bitter. And, of course, we can hope to hang onto our ability to laugh about it later, just as Margaret clearly has.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Why Are Passive Aggressive People So Exhausting?

If you're picking a team, and you need a team player, try to take a pass on anybody with a passive aggressive personality. They have a personality style, a consistent constellation of personality traits, which exhausts everyone in close range. This includes family members, partners, and co-workers. It's like trying to accomplish the goal with a rogue player who will not work together with you.

How do you identify a person with passive aggressive personality traits? They must have four of these seven characteristics or behaviors:
  1. Passively resists fulfilling routine social or occupational tasks.
  2. Complains consistently about being misunderstood and unappreciated by others.
  3. Sullen, pouty, and argumentative.
  4. Criticizes unreasonably and persistently. Scorns authority.
  5. Expresses envy and resentment towards other people who are seen as happy, well-off, or successful.
  6. Exaggerated and persistent complaints about self as misfortunate. Sees self as always a victim, taking no blame.
  7. Alternates between hostile defiance and contrition.
All of these traits make me think of the Dr.Phil line,"How much fun are you to live with?" Answer: not very.

Passive aggressive (PA) people create mountains out of molehills. It's draining and exhausting to live or work with them, because they create tremendous drama. It is hard to make any simple request of them because they resent being asked and either stonewall you and "forget" to do the task, or rage at you. When you live or work with a PA person, you learn to do it all yourself because it's so fruitless to ask for help.

Eric Berne, a well-known psychoanalyst, wrote the classic book,"Games People Play" in the 1960s. It looked at the transactions and communication between people, and identified multiple games people play. One such game of Berne's often associated with people with the passive aggressive style is NIGYYSOAB, or Now I Got You, You Son Of A Bitch. It's a form of one- upsmanship where one person is always looking to fault-find with the other person they are in a relationship with. What a nasty game! Who would consciously want to play that?

In intimate relationships, passive aggressive types discount their partner's feelings. They divert and trivialize your reality and your concerns. They look for the negative in you, and in the children. They undermine you in subtle and not so subtle ways. They threaten you. They rage. They don't seem to know how to talk through disagreements in a direct, open, and non-confrontational way. They blame others. They fail to take personal responsibility. They procrastinate. They can't find anything good to say about anybody else.

Psychology researchers and writers believe that the passive aggressive personality has its roots in childhood. Parents may have been unavailable because of drugs, alcohol, illness, or work. One or both of the parents may have modeled handling anger this way. Somehow the passive aggressive person grew up unskilled about how to work through differences in core needs in a calm, open, and non-hostile manner. It is thought that these individuals are often conflicted about accepting authority, developing an interdependent, close relationship with an intimate other, and about sharing control. Sadly, they have trouble trusting. They have difficulty attaching. They create chaos and make excuses, while playing the victim. They don't know how to be positively assertive, or may choose not to. They might like being a bully relationally.

If you are hiring or dating someone who fits this pattern, you may want to limit your liabilities and end it. If you have someone like this that is a family member or already a coworker, prepare to take good care of yourself. Set limits. Write down agreements on tasks. Get to a therapist or coach who can help you build your skill set for not letting this passive aggressive person tear you into pieces. Require that they go with you to therapy to learn how to fight fairly, with openness and respect.

What if this is you? Stop the negative, critical flow of comments. Put yourself on a negativity diet. Begin to point out the good in others. This change alone will make you more pleasant to be around. Keep your commitments. Learn to be direct. Learn to assert positively without rage, threats, and bullying. Work on your fears of being known, intimate, and dependent on someone you love. These are challenges to become a better, healthier person. Why not start today? Only you can take inventory and realize you want to clean up this negative, draining personality style.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Think Before Texting

As technology advances, people have to figure out the new rules for using it. In movie theatres, restaurants, and public places, it can be annoying and rude to have people loudly talking away on cell phones about trivia, or other personal things. We are having to adjust to a new level of awareness about how and where to have conversations and send text messages. We each need to think through how our behaviors impact our relationships and even the strangers around us. Just because we can be reached at any moment doesn't mean it's a good idea. We need to set some limits. We need to know when to turn the technology off, and be what I call "fully available now."
This week, I have had people share their hurt about having to ask their parent, child, or partner to put away their phone during a meal and be present. This is not an advance for our society. How do we sort through the useful purposes of texting, for example, but limit the damage being done using it?
When is texting helpful as a means of communicating? It's a great parenting resource for staying in touch with your teen or tween when they are out doing something with friends, or a beginning driver. They can text you when they leave, and when they arrive. You can ask them to keep their phone on so that you can reach them if needed. You can ask them to text you if they want to change locations, say from one friend's house to another's.
Text messaging can be a useful way to send a brief fact, for example, the time of a meeting, or the fact that you will be 5 minutes late. Many of my teen and busy adult patients find it easier and more convenient to text or e-mail me to set up appointments. Sending a text could be a sweet way to stay positively connected to another person, as in wishing them well on a speech, presentation, big meeting, or test. It could be a loving text that lets your partner or child know you are thinking of them, or love them. Consider whether a live phone call could be even better at times.
When is texting a bad idea? Having a fight or disagreement by text is a horrible idea. This mode of disagreeing is filled with pitfalls. The other person won't be able to tell your tone. They can't read your facial expressions or body language. Ninety percent of what we pick up from another person comes through tone of voice, body and facial expression. Only ten percent of our information about a message is gotten from the content of what someone communicates to you. Plus, do you really want someone you care about to have a lasting written record of something you typed quickly in anger without thinking it through? This can be very hurtful, and a little like using a submachine gun when a much smaller weapon will do. Save disagreements for face-to face discussion, where you will get the nuances, have fewer potential misfirings in your communication, and be able to repair things. Something about the speed and ease of firing off an angry text message frees people to get meaner than they ever would in person. Once written and sent, you can't take it back.
There are also some kinds of bad news that should never be communicated by text message. More care and humanity is needed than is possible in a text message if you are breaking off a relationship, ending a friendship, firing someone, or delivering news about a death, illness, or other serious topic. Text messages work better for brief facts, sharing encouragement or a quick text of connection. No bombshells, please. You don't know when and where the other person will be when they get a bad news text, so try never to send one. It's not the right vehicle.
When I teach couples safe ways to really work out disagreements, I ask them to argue or discuss things that matter by appointment with each other. Timing matters. If your partner asks you to have a difficult conversation, you can put away your phone, ipad, laptop, turn off the tv, and consciously decide to be"fully available now." It feels wonderful to be heard in this way, free of distractions.
Some years back, on a trip to New York city, I watched as a beautiful moment between a father and son got ruined by a cell phone. The father and small boy were in a little boat in the lake at Central Park, and the boy was fascinated by some baby ducklings and tried to engage his dad, who was completely focused on his cell phone call. Moment missed.
It seems to me that we need some no texting zones. Not just movie theatres, but at the dinner table, in the bedroom, on family outings, date nights, at church, plays, while driving, and more. Being intentionally present and not distracted is a gift we can give ourselves and those we care about. We can teach our children and teens about these new gray areas of communication, and engage them in the dialogue about what kind of commmunication medium is best for what. (For example, don't ask your best girl to prom or break up with your boyfriend by text.)
Do we need new rules for texting? I think so. Texting can be another resource for parenting, connecting, or scheduling, or it can be a distracting, destructive force. The choice is ours!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The First Few Minutes of Your Morning

In the first hour of our day, we are setting the frame for everything that follows. Do you have a morning ritual that helps you get started on your day in a positive mindset? Greeting the morning with a focus on recharging your inspiration can pay big benefits throughout the remainder of the day. Try on these possible scenarios:

1. You wake up to the disturbing clang of your alarm. You are late. You scramble to get ready, feed your dog, grab the newspaper, and drive through McDonald's drive-thru for an egg mcmuffin that you wolf down with some hot coffee while you grind your way though the freeway traffic. You feel panicky, flushed, and your stomach hurts a little. You are listening to angry talk radio blare.

2. You wake up early. You lie in bed for a few minutes doing a mental inventory of all you are grateful for. You make a little tea and fruit, and read for a few minutes from a great inspirational book for some encouragement and perspective. You play with the dog for a few minutes after you feed him. While outside with the dog, you stop to notice the morning light in the sky, and what is blooming in the yard. You get dressed and get going on your way. You choose some favorite music to listen to on your drive to work. You feel content, and intent on making it a good day.

Which day is off to a more promising start? Clearly, it's the second scenario. We are receptive and open to input for a window in time in the morning that is closed later in the day. Recently, I ran across a new book by writer and speaker Clifton Anderson titled "A Year Wiser." This book is written with one brief section to read each day, some of them original writing by Anderson, and others being motivational quotes from other positive thought leaders, with commentary by Anderson. You might want to look for "A Year Wiser," or another powerful text which you could incorporate as a part of your new morning routine.

Try sprucing up your morning ritual with your own morning mix of inspiration, reflection, gratefulness, noticing nature, exercise, connecting with a pet, prayer, journaling about your dreams, or meditation. Share and compare morning routines with your partner or a close friend so that you can encourage each other to become the architect of your morning and set the positive leadership over your thoughts and feelings for the day. A calm, grateful, and reflective morning is a wonderful prelude to whatever happens later. Who knew that the first hour of our day is so important ? It's well worth being intentional about it.

As writer Louise Hay wrote, "How you start your day is how you live your day, and how you live your day is the way you live your life." Make it a great morning, and see if that can be the starter for good things to follow all day long.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

When Friendships End

Last Sunday, I read a great article in The New York Times called "Endship" by writer Alex Williams, about when friendships come to a point of change. Reading Alex's article got me reflecting about the importance of friends, and the differing lifespans that relationships have. Not all friendships can go the distance through the rest of your life, despite the fact that you were very close at one time. There is no protocol for ending or scaling back a friendship. How do we navigate these uncharted relationship waters?
The support, companionship, and feedback of close friends is so valuable. You can meet up and have some fun together, compare notes on how your lives are progressing, celebrate each other's happiness, and mourn each other's losses and disappointments. Research supports that friends can be good medicine. When I am working with people who are grieving, I always assess their support system, because being close to others will invariably be a great resource and help in the adjustments one makes after loss (divorce, death, breakups, moves, job loss, etc.)
It seems to me that some friendships are based more on common circumstances, such as working together, having children at the same time, or being neighbors. Some of these friendships go deep enough to sustain the connection after you are not in the original circumstances in which you became friends. Others can't. There are friendships where you can lose day to day contact, but no matter how long you go in between visits, you can pick up where you left off. These friends are keepers, like gems to be treasured. If you have even one or two of this type of friend, you are blessed.
Watershed moments in your life, or your friend's life, can be defining moments in friendships. People tell me they never forget friends that are understanding at particularly difficult stretches in their lives, such as the loss of a partner, parent, or child. Conversely, it's hard to feel as close to a longtime friend who can't summon up any compassion or tenderness when you are hurting, and can't move off center stage. (And now, more about me). Deep, authentic friends can listen and transcend self.
Sometimes your own life changes, and it may not work to take certain friends along with you. Couples have to think about how it may impact your husband or wife to keep up friendships with former partners, and agree on how you want to handle these boundaries. I call this closing the exits. It doen't mean that you didn't care deeply for a former partner, but realizing there were reasons you broke up with them and chose the partner you have. You can wish them well, and let go.
It is important to watch the balance in friendships over time. Look for patterns. Is spending time with your friend lifting you up, energizing, and nurturing? Do you and your friend bring out the best in each other? Are they consistently draining, or always whining but not taking any forward action? Do they inspire you to be better or get excited about your own life? Do you feel like the complaint department? Is there a balance, or is it one-sided?
It is a loss when a friendship ends. You may feel it coming on for years. There isn't really a protocol for ending a friendship. While the virtual world of Facebook has the cruel possibility of unfriending someone, real life doesn't work that way. Fading away gradually, being kind, but sharing less personal information and not initiating as much contact seems gentler. Acceptance of the differences in friendships is essential. Some friendships have a lifespan or a freshness date, while another type of friendship goes deeper than having common circumstances, and can go the distance the rest of your life. Both are valuable, and enrich, broaden, and soften our lives.
Do friendships sometimes need to end? Yes. Take your time. Reflect. Be kind. Honor even the friends who you shared part of your life with. Always be on the lookout for adding wonderful new potential friends to your life as well. The happiest people I know continue to make friends at every age, and stay open minded. Looking for friends who motivate, bring out the best in you, challenge, and support you is an activity you can continue all your life. Being a good friend who is loyal, caring, interested, and supportive is always a good place to start.