Yes, I think too much

Archive for September 2010

Thinking “Gray”

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A few posts back, I mentioned that I believe that people who experience things like UFOs and ghosts are having what I would term a “perceptual event”. I created this term as result of what I would call “thinking gray”, and it is a process which I believe helps not only in adopting a different perspective toward information and how to interpret it, but also can lead to greater self-awareness.

As an example, I’d like to consider how a basic statement is generally regarded by the majority of people. That statement is, “I saw a ghost”. The usual interpretations are as follows:

  1. The person is of sound mind, but imagined it for some reason.
  2. The person is mentally disturbed.
  3. The person actually saw a ghost.
  4. The person misinterpreted some existing phenomenon or stimuli.

Each of these thoughts falls into what I consider “black and white” thinking. That is, the information is to be regarded as fact or fiction. Each statement rationalizes the experience to help categorize it as one or the other. If one were to “think gray” one would set aside the possibility that such a statement is to be placed entirely into the “fact” or “fiction” or “truth” or “lie” categories and seek an alternative line of thought. In regards to this topic, I mentioned my thoughts in the comments on the aforementioned post, but I realize fully that my thinking may be completely wrong. I’m good with that, because this isn’t about finding a “correct” answer.

Gray thinking isn’t about distilling experience, reality, or information into tidy categories to make order of the chaos of life. It’s about thinking outside of rigid mental boxes in order to expand perspective and seek other possibilities, or to form more interesting questions rather than to close the door of inquiry. It sets aside the need to validate one’s existing preconceived notions and the box they place us in. Note that I don’t believe that jumping to conclusions such as “ghosts must actually exist” when you are skeptical is “gray thinking”. It is merely the other side of the coin. If “black” is saying the statement is a lie of some sort, then “white” is saying it is the “truth”. “Gray” is considering the possibility that it is neither a lie nor the truth, but something of another order.

The process of thinking gray requires one to consider the “true” and “false” answers or issues and to find something between or beyond. The method is slightly different depending on the issue at hand. In regards to self-awareness, I often try not to gravitate toward the obvious answer to questions of “why” or “how”, but rather follow other lines of thinking. For instance, in the argument with my husband that I discussed in the previous post, I did not concern myself with “blame”. When most couples argue, the preoccupation is with who made the mistake and who was harmed by it. It’s about figuring out who was “wrong” and then getting that person to act in a more “right” fashion. This handles the issue in a very superficial (though crudely pragmatic) manner. It’s expedient, but yields no deeper meaning and squanders the opportunity for enhanced self-awareness.

Rather than look to blame the party who has made an error, it’s of more value to approach the issue from multiple angles. I question why my husband forgot, but I also question why I’m so upset. It’s easy to conclude that I’m frustrated because this has been a pattern and indicates he has not changed, but it’s more valuable from a personal understanding viewpoint to ask why my pattern of response had not changed. Shouldn’t I have adapted to his forgetfulness by now? What is so persistent about my character that I become so troubled by such behaviors? Rather than address “right” and “wrong” or “blame” and “victim”, I try to look at the entire dynamic of our exchange and  how our respective characters and histories come together to create a particular undesirable experience.

To offer one final concrete example which some of my readers may relate to more readily, I would also say it is worthwhile considering how black and white thinking undermines weight loss. For example, people focus on the fact that they eat as a result of stress (and they do), but this is a dead end and does nothing to help alter behavior because stress is an immutable part of life. You may think, “if only I could escape my stress, I could lose weight,” because you are (correctly) linking stress and eating, but this link does not help you. You are “right” about the issue, but it is of little value to you to be so. When I dealt with this issue (and subsequently overcame stress eating through time and applied effort), I looked not at the stress and eating angle, but at the aspect of routine and routine breaking. Yes, we are biologically compelled to eat when stressed and stress stimulates appetite, but addressing habitual behavior when stressed and focusing specifically on what can be done about that behavior is coming at the issue from a grayer angle. It’s not about finding “correct” answers and direct connections, but about an angle that is of value in improving your quality of life.

If you want to start to think “gray”, the first thing you need to do is divorce yourself of the idea that you need to be “right” or validate your viewpoint. You need to abandon notions of “fact”, fault, blame, and responsibility and focus on the complex components of any issue or problem and then further focus on the components of the components. In essence, you need to set aside the thoughts that are ego-driven and deal more open-mindedly with whatever topic is at hand.

Consider the idea that you are presented with a tree and told to think about it and its existence. Don’t focus on the branches, the tree or even its roots, but rather focus on the nutrients in the soil, the water, and the weather patterns. Think about where the seeds that the tree grew from came from and how they got there rather than the seed itself and how it grew. Consider the myriad ways in which the seed may have landed on that spot, including esoteric or absurd ones. It could have blown there, fallen from another tree, or been carried in the matted fur of an animal. It may have been carried by a stream of water during a hard rainfall or been dropped from the beak of a flying bird. Think about seeds as a method for plant reproduction and the evolution of this way of spreading plant life. Think about other ways in which it could have happened that might have been better or more effective or the things which may have prevented it from being there. Step far afield of the most obvious to find other perspectives. Thinking gray means not focusing so much on the tree that you can see, but rather on every possible thing (and some very unlikely things) that lead to it being there and things that might have been.

So much superficial thinking is linked to thinking in black and white that I’m sometimes surprised at how many people continue to apply such perspectives well into adulthood. I think that most of our thinking is lead by a need for validation which in turn is fed by insecurity. We seek to prove our perspective is “right” and to make sense of the world based on our default position. This locks us into a perspective, lifestyle, and behavior patterns and make us feel that there is no escape because we do not even realize that “gray” thinking is possible or that other options exist or are equally valid. I know many people believe they “think outside the box”, but what they really are doing is inhabiting a different box. It’s still about “black or white”, but it’s just a matter of switching sides or choosing another justification. The first leap is the hardest in terms of changing polarized thinking, but it is very much worth making.

Written by yesithinktoomuch

September 30, 2010 at 12:32 am

Posted in psychology, reality

Tagged with

Changes and Routine

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This morning, my husband and I had a very small argument that I’m sure is the type that many couples have as a result of living together and being human. Yesterday, I asked him if his schedule, which at times varies slightly, was going to be different today. Sometimes he starts 20 minutes later than usual and I had arranged to do one of my freelance jobs from home such that it would start 10 minutes after his usual departure time. I wanted to know if I would be starting the job (which has people calling me on a specific schedule) before or after he left, though I didn’t think deeply about why this mattered.

My husband said he’d be leaving as usual when I asked him about this and that was that. This morning, as the departure time approached, I mentioned that he’d have to go soon to which he blithely responded that he was starting 20 minutes later today so it was okay. Unsurprisingly, I got upset because I had specifically asked him about this point yesterday. He was apologetic and said something he has said many times before and that is that he needs to think more deeply about what he tells me. However, I have mentioned before that this is the “yang” to a certain “yin” of his. He is absent-minded and forgetful, but this is the flip-side of his calm nature. He can’t be his calm self if he is fretting over details, though clearly it would be better if he answered direct queries accurately. This was a step beyond his usual type of forgetting.

At first, I justified my anger by quibbling over  the fact that this was different from “forgetting”. Truly forgetting would mean that he wouldn’t recall the accurate information when he needed it and forget it when I requested it. However, once my emotions died down, I realized that the level at which I was upset about this was rather disproportionate to the “offense” of making an error about his schedule. I had strong and deep negative feelings as a result of this minor difficulty.

The main sense that I had was a feeling of helplessness and a lack of control over the smallest parts of my life. I felt as if even the tiniest experience and reasonably predictable aspects in life were chaotic and unpredictable, even when I tried my best to anticipate changes and should be able to know what was coming. I felt depressed and dispirited, seemingly all because of one tiny mistake my husband had made.

I realized before we had even completed the argument that the problem lay not with him and his dodgy memory (which I believe he cannot help), but in some of my deeper issues. I feel most comfortable when the path before me is known and I can map out my journey before I travel that road. This relates not only to big things, but even the routine things like how the morning is going to progress. The reason it was “important” for me to know my husband’s tiny change in schedule was entirely psychological, not practical. I wanted to know how things would occur, though knowing changed very little except my expectations of how the morning would unfold.

Lately, I’ve been through a lot of changes, and it has been hard for me both because many of the changes have been major disruptions in routine and because I’m not good with changes. I have tried to become more labile, but this is a core character trait which has been very hard to fundamentally alter. I think a lot of it is role modeling my mother’s sense of panic and extreme emotional responses to small things, and part of it is a response to the lack of stability I encountered in my childhood. It’s amazing how the experiences we have growing up embed themselves so deeply in our psyche that we can’t remove the stamp they leave on our personalities even when we are aware of them and seriously motivated to do so.

At the moment, the best I can do is recognize when small things like this exchange with my husband tap into it and recognize that it isn’t his actions that are the problem, but rather my nature. He always apologizes, and blames himself, but I view his mistake as something which is trivial and only seems bigger because of my reaction. He wants to focus on not doing the things that upset me, but I think I need to focus on not becoming upset by them. The well of this issue are not a result of his actions, yet what he does can sometimes tap into it, and it’s important that I find a way not to allow that to happen on my side, not look to him to change.

Written by yesithinktoomuch

September 29, 2010 at 1:37 am

Posted in psychology

The Unexplainable

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During a discussion with a work-related acquaintance, I posed a question about believing in ghosts. I offered her the following hypothetical: If there was a house in which a hundred different people stayed and each claimed they saw a ghost in the dining room, would she believe a ghost actually appeared? She said she would not. I asked her then if a thousand people said they saw it, would she  believe it, and again, she said she wouldn’t believe it. In fact, when it comes to ghosts, the only way she would believe they existed would be if she saw one herself.

I believe that her skepticism was interesting in light of the fact that she does believe the results of scientific studies, often conducted by a handful of people that she doesn’t know anything about. It illustrates how hard it is for us to believe in things which have been classified as not being real by our cultures, even when there may be ample evidence to support the existence of such things.

I’m not offering this scenario up to say “ghosts exist”. I actually think that the question and its answer are irrelevant. I’ve never seen a ghost and expect that I never will. Frankly, I believe that they are what I’d term a “perceptual event” which some are capable of having and others are not, but that they are neither “real” nor “imagined” in the commonly understood sense of those words. The same goes with what are seen as “aliens”. Such perceptual events are interpreted differently based on the person and the culture, but they are not hallucinations so much as mental “translations” of some stimuli which a small minority can perceive under certain unknown conditions. This is merely my theory though, and I don’t expect others to agree with it as it is unprovable.

In my previous post, I discussed the role of science as proving the explainable. In this post, I want to talk about the unexplainable and the role that religion and spiritual beliefs play in that. It is my opinion that the role of religion has always been a way to explain broad patterns of experience or common thought patterns which cannot be proven or logically validated, but seem to come together in a manner in which humans find meaning.

Before I continue, I must labor to make a point and that is that I am not a Christian nor do I subscribe to a particular religion or follow any dogmas. I don’t believe in “God” (or “gods”) as conceptualized by most people, nor am I an atheist. I was raised a Christian, but abandoned those beliefs at the age of 15 in a moment of clarity while sitting in a junior high school history class. Yes, I remember the exact moment, and how it felt and what I was thinking. However, I do not reject religion as something of value nor do I believe any religion is “wrong” or a fanciful way of dealing with fear of death as many people believe. In fact, I think if you want to talk about fear of dying, religion is a far scarier path than atheism on that particular topic. With atheism, you face oblivion which offers no pain or pleasure. With religion, you live in fear everyday of making incorrect choices and you face the prospect of eternal torment, toil, or suffering. Which is a scarier belief to follow when it comes to dying?

I want to make it clear that I have no religious agenda to validate. I don’t think religions are “wrong” or “right” but merely different ways of framing and conceptualizing that which is unexplainable in accord with ones culture or upbringing. I think that whatever greater truth there is, if indeed there is one, is too vast and hard to understand for any one way of addressing it to suffice. If there is an explanation, we all get to see but glimpses of it through our respective spiritual lenses. We’re all just a tiny bit right, and lack the perspective or mental capacity to be more than that in my estimation. That is an opinion that everyone is free to disagree with because my perspective is certainly no more “correct” than any other on these sorts of issues.

Getting back to the point though, I believe that the role of religion for human beings, is to explain and attempt to control the unexplainable. When bad weather destroyed crops and we didn’t understand why such bad things happened, we created gods who we angered but could placate in order to control the next season’s harvest. Comfort could be derived from such rituals, even when results were not necessarily what we had hoped for. Unfortunately, then, as now, the rituals that comforted the devoted masses often harmed the unlucky few. Then, lives were sacrificed. Now, we see people harassing, murdering, and judging others who do not believe as they do.

While religion as a force, particularly when fundamentalists are part of the equation, can be highly destructive, it can also serve a productive and interesting purpose. Puzzling out the nature of the unexplainable is part of our nature as thinking beings. Answers to larger questions are needed, and sometimes whether or not the answers are “right” is less important than whether they are helpful psychologically. As long as those answers remain personal, and are only shared amongst like-minded people and not inflicted on those who are of a different mind, there is absolutely no harm and certainly there is some benefit in using spiritual perspectives to explain the unexplainable.

The main and undeniable benefit is that it provides people with comfort. The secondary and less recognized one is that there is sometimes wisdom and information hidden in such theories and even in dogma. The story of Eden, for instance, may be traceable to a transition from a comfortable hunter-gatherer existence in a certain part of the middle East to a transition to an agrarian life when the resources of that area were destroyed by changes in weather patterns or depleted. The questions and stories of religion often create a stepping off point for questions of science and psychology. They reflect the answers we need and want, and propel us forward in seeking them. They make us reach for the unreachable, and find unexpected answers along the way.

Unfortunately, the entire science and religion problem occurs when one side decides that it should perform both of the major roles. Science starts to operate to explain the unexplainable such as the question of whether or not God exists. Religion counters and tries to explain the absolutely explainable in dogmatic terms. As long as both play in their own sandbox, all can be well and harmonious. Proponents of each side, however, are not content to merely fulfill their respective roles, but act to dominate entirely in fits of insecurity over their value in society. Religious people fear being marginalized and dislike being ridiculed by scientific assertions and explanations and scientific people fear that willful ignorance may become the order of the day, and there’s a big fight in the sandbox.

I advocate that people respect the limits of both sides of the issue. Science shouldn’t seek to prove that which is patently unprovable, like whether “God”, an ambiguous and varying concept across cultures and faiths, exists. And, I also believe the answer to the question is irrelevant because the effect of the concept of “God” is more important than its actual existence. Science should never seek to explain something so ill-defined and ambiguous and should stop wasting time telling religious people that everything they know is wrong. It’s not science’s job to stick its tongue out at religious beliefs and blow them the big raspberry. Religious people should cease to rewrite observable reality according to their particular dogma. Doing so not only makes them appear irrational, but insecure about the validity of their particular faith. It’s not the job of religion to shoehorn scientific discovery into fictions that reshape data into a more comfortable dogmatic framework. Anything other that acting with respect for the limits of the role each side should play is just the result of respective egos kicking sand at each other, and is a waste of time and energy.

Written by yesithinktoomuch

September 24, 2010 at 11:23 pm

The Explainable

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Lately, I’ve been having conversations with various work associates about the nature of religion. Before you think it’s time to back away slowly, I’d like to assert that I am not going to bash religion, nor am I going to support it. My views on this topic are broad-minded and inclusive of science and all religions. I have a personal sense of such things, but it is deep, complex, and will be beside the point of this post. This post (and a “part 2” to follow) isn’t about what is “correct” or debating the point from one side or another, but rather about how sides being taken is unproductive and unnecessarily antagonistic and adversarial.

The question that has been discussed was about whether science has become the new religion. I know this is a sensitive topic for people who are atheists and who believe science is the only way to convince ourselves of what is actually real. The fact that it is something which gets scientific hackles up only indicates all the more that science might be regarded in a similar fashion as religion among scientific sorts. It points to the idea that “religious” is seen as a pejorative descriptor and that one elevates oneself by aligning ones position with pure science and views “religion” as something negative.

At any rate, the notion that science has become the new religion is not based on trying to undermine the validity of science, but rather based on the idea that many people have faith in whatever researchers say. They accept that if researchers say it is so because they did their measurements, calculations, and experiments, that it must be “true” or “real”.

Of course, we all know by now that the wind keeps blowing in opposite directions in regards to the results of research. First we are told that drinking alcohol is bad for you, then we’re told it is good in moderate amounts. We’re told that Calcium supplements are helpful in stopping the effects of loss of bone density and later told that, “oops”, they don’t really help unless you also have Vitamin D. The bottom line about science is that it has to be seen as fallible, and that it should be questioned, but many people have the idea that science measures “truth” and reflects “reality” accurately. It can. It might. But, it doesn’t always (or “often” depending on the subject) reflect reality as much as the hopes and theories of the researchers who conduct those studies and unconsciously (or consciously) bend the results to their viewpoint.

Moving on though, I’m not here to bash science as I am a strong advocate of science. I’m simply not an unabashed fan-girl. I view scientific results as “the best we can do for now” and take the results with appropriate grains of salt. Science plays an incredibly important role for human beings, and that is that it does a good job of attempting to explain anything which is explainable. What I mean by that seemingly non-sensical statement is that it measures things that are measurable based on the advancement of instrumentation which is capable of translating things into sensory data which humans can perceive. We can’t see sound waves, but we can create sonar devices which allow us to see them.

The thing which science doesn’t do is explain the unexplainable. The tipping point for someone in embracing science as a religion comes to me when they believe that science can measure everything which is “real”. If you believe that nothing exists which science cannot measure or will not eventually be capable of measuring, then there is a good chance that science is your religion, and that your view of reality is very limited. To think that everything that exists can be measured or recorded, or that everything that exists can be translated into a form that humans can see, smell, hear, taste, or feel is a bit on the fanatical side. To believe that no information or theory is of value simply because it can’t be proven using scientific methodology and that any experience which cannot be replicated under controlled conditions didn’t really “happen” seems to me to be a very narrow view of the nature of existence, particularly given the vastness and complexity of not only the earth, but the universe.

To offer just a few examples which illustrate what I mean, I will mention that cats appear to be able  follow the earth’s magnetic fields to find their way around, and we can’t scientifically explain or “prove” what they seem to be doing, but all external observation indicates that something is there that cats can perceive which we cannot which allows them to navigate. Crows appear to be able to “teach” each other how to open milk bottles and tear apart trash bags, even when the crows are not occupying the same geographic space. We can’t explain how they communicate information seemingly over vast distances without actually squawking at each other. Science cannot measure or replicate these processes, but clearly there is something there as we can observe these animals’ actions.

Anything which smacks of telepathy, precognition, a collective unconscious, or ESP is scoffed at, but there is (at least anecdotal) evidence that such things exist. They do not cease to be a possibility because they cannot be replicated in a scientific environment. If I place two crows with milk bottles in two different labs and one crow grew in the wild and was captured opening a milk bottle and the other was raised in captivity and never saw a milk bottle, does a failure of the crow in captivity to learn to open the bottle mean that no teaching goes on in the non-experimental environment?

It has always been my feeling that science is reductionist in nature, and that is how it loses some of my faith. It tests with known conditions only and then debunks theories based on limited variables. If science believes condition A, B, and C will result in condition D and it tests with A, B, C, and D does not result, then it concludes that the relationship between A, B, C, and D cannot be proven to exist. However, what if there are conditions E, F, and G which the researchers are not aware of which must factor into A, B, and C for D to occur? Perhaps the crows only communicate however they do under certain circumstances, and a wild crow and a domesticated one in a couple of labs don’t satisfy those conditions so no teaching or learning occurs. The E, F, and G could be weather patterns, the presence of trees or power lines, or even some biological condition which occurs in wild crows that doesn’t occur in those raised in captivity. We cannot know, and science will not ask because anything which can’t be part of a controlled environment doesn’t fit the method and therefore will not be factored in, especially if such variables seem “illogical” as components of the dynamic being tested for.

The previous example is a very crude one, but it is meant to illustrate a point. There are not only flaws in scientific methods and biases at play, but there are things which simply cannot be measured by instrumentation which translates phenomena into something that humans can perceive. Some things, are simply beyond our perception no matter how sophisticated the tools that we employ. That means there are some answers that will never come to us via science. To me, that’s okay. It doesn’t invalidate the answers we get or undermine the value of science or research, but rather recognizes its limits. It’s a tool, not a way of distilling “truth”. The truth is much bigger than science can measure. To me, it is important to understand and accept that science can only explain that which can be explained with its particular methodology. Given our limits, that means there are a lot of answers science will never be able to give us.

Written by yesithinktoomuch

September 23, 2010 at 10:59 pm

Posted in religion, science

No longer a member of the tribe

with 8 comments

I’m a person who does not do well with change. I’m not sure if this is because of something that is hard-wired, or due to my upbringing. It’s likely the result of both. I think growing up in a rural area and being exposed to less rapid change may make me less adaptable, but also that my tendency to be overstimulated because I’m an HSP may also factor into it. I’m aware of my difficulties in this regard, and I try to understand that I will feel stress when sudden or dramatic change comes along. Feeling the stress and anxiety is fine. Acting on it destructively is not.

Recently, I’ve been feeling very overwhelmed by the changes I’ve pushed myself into. I’ve gone from following a lot of diet blogs and forums and writing my own weight loss blog to cutting almost all of that sort of contact out of my life (though I still follow the personal blogs of my former readers). I feel this change is very important, but it is also causing me to feel anxious and depressed as I have to exert considerable energy to establish new routines. It’s probably one of the reasons why people who haven’t yet done the mental work associated with repairing their damaged relationship with food find it hard to continue to stay on track if they are not “obsessed”. Stepping away from any pattern or routine is itself a stressful action and if you haven’t worked out your issues with food, the first thing you may want to do is turn back to food for comfort.

Fortunately, I have not even had the vaguest impulse to misuse food in this fashion. The idea of eating more to relieve the stress I feel hasn’t even popped into my head. This time of difficulty is an affirmation that everything I have done has “worked” for me. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel the negative feelings that I do, but simply that my mind doesn’t seek food as a solution to the problem.

Unfortunately, the “solution” my mind reaches for is an “interim” solution and that is to relieve the stress of abandoning old routines by turning back to them on occasion. I find myself  loading the 3 Fat Chicks forums when I feel at a loss. I have done this only twice in the past week, and I am fully cognizant of the fact that I’m doing something as a response to anxiety which may prolong the sense of anxiousness I feel. What is worse, when I read the forums, I derive no comfort or enlightenment from them. In fact, I am increasingly struck by how dysfunctional the discourse on those forums are. People express concern for being obsessed with weight loss and rather than being offered tactics or advice for coping with their issue, people offer up validation of being obsessed. I recall all too well how I felt that I couldn’t carry on like that, and I can understand how others may feel the same way. It starts to drive you insane. There’s no problem with talking about such things, but there is a problem with perpetuating a cycle of clearly dysfunctional obsession by forming a community which says this is the only option if you want to lose weight. It’s not the only option. It truly is not.

The only “good point” to how I’m responding to the sites which I used to peruse on a regular basis is that it makes me feel happy to close the window and therefore less likely to find myself back in an act of picking up old routine. I actually feel more dysfunctional for reading them and as if I’m involved in a sort of discourse which will lead me down a very unhappy path. I come away more motivated to stay on the path to new routines and identity building that is causing me anxiety.

Perhaps I simply don’t belong in those places anymore, or perhaps they are the hotbeds of dysfunction that I perceive them to be. It’s hard to say, but it is absolutely clear that I need to push on and away from the diet culture on-line and continue to grow in other directions. I not only no longer need to be that person, but I profoundly do not want to be that person.

One other point which I have noticed and I know other people encounter this as well is that I was much better supported when I talked about weight loss, but not so in this endeavor. It is clear that I’m no longer a part of a tribe that is insular and highly focused. Personal growth is not of particular value as compared to body consciousness. I don’t mention this because I feel sorry for myself or to solicit comments or support, merely as a curious and valuable observation. If I were to talk more about weight loss again, I would get more attention than I get now. And that’s okay. I don’t need that sort of attention necessarily, and perhaps people don’t need to learn from this stage of my process as it is too personalized. However, it does factor into why people who become obsessed with weight loss remain so. In addition to everything else that they get, it helps them continue to get support and feel valued.

Written by yesithinktoomuch

September 22, 2010 at 1:07 am

When “the truth” doesn’t serve

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Recently, my husband and I were having a discussion about a situation he had with an acquaintance who he thought he had been building a friendship with, but the relationship took an unexpected turn. He was speculating on hypothetical responses in the unlikely event of her ever asking him if everything was “okay” between them. The situation is rather complicated, and actually beside the main point of this post, but I will try to outline it in a meaningful manner since I think it can be frustrating for readers to just be told vaguely rather than to share in pertinent details.

The exchange they had was one in which he was direct and somewhat effusively positive about her character and she was cold in response. Essentially, she seemed to be inclined toward growing a more than superficial friendship with him for quite a long time, then suddenly backed off. The withdrawal came on the heels of his sending a message saying essentially that she was a “good person” and he later apologized because he felt that she pulled back because he had stepped over some previously unrecognized boundary. Though her behavior up to that point would have lead anyone to believe that she would be comfortable with what he said, the timing made it appear that he had gone too far in being straightforward with her. He apologized for treading over a social boundary he hadn’t been aware of, and she brushed it off and said that he hadn’t done so, but all of her communication with him after that point has consisted of shallow chit-chat.

Both my husband and I have speculated about the nature of what brought on her change of heart. It is impossible for anyone to know for sure except her, but it is interesting that one can put off another person so quickly by saying nice things about him or her. My guess at the time was that she was unable to separate platonic affection from sexual interest and misinterpreted his behavior as showing inappropriate interest in her. He felt the fact that he has always and often expressed his delight in his relationship with me and freely expressed his total adoration for his wife as evidence that he could not have romantic designs on anyone else, but I feel that this wasn’t about him or his intentions, but about her issues of security (or insecurity).

The main point isn’t this breakdown or even the reasons for it, but the path that their relationship (such as it is) may take from this point onward. Beyond trivial e-mail messages once every blue moon, the only possible communication he may have with her will be passing greetings if they stumble across each other in a professional situation. It was this eventuality which we were discussing hypothetically. Since she was the initiator of the wall that went up between them, it would not be out of the question (though rather unlikely), that she may encounter him and ask if everything is good after their tense exchange. We were discussing how he might respond if that were to happen. Our discussion wasn’t about her as much as about such situations in life in general, and how to deal with them best. This provided a certain opportunity to learn something and to grow personally from an unpleasant experience.

My husband said that he really is indifferent to this woman after what had occurred as he has no interest in developing a friendship with someone whose insecurities or issues interfere with mature discourse between two married adults (she is married as well). He doesn’t care how she regards him and will make no special efforts to talk with her nor attempt to avoid her. He would like for a socially appropriate veneer to remain, but he also does not want to be dishonest should she broach the topic of their uncomfortable exchange which ended any possibility of a more meaningful friendship. He speculated about whether or not he would give her the relief she may seek should she ask if all was “okay” or if he would be honest and indicate to her that he has lingering negative feelings toward her as a result of her behavior.

By nature, both my husband and I are very honest people. Sometimes, we are painfully honest, but one of the things we’ve learned as we’ve gotten older is that blunt or blatant honesty itself really isn’t the best policy in some cases. The best policy is to do what serves the situation best and maintains essential honesty. That doesn’t mean that one present a muddled truth, but rather that one decides upon the outcome one desires and acts in a manner which serves to direct the other party toward that outcome and does not present a lie.

In this case, the desired outcome is that this woman learn from her actions and understand that she lost something as a result of her behavior. Most people believe that blunt accusation or honesty will serve this purpose. If he were to straightforwardly tell her, in essence, that he would have been a good friend to her, but her cold and callous treatment in response to his kind words and delayed and cavalier dismissal of his apology when he attempted to address the situation killed the potential for such a friendship, the outcome would be unlikely to be her feeling enlightened and deciding to act differently in the future. In fact, the most likely outcome is that she would feel that my husband was a jerk and that it was his problem, not hers, and she would decide to be more cautious around new potential friends in the future.

Being too bluntly honest would make her less likely to change in the future, not more likely. If he were too bold, she would likely decide that a friendship with him wouldn’t have been worthwhile, she was “right” in putting up a wall, and that she was better off without someone like that in her life. “Showing her” how he felt would be cathartic, but it wouldn’t be productive.

In order to achieve the most desired outcome in which she would address future potential friendships differently yet remain honest about their relationship, I advised him to seek a more ambiguous response in such a hypothetical situation. I advised him to say that, “there was nothing worth worrying about.” Such a response makes it clear that “something” was wrong, but he did not wish her to be overly preoccupied with it. The value of this response is that it leaves the door open for her to deal with the issues that have fallen by the wayside should she choose, or to allow it to drop should she choose not to. If she pressed him further, he could say that it wasn’t a good time or place to discuss it but he’d be happy to get together for coffee or something and talk about it. If she wanted to let it go, she also had that option. He would be placing the power in her hands to deal with it honestly, or to forget about it. Being blunt with her would strip her of power, and make her want to take it back by viewing him negatively and rejecting him roundly in her internal dialog about him.

In “my” (actually “our”)  ideal world, this woman would be mature enough to deal with the issue honestly and straightforwardly. However, she has already shown that she can’t handle direct communication even when it is positive. There is a very high probability that she couldn’t tolerate it when it is negative, and many people are like her. They don’t have the capacity to deal with deep honesty between themselves and other people and shut down when it is in play. When dealing with such people, you serve nothing other than your own ego by foisting bluntness upon them. They won’t grow or change if you push them too far because your opinion and value recede once you push them too far. If your goal is educating and guiding people toward change, sometimes brutal and blunt honesty really isn’t the best policy.

Written by yesithinktoomuch

September 21, 2010 at 10:22 pm

Acceptance

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A friend of mine recently broke up with her boyfriend of several years for the second time. They came together under less than optimal circumstances when she needed his support due to stress related to her elderly mother’s advanced Alzheimer’s and he was coming off of a divorce. They had known each other for well over a decade, and he claimed to have been in love with her for a very long time but her availability and his never meshed. Since they already knew each other, and their feelings were mutual, she had him move in with her immediately after he professed his feelings for her.

This was my friend’s first mistake. While they certainly knew each other, they didn’t know enough about each other. Their lives together were marked by a relatively high level of chaos, both in terms of lifestyle (her house was always a mess, she kept a lot of pets as part of animal rescue work and he didn’t help much with housework) and finances (she had to abandon high-paying work to care for her mother, he had child support and lost his job). When they got together, she wanted to help him out with his mounting debts and loaned him a good deal of money. He helped her deal with the stress of her mother’s situation and later helped her through treatment for cancer. Emotionally, he was there for her, but in terms of many of the other aspects of being a good partner, he had some serious issues.

In the end, the main points that pushed them apart were her inability to make a place for him in her house with so many pets and his inability to be responsible financially. Animal waste had contaminated many living areas and she refused to relegate the animals to a certain area of the house because she feared for their comfort. She also has always been disorganized and had too much stuff and was unwilling or unable to make the time to get it all together. On his side, he lived like a teenager and spent money on man-toys and didn’t worry about making enough money to cover his debts or help with household expenses. He saw his bills as something that was “small stuff” that he wasn’t going to sweat.

My friend often spoke to my husband and I about her problems and often sent the message that she thought she could change him. She also thought that he could simply make a choice to be a grown-up and then all of their problems could be solved. She is in her late 40’s and he is in his mid-40’s and I think the chances that either of them could make a serious character change is pretty low, particularly when both have a long history of being exactly the people that they are and resisting change.

Both my husband and I recommended that she consider her boyfriend as a package she couldn’t alter the contents of. If she was going to have a relationship with him, she would simply have to accept that he would always be irresponsible financially and that she should incorporate that idea into her relationship with him and take steps to separate herself entirely from that part of his world. She shouldn’t let him live with her (and indeed, she threw him out without breaking up with him initially), but they should carry on getting together, dating, or enjoying each other’s company without her interfering or concerning herself with his finances. We encouraged her to simply accept who he was and not try to change him, because we were both sure that it wasn’t a choice he could make. His character simply wouldn’t allow him to become the person she wanted him to be. She wouldn’t give up on the idea of his changing himself though. She insisted that she could work with him and “fix” him and said she might “surprise (us)” by whipping him into shape.

After she threw him out, he decided to break up with her rather than carry on as a couple. He took up with another woman and the first thing he did was go out and buy an expensive electronic toy that he didn’t need. Shortly after he did this, he had misgivings and they got back together, but she made it clear that he had to change. She went through her lists of things he’d have to do if he wanted to have a relationship with her, including getting a second job to cover all of his bills. Within 30 days, they were finished again because he texted hundreds of pages of messages behind her back to the woman he had briefly hooked up with after the first break up. When she confronted him about this inappropriately hidden communication, his response was rather flat and unemotional.

My sense was that he gave up emotionally because he knew he couldn’t become the person she wanted him to be. The transition from late-middle-aged man-child who acted impulsively and irresponsibly to mature, responsible adult who carried two jobs to pay bills and for kids he didn’t really want was a leap he simply didn’t want to make and deep down couldn’t even find the emotional energy or motivation to attempt. She pushed him to change. He pushed her to change. Neither changed, and the relationship ended again.

During their relationship, I constantly counseled her to accept him as he was, but that didn’t mean that I believed he was “right” or that his behavior was acceptable. If you love someone, you can’t make them reshape themselves into the person you want them to be. They may choose to change for your benefit or in order to improve the quality and strength of the bonds of your relationship, but it has to be their choice. I knew he was never going to make such a choice because I didn’t think he had the capacity to do so. Deep down, he had too many issues to deal with holding him back from being a man.

My friend, though I never told her this, is also never going to change. She has been a disorganized procrastinating person who takes on far more responsibility than she can manage for her entire life. She talked about cleaning things up and getting her house in order, but she rarely did anything of consequence. If he wanted to be with her, this was likely something he would have had to accept.

People often enter relationships with eyes open to the best attributes of their partner and with multiple blind spots to the less appealing ones. As time goes by, vision improves and you see the whole picture. It isn’t important that your partner be perfect, but it is important that those areas which he or she cannot change be ones which you can be sanguine about. If you feel those areas must be changed, then you have to talk about it and then see if your partner is willing and able to change. He or she may not be. It’s not a reflection on the love your significant other has for you, but rather one of their character and capacity to change.

No one wants to be like my friend or her boyfriend in terms of their more negative character traits. He would like to be responsible and she would like to be organized and clean, but some part of each of them can’t make the transition. This doesn’t mean they can’t have relationships with others or each other, but rather that part of the package deal for loving them has to be that a partner can live with these issues without expecting change or being unhappy.

I’ve been very fortunate because my husband hasn’t had any critical issues that he has been unwilling to work on, and he has also been fortunate in that I have worked out many of my issues. In those few areas that remain which seemingly cannot be changed, we both try to recognize the yin and yang aspects of those traits. I may sometimes be pesky in my attention-seeking, but this is part of an overall character aspect of being interested in him, paying attention to him, and caring for his company more than anyone else’s. He can’t have the attention he wants 90% of the time without having some attention he doesn’t want 10% of the time. In his case, he can be absent-minded and forgetful, and this sometimes makes me feel like he doesn’t care enough about things which I value, but the truth is that this is part of his nature as someone who is calm and unflappable most of the time. He wouldn’t be at peace and a source of strength without this ability to not fret over little details. I don’t forget much, but that’s only because I’m a worrier.

Obviously, the character issues my husband and I have are very small compared to my friend and her boyfriend’s problems, but I think that she and he could have worked it out had she constructed an altered image of how their lives together would have worked. Rather than seeing their happily-ever-after as him working hard, getting his spending and debts under control, and giving up on all of his toys, she should simply have seen their wagons as emotionally hitched and economically independent, but she wouldn’t let go of her plans to see him as someone who had to have his act together and rejection on this level made him see her negative traits more strongly and eventually emotionally be absent from the relationship.

We all have to consider what we can and can’t accept, and I wouldn’t be able to live with the sort of behavior exhibited by the man my friend was in a relationship with. Of course, I wouldn’t tolerate her behavior either, but each person has different areas which they find acceptable and unacceptable. Every relationship’s chance of success becomes much higher if people don’t try to change each other and each person tries to become a better person of their own volition. When one or both require change of the other, then the relationship is in trouble, if not doomed.

Written by yesithinktoomuch

September 20, 2010 at 5:15 am