Small But Significant Gestures

You never know the difference that a small gesture may make.

You never know the impact that you may have on another person. An action that seems inconsequential to you maysmall gestures can make a difference have great meaning for another. Years ago, a retired college professor shared this story with me.

The professor said that she was working her office on the day before spring graduation. A young African-American student knocked on the door and asked to come in. She said that she was graduating the next day and just want to thank the professor. The teacher was a bit confused, then admitted to the student that she couldn’t remember having her in any of her classes. The student said she hadn’t taken any of her classes. The professor admitted that now she was really confused, and asked her why she wanted to thank her.

Now, this was a time soon after desegregation. The student explained that four years earlier, she was one of the first African-American students to enroll in that university. She said that she received many verbal and unspoken messages that she was not welcomed there. The feelings of rejection built until she could take no more. She finally made the decision to resign from the university the next day and go home.

On her last day of classes, she passed this professor in the hall, and the professor smiled. The student noticed the smile and recalled that she had seen that smile every time she passed this professor. She realized that this was one person who did want her at this university.

She didn’t quit the next day. She began to look for those who seemed to want her there, rather than focusing on those who didn’t. Over time, she realized that there were many who were welcoming, but the negative ones just stood out.

She finished her story by pointing out that she didn’t quit, and that she was graduating the next day. She just wanted to thank the professor for a small, but significant gesture.

Most of the time, people don’t make the effort to acknowledge a meaningful gesture, as this student did. We may never know the impact we have had on another person. Never underestimate the power of a kind gesture.

The Dangers of Social Media (Part 4)

It's easier to be cruel when you're hiding behind a computer screen.

This is the fourth and final article on the potential negative effects of social media. In this series, we have discussed cyberbullyinghow too much dependence on social media can impair a child’s ability to read face-to-face social cues, how electronic communication can lead to hurtful miscommunication, and how we can be impacted by the Facebook delusion. Today, we will explore social media bullying.

Cyberbullying occurs when someone uses social media in an aggressive, demeaning or harassing manner. The bullying can include critical comments, spreading rumors or threatening statements. Like other forms of bullying, it can create depression, anxiety, lowered self-esteem, social isolation and even suicide. Cyberbullying Hotline reports that 42% of teenagers with social media access report experiencing cyberbullying over the past year. They reported that 20% of cyberbullied kids have considered suicide because of the bullying, and 1 in 10 attempted it.

Unfortunately, bullying has always been a common experience of childhood and adolescence. The negative impact of bullying has always been tremendous. Social media, however, has added another element to the problem.

The fact that social media communication occurs without face-to-face contact makes bullying easier. The Cyberbullying Hotline survey indicated that 81% of teenagers say that bullying online is easier to get away with. Kids and adults will often say things online that they would never say face-to-face.

Throughout history, aggressors have dehumanized their victims, ignoring their individualization or common humanity. They conditioned themselves, or were taught, to perceive their enemy as less than human, making it easier to take away their basic human rights, including life itself. One example of this was the dehumanization of the Jews by the Nazis.

Social media accomplishes the same thing by eliminating face-to-face contact. You don’t have to look at the face of your victim when you bully them. You don’t have to see the hurt in their eyes. It’s a little like putting a hood on your victim before you execute them. You feel less restraint, guilt or remorse.

Cyberbullying can be quite vicious and devastating to its victims. There are sites where a teenager can upload her photo for feedback. The comments are more often critical and cruel than complementary or supportive. There are also many examples of teenagers actually urging another teen to commit suicide, saying the world would be better off without them. Unfortunately, they sometimes listen to the advice.

Of all the dangers of social media, cyberbullying is the worst. Parents need to monitor social media use of their children and adolescents, as best they can. Don’t be afraid to ask your child if they have been bullied online, and how it impacted them. Try to establish an open line of communication, where they will be more likely to talk to you about abuse. Don’t underestimate the dangers of social media.

The Dangers of Social Media (Part 3)

Social media can help us connect with friends and loved ones, but beware of the Facebook Delusion.

This is the third article in a series on the dangers of social media. In the first two articles, we looked at how a dependence on electronic communications can impair out ability to read social cues and how it can createsocial media miscommunication. Today, I want to address what I call the Facebook delusion.

Human beings have always tended to compare themselves with other human beings. Whether we like it or not, we measure ourselves by those around us. We compare our possessions, our relationships and our life circumstances with others. Unfortunately, these comparisons often impact our moods and our perceptions of life.

The problem with this is that many Facebook users have exceptional, extraordinary, wonderful lives. At least it seems that way. People post photos of their amazing vacations, exceptionally loving spouses and general good fortune. And of course, all their children are well above average.

Far too many people read these posts and conclude that their lives are sadly deficient. Their reactions may be jealousy, anger, depression or lowered self-esteem. They wonder why their circumstances can’t be so good. They question what they have done wrong.

In the days prior to social media, a similar phenomenon occurred at Christmas. People would drive by houses decorated for Christmas, and imagine that Perry Como was roasting chestnuts in their fireplace. This was one of many factors that increased the incidence of holiday depression. holidays.

The perception wasn’t true then, and it’s not true now. Such comparisons are false. We all have lives filled with good and bad. It rains on everyone’s parade at times. Your friends on Facebook are just celebrating their good times. It doesn’t mean they don’t have hardships just like you.

Of course, there are also many positive aspects of social media. Facebook allows us to connect with family and friends. Other social media like Skype and Google Hangouts give us video calls so we can see loved ones while talking with them. Twitter, Linkedin and Instagram provide instant connection. We can share life events with those we love. We can feel a bit closer to those who live far away.

So, when you are tempted to compare your life to the posts on social media, remember the Facebook delusion. Remind yourself that your friends experience good and bad times just like you. Congratulate your friends on their good times, support them in their bad times, and enjoy the ability to connect.

The Dangers of Social Media (Part 2)

The lack of non-verbal cues in text conversations can lead to miscommunications.

Last week, I wrote about the concern that too much electronic communication can impair the development of normal social skills. When children primarily connect via social media, they have fewer opportunities to read non-verbalsocial media miscommunications behaviors. Today, we’ll look at another danger of a too much electronic communication.

In my psychotherapy practice, I have seen many relationship difficulties created by social media miscommunication. Some have experienced unnecessary texting conflicts. Others have suffered the worsening of an existing conflict, or a relationship ending entirely.

Texting conversations lack the non-verbal cues that clarify communications. Even in face-to-face conversations, we tend to assume other’s thoughts or intentions. We all do mind-reading, where we assume how others feel or think. This tendency is compounded when our only information is the written word.

Facial expressions, tone of voice or vocal inflection can totally change the meaning or a message. For example, take the phrase, “I don’t understand what you mean.” These words could be a simple request for clarification or a confrontation. Non-verbal communications can clarify the difference. When texting, you are forced to imagine the tone or the facial expression of the person typing the words.

So, let’s imagine how this could go badly. You are texting a friend about an emotionally sensitive issue. They make a statement that is unclear to you. You want clarification, so you text, “I don’t understand what you mean.” The other person imagines that you are disapproving of, or challenging their opinion. They become defensive and respond, “I think I have a right to my opinion.” Now, you become defensive and either respond with a critical statement or don’t respond at all. The interchange ends with both people feeling irritated with the other. It didn’t have to end that way.

If the same conversation had occurred face-to-face, your softer facial expression and tone of voice would have likely clarified that you were simply uncertain about what they meant. They would have elaborated and the relationship may have been strengthened.

For better or worse, social media is here to stay. It has many benefits, but it also has dangers. While enjoying its benefits, we need to be aware of its deficits. Give yourself the opportunity to enjoy face-to-face communications. Your relationships will benefit from it.

The Dangers of Social Media (Part 1)

We lose something when our communication becomes limited to social media.

This weekend, my wife and I were at a restaurant. A family of three were at a nearby table; a mom, dad and a cute little girl about age seven. Our attention was drawn to the fact that the parents were deeply engrossed in their social mediaindividual cell phones. Their eyes were glued to their phones, with their thumbs rapidly texting. The little girl sat silently staring into space.

After about ten minutes of this, the little girl began to talk to herself. Neither parent noticed. She then slid toward father and leaned on his shoulder to view his phone, obviously trying to get his attention. Thankfully, the parents did put their phones away when the food came, and seemed to engage with each other as they ate.

On another day, I saw a family that seemed to consist of a grandfather, two parents and two teenage daughters. Everyone except the grandfather was similarly engrossed in a cell phone. The grandfather sat silently and stared into space.

I don’t describe these scenes to criticize the families. I don’t know these people, and they may generally engage with each other quite well. I describe these events because they are all too common. I believe we have all seen similar scenes where people are physically present with each other, but give all their attention to their phones. It’s an all too common scene.

Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, psychologist and author of “The Big Disconnect” notes that human beings are highly attuned to reading social cues, and that kids addicted to electronic communications are missing out on the opportunity to learn very critical social skills. Today, it seems that teenagers are learning to communicate by looking at a screen rather than another person. When children grow up with decreased opportunities to read social cues, they may suffer in their ability to do so.

Social media was touted as a mechanism for increased connection. In many ways, the opposite has occurred. With so much time being devoted to electronic material, we have little time for face-to-face conversations. We miss so much, and we don’t even realize it is happening.

Consider taking a break from social media, turning it off and unplugging. Sit down for a genuine, face-to-face conversation with a friend or family member. Look into their eyes as you talk to them. Really listen, as they speak. I think you’ll like it. True connection is hard to beat.

The Power of Setting Goals

You can get more done when you set and follow clear, written goals.

Most of us have things we would like to improve about our lives. We think about changes that could make us happier or more comfortable. Unfortunately, our wishes or dreams don’t seem to be enough to change our reality.Proper goal setting can bring success.

So, what can we do to turn those dreams into reality? How can we most effectively improve our lives? The answer is deceptively simple. We get more done, create positive change, and realize more of our dreams when we start with written, specific, and measurable goals.

In “What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School,” Mark McCormack relates a study in 1979, where graduating students were asked whether they had set clear, written goals for their future, and made plans to accomplish them. Only 3% of the students had written goals and plans, 13% said they had goals, but not in writing, and 84% had no goals at all. Ten years later, the 13%, who said they had unwritten goals, were making twice as much as the 84% who had no goals, while the 3% with written goals were making ten times as much. Other studies have shown that people who set specific, written goals accomplish much more than those who don’t.

But, it’s not quite so simple. Here are a few guidelines if you want to tap into the power of goal-setting to improve your life.

  1. Your goals need to be specific. A goal of “I want to lose weight” is too vague. A specific goal like, “I want to lose 25 lbs.” is much better. The subconscious mind seems to connect to a specific number or amount, in a way that charges our motivation and determination.
  2. You need a deadline. You will be much more motivated by a goal of “I will clean out the closet by 5:00 Saturday,” than you will the goal “I will clean out the closet.” Try to make it a reasonable deadline, but set one.
  3. Make the goal measurable. This may be accomplished by making the goal specific, but it may not. There needs to be no question whether you met the goal. Anyone should be able to tell whether you succeeded.
  4. Determine a strategy to meet the goal. Make a plan. How do you plan to accomplish the goal? What are the intermediate steps you will have to take?
  5. Post the goal where you will see it. To be successful, you will need to be reminded of the goal. This is the reason they invented refrigerator magnets.
  6. Tell a supportive, encouraging friend. Having an accountability partner can really help. They may be aggravating, but nonetheless helpful.

Give it a try. You have nothing to lose. See if goal-setting can work for you in changing your life for the better.

When Life Is Difficult

We all experience painful times, but certain responses can help us cope.

Sometimes life is difficult. Things happen in life that are hard, that hurt. No one is immune. No one completelylife difficulties escapes those painful times. If you aren’t there now, you can be assured you will go there at some point. Sorry, but you know it’s true.

The difficulties of life may come on suddenly, like that dreaded telephone call with the bad news. A period where everything seems good can be shattered in a moment. Life can change forever in a heartbeat. Such events become the fuel for our fears, and sometimes keep us awake at night.

Sometimes our difficulties seem to take up residence. They linger. We wake up in the morning and they’re still there. We may have hoped that they would disappear in our sleep, but we’re disappointed when we wake to realize that it wasn’t a bad dream.

So, what can we do when we’re in the middle of life’s difficulties? How can we cope when faced with the major hardships of life? Here are a few ideas.

  1. Remember that you aren’t alone (Part 1). Reach out to those who love you. Talk to people who care about you and want to support you. Give yourself permission to lean on a loved one. Let them help you. You may fear that you’ll be a burden, but that may not be the case. Would you want them to reach out to you if they were experiencing the same difficulty? If so, shouldn’t you also share with them?

 

  1. Remember that you aren’t alone (Part 2). If you are a Christian, you know the promise that you will never be alone. This is one of the most frequent promises of the Bible. We are told to be dependent and to lean on Him. You may not know the future, but you can lean on the One who does. Simple faith has carried many through a multitude of hardships.

 

  1. Don’t create a second hurt. Experiencing a difficult situation carries its own unavoidable pain. Unfortunately, we sometimes add on a second pain by blaming ourselves for the situation. Of course, we must take responsibility if we made a bad choice or hurt someone, but we often blame ourselves when we are not at fault. We assume that we must have done something, but when we can’t identify what we did.

 

  1. Be compassionate with yourself. If a loved one was going through a difficult time, you would be compassionate. You would be kind, empathetic and supportive. Why should you be any less with yourself? If compassion is the best medicine for the loved one, why would it not also be the best medicine for you. A self-compassionate response will help you deal with many of life’s difficulties.

 

Everyone faces difficulties at times. When you face hard times, be kind to yourself and accept a little help from your friends. And remember, some events in life are so hard, that the very definition of success is…you survived.

The Responsibility of Being an American

Abraham_LincolnI like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives.  I like to see a man live so that his place will be proud of him.  ~Abraham Lincoln

Each person plays many roles. We have many aspects to our identity; parent, spouse, child, family member, friend, co-worker, and more. Today, we celebrate one additional part of our identity; that of being an American.

Today, July 4th, we recognize and celebrate our nation and our independence. In doing so, we remind ourselves of this part of our identity. We enjoy the gift of being a part of this great nation. This is part of who we are.

Regardless of our political disagreements and despite our current difficulties, it is still a great nation. We are free to express those disagreements. We are free to choose our path and work to follow it. This is part of who we are.

You don’t have to travel to many other countries to realize how much we take for granted each day. We have so much. We often have too much. Having been so blessed, we have a responsibility to seek ways to give to others. This is part of who we are.

We have the opportunity to grow as individuals, and in doing so, follow any path we choose. As my father used to say, “You can do anything you want to do, if you set your mind to it.” As a young boy, I’d roll my eyes and dismiss the statement, but it must have sunk in, because I came to believe it. Fortunately, in this country we call home, it is true. This is part of who we are.

Enjoy celebrating our country this July 4th, and then every other day, live up to the inheritance. As Lincoln said, live so that your place will be proud of you.

Are You Really Experiencing Your Life?

We live most of our lives mindlessly. We may be doing one thing, but our minds tend to be on other things. We live in the present moment, but our minds are on the past or the future.

I first learned about the technique of “mindfulness” on a PBS television program, called “Healing and the Mind.” The host was the excellent reporter, Bill Moyers, and each episode featured a clinic, somewhere in the world, that specialized in mind/body medicine.

On this particular episode, he featured a clinic at Massachusetts Medical Center, a major teaching hospital where many Harvard medical students do their rotations and internships. People come there from all over the world for assessment and treatment of serious medical disorders.

In that hospital, is a clinic that was originally called “The Center for Catastrophic Illness,” and was founded by a psychologist, named Jon Kabit-Zinn. Patients are referred to this clinic who have any illness that has proven to be a catastrophe in their lives. The clinic has been enormously effective in helping these patients deal with their various illnesses.

The clinic teaches the technique of mindfulness. The technique has been practiced in Asia for about four thousand years, but has only been applied to healthcare in the US for about twenty years. While mindfulness practice cannot directly cure many physical illnesses, it can help patients deal with their difficulties with much less distress and discomfort. It has even been shown to cure some stress-related illnesses.

The technique involves three components, (a) noticing, (b) without judging, (c) in the present moment. To notice means to truly experience, to really be in the moment. Focus your attention on that event. Experience it with your five senses. If you are somewhere, really be there. Focus your mind on what you are doing, rather than something in the past or the future.

For example, if you are driving, notice the experience of driving. What do you see? What do you feel? Notice the unconscious movement of your hand on the steering wheel. Notice the subtle rumble of the road noise. Do the same with any experience. If you are interacting with a loved one, really focus your attention on that person and the interaction. If you are washing dishes, notice the various aspects of the experience, the feel of the water, the feel of the soap or the movements of your hands.

Now, try to recall some of the favorite moments of your life. I would bet that you experienced each of these favorite moments mindfully. You were focused on what you were doing at the time. If you experienced the moment mindlessly, you wouldn’t recall it as a favorite moment. I wonder how many other moments could have been favorites, if we had experienced them mindfully rather than mindlessly.

The second part of mindfulness is to notice “without judging.” This means to not analyze our experience in our minds, but to just experience it. We don’t focus on whether the experience is good or bad. It just is. For example, patients are actually taught to be mindful of their pain. This may seem strange, but we find that, when patients notice pain, without thinking of it as good or bad, the pain lessons, or at least becomes less distressful. We usually try to escape from our pain, and in doing so, make ourselves more tense. This tension actually worsens the discomfort.

The last part of mindfulness is “in the present moment.” This means to focus your attention on the present moment, rather than experiencing the present moment with your mind thinking about something in the past or something in the future.

Let’s think about time for a moment. All time can be divided into three parts; the past, the future, and the present. Everything prior to this moment in time is the past. Nothing in the past actually exists, except in our memories. Everything after this moment is the future, and nothing in the future actually exists except in our imaginations. The only thing that actually exists at any moment is that thin slice of time we call the present.

Yet, we live most of our present moments thinking about something in the past or something in the future. We don’t really experience the present moment, because we are analyzing, reminiscing or regretting past events or anticipating, dreading or worrying about future events. We thus miss the experience of the present moment.

Take a moment now to be mindful of the present moment. Notice what your five senses are experiencing. Notice your breathing. The act of noticing the breath can always bring you back to the present moment. Your breath is always with you. Let yourself simply be in the present moment now and experiencing this moment fully. If your mind wanders to the past or the future, it’s okay. Just gently bring your attention back to your breath and the present moment.

Practice this for a few moments at a time. If you can stay in the present moment for a few seconds, that’s good enough at first. After being mindful of the present moment experience for a little while, notice what you feel. Most people report that they feel a sense of calm or peace.

Practice mindfulness several times per day. You don’t have to take time out of your day at first. Just be mindful of whatever you’re doing. Then, if you like, take a few moments out of your day to get in a more extended time of present moment awareness. Give it a try!

Question: If you have tried present-moment mindfulness, what did you experience? Also, report any difficulties you experienced in trying the technique.

The Violin Nobody Wanted

ImageThis post is a little longer than most. I have had several requests to share the following story from my book, “Parables for a Wounded Heart.” I hope you enjoy it!

Once there was a family that bought an old house. The prior owners had moved out of the house some time earlier, so this new family never met them. On the day they moved in, they had some items that they wanted to store in the attic. When they climbed up the attic stairs, they found that the previous owners had left some junk piled in one corner. The new owners didn’t have time to go through the stuff and throw it away, so they just stacked their things around the leftover pile. They didn’t think of it again.

After several years, the family decided to do some spring cleaning. They planned to have a yard sale to get rid of some of the things they had stored in the attic. When they went up to get their items, they saw the pile of things left by the previous owners. They decided they might as well try to sell those things too. Perhaps they could make a little extra money.

As they sorted out the pile, they found several items they could sell including an old violin in a case. The violin looked in pretty good shape, but the case was very dusty and all scratched up. They decided to put a $20.00 price tag on it and see what they could get.

On the day of the yard sale they put all the items on tables, and  people began to stop and browse. They sold many of their items and were about to call it a day. There were a few stragglers milling around the tables checking for any last minute buys. A car pulled over and a tall, thin older man got out. He too browsed the tables for a while.

He came to the table with the violin in the opened case. It seems no one had needed a fiddle this morning, not even for $20.00. He leaned over and studied the dusty violin for a couple of minutes before he spoke to the owner behind the table. He inquired, “Do you mind if I take it out of the case?”

“No”, the owner replied, “Help yourself.”

He picked the violin up very slowly and carefully, as if it were going to fall apart in his hands.

“May I tune it?” the old man asked.

“If you can,” the owner answered.

The old man slowly tuned the violin until he seemed to be satisfied with each string. The owner waited patiently since most of the crowd had dispersed; and this seemed like the most promising chance of getting rid of the instrument.

“May I play it?” the old man asked.

“Sure, see how it sounds,” was the owner’s reply, now feeling that a sale was in the making.

The old man slowly placed the violin under his chin and began to play. The straggling shoppers stopped and stared as the notes drifted across the yard in the spring sunshine. The old man crafted the most beautiful music for several minutes before he stopped. He lowered the violin from his chin and placed it very gently back in its case. The owner moved in to make the sale. “You make that thing sing, mister” he said with a grin. “You can have it for only $20.00.”

The older man’s face was somber. “I can’t give you $20.00 for that violin,” he replied.

“Well, how about $15.00?” said the owner, now thinking a sale was slipping away.

“Sir, you don’t understand.” noted the old man, still serious. “I can’t take that violin from you for $20.00. It wouldn’t be right.” Looking directly into the owner’s eyes, he lowered his voice and smiled slightly, “I don’t know how you came upon that violin, but you don’t know what you have there. You see, that violin is a Stradivarius. You can tell from the markings in the sound hole. It was made by Antonio Stradivari in Cremona. His instruments are the best in the world. You see, his mark is there in the sound hole. This violin is worth at least $1,000,000 and probably much more. It’s a very, very special instrument and very precious. You just didn’t realize what you had.”

The violin had always been precious. It was valuable because of its creator. The violin was valuable because its creator only made precious instruments, and it carried the unmistakable mark of that creator. The earlier homeowners who left it in the attic obviously didn’t know what they had and treated it like trash. The new owners didn’t know what they had either and left it in the attic with the trash. The yard sale shoppers who left it on the table didn’t know what they were leaving behind. They treated it as if it was not even worth $20.00. It took the old man to recognize the violin’s value. He didn’t have to play it to recognize that it was precious. The old man knew it was precious because he knew about its creator. He knew that it had the mark of its creator.

You may be like the violin. You may have grown up in a family that wasn’t able to recognize your true value. They may have acted as if you were in the way or just something to be tolerated. Or they may have made you feel that you couldn’t do anything right or were always messing up. Later in life, you may have dealt with others who also acted as you weren’t worth much, who acted as if you were trash.

It’s important to remember that the violin never actually lost its value. It was just as valuable when it was left in a corner of the attic as it would have been in a symphony hall. It was still valuable when it was passed over by the rest of the customers in the yard sale. The creator had left his mark on it, and that made all the difference.

Every child is valuable. Each child is as valuable as any other child. We all know this to be true. There is no defect, deformity, characteristic, or behavior that can make a child less valuable. We also know this to be true. A child’s actual value is not diminished when her family doesn’t recognize or act as if she is valuable. You know this to be true.

The child is hurt, of course. The child learns to believe that she is not valuable. Such lessons are learned deeply. Such beliefs are hard to change. Just because a belief is deeply learned doesn’t mean that it is true.

Question:  Share your thoughts about the meaning or moral of this story. Do you agree that all children are valuable and deserve to be treated as such? Can you apply that truth to yourself? Can you begin to do that now? What do you think?

This story was inspired by the poem, “The Touch of the Master’s Hand” by Myra “Brooks” Welch (1921).