The Violin Nobody Wanted

Your true value isn't determined by the way you have been treated.

I have had several requests to share the following story from my book, “Parables for a Wounded Heart.” The story addresses the true source of our value. 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 self-worthcorner. 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.”

 

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

 

Why Assertiveness Matters

Being assertive can benefit your self-esteem, even if the other person doesn't listen or change.

In my counseling practice, I frequently include assertiveness training, where I work with my client to help themassertiveness become more assertive in their everyday lives. I find that many of the interpersonal difficulties we experience can be improved when we express our feelings in a kind, but clear manner.

First, let’s look at the distinction between assertive, non-assertive, and aggressive behaviors. Non-assertive behavior is when we honor the other person’s rights, but we don’t honor our own. We don’t speak up for ourselves when we should. We treat other people well, but don’t treat ourselves very well.

Many times, children are taught to be non-assertive. They may be punished when they try to express their needs, even when they do so respectfully. This can occur directly, where the parent chastises the child, or it can occur indirectly, where the parent has a harsh temper, and intimates the child. When that child grows up, she will often feel extreme anxiety at the thought of standing up for herself.

Aggressive behavior is the exact opposite of non-aggressive behavior. This occurs when the person stands up for his rights, but does so in a manner that infringes on the rights of the other person. This behavior makes the other person feel defensive, put down, or diminished. Aggression can be expressed by the words spoken, or by facial expressions, body language or tone of voice. Aggressive behavior can also be learned in childhood.

Assertive behavior is in the mid-point between non-assertive and aggressive behaviors. When you are assertive, you stand up for your rights, but do so in a manner that also honors the rights of the other person. You say how you feel, but express it in a way that respects the other person. You speak your truth in a kind, but serious manner.

It’s also important to remember that assertiveness is not a one-time conversation. You must be persistently assertive to make any impact on the relationship. This means that, to make any real difference, you speak up almost every time the other person infringes on your rights.

Sometimes my clients argue that any efforts to be assertive are useless because the other person won’t change. They say that the other person will just argue back, but that they will never listen. They explain their years of non-assertiveness by this feeling of hopelessness.

I then point out that there are two reasons to be assertive. The first, and most obvious, is to try to change the

 

situation or the relationship. Even if the other person is capable of change, they won’t if they don’t know how you feel. I have seen many relationships improved when one person learned to express her feelings in a respectful, but assertive manner. When the other person realized that they meant what they said, they made the eff

ort to change.

The second reason to be assertive has nothing to do with the other person at all. Even when the other party makes no changes, you benefit from being assertive. The change occurs within you. When you are appropriately assertive, you are taking care of yourself. You are saying to yourself, “I deserve to be protected and respected. I have as many rights as the other person.” You feel better about yourself.

Consider this example. A little boy is playing on the playground minding his own business. Another little boy comes up to him and pushes him down for no reason. The first little boy cries and walks away. That boy has experienced two injuries. The first is the physical pain of being pushed down. The second is the emotional pain of not standing up for himself. He feels diminished and inadequate. The emotional pain far outweighs the physical pain.

If the offended boy had stood up for himself in any way, he would have avoided the emotional pain of non-assertiveness. Whether he pushed back, verbally confronted the boy or told an adult, the emotional outcome would have been better. He would have experienced the physical pain of the push, but he would have felt better about himself.

If you are in a situation where you feel the need to be assertive, consider this. If someone you love were in the same situation, would you hope that they would be assertive? If so, then you should as well. Make sure that your assertive response respects the other person’s rights as well as your own. It may help to write down what you want to say to the other person. You can even state your feelings in a letter, if that is easier for you. Being appropriately assertive can provide a major step toward a more positive self-esteem.

Healing the Divide Between Us

We can heal some of our divisions by having a few civil conversations.

Last week, I shared my concerns about the growing divide between the various factions of our society. I expressed social media miscommunicationsmy belief that our positions on political and social issues have become more extreme, and that we seem to have lost the ability to engage in civil disagreement.

In her recent book, “Braving the Wilderness” (2017), Brene Brown, Ph.D. discusses our need to feel that we belong, and how that need makes it difficult for us to deal with those who disagree with us. She points out that we have an innate fear of not belonging. Research even shows that loneliness contributes to illness and death as much as smoking or obesity.

Dr. Brown asserts that our divisions widen, and our positions become more extreme, because of our fears. Her research suggests that our fears have grown stronger since the terrorist attacks of 911, and that those fears have changed us. She points out that our national conversations have focused more-and-more on “what should we fear, and who should we blame.”

She defined terrorism as “time-released fear,” and stated that “the goal of terrorism is to embed fear so deeply in our community that it becomes a way of life.” This fear then fuels our anger and blame so that we begin to turn on one another. We become divided.

So, how can we narrow our divisions? One of Dr. Brown’s recommendations is to make a deliberate effort to engage in honest, but civil conversations with those who hold different views. She points out that it is difficult to hate someone close-up. As we get to know someone personally, we see more of our similarities and fewer of our differences.

There is, of course, a major difference between a debate and a conversation. We try to win a debate. We don’t listen in a debate, except to find a weakness in their position to strengthen our own argument. We walk away from a debate feeling we have won or lost, but with no shift in our original opinion. Debates tend to deepen our divisions.

A conversation is different. The point of a conversation is to communicate. A conversation doesn’t require a winner or a loser. Listening is at least fifty percent of a conversation. At the end of a conversation, you may still disagree, but you feel heard and respected. You have done nothing to lessen the other person, and they have done nothing to lessen you. You may actually find that your positions became a bit less extreme.

Of course, our national divisions are massive and the underlying reasons are complex. The very thought of healing the divide feels overwhelming and way beyond any individual’s reach. But, just because we can’t do everything shouldn’t stop us from doing something. Perhaps we could begin with a few simple, honest, civil conversations.

The Divide Between Us

Will we allow ourselves to be divided?

Recently, multiple news reports indicated that Russian government backed organizations purchased $100,000 worthpeople divided of ads on Facebook. There may be more, but these are the ones that have been identified so far.

We are now learning about some of the content of their ads and the populations they targeted. Many of the details are still unclear, but we are seeing one factor. The ads seem to have the intent of dividing us from each other. They picked sensitive or hot-button issues, and then posted extreme stories promoting both sides.

For some time now, I have expressed the concern that our country has become more polarized than ever. We are dramatically divided on so many issues; Democrats versus Republicans, Conservatives versus Liberals, race versus race, Trump lovers versus Trump haters. These positions have divided neighbors, friends, and family members to the point where some are not even speaking to each other. I know of family members who have not spoken in many months after a political disagreement.

Our divisions are deepened by our perception that our side is completely right and the other side is completely wrong. We stereotype the other side as ignorant, stupid, selfish or evil. We don’t trust the other side. They become the enemy.

Perceptions become extreme when we limit our communications to our side. We talk to those who share our position about how wrong the other side is. The negative statements are often accompanied by anger, dismissive laughter, sneers or expressions of disgust. We don’t really listen or try to understand the view of those on the other side. Even when we do communicate with someone expressing an opposing view, we don’t really listen because we are too busy formulating our argument. We become even more entrenched in our position.

What if we remembered that those on the other side are our fellow Americans, our neighbors, friends and family members? What if we honored them as human beings, who simply hold a different opinion? What if we engaged in a civil conversation and actually listened? We might find that those on the other side did have reasons for their opinions. We might be able to disagree, while still respecting the person. We might be able to work together on more issues.

I certainly don’t claim to know the answers to our current issues. I do believe those answers will only be found when we work together. I believe the path lies in real communication, respect for each other, negotiation and compromise.

There is still much to learn about the recent Russian actions and their intentions. But, if their intent was to deepen America’s internal divisions, they are on to something. They seem to understand that they don’t need to attack us. They just need to help us attack each other. We have to choose whether or not we will let that happen.

The Impact of a Narcissist on Self-Esteem

A child with a narcissistic parent often suffers extreme self-esteem wounds.

The term narcissist is often used as a negative label to describe a person who seems conceited or arrogant. Most people are familiar with the term. But, the actual diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is more serious andnarcissistic parent can wound self-esteem can create severe damage.

Personality disorders are a distinct category of mental illness. Most diagnoses, such as depression or anxiety disorders, have a specific beginning and ending point, and impact only certain areas of functioning. Personality disorders affect the persons entire personality. The symptoms are long-term, and usually resistant to treatment. They impact the way the person perceives himself and the way he relates to others.

In general, those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder see themselves as being better than most people, lack empathy, and have a strong need for admiration from others. The diagnosis requires five of the following symptoms:

  1. Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
  2. Expecting to be recognized as superior
  3. Exaggerating your achievements and talents
  4. Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power or beauty
  5. Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by superior people
  6. Requiring constant admiration
  7. Having a sense of entitlement
  8. Expecting special favors and compliance with your expectations
  9. Taking advantage of others to get what you want
  10. Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
  11. Being envious of others and believing others envy you
  12. Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner

I don’t see many patients with Narcissistic Personality Disorder because they don’t think they have any problems. I do see many patients who have had to live with such a person. The damage is particularly severe for children are a narcissistic parent.

Narcissistic parents subject their children to frequent and severe criticism or neglect. They often seem intent on letting the child know that they not good enough, that their feelings are unimportant, and that their primary role is to take care of the parent’s needs.

The impact seems to be most severe for daughters of narcissistic mothers. The mother may perceive a competition with the daughter, and work to remind the girl that she is not pretty enough, not likable and unimportant. Sometimes, when there is a daughter and a son, the boy is treated like a prince, while the daughter is subjected to denigration.

As you can imagine, the self-esteem wounds are severe. The children often believe that they are inadequate, unattractive, and defective. They assume that others are disapproving of them or attacking them. Even with therapy, these beliefs are resistant to change. People will often hold onto the negative self-beliefs, even when they recognize that the parent was narcissistic.

If you have a parent or spouse that fits the above criteria, and if you suffer from depression, anxiety and self-criticism, seek counseling. Don’t let the wounds from a narcissistic parent or spouse continue to impact your life.

Learning to Be An Optimist

You may naturally be pessimistic, but with practice, you can learn to be more optimistic.

Optimism is an attitude based on the belief that an outcome will be good. The word comes from the Latin word, Optimist and pessimist and optimismoptimum, which means best. An optimist expects the best possible outcome from any given situation. Pessimism is the general belief that an outcome will be bad. The pessimist tends to expect the worst outcome in any situation. Its Latin root is pessim, which means bad. We’ve all known optimists and pessimists, and optimists are definitely more pleasant to be around.

There are many advantages to being optimistic. Optimists respond better to stress. Research shows that optimists have lower levels of Cortisol (a stress hormone), and are better able to regulate that hormone when faced with stressful events. Other research has shown that optimists have a lower chance of developing cardiovascular disease, stroke and depression. Optimists even seem to recover more quickly from surgery.

Of course, it just makes sense that optimists will tend to be happier and more contented. They see any situation as more hopeful, thus improving motivation and effort. Other factors being equal, optimists tend to be more successful.

There are three key differences between optimistic and pessimistic thinking. They are:

Permanence: Optimistic people tend to see bad events as temporary, and good events as more permanent. They expect that they will bounce back more quickly after a failure. Optimists attribute negative events to specific, temporary causes, while viewing positive events as due to more permanent causes.

Pervasiveness: Pessimistic people see failure in one area of life as a failure in life as a whole. They overgeneralize the negative aspects of their lives, while perceiving positive events as exceptions to the rule or flukes. On the other hand, optimistic people see the negative events of life as the exception to the rule.

Personalization: Optimists blame outside causes for negative events, while perceiving positive events as the result of their hard work or abilities. Pessimists blame themselves for any negative events they experience, and discount their contributions to positive outcomes.

In his book, “Learned Optimism,” Martin Seligman, Ph.D. argued that we can become more optimistic by changing our thinking. His method involves (a) understanding our pessimistic reactions and interpretations to negative events, (b) generating counter-evidence to our negative beliefs or interpretations, (c) catching and stopping our pessimistic thoughts, and (d) reminding ourselves of the benefits of positive expectations. These steps have to be practiced repeatedly over time to be successful.

A complete change from pessimism to optimism would be pretty difficult. But, with deliberate effort, you might be able to improve your thinking enough to make a difference. Try to expect a positive outcome. You just might get it.

The Impact of Shame

Guilt can help us grow, but shame tends to beat us down.

Most everyone experiences shame at times. The only people who never experience shame are psychopaths. Butthe impact of shame that’s because they can’t accept personal responsibility for their actions. The rest of us know the feeling of shame.

First, we need to look at the difference between shame and guilt. Both are considered moral emotions, in that they arise as a result of us doing something we perceive as wrong. Both emotions are painful, and can change our future behaviors.

Guilt is a negative appraisal of a specific behavior. “I did something that I shouldn’t have done (or that hurt someone) and I feel remorse that I did it.” Guilt is a healthy emotion. It motivates us to alter our behaviors and avoid the hurtful actions in the future.

Shame is a negative appraisal of one’s self. The emphasis is not on a specific behavior, but rather, on the core sense of identity. With guilt we think, “I did something bad,” but with shame we think, “I am bad.” We may feel unworthy or defective. When we experience shame, we tend to shut down. Shame doesn’t motivate us to improve our behaviors. Instead, it makes us feel powerless and inadequate. We assume that we are inherently bad, and feel the need to withdraw from others.

While both cause emotional pain, shame creates a deeper hurt, as it attacks our core sense of self. Shame is usually associated with a feeling of shrinking or being small. We feel less than and exposed. Even when no one saw our actions, we imagine how they would react if they did. We imagine an intense social disapproval. We have an urge to hide.

A sensitivity to shame may develop in the early years. While a single event can lead to shame, it usually results from more pervasive negative experiences. Children tend to experience shame when they receive global criticism as a person, rather than feedback that is focused on a specific behavior. Global criticism speaks to the child’s identity or character. Examples include, “You are so clumsy. You do that all the time. and You’re stupid.” The child learns to believe he is defective and inferior as a person. This belief can follow him throughout life.

Parenting that conveys the message that the child is good and worthwhile, but made a mistake, helps insulate that child from shame. The child realizes the wrong behavior, and feels guilty, without the more general conclusion that he is a bad person. The child can correct his behaviors, while maintaining a healthy self-esteem.

So, we need to pay attention to the way we treat others and ourselves. Recognize that mistakes and wrong behaviors do happen with everyone. When addressing them, be specific to the behavior. We need to avoid global critical statements about the person, whether talking to our children, or to ourselves.

On Who We Can Be

Difficult times have a way of making us forget our differences.

As I write this, the people of Houston, and much of south Texas, are beginning a difficult recovery from hurricaneHurricane Harvey helped us forget our differences Harvey. The rest of the country watched as Harvey hit the coast with 132 mph winds and over 50 inches of rain. So far, we know that at least 39 people died, and over one million people were forced to leave their homes. We still don’t know the full impact from this disaster.

In the midst of the tragedy, however, we have also seen the best of humanity. We have seen the many volunteers who left their safe, dry homes to help total strangers. Many people used their personal boats to rescue those stranded by the flood waters. One man had no boat, so he bought one, just so he could help. Others waded on foot through the waist-deep waters to carry people and pets to safety. Many others volunteered at shelters to provide a dry bed and warm food to the rescued.

There was the incident where volunteers formed a human chain to rescue a woman in labor and her husband from rising waters. Another human chain was used to rescue an elderly man from his car. A furniture store owner turned his stores into shelters for the homeless. One woman died to save her baby from the waters. A news station tweeted, “Harvey has taken a lot, but it will NEVER take away our humanity.”

Of course, Harvey isn’t the only example of people demonstrating their best selves in the midst of tragedy. We have seen it many times in America and around the world. Such times tend to bring out the best in us. We forget our differences. There are no Democrats or Republicans, no whites, blacks or Hispanics. No one asks whether the victim is an immigrant or a native. No one questions her religious beliefs. In these times, we just see caring humans reaching out to hurting humans.

This unification of spirit was especially poignant this week, given the current divisions in our country. I can’t recall a time where our people have been so polarized; liberals versus conservatives, alt-right versus alt-left, pro-Trump versus anti-Trump. We see politics dividing neighbors, even family members.

So, as tragic as Harvey was, a small silver lining appeared behind those ominous hurricane clouds. We saw an example of what we can be. We saw evidence that our similarities far outweigh our differences. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could remember this without the pain of a disaster?

The Power of Vulnerability

In our most important relationships, the ability to be vulnerable can make a world of difference.

We usually work very hard to hide it. We present the image that we have it all together, that we are in control. Wesocial media want to appear strong. We are afraid of vulnerability.

Of course, this makes sense. Being vulnerable means that we take off our emotional armor, that we let down our defenses and that we can be more easily hurt. Sometimes, this is wise. There are hurtful people out there. There are some people we shouldn’t trust.

The problem is that we also tend to avoid vulnerability in our most important personal relationships. When our loved ones hurt us, we become defensive and try to protect ourselves. We don’t consciously decide to do this. It’s a knee-jerk response.

There are two ways that we avoid vulnerability. We become angry or we withdraw. When we’re angry, we are not vulnerable. We are protecting ourselves or defending our position. Our words, facial expressions and body language tells the other person to back off.

The second way to avoid vulnerability is to withdraw. We can withdraw physically by staying away from the other person altogether, spending time away from home or just going into a different room. We can also withdraw emotionally, where we remain physically present, but emotionally disconnect. We can just not talk, or say as little as possible. Either way, we avoid being vulnerable.

Unfortunately, our attempts to avoid vulnerability wounds the relationship. When we are angry, the other person feels attacked, judged or disapproved of. When we withdraw, the other person feels that we don’t care. They respond to their hurt by withdrawing or acting angry, thus forming a negative vicious cycle. Over time, the relationship can be destroyed.

So, what happens when we deliberately make ourselves vulnerable to the loved one? When we express hurt, rather than anger or withdrawal, we get a totally different response. Think about it. When your loved one shares that you hurt them, without anger or withdrawal, your automatic response is to reach out to them and make them feel better. You want to make it right. This would most likely be their response to your hurt as well.

We tend to associate vulnerability with weakness. Actually, it’s the exact opposite. It takes courage to be vulnerable. It takes strength to take off your armor, and allow the other person to see your heart. It goes against our instincts. But, it’s the only way we can truly heal relationship wounds and establish emotional intimacy.

So, when your spouse or loved one hurts you, you have a choice. You can react with anger or withdrawal or you can make a deliberate effort to express your hurt. I think you will find that your partner’s reactions are quite different when you do so.

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.