The Key to a Healthy Relationship

Self-awareness starts with a simple but powerful shift in questioning.

Most of us are familiar with the now famous commercial: Jake, from State Farm. Jake (actor, Kevin Miles) is helping a married man (actor, Justin Campbell) get affordable insurance through State Farm in the middle of the night. His bathrobe-clad wife, (actress, Melanie Deanne Moore), grabs the phone from her husband’s shocked hand and with air quotes asks:

“What are you wearing, ‘Jake from State Farm?’”

The dumbfounded Jake answers honestly, “Uh, khakis.”

What is it about this commercial that we find funny? A wife’s assumption that her husband is getting stimulated by some form of infidelity when the audience knows he IS getting excited, but by State Farm’s insurance policy.

Off screen and unscripted, we make assumptions in our relationships. Those assumptions are based on our inner dialogue, our inner stories. The key to rewarding relationships, whether intimate or work-related, is self-awareness. 

But what does that mean? What does it mean to be self-aware of our inner dialogue and inner triggers? 

According to psychologist and author (INSIGHT), Tasha Eurich the key to self-awareness is a shift in questioning: Ask WHAT, not WHY.

So, if we were to take the wife who happens upon her husband at 3am talking in hushed tones to Jake from State Farm, her current inner dialogue seems to be assuming the worst. We can see this when she yanks the phone from her husband; we can hear it in her clipped, accusatory tone and her anger disguised as sarcasm. Her inner dialogue goes something like this:

“Why isn’t my husband in bed with me? Why doesn’t he love me?”

Instead, this fictional wife can ask empowering “what” questions such as:

“What is making my husband speak to someone in a hushed tone in the middle of the night? What can I learn from his body language? What can I learn from this moment? What can I learn about myself from my reaction?

The shift from “why” to “what” paves the way from victimhood to insight, from a sense of failure to a sense of purpose.

The most important relationship is the one we have with ourselves. So, it behooves us to understand ourselves and our reaction to others. Relationships offer a spiritual mirror to who we are. When we get into an argument with a loved one or a colleague, we are given the opportunity to learn who we are. When someone “rubs us the wrong way” or makes us feel uncomfortable, we need to ask, “What is this feeling trying to teach me?”

Asking WHAT instead of WHY fuels our growth, dispelling anxiety and depression while strengthening our inner compass. We can’t change others, but we can work on ourselves. And when we are in a place of greater self-awareness, our relationships become healthier.

Nostalgia, Not Regression

There is a subtle yet distinct difference between appreciating the past and regressing back into who we were then.

The colleagues I worked with for the past several years are back at school, preparing their respective classrooms for that timeless yet momentous occasion (that somehow always goes by in a dizzying blur): the first day of school.

For years, I loved working with students but also felt a yearning to work with students in a different capacity. When the opportunity presented itself, I grabbed my personal career brass ring and started working for a non-profit literacy agency. To say that my experience is both enjoyable and rewarding is an understatement. Each morning, I feel like I’m waking up to some career fairytale, singing like one of the 7 Dwarfs “Hi, ho, hi, ho, it’s off to work we go…”

And yet, I miss my colleagues and friends at school. I miss seeing their smiling faces as we share the unspoken adrenaline of preparing for another school year. I miss the smell of books, the various personalities that make their way through our classroom doors, the camaraderie of teachers.

So how can I miss something that I yearned to leave?

According to life coach and author, Martha Beck (THE WAY OF INTEGRITY), sensing or experiencing an “impending transformation brings on a spasm of nostalgia for the life…known so far.”

There’s a reason we call it growing pains! The prefix TRANS (transition) literally means across or beyond. To go beyond something can shake us up, ejecting us from our comfort zones. It’s why the smoker who finds the willpower to give up cigarettes, while proud of their success, can also experience sadness, knowing they can’t share a smoke with their friends anymore. It’s why the victim of abuse who leaves their abuser is finally free but craves the familiar cycle of violence.

It’s why I can revel in pursuing my career but still wax nostalgic and sad about missing the first day of school.

“If you start honoring your true nature and find yourself missing your old culture, don’t panic. Be kind to yourself. Allow yourself time and space…” (Martha Beck)

I haven’t outgrown the classroom, but I did outgrow my role as public school teacher. I can appreciate the nostalgia that comes with time away from the classroom, but I don’t want to return there just because it’s familiar.

When we embrace our transitions, honoring how we feel along the way, a world of possibility arrives. And that’s where the real magic happens.

The Only Way Out

Like Alice in Wonderland, the only way out of the mad world of denial is through the looking glass.

Denial is not always the clandestine villain its often portrayed. It can act as some solid protective gear amid danger. The child who is abused or the hostage with a gun to their face likely needs a hefty source of denial to get them through their toxic environment.

But the denial we allow ourselves to retain post a traumatic event can wreak havoc on our daily lives. We might numb the pain with anything from drugs and alcohol to gambling and compulsive buying. There are also the more subtle forms denial takes: the physical pain that sweeps through our bodies, alerting us that we are not listening to the inner teacher residing within each of us.

Avoidance is the child of Denial. We keep busy, psychologically hiding behind to-do lists, appointments, Netflix binges—you name it. It is human nature to avoid the uncomfortable and downright painful. But I’ve learned firsthand, the only way out is through. Those little, seemingly innocuous avoidance behaviors are like spiderwebs, gossamer thin individually, but overwhelmingly powerful as an intricate whole that you can’t untangle yourself from. Avoidance is the spiritual equivalent of those Chinese finger tricks: the more we fight to avoid the pain of our past, the stronger the spiritual and physical hold on us.

According to author and teacher, Byron Katie, when we are bravely willing to examine the terrain of pain, we are also liberating ourselves. She offers four simple yet powerful soul-provoking questions:

“Is it true?”

“Can you absolutely know that it’s true?”

“How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?

“Who would you be without that thought?”

When I was twenty-six, my husband died. For years, my denial, not over his death, but over my feelings surrounding his death, were too painful to bear. In Judaism, when someone passes, there is a formalized mourning period known as Shiva. The immediate family of the deceased is not meant to do anything but mourn. Mirrors are covered. Food is brought to the mourning family. There are no distractions from the loss. The Shiva provides a way through the pain.

Unfortunately, I didn’t sit shiva or sit at all with my pain. I returned to work within a week, started dating, dancing, doing anything and everything to keep myself busy, busy, busy. The idea of sitting alone with my thoughts terrified me. My avoidance took the form of a jam-packed schedule, running to the brink of exhaustion, my M.O.

Fast forward to today, and I am a woman who misses the young man who was my sweet and thoughtful husband. It took facing my fear, asking questions like the ones above from the wise Byron Katie to begin healing. I went from avoiding the pain to embracing it and finally, made peace with my beautiful husband.

Our relationships, all of them, are an opportunity for us to know ourselves better. Once I embraced the pain of losing my husband, I was able to embrace myself in a way that rendered me more grounded and comfortable in my skin than before I even knew him.

If there’s something in your life that is keeping you in the Land of Denial and you are ready to make a change, I highly recommend delving into Byron Katie’s four questions: https://thework.com

A New Way to Measure Success

How we measure success determines much more than our bank account.

My uncle has four grown daughters. Each year on his birthday, he will spend the day complaining about which daughter took the longest to call, why none of them call often enough, and how he can relate to Rodney Dangerfield’s, “No Respect.”

On the other figurative hand there’s my dear friend Steve who wanted but didn’t have children. His phone regularly rings with calls from the many former students who want to thank him for changing their lives.

Both men grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, raised in dysfunctional and abusive homes. 

So, how did these two men end up with such different lives? Why does my uncle repel company while Steve attracts it?

There’s an old saying by Buddhist, Haruki Murakami:

“Pain is inevitable: suffering is optional.”

While my uncle and Steve both experienced some particularly bumpy roads in their childhoods, my uncle kept his wounds company, allowing them to fester and bleed into the landscape of his adult life; Steve, however, allowed himself to feel those wounds and learn from them. If my uncle were a character in a play, he’d be emotionally stuck in Act I. He hasn’t stepped away from the events of his youth and looked at them objectively, so he’s a mouse in a spiritual maze, destined to experience suffering.

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s not to measure success solely on the external. As of this writing, 612,000 people in the United States have died from COVID; 4.19 million people worldwide are no longer on this beautiful Earth due to the respiratory virus. COVID doesn’t care if you drive a Ferrari or a Ford, it doesn’t care if you wear Ferragamo’s or flip flops, and it certainly doesn’t care if you work on Wall Street or a Walmart.

COVID has shaken the infrastructure of our economy, our politics, and our personal and professional relationships. COVID is The Great Wake Up Call to consider success from a place that cannot be destroyed or taken from us.

Remember: Pain is temporary and inevitable in this life; suffering is, thankfully, optional.

So, what is this new measure for success that COVID cannot take away from us?

Joy. Fun. Laughter. Our free-will choice to perceive this life from a different perspective.

Author and life coach, Gabrielle Bernstein offers the following insight:

“It’s our job to find the fun in everything. Some of the happiest people I know have the innate ability to find joy in the most joyless scenarios.”

We all possess this ability to find joy, regardless of our circumstances. My uncle has the choice to be grateful that all four of his daughters are healthy and enjoying their adult lives. The irony here is that if he stopped focusing on his perception of lack, more would flow to him: his daughters would want to call him—and not just on the obligatory birthday time. Respect is a natural by-product of self-respect. My uncle only needs to look within for his suffering to abate.

Steve finds joy in helping others, in learning, in using his body and mind in equal measure; my uncle spends his days blasting the news, intermittently yelling at the anchors on television who cannot hear him. 

When we measure our success by the sense of pleasure that we experience, instead of the external world that will continue to alter, we are living a successful life. Everything else is just gravy.

So, savor that cup of coffee, relish the scent of fresh cut grass, and notice how tonight’s sunset makes you feel. It’s our job.

Source: The New York Times, Miracles Now, Wikipedia

Feeling Torn?

Are you living a life to please others or yourself?

Remember Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz? That poor girl daydreamed about going on adventures “somewhere over the rainbow,” only to discover a world where scarecrows and tinmen could talk beside flying monkeys and—oh yeah, that she’d inadvertently murdered a witch!

Dorothy comes to adore her unusual friends. Their common quest to meet “The Great Oz” brings them closer, further bonding them as they sing arm in arm down that famous yellow brick road.

And yet, Dorothy is torn. She wants nothing more than to go home to her Auntie Em. Yet she doesn’t want to leave her friends. She wants to go home, but home is her friends AND Kansas. So where IS home? Where will Dorothy go??

What to do? We can feel Dorothy’s angst because we can relate. It is part of our human journey to experience confusion, a sense of longing for two things at once, a feeling of not knowing what step to take next.

Fortunately (you may recall), the ethereal Glinda the Good Witch shows up at this rife-with-tension juncture. She speaks the famous words to our young protagonist that hits me in the solar plexus each time:

“Home is a place we must all find, child. It’s not just a place where you eat or sleep. Home is knowing. Knowing your mind, knowing your heart, knowing your courage. If we know ourselves, we’re always home, anywhere.”

While our modern-day world is not filled with singing Lollipop Guilds or cackling green witches who melt from water, we are regularly bombarded by flashing social media posts depicting every opinion under the figurative rainbow. And as social creatures, we tend to shape ourselves based on our culture, not our nature. 

Author and life coach, Martha Beck highlights our proclivity for adhering to cultural desires over our natural ones:

“For women in traditional China, climbing the social ladder required having teeny-tiny feet. Generations of girls and women had their feet bound and crushed, crippling them to make them better. In Victorian England, women wore fabrics dyed with arsenic that caused skin ulcers…a small price to pay for looking better than their fashion rivals! In our society, people will virtually kills themselves trying to better by decorating the fanciest cake, or breeding the most standard of all poodles, or clubbing a tiny little ball into a tiny little hole.” (The Way of Integrity: Finding the Path to Your True Self).

There is nothing wrong with a desire to socialize or even embrace one’s culture. The caveat arrives when we tend to measure our well-being externally, relegating our inner needs and knowing to the equivalent of a second-class citizen. When we get caught up in how many Instagram followers someone has, or how much bigger or more expensive someone else’s house is, we are measuring our lives with the invisible yardstick, not tuning into how we feel. Like Dorothy, we can easily forget that we are always home, able to “close our eyes” and find the answers and guidance we need.

We may not have a manifested Glinda at our beck and call. Yet we do have an inner voice, guiding us home whenever we are willing to listen. 

So, the next time you are feeling torn, ask yourself the following: 

Is there another way to look at this?

What does my culture (i.e. friends, family, religion) want/like for me?

What do I (my nature) want/like for me?

There’s a good chance your answers to the 2nd and 3rd questions are different. Only you know which one to follow.

Calling All (Student) Writers!

Grab that pencil: Students in grades 3-12 from all over the world have a chance to be published in the biggest book in the world!

Imagine having the chance to carve out a story or create a poem that is published in the biggest book in the world! 

Since July 15th 2021, students from all over the world in grades 3-12 have the chance to be published. For the past 12 years, the literacy organization, iWRITE, has given students the opportunity to experience the magic of seeing their work published. Founder Melissa Williams (author of Turtle Town and Little Miss Molly) marveled when she held her first published book and wanted to share the empowering experience with students.

In its 13th year, iWRITE  (https://iwrite.org) is partnering with the Bryan Museum (https://thebryanmuseum.org)t with this year’s contest theme: “I Am Texas.” Students can create stories—either fiction or non-fiction, poetry, or artwork that represents what Texas means to them. 

New York Times best-selling author, Brad Meltzer (https://bradmeltzer.com/Discover.html) will select the Editor’s Choice winners. (Ordinary People Change the World). All winners will be invited to a red-carpet event in Houston, where they will autograph books for guests.

While the theme is “I Am Texas,” no worries if you aren’t from the Lone Star State. A little research can stir up one’s imagination, and when it comes to Texas, there’s plenty of historical treasures to dig through and inspire.

The maxim, “Everything is bigger in Texas,” applies to this year’s publishing contest:

“The iWRITE Organization and The Bryan Museum are partnering with New York Times bestselling author and illustrator team, Brad Meltzer and Christopher Eliopoulos, to break the GUINNESS WORLD RECORDS™ title for the largest published book in the World called I Am Texas!” 

Winners will be invited to attend a gala in Houston; the over seven foot tall book will be displayed at The Bryan Museum in Galveston.

To learn more about this free contest, head over to www.iamtx.org

“Who’s the Storyteller?”

We are always narrating the story of our lives. But so is everyone else.

One of the aspects of writing I adore is the gift of perspective. The facts of a story can drastically be altered by mere observer. Take for example the following:

Scene: a restaurant, a couple in their 30’s sits across from each other

POV of observer:

The woman slides a gold band across the table. The man holds his head down and sighs. He takes the ring and puts it in his back pocket. 

“I’m sorry,” he says. 

“Me, too,” she says, her eyes shiny with unshed tears.

POV of woman:

I’m pregnant and the almost stranger sitting across from me is the father. It’s why he proposed last night, offering up a lifetime together the way someone decides to put extra toppings on their pizza—spontaneous and without much thought. 

Yeah, I accepted. Not because I loved the guy or even liked him. I said yes simply because fear eclipsed judgement, because the idea of motherhood solo or an abortion both felt impossible.

When I slide the flimsy band (like something out of a Cracker Jack box) across the table at him, the relief on his face is palpable.

“I’m sorry,” he says—a white lie—one that renders him unable to make eye contact.

“Me, too.” I’m sorry I didn’t insist we use condoms. Sorry I didn’t know you for more than one night. Sorry that I have lived three decades on earth and still can’t behave like an adult.

POV Man:

I feel like a trapped dog. What was I thinking?? How is It I can run legal cases with finesse but can’t think straight when it comes to a hot woman?!

She asked to meet, so here we are, her puppy eyes haunted looking. (Was this an early sign of pregnancy?) She plays with the tin band I gave her as a quasi-promise ring.

When she slides the ring off and across the table at me, I feel like the cage to my kennel is lifting. I’m getting out of here! I’m getting another chance!!!

“I’m sorry,” I say. Guilt and relief flood through my veins in equal measure.

“Me, too” she says.

Only she doesn’t seem sorry. Her eyes look shiny with a relief that, just moments before, mirrored mine. And yet, the idea of the life inside of her not happening makes the invisible hairs on the back of my neck stand up in cold fear. 

—–

There you have it, three different perspectives on one moment in time. And they are all accurate! 

My dear friend, Steve Bernstein (author of STORIES FROM THE STOOP) recently reminded me of the storytelling layers or perspectives in fiction as well as life. Whether we are crafting a tale on the page or forming one in our real lives, we need to be cognizant of the story we and others are potentially perceiving.

So, the next time you find yourself angry or emotional about something someone did, consider the potential alternate narrative they might be telling. They might be the woman, man, or observer in the “restaurant” of your life story. When we give the gift of an alternate perspective for ourselves as well as others, we are more likely to find compassion and a greater sense of inner peace.

Dating Red Flag: The Smooth Operator

The old adage: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is exists for a reason.

FaceTime first dates are a popular experience in the world of online dating—particularly for those finding potential in someone who is geographically less desirable. A few short months ago, when there was still a wait list to get a vaccine, my cousin *Jeani called to share the exciting news: “I have a date!”

The “date” was suggested by a fellow (albeit former) Bostonian who, like Jeani, now lived in California. The divorce father of three girls lived in Silicon Valley—a good five hours drive from my cousin (Los Angeles).

Jeani is a single mom of four in her late forties. She is a full-time veterinarian and works long hours. When most men find out that she A) has more than 2 kids and/or B) is committed to her job they C) run away.

“But this one is different. He thinks it’s cool that I’m a vet and didn’t think twice about me having 4 kiddos. He asked if I wanted to Facetime tonight! And he’s CUTE!”

The next morning, Jeani filled me in on the juicy details: Eric found Jeani gorgeous (He even used the word “mesmerizing” to describe her eyes) and told her he was already “falling in like” with her. He said he’d drive down the coast to spend the coming weekend with her.They talked for almost 3 hours. He went so far as to suggest that their next trip home to Boston be together “to meet each other’s parents.”) 

“He said he’d call me this morning.” Her voice was dancing.

Unfortunately, the morning came and went without a word from Eric. Then the afternoon arrived along with the evening without so much as a text from the flattering Bostonian.

Jeani called me that night, the pain in her voice palpable: “He said he’d call. Why hasn’t he called?”

The next morning, still no word from the man who was “mesmerized” by my cousin’s eyes. By evening, Jeani decided to text him.

“How’s the Smooth Operator doing? Still planning to spend the weekend in LA?”

Within minutes, Jeani’s iPhone starting ringing for Facetime. It was Eric.

Only Jeani was about to see her next patient, so she couldn’t take the call. She Facetimed him about an hour later. Eric didn’t pick up. 

“Try me again.” Jeani texted Eric.

Silence. 

Since then, Jeani can see Eric on the dating site they first met on.

“It hurts. I don’t know why it hurts, but it does. I didn’t even know the guy. So why does it hurt?”

“It hurts because someone played with your heart. It hurts because it’s painful to know that there are people out there who treat dating like a game, who prefer to find pleasure in cruelly leading someone on instead of engaging in an authentic conversation. It hurts because we don’t want to think that he is a part of what makes up our world, our human race.”

I get Jeani’s pain because I’ve been there. If you’ve lived long enough, you’ve experienced the disappointment of someone not being who they represented themselves to be. The high of expectation and the low of reality creates a semi-crash that wounds (temporarily).

It’s always a red flag when someone comes on too strong or says all the “right” things—an auditory confection a vulnerable heart yearns to hear. Be wary of the “Smooth Operator.”  They got that way after lots of practice.

*Name has been altered for privacy purposes.

Dating Myth: The Closing Window

The idea that a woman’s potential to meet a man “before the window closes” creates a fear that manifests in unhealthy choices.

*Ann recently went on a date with a 5’9” man. At the end of the evening, the man said, “I like you. You’re cute. I’d like to see you again. But you’ll need to ditch the heels. We can’t have you looking taller than me.”

Ann is 5’ 8” sans heels. Apparently, Ann’s height directly affects her date’s ability to…er date her (or at the very least, stand beside her in public).

“Were you attracted to him?” I asked.

“He owns his own real estate company and drives a Lamborghini.”

“But are you attracted to him?”

She sighed and made a face like one would when offered leftovers from two nights ago. “It’s different at my age. You’ll see. You have to consider different things than you do in your 20’s and 30’s. So, he’s sensitive about his height and he seems a little needy. But he likes me, and he wants to take care of me. I don’t want to be alone. I need someone like him.”

Our talk went on, covering everything from his clean teeth to his affectionate texts. Still, my friend never did answer the attraction question. 

Ann’s divorce isn’t final. She has three girls to raise and at forty, she says “a woman’s window closes quickly. A man has plenty of time. The window remains open for them.”

But I boldly disagree with my dear friend. The “closing window” is a myth, an illusion perpetuated by the cousin of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). This fear causes women and men alike to make choices out of some invisible pressure cooker. It is up to each of us to recognize the myth and do what YOU think works best for YOU, not what the mythical fear whispers (if not screams).

I am not stating that compromise isn’t a part of dating and personal relationships in general. But there is a fine but distinct difference between compromise and settling, between choosing to be with someone out of interest and choosing someone to purely have a “someone.”

Love can be found in the least expected places by people at any stage of life. And while the hunger to experience that love is real, there is nothing lonelier than spending time in the wrong company. 

*Name is altered to retain privacy.

The Illusion of Memory

Psychological scientist and author, Dr. Julia Shaw, studies what she refers to as “false memories” that “corrupt our identities, politics and justice system.” It is our perception of the past that forms our emotional story and sometimes, even facts.

My father is just shy of his 8th decade on earth. He’s “been around the block,” filled with a lifetime of experiences that has caused him to grow, like all of us, physically, mentally, and spiritually.

Yet ask him about his collection of baseball cards from the 4th grade and he’s still there, sitting in Mrs. Kofkin’s class, watching the thin, pinch-faced woman snatch his cards away from him.

“She never gave them back,” my father says, a flood of emotion in his voice.

Psychological scientist and author, Dr. Julia Shaw studies what she refers to as “false memories” that “corrupt our identities, politics and justice system.” It is our perception of the past that forms our emotional story and sometimes even facts:

“Everyone thinks that they couldn’t be tricked into believing they have done something they never did, and that if someone were telling them about a false memory, they would be able to spot it. But we found that actually, people tend to be quite susceptible to having false memories, and they sound just like real memories.” (Dr. Shaw, UCL Psychology and Language Sciences)

This idea that we can falsely believe something that didn’t happen to us or that we never experienced directly fascinates me. So, I asked my father recently to share his well-told childhood experience with Mrs. Kofkin again.

“What did Mrs. Kofkin look like?”

“I don’t remember. But she took those cards from me. They were my cards. They weren’t hers to take. She just grabbed them from me.”

It occurred to me that the details of his memory weren’t important; what mattered was the feeling provoked—after so many decades—from the memory itself.

It was the feeling of the event that made all the difference, that kept his childhood “violin song” playing. I thought, this isn’t even about a stack of baseball cards from 7 decades ago. There’s something more here.

“Was Mrs. Kofkin mean to you?”

“No…she was just doing her job.”

“Who are you upset with then?”

(And here it came.)

“My parents. They knew how much those cards meant to me. I begged them to speak to my teacher and get them back. But they said they didn’t have time.”

So, there it was: my father’s memory that stirred a feeling of pain wasn’t about Mrs. Kofkin or the baseball cards. The teacher and cards were an illusion, preventing this almost 80-year-old man from seeing the source of the hurt: the message from his parents that his needs and wants didn’t matter.

We talked more about his parents not realizing they were hurting him, that they were busy running a store and doing, like most parents, the best they could. The pain they caused their son wasn’t personal or intentional.

One childhood memory and a world-altering perception to digest.

Yes, our perceptions create our reality, but our past perceptions do so as well. Our memories are like the wake of a ship, offering a trail of perceptions that buoy us along to the ever present. We have the power to consider that trail and perceive it through a different lens and by extension, shift the course of our present and future.

So, the next time you find yourself beating the drum of a past unpleasant or even traumatic event, dive into that memory until you unearth something you didn’t notice before. You just might find a perceptual treasure to steer you in a more peaceful, promising direction.

Sources: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/04/200408085517.htm