Thursday, May 14, 2015

Are We Fooling Ourselves?

She didn’t exactly whack the back of my head when she lifted the lid on the overhead compartment in the plane, but she did hit it.

“Watch your head,” she said matter-of-factly, after she hit me.

Since I was removing my jacket from the overhead compartment on my side of the aisle at the time, I hadn’t expected to be hit.

“I didn’t know I needed to watch,” I said.

“These things are so poorly design” she responded, and then gathered her belonging and hurried out of the aircraft.

Everyone on the plane seemed a bit tired of sitting knee-to-knee on a small regional jet, but I was a bit taken aback by her response to banging my head. Her behavior made me think of a book I finished recently, Mistakes Were Made (but not by me). Carol Tavris and Eliot Aronson assert how little we know about how we are experienced by others and how difficult it is for us to learn.

For instance, I doubt that the woman in the plane would want to be perceived as rude or ill-mannered. My guess is that in her hurry to get off the plane she raised the compartment lid too quickly and unintentionally hit me in the process. Given her response, it’s likely she was embarrassed.

She might have apologized or inquired about my well-being, but that would have been an admission, of sorts, of her part in the head hitting. Instead, she issued a belated warning to me and then commented on the design flaw of the airplane. While I was a bit surprised, Tavris and Aronson suggest this tendency is very common and not all that surprising. If we dislike certain kinds of behavior and then find ourselves engaging in those same actions, we have to find a way to excuse what we’ve done. In social psychology circles, this is known as self-justification or the self-serving bias.

When someone engages in self-justification, it can sound as if they’re lying, but there is a difference. Tavris and Aronson (2007) suggest that self-justification is “more powerful and more dangerous” because “it allows people to convince themselves that what they did was the best thing they could have done” (p.4) at the time. I wonder how many acts we see described in the nightly news would fall into the category of self-justification.

Tavris and Aronson describe cognitive dissonance as the “engine that drives self-justification” (p. 13). Cognitive dissonance occurs when we have two thoughts or perspectives that are psychologically inconsistent (e.g., “Punctuality is important;” and “I’m late again.”) When this happens, it is so uncomfortable we often seek to rationalize our behavior.

Instead of: “I’m sorry I was late. I should have left earlier,” we say, “That traffic was terrible. They really need to do something about the streets.

Instead of: “I over-reacted. I’m sorry I got so angry,” we say, “If you had just explained what you wanted with more detail, I would have been fine.”

Mistakes Were Made caused me to think about a lot of things. I wondered how often I really worked to understand a perspective other than my own. I pondered how others might experience what I see as my own perfectly logical behavior. I considered a very human tendency to give myself a pass on less than favorable behavior, while nailing the same flaw in others. It’s not comfortable thinking, but if I want to avoid the justification of foolish beliefs, bad decisions and hurtful acts, I probably need to do more of it.

Mistakenly yours, more often than I would like to admit,

Jennifer L. Baker

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The African Violet Queen felt tired all the time. She just couldn’t seem to get the energy or interest to do the things she once enjoyed.

“I used to like to get up and go to church,” she said, “but now I can’t seem to drag myself out of bed in the morning. Since I’ve been confined to a wheelchair, I find myself wondering, what’s the point? Why am I here? I don’t see that my life makes much of a difference.”

This story is about a woman who met with Dr. Milton Erickson, a famous psychiatrist. She was very depressed, even suicidal at times. Her nephew asked Dr. Erickson to see her when he visited their city. He did and the results were surprising. Rather than comment on the disarray in the woman’s home, obvious signs of neglect and depression, Dr. Erickson instead noticed indicators of her religious belief and the woman’s African violets.

“Depression isn’t your problem,” he said. “Your problem is that you aren’t being a very good Christian.”

He then told the woman she needed to grow as many plants as she could from the cuttings and whenever there was a birthday, engagement, wedding, christening, anniversary, sickness or death in her parish, she needed to contribute one of her plants in a gift pot. About ten years later an article appeared in the city’s newspaper proclaiming, “African Violet Queen Dies—Mourned By Thousands!”

Growing and giving away African violets is not a magic cure for depression, but it does have relevance to our mental health. Productive activities pay an important role in the treatment of depression. Even though the depressed person may not feel like going outside, taking the dog for a walk, or cooking dinner, she needs to do it anyway. Participating in an exercise class, working in the garden, or talking with a friend are also helpful. Exercise contributes to the production of naturally mood-boosting endorphins.

Because life is stressful, and may be particularly so when we’re feeling depressed, finding positive ways to relax are also important. This might include soaking in the tub, using a meditative or devotional activity, listening to music or even growing African violets.

Altruism and spirituality are also important. Organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) consider it as a key component of recovery.  Social support and giving back are both associated with a more positive outlook and better health. Studies suggest it also helps with depression, especially if the giving is connected with an expression of faith, e.g., through a church. In a study of members of Presbyterian churches across the U.S., giving help was significantly associated with lower depression and anxiety than was receiving help, just as long as the volunteer did not feel overwhelmed by the demands of others.

Depression is disabling and debilitating. For serious depression, consultation with a professional is best. In mild or moderate cases of depression, relief may be found by talking with someone (perhaps a friend or family member and a trusted therapist) and including some of the activities identified above. Finding purpose in meaningful activities connected with altruism can be very good medicine indeed.

This post originally appeared in the Springfield News-Leader on April 14, 2015.

Monday, March 16, 2015

It Happened "On Accident"

Betty Clendening was a force to be reckoned with and our son was experiencing the full extent of her indignation. The two of them stood in front of my desk – Mrs. Clendening with her hands on her hips,  Andrew red-faced and sheepish.

“Tell your mother what you did,” she demanded.

“I didn’t mean to. I did it ‘on accident,’” he stammered. “I was trying to kick the soccer ball over the school roof and it went through a window.”

“On accident.” There’s a phrase I knew wouldn’t fly with his father.  According to my Main Man, very little really happens “on accident.” Rather, while you don’t actually want something bad to occur, due to impulsivity, force of habit, or poor judgment, something you didn’t really intend, does.

I thought of Andrew’s long ago incident recently in relation to a presentation I’d made on “Living with Purpose.” It occurred to me many of us fail to live a considerable portion of our lives with intentionality or “on purpose.” Rather, much of what materializes seems to befall us “on accident.”

But does it really?

For instance, many people complain about being “too busy.” It causes me to wonder, are our schedules slammed from stem to stern because we were thoughtful about our choices? Or did we, perhaps, fail to say “no” when we should have? Did we graciously decline without the “maybe-if-you-push-me-hard-enough-I’ll-say-yes” in our voice? Do we contain our children’s schedules, or allow others to make us feel guilty when we limit our commitments?

Richard Leider, author of The Power of Purpose, identifies three key skills for those who want to be more intentional about their lives. First, living on purpose or requires reflection on our current situation or choices. Why am I doing what I’m doing? Who am I trying to please or make happy? What am I afraid of? Whose life am I trying to live, mine or someone else’s?

Secondly, living on purpose requires courage—not the kind of courage needed for sky-diving or white water rafting. Rather, it necessitates the sort of bravery associated with being more real, vulnerable and authentic with others. It means letting others know who you really are.

Finally, living on purpose means answering questions like these: Who am I? Why am I here? What do I need or want to accomplish? When I think about living with purpose, I’m encouraged by advice from a cancer patient.

You must stop and reassess your priorities and values. You must be willing to be yourself, not what people want you to be because you think that is the only way you can get love. You can no longer be dishonest. You are now at a point where, if you truly want to live, you have to be who you are.
If we are to live this kind of life then we will have to make choices. We will need to be intentional. We will need to sort and sift through our options.

What happened to our “on accident” son? The window cost about $200 to replace—a lot of money for a 12-year-old of limited means. Fortunately, the school had a lawn measured in acres, something that allowed a young man with few resources to do a lot of thinking while walking behind a lawn mower. No doubt the experience allowed him plenty of time to reflect on his actions and plan the future with greater intentionality. He certainly never tried to kick a soccer ball over the school roof again. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Mother is Always Wrong

Several years ago our son, who was then focusing on communication and the arts in his undergraduate degree, arrived home during a break from instruction and remarked, "You should have made me continue piano lessons." Apparently it was my fault he was not able to play with the skill of a virtuoso, or at least well enough to entertain his friends or accompany others with their vocal renditions.

I recalled those five, long, brutal years when I faithfully drove him to piano lessons early weekday mornings before school and then encouraged -- okay, some may say forced -- him to practice every afternoon or evening. It wasn't pleasant. He learned to play the piano, but we had a definite battle of the wills going on a significant amount of the time. Finally, when he reached high school and took up the trumpet as a band member, I allowed him to stop. He seemed relieved and I enjoyed a respite from a daily battles of the wills -- at least in my memory -- so it seemed very curious to me that I should be blamed four or five years later for allowing him to stop.

A similar thing also occurred from time to time with our daughter -- though she started much younger. For instance, on a road trip when she was about nine- or ten-years-old we stopped to get gas and visit the "necessary room." 

I asked, "Do you need to use the restroom?"

"No," she insisted. "I do not."

"Are you sure?" I persisted. 

She continued to insist she was fine, so back on the road we went. Thirty minutes later she suddenly exclaimed, "I've got to go. When can we stop?"

"I thought you said you didn't have to go," I argued.

"You should have made me go," she declared. And apparently, that was that.

Once again, apparently, it was my fault. My children were masters at assigning blame to their mother. Even when their father stepped out of line, at least from their perspective, it all came back to me.

"Don't look at me," I'd exclaim in the face of disappointing-dad-behavior. "This is all your father's doing."

"You should have made him do it," they'd retort. 

"Really," I thought. "Do I control the universe? In what stratosphere is it possible for me to control my Main Man?" I just couldn't understand how I always ended up to be the one at fault . . . until recently.

Not long ago my Main Man suggested I read the book Mistakes Were Made, (but Not by Me). I'll have to admit that the book is uncomfortably insightful at times about the lengths to which we will go to justify our own misbehavior. Apparently it's not so much a case of lying, in the sense that we don't actually set out to deceive. It's more that we can't live with the thought of ourselves as the kind of person who might do some of the things we do or fail to do. 

According to Tavris and Aronson, authors of Mistakes Were Made, "Parent blaming is a popular and convenient form of self-justification because it allows people to live less uncomfortably with their regrets and imperfections. Mistakes were made, by them. Never mind that I raised hell about those lessons or stubbornly refused to take advantage of them. Memory thus minimizes our own responsibility and exaggerates theirs" (p. 76).

Apparently, we have to be careful about how much stock we put in our memories because they can and do delude us. I can see this so very clearly as a therapist. When people tell me their stories, they are almost always skewed to a perspective that puts them in the very best light and others . . . well, let's just say it's much less attractive. I can see it in them. Its much harder to recognize in myself.

To be fair, there are some not-so-good and even bad parents, but the majority did the very best they could for us with the resources they had available at the time. Part of being a grown-up, I think, is letting our parents be people. We need to let them off the hook for what they didn't or couldn't provide for us. We need to recognize their imperfect love for us and take responsibility for our own contribution to our difficulties then and now. When we do that, I think its a lot easier to love them even if they failed us in some important ways. It's also enables us to be more effective in solving our problems.

I haven't finished the book yet, but I'm working on it. It seems I may have a lot more uncomfortable things to learn about myself, but I'm sure I'll be a better person for it. I wonder if I should recommend Mistakes Were Made to my children. After all, with offspring of their own, they're certain to experience a little blaming themselves.

As for me, for the moment I remain,

Mistakenly yours.

Dr. Jennifer Baker

Monday, January 26, 2015

Letting Go and Moving On

Although this will not be my last blog post, it will be the last post I make that is linked to the Robert J. Murney Clinic e-newsletter. Every Tuesday morning for the last three or so years, the e-newsletter from the Murney Clinic arrived in the mailboxes of many. In it readers found a link to my blog, Things that Matter. There I try to record my thoughts about what really matters in our lives -- individually and with each other. Things, I think, that matter to overall mental health and well-being.

With the sad understanding Forest Institute and the Murney Clinic will be closing sometime in August, I've come to the conclusion that it's time for me to turn my attention from writing a weekly blog for clinic purposes and focus instead on other matters. For me, it's part of the acceptance process--part of recognizing that life as I've known it for the past 15+ years is coming to an end and I must start thinking about the future.

I will continue as Director of the Murney Clinic for the time being. I will continue to see clients, supervise therapists and oversee clinic activities. I'm committed to completing projects related to "innovation and community health," but I will spend less and less time on these activities--at least in an official capacity. It's all part of letting go and moving on. A dream, an ideal, a hope is dying, but new opportunities can be found on the other side of this sadness.

I will continue to write a blog post from time to time because I do enjoy writing. My comments will probably be more personal and faith-related, because that's who I am and how I make sense of life. If you want to be sure you don't miss anything, all you need to do is save the setting and check the blog because an e-newsletter won't arrive in your in-box every Tuesday morning. Check the blog site from time to time -- or wait for me to share it on Facebook or Twitter.

I've enjoyed the opportunity I've had to share "things that matter" through the RJMC e-newsletter. Your comments have encouraged me and inspired me. Though weekly writing is a burden at times, is is also a privilege--especially when you discover other like-minded people or learn that something you've written made a difference for someone else.

As we move further into 2015 I look forward to finding new ways to give back. I pray the same for you as well.


Dr. Jennifer Baker

Monday, January 12, 2015

Ordinary at Work

Self-Assessment of Work Performance -- "Excellent"

Job Satisfaction -- "Good to Average"

I've lost track of the times I've seen forms for persons indicating their belief that their work performance was "excellent," while their job satisfaction was only "good" or "average." If we are to believe what this says it would indicate there are a disproportionate number of folks who do exceptional work, but who are also undervalued for what they do. Apparently this phenomena is not uncommon. 

According to David McRaney, author of You are Not so Smart, we all have a very human tendency to give ourselves credit for being much better people than we actually are. Studies from the 1990s show that we "tend to accept credit when [we] succeed, but blame bad luck, unfair rules, difficult instructors, bad bosses, cheaters, and so on when [we] fail" (p. 158). Basically, it seems that all or most of us have an inordinate fear of being ordinary, so much so that it's very difficult for us to recognize our mistakes and acknowledge our limitations. 

McRaney adds, "The last thirty years' worth of research shows just about all of us think we are more competent than our coworkers, more ethical than our friends, friendlier than the general public, and more intelligent than our peers, more attractive than the average person, less prejudiced than people in our region, younger-looking than people the same age, better drivers than most people we know, better children than our siblings, and that we will live longer than the average lifespan" (p. 159).

Even more difficult is the constant evaluation done in some settings, e.g., healthcare and retail, leading folks from physicians to pharmacy techs to prompt you to give the "right" response. 

"If there's any reason my service or your experience was not a '10' today, please tell me now." 

The problem is that compensation is often based on those ratings, creating environments where it is even more likely for performance to be inflated--both by those serving and those being served. Perhaps you felt the assistance you received was an "8" -- a good rating, but you give it a "10" because you like your physician or you feel sorry for the retail person assisting you. Seriously, is it even possible for someone to earn a "10" every time?

So if this is the way we view ourselves and others insist we be viewed, what chance do we have at being an ordinary, hardworking, ethical, decent human being? Perhaps it's time we hold ourselves to a different standard, as opposed to figuring that no matter what we do we're better than most of our coworkers. Given the nature of what social psychologists call the "self-serving bias," is this even possible?

There are a couple of things that help actually. One is to tell yourself how hard it will be for you to stay on task, be persistent, practice ethical behavior at all times and demonstrate kindness with your coworkers. Those people who recognized (or were told) a task would be difficult, tended to change how they saw themselves in comparison to an "imagined average." When you believe a task to be easy, the illusion of superiority takes over. When you distinguish it as difficult, you are more likely to make a realistic assessment of yourself.

Secondly, watch to whom you compare yourself. Identify the highest standard or the best person you know doing similar work to yours. Now estimate your value compared to that standard or person. If you do this, you're much more likely to have a realistic estimation of your worth or significance.

It's true that some people struggle with self-esteem issues impacting their ability to perform. Far more wrestle with a self-serving bias hindering their ability to honestly assess their contribution. On some level we need to believe we are likable and capable, but far more often we benefit from a more realistic self assessment. If you want to learn more about the ways you may be fooling yourself, I suggest McRaney's book. It might make you uncomfortable, but you may also learn something you don't already know.

Ordinarily yours,

Dr. Jennifer Baker

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Courage to be Ordinary

Ordinary – that’s the title of a new book by Michael Horton about “sustainable faith in a radical, restless world.” Horton speaks primarily of spiritual matters, but I think what he says applies to so much of our everyday lives—work, leisure, relationships.  After all, who wants to work at an ordinary job, go on an ordinary vacation, or have an ordinary relationship?

Today words like “ultimate,” “extreme” and “awesome” are in vogue. In the workplace or business world we often hear that companies or organizations are “emergent,” “impactful” and “innovative.” Let’s face it, if you’re not “cutting edge,” you are nowhere on the power grid.  It got me thinking about how much many of us, me included, may be influenced by this not-so-subtle message of our culture. According to Horton, “ordinary” is “one of the loneliest words in our vocabulary today,” and he notes that no one wants a bumper sticker announcing to the neighborhood, “My child is an ordinary student at Bubbling Brook Elementary.”

Just to be clear, Horton is not talking about settling for mediocrity or just getting by. Rather, he is suggesting the never ending calls to greatness, e.g., “Be all that you be” and “Never settle” are exhausting on multiple levels. In the words of Tish Harrison Warren, many of us have never learned “how to be an average person living an average life in a beautiful way.”  We are continually pushed and prodded to believe there is something more we could attain or be, if only we pursued our dreams with more vigor.

Here’s the thing that concerns me . . . and Horton. We can make heroic efforts to do some great thing in our community or around the globe, but fail to be a decent human being to our neighbor. We may be innovative and impactful at work, but fail to demonstrate that same kind of energy on a day-to-day basis with our families. We make sure our children have awesome, memorable vacations, but fail to help them consistently demonstrate good manners or be content with what they have.

Much has been said about “the greatest generation,” also known as the “silent generation.” What occurs to me now is that their greatness seems highly correlated with their willingness to be “ordinary,” i.e., to show up, day after day, doing their work with persistence and dedication. Perfect? No, but their faithfulness to the everydayness of life over a lifetime created some extraordinary legacies marked by courage and sacrifice.

As we begin a new year, I’m wondering if it might be good to consider more ways to be ordinary, draw less attention to ourselves, resolve to pay attention to people who don’t really benefit us in any way. Perhaps we could get to know our neighbors. Maybe we could resolve to be on time—early even—just so we could make space in our schedule to welcome others. Possibly we could worry less about what will make us happy and put more energy into how to make the world a better place for those within our circle of influence every day – small children, cashiers, service workers, those we supervise or report to. Small kindnesses, caring words and everyday courtesies don’t seem like much in the face of world hunger. That’s why it takes courage to pursue them on a daily basis. As the saying goes, “Everyone wants a revolution. No one wants to do the dishes.”

Becoming more content with being ordinary may be just what is required for a happy, healthy life, rich in community. 

Ordinarily yours,

Dr. Jennifer Baker