Monday, October 20, 2014

Unexpected II -- Bright Spots on Cloudy Days

When I wrote about my Main Man's question asking me to look for the unexpected in my everyday life, a number of you followed up with me to ask, "So, what happened? What unexpected things did you see?"

To be truthful, I can't say that anything amazingly unexpected occurred.  If only it were that easy. Things went along as they typically do with a fair amount of frustration and stress. It wasn't that the days were unusual. The difference was more in me. I started looking for the little joys and celebrations, the kind of things that brighten and enhance our days if only we notice and acknowledge them. Here are just a few of the things I've observed in the last few days:

Autumn colors are brightest on the grayest of days. On bright sunny days, the changing colors of our landscape appear dull in the brilliant sunlight, but on dark, cloudy, rainy days even the dullest of leaves is a standout. We've been blessed with a few of those lately to illustrate my point.

Comfortable shoes are a real treat after five hours in pinchy heels. Some occasions require heels for women. I do the best I can, but after a couple of hours my feet have had it. That's when I rediscover the joy of truly comfy shoes. What a gift that is. Millions of people in our world don't own even one pair of shoes.

Positive reports about my children. Of course I'm proud of them. I'm their mother. But when someone else tells me how talented or wonderful or generous they are, my joy overflows. This actually happened for me with regard to each of my children in the last ten days. That was unexpectedly special.

Friends and family who put up with prickly me. Some days are more stressful than others. Sometimes I'm just tired and grumpy. On those days when I'm not the easiest to be around, I'm especially grateful for people who put up with me. Not everyone is so kind. It's a good reminder for me to be as forgiving with others.

Pansies and ornamental cabbage. Some men bring their wives flowers regularly. My Main Man is not one of those people. He thinks cut flowers are a waste of money. This doesn't mean he wants me to do without. This fall he built a new flower bed I can see from our kitchen window--the one over the sink, and filled it with pansies and ornamental cabbage. Every time I look down I can see a reminder of his love for me.

If you're a fan of the Prairie Home Companion,you know Garrison Keillor begins weekly his monologue by saying "Its been a good week in Lake Wobegon," but sometimes in real life it hasn't been a particularly good week. Truth be told, many of us experience considerable tension, frustration and disappointment. Life can be hard. That may be when it's especially important to look around an notice the bright spots shining like autumn colors on a cloudy day . . . the warmth of a friend, the helpfulness of a co-worker, the comfort of a family member, the beauty of the season. Even on the darkest days, there is surely some unexpected beauty or gift for which we can be grateful.

On the lookout for the unexpected,

Dr. Jennifer Baker

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Difference a Group Can Make

I never liked group projects in school because I didn’t want to be responsible for or dependent on someone else’s work. I didn’t have much opportunity to play team sports as an adolescent since those weren’t available for girls in high school when I attended. My mother insisted I learn to play the piano—typically a solo instrument. It was much more practical than ballet lessons she said. My father wanted me to learn to do public speaking—again an activity singularly focused on one person’s ability.  It wasn’t that I avoided group activities as a kid. Much of the time, it just wasn’t an option.


In college, where they did have women’s sports, I settled on swimming. There, I was part of a team, but other than relays, all of our efforts were pretty much independent from each other. In swimming, there’s a lot of keeping your head in the water and focusing on the goal of propelling yourself swiftly and smoothly from one end of the pool to the other. Interaction with teammates is rare until you get out of the water.

Perhaps that why I have always had a fairly independent streak when it comes to behavior change in my own life. I know that support groups, mentors and coaches can be helpful for some, but I generally expect to “go there alone.”  After all, I’ve reasoned, I know what to do. It’s simply a matter of doing it.

Ah, but that’s where the illusion of “knowledge = behavior change” takes over. Just because I know to do something different, doesn’t mean I can actually do it. According to one expert, “Habits eat willpower for breakfast” and in my case, at least, he’s right. Knowing that I need to change a habit and actually doing it are two different things.
If I needed further evidence, all I had to do was check my weight. For approximately a year I weighed myself three or four times a week. I had heard that simply becoming more aware of one’s weight through a regular discipline of stepping on the scales might help to alter my eating patterns. It didn’t, probably because I never shared my weight diary with anyone else. Only I knew that my weight never varied more than three to four pounds. Only when I decided to return to a group setting (Weight Watchers) where I was more accountable for my weight and received the support of others did I manage to shed 15 pounds.

Apparently I’m not alone. In Eat Move Sleep, Tom Rath identifies several studies emphasizing the importance of social support for behavior change. In one, 218 people were assigned to get more exercise and then randomly assigned to one of three different groups. One-third of the group received no reminders at all, one-third received automated calls every three weeks for a year, and one-third spoke to a real live person every three weeks. Guess which group increased their exercise the most? If you guessed the one with personal phone contact, you’d be right. According to Rath, “A simple check-in from another person nearly doubled each participant’s activity over the span of a year” (p. 162). The take home for me … if you really want to change your eating habits, a group might help.

It’s not easy to admit you need the help of another. Pride, embarrassment, fear, misplaced priorities—all these can stand in the way of placing one’s self in the position of seeking support from others. If you truly want to change, you can try to go it alone. Some people are successful with that strategy – a few, but most do much better accessing support from others. If you really want and need to change something about your life, I hope you’ll consider the second option seriously.


Monday, October 6, 2014


“I have a question I want you to think about,” my Main Man said as he tossed pillows on the bed.

“What’s that?” I asked, continuing to pull up the quilt and smooth out the wrinkles.

“At the end of the day,” he continued, “I want you to tell me something surprising that happened to you today.”

“Really,” I questioned, “Why’s that?” (This is definitely not the kind of conversation my Main Man and I have in the midst of the morning bed making. What could he be getting at?)

“I don’t know,” he said. “I just thought of it. I thought it might be better than the usual, ‘How was your day?’ I thought you might notice something different.”

Well, he had me there. At the moment I was thinking the most surprising thing about my day was likely to be his request. That was unexpected already. I didn’t want to raise his expectations for something more.

“Alright,” I warned, “I’ll try but your question but it may be it … the most unexpected thing of my day.”

His query actually reminded me of a question I have posed many times in therapy.

“Tell me about a times in the last week when the problem did not occur,” I’d ask, “for example, when you didn’t argue, forget to mow the grass, or get to work late? What was different about those days?”

The typical response?  People usually look at me in confusion. They think I need to know all about the problem. They go to great lengths to explain what occurs when the problem happens (their teenager mouths off to them, their spouse is grumpy, they feel depressed, their seven-year-old brings another note home from the teacher). They usually also can expound at great length about why they think the problem occurs, e.g., he’s just like his Uncle Ralph; her mother struggled with depression; she doesn’t have many friends.  These theories, however justified, usually don’t bring us closer to the resolution of the problem. They’re like an impressionistic painting of the problem more than a photograph. If you want to address the concern, it’s often more helpful to gain a different perspective.

Since we humans are mostly programmed to notice problems or concerns more than a positive occurrence, it will take some intentionality to make this happen – like noticing what is different about the time when the problem is not happening. What is different about those times? If you had a big row with your spouse on Tuesday and Friday nights, what was different about Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday? If the note from the teacher came home on Wednesday, what was different about all the days last week when there was no note? If your teenager was disrespectful on Monday night, what was different about the days when he spoke to you in a different tone of voice?

Frankly, it’s not easy to notice exceptions to a problem. A lot of people struggle. Even when I say, “If you can’t think of an exception, tell me about a time when the quarrel with your mate didn’t last as long or your son was less rebellious than usual, it still seems hard to get a response.

It’s important, though, because if we look for problems, we’ll always see those. If we focus on exceptions to the problem – the good that’s going on when the problem is not happening – we’re more likely to see something different.

I’m still on the outlook for the unexpected today. I’m not sure what it will be, but if I keep looking, I bet I’ll find something.

Unexpectedly yours,

Dr. Jennifer Baker

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Is My Two-Year-Old ...?

"Is my two-year-old ...?" 


How would you finish that sentence? According to a speaker I heard recently, the number one word to come next on a Google search is "gifted." Apparently, for parents of a two-year-old the question the question that most often comes to mind is not whether or not he is developing in an age-appropriate and timely manner. Rather, many are wondering whether their toddler has extraordinary cognitive abilities. 

I wonder why it's so important for us to know if our child is gifted. I wonder why this concern trumps all other concerns--at least on Google. Why are we preoccupied with cognitive ability over kindness, conscience or courage? We put stickers on our cars declaring our child's status as an honor student, but give little recognition to character qualities that have a much greater impact on her ultimate success in life. Perhaps we believe giftedness is the golden ticket to success. It’s not!

In How Children Succeed, author and education writer Paul Tough, How Children Succeed, reflects on his own journey to find a good school for his son. Early on he notes, “The conventional wisdom about child development over the past few decades has been misguided. We have been focusing on the wrong skills and abilities in our children, and we have been using the wrong strategies to help nurture and teach those skills.” He goes on to suggest what we are learning now has the “potential to change how we raise our children, how we run our schools, and how we construct our social safety net.” This got my attention. As a parent, educator, psychologist and grandparent, I wondered what we might learn to guide us to help the children of today become the adults of tomorrow.

According to Tough, there are three basic things researchers have identified as critical to our children’s success. They are “grit, curiosity and the hidden power of character.” It’s important to note Tough makes an important distinction between what many of us know as “character education” and what he describes in How Children Succeed. He cites a national evaluation of character-education programs by the National Center for Education Research (2010 that evaluated seven popular elementary-school programs over three consecutive years. No impact of significance was observed at all from the programs – “not on student behavior, not on academic achievement, not on school culture” (p. 60).

Just what does Tough mean, then, when he speaks about character? Try perseverance (grit), self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity. Without these qualities, even children with a high IQ flounder. With them, children of average intelligence often far exceed the expectations of parents and teachers. We tend to think of qualities such as these as inherited and stable, but Tough (who interviewed many award-winning researchers and educators), claims they can be learned. Parents, teachers and caregivers can help children develop grit, self-control, social intelligence and gratitude. They can interact with a child in ways that help expand his zest for learning, optimism and curiosity.

Developmentally, I don’t know any two-year-olds who have mastered any of these qualities, but I have observed some who are further along than others. They’re generally in the company of parents who are more concerned about their character than their cognitive abilities. I wonder what kind of Google search we could find for that.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Eating, Moving and Sleeping

Eat less. Move more. Reduce your stress and stop smoking. I've said quite a bit lately about how health and wellness is related to more than these four bedrock components of most wellness programs. Even so, there's plenty of evidence to suggest our behavioral and relational health might have just as much, if not more, influence on our overall health and well-being than just these four. 

That being said, I don't want to give the impression these four aren't important. On the contrary, one of the first things mental health professionals ask a person on intake are questions about changes in diet, weight and sleeping patterns. These things do matter because the body and mind are very close neighbors.

That's one of the reasons I found Eat Move Sleep by Tom Rath so intriguing and helpful. Tom is a #1 New York Times bestselling author (See Strengths Finder 2.0), who does an masterful job of bringing together some of the best research available on each of these three areas. A book like this could be dull as dust to read, but Tom actually takes one idea for each of these areas and compiles them into 30 short chapters. It's the kind of thing you can easily read one chapter a day for a month. Even if you choose to do just a few of the things Tom suggests, you'll definitely be taking a step forward health wise.

With so many self-help, self-improvement books on the market, what would make Tom's worth the read. The research, of course, is compelling. I mean, Tom just didn't make this stuff up. He did his homework. But there's more. From the very beginning of the book, you learn that Tom was diagnosed with a life-threatening cancer at age 16 that causes tumors to grow throughout his body. Over the last two decades he's focused much of his attention to learning what he could do to decrease the odds of his cancer growing and spreading, namely lifestyle changes. Eat Move Sleep is the compilation of this work. Here's how he expresses it in the book:

"I'm a living testament to the fact that lousy predispositions can be encoded in your genes. Yet even in this extreme case, my decisions affect the odds of new tumors growing and my existing cancers spreading. The reality is, the majority of your risk in life lies in the choices you make, not in your family tree." 

He goes on to say, "No single act can prevent cancer or guarantee you will live a long life. Anyone who promises you something that absolute is a fraud." What he shares in the book are some of the "most practical ideas to improve your odds of a longer, healthier, and more fulfilling life."

Two weeks ago I wrote about how insight isn't necessary for change. Being willing to do something different, to be uncomfortable is. This is sort of part two of that posting. If you need to change -- lower your blood pressure, become more active, lose some weight or get better rest -- I urge you to get this book. It won't give you a lot of insight as to why you've come to favor web surfing over walking, vegging out over veggies with hummus, or late nights over early bedtimes. It will give you lots of little ideas to develop better health habits today.

And one more thing. I like the fact that Tom gives you 30 days of ideas. Most of us need to do something that long for it to become routine. Then we don't have to ask, "How did I get this way?" It just becomes a new routine.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Good Neighbor

My daughter and her family live in an area of Springfield known for its neighborliness. “It’s what we want for our life,” she said. “We think it’s important to our family.”

Her comments reminded me of an anonymous handwritten note we received from one of our neighbors a short time after we moved into our current home about eight years ago. Addressed to “Occupant,” it read as follows:

Please do not leave your trash receptacles on the driveway or anywhere in front of your home. This is a nice neighborhood. Please don’t bring it down by leaving trash in front.

We certainly didn’t mean to offend or upset any of our neighbors, but given that we had moved into my father’s home after he passed less than a year earlier and brought with us a houseful of furniture, it was taking us a bit to get it all sorted out. If you’ve ever sifted through an elderly parent’s possessions and divvied them up with extended family, you know what I mean.
This meant we didn’t have room in our garage for the typical large trash container for a few weeks. We didn’t have piles of trash on our lawn. Our grass was mowed weekly. There were flowers in the flower beds and we put the trash at the curb once a week for pick-up. We just didn’t have the container in the garage.  After the note, we did our best to make space for it as soon as possible.

I’m writing about this now because I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to the importance of community and the connections we need to stay healthy and happy. Most of us are in favor of the idea of community, at least in theory. The problem occurs with the reality of actual people. They don’t always do things to our liking. They can be irritating and annoying. Intentionally, or not, they may interfere with our idea of the way things should be.

That’s one reason I was so pleased to see the launch of a third Lighthouse Child and Family Development Center at Washington Avenue Baptist Church as an Every Child Promise Neighborhood Hub last Wednesday. This partnership brings together a number of “neighbors,” including Springfield Public Schools, Drury University, and Victory Trade School. Washington Avenue recognized the need of their neighbors. They didn’t seem to mind the changes that needed to be made to their church, the wear and tear on their building from a lot more little people tramping around every day, or the need for everyone to coordinate their usage around others in the building. Rather, they embraced the idea that community can be messy. Community can be cumbersome. Community is often clumsy . . . but community is important.

Of course, it’s a two-way street. Neighborliness goes both ways. Everyone has to work at it. It just seems to me that Washington Avenue Baptist is the kind of neighbor that comes over shortly after you move in to with a plate full of cookies and something cold to drink. They let you know they’re glad you’re here and they follow up on their offer to be helpful. You reciprocate by shoveling their driveway or picking up their newspaper. They offer to bring in your mail when you’re gone. You water their flowers when they are out of town for the weekend. Over time, through warmth, courtesy and respect a mutually beneficial friendship develops that is a gift to everyone around. That’s what seems to be happening at and through Washington Avenue. They are an inspiration to all of us to take the first step toward being a good neighbor. It makes a difference to all of us.

Thinking neighborly thoughts,

Dr. Jennifer Baker

Monday, September 8, 2014


"Expect to feel a little discomfort," the nurse says as she sticks the needle in my arm. 

"You may be a bit uncomfortable after the medication wears off," warns the doctor.

When we have a medical or dental procedure, we're not surprised to hear these words. In fact, we expect them. We also know that "discomfort" is often another word for pain. It may not be horrible, crushing pain -- but it still hurts.

I wonder why it is, then, that people so often expect little to no pain when they try to change their behavior. The truth is, it's uncomfortable to change. We struggle to alter familiar routines. It's unsettling. In fact, sometimes it "hurts" -- not in an aching physical way, but sometimes in a "heart-aching" way.

There are lots of ways we try to distance ourselves from or prevent this kind of pain. If you really need to change, I'm here to say that most of them don't work. They only delay the inevitable discomfort. One avoidance strategy I see a quite a bit is something I call "insight obsession."

Insight Obsession
"Why do I keep picking the wrong kind of men? I think I need to figure out why I keep falling for the wrong kind of guy."

"If only I understood why I keep (drinking too much, overeating, spending, gambling, saying 'yes" when I should say 'no"), maybe then I could change."

"My mother was a neat freak who forced me to make my bed every morning. I think that's why I'm so messy today. She made me hate housework."

It's not uncommon for people to visit a therapist to gain insight about their lives and behavior. They figure if they just knew why they engage in certain behaviors, then they could do something different. For them, insight is seen as the primary instrument for change. Self-reflection, sometimes with the aid of a professional, is viewed as the key tool for new behavior.

I'm actually quite fond of insight. I love it when I'm able to help someone learn something new about themselves. Unfortunately, while insight can be motivational for change, it is rarely sufficient. Breakthroughs in understanding are only the beginning. For real change to occur, most of us need to be willing to experience something else, namely discomfort.

Impossible to Know
Why is this so? First of all, it's often impossible to know what the real cause of any behavior or thought process might be. More than likely, there are multiple causes or contributors. Most of what we think about causation is really hypothesis and conjecture. For example, it's impossible to know for certain if our third-grade teacher turned us against reading forever or if it was more related to our athletic ability that crowded out everything school-related in preference for sports. Perhaps the beauty and brains of an older sibling created a context in which we felt less secure in the classroom than on the basketball court. Whatever the case, if we want to improve our reading ability, insight into what prevented us from being a lover for reading will have only a small impact on improving this function. Real progress comes with a tutor, reading coach and lots of practice.

New Habits Develop Over Time
Perhaps television and movies have helped to foster the impression that change occurs like a spark igniting a fire. Sometimes it happens like that, but more often it occurs from slogging away day after day -- attending AA or Weight Watchers meetings on a regular basis, visiting the gym four days out of seven, arising earlier to get to work on time. Practice, perseverance and perspiration add up. It's pretty much the same with any change. It takes time, work and new strategies. 

When it comes to making changes in relationships--at home or at the office, the same can be said, especially if trust has been damaged. People don't automatically learn to manage their anger better just because they suddenly realize some of the damage they have created. They also do not give up on procrastination or become more organized overnight. It's hard for an individual to change. It's also hard for those around him or her to believe it can happen. It will take time and considerable effort for things to improve. 

At times like these coaching or therapy can be especially helpful. A good therapist will move you beyond wondering why you do what you do, to doing something different. He or she will help you see what needs to change and work with you to establish new patterns. You will likely gain insight into your motivation along the way, but if you never get beyond wondering why, you won't make much progress. 

You may have heard it said, "No pain, no gain." Some argue pain is not necessary for bodily change. I'll not enter into that debate, but I will continue to insist that some discomfort is required if you want to change habits and behaviors in your life.

Uncomfortably yours,
Dr. Jennifer Baker