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.

Gratefully,

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



Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Annual Christmas Crisis -- Part 2*

“My father expects that we’ll bring the kids and spend Christmas Eve with him and his new wife.”

“My mother will feel hurt if we don’t spend Christmas Eve with her this year and go to my father’s instead.”

“My husband’s parents are unhappy because we spent the last two years with my parents during the holidays and they want us to spend time with them as well, especially since we now have kids.”

“My husband gets the kids for Christmas this year. I don’t know what I’m going to do since it looks like I’ll be alone most of the holidays.”


“I’ll Be Home for Christmas”
The songs says, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” but where is home when your parents have divorced and remarried? Some couples have competing demands from two sets of parents, some from three and some from four—not counting their own family. Others have the opposite problem of no demands, i.e., they’re too far geographically from family of origin, or they’re estranged from the folks who raised them. There is no home to go to for Christmas and without the presence of their own children during the holidays, their home seems all too quiet and lonely. 

“Deck the Halls with ???”
Then there’s the matter of combining family traditions. We’ve noted that partners often experience tension when combining traditions from families of origin, but this may be minor when combining two different households of children during the holidays. Children often express great fondness for the way their mother does something, e.g., makes sweet potatoes or wraps packages, which is not so easy to hear when one is the stepmother. Parents, too, can feel sadness and guilt when they’re not able to recreate the holiday atmosphere of their childhood for their own children due to divorce and remarriage. Some single parents suffer when they’re not able to supply all the gifts and fun activities provided by the child’s other parent. 


“All I Want for Christmas is . . .”
When you get right down to it, what most people want for Christmas are happy times with the people they love. When new families are created from former families, new traditions are also needed. For post-divorce families this might mean making gingerbread houses from graham crackers and decorating them, as opposed to baking several dozen cookies. It could mean attending a different church or trying a new family game. At the same time, it’s also important to include aspects of traditions from both families in the newly created family. This could involve concocting a meal that includes a favorite dish for each of the children or watching Christmas movies together that everyone has helped select. 


“I’ll Have a Blue Christmas Without You”
The prospect of spending the holidays alone is not an easy one. One of the best solutions to this dilemma is to plan ahead to address this challenge. Some people volunteer to work on this day so that others can be with their loved ones, e.g., medical personnel. Others volunteer their time to serve those without a home. Still others plan in advance to open their homes to friends and acquaintances who also find themselves alone. Each activity has its own rewards and benefits. The trick seems to be thinking about others who might also be alone and extending one’s self to them.


“We Wish You a Merry Christmas”
If Christmas is so much trouble that it produces annual arguments for couples and families, why bother at all? Perhaps Dr. Doherty sums it up best.

“Although Christmas has become commercialized and trivialized in contemporary America, many of us would feel impoverished without it. We need a festival that combines the powerful elements of religion, culture, family, and the winter solstice. We need a protracted family ritual that society makes possible by creating time off from work and school. We need a time to pursue ideals of family harmony and solidarity, even if the reality inevitably falls short. As Garrison Keillor wrote, ‘A lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together. . .’ Despite its faults, if we did not have Christmas, we would have to invent it.”


Merry Christmas everyone!

Dr. Jennifer Baker

*This article was printed in the Springfield News-Leader on December 18.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Annual Christmas Crisis--Part 2


“Why can’t you just help out with the wrapping?  I did everything else”

“I don’t know why you have such a bad attitude about helping with the Christmas tree. This could be fun, if you weren’t acting like a big grouch.”

“Do things really have to be that perfect? Why can’t we just relax, order a pizza and have a good time?”

The holidays bring with them a unique kind of stress based on the expectation that things need to be a certain way in order for our celebration to be complete. This “way-things-have-to-be-so-we-can-really-celebrate” perspective is fueled by the rituals and traditions of our childhood, images promoted by marketing wizards of the media, and our Western culture in general. In many instances, it all adds us to conflict in the couple relationship. I know it has in ours.


One of Us is Working Much Harder than the Other
A couple of weeks ago I alluded to the annual Christmas argument my husband and I trotted out with regularity soon after Thanksgiving for the first decade or so of our marriage. I simply could not understand why he did not appreciate all the effort I expended to make gifts for our immediate and extended families and then put them in the mail in a timely manner. Moreover, he did not seem to care that I hand addressed all the Christmas cards and almost single-handedly decorated the house, wrapping all the packages with care and creativity. Never mind that this over-and-above effort on my part added to a growing resentment of how little he did to contribute our seasonal gaiety.

My husband, on the other hand, had very different holiday expectations floating through his head. He wanted a happy wife and relaxed home life. Given that his job required him to attend at least a dozen evening basketball games during December as well as two or three children’s Christmas programs, he had his share of work-related responsibilities. On the rare evenings when he was home, my festive activities were not his favorite fare. Rather, he longed for down time and easy living to combat typical work week stress.


Martyr – Abstainer Roles Typical
According to Dr. Bill Doherty, author of The Intentional Family, couples easily find themselves entrenched in the “martyr – abstainer dance” around the holidays. One person, often the woman, assumes the, “Alright, I’ll do it approach,” but does so with decidedly declining humor and good will as her exhaustion and exasperation increase. Noting her prickly nature and failing to share the same degree of excitement about Christmas tinsel and homemade taffy, her husband assumes an increasingly lower profile hoping to avoid additional conflict, only makes the situation worse. A couple of weeks into the month the two are barely speaking and making merry as a couple is definitely out of the question as both grit their teeth, put on a happy face and look forward to the end of the holiday season.


Change the Dance
Doherty suggests couples extricate themselves from an unhappy holiday hoe down by considering the following possibilities:

1)             Expect difficulties. In the early exuberance of the season, it’s easy to overextend one’s self, promising to do far more than most humans are capable of doing.  Trimming back expectations, remembering the complexities and conflicts of Christmases past can help couples to laugh about difficulties rather than argue.

2)             Plan for difficult moments. You probably already know what tasks and which family members have the potential of creating the greatest stress. Since you know they’re coming, plan ahead to work as a team to defeat them together.

Next week we’ll talk about other ways for reducing conflict and increasing joy--especially if single parent or stepfamily relationships are involved.

Until then, I remain focused on avoiding the "Christmas crisis."

Dr. Jennifer Baker 

*In the interest of preserving my own Christmas spirit, this post is an update of one that originally appeared a few years ago.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Best Gift Ever!


I got a text from my daughter with a photo attached. It said, “Best gift ever—learning to sew last year! Thanks again.” I couldn’t help but smile. A few years ago we gave her sewing lessons for Christmas. She had been asking me to teach her for years, but weeks turned into months turned into years and we still hadn’t found the time. Besides, I wasn’t all that certain that I would be the best teacher for her. Then a couple of years ago I purchased a new sewing machine for myself and took a few lessons to sharpen my skills. It occurred to me then that the instructor I enjoyed learning from might also be an excellent teacher for my daughter . . . and I was right. She took several hours of instruction and learned how to use my mother’s Bernina sewing machine. In short order she began turning out all kinds of projects including new curtains for her home, alterations to clothing, and gifts for others. We could have given her a lot of things, but none would have been as valuable in the long run as the gift of learning a new skill.


It strikes me that giving a gift that enables someone to do something new is a lot like the saying that goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” When we give a gift that teaches someone how to do something new, we give a gift that keeps on giving and giving and giving. My grandmother was an excellent seamstress and my mother marveled at how she would make dresses “without a pattern.” My mother was spectacular constructing everything from lingerie and our wedding dresses to a pop-up tent. She upholstered furniture, smocked dresses for our babies and cross-stitched snowflakes on our Christmas dresses. I was never as proficient as she was, but I did learn to sew, embroider and quilt. Now I had the opportunity to pass that love of creating with fabric and the associated skills along to my daughter through the gift of sewing lessons. From what I have seen, she is embracing the family tradition.                                                                                                                         
                                                                                                                                        This causes me to wonder about how we might be intentional in passing along the skills associated with having a healthy family. Those of us who grew up in a happy, healthy, stable home may think that having a good relationship comes naturally, but we’d probably be wrong. The world has changed and young adults today face many challenges with family formation their parents did not. Learning the skills to communicate well about the challenges facing today’s families is a must. Resolving conflict safely without damaging words and building resentment is essential. Keeping fun and friendship alive after the babies come and the years roll on is critical. Skills-based relationship education can make all the difference in helping people attain the kind of home and relationship they want for themselves and their children.


A year from now Christmas will roll around again. When it does, will you be getting a thank-you note, an email or a text from someone you love? Imagine how you would feel if you read the following:

“Best gift ever—reconnecting with my mate after the baby came. Thanks for helping us keep our love alive.”

“Best gift ever—getting our marriage off on the right foot. Thanks for giving us a head start.”

“Best gift ever—helping us stick together just at the moment we were falling apart. Thanks for caring.”

“Best gift ever—helping me make better choices when it comes to a healthy relationship. Thanks for caring about my future.

You can do this for yourself and lead by example. You can do this for people you love. You can do this for others who can’t afford it for themselves, but desperately need the help. Give a gift that will keep on giving for years to come.


Thoughtfully yours,

Dr. Jennifer L. Baker

P.S. The first quilt pictured is from my daughter. The next three are photos taken at the Ozark Piecemakers biennial quilt show this past September.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Annual Christmas Crisis*


Let’s face it. Celebrating the holidays can be very stressful and depending on your family’s background and traditions, the tension can last for weeks. Even if you are able to keep plans for your festivities reasonable, you still have to cope with the behavior and expectations of others. Just trying to find a parking place near your favorite store can be a hassle on December days when every space is taken. This kind of stress is peripheral to the pressure we may feel from family to perform in a certain way (gatherings, gifts, etc.) on specific days like Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Some folks I know spend a majority of their time shuttling their offspring between households of extended family regardless of weather conditions, sleeplessness and exhaustion because it is expected they will do so. A perfect storm of stressors begins to build for many families around this time of year and often reaches a boiling point right at the time we long to be “merry and bright.”


Christmas Amnesia
Because this “holiday hoe down” happens every year, we ought to be smarter about planning for it and preparing to alter the course of our behavior, but most of us don’t. Bill Doherty, author of The Intentional Family, refers to this phenomenon as “Christmas amnesia” and notes that it is akin to “women forgetting the pain of childbirth soon after delivery. It is an amnesia that helps to populate the earth and keep the tradition of family Christmas alive.” We could make plans to do things differently, to allow for demanding people and difficult situations, but we often disregard our discouragement, delay making plans to do something different, and delve back into the same dilemmas a year later. This year, why not plan to do something different.


Be Honest about Discouragements
There’s no time like the present to take a few notes about what discourages you most. You may not be able to extricate yourself from some holiday hassles this year, but the hope of doing something different next year can help sustain you. While the feelings and thoughts are fresh, write them down. This will be critical in March and April when Christmas amnesia is likely to set in.


Plan Early to Do Something Different
You know that celebrating the holidays can have its anxious moments. You’re aware there are some people—often those to whom we’re related—who will be difficult. If you are the person in charge of seeing that the holiday happens for your clan (Doherty refers to you as the “Christmas Coordinator), then recognize you need help. The key to all these realizations is planning for changes before the season heats up and then letting others know early and often about the changes that will occur. What might that entail?

Developing Solutions for Old Dilemmas
If you are the Christmas Coordinator you’re very likely to assume a martyr role as the holiday approaches, doing more and enjoying it less, while your spouse and family sit on the sidelines and watch you work. Here are some suggestions to assist you in altering that behavior.

1)              Involve other by asking for help with specific tasks. Instead of saying, “I need help with the shopping;” say “I need you to purchase the gifts for your brother and sister. I’ll give you the list at least six weeks in advance.”  Rather than bemoaning that you “always have to do all the decorating,” say “I need you to get all the boxes out of storage and set up the tree the day after Thanksgiving.” Others are much more likely to respond when they know exactly what they need to do to assist and how much time it might take.

2)             Respect the old, but try something new. As families grow they include others, e.g., a new brother-in-law or sister-in-law, who will have new traditions. Take the time to discover how they celebrate. Do they exchange names for gift giving versus buying something for everyone? Do they swap “white elephant” presents in lieu of something more serious? Consider how you might honor the traditions of new members while trimming back some of the old.

3)              Discuss gift exchanges and holiday travel well in advance. If you want to spend Christmas Eve or Christmas morning in your own home and this challenges the expectations of others, tell them early (e.g. in July) and often (repeated monthly if necessary) about your plans. Expect change back messages on the part of other when you do this, but hold firm.

It’s not easy to make changes in family routines and rituals, but it is possible. Challenge yourself to think about the memories you want both you and your loved ones to have as they recall Christmases past. Will what you’re doing now cause them to remember you more like the happy and fun-loving Buddy in the Christmas movie Elf or someone more akin to the Grinch who stole Christmas? It’s really up to you.

Merrily yours,

Dr. Jennifer Baker


*In the interest of preserving my own Christmas spirit, this post is an update of one that originally appeared a few years ago.