I’ve always been intrigued by Thought Experiments:  the kind that place you in stressful situations and reveal your deepest values when faced with various dire circumstances. Many of us have had some version of a Values class, or training; or maybe we engaged in such Experiments to pass the time:  “You have to leave your house in an emergency and can only take what you can carry in your arms; what will you grab?”  “You’re cast adrift in the ocean and can only help your spouse or your child survive (one or the other); who will you save?”  

I can recall many years ago, when now-global celebrity Oprah Winfrey had barely begun airing her television program, one of her guests was a psychologist who ran selected audience members through these two scenarios. Although I didn’t watch her program routinely (it aired while I was at work), the show must’ve been on when I was on holiday, because I happened to tune-in while scrolling through channels. It was memorable, on several levels.

I can still recall the wild uproar ( audience members – mostly female — were literally on their feet ) when one woman in particular told everyone in the studio that day that she would most definitely save her husband, as opposed to her drowning child, if forced to choose. Now, Winfrey’s a pretty cool head, but she didn’t seem prepared for the reaction of the crowd as it processed this statement. (The woman’s rationale, as she tried to justify her choice over the din of the audience, was “I can always have more children, but I could never replace my husband!”)

I wonder if Security had to escort the woman from the building at the end of the show? Seldom have I seen so many women – a few even in tears – look like they might tear one of their own limb from limb. It was a Thought Experiment run amok, in my opinion:  there wasn’t really room for discussion after that – just an enormous tidal wave of emotion that Winfrey immediately tried to quell with a commercial break.

Our value systems are, in large part, uniquely personal. It’s clarifying and even helpful to explore and talk about what matters to us; what’s really important in our lives. Doing so during pivotal moments, or times of stress, can facilitate wise choices and prevent mental or emotional ‘overload’.

As human beings we share in collective value systems that are deeply tied to our cultures. In the above scenario, where the unfortunate woman became a target for admitting that she could withstand losing her child, but not her husband, onlookers left no doubt in anyone’s mind that her choice was a major Taboo. In most of the world’s cultures, children are automatically bestowed with  a kind of sanctity that adults are not; regardless of any religious backdrop for  this fundamental belief. Which really makes me wonder about the ongoing digression from care and consideration for our most vulnerable in society: those that we’ll rely upon as we all inevitably age.

Several important people throughout history (Gandhi, writer and novelist Pearl S. Buck, and political U.S. presidential candidate of long ago, Hubert Humphrey, to name a few) have stated their values publicly, when it comes to protecting the “weakest members” of society. Using various words and phrases, these three proclaimed that the morality of any society could be gauged by how it treated “those at the dawn of life, and those at the sunset of life”:  children and the elderly. (Gandhi, by the way, also included all animals when he defined those needing and deserving extra care and protection.)

Here in the United States, I wonder about the difference between our espoused values, and the values that we actually act on in our daily lives. I noticed that a particular politician in the U.S. recently cried-out about gun violence, only when it became apparent that his young daughter could have easily been a victim, due to her proximity to the killer during a recent mass shooting.

What do we really believe? Do our fundamentally-human beliefs apply to ourselves and our families, or to all humans of the world? How often do we act on our deepest beliefs? As I look around, I just don’t see the shock, outrage and protests that were so evident in Oprah’s audience, so many years ago. Not that I’m suggesting the attack on the woman, in that instance, on that day, was warranted. But there was a response — albeit to a fictitious scenario. We have the real-thing, right now, right here in our lives. I’m really feeling my own response and wonder if — hoping others — are too…

videoblocks.com

I can still remember the day my teenaged son screamed “I hate you!”:  three words that totally gut-punched me and shut down the argument we were having about his extremely poor choices (for the record, the kind that threaten life and limb). I was standing my ground, holding firm, sticking to the tenets of Tough Love. Until those three words eviscerated me. Feeling almost mortally wounded, I retreated. I’ve never forgotten how that felt.

brucelipton.com

Whether we’re on the receiving end of Hate, or delivering Hate, the result is the same, as far as our bodies are concerned. In his book, “The Biology of Belief”, Dr. Bruce Lipton talks about the mind-body connection and the changes brought-about on a cellular level by negative emotions (giving or receiving). Lipton’s not the first (and won’t be the last) to connect the dots between human emotion and overall well-being.

dragoart.com

Anger – whether it’s impulsive, or becomes a lifestyle – is particularly harmful in the way it slowly corrodes our delicate internal systems. Lipton’s studies are too fascinating, too important, and much too data-detailed  (he’s a scientist, first and foremost) to summarize here. Instead, I’ll just share that Lipton’s one of my main Go-To’s,  when I’m struggling to understand hateful people.  

Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926-2004) is another ‘giant’ in this area. Although she’s probably best known for her theory of The Five Stages of Grief, what I often — especially lately, here in the United States– “consult” (in my own head, anyway!) with her on is this:   when it comes to human emotions, there are really only two:  Love, and Fear.

ekrfoundation.org

We know a lot about Love:  what it feels like, what it can do in our lives and in the World; how our bodies ‘float’ when we engage in pure acts of love toward other people, animals, Nature and our own Planet Earth. There’s no mistaking authentic Love. Even the superficial, media-created (think: films and TV) versions of ‘Love’– often cheesy and formulaic – can still be charming and sweet in their attempt to ‘copycat’ the Real Thing. What is harder to get a handle on is Fear, because it wears a few disguises: Hate being one of them  (Kübler-Ross, by the way, adds ‘anxiety’ and ‘guilt’ as other “masks” worn by Fear).

isstockphoto.com

When I consider the times in my life that I’ve encountered Hate, of course it’s always been a hateful person or hateful people:  animals don’t hate. That may seem like an idiotic observation, but I mention animals to make a distinction between what happens when Fear dons the mask of Aggression, versus when it shows itself as Hate. Fear can cause animals and people to feel threatened and go into offensive-mode.

But Hate is entirely different:  hate is a choice. Hate takes the normal survival-instinct of Fear and shoots one thousand volts of aggressive current through the body so that ‘fending off a predator’ is no longer the primary goal:  mental, emotional and even physical annihilation is.  And great suffering is a desirable part of the process.

How do we cope with hateful people? Is there a way of reaching their hearts, soothing their fears, disarming their need to inflict pain? I can only speak from experience and share what I know about the wisdom (or lack thereof) of this thinking. In my own family relationships, I came to the conclusion that, sometimes – regrettably — Fear appears more powerful than Love.

actor Malcolm McDowell as the despot Caligula

The Roman emperor Caligula, known for his extreme sadism and brutality, is supposed to have said, “I don’t care if [the People] love me, so long as they fear me!”  Some people, it seems to me, would much rather be feared than loved. Instilling fear in others equates with power, for these types. When powerful people (who have the ability to influence your happiness, sense of safety, stability and general welfare) decide to mobilize their own insecurities in hate-filled ‘attacks’, there’s really no reaching them.

psychologytoday.org

Kübler-Ross says that Love and Fear are mutually-exclusive:  they can’t co-exist at the same time. We must always – therefore – choose to operate from one or the other. In countering Hate, it seems to me that the only strategy is to acknowledge (actively, demonstrably) that Love is the better option. But since Hate is in full-body armor in our World today, Love must shield itself also, while remaining fully ‘present’ and steadfast, in a genuine struggle for Survival. It really doesn’t matter to me if you’d prefer to call Love’s armor God, the Universe, Allah, Jehovah, Divine Spirit, Gaia, or something else. As long as we stand together under one of Love’s many names, I’m with you.

Organizational Psychology consultants and coaches don’t have an exclusive ‘lock’ on what makes individuals and groups successful in a work setting. OPs learn and train in a variety of disciplines, including systems theory and the huge and complex field of individual and group psychology. Their conclusions and ultimate practices are evidence-based:  what appears to be effective, according to research and evaluation.

courtesy, wilsonquarterly.com

The concerns of most companies still revolve around The Bottom Line (profits), incorporating emergent needs such as  sustainability and global reach into the mix. Consultants and coaches (those who’re formally trained, by the way, not the Life Coach you might see advertising on YouTube) can analyze and create detailed recommendations relative to every aspect of an organization’s goals. But the human psychology behind success remains, at its core, really pretty simple. The research is clear:  people who are Happy generally feel and experience ‘success’ in their pursuits (personal or work related).  But people who may think of themselves as ‘successful’, or who may be regarded as such by others, are not always Happy. Readers may be thinking, Who Cares? Stay with me…

courtesy, isstockphoto

The need to feel Happy is a fundamentally-human condition. It’s almost autonomic, in that we go about pursuing Happiness almost without thinking about it.  It’s certainly tied to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:  being happy for some might be as basic as a full belly and safe place to sleep; or, it might be the Corner Office and a boost in an already-six-figure income. Organizational Psychology researchers, however, have reason (and research to back it up) to believe that Happiness has slightly less to do with external conditions or outcomes and much more to do with our internal wellbeing.

If our basic needs for food, shelter, safety, and a sense of belongingness (there’s Maslow again) have been assured, Happiness – the pursuit of it – takes a very interesting turn. According to extensive research, three conclusions emerge:  1) Happiness begins in the human heart; 2) Happiness is not overly influenced by such factors as genetics or random events; and 3) Happiness appears to have a set-point, for the majority of people.

There’s very good news for those of us that struggle with negative emotions from time to time. Happiness, the kind I’m talking about here, is in large part the ability to balance positive and negative feelings or emotions. Going overboard in either direction isn’t helpful. Furthermore, negative emotions, as it turns out, actually strengthen happiness by providing contrast (again, as long as we don’t allow ourselves to get ‘stuck’ in gloom).

courtesy, thoughtcatalog

One of the recent areas of Happiness study (targeting stress-related absenteesim) is Work-Life Balance. ‘Balance’ is unique to each individual. It’s something we strive for alone, in that we alone feel and understand our needs, our abilities and our limits, and our desires and aversions. The balance we achieve is up to us:  we flourish in it, or we suffer the adverse effects of neglecting our Inner World (mind, body, spirit). Short bursts of success (e.g., a winning lottery ticket) stimulate our happiness receptors, but are short-lived spikes).

Interestingly, the sense of inner balance that is the foundation of Happiness, turns out to have a “set-point”. A researcher by the name of Ed Diener developed a series of national (in the U.S.) and international studies of tens of thousands of people engaged in a wide variety of professions. Diener found that genuine Happiness is a sense of “subjective well-being”, not a response to external factors. Not only this, but, as we learn and grow through life’s experiences, Diener discovered that we encounter our own Happiness set-point:  the stage at which we often say to ourselves, “It’s time for a new experience (and new challenges)”.

courtesy, travelinphoto

So if deep and long-lasting Happiness is really more about our internal well-being, and so much less about The Chase (fill in the blank:  job, money, material possessions, relationships), then what’s to do? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, since each and every one of us is engaged in our own Balancing Act. What I know for sure is that we can help one another along the way.  Heartfelt gestures, kind words of encouragement, and whatever version of Namaste (The Divine in Me Recognizes and Honors the Divine in You) suits our belief system grace both the giver and the receiver.

Despite having been born into an environment that most people would consider ‘advantaged’ (white, middle-class, educated parents), I was a really young kid when major dysfunction in my household erupted. Happenings that were absolutely beyond my control created an atmosphere of fear, anxiety and insecurity. My life was upended numerous times, by the mental health issues of my mother, and the volatile and sometimes violent behavior of my father. My family unit became deeply fractured a long, long time ago; and some of its members still live in that deep, dark crevasse. I was able to climb out; in part, through my education and study of human development and psychology. But also as a result of an important realization and understanding that I grew into.

As I entered adulthood, I soon discovered the value – the extreme importance – of having Choices and Options in my life. No matter what came my way, as long as I had wiggle-room to consider possibilities – regardless of how dire the current circumstances – there was Hope. I got myself into some pretty sketchy situations during my growth years, but always had the ability to feel strengthened and even empowered by the fact that I could choose my path forward. Even when the choices were ‘bad’ , or ‘worse’, not feeling helpless and hopeless was something to be grateful for. I was, and I still am, so grateful.

 “Keep your doors open, and your options as plentiful as possible” was one of my messages to my son as he was becoming a man. (Happy to say that it’s ‘saved his bacon’ several times.) But the message is actually just a part of my larger goal of remaining flexible and resilient, despite setbacks and heartbreaks, large or small.

Recently I was thinking about this:   the vast difference between having, and not having, a ‘say’ in my daily existence. Truth be told, I’d much rather be able to steer my little boat confidently, when Life buffets it with gusty winds and gigantic waves. Sometimes, however – especially lately – the only option is to Hold On and Wait it Out.

Olha Darchuk, Artist

For a while now I’ve been on an adventure of both self-discovery and  re-invention. People and situations – along with my own self-limiting beliefs and behaviors – have begun to vanish along the way. It’s a little disconcerting. Sailing along (to continue my metaphor!) with a newfound sense of freedom , I’ve been losing my guideposts:  those familiar reminders (even if they’re negative, they’re still a kind of comfort) of my former life. One by one, a person or a situation drifts behind me and away, like passing through shoals that eventually, far out to sea, disappear altogether. Just the sky and the horizon, now.

Despite feeling liberated – which I do — there’s really no Option for me in this. I’ve accepted that I’ve had to move past my Past. To linger would have been pointless. More than this:  I would have stopped growing and stopped discovering my Self. I can think of just a few other times in life that were more painful than “staying”, when all signs, and my heart, told me it was time for a change of course. It might be a job; a relationship; a home I’ve lived in for decades. It might be something simple, like a precious memory that only brings sadness now and must be released. It might be something vague:  a subtle sensation that I’ve completed an important Phase and am ready to expand Who I Am, Where I’m Going, and What I’m Supposed to be Doing.

lds.org

There’s evidence all around me that I should be scared, or at least apprehensive, during Major Shifts and new adventures. The fact that the current unfolding seems to be happening, guided by an unseen Navigator, without my taking direct action most of the time, is sort of unnerving. Nevertheless, I don’t feel afraid – only excited. I’ve passed almost all the little buoys (I’m really stuck on this nautical theme, but it feels right!) marking Safe Waters. I can’t tell you how I know, or why I trust that I’m going in the right direction. But I’m looking at the nighttime sky now, and choosing to sail by the stars.

It feels like years that I’ve been actively engaged in trying to figure myself out. Not with any lofty ‘enlightenment’ goal, necessarily; just trying to troubleshoot, problem solve, make sense of my choices and their consequences. Even now, I play the ‘what if’ game in my head:  second-guessing the paths I’ve taken and wondering how my life would have been different if…..I also wonder if all of this thinking is part of my overall problem. I feel comfortable blaming Socrates.

This still-revered Greek scholar and philosopher (born roughly 470 BCE – let that sink in for a minute) made the pronouncement, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” His statement was supposedly a very quiet utterance, made under painful and dramatic circumstances – perhaps why the local scribes took note and preserved those words forever.  Socrates was on trial for “impiety (although he was religious, he scorned state-sanctioned gods) and corruption of youth (minds and bodies, supposedly)”. Socrates was convicted and given a choice:  permanent exile, or death. Rather than be cut-off from the people and places that provided the flow of learning and wisdom that were as necessary to him as air to breathe, Socrates chose death (by drinking hemlock). To this day, a wide variety of organizations  still use variations of The Socratic Method:  a special kind of conversation and discussion that stimulates insightful thinking and  deep learning.

In my current stage of life I wonder how truly valuable the “examined” life is.  Having just written that, I also acknowledge what a ridiculous and banal affliction this might be considered by the many people struggling with survival in the Here and Now. Just a quick glance at my bookshelves exposes me as someone who has both the time and resources to invest in print and recordings from the Self Help genre.

This wasn’t always the case, however – my shelves being lined with so many options. When I was still a teenager, a dog-eared copy of the book “Be Here Now” (written by Ram Dass in 1971) was circulated among my friends. It’s still in print and popular. At the time, it was the only personal guidance book I’d come across that made sense:  the Present Moment is all there is. Any time at all spent in the Past is pointless:  misspent time and energy.

But why is it still so hard to not  look backwards occasionally? I believe it’s because – despite what Ram Dass, Eckhart Tolle, Abraham and others tell us – the unconscious mind is in fact a treasure trove of information that (for most of us, anyway) is still being processed in our daily lives. What happened Then still impacts our decisions Now. This is one of the reasons why dream therapy is often helpful:  things that get pushed down and away bubble up, regardless.

I do my best to live in the Now. I do practice Mindfulness (for me, that word is just shorthand for Slow the F— Down). But I also reflect on people and events from my past. I give myself permission to disobey the majority of books in my library. In other words, I don’t allow myself to wallow in nostalgia or regret. I do, however, take quick dips into those cool, deep and dark waters of my personal history when it feels right and necessary. (Typically, this is when I catch myself repeating a thought or behavior pattern that didn’t work then, and needs to be jettisoned now.) I’m fussy, though:  others don’t get to bring up my Past (they do so, at their peril!). My learning, from previous mistakes, is my personal responsibility and my personal domain:  it’s a sensitive and tender place that I visit in quiet moments and don’t need to dialogue about. Likewise, I don’t remind others of their past mistakes – large or small – as tempting as it may be at times. There are people out there who are paid to listen and to help, and, plenty of books to read.

If I wasn’t on social media just a little bit, I’m sure I’d have no idea of what “FOMO” is. Having said that, the “Fear of Missing Out” is actually a topic of study that’s slowly been extending beyond the impact that social media has on our well-being. According to fairly current (2018) psychological research conducted among a large sample of first-year college students, conflicting feelings about ‘what I want to do’ vs. ‘what I have to do’, are clearly issues for younger people. In my profession, I’m taking all of this in with great interest.

The findings of the 2018 study (you can find it in “Psychology Today” archives) were what you might imagine:  college students felt ambivalence and boredom in their studies, and fantasized about the more exciting lives they heard, saw, and read about. This is where social media comes in, creating or adding-to a sense of dissatisfaction and ‘The Grass Sure Looks Greener Over There’ mentality. But the weird part of the study results was this:  the sample group overwhelmingly reported feeling symptoms of “FOMO” (anxiety, being a ‘biggie’)  even during activities that were extremely pleasurable. “This is great – but, should it be even better?”

Digging deeper into this mental and emotional phenomenon (which scientists consider very real, potentially damaging, and more common in Western culture), theories about ‘loss-aversion’ and ‘hyper-competitiveness’ as drivers behind the Fear of Missing Out make it a much more relevant area of study. Consequences of FOMO just might be more destructive than we thought. The good news, according to research that’s been gathering momentum since around 2015, is that FOMO dissipates as people grow older. As time goes by, life becomes much fuller, and mental space is prime real estate. The Fear of Missing Out evolves into The Fear of Mental Overload.

In my own progress from child to adult, I never experienced FOMO. This wasn’t because there wasn’t social media ‘back in the day’, but because of the atmosphere in my household. I tend to believe that the way we’re raising our children has much to do with how we approach balance in our lives:  the Have to Do’s, versus the Want to Do’s. As a little kid, if I so much as looked bored or uttered what sounded like discontent, I’d be sent outside to pull weeds. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time finding ways to entertain myself, if my neighborhood pals weren’t around.

When I graduated from high school at age 17, I found a part time job at the community college where I’d just enrolled. I moved out of my parents’ home (they threw a fit, but I was almost 18) and found a studio apartment close to the college. Between my job and my classes, ‘adult’ life had kicked-in one hundred percent. Moving into adulthood was like crossing a very wide, fast- moving creek (I’m a back-packer, so this ‘visual’ works for me). I looked for rocks to step on; careful of the mossy ones (always dangerously slick); planting my steps carefully; focusing on my feet and continuously moving (standing still makes balance harder). I actually “fell” quite a few times over the years: twisted ankles, skinned knees and soggy boots. But I believe that the ‘struggle’ was key:  I never really had time to Fear. I was either focused on the small steps I needed to take, and in the process of taking them, or, in an exhausted heap after a hard day. Self-reliance and independence are crucial pieces of the ‘becoming an adult’ puzzle, but they’re also the ballast – the weight – the “gravitas” that allows us to retain our identity and individuality as we grow older and even wiser.