The Balancing Act® E-Newsletter: October 2001
Balancing Act® is in four sections this month:
- Talk about them. Talk to your partner, your family, your friends, or whomever else might serve as a legitimate sounding board. Repressing these feelings simply exacerbates their effects.
- Allow yourself to feel sad for a time. This is the pressure valve. Don't try to create an ironclad demeanor that never cracks or allows your true feelings to be expressed. Cry if you feel the need.
- Remove yourself from your routine. Take a day off. Allow yourself some dedicated time to think and be engaged in the world around you, instead of being trapped by the world's routine.
- Immerse yourself in a passion, major or minor. Go to the theater, read an absorbing book, visit the zoo, go hiking.
- Eat well and exercise. Maintain a healthy lifestyle.
- Laugh. Watch a comedy on TV or go to a funny movie. Watch one of the late night comedy shows (or tape it).
- Make plans for the future. Take control of your fate. Determine what you will do, when you will do it, and how you'll go about it.
- Play upbeat music in the background. In the car, at the office, at home, you can always find a CD which puts you in a better mood.
- Make an effort to help others. Volunteer and/or contribute. Become a part of a structured effort if you want to do something more formal. Become part of the solution.
- Look to the spirit. The human spirit is indomitable. There are people who are probably in a worse position than you. Put you current position in perspective.
- If the feelings persist for a long time, find a good therapist. (You can often get a recommendation from your primary doctor.) Clinical depression is an illness which requires professional help.
In the wake of trauma, we often engage in an introspective culpability, in which we search for ways in which we, ourselves, contributed to our own predicament. Aside from the terrorist attack, this can occur with an alienated child, a co-worker who is fired, someone else's choice which was not favorable to us, and so forth, dozens of times a day. The outrage or hurt is generally so deep that we seem to want to believe that we had to be at fault personally, ergo, we can control it the next time by simply changing our own behaviors.
But life isn't that simple. There are unspeakable and completely unjustified acts of evil. There are children or spouses who become self-destructive or abusive without any assistance from us. There are adverse conditions at work that are completely divorced from our performance and behavior.
Part of one's balance is the perspective that we are not always involved in a cause and effect dynamic. Things happen. The key is what we decide to do about them. Personal equilibrium is restored when we can proceed with healthy and constructive actions untainted by presumed guilt and unburdened by the amorphous baggage of responsibility we often automatically assume.
When my wife is unhappy with me, sometimes it's my fault and sometimes it's not. When I'm late because of heavy traffic, sometimes I made a bad choice of routes but sometimes I made what should have been the best choice. When a client is unhappy with my findings, sometimes I might have been more tactful and sometimes it has nothing to do with tact and everything to do with the client. I'm not perfect at separating the two possibilities, but I've become much better at it as I've grown older and as I've realized that a great deal of adversity that I must deal with (as must we all) is simply not my fault, not my doing, not my creation.
I served for several years on the board of a shelter for battered women. Despite my psychology background, I was nonetheless shocked by two facts: First, battering occurs across all economic, educational, and other demographic slices; Second, the battered woman often enables the batterer by refusing to leave. I'm not saying that it's her fault that she's battered, only that by not leaving, the battering is allowed to continue. What I found in the course of my work is that there is a high proportion of these women who don't leave because they feel that somehow what's happening is their fault, and that the roots of the behavior lie in their own past actions. Once I understood that, I had more insight into why they didn't leave.
Similarly, many of us tolerate and even exacerbate poor treatment, harsh conditions, and inappropriate behavior because we believe--subliminally or consciously--that somehow we are at fault, responsible for the condition existing in the first place. In many (most?) cases, this is simply false.
This country has done nothing to merit the slaughter of over 6,000 innocent civilians. Battered women have done nothing to justify the terror heaped upon them. And most of us, in most cases, are not culpable for the problems, injustices, and suffering about us. That's not to say we shouldn't take an active and aggressive role in solving the problems, removing the injustices, and alleviating the suffering. But it is to say that those constructive actions are almost always more effective, more sincere, and more long-lived when we take them because they are the right thing to do rather than when we take them out of guilt for presumed sins.
One of my favorite writers in psychology--and a man I once had the honor to introduce and host at Brown University--has recently completed some research which is highly provocative. His name is Dr. Albert Bandura, and his premise is consistent with my observations in both organizational and social settings over the years (though he is far more incisive than am I).
In brief, he's found that when people believe their talents and skills are innate, they tend to be less successful, especially when confronted with challenges and new conditions. They believe that if they can't readily solve the problem or adapt to the new condition, they are defeated. There is no recourse. They have shot their bolt.
However, people who believe that their talents and skills are learned from external sources and experiences tend to be much more successful under trying conditions. Since their learning source is external, they can always find additional sources of skills and talents to confront the new challenges. A temporary setback is not a commentary on their self-esteem or self-worth, since they simply haven't yet acquired the proper skill set, which is a temporary lack, and easily remedied.
This thesis, which I've greatly condensed, has a profound impact on life balance. If we believe that what skills we currently possess are all there is, then how, indeed, do we face upheaval, unexpected loss, radical change, and abrupt confrontation? But if we believe that our skills are a storehouse of abilities constantly growing and modernized as we experience life (and are open to the learning), then we can either call on newly-acquired abilities or rapidly find them when new conditions present new challenges.
There are many reasons supporting why some of us are more adept than others in flexibility, resiliency, and adaptability. Among them are our personal experiences, role models, and environment. But I believe that more than any other factors, our own beliefs--usually unexamined--about the sources from which we derive out competencies determine our ability to cope in a rapidly changing world. This applies to our workplaces, our civic associations, our professional affiliations, our collegial relationships, and our families.
When you find someone inexplicably crushed by a relatively minor setback, who lacks the fortitude to move ahead, and who is permanently damaged by perceived failure, you're probably seeing a case of someone who believes that his or her talents--static and unchanging and purely internal--are not up to the task. Consequently, there is no point in moving forward. But when you find that person who constantly regains his or her footing, who cannot be defeated, and who relishes in second and third efforts, you've found the individual who believes he or she has the ability to continue to acquire as many competencies as are needed to surmount the immediate challenge.
Where are you on this continuum? Ironically, the less you believe that you are the expert and the fount of all knowledge, the more likely you are to be able to rapidly assimilate new abilities and command your destiny.
I believe this is an essential aspect of human success. But don't take my word for it. Go ask Albert Bandura.
I've included a long section below to share the thoughts of many of our readers. You may, of course, choose not to proceed through it. I'm including them because I feel the reflections are healthy and encouraging, and I also feel an obligation to use the newsletter as a means of exchange beyond my mere observations. So please bear with me as I give this a try.
- From Lisa Bing:
First, I'm so glad that you and your family are safe. Thank God mine are too. Fortunately I wasn't in the Trade Center, in the area or traveling last week. And yet where I am in Brooklyn is close enough to see and smell the smoke, hear the constant sirens and the planes overhead.
Like most people I'm sure, I've been wrestling with how to move forward. All of my appointments and obligations of last week were cancelled/postponed. I was to begin some training for young people in an intern program at Prudential Securities last Friday and for the first time this morning was able to speak to the coordinator. "What should we do with them in our first meeting together?" we asked each other. My suggestion was that we meet with them together (she experienced the devastation first hand, so that I didn't think she should be alone) and just "be" with them to see what they needed.
I had a really tough time last week and did a lot of just taking care. This is the first time I'm actually writing about what's happened from a work perspective. Lots of talking, but writing always requires a different kind of engagement from me...I guess I'm really reaching out to you to just say "thanks" for your words in the two newsletters. They've been perfect. I marvel at your ability to gather your thoughts so quickly to say just the right thing.
-From Jane Blume:
"A client from the east coast and I agreed that we had to control our fate." Bravo to you for doing that. "What is the most important thing in your life? It surely isn't money, or a job, or a house. That real core is what must be valued and treasured. Perhaps many of us are now being refocused on our basic essence."
This terrible event occurred while my husband and I were waiting for him to have a radical prostatectomy for very early-stage prostate cancer. Fortunately, all went well. I felt that amidst all this horror, the best thing I could do was to concentrate on seeing him through the surgery and to a rapid recovery. That's happening.
-From Jay Collins:
Very well said. I drove from Austin, Texas to my home in Orlando, Florida last Tuesday. Twenty hours in the car with the AM radio providing continual updates. The time was filled with profound feelings of fear, anger, rage, frustration, and sorrow. Another tearful moment happened when an announcer mentioned turning on the car lights out of respect for those fallen. Within moments, almost every car on I-10 lit up the roadway.
Upon arriving home, I promptly kneeled down and kissed my driveway. My wife and I embraced as if we were on a first date. Once inside, my three children promptly tackled me to the ground and showered me with zerberts and smooches. They had been worried that daddy was where the bad men were.
To a major degree, I am fearful that the bad men are among us. These people are not "over there" in some other country. They are here. Somewhere. Waiting for their chance to be the next martyr for some insane ideological cause.
Alan: Thank you for your strength in words, wisdom and worldliness. It is comforting to know that I am surrounded in both my professional and personal world by people who not only care, but care enough to voice their love, support, emotions, frailty and what truly counts in their lives. It gives me a vision of hope and a knowledge of support that sometimes can't be found. Thank you. God bless.
-From Jeffrey LaBonte:
Thank you for the special edition and thank God your family is safe. I wanted to share a brief anecdote from the week before the disaster along the lines of your paragraph about what is important.
In church the Sunday prior to 9/11, my minister delivered a sermon on the topic of priorities and what is important to you. She delivered the following message (paraphrased, of course): "Think of the five most important things in your life; your top 5 priorities"
Of course, for most of us, family, children, etc. were the top few priorities. She continued, "Now take one of those priorities and discard it. Now choose another and discard it." We repeated this exercise until one priority remained. "If your last remaining priority," she continued, "is something that can be destroyed or taken away, you must discard it."
Many people were devastated by this thought. A few, literally, shed tears. The point, of course, is all that we have that can NOT be taken away from us is our faith, our spirituality and the love in our hearts. Two days later, this message took on a whole new meaning. Thanks again, and God Bless.
-From Julie LaNasa:
Thanks for the wonderful special edition. Glad you made it home safely. I was on one of the only planes from O'Hare to SFO on Friday and was very grateful. My husband (a global traveler) was at the airport with flowers in hand. I got your email just as I was leaving for O'Hare and in it you said "be very careful but be calm." Thanks, it was great advice.
Like all of us, I am looking for the best way to contribute to the people who have lost loved ones. If you have any thoughts on this, I think many of us would appreciate your perspective. Best to you and your wife.
(My wife and I have decided to make individual contributions to specific people in need, so as to provide immediate relief and to avoid the often wasteful bureaucracies of major fund-raising organizations, which at the moment have huge amounts of donations pouring in. - Alan)
-From Bob McCafferty:
Thanks for sharing your powerful experience. My oldest daughter, who lives four hours away and who has been a bit estranged, suddenly came by yesterday to catch up on hugs yesterday. We were both in tears. A friend of mine, Harriet Schechter of San Diego, has written several books on getting organized, getting rid of the stuff in our lives. In "Let Go of Clutter" she offers the wisdom that her favorite saying is "Life is 5% joy, 5% grief and 90% maintenance." Your message reminds me that "maintaining" relationships is the most important. Thanks. Safe travels.
-From Steven McCombs:
I just wanted to express my gratitude for the special edition. I've traveled about 500,000 miles in the last eight last years on three continents and met a lot of wonderful people from all cultures. I was really shaken by the tragedy. I'm sure you traveled even more and have a much more diverse client base so I think you can relate. I truly thought that we were "winning the war against hate" and well, frankly, I've been paralyzed for a few days and just now am beginning to come out of it. Your piece was a big help. It gave me hope.
-From Mary Menden:
I'm sure you receive scads of e-mail. Here is a short message. Thank you. You have put into eloquent words how I feel and I am sure how our country feels. Our world, life and country will never be the same. One other item--again this is personal--my church feels more of a home to me now that it has ever been in my life. Take care.
-From Teresa Nussbaum:
It took me until day 5 to realize that I was out of balance with the current world events. I awoke after 4 fitful nights of bad dreams coupled with nausea, tearfulness, constipation and an urgent desire to get to the TV to get the latest. Conversations with my soul mate had ceased and an overwhelming sense of lassitude prevailed. I watched with only passing interest as others went about their daily routines...
Enough already! Thank you to the critical incident debriefers who had cautioned after my last disaster that these dysfunctional behaviors could occur in the future. They tell you that these exaggerated responses are a normal reaction in post traumatic stress and emphasize that acknowledgement is half the process. The other half is to resist becoming nonfunctional and force yourself into rational, productive behaviors
-From Neil Schmeidler:
Alan, I was in New York City and was supposed to be in #7 when the attack occurred. I was unable to accompany the study team I was with because the subway was too crowded for me to get on so I was in a cab trying to get to #7. The team I was with all made it out of #7 and back to the hotel unscathed, thank Goodness. As far as I know, no one was seriously injured in #7.
Until Monday evening, the 10th, it had been many years since I was in New York City. Several things struck me on the way to the subway station about an hour before the first airplane struck the Trade Center. One of the thoughts I had as we walked to the subway station is that New Yorkers get a bad rap. I found the people there to be no different from others that I interact with not only in Washington, DC where my office is, but in other parts of the US. I was totally surprised while walking to the subway station at the courtesy shown on the sidewalk. When trying to buy a subway ticket an attendant helped me without being asked, and on the subway platform, although it was crowded and we all were trying to get someplace, there was no shouting or shoving. And of course after the attack, I believe millions (maybe billions) of people were impressed with the behavior of the New York City people.
Now when I hear someone making a disparaging remark about New York City people, I know its not true.
-From Barb Shutiak:
Thank you for your thoughts. I caught up on the last two newsletters by reading the special Sept 17 edition first. Terrible events. You usually give me reason to smile and to stop and think about what is truly important in life. My little daughter was 7 months old when diagnosed with cancer and is now fine as far as anyone can tell. We still worry. I remember going through all that hell with her and thinking that if we could get out of it intact, I would never take life for granted. However, as life returns to normal (whatever that is, and thank God for it anyway) I went back to my old way of being the kind of person whom you describe as conscientious. Your words help to remind me... Thanks again.