Category Archives: PSYCHOLOGY

Mastering my own mind

I have made more than my share of mistakes in life. At times I think I’m balancing out those super-successful, effortless types. All of them.

Being physically uncoordinated (I actually received a “Two Left Feet” award once) is a bad start. That problem has crossed a number of sports off my list altogether.

But there’s perhaps a larger problem that sets me back: it’s the way my mind (if your philosophy does not allow for a “mind,” then feel free to substitute “brain”) functions.

No, I haven’t been diagnosed with any sort of neurological disorder…at least not yet. Yet I often feel and act as if I’m missing the part of my brain that’s supposed to make me step back and focus.

I can’t just chalk it up to senility or memory loss. I bumped into an old college acquaintance today, and I shocked him by remembering what he majored in and his wife’s name all these years later.

Yet I couldn’t remember to take my head out of my ass long enough to buy everything I needed to buy (for work) at the store or get every box into my car before I ventured out prematurely. My flakiness inconvenienced other people, and it quite justifiably made me look foolish and incompetent.

I was searching for a good quote on the subject when I ran across this:

Mental toughness can take you to the top, and mental weakness straight to the bottom.

John Schiefer

If this were just a once-in-a-blue-moon kind of occurrence, then I might not fret so much about it. But I see it as a particularly serious pattern in myself. When things are moving quickly, I simply can’t think straight. I tend to collapse mentally and make dumb errors just like the over-excited defensive end who jumps off sides on the first play of the Super Bowl. Sometimes, when I’m under pressure, I can’t perform even the simplest tasks correctly.

So how does one develop this sort of “mental toughness?” I don’t quite know yet, but I think I owe it to myself and those I work with to figure it out and master my own mind. For too long I have allowed my mind to master me.

Check your ego at the office door

I’m going to start this off by acknowledging one of my more significant flaws. I am not particularly good at being “self aware.” That is, there are a lot of things I do that I don’t even realize I do.

Additionally, I often make decisions without regard for the specific people involved. (This doesn’t mean that I don’t have regard for others or I dislike the people involved…merely that I don’t differentiate much between one person and another when making decisions.) I’m going to go about my business and do what is right, regardless of what people will think.

This is far less impressive than it first sounds. After all, most of our decisions are not big moral judgments but small, mundane tasks. For example, today I sent what I thought was a perfectly polite e-mail full of pleases and thank-yous asking for feedback from a manager of a different department (his name is Mark). I was on a tight deadline, so I added, “please respond ASAP.” It seemed reasonable enough to me, especially for a simple request. This was related to a conversation I had just had with my manager Cathy (who actually sits at the opposite end of the building from me), so I copied her on the message.

Within one minute, my phone rang. It was Cathy. Now Cathy is very polite and easygoing, but she was calling in a less-than-giddy tone to tell me that my message had the tendency to go over like a lead balloon. I must admit, I was puzzled.

Apparently, the request to “please respond ASAP” made the message sound like the recipient worked for me when really the relationship is the other way around and I was asking for a favor. He could have sent me that message in perfect decorum, but not the other way around.

I don’t have any evidence that Mark was actually offended, but Cathy said that I needed to be more careful for the future because I could have unintentionally damaged the relationship between our two departments. I don’t think this was a major problem, but I would like to avoid even the minor ones if I can…they add up.

I must admit this is not the first time I have been caught making this type of faux pas, but I honestly didn’t see it coming. I can’t imagine myself being offended if the roles were reversed, but I am not Mark. I cannot project myself because I am not like a lot of people in the business world. For one thing, you have to try pretty hard to bruise my ego. I don’t know of anyone who has offended me by accident. I plan to get a Ph.D. some day, but I refuse to be one of those people who gets angry when someone calls him “mister” instead of “doctor.”

That makes it all the more critical that I make every word I communicate at work as deliberate and careful as possible. Life can be a minefield that way.

If the Gores can’t make it work, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Former Vice President Albert Gore Jr. and his wife Mary Elizabeth (you know her as Tipper) are separating after 40 years of marriage. This from the couple who exchanged one of the most public and memorable kisses in American history.

I haven’t really seen any information as to what prompted the couple to split up, but I can’t imagine that after 40 years they suddenly came to the realization that they didn’t realize what they had gotten into. This marriage survived a long political career and even a heartbreakingly narrow defeat for the presidency. That amount of pressure and pain would weigh heavily on even the best of marriages.

It had to be something else.

I doubt it was because the Gores were broke either – in 2007, Al’s net worth was valued in excess of $100 million. (He was “only” worth $2 million at best in 2000 so he has made most of the money since leaving Washington.) I mean if the Gores were just having a marital spat they could just flee on private jets to their separate mansions until things cooled off.

So that leaves us to speculate about other factors. Did they simply grow apart? Was there an extramarital affair a la John Edwards? (Side note: Many marriages survive affairs…just ask the Clintons.) Did one of them meet someone else to grow old with? Did one of them change so radically that the other couldn’t live with it anymore?

Marriages are not easy things to preserve. I recently experienced a divorce after six years of marriage. There were warning signs early on in my case, even before the wedding that I stubbornly ignored, so you can chalk that one up to hubris and holding on too long.

Yet I recently saw an old friend and met his second wife – since I had seen him last, he and his first wife of 31 years had been divorced. They were able to keep it together for decades, so you would imagine they learned how to resolve disputes at some point. I can’t imagine what the breaking point was, but it must have been really painful.

Maybe it’s the whole concept of marriage that isn’t working. I’m not saying it never works…my parents are still married after 31 years. But it fails often enough that we should question it. Is any of us really prepared to look into a crystal ball and make that kind of lifelong commitment (particularly when we are just starting out in life)? Are humans really built to be monogamous for life when our closest relatives in the animal kingdom are quite promiscuous?

P.S. Note to Tipper: your husband is not only fabulously wealthy and politically influential, but he has also won an Academy Award and the Nobel Peace Prize…all without a hint of scandal. He was a two-term Vice President and a few hundred Floridian votes away from being the President of the United States – he actually won the popular vote. Do you honestly think you can do better?

Finding my voice without speaking

It has been suggested to me that I should start writing more. (You may or may not agree after reading this.) Writing is my outlet, it is my passion, it is my foundation, it is what I do. Unfortunately I haven’t been doing very much of it lately.

So what would keep me from the very thing that defines me? Actually I’ve been asking myself the same question.

Is it my schedule? Well, it’s true that there have been a lot of changes in my life lately. I went through a divorce. I found a terrific woman. I started graduate school part time. I got a new job. I moved. So you would expect me to be busy…but if I am honest with myself I have to admit that’s not the reason.

Is it my mental state? It’s true that, despite the above developments (many of them positive), I still feel as if I am not in a good place. And, what’s worse, I still don’t have the vocabulary to figure out what a good place looks like. When I am talking about something that makes me uncomfortable I literally swallow air before I can get the words out. Asking me to explain out loud what I’ve been feeling is like asking one of my mother’s second graders to explain Chaucer.

This might explain why I’m not much of a social animal — at parties I can often be mistaken for a design in the wallpaper or a lifelike statue — but I do have a voice when I sit down to type something out.

Yet for some reason I haven’t felt the creative juices flowing through my fingers for a long time. The well was bone dry. It was as if I had lost my ability to communicate altogether.

And yet today I visited a loved one in the hospital who was trying to talk to me but, due to a medical condition, could not speak. Her voice had been taken away from her. But then I looked down from her face and saw something that made me even sadder — her hand restrained to the bed to prevent her from pulling out a tube or disconnecting a critical line of medication. She could not even write a note to communicate how she was feeling or if she needed something. It made my writer’s block seem inconsequential.

I cursed my fate because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.

Author Unknown

There may come a time in my life when I will not be able to speak. That might not change a whole lot. But if there comes a time when I become physically unable to write, I will be truly impaired.

Book Review: The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis

In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis transported the reader into a world of ghosts and phantoms where the line between heaven and hell is blurrier than traditional Christianity might let on. In this world there is no St. Peter, no pearly gates and no righteous judgment from the Almighty.

As an inventive theological treatise, Lewis proposed that some people end up in hell not because they are sent there but because they don’t really want to be in heaven. And who would God be to force heaven on those who really don’t want to be there?

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’

Lewis depicted several individuals of the latter variety in very human and even sympathetic terms. One particularly heartwrenching story involved the ghost of a mother whose misguided love for her son (who ended up in heaven) actually separated her from him because she put him before God. Lewis was careful not to paint the hell-bound as villains but as tragic figures often with the best intentions who just couldn’t get their priorities straight.

But that’s where things got messy. In his gallant effort to marry the incongruous concepts of a loving God and eternity in hell, Lewis stumbled upon a truly troubling notion: that we’ve all been set up.

‘You mean,’ said the Tragedian, ‘you mean – you did not love me truly in the old days.’

‘Only in a poor sort of way,’ she answered. ‘I have asked you to forgive me. There was a little real love in it. But what we called love down there was mostly the craving to be loved. In the main I loved you for my own sake: because I needed you.’

‘And now!’ said the Tragedian with a hackneyed gesture of despair. ‘Now, you need me no more?’

‘But of course not!’ said the Lady; and her smile made me wonder how both the phantoms could refrain from crying out with joy.

‘What needs could I have,’ she said, ‘now that I have all? I am full now, not empty. I am in Love himself, not lonely. Strong, not weak. you shall be the same. Come and see. We shall have no need for one another now: we can begin to love truly.’

So, just to recap, we are placed in a world that, cruelly, prevents us from seeing reality clearly…even at the cost of our own souls. Like so many Christians, C.S. Lewis insisted on making life on earth out to be a test, written by an omniscient being who knew the outcome ahead of time. If life on earth prevents us from seeing clearly and truly loving God and each other, then why exactly did God create earth in the first place? Couldn’t God have prevented this whole silly dilemma?

Lewis was a brilliant author and Christianity’s best ambassador. But the gaping theological plot holes in The Great Divorce prove that even one of the greatest minds in recent history can be made to look foolish when defending an idea as silly as Christianity.

Wish you were here…but at least you’re online

I have to admit it. I have a problem. (That’s the first step to recovery, right?)

I love to travel.

I don’t get tired of moving around. I am hooked on seeing new and exciting places all the time. I love to explore. Whether it’s a new city, a breathtaking mountain range or a soothing beach

Right now I am writing this from a hotel room in Panama City Beach, which is 769 miles from home. I never really thought I was capable of homesickness, but I do miss people when I am separated from them.

I got a text message this morning on my cell phone and wished I could do more than just type back. This afternoon I was reading a book that I borrowed from a friend and imagined her explaining the notes she had written in the margin. (One more reason to borrow books instead of buying them!) I imagined another good friend daring me to do something dangerous that made me uncomfortable but was probably character-forming.

I realize now how fortunate I am to live in an era when I can stay constantly connected to the people I care about with the Internet and cell phones. A text message or a Facebook status is no substitute for being there, but it is a good patch-up for homesickness.

Likewise technology enables people to do more work while staying closer to their families. The other day, my manager was both at home AND at work thanks to her laptop. In my previous job I was able to stay in touch with my office even when I was away at a conference. I could answer my cell phone and customers could not tell where I was.

I realize that not everyone has a job for which this sort of virtual office makes sense, but it’s becoming more and more common than you might think. And in my humble opinion (IMHO), that’s a very good thing.

Famous last words

Said you heard every word
But I watched you turn away
Your eyes grew colder than winter
“Love is so intrusive”
I thought I heard you say
And laugh so unconvincingly

Famous last words
‘I’m not ready yet’
‘I won’t be gone a minute…’

Narrow is the road
And too high a price to pay
Loneliness is such a sanctuary
Empty are the musings
And wasted are the days
You said you were only waiting…

Famous last words
‘I’m not ready yet’
‘I won’t be gone a minute,
But I won’t forget’
Famous last words
Tomorrow never comes
Will I ever know that I was in love?

Said you heard every word
But I watched you turn away
You said you were only waiting…

Famous last words
‘I’m not ready yet’
‘I won’t be gone a minute’

— Famous Last Words by Jars of Clay

If you’ve been following this blog at all, you may have noticed that I have become incredibly gunshy and risk-averse. I’m instinctively not a risk taker. I have literally told friends that I have made it a life goal to take as few risks as possible in order to prevent the negative consequences.

But you know what? As they wisely responded to me, a certain degree of risk is unavoidable in life. You take a risk getting in your car and driving to work every day or walking outside in a storm. Sure, you can keep the risks you take to an absolute minimum, but where does that get you in life?

Everyone who knows me even a little bit knows I love (and quote incessantly from) Seinfeld, but I also enjoy a number of other shows, including Family Guy. One of my favorite episodes involves baby Stewie Griffin — known for his plots to take over the world — traveling in time to meet his future self.

Baby Stewie is disappointed to find that his future self is not of the world domination variety. Instead he is a lonely virgin with a dead-end job who refuses to take a great opportunity (a very sweet and interested woman at work). When Baby Stewie cajoles him into it, he fails miserably at the sexual experience. The woman goes back to work and tells the manager about what happened on their disappointing date, and Adult Stewie loses his job as a result. He also forgets about the candles he had lit for this event and accidentally burns his apartment down…blaming Baby Stewie for everything. Literally by avoiding risks in life, Adult Stewie lost what little he had.

At the end of all this, Baby Stewie asks Adult Stewie how he turned out to be so pathetic. He pauses for a moment to recall and then remembers that he nearly drowned in a pool when he was a baby and that made him averse to risk for the rest of his life…and basically rendered him a loser. He never learned that just because one risk has a bad consequence that all risks have bad consequences. Instead, like me, he merely retreated because he was living his whole life in fear of what might go wrong.

A horrified Baby Stewie goes back in time to prevent the pool incident from occurring because he decides that it would be more important for him to alter the space-time continuum than to end up like Adult Stewie did.

Transitioning to my real life, I realize that I could do better for myself if only I took a few measured risks. You’re never going to see me throwing down thousands of dollars in a casino or running one of those get-rich-quick schemes, but I must teach (force?) myself to stick my neck out a little bit once in a while if the risk is worthwhile.

I took a small risk recently, and thus far it has paid some very nice dividends. This was one day that was not wasted. Let’s just hope those are not famous last words.