Human beings are strange creatures, often waiting until we are forced to change rather than choosing to change before we "hit the wall." We see signs--irregular sleep, discord with others, regular illness, excessive drama, acting outside of our values--but we ignore them. We don’t act or we don't act consistently. Each time we ignore a sign we place a brick in the wall we eventually hit when all those signs add up to crisis. Sine qua non is Latin for indispensable element or condition. I call it "readiness." This blog seeks to connect those who are searching for or have found the sine qua non of change. What makes you or keeps you from taking off? What keeps you from flying or helps you soar? What do you know about change that can help others?

Friday, February 05, 2010

React and regret!

Learning to respond (instead of react) is a significant part of all the change I've made to transition my career. I had to do new things I didn't know how to do, duck my self-doubt, learn to be okay when what I did while I was learning wasn't perfect. I had to experiment. If I would've applied my default reaction I might have frozen in my tracks at the first disappointment. Change requires a devotion to thoughtful response.

Brain review 101

The part of the brain that controls human reaction is called the amygdala. Your amygdala is said to be "highjacked" when emotions take over your actions. You've likely heard of the "reptilian" brain reference (fight, flight or freeze). When emotion rules it can cause us to act inappropriately and later regret our action. I have this nasty little reaction to things that sound like the other person thinks I'm not smart enough to have thought of the obvious. My reaction is beast-like, think snarl from a BIG cat. I am aware of it, but the reaction is so quick it's hard to resist. I am able to see it the instant I'm done snarling and find myself regretful. I hope to continue to get better at managing my reaction.

Why change?
  • First of all, anything we do when we're being beast-like could be embarrassing. How many of us (minus the heroics of lifting a car off someone) ever did anything to be proud of when we reacted in fear or anger? How does it damage our relationships with important people in our lives?
  • Second is the pattern we establish that causes us to repeat the same dumb behavior over and over again, often getting us the same results over and over again. That's why old habits are so hard to break, and new habits are so hard to start and sustain, even if we're really trying. If I have a value for the earth and its creatures and my local grocery store encourages me to bring my own bag, and I own at least 2 dozen bags--why is it I often get to the top of the hill, list in hand without my reuseable grocery bag?
  • Believe me you don't get any better at changing the older you get, so start now!
Here's what I'm working on:
  • Recognizing what happens to my body when my amygdala is being hijacked. My head gets light and my ears fill with cotton, and I go from "pussycat" to "cougar" in less than a second. Luckily it happens rarely. I had to become aware of the emotion in order to change my behavior so it's great practice for me to observe.

  • Identifying the emotions to watch for. I tend to feel angry and then I withdraw to make sense out of the incident rather than yell or leave, although sometimes I want to leave. Saying "Oh I know what that is," helps to calm me.

  • Stopping my habit of adding meaning to the actions of others. We are wired to react and then assume some worse-case scenario. The better I get with the mantra, "This is not about me," the better I get.

  • Learning to slow down the velocity and ask, How did it feel? What did I learn? How can I use what I learned?

  • Learning how to put into words the change I want to make, figuring out the baby steps I have to take in order to move forward, working sometimes just on gut, learning new ways of doing things, and feeling inconvenienced sometimes like the rub of a new shoe.

Almost four years ago we began a house remodel and toyed with the idea of a shoes-off house. Sometimes we enforced and sometimes we didn't. We were terrible at taking off our own shoes. We stopped and started shoes-off efforts, even buying a big basket of all size slippers. But we never could enforce the rule.

We've resurrected our efforts, and here I am finally working on changing my own behavior to be no-shoes in the house. How can I ask others to take off their shoes when I'm walking around in my own? What a hassle. I either end up with a large parcel of shoes on the small landing near the front door or in my closet 1/2 floor up.

The key for getting started was getting clear on the reason for the no-shoes policy and exactly how it worked. It had really been our lack of clarity that caused us to delay our commitment. To begin, we can work on changing our own behavior. I hope it doesn't take as long as the grocery bags.

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The Journey

by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.

I mourn for you

I cry because someone important once degraded you, carved a mark on your soul that colors your lens, distorts your thinking. I ache because your head has built a wall around your heart that protects you from people you long to know. I grieve because you serve others, settle for less than you want, sit with that lump in your throat and ache in your heart that leaks tears when you speak. I mourn for the signs you saw and ignored, parasites sucking you dry of money and emotions, of goodwill and compassion until you cannot put a sentence together any more than you can repair your life because you are clueless about where to start.

Awareness before change

Awareness November 2008

“I was hoping to come back and join you in bed,” my sweetie said clearly disappointed as he walked past me on his way to the bedroom after spending the night in the guest room where his back finds respite. “Too late,” I retorted, fully clothed, brewing a cup of coffee and unfolding my buttermilk pancake recipe. He continued to our bed, surely hoping I would change my mind. Standing my ground meant we missed out on the irreplaceable morning “spoon”—a defiance way beyond the occasion and very much out of character.

I had nothing to say on this Pancake Sunday--a ritual we started to bring the family back to the fold once a week, even after Mom arrived; even when my sweetie tried to get me to leave my post at the grill to come see the critters converged on the deck enjoying the morning’s banquet of seeds and suet. I ignored him. “I’ve got pancakes to turn,” I growled under my breath.

I could feel myself slipping over the edge as Mom poured syrup and detailed the lives of her neighbors and their little girl whom she cannot forgive for going without underpants, and the impending birth of twins, and the small house they live in, and the Mom’s favorite coffee and their latest conversation encased in a “Then I said,” and “Then she said,” recalling every word. “I don’t care,” I thought, through my blank stare.

That was the first time I realized my heart hurt. Not the “I’m-having-a-heart-attack” kind of hurt, but an ache in the anterior. I breathed deep into the pain and sighed.

Luckily only Mom had joined us on this Sunday after Thanksgiving. Instead of the usual group of friends and optimistic chit-chat, we ate with an uncomfortable quiet. It didn’t take long for her to pack up and go home after breakfast, leaving me alone to dwell on the status of my relationship, the recent and untimely death of a friend, my floundering career. My heart hurt. I breathed deep and sighed and relieved it for a moment more.

Awareness October 2009

Darkness had not yet dissolved on the Saturday morning I awoke anxious and sad and inconsolable. The contrast was stark to the usual song in my head. The frenzy prevented me from turning and breathing and willing myself back to sleep. What? I wondered.

The channels flipped on my internal tube, exposing trailers of unfinished business, the chasm I feared growing between me and my daughter, the class the previous day that produced two negative evaluations, conversation with the neighbors at dinner the night before where we talked about elders and our turn, Thanksgiving plans upended again in a phone call.

I paused and hit replay. Decades of chaotic Thanksgiving scenes montaged through; my Dad’s death on the holiday when I was 5, yelling and swats with the hair brush over dresses and curls, a major riff in the family where half split off to celebrate elsewhere, Mom insisting on celebrating one place or another creating the necessity to “pick sides,” my daughter throwing up to avoid choosing, the ache in my heart the year before. Years of chaos and drama created by ancient sadness and suffering disguised itself as current reality and visited me there in my bed to me to remind me to move on.