Archives for January 2010

Are You Normal, Do You Want to Be and What Does This Have to Do with Happiness?

Rorschach_blot_01During a reunion of friends I hadn’t seen for a year, we met over dinner and each shared our progress toward personal and professional goals.  In the process of sharing events of her year one friend disclosed that she’s motivated by trying to prove to her family that she is as smart as her high-achieving  “specialist doctor” brother.

When she confessed that this stems back to childhood she recounted some of the verbal attacks and labels she has endured at the hands of this brother even now (although they are both highly educated professionals.)  The rest of us at the table were horrified, visibly shaken and some teary-eyed to hear and see the pain she has endured.  By contrast, she was surprised at our reaction. What was dysfunction with a capital D to the rest of us was normal family relations to her.

In a Psychology Today article, Peter Kramer discusses the concept of normal from two angles

As the experience of mid-century shows, we can hold two forms of normality in mind—normal as free of defect, and normal as sharing the human condition, which always includes variation and vulnerability. We may be entering a similar period of dissociation, in which risk and pathology become separated from abnormality—or an era in which abnormality is universal and unremarkable.

We are used to the concept of medical shortcomings; we face disappointing realizations—that our triglyceride levels and our stress tolerance are not what we would wish. Normality may be a myth we have allowed ourselves to enjoy for decades, sacrificed now to the increasing recognition of differences. The awareness that we all bear flaws is humbling. But it could lead us to a new sense of inclusiveness and tolerance, recognition that imperfection is the condition of every life.—Peter Kramer

I always equated normal with boring, so it was never my goal. According to my kids and friends I succeeded. As a matter of fact, my kids don’t mind reminding me from time to time with “You’re weird.”

“Good!” I think to myself, “I’m still on track.”

One of my favorite Twilight Zone TV episodes shows a scene of a doctor and nurse standing in a darkened room at the bedside of a patient whose face is fully bandaged. She has undergone experimental surgery to correct her disfigurement so she will be allowed to remain in the State. This is the  eleventh and final surgical attempt to make her beautiful. If this doesn’t work she’ll be cast out to live in a village with other freaks.

As the doctor and nurse remove the bandages, the doctor comments to the nurse that Janet, the patient, is a beautiful person no matter what a face looks like.  When they remove the last layer of bandages and Janet is revealed as a beautiful human female, the audience is confused for a moment.  When the staff turns on the lights we see that all of the staff  have pig-like faces.

Fearful over her fate, Janet runs out into the hall , past a State broadcast on complete conformity.  She runs into a room where she finds herself face-to-face with a horrifying sight,  a handsome human male, Walter Smith. The episode ends with Walter taking Janet to the village where others of her kind live.

Normal is very much what we decide it to be.

What we accept as normal can change as our goals, desires, and situations change. I believe that the source of  some of our unhappiness is discontent with what has become normal in our lives and failure to do anything about it. It’s a proven fact that to make changes in our lives we have to adopt new habits. That means resetting whatever was once normal for us.

The ever popular goal of  losing weight, for example, requires not just eating less and exercising more, but adopting a new lifestyle. If sleeping in and stuffing your face with donuts is your normal, it’s likely you will need to create new behaviors which when repeated over and over become your normal that will help you reach your weight loss goal.

Part of what lead to the demise of the Rorschach test (also known as the Ink Blot Test–see one of the images above) was the suspicion that the results of this projective personality test told us more about the examiner than the subjects.

Perhaps it’s time to recognize, as Peter Kramer proposes, that we let go of the myth of normality. It may be a useful construct for intellectual discussion and research, but in our daily lives recognizing and accepting imperfection in ourselves and others is one key to being happy. The next key, of course, is giving ourselves permission to change what we consider normal as we reach for new goals and rethink what relationships and experiences we want as part of our lives.

Is Forgiveness Essential for Happiness?

fountainpen by phil h

[Photo by phil h on Flickr]

One constant that I see in the literature on happiness, personal growth, and prosperity is the importance of forgiveness and yet, many struggle with it, stress about it and some even suffer from it. Let’s face it, forgiveness just not come easy for most of us.

The Bible is clear on forgiveness in a number of places. One of them is Colossians 3:13

Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (NIV)

Then we have the words of people who have survived horrific suffering, such as Corrie Ten Boom, the Holocaust survivor who tells why we should forgive

Forgiveness is to set a prisoner free, and to realize the prisoner was you.

Even when we are warned that failure to forgive can increase our blood pressure, stress and risk of alcohol and substance abuse, there are several reasons that still make us hesitate.

Forgiveness will not guarantee reconciliation of a relationship or a change in the offender. As a matter of fact we may believe that we are somehow punishing the offender by withholding our forgiveness or that we are letting them get away by forgiving them.

This morning when I was thinking about this topic I posted the following statement on Facebook:

Forgiveness keeps coming up as a key component of happiness and prosperity. Think I’ll blog about it.

Within a few hours I got the following reactions

Without forgiveness there can be no true happiness.

To which I agreed, followed by another Facebook friend’s comment

Forgiving whom…the offender or yourself?? If we forgive the offender it feels like letting them off the hook and giving the message “what you did was okay”..??? I am confused about the forgiving thing. Why do we HAVE to forgive an injustice, abuse, or mistreatment? Isn’t part of the offenders consequences our establishing a personal boundary that excludes that sort of treatment or behavior from our personal world. IF we “forgive” it feels like the wrong message.

Which resulted in this response.

I agree Yvonne!

Then 2 hours later, another comment

I don’t agree that forgiving an offender “lets them off the hook”. They will still be held accountable at the end of their time. A wrong never goes unpunished.

To which I responded to the previous commenter

Forgiving the offender IS for yourself. While you are holding on to the hurt, you are blocking your own good. The offender may not even be aware or care that they have hurt you. This doesn’t mean that you should become a doormat or walking victim. It is certainly useful to confront and bring a hurt to the offender’s attention if that’s possible. But once that’s done, hanging on to the hurt only damages and blocks you. At the same time, it’s your job to protect yourself from hurt by not associating with those bent on hurting you.

Then shortly after

And I don’t agree. I think we can heal and move on and be healthy and whole with out “Forgiving.” The words “I forgive you” mean to me you are no longer held accountable. Whether “God” holds them accountable is not the issue. In this life, in this world, they are “forgiven” and therefore not to be held accountable for the wrong doing. If I hurt someone on purpose, with malice, or even with ignorance. I intend to be held accountable. Law does not forgive us if we mug or rape or kill someone. We are held accountable. The victim can heal and move on and STILL hold the offender as to blame and accountable (unforgiven.)…You don’t have to agree, but this is my reality.

Another comment from the same commenter as above.

One more and I promise to get off my soap box. THe people who feel you HAVE to forgive seem to be people who are very religious. My question is, is that their heart belief or a belief they have been TAUGHT?

Since I checked last, the last comment was

I can only speak for myself. I am not very religious, though I am faithful. I believe in my heart that forgiveness is necessary for true healing to begin. I carried that burden in my heart for a long time. I chose to forgive the person without seeking them out. My reason is simply because people don’t start out bad or evil, they become that way through terrible circumstances of their own. It doesn’t excuse the offense.

This is clearly a heated topic, but we didn’t touch on the other side of the issue.

What if you are the one who needs to be forgiven? Should you contact the other person, even years later, and say “Sorry.”

That’s what some people do, but not always with great results. Sometimes the offended person wasn’t offended at all and doesn’t even remember the incident. Other times the offended has seemed to move on with their lives, but upon your opening the wound gets offended all over again.

Then there are the deathbed apologies, such as a man apologizing to his unsuspecting wife of 50 years for cheating on her 35 years ago.  Does he want to be forgiven or just to relieve his guilt so he can die in peace?

Although it doesn’t seem like a good idea to apologize in a public forum or suddenly after many years by email, there are two websites that can aid you if you’re seeking absolution: — you can post an anonymous apology obviously because you think it will make you feel better. The offended may never read it.–this site gives serious tips and guidance on creating and delivering apologies in personal and business situations

My final words on forgiveness

If you’ve gotten away with murder or cheated your way through Harvard and into your top paying job, your apology is admirable, but be forewarned that it will likely affect your lifestyle and maybe even your life expectancy.

Three Easy Steps to Creating Happiness in Your Life

Happiness is Becoming What You Were Meant to Be

seedlingWe often talk about happiness as though it’s lurking there, somewhere outside ourselves. We see evidence of it in other people, but we aren’t sure we can experience it ourselves. The truth is you can’t be happy in the future unless you’re happy now. The potential is already inside you-just as the potential for a plant is already there inside a seed.

It brings to mind an experience I had after I retired.

I decided to plant a vegetable garden. I was intrigued, not just with the idea of eating healthier meals, but also with the chance to watch nature in action, close-up. I bought a variety of herbs and vegetables from my local garden shop and planted them alongside my house. Within just a few days of watering, I observed tiny green signs of life peeking up through the dirt.

I love zucchini, so I’d purchased two little potted plants. As they became recognizable, I saw that, sure enough, one of them was forming the familiar green shape of zucchini. But the other one was yellow with a bulging bottom. I examined the identification cards supplied with each little pot, and sure enough, they were identical: “Squash Zucchini.”

Soon it became clear that something was wrong. No matter what the labels said, one of the plants wasn’t the zucchini I thought I’d bought. It was obvious one had been mislabeled. Even though the yellow squash had been labeled as zucchini, with my care and nurturing, it produced what it had inside all along: the potential to become a yellow squash.

Like that plant, we have the potential to manifest our own happiness, despite any labels we-or others-may give ourselves. Once we recognize the “seed of happiness” is within us right now, we can free ourselves to bring it forth.

Your happiness is not the same as another person’s-just as that zucchini plant yielded zucchini while the yellow squash plant yielded yellow squash. I don’t imagine either plant wished it was the same as the other (if plants can think!). Each just grew into what it was meant to be.

The Lure of the Rogue, the Jerk, and the Wayward is Alive and Well

danger thin iceWhen I was in my early twenties, a friend observed my choice of boyfriends and cautioned me to avoid being a rescuer, trying to save flawed men. By heeding his advice I was saved from throwing myself on the pyre of one relationship that could have only turned out to be a disastrous marriage.

Later, with my biological clock clanging, I married a man who wasn’t completely emotionally available. I only discovered this later, but I got many things from my marriage that I value–four children, support and encouragement through my doctoral studies and fidelity. When these things were no longer enough I ended the relationship by calling for a separation. Less than two years later, before we could divorce, my husband died.

As a widow, I thought I would fare better since I was older and hopefully wiser. But once again I realized I was in another relationship with a man who was not only emotionally unavailable, but wasn’t even my intellectual and social equal. He was a lot of fun though.

After eight years of failing to turn this relationship into the engaging, fulfilling and committed relationship I wanted, I decided I needed time off. I clearly needed time to get to know and love myself better so I would be drawn to a satisfying relationship rather than to a fix-it project.

I didn’t intend for this moratorium from relationships to last for two decades, but while I was busy traveling, enjoying friends and experiences and gaining many insights about myself, time passed. The many things I learned and decided can be summed up in a few words: I decided not to settle for less than I what I want and deserve in a relationship, one of mutual respect, honor and engagement.

Some of my well-meaning friends fear that this decision dooms me to be alone forever. The problem with their prognostication is that they consider being without a committed relationship as being alone. Some of them say I’m too picky. Haven’t they noticed that I’ve been enjoying my life? I think they just want me to be as miserable as they are in their relationships. No thanks.

There is an old saying that a piece of a man is better than no man at all. Whoever started this obviously believed that a woman was not complete without a man in her life even if he was inadequate for her in many ways. It’s hard for me to imagine a situation where that makes sense. But for many woman it seems to be the case.

Lately I’ve observed a number of women around me who are settling for a “piece” of a man I suppose because they fear being alone. There are many variations on this theme, but in the cases I’ve observed the woman is well-educated, self-sufficient, resourceful, strong, determined, creative, energetic and ambitious, but in a relationship with a guy who is the opposite in almost every way: uneducated, “no visible means of support,” no clear goals and lacking energy and drive. Some are middle-aged professional women, dragging along relationships with philanderers, ex-cons, abusers or child molesters.

As a reformed “rescuer” I certainly remember the drive to fix, rehabilitate or save a man. It’s a strong pull, and because females tend to be natural nurturers, it’s an addiction that can doom you to spending many years trying to transform someone, especially if you see yourself as the only one who can save him.

Then there is that lure of the rogue, the adventurous guy without a plan who is so irresistible. If he’s also good looking, charming, and smells good–oooh, it’s dizzying. If you grew up being a “good girl” where there were strict rules, this guy offers the new rush of spontaneity and fun. He often has a great sense of humor since he is worry-free. After all, what does he have to worry about. He’s often living with another woman who is supporting him financially, even providing his luxuries. This other woman may be his mother, ex-wife, or even estranged wife, but you buy into his justification of his living arrangements.

With all the advances in science, medicine, and technology, it seems that we haven’t made much progress in relationships. The lure of the rogue, the jerk and the wayward is still drawing in unsuspecting “good girls” into relationships that seldom pan out to be the ones they envision.

It’s tough to observe the vigorously waving red flag of these relationships as an outsider and decide how best to caution the soon-to-be prey. Sometimes friends conspire to confront the friend in question with straight-out intervention. Other times if you can engage the woman in activities where she is relaxed, you can present the topic and share your observations. If you’re fortunate, she may even approach you requesting advice.

In the meantime, you wonder if you are meddling in a situation where you don’t belong. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, parents of teens are encouraged to speak up when they see their kids making poor dating choices. In a study by Dr. Madsen and others of 225 young adults ages 22 to 29, the researchers concluded that young adults like it when parents take on a coaching or consulting role, but only when asked.

I’m not completely comfortable with this finding. It feels like not warning someone traveling at high speed that the bridge is out unless they’ve inquired.

What do you think?