“Are people doing the best they can?”

man holding silver trophy
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If you follow me on other platforms, you probably know I have soft spots for Brene Brown and Russell Brand. I could never have imagined the circumstances that would bring these two minds together to create, but I’m thrilled to live in a universe where this happened.. and my mind is blown by the result.

For those of you not familiar with Russell Brand, he is an outspoken comedian, actor, author, and activist. Although I did enjoy his outlandish comedy, I’ve found a new level of respect for him in sharing his experiences finding sobriety after a tumultuous and public struggle with drug addiction.

Brene got a brief nod in a past blog post, with a small reference to one of the first (and most powerful) books I read in recovery Daring Greatly. Holding a PHD in social work, she does research into vulnerability, shame, courage, and empathy. All topics that easily bring me to a cold sweat.

Although I’m familiar with some of Russel’s writings and videos on addiction recovery, I was not familiar with his podcast, “Under the Skin”. On this platform, he interviews a variety of influential public figures and the talk is anything but small. In his conversation with Brene they covered a plethora of hard topics including (but not limited to): handling tough toddlers, addiction, and boundaries.

The interview is over an hour and those interested in the full experience (at the time of this writing) can find it easily on spotify, youtube, or a number of other platforms. The part that really jumped out at me was a discussion on framing perception by asking the question “are people really doing the best they can?”

Although this discussion includes references to God and religion, it could easily be approached without so I encourage you to look beyond that if it does not resonate with you.

Like Brene, I’ve spent most of my life believing that most people (including myself) could be doing better. I met mistakes and poor choices as a personal reflection of value. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time being wounded and hurt by people not living up to my expectations for their behaviour, which in turn impacted my ability to be compassionate and live a peaceful existence. I spent an embarrassing amount of time being pissed off and burning bridges believing most times that people were either lazy or didn’t care.

I recognize that approaching life in this way is not only self-righteous and douchy, it isn’t fair. Reflecting on my lowest points there were days where the best I could do was not great. I remember not too long ago where the simple act of getting out of bed and to work was a monumental achievement. During that time, I was not a great friend, relative, or human. I was in survival mode and that was truly all I had in me.

At the end of the clip, Brene retells her husbands’ take on this huge existential question. Responding to her prodding, “are people really doing the best they can every day”, he says, profoundly “I have no idea. But what I do know is my life is better when I assume they are” (mic drop).

This really hit me because it illustrates so perfectly what many of us fundamentally struggle with: what is ours to control. A common concept in recovery literature is the challenge to accept the truth that you are only in control of your own thoughts, feelings, and actions; not the thoughts, feelings and actions of others.

In this context, whether a person is actually doing the best they possibly can is irrelevant because it is out of our control; but how we frame our thoughts and perception is totally within our power. I can choose to believe that the hurt someone inflicts on me is a reflection of my value, or I can believe that, for better or for worse, they are doing the best they can and choose my actions calmly, intelligently, and compassionately.

5 Reasons Why I Try not to Give Advice

There was a time not too long ago where if you had told me any challenge or problem you were facing, I would have jumped in and tried to “fix” it with an immediate solution to your problem and a lecture which included all my supporting logic and thoughts.  Although I often do not have solutions to my own cavernous problems (and would not call myself an “expert” on most things) I would not hesitate to tell you how to go about fixing yourself. Dispensing advice is still a huge temptation for me, but I’ve been working on curbing this impulse.

I’ve touched on this topic before in my post on empathy, but have some more thoughts on why jumping in to “fix” problems is not a great approach in relationships.

  1. Dispensing advice is often more about me than the other person: although on the surface I’m trying to be helpful I think it’s more about me. Giving people solid and thoughtful advice makes me feel better about myself. It’s also self-righteous, unconsciously sending the message that I don’t think you have it under control and that you aren’t “good enough” to deal with the problem. My eagerness is about showing that I am an expert, intelligent, and insightful more than understanding you or your situation. I’m putting myself up on a pedestal saying that I understand the problem and situation more than you. I’ve also noticed my own hypocrisy in that the advice I tend to dole out is also more often than not advice I’ve refused or ignored when offered to me. I feel that my tendency to rush in and try to fix things is a reflection of my insecurity and discomfort at being present with pain and feelings, both my own and others.
  1. That’s probably not all the facts: I recognize that I only ever have one version of the events. You’ve told me your perception of what’s happening, but let’s be real! We all have a tendency to frame things in a way that suits our bias. If the issue is not flattering, we omit things or spin them in a way that avoids responsibility. Understanding this very human self-preservation instinct, I know that I am basing my judgement, reaction, and advice on a partial story. No matter how good my advice is, there’s no way that it is fair or complete because the facts presented are probably not either.
  1. Solving problems builds confidence: getting yourself out of a bind, figuring it out, and succeeding despite adversity are all incredible confidence builders. As much as it may seem like I am helping by sharing my cleverness and insight, there is a chance that by providing overly detailed and forceful instruction I am robbing you of a powerful and necessary learning and growth experience. There is also always a decent chance that I am way off side, and shouldn’t subject you to my bias.
  1. I don’t need to face the consequences: I know this is something I have not given any thought in the past. I was so caught up in “fixing” that I didn’t appreciate the simple fact that I would not have to deal with the fallout and consequences of the advice I was providing. I’m embarrassed at the drastic and pointed advice that I’ve offered over the years that called for intense and total life overhauls with no pause for how jarring those changes would be. I told people that this was the only solution to their problem with no appreciation of the level of commitment, drive, and perseverance implementing those actions would take to make them successful. In other words, making matter of fact and preachy suggestions about how people live their life was a real douche canoe move.
  1. They may not take my advice, and may think less of me for it: despite my good intentions, how clever and insightful I think I might be, I recognize that people only really accept advice when they are ready. In the wrong state, they may not agree or they may not be ready even if it is genuinely the best course of action. I understand that if I catch someone in one of those moments there is a great chance that my advice will not be well received. They may resent or ignore me totally which in turn makes me feel like underappreciated garbage. Further, advice is rarely helpful if it is delivered in an intense I-know-what’s-best kind of way. I know we are all attracted to the idea of tough love but, in all but the most dire situations, delivering advice in this manner makes people defensive, defiant, and closed; therefore, totally unlikely to take the advice anyway.  I also recognize that when I get angry at other people for not taking my advice it is an indication that I should not be giving it in the first place as it suggests that my actions are weighted on my expectations for things beyond my control rather than openness to the best outcome.

The deep irony of this situation is that the best way to give someone advice is often by not giving it at all. It’s by showing curiosity and really listening; by offering them a safe space to talk about the problem without fear of judgement. This is essentially what therapy and counselling provides. A good practitioner will serve as a guide to connect you with the answers you already have but are having trouble accessing. It’s shocking how often saying something aloud and talking it through with someone who is supportive and open to listening will be all that is needed for the person to find the solution. It is worth resisting the temptation to provide immediate solutions in favour of supporting those we care about in finding their own. I acknowledge, this may not always be possible. There are occasions where it is appropriate and needed to offer thoughts and advice but this is something I’m trying to approach more delicately. I don’t regret putting more effort into developing authentic and deep listening skills and allowing other people to share in a compassionate space.

Denial (Not the River)

Denial is one of the hardest things to explain to people who show an interest in the breakdown of my last long term relationship. It is also one of my biggest sources of shame. This topic usually comes up in the form of a leading and judgmental question along the lines of: “You must have known he was an alcoholic.  How could you not?”

The truth is, most people are in denial all the time. Imagine every time you or a loved one got into a car you were pummeled with the realization that on average 100 people in the US die every day in motor vehicle accidents.  Consider living in the constant fear that in the kitchen of every restaurant you ate in, the prep cook added unsavoury things to your food. Think about what life would be like if you settled on the possibility that you would contract a flesh eating disease while on your discount all-inclusive vacation. Think of how crappy life would be if every time you ate something unhealthy you imagined exactly how long you would need to exercise in order to work off the calories.

Truthfully, there are people who suffer constantly with these truths; but for the most part, we all ignore them so as not to interfere with our daily activities and obligations. We do this because the the world is unpredictable and scary and it would be overpowering to carry that around.

Denial goes hand in hand with addiction. Most addicts function in denial of their habit and it is not unusual for the people around them to also operate in denial of the problem. In a lot of ways, this is “easier” and less scary for everyone because the reality of change, recovery, and the social perception of the disease are too much to bear.

I’m sure you can all think of some good real life examples of denial, but I like the way it is presented here as degrees of intensity:

  • First Degree: Denial that the problem, symptom, feeling or need exists
  • Second Degree: Minimization or rationalization
  • Third Degree: Admitting it, but denying the consequences
  • Fourth Degree: Unwillingness to seek help

– Darlene Lancer (WhatisCodependency.com)

Denial does not always mean there is no acknowledgement of the problem, it can also include a justification or minimization of the impact.

So why do we do it?

Simply, it’s a common coping mechanism; it is a way to avoid physical and emotional pain. It is self-preservation: “If I don’t admit the problem, I don’t have to suffer the consequences. I don’t need to fear the implications of the truth and I don’t have to take any action to correct the problem.”

This is not to suggest that this is something that is always a conscious act. For most, what we believe is formed by our experiences and evidence as it is presented. As humans, we are prone to something called “cognitive bias” which basically means that we create our own reality based on our perceptions which in turn influences our behaviour in the social world. So we take our experiences and sort them into something that is palatable to us and often this is done in a way that is most flattering to us so we can go on with our lives justified in our actions and choices.

I like the example that Mark Manson uses in his new book “Everything is F*cked” to demonstrate cognitive bias. A girl is mistreated by her boyfriend and he leaves her. She has one of two choices in shaping her perception of these events to make it something she can live with: 1. Boys are sh*t, or 2. She is sh*t. Option 2 is too painful, so she subconsciously chooses Option 1.

Cognitive bias is helped by another human thought process called “confirmation bias”. This is the tendency to search for, interpret, and recall information that reinforces or confirms the persons’ existing beliefs.  Returning to Mark’s example; the girl, believing that all boys are sh*t, spends a number of years subconsciously proving that rationalization correct. She is attracted to boys that treat her like garbage and enforce her cognitive bias that they are sh*t. Faced with a boy that is not sh*t, she is unable to accept this reality and ends up leaving him because the implications and adjustments that would be required to re-write her perception of the world and own cognitive bias are simply too painful to consider.

The truly tragic takeaway here is that there was a third option all along that desperation, pain, and bias caused her to overlook! Neither her nor boys are sh*t, the one that hurt her had his own set of issues which in reality had very little to do with her.

Denial is a defense mechanism that prevents threatening emotions entering our conscious thought due to an inability to cope with that negative state. This leads to all kinds of unflattering and self-sabotaging behaviour such as: lying, developing a “false self”, and social isolation. The often unethical behaviour that results can also be a source of shame, self-hatred, and low self-worth. These messy emotions provide further reasons not to face the truth. There is also evidence to suggest that in those cases where chronic substance abuse is a factor, the substance impairs insight, self-awareness and makes a person unwilling or unable to weigh future consequences in comparison with their present need. In other words, the substance becomes the centerpiece around which denial is build to act as a shield.

In facing my own denial, I’ve come to realize that while reflection is a valuable and insightful tool, dwelling on our mistakes as anything more than learning experiences is an impediment to progress. When people tell me about positive (and sometimes obvious) steps they’ve taken to improve their lives, I’ve tried to stop asking them why they didn’t make their move sooner or comment on their process. Instead I try to applaud them for making it at all. I’ve started reassuring people they don’t need to justify themselves to me, I’m happy for them taking the reigns. Period.

Denial has taught me that the brutal unflinching honesty and accountability required to face our authentic selves and learn from it is the ultimate measure of bravery. It takes amazing courage to look in those dark and hidden recesses of your mind and pull out the shrapnel.

Don’t let anyone make you feel any less than hardcore for doing it.

 

Detachment, Dissociation, and other “D” words

I always thought of detachment as a negative, it implied an inability to connect or a barrier to relationships. In my world, pre-boundaries, when you loved someone you blended together. Their problems were mine, and my problems… well, that’s the funny thing, my problems just kind of got shoved in a corner and forgotten about.

I was F-I-N-E.

Well, outwardly I guess I was fine.

My mask was good, I convinced the people closest to me that I didn’t need their emotional support or help. Hell, I wore it so long I even fooled myself. I thought I was bulletproof and, I kid you not, even joked that I must be a cyborg. People described me as strong, independent, high-functioning, intelligent and together. Nothing would crack me and I’d rather kill myself trying than ask for help. Challenges in my path were minor bumps unless someone else was reacting to them. That’s how I lived, desperate for connection but with no idea how to go about it without sacrificing myself. I wore my strong mask and pushed clumsily forward.

I’ve discovered that those things we bury don’t ever really go away, they just fester below the surface. All those needs I told myself weren’t important and those things I put off doing for myself just reinforced my low self-esteem. Over time it impacted my relationship with myself, with others, and how I cope with life in general.

I believe the correct psychological terminology is “dissociation from the self”. Thankfully a mild case in the spectrum of this condition, a coping mechanism in which I could avoid my painful inner dialog of self-doubt and worthlessness.

In hindsight, it’s no shock that I ended up in the relationships I did. People with codependent traits are subconsciously looking for validation, someone to sacrifice themselves for to give us a sense of value.  We are also often disconnected (or “dissociated”) from their own needs and feelings. We are primed and ready for dysfunctional connections.

“Is someone else’s problem your problem? If, like so many others, you’ve lost sight of your own life in the drama of tending to someone else’s, you may be codependent.” – Melody Beattie

There are those that would argue that this is passion. Throwing ourselves into what is important, sacrificing, putting ourselves at risk for what matters most. Maybe it is, but the impractical side of unhealthy passion is that eventually even the strongest fold; there is a point of burnout, because what we are trying to do is control someone that has their own entitlement and free will to make choices. Not consciously, not maliciously, but trying to influence their path and it isn’t ours to control.

Ultimately my sense of self was tied to an outcome I couldn’t possibly force and if you have any experience with addiction you know there are a lot of days that are total uncontrollable fails.

The real cosmic joke of the addict-codependent dynamic is that in trying to save the addict, the codependent actually contributes to the evolution of their disease. The addict is looking for validation too; and by saving them from the consequences of their actions, the codependent unwittingly sends the message that their behaviour is acceptable as they remove the addict’s incentive to examine their choices and consider another path. They are justified, or at least excused, to continue using.

Consider a classic example of enabling: the addict blasts through their paycheck and can’t afford rent. Enter the codependent, desperate to save their loved one from the loss of their apartment, to give them the money they are missing. As counterintuitive as it seems (to a codependent anyway), the right action here is also the one that on the surface is allowing the addict to fail, letting them figure out the solution to the money problem themselves and hopefully *eventually* realizing that their life would be easier without their addiction. It also allows the loved one to maintain some quality in their own life rather than surviving in the centre of a tornado of chaos.

I am not suggesting that passion is always a bad thing. There is an element of risk and sacrifice to anything worth having in life but the difference between healthy and unhealthy passion is detachment. It is accepting that sometimes you need to let go of the things that matter to you to in order to get to the best place. It is understanding that unhealthy attachment is living in fear that what you want will not come and that this fear creates a trap where un-fulfillment is accepted because the alternative is the loss of the person’s misplaced sense of self.

This can be especially confusing in relationships where “love” is incorrectly labeled as holding on to someone and caring for them in all ways possible. We know that detachment is necessary in relationships; it is what stops us from taking everything personally because ultimately you can’t control everything your loved one does. It is understanding that love is about acceptance, not control. It is about both people having enough room to grow, hopefully together.

Need more reasons why detachment is a good thing? It is required not to over-generalize our experiences and carry them around with us like overstuffed emotional baggage. It allows us to learn from those experiences and leave them behind. It is important because it allows us to take a step back from ourselves so we don’t confuse our thoughts and feelings and act impulsively; it allows us not to disassociate but to understand that sometimes thoughts are just that, they are not absolute truths.

Choices

Recently I had the experience of getting some negative and pointed feedback on something I posted. I’ve taken for granted that my writing has a limited reach. I believe that most of the people who have stumbled across my content have done so mostly by accident and had they chosen to stay or interact it was due to shared strategy towards recovery, or at least something that I said resonated with them in the moment.

The item in question and the person who offered it are not really required for this discussion. I’ve said that I welcome alternate recovery strategies and I do. I also believe that by sharing we can all learn new tricks, which is always a good thing. I don’t think that personal improvement and healing is universal, I believe this process is best as a self-directed and adaptable plan. I accept that what I feel, say, and write is not for everyone and vice versa. It isn’t personal, we just like different things: I’m an autumn and you’re a summer – isn’t that grand?

However, I did find it hard to let go of the delivery of this alternate view point. The implication was that my approach to healing is wrong and they were right. They seemed to take personal offence to my suggestion that self-improvement was required on my part and that codependency is a farce designed to send wounded people on a quest of introspection and self-blame that is totally unnecessary and a waste of their precious time. They berated me for considering any toxicity in my actions which I found interesting considering they surely do not know me well enough to make such a flattering judgment!

I’ve given these comments some thought, and I agree with certain pieces of their argument.

Most of codependency behavior is basic and normal human nature. It is in our nature to want to connect. It is in our nature to want to invest in the growth of our families. It is seen as a good trait in a person to be willing to go to some measure of sacrifice for those they love. It is human to want to help someone you care about who is struggling, we all want to be somebody’s hero. It is normal to be disappointed when our contributions are not recognized. It is human to be upset when people’s actions and words sting us. Most of us also have slivers of narcissism, if only in our belief in our ability to inspire change in others or in our entitlement for recognition of our good deeds.

Much like addiction is to every person’s inclination to numb or require respite from the trials of being human, codependency is also an extreme expression of the human condition. And thus, I agree with the implication that being in a codependent relationship, much like being an addict, doesn’t make you fundamentally broken. We are all vulnerable to these states, and neither should carry the stigma they do. But, I do not agree that there is no room for adaptation and improvement.

Being human is laden with flaws but it also comes with greatness in that we have almost boundless potential for learning and growth. We can reinvent ourselves with enough effort and context. If a person is adequately motivated and determined, they can reprogram themselves in amazing and unimagined ways. That is not to say that everyone should be consumed by personal growth but it seems a shame to not take advantage of one of our greatest gifts.

With a year and a half of this journey under my belt, I see personal development and recovery not as an expression of hate for who I am. I see it as the ultimate expression of self-love; I recognize my potential, my resilience, my adaptability, and my strength. I owe it to myself to grow. I owe it to myself to learn when the context of my life changes. I owe it to myself to be open to joy, fulfillment, and opportunities.  I owe it to myself to be available for the moment.

I thank this commenter for the reminder that I am not broken but rather that I am evolving and that is something I am not ashamed to be excited about and share.

While I anticipate that at least some of you will challenge my ideas, and I look forward to that feedback, I request that we all approach each other with an open and respectful mind. I remind myself that every comment, like, critique, and message is from a live person and request that the same consideration is given to me.

I challenge us all to remember that we have choices. We can always pick where we devote our energy. While I hope that you will continue to share your stories, opinions, and experiences as well as considering mine I respect your right to divert your attention elsewhere.

All my best,

J.

Karma, For Dummies

Being spiritual is not something that comes easily to me. I don’t remember ever having anything close to what could be described as blind faith or trust in the universe.

When I was in middle school, a Christian family moved in across the street in my very small town. They had a daughter about my age. We had nothing in common, but they were kind and generous people and… well, there weren’t a lot of local playmates for any of us to choose from.

The family held daily bible readings. We would be running wild in the yard and get called inside where the mother would read us a bible passage and a second reading geared more towards children, usually a cute story with biblical morals. I don’t remember this being an unpleasant experience but truthfully I don’t think I got any spiritual substance from the practice.  Even at that age I was incorrigible and my engagement was tied more closely to the post study snack rather than any real appreciation for the divine.

I remember the day we covered Genesis and the creation of the world. I asked about dinosaurs, evolution, UFOs, and how could we possibly be the only life in the universe. To the mother’s credit, she was patient and told me that she believed those 7 days did not flow through time as we experience it today. The world was new, in Beta test. Even an omnipotent being needed time and some test subjects. Maybe all those details were not captured by the mortals who pieced together the Holy scripture.

I didn’t buy her explanations then and continue to resist anything that can’t be explained with logic, reason, and proof.  Needless to say, there is a lot that happens in life that can’t, so I find myself trying to force things into simplistic and ill-fitting boxes or obsessively trying to come up with rationalizations for things that are not rational, logic for things that are in no way logical, and for proof where there isn’t any.

If I can’t neatly sort and explain things, you ask? I dramatically crumble into a depressed existential crisis.

I acknowledge that this is part of why I struggle with letting go. I need (want) to always understand the why; even when it’s not available or knowing doesn’t make me happy either.

In recovery I have been looking for compromise; for ways to help me accept and let go of the unexplained. One concept that has helped me is Karma, or the idea that there is a relationship of cause and effect in people’s action (or inaction). Rooted in Hinduism and Buddhism, this idea has also been compared to Newton’s Third Law (thank goodness, some science!) which postulates that every action has an equal or opposite reaction. In other words, the universe is keeping tabs and eventually everything evens out.

I used to think that Karma was a result of justice and judgement, reward and punishment, but now I realize it’s about being accountable for yourself. Karma is supposed to encourage you to own your actions, the way you treat others, and also to trust that others should be left to do the same. Karma teaches us to be calm, emphasizing intelligent, unemotional and logical action. This leads to acceptance of reality as well as peace, calm, and surrender.

Another thing that makes this idea attractive to me is that it is often tied to reincarnation. Although I’m not sure I believe in an afterlife, it does help to justify the idea of suffering. While you may not get to experience the return of energy in this life, you will in the next. Some even teach that lifetimes are like levels in a video game with each life subjected to a new lesson or obstacle to overcome. Failure results in repeating the level while passing leads to harder and harder tests until you finally face off against the big boss and are rewarded with enlightenment, peace, and ethereal rewards.

While I think it’s unlikely that I will ever formally practice religion, I do see the value of spirituality. Belief in the unseen and unexplained makes it easier to let go by suggesting things will be sorted out when I let go. And, more importantly, these ideas can inspire hope, trust, and motivation to continue in this age of uncertainty, distrust, and scarcity. Because really, we could all use that extra bit of inspiration to convince us to continue when it seems like there is no hope.

Cheese!

white ceramic bowl
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I’ve always been an over-thinker. I replay scenarios in my head (past and future) dissecting every word, every action, and every possible outcome. I’m sure anyone reading this who suffers from this same affliction can appreciate the slow torturous hell that these loops create — you get stuck holding on to all these real and imagined moments, paralyzed and unable to appreciate the moment you are in. They can also last a shockingly long time.

I’m told this is not uncommon for people in recovery from family addiction issues. I understand that it is a form of coping, survival. Having lived through scenarios that were emotionally or physically painful, we protect ourselves from potential harm by becoming hyper-vigilant. We look for danger everywhere, we anticipate it, and in some cases we probably create it. This is part of that, the endless study of people’s words and actions and in our cases the confusing experience that these are rarely correlated.

This is why when you start digging into recovery literature and programs there is an emphasis on being present. This is a nice way of saying; “let that sh*t go!” and usually involves some combination of meditation and behaviour therapy.

When I first separated from my ex my mind would not stop. I tortured myself with endless questions, such as: was he really an alcoholic? Should I have done more to support him? What if I had done X instead of Y? And so on. An endless daisy chain of questions with no answers that would satisfy me.

I remember having a conversation with a friend where I was off on one of my circular rants. She had just been through the abrupt ending of her own relationship and engagement and I applaud her for even attempting to have the capacity for the flaming tire fire of my emotions. She had enough of her own stuff to sort through.

She stopped me mid-sentence while I was demanding that she give me answers she couldn’t possibly have and told me a story about a time when she was exiting her office and there was a single full slice of processed cheese on the floor outside her door. No one in sight, no clues, but clearly it had not been there long. She told me that when she needed a break from what was happening in her head she thought about that slice of cheese and came up with stories about how it wound up in her doorway.

I didn’t really understand the value of the gift she gave me until shortly thereafter when I found my own cheese story. A harmless event from my past, a mystery that would never be solved but caused me no anxiety and didn’t impact my sense of self worth in any meaningful way.

I still visit that scenario from time to time when I need a break from the loud mariachi band of doubt and obsession that barrels through my brain. I’ve even found that going to that place sometimes gives me just enough distance and freedom to get clarity on whatever idea I am flogging to death.

So – while you work your way up to Ghandi-esque zen, I share this strategy with you and hope that you can find the same power in cheese.