Just One Thing

Who do you trust? The Practice: Trust yourself. Why? As I grew up, at home and school it felt dangerous to be myself - my whole self, including the parts that made mistakes, got rebellious and angry, goofed around too loudly, or were awkward and vulnerable. Not dangers of violence, as many have faced, but risks of being punished in other ways, or rejected, shunned, and shamed. So, as children understandably do, I put on a mask. Closed up, watching warily, managing the performance of "me." There was a valve in my throat: I knew what I thought and felt deep inside, but little of it came out into the world. From the outside, it looked like I didn't trust other people. Yes, I did need to be careful sometimes. But mainly, I didn't trust myself.

Are You Watering the Fruit Tree?

The Practice

Tend to the causes.


Let’s say you want to get apples from a tree of your own. So you go to a nursery and pick a good sapling, bring it home, and plant it carefully with lots of fertilizer in rich soil. Then you water it regularly, pick the bugs off, and prune it. If you keep tending to your tree, in a few years it will likely give you lots of delicious apples. But can you make it produce apples? Nope, you can’t. All you can do is tend to the causes – but you can’t control the results. No one can. The most powerful person in the world can’t make a tree hand over an apple! Similarly, a teacher cannot make his students learn long division, a business owner can’t make her employees invent great new products, and no one can make another person love him or her. All we can do is to nourish the causes that promote the results we want.

Who is behind the mask? The Practice: See the person behind the eyes. Why?

Most of us wear a kind of mask, a persona that hides our deepest thoughts and feelings, and presents a polished, controlled face to the world.

To be sure, a persona is a good thing to have. For example, meetings at work, holidays with the in-laws, or a first date are usually not the best time to spill your guts. Just because you're selective about what you reveal to the world does not mean you're insincere; phoniness is only when we lie about what's really going on inside.

Much of the time, we interact mask-to-mask with other people. There's a place for that. But remember times when someone saw through your mask to the real you, the person back behind your eyes. If you're like me, those times were both unnerving and wonderful.

Even though it's scary, everyone longs to be seen, to be known. To have your hopes and fears acknowledged - the ones behind a polite smile or a frown of frustration. To have your true caring seen, as well as your positive intentions and natural goodness. Most intimately of all, to feel that your innermost being - the one to whom things happen, the one strapped to this roller coaster of a life trying to make sense of it before it ends - has been recognized by someone.
What Are They Feeling? The Practice: Tune into others. Why? Imagine a world in which people interacted with each other like ants or fish. Imagine a day at work like this, or in your family, aware of the surface behavior of the people around you but oblivious to their inner life while they remain unmoved by your own. That's a world without empathy. To me, it sounds like a horror film. Without empathy, there can be no real love, compassion, kindness, or friendship. Empathic breakdowns shake the foundation of a relationship; just recall a time you felt misunderstood - or even worse, a time when the other person could care less about understanding you. In particular, anyone who is vulnerable (e.g., children, the elderly) has a profound need for empathy, and when it's a thin soup or missing altogether, that's very disturbing. In my experience as a therapist, poor empathy is the core problem in most troubled couples or families; without it, nothing good is likely to happen; with it, even the toughest issues can be resolved.

Do Positive Experiences “Stick to Your Ribs?”

The Practice

Take in the good.


Scientists believe that your brain has a built-in “negativity bias.” In other words, as we evolved over millions of years, dodging sticks and chasing carrots, it was a lot more important to notice, react to, and remember sticks than it was for carrots. That’s because – in the tough environments in which our ancestors lived – if they missed out on a carrot, they usually had a shot at another one later on. But if they failed to avoid a stick – a predator, a natural hazard, or aggression from others of their species – WHAM, no more chances to pass on their genes. The negativity bias shows up in lots of ways.

What is an open heart?

The Practice: Put no one out of your heart. Why? We all know people who are, ah, . . . challenging. It could be a critical parent, a bossy supervisor, a relative who has you walking on eggshells, a nice but flaky friend, a co-worker who just doesn't like you, a partner who won't keep his or her agreements, or a politician you dislike. Right now I'm thinking of a neighbor who refused to pay his share of a fence between us. As Jean-Paul Sartre put it: "Hell is other people." Sure, that's overstated. But still, most of a person's hurts, disappointments, and irritations typically arise in reactions to other people. Ironically, in order for good relationships to be so nurturing to us as human beings - who have evolved to be the most intimately relational animals on the planet - you must be so linked to others that some of them can really rattle you! So what can you do? Let's suppose you've tried to make things better - such as taking the high road yourself and perhaps also trying to talk things out, pin down reasonable agreements, set boundaries, etc. - but the results have been partial or nonexistent. At this point, it's natural to close off to the other person, often accompanied by feelings of apprehension, resentment, or disdain. While the brain definitely evolved to care about "us," it also evolved to separate from, fear, exploit, and attack "them" - and those ancient, neural mechanisms can quickly grab hold of you. But what are the results? Closing off doesn't feel good.
Are you self-nurturing? The Practice: Refill your cupboard. Why? [Note: This JOT is adapted from Mother Nurture, a book written for mothers - focusing on typical parenting situations and gender differences that are experienced by many, though not all, mothers and fathers, and by parents in same sex relationships. Parenting is a complex subject, plus it intertwines with larger issues of gender roles and the long history of mistreatment of women; obviously society should do a better job of supporting families in general and mothers and fathers in particular, but meanwhile there are things they can do for themselves; alas, there is no room for these complexities in these brief JOTs; for my discussion of them, please see Mother Nurture.] Nothing changes a woman's life like a child, especially her first one. Raising children is deeply fulfilling. Yet it's also intensely demanding. Compared to women who haven't had children, mothers are generally more stressed, more unhappy in their intimate relationships, and more prone to illness. Most mothers are busy one way or another most of the time and hitting the red line on stress. They look around and wonder, where's the support? Many mothers figure that feeling like they are running on empty is somehow their own fault, or simply inevitable and unavoidable. Well, neither is

Who are you prosecuting?

The Practice: Drop the case. Why?

Lately I've been thinking about a kind of "case" that's been running in my mind about someone in my extended family. The case is a combination of feeling hurt and mistreated, critique of the other person, irritation with others who haven't supported me, views about what should happen that hasn't, and implicit taking-things-personally.

In other words, the usual mess. It's not that I have not been mistreated - actually, I have been - nor that my analysis of things is inaccurate (others agree that what I see does in fact exist). The problem is that my case is saturated with negative emotions like anger, biased toward my own viewpoint, and full of me-me-me. Every time I think of it I start getting worked up, adding to the bad effects of chronic stress. It creates awkwardness with others, since even though they support me, they're naturally leery of getting sucked into my strong feelings or into my conflict with the other person. It makes me look bad, too cranked up about things in the past. And it primes me for overreactions when I see the person in question. Yes, I practice with this stuff arising in my mind and generally don't act it out, but it's still a burden. I think my own experience of case-making - and its costs - are true in general. In couples in trouble, one or both people usually have a detailed Bill of Particulars against the other person. At larger scales, different social or political groups have scathing indictments of the other side. How about you? Think of someone you feel wronged by: can you find case against that person in your mind? What's it feel like to go into that case? What does it cost you? And others? The key - often not easy - is to be open to your feelings (e.g., hurt, anger), to see the truth of things, and to take appropriate action . . . while not getting caught up in your case about it all.