How to make an ass of yourself (Ee-aw)

You know the saying, right?  Don’t assume – it makes an ASS of U and ME.  (Well, if you don’t, you do now!)

But have you ever stopped to consider why this saying holds truth?  Why it is so relevant to all our relationships and even everyday conversations?  And why we do it anyway, to the detriment of healthy communication and heightened understanding?

Here’s the short answer to both.

Assuming requires less energy BUT assuming is a major roadblock to genuinely hearing, understanding, and thereby connecting with others.

Assuming requires less energy

Yep, when we hear a bit of what someone says, we automatically fill in blanks, relate the bits we understand to our own experiences of the world, and jump to conclusions about the meaning and significance the event has for that person.  Consider Jenny.

Jenny is telling Alicia about her struggles with getting a uni assignment completed.  She says she’s worried about not making the deadline.  “Oh I know,” says Alicia, “the topic is really boring and it’s hard to find the motivation.  Don’t worry, you always get good marks, just get it knocked over and submitted.”  Alicia’s intentions are to make Jenny feel more confident, and to side with her on finding the assignment a chore.  Jenny leaves the conversation feeling that Alicia didn’t listen to her and just brushed her off.  What went wrong?

Well, Jenny isn’t finding the topic boring or feeling unmotivated.  Jenny has a chronically sick child at home and her husband is away on business.  She has no family support and is exhausted, and actually feeling isolated and quite down.  She usually gets good marks, but can’t even find the time or energy to read the literature.  She has already had one extension and can’t get any more time.  Her husband won’t return until after the deadline.  She’s not even thinking about marks; she’s worried about failing the subject.

A simplistic example, but shows how easy it is to think we’re listening and being supportive, when we’ve assumed information because it is simply quicker to feel we’ve done our bit by contributing to the conversation.  We haven’t considered it may offer little to the other person.  We’re more invested in how we feel about ourselves, and getting to lunch.  Besides, we’re really quite uncomfortable hearing about other people’s struggles – it’s so… negative.

Assuming is a major roadblock to genuinely hearing, understanding, and thereby connecting with others

When we don’t bother to make time or effort to really listen to someone’s unique experience or to ask questions that help us deepen our understanding, we miss the opportunity for genuine connection.  Let’s replay Jenny and Alicia, after Alicia’s developed her relationship skills with a professional counsellor.

Jenny: I’m really struggling with this uni assignment.

Alicia: Oh really?

Jenny: Yeah, I actually think I might fail.

Alicia: You normally get such good marks.  Something must but really up for you.  Wanna talk about it?

Jenny: My little one’s really unwell, hubby’s away on business and I don’t have anyone to help, so I haven’t even started the reading.

Alicia: I don’t have any kids, but that sounds tough.  Can you get an extension?

Jenny: I’ve already had one, and I have until the final marking date or I’ll fail the unit.

Alicia: Gosh, it’s pretty serious for you then.  Can I help at all?

Jenny: Probably not, but thanks for listening.  I’m sure I’ll find a way…

Alicia didn’t fix Jenny’s problem, and much of the time we can’t fix other people’s problems.  What she gave was a genuine ear to hear and ask about Jenny’s experience, and an acknowledgement of how hard it must be for Jenny.  This took a small amount of Alicia’s time and effort.  Although Jenny couldn’t see how Alicia could help, she was touched by her bothering to ask and respond, and she left the conversation feeling cared about.  A big impact for Jenny.

Stop making an ass of yourself (and others)

We’ve all been on the receiving end of a lousy conversation.  We know when others are giving us trite responses.  Being brushed off or dismissed can feel crushing.  So stop doing it to others.

You may not have long to chat (lunch is important, after all).  You may be under the pump yourself (we all have our own life troubles).  You may just not feel bothered (we all get tired at times).  Fine.  Let others know if you’re not up for listening.  But don’t give them a quick “you’ll be right, mate” response and expect them to be grateful for your friendship and wise words.

And if you do have that two minutes to spare, be really present.  Put thoughts of that fresh salad wrap and double mocha on hold.  Then Hear – Ask – Acknowledge.

You may just transform someone else’s day, or an entire relationship.  And you certainly get to feel good about that.

What’s plaque got to do with it?

I have to admit that I’m a bit of a freak when it comes to the dentist.  You see, going to the dentist is quite an enjoyable pastime for me.  You wouldn’t think it would be, with what I endured as a child with an overcrowded mouth who was tortured with multiple tooth removals followed by 2 years of braces and plates to close all the gaps!  But what came out of that is an incredibly powerful ability to use my mind to escape on command to a blissful, tropical beach paradise.  It’s not that hard, really.  You put on the highly fashionable black shades, kick back in your banana lounge and bask in the radiant sunlight with your eyes closed, only mildly sensing the commotion around you as you detach from your mouth.  Suddenly the pool attendant hands you a glass of water and, oh – time to swish and spit…

So recently I had my annual dental checkup.  I just love my dental hygienist, Aurelia.  (And she really is an amazing hygeinist.)  So, as we catch up on each other’s news, she checks, cleans and polishes my teeth, and I try not to chew on her instruments too much.

Anyhow, Aurelia was scraping the plaque from those tricky places where plaque gets stuck.  It occurred to me that I was very happy, and I realised why.  I told Aurelia, “I love hearing the sound of you scraping those nasty calculus buildups from my teeth, because I know my teeth are becoming really clean.”  Ok, a little weird, I know, but my point is that I was enjoying the process of something that isn’t really enjoyable unto itself, but because of the outcome I knew would follow.  Clean healthy teeth = teeth for keeps, peeps.

That got me thinking: sometimes you have to get the plaque scraped off to keep things healthy.  Where else does this resonate in life?  Well, pretty much everywhere.

Now, there’s a big difference between reopening wounds that are trying to heal by continually picking at the scab, and scraping off unnecessary and unhelpful deposits that actually encourage and harbour festering little bacteria.  Wounds need to be left (and sometimes helped) to heal , but the equivalent of mouth barnacles that cause rot, decay and bad smells?  Uh-uh.  Get those suckers out of there.

So the question is, what kind of barnacles have you got in your personal life that might be causing festering below the surface?  Festering that can literally make us sick, physically or emotionally.

Why?

Because ruminating on our problems and the difficulties in our lives keeps us focused on them, and somehow perpetuating them too.

Because operating in a state of high anxiety (imminent implosion) or of excessive aggressive (imminent explosion) is detrimental to our mental health, our bodies, and our relationships.

Because feeling resentment over past hurts, life’s disappointments and how others have let us down keeps us in a victim frame of mind and actually holds us back from fulfilling our own dreams and from living in utter contentment (as opposed to utter contempt).

So, what to do?  Get to the emotional health dental-equivalent: a qualified, experienced counsellor who can help you to a) articulate what you feel and what is holding you back, b) help you find new ways to reframe past experiences, and c) set goals that YOU want, and plan the small, realistic steps you’ll take towards them.  Yes, shit happens.  Sometimes really horrible shit.  But we always come through it with added skills, knowledge and resources.  If you can’t undo the past, make it work for your future.

See my About page for some tips on finding the right counsellor for you.

And by the way, go to the dentist too.  It’s hard to feel good about anything with furry teeth. 😉

 

Stop trying and simply do

I love words, love their roots, love their meanings. So, here’s a bit about the word ‘try.’  It comes from an old French word ‘trier’ which means ‘to sort’. So think of a legal trial. It’s how we sort out the evidence and sort out who’s guilty and who’s innocent (not always accurately, mind). Think of the hospital triage. It’s how they sort out which patient most urgently needs to be seen based on the type of illness or injury. And think of a try in sport – it sorts out who gets the point for their team.

The modern definition of ‘to try’ is ‘to make an effort or attempt’ (thanks again Mr. Collins Dictionary). Let’s break this down. To qualify as trying, there has to be some sort of effort or attempt going on – in other words, you’ve got to take action.

When we take action, we sort stuff out – what we like and don’t like, what tastes good and what doesn’t, what hurts and what feels good etc.  But without action, you’ll never know. That’s why children need to explore their environment to learn – because you come to know things through experiencing them, not through simply being told how something is.

So, we need action to sort our world out. And this is called trying. Do you like mushrooms? How do you know? Have you tried them? Like that. But another meaning has been attached to the word, ‘trying,’ where we attempt to explain what our goal is.  To give you an example: “I’m gonna try and give up smoking.”  So, you’ve heard enough evidence to convince you that smoking is terrible for your health, it’s heavy on the wallet and you’re getting funny looks when you get too close to people (read: halitosis).  You decide to quit smoking.  You tell yourself and others, “I’m gonna try and give up smoking.”  That’s how trying is associating with the goal of giving up smoking.  But according to the real meaning of trying being a non-smoker, an effort or attempt is required.  And once you take action, you’ve really already done what you say you’re trying to do.

If you say ‘no’ to just one cigarette, you’ve already stopped smoking.  You’ve succeeded.  That action recurs every time you say ‘no’ to another cigarette.  So you don’t need to ‘try.’  You just need to do.  The point isn’t whether or not you start smoking again the next day. In your mind, you made the decision to quit and you took direct action. This direct action of not having a cigarette, when you want one or would normally reach for one, is what brings success, not the thought that preceeded the action.

Here’s the thing.  Most of us say we’ll try something as a way to avoid taking direct action. Have you said any of these?

  • I’ll try to finish my assignment tomorrow
  • I’ll try to remember to bring the washing in
  • I’ll try to come to the party
  • I’ll try to get to the doctor this week
  • I’ll try to lose weight (ouch)
  • I’ll try to get to the gym/go for a walk today
  • I’ll try to get more organised
  • I’ll try not to swear anymore

If you answered yes, welcome to the Gunna-do club we’ve all visited from time to time.

The suggested alternative to trying

There are lots of responses you could think of to the statements above. Here’s a couple:

  • what will you be doing more of or less of to trim down?
  • what time are you going to the gym today?
  • what needs to happen to help you prepare for your busy week?

They’re great, but in the name of simplifying, here’s my one key alternative response that you can use for any “I’ll try” statement. Ready?

Q: What will you do to make this [goal] happen?

A: I’ll do [action] to make [goal] happen.

In other words, I’ll take direct (and where possible, immediate) action to ensure the goal is attempted in some shape or form, however well I can.

There’s no in-between. There cannot be ‘trying’ without effort, and once you exert the effort, you’ve taken action – in other words, you’ve moved towards your desired outcome.  You might need help, practice, up-skilling, multiple attempts – whatever. The point is, you’re doing. And that is the only way to succeed at anything.

You know the old saying, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again? What about…

If at first you don’t succeed, stop ‘trying’ (or talking about doing) and start taking more action, different action, and keep taking action until you reach your goals, fulfil your dreams, and transform your life!

 

This ain’t no New Year’s resolution

If you begin to understand what you are without trying to change it, then what you are undergoes a transformation.   

—Jiddu Krishnamurti

I don’t “do” New Year’s Resolutions. In fact, I see them as a massive set-up for failure. Why? Because when we make decisions based on a date, or because others are doing, or because it’s a ritual of sorts, we don’t necessarily make or mean them from the heart.

And without our heart guiding our goals, we have little to bind us to them. Sure, we make rational decisions and goals all the time; we have to. Life requires of us to meet commitments and organise our time in ways that aren’t spontaneous or even desire-driven.  (Anyone who’s changed a nappy at 2am when they’ve had no sleep knows that, regardless of how adorable that little cherub is.)

But making a resolution is different. It’s tapping into the dream of something bigger we hope for ourselves. Think of some of the classic resolutions people make around this time:

  • I’m going to quit smoking
  • I’m going to lose weight
  • I’m going to go to the gym 5 times a week
  • I’m going to write the book I’ve been talking about

And how many times do you meet someone a few months later, who says, “Yeah, I gave up the ciggies/stuck to the diet/went to the gym/started writing for a few weeks but then xyz happened and I just haven’t got back on track yet…”?

They are all fantastic goals, for sure. So why don’t they stick? Because something’s lacking. It’s the heart behind the goal, the ‘why’ of the resolution.

Why does he want to quit smoking?                                                                                                     Why does she want to lose weight?

These are the heart of the matter and they will bring the understanding of ourselves we need for the changes to not only happen, but to become permanent.

Seems simple, right? But each one of us is unique and that’s why universal goal statements don’t really work for us. Take the smoking example:

He wants to give up smoking because a) it’s expensive and b) it’s unhealthy. Right? Partially, but these are just rational explanations.

The heart of the matter (a fictional story – any similarity purely coincidental)

His best mate, the friend he’s known forever since they went fishing in their tinnies, drank beer by a camp fire and cooked weekend barbies for their girls was just diagnosed with bowel cancer and is facing having a chunk of his bowel removed and a round of chemo. He could die.  And his mate has a wife and a couple of rugrats who really want their dad around. And he and his mate have given up smokes every New Year’s for the past few years, till life gets too much and they have a few too many at one of the barbies they still get together for (although not as often now). He actually really loves this mate and this has shaken him – not to mention made him look at his own wife and kids and feel the kick inside. What if it were him? This has him realizing he is more fragile than he lets on, and brings up fear that he could die, or even become really debilitated and unable to do the things he loves with the people he loves.

 

So the heart of the matter is that the guy who wants to give up smoking wants to live, to be there for his family, for his mates, and he has realized that he can’t keep putting poison in his body and expecting it to work at its peak for him. Now we see there are some thoughts of self-preservation and commitment to others surfacing for him, and we can look at the driving forces that will really help this resolution become a lifelong commitment, by fostering the deep-seated motives at the heart of the matter.

And what of his goal to quit smoking?

Well, it might shift to embracing a lifestyle that focuses on being fit and healthy – which will include quitting smoking as part of a much bigger picture that might also see actions like getting out for a walk with his family after dinner, kicking the ball with the kids on Saturday morning, introducing more salad and veggies to the weekend Barbie (and having those more often because he misses his mates), and cutting back on the beer, maybe having more water instead. The difference is that he knows why he’s doing it, and has gotten in touch with the deep-seated forces – including fear – that are driving the goal. When we understand ourselves and what drives us, transformation can occur organically and harmoniously, not feeling like a battle against ourselves to “change.”

 

DON’T spoil yourself rotten?

I love words. I love the meaning of words. I love etymology, the heritage or roots of words.

Given that it’s almost Christmas, I wanted to contrast what we are bombarded with by inviting thoughts on an old expression, ‘to spoil yourself rotten.’ Why?

While at first glance it may conjure up images of being surrounded by bling and booty, indulging in the pleasures of adornment and lavishing those you love with everything their hearts desire, upon looking more closely we see another side to this brag-worthy pastime.

To spoil something is to cause damage to its value. In the case of a person, to damage the character, typically through “complying unrestrainedly with its desires” (Collins Dictionary). A person who is rotten is “morally corrupt” (Collins Dictionary). Thus when we “spoil (a person) rotten,” we inadvertently do them harm, not good. You see where this is heading…

Christmas, the time of giving. Even if you don’t want to. Even if you don’t have the cashflow. Even if you don’t like someone, for hecks’ sake. The pressure we place on ourselves at Christmas is astounding, and fodder for another article (sign up for email updates so you never miss out). Often our aim at Christmas is to be spoiled, or to spoil those we love – kids, grandkids, partner, lover, parents – in order to impress their worth to us upon them. But at what cost?

Each year, it seems, we try to outdo ourselves, especially when we have children and especially in this technological age of ever-new, ever-more gadgetry. The commercialism of Christmas is tragic. Green and red are such apt colours – green for envy and greed, red for money and anger. But what are we really doing to ourselves?

When we become caught up in the madness of spending big, trying to impress and desperately wanting to please everyone around us (because we love them, yes, but also because we are pressured to keep up with the Joneses), we can lose sight of the effect we are having on our society, children especially.

We are attaching worth to what we can give, and what others can receive, whilst at the same time setting up an expectation that at Christmas time, you deserve all your wishes to come true, that is, to have everything your heart desires.

The reality is, that’s not life. And it’s not healthy. Don’t get me wrong. Giving is one of THE most soul-enriching activities we can undertake. But giving to excessive and setting up expectations that it will happen ‘just because it’s Christmas’ creates unrealistic feelings of self-worth and resentment when they are not fulfilled by others. It can set us and others up for disappointment, and also breed a phenomenal greed that seriously does morally corrupt folks.

So sprinkle your loved ones with kisses, hug them tight and tell them you love them, make small offerings from the heart. Cook a meal and share it. Mow the lawn for a mate. Drive an elderly person to the shops and carry their groceries for them. Hand-make a card, picture or cake. Take your kids to the beach or snow and play with them. And if you must spend money on a gift, choose something that expresses your feelings or will be of use to that person’s life. Don’t buy to fill the stocking with cheap junk that will be thrown out. Don’t buy the latest gadget because everyone else has it. Decide for yourself if it will enrich the person’s life, and only buy it if you can afford it without creating financial stress for yourself. There are other ways to give and time is the most valuable gift of all.

So have a safe and happy time with family and friends this holiday season, and please, don’t spoil yourself rotten. You’re amazing just as you are.