Playing Those Man Games

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I recently read an article outlining all of the psychological reasons why men avoid seeking medical attention. The article was from a psychology journal and it reminded me of similar discussions I have had with former clients about “why we are the way we are.” This article observed this issue from several different psychological schools of thought and focused specifically on why men won’t seek medical attention unless it is an absolute dire emergency. The gist of it was we, as men, have been raised to make things harder for ourselves largely because we do not want to appear weak. This goes back generations, centuries and ages. I want to urge us to be a bit smarter, however. At the root of this is men’s refusal to ask for help, even for minor instances.

This really came home for me when I was running therapy groups and in one of my groups I would typically ask “how many people in here stop and ask for directions if they are lost?” Keep in mind, this was a little before GPS and Google Maps and other personal navigation methods. Usually about half of the men in the group would raise their hands with knowing smiles. My next question was always “You know you’re lost, you’ve been lost for a while. Why haven’t you asked for directions?” Typically I would hear a collective “Nope” from that part of the group. Men don’t ask for directions. Taken a bit further, men don’t ask for help.

I’m all for self-reliance, independence and all that other good man stuff. However, if you know you are lost, sick, or injured, why won’t you ask for help? You already know you’re fucked up, why do you want to continue being fucked up? Is it your aim to be more fucked up? Asking for directions is not as serious as seeking medical attention, which was the thrust of the article that inspired this. Being perceived as weak or less than has been the bane of male existence since civilization became civilized. The problem with this is when legitimate need for help exists, we won’t address it. This frequently leads to the injury worsening. We are taught to suck it up, but at what cost? Is this a smart way to do things, particularly as we age?

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I understand the need for resilience against the elements when we were cave dwellers, hunter gatherers, farmers, ranchers, and so on. But most of us have left our caves behind and our resilience can be focused on other endeavors. Medical attention is available, shouldn’t we use it when the need is legitimate? Longevity and quality of life are also talked about frequently these days. I have been in positions where I didn’t have medical insurance and had to do without and I understand this from personal experience. But if we do have benefits and access, why do we, as men, avoid it?

The article examined this issue from several different psychological schools of thought. The influence of peer pressure was evident, as was the influence of superiors who feel if they had to do it, then we have to do it. This is how an 8-hour workday turns into a 12-hour workday. We will injure ourselves or make ourselves sick through neglect rather than examine why we are afraid to seek aid when we need it. This seems particularly true when it is job related. Regular maintenance keeps the car on the road, no? Ignoring maintenance eventually pulls the car off the road for an extended period of time. Humans are no different in this regard.

If we were not so worried about appearing weak, we would likely be able to create many new and amazing things. At the very least we could work longer and smarter at our current jobs. We have accepted we must be stoic and grim and resolute. I have been accused of being all three of these things, sometimes for good causes, but frequently for causes less good. The article mentioned the amount of cultural pressure men are under in this very specific instance.

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It seems we are in a constant state of looking over our shoulders to see if anyone is watching us to see if we “slip.” Slip in this case means showing human needs. During stressful situations we wait to see who the first one to crack will be. We don’t care so much who it is, as long as it is not us. The collective refrain here is usually “at least I’m not that guy.” We could reach out and help, but is that our typical first response?

Are we basing our concept of manhood on outdated models? Likely we are. We have access to brilliant medical technology but we refuse to use it because it will make us look weak. The longer term impact of this is our injuries or sickness gets worse because we refuse to treat it. The end result is we really do wind up weaker. We get sidelined because our ailment has reached critical mass due to being untreated. This seems pointless. Regular upkeep can bulletproof us rather than weaken us. We have found an ingenious way to keep ourselves sick, injured and compromised all under the guise of not being viewed as weak.

We know why we do this, but do we want to keep doing it? Sometimes we have to do without and it’s useful to know if we can, but this is not all day, every day. We have come to the point where admitting any sort of human limitation is seen as shameful rather than a product of being human. How can we redefine masculinity for the 21st century? Again, resiliency, strength, and resourcefulness are all qualities I value, but I feel we have been taught to misapply them. Given our reliance on technology, working smarter rather than harder should be a higher priority.

My take on this? If you need help, ask for it. This will enable you to improve more quickly and be more successful in your endeavor of choice. You want to be good? Get a coach, therapist, or teacher and ask questions. If you are injured, see a doctor. Stop seeing the need for assistance as a weakness and view it as a sign of wanting to improve. I have had to modify my own thoughts on this many times over the years due to career changes, age, and the shift in expectations that come from rolling with life’s punches. I will likely expand on this in the near future. Change the game.

Course Correction

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Most of us have seen some sort of statement or assessment stating where we were in March 2020 will never be again. So many things have happened both in the U.S. and globally that indicate our old way of doing things may be coming to a close. Why is it important to make something new in the world? Is it because we have to or is it because it is the right thing to do? I think we passed doing it because its the right thing a long time ago. Huge systemic change, unfortunately, rarely occurs because it is the right thing to do. Huge systemic change occurs when the old way has become completely broken down and no longer functions. Huge systemic change happens when people just won’t play the game anymore, either because they can’t afford to financially, or because the system has been exposed as thoroughly corrupt and broken.

Historically we don’t much care about corruption unless it impacts a A LOT of us. Corruption impacting a small minority is typically overlooked. The fact this is unfair is typically of little importance to the majority lesser-impacted by corruption. Another reason why change has been slow is that many of us do not learn compassion until we experience discrimination or when we are in great need of compassion due to hardship and it is shown to us. In other words, we get the experience of walking in the shoes of others and discover how hard it is.

How different would it be if we cared about others outside our immediate circle just as a normal matter of course? Turning a blind eye to the suffering of others seems to be the easier default for most of us. Now that our collective awareness seems to be “awakening” there are a lot of unanswered questions and unaddressed issues. We are a culture of selective decency, meaning that decency is not extended to minorities of many different kinds. Still, this begs the question, why are we so shitty to each other? We have put a lot of effort into hiding our collective deficiencies, now there is nowhere left to hide. Ideally, more of us want to address this directly rather than finding a new hiding place.

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Why we must find a different way…

How much examination and re-examination is necessary? We have established equality is highly emphasized in our Constitution; we have also been heartily invested in making sure not everyone benefits from said equality. Why is equality so threatening? If equality was genuinely observed, would we have all the cultural problems and imbalances we have now? There is a misconception that equality for all is actually threatening. Who benefits from keeping others down and why? Current observation supports the position that hoarding wealth leads to nothing but eventual upheaval. Constant, slow-grinding upheaval that churns up everything and reveals generations of ugliness.

Do we know what true equality looks like? Culturally, I don’t think we do because we have never truly experienced it. We have read the words on the page, but it has never been truly and wholly applied in our country. Equality for all humankind sounds beautiful, but we have messed that up too by having the bloody mindedness to argue about the definition of “human.” Somehow we have found we can declare other occupants of our planet as “not human” or “not as human as me.”

We have implemented so many ways as a species to dispute equality. Skin color, gender, religion, sexual orientation, financial status, level of education, left handedness,…how many more? It seems we may be afraid of equality. Somehow or other equality has become a huge threat. We have become so conditioned to comparing ourselves to others that others have to be missing something or lacking something in order for us to feel good. As in “At least I’m not…” (fill in the blank.)

There is another way to do things. We could make a world where self-worth is not predicated on others having less or being perceived as lesser due to socioeconomic status. I don’t believe we have a genuine understanding of equality because human history is based upon conqueror and conquered. Have we ever taken the true measure of what it takes to hold another down? Particularly when the “other” is causing you no harm whatsoever? We pay a collective cost of looking the other way just because “that’s the way it is.” Eventually fairness will prevail, or… we will all perish. We are a global society and we are in this together. How much more do you think we can take as a species? How much more pressure before the entire dam bursts? Then we lose it all.

Does it have to be that way?

We can do away with otherness by treating others the way we want to be treated. Too easy, too simple, you say? In principle, there is nothing else to it. If it was universally observed, it would spread outward into all of our various rules, regulations, administrations and systems. We would be rewiring everything and this concept would be the underpinning and the fabric of everything we rebuild. I say rebuild specifically because it is clear to many of us what we have currently is not working. Who would love to revisit all of this again twenty years from now? How many of us want to do it again? Not me. I want to fix what is broken, which we may still be repairing and cleaning up twenty years from now.

Business as usual no longer exists. Business as usual was also ugly, unfair, racist, classicist, and many other things too numerous to mention. The guy next door has more in common with you than you think. Same as the family across town. They want and value the same things you do. There may be a few out there who still feel they don’t have to give a shit due to money, class or status, but is that how you want to live? Sooner or later the world will get turned on it’s head and the haves will be have-nots. Values will change and courses will be corrected and then maybe we can build something together in peace.

Envision and plan for what you want to build for the future. Do it without including safeguards for the “others.” Plan it as if the environment and the rest of the world supports it. Watch it grow. Marvel as friends and strangers alike bend over backwards to help you construct it. Everyone else wants you to succeed, even people you haven’t meant yet, simply out of principle. Stick around, it will be a glorious thing.

Change the Game.

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It’s been my position for many years we are a culture that eats it’s own. I hesitate to use the phrase toxic masculinity because I feel it is already overused, however, I can’t think of a better term. We are encouraged from the youngest ages to form groups for no other reason than to be in opposition to others. It’s not so much we need to be in a group for protection, because sometimes that is absolutely true. It is more that we form the groups in the first place simply to be in opposition to other groups, whether we are threatened or not.

How am I supposed to engage in conflict with them if I don’t have a group? What am I supposed to do, hang around and watch? I have opinions I must lord over others as “the truth” otherwise why am I here? How can I have an identity without identifying with a group and having other groups to be in opposition to? Unity for the sake of compounding our existing separateness is the name of the game, no? Otherness is what it’s about, right? Oh, and fuck those guys. Which guys, you ask? Doesn’t matter.

Without some sort of opposition, we have no purpose apparently. I am walking, talking proof of this. I was conditioned to prepare for things to go wrong. If I could reasonably ascertain that it was not my fault, then let the blaming begin! “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best” is a common saying most of us have heard. But what if that worst thing we are preparing for is another person? The conflict is built in and expected. We often find a way for others to embody our difficulties. The bane of your existence becomes “easier” to focus on if it has a face and walks and talks. I believe this conditions us to expect conflict and find others to fight with. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? No? Then why do we teach it to our male children before they can speak?

If this is our baseline, our standard state of being during regular times, what happens when we factor in stress to this toxic mix? As males in our culture, we are taught to court stress and responsibility. I’m reminded of a training I attended years ago regarding stress in the work place. The speaker said after our stress levels pass a certain point we are nothing more than talking monkeys. Do you know what species can be territorial, temperamental, and likes to fight as a matter of course? Primates. Monkeys. Us. Stress can turn us from reasonably well- adjusted adults to poo-flinging, chest beating gorillas. This can make for a volatile mixture.

I think “us vs them” is where most of us are comfortable. It has become our default. Most of us are seemingly rudderless without a target to attack. As mentioned above, that target can quickly become embodied by another person who has chosen to play the role of “he who exists to fuck my project up.” This also keeps us blind to what we may be doing in opposition to our own goals. It is much easier to hang that on another person. We compare ourselves against other men and may feel inadequate. If we don’t compare ourselves unfavorably to others, many of us will bully others to create that illusion of superiority.

Where is the top? Is there really a King of the Mountain? The answer is “yes, until the next one. And the next one. And the one after that. Seems rather pointless. What could we create if we weren’t so focused on beating each other? There are many historical and evolutionary reasons why mankind has been in opposition to each other. But it makes me wonder if we just got caught up in violence and conflict so early in our history that we never stopped to wonder if there was another way. What is our excuse now? We are not truly lacking in food or clothing anymore, but we selectively distribute it. This also contributes to us vs. them. Again, we are programmed from an early age to be in conflict with each other.

How do all these cultural underpinnings impact 21st century American males? At the age of 51 I feel I have enough life experience to make salient observations. On the one hand, the United States is comprised and influenced by a combination of cultures. This has worked in our favor many times, but we have also let it feed the us vs them paradigm in the forms of racism, sexism, homophobia, and socioeconomic disparities.

Much has been written about the “me first” mindset in the U.S. How big is the difference between that and “Us first?” I would say very little. We are climbing over bodies as a team rather than individually. This reinforces us vs them because now we are in opposition to others collectively, in a team, which implies the act is more acceptable because we are doing it with others. If we are not fighting other nations, we are fighting each other. Is there nothing else to occupy our time with? Does this meet criteria for toxicity or not?

I am all for healthy competition as a form of self-development. I think we have taken this concept far beyond “healthy competition.” Quite often our mindset takes us to a place where the lives and livelihoods of others are forfeit because of conflict for the sake of conflict. Opposition for the sake of opposition tends to be our cultural default. There are more evolutionary reasons for this than I could possibly cover within the scope of this post.

What I want to make clear is that this behavior is a choice. As soon as we are aware of it, it becomes a choice and the continued fallout from this choice has to be recognized as a deliberate course of action.

I am proposing we choose differently. Work with others, rather than against. Forget about teams for a bit and just work with everyone you can within your immediate sphere. Examine your results and see if they are different. Opening ourselves up like this feels risky and maybe even foolish, which is why most will not even attempt it. What are the rewards for this change in behavior? Are they worth it? Once you suspend “us vs them” you will likely find it easier to get along with others. Since you are no longer affiliated with any team, workplace, or group you no longer have a reason for opposition. By the same reasoning, your former opponents no longer have any reason to target you.

Some probable results are you will accomplish more in your chosen area of endeavor, whatever that is. Collaboration typically gets us bigger and better results than conflict or even “healthy competition.” Suspend the need for opposition. I say need specifically because I felt like a rowboat with one oar going in circles the first few times I went into the world like this. It is very likely you will feel extremely vulnerable when you suspend the need for opposition, simply because we are indoctrinated in the culture of conflict. But if you are brave enough to try something new, you may find yourself achieving your personal goals and the goals you share with others far more easily. Quite often the opposition doesn’t exist unless we place it there.

This does not mean conflict and crime will disappear overnight. If you work after dark, continue walking with your coworkers to that dark empty parking lot at the end of the night. This is, in fact, a collaborative exercise. My point is if we stop expecting conflict and seeking it, it won’t be there any longer and our lives will become far easier, both individually and collectively.

Let me be 100% clear that I am a proponent of self-development through competition and adversity. But this form of self-development should be left in its respective place. Me being my best self should not take away from anyone else being their best self. We tend to personalize it if someone is just a little better than us at a given task. If we lose out on a promotion because the other person was just a tiny bit better, we blame them. Let’s break this reaction down further. In essence we are hating someone because they have done something better than we have. While there could be many variables to this, I’m going to keep this simple so as to not lose the point. Hating someone because they are doing the same thing we are (i.e. becoming their best selves in a given activity) is rather hypocritical and nonsensical. It is ingrained in us to take the achievements of others personally, particularly if their doing well costs us something we are seeking (the big promotion for example.)

It was brought to my attention years ago that everyone has just as much right to excel as I do. Me working hard to be good at something does not mean the other guy has to go elsewhere because he is working at being the best he can at the same task. While this can be a bitter pill to swallow, this is part of the game we have bought into. Change the game. We are all competing against each other for things we have been told we must strive for. Yet we are living in a time where resources are routinely wasted more than they are used for their intended purposes. What exactly are we competing so hard for? Is there something else you would rather focus your energy on? I repeat, change the game.

Universe Conspiring Against You?

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How do you handle adversity? All of us have periods where we feel any progress we make is completely uphill and difficult every step of the way. Other times it feels uphill all the way during a hailstorm walking over broken glass through a forest fire. Things can get unexpectedly tough and then they get tougher. An awful lot has been written lately about resilience and how it is a necessary life skill.

Have you seen anyone take adversity personally? This is different than adapting a “shit happens” mentality, this is adapting the position the Universe has deliberately targeted you because you are you. It is the feeling you are on God’s shit list for some reason you claim to not understand. Personalizing hard times can make the hard times even harder. This is like swimming against the current and throwing on a weighted vest before you jump into the water. A lot of us have a tendency to react so strongly to unexpected challenges we actually make them worse and harder to handle.

Perspective is what determines how we will handle our challenging life situations. This includes our internal reactions and how we talk to others about our challenges. Perspective keeps us in the game or hustles us to the exit, often prematurely. Some of us are head down and head on, while others lament any inconveniences as personal attacks and respond by dropping to their knees and crying about the unfairness of it all. If perspective and mindset are what makes the difference between sinking or prevailing, why are we so resistant to switching our thoughts to a better channel? If the secret to sailing through life is attitude and mindset, shouldn’t we take greater care about the way we think?

A tried and true therapy modality is called cognitive restructuring. Cognitive Restructuring – Simple thought switching, word changing, change the word, change the outcome. A popular concept in cognitive restructuring is thoughts lead to feelings which lead to behaviors (T-F-B.) The idea behind this is whatever we think will cause a feeling of one kind or another. How we feel about something dictates how we behave. This sequence can start and finish within the blink of an eye, but it will always be this order. If we diagram T-F-B, we see how important our thoughts are. Everything starts with our thoughts. Just like breakfast is the most important meal of the day, our thoughts kick everything off and will determine the flavor of our experiences. Negative thoughts invariably lead to negative experiences. And why wouldn’t they? Our thoughts reflect our programming and if we program ourselves to have a negative experience, it follows that we will. Simple equation, yes?

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This is why it is important to not take adversity personally. There are differing degrees of adversity including mild annoyances, difficult work projects, and life-altering events. Life is a series of challenges, big and small. If we were to approach difficulties as if they are puzzles to solve, we can better manage the negative emotions around adversities. Puzzles can be interpreted as fun challenges rather than insurmountable obstacles. While some puzzles have more pieces than others, this makes the completion of the puzzle even more satisfying.

We can look at life as a continual process of reframing. A new frame will always change the look of a picture. This is not the same as judging. Reframing allows us to assign a value of our choice to a given situation with the intent of resolving it. Sometimes dealing with adversity can be a process of talking yourself into the right mindset to resolve it. If you have been reading me for a bit, you have likely noticed I am big on communication skills. Reframing is another way to communicate with yourself without making difficult situations even more difficult.

How we speak to ourselves when we are under duress will determine how we handle the situation. I am all for realistic assessment. However, after the assessment has been made, we still have to jump up and manage the situation. This is even more so if the situation has been assessed to be a gigantic dumpster fire. We can’t stay on the couch and watch it burn, the situation still has to be addressed. Is it really a dumpster fire or is it a festive trash container with natural heat and lighting? See what I did there?

We must be honest in our assessments of situations, they are what they are. But if we program ourselves to make them “less bad” they become more manageable. I am fond of the old saying “how do you eat an elephant?” Answer: “One bite at a time.” It sounds simplistic (especially if you’ve heard it before) but is it untrue? Not at all. All of us eat one bite at a time. It may be a small bite or a huge bite, but it is still one bite at a time.

Adversity does not have to be personal, even if it has been directed to you maliciously, it can still be handled situationally. It is our job to reframe and persevere. The reframe is the emotional difference between sailing into the wind and having the wind at your back. If you already know its going to be hard, why make it harder? Even though calculated malice is hard to manage due to it’s personal nature, it is still in our best interest to reframe and then manage the situation before we address the emotional fallout of a personal attack. As a former mentor once said to me “things can be personal, but we don’t have to personalize them.”

Reframe. Don’t take adversity personally, you don’t have to. Change the narrative and outcome of the story by making it smaller, fun, and manageable. Make adversity a puzzle you will find a solution to and solve. We are far less likely to go into a downward spiral if we are having fun.

Mind Your Boundaries, Part 2

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I feel like we talk about boundaries quite a bit. Not just because I teach them, but because it seems we are talking about them incessantly as a culture and because I frequently see someone screaming about their boundaries being violated on social media. I will say I think social media has eroded our sense of boundaries for one very simple reason: It allows us to say things we would never say personally with minimal consequences. This was not the purpose social media was created for, but we can add it to the list of things we have misused (or at the very least cheapened.)

Part 1 of this series dealt with common boundary challenges and communication skills. This blog post will deal more with practical application and why I think we have room for improvement regarding boundary applications. Let’s jump back to social media. Why are things so contentious on social media? Is it the times we live in? Partially. But social media was a sea of useless conflict a long time prior to 2020. How come? One problem is many of us like to be right far too much. Quite often we argue about scenarios that have multiple solutions, but there is always someone who believes in the “one true way.” We are invested in conflict for conflicts sake. We could find better ways to use our time. I have known more than one person who ruined their day before 9am due to arguing on social media over their coffee and corn flakes.

We must remember people are allowed to disagree with us. If we all kept that particular boundary in mind, we could save ourselves a considerable amount of grief. Remember, boundaries are barriers we use to keep others at an appropriate physical and emotional distance. If we keep in mind it is perfectly acceptable to agree to disagree, we might find we have fewer conflicts to navigate on the Myfacetwitterbook spaces.

How many of us are currently capable of discussing issues with others in an open manner where ideas are genuinely compared or exchanged? My observation is social media has become incredibly polarizing. There is only one correct point of view and any disagreement is viewed as an aggressive assault. The ability to exchange ideas in a civilized manner also involves boundaries. It helps if we know why we think what we think. That way we can discuss and explain why we believe it is so. I don’t believe many of us question our beliefs often enough and when these beliefs are challenged in any way, reactions tend to be reflexively defensive with no thought as to why someone may see it differently than we do. We don’t spend much time on the boundaries necessary to discuss differing opinions any more.

Because of this tendency, we tend to only “friend” those on social media who think the same as we do. Exchanges quickly become “us vs. them.” Conflict, rather than debate or compare and contrast seems to be our current default. If this is how we are currently arranging ourselves socially, how do new ideas and new information get through? How do we reach beyond our own echo chambers? How many of us think we need to? Disagreements do not have to be viewed as deadly threats.

On that same note, boundaries also exist so we can have civil disagreements in order to compromise and resolve issues. I have often told couples in session they need to establish ground rules (boundaries) regarding how to argue. These rules need to be set up well in advance of any contentious discussions so all parties know where the lines are and both parties have agreed upon them. Most couples learn over time which lines should never be crossed and what the likely consequences are if those boundaries are not respected.

Why would we want to stray beyond those boundaries, especially with a significant other? We want to “win.” Winning becomes more important than resolution. Winning becomes more important than a genuine exchange of knowledge and ideas both parties could benefit from. What is the grand prize for winning in this way? Typically it results in more conflict. The conflict may spread to other areas, escalate more intensely, and the cycle repeats itself until neither party is observing or even remembering the originally agreed upon boundaries. I feel sometimes it is important to be right, but not every single time, particularly when there is more than one answer or solution. Boundaries keep us civil and civility keeps us talking. I also want to add I need to focus on this daily, in multiple areas of my life.

Reestablishing boundaries after someone did not respect them tends to be anxiety provoking for most. This requires bringing specific attention to how someone did not respect the established boundaries the two (or more) of you agreed upon. This will entail a confrontation of some kind. This does not have to be an inflammatory situation, but it does need to be direct. Were the boundaries in question violated deliberately or accidentally? Was it the heat of the moment or calculated to cause upset? Let’s remember, particularly within personal relationships, if we don’t step on someone’s boundaries we wont have to apologize for it later.

Do you have a clear picture of where too far is for you? Where is the line that if crossed, will cause you to walk away from someone for good? This is not necessarily about your significant other, it could also be a friend, acquaintance, or coworker. Everyone has a point of no return where things cannot be fixed if that one line is crossed. Knowing where that line is means you are clear on what is acceptable and what is not. Honoring that line means your self-esteem and self-awareness is intact and fully functioning.

Other people in our lives have boundaries as well and their boundaries will likely overlap with ours. I think we need to remember others have the same right to their boundaries and beliefs as we have for ours. In other words my boundaries do not supersede or cancel yours and vice versa. The Golden Rule is always a good measuring stick if we are in a position where we are unsure. As I said in Part 1 of boundaries, if you are unsure, ask. If you think it needs to be said, say it. Clear and open communication encourages good boundaries and that pertains to face to face exchanges with friends and family as well as our sparring partners on social media. With a slight change in approach, our sparring partners become our new teachers. Now go practice!

Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself

I came to coaching after a fifteen year career as a therapist working with convicted sex offenders, troubled juveniles, and people experiencing every manner of crisis imaginable. While I greatly enjoyed the intensity of working with the clients in my care, I realized after a few years I would not be able to do that kind of work forever. I worked with convicted sex offenders for eleven of those fifteen years and this became especially grueling, largely due to the details of the offenses I had to discuss with my clients. There were also many legal requirements to the work, including court appearances, that added to the weight of this career choice. I switched positions to work in a newly created crisis clinic that came about after the Aurora theater shooting. Initially I found this rewarding as well, but due to program changes and a growing disillusionment with bureaucracy and callousness within the mental health system, I decided to close the door on being a therapist.

I remembered the thing that excited me most was being the help for others I had needed at various times in my life.

This forced me to examine what I liked about being a therapist and why I began that work in first place. I recalled my initial interest in being a therapist was I was able to help people develop insight into themselves and thus lessen their suffering. Having had my own struggles with finding direction and mental health, I remembered how valuable this gift could be to others. I remembered the thing that excited me most was being the help for others I had needed at various times in my life. I had several friends and acquaintances who had made the change from therapist to coaching. All of them had expressed they found coaching more rewarding due to there being less structure and the fact they could pick their clients more selectively. The idea of creating my own coaching practice gained momentum rapidly.

Helping others succeed has always been exceedingly appealing to me. Obviously personal success feels fantastic, but sharing this feeling by helping others achieve their respective successes is what life is made of for me. This is what drives me. I firmly believe success is contagious. Satisfaction with one’s life is also contagious and I feel this is something we should share with each other. In more than one job interview I mentioned I want to help others realize that life doesn’t have to be continuous uphill struggle. When we realize limits are self-imposed, blowing through them becomes a thrilling way to live a life. Any part of life we are dissatisfied with can be modified and improved. I would not say the sky is the limit; rather I would say that is another limit we can exceed!

I don’t believe anyone’s reach exceeds their grasp. If we can reach it, we can grasp it. We might need to make adjustments and face some uncomfortable truths in order to get there, but if we want to reach our respective goals, we can and we will. Do it. Don’t wait. Make your necessary course corrections and drive on!

Mind Your Boundaries, Part 1

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What is a boundary? What are they and why do we have them? A common answer is “a physical barrier.” Very true. Now what purpose do they serve? The question is the same and so is the answer. They keep people outside a comfortable and appropriate space from you. Whether in front of your house or at the lunch table at work a boundary is a line that cannot be crossed without permission, if ever. Some people hold their boundaries in very close to themselves, some much less so.

Some people I know are routinely approached by total strangers while in line to pay for their groceries. These strangers would dump their life stories at the feet of another stranger without so much as a “hello, my name is…” When I was still working in community mental health, there would typically be 2-3 people who would raise their hands and say “Yep, that’s me.” They would also be unsure why this was happening and they were not always comfortable with these interactions. Something about their energy indicated they were not going to slam the door as soon as a stranger opened up to them. It was also common for many of these individuals to share they had difficulties with boundaries within their intimate relationships. Approaching total strangers with your life story could be, at the very least, unwanted and at worst triggering and traumatic depending on the content of the life story.

These group members tended to benefit most from the group because they were able to realize their boundaries needed to be worked on, according to what they were comfortable with. Some people are comfortable with strangers laying their life stories on them in random public places, but many are not. Where I have noticed people struggling is when boundaries are inconsistent or porous. Boundaries must be consistent otherwise they are merely suggestions or guidelines, both of which imply that adhering to them is optional rather than mandatory. Solid boundaries are necessary for healthy self-esteem and personal agency.

A common line of thought in mental health circles is “we teach people how to treat us.”

How boundaries are communicated to others is also important. If boundaries are enforced too vigorously the situation could potentially result in some sort of aggression. Delivery is a key component, which brings me to communication styles. We have three main styles of communication: aggressive, passive, and assertive. There is a fourth style of communication that I will address later in part two, simply because it usually comes up in discussion.

It is my observation that most of us learn aggressive communication first. This is unfortunate. It comes at us from school, work, and many different types of media. It also comes at us within the home when we are very young. Simple examples of aggressive communication are yelling, name calling, and include body language, such as banging on tables or slamming doors. This is viewed as a win/lose situation because the aggressive communicator gets their needs met by stepping on the needs of whomever they are addressing. Passive communicators do not get their needs met because they lay down and do not advocate for themselves. An example of this is agreeing to something you feel is unfair or unreasonable, because you want to avoid confrontation. This is viewed as a lose/win because the passive communicator does not assert themselves.

Assertive communicators get their needs met without taking away from the needs of others.

Our third communication style is assertive communication. Assertive communication gets it’s own paragraph because I feel its most important. Assertive communicators get their needs met without taking away from the needs of others. I view this as win/win because everyone involved gets their needs met without taking from the needs of the other. This is tricky because we don’t teach this very well as a culture. If we are lucky enough to come from families who teach this early, we find the people we go to school with do not know how to communicate in this way, and much of the teaching from home goes by the wayside. A lot of us learn assertive communication later in life. A great many of us do not learn to communicate assertively until we are well into high school, or even later when we begin our first jobs and have to work closely with others. Assertive communication reflects The Golden Rule, i.e. treat others the way you would like to be treated.

Healthy boundaries lend themselves to assertive communication. If you don’t enjoy someone talking down to you, you won’t talk to others that way. Assertive communication and healthy boundaries work together in that one builds off of the other. They feed each other in a positive way. A common line of thought in mental health circles is “we teach people how to treat us.” I believe this is true and no matter how assertive we are in our daily lives, occasions will arise wherein we will need to clearly define (or redefine) our boundaries to someone in a given situation. The ability to do this clearly without escalating into conflict is crucial.

This is done by clearly stating the issue and the boundary in question. For example, your room mate is eating your food (a lot of us have been there.) State clearly what the issue is. “You are eating my food.” Next, state a remedy: “I expect you to replace the food you ate within the next 24 hours.” Lastly, state what consequences will follow if your boundaries are not honored. “If my food is not replaced within 24 hours, I will put a chain and padlock on the refrigerator.” (This is an extreme example, but please continue to follow along.) The essential component here is that the consequences MUST follow consistently, exactly as described. If they are not, the boundaries are not boundaries and thus ineffective. This is the most difficult part of maintaining boundaries with most people. Sometimes boundaries are violated accidentally and it is an honest mistake. Sometimes they are violated deliberately and that is when enforcement becomes crucial. Unfortunately, we cannot count on everyone around us to observe common courtesy.

Healthy boundaries lend themselves to assertive communication.

Boundaries vary from location to location and are frequently situational. The boundaries we observe in the grocery store are different from the boundaries we observe in an elevator. We rely on our environment to dictate our boundaries. For example, the expected social boundaries in Japan differ from those in the United States. When unsure about what boundaries are appropriate for the setting you are in, observe what others around you are doing. This is sometimes known as “reading the room.” Another option is to simply ask. “Do you mind if I do this…?” This can go a long way in getting along with those around you.

Please keep in mind these are standard pre-Covid 19 boundaries. Dealing with a pandemic has forced us to modify our boundaries on global basis. This is another example of the environment dictating the boundaries. Remember, boundaries are a combination of clear communication and expected social norms. Boundaries are not suggestions or guidelines. If you feel your boundaries need improvement, an easy solution is to mimic the boundaries of someone you know and admire. You might like the way they handle themselves and emulating them is a great place to start. You could also practice improving your boundaries by scripting. Physically write out the scenario, as described above. Include the problem, the proposed solution, and the consequences if not followed. Best of luck in your practice!

Does Confidence = Toxicity?

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Perhaps it’s the influence of social media or a misunderstanding on my part, but it seems that confidence has become a frequently maligned character trait.  While certain character traits are intended to be non-threatening, assertiveness, for example, a sense of confidence seems to be viewed with disdain by many. At some point, a healthy sense of confidence became synonymous with arrogance. I am also of the belief that hiding your gifts under a bucket because they make others uncomfortable is neither fair nor healthy. When did confidence become a bad word?

Hiding your gifts under a bucket because they make others uncomfortable is neither fair nor healthy. When did confidence become a bad word?

Confidence is frequently viewed as threatening and aggressive, and sometimes it can be. I think we often assume someone may use their confidence against us as if it can be weaponized. It is common to feel threatened by someone who does a given activity better than you, but this does not mean you are being targeted. I think a large number of people feel threatened by a strong sense of confidence due to their personal insecurities.  They dislike in others what they feel is a deficit within themselves. Rather than saying “I wish I had that” or even better “teach me how to do that” we fall back on jealousy because we do not want to face our perceived short-comings.

Has anyone ever felt jealous of someone due to their abilities or accomplishments?  All of us have at one point or another.  As I became a more mature adult, however, I realized if I felt this way towards someone it was because I had a problem, not them.  I came to the conclusion many years ago if I was experiencing something as toxic as jealousy it meant I was feeling insecure about me. The good news is I am the only person I have total control over, so I can address my jealousy so it no longer influences me. I do not have control over anyone else so feeling negatively about their abilities doesn’t make sense to me anymore.  Have I experienced this from others? Absolutely. It usually left me scratching my head.  

Confidence resulting in overbearing arrogance and bullying is not true confidence, rather it is aggression.  My quick and dirty definition of aggression is getting your needs met by taking from the needs of someone else.  Our culture of winners and losers created this.  A key concept here is that other people do not have to lose in order for us to win. I am not speaking about athletic contests which are deliberately set up with a winner and “not winner” due to an agreed-upon set of rules. I am speaking of day to day life where we all have to navigate a series of challenges, some expected, some not. As a coach, I feel if I can help someone with their level of confidence, I have helped them develop a life skill that can help them across all domains. I am not helping my clients with this so they can step on others. I am helping my clients so they can develop themselves and thrive.

Confidence is inherently healthy and it promotes other healthy behaviors. 

Confidence does not have to be arrogant or self-aggrandizing.  A given individual may wield it in that manner, but I do not think that is its purpose.  True confidence and assertiveness should work together like a hand in a glove.  It is almost as if our culture views confidence as something in short supply, often resulting in judgment and criticism, such as “who does he/she think he/she is?”, or “You must think you’re so great.”  Taken to its most extreme, this may look like “nothing makes me angrier than someone who feels good about themselves.” Absurd, no? Confidence does not have to equal toxicity unless you apply it through that filter.  There is nothing inherently wrong with genuinely knowing you are good at something, particularly if it is something that required time and dedication to accomplish. A famous entertainer from the 1980’s once said “If you try to stick your head above the crowd, someone will throw a rock at it.” Are we so connected to our perceived limitations that self-betterment is viewed as threatening?

Many people mistakenly view confidence as something that makes them better than others.  Again, this is not what confidence is about.  If my sense of self is sufficient and I feel I can learn what I need to learn to be competent or even excel at a chosen task… What is wrong with that? We are attached to our insecurities to such a degree that the accomplishments of others are frequently viewed as threatening. Is success a limited commodity only a precious few can attain? Is it only available while supplies last? The implication is we must get up early, stand in line and hope we get some before it runs out. There is not a national scarcity of confidence and there is plenty for everyone. 

In the U.S. there seems to be a cultural penalty for having confidence, or even a healthy self-image.  We experience too many mixed messages implying we don’t quite measure up (advertising for example) but changing that so we do measure up can often come with a penalty. It’s almost like we just can’t win.  What is our cultural obsession with a) not feeling good about ourselves; and b) being angry with and attacking those who do? My personal observation is social media has made this worse. It’s easier to be shitty to each other now without the consequence or pressure of face to face interactions. That is likely a topic for another time…

Confidence is inherently healthy and it promotes other healthy behaviors. Learning new tasks is a common example of this.  If I can learn one thing in a given field, I can likely learn another and another until proficiency and then later excellence is achieved.  Can I learn all things expertly? No, probably not. But if I can learn things I enjoy doing and get myself paid in the process, I am likely in a good place.  We have this cultural fixation on the strong, independent, rugged individual who marches to the beat of their own drum. We also dismiss them and sometimes target them outright and attack them until they “arrive.” After they arrive, they are still subject to cruel scrutiny by their peers or the media.  Celebrity culture, anyone? This is why the aforementioned entertainer spent so much time dodging rocks.

I think if we can adapt a supportive attitude toward each other rather than viewing the accomplishments of others as threatening, we will be more likely to view confidence building as a natural progression rather than an attempt to unsettle the rest of the collective. If we can view this as a natural progression we all go through, helping each other excel becomes a natural part of life rather than needless animosity. Let’s be good to each other.