The things people do!

“MOVE! You’re in the way!” a woman yelled at me yesterday. I was in her way, and I moved. Little did she know, 20 minutes earlier, she had been in my way (her back was to me). But I didn’t yell at her. I took a breath and waited, and eventually she moved.

Last week, my six-year-old daughter said “No!” to many things I said. She said it with an attitude like “Are you crazy?!” It was really getting on my nerves. A lot. That’s when I took a moment to say to myself, Wait a minute, am I doing that to her? I need to catch myself saying “no” to her in that way. And I did. So I stopped doing it. And our relationship shifted a little bit — it got better.

Often, the things people do that bother us are things we do ourselves. Sometimes, we do it unconsciously, but we do it. That’s systems: we enable patterns, and we echo patterns. And sometimes, those patterns or behaviors that bother us the most are ones we personally enable and/or echo.

Lately I have encountered a few headlines that could have the subhead: “The Things People Do That Bother Us.” Talking about this bothersome (or maddening or saddening) behavior is helpful because it helps us to express our feelings about those behaviors. When we express our feelings, we are on the way to integrating our thoughts, feelings and actions. But that’s just the first step. Now I’m going to tell you the second step. Take a deep breath, because this part can be hard to hear. (Pretend I’m saying it in a whisper.)

The second step is to identify how we personally have enabled and/or echoed those behaviors. That is where your true power begins. The power to change a behavior of another does not begin by pointing at them and saying “You’ve got a problem, buddy!” The power to change the behavior begins with pointing at ourselves and saying “Hey, that bothers me, and oops, I’ve sort-of been doing that too.”

It’s compassion for self. It’s compassion for other. And once that emotional system of condemnation is dismantled, there is all kinds of room for self-awareness, growth and shifts in the system.

So, yay for the stuff that bothers you. It’s like a juicy fruit ripe for biting into. And this fruit can be a source of super-hero power. No longer a victim, no longer just coping or scraping by. This stuff is transformational, and you can transform your (our) world. So, thank you.

Things get worse before they get better

Hi! Happy New Year. I hope you enjoy my new blog post below. I have some events coming up in Austin — come spend some time with me to explore these ideas.

Breaking a bad, chronic habit can ride like a roller coaster between good times and bad times. And a rock-bottom moment often occurs before things truly get better, when we get off the roller coaster at last.

At rock bottom, the system becomes its most ugly in an attempt to push everyone back into their bad habits. While it isn’t pretty, I think an ugly, high-pressure system can be a sign of hope. In other words, if this is rock bottom, it means that things are going to get better. Here is an example.

Maybe the roller coaster we’ve been riding in America is between two mentalities: “us vs. them” (a chronic, addictive story) and “we are one” (a healthy story). Because I have a background in the news media, I will talk about news patterns in these mentalities.

In 1995, we lived in post-cold-war America, and I produced the number one radio talk show in New Mexico. Bob Dole ran for president and eventually lost to a second term for Bill Clinton. At that time, people with diverse opinions, Republicans and Democrats, tuned in and called to debate with one another. It was healthy, light-hearted debate, and the host Chris Jackson and I often laughed or smiled as we went to commercial. The news media didn’t have the frightening cold-war news stories to report anymore, and perhaps it was a time where the “we are one” story saw some light.

By the year 2000, I worked for the local NBC affiliate on an Austin morning news show. We always had a dip in the ratings when there was no bad or extreme news, so some days, we made our language more extreme or scary in an attempt to increase ratings. Then, on September 11th, 2001, we had a big dose of excitement, ratings and the return of “us vs. them” when the Twin Towers fell in NYC. But exploiting tragedies and psychology for ratings had become unacceptable to me, so I left my career and I went looking for generative work. I went looking for the good news.

Between 2001-2017, I watched from the sidelines as the stories of “us vs. them” multiplied, news outlets became polarized and extremely high-pressure words entered headlines. The tabloid-like polarizing “news” articles (often written by the same author) appeared on Facebook depending on which “side” of the “us vs. them” story you were on.

It’s been ugly. It’s been high-pressure. And, I see it as a sign of hope. Maybe the system of the news had to push harder and harder to get people back into the story of “us vs. them.” Maybe this has been a rock-bottom moment. And maybe, this is the last push before things get better.

Selling the story of “us vs. them” is how the news made money. But, they will stop making it if we stop tuning in, if we stop clicking. If we refuse what they are selling.

I would like to see a news outlet that reports good news, and also diverse views, complex stories, with explorations in compromise and creative solutions. When it comes to tragic events, when we label them “evil,” it makes us victims and puts us outside the system. Instead, I would like to see a news outlet that has the courage to report how we all contribute to tragic events as participants in the system so we can own our power to change it.

Doing this work, I am encountering others who have broken free from the “us vs. them” story. They do not see themselves as victims. They are full of agency and hope.

If you are reading this now, Low Pressure Life is my headline. And if you can’t tell, I am full of agency and hope. This is my generative good-news work, and I invite you to co-create with me for the betterment of all. Here are some things you might do:

  1. Attend a free workshop or purchase an online class.
  2. Write me a note with your thoughts.
  3. Most importantly, seek out your personal path to generativity. Whether you are a business leader, writing letters to the editor, or a stay-at-home dad talking with your children or your neighbor, you can make a difference because we are all connected.

Finally, I had one more piece of good news to share with you. On Christmas Day, the Austin American Statesman printed my op-ed piece. A stranger saw it and tracked me down so we could connect. I see it as another ripple in the system. Here’s a picture straight from the paper. Yes, the paper, the NEWS printed this article. There is hope in the world after all.

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The Approval Game

You have one person to impress. One. (Hint: it’s you.)

This is easy to say but can be difficult to wrap our minds around. Most of us can’t just wake up one day and say “I’m only going to impress myself today,” because we are part of a system I call “The Approval Game.”

To gain awareness and power in The Approval Game requires systemic thinking about the parts you play in the system. First, answer these questions:

Who do you need approval from? Who do you need to approve of? They might be young or old, alive or dead.

Think about the ways you show approval or the ways you seek out approval. You may play the game blatantly at times with a “Good job!” or subtly, like with a disapproving glare or internet post. You may try to convince yourself that someone would be approving or disapproving of you too, even if they aren’t around.

You may have played this game most of your life, so if you decide to stop playing, it may feel like being a wobbly toddler taking new steps. Here are two simple stories you can tell to help you on the way:

“They do.”

“I do.”

In other words, they do what they do, and you do what you do.

In my house, we’ve adopted these stories. In any given situation, we might say “Mama do,” or “Daddy do,” or “Gabriel do,” or “Grandpa do.” (You get the idea.) I know it’s bad grammar, but that makes it fun.

Also, instead of saying “Good job!” we usually say something like “You did it!” We are teaching each other to be our own anchors.

This is not a warrant or an excuse for hurtful behaviors. Hurtful behaviors are not OK because we are all connected. But, it’s most helpful to identify hurtful behaviors in ourselves first.

Why is the approval game hurtful? It anchors our sense of self in others, which generates anxiety. That’s too much responsibility to take on, or to put on someone else. To be our own anchor, we take responsibility for our own part and appreciate the parts that others play. Appreciation is a healthy replacement for approval and disapproval. Then, it’s ok to agree or disagree. Disagreements can be fruitful experiences for creative problem solving, energizing dialogue and learning to value each person’s unique contributions.

When we’re not worried about approving of others or getting approval from them, when we give up on the game, that frees up a lot of our head space to express ourselves honestly and hear others with an open mind.

You are more powerful than you think.

Who do you influence? Read these two versions of a school morning and think about how many people one mom (AKA me) can have an impact on. This is thinking in systems. Based on a true story.

6:30AM

Not enough time for a shower. Mom rolls out of bed grumpy and wakes the kids. Ripple effect: kids immediately whine. Fighting between kids commence. Mom rushes to get ready while yelling across the house for the kids to get themselves ready for school. Dad leaves for work, children crying. Ripple effect: Dad is stressed-out on the commute and then at work with co-workers. Mom sets breakfast on the table, yelling at the kids that it’s getting cold while they still fight. One child has a tantrum. Kids rush to eat and get out the door, carrying shoes and socks to put on during the drive. One child cries on the way to school. Mom gets distracted, yells at the child and randomly, anxiously slams on the breaks. Ripple effect: for ten minutes, commuters following in Mom’s path also randomly slam on their breaks, and one spills coffee in their lap on the way to work. In the school parking lot, Mom impatiently honks the horn at others. She drops off her tired and stressed-out kids to a classroom of 25, a school of 200. Before driving to work, mom posts to the internet: “Motherhood sucks.”

6:15AM

Mom wakes early and gently wakes the kids, too. Mom takes a shower. Ripple effect: kids play while they get ready for school. Dad hugs the kids and leaves for work. Ripple effect: Dad feels good for the commute and then has a positive attitude with co-workers. Mom gets breakfast on the table and the kids eat at their own pace. One child has a tantrum and Mom feels the potential rush of adrenaline and cortisol, but chooses to remain calm. The child calms and the ride to school is easy. They get there early. Ripple effect: Mom is more aware while driving, and makes space for a different mom to get in her lane. Before driving to work, Mom posts to the internet: “Early morning Mom showers are awesome.”

Did I write these stories to make you feel guilty? No. We all do the best we can. I wrote these stories to raise awareness and help you claim your responsibility and your power.

Can you estimate how many people one mom in one morning can influence? How may folks do you have ripple effects on during your day? Your week? You are powerful. Here’s the trick: Systems don’t like to shift. So if you have been living an anxious life, your whole system is used to you functioning that way, so sometimes you will feel pushed back into your old ways. But, if you take a stand and make a shift, the system will shift too, eventually (it can feel like moving a mountain).

For example, if you’re used to having a stressed-out morning, your whole system is used to it: your body is used to getting hits of adrenaline and cortisol, as are the folks you interact with. You have a habit, and so do the others. If you change, they will continue with their habit for awhile, trying to push you back into your old ways. And, you may fall back into the old ways every once and while. When you notice those times, it means you are gaining systemic awareness, so congratulations, you are one step closer to making a shift. Then, you try again the next day. And the next. And then, one day you wake up with a new habit, and the system around you has shifted too. And, you experience how much brain space all of that stress was taking. This is the beginning of something new.

The End of “Us Vs. Them”

This is the sixth time I’ve written or taught this idea. I wonder what it will look like the 100th time. When you’re refining an idea, it helps to write it down. Then, sleep. Write it again, and again, without looking at your previous versions before you begin. Let some folks interact with it and get feedback. Write. This is a Practical, Not Pretty approach. (For a previous version, see the previous blog post.) You can watch or listen to this post, or read it below.

I have some free workshops coming up in Austin starting in January. Contact me if you are interested.

Here is the text of the vlog:

My first-grade twins came home from school on September 11, 2017 and told me they had learned about Patriot Day, a day named in memory for the tragic events on September 11, 2001. I wasn’t ready to tell them about that yet, but they learned it from their teachers. I asked them what they were told, and our conversation went something like this:

Kids: The bad guys flew airplanes into buildings and a lot of people died. Why did they do that mama?
Mama: Those guys thought they were the good guys and we were the bad guys.
Kids: How did they come to think we were the bad guys?
Mama: Those are the stories they told at their schools.

The stories we tell are important. And, the story of “us vs. them” is hurting us. When we tell that story, we disown “them,” so we have permission to hurt “them.” The problem is that in telling that story, we a part of the problem simply by telling it, and we will always be someone else’s “them” as long as there is a “them.”

Stories of “us vs. them” are rampant in the headlines. “They” haunt us as far back as the Roman Empire, where you were crucified if you were different. Or maybe “they” goes farther back to a time when our ancestral tribes didn’t have enough food, so we needed to hurt “them” in order to get food and survive.

We are addicted to this story. We are raised with this story. It systematically lives in our cells.

And, we can change this systemic pattern. Maybe.

The first step is owning “them.” Instead of telling the story of “us vs. them,” we say, “They are my sons, my brothers, my cousins.” Instead of saying #itsnotme, we say #thisisus.

But, who do we blame? Our cells want us to pick up swords and punish someone. In systems, there is no blame. We all have stories, and we all function according to the systems and stories we live in, just like the teachers and the terrorists at the beginning of this post. We are all doing the best we can, and we have done the best we could. This is not a warrant or an excuse for hurtfulness. This is a call to awareness and a different kind of action.

We’re all part of the same human system, and even though it’s hard to see sometimes, behaviors in one part of the system ripple all over. It’s like an engine with a broken part. The good news is if we own the system (instead of disowning parts of it) and we take responsibility for our little part, then we are empowered to do something, because healthy behaviors ripple too. If you are reading this, intellectually you know that you have a choice to change the stories of “us vs. them” that you are telling and you can work to change the system. However, it takes awareness and practice to change your stories, like it takes time and practice to quit smoking cigarettes in a family of smokers.

The chronic story of “us vs. them” has many faces. And, I don’t recommend starting this project by thinking about relationships where you have been victimized—start with others. Look for these stories in your conversations, at your house, in your family, your neighborhood, in your texts, your internet posts, in your heart. Here are some versions:

  • Blaming. Black and white thinking.
  • Frequent use of high-pressure language, like absolutes and generalizations.
  • The need to control or convert or approve of someone. The need for approval. You cannot change someone else—you can only change yourself.
  • Gossip. (It’s more useful to say: “I’m feeling triggered, and I’m trying to figure out why.”)
  • Reactivity: quick to anger, quick to agree, quick to give up. If you are reactive, are your feelings your own, or have you caught them like a virus from someone else? Thoughtfully consider how you personally feel and how you would like to responsibly react.
  • Anxiously dwelling on past failures instead of non-anxiously owning them. In systems, there is no failure. You did the best you could, and so did everyone else.
  • Thinking that others close to you have the problems (not you). People are like magnets: We are attracted to folks who are like us. (This may take humility and deep breaths to understand.)
  • Lateness, rushing, procrastination. Sometimes, it’s fun to be the bad guy—we gets hits of adrenaline and cortisol from it. But, try being generous to yourself and others with realistic time-frames and see how that changes your system.

Sound familiar? In some of these stories, maybe you were the good guy or the bad guy, or both! Try not to beat yourself up over these behaviors. They have been coping tools for you, so you can say, “Dear old behavior, I love you. Thank you for getting me this far. In some ways, I needed you to survive. And now, I am ready to work on letting you go.”

If you make an effort and make a shift, I’d like to say congratulations, and thank you. Because as I write this, I am thinking about how you (yes, you) are connected to me, too. You could say you’ve become #partofthesolutionfor anxiety in the system.

Together, we can create a healthy system where hurtfulness is simply brought into awareness and ended. Then, that’s where the excitement begins. Healthy behavior makes space for creative solutions to complex problems. Humanity does not have to live together, but we can live beside each other and thrive.

How to get from #itsnotme to #iampartoftheproblem

My first-grade twins came home from school on September 11th this year and told me they had learned about Patriot Day, a day named in memory for the tragic events on September 11, 2001. I wasn’t ready to tell them about that part of our history yet, but they learned it from their teachers. I asked them what they were told, and our conversation went something like this:

Kids: The bad guys flew airplanes into buildings and a lot of people died. Why did they do that mama?
Mama: Those guys thought they were the good guys and we were the bad guys.
Kids: How did they come to think we were the bad guys?
Mama: Those are the stories they told at their schools.

Here’s another “bad guy” story, a different story from a different time when we also wanted to use the idea of “us vs. them,” to get mad at those guys:

In August 2017, white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville and a popular hashtag surfaced on the internet. People typed #itsnotme. They wanted to say that they did not condone the activities of white supremacists nor did they contribute to the problem. In other words, the white supremacists — those guys — were the bad guys.

The stories we tell matter. They set patterns into motion. When we tell the story of “us vs. them” instead of simply “us,” it makes room for us to hurt each other because we dis-own each other, we emotionally distance ourselves enough to send planes or bombs or soldiers or drones and kill. When we dis-own the terrorists or the white supremacists, we are telling the same story that they are telling. In other words, we are part of the problem. Instead of pointing the finger at those guys, let’s turn the finger on ourselves and see what we can do. Here is my question: Is it possible for us to put the stories about those guys into a time capsule and say goodbye? Can humanity finally say, it’s just “us”?

I fell in love with the study of systems growing up watching nature shows. One of my favorite stories is about the African fig that depends on one special kind of wasp which in turn depends on the fig tree for survival. I’ve learned about soil systems, the human body as a system of organisms, epigenetics, fungal networks through which plants feed each other and Bowen Family Systems Theory. And here is what I have learned: everything, everyone functions according to their system. For humans, this means something significant that we can talk about, that we can tell stories about. It means that there are no those guys, no good guys and bad guys. It means that we are all doing the best we can. Even our most beloved stories about our most beloved bad guys can be re-told: the wicked witch and Darth Vader function according to their systems, and they are doing the best they can. And, their friends, family and enemies all play a part in their stories.

So, what can we do when we see bad things happen, when we hear of another shooting or when we see gatherings like those in Charlottesville? The past pattern is to dis-own those guys, to give permission to hurt them, and in turn, we continue the pattern making space where it is ok to hurt each other. Because when there are those guys, my family will always be someone else’s those guys too. The first step is to stop telling the stories of “us vs. them.”

Instead of dis-owning them, we claim “them.” We integrate them. We say #thisisus. We say, “Those guys are my sons, my brothers, my cousins.”

And we say: What stories am I telling? What am I doing that is hurting us? I am doing the best I can, but is there something different I can do? Can I change this pattern?

My answer is yes… Maybe. Here is an idea. Let’s talk about anxiety. What if anxiety arose from an animalistic tribal need for survival basics like food, water, shelter and safety? At some point in our collective past, there wasn’t enough food for everyone, so we get anxious, we make our tribe anxious and we hurt others, we create the story of “us vs. them” so that we can get what we need to survive. And now, some of us have enough. Many of us have enough. And, that chronic, contagious, polarizing anxiety is still sticking around like unhelpful ancestral goo.

With social media, we are more closely linked than ever before. Is it possible you could be contributing to anxiety in the system? Is it even possible that your anxiety could be influencing one of the people you might have labeled as one of those guys? Perhaps something you are doing does not directly influence one of those guys, but through systemic ripple effects, you may not be helping their situation. You are connected to your family and work systems that in turn are connected to other larger systems that are connected to those guys. And when there is anxiety in one corner, it spreads. It’s like an engine with a damaged part.

Does this mean you are to blame? No. In systems thinking, there is no blame. Things are the way they are. Instead, we take responsibility for the parts we play.

So, we own the anxious system we’re a part of. And we own those guys. Now what? Embracing the idea of systems makes us powerful. We can actually DO SOMETHING, because we are part of that engine. Healthy behaviors are contagious too, and they also ripple throughout a system.

Here is the next step. Instead of thinking #itsnotme, let’s try #iampartoftheproblem. I’ve made this list of anxious behaviors to help you identify how you might be contributing to anxiety in the system. Anxiety has many faces, and awareness of it can help us to end it. Once you recognize your personal behaviors, then you can work on reducing them in your day-to-day.

  • Blaming. Complaining. The need for perfection.
  • An “us vs. them” mentality. Black and white thinking.
  • Frequent use of high-pressure language, like absolutes and generalizations.
  • The need to control or convert or approve of someone. The need for approval. These are juicy. If you can identify these folks you seek approval with (especially family members) and work on letting go of those needs, it can make a big difference for your anxiety and the anxiety in your system. Try this: “They do what they do. I do what I do.”
  • Identify gossip by the use of high-pressure language. Also, there is a difference between talking about someone to get support and talking about someone to feel more powerful than them. It’s useful to say: “I’m feeling triggered, and I’m trying to figure out why (so I won’t feel triggered anymore).” Talking that way could help the system.
  • Reactivity and the belief that feelings aren’t important. Feelings are interwoven with our primal instincts. They can cause us to be reactive: quick to anger, quick to agree and quick to give up. Are your feelings your own, or have you caught them like a virus from someone else? Thoughtfully consider how you personally feel and how you would like to responsibly react. This can help you move from a reactive state to a rational state. When your thoughts, feelings and actions are integrated, you will be less anxious.
  • Anxiously dwelling on past failures instead of non-anxiously owning them. In systems, there are no regrets (and no failures). You did the best you could, and so did everyone else.
  • Thinking that others close to you have the problems (not you). People are like magnets: We are attracted to folks who are like us. (It may take humility and deep breathing to understand this.)
  • Lateness, rushing, procrastination. Anxiety addicts (me included) get hits of adrenaline and cortisol through lateness, and we spread that anxiety at home, on the road and when we arrive. Be generous to yourself and others with realistic timeframes.
  • (And, some anxiety is normal and even helpful sometimes. It’s chronic anxiety that causes problems.)

When I read over this list, I see evidence of the story of “us vs. them” all over it, sometimes even making ourselves out to be the bad guy! Try not to beat yourself up over these anxious behaviors. They have been coping tools for you, so you can say, “Dear anxious behavior, I love you. Thank you for getting me this far. In some ways, I needed you to survive. And now, I am ready to work on letting you go.”

If you identify one or two of these behaviors and you work on making a shift, you might begin to see how you can be #partofthesolution for anxiety in the system. Please note: shifting away from these behaviors does take work. The system likes to stay put. You, your environment and the people around you feel comfortable with the way you currently behave. Breaking some of these habits might feel like breaking an intense physical and environmental habit, like quitting cigarette smoking.

If you do make a shift, I’d like to say congratulations, and thank you. Because as I write this, I am thinking about how you (yes, you) are connected to me, too.

So, if we let go of the “us vs. them” story, what kinds of stories do we need? Stories of self-discovery, reconciliation and community. To be an inclusive community of “us,” we do not have to be the same. Humanity could not survive if we were all the same: true diversity can be a source of strength and wealth. We can be in community together and thrive together. We don’t have to live together, but we can live beside each other. We can do this. We are already telling these stories. I see these stories in my family, in my neighborhood and even at the movie theater.

I think these ideas are useful for functional adults who have their regular survival needs met (food, water, shelter and safety). I am speaking from the perspective of an American, white, middle-class-family woman in the suburbs, and I expect there to be valuable perspectives that are different from mine.

Fridge Sheets and Listicles! Oh My!

If you like my ideas, follow this blog (visit the Welcome page to enter your email). I have some great stuff coming your way.

Here are five Low Pressure Life fridgesheets. They are listicles (list / articles). Print them out. Use them as reminders. Color on them. Make them into paper airplanes. Here are the topics:

The Ten Techniques

Random Interesting Ideas

Stress Vs. Anxiety (and how to recognize them)

Transformative Storytelling Steps

The Low-Pressure Apology