Shame vs. Humiliation vs. Guilt vs. Embarrassment (Brené Brown)

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Have you ever wondered what the difference between shame, guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment are?  Often we use these words interchangeably, but Dr. Brené Brown has so beautifully described the difference between the 4 terms:

  • Shame is “I am bad”  Shame is a focus on self. Imagine you’ve worked really hard to prepare a presentation with a coworker for an important staff meeting. One of your responsibilities was to prepare the powerpoint. You forget to save the file onto your computer and, as a result, your coworker is disappointed. If you feel shame, your immediate thought pattern is that you’re a bad person. “I’m the worst co-planner ever. I am such a loser for forgetting that powerpoint.”
  • Guilt = “I did something bad”  Guilt is a focus on behavior. If your self talk is : “ahh. I can’t believe I did that.  That was such a crappy thing to do,  I made such a poor choice not to back up my work!”  That’s guilt.

Our self-talk really matters and often frames the way we move through our relationships. Shame is highly correlated to aggression, addiction, depression, suicide, bullying, eating disorders, whereas guilt- the ability to separate who we are from our actions-without degrading our worth.

Guilt is inversely correlated to these same outcomes.  So, it’s much better for our mental health to focus on behaviour, even when we’re speaking in jest about ourselves.

  • Humiliation. With humiliation results in the same physiological response as shame except that you don’t believe you deserve the treatment:  sweaty palms, wish that the ground would swallow you up, wanting to make yourself small, nervous laughter… Dr. Brené Brown uses a school example:

A teacher is handing back papers and one of the students doesn’t have their name on the paper and the teacher calls the kid stupid:  If that child’s self-talk is “that is the meanest, most nasty teacher ever, I didn’t’ deserve that” What that child is likely experiencing is humiliation. As a parent or caregiver- I’m going to hear about that when the kid gets home- because they’re going to be angry and hurt and want to share it.  If the child’s self talk is immediately “ ugh. She’s right, I’m so stupid, why do keep forgetting to put my name on my paper, I’m so stupid,”  Thats shame.”

  • Embarrassment-it isn’t rooted in shame, is often funny and fleeting, and it doesn’t make you feel alone (it’s usually some universal human experience). Just think of that time that you put your sweater on backward and the tag was sticking out for the better part of an afternoon lunch with friends. Once you realize your mistake, it could leave you a little red-faced, but you know deep down that it’s human and that other people have done the same.

Shame is not funny.

Shame leaves one feeling alone and isolated.

The 25 Beliefs I Once Held to be True…but Don’t Anymore

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Like everyone else I know, I have a million-and-one things I should be doing instead of writing this post right now, but that tiny fleeting voice of inspiration came knocking and tugged on my shirtsleeve. So, while the kids were napping, I did what any self-respecting mom on a ‘nap-break’ with mountains of laundry, tons of research to do, gazillions of emails to respond to, and a disaster of a house to clean…I indulged the urge to sit down with a pen and paper. I gave inspiration an inch…then, as the saying goes…time literally evaporated.

My loved ones all know my passion for lists, but this one’s a little different than the usual to-do or goal-setting lists. The following is a compilation of some of the beliefs I once held to be true…the ones I now whole-heartedly reject.

Maybe you’ll agree with me, but more interestingly, perhaps you’ll disagree. Let me know!

Regardless, I felt compelled to examine, tease-out, and share some of the strongly held beliefs I once had to illustrate that it’s very possible to change one’s mind.

Here is goes…in no particular order:

  1. Mind-games and posturing are the only road to true love. Vulnerability is for suckers.
  2. Effective parenting results from manufacturing adversity so that one’s children will toughen-up for the real world. I once heard someone say that they seek to disappoint their children every single day for this reason!
  3. Perfection is the antidote to criticism-the notion that if one achieves perfection in terms of work performance, grades in school, physically, in our relationships (parents, children, friends, spouses) that we will receive immunity from the pain and hurt that our experiences have the capacity to unleash upon us (*And by-the-way, perfection is not only a total fallacy, but it’s a dangerous and seductive illusion founded in fear.)
  4. Grief is a finite process with an end date. (*Nope. It’s more like an ocean whose waves are sometimes gentle and lapping, and other times have the immense capacity to pull you right under.  Grief is unpredictable. The kindness and bravest thing we can do for others and ourselves is to hold space for grief and sit along those in grief as they navigate its choppy waters.)
  5. Achieving your goals = happiness
  6. Beauty is objective.
  7. Parenting is easy, if you’re doing it right. (Ha! Riggghht…)
  8. The only way to navigate this world and make it out alive is to construct and dawn a thick coat of armour so strong that neither joy nor pain shall penetrate one’s tender heart.
  9. Successful, obedient students exemplify successful teaching.
  10. Being courageous is not for me.
  11. I am alone in my experiences.
  12. Asking for help is a sign of weakness.
  13. Being “good” is the only road to worthiness.
  14. Admitting to experiencing sadness, anger, loneliness, and jealousy means that there’s something wrong with you.
  15. The only way to be spiritual is to go to church.
  16. Creativity lies inherently within the individual. You either are or you aren’t. The genius resides within the artist.
  17. Everything in life is random.
  18. We must ask our passions to provide for us, financially.
  19. Forgiveness is impossible because it means condoning.
  20. Seeking and acquiring approval from others is the only way to win at life. *In the words of Seth Godin, seeking to please everyone makes you a “walking generality” instead of a “meaningful specific.”
  21. Everyone deserves a second chance. *No they don’t! Maya Angelou once said, “When somebody shows you who they are, believe them the first time!”
  22. My worthiness of love and belonging is directly dependent on my ability to earn it. It’s about hustling. *Nope. Nope. Nope! You are born worthy of love and belonging. The minute you start believing that, the more you can get down to the important, purposeful work you were meant to do!
  23. People’s personalities are fixed.
  24. I cannot write the ending to my story.
  25. Achieving and striving toward audacious goals is for other people.

Asking For Help: 7 Actionable Ways to Encourage Help-Seeking at Your Work and School

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Asking for Help: 7 Actionable Ways to Encourage Help-Seeking at Your Work and School

“Help is one of those four-letter-words that is curiously difficult to say when it’s in the form of a request. Most people tell me that it’s not easy for them to ask for help. Offering to be of help, on the other hand, comes much easier to people. Helpers, after all, are not the vulnerable ones.”                                                        -Caroline Myss

Just recently, I asked someone I know for help. The act of it left me feeling a bit exposed. In asking for support, the two of us had immediately entered an unofficial contract of positional hierarchy.

This person had the authority; I did not.

This individual had the power; I did not.

This person was above and I was below.

Both of us subconsciously agreed upon our relative positions of power based on the narratives in which we subscribed.

The feeling had an uncanny resemblance to some of my past experiences at school.

By asking for help, I had momentarily removed the armour I normally wear to protect my fragile heart from pain and hurt, invited myself to become vulnerable, and had placed my pride in my helper’s hands.

Truth be told, our interaction didn’t go so well.

Instead of acknowledging the delicate responsibility that comes with assuming the powerful role of ‘helper,’ this individual took advantage of his position and wielded it clumsily, upsetting our subtle balance and betraying my vulnerability.

Like an anemone attached to the walls of a shallow ocean tide pool, poked and prodded by the oblivious and excitable children’s fingers, I recoiled and closed-up tightly.

And, it took a while for me to open up again.

Nowhere is this dynamic more common and widespread than in the classroom and many workplace cultures.

Any number of us have felt betrayed in moments of authentic vulnerability by those we love, those who lead us, and those who have taught us. I’m sure you can think back to a time someone absentmindedly or willfully employed their power to make you feel small.

It turns out approximately 85% of the people Dr. Brené Brown interviewed for her research could recall a shaming occurrence at school that was so demoralising that it made lasting, damaging impact on their perceptions of themselves as learners. She explains: “Through about fifth grade, shame is literally the threat of being unlovable. It is trauma because they are dependent. Shame is a threat to survival.”

Take a moment and observe the damaging power of the following school-based interaction, as described by Dr. Brené Brown:

“Susie is sitting in her classroom as her teacher is passing out papers. The teacher says, ‘I have one paper left. Who didn’t get a paper?’ Silence from the class. And, with more emphasis the teacher says, ‘I SAID, I have one paper left. Who didn’t get a paper?’ Susie slowly raises her hand. The teacher comes over and says, ‘I’m not surprised. Class are you surprised? Here Susie, I’ll help you out.” And, then the teacher proceeds to write on her paper where the student’s name would go: STUPID.”

Perhaps this example may feel a little extreme, by today’s standards, but I think she provides a solid example. The way teachers (or any leaders, for that matter) interact with students can have a detrimental or positive impact. It all comes down to the dependency built into the student-teacher power dynamics. Students, after all, tend to find themselves at the base of the power hierarchy. Since teachers are usually in a position of authority, it’s imperative that we tread carefully knowing that our response to a vulnerable student can have the power to confirm a damaging narrative running through his/her head. Our reaction to a struggling student has the power to belittle, shame, and reinforce his/her unworthiness. The result can be catastrophic.

On the flip side, however, teachers possess the ability to create healing and inspiring impressions on our vulnerable students. We can provide encouragement, effectively enabling a student to reject the negative thought patterns that reinforce the illusion that they’re stupid or unworthy.

It is, therefore, imperative that anyone in a defined position of influence examine his/her interactions within the context of offering and asking for help. If you’re in a position of power, as a teacher or employer, isn’t it better to generously assume that your student/employee is truly trying his/her best instead of assuming the worst?

No, they’re likely not stupid.

No, they’re likely not deliberately screwing-up.

No, they’re likely not trying out to render your day more challenging.

Yes, it’s very possible that you may have explained the very same concept a number of times, many different ways.

Can it be frustrating? Sure.

But, through leading with compassionate patience, making the most generous assumptions as you interact with those around you, it’s possible to bring the very best out of your employees, students, and children. You can foster a safe environment that values growth mindset, second chances, and asking for help. In turn, people will be more productive, more creative, and more self-assured.

Whether you’re a boss, principal, parent, teacher, spouse, or CEO of a company, I encourage you to become aware of the power you wield, being mindful of the lasting influence you may have on those you lead.

Here are 7 actionable ways that you can create an environment of respectful trust, where asking for help is encouraged and honoured:

1. The Reciprocity Ring

Dr. Adam Grant, author of Givers and Takers and Originals, encourages companies and organizations to cultivate ‘Giver’ cultures by practicing the reciprocity ring:

A group of approximately 8 people and invite everyone to go around and make a request for what they need help with.  Then, challenge the group to act like Givers and fulfill each person’s request for help.

The Harvard Business Review has reported that many businesses have become more profitable and efficient as a result of this practice, either directly (problems being solved) or indirectly (removing the stigma of asking for help). Dr. Nathan Podsakoff analyzed 38 studies of organizational behavior tracked over more than 3500 business units across industries. There is a strong connection between “helping behaviors and desirable business outcomes” including: “high rates of giving predicted profitability, productivity and customer satisfaction, as well as lower turnover.”

The Reciprocity Ring encourages the group to adopt help-seeking-practices as part of its cultural norms.

2. Employ the 4 Pillars of Courage

Dr. Brené Brown suggests that we should teach courage through the development of the following 4 pillars: vulnerability, clarity of values (think a household/workplace/classroom manifesto), trust, and resiliency skills (the ability to get back up when we fall down). When we feel courageous, we are more likely to ask for the help we need because we’re not afraid of how we may be perceived as weak. Instead, we come to the realization that “vulnerability is the greatest measure of courage.”

3. Lead the Way

If the teacher, parent, CEO, principal starts by giving without the need for recompense, it’s likely that others will do the same. That kind of environment encourages a give and take attitude, where it becomes the norm to collaborate and ask for help. Generosity is not a scarce resource. More is more.

4. Inspire Clarity

Encourage your students, employees, and children to become clear and concise in their requests for help. The clearer the ask, the easier it is to deliver.

5. When there’s a problem, ask yourself who has the most power here?

According to Dr. Julia B. Colwell, “true relationship evolution happens when power dynamics are unearthed, explored, and changed.” When you get real about power inequalities, it becomes easier to solve problems and diffuse interactional conflicts.

6. Bolster your Leaders

Zingerman’s, (a company based out of Michigan) has developed a purposeful culture of helping. Every time a new managing partner is inducted, attendees of the induction event are asked, one by one, to express how he/she will contribute to the success of the new partner. This public dedication to the new leader enables him/her to more easily ask for help, leaning on the team behind them. This strategy could easily be adapted to the workplace, school, or community to encourage employee and student engagement.

How could children, students, teachers, employees contribute to making their leaders and organizations more successful?

7. Process over Product

Reinforce the importance of process over solutions and products. Everyone knows that the best learning occurs through the process of trial and error, and yet, it’s so common for us to measure student and employee success upon the finished products they create. The inquiry-based model of learning values and is founded in the understanding that teamwork, process, and learning through failure is integral to actualizing an idea, achieving a goal, and learning a new skill.

 

Sources:

 

 

Hating People Close-Up is Nearly Impossible

Hating People Close-Up is Nearly Impossible

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It was a hectic Saturday morning. Everyone seemed in a rush to attack the ‘to-do’ list so the true ‘weekend’ could commence. There would be causalities. It was inevitable.

Grey drizzle hung low in the air, immediately dampening everything in its path. With soggy urgency, people raced from the warm comfort of their cars to the refuge of grocery and home improvement stores, lists in hand.

My friend was waiting in the McDonald’s drive-through line-up when it happened.  As he placed his order, he saw a woman on a moped cautiously turning right from the busy throughway to join the line-up. Suddenly, a man driving an enormous truck hurried through the entrance of the parking lot, cutting her off and almost causing her to lose control of the moped as he found his place in line behind my friend’s vehicle.

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The woman managed to regain her composure but was visibly shaken. She yanked her moped’s handles in the direction of his truck and pulled-up next to his window with a jolt. Screaming profanities up at him through the driver’s side window, she leaned over, and standing up, started knocking and smacking at his window, urging him to engage. And engage, he did. Back against a wall, he rolled down his window and declared war. Within moments, both were hurling ferocious insults at one-another and the name-calling was gaining momentum. Passers-by were staring and rubber-necking, but no one dared step-in to intervene.

My friend, who had been watching their conflict escalate through his rear-view mirror as he waited, felt helpless. What could he do? He had to do something. This couldn’t go on like this! It could get ugly, fast.

Perhaps, he could shame these two into submission. Pressing the button, started to lower his driver-side window, adrenaline kicking in as he prepared to jump into the fray. Abruptly, he realized that adding another angry, righteous voice to the conflict would surely worsen the situation. Quickly, he raised the window again. Now, feeling even more powerless than before.

He began thinking about the two people arguing behind him. The woman had felt legitimately threatened. Devastating accidents happen all the time. The man had been careless. It could have cost her.

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Then, my friend turned his attention to the driver of the truck. He had been inconsiderate and reckless. He could have caused catastrophic damage. But, he likely didn’t set out with the intention to hurt anybody that morning. His intent had not been to hurt. It almost never is. The momentary haste and lack of empathy had caused him to err. And now, instead of humbly owning his mistake and offering a sincere apology, he allowed his fight instinct to kick-in. Now, in a threatened state, he was out for the win.

It’s hard to hate people close-up.* Most of us don’t like to zoom in on our adversaries. When we do, we risk seeing things from their side. We risk losing. It feels much safer to take a side and fight for the win. It happens all the time. We demonize people, through-and-through. Black and white is easier. Good versus evil. It’s not easy to allow and train ourselves to see the grey area. There’s too much at stake.

It feels risky to be generous with our assumptions. When bad things happen or when people hurt us, it’s so easy to over-generalize our experience. One might create a frame of reference around the experience. It becomes easier to assume that the entire world is filled with hurtful people, that everyone is deliberately out to get us, and that we can only rely on ourselves. One can easily lose touch with the inherent, imperfect beauty of humanity.

It was time for my friend to pay for his cappuccino and muffin. Still behind him, the two continued their struggle. Although he would be incapable of solving their conflict directly, he realized he could still have a positive impact. He paid for his order. Then, glancing back, he paid for their orders, too.

*Source: Braving the Wilderness Brené Brown and Peanuts (Shultz)

36 Questions, 90 Minutes, and Two Stories of True Love that Defy Even the Biggest Skeptics

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Just 36 questions. That’s supposedly all it takes to fall in love. Intrigued? So was I…

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, I feel the urge to share a fascinating strategy I just recently learned from The Science of Happiness Podcast (produced by the University of Berkeley and PRI) for creating intimacy that has been proven to have wide-ranging implications not only within budding and romantic relationships, but could also be applied to the creation of deeper platonic bonds with friends, family, students and coworkers.

Two Stories

Before exploring the tactic, itself, we’ve got to rewind to 1997 in the Relationships Lab at Stonybrook University, New York, when psychologist and researcher, Arthur Aron invited two complete strangers into his lab to sit across from one another for a 90-minute period. They were instructed to take turns asking each other 36 specific questions based-in “sustained, escalating, and reciprocal personal self-disclosure, which culminated in a period of staring into each other’s eyes for a period of 4 minutes.

Can you say, awkward?

The results were nothing short of surprising. This contrived scientific set-up seems to have no connection whatsoever with the realities of Real Life; therefore, it would seem logical for anyone to be skeptical that any successful connection could be achieved under these conditions. Here’s where it gets fascinating…

Despite the initial discomfort and seemingly inauthentic nature of the situation, the strangers he invited into his lab kept in touch and 6 months later, the couple invited all of the study’s researchers and assistants to their wedding.

Again, it’s hard not to be skeptical. How could 36 questions and a 90-minute period in a lab which accelerated intimacy truly serve as a strong enough foundation for long term love? Enter Mandy Len Catron, a Vancouver-based writer and professor at UBC. Having recently suffered relationship heartbreak, she learned about the study and vowed to give it a shot, more out of skeptical curiosity than expectation. Finding a willing participant, a gym acquaintance who also had an inquisitive and experimental nature, she wrote about her experience in her popular New York Times post, To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This.

They decided to meet in a bar (not a lab), proceeded to spend the next two hours passing her phone across the table, and taking turns posing each other the questions. She compares the process of entering and creating the vulnerable space together through the content of the answers to a frog being boiled in water. By the time they reached the second and third tier of questions, they were already invested…and by that point, it didn’t feel that uncomfortable. The truth is, she said she found herself enjoying learning about herself through the questions, the shared experiences, and the opportunity for self-expansion. Self-expansion, she describes, is the ability to” incorporate others into our sense of self. Some of the questions, which focused on thoughtfully complimenting the other person, were especially challenging.

When launching the 21-Day Small Act Big Impact Kindness Challenge with students of all-ages, I’ve usually ask them to give each other compliments at some point during the presentation. Without fail, their compliments wind-up being superficial in spirit, or in other words, safe. The point of the exercise is to draw their attention to the discomfort of the task and to ask them to challenge themselves every day to practice their compliment-giving muscle.

The habit of giving heartfelt compliments makes us vulnerable. It has the potential to open us up to being hurt. When we really look at people, we truly see them. When we see others, we also see ourselves. It can be scary. Ironically, that process of becoming vulnerable enables others to know you. Catron remembers that on the other side of her initial fear, she wound up feeling unexpectedly brave, courageous, and connected to the man sitting across from her.

When it came time for them to stare at each other silently for 4 minutes, they both agreed that it felt too intimate and strange for the bar, so they relocated to a nearby bridge. “What I like about this study is how it assumes that love is in action…it assumes that what matters to my partner matters to me…because he let me look at him.”

I’m sure you’re all wondering…did they fall in love? The answer? Yes. Although, she attributes the love they have to more than just the study. “Love didn’t happen to us. We’re in love because we made the choice to be.”

Mmmmk…so how does this relate to me? Practical uses for the 36 questions beyond awkward singles experiments that, let’s face it, require the willingness and vulnerability of a stranger:

We all have relationships. Period. Whether they are romantic or platonic, we could all use a little tune-up, right? Researchers out of Berkeley University have found that these (adapted) questions have incredible applications with team-building, creating lasting employee relationships, and can mend broken race/gender relations. Adapt this 36-question list to suit you.

  1. When you’re on a road trip, use the questions to get to know your family, friends, or kids better.
  2. Use the questions as a basis and reminder for developing compliment-giving within the classroom. And when it comes to children, it is essential we give them the platform to develop the confidence and trust needed to practice the art of giving compliments within the classroom and at home. (If this interests you, check out the lesson I’ve written on teaching about Compliment Circles in the classroom).
  3. Remember that going ‘deep’ should be preceded by mutual vulnerability, which should function to bring you closer. Brené Brown always urges us to share your stories only with those who have earned the right. Not everyone has earned the right to your vulnerability. It has to be mutual. The power balance has to be equal in order for this to be effective.
  4. On that same note, if you’re thinking these 36 questions are great ‘first-date’ material, I would strongly urge you to reconsider. Both people have to be willing, consenting participants. Springing these questions on an unsuspecting fellow human will likely not result in favourable outcomes!
  5. If some of these questions seem too personal for the office or workplace, you could always channel the spirit of wanting to get to know those around you better by falling back on the ready-to-go The Curiosity Project question cards.

[An aside about these cool cards: I was recently introduced to the Curiosity Project by Elizabeth Milder, a successful entrepreneur and creator of Queens of Expansion, who just recently interviewed me on her 5th episode of Queens of Expansion Vlog and podcast. Check her out on the socials when you get a chance. Her work to create  a community of like-minded women, supporting each other to achieve greatness in the world is inspiring and awe-inspiring! She is definitely someone to be watch. I’ll be posting the link to the podcast when it comes out on Saturday! Let me know what you think.]

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The 36 Questions: 

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Set I

1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?

2. Would you like to be famous? In what way?

3. Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?

4. What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?

5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?

6. If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?

7. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?

8. Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.

9. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?

10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?

11. Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.

12. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?

Set II

13. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?

14. Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?

15. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?

16. What do you value most in a friendship?

17. What is your most treasured memory?

18. What is your most terrible memory?

19. If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?

20. What does friendship mean to you?

21. What roles do love and affection play in your life?

22. Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.

23. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?

24. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?

Set III

25. Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “We are both in this room feeling … “

26. Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share … “

27. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.

28. Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.

29. Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.

30. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?

31. Tell your partner something that you like about them already.

32. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?

33. If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?

34. Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?

35. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?

36. Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.

As always, let me know what you think or how this influenced you. I always love feedback!

Rethinking Regret: Two Stories of Forgiveness and Acceptance

Regret’s a funny thing, isn’t it? I used to believe that it served no redeemable purpose, that accumulated regret would only function to burden a person under its weight, like a sack of rocks, discomfort giving way to hopelessness and overall stuck-ness as one buckled under the heaviness of it over the years.

I remember one of my first memories as a child being steeped in regret. With my family, I had emigrated from France at the tender age of 4 ½, speaking not a single word of English. Days after having arrived in Canada, we decided to visit a museum somewhere on the East Coast. With my parents, I entered an enormous hall that housed an expansive and interactive children’s winter exhibition. I was overcome by the beauty of a massive igloo standing before me. Staring into the extended entryway of the beautiful, white, frosted structure, I suddenly became aware of the children playing inside. From the half-moon entrance, I gazed past the hallway, into the blue-white dome at the children’s exuberant and smiling faces decorated with sparkle face-paint. I remember my parents urging me to go in, but I just stood there, paralyzed.

Ironically, something about it delighted and intrigued me. I yearned for my cheeks to be adorned with frosty, magical paint, too, but my feet stood planted firmly on the concrete floor of the exhibition refusing the invitations of my perplexed parents.

Looking back, the long list of rapid-fire firsts undoubtedly had me swimming in a sea of very understandable overwhelm. My little 4-year-old heart desperately wanted to enter but my mind wouldn’t let me. I was standing at the edge of what felt like a life-changing cliff and felt unable to close my eyes, embrace the unknown, and take the leap.

I remember driving away from the exhibition, quietly heartbroken and disappointed that I had passed on the opportunity. Unable to forgive myself, whenever the uncomfortable experience came to mind, I would often push the memory away entirely.

Dramatic? Perhaps.

Minor? Seemingly.

But…perspective is relative…even to a child.

For a long time, I unconsciously adopted the ubiquitous North American bumper-sticker-slogan, “no regrets,” unequivocally rejecting the potential value of regret and denying its existence entirely. Regret is uncomfortable…why on Earth would one subject oneself to it?

Yet… I’ve recently changed my mind about regret.

Perhaps it does indeed have a purpose. That purpose, however, relies entirely on the ability of a person to harness its usefulness, while resisting the damaging effects of reliving a past one cannot change.

I have come to believe that regret operates as a guide…

reminding you to stand in your integrity,

to seek out the pursuits most connected to your ‘heart-wishes’ (the things that your ‘thinking-mind’ often prevents you from pursuing for a myriad of ‘rational’ reasons),

to have intention without hesitation and follow that intention with unapologetic purpose.

In order for regret to be useful, one has to also employ self-forgiveness.

Oh, forgiveness.

Like many people, I’ve had a challenging relationship with the general concept of forgiveness.

It’s taken me a long time to settle upon a definition that would enable me to engage in authentic forgiveness while maintaining my integrity. Here it is…

Forgiveness is the ability to accept the past and to stop wishing it were different, despite injustice, hurt, and heartbreak. It’s not about condoning. It’s about finding a way forward. Not for someone else. For yourself.

I believe that regret and forgiveness are closely tied. Regret is that inner reminder that tells you that you deviated from your values. Forgiveness allows you to move forward, becoming unstuck through your pursuit to apply your lessons learned. You can release yourself from replaying regret, accept it, apply the lesson, and live your life with the intention you have for it, in forward motion.

Nowadays, I call that inner-conflict I felt as a four-year-old in the museum winter exhibition, the “jump off the cliff” moments. Life presents you with these moments every so often, I believe, to test your character, courage, ability to step outside of your comforts. These are the moments where your heart knows what to do but the fear of uncertainty or apparent failure hold you back through hesitation, under the guise of protecting you.

I’ve had many of these moments.

We all have.

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Recently, I felt the familiar sting of regret, once again. It had been a while. It still sucked.

As a young girl, my grandmother Mac played a significant role in my life. Even into her eighties, I remember Mac as a smart-looking woman, immaculate glossy white permed curls, supple rosy cheeks, expertly-applied fuschia lipstick, a closet full of high-heeled YSL shoes, and charisma beaming from captivating electric eyes.

She was a petite little thing, so much so that she always drove her 1960’s Valiant perched upon a couple of opulent throw pillows, and even still, could just barely see over the steering wheel. Small as she was, one learned never to underestimate her. She was one of the most determined, brave, and stubborn women I knew. The eldest of 11 children, she had led a rebellious and adventurous life, and had learned many lessons from the school of hard knocks. Challenge and hardship were no match for her.

IMG_2361Over the years, I developed relationships with some of her siblings, my great aunts and uncles. Although we didn’t see him often, I remember visiting Roy, my great-uncle (through marriage). He was always good to us kids, bringing us gifts at Christmas. I remember one year he brought us special chocolates, a book of Christmas-edition life-savers I savoured for weeks, and a mini-bottle of Chanel N.5 I cherished throughout my middle-school years. As I grew up, attended high-school and university, I saw less and less of him, but thought of him affectionately as I looked back on those memories.

Fast forward to last year. A few months before Christmas, I learned that Roy was living in a nearby seniors housing centre and this would be the year of his 100th birthday. I tracked down his address and sent him a Christmas card, wishing him the best and expressing an interest in reuniting. A few months later, I received a response!

I told myself once my babies were a little older and it was a little easier, I would visit him.

A full year passed. It was Christmas again and I remembered my promise.

I searched out the number for the senior’s centre, called and left a message for Roy, introducing myself excitedly as his great-niece.

Two days later, I received a call from his son. Graciously, he immediately informed me of his father’s passing just a few months earlier. Expressing my sympathy and thanking him for the call, I hung up, regret weighing down upon my shoulders, once again.

In the hopes of escaping the discomfort, I quickly told myself not to worry…to forget about it.

But, the truth is, I was crushed.

I found myself reflecting upon the permanence of life and the value of every moment. I thought about the value and grace of my existing relationships. We have to cherish the relationships we have in the here and now.

Although, I can’t transport myself into the past, can’t change what has come to be, I can take this as a valuable lesson to quiet my hesitations, listen to my heart and trust my intuition to do what’s important.

“Regret is one of the most powerful emotional reminders that change and growth are necessary,” Brené Brown, author of Rising Strong, asserts. “It’s a call to courage and a path toward wisdom…regret can be used constructively or destructively. ‘No regrets’ doesn’t mean living with courage, it means living without reflection. Regret is what [teaches] me that living outside of my values is not tenable.”

 

How Empathy Leads the Way for the Transformation from Victimization to Resiliency

IMG_7940Just this morning, I had a realization that stopped me in my tracks. It was one of those “Aha” Oprah-moments that sent a jolt of electric energy from the top of my head to the tips of my toes. It’s a very simple concept, but it’s caused a dramatic paradigm shift in the way I look at people-centred pain.

I have spent the last few weeks or so researching for my newest project which will provide tangible support to teachers embarking on the Small Act Big Impact 21-Day Kindness Challenge with their classes in the form of grade-specific lessons, activities, and free resources.

I have stolen early morning, caffeine-filled moments at my dining room table sifting through books, articles, videos, websites, and adapting classroom lessons.

Anti-bullying strategies.

Neuroscience.

Peer-reviewed studies.

Opinion pieces in major magazines.

Psychological theories.

All of it has reinforced my belief that teaching generosity and kindness though explicit means within the classroom is essential to creating classroom cultures that promote a sense of belonging and significance for our students.

The research process got me thinking about the concept of understanding those who hurt us. Nothing underscores the universal human experience more than the hurt we have all suffered at the hands of someone else. Painful break-ups. Conflicts at work. Family Feuds. Misunderstandings with friends. Falling outs. Bullying on the school ground. Childhood trauma. We have all experienced varying degrees of very real interactional pain.

The thing is, many people reflexively tend to demonize those who have hurt us. Dehumanization of perpetrators or those who cause us pain somehow makes us feel justified in acting outside of our integrity. We blame. We rage. We might even turn to hate. We might act uncharacteristically. We do so with the intent of protecting ourselves, and ironically, we wind up perpetuating the pain. We can get stuck in the story and the victimization. We might find it challenging to seek understanding, because retribution can be what we ultimately seek. For example, when I think of students in conflict, the “winning” mentality can make it difficult to come to consensus and seek positive solutions. For some students, retribution seems like the only answer.

But…here’s what I realized this morning:

The more we understand bullies and those who hurt us either intentionally or not, the less victimized we become by their actions. When we see the situation or conflict at arm’s length, from a different perspective, I believe the narrative can change. That is what we need to teach students in order to build resiliency in the face of conflict.

And here’s where I have to be very clear. Reframing the narrative by seeking to understand various facets of a hurtful interaction does not mean standing by passively and allowing it to continue!

It’s not about condoning the hurtful actions or statements.

It’s not about blind forgiveness.

And, it’s not about inviting hurtful people back into our lives in the hopes that things “change.”

It’s about preventing the hurt from weaving itself into the narrative that defines us as individuals.

I recently had a fascinating conversation with a close family member about the importance of recognizing what motivates people to hurt us and the value in having empathy for them. We discussed that people are fundamentally motivated by a variety of needs and that their actions directly relate to those needs, whether they are conscious of them or not. I believe that when people hurt us, their words and actions are motivated by unmet needs. It’s like they’re in survival mode, finding the easiest, fastest route to strengthening themselves. Ironically, like fast food, hurting people to meet your needs doesn’t fill you up at all. It leaves you emptier, hungrier, and lonelier than ever. I argued that understanding these motivators provides us with a broader, richer context though which to view the hurt. We seek understanding from our empathy as much for our sake as theirs. And, it allows us to view it through a less personal, victimized lens.

Through several defining moments of my life, I have had to set clear boundaries to ensure that I stay true to my integrity and to protect my soul and spirit. As Maya Angelou said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them; the first time.” It’s not easy. It’s not simple. It requires a great deal of courage, possibly many attempts, and a boatload of help, but it’s possible to rise up against unfair treatment. When we look around us, we see so many examples of individuals banding together courageously to advocate against injustice.

By and large, we are creatures of habit and certainty. When we are thrust into trauma or hurtful conflict, we instinctively go into certainty-seeking mode. Our brains try to make sense of the interaction and search for the best path back to certitude. In the absence of tangible data, our minds generate narratives (whether they are accurate or not) that make sense because we are biologically wired to find patterns.  In his article on the Neuroscience of Story Gert Scholtz asserts, “Stories invoke the mind to fill in gaps and to anticipate future outcomes and as such it provides a safe simulation of reality.” This explains why many people who have been hurt, not only blame others but often blame themselves, consciously or unconsciously. If the pain is bad enough, they may apply this new narrative to redefine the way they interact and react to life’s stressors to avoid being hurt again. As we know, when our backs are against the wall, we fight, flight, or freeze.

Heartbreak and trauma may very likely be part of your biography, but it does not define who you are. We don’t have to own or accept the story our brains have set out for us. I believe that seeking to understand the motivations of an individual who introduced the hurt into our lives, gives us perspective and a new frame of reference through which to view the pain. We can be freed from the limiting beliefs that we are inextricably linked to our stories and that we are not only somehow at fault for what has happened to us, but that we ARE our stories.

When we realize that we are not our stories, that it is not our fault, we can experience the truest sense of spiritual and emotional freedom. Within the spaciousness of this newfound freedom, we become capable of writing our own endings.

How do we actually go about putting this understanding framework into action? Here are some powerful questions (from Rising Strong, Brené Brown) you might ask yourself or invite your students to ask themselves in conflict:

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  1. What more do I need to learn and understand about the situation in terms of what I know and my assumptions?
  2. What more do I need to learn and understand about the other people in the story in terms of information I’m missing and questions I might have?
  3. What more do I need to learn and understand about myself in terms of my response, my feelings, and the part I play?

 

Sources:

*https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/neuroscience-story-gert-j-scholtz/

Brene Brown (Rising Strong/Braving the Wilderness)

Elizabeth Gilbert (Big Magic)

Maya Angelou

Tony Robbins

Dr. Shimi Kang

 

The Unexpected Detour That Landed Me Exactly Where I Was Supposed to Be

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Last week, I experienced an unbelievable moment that will stay in my heart forever.

Dampness permeated the air that morning.  As I hurried out the front door of my house and onto the driveway, I felt the impact of a big, fat raindrop on my forehead. The cold licked at the back of my throat and confirmed the conclusion of summer. I slammed the door to my car just as the clouds cracked open. A barrage of raindrops struck my windshield and roof.

I was all set to do a follow-up lesson for the 21-Day Challenge in my friend’s Grade One class downtown. The traffic from my house to the city centre can be unpredictable at best and excruciatingly slow at worst, so I planned ahead and left with plenty of time.

When I arrived downtown thirty minutes early, I was pleasantly surprised. I had brought a book to read and could have revisited the lesson to pass the time as I had done before previous school visits.

But, for some unexplained reason, I felt compelled that morning to do something different.

Instead of taking the more direct route to school, the one I had taken a million times over, something guided my car to the entrance of nearby Beacon Hill Park.

Crisp autumn leaves swirled, a dancing rainbow against the backdrop of the lifeless cracked pavement. Darkened bodies, shadows, emerged from the dew-covered foliage to my left and right as I continued along the route, to the heart of the park. One man, a statue, perched motionless on a bench gripped his shopping cart, which overflowed with accumulated treasures. My eyes settled on a woman shuffling along the adjacent grassy path, two enormous black garbage bags torn and cobbled together to serve as protection from the rain that had been pelting my car just minutes earlier.

Today, someone needs you.

Before I knew it, I found myself parking at a grocery store nearby. Arriving inside, I raced up and down the aisles, filling my arms with packages of English muffins, a jar of my favourite classic chunky peanut butter, some delicious raspberry jam, a bunch of perfectly-ripe bananas, and a bundle of plastic knives.

Heaving the substantial white bag onto the passenger seat, I hopped into the driver’s side and drove back to the entrance to begin my second tour through Beacon Hill.

The park was eerily deserted, now. Where people had stood just minutes earlier, there was nobody.

“Where could they have gone?” Perplexed, I drove further and further down the street, my eyes scanning for somebody. Anybody.

My face flushed and my stomach did a flip. Suddenly, I felt ridiculous. What was I doing? I didn’t have a plan. Who the heck did I think I was?

Ready to give up, I reached the edge of the park and heard it again:

Someone needs you.

Determined, I double-backed and set off for a yet another loop of the park.

That’s when I saw him.

A navy toque covered his curly sandy blond hair, as he rolled his soggy, limp sleeping bag with meticulous care. Two police officers, having just visited his encampment, were making their way up the crest of a small bluff to complete more wake-up calls.

Where does one move along to? Where does one find belonging here?

Once again, I parked the car and waited for the traffic to clear. I crossed the street. The white grocery bag swayed in my hand as I approached him, my heart pounding out of my chest.

Uncertainty barrelled into my thoughts. How would he react? No matter how disadvantaged we find ourselves, we all seek and deserve to conserve our dignity. My intent was pure, but I was fearful of offending him.

“How are you doing? Would you like something to eat?” I offered, tentatively.

“Please…yes. I am so hungry.” His eyes lingered on the contents in the bag and warmth spread across his face.

Relief washed over me, as I was struck with the realization that there something familiar about him.

I asked if he would be willing to share the food with others who might need it, too. Nodding his head, he stood up and motioned to a nearby escarpment behind us. “I have a few friends up there who would appreciate something to fill their bellies this morning.”

Handing him the bag with smile, I turned in the direction of my car. Just as my fingers gripped the coolness of the door’s handle, it hit me.

Indeed, we had met before.

Years ago, he and I had attended the same classes, in the same high-school.

Handfuls of Hope

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“Why would God make me this way?” he threw his hands up exasperated, standing in the middle of the grocery aisle as she stood beside him.

My 84-year-old friend, Kate, a devout Christian, had spotted Sam immediately upon entering the grocery store that day, hunched over as he squinted at the ingredients on a box of cereal.

A resident in her senior’s complex, he had been struggling with presenting his true identity to the world. Born a female, Sam had recently decided to bravely transition in the last act of his life, through hormone therapy, to the man with whom he had always identified.

Adversity was no stranger to Sam. He struggled daily with depression and anxiety. He could be seen frequently breaking down publically, shouting angrily at passers-by from the steps of his apartment. Other residents in Kate’s complex tended to avoid Sam, unable to grapple with the uncertainty and erratic nature of their interactions.

He was often solitary.

He walked alone.

Shopped alone.

Spent every holiday alone.

Kate was always good to him. She made sure to honour and call him by his chosen name. She always acknowledged him in passing.

This day was a little different.

“Oh, I just can’t today,” she thought initially when she saw him standing there. She was exhausted after a long week of medical appointments and the last thing she wanted to do was navigate unpredictable waters with her neighbour. She began to turn on her heel for the opposite direction, to avoid Sam before he could see her.

But, in that moment, something stopped her.

She knew he needed her today.

So, she angled her cart toward Sam, and made her way over to him, greeting him sincerely with a big smile and a friendly “hello.”

He looked up, surprised, then, upon recognizing Kate, his face broke into a wide grin.

As it turns out, it had been a particularly difficult day for Sam. He had been contemplating his identity, struggling with whom he thought he had to be for the world to accept him, questioning his worthiness and existence.

They stood together, for a long time. She listened. He talked. She validated him as he revealed his fears. He felt safe and heard. Sometimes, that is all we seek.

There were tears and even a hug.

Before he turned to go, Sam stopped her suddenly, grasping her hand, “You know, Kate, I was feeling miserable earlier, but after talking to you, I feel…hopeful.”

My 84-year old friend, leaned in a little closer, placing her freckled hand on his shoulder and whispered gently, “God doesn’t make mistakes.”

Giving Thanks for An Unexpected Encounter

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“What beautiful blue eyes!” her voice broke through my thoughts as I waited, admittedly impatient for the sign to invite us to cross the busy road. It was the Saturday of a hectic Thanksgiving weekend, we were set to catch the next ferry to our favourite gulf island, and I had just raced into a nearby pharmacy to buy some necessary supplies to ward off the beginnings of flu season, my blue-eyed-one-year-old strapped to my body.

I had noticed her.  A flat brown mop of hair, swaying slightly, speaking to everyone and no one, gaping darkness where teeth once stood, assaulting the big yellow button repeatedly as she urged the lights to change, so she too, could cross the street.

I had noticed her, but I hadn’t really seen her.

Until she spoke to me.

There exists a distance so expansive between truly seeing people, as they intend to be seen, and accepting the representatives they send forth into the world. First impressions seem easier to comprehend. We allow ambivalence to bubble up somewhere deep inside of us, born from the lack empathic connection. Ambivalence often leads to dehumanization. When we dehumanize people, scary things can happen: incidents of road rage, hateful anonymous comments on the internet, violence, and general indifference to human suffering. We tell ourselves the story that we are not responsible for others, that they have made choices to wind up where they are, that we are powerless to create positive change, and we shrug our collective shoulders, overwhelmed by our own lives, and let ourselves off the hook.

It’s easy to become protectionist, to turn away from that we don’t understand, to write people off based on our assumptions of who they are.

But, when we choose to be witness to the humanity in people, to see people’s truth, to will ourselves to see beyond the confines of their label, beautiful moments abound.

I could have ignored the homeless woman, who took a risk to tell ME how lovely my baby was. The woman who had nothing to give, but gifted me her kindness. On a weekend meant for giving thanks for the abundances we enjoy, I could have refused to speak to her out of fear.

But, I didn’t.

I chose to see her humanity. To hear the kindness in her words. To feel her need for genuine human connection.

I turned to her, looked into her eyes, acknowledged and thanked her authentically, as I would a friend. Her eyes widened, then her face broke out into a smile. I asked how her day was going and listened attentively as she told me.

As the sign turned, indicating that it was finally our turn cross the street, I wished her a heartfelt Happy Thanksgiving.

“Bless you,” she said and grinned before turning and walking away.

The funny thing is, I felt luckier for having met her.

As I walked toward my vehicle, I wrapped my arms around my baby boy, reminded of how incredibly blessed I am.