Monday, December 20, 2010

Choosing Happiness is Good for your Brain

The other day I was at Denver International Airport (DIA) on my way to fly to Jerusalem to visit my sister. I was sitting at a table outside of a coffee shop at the airport enjoying a sandwich before boarding for the first leg of my journey because nowadays you can starve on an airplane.

The upside of being a therapist is that you learn to read people's body language and demeanor. That also is the downside as I couldn't help but notice that the man a few tables away had an interesting facial expression. The corners of his mouth were turned down in a permanent scowl. A few moments later, his wife arrived with their lunch and as I glanced from time to time to look around, not once did I see him smile as they interacted. His wife did not look any happier than he did.

Fast forward to yesterday when I was on a bus with my sister going from her home to downtown Jerusalem. Being on a bus in Jerusalem is not as scary or brave as it sounds. You keep living or the terrorists win. The arrangement of the seats in buses here isn't theater style; half the seats are faced to the front and half are faced to the rear.

Across the bus from me was a woman who was the opposite of the man at DIA. She had a wonderful look of happiness on her face and you could tell from the lines in her face that a slight smile was her natural expression instead of the scowl that the man had.

Before I left for this trip I was in L.A. doing a corporate training where we were teaching an advanced communications course to managers at a major software company. During part of the course we play a segment from the movie, "What the Bleep Do We Know". The movie excerpt illustrates that neural pathways are established when we repeatedly do certain things or express particular emotions. There are chemicals for every emotion and as we express those emotions, neurons move and link, forming new neural pathways.

This process facilitates learning. For example, when we were learning to drive, it took a lot of concentration to steer, brake, park etc. and now we do all that while talking on cellphones, checking our gpses, changing channels and daydreaming. We have established the neural pathways necessary to drive.

Now, back to the man at DIA and the woman on the bus. If I read them correctly, he has well established neural pathways around being miserable (and broadcasting negativity to those around him) and it shows on his face. She has well established pathways of kindness and love and she not only radiated that but her facial expression reflected it.

So it appers to me that choosing happiness not only is good for your brain chemistry, it seems it could also save money on plastic surgery.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Knowing the Difference between "Particular" and "Peculiar": A Key to Reducing Stress at Home and at Work

My wife has a part time weekend job and while she was at work yesterday, I cleaned the kitchen. Part of the job involved unloading the dishwasher and rinsing the dishes to get ready for the next load. I didn’t load the rinsed dishes into the dishwasher. My wife likes doing it her way. I used to see this as “peculiar” and it bugged me but when I shifted to seeing this as her being “particular” my life got a whole lot easier.

My wife is an artist and stacking the dishes efficiently is an art form to her while for me it is a chore that I want to get done as quickly as possible. She clearly does a better job than I do fitting everything in and, by stacking the dishes towards the sprayers as opposed to me jamming them in, the dishes get cleaner. I understand it now and I see her desire to load the dishwasher her way as endearing. We all are particular about almost everything in our lives. I am, for instance, particular about my coffee. I like a certain blend with just the right amount of cream and no sugar. That isn’t peculiar.

How does this play out in our work lives? Among other things, I manage an office building for a wonderful landlord. He wants the tenant rent checks deposited by the 5th of the month. I could see this as peculiar but when he explained that his mortgage payment is due on the 9th and he wants the checks cleared by then, I understood and knew why he was being particular about it. This teaches me that as a manager if I take the time to explain why things are done in a particular way, my co-workers can get on board and judgment and stress goes down. I call this going slowly to go quickly.

How does this play out in parenting? When my son was a teenager, he enjoyed playing his music loudly at times and I had a home office under his bedroom. When he was younger, it worked for a while to tell him to change his behavior “because I said so.” If I continued that stance when he was older, I would have come across as dictatorial and he would have had a peculiar “old man.” He understood if I was working that he could put on headphones or lower the volume and got it that I was being particular for a reason and that I wasn’t being peculiar.

Back along the way I worked for someone who was over the top particular. Everything had to be done a certain way and there wasn’t any rhyme or reason to it. To make matters worse, he was very caustic if I didn’t do it correctly and doing it correctly constantly changed without notice. I quickly came to see that he wasn’t particular, he was peculiar and I quit.

So knowing the difference between “particular” and “peculiar” can help reduce tension. Please note, knowing the difference between the two can also help your relationship with yourself. When I ask myself the question, “Am I being particular in this situation or am I being peculiar?” it can help me modify my behavior and get out of a rut. And finally, a modicum of “peculiar” can be endearing. Those differences are probably part of the foundation for the initial attraction in your primary relationship so try and remember to cut them some slack.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Inner Peace Through Quieting the Inner Critic

As I look back over my 20 years of practice, in the past I would see maybe one or two people a year who were dealing with acute anxiety and panic attacks. Currently I have three clients suffering with this. More than ever there is a need for inner peace as we navigate through challenges such as: uncertain economic times, aging parents, ourselves aging, relationship issues, etc. It is difficult if not impossible to have inner peace as long as our inner critic is screaming at us.

I have found that the ABC's of Inffective Communication are: Accusation, Blame and Criticism. In a corresponding way, I feel that the ABC's of Inffective Self Communication are: Self Accusation, Self Blame and Self Criticism. These are the tools of the inner critic at its worst.

Unless we are in a mode of self destruct, most of us want to remain in our integrity and play our parts effectively in life. At the same time, as we go through life we can adopt limiting beliefs and even self sabotaging programs. These can come through life experiences but they can also set in through messages received from parents, teachers, etc. Here are some examples. “You won’t amount to anything.” “Money is the root of all evil.” “There isn’t enough time in a day.” “True love is hard to find.” You get the picture. These external messages over time can get internalized and eventually they become the voice of the inner critic. For example, "You're so stupid" can become, "I'm so stupid." After all no one else on the planet has witnessed everything we have or haven’t done through life like we have. All of this data, left unchecked can be ammunition in the hands of our inner critic. If we are to move forward effectively, this is a leak that needs to be plugged.

Don't get me wrong, we all need our inner critic. We all need to self reflect on our behaviors, our attitudes and our decisions. What I have grown to see however is that there is a healthy or green zone for the inner critic and there also is a toxic or red zone.

I recently was giving a presentation on the Inner Critic and one of the participants asked for clarification. He said. "In my business, if I find that my numbers are down, I tell myself that I need to focus on marketing." I responded that this would be the inner critic in the healthy or green zone. I went on to illustrate what the inner critic would sound like in the toxic or red zone. In that mode the inner critic would be saying things like, "Your numbers are down; you are going to lose your business. You are lazy and are going to be on the street unless you gear up and do some marketing. I knew you would fail." In the toxic or red zone, the inner critic is using fear and manipulation to motivate us. Not only is that ineffective but over time we can buy into those messages and do significant harm to our self confidence and our relationship with ourselves. Many of us are parents. We would never talk as harshly to our children as we talk to ourselves when we are in the red zone. We don't want our children to feel badly about themselves. We can offer ourselves the same non toxic discipline that we offer to them.

Let’s consider the word “sin.” One of the roots of the word comes from archery and it simply means “missing the mark.” If I attempt to do something and I miss the mark, and my inner critic pounds me with toxic messages in the red zone, I wind up like Biff from the movie “Back to the Future” all covered in manure. In that state, it is difficult, if not impossible to hit the target on the next attempt. By staying in the green zone, we are setting ourselves up for success.

Early in my career, I was the Executive Director of a residential school for troubled teens. We had an expression there that has stuck with me, "You don't beat a willing horse." Chances are you want to play your part and do an excellent job. That being the case, you will respond much better to treating yourself with: unconditional self love, self respect, and positive reinforcement rather than self accusation, self blame and self criticism.

When you notice your inner critic pummeling you, know that this is an ineffective way of getting you to perform. Do what you can to shift the messages to the healthy or green zone. This helps change the inner critic into the inner co-worker.

Copyright © David Pasikov 2010