Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Liberating My Emotional Paralysis

I have been on a journey to understand and crack open the many mysteries of life through the use of audio books focused on positive psychology, behavioral economics, and wellbeing.  With each book, I have listened to the research, explored the real life examples, and reflected on how I can incorporate what I have learned into my life.  I have then looked for opportunities to practice and share what I have learned in an effort to understand and internalize it more deeply.

Last week I finished a wonderful book by Barbara Fredrickson called Positivity.  It is not the best positive psychology book I have listened to in the last couple years, but I found a number of important lessons that are supported by research.  One of her most powerful findings is that in order to flourish in life we need a three to one ratio or higher of positive to negative emotions.  This is not as simple as just deciding to be more happy or less angry, sad, or hurt.  It involves careful consideration about how you frame and live your life.

The book lays out the ten most common positive emotions best understood by research (see list here) and provides proven ideas of how to experience more of each emotion.  One of the best suggestions is to learn to savor your positive experiences.  In the midst of an experience that brings you great positive emotions, think about ways to extend or do more of it.  The research also suggests that the more we analyze positive emotions the more we diminish the positive impact they have on our lives.  The biggest key to increasing your positive emotions is that it must be and feel genuine.  If you try to force yourself to be more positive it will actually result in negative emotions.

The other way to increase your positivity ratio is to decrease your negative emotions.  This is where I made my most powerful discovery.  The idea is not to eliminate negative emotions completely, but to experience less of them over a shorter period of time.  This overlaps with some of the research by BrenĂ© Brown that found that wholehearted people choose to experience both positive and negative emotions rather than practicing numbness. 

Fredrickson found that the real danger is when we ruminate or wallow in negative emotions and allow them to evolve into a destructive downward spiral.  In order to address this, she looked into the research and teachings on mindfulness and meditation.  She recommends that we follow teachings similar to what I discovered in Tuesdays with Morrie (feeling emotions deeply and then transitioning to another place) and recently found in Falling into Grace (the more we try to control our emotions, the more out of control we will feel).

Instead of trying to control our emotions and hopelessly force ourselves to stop feeling what we feel, we can seek to transition our negative emotions into more positive emotions.  Fredrickson recommends doing this with the use of genuine gratitude.  In the midst of an experience that creates negative emotions you can reflect on how that experience might help you achieve something that you genuinely want in your life and express gratitude (internally or externally) for the opportunity to take a step further in that direction.  For example, when my kids frustrate me with their poor behavior I can pause, allowing myself to sit in the moment feeling frustration and acknowledge internally how I am feeling, and then expressing internal feelings of gratitude for the opportunity to learn greater patience that will help me be a better parent.  I genuinely want to learn this type of patience and this negative experience can be framed as an opportunity to get better at it.

It has been amazing how this new approach has allowed me to feel deeply, melt away many of my negative emotions, and end up focused on the positive feelings of genuine gratitude.  I have done this successfully a half dozen times or so over the last week, but yesterday this approach was tested at a new level.  I learned that someone I knew, learned from, and worked with died unexpectedly and left behind many close friends that are also my friends, a partner, and two little girls.  I spent most of the yesterday afternoon in a heartsick trance unable to focus or engage in the world and only was able to reengage through the numbness of distraction.

This morning I tried to put this new approach to work through my feelings around this death.  I gave myself some space to feel deeply the pain of his loss, the worry I have for those impacted by it, and the fear it reinforces in my own mortality and the mortality of those I love.  It was not a comfortable experience, but one that I tried to let wash over me without seeking to control it.  I then went is search for the gratitude that I could find within this awful situation.  I am so grateful that my life was impacted by this person and all that I learned from him.  I am grateful for the impact he had on my teachers and all the learning they have created for me as a result.  I am grateful for how this person made the world a more just place for my children and taught me to help do the same.  I am also deeply grateful for the lessons his unexpected death have taught me about life.  I want to learn to live more in the moment with the people I care about and not take their lives or the time I have with them for granted.  I want to learn that when remarkable people enter your life that it is worth the effort to invest time in them and ask that they invest time in you.

This new approach to keeping my negative emotions from spiraling out of control has not taken away all the pain or fear, but it has allowed me to avoid short and long term paralysis by those and other negative emotions.  I am not sure if this approach will always work, but it has been surprisingly liberating so far.  I have been able to transition my negative feelings into productively positive emotions.  In this positive space I am more motivated to apply the lessons I am learning in my life.  As a result of this person's passing I am going to reach out to some people who I have met and want to get to know further.  If I have any success in these efforts, the pool of my positive emotions will only grow and give me a greater chance at flourishing.

Monday, January 14, 2013

People Listen Because I Am White

There are many reasons by I am passionate about doing social justice education, but only a couple reasons why I am pretty good at it.  Not every facilitation or presentation is a home run, but after years of hard work, dedicated learning, and significant practice most of my efforts are successful.  I do still screw up my fair share, usually due to ego depletion, ignorance, or poor decision making.  When I am at my best as an educator I am informed, engaging, communicating clearly, listening intently, a bit humorous, and displaying vulnerability that the audience can connect with.  The other secret of my social justice education success is that I happen to be white (also Christian-raised, heterosexual, middle class, and  male) and only saying and teaching what member of oppressed populations have been doing since before I was born.

My race, gender, and other dominant identities make it easier and more comfortable for people who share my identities to learn from me.  This is a lesson that I probably first learned from a person of color or woman, but the two people I remember saying it best are white guys: Tim Wise and Dr. Keith Edwards.  That is part of the problem, it is just as likely that they did not say it best or first, but because they are white males I heard it and internalized it differently than if they were women of color or individuals from other oppressed groups.

I am working towards a world where my voice is not provided greater credibility or heard more clearly, but for now it does provide me with an opportunity and responsibility to help create the change I am seeking.  I have the chance to stand with oppressed populations and to be heard, facilitate learning, and impact in powerful ways the hearts and minds of people who look like me.  This is not a responsibility I take lightly nor one that I execute with perfection.  I will likely never stop learning how to wrestle with what it means to be a person with great cultural and institutional privilege who deeply wants to eliminate both.  As a result, I do and say the wrong thing, intentionally and unintentionally gain benefits from my privilege, and sometimes fail to live up to the ideals behind my words and teachings.

I was once again reminded of these realities this week.  While I was in the midst of preparing to spend my tenth Martin Luther King Jr. weekend leading a social justice education retreat with dozens of college students, the video above was shared with me by an African American man I deeply respect.  I had never seen this powerful and thoughtful video before, but I was struck by the presenters honesty and vulnerability.  It In addition to being impacted by what she said and the feelings she expressed, I was struck by the second comment under the video:

"funny how women of colour have been saying these things for decades, but people only pay attention once a white woman says them."
That is exactly right, but in the face of that frustrating reality I am still glad the presenter said what she did because we need as many people as possible, especially white people, to say something and do something about ending the system of oppression in this country.  We also need to be reminded that most of what white educators say and do in the name of justice has been said and done before and that many of us did not listen the first time we heard it from someone who did not look like us.  As I head to my retreat this weekend I will once again be standing on the shoulders of those people of color and others who have come before me, who were no more or less human or imperfect than me, but whose voice was probably not heard in the ways mine is.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Fatherhood: The Changing Dream

Being the father of two bi-racial girls has been the most amazing, rewarding, and challenging experience of my life.  In many ways, I am sure my experience is no different than most parents.  I get tremendous joy out of watching them grow, laugh, and learn and reach breaking points when my emotional capacity is tested by their poor youthful decision making and behaviors.  What is different for me than some people is that I am white and my daughters are black.

Navigating this difference has been a huge part of my parenting experience.  It actually started before I had found a partner or became a father.  I have long dreamed of being a parent, but the daydreams of my future children always involved white children.  They did not have faces or names, but their race was pretty clear.  I had not ruled out partnering with a woman of color or having children of color, but that never factored into my parenting daydreams.  It was not until I fell in love with their mother that I started to change my mental picture.  That change initially created a great deal of stress for me.  Part of the daydream of having children is that they will look like you, but this new daydream involved children who would racially look anything but like me.  I am not sure if it is right or wrong, but I mourned the loss of that original daydream for a period of time.

My girls not looking like me has been regular source of challenge, growth, and learning for me.  When it is just me and one or both of them out in public we sometimes get stares or looks of curiosity.  This is not shocking as we are not something folks in the Minnesota suburbs see everyday.  It rarely bothers me as I am sure I have also gazed curiously at other people that did not fit the narrative I had in my head at that moment.  I do wonder if my girls also notice those looks and what, if any, meaning they make of the situation.

The most difficult element of parenting has been how their environment is already teaching them that being white is better than being black (or bi-racial).  I have actually never heard someone say that to them and they certainly have not heard that at home, but it is clear they are getting the message.  When my oldest daughter was four she started to complain about her brown curly hair and wished she had straight hair like me and the white girls in her preschool.  She also repeatedly said that she wanted skin like my mother and I.  Last week was the first day her younger sister, now also four, mentioned that she wished she had hair like me and the white girls in her class and pointed out that she, her sister, and mom are the only brown people in a vacation picture of my extended family.  At the age of four both of my girls not only noticed how they are different, but have also assigned meaning to that difference that white is better than black.  This video captures this experience is a very powerful way, the part from the middle on is like a punch to the gut.

Intellectually, this is not surprising and is even expected.  Before meeting my partner and becoming a parent I read a powerful book called The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism.  A group of researchers studied a large multiracial childcare facility to better understand what children know about race and the meaning they make of racial difference.  Their findings were powerful and shocking.  At the ages of 3, 4, and 5 kids already understood racial difference and status very clearly.  It was better, cleaner, and smarter to be white.  One small child of color was found trying to wash the brown off their skin.  A white child was heard using the N word in appropriate context.  When the parents were brought in to discuss the N word situation, the childcare providers asked them what is happening at home that this child would use that word and the shocked parents asked the childcare providers what is happening at the daycare center that their child would use that word.  Just like with my daughters, there is no obvious monster teaching this stuff to them.  Kids are sponges that soak up what the culture gives them through watching adults, institutions, media, and peer interactions.  The culture sends a very clear message, even in 2013, that being white is much better than being anything else, including being black.

Why this happens is no mystery, but is certainly complicated.  What to do when this happens is another question completely.  In the moment, I try to reassure my daughters that they are beautiful and wonderful the way they are and that people actually want to look like them.  People spend hundreds of dollars a year on curling their hair and darkening their skin, which does bring them some comfort.  While this is true, I also know that if getting perms and tanning resulted in being treated like a person of color in this society that neither would be very popular for white people.  As my oldest daughter has aged we have started to discuss racism and racial difference in greater cultural context.  This is a difficult task.  The conversation needs to be developmentally appropriate and is designed to help her understand the world, but not create a self-fulfilling dynamic of feeling powerless or less than regarding the world around her.

I love being the father to my children.  I love every part of who they are including their hair and race.  What I do not love is the messages they receive about their race from the world around them.  It is also not lost on me that my siblings and white friends who have children are allowed to have very different conversations with their children around race and might avoid conversations like the ones I have.  I do not resent that, but it is part of what makes our journeys as parents very different, much different than the journey I dreamed of having.  The beauty of life is that you are allowed more than one dream and now all of my dreams involve my beautiful daughters getting as much joy, happiness, and fulfillment out of their lives as possible and me doing whatever I can to help make that happen.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Trouble With Being Authentic

Until yesterday, I was certain that being authentic was a virtue to be admired and respected.  Lets be clear, I still value honesty and integrity in people.   I am not looking to be lied to, deceived, manipulated, or told only what I want to hear.  When you look up what it means to be authentic, the desirable words that come back are “real,” “genuine,” and “true.”  What challenged my thinking yesterday is the notion that someone can be authentic and still be harmful, hurtful, and destructive.  One person’s version of being authentic could lead to another person’s frustration or pain and damage their relationship.

I have recently read some books from the field of Behavioral Economics such as Thinking, Fast and Slow and Nudge.  They provide a fountain of foundational research on how the mind works.  In short, most of our automatic reactions to situations are based on habits that have been developed over significant periods of time.  These habits can sometimes be temporarily overcome by slowing down and being extra thoughtful in how we respond to situations, but our minds only have so much daily capacity to slow down and focus.  When the daily tank is empty or our required reaction time does not allow for thoughtful response, what we provide is an unfiltered and less thoughtful automatic and habitual response.  This is what many might call an authentic response.
The problem is that our authentic instincts are littered with damaging cognitive bias and polluted by habitual reactions developed during less mature, thoughtful, and understanding times in our lives.  Just because it is your authentic response does not mean it is appropriate or helpful.  In fact, I would argue based on issues of cognitive bias that the more measured and thought out your reaction or response, the better it will probably be.
Part of what convinced me that my own authentic response to situations may be lacking is the research that exists about the best way to respond to other people’s good news.  Studies indicates that most of our responses fall into one of four categories (see chart below).  The problem is that only one approach, Active Constructive, actually strengths a relationship between two people.  The other three approaches actually damage the existing relationship.  If you have ever had a great day at work or accomplished an important goal it is likely that you have shared that story with someone else and experienced one or more of the three undermining responses.  It is also likely that the response you received was authentic and the other person was unaware of the impact their response would have on you.  Until I learned this information about the best way of responding to good news, I am certain I frequently provided damaging responses.  Moving forward, even if it goes against my first authentic instincts, I intend to try to provide an Active Constructive response to good news as strengthening the relationships in my life is more important than sharing my habitual, and often unproductive, authentic responses.
Ways of Responding (S. Gable, et al)
Active Constructive
Enthusiastic support, drawing out the speaker by asking questions and engaging positively about the good news.
“That’s great news! Tell me more.”
Active Destructive
Quashing the event, looking immediately for the negative or worst case situation.
“That means more stress or new problems for you. I don’t envy you.”
Passive Constructive
Quiet, low-energy support.
“That’s nice.”
Passive Destructive
Ignoring the event, changing focus to self.
“Listen to what happened to me.”
I have recently come to understand based on research that while many of our behaviors and personality traits are habitual and stable, this does not mean they are completely static and impossible to change in the long term and overcome with extra effort in the short term.  In many cases, we are unaware of the ways our authentic self can be damaging to ourselves and others.  Another example of this for me is my reaction when my children engage in frustrating behavior.  My authentic and automatic response is to express and show my anger, but this is often the least developmental or productive response to the situation.  I am now committed in all environments of my life to understanding as deeply as possible the impact I have on others and when I discover that my authentic or automatic self is not working, I intend to invest some of my limited mental capital in trying to do it better until new more positive authentic habits can be formed.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Newtown: The Whole Conversation

Yesterday was an exceptionally difficult day.  Rarely have I felt such a range of powerful emotions over the course of a short period of time.  It started with shock and disbelief, quickly transitioned to tears and sadness, was followed by anger and frustration, and was topped off by love and compassion.  Since going down that emotional path, I have revisited each stop several times.

The visceral response to the Newtown mass shooting quickly connected to longstanding thoughts and emotions around the impact of guns in our culture.  Guns are the easiest and quickest thing to blame and that is where my energy went fairly quickly yesterday.  I was not alone.  My Facebook and Twitter feeds were filled with outrage, snark, disbelief, and anger about guns.  I even felt compelled to post on Facebook that I simply hate guns.  Today it seems that many people are hopeful and insistent that this incident will finally lead to a change in our gun laws, but I would suggest that is simply not enough.

Early last night my mind started to shift around what happened yesterday and so many days before it.  My friend and national higher education voice around masculinity Dr. Keith Edwards liked and shared a number of facts, opinions, and statements from others in his Facebook feed bringing attention to cultural norms and socialization around violence for men in this country.  This started off an avalanche of thought and exploration for me around this topic (another exciting Friday night).

I found many great sources, but the most helpful was an FBI overview of murders in 2010 (here).  It found that approximately 90% of murders where the assailant is known were committed by men.  Nearly 2/3 of those murders were committed with a firearms.  When it comes to sexual assault, the findings are once again stark:

Most perpetrators of sexual violence are men. Among acts of sexual violence committed against women since the age of 18, 100% of rapes, 92% of physical assaults, and 97% of stalking acts were perpetrated by men. Sexual violence against men is also mainly male violence: 70% of rapes, 86% of physical assaults, and 65% of stalking acts were perpetrated by men.

The same source also shared this finding, "access to firearms yields a more than five-fold increase in risk of intimate partner homicide when considering other factors of abuse."  The main problem here is sexual violence against anyone, but we know that women are disproportionally the targets.  Males are clearly responsible for the vast majority of this violence.  Guns appear to be like gasoline poured on a fire, making sexual violence more deadly and explosive.  

When it comes to the significant number of domestic mass shootings that I have seen in my lifetime, I did not need to do any research to know that they were committed by men.  I have seen their faces on my television year after year following each incident.  The original sin in all this is violence, not guns.  The super majority of violent sinners are male.  That is the conversation we need to have and based on my countless hours of television watching the last two days it is the conversation almost no one in the mainstream media seems to have found yet.

This is not to say that the rush to have gun conversations is unimportant or irrelevant.  In a strange move in order to prove that people, not guns, kill people, many in the pro-gun movement cited an incident in China yesterday in which a man slash and injured 22 children at a school (here).  The point being made seemed to be that getting rid of guns does not get rid of violence.  I could not agree more, but the key difference between what happened in China and Connecticut is the use of guns.  In China, one man was able to slash and injure 22 children, but killed no one.  In Connecticut, one man was able to kill 20 children and 6 adults.  The choice of weapon does matter, a lot.  Knifes can be used for deadly violence, but are highly inefficient, easier to defend against and flee, and easier to survive in mass situations.  Guns are more deadly, more efficient at killing, and more difficult to defend or flee.

A deadly combination in this country appears to be violence + men + guns.  I would also suggest the priority of conversations that we need to have should be in that same order or at least all happening at the same time.  Where does this violence come from?  How are we raising our boys and men? How does the culture, institutions, and media feed this connection?  I am sure violent movies and video games play some role, but I suspect it goes much deeper than that.  How do boys and men deal with conflict, emotions, and frustration? Do we allow men to be vulnerable and experience life outside of male gender norms?

As you can see, I have few answers.  I just want to be sure we are asking and talking about the right questions.  Where does this violence come from in our culture?  What is it about our culture that causes violence of all types and scale to be committed mostly by men?  As for guns, I think we should also ask questions about how they make violence more deadly, effective, and larger in scale.  The rush to conversation and possible action around gun control feels good, but if that is as far as we go, we probably will have done little to prevent mass shootings and other types of violent acts from being committed again in the future.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Seeking Control in the Strangest Places

Those who find significant elements of their lives to be out of control tend to seek control in some of the strangest places.  This is one of the most important personal and professional observations I have made over the last few years.  I have seen it at home, at work, in myself, and in others.  It is in these moments that the actions of the powerless become a confusing mystery to those unaware of what is really going on.

This truth has taught me to pause in the face of unexplainable controlling behavior and wonder compassionately what is going on for the other person.  Earlier in my life, when I saw someone holding on too tight over the smallest detail or trying in great desperation to control the actions of others, I use to only stand in judgement.  As hard as I now try to be compassionate and patience with those struggling with control, sometimes I fall short in this department.  It is not a lack of empathy or understanding for their situation, but an inability to see past the negative impact of their controlling behaviors on my life.  On my best days I try to remember what it is like to feel out of control and how irrational I have been in those moments.  I want to provide the compassion for others that I would want to receive myself.

My experiences with loss of control tend to come most in the area of parenting.  There are few aspects of life that can feel as out of control as trying to positively shape the lives of your kids.  When things are not going as planned or my patience is fried, I sometimes find myself in the midst of seeking to control some of the strangest things.  A normal moment of child resistance can turn into a battle royal.  I might try too hard to control the actions of a friend or someone at work.  I lose perspective in terms of meaning and importance in other areas of my life.

The next time you notice someone, including yourself, engaging in what seems like unexplained controlling behavior, you may want to pause and explore whether some other part of life is out of control.  There may be very little that can be done to help restore control, but at least we can show compassion and understanding, especially when the strange behavior is coming from ourselves.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Putting "Off the Record" On the Record

You may have heard (newspaper story here) that a couple of white students at the University of Minnesota Duluth posted an online video (below) of themselves wearing dark brown facial cream mimicking black racial stereotypes.  In emails to the newspaper the students claimed that the facial masks required being left on for twelve minutes and they made the video as a way to kill time.  One student noted, "This video does not define our true selves at all," while the other student said, "That video does not define who we are… it was accidental… we did not intend to hurt anyone with it."

White college students mimicking people of color with offensive racial stereotypes seems more common than ever.  A simple Google search of "college party black face" brings a flood of stories about this happening.  It would be easy to say all of these students are horrible racists and stop the conversation there.  While their behavior is no doubt racism in action, I believe there is something more happening here.

This country is plagued by a dirty little secret that happens far too often to be considered much of a secret.  When homogeneous groups of people with cultural power and privilege get together (white people, males, heterosexuals, people of financial means, etc.), they sometimes engage in "off the record" conversations, jokes, and mimicry of people of color, women, gays, and poor people respectively.  It takes on such forms as male locker room talk, the use of fake accents, and mimicry as seen in the video below.

Many of the people who engage in these "off the record" moments are very mindful and supportive of diversity when others are looking.  In fact, they might go so far as to be outraged or even confront offensive public comments made by others.  They would never want to see anyone they know or see be hurt by prejudice or oppression.  So, why do they engage in these types of "off the record" conversations?

Anyone who was born in and grew up in this country has been bombarded with racial, gender, class, and other stereotypes constantly since they were born.  These messages are conveyed through media, families, schools, religious institutions, workplaces, and peer groups.  Most of us are also slowly taught by the same environments and institutions that these messages are false and to respect all areas of human diversity, but unfortunely the negative reinforcement is often much stronger and more frequent.  By the time we reach young adulthood, most people are intellectually on board with, for example, racial and gender equality, but have been socialized with deep and often unconscious beliefs that people of color and women are inferior to whites and males respectively.

Holding these uncomfortable feelings back, which most people recognize is the right thing to do, takes a great deal of energy and work as they can slip out at unexpected times (cut off by somone in traffic, behind an "annoying" person in the checkout line, etc.).  In "safe" homogeneous environments, people relax their filters and these socialized feelings towards others tend to bubble out more freely and evolve into "off the record" conversations.  Even in these situations, some participants in "off the record" conversations feel uncomfortable with the conversation, but they believe everyone else is okay with it and begrudgingly go along for the ride.

As a straight, white, middle class, male I have had countless moments where someone with one or more matching identities has tested me to see if I am a safe person for them to have an "off the record" exchange with.  I have also seen these conversations break out in numerous environments and have reacted with both action and disappointing inaction.  As I reflect back on my life I also know that I have participated in more than a few "off the record" conversations, many of which I did not want to be a part of.

What these two women did in making this video was awful and they deserve to be held accountable for their actions by the school and society.  I am sure there are people of color, especially on that campus, who are rightfully frustrated, hurt, and without much room for forgiveness having seen this type of thing all too many times before.  That said, I think we must save some of our scorn for the culture at large that has done similar things, but is not foolish enough to videotape and post their "off the record" conversations online.  This includes many of us who claim to be "good people" who are deeply supportive of diversity and against discrimination and oppression, but sometimes look the other way or reluctantly participate in "off the record" moments.  To put all of the focus on how horrible these students are takes away any responsibility the rest of us might have to address roles we have played in the "off the record" conversations in our lives.