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Self-compassion gets tested daily

Testing one, two, testing….did you take the test, the self-compassion test yet?  There is a link to it in the last blog.  It’s true there is an actual test, 26 questions to determine if you are low, moderate or high in compassion for yourself.  The reason to know is that there are health implications.  Folks that score high are more optimistic and happier with less anxiety and depression.  And they make healthier lifestyle choices about food consumption and issues of weight loss.

This makes perfect sense to me although it may be contrary to popular pundit opinion.  Why? Self acceptance is the beginning of change.  Accepting the actual reality of our common humanity means letting go of perfectionism to appreciate the wonder of our common beauty as we are.  Sure, maybe you do need to lose some weight.  But you don’t have to beat yourself up about it to lose it.  In fact, beating yourself up may have just the opposite effect.  The belittling self talk only makes you feel bad about yourself and more likely to then use food as a medicative behavior for those bad feelings.

Dr. Kristin Neff, who came up with the test, makes the point clearly.  She said that the reason many folks aren’t scoring higher is cultural.  ”Most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says being hard on yourself is the way to be.”

I had a patient who was overweight who came in to see me and I noted that she looked great.  It was clear she had lost weight.  I asked her how and she said something that fits in this discussion.  She told me about standing naked in front of a mirror and looking for long periods at her image.  Her goal was to love and accept the person looking back at her in the mirror.  The better she got at doing that, the more she made healthier choices and the more weight she lost.

Here’s Dr. Neff, “if you care about yourself, you do what’s healthy for you rather than what’s harmful to you.”

The NY Times article, 3/1/11, says a much shorter test can get at some of what we are talking about here relative to self-compassion.  It’s just one question.  Do you treat yourself as well as you treat folks you care about, your friends and family?  If you do, great.  If not, start.  You’re worth it.  And you’ll lead a healthier life while infecting friends and family by example.

Guard Duty

I’d like to follow up the juggling act with one of its implications.  What you have learned in the past not only hinders learning something new, like juggling, it keeps you from being able to relax, kick back, let your hair down and chill.

Remember that juggling is a great metaphor for learning.  Meaning that the final common pathway of learning is mistake making.  And you cannot learn how to juggle without making many mistakes, albeit small ones and making corrections over and over.  You must recognize that dropping the balls is required prior to keeping them in the air.  When you have dropped them enough AND LEARNED THROUGH THAT MISTAKE MAKING PROCESS you have earned earn right to be a juggler.

Part of normal not being healthy is that we do not honor the mistake making process.  WHY?  Because of what we learned early in our lives.

When we made mistakes, did things wrong growing up, we learned something else.  We learned to feel bad about ourselves “Bad boy, bad girl, aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”  So we learned mistakes are to be avoided otherwise we get in trouble and feel ashamed.

When a child makes a mistake and is corrected it is often without warmth. “What’s wrong with you?  If I’ve told you once I’ve told you a thousand times…”.

Gee, he’s told me a thousand times.  I must really be stupid!

The grownup ends up reinforcing two things.  The first is that mistakes have a very negative emotional charge.  Second, the mistake maker is not capable, is inadequate.  It’s not just that one does something wrong.  There is something wrong with him/her!  “What’s wrong with you?”

Hence, our best kept secret, the “scared one”, that part of us that has feelings of inadequacy, is born.  So the way to keep the secret is to not do anything wrong, don’t make any mistakes lest others find you out.  Don’t misspeak yourself.  Don’t risk failing.  Stay safe doing the expected and performing it well.  Be the one with the right answer in school.  And better yet, be first with that right answer.

Being fast with that hand in the air, fast with the right answer, compensates for those feelings of inadequacy.  Thus, you prove your mettle to the assembled, both class and teacher.   Alas, it’s not enough to make those feelings retreat forever.

You have to stand guard.  You always have to be on your toes, constantly vigilant, for to drop your guard is to risk the breeching of your perimeter.  Then they’ll know “what’s wrong with you.”

Being constantly vigilant is to be chronically stressed.  Therefore, you can’t relax.  Well, you could, but you don’t, save for the times you are with that small contingent of others with whom it is safe to be your imperfect, ball-dropping self.




The Secret of Juggling


Part Nine

I mentioned last time that while I am still in development, I did finish a book entitled, “Why Normal Isn’t Healthy.”  Part of normal not being healthy is that we all share a secret that we don’t discuss.  That secret being that we all have feelings of inadequacy and insecurity we don’t want others to know about.  The part of us that carries those feelings I have named the “scared one.”

Last time, I discussed a personal example of the “scared one’s” effect on the book project.  I’d like to continue to explore how our secret affects our development.  Or, another way to say it, how our “scared one” hinders our growth toward emotional maturity, health and wholeness.

First, a question: how many of you have tried to juggle?  I’m not talking schedules or “the books” but objects.  How many of you have tried, at some point in your life, to juggle 3 balls or other like objects in the air?  When I ask this question to groups of people, about 80% to 90% of folks acknowledge such attempts.  But when I ask, “How many of you have learned how to juggle?” Only a small per cent mastered the skill. 


            When I ask why, respondents tell me things like:

            “Poor hand-eye coordination…”

            “I don’t know.  I tried it and I just can’t do it…”

            “I’ve never been good at sports…”

            “It wasn’t that important…”

            “No one taught me…”

            “It’s a kid thing…and I’m an adult…”

Let me tell you what I think.  The people that try to juggle and don’t learn the skill, approach the learning from a normal, but not healthy perspective.  They attempt the new behavior because something about it interests them.  They think, “Gee, I wonder if I can do that?  It looks like fun.”

They try for a brief time to see if they can do it.  And they fail.  How does it feel trying and failing at any task?  It doesn’t feel very good.  Why?  To begin with, we learned, “If you can’t do it right, don’t do it at all.”  And we're obviously not doing it right!

It doesn’t feel good for two related reasons.  First, we are not doing it right and second, the “scared one” risks being seen as inadequate when we fail.  So when we try something new and we’re not a “natural,” we don’t “get it” right away, it reinforces our feelings of inadequacy.

We try, fail, and feel bad failing.  So, how can we stop feeling bad?  Easy.  Stop trying the thing that causes the bad feelings.  We don’t persist because there is no pay-off in dropping the balls over and over and over.  We tried and learned, “I can’t juggle.”  Why continue when we already know, “I just can’t do it?”

It’s interesting how we use the word can’t.  The contraction of ‘can not’ almost implies no fault, no accountability, no responsibility.  I wonder if we often use that word in the place of “won’t.”  This contraction carries a different quality of energy, a quality of ownership, of responsibility.

To me, it says I’m not willing to (will not) suffer through the learning that is required to have the skill.  It isn’t that I “can’t” (can not), it’s actually that I “won’t” (will not) pay the price to earn the learning.

This brings me to juggling.  Juggling is a wonderful metaphor for learning and for a life of learning. 

What is the secret of juggling?  You don’t earn the right to have the skill unless you sustain your effort and fail enough to “get it!”

How long do you have to drop the balls before you learn to keep them in the air?  Just long enough.  When you’ve dropped them enough you don’t drop them any more!  You “get it.” 

Our problem is that we compare ourselves with others, and see how quickly they “get it.”  And in comparison to them, we feel uncoordinated and inadequate.  That feels bad.  The “scared one” risks exposure as an inadequate person, simply because it takes some people longer to “get it.”

Well, what if we change the game?  What if we decide that it isn’t important how fast we learn something?  What if we slow down?  What if we quit comparing and competing with others?  What would change? 

There would be a conservation of our energy making more energy available for learning.  Why?  Energy follows attention.  If you are attending to the other jugglers, and wanna-be jugglers, while you are attempting to learn, your energy is invested unwisely.  STOP for a moment.  Put down the balls.  Multitasking drains energy and slows down learning. 

Shine the flashlight of your attention on someone who has learned.  Watch to see what they are doing.  Then pick up the balls anew and try what you saw them do.  You get a much better return on your energy investment.  Energy expended on what they are doing while you are trying, splits your attention and your energy. So less is available for you to use to learn the new skill. 

Having less energy to utilize, you quickly get tired and frustrated.  Saying, “I quit!  I just can’t do it!” 

Whoa, slow down.  We’ve all been there.  It’s OK.  And, don’t quit.  Just take a break.  Change your mindset by adding “yet” at the end of the sentence.    I just can’t do it yet!

The best way to conserve energy is to focus on your own process.  Make the competition ‘you with you.’  Eliminate the external reference by attending to the task at hand.  And when the “scared one” starts to say self defeating phrases, stop the chatter.

Because we have feelings of inadequacy, doesn’t mean we’re inadequate.

By attending to my own negative internal dialogue, I have the energy to stop the noise that creates interference in the learning process.  Then I can change the conversation.  For example:

“I know you.  You’re scared because that’s your nature.  You bought the standard line.  ‘If you can’t do it right, don’t do it at all.’  It’s normal, but not healthy to feel that way.  It’s not healthy because you’ll never try anything new if you have to do it right the first time.

“Let me assure you that failing doesn’t mean you are a failure.  I know you have trouble with this concept.  That’s your nature.  Although I honor your need to see the world as you do, I cannot, and I will not let it hinder my learning.”

By dealing directly with the “scared one,” we keep him/her in check so that we can drop the balls as much as we need to learn to juggle.   Remember it isn’t so important how quickly we learn.  What is important is what we do with what we learn and to know that we can learn anything.

I learned to juggle in medical school.  It was one of the things I did to de-stress, to relax.  As you might guess, medical school puts a huge emphasis on ‘doing it right.’  The pressure is continuous.  Competition fierce.  There are multiple opportunities daily to have your feelings of inadequacy reinforced.  It’s not exactly a healthy environment for learning.

I learned to juggle three balls.  Then I learned to pass.  That’s what it’s called when jugglers play catch or juggle back and forth to each other.  Anyway, I had a lot of fun alone as well as juggling with others.

Then my wife got me juggling clubs.  Imagine the scene.  It’s Christmas.  All four daughters watch as I open the special present.

“Oh, boy.  New toy!”  And I immediately begin to throw the juggling clubs.  Guess what?  I couldn’t juggle them.  It’s always fun failing in front of the little ones, isn’t it?   Guess how I felt?  Could it be . . . inadequate?  Yep, I was pretty embarrassed and went off to practice. 

Was I going to practice in public or private?  Right, in private.  Why in private?  Because no one would see me failing over and over.

So, I went limping off to practice in private when I had an ‘ah ha’ experience.   I remembered my own BLEF system.  BLEF (I never was much of a speller.)

[B]  I believe that anything I do, I can do Better.  Myself, all of us are underachievers relative to what we are capable of doing.

[L]  If I am willing to Learn, there isn’t anything I can’t do better.  And there isn’t anything I can’t learn.

[E]  But I Earn my learning the old fashioned way by . . .

[FFailing enough to “get it.”  The final common pathway of learning is mistake making.  We earn our learning one mistake at a time.

No, I didn’t want to practice in private.  I wanted to practice in public.  I wanted my kids to see me fail over and over and not quit.  I wanted them to see me get frustrated, but persist until I finally learned how to juggle the clubs.  And that’s what I did.

Remember my line, “I’m slow, but trainable.” Others may be quicker on the uptake.  But, there’s nothing I can’t learn if I’m willing to fail enough to eventually “get it.”

How about you?  What is it you’ve decided you can’t do?  What is it you tried and failed at, that caused you to lose belief in yourself?  Perhaps you might revisit that experience and see if it looks different from a juggler’s perspective.






1370 words



OUR BEST KEPT SECRET A Real Life Example of “Why Normal Isn’t Healthy”

 I started writing a book in 1989. The title is “Why Normal Isn’t Healthy.” I didn’t finish writing and publishing that book until many years later. Why?  Not finishing means not risking. If I finish the book, someone might read it! Then I risk others rejecting the ideas presented. And that rejection, that potential criticism, would be taken personally! Having my feelings of inadequacy reinforced feels so bad that I sabotage completion. If I kill the book I slay those feelings before they occur in reality.

My ‘scared one’ plays out worst case scenarios to avoid exposure to rejection. I stay safe by not finishing the book. Then no one can read it to find out how stupid, unoriginal, banal and superfluous I am. That’s a perfect example of ‘why normal isn’t healthy’. My ‘scared one’ will avoid risk-taking and, thereby, the anxiety inherent with the risk.

Risk management to the ‘scared one’ means to avoid being seen as a flop or a failure in the eyes of the world. By not finishing the book, or certain other projects, for that matter, I decrease my exposure. Playing out the rejection in my imagination reinforces my feelings of inadequacy. “Why should anyone read this book? There are so many good books out there already. What makes me think I have anything to add?!”

As a risk manager, my ‘scared one’ downsizes risk by presenting reason after reason to put off completion: “It will be so hard to organize my material in a concise way for the reader. Besides it will take away from other fun stuff that I really enjoy.”

And when sitting down to write, to work through the internal resistance the ‘scared one’ creates, distraction is always one thought away: “You know, I think I’ll get something to eat.” or “Look at that floor. I can’t believe its so dirty. If the floor were cleaner, I could write better.” or “I need some exercise. Yea, that’s the ticket. I’ll write better, concentrate better after I work out and shower.”

The irony of it is, that the ‘scared one’ is endlessly creative in the distractions he presents to keep me from the task. He will map out detour after detour to avoid reaching the end. And then, to add insult to injury, he says: “You really are pathetic! You’ll never finish that book. You’ve been blowing smoke for years. Why don’t you just forget it!” It’s a perfect example of ‘why normal isn’t healthy.’

It’s normal to let the ‘scared one’ drive the engine of the psyche. It’s normal to be grateful for the detours s/he provides from the anxiety inherent in risk-taking, in doing the new behavior. But, if I am aware of this tendency in myself to sabotage what’s best for my development, for my health, I can watch. I can pay attention. I can see when I am being my own worst enemy. And, my energy follows my attention.

Paying attention, energy is then available to deal with the ‘scared one.’ In a metaphorical sense, I reach over, turn off the engine, and take the keys. “I know you. I know what you’re trying to do. You’re the ‘scared guy’ and you’re anxious about exposure. You don’t want to stick your neck out, ever. It’s too risky, too scary. So, I have to stop you now. I’m taking over. I’m going to drive now. You get in the back seat. I know you’re anxious and I honor that by feeling scared too. However, I’m going to act in spite of my fear.

I’m not going to allow that anxiety to keep me from standing up for myself and expressing how I think and feel. I believe Kirkegaard was right, anxiety is our best educator. I’m not going to allow anxiety to keep me from new learning.” Part of ‘normal not being healthy’ is that I can be my own worst enemy. If I can be my own worst enemy, I can also be my own best friend.

Because I have feelings of inadequacy doesn’t mean I’m inadequate. Because I have a risk-averse ‘scared one’ inside doesn’t mean I have to avoid risk. But it does require that I am awake to the workings of my own psyche so that I can watch when the ‘scared one’s’ attempts at self-sabotage appear. Energy follows attention! By paying attention, I have the energy to deal with this internal terrorist and disarm him. It doesn’t require being judgmental or critical.

I don’t have to beat myself up because I have a ‘scared guy.’ He will always be present and play his ‘scared guy’ role in the movie of my life. But he doesn’t have control of my performance. He will make appearances, but if I’m paying attention to my life; to my thoughts, to my feelings, to my behavior, to my body, to my health and to my relationships, I’ll see him pop up.

If I fall asleep at the wheel, and the ‘scared one’ takes over, it is really helpful to have a supportive community of friends to hold up a mirror and reflect back to me the image of the ‘scared one’ at the controls. Their care and concern lovingly nudges me to wakefulness. Fully alert, I see the situation with clarity.

By paying attention, energy flows differently: “Ah ha! I see you clearly now. Your turn is over. Give me the keys, get in the back seat, shut up and hang on! We’re gonna have an adventure. Life can’t be an adventure without risk. And with risk comes anxiety. But, remember Kirkegaard’s comment that anxiety is also the dizziness of freedom. Yahoo!!”

Part of ‘normal not being healthy’ is that some people, even people who love us, people in our own families, don’t know how to give healthy support. When we’re too scared to jump, they belittle us, thereby reinforcing our feelings of inadequacy. Or they push and push and push us over the edge. Their energy was required for the leap, so they take the credit. “Well, you wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t been there.  So we relearn what the ‘scared one’ never forgot. I’m inadequate. But that’s not true.  It's a con. Because we have feelings of inadequacy doesn’t mean we’re inadequate !

Of course, another aspect of ‘why normal isn’t healthy’ is that to even ask for help or support means to risk being seen that way. “Need some help?” “Nope, I can handle it.” It’s also normal, but not healthy for some people to think that supporting us means to help us stay stuck where we are with a friend. “You know, I think I’ll just forget about doing that stupid book. It’s so hard to fit it in with the other work I’m doing. Besides, everything’s already been said before. Why say it again?”

“Yea, you’re probably right. Why stress yourself? I’ve got tickets to the basketball game. Let’s go have some fun.” Or “Yea, I know what you mean. Say, why don’t we go to the shore this weekend. We’ll put on some steaks, drink some martinis, smoke some fine Cuban cigars and relax. No one reads books anymore, anyway.” It’s normal, but not healthy, for some friends to tell us what we want to hear. And let’s face it, a lot of what the ‘scared one’ is hoping for is a helper, a friend to support us in taking the detour away from risk-taking exposure.  “Whew, I’m off the hook!” I think to myself, “that sounds great.” I say out loud.

“But wait,” you say, “I don’t feel inadequate.” “That’s great!” But let me ask you something. Why are you running around doing project after project? Why do you have lists of lists or projects? There is the immediate list. Then the long-term list and of course, the list of what to do if you can’t find any other list. Compulsively ‘doing.’ You’re always so busy. What is your busyness all about?

Wouldn’t you admit that much of the economic wealth in this country is built by people running full speed trying to prove how adequate they are? In fact, we’ve built a country that provides an opportunity for others to come and prove it also. If not, what are they and we trying to prove? Could it be that if you get enough done, complete enough projects, serve on enough committees, you will finally reach that critical mass of accomplishment to establish once and for all that you are adequate?!

Or even better, superior!! Superior. Interesting concept. It surpasses adequate as the next level of value. A superior piece of workmanship is worth more than something merely adequate. In fact, the adequate job is now inferior by comparison. So, superior is better. Having a car made with superior engineering costs more because of the added value of the design, etc.

Driving that car gives the driver a leg up on the other guy in the five year old compact car. It makes a statement to the world of our value, because we can afford it. And, admit it, we feel just a little superior and they may, who knows, feel just a little inferior as they compare vehicles.Our homes, our yards, condos, apartments, cars, boats, clothes, kids, schools, jobs, lifestyles, bodies, mates, friends, clubs, memberships, vacations, and yes, cigars, tell the world where we are on the value scale:

Inferior – - – - – - > Superior.

We constantly compare and compete. Paying attention to these matters we have energy for them. Part of ‘normal not being healthy’ is that we spend large amounts of money on appearances, on the surface of things. “Well, why not? You only have one chance to make a first impression.” Exactly. If your concern is with your image in the eyes of the world, that’s normal. And if your concern is on making a better impression, that makes perfect sense. Improve and enhance.The ‘fix’ only requires money and the things money can buy. It’s normal, but it’s a trap, a money trap. And you never have enough.

That’s not what really moves me or what we’ve been exploring. An investment of money is not required to carry forward our premise. What is required is an energy investment. And, an interest in exploring what it means to be a fully human person, functioning from a center that makes us unique and distinct, while also connected to the larger family of humanity.

“Even if you don’t know what you want, buy something, to be part of the exchanging flow. Start a huge, foolish, project, like Noah. It makes absolutely no difference what people think of you.” (Rumi)

The ‘scared one’ be damned. Let’s kick it into gear and bust out of the confining limits and safe habor of the status quo. The question then becomes, what “huge, foolish project” is only mine to do? Maybe I’m the project and the book a little ship.

“No. Thanks, for asking. But I really want to work on this book. I’ve been putting off finishing it for years. I know it would be fun, but it will be more satisfying for me to finish what I started. So long.”

The book is finished. I’m still working on me.

From Scared One to Sacred One

The ‘scared one’ inside the psyche is in a state of constant vigilance.  He/She is constantly scanning the environment, both external and internal (inside the mind) for potential attackers.  Therefore the ‘scared one’ expends large amounts of energy maintaining a secure perimeter.  Should someone get too close, an automatic alarm response is triggered and defenses are fortified.  This reaction allows the ‘scared one’ to stay safe behind the walls built to protect him/her.

This also means, however, that we often feel alone, isolated and separate even though we are around other people.  The walls built to provide us with safety and security, to protect us, are in fact, prison walls.

We survive our lives in psychological cells tapping out sounds that we hope someone, someday will decipher as an S.O.S.  But when a liberator comes, when someone listens past the words, we hear ourselves say; “Did I say that?  I didn’t say that!  I didn’t mean it that way.  I’m fine.  I can handle it!”

But what we mean is tap, tap, tap tap tap, tap, tap. . .don’t believe me, keep probing, just don’t let anyone else know.  Ask me another way.  And we just keep putting out the Same Old Shit!!

To compensate for our feelings of inadequacy, we project images of adequacy.  The ‘scared one’ doesn’t want to be seen as inadequate so to compensate, he/she projects a (+) plus so as not to risk being seen as a (-) minus.

So we dress for success as we act like we’re on top of things, showing “no fear” even though our knees are knocking, and we don’t have a clue what to do next.  This adolescent approach to life can last until a significant emotional event shatters the status quo.  Even then, it’s amazing how long we can hold on to the old habitual response patterns.

A dear friend told me about a family tragedy.  His brother’s son committed suicide.  When he talked to his brother, who, by the way, never even called him after this loss, said, “I’m doing all right.  In my line of work, I’ve had a lot of experience with this.”  His brother worked in law enforcement.

The ‘scared one’ inside always stays safe.  Even people we see as powerful, people that are leaders in their fields have a ‘scared one’ trying to maintain a public posture that compensates.  We see them as confident and secure when, in actuality, they are hiding behind their protective facades. 

To risk exposure, to let down their guard, could open the flood gates and the world would rush in to take advantage of their vulnerability.

I recently did some consulting work with a Fortune 500 company.  Prior to doing a presentation, I was visiting with the leader of the group that hired me.  He was in charge of the largest group in the country and had earned his position through results obtained in former roles.  He is a driver and a star performer.

We were discussing the agenda for the day.  I suggested some risk-taking on his part, letting people see another side of him.  His response was interesting.  “These people have never seen the real me.  I’m not like this.  In fact, my own family has never seen the real me.  It is only with a few people that I feel safe enough to relax and let down my guard.  Most people don’t know what I’m like.”

He feels trapped and stressed out to the point that he wonders what effects on his health might accrue.  His company recently reorganized, and he is feeling the pressure of his increased responsibilities and the need for results.

By the way, when I queried about results to date, he said they were at 97% of goal in one area and exceeding goal in all other areas.  But, he said, for the first time in his life he questioned whether it was worth the price he was paying.  He also said that his family had noticed the strain, and he questioned the job he was doing at home as husband and father.

He had not taken more than a week’s vacation in many years though his position and tenure with the company provided him with much more time off.  Here is a man who grabbed the brass ring and is making the “big bucks,” yet he hasn’t reached a critical mass of success that would allow him to break out of his self-constructed prison and feel safe enough to reveal himself to the world.

I don’t think this business leader is that different than many successful business people.  I think a great deal of wealth has been built by people compensating for their ‘scared one.’  The drive to succeed, to prove value and worth to the world often comes from the ‘scared one’s’ need to compensate for feelings of inadequacy.

The problem is, that vacuum inside the psyche can never be filled from the outside-in.  He will never reach the critical mass of success, wealth or notoriety needed to allow him to open up.  As long as it’s a matter of how much, it will never be enough. 

It is only when you quit caring about the score, that you win this game.  Then you can do what Rumi suggested, “Go start some huge foolish project like Noah.  It makes absolutely no difference what people think of you.”

When we quit defending the perimeter, when we let go of our concern for our image in the eyes of others, we discover how much energy we were consuming.  The leak plugged, that energy now becomes available for “huge foolish projects.”

Although we all have feelings of inadequacy, it doesn’t mean we’re inadequate.  When we stop being paranoid and defensive, the energy available is enormous.  We tap into a reservoir , or better yet, a stream, a flow of something life-giving, nourishing, potent.

You see, we not only have a ‘scared one’ inside, we also have a ‘sacred one.’   The ‘sacred one’ has limitless possibilities for growth and development.  Seeded within each of us is a radiant core that we can mine.  This ore is not “fool’s gold.”   It is the real thing!  Though, when tapped and brought forward into the field of action, the world may see us as foolish.

This type of leader sees him/herself as a servant.  This leader doesn’t win by intimidation using the evil twin of the ‘scared one,’ ‘the Big One,’ to squeeze performance out of people.  This leader knows who is in hiding in his/her own psyche and so knowing has learned much about those he/she leads and serves.

This dual knowledge, the knowledge of the paradoxical nature of the human psyche allows this leader to serve with awareness.  With this awareness, no interaction with another is aimed at reinforcing feelings of inadequacy.  To the contrary, the energy exchange is aimed at connecting to the ‘sacred one,’ creating a psychological and social space for the expression of giftedness. 

This leader does what Goethe suggested:  “Treat people as they are and they remain that way.  Treat them as though they were what they are capable of becoming and you will help them move toward that which they are capable.”









The Dizzyness of Freedom

Our Best Kept Secret part 4

Although we all have feelings of inadequacy, that does not mean we are inadequate.

But if we are unaware that all people have those secret feelings, those feelings can have a great impact on: our behavior, on choices that we make, on our relationships and risk management in general.

This is a key concept as we continue to explore this secret we all share.  The secret is, that part of being human means having feelings of inadequacy and insecurity.  And we named that part the scared one.

The scared gal/guy inside us is risk averse.  He/she likes to repeat familiar behavior sets because doing the familiar downsizes risk.  You see, the scared one dislikes change and avoids risk.  The motto of the scared one is safety and security at all costs.  The safety provided by repeating familiar activity in the field of action equates to security for the insecure.

In doing so, he/she stays safe, hiding behind behaviors in which adequacy has been established. She/he resists change and is quite content with the status quo.  OK, maybe not content, but too scared to risk doing something new.

Doing something new, unfamiliar, or something we failed at in the past evokes anxiety.  The scared one, driven by fear, is concerned with being exposed as inadequate.  He/she is scared about not doing or saying the exact, right, perfect thing.  That anxiety is logical because we are risking being seen as inadequate if we fail.  So why take the chance?

Good question.  Why not stay safe and avoid the anxiety?  Why stress ourselves by doing things that cause such discomfort?  Why?  Because human beings are more than human animals.

We have the animal part of our nature which is concerned with any threat to survival.  But survival is not enough and animal consciousness is just one aspect of human consciousness.  It is not the whole ball of wax.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s come back to anxiety and risk avoidance.  Kierkegaard said, “anxiety is the best educator.”  Those things that cause anxiety have something to teach us.  And, we really do want to learn.  That’s also part of human nature.

So learning is necessary if we want to have healthier relationships with others: our kids and others at home as well as others at work.  We want also to have a healthier relationship with ourselves.  We, most of us, want to be more effective at what we do and have more fun while doing it better.

One definition of insanity is to repeat the same behaviors and expect different results.  It’s nuts !  But because the final common pathway of learning is mistake-making, the scared one is anxious.  But that anxiety is what Kierkegaard called the “dizziness of freedom.”

We are no longer trapped in the metaphorical prison of the familiar.  We hold the key to unlock ourselves and experience the freedom that is unique to our species.  We are not like the panther Rilke wrote about in his poem.  Rilke visited a zoo and observed a panther over several weeks.  He saw what many of us have seen.  What does the caged jungle cat do when not sleeping or eating?  It paces back and forth in the cage.

And what does that caged cat do if a visitor tries to get his attention?  It keeps pacing.  Here is the poem, The Panther translated by Robert Bly.

        “From seeing and seeing the seeing no longer sees anything anymore,

         The world is made of bars, a hundred thousand bars and behind the bars, nothing.

         The lithe swinging of that easy rhythmical stride that slowly circles down to a single point

         Is like a dance of energy around a hub in which a great will stands stunned and numb.

         At times, a shape enters, slips past the tightened silence of the shoulders        

         Enters the heart and dies.”

The panther knows, has leaned, not to pay attention to the world outside the bars.  He has to wait for someone to unlock the prison door.  But we, fellow “scaredy cats,” live within the limits of our own choosing.

The door that connects us to our freedom opens from the inside.  There is an adventure to be lived, our own unique adventure, but we cannot have an adventure without risk.  And with risk comes stress and anxiety, the “dizziness of freedom.”

You say, “yes, but, . . .I have tried stepping out there, and fell on my face.  I took the risk of getting into a relationship . . .

. . .I took the risk of telling the boss my honest opinion. . .

. . .I took the risk of becoming vulnerable . . .

. . .and all I got was my feelings of inadequacy reinforced.”

“So, I would be crazy to try it again.”

“Maybe so, but . . .”

“But what?”

“Do you want to spend your life as a ‘scaredy cat?’”

Just kidding.  Honor that part of you that is scared.  Don’t deny the anxiety.  Accept it as part of the price of freedom.  But your feelings of inadequacy and your fears don’t have to keep you from trying again and again and again.

And if you end up with egg on your face, eat it willingly.  It is soul food.  It is fuel for growth.  You are growing as you attempt the new.  And the effort you expend, even if you get shot down, is not wasted.  It is energy spent earning new learning.

We earn our learning the old fashioned way, one mistake at a time. 

Don’t use your failures as excuses to reinforce your feelings of inadequacy.  Give yourself a break!  Use my line.  “I’m slow, but trainable.”  It may take me longer than most, but there’s nothing I can’t learn.  Just because I have feelings of inadequacy, doesn’t mean I’m inadequate.

Maybe William Blake is right, “Even the fool that persists in his folly, will become wise.” 



Avoiding Risk

We have been discussing a secret we all share, yet rarely reveal to anyone.  That is, we all have feelings of inadequacy / insecurity and we have named that part of us, the ‘scared one.’  We all have a ‘scared one’ inside.  All males, regardless of age or achievement, have a ‘scared guy’ inside.  All females, regardless of age or achievement, have a ‘scared gal’ inside.

The ‘scared one’ inside us is fully formed once we learn to be ashamed of ourselves.  This was learned from those we were dependent upon early in our development.  We learned to do things the “right way” by trial and error.  When we erred, we got our feelings of inadequacy reinforced.

“No, don’t do it like that, stupid, do it like this.”  “Come on now, pay attention.  You know better than that.”  “Come on.  You’re not using your brain.  Did your brain fall out?”

To compensate for our feelings of inadequacy, we want to show how adequate we are.

We, as parents, show how adequate we are through the performance of our children.  I mean, how many of us heard our parents say, “Now remember, when you go over there you’re a reflection on our whole family.  So don’t pick your nose or scratch yourself.  Stand up, for Pete’s sake.  Don’t slouch around like that.  How many times do I have to tell you to stand up straight?  And look at those shoes.  Aren’t you ashamed of yourself.  I told you to polish them yesterday!”

Because our children demonstrate our competence as parents we have seen bumper stickers appear on the scene.  “Proud parent of HONOR ROLL student at Maplewood School.

The unwritten message is “I am an adequate parent. Just wanted you to know so I put it on the car.”  You may have seen the take-off on these.  “My kid beat up your honor roll student.”  The unwritten statement is “I’m adequate too!”


I thought we needed another bumper sticker.  “Proud parent, regardless of their grades, my kids have an “A” in my book.”    “A” for love and acceptance, regardless of their performance on the world’s stage.  So I had them printed.( if interested)

Can we affirm, affirm, affirm our children unconditionally?  I’m not saying catch ‘em being good.  I’m saying remind them and ourselves, often, that they are radiant gems that have come through us into the world.  We have them for a short time on their journey.

We need to do everything we can to create a safe, loving environment for learning.  For learning is required for them to be able to take their place in the larger community.  Learning is required for them to have the internal where-with-all to thrive in the jungle that is the world.

And the final common pathway for learning is mistake-making.  When mistakes happen, we need to focus on the learning that is gained rather than the mistake that is made.  We don’t want to reinforce our child’s feelings of inadequacy, but we do want our children to learn new things.  And anything worth learning, is worth failing at.

You see, the ‘scared one’ inside us feels safe when doing what is familiar.  Repeating behaviors in which we have already established adequacy allows the ‘scared one’ to feel secure, to feel safe.  Safety and security are the most important elements to the risk averse ‘scared one’.

To do the new or novel is to put the ‘scared one’ in a position where there is a high risk.  If we risk failing at the task or if we try a new behavior in response to familiar stimuli, the ‘scared one’ risks exposure.  So there is a great deal of psychological inertia that has to be overcome to break out of old patterns, even if they don’t work anymore.

As for children, their gaze is upon us.  They watch us and model what they see.  How much healthy risk taking do they see?  Let’s say some change happens at work.

By the way, have you noticed there are a few changes happening at work?  Oh, I know, there are also plenty of changes happening at home.  Change is everywhere apparent.  In fact, it is the one constant in life.  Yet dealing with change is stressful.

Eric Hoffer said, “In times of change, it is the learner who inherits the earth, while the learned finds himself beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

How do our children see us responding? In fact, how did we see our own parents respond when they were stressed?  Was the stressful event used as an opportunity for learning something new or an excuse to go for an unhealthy coping strategy ?  Here’s one from the past:

“Boy, you wouldn’t believe what those idiots did today!  With that kind of management, this company is in for big trouble.”

“What happened?”

“Well, everything has been going along fine.  The business is growing.  We’re making more money.  And now they want to gum up the whole works.”

“What do you mean?”

They want us to change the way we do things.  They actually want us to put everything on computer.  Do you know how long it’s gonna take.  It’s crazy.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  This whole computer thing is just a fad.  It won’t last.  So we’ll switch everything over then be stuck switching back to the way we’re doing business now.  It’s nuts!

“So, what are you going to do?”

“What am I going to do!?  I’m going to fix myself a drink.  Then I’m going to fix another.  In fact, I think I’ll just mix up a pitcher.  Care to join me?”

“Sure, but dinner won’t be ready for a while, so take it easy.”

“Don’t try to tell me what to do.  And why isn’t dinner ready, yet!?  You sit around all day, the least you could do is have a man’s dinner ready when he comes home.  I’m gonna watch TV.  Call me when it’s time to eat.

“Okay.  I’m sorry.  But you don’t have to yell.  Just go in and try to forget about it.  You’re all upset.  I’ll call when dinner’s ready.”

The child observing this interaction watches in innocence.  The grownups act out unaware that their performance demonstrates psychic compensation and risk avoidance.

The father is at-risk at work because he will have to learn how to do something new.  His ‘scared guy’ felt safe doing things in which he has established adequacy.  Now he’ll have to learn something new and what if he fails?  He risks being seen as inadequate.  His anxiety is masked to others by his anger.

Feeling small, he acts out with a big voice as the evil twin of the ‘scared one’, the ‘Big One’ appears.  The ‘Big One’ only appears when we feel little.  His fears are then medicated away with alcohol after he reinforces his wife’s feelings of inadequacy by putting her down.  The TV also serves as an entertaining distraction from his interior discomfort.  It also puts control back into his own hands, albeit remote control!

Mom tries to placate her husband by apologizing even though she may have done nothing wrong.  By doing so she avoids a confrontation and models a behavior for the observing child.  The ‘scared one’ within the child needs to feel safe at home and when there is tension between the grownups invisible sensors in the child’s psyche make note.  The child feels the tension and learns from mom to avoid the risk of confrontation.  No healthy risk taking here!

There is learning, however.  First, change is bad.  Second, when change happens hold on to something familiar, that you can count on to help you cope.  Third, deny the actual reality of the situation and then you can avoid the risk of doing something unfamiliar or new.  As a good friend of mine says:

“I have two constant companions, two friends who never desert me.  No matter what happens they are always there.  I have never faced a problem, crisis or situation I couldn’t handle with their help.  Even in the middle of the night, they are there to comfort me. Those two friends?  Denial and avoidance.”

Know  ‘em?  I do.  Next time we’ll explore looking risk in the eye and see how anxiety may be the “dizziness of freedom”.



Sometimes the small things…

Ok, so the other day I’m working away at home and I’m startled by the sound of what I know to be a bird crashing into the glass doors going out on to the deck. We have placed things from the bird store on those doors to let our feathered friends know that they do not represent a flyway.

Nonetheless, some continue to occasionally think otherwise and smash on into them. So it’s a familiar sound. Knowing that, I rushed to the doors to see a young female Downy Woodpecker tilting to one side, dazed and I hoped, not dying.

We have had both things happen. The dazed and dying birds and the just dazed birds look the same initially. You look and hope to see the little feathery bundle before you snap out of it and fly off.

As I watched I worried about the neighbor cat that routinely makes rounds through the yard on the prowl. We know this cat to be a great chipmunk hunter and bird eater. Watching from a few feet away, should needs be, I could open the door quickly and scare that cat away.

A few minutes passed and there was no positive sign that the little treasure was mustering a recovery. No positive sign is a bad sign. Usually, by now, a few minutes post glass door encounter the just dazed critters, are showing signs of a comeback.

Not so this little one. The sun was bright on the deck on the way to bringing us the hottest day of the year. As a few more minutes ticked by without any encouraging changes I began to worry about the heat and the hot deck.

What to do? My wife is a bird whisperer but she was at work. My cell was by my computer. I could go call her in hopes that she would be available for a consultation. However, I decided to make an executive decision not wanting to leave the scene where I could quickly defend the vulnerable young bird.

What I did was open the door and gently take the little woodpecker in my hand and
sat on the bench, holding the dazed darling in the shade. Her beak was open, her eyes slowly opened then closed and she seemed to be quietly panting.

This young Downy Woodpecker was so small in my hand I could easily enfold her without harm. I thought, perhaps wrongly, that she might feel safe in that human nest as she did in her own nest shortly before our encounter. Now and then, I would open my hand, flatten out my grip and gently stroke her to see if she would then fly safely away.

She didn’t.

I wanted her to yet I also cherished that moment holding that precious little life in my hand.

What now to do? I made another decision. I did not know if my hand would soon also be too warm a place for her, should she be able, to recover. So I took her around the side of the house to the front yard, which is totally shaded. Shade is good but I couldn’t just set her down in the grass. It would be cooler but she would be in danger of becoming a feline feast.

Therefore, walking by the recycle bin I grabbed the green soon to be bird shelter to protect little Donna Downey. We name our yard birds. The male Downy Woodpeckers are Dudley Downey and the females Donna. The male cardinals are Carlos and the females, Carlita. You get the idea.

Anyway, after placing Donna gently down upon the cool, shaded grass I placed the recycle bin upside down over her for a safe perimeter. Should she begin to recover, she would have room to move about to get her bearings.

I then went inside to text my wife. “Call me, bird news….” Surely you’ve noticed, time goes by more slowly while waiting to share certain experiences. This wait was one of those.

When she did call, which she did immediately upon getting my text, I related the story you have just read as I walked outside to the front yard toward the bird hospital.

I stood by the green upside down recycle bin as I finished my tale. She, as I was, was curious as to the current state of Donna’s health or lack thereof. Not knowing yet hoping for the best, I shared with my wife the moment of truth.

I lifted off the bin to find there to be no change with my little charge. Donna had not moved from the spot upon which I placed her. Was she still breathing? She hadn’t moved, was she still with us?

My neighbors from across the street had seen me place her under that green cover, stopped their yard work to see if there had been any change.


I say nothing because I did detect breathing and some eye movement.

All of us waited, fully attentive, holding our breath to see what, if anything, would happen. Nothing, nothing what so ever and then…………….

That little rascal, in one fell swoop, alerted and quick as a wink, flew up into the maple tree. WHOOPEE !

What a treat. There she was, in profile on the trunk about 15 feet up. And there we were, pretty high ourselves. By phone and by yard, smiles all round.

Such a small thing in the larger scheme of things. No matter. Having a chance to participate in the natural world reminds us of our connection to all that is and provides a sense of perspective about what makes a good day. Sharing that experience may remind others.

Creating a Healthy Learning Environment, for students and teachers

 “In times of change it is the learners who inherit the earth while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists”  Eric Hoffer

How do you create a healthy learning environment for teachers as well as students?  

Just doing what we’re taught may not provide us with the tools or insights to lead children in this ever-changing world. The best students have the best teachers and the best teachers are the best listeners and learners. If we want students to be excited about learning, those that lead and serve them have to be excited about learning too.

What is required for learning? There are different learning styles. But what is the final common pathway of learning? The juggling metaphor answers the question.

Many people have tried to juggle three objects in the air.  Few actually learn.  Why?  Everyone, barring a physical handicap, can learn.  Yet, few do.  

The reasons, when one asks, vary.  However, they share one thing in common.
The effort was made and the results demonstrate an inability to learn.  The reasons are rationalizations. For example, “I have poor hand eye coordination”.
I have never met anyone that couldn’t learn to juggle. 

Just having that expectation for those I teach helps create the right environment for learning.
When I ask an audience for someone to come up and demonstrate the skill, they do.  Yet, when I ask what’s the secret to learning how to juggle, they waffle.  Why aren’t they able to easily explain? 

The answer, the secret is you don’t earn the right to have the skill until you drop the balls enough to “get it”.  When you’ve dropped them enough you don’t drop them anymore and then you know how to juggle.

Juggling is a great metaphor for learning. Everyone can learn to juggle just as everyone can learn algebra.
Why?  Because we learn everything through feedback loops.  You try something new. You fail. You get feedback. You make adjustments. You fail again. You get encouragement and more feedback. You make more adjustments. You fail again. The difference between the best teachers and the rest has to do with the quality of energy that we put out while we give the feedback. That energy needs to demonstrate that we care.

If they feel our warmth coupled with our honest feedback and we hold the expectation that they can learn, they eventually do. 

And it isn’t just the specific subject matter that they learn.  

They learn that they can learn just about anything.  So can we.

Three cups of tea, three bullets for me

My wife is reading Three Cups of Tea.  The author, Greg Mortenson, is speaking in Kansas City tonight sponsored by Rainy Day Books.
Change has been on my mind lately.  It was a theme during the election.  There was so much excitment around the world when Obama won because the very fact that he is a Black man embodies change.  My buddy, Greg Tamblyn, sent a request out through cyber space for folks from around the world to send him newspapers the day after our election.  He received 60 papers reflecting the global excitment about our big change.  And he created a wonderful poster you can get from his web site: which has front pages from about 20 of them.
I heard Mortenson interviewed on the radio yesterday, thought about Obama and about change  For those of you that don’t know Mortenson’s book is a great story about change.  He went to Pakistan to climb K2, the second tallest and argueably the most difficult mountain to summit on the planet.  He failed, was rescued by a local man and vowed to return to build a school in his little village.  The book is about his adventure and what he learned in the process of fullfilling that vow.
BTW, he has now been involved in building 77 more schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
What does this have to do with Obama?  Mortenson has invested his time, effort, energy and attention in remote areas of conflict where our troops and those of other natioins struggle to win the hearts and minds of the people.  At the same time they fight the Taliban.  And things aren’t going well.  The Taliban has re-emerged stronger than ever and Obama’s response is to double the number of US troops deployed to Afghanistan.  While our military forces struggle in their efforts on both fronts, Mortenson’s experience is different.  He not only has captured the hearts and minds of the people, he has Taliban converts teaching in the schools.
Perhaps I should restate that.   He has been captured by the friendship of villagers, just like the one that rescued him and had a conversion experience himself.  It wasn’t a religious conversion.  It was a psychological conversion and is still ongoing.  He thought he knew what was best for the people he wanted to help.  He had to learn that they in fact knew what was best.  It wasn’t a school that they needed first.  They needed a bridge.
What a wonderful metaphor.  Now Mortenson is a bridge.  He has gone over and come back with the boon from his quest.  What he learned can help us individually and collectively.  So much so that he now consults with the department of defense.  It seems that wives of military leaders have read his book and encouraged their husbands to do so.  Some, including General Petraeus, have.  In fact he sent Mortenson a note with three bullets:
1 Build Relationships
2 Respect
3 Listen
Imagine that.  I think he got it.  I hope he tells the Commander in Chief.  Maybe more military forces aren’t the answer.  However, another volunteer force might better serve our foreign policy aims there and elsewhere.  A real Peace Corps.