Posts Tagged ‘honesty’

Subtext: What are People Really Saying?

Thursday, January 19th, 2017

Arguing

Subtext (noun): in literature, the unspoken thoughts and motives of characters.

Your mother-in-law calls and then sends you six text messages, insisting you drop everything and call Verizon on her behalf because of an additional $20 charge on her cell phone bill. This occurs, of course, while you are on a hiking trip in Sedona. (I won’t lie…this actually happened to me, and I’m still angry about it.) Or she calls and texts five times over the course of two days in December, “worried about [her] taxes,” and she needs you to call back right away. December?!

The subtext as it applies here to my mother-in-law would go something like this: I am not feeling important or loved, or getting enough attention right now, so I have found a legitimate reason why you need to come and fix those uncomfortable feelings I’m having.

Literary scholars (and possibly my editor) might argue that this is not a perfectly correct example of subtext, but I’m using this term to make a point about motives that underlie someone’s words or actions which are implied, but not stated; or in the case of my mother-in-law, not even consciously known by the person herself!

How do you tell the difference between a real cry for help and a disguised motive? One way is to offer a solution, which they promptly reject, e.g. “Mom, I will give you $20 when I get home—this problem is not worth the price of anyone’s time.” (This was met with a very irate response about the value of money, and not “giving it away” to a thief.)

Subtexts show up all the time in life, like when your boss gets unhinged and screams at you about something really trivial. It could be he or she feels you don’t respect them enough. On the other hand, it could be that something troubling is happening in their home life…that, or basically any of a million other things that have nothing to do with your borrowing their favorite red Swingline® stapler. Another example might be when your boyfriend/girlfriend loses it because you didn’t take out the trash. In this instance, it’s almost never about the trash.

So what do you do?

Attending to the surface issue the other person is complaining about can help, but usually just delays their next dramatic episode. Sometimes, if you can figure out what that person really wants or needs, you can address that and help them resolve the issue. Unfortunately, it’s frequently difficult—if not impossible—to talk openly about someone else’s “stuff,” as they themselves have buried it and are unfortunately acting it out, which is a common way people avoid dealing with issues. If you can calmly discuss “what’s really going on” with the individual, you’re very lucky. In my experience, however, it’s silly of me to expect another to be rational about their irrationality!

I have found that compassion—both with them and with myself—is vital in this type of situation. Trying to cooperate and throwing in some encouragement, e.g. taking out the trash and telling your partner how much you appreciate their contribution to the household chores, is helpful and can sometimes bridge a stressful moment. In the case of my mother-in-law, I remind myself that women of her generation were socialized to believe that their needs weren’t as important as the male members of their households. They won approval by taking care of others, but as far as their own needs, they were generally forced to rely on subtext. Nevertheless, acting “helpless” when this is not the case, is a very common strategy among aging mothers and grandmothers.

All of this said, allowing others to control our emotions and behavior only brings negative consequences, one of which is preventing that person from learning to meet their needs in healthier, more direct ways. For us, it becomes a question of boundaries and realizing that we are not responsible for “fixing” others’ issues and challenges. Remember that no one of us has to accept hurtful or abusive behavior from someone else. Responding to others to the extent that we’re willing and able, and then stepping back (which may mean ignoring excessive text messages or phone calls, walking away from someone who is screaming at you, etc.) may be necessary to protect and care for ourselves.

Depending on who you are dealing with, it may feel like we are being “selfish” or irresponsible if we choose to put our sanity before another’s demands for attention or whatever it is they want. However, if we continuously place others’ problems before our own, we risk losing who WE are and being distracted from managing our own goals and dreams, issues, and well-being.

The bottom line is that we only have power over ourselves, and by keeping our focus where it should be—on ourselves and our own lives—we will be better able to determine when and how to help others. Inner peace is our birthright, remember! If you are willing, the Universe will help you day by day, sometimes moment by moment, to find a positive balance between loving yourself and loving others.

Overcoming the Obstacles to a Simpler Life

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

IMG_0241The multifaceted nature of existence itself, combined with our very human ways of trying to deal with all the variables, leads all of us, at one time or another, to wishing our lives were simpler. Tired and aggravated, we look around and point to what we think are the culprits – the out-of-control kids, unreasonable boss, lazy spouse, or too many spam emails and store coupons. Actually, though, the real cause usually has more to do with us than what’s happening in our world.

While it’s certainly true that technological advancements have led to an overabundance of information – affording us more possibilities, but also more choices and conflicts – it is doubtless that people from the beginning of time have wanted less stress and complexity in their lives. The reason is obvious…we humans are the ones who make our lives more problematical than they have to be! By our own attitudes and behavior, we create a lifestyle that frequently exceeds our ability to handle it. To make matters worse, when we inevitably lose control and fail in one or more areas, others blame us and we feel bad about ourselves.

The true keys to simplicity lie within us, regardless of the insane situations and people we feel forced to deal with. If we start focusing inward, on ourselves instead of “them,” we might spot certain attitudes and behaviors that contribute to a complicated life.

1.         Dishonesty – The admonitions against dishonesty are so universal, a phrase was coined describing the consequence…“getting caught in a web of lies.” If we are habitually dishonest, we absolutely invite complexity. This trait, however, may be the trickiest one to address, since if we’re dishonest with others, we’re usually not being honest with ourselves, either. This would apply to countless people who believe their own lies. Breaking free of our own illusions can be impossible unless we’re strongly motivated to do so. Frequently, however, the pain generated by an individual’s deceptiveness can push him or her to change.

It helps if we understand why we are duplicitous with certain people or in particular situations. The lies we tell are usually a form of protection, even though we may be unconscious of what we’re trying to protect. In many instances, we’re trying to spare ourselves embarrassment or shame at a perceived weakness. For some, the fear of exposing certain things is of the same intensity as fear of death or annihilation! Therefore, it’s best to be very patient and gentle as we strive to become more honest with ourselves about our feelings and motives. As we grow more accepting of the truth about ourselves, our need to lie and cover up lessens, along with the complexity of keeping up a false front. What a relief!

2.         Being Controlling – Trying to control or manipulate people and circumstances around us is another sure way to live in constant anxiety. The truth is, our ability to control things and people is an illusion, and when we base our life on an illusion, we’re certain to suffer. Sometimes it may seem as though we’re successfully managing all the players in our particular drama, and we feel satisfied. This lasts literally a few seconds, however, before something goes wrong.

To let other people handle their own problems, to let situations work themselves out instead of insisting on and forcing our own solutions, to keep our focus on our own life and responsibilities instead of becoming involved in others’…these are attitudes which lift the crippling burden of trying to manage things which are not ours to manage, and at the same time free others to feel good about solving their own problems.

3.         Over-Committing – Wanting acceptance and approval from others is basic to human nature, but when this approval-seeking becomes more important than our own feelings and needs, we get ourselves into trouble. Oftentimes unconsciously, we put others first, discounting our own wants and responsibilities. We drive someone here or there, take off work to help a friend move, offer to chair the monthly board meeting again…whatever. The relief we see in others’ faces when we take on extra tasks gives us the comforting feeling that they are happy with us. But our efforts backfire later in exhaustion and resentment, two unpleasant consequences of people-pleasing. When we offer favors without considering the effect on us, we fail to protect and care for ourselves, and both our schedule and feelings spiral into overwhelm.

To be of service to others is obviously a great thing, as strong individuals grow even stronger when they give of themselves. But to give in a healthy way means we are whole and able to do so, and not just reflecting a neediness to have others like us.

4.         Addiction to Drama – Usually a characteristic that operates on an unconscious level, drama addiction greatly perpetuates complexity in our lives. In this addiction, we actually crave the intense emotional highs and lows brought about by conflict. Perhaps we’ve never known anything different, or maybe we fear what would be left without constant upset. After all, in those mundane moments or when things are going well, we feel a scary emptiness. We’re left with only ourselves, and if we’re not comfortable with who we are, we subconsciously seek out a new distraction, even if it’s the negative kind.

Drama addiction robs us of peace and simplicity as we find ways to sabotage relationships with others, make choices destined to bring chaos, and often feel sorry for ourselves and like a victim. All the “excitement” is a grand escape from reality, which usually is less thrilling but far more fulfilling if given the chance!

5.         Disorganization – On both the material and emotional levels, being disorganized can lead to all sorts of complications in our lives. We have so many pots on the stove, so to speak, that it’s impossible to adequately tend to them all. We’re surrounded by loose-ended projects, goals, and relationship issues. The disorder in our houses and minds keeps us stuck dealing with emergency after emergency, with little resolution to anything. By being disorganized, we maintain the adrenaline of negative excitement in a crises-based lifestyle. Like drama addiction, being disorganized pays off in that it’s an avoidance behavior, in this case a self-generated diversion from the work involved in confronting and resolving problems.

If we’re driven by ongoing overwhelm, we’ve lost sight of the fact that we need only attend to one issue, goal, or chore at a time. By slowly – and again, gently – trying to become more organized in all areas of our lives, we find we can get rid of the ideas and belongings no longer useful to us, clearing the way for simplicity and sanity.

6.         Perfectionism and Procrastination – Both these characteristics have the same end result: we don’t get to enjoy the simple satisfaction of completing a project, knowing we’ve given our best effort. Procrastination relates directly to disorganization, already discussed as a source of needless complexity. Perfectionism can actually contribute to procrastination, since our mind can be so overwhelmed by thinking we have to finish something according to our idyllic standards, that we unconsciously (or consciously) avoid even starting on it. The same applies to projects we have started, but never wind up finishing because the outcome might be less than flawless.

Perfectionism, although a positive quality on some level, can thus lead us to a house cluttered with projects not started or not completed, and a mind cluttered with self-recrimination at all the things we haven’t accomplished. A helpful slogan to use when we start feeling those pangs of dissatisfaction or anxiety arising from perfectionism goes like this: A mistake a day keeps perfectionism at bay.

It is up to us to decide if we’re ready for a less complicated life. Certainly, trying to live simply requires awareness of the ideas and behaviors that contribute to our living problems. In this respect, striving for simplicity certainly does not imply that there’s no work involved in avoiding the pitfalls that get us in too deep.

As we continue to be conscious of how we ourselves are basically responsible for our attitudes and ways of living, we may experience a sense of being humbled. This can be uncomfortable…after all, it’s far easier to blame other people, places, and things for the craziness of our lives! But if our goal is simplicity and serenity, it’s worth journeying inward to the place where peace can truly dwell and thrive, regardless of anything or anyone outside our skin.

Writing For Me

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

For me, writing is not merely an instrument of communication. It goes far deeper than that. Writing is the bridge between my internal life and the outside world, both the means to an end as well as the end itself. Sometimes I wish I could make up amazing stories, but honestly, I find reality much more compelling. Thus the plot is ordinary, but my thoughts and attitudes about what exists around me can be complex, deep-seated, and ever-changing.  And hopefully evocative to some readers to see the mundane in the light of their own inner uniqueness. All becomes so much more precious and beautiful that way.

Words are my paint, paper my canvas. Sometimes I see something so striking and appealing, or ugly and disturbing, that I simply must talk about it pen-in-hand. This I try to do in my way, using language to basically describe and clarify first, then to embellish. It’s not much different from the painter who builds a picture, using white and pastels to highlight and draw the eye’s attention, darker colors to subdue or convey a mood. It is all art, which seeks to affect in some way the people that can appreciate its message.

Yes, I write for a living, so my skill with words and language also has many practical applications. Creativity is one trait I claim, but I also crave organization, so my business report and marketing writing allows me the opportunity to exercise that. Or exorcise, as I’m often like one possessed when it comes to correct grammar, spelling, and word usage. I don’t know many people who proofread their text messages before hitting “send,” but I admit I am one of them.

Making a clear picture from ideas, paragraphs, sentences, and words fulfills me the way it does when I clean out a drawer. I throw out the things that are worthless and unnecessary, and try to put the valuable items in their proper place. Writing for business is a form requiring directness, with less need for description and creative embellishment. In this respect, it can be easier to compose. On the other hand, some business writing, such as marketing or resumes, necessitates specific and at times subtle use of language to glorify the subject and persuade the reader that they need to procure it no matter the cost.

But by far the most personal and necessary use of writing in my life has been to express my mental, emotional, and spiritual condition. Perhaps it is because I’ve been doing this for so long – I’ve kept a journal since I was in my teens – that writing has become almost inseparable from who I am. There have been times, and still are, when my notebook is my always-available confidante, one that doesn’t judge what I reveal nor how I say it. Generally, the only descriptive verbiage I use in this writing is four-letter words. And lots of exclamation points.

Honestly, writing in my journal is a spiritual experience for me, because when I’m spilling my guts on paper, I’m aware that God is reading it. (Duh! Who do I think put the feelings and expressive words there in the first place?) Although I don’t understand how this happens, I get greater acceptance of all those feelings, both difficult and joyful, after I write about them. And if God and I can stomach all that crowds my head, it becomes more likely to me that other people will not be put off by it either.

Considering all the above, writing helps me to survive on many levels: financially, artistically, emotionally, and spiritually. A means not only to survive, but to thrive and grow. Although it has its challenges and frustrations, writing gives back to me according to the effort I put into it. Like so many things in life, practice is the key. Thankfully, I love to practice!

Proven over and over to me, however, is that my life is better the more I write. Or perhaps the better my life is, the more I am writing. At this point, it doesn’t matter because it is all good. And I want to write all about it.

Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say

Monday, March 14th, 2011

Most of us talk – or write – a pretty good game, but where do you stand when it comes to matching what you say with what you do? The consistency between my words and behavior, or lack thereof, has been on my mind in the aftermath of a few recent, poignant experiences where insincere talk left me disappointed, disillusioned, and dismayed.

Meaningless, feel-good words flung glibly from mouths like gunfire; noble gestures made only for show; self-interest masquerading as virtue… This confusing duplicity surrounds us everyday! Consider the chart-topping singer/songwriter who croons about love, life, and peace, then makes the news ranting at the manager of a Hollywood club who can’t accommodate him with the best table in the house. Or the best-selling author who writes about successful relationship strategies, but meanwhile has been divorced twice and is still single. More than once I have put people on pedestals because of the ideas they seem to espouse, only to feel let down when I find out how they actually lead their lives.

A few tough questions might clarify how well your actions demonstrate what you profess to others. When you tell a friend or a business acquaintance you’ll “get back to him” in a couple days, how often do you actually follow through within two days, or even within a week or two? Or after accepting an invitation for a party that’s more than a few days away, how often do you wind up as a no-show when something better comes along in the meantime? Ever promise a good friend you’ll help her with some big task she’s working on, and then somehow “forget” you ever offered? The variations on this modus operandi are endless, but they all add up to one thing: lack of consistency and follow-through.

Don’t get me wrong, I have been as guilty as anyone of these type of misdemeanors. Another word for it is lying, if I want to cut through the denial and actually call this what it is. My aim here is not to provoke guilt (well, maybe a tiny bit of guilt might be in order) or point fingers, but to raise awareness of how often and easy it becomes to say things we don’t really mean.

Sometimes, making rash and thoughtless remarks or promises to others in the moment is a convenient panacea, bridging the gap of what otherwise might be filled with awkward, uncomfortable truth. Satisfying our immediate compulsion to people-please, we move on with little or no further consideration given to what we said. Later, we conveniently avoid having to put in the effort required to follow through, all the while patting ourselves on the back for being so diplomatic and smooth in our dealings with others.

The problem is, those suave statements turn into hurtful weapons unless we use them responsibly. If you are one of those who adhere to the Golden Rule, how can you justify this form of dishonesty? Have you ever been at the receiving end of this treatment, feeling disappointed because someone didn’t keep a promise? If you have, you are likely familiar with the pain of having others plant an expectation within you, then feeling hurt and disillusioned when no action follows. Resentment naturally rears its ugly head at this point, presenting another troubling emotion we are left to handle. What a mess! And a self-serving tactic for those who speak frivolously, because the resultant pain is felt by the recipient, not by the speaker.

The worst offenders are the ones who use careless words so often, they are not even consciously aware they are doing it! It has become an ingrained and comfortable habit. I would venture to guess these same people also make promises to themselves – such as vowing to stay on a diet, exercise more, spend less money, etc. – that are revered for a short time before being forgotten or abandoned. To be honest, my experience is that the people who actually say what they mean and mean what they say are far outnumbered by those who do not. It’s sad to think that perhaps this tendency is so prevalent in society, it is no longer regarded as the victimizing behavior that it is.

To make matters worse, the payoff from saying things we don’t mean reinforces our continuing to do so. After all, as humans we know that it’s generally easier to not take responsibility. And perhaps people around us, maybe even our parents, were talkers-not-doers, so we merely modeled this trait as “normal.”

Whatever the reason for it, being disingenuous is best addressed by examining ourselves, not others. It is far easier to complain about people that don’t act in accordance with their words, than to look closely at our own culpability in this regard. Obviously, becoming honest with ourselves about our own inconsistencies requires that we be willing, since facing our defects is humbling and somewhat painful. However, the aftereffect is priceless: a surge in our self-esteem, development of greater emotional maturity, and higher-quality, more honest relationships with others. A note of caution, though – the more sincere you try to be in your dealings with others, the greater will be your awareness of others who cannot or will not demonstrate this quality. You may even find yourself choosing to hang around a new group of more trustworthy friends and acquaintances.

As with any personal growth work we do, we always want to remember to praise ourselves for making attempts, and give ourselves credit for even small improvements.

As I stumble through this journey myself, falling now and again into the pit of escaping discomfort with meaningless niceties, I also learn to feel a bit more compassion for all the infuriating hypocrites I have to deal with.

Um. Guess I still have some work to do.