The Best Way to Respond to a Compliment

I felt like I was about to be publicly beaten, when it occurred to me: it’s way easier to give good words to others than it is to receive the good words they give to us…

self-esteem

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The first staff meeting of the academic year at my clinical practice—more than twenty psychologists, therapists, and psychiatrists gathered in a circle.

And I felt like crawling into a hole.

Was I about to be reprimanded? No. I was about to be validated.

In order to emphasize the value each of us brings to the treatment team, we were going around the circle and, for thirty seconds, each clinician would be showered with words of affirmation by the rest of the group. I would be the fifth to go.

As the people ahead of me were blessed by good words about who they are, I discovered it was easy to call out affirmations for my colleagues. But as I prepared myself to receive affirmation from them, I began to steel myself for the experience. I wanted to put on armor. Crack a joke. Find a mask. I wanted to hide.

There’s a myth going around that we treat ourselves better than we treat everyone else. It is just that: a myth. Generally, it’s way easier to sincerely give a compliment than to sincerely receive one. It’s way easier to give others the good words they need than it is to show others how badly we need the good words they give us.

Caution: Abusing Gratitude Could Be Life Threatening

Until a few years ago, I lived like every resource was about to run out. I worried I’d never have enough money, enough stuff, enough certainty, enough safety, enough strength, enough love, enough acceptance. Mostly, I worried I’d never be enough…

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I tried to believe my worries were bogus—or, at least, a waste of time—but the knowledge wasn’t getting into my heart. So, a little desperately, I accepted a challenge. For two months, I carried a pocket-sized notebook around with me, and I wrote down everything for which I was grateful. My life became a series of moments in which I attended to the beauty around me and within me. I hoped the exercise would make me finally happy and content.

It did.

And it didn’t.

Because I discovered something both wonderful and disconcerting about gratitude:

Gratitude is not meant to pacify us; it’s meant to prepare us.

The 9 Most Overlooked Threats to a Marriage

I feel bad for marital communication, because it gets blamed for everything. For generations, in survey after survey, couples have rated marital communication as the number one problem in marriage. It’s not…

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Marital communication is getting a bad rap. It’s like the kid who fights back on the playground. The playground supervisors hear a commotion and turn their heads just in time to see his retaliation. He didn’t create the problem; he was reacting to the problem. But he’s the one who gets caught, so he’s sent off to the principal’s office.

Or, in the case of marital communication, the therapist’s office.

I feel bad for marital communication, because everyone gangs up on him, when the truth is, on the playground of marriage, he’s just reacting to one of the other troublemakers who started the fight:

The Real Scandal Behind the NFL Domestic Violence Controversy

The real scandal is not about football or domestic violence or big business. The real scandal is about what’s happening in our living rooms…

NFL Domestic violence

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Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice gave his wife a right hook before he gave her a wedding band.

He knocked her unconscious and then dragged her halfway out of the elevator they’d been riding. Just far enough to keep the elevator door ajar and the security camera recording. Just far enough so the NFL could witness the totality of the brutality. When they saw it, they suspended him for two games.

Until the video went public.

Then the team cancelled his contract and the league suspended him indefinitely. In the wake of the news, more allegations of domestic violence amongst NFL players are emerging.

But really, none of this is terribly scandalous. Is anyone surprised that a sport rooted in violence toward others cultivates violence at home? Is anyone surprised that a billion dollar business will hide bad press until it can’t hide it anymore? No, the real scandal is in the results of an NBC poll: while 60% of football viewers disapprove of the way the NFL has handled the scandal—and presumably even more disapprove of domestic violence—90% of people will not watch less football as a result.

The real scandal is not about football or domestic violence or big business.

The real scandal is about what’s happening in our living rooms and in our lives.

The real scandal is our tendency to ignore what we value and to live out something else.

The Whole Truth About How (Not) Rotten Human Beings Can Be

It’s what the news will never tell you about people. It’s what comedians will never joke about. It’s the unseen part of every human being…

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I walk into the house on a random Wednesday night and the television is on, tuned to the local news. I can’t remember the last time we watched the news in our house.

And I’m quickly reminded why.

The local newscasters recount story after story of death and murder and tragedy and fear. By the time the commercial break puts a pause in the terror, I’m convinced I need to beef up my home security system, quarantine my family, and immediately change every password on every account.

I hit the power button.

Oldest Son: Why did you do that?

Me: At most, ten percent of what people did in the world today was horrible, but they make it look like bad stuff is the only thing going on.

Oldest Son: Oh, it’s way more than ten percent.

Me: How much of what you did today was horrible and mean? Was it more than ten percent?

Oldest Son (head tilted thoughtfully): No. And I guess I’m a pretty typical guy.

He laughs and walks away to do something that is almost certain to be not-horrible. My pretty awesome, sometimes mean, sometimes cruel, but usually good and kind and beautiful boy, running off to do something that will never make the news. Something like playing. Something like breathing and living and laughing and generally being goodness in the world.

Why I Waited a Month to Write About Robin Williams

When we try to fix things fast, we never get to feel them fully. And we need to feel them fully, because the solutions to our biggest problems lie at the bottom of our grief. If we don’t get better at grieving, we can’t get better at living…

Robin Williams

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Last month, my friend was in a car accident. The car was totaled. He texted me a picture of it and let me know everyone was okay. Reassured of his safety, the next question on my mind was, “Whose fault was it?”

The human mind likes to look for fault and to assign blame.

Last month, Robin Williams committed suicide. A shocking, tragic loss. And instantly, Twitter and Facebook lit up with debates about depression and suicide and illness versus choice. Mental health debates. Theological debates. Existential debates. Almost all of them sincere debates argued by caring, passionate people. We need to talk about such things. Dialogue is essential.  But the debate happened so fast.

Sometimes, we fight so we don’t have to feel.

Sometimes, we trade jeers so we don’t have to trade tears.

What Were You Made To Do?

What were you made to do? The answer to that question has the power to alter the arc of history. For good.

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The alarm sounds at 5am, and my heavy-gritty eyelids creak open. The kids still have two hours of slumber ahead of them, which means I have two hours alone with my thoughts and my keyboard and my craft. The prospect is thrilling.

And terrifying.

Because there’s something else nestled right next to my gleeful anticipation. It doubts and it gnaws. It’s my fear of the blank page. It’s my fear of drying up. It’s my fear of not being enough.

When I sit in front of a blank document, it can feel like my worth is up for grabs. And that kind of fear makes me feel incredibly vulnerable—it’s way easier to feel prolific and invincible. In the past, the fear has driven me back under the covers. Fear and vulnerability like a padlock, trapping my words inside.

But now I know, my vulnerability isn’t the lock on my words—it’s actually the doorway into everything I want to write about.

The Violence of Invincibility

We live in an invulnerable world. Somewhere along the way, we decided vulnerability is weakness, and we’ve banished it from the public square.

Waiters aren’t allowed to confess mistakes for fear of a lawsuit. If a doctor admits doubt, they lose the confidence of everyone they serve. When was the last time a politician admitted they were wrong before they were caught in the act? Pillars of virtue cheat their way to the top rather than embracing limitation and weakness.

We’ve replaced the public square with a winner’s circle.

And our homes aren’t much different—we’ve banished vulnerability from our living rooms and bedrooms and hearts. Marital conflict escalates as spouses litigate their love with cross-examinations and Exhibits A to Z. Our children take their cues, and they compete with each other for worth and value. On playgrounds, tears get stifled and punches get thrown.

Our strength and invincibility are, quite simply, tearing the world apart. In the end, the winner’s circle stands empty, and so do our hearts.

Who will show us the way out of this morass?

The answer might surprise you, because the answer is you.

How to Make the Magic Happen in a Marriage

Three words can make magic happen in a marriage. The three words aren’t “I love you.” The three words are I, am, and sorry.

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I went to college in the golden age of the computer lab—a sterile, windowless room in the basement of a dormitory where students wrote papers and saved them on floppy disks. I didn’t write my papers there. I wrote my papers on a legal pad in my dorm room and then went to the computer lab to transcribe them. The first draft was the final draft. No revisions.

I didn’t like making revisions.

The perfectionist in me liked to think I could get it right the first time, be done with it, and move on. Revisions seemed tedious and complicated and messy and unnecessary.

Sixteen years later, I started this blog, and every week I’d put my wife in an impossible position: I’d give her the first draft of a blog post and ask for feedback I didn’t really want. When she would return the document with suggestions, I’d bristle. My ego wanted a stamp of approval, and the perfectionist in me wanted nothing to do with the hard, messy work of revision.

Marriage is a lot like writing.

We become perfectionists in our marriages, too, and not in a good way. We like to think we’re getting it right the first time. And we certainly don’t want the person we love to suggest any revisions in us. We want them to love the first draft of who we are.

We want a stamp of approval.

Promises to Our Boys About Manhood (On the First Day of School)

I’m writing this from the empty playground at my boys’ grade school. Right now, in the final dog days of summer, it is still and quiet. But in a week, when school starts, it will be teeming with the energy and activity of my boys and their peers.  And it will be teeming with messages.

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What messages will this playful space send them about being boys and becoming men? If history is any indication, our boys will learn to live like an old, buried, neglected water main…

Why You Should Unsubscribe From My Mailing List

The world isn’t moving at an increasingly rapid pace; we humans are. Beneath all the noise we make is a world beating slow and steady and quiet. It’s up to us to find the rhythm…

mindfulness

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September is on the way.

If I put my ear to the ground, I can hear its manic rumblings.

The pools will shut down and the schools will open up. And with three kids in school, the onslaught is about to begin: back to school ice cream socials and curriculum nights and forms to sign and homework to complete and soccer practice and guitar practice and school drop-off and school pick-up and illnesses and sick days and bullies and tears.

All of it in triplicate.

The hours of light will shrink and the hours of obligations will expand and the open space of summertime will be crowded out by activities and responsibilities and hurry and voices and noise.

September is on the way.

Of course, parents aren’t the only ones burdened by the frenzy of life and September is not the only culprit. We’re all swimming in an increasingly loud and agitating sea of activities and obligations and the voices of business and commerce and news and information. And we’re immersed in it all the time…