Say “No” to Me, Please!

“Live so that when your children think of fairness, caring, and integrity, they think of you.” (H. Jackson Brown, Jr.)

Attribution: Donna CameronWhen I was in the business world, it happened all too often. I would call the sales manager at a favorite hotel and leave a message asking if they had space for a workshop on such-and-such a date. And I would get no response.

Or I would call a member of one of the nonprofits we managed and ask if he was interested in serving on a taskforce to meet with the Governor over health policy. The response: crickets.

…keep on reading…

Bippidi-Boppidi-Boo: The Magic of Kindness

“When you open a door for others, you sometimes open doors for yourself.” (Donald L. Hicks)

CinderellaImagine if Cinderella had been too shy to go to the ball. It would have been a very different story, or, in fact, no story at all. Had she demurred when her fairy godmother offered her a shimmering gown, glass slippers, and a golden coach, her fate would have been to continue as servant and drudge to her demanding stepmother and selfish stepsisters. Years later, tired and worn down by life, she might have thought regretfully about the night she said no because she was too afraid to say yes. So much for happily ever after.

Fortunately for her—and for six-year-old girls everywhere—Cindy was confident and eager to suit up and ride her pimped-out pumpkin to the palace where she became belle of the ball.

But there are thousands of people who face Cindy’s choice daily—though on a smaller and less-Disneyesque scale—and they hold back, out of fear and social anxiety. They feel a paralyzing dread at the thought of entering a social situation—be it attending a party, meeting new people, or speaking out at a meeting. Help is at hand, though, in the form of new research from our friends to the north, showing that kindness alleviates social anxiety.

Social anxiety is more than shyness. According to the Social Anxiety Institute: ”Social anxiety is the fear of interaction with other people that brings on self-consciousness, feelings of being negatively judged and evaluated, and, as a result, leads to avoidance, … feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, embarrassment, humiliation, and depression.” It is a debilitating condition, isolating the sufferer and often preventing them from developing intimacy or close relationships.

A study recently published in the Journal of Motivation and Emotion by researchers Jennifer Trew of Simon Fraser University and Lynn Alden of the University of British Columbia revealed that engaging in acts of kindness reduced levels of social anxiety and social avoidance.

The study divided college students with social anxiety issues into three groups. One was directed to simply keep a diary of their experiences and emotions, another was exposed to different socialization situations, and the third was instructed to perform acts of kindness—three acts of kindness a day for two days a week over the course of four weeks. The kindnesses could be as simple as mowing a neighbor’s lawn, donating to charity, or washing a roommate’s dishes, and were defined as “acts that benefit others or make others happy, typically at some cost to oneself.”

After a month, the group tasked with performing acts of kindness reported lower levels of discomfort and anxiety about social interaction than either of the other two groups.

The researchers concluded that “acts of kindness may help to counter negative social expectations by promoting more positive perceptions (and expectations) of the social environment. This is likely to occur early in the intervention as participants anticipate positive reactions from others in response to their kindness, decreasing the perceived need to avoid negative social outcomes.”

So… we feel better about ourselves and our environment when we extend kindness, and we also expect better reactions and results. Thus, we are less fearful. Makes sense.

I suspect, also, that when we are engaged in kind acts, our attention is on the act or the object of it, and we are less aware of our own worries. While this study didn’t specifically look at people performing kindnesses in the social situations that frighten them, I imagine entering such situations with the intent of finding opportunities to be kind would go far to alleviate the fear. It would divert us from feeling self-conscious and worrying about how we are being judged.

While most of us don’t suffer from debilitating social anxiety, this study of kindness can likely be extrapolated to anyone who experiences discomfort in social situations—whether a cocktail party, public speaking, weddings, funerals, or the dating scene. If we replace worrying with looking for opportunities to be kind, we may very well discover that the event we dreaded was enjoyable and painless. And perhaps we’ll be the proverbial belle of the ball.

As Cinderella might, say, “If the shoe fits….”

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.  If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”  (Dalai Lama)

Choosing to Be For or Against…

“Tell me what you pay attention to, and I will tell you who you are.” (Jose Ortega y Gasset)

EagleThese days, when I read the newspaper or listen to the news, I find myself looking or listening for stories about kindness. I like to think that I’m developing a radar of sorts—an inner honing device that seeks and recognizes kindness. I’m a firm believer in the idea that we tend to see whatever it is we’re looking for. If we spend our days looking for what’s wrong, we will become skilled at finding what’s broken, insufficient, or flawed. And if we look for what’s good and right, that’s we will find.

For a couple of decades I’ve had pinned to my bulletin board an old Ashleigh Brilliant postcard that says, “If you look hard enough for what doesn’t exist, eventually it may appear.” A few years ago, a friend noticed it and asked me why that was on my wall, when all my other quotes and cartoons were so positive. I was baffled.

I told her, “But that is positive. It tells me to keep believing, even when I don’t yet see what I’m seeking. It’s all about the power of belief. How do you see it?”

Quite differently, it would seem. She told me, “If I think my husband is cheating on me and I look hard enough, I’ll find out it’s true.”

Well, I guess that is one way of looking at it. [Spoiler alert: the marriage didn’t last much longer.]

To a large degree, I think we do make our own reality. I’ve known people who have had more than their share of loss, illness, and misfortunes, yet they maintain a positive outlook and still manage to find something good in every mishap. They are a joy to be around.

I’ve also known people who see every loss and every misfortune as proof that the world is against them and life’s not fair. More of the same is pretty much all they expect of life, and that pervading gloom is what they convey to others. Spending time with such people can be draining—I’ve heard them referred to as energy vampires.

I’m not advocating being a Pollyanna. Perpetual and mindless cheerfulness can be as tiresome as the persistent pessimist. Each of us needs to be an activist in our own life. When we see unkindness, injustice or prejudice, we must speak out and stand up for what’s right. But if our radar is focused like a heat-seeking missile on finding mistakes and shortcomings, then life is probably pretty bleak. It’s the old glass-half-full or glass-half-empty conundrum.

Mother Teresa is reported to have said, “I was once asked why I don’t participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.”

I was reminded of that quote when I read Jerry Large’s column in The Seattle Times the other day. He wrote about a woman in the nearby town of Snohomish who was being removed as a volunteer leader in Young Life, a well-established Christian organization for high-school students. Pam Elliott’s “crime” was participating with other mothers in making decorations for the Seattle Pride Parade later this month, and posting the pictures on her Facebook page. She did it in support of a friend and the friend’s gay son, and because she believes in equality for everyone.

“Love is love,” Elliott said. “I am not a big activist, I’m supporting my friend. This is what we do for each other, we love each other’s kids like our own.”

The Young Life people gave her a choice. Ms. Elliott can continue her work as a volunteer leader—work which she loves—if she retracts her Facebook posting and stops aligning herself with the gay rights movement. The choice she made was to continue to support her friend and her friend’s son … and what she knows to be right. I’m not comparing Pam Elliott with Mother Teresa, but, like Mother Teresa, Ms. Elliott chose to stand for something, rather than against something else.

The more we choose positive over negative, good over bad, kindness over apathy or unkindness, the closer we all move toward manifesting the world we want to live in, and want future generations to know without question.

That’s what I look for when I read the news…

“What we choose to love is very important for what we love leads our eyes, ears, and hearts on a pilgrimage that shapes the texture of our lives.” (Wayne Muller)

Great Expectations

“We become what we love.  Whatever you are giving your time and attention to, day after day, is the kind of person you will eventually become.” (Wayne Muller)

Attribution: Donna CameronI look at this year as an opportunity for me to practice kindness and to learn to extend kindness more often and more naturally.  It is also an opportunity for me to expand my kindness awareness, to see others acting kindly and recognize the act for what it is.

While I will undoubtedly observe many incidents of unkindness or of kindness opportunities missed—and many will surely be my own—I don’t want to spend my time looking for or focused on those negative examples.  As Jose Ortega y Gasset says, “Tell me what you pay attention to, and I will tell you who you are.”

It has been my experience that for the most part, in our day-to-day lives we get what we expect.  If I expect to be treated with courtesy and respect, I generally am, and am greatly surprised when not treated thusly.  Of course, I am saying this as a middle-aged, middle-class, white woman.  I am not so naïve that I don’t realize I could be treated very differently if I were of a different age, race, gender, background, or circumstances.  Far too many people still react out of prejudice, fear, and ignorance.  That brings to mind Tom Lehrer’s words in the intro to his classic song, National Brotherhood Week: “There are people in the world who do not love their fellow human beings and I hate people like that.” Still, I want to be a person who expects the best—of myself and others.

When What We Do Gets in the Way of Who We Are

There are a lot of people—smart, generous, and kind—whose professions have trained them to look for what’s wrong and rewarded them for their efforts.  We saw this with certain clients in our company over the years.  If success in their profession requires that they be good at finding mistakes, aberrations, or imprecision—as building inspectors, clinical diagnosticians, or auditors, for example—they sometimes extend that ability to other parts of their lives, often completely unaware that it may not be appropriate or appreciated.  They are always the ones to point out the typo in the newsletter … they find fault with the way the hedge was clipped or the lawn was mowed … they feel the need to inform their waitress in the Thai restaurant that “Wellcome” is misspelled on the menu (let’s you and I move to Bangkok and open a restaurant and see if we get everything right)….

Sadly, they listen for the missed note rather than for the music.

Sometimes, with only a few words, they can suck the life and joy out of an encounter.  They’re “just trying to help” by pointing out a flaw, but the person they’ve pointed it out to can be annoyed, demoralized, and even demotivated.  We saw the damage such behaviors wreak in a board room; I can only imagine what having such a critical person as a spouse or parent might be like.

The lesson here may be that what makes someone good at their job may not be the same skills that make them a good parent, board member, or friend.  Sometimes, the kindest thing we can do is overlook the unimportant blunder, the mispronunciation, the misstatement.  It’s hard, though, if you’ve been trained to seek out flaws, or if it’s important to you that everyone knows how smart you are.  I think it sometimes comes down to would you rather be right or happy? because you can’t always be both.  This is one of those lessons we learn and relearn, and choices we choose and rechoose.

An editor friend of mine once told me he finds it hard at times to read for pleasure, because he can’t turn off the editor in his head.  He finds himself looking for errors or better ways to craft a sentence rather than enjoying the author’s passion or the story.

Wayne Muller, in one of my favorite books of all time, How, Then, Shall We Live? elegantly describes the dangers of honing our critical skills to the exclusion of others:

“All we are is a result of what we have thought.  If we focus the lion’s share of our energy on what we believe is wrong…, we gradually grow into people who are good at seeing what is wrong….  Instead of creating a life of beauty and meaning, we may simply become better and better at seeing only what is broken.”