Friday, November 13, 2009

Drowning the Lifeguard

Last Sunday, before returning home from Luke's and Sarah's wedding, Iris and I sat in the bagel shop in Porter Square drinking coffee, eating actual bagels (not the bagel shaped bread substance that we have here in the Berkshires) and playing with our Macs (Iris importing photos from the wedding and me writing a blog article). As we sat there, one of the guys who lives across the street in the park above the Porter Square T Station wondered in, got himself a cup of coffee, sat next to Iris, and then proceeded to talk to her for the next ninety minutes.

Iris listened intently and asked questions as this man talked about everything from having gone to prison to transforming himself and his life. As he talked, it occurred to me that he probably rarely if ever had someone who would listen to him as intently and lovingly as Iris. The more Iris listened, the more he talked. An hour and a half later, we needed to get going in order to get back in time for one of Iris' playroom sessions. So, we left. However, I think had we not left, the man might have talked and talked and talked.

A Day Later
The next day, I sent emails to a bunch of people (my dad included) making sure that they knew they were welcome to join Iris and me for Thanksgiving at our place. I mentioned that, if they'd already made plans with others, they were welcome to bring the others as well.

My dad, in an effort to encourage others to join us, sent emails to several family members imploring them to join us so that "he could spend one last Thanksgiving with everyone before he dies."

The Day After That
The next day, I was speaking with a buddy who recently broke up with his girlfriend. Over the last few years, they'd had a rather stormy and passionate relationship. Recently, he'd decided to stop taking things personally, accept his girlfriend for who she was, and really put himself into the relationship without qualification. Amazingly and impressively, he'd really done it.

The crazy thing is that the more he accepted her, the less he took things personally, and the more he simply rolled with things without reacting, the more she would do things to challenge his acceptance of her. It's almost as though she were afraid to accept his acceptance of her.

Drowning the Lifeguard
What do these three little vignettes have in common? In each case, someone is hanging on so tightly to what they want that they are doing the very things that would preclude their getting or keeping it.

The man in the bagel shop wants so desperately for someone to hear him and to know him that he approaches anyone who will listen like a starving refugee suddenly presented with one last meal. He talks so incessantly that people begin to avoid him. The more he talks...

My dad wants so much to have his family together for Thanksgiving that he uses morbid references and guilt to achieve his goals. Both are such turn-offs that even people who love him would really prefer nor share joyous and celebratory occasion with someone set on guilt and morbidity.

My buddy's girlfriend wants so desperately to be accepted and loved unconditionally, that she questions and doubts every overture from someone who truly accepts and loves here; the more he accepts her, the more she does things to drive him away.

Each person exhibits a kind of relationship death-wish. Any time someone comes along who might help fulfill what they so deeply desire, their fears get the best of them and they drown the the lifeguard.

Squeezing Jell-o
At one time or another, each of has drowned the lifeguard.

It occurs when we start hanging on too tightly, start taking things too seriously, start making things too important, when we let reaching the goal completely overwhelm enjoying the journey. It's a bizarre phenomenon where the tighter we hang on to the outcome, the more we do things that undermine our achieving it. It's like squeezing our fingers tightly around a lump of jell-o to avoid dropping it.

Are there places in your life where perhaps you're drowning the lifeguard? They're not always easy to see; however, if you pay attention, you can spot them. Here are some key indicators:
  • People avert their eyes when you walk into the room or look about furtively as you speak with them at a party
  • You've told the same story to someone for the fifth time today
  • Despite your best intentions, you find that the majority of things that come out of your mouth are complaints or concerns or negative comments
  • You've started to get angry at or resentful of people you love because they don't pick up after themselves or they don't put the cap back on the toothpaste
  • You consistently look to others to help you overcome fears and insecurities
  • Your partner or your kids or your colleagues glaze over or ignore you or get angry when you bring up your concerns about them or your mutual situation or what's wrong with the world

Save Yourself!
If you have been drowning lifeguards in your life, the solution is simple albeit perhaps not easy: breathe and let go! I'm not talking about becoming non-caring or apathetic. Keep you passion! However, let go of the outcome.

If just doing it seems too difficult, then it might be useful to find someone with whom you can Dialogue in order to get to the root of your fears and concerns. You might find that many of your lifeguard-drowning, jell-o-squeezing activities stem from just one core belief!

Negativity-free Diet
Alternatively, you can take the diet approach. Spend a week where you say nothing negative, listen to nothing negative, and take no actions based on negative beliefs (fear, doubt, insecurity). Don't worry about changing the thoughts and beliefs; just take action! The thoughts and beliefs will follow.

To make your diet most effective, enlist the aid of the people around you. Let them know your intention: a week of positively-charged word and deed. Ask them to contribute by limiting themselves to positive actions and discussion and by calling you on it whenever you lapse.

Go to the bank and get one-hundred dollar bills. Let everyone (including your kids) know that, whenever you lapse into negative word or deed, you'll give them a dollar. Depending on your situation, you may want to make it two-hundred dollar-bills.

Each time you catch yourself or someone catches you, don't sweat it, just stop, or, flip it into something positive. For example, if you see a piece of trash dancing down the street in the wind, rather than complaining about it or thinking "what the hell", chase it down and toss it into a trash can.

For You Lifeguards
If you're a lifeguard avoiding drowning, then it might be time to stop averting your eyes or sidestepping the drowner and simply point out, "Hey, have you ever noticed how, whenever you... that people...."

Even though we often avoid saying things like this to avoid "hurting someone's feelings", in fact we're really doing it for our own comfort. It doesn't help someone with a booger hanging from their nose to look the other way and not tell them about it.

As for me, I'm going to write my dad an email inviting him to abandon his strategy of morbidity and guilt.

Happy swimming!


  1. A couple of thoughts, Teflon, about what makes something 'positive' or 'negative'. Actions or behaviors that we may call negative are being done by somebody for a reason. They are getting something out of it; the real question to ask them is whether it's also what they want long-term, or whether they realize they are also getting something they don't want. In general, I'm finding it more useful to use 'constructive/destructive' or 'helpful/unhelpful', instead of 'positive/negative'. Then, to decide what's constructive or helpful, one will need to be clear about what one wants in a particular situation, and that clarity really makes things simple to understand and act upon.

  2. Hi Sree, Thank you for your thoughtful words. I agree with you in general, but in this case, I really meant to use "positive" and "negative."

    In general, I think about these things this way. Our actions are either aligned with our wants and goals or they're not aligned with our wants or goals. In terms of judgment-free words, I would probably use 'useful' or 'not useful' when talking about activities and their relative alignment to what we want to achieve.

    I also agree that our actions are always aligned with SOME want or goal. If our stated wants and actions are misaligned, then it's typically for one of several reasons.

    1. The underlying want driving our actions is not the stated want.

    2. We have two wants that are in conflict. For example, we may simultaneously want to be with someone AND fear not being with them (want to not not-be with them). These may seem aligned, but "moving-towards" drive completely different activity than "moving-away-from" wants.

    3. We don't know how to achieve or we're not very good at achieving our what we want, but we're acting any way, e.g., banging loudly on the piano because we want to play Mozart.

    So, from a general process perspective, it makes sense to look at the alignment between goals and activities, and then determine ways to improve it.

    All that said, in the case above, I really meant "negative" and "positive". I have many friends who really seem to understand (at least cognitively) that we do what we do because we want to AND that we have a rationale for every action. Still, that understanding doesn't always result in better alignment. So, sometimes it's useful just to try something else.

    Bears has said that the Option process is the SECOND best way to become happy. He says that the best way is simply to decide.

    So, as I was writing this article, it occurred to me, "Hey, what about just dropping the negative stuff. Forget about the beliefs and fully understanding why we're doing what we're doing; instead, just make the changes and see what happens, a more inductive approach.

    We each have an understanding of what we mean by "negative" beliefs, actions, thoughts and emotions and what we mean by "positive" ones. And with little effort, each of us can probably name five positive and five negative beliefs, actions or thoughts that we do regularly (all without digging into why we do them).

    So, I thought that in some cases it might be more useful to take the approach of doing rudiments: running simple exercises where the understanding comes from the doing.

    Does that make any sense? I'd love to hear what you think about it and I really appreciate your clear and thoughtful comments.

  3. Great points, Teflon. A few of mine in response, in no particular order:
    1. I totally agree that there are times when simple exercises help, without having to dig deep and trace the source.
    2. You say "each of us can probably name five positive and five negative beliefs...". Hmm. I think that's true for people who are somewhat self-aware of their thinking processes and retain a sense of self even when they are doing behaviors that don't help. I can think of at least one person in my life for whom that may not be true... but let me chew on that a bit more.
    3. My reluctance to use "positive" and "negative" comes from having used them extensively over many years, and from being deep in the 'personal growth' field where they are used widely. I see them being helpful for people who are totally new to the concept, but only up to a point. And just so I state it, my use of the alternatives is totally my own preference at this point (based on this experience), and was in no way disputing your choice. It was very insightful to read why you chose those words deliberately.
    4. I like the way you phrased your #2; a different twist from the way I perceive it.

    Good discussion...

  4. Sree, this is fun. I'm really curious about your #2 as, for me, it seems to be to be nearly impossible to lack the capacity for self-awareness. I could see that someone might ignore the cues, but not that they would miss them altogether.

    I was once presented a bunch of tone-deaf guys and told that I needed to get them to sing. Long-story-short, they actually could sing on pitch once they learned that pitch was part of music. They'd always thought that music was just words and rhythm. When we took out both of those components and started just humming pitches, voila!

    So, perhaps the door to self-awareness is simply the right question e.g., when someone does something that is negative (destructive, misaligned, not useful, stupid, thoughtless, fearful, uncaring), one could simply ask them whether or not they would qualify their action as such.

    Or, perhaps you could frame the question first by asking who they consider to be the most positive and optimistic person that they know, and who they consider to be the most negative and pessimistic person. Once that is established say something like, "OK, if we consider Jethro to be a ten (most positive) and Sally to be a one (least positive), where would you place yourself?"

    Or something like that.

    I'd like to hear more about your person who's missing the self-awareness gene.

  5. Tef, back to your "As for me, I'm going to write my dad an email inviting him to abandon his strategy of morbidity and guilt."...towards inviting him to explore his beliefs.....what about inviting him with what would it mean, or is he concerned about, might happen/mean if he was no longer feeling morbid, guilty?

  6. BW, I think that what you're proposing would be a great way to approach my dad if I indeed knew that he were feeling morbid or guilty. The thing is that I don't know what he's actually feeling, I just know what he's doing.

    So, for me, it was more about how well aligned his actions were with his stated intentions

  7. How about 'positive' as moving towards something that I want, and 'negative' as pushing away from something that I don't want?

    How about surrendering judgement about one as good, the other as bad, but simply ask the question, which seems more likely to be useful and more likely to feel good, right here and right now in this circumstance?

    I know that I do sometimes choose to express and act on the thing I don't want, and I may not even be think about what I do want. In those moments, the thing I 'want' is to be sour or negative. Why do I do that??

    When I choose the negative version, there must be a reason. Somehow I must be holding the idea that it will be better for me to put out into the world what I dislike or don't want, instead of what I like or do want.

    When I stop to examine those choices, my conclusion is always the same. Whatever I imagined I would be gaining by focusing on what I don't want turns out to be chimerical. I get more by thinking about what I want, how to get it, and how to be comfortable regardless of the outcome.


  8. hmmm, oohkay, so your judgement about what he is 'doing,' morbidity/guilt, rather than judging he's experiencing morbidity/guilt, and thusly mirroring this?

    What I sense is none of us are guaranteed tomorrow, so dive in with todays relationships....rather than possibly have regrets? bw

  9. Hi BW,
    How do you dive in to a relationship? and what are the regrets you refer to?

    I see stating your own wants, expressing your feelings and asking others about their reasons for their behaviors as the only way I can create - or maintain - a relation with someone.

    Without this I can merely create a relationship with an impostor - the image I have created of a given person.

    - Joy

  10. Teflon: you said "... the person who's missing the self-awareness gene".
    Now, when you put it that way - of course there's no such thing. I too believe that everybody has the capacity to be self-aware. I guess I was thinking of people who don't seem to value it or exercise it much, and a situation where you don't have enough of a relationship/context to ask the 'right' question.

  11. Yes, anon....
    Joy I'm referring to choosing to get oneself wet, involved, rather than not bothering to continue to give questions, (not ask,) stimulation towards exploring ones freedom to change or to not change, towards realizing ownership.....
    Personally, in my past marriage of over 30 years, If i hadn't persevered, gave up earlier, cause it was difficult, out of laziness, or fear, earlier, yes I know down the road I might have felt gosh if only I hadn't given up... I could have made more of a positive difference if I hadn't given up, and didn't give the challange my all, which I did. I learned a lot from the experience, and have no regrets.
    Everything's been a gift. I cherrish it all.

  12. By the way, that last Anon was me (Sree). It rejects my Google account signup sometimes.

  13. Wow, what a stream of great stuff.

    Sree, I understand that one can create judgment-free definitions for negative and positive, a la moving towards what you want (positive) and moving away from what you don't want (negative), but I was actually purposely waning to use the loaded, biased, judgmental definitions in this context. I was really talking about attitudes, beliefs, activities, etc. that we consider to be bad. Ones that we and others are judging the hell out of.

    I understand that we have good reasons for doing the things that we're judging in ourselves and that we can explore them and figure them out. I was simply proposing, why bother with the hassle of figuring it out, when we can just drop the stuff we're judging.

    BW, in regard to the stuff with my dad, well, it's just the reverse of what I proposed to Sree. I'm not judging his use of morbidity and guilt to get what he wants; I'm just seeing it as highly ineffective. If there's a judgment about it, it would be that what he's doing is, well, stupid.

    BW, I'm also curious about how you might answer Joy's question. What does it mean to dive in and what are the regrets. (You might have answered her already, but I didn't quite get it.) It sounds as though, when it comes to relationships, you're playing not to lose rather than playing to win.

    Existing relationships are no more future-proof than future relationships, so it would seem to me that the logic you propose is somewhat hear based, i.e., avoiding loss or regret. For me, that feels like a terrible way to approach relationships. I definitely wouldn't want someone to stay with me because the future is uncertain.

    Joy, I agree that every relationship we have is with our perception of the person, not the person per se. I'm not sure that I would use "impostor" as it implies that the person is misleading us; how about illusion?

    If I follow where you're going with your question of BW, I think I'm on board. It's about what we do to move forward. As I think about it, one could totally isolate the person from the relationship. Typically, when we talk about ending a relationship, it's synonymous with leaving a person. Based on the thought that you've introduced, we could end relationships all the time, yet still be with the same person. I could end my stormy relationship with my mother-in-law and replace it with a loving relationship with my mother-in-law.

    Sree, what if value is simply based on understanding and awareness? In this case, awareness of awareness. It's kind of like learning art appreciation; they don't actually make you appreciate or value anything about art. Instead, they tell you about techniques and periods and colors, etc. They just let you know that they're all there.

    What if self-awareness could be taught like an art appreciation course? Would that be chimerical?

    Hey you guys, thanks for this great stuff. I'm really enjoying it!


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