Archives for posts with tag: unrelenting standards

As you know, I arrived in North Carolina last Wednesday for some much appreciated vacation as well as to attend the first ever reunion of all classes from my clinical psychology Ph.D. program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This is the first time I’ve traveled to NC on my own since my dissertation defense in 1997, which was a very short trip since I was still a psychology intern and needed to get back to work.

A five night trip with near total freedom in deciding my itinerary. A trip to a place I love. You know how James Taylor sings, “In my mind I’m going to Carolina”? He’s singing about Chapel Hill. His father was on faculty with the medical school. Chapel Hill is beautiful and song worthy. It is a relatively small city, dominated by a university, which is the oldest public institution of higher learning in the United States.

The first thing I noticed as I was driving from the airport to my friends’ house in Raleigh, was the countryside. The beautiful trees along the highway in their early stages of autumn color change. I noticed a glorious blue sky.

And then I saw them, the telltale V shape birds that pitch and rock when they glide. The turkey vultures were flying over the tree canopy. They are really interesting birds. They don’t live an elegant life. They are not smooth fliers and they scavenge for food instead of heroically gliding and catching fish that glint silver in the sun over the water.. I am not an ecologist but my guess is that despite their bad reputation, they are good for the ecosystem. In any event, with the exception of that apple tree attack in the Wizard of Oz, we don’t fear trees because they grow on decaying matter, some of it from animals, do we?

So one of my goals for this trip was to be mindful of places, people, and experiences. When I do this, I can find myself driving on one of the countless highways in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area and waxing romantically about an ugly bird that eats dead animals. This is the power of mindfulness. I say this half-jokingly but it is true. Mindfulness can transform something ugly into something else.

Throughout my mindful trip, I noticed that mindfulness is on the mind of a good number of my North Carolina friends. Doris Ann Price, a lively, artsy, bright and fun woman was the first person I met with on my first full day in NC. Doris Ann and I met in 3-D for the first time last Thursday. She was diagnosed with breast cancer some time ago and made the awful transition to metastatic cancer several years ago. Doris Ann is famous in social media for wearing a button that says, “Cancer Sucks”, a pair of artsy/intellectual glass, her smart black and red wardrobe, and her bright red “Lady Danger” lipstick. (I learned that this is her nickname, something that a friend told M.A.C. Cosmetics about, which resulted in Doris Ann receiving a lifetime supply of their “Lady Danger” lipstick.)

I enjoyed interacting with Doris Ann on Facebook but I didn’t really know her. Contrary to somewhat popular opinion, extroversion is not a super power (nor is introversion an illness, for that matter.). I typically feel at least slightly awkward when meeting new people even when I am very much looking forward to it. Doris Ann and I hit it off right away and had a lovely time together filled with fun and meaningful conversation.

Doris Ann’s cancer has spread to her brain. This is something I knew about her. What I didn’t know it that her voice right now, is a few notches above a whisper because a tumor is pressing against her vocal cords. Her throat is also narrowed, making eating a lot process with very small bites.

Doris Ann was very genuine with me about the challenges that cancer has brought to her life. Despite this, she is a very lively woman who has found a way to keep joy in her life. She told me that she “moves forward” in life until she sees a stop sign. And then at that point, she stops, reflects, problem solves, and regroups. Doris Ann’s health is monitored quite closely by her oncologists and other healthcare providers. She is an upbeat person but certainly not a Pollyanna. Doris Ann is mindful of the seriousness of her health as well as the positives in her life. I admire her emotional strength very much. Plus she was fun and brought me very delicious gluten-free pastries as a gift!

A couple of days later, I found myself at my reunion. I immediately saw someone I knew, Don Baucom, a faculty member who had been the director of clinical training when I was a student. He was greeting people as they arrived. Don is a gracious and kind man with keen intellect and a wonderful sense of humor. He greeted me with a big hug and I felt a little less awkward about going to a party with people I had not seen for a very long time.

I loved graduate school but there was part of it that was like the longest adolescence a person can have that is actually healthy and not just living in your parents’ basement playing videogames, until age 30. The program was supportive but very rigorous and difficult. These were very smart and successful students. We had never had to work so hard to do well in school. So there was insecurity and competition on top of the competition that is part of any academic environment at a major university.

There were only two other people at the reunion from my class and very few from other classes whom I knew all that well. And only two of my professors were there. At one point, I thought, “maybe I’ll leave early.” Then I got my mind out of the past and into the present and proceeded to have a very good time reconnecting with and meeting people.

A couple of particularly lovely things happened. I heard a voice behind me say excitedly, “Elizabeth!” It was April Harris-Britt, who had worked in my dissertation lab, while she was an undergraduate student (I did not work on a professor’s project. I did an independent project, developing and evaluating a parent education program.) April was a wonderful student and I encouraged her to continue in psychology at the graduate level. She did and she entered the Clinical Psychology Ph.D. program after I left. She now has a private practice in Durham, NC.

“I was so excited to see your name on the guest list,” she said as she held my hand. “When I think about why I became a psychologist, I always think of you.” I gave her a hug, a kiss on the cheek, got a little teary and told her how awesome she was and is. Then we caught up on our lives. I saw a photo of her beautiful 4 year old grand-daughter.

This was a very moving encounter. I have found that since I started practicing mindfulness, I don’t feel as awkward showing affection that I genuinely feel. Now, I’m not going around kissing everyone’s cheek. Another part of my mindfulness is trusting that my own guesses as to whether someone would be comfortable with this, are pretty good. After all, knowing people pretty well is part of my job.

There was live bluegrass music at the reunion. They were very good. There was space for dancing but no one was out there dancing. I was sitting next to Sandra Zinn, a lively, brilliant, free spirited woman who graduated a couple of years after me. She said, “No one is dancing!” You know that I love to dance and I’m learning to get past my fears of being bad at partner dancing and just not care that I am bad at it. So I put out my hand and said, “Let’s go!” As I anticipated, Sandra accepted. We made up for lack of skill with enthusiasm, smiles, and giggling. About two minutes into the song, I started feeling self-conscious and told her, “I’m running out of moves.” She said, “It doesn’t matter as long as you keep moving.”

I have done a lot of things this month that would have been hard for me to do in the past. I have had 3 D encounters with three friends whom I met on the internet, one of whom is one of my very closest friends. (The third is the lovely, talented, and interesting Frieda Rosenburg, a retired UNC librarian. We had a marvelous time at the NC Botanical Garden and shopping at A Southern Season.) I have partner danced with two different people on two different occasions.

I am still not good at partner dancing. But it’s much more important to know how to live well than how to dance well. I still get nervous meeting new people or feel awkward in a crowd. But I am learning the difference between real stop signs and fabricated ones like the ones caused by social anxiety, perfectionism, and borrowing trouble from a future I can’t know until it gets here.

The fabricated stop signs are exhausting and when I make them, I miss out on a lot in my life. I don’t know how long my life will be or how many stop signs are coming up. In the meantime, I will live a life as mindful, meaningful, and as genuine as I can.

Doris Ann at Weaver Street Market in Carrboro, NC.

Doris Ann at Weaver Street Market in Carrboro, NC.

With Frieda Rosenberg at the NC Botanical Garden. Photo by Frieda Rosenberg, 2014.

With Frieda Rosenberg at the NC Botanical Garden. Photo by Frieda Rosenberg, 2014.

My dissertation adviser, Joe Lowman with alumna Sandra Zinn. This photo captures each of them perfectly! And do you blame me for asking Sandra to dance?

My dissertation adviser, Joe Lowman with alumna Sandra Zinn. This photo captures each of them perfectly! And do you blame me for asking Sandra to dance?

April and me. Did I mention that I am so very proud of April?

April and me. Did I mention that I am so very proud of April?

As a psychologist, I work with a lot of parents who disagree about how to best address their children’s problems or often, whether there is a problem to address at all. A good deal of the time, these perpetual conflicts are a result of the couple trying to solve a different problem than the one they think they are trying to address. The real problem might be feeling like a bad parent and trying to solve it by deflecting blame to the other parent.

But what does it really mean to be good or bad? Kids often tell me that “bad kids” are the ones who get corrected by the teacher or who hit or who learn differently. In other words, “goodness” is defined by actions and abilities. A lot of the kids I see think of themselves as “bad”, which is an extremely painful state of being. I say, “I’ve worked with thousands of children in my life and I’ve never met a bad one. All children are good. Sometimes even grown ups get confused about this. They think that there are good and bad people.” When I say these things to children, I am not just trying to ease their pain. I mean it from the very bottom of my heart to the very top of my brain.

We make good and bad choices. We have skills at which we are good and those at which we are bad. We perform good and bad actions. These statements are true for all of us on a daily basis. We do good things and we do things well. We do bad things and we do things poorly. Every day. Every person. Are all of these good’s and bad’s equivalent in terms of importance? Of course not.

People are beings, not actions, skills, or decisions. Actions, skills, and decisions are capacities, not entities. I believe that every living being is a miraculous creation. A miraculous creation is a good thing. Every person is a miraculous creation. Why is this so hard to accept?

I spent a good part of my early life worrying about being “good enough”. The hardest times were when I was depressed. There were some things I learned getting myself out of those depressions, though. A very important lesson was that even having failed at happiness by becoming depressed was not the end of my life. I came back from the illness. I was more resilient than I had realized despite my imperfections. It was an important step in stepping away from the question, “Am I good?”

Stepping away from “Am I good?” is a really important part of self-acceptance. I don’t believe that self-acceptance is a absolute. It is a process toward an idea. I believe that I have traveled close enough to it to make a very large positive difference in my life.

I am discovering the freedom in self-acceptance, in stepping away from the question, “Am I good?” It allows me to more frequently see myself and others as whole people with beauty and mess. I am a messy imperfect but loving person. By accepting this, I am actually better able to make good decisions, engage in good actions, and learn good skills. I have a lot more time and peace as I learn not to berate myself. I don’t devote energy to fancy justifications for my actions.

Getting wrapped up in that question can cause so many problems. Even if you don’t believe that people are miraculous beings and inherently good, perhaps you might consider that classifying oneself and others as “good” or “bad” is really not helpful to anyone.

What does it mean to be good? It means that we are here. It means that we can move on to more useful questions, ones that bring love and compassion to our lives, instead of keeping us stuck.

 

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