Patting themselves on the back for being offended

When someone complains that all men are sociopathic skin hungry gorillas, or when someone whines that all women are irrational unpredictable nut jobs, two emotions run through my body.

The first is frustration. Thinking to myself, wow, extremes in anything accomplish nothing. Rarely do we find the truth by saying that everybody is something.

Besides, what does that thought get us? Sympathy from coworkers? Justification of our anger?

Fact is, thinking in extremes mostly leads to blind spots in our narrow vision. It enables confirmation bias, leaving us only seeing the people who are problematic.

Because when we’re expecting a certain type of person to suck, that’s precisely the sort of behavior that we notice, attract and accept.

Better to stop focusing on the bad and start forgiving people to find the good instead.

My second emotion is affection. Thinking to myself, wow, everybody is fighting a battle we know nothing about. Must be tough.

Here’s a compassion meditation that always helps me make sense of the world:

How is it possible that this person could think in such an extreme way, and under what circumstances would it make perfect sense for them to do so?

Simple. It’s because they have a trauma history and they’re trying to protect themselves. Somewhere somebody did something that resulted in them getting hurt, heartbroken, jaded and let down. It’s no wonder they make the leap of abstraction about a certain group. It’s no wonder they substitute generalizations for specific behaviors.

But this doesn’t make them right, insightful or provocative.

They’re simply a victim of all or nothing thinking, or what psychologists call dichotomous reasoning or cognitive distorting. It’s the automatic way of repeatedly interpreting something that causes us to not consider any other way of thinking about it.

We’re all guilty of it. And yet, our challenge for now is to simply notice it. Both in ourselves and in the people around us. And to check in with how we feel when it happens.

In a world where too many people are flooding their minds with outrage porn, patting themselves on the back for being offended and congratulating each other on how upset they are, simply noticing feels like progress. 

LET ME ASK YA THIS…
How long does it take you to understand your feelings and reactions?

There has been a cumulative impact on my psyche

Loneliness isn’t cured by merely hearing others, but by feeling heard by others.

Experiencing a real connection to people, but also believing that people feel connected to us too. Without that exchange, it’s more of a performance than a relationship.

Vanderkolk writes that social support is not the same as merely being in the presence of others. We can still feel lonely in a room full of people. We can even feel lonely in a romantic relationship. The critical issue is reciprocity, he says. Being truly heard and seen by the people around us, feeling that we are held in someone else’s mind and heart.

There was one particular year of my life, right around age thirty, when anxiety attacks started to become a weekly occurrence.

Shortness of breath, waves of claustrophobia, accelerated heart rate, racing brain, it all just started bubbling up inside me.

Because at the time, I was stuck in that dysfunctional way of relating to people. My strategy was as follows.

Isolate myself until the panic of loneliness comes crashing in. Overcompensate by calling everyone in my phone and booking multiple lunch meetings and attending events nonstop. Treat people as props in my person play until feelings of sadness and fear are properly medicated. Then disappear into the shadows and wait for the cycle to start over again.

Not the healthiest way to build community.

Therapists have a name for this process. The adrenaline response cycle. Continuous delay, heroic effort, crash and recovery. It’s common in everyone from cocaine addicts to codependents to procrastinators.

And the problem is, the cycle causes chronic stress, which creates cortisol, which suppresses the immune system, which leads to heart disease.

No wonder anxiety attacks were happening to me so frequently.

There must have been a cumulative impact of this cycle on my psyche, and my brain couldn’t help but sound the alarm.

Back to the idea of reciprocity and social support. That was my root issue. Belonging and community and connection. There needed to be a wholesale shift in my method of relating to others. There needed to be a greater effort on my part to do things that made me feel more woven into the world.

My therapist was a life saver in helping me visualize this shift. He named it, the ships that your soul requires:

Friendship, partnership, companionship, fellowship and relationship.

People whose support and encouragement make me feel alive, and vice versa. It became my daily mindfulness mediation for the next two years. And slowly but surely, those ships began to manifest in my life.

They weren’t perfect. And there were plenty of crashes along the way. Even a few sunken vessels.

But on the whole, this goal of being seen and heard, feeling held in other people’s minds and hearts, and reciprocating that same experience back to them, created a new foundation.

One built of authentic connection, not codependent performance.

There is still much water to explore, but at least for now, it feels like am much healthier place to be. 

LET ME ASK YA THIS…
What can you choose to do today not to feel lonely?

The mess they leave behind as they pass through

Macho, obstinate workaholics who sacrifice their health, relationships and sanity so they can find some imaginary pot of gold at the end of the rainbow are not heroes.

They should not be praised and exalted as true artists or masters of their craft.

Deniro makes this mistake in the best scene of the best heist movie of all time. He says to the very officer trying to arrest him:

We can’t just go do anything else, because we don’t know how to do anything else.

Pacino agrees with him, too. The cop and the robber are in the same dysfunctional boat. Their work is the only thing they’re committed to. The rest is the mess they leave behind as they pass through.

But here’s the thing. By the end of the film, there are millions of dollars in damage done to the city and dozens of civilian and officer deaths. All because of these men’s calcified and stubborn mindset. Because being cops and robbers is all they know.

That’s not heroic, it’s simply a lack of imagination.

Truth is, if someone is exceptionally good at something, they can take that with them anywhere they go. There’s no hard and fast rule that says you have to be one thing in life. There’s no consistency committee who says you can’t pivot into something else. And there’s no career police to throw the book at you for letting go of the work that defined you in the past.

We’re adults. We can do whatever we want, including altering our course. The only thing that stands in our way of pivoting and channeling our gifts into a different venue is ego.

People who say they can’t do anything else because they’ve never done anything else and don’t know how to do anything else, are terrible learners. They are scared and close minded and lack creativity.

It’s like the people who say there’s nothing under the sun.

Bullshit. The sun is eight hundred and sixty thousand miles in diameter. If you can’t find anything new under it, then you’ aren’t looking hard enough.

If you want to be heroic, try walking away from something that’s working. Try having faith in your own abilities to take your talents elsewhere. Try surrendering the narrowly defined view of yourself.

Hollywood won’t make a movie about it, but at least your sanity will remain intact.

LET ME ASK YA THIS…
What are you dismissing from your mind because you know it’s not possible?

The shield versus the sword

Recently a woman asked me if wearing a nametag was my security blanket.

It’s a fascinating question. One that can be answered from both sides.

Because on one hand, a security blanket is a comfort object. It provides someone with psychological relief, especially in unusual or unique situations. It’s essential to that person’s mental and emotional wellbeing.

Whatever the inanimate object is, irrational as their attachment may be, it still helps someone get through tough transitions.

In that case, the nametag is absolutely my security blanket. Wearing it makes me feel special and unique and creative, and most importantly, connected. It literally and figuratively reminds me who I am. It’s the life purpose icon that anchors me in an otherwise chaotic, unpredictable and cruel world.

And while it’s not the heart of me, it’s still a big part of me.

But let’s flip the argument for a moment. Because psychologically, a security blanket is something that you feel naked without, right?

Well, that’s the thing about wearing a nametag. I actually feel naked with it. The act of writing my name on a sticker, slapping it on my chest and walking around with it all day, every day, actually makes me feel quite exposed.

It adds a public layer of vulnerability and accountability to my daily interactions with the world. Which means there’s no hiding. My identity is laid bare, right there on front street, all of the time.

And so, it’s the opposite of a security blanket. Think about it. What makes you feel safer than anonymity?

Reminds me of a compelling study from a modern media journal. The researchers explored how online platforms are environments that afford users the chance to strategically employ anonymity to circumvent rigid norms around socialization.

When people have the option to be anonymous, or at least browse under the guise of an avatar, they purposefully disassociate their interactions from their known identity.

Which gives them a safer space for learning about others, about the world, and about themselves.

Take the nerdy kid who is socially awkward at school. Thanks to his security blanket of anonymity, he can digitally engage with people successfully, which boosts his confidence for interactions in the analog world. Time well spent.

But the blurry line is when people start using anonymity as a sword, not a shield.

Take the isolated, angry bully who wants to make other people’s lives miserable. Thanks to his security blanket of anonymity, he can digitally spew hate and post his insane threats, which ruin the internet for everybody.

And so, like most things in this world, security blankets are all about how we use them. If comfort objects help us become more productive and healthy and fulfilled, outstanding.

But if they become yet another thing for us to hide behind that justifies our behavior, then they’re doing more harm than good.

LET ME ASK YA THIS…
Are you using your security blanket as a shield or a sword?

The fallacy of agonizing convenience

Japan has historically run the best railway grid in the world.

But recently, they began investing in a two year project which will save, get ready for this, exactly one minute on a single train route.

Thanks to that few extra kilometers per hour, passengers now have a commute that is a whole sixty seconds shorter than before.

The best part about this story is, their transit authority has been planning this move for nearly a decade. Which means the concept must have been thought about and worked over and debated for years.

Talk about marginal utility. How precious would it have been to be in the board room for that executive decision?

You mean to tell me that our commuters will now have one extra minute in their days? You sir, have just earned a promotion.

All jokes aside, though, too many of us make this same mistake. It’s the fallacy of agonizing convenience. We spend too much time, money and energy trying to optimize our tasks, only to marginally the improve results.

We burn precious resources that could be more meaningfully deployed elsewhere.

My old startup boss used to tell our marketing team, always set a specific time frame on certain tasks. Give yourself a deadline, even if it’s something arbitrary.

It’s smart advice for anybody. Because it applies to a number of situations that could potentially drive any of us crazy.

If we don’t find the umbrella in the next five minutes, let’s just spend five bucks on a new one and get on with our day.

Let’s work on this project until dinner, then we’ll call it a night.

Whatever new code we have written by the end of the week, let’s push what we have so far.

What’s the commonality?

We objectify tasks in a concrete, externalized way, creating a forcing function that prevents waste. And our work no longer falls victim to the law of diminishing marginal utility.

At that point, that extra minute of our commute won’t even matter anymore.

LET ME ASK YA THIS…
Do you really need the entire fire department, or just a guy on a bicycle with a bucket of water?

Never underestimate the predictability of human nature

Hostage negotiation consultants who run bank robbery prevention trainings have a mantra.

Ignore human nature at your own peril.

One of the tactics they teach to tellers is to disclose personal information. If your bank is being held up, and the robbers start shoving you across the room, introduce yourself. Repeat your name over and over again. Humanize yourself and condition the robbers to know who you are.

It develops a relationship with your captor. And when you find a way to become a real person they’re going to want to make friends with, not just a hostage, your chances of survival are far greater.

This tactic seems counterintuitive and intimidating, but once again, never underestimate the predictability of human nature.

Names are proven to reduce the social distance between people. Archeologists have been studying this phenomenon for years. Particularly when it comes to classifying human remains.

Leighton’s research, a widely cited study on the topic, notes that each additional piece of information that can be gleaned from a person acts as another layer of identity laid back onto them. And their name is the leading example.

Take away someone’s name and you turn them into a number or an object. You start an active depersonalization process, stripping the person’s body of its too obvious personhood.

But call them by their name, and you restore something of the person. You make them more real. Even through such small pieces of information.

It’s the opposite of the lobster boiling rule, which is, never name the fish before you cook it. It’s not your pet, it’s your dinner. Naming it makes it too real, which makes you want to save it, and not eat it.

And so, crustaceans notwithstanding, name matters. They have never not mattered. Doing so restores the balance of power and tips the scales towards humanity and connection.

It’s one of the reasons wearing a nametag has been so effective.

Because people can’t help but know my name, they can’t help but treat me as a person.

Hasn’t gotten me out of any bank robberies yet, but there’s always hope. 

LET ME ASK THIS…
Whom do you see all the time whose name you still don’t know?

What if protestors had to wear nametags just like the police officers?

One of my core arguments for why everyone should wear nametags is, dishonest and uncivil behavior becomes more difficult to do.

With nametags, we give others the gift of security by letting them know who they’re dealing with. There’s nothing to hide behind. Our identity is always verified.

There’s a social construct that forces us to sign our work and take a stand for our identity. There is no temptation to act from a position of anonymity.

And this isn’t just conjecture based on my twenty years of wearing one every day.

Nametags have been clinically proven to make people more consistently accountable.

Zombardo, the renowned social psychologist, conducted the premiere study on this principle. In the seventies, he wanted to see how physical anonymity lessened inhibitions. The experiment asked the women to dress in white coats and hoods. They were then asked to give electric shocks to unknown patients.

The thing is, the shocks weren’t even real. But the fake nurses didn’t know that. What’s amazing is, only half of the nurses were given nametags for their lab coats. And the ones who didn’t wear nametags actually held the shock button twice as long as the ones who did.

Funny how human behavior changes when people are allowed to hide behind the cloak of anonymity.

Maybe nametags are more powerful than we give them credit for.

Now, this interpersonal pattern plays out in numerous fields beyond the medical world. Law enforcement is one that’s been examined more recently. With countless news stories on the ongoing trend of police brutality, nametags have quite literally come under fire.

Many cops have ignored the police uniform standards requiring officers to display their nametags on their outermost garments, as anti racism protesting has increased in the past several years.

Buffalo’s police commissioner, concerned with the force’s safety following an uptick in online harassment of its officers, just stopped requiring his cops to display nametags on their uniforms. The policy was altered after more than a dozen police officers were doxed, which is new term for when people publicly share personal information of unsavory actors and their families online.

In response to the order, some officers started displaying their badge numbers on black tape affixed over their nametags instead.

Portland’s police bureau issued a similar order. Officers that were assigned to protests started wearing helmets with three digit numbers prominently stenciled onto them. According to local news reports, the bureau will also begin sewing last names of officers into their uniforms, which will replace their small and hard to read metal nametags.

Wow, talk about a sticky subject. Who knew nametags could be so controversial?

My opinion, as someone who has almost certainly done more field research on the topic than anyone in history, has several aspects.

The first one is interpersonally.

Police reform advocates have the right to decry the new policy to disallow officers to wear nametags. In the name of transparency, I believe the more nametags we wear, the better people ultimately behave. Think of the nametag as a microstructure put into place to limit ourselves to only practicing honorable action. It’s not perfect,  but it’s better than anonymity.

The next point is aesthetic.

This is going to sound kind of ridiculous, but it’s actually meaningful.

All nametags should be visible from ten feet away. Not unlike a price tag in a retail store, identifying someone whose job is to protect and serve and care for the public should be a fast and easy process within the reasonable sphere of social distance. Look, if people are going to engage in a dark and chaotic moment like a protest, then all the more reason to wear the nametag properly. Don’t make others work to see your name.

The final point is one that I haven’t heard anyone address yet.

In regards to public demonstrations, the protesters seem to be angry that cops aren’t identifying themselves. My recommendation is:

Why don’t the protestors wear nametags? If accountability and transparency are so damn important, then why don’t the people holding signs and screaming slogans take some ownership and identify themselves as well? Maybe they should put their money where their moniker is.

Remember, communication is a two way street. We can’t demand that police officers wear nametags if we’re not willing to put our own identities on the line too.

This isn’t the internet where anybody with a wifi connection can cower behind their cloak of anonymity and spit vitriol all day long with zero consequence.

When you’re out on the streets exercising your right to freedom of assembly, some sense of social reciprocity is needed.

That’s one of the things that separates us from the animal kingdom. Naming is an essential act of human communication. It’s a distinctly human activity.

Sure, labels can be toxic in many situations, but in the case of letting other people know who they’re dealing with, they’re good things.

Take it from someone who has been wearing a label every day for over half his life.

Nametags have made me more honest, better behaved and more accountable to my fellow man.

My career as a bank robber may be bankrupt, but my character isn’t.

Say your own name.

LET ME ASK YA THIS…
When was the last time you put your identity on the line?

What if the race to win was turning all of us into losers?

Kohn’s seminal book stands as the definitive critique of competition.

Contrary to accepted wisdom, he explains, competition is not basic to human nature. When life become an endless succession of contests, when our work is structured upon the need to be better than, and when our time is spent busy struggling to outdo others, we are actually poisoning our relationships and holding ourselves back from doing our best.

And in fact, if we can recognize competition as a destructive force instead of a sign of value, we’re already more sane than most.

Where has this theory been my whole life? Hell, I thought it was just me who believed our compulsion to rank ourselves against one another is slowly annihilating our species.

But plenty of people believe that humans compete when it isn’t necessary, and pay the price in the form of anxiety and disconnection. It’s good to be not alone.

Reminds me of my former boss. He was former collegiate athlete, and so, when it came to winning new clients, the guy couldn’t just play the game, he had to engage, compete, win, kill and gloat.

As if every potential customer was his rival. This person was just an it, an object, merely someone over whom to triumph, something to use for his own ends.

And look, of course the company founder needs to be hungry and have that killer instinct. But his compulsive and manic energy made the rest of us feel used, exhausted and scared.

Buber’s revolutionary theory of interpersonal relating comes to mind. He stated that the pulsing field of energy and the humming electrical current between people was the divine in action. When people regarded each other as subjects and recognize their otherness, there was the making of human relationship at its fullest.

But there’s no space for that when we’re lost in the scurry of constant competition. Which means we are all losers in this war isn’t worth fighting.

Is competition a deep part of our nature that we will never outgrow?

Hopefully not.

Could we one day live in a world where winning is no longer necessary because there are no enemies?

Hopefully so.

LET ME ASK YA THIS…
Isn’t it time to look more closely at what competition does to us?

Wreathing through on an everlasting spiral

Graves, a pioneer in human consciousness theory, explained that we are always engaged in the process of becoming something more than we were, and not yet what we will be.

When challenges come up that we can’t solve at our present level of being, he says, we make a leap to a newer, higher order system biologically, psychologically, socially and spiritually.

He dubbed this theory spiral dynamics, since the psychology of a mature human being is an unfolding, emergent, oscillating process marked by progressive subordination of older, lower order behavior systems to newer, higher order systems as a man’s existential problems change.

Now, there is a ton of thick language there, but the gist is, we shift the relationship with the self to a new level.

It’s both curious and exhilarating when it happens.

Typically, there is a sudden contrast that presents itself. We get a new job or move to a new city or start a new relationship, and suddenly, we feel like a new person, yet more like ourselves than ever.

Or we come home for the holidays or attend the class reunion, and realize, oh wow, we are not the same people that we were the last time we were here.

However it happens, we detect some awakening of one or more new dimensions in ourselves. That’s the spiral dynamic. Because we are always growing, yet never covering the same ground, not merely an explanation of the past, but also a prophecy of the future.

And while the spiral defines and illuminates what has already happened, it is also leading constantly to new discoveries.

Isn’t that extraordinary? Knowing that our redundancy is a physical impossibility? Trusting that we can awaken a more elaborated version of ourselves on top of what already exists?

Emerson addressed this issue more than two centuries ago in his book about nature:

There is a trance of delight that beams and blazes all through the realities around us. This knowledge is like the breath of morning landscapes to the soul. Nature is wreathing through on an everlasting spiral, with wheels that never dry, on axles that never creak

Indeed, our spiraling is the start of a new movement in the symphony of our identity.

LET ME ASK YA THIS…
Will your consciousness grow through boxes you smash?

The city was growing so fast, they printed the phone book twice a year

Institutions, organizations and bureaucracies of any kind seek the same thing. People who comply, not grow. Which makes sense from an operational perspective. Compliance is extremely easy to measure, test, teach and scale. That’s what any of us would be doing if we ran a multimillion or billion dollar organization.

Buckminster, the legendary innovator and visionary, once observed that governments, religions and businesses would find it devastating to their activity to have humanity a success, as such institutions are predicated on people being an inherent failure.

It’s not quite a conspiracy theory, but there is enough productive paranoia in his sentiment that it’s worth delving into.

And not that complying is a mortal sin, either. Let’s not shit ourselves here. We all do what we have to do in order to survive. Everybody conforms, at least in small ways, some of the time.

But all lapses in integrity aside, what this concept does is point to a choice. One that not everybody has, but one that is certainly available.

It’s the choice to grow. The choice to morph and change, despite pressures from our environment that erode our sense of self and our confidence.

The choice to celebrate each of the steps of our growth as we take them.

The choice to develop and honest pride in how we have grown.

The choice to share that growth journey and adventures with those we love.

Reminds me of a line from my favorite fictional military policeman:

The city was growing so fast, they printed the phone book twice a year.

Wow, we should all be so lucky. Because as long as we keep growing, as long we keep changing, that means we are unpredictable, impossible to pigeonhole and difficult to control.

Remember, even if the strides of our growth take a while to compute and count, any time spent doing so is still sacred. 

LET ME ASK YA THIS…
Are you ready today to fight off whatever may stop you from growing?

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