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Today is Valentine’s Day and this weekend I got to see empowering love in action. Jim Savage is a therapist in Addison, TX who hosts a monthly meeting at the Dallas Recovery Center called the Artist’s Recovery Meeting. In typical 12 step fashion, the first part of the meeting includes a testimony from a local artist who is in recovery. The stories of metamorphosis from a raging alcoholic or addict to a recovered and contributing member of the arts community is as inspiring and beautiful as the art being displayed and performed.
The second half of the meeting is an open forum for artists of all mediums and levels of ability to express themselves through their work. Music, poetry, painting, photography, and even a standup comedy routine were on the lineup. What struck me the most throughout the evening was the level of support, encouragement, and admiration for the artists, no matter what their stage of development. One member of the group had never done art before, but was so inspired from attending these monthly meetings that she decided to purchase a sketchbook of her own. That night she presented her drawings for the first time. She wanted to be involved. Share herself with us. Become a part of something bigger than herself. We were all impressed by her bravery, her openness, and her creativity. In return for what she shared, the group gave her praise, encouragement, and a challenge to keep drawing, keep sharing, and keep inspiring others through her personal and artist journey.
The experience that night taught me something about therapy and life. Every human being wants three things from their relationships:
- To be known: Art is an expression of self. Copying someone else’s painting, singing another person’s song, or mimicking another person’s dance is only art insofar as it allows the performer to infuse some element of themselves into the experience. When clients enter my office, they do so in order to express themselves. Many are nervous about the encounter. They wonder and worry whether or not they will be heard, understood, and related to. Clients share the good, the bad, and the ugly about their lives, trusting that their therapist will not form quick judgments or opinions, but will take the time to know them fully. The best therapists do so with diligence and care. Common phrases that I hear in therapy are “I don’t know where to begin”, “does that make sense”, “not sure if I’m explaining this correctly”, “I know I’m just scratching the surface here”, and “I hope you understand where I’m coming from.” It is hard to be vulnerable. There is always a chance of being misunderstood. I tell my clients every day that they may need to tell me their story several times and several ways before I “get it”, but if we keep working at it and don’t give up, the understanding will come. If we want to experience deep, fulfilling relationships we must know ourselves and be known by others as we truly are. Take the risk, keep sharing your story, and don’t forget to hear and understand others too.
- To be accepted: Being known is not synonymous with being accepted. Just watch some of the early episodes of American Idol. Some contestants are accepted and advance in the competition and others are rejected and sent home. Rejection is one of the biggest fears associated with transparency. It is a risky business. When someone understands who we truly are and refuses to accept us, the blow to our psyche can be staggering, but when we share our struggles and find understanding and acceptance, it can heal the deepest of wounds. Supportive environments like AA/NA/CR/Al-Anon/CoDA help struggling members find the love and acceptance they need to discover their true selves and decide how they need to change. Therapy is a place where this can occur as well. Many clients fear abandonment. They sit in a therapist’s office because they have been abandoned by people like friends and family who should have loved and accepted them the most. Often, they seek counsel on how to change themselves so they can become more acceptable to others. The goal of therapy is to shift their insight toward loving and accepting themselves. If you cannot do this, you will never be able to accept the love and acceptance that others provide you. This is the value of sponsorship in the recovery community. Individuals seek out members with similar life experiences who can understand their stuggle and will accept them in whatever stage of recovery they may be. Nothing should surprise a sponsor or a therapist. If something does, it doesn’t mean they or you are bad. It just means you need someone with a different expertise or experience to guide you. Don’t get discouraged if it takes you several tries to find that right fit.
- To be empowered: Understanding and acceptance are great, but if we stopped there, no one would ever change, grow, or experience new challenges and opportunities. Ultimately, each of us wants to be empowered to succeed in life. True love empowers. In AA, the motto is “keep coming back. It works if you work it.” Artists are never satisfied with painting one picture, singing one song, or writing one story. We want to continually create, improve, push the limits, grow. The same is true for life. Relationships should empower us to be better, more fulfilled, and complete. Psychologically, we would describe this process as self-actualization. Friendships challenge us. Sometimes there is conflict. Unfortunately, this is the destructive illusion of social media. We surround ourselves with virtual people who like all our posts or simply defriend us if they don’t. As a result, we have become sensitized to the friction that should be a natural part of any relationship. We disagree, we argue, we question, we push, all the while providing love and acceptance in the process. This is the beauty, the dance, the song of relationships. Feedback is important. Those who observe your life, much like those who observe art, have the right to say “I like that” or “I don’t like that.” Don’t dismiss the dislikes. Observe and explore them. It doesn’t mean you have to accept them as the truth, but they can challenge you in ways that simple praise may not.
Artist’s in recovery was a great experience for me. I witnessed something amazing that night: not just the beautiful products of art but the beautiful processes of art. Life is the same. May each of our lives continue to produce beauty. Don’t give up on the process!!
Question: If your life was a piece or product of art, what would it be? How would you describe it? Who have you shown your art to? What was the response? Where have you found a community that understands, accepts, and empowers the beauty of your life?
No, there is not a typo in the title above. My wife and I saw the movie, Saving Mr. Banks, several weeks ago and we both loved it (even though I tried to convince her beforehand to see Lone Survivor instead!!). After the movie I thought about how enthralled I was by the plot, the acting, the scenery, and the lessons embedded in the story. I was captivated. My attention was fully engaged. I found myself wishing I could be that focused in real life. Unfortunately, I’m not.
This past week, I had a breakfast scheduled with one of my good friends, and I completely forgot about it. To make matters worse, we had seen each other the day before, and he specifically asked if we were still on for it. When I woke up the next morning and saw his text asking what happened, I was mortified.
Back-tracking the events of the previous day, I was able to do a “post-mortem” on my failure. I had a speaking engagement the day before and put my phone on do-not-disturb and then forgot to reverse the settings. Subsequently, the alarm on my phone did not go off the next morning and I over slept. Even so, I could have made it to the breakfast, but without the reminder, my mind went completely blank. (Now do you get the title?) I started my daily routine without even thinking about the appointment. It wasn’t until I finished some work on the computer that I checked my phone. By that time, it was too late.
Thankfully, my friend was gracious, but I still felt bad. It got me thinking. How should we respond when our minds go blank? When we fail to live up to the commitments we have made, is there any hope of redemption and restoration. Here are some responses that I have found helpful:
1.Own the failure: When you commit to something, it becomes your responsibility no matter what excuses you may have for why you failed. Don’t use the excuse that it was out of your hands, even if it really was. You are welcome to give an explanation for your failure, but don’t expect that the explanation will sufficiently satisfy the offended party. That is something they have to decide.
2.Owe the friend: If at all possible, try to make amends. With my friend, I offered to reschedule for lunch (so that I would be sure to be awake in time – I haven’t slept until noon since college), foot the bill (we normally go Dutch when we get together), and step it up a notch (Let’s just say, I didn’t take him to 7-Eleven for a chili dog). Now, I recognize in doing these things that they don’t negate the time of his that I wasted, but they were gestures of good faith to demonstrate my sorrow and say that I do value the relationship.
3.Oust the feeling: My tendency is to hold on, to feel embarrassed and uncomfortable when I make mistakes like this. But if I do, it actually means I am too proud to let my friends know that I am human, and in any relationship, this is the inevitable realization, the longer you are together. So I have to be willing to forgive myself and let it go, move forward, and accept mercy and grace.
4.Omit the Frequency: There are times when we just blow it. But some failures become patterns of behavior we have to change. If your friends start calling you Mr. Blank, you might have a problem with forgetfulness. There are two ways to respond. We can say, “Oh well, that’s just me” or we can chose to change. It may require work. We may need help from friends, family, books, coaches, a therapist, or even a physician, but we need to recognize when we have areas of our lives that need to improve and really make an effort to change. Remember, excellence is a process. Don’t give up on it. Don’t give up on yourself!!
Question: How do you respond when you blow it? Are there ways that you have found helpful to make amends? What successes have you had in overcoming unhealthy patterns in your life?
We have come to the last “P” in our series on the four P’s of Conflict. As a reminder, the previous three are Power, Preservation, and Purpose. The last is PERCEPTION. Have you ever had a misunderstanding? Conflicts of perception result in two ways. The first is when two people entrenched on opposing sides of an issue fail to understand intellectually and empathically the positions of their opponent. The second is when we question or misperceive the intentions and/or character of the individuals involved.
Example 1: The perception – “Man, she is so pushy. I just don’t get why she makes such a big deal about politics. I mean, really! Is God in control or isn’t He?” The response: “Why does he refuse to pull his head out of the sand?! If we don’t stand up for what is right, who will?” The conflict: activism vs. passivism. Note that both sides probably have valid experiences that shaped their philosophies. Their emotions flare because they can’t or won’t understand the other.
Example 2: The perception – “That guys house is lavish! He must be one of those shallow socialites who have to one up everybody else!” The response – “Oh no, it’s one of those “holier than thou” vow-of-poverty types who relishes condemning others for enjoying a few of life’s modern comforts.” The conflict: Theology of stewardship. Here, both individuals are in the wrong because of their misperception of each other.
Think about how often our mistaken perceptions of the ideas and character of others create disunity and confrontation in our relationships. “He’s just lazy, she’s just stubborn, they are selfish, snobby, etc.” The rifts that result have damaged our families, our schools, our churches, our businesses and more. But even if our perceptions are correct, we fall short of resolving conflict if we do not seek to understand what has made each of us the way we are and work to empower each other to change. This being said, I’d like to give a few tips on dealing with conflicts of perception:
Regarding Cues: Clarify what’s communicated. We communicate verbally and nonverbally. Both are susceptible to misperception. Effective conflict resolution requires identifying and clarifying social cues. Fritz Pearls, the father of Gestalt therapy, was a master at picking up on the nonverbal cues in conversations. He would often ask clients to exaggerate certain shifts in body position to heighten clients’ awareness of hidden emotions. We certainly don’t need to be this confrontational in our everyday relationships, but we can ask for clarification when the messages we are receiving don’t add up: “You say you’ve forgiven me, but you cringe when I try to touch you. Is there something more you’ve not told me?” “I notice it’s been hard for you to make eye contact during our conversation. Is there something I can do to make you more comfortable?” Understand that some people will chose to remain unengaged. They will resist such attempts for transparency, but don’t be deterred. Your attempts at clarifying will serve you well in the long run.
Regarding the Past: Know but Don’t Go! As human beings, we like to categorize people and situations. This mental referencing is a natural way to improve our efficiency in dealing with common situations. You might think of it like the autocorrect on your phone when you text. But sometimes we make initial assumptions based on past experiences that are incorrect. We must stay judgment and give people the benefit of the doubt if we are to resolve conflict. Know your past experiences, but avoid drawing conclusions from them until you have all the facts from the current situation!
Regarding Motives: Trust but verify! We all know the passage in the Bible that says, “People look at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) This is certainly true during conflict. We can never really know the motives of others, but to engage in conflict effectively, we must have some faith in people. Otherwise, why bother? If you have trust issues in a particular relationship, deal with that first. Then address the specifics of the conflict. If the pattern of someone’s behavior points to an overriding desire for Power or Preservation, then seek outside help from a counselor or trusted mutual friend. If you’ve been burned in the past, bring healing to your wounds by acknowledging and learning from the pain. Don’t surrender to a life of isolation!
Questions: How has your perception of a particular problem affected your relationship with people in your life? What happened when you took the time to clarify your misperceptions? Did it help to resolve the conflict?