Saturday, June 30, 2012

Accommodation, Assimilation and Normalization

 I was reading about concepts related to learning today and came upon these two terms: accommodation and assimilation. As I understand them, they might be explained this way: accommodation is the adjustment we must make when a new reality is discovered that changes a “held belief”, whereas assimilation is incorporating new information that just adds to our belief.

For example, if, as a child we have a pet cat that is gray in color we might assume that all cats are gray. Then we come across a cat that is black and we modify our belief to “not all cats are gray”. That is accommodation.

Then, along comes a third cat that happens to be Siamese and is neither black nor gray. We have already determined that cats come in different colors, and including this new information just adds to our already established belief. This is assimilation.

(I suppose I could also maintain my belief that cats only come in gray and that the black and Siamese are not cats but other species. But I would be a strange child.)

With these concepts in hand I was trying to determine if my acceptance of mental fatigue as normal was accommodation or assimilation. Then I realized it was neither. It was normalization. Duh.

We can normalize behaviors as a result of familiarity. If I grew up with a rageaholic in the family, then yelling just seems normal to me. So I might never question whether it is healthy. If I marry a noisy angry person I might just accept that that’s how people are. Hopefully somewhere along the way I will discover my misconception and accommodate the new reality and respond appropriately. If I do not, I will just become part of the transmittal of multigenerational family problems.

We can also normalize behaviors or states of being when we repeat them so often that we just adjust to them. Sleeplessness and metal fatigue is like that for me if I am not careful. After a while I begin to rationalize that this is how I am wired and so I determine that it must be normal for me. But it’s not healthy.

For me it takes a couple of good nights of sleep and a break from my work routine to realize that I have slipped into some unhealthy adjustments. If I am smart, I try to correct the circumstances under which I might slip back into my bad habits. This is why vacations and “days off” are so essential for me.

How about you? What have you or others around you normalized that are creating personal or relational difficulties? Sometimes it takes courage and fortitude to make the necessary changes.     

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Weddings and Life

If you are as connected into the life of a church with as many young people as we have, weddings will be a frequent occasion  for you – and always a singular event (hopefully) in a bride and groom's life. I was thinking of the lessons we can draw from this life-changing event that can help us with the rest of our years.

Getting enough sleep. Nothing kills our joy like fatigue. We were made to rest, nightly (sleep) and weekly (Sabbath). Ensuring that we get enough rest in this culture can be a challenge, but when we don’t our attitude suffers as well as our performance.

Staying within budget. Emptying out our pockets (and perhaps those of others) is fun in the moment, but remorse soon sets in when bills are due and the event or expenditure is past tense. Moderation and a good dose of reality is helpful here.

Managing expectations. It’s really fun to dream big. We imagine ourselves in the starring role of an epic movie written just for us. But reality has a way of disappointing. The bigger we dream, the more likely we are to be disenchanted. The solution is to “play the movie forward” and consider alternate (and possibly less favorable) endings and then adjust our expectations.

Over-planning and under-planning. Planning is essential to get any task done well, but over-planning chokes the life out of any venture. It becomes exhausting and doesn’t allow for any spontaneity. Under-planning is often a prescription for chaos and conflict. A good balance is always the best remedy.

Present in the moment. We can get so anxious about how all the details of an event are unfolding that we can lose the joy and significance of the moment. We can’t go back. We can only go forward. Spend your time with great awareness.

Light heartedness and a good sense of humor. Stuff happens unexpectedly and our ability to deal with it in a pleasant manner makes all the difference between our social success and failure. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

People are more important than things. Having a welcoming heart and emotional connection with people is much more important than a pretty centerpiece or perfectly matching colors. Those things will soon be forgotten, but your smile and kind words will last a lifetime. Be generous with your affection and you will never be alone.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The False Self

I just finished reading the chapter entitled “The Impostor” from Abba’s Child by Brennan Manning.  It is about the false self -- the shadow personality or projected self that we all have.

The false self always wants to look better than it is – better than it feels. It wants to project an image of being more successful, smarter, more courageous, more confident, more competent, and more emotionally healthy. But it is hiding behind an illusion of its own making.

The ability to present our true selves is critical in dating and marriage. How can I really love you if I don't know who you are down deep. If I don't really know you, then who and what am I saying "yes" to at the marriage alter? This is one of the reasons why taking a reasonable amount of time before becoming engaged is essential. Can you really say you have gotten past the projected image to the real person?

It is always unpleasant to be confronted with our failings and dishonesty, and harder yet to admit them. It is an even more difficult task to actually dig for them. Is the purpose of that kind of exercise to lead us down a path of self condemnation?

Not at all!

Honest self examination should lead us to humility and to self forgiveness. It should bring us to a place where we can accept the reality of our flaws without becoming overwhelmed by them. The failure to do so will often result in hostility towards others and/or hatred or some other form of violence towards our self.

Accepting the existence of our false self does not mean becoming resigned to living out of our false self.  Rather, it means being aware that there is an internal tug-of-war going on that wants to put image ahead of honesty. Let’s face it; it is painful to let others see our uglier, but more honest side. But will they truly know us until they do? Can we accept others’ imperfections until we make peace with our own or will we just become judgmental and harsh with them?

Again, the key is in self forgiveness just as God has forgiven us.

We can move towards maturity and growth and honesty and away from fear, anxiety and self protection when we know that we are acceptable and loved. Intimacy with others grows as we reveal our true selves. Vulnerability with safe people produces closeness, and closeness lets us experience love and acceptance.

Drawing near to God may be our first step in shrinking the false self. He accepts us just as we are, and He loves us unconditionally. And He does so knowing us completely. When He is our focus, we begin to lose some of the need to hold on to our insecurities and defenses. We realize that He protects us and validates us and our identity shifts.

If there are obstacles in the way of your growth, there is always help available by reaching out. 

Saturday, June 9, 2012

True Grit

Today I sit here unmotivated to write – despite a pretty strong commitment to get something out each week. It’s not because I don’t care or that I think what I write is not all that important – that’s for my readers to determine.

What holds me back is a confluence of things that distract me from focusing. There has been the death of a close family member, some challenges in our business, other family members not doing so well, and a lack of sleep. Those, along with the normal stresses of life have had a draining effect today.

And yet, here I sit writing anyway.

Maybe you can relate. If you are a mother, hungry kids don’t have a lot of empathy for your lack of motivation to feed them. The same thing goes for employers who have a job that needs you in it, or a spouse that depends on you to make it through the day. What makes the difference between giving up, giving in and giving out?

For me, some days it’s just pure determination.

I may feel one way, but I behave differently. And it isn’t just all feelings. I don’t just feel tired – I am tired. I don’t just feel grief – I am grieving. And yet I have an inner strength to call on – a belief that what I need to do is possible.

Where does this inner strength come from? As a believer in Jesus Christ I cling to the words the apostle Paul spoke to the Philippians.

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. (4:13)

That is a bold statement for a doubter like me to accept. I certainly don’t feel like I can do anything that is required of me. But I think I don’t always assess accurately what is required of me. Sometimes it’s not fixing – but enduring, or suffering without complaint (not saying what I want to say.) Other times it is facing fears – showing up and not running, or taking responsibility and not shifting the blame.

All of this takes determination. Perseverance. Grit. 

And Trust

But at least we don’t have to do it alone. 

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Noise in My Head

Have you ever had a song get stuck in your head and no matter what you do, you just can’t seem to make it go away? I think most of you could answer “yes” to that question.

It is the same with thoughts for a lot of people. No matter how hard they try, they cannot seem to push thoughts away and it drives them bonkers. I know, because I have been one of those people.

We call these unwanted, looping thoughts obsessive thinking patterns.

They can keep us distracted at work, make it difficult or impossible to sleep, and challenge our ability to being fully present with people. It may seem like this is just a definition of worrying – but I like to make a distinction. Worrying can usually be put “on hold” for a later time, but obsessive thoughts demand attention. They always want to be “front and center”.

Dealing with this can be arduous, because trying to not think about something just makes us think more about it. So what can we do to change this? Most clinicians would recommend a behavioral approach. We call it “stop think” or “thought shifting”.  Every time our mind wanders into this unwanted territory we must intentionally refocus on something else. This means being prepared with an alternate mental place to go.

Things that challenge me the most are usually related to family. When someone in the family is not doing well, it is troublesome. Often I can’t fix the problem no matter how much I focus on it. It is at that point that I must shift my thoughts to something else. I “capture” these thoughts and give them to God, knowing that he has the person or situation under His care.

I use prayer, meditation, books, physical changes in my environment, conversations with others and additional changes in my behavior to distract myself. Often the worst thing I can do is go to the Internet to try to find a solution to the problem. People often drive themselves deeper into anxiety by researching a medical or other problem online, and then discovering multiple new things to worry about. Medical symptoms often point in many directions.

When the obsessive thinking becomes so prevalent or severe, then an intervention may be necessary. This might include both counseling and medication. The decision to do so should be based on the level of relational and life disruption that it is causing.

The good news is that there is always help available.