Friday, December 31, 2010

My Favorite Things

I love the musicals of Julie Andrews and the songs they engendered: Chim chiminey, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, Edelweiss … “these are a few of my favorite things”. I was thinking of the latter a few weeks ago when a friend asked me what was my favorite Christmas treat. I looked at her rather dumbfounded. There was even, strange to say, a touch of nebulous fear. I begged off an answer telling her with a laugh that I had to think about it. The question moved on to others in the group and I sat amazed at how easily people answered. Why couldn’t I? I placed the original question and my quizzical response in my back pocket and didn’t reexamine it again until a few days ago. What was my favorite treat and why couldn’t I answer?

The funny thing about recovery from codependence is the way that certain codependent behaviours can unexpectedly bop you on the head even after years of working with them. Such is the case with this recent realized fear of declaring, and even knowing of, my favorite things. I would never had thought of it as codependent until I sat with it in all its glory ─ a nicely disguised bit of bopping.

With codependence there is a lack of value or even respect placed on our intrinsic being-ness; we transfer that value onto other people or things. What we do, who we know, and what we possess becomes more important than who we are. In this climate of externalizing our value there can be a fear of loss, especially of that which lies outside of us. In an abusive (and, ultimately codependent) relationship, for example, the abused person may fear losing connection to the abuser more than they care about self preservation. This can also be seen in how we relate to our career or money ─ we may actually put ourselves at risk in order to preserve the connection to another person, object or belief.

If I look at my reluctance to name my “favorite things” from a codependent perspective, I understand the nebulous fear that crept into my thoughts. To name these things lay the possibility for potential loss of the same and judgment of who I am for liking them.

Let’s go first with the fear of losing that treasure. I can subdivide that fear into boundary and scarcity issues. Boundaries, specifically disrespected ones, are at the root of many codependent behaviours. For example, if a child’s opinions are denigrated; emotions ridiculed; privacy denied; or the physical body hurt, the child may be inclined to suppress or deny their thoughts and feelings as an unconscious way to safeguard them ─ one cannot lose what one does not acknowledge. My confusion in naming my favorite things may have been an unconscious way of protecting myself and that which I like, a coping strategy I learned in youth.

As for scarcity, the fear of loss becomes extreme when it is paired with a feeling that there is not (or never) enough. This never enough feeling can include love, food, creativity, and support, but it motivates the person in fear to hold on tight to whatever they have. If I name my favorite thing, the fear is that it may be taken away, ridiculed or hurt and I will be left alone as nothing will be there to take it’s place. One way to hold on tight is to deny, consciously or not, what I love so no one can take it away.

Looking at judgment, I feel that many people with active codependent parts have grown up in critical environments and have either taken on the negative judgment and/or believe it is the basis for everyone else’s behaviour. Expressing a favorite thing, therefore, potentially opens me up to not only internal criticism ─ “what a stupid thing to love” ─ but external criticism as well, especially if the thing we love is childish, fattening or out of fashion.

Loss and judgment are generally not life and death issues to an adult but they can be, or at least perceived to be, to a child and the thing we must remember is that our codependent parts are usually formed in childhood. I know, as an adult, that I can declare my favorite things and be fine with whatever arises. I know that no one has the right to take them away, deny me or denigrate me for my desires but I also know that if they did, I would survive. However, as I discovered a few weeks ago, my codependent parts are not as confident in that belief. When asked about my favorite Christmas treats my codependent parts took control and, as a result, I froze.

So, I have devised a plan. Every day, maybe once a day, maybe twice, perhaps three times, I will declare a favorite thing. I will imitate a healthy, well-loved and secure little girl who when asked what her favorite thing is yells out that it is chocolate chip cookies only to change it, seconds later, to vanilla ice cream and then golden haired puppy dogs in the next breath. I will be fearless in my tastes, allowing them to change with the wind, from fanciful and unobtainable to ones I can reach into the cupboard and grab. I will take my fear by the hand and allow her to state what she most desires yet is most scared to ask for. In this way, I continue my recovery.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Half the Sky

I just finished reading Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by husband and wife team Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. It is a necessary read. The two writers travel the world investigating the lives of young girls and women in regions where being female is a liability.

They explore sex trafficking and forced prostitution, gender based violence and maternal mortality which, they say, “still needlessly claims one woman a minute.” They relate first hand stories from the young women they meet: community leaders and entrepreneurs who have risen from horrific abuse and neglect; and, sadly, second hand stories from those that didn’t survive. But, best of all, they offer possible solutions that may not be perfect but give a glimpse of what works, what doesn’t, and what we can do as individuals to reduce the oppression.

I like the book for several reasons including that it carries on with my theme of awareness and responsibility. For example, in looking at what does and doesn’t work in terms of charitable deeds, the biggest thing to note is that no matter how good one’s intentions are, one has to be in awareness of the local situation. Sending money is fine but where and who does it go? Building a school is great but are there better ways to provide or encourage education? Stating that genital mutilation is harmful may be true but do you have local support to help change the inherent beliefs behind the ritual?

As to who to send money to, Kristof and WuDunn suggest donating to microfinancing projects that target women. They write: “some of the most wretched suffering is caused not just by low incomes, but also by unwise spending —by men…Several studies suggest that when women gain control over spending, less family money is devoted to instant gratification [alcohol, prostitution and tobacco] and more for education and staring small businesses (p.192).” These microfinancing groups are peer monitored with local women supporting each other with wisdom learned while also guaranteeing each other’s loans.

The authors have many supportive things to say about education but emphasize that solutions do not have to be grandiose. “One of the most cost-effective ways to increase school attendance,” they say, “is to deworm students which affects children’s physical and intellectual growth. ... Increasing school attendance by building schools ends up costing about $100 per year for every addition student enrolled. Boosting attendance by deworming children costs $4 per year per additional student enrolled (p. 171).” Health programs such as deworming, iodine supplements and free lunches help, of course, all children but they specifically give girls a needed boost because in many families girls are the last to receive medical attention. Some regions have even resorted to paying families small stipends to keep their children in school—even bonuses in the form of food if the child is a girl. This is great incentive as girls tend to be the first pulled from school whether due to finances or early marriage.

Regarding the imposition of beliefs onto others, Kristof and WuDonn tell a story about genital cutting that underlines this problem. Molly is an American woman who moved to Senegal, married a Senegalese man and works with local education projects. When their daughter approached puberty she told her mom, “I want to be cut, I promise I wont cry (p. 225).” Although born of parents who disproved the procedure, the child was succumbing to peer pressure —she didn’t want to be left out. Cutting was an important coming of age right affecting, among other things, marital chances. The daughter changed her mind when she was fully informed of the process but it was made clear to her mother that attitudes cannot be easily changed from without, change must come from within.

The authors continually espouse education as the way to improve children’s health, decrease family size and increase societal justice but they are huge proponents to being flexible in the search for solutions. For example, they cite a study finding “that after cable television arrived in a [rural Indian] village, women gained more autonomy —such as the ability to leave the house without permission and the right to participate in household decisions. There was a drop in the number of births… wife beating became less acceptable, and families were more likely to send daughters to schools (p. 245).” Some of the more popular shows, ironically, were not educational in the traditional sense, they were soap operas set in middle class Indian families where women held jobs and had more freedom. These shows modeled a different and more attractive lifestyle that ultimately helped changed societal mores.

Once again, I encourage you to read the book. It contains fascinating and inspirational stories from women from all over the world who are working locally to help themselves and their communities thrive. For more information on how to get involved go to

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Gift Giving: Awareness and Responsibility continued

Christmas is a time for giving. Although most of us would agree I also feel that to create mutual joy in giving it must be done with awareness and responsibility. Here’s an example: a few years ago I went to an annual gathering of friends and family that was traditionally gift free. However, that year, one of the party goers gave everyone a gift: a bottle of wine and a box of chocolates. I accepted it graciously, as we all did, but it did not give me joy. When I reflect back on it, I see that my enjoyment of the gift was diminished because there was a certain lack of awareness and responsibility on the gift givers part. Although I think she wanted to do the “right” or “nice” thing there was a lack of awareness and responsibility towards self: she could ill afford the cumulative price tag; towards others: several of the group did not drink alcohol; and towards community: the chocolate was not fair trade. What was behind this person’s gift giving? Was she giving to give joy to others or was she giving so she could somehow feel good about herself?

Perhaps I have just become jaded over the years from excessive commercialization of the holidays—guilt producing advertising that beseeches us to spend more to avoid disappointing others. Regardless, I do not appreciate gifts that one, create too large of an environmental footprint; two, are created by slave-wage labour; and three, create a financial burden on the giver. It does not give me joy.

Awareness and appropriate responsibility would take care of these issues but I have come to the conclusion that for some people, awareness and responsibility is next to impossible around Christmas because our codependent parts tend to move front and centre. Gift giving has the potential to be not so much about love or sharing but an exercise in negating one’s values/beliefs and feelings in favour of how we appear to the outside world.

And how can gift giving be codependent? To quote the poet, let me count the ways:

1. I give because it’s the “right” thing to do. I give lip service to what I actually want or am financially able to do. I do what society/family/community expects of me regardless of the consequences.

2. I give because the other person will be giving to me. This is about negating my needs and right to choose as I relinquish, to another, my responsibility to self. The giving becomes not so much about love than it does about appearances, guilt, and unrealistic expectations.

3. I give because I will look bad if I don’t. Once again, this puts too much control onto others. Only I know what I can give, how I can give, and to whom I want to give. Society/family/community truly has no say in this matter.

4. I give because I am generous. Beautiful, a lovely thing to be but generosity comes from the heart. I need to dig down deep and make sure this is a heartfelt giving and not a codependent longing.

5. I give so that the other will see me as generous/loving/gracious etc. Here I am basing my value on the opinions of others. As above, generosity is not so much about gift gifting, it is about sharing of the heart. If I am truly generous, my generosity will be apparent regardless of whether I give a gift or not.

6. I give so that the other will see/love/acknowledge me. If this is the case, I am on a losing battle. The only way to be seen/loved/acknowledged by others is to first see/love/acknowledge myself. A cliché statement but as true as it was when it was first coined.

7. I give because I will get something back. This thought, if true, is usually buried deep in the subconscious. There is hope that if I give enough of me, the other will see my need and give back to me. This is often the case of love, but can be seen in gift giving.

Christmas giving does not have to be about negating self, unrealistic expectations, controlling others or false appearances. When giving comes from the heart with awareness and responsibility it brings joy to all. So go out and give: give loved ones your time—go for a walk and tell them how much you appreciate them; make someone laugh; give to the food bank, volunteer for world peace or canvass for your favorite environmental charity. If you want to give something material, bake some cookies, create a beautiful card or cook a loved one dinner. And, if you absolutely must give something you bought at a store, research it first. Ask yourself if this gift will be appreciated and find out the environmental or humanitarian footprint used in it’s creation. This way, all can share in the joy of giving.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Awareness, Responsibility and Wikileaks

In writing the last blog entry on awareness and responsibility, I couldn’t help but think of Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange. As written by Gordon Crovitz (Wall Street Journal), Mr. Assange told Time magazine, “It is not our goal to achieve a more transparent society; it’s our goal to achieve a more just society.” If leaks cause U.S. officials to “lock down internally and to balkanize,” they will “cease to be as efficient as they were.”

In reading the full article (and others), it would be easy to assume that Mr. Assange is aware of his feeling towards the matter: he doesn’t like the American government and feels they are an “authoritarian conspiracy.” Fine, we know where he stands. But in acting out in this way I question whether he is helping society become more just or is he just trading one, to use his words, authoritarian conspiracy for another. And, more to the point of this blog, is he taking appropriate responsibility for his actions? The answer, at least for me, is no as too many innocent people were adversely affected. In codependent language, one could say that Mr. Assange is a bully. He uses his knowledge and skill to control and manipulate and his version of justice is fear based.

Stephen Engelberg of Probublica wrote an informative piece on the issue in July.
For the past several decades, there has been an informal understanding between the reporters who uncovered newsworthy secrets and the government intelligence agencies, which tried to keep them from public view.

We would tell senior officials what we'd learned. And they would point out any unforeseen consequences that might arise from publication, such as the death of an American informant. Ultimately, the call on what appeared rested with editors. But it was a decision informed by more than our own guesswork.

My point in reprinting that quote is that the above mentioned editors did not act without careful in-house (and out-of-house) dialogue. They looked at potential repercussions and then printed what they felt would be responsible in terms of the public, the government and themselves. The editors made a decision that, in their minds, served all those concerned in a mutually respectful and, presumably “healthy” manner. Sure, it didn’t make for a perfect world. Perhaps it didn’t even make a more just world. But their decision could be considered interdependent. It was the best they could do so that the greatest number of people were being equally and respectfully served.

But don’t mistake me here, I am not a pollyanna believing that most large organizations and bureaucracies act or even believe in interdependence. The world isnt perfect but then again, neither is interdependence as a concept. However, let’s call Mr. Assange what he is… not a hero looking for a just society but a bully getting his needs met by hurting others.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Awareness and Responsibility continued...

To carry on from the last blog entry I want to add on to my response to Kristen’s comment. I agree with her that while self awareness and self responsibility are important in the workplace “problem[s] can stem from the upper management of an organization and how well they are setting priorities and allocating their resources.” Part of that allocation, at least from my perspective, should be in providing a safe space for staff to speak about their feelings.

I know that sounds ideal but I recently started reading a PhD dissertation by Judith Martin called Relationships of Power: Exploring teacher’s emotions as experiences as interactions with their peers where she provided such a place for the research participants. A quick perusal of her study found her results quite positive. I’ll write more about that when I finish her paper but I’ve also seen the benefits when I teach my “Interdependence in the Workplace” workshop. Its empowering for people to know that their feelings of wanting to help (to the point of rescuing); wanting to be liked; feeling resentment and/or wanting to control others are part of being human. We all feel these things at one time or another with varying levels of intensity.

Each of us has a resentful part, a needy part, and a rescuing part. (I use these examples because they are aspects of the Karpman Drama Triangle — a model I use regularly to illuminate a certain relationship dynamic. See below for a quick summary of that dynamic.*) The question is not whether we have these parts but whether we are aware of them. In awareness we can look at each of these parts and notice when they are activated. In this state we also have the ability to choose whether we want to act on them. Without awareness, these parts can take over and lead us into dynamics like the Karpman Drama Triangle.

There is a quote by the amazing Jorge Borges in his short story The Immortal “No one is anyone, one single immortal man is all men… I am god, I am hero, I am philosopher, I am demon and I am world, which is a tedious way of saying that I do not exist.” As with all Borges wrote, no sentence has one definitive meaning but for me, taken in the context of his story, we are all capable of all things. Taken in the context of this essay, yes, we are all capable but if awareness is combined with responsibility we can direct our actions with integrity.

Awareness gives us more than self compassion and a choice in how we want to behave. It provides us with knowledge that each of our parts, whether it be the one that gets resentful or the one that feels self pity, has a wide range of skills. For example, while resentment can be somewhat devious and manipulative, it is also clever at seeing where injustices lie. It sees weaknesses in the system and calls out for correction. It wants change; it wants to be heard. These skills do not have to be used in passive-aggressive or bullying tactics but can be used to change the system, whether that be how we live or how we work, for the better.

In awareness, the first thing I need to ask myself when one of my parts are activated is what is the cause of this feeling? Am I feeling resentful because I am tired or is it because I am witnessing an injustice? Or am I feeling this way because of an imbalance in my life — I am working too hard or not seeing enough of my family? When I find the answer, which will be unique to the event and person, the second thing to ask is how can I use resentment to help rather than hinder the situation?

So, if I am feeling resentful because I feel I am doing more work and getting less recognition, I can use that resentment to motivate me to first reflect on the feeling and then act on it in a respectful manner. If this feeling is due to an injustice I can choose who to talk to about it— my union rep, my supervisor or someone in human resources. Perhaps the situation calls for me to get politically involved and try to change the system from without. If my resentment is due to a personal imbalance, for example, I overwork because of a need to be seen/appreciated/valued, maybe it is time to get counselling, change my priorities or, perhaps, leave my job.

I’ve written before that nothing of what we feel is bad or invalid. It is what we do with those feelings that counts. Having a safe place, whether that be in the workplace structure or with a private mentor/counsellor, to express these feeling helps us choose healthier paths. When we set the task of serving ourselves and our community in a mutually healthy and respectful manner, we live interdependently.

* The Karpman Drama Triangle is a dynamic that can arise when we try to rescue another (especially without their permission) and end of feeling used or taken advantaged of when the rewards are not up to expectation. Overtime the potential for resentment occurs, especially towards the person we were originally trying to help.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Selfishness or Healthy Self Care?

I was talking with an acquaintance the other day about the difference between selfish behaviour and taking healthy care of self. She, a medical professional, was irritated by the lack of commitment some of her colleagues showed when overtime, or the extra “mile”, was called for. When asked to do extra, she said, the response was far too often, “no, I need to take care of myself, I am going home.” My friend called it selfish but was it? Could this not be called healthy boundaries? When is taking care of oneself selfish, and when is being selfish the best form of self care?

Of course, there is no pat answer, each event is unique onto itself. The more important question to be asked is not so much what action we end up doing but how much awareness we have in our actions. That is, what is our underlying motive and what is the consequence of the action? Do we leave work at our scheduled time, for example, because staying longer would erode our health, negatively affect our family life, or because we have better things to do, like go to a movie? Is going to a movie part of our self care or is it because we don’t care about our job? With regards to the action’s consequence, will leaving work on time negatively affect another person’s life? If we do stay longer, do we have plans to replenish our self or repair family relationships? Have we communicated our work commitments to loved ones and were we clear about our familial commitments when we took the job?

What about the person making the claim that the other is selfish? Are they feeling drained from overwork to the point of resenting another’s healthy care of self? Is their “going the extra mile” a genuine need to be in service or a desire to be recognized as heroic? Do they feel they have to do the job because “no one else can do it” and is that statement true?

Like I said, there is no easy answer but I feel we have the highest potential to live in integrity when we are self aware and when we take responsibility for that awareness. If, for example, we leave work early because we are bored or just don’t care, is there a way we can be responsible for those feelings? Is it time to leave our job? Should we ask for more (or less) responsibility? Can we talk to a mentor or counsellor? Feelings of boredom or not caring are not “bad” feelings but if we don’t take responsibility for them, our actions could negatively affect another or ourselves.

Self awareness is the basis for interdependent living. It allows us to respond to our needs and wants in healthy and respectful ways while keeping in vision how our response affects our community. Self awareness builds the foundation for strong but flexible boundaries and a more compassionate view towards self and others. In short, self awareness plus responsibility is what defines seemingly selfish behaviour into healthy self care.

I have a feeling I am going to be talking more about this as I just taught a workshop on Interdependence in the Workplace… stay tuned.