Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Lesson # 5: The Right Words

I used to say my favorite three words to hear were, “You are right.” No matter what the circumstance or relationship, hearing I am right, used to give me great satisfaction. I didn’t care about the cost of being right or the benefit either. I needed to be acknowledged as the right one, the only one.

The problem with wanting to be right all the time is that you aren’t right, you are just you with your point of view, feelings and life experiences. There is not a universal truth committee reviewing all sides of every situation determining who the ultimate winner is…there is not one truth, there are many.

I learned this the hard way in my relationship with my sister and I lost a few years of time holding my ground and fighting for acknowledgement of my “rightness.” Even after my father died, after we had reconciled and worked through a lot of our issues, I could not give up my need to be right.

The turning point came a few years ago when a small incident became a large one and soon we were in conflict again and not speaking. The longer we were separated the harder it became for me to believe in the value of being right, and after realizing how much I had hurt her feelings, it didn’t seem important whether or not I had a point, it seemed stupid and petty.

It became clear to me I was giving up a vital connection to someone I loved to be right. And in wanting to be right I was choosing not to see my own culpability. I was choosing to be the righteous victim.

I remember the exact moment when everything changed for me. I was sitting in my living room listening to a bird singing and I felt a great sadness take over me. I wanted to speak to my sister. I wanted to be connected to her again more than I wanted to be right. I decided I would do whatever it took to make it right with her.

I started with an apology and I listened and acknowledged her hurt. I made room for her perspective and I worked at understanding her point of view. What struck me the most was when she said, “I knew why you were so mad, and I wasn’t upset with you for that, I just didn’t understand why you couldn’t see it from my perspective.”

I told her the truth. I told her that it was more important for me to be right than to understand.
“How’s that working for you?” she said. We both laughed.

The great gift she gave me that day was making room for my feelings, and acknowledging that I had a right to my anger and reaction. It was only fair for me to do the same for her and then, something incredible happened, I heard three words that have become my new favorites.

“I love you.”

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Lesson #4 - Go with your Gut

I can classify all the major turning points in my life into one of two categories. I either went with my gut or I ignored it, both choices taught me valuable lessons about trusting your instincts.

One of my earliest memories of having a strong gut reaction was the first time I walked into a classmate’s house as a freshman in high school. The house was dark, musty and had that warm smell of all the food that had been cooked in the last ten years. As soon as I crossed the threshold I got this overwhelming feeling that bad things were going on in the house and this friendship I had struck with this girl was not a good idea.

Of course, by that time, through rigorous indoctrination at school and at home, I had learned to doubt most of my feelings. Instead of accepting my reactions and responding accordingly I had developed a complex system of assessment which began with questioning why I was even having the feeling and usually ended with a harsh denial of the validity of it.

I told myself I was crazy and made up excuses whenever I was invited to her house.

I guess you know where this story is going…six months later my friend was hospitalized after having a nervous breakdown and after making harassing phone calls to the new girlfriend of the boy I liked posing as me. Her story, as it turned out was rife with abuse, secrets and darkness.

What ended up taking months for my head to figure out...my gut knew in an instant.

When my gut has a good feeling, it is easier to go with it. Looking for apartments was easy as I let my brain take a break and trusted my instinct. Most of the time, I knew before opening a closet door or seeing the kitchen whether I would live there or not. When I saw a picture of my house, I knew that was where I was going to live before I stepped through the door. (And the house I bought was the ONLY house I ever looked at.)

Maybe it’s hard to believe that so many of our choices in life can be left up to our gut. How can it be more accurate than our logic which we have cultivated through education, self-help books and Oprah? How can it be right?

Even the location of our gut, somewhere in the belly region is a source of a lot of discomfort for us; let’s face it who really likes their stomach or abs. We are always trying to change it, to make it leaner, more defined, less soft and pliant, less, “gut like.”

As I get older, I question a great deal of the assumptions I have lived with most of my life. I don’t see much value in denying your feelings or measuring your right to have a reaction. I tire of the constant battle of the ego and/or brain over the gut and/or heart. I am interested in cultivating a life that relies more on my gut and less on my ego. After fifty years of having my back, I figure it might be time to let it take the lead.