Logging Off: The Power of Disconnection

snowy sceneMy thesis: The great English writer E.M. Forster may have valued connection above all else, but for us 21st-century folks—with our jam-packed contact lists, e-mail from intimates and strangers, texts and phone messages left by friends, colleagues, passing acquaintances, and the occasional deranged stalker—disconnection is as necessary as connection for creating a healthy, happy life. When we force ourselves to connect against our heart’s desires, we create false, resentful relationships; when we disconnect from the people who deplete us, we set them free to find their tribes while we find ours. I planned to illustrate these thoughts with snippets of Greek philosophy, and perhaps even the poetry of Robert Frost. 

But it has just occurred to me that this refined approach is not how I actually disconnect—and I need to disconnect a lot. Overconnection is my major occupational hazard. My job is all about soulfully linking with others, and this is truly as much fun as I’ve ever had with my clothes on, but after doing this with many people for many hours, I often feel as if I’ve watched ten great movies back-to-back: dazed, frazzled, longing for silent solitude. I’m not up to gracious separation; I need quick-and-dirty ways to save my sanity, right now.

So I’ve listed some of my favorite disconnection strategies below, in the hope that you might find them useful. Please remember that this advice is not for the E.M. Forsters of the world but for those of us who are already connected up the wazoo.

Martha Beck’s Favorite Disconnection Techniques

1. Hide. I’m sitting in my room at a beautiful wilderness retreat where intelligent, sensitive, wonderful people come to renew their spirits. I’ve been running a workshop meant to stir the deepest reaches of the participants’ fears and dreams. I’ve also been living on tap water and protein bars because the thought of going to the dining hall, where I would end up connecting for another hour with those intelligent, sensitive, wonderful people, makes me want to shoot myself.

I packed for this trip with disconnection aforethought, tossing in 20 protein bars with the express intention of hiding out. Blame my high school English teacher—I’ll call her Mrs. Jensen—who married at 17, bore her first child at 19, and was a farmwife and mother of four by age 22. When she felt overwhelmed, she’d retreat into a field of tall corn near her house and hide there, listening to her children search for her, until she heard a cry of genuine pain or felt ready to reconnect, whichever came first.

“Martha,” Mrs. Jensen told me, “every woman needs a cornfield. No matter what’s happening in your life, find yourself a cornfield and hide there whenever you need to.”

All these years later, this advice still gives me permission to sit here by myself contemplating whether I should eat the nondairy creamer from my in-room coffee setup, just for variety. I’ve used hundreds of other “cornfields” over the years: cars, forests, hotels, bathrooms. I’ve been known to hide for days, but even a few minutes can calm my strung-out nerves—or yours. If you don’t already have a cornfield, find one now. 

2. Go primitive. We all know that technological advances have made connection easier than ever before. They’ve also led some people to think that breaking away is a violation of the social order. Friends call to chastise each other (well, anyway, my friends call to chastise me) for being slow to return text messages or e-mail, as though the ability to communicate in half a dozen newfangled ways makes constant attention to every one of them morally imperative. 

At such times, I become downright Amish, religiously committed to avoiding all modern communication technology. I unplug phones, computers, intercoms, and fax machines, risking opprobrium because I know that if I don’t lose touch with some of the people who are trying to reach me, I’ll lose touch with myself. The overconnected me is a cranky, tired fussbudget. Silence is golden if it keeps me from broadcasting that fretful self into my network of treasured relationships.

3. Play favorites. Your ability to connect is a resource much more precious than money, so manage it well. Make a list of everyone to whom you feel bonded, then consider what kind of return you’re getting on your investment. Which relationships make you feel robbed or depleted? Which ones enrich you? Notice that there are many ways for “connection investments” to pay off. One person may be good at helping you solve relationship problems, while another can fix your home computer and another makes you laugh. A baby’s trust may be the only return you get on a massive investment of time and energy, but it can feel like winning the lottery.

It may sound cold-blooded to say you must divest yourself of the relationships that give you consistent losses, but unless you do this, you’ll soon run out of capital, and you’ll have no connection energy left to invest in anybody. So please, decide now to deliberately limit the time and attention you spend on “low yield” relationships. Above all…

4. Get rid of squid. Squid is my word for people who seem to be missing their backbones but possess myriad sucking tentacles of emotional need. Like many invertebrates, squid appear limp and squishy—but once they get a grip on you, they’re incredibly powerful. Masters at catalyzing guilt and obligation, they operate by squeezing pity from everyone they meet. They can make you feel entwined to the point of rage, desperate to escape their clutches, unable to see a means to extricate yourself.

Getting a squid out of your life is never pretty. (Excuses don’t work—tell a squid you’re on your way to a colonoscopy, and they’ll come along to sit beside you, complaining, while your doctor performs the procedure.) Since you can’t make a graceful exit, don’t try. Scrape off squid any way you can. Tell them straightforwardly that you want them, yes them, to leave now, yes, now. This will be unpleasant. There will be lasting hurt feelings. Don’t worry. Squid love hurt feelings. They hoard them, trading them in for pity points when they find another victim—er, friend. Let them go, their coffers bulging.

5. Be insensitive. A friend I’ll call Zoe once went to a world-famous psychologist to discuss her recurring nightmares. After months of waiting for an appointment, she finally met the therapist, who asked why she had come.

“I’m having terrible dreams,” Zoe explained.

“Yeah?” grunted the famous psychologist. “So what?”

Zoe blinked, then stammered, “Well, they keep me awake.”

“Uh-huh. So?”

“Well…,” stammered Zoe, “I guess I never thought of it that way.” And her nightmares went away, never to return. Once she stopped treating bad dreams like the end of the world, her mind had no reason to replay them.

I’m not suggesting that you say “So what?” every time someone turns to you for help, but I like to think that therapist was famous for a reason. I suspect he could feel the difference between something that required deep discussion and something that didn’t. He was willing to be insensitive, alerting Zoe to her own hypersensitivity. 

This is a very compassionate way to use your own psychological instincts. Instead of connecting with every person’s problems, let yourself feel whether someone really needs your attention, or whether the best gift you can give might be a little abruptness.

6. Rehearse escape lines. When I’m overextended, I paradoxically become worse at setting boundaries. I end up resorting to rehearsed exit lines. “Oh, there’s my doorbell!” I might say to end a client call that’s run 20 minutes over (this is technically true: My doorbell is, in fact, there). When someone collars me in an airport, eager to share personal problems and ask for solutions, I may point behind them and say, “Oh, my gosh! Is that Dr. Phil?” Then, when their head snaps around, owl-like, I sprint for the nearest restroom. 

I’m sure you can come up with better getaway lines than these, but do take the time to rehearse several reliable alternatives. Because when you’re exhausted, a practiced excuse can keep you from wading deeper into relationships you don’t need and can’t handle.

7. Be shallow. Even staying in touch with a reasonably small number of high-quality people can be overwhelming if you tend toward emotional intensity. In such cases, shallowness can be a delightful alternative. So instead of discussing Schopenhauer with your beloved in meaningful, calligraphed epistles, e-mail a stupid joke or a silly Youtube video (my own favorite past time). Gather your friends to watch TV shows in which strangers paint one another’s rooms the color of phlegm and then feign mutual delight. Once you know you can swim in the deep end of human connection, it’s fun to splash around in the shallows.

I hope you find these disconnection strategies as useful as I do. By striking a balance between the imperative to “only connect” and the need for individuation, you really will relax your psyche and your relationships, making your life as a whole more joyful, more loving. Maybe someday we’ll meet to compare notes, to share disconnection experiences as well as time, space, and perhaps a protein bar. But right now, I’m sure you’ll understand when I say that I’d like to eat this one all by myself.

Balancing Act: The Dance of an Unbalanced Life

Here is typical scenario from when my children were younger: It’s five o’clock in the morning. I’ve been awake for about 23 hours, having struggled vainly to fit in writing between yesterday’s tasks: getting the car fixed, taking the dog to the vet, answering email, grocery shopping, driving my kids to music lessons, seeing clients, picking up deli sandwiches for dinner, and cuddling one of my children through some of the horrors of growing up. I finally sat down at my computer around midnight—and looked up just now to see the sun rising. 

Since I’m up, I decide to set a historic precedent by preparing breakfast. All goes well as I awaken my children and head to the kitchen, at which point I remember how much I hate to cook. I even hate to toast. The kids arrive, yawning, and ask what I’m planning to serve them. I think for a minute, then say, “We have Oreos.” 

My children roll their eyes. 

“We have cocaine,” I venture. I’m pretty sure they know this is a joke. I’ve never seen cocaine, much less tried it—although frankly it’s beginning to sound like a good idea. Isn’t that how Sigmund Freud got so much done? 

Understand three things: (1) I don’t have a job. I am a writer, which means I procrastinate and get away with it; (2) my children are not young. They walk, talk, bathe, diagnose their own viruses; and (3) I’m kind of supposed to be an expert at combining career and family. I conducted years of sociological research on the topic, wrote several big fat books about it. Plus, I’m a life coach. You’d think I could live a balanced life as a 21st century American woman. 

Ha. In fact, having done all that research, I can tell you with absolute assurance that it is impossible for women to achieve the kind of balance recommended by many well-meaning self-help counselors. I didn’t say such balance is difficult to attain. I didn’t say it’s rare. It’s impossible. Our culture’s definition of what women should be is fundamentally, irreconcilably unbalanced. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the very imbalance of our culture is forcing women to find equilibrium in an entirely new way. 

Henry David Thoreau’s classic book Walden recounts two years the author spent living in solitary harmony with the wilderness. The book’s premise is that all humans could live simply and naturally, as Thoreau did. As a teenager, I loved Walden. Years later, as an exhausted working mother, I learned something Thoreau failed to mention in his journal: The entire time he was roughing it, his mother and sisters helped care for his needs, hauling in food and hauling out laundry. The reason Thoreau didn’t write about this is that he took it for granted. Like most thinker’s of his generation, he saw “women’s work” as a product of natural female instinct: Birds fly south for the winter, and women show up to wash men’s underwear. Okay, so I’m a little bitter—but only because this attitude pervaded American culture well into my own lifetime. 

Early American feminists fought for the right to participate in the workforce by assuring everyone that it was easy to do women’s work—perhaps with one’s toes, while simultaneously performing jobs traditionally reserved for men. I once believed this, and I have the colorful medical history to prove it. Women of my generation thought we could have everything; experience taught us we could have everything but sleep (one sociologist who studied an early cohort of working mothers wrote, “These women talked about sleep the way a starving person talks about food”). Bringing home the bacon and frying it up in a pan while never letting hubby forget he’s a man turned out to be a logistical challenge to rival the moon landing, but without support from Houston.

Three Ways to Lose Your Balance 

I spent the last decade of the 20th century interviewing American women and found that no matter how they sought balance, virtually none of them attained it in their culturally prescribed role. Some of these women were like Meg, a stay-at-home mother who sacrificed her career to care for her children, only to feel devalued by a society that equates professional achievement with fundamental worth. Others resembled Laura, a 43-year-old lawyer who never got the marriage or children she’d always expected. Laura’s heart ached every time she attended yet another baby shower. At work, married people dumped extra work on her, figuring she had no life. But most of the women I spoke to were like Stephanie, who had a good job, two children, and chronic fatigue. For years Stephanie’s boss complained that her work was inadequate because of the time she devoted to her family, while Stephanie (and her relatives) worried that her children were suffering because of the energy required by her work. 

Many of these women were haunted by the fear that others were judging them negatively. They were right. Our culture does belittle women who cannot be both professional high-achievers and traditional moms. It questions the devotion of women who attempt to combine the two roles. My conclusion? Balance, schmalance. Trying to establish a harmonious equilibrium between our society’s definition of What a Woman Should Be is like trying to resolve the tension between two hostile enemies by locking them in a room together. But there is hope. 

The Joy of Being Unbalanced

If someone condemned you because, say, you failed to prevent Hurricane Katrina, you wouldn’t dissolve in shame or work to overcome your inadequacy. You’d probably conclude that your critic was nuts, then simply dismiss the whole issue. That’s the wonderful thing about seeing that our society makes impossible demands on all women. You free yourself to ignore social pressures and begin creating a life that comes from your own deepest desires, hopes, and dreams. You’ll stop living life from the outside in and begin living it from the inside out. 

That’s what happened to Meg, Laura, and Stephanie when each lost her balance in a dramatic way. Meg, the stay-at-home mom, hit the end of her rope when her husband left her for a “more accomplished” coworker. Laura’s turning point was an emergency hysterectomy that meant she would never have the baby shower of her dreams. Stephanie finally realized she was trying to do the impossible the day her mother-in-law scolded her for working too much and she was fired for being too concerned with her personal life. 

There will moments when you really “get” that the expectations you’ve been trying to fulfill are unfulfillable. This epiphany was terrible, because it meant relinquishing the goal of total social acceptance. But it was also the beginning of freedom, of learning to seek guidance by turning inward to the heart, rather than outward to social prescriptions. After her crisis, Laura discovered a passion for gardening that led her to quit her corporate job and start a floral nursery business. Meg spends her time contributing to the local schools and developing relationships that help her see her own value. Stephanie got a new job by developing a proposal that showed how she could add value to a company while working from home. 

On the surface, these aren’t revolutionary acts. But they filled each woman’s life with authenticity and satisfaction. If you feel trapped by contradictory demands, you may want to join this gentle rebellion. You can help create a new cultural paradigm, one that replaces conformity with honesty, convention with creativity, and judgment with kindness. That, in the end, is the gift of the disequilibrium that society has bequeathed to all of us. Being forced to seek balance within ourselves, we can make our unsteady, stumbling days feel less and less like disaster and more and more like a joyful dance—the dance of a wildly, wonderfully, perfectly unbalanced life. 

A Fair Fight: Healthy Conflict Creates Healthy Boundaries

Until I was about 30, I spent most of my time trying to make sure that no one ever became upset with me. I tiptoed around disagreements, swallowed my opinion, tried to read other people’s thoughts, and ran away at the slightest hint of discord. Not fighting was ruining my relationships.

Arm WrestlingIf this sounds weird to you, you don’t understand intimacy. Conflict in close relationships is not only inevitable, it’s essential. Intimacy connects people who are inevitably different – as the saying goes, if two people agree about everything, one of them is superfluous. Conflict is the mechanism by which we set boundaries around these differences, so that each party feels safe with the other. Whether the fight is an all-out brawl (someone jumps you in an alley and you struggle physically against that person) or the mildest tiff (“What’s with the sexist comments?” “Sorry. Won’t happen again.”), conflict is the way we say, “You may go this far with me, and no further.” Until we know we can make and hold such boundaries, we never become comfortable enough to relax, be our true selves, open our hearts.

Why is conflict management so important? Because many of us, when upset, go coldly silent, flatten into a doormat, or explode like Vesuvius. Even if you never react this way, I guarantee you’ll have to deal with people who do. The only way to keep the unpleasantness to a minimum is to learn the delicate art of managing conflict.

The first step in learning to fight right is a conceptual one: We need to fully understand that conflict is not a rare and evil force but an unavoidable and potentially positive one. Before I realized this, I shared a behavior pattern that is ubiquitous in our culture. Because we assume that “good” intimate relationships will always be conflict-free, we refrain from setting boundaries in order to avoid fights and we withdraw or blow up emotionally when unexpressed grievances become too intense to tolerate.

I can’t count the number of relationships I’ve seen destroyed by this pattern. Addressing issues the moment boundaries need to be set is a much, much better way to build lasting intimacy. In fact, I guarantee that every time you successfully discuss a problem and set a boundary with someone you care about, the two of you will feel closer after the “fight” than you did before it. This is only true if you know what you’re doing. Here’s some advice on how to do just that:

Agree on the Rules of Engagement

No matter what the scale of disagreement, all the parties concerned should sit down—at a time when they’re not arguing—and agree on what constitutes a fair fight. Ideally, the participants will actually type up a list of rules, post it in a visible place, and promise to abide by it. This isn’t something you need to do with every minor acquaintance, but in an intimate relationship, it’s invaluable. I’ve watched seemingly doomed marriages recover and thrive after both spouses collaborated to create and post combat rules, like “No name-calling,” “No threats,” and “Express feelings, not insults.” These rules protect against abusive behavior and force combatants to actually discuss their disagreements and hurt feelings – the process that lies at the very heart of intimacy.

Follow a Strategy

Having a strategy for conflict is a way to keep your own interpersonal battles brief, clean, and useful.

First, vent “hot” anger; act on “cool” anger. Conflict creates anger, and anger creates a strong “fight” reaction. Acting on this impulse will help you avoid ulcers and feel better—but do it before, not during, a confrontation.

Second, tell the person exactly what’s upsetting you. This information must be very precise and concrete. For example, instead of saying, “You don’t respect my individuality,” you should pinpoint actual behaviors: “When I expressed my opinion at the party, you said, ‘You don’t really believe that,’ and went on to tell everone what I did believe – as if you knew better than I did! I felt incredibly devalued and angry.”

Third, describe exactly what you need to feel better. This is the most important part of a healthy conflict strategy, the place where you take responsibility for helping your friend or loved one know how to meet your needs. “Let me be me!” is a useless demand because it doesn’t specify any clear action. Instead, give instructions like “Next time you disagree with my opinions, go ahead and say so, or ask me to explain where I’m coming from. Don’t tell me what I think, especially in front of other people.”

Fourth, explain what the consequences will be if your needs are not met. In case the other person won’t agree to your terms, you must be prepared to do whatever is necessary to meet your own needs without their cooperation. “If you keep dominating me during conversations, I’m going to call you on it, no matter where we are or who’s watching. Then I will walk away.”

It’s important that the consequences you describe are what psychologists call logical and natural. (For example, screaming hysterically at someone who wants to drive drunk is not a logical and natural consequence; confiscating the car keys is.) Don’t make overblown threats, and always follow through. Crying wolf creates diminishing returns – you’ll have to bluster even more ferociously, with less and less success, leading to lengthy, ineffective conflict.

After practicing the fine art of a fair fight, you’ll begin to notice an odd paradox: The more comfortable you become with fighting, the less you will feel compelled to do it. 

Pronghorn Alert!

First of all, I wish to say a huge thank you to everyone who, acting on good will and perhaps a tiny dose of insanity, has already purchased my new book even thought technically it does not yet exist.  We managed to get into the top 200 bestsellers on Amazon for a considerable period, which means that this nonexistent volume actually trounced innumerable books that are actual physical products.  All of you who preordered have my most heartfelt gratitude.
 
Speaking of things that happen before they exist, as I was writing Finding Your Way in a Wild New World, which, as you may know, is all about making things happen with less effort and more amazement, I experienced a succession of events that should not have happened. It seemed I was continuously encountering the kinds of people I was writing about:  medicine men, shamans, healers, and mystics from all sorts of obscure traditions around the world.  I thought that when I finished the book that these events would stop.  In some odd way, I had convinced myself that my daily writing sessions were causing me to pay abnormal attention to the subject and that this was creating an illusion of “manifestation” that would disappear when I stopped writing.  I may be wandering off into “woo woo” territory, but at heart I am still a skeptic.
 
That’s why I was surprised when, not long after I finished the book, I was introduced to a shaman from South America and invited to attend a retreat in a remote region of the American West. I was somewhat nervous about the entire event.  Even though I have been running them for years, I have never been to a retreat myself. I had no clue what shamanic ceremony we’d be performing and, as some of you know, I have a slight tendency toward anxiety­—to the extent that waking up in the morning is an athletic exercise of will and courage.  The one thing that can reliably calm me down is an animal—any animal. I love animals.  If I woke up and there was a rat in my room, I would be profoundly calm. 
 
So, as I set out from the airport to the wilderness area where the retreat was to take place, I decided to request that animal be sent to calm me.  I do this a lot in Africa and it always works there, though the Londolozi Game Preserve is so magical that I have begun to take it for granted. This time I decided I wanted to see a Pronghorn antelope.  These animals are native to the American West, but though I have lived in their immediate neighborhood most of my life, I had never seen one.  They are wary, very fast and learn to avoid people.  So, as I sat in my rental car, mentally “calling” Pronghorn, my hopes were not high.  A few seconds later, to my surprise, I experienced an odd sensation much like a hot flash.  I my head, I heard (or thought I heard) something say, “We will bring them right to you.”  I popped another Centrum Silver for aging women and thought I was imagining things. 
 
Four hours later, I was motoring down a dirt road toward the retreat location.  I was in a wide valley, too high for trees to grow, and could see for miles around me.  Suddenly, in the distance, I caught a blob of movement, a little like a patch of sand, moving quickly across the ground.  I stopped my car and stared in complete amazement, not quite daring to believe that I was looking at a herd of Pronghorn antelope.  The blob came toward me like it was late for an appointment.  When it was about a mile away, I could make out individual animals.  Until the herd was very close, I didn’t dare believe that the very beasts I had requested were headed toward me, against all logic and instincts.  When they were about a block away from me, there was no more doubt.  They were much bigger and chunkier than I had expected and fast.  I have since learned that Pronghorns are the fastest land animals in North America.  These animals were not living in a protected game preserve, but in a place that was frequented by human hunters.  Yet they sprinted a considerable distance to the one human artifact in sight—my car.  And then they stopped. 
 
As I sat in my car, alternately laughing and gasping, the last thread of my disbelief snapped.  There really is some sort of communion between humans and the other animals that share our planet.  There really is something real in the belief and practices of humans who have found harmony with the natural world.  And there really is magic. 
 
Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  To me, an iPhone is pure magic, yet I accept its existence.  Mine continues to work no matter how many times I drop it.  Sometimes I use it incorrectly or I’m in an area where the signal is weak, but that doesn’t mean I stop believing that the technology works. 
 
Similarly, the “technologies of magic” used by ancient people must be used intelligently and correctly to have the desired effect.  Very few people still know how to program them, use all their apps, or even turn on the power, but that does not mean there is nothing to these technologies.  Not only do they work, they are part of the hardware that was born into your brain and body.  They are waiting for you to take them out of the package and begin fiddling with the buttons.  At first, you may not see many results.  Keep tinkering.  Ask people who know.  Look for small effects and repeat the actions that produce them until the effects become more noticeable.  If you persist, there will come a day when something sprints toward you with such determination and such beauty that your disbelief will snap like a dried twig. 
 
Along with some of my master coaches, I have decided to label these “Pronghorn Alerts.”  Just having a name for them will help you identify them in your own experience.  When you have a Pronghorn-type event, even a tiny one, you must sound the “Pronghorn Alert!” by posting it to my Facebook or Twitter page.  There you can also learn the not-at-all secret hand signal that we have invented to designate the statement, “I have just performed a miracle.” 

We look forward to reading your stories and thanks again for being a miracle in my life.  Just the fact that you are reading this makes you a bit of a Pronghorn to me.


Fun Contest Time!

Sound Your Pronghorn Alert!

We want to hear about your miracles! Post your Pronghorn Alert on my Facebook or Twitter page (use the hashtag #wildworld) between now and Noon Pacific time on December 12th (Yes! That’s 12 on 12/12!) and you’ll be entered to win one of ten autographed copies of my new book before it’s available in stores. As a matter of fact, you’d most likely have it in your hot little hands by Christmas. For more information on the contest and to hear me talk about my own Pronghorn Alert, watch the video below.  Then pop on over and post your Pronghorn Alert pronto!

[Can’t see the video above? Watch it online!]

Putting the “Fun” in Dysfunctional: Saving Your Sanity This Holiday Season

[Hello, Team! This is a reprint of my article from the December 2002 issue of O Magazine, where I first introduced “Dysfunctional Family Bingo”, a staple for surviving any family event. My team put together a bingo card for you and your favorite people to play along. Enjoy and good luck out there!]

In the Uncle Remus story of the tar baby, Brer Rabbit picks a fight with a lifelike doll made out of tar and turpentine. The tar baby is so gluey that when the rabbit punches it, his fists get hopelessly stuck. He tries to kick his way free, trapping his feet, then finishes off with an infuriated head butt that renders him utterly helpless.

I can’t think of a more fitting metaphor for family life in the 21st century. There’s nothing in the world as sticky as a dysfunctional family. You can put half your life’s savings into therapy—good therapy, effective therapy—and, 15 minutes into a holiday reunion, you still become hopelessly enmeshed in the same old crazy dynamics. Your assertiveness training goes out the window the minute your brother begins his traditional temper tantrum. A mere sigh from your grandmother triggers an attack of codependency so severe you end up giving her your house. For many people, family get-togethers require strategies for staying out of such sticky situations. Before you head over the river and through the woods, give some thought to the following suggestions.

Strategy #1: Give Up Hope

Most of us go home for the holidays thinking (along with comedienne Abby Sher), God, grant me the ability to change the things I cannot accept. Even if we don’t consciously realize it, we want our families to cease and desist from all the things that affect us like fingernails on a chalkboard. We don’t ask much—just socially appropriate behavior, dammit, and minimal reparations for the more damaging incidents in our past. Although come to think of it, things would certainly go better if our relatives would listen openly, communicate honestly, and agree with us on all significant issues. And possibly offer money.

The hope that our families will act perfectly—or even reasonably well—sets us up to whack the tar baby, to be incapacitated by the dysfunctions we’ll almost certainly encounter. Before you meet your relatives this season, take a few moments to sit quietly and acknowledge what you wish they were like. Then prepare to accept them even if they behave as they have always done in the past. At best you may be surprised to find that they actually are changing, that some of your wishes have come true. At worst you’ll feel regrettably detached from your kinfolk as you watch them play out their usual psychoses.

Strategy #2: Set Secure Boundaries

Given that your family members will probably go on being their same old selves, you need to decide how much contact with them you really want. Are there certain relatives you simply can’t tolerate? Are there others you can handle in group settings but not one-on-one? How much time and intimacy with your family is enough? How much is too much?

It’s crucial to answer these questions before, not during, a family gathering. Prior to the event, think through various boundary options until you come up with a scenario that makes you feel comfortable. Would you be more enthusiastic about a get-together if you planned to leave after no more than four hours? Or three? Two? One? Would you breathe easier if you rented a car so that you could get away without relying on relatives for transportation? Would it help to have a friend call you on your cell phone halfway through the evening, providing an excuse for a graceful exit?

Strategy #3: Lose Control

You’re in the middle of a holiday feast, enjoying your favorite pie and eggnog, when your mother leans over and whispers, “Honey, have you tried Weight Watchers?” Those six words may wither your very soul, challenging every ounce of self-acceptance you’ve gleaned from myriad self-help books, support groups, and several enlightened friends. You might feel desperate to make Mom recognize all the hard-won truths you’ve learned about the intrinsic value and beauty of your body. You’ll want to argue, to explain, to get right in there and force your mother to approve of your appearance. You are coming perilously close to whacking the tar baby.

Remember this: Any attempt you make to control other people actually puts you under their control. If you decide you can’t be happy until your mother finally understands you, her dysfunction will rule your life. You could spend the next 20 years trying to please her so much that she’d just have to accept you—and she still might not. Or you could hold her at gunpoint and threaten her into saying the words you want to hear, but you’ll never control her real thoughts and feelings. Never.

The only way you can avoid getting stuck in other people’s craziness is to follow codependency author Melody Beattie’s counterintuitive advice: “Unhook from their systems by refusing to try to control them.” Don’t violate your own code of values and ethics, but don’t waste energy trying to make other people violate theirs. If soul-searching has shown you that your mother’s opinions are wrong for you—as are your grandfather’s bigotry, your sister’s new religion, and your cousin’s alcoholism—hold that truth in your heart, whether or not your family members validate it. Feel what you feel, know what you know, and set your relatives free to do the same.

If you’ve been deeply wounded by your family, you can stop trying to control them by accepting full responsibility for your healing. I’m not suggesting you shoulder all the blame, but rather that you acknowledge that you and only you have the ability to respond to injury by seeking cures instead of furthering pain. Whatever the situation, accepting that you can control only your own thoughts and actions will help you mend more quickly and thoroughly.

Strategy #4: Become a Participant Observer

Some social scientists use a technique called participant observation, meaning that they join groups of people in order to watch and report on whatever those people do. Back when I was training to become a sociologist, I loved participant observation. People I might normally have avoided—criminals, fundamentalists, PTA presidents—became absolutely fascinating when I was participant-observing them. Almost any group activity is interesting when you’re planning to describe it later to someone who’s on your wavelength. Here are some approaches to help you become a participant observer of your own family.

Queen for a Day

This little game is based on the old TV show in which four women competed to see who had the most miserable life. The contestant judged most pathetic got, among other things, a washing machine in which to cleanse her tear-stained clothing. My version goes like this: Prior to a family function, arrange to meet with at least two friends—more, if possible—after the holidays. You’ll each tell the stories of your respective family get-togethers, then vote to see whose experience was most horrendous. That person will then be crowned queen, and the others will buy her lunch.

Comedy Club

In this exercise, you look to your family not for love and understanding but for comedy material. Watch closely. The more atrocious your family’s behavior is, the funnier it can be in the retelling. Watch stand-up comics to see the enormous fun they can have describing appalling marriages, ghastly parenting, or poisonous family secrets. When you’re back among friends, telling your own wild stories, you may find that you no longer suffer from your family’s brand of insanity; you’ve actually started to enjoy it.

Dysfunctional Family Bingo

This is one of my favorite games, though it involves considerable preparation. A few weeks before the holidays, gather with friends and provide each person with a bingo card. Each player fills in her bingo squares with dysfunctional phrases or actions that are likely to surface at her particular family party. For example, if you dread the inevitable “So when are you going to get married?” that question goes in one square of your bingo card. If your brother typically shows up crocked to the gills, put “Al is drunk” in another square, and so on.

Take your finished cards to your respective family gatherings. Whenever you observe something that appears on your bingo card, mark off that square. The first person to get bingo must sneak off to call the other players, and announce her victory. If no one has a full bingo, the person who has the largest number of filled-out squares wins the game. The winner shall be determined at the post-holiday meeting, where she will be granted the ever gratifying free lunch.

Strategy #5: Debrief

Even if you don’t play any participant observation games, it’s crucial to follow up on family events by debriefing with someone you love. If your brother really “gets” you, call him after a family dinner you’ve both survived. If you don’t trust anyone who shares a shred of your DNA, report to a friend or therapist. Generally speaking, you can schedule a debriefing session for a few weeks after the holidays, when everybody’s schedule is back to normal. However, you should exchange phone calls with your debriefing partners within a day or so of the family encounter, just to reconnect with the outside world and head off any annoying little problems, such as ill-considered suicide.

All of these strategies, from relinquishing hope of transformation to mimicking your relatives in riotous conversations with your friends, are designed to help you love your family unconditionally, in whatever way works best for you. They help you greet the tar baby with genuine affection, then walk away clear and happy. And that, in the end, may be the best holiday present you’ll ever give to the people you cherish most.

Party On: A Survival Guide for Social-Phobes

If you are reading this with mounting excitement, thinking about the wonderful parties you’re going to throw or attend this holiday season, allow me to congratulate you. I’m one of the millions of party-impaired individuals who stand in awe of people like you—people who love to entertain, meet new friends, cavort with fun-loving crowds. When you invite the rest of us to your celebrations, we are honored, even though it brings us the same joy we’d feel if you handed us a large, angry scorpion. 

For party-phobes like myself, it’s a struggle to remember in the celebratory horrors of the season that we are not alone. Everyone around you may look as happy as a hog in slop, but if you spiked the punch with sodium pentothal, you’d probably find that a large number of the guests get nervous, if not at this particular party then at others. I have friends who dread intimate get-togethers with close friends, the only type of party that doesn’t make me want to open my veins with a crab fork. Yet they actually enjoy experiences that haunt my nightmares, such as huge revels where thousands of strangers chug beer from plastic cups and shout to one another over deafening music. 

If the thought of a party alarms you, it’s likely you suffer from some level of social phobia, the most common anxiety disorder to afflict Americans. Its primary symptom is an oppressive sense of being criticized and judged. True social-phobes are so unnerved by this feeling that they can’t relax unless they are completely alone. Most of us aren’t that badly afflicted, but the season’s festivities are likely to ignite any wisps of social anxiety we happen to have. Headed for some gala event, you might find yourself feeling tense and irritable rather than relaxed and jolly. You may feel as if you’re walking into a war zone. 

A War Party

The phrase “war party” not only describes a gang of soldiers but also signifies a method of heightening courage before combat. A phenomenon called social contagion accentuates emotion when we gather in groups. It can turn ordinary people into murderous mobs, panicky crowds, or selfless martyrs. Warlike cultures traditionally utilize this tendency to excite fighters so much that they’ll happily march into mortal danger. The warriors wear special clothing, paint their faces, and indulge in what anthropologists call the four D’s: drinking, drugging, dancing, and drumming. All these activities help put people in that hazy psychological territory where pure action rules and thought becomes irrelevant. My favorite term for this condition comes from ancient Ireland, where soldiers aspired to a condition called a warp spasm. This was a sort of Incredible Hulk experience in which warriors were literally transformed into wild, fearless, invincible heroes. 

If this description doesn’t remind you of a holiday party, you don’t have much social anxiety. We party-phobes know exactly how it feels to don the armor of a little black dress, slather on our best war paint, and throw ourselves into the four D’s, hoping desperately for a warp spasm to grab us and carry us beyond our fear. The phobic person’s party rituals aren’t expressions of joy. Every act, from choosing clothes to making small talk, is a fear-based defense against criticism: What will people think of my shoes, my hair, my conversation? Celebrations loom like battles, crowded with opponents who can’t wait to skewer us on the blades of disdain and rejection. Fortunately, there is hope for the party-impaired. 

Acknowledge The Facts

Most of us social-phobes try to cheer ourselves up with vague positive thinking, hoping that something will happen so that this shindig won’t be as excruciating as the last. It’s wiser to simply admit that we feel like we’re headed to our own execution, except that we won’t get to be dead afterward. 

But we also have to realize that our social anxiety is telling us lies, primarily a ridiculous fiction that everyone is scrutinizing us for flaws. It helps me to remember the 20-40-60 rule, which I learned from a friend: “When you’re 20, you’re obsessed with what everyone is thinking about you; when you’re 40, you stop caring what people are thinking about you; and when you’re 60, you realize that no one was ever thinking about you.” Mentally repeating this adage might help moderate your unease as you near the front.

Choose Your Battles

Anxiety tells you that the enemies you’ll encounter at a celebration are your fellow partygoers. This is another lie. The truth is that you’re always fighting on the same side as everyone else, because the real enemies are shame, fear, and cruel judgment, which hurt us all. 

Unfortunately, most of us social-phobes guard ourselves against other people, rather than cruelty itself. This promptly creates what we fear. In social situations, people unconsciously observe very subtle signals to determine who is or is not approachable. When we’re fearful, we send “go away” messages with our voices, bodies, and facial expressions: Being scared makes us scary. One of my favorite silly jokes is about a half-blind man who buys a wooden eye because he can’t afford a glass one. He self-consciously enters a nightclub, breathing a sigh of relief when he notices a pretty woman with a false leg, sitting by herself. The man drums up just enough courage to ask her, “Would you like to dance?” She joyfully exclaims, “Would I! Would I!” But of course, what the man hears is “Wood eye! Wood eye!” Hurt to the core, he shouts, “Peg leg! Peg leg!” Both he and the woman flee homeward, to live out their lives in bitter solitude. 

This is the dynamic of fear; it makes us overreact to imagined slights and forget to treat other people with simple kindness. If people do reject us, it’s very often because they feel we’ve already rejected them. 

Use The Right Strategy

I used to think that I needed a whole armory full of impressive weapons to survive a party—things like cleverness, thin thighs, social connections, and wealth, none of which I happened to possess. Now that I am older and…well, older, I’ve come to believe that only two strategies are necessary in any festive situation: reciprocity and honesty. Both are easy to grasp and readily available. 

Reciprocity 
“The norm of reciprocity” is the sociological term for people’s near-ineluctable tendency to treat others as others treat them. It isn’t a moral principle, like the Golden Rule, but a compelling feature of our innate psychology. The “wood eye” story illustrates how reciprocity can make two vulnerable people treat each other abominably. The same dynamic can create powerful positive interactions. If you walk into a party brooding, They’ll think I look terrible, you’re guaranteed to trigger other people’s social phobias. If you walk in thinking, Don’t they all look marvelous!, your behavior will elicit kind judgments rather than cruel ones. 

At a gathering, it helps to use a first-strike capacity. Be aggressively nonjudgmental. Notice impressive traits about other people, and mention them. Genuine admiration is incredibly powerful ammunition. Statements like “I love your haircut” and “Wow, you have a great voice” disarm other people’s social anxiety. The norm of reciprocity makes them judge you positively. Boom! Your mutual enemy is slain at the outset of battle. 

If you encounter someone who really is judgmental, remember this: Harsh critics are always people who fear criticism. At worst, kindness will confuse them; at best utterly disarm them. 

Honesty 
Social-phobes dread party talk. We’re petrified of saying something stupid, something that will reveal us as the jackasses we are, rather than the social maestros we wish we were. We overlook the fact that the conversational skill most effective at breaching social barriers is not eloquence but honesty. When you’re at a loss for the right party words, I recommend the unconventional strategy of telling the truth. 

I’ve learned to do this, for example, in matters relating to alcohol. When someone asks me to choose a wine for dinner, I sing out the embarrassing truth. “Sorry,” I say, “I was raised Mormon. The only party beverage I ever saw anyone drink was Robitussin straight from the bottle. Help!” People seem to just love this. It makes them feel smart and special, which indeed they are. 

Once you start telling the truth in festive settings, you may end up leaking the Big Secret: the fact that you have social anxiety. I recently—reluctantly—attended a party where you couldn’t wave a spoon without hitting a rich, famous person in the eye. At one point, I found myself rubbing elbows with a person so rich and famous I nearly screamed. 

“Having fun?” said the rich and famous person. 

“Hell, no,” I heard myself say. “I’m scared to death.” 

“So am I!” she beamed, and the two of us began an unexpectedly comfortable conversation. 

After a while, our unbelievably rich, famous host came by. “Hey,” he said, “you two aren’t working the room. You should hobnob.” 

My new friend replied calmly, “Dude, I have hobbed my last nob.” Our host looked shocked, then enormously relieved. Suddenly, instead of a blithering idiot and two rich, famous people, we were just three ordinary humans enjoying one another’s company. 

In his classic treatise The Art of War, the Chinese general Sun Tzu commented that the best way to win a conflict is to stop it before it arises. Once you have learned how to target your real enemies of shame and fear and fight them with effective weapons, the terrors of this party season may begin dissolving before they form. Holiday celebrations just might become what everyone tells you they should be: delightful occasions that warm, connect, and help us feel the goodwill that was present for us all along. 

Advice for Enjoying the Festivities

1. You don’t have to accept every invitation, so choose gatherings that make you most comfortable: Wild and woolly bashes with masses of guests??Holiday open houses? Small dinners with friends? 

2. Promise yourself that you can leave after 30 minutes if you’re truly miserable. Just knowing you have an out eases the stress of schmoozing—and you’ll probably end up staying longer than half an hour. 

3. Instead of going to a party alone, contact a friend who’s also been invited and arrange to meet for a drink before. It’s easier to face a crowd with a partner, and you’ll have someone to compare notes with. 

4. Collect a few icebreakers: When you find yourself standing at the bar or reaching a dead end in a conversation, news of a sighting of Bessie, the Lake Erie monster, or some other tidbit that caught your attention will make it that much easier to mingle. 

5. When all else fails, take a break from small talk and spend a few minutes with the host’s children, dog, hamster, Lava lamp, etc. 

Coach 4 2day – Letting Go of the Past

In this video blog, Martha helps you understand how to reframe your stories to help you let go of the past so you can be more present.

[Can’t see the video above? Watch it online!]

 

Sneak Peek: What is a Wayfinder?

In my new book – Finding Your Way in a Wild New World – I use the term “Wayfinder” to describe the new role we are all taking on to thrive in this wild new world. Check out the video below to learn more…

Can’t see the video above? Watch it online!

The New 95/5 Principle: Insight from Martha

You’ve probably heard of something called the 80/20 rule. It was authored by the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who found that in his country 20% of the people owned 80% of the wealth. Later on, business managers began using the 80/20 rule (or the Pareto principle) to increase their productivity. At a rough estimate, 20% of the company’s employees created 80% of the company’s useful work. If you apply the 80/20 rule to your life, you’ll find that a similar dynamic exists in almost everything you do:  Twenty percent of your interpersonal activities create 80% of your sense of connection; you wear 20% of your clothing 80% of the time; and 20% of the energy you expend creates 80% of your positive experiences.
 
Pareto wrote up his observations in 1906. Since then, change in our culture has gained enormous amounts of speed and power. The other day, a fellow coach remarked to me that by her estimation, the 80/20 rule has become more like the 95/5 principle. If you choose your activities carefully, just 5% of your time can be used to create 95% of your good experiences.

For example, watching this YouTube video catalyzed 95% of my laughter yesterday. About 5% of what I’ve written in my life generated about 95% of the positive feedback. They say the first five minutes of an interpersonal interaction establishes the emotional tone of a meeting that could last 95 more minutes. 
 
The fact that so little effort can create such great effects these days doesn’t mean that we should just expend less effort. It means that almost all our effort should go to discerning which 5% of all possible activities will have the greatest positive impact. I’ve heard many people claim that in this time of job insecurity, we must all work much harder at anything we do. At a recent conference, an organizer told me I should advise audience members to work frantically at any job they could get, just hoping that something would turn out to be a viable way of supporting themselves. This is the only time I’ve ever thrown away my cue cards in front of the person who wrote them. The “work hard, work very, very hard” philosophy has never been more useless. What I actually recommended at that conference was that audience members spend most of their time learning to relax and to sense a way forward that would create positive outcomes without exhausting them. 

I’m telling you the same thing now. Especially if you are worried about some area of your life. Take some time to get still. Consider the situation without alarm and try something author Penney Pierce calls “feeling into the situation.” Try to sense where the situation “wants” you to act. Zero in on those areas, remaining very relaxed, and see if you can find more clarity about precisely the action that will be most positive and powerful. Remember that a five minute conversation with your spouse, child, or friend can create 95% of your impact on them each day. Remember that one viral video can spread wildly with little effort—if its energy really speaks to viewers. Forget the boring statistics you learned in economics class; the way to reach people at this point in history is to abandon boring models and tune into whatever is visceral, hilarious, authentic, and imbued with the energy of joy.
 
At the moment, I am gathering my energy to promote a book that’s coming out on December 27th. I know from experience that I will feel morally obligated to take advantage of any marketing opportunity, including being interviewed by a home radio enthusiast who works out of his garage, speaks only Latvian, and thinks that I am actually Martha Stewart. Moreover, my publishers will enthusiastically encourage me to do even more. My challenge to you this month is also my challenge to myself. I’m hoping we can quietly “feel into” any opportunity or responsibility we feel pulled to accomplish. If we can feel that a certain effort will have great impact, we should throw ourselves into the task, but we must also remember that 95% of a random effort is generally wasted and that letting go of our anxiety-based overwork is the only way to be sure of identifying those key opportunities.
 
I like to imagine a world where 95% of the people spend 95% of their energy choosing the top 5% of activities available to them. But if the 95/5 principle works, we don’t need such a huge psychological revolution. If just 5% of the people begin maximizing their positive influence this way, we can create 95% of the change we wish to see in the world. Start with your own life, as always, and see whether focusing 95% of your energy on 5% of your options doesn’t make your whole existence happier, easier, and more abundant. Watch your enhanced energy lifting and calming everyone and everything you do. Then spend 5% of your Internet time letting us know how it went.

Martha Beck: “Books for a Better Life Awards” Finalist

Finding Your Way in a Wild New WorldMartha Beck’s new book, “Finding Your Way in a Wild New World” was nominated by The New York City – Southern New York Chapter of the National MS Society  for the 16th Annual Books for a Better Life Awards.

While Martha has been nominated before for The Joy Diet and Steering by Starlight in the past, this is the first time she has been nominated in the “Spiritual” category, which she says, feels a lot more like home.

Find out more about the awards and the nomination on the National MS Society’s website.