Mirror, Mirror: The Power of Perseveration

mirror-mirror-on-the-wall-1436523I have the most fabulous conversations when I’m alone. Driving, exercising, flossing my teeth, I offer opinions and advice that would change the world, if only the people I’m talking to were actually there. One day I’ll laser-focus on a particular client, telling her exactly how to dump her awful boyfriend and develop some self-esteem. The next day I’ll masterfully elucidate how a friend should raise his children, or help the president better handle the media. So great are my powers of persuasion that I can go back in time, intercept Virginia Woolf as she heads out to drown herself, and help her resolve her issues so she wants to live, live, live! Also make her subsequent novels a little less weird!

I think most people engage in this sort of mono mano a mano from time to time. I’ve spent countless hours listening to clients explain what a loved one or coworker needs to hear—so many, in fact, that I finally had to make a formal policy: I don’t coach anyone who isn’t in the room. Yet when a session is over and my clients leave, I frequently go right on coaching them in my head. Recently, I discovered a way to turn these hypocritical solo conversations into a self-improvement tool. I find it surprisingly powerful. I’m hoping you will, too.

Mirror, Mirror 

Psychologists call it perseverating: “To repeat or prolong an action, thought, or utterance after the stimulus that prompted it has ceased.” Our subconscious minds cause us to obsess—perseverate—about people who mirror something in ourselves that needs our attention. I often marvel as clients bewail the very things in others that reflect their own actions. For example:

“I can’t believe my kid has been smoking pot—I’m so upset, I’ve had to double my anxiety medication.”

“My boss is incredibly secretive. It’s so unhealthy—she’s creating a culture of concealment. But don’t tell anyone I said so.”

“I wish I could get my sister to stop tearing herself down. I mean, she’s not a total freaking loser like me.”

From the outside, it’s obvious these statements are masterpieces of self-referential thinking. But when we’re the ones perseverating, we don’t realize we’re looking at human mirrors. So I devised the following exercise, which I call Epistles of Perseveration. It can help puncture denial and make the changes your subconscious mind knows are most important for you, right now.

Step One: Choose A Negative Perseveration Person (NPP)

Think of a person who’s been on your mind, someone whose misdeeds really chap your hide, and who could benefit—but plenty!—from your awesome insight. Get a pencil and paper and prepare to perseverate in print.

Step Two: Unleash Your Inner Bitch

I first tried this on a day when my mind was a storm of advice for an acquaintance I’ll call Glinda. Since trying to confine my inner judgmental bitch wasn’t working, I decided to let her burn off some energy on paper. At the top of a notebook page, I wrote, “Dear Glinda, here is what I really think about you in my lowest moments.” Then I scrawled out all the things I’d been trying not to think.

“You’re so two-faced!” I wrote. “You fawn over people until their backs are turned, and then you criticize and undermine them. You’re sneaky and manipulative and insincere. It makes me sick!” Writing this down felt horribly liberating. I could practically hear the hormones gushing from my adrenal glands as I scribbled.

Now it’s your turn. Write a letter to your negative perseveration person—not to send, but to capture the harsh thoughts howling through the darkest caverns of your mind. Enjoy this step; most people do. The next one’s kind of a buzzkill.

Step Three: Change the Name to Stop Protecting the Guilty

Once you’ve fully expressed your thoughts to your NPP, cross out his or her name at the top of your letter. Write in your own. Now read the letter as if it’s written to you—and instead of defending yourself, absorb it the way you’d want your NPP to: thoughtfully, openly, without resistance.

In the case of my rant at Glinda, my hypocrisy was obvious. I hadn’t told the woman I thought she was vilely duplicitous—except when she wasn’t there. In her presence, I was polite. In short, I was being friendly to her face, then attacking her (if only in my mind) behind her back. I was being, in my own words, “sneaky and manipulative and insincere.”

As soon as I realized all that good advice was for me, my perseveration about Glinda turned into a humbling effort to be more honest and consistent in my relationships, with Glinda and everyone else. I almost stopped thinking about her—except as a teacher I could thank for helping me see my own problematic behavior.

When you read your NPP letter, it may be obvious you deserve the very feedback your inner bitch is handing out. If not, look more deeply. For example, if your NPP is a bully but you’re a mild-mannered sort, notice where you’ve allowed yourself to be intimidated; cringing is half the bullying dance, and you may have been dancing it all along. Or if your NPP is fanatically controlling and you’re generally relaxed, notice that you’re trying to control this person’s controlling-ness. If your NPP wastes money and you’re frugal, see where you’ve squandered currencies other than money, such as time or attention (for example, by perseverating).

The wonderful thing about recognizing your own worst traits in your NPP is that your letter will be rich in good advice. By perseverating, you’ve explored all sorts of ways in which your target—that would be you—can do better. In fact, the bitchier you’ve let yourself be, the clearer the instructions.

Step Four: Choose A Positive-Perseveration Person (PPP)

Taking your own negative advice is strong medicine, but for some people the second half of this exercise is even harder to assimilate. Please persist through these last three steps, though, or you’ll miss half the messages from your human mirrors.

For this step, choose a positive-perseveration person—someone you think about in a grateful, admiring, even envious way. Often these people will crop up in your solo conversations, but instead of ranting, you’ll find yourself listening, repeatedly remembering something they said or did.

Not long after composing my letter to Glinda, I visited a dying friend I’ll call Sue. Sue didn’t want to talk; her esophagus was blocked, and although she was receiving fluids via an IV drip, her mouth and throat were terribly dry. I sat beside Sue for half an hour before noticing that my mind was repeating part of a poem from a collection called Thirst, by Mary Oliver: “Don’t worry, sooner or later I’ll be home. / Red-cheeked from the roused wind, / I’ll stand in the doorway / stamping my boots and slapping my hands, / my shoulders / covered with stars.”

I know this poem because I’m mildly obsessed with Oliver’s work, in a way that definitely counts as perseveration. Phrases from her poems often fill my mind like looped recordings, repeating as tenaciously as my advice to NPPs.

To comfort myself as I sat beside Sue, I began silently reciting other Oliver poems (“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement.” “And who will care, who will chide you if you wander away / from wherever you are, to look for your soul?”). After a while, though I hadn’t moved or spoken, Sue looked at me, smiled, and whispered, “That feels good.” Then she slowly relaxed and fell asleep.

I took out my notebook, turned to a fresh page, and began to write: “Dear Ms. Oliver, here is what I really think about you in my lowest moments.”

Step Five: Unleash Your Inner Adoring Puppy

I hope you’re following the process here: Choose a PPP—a person you admire and appreciate—and write an absolutely honest letter to him or her. When I do this, I become as worshipful as a rescued pound dog. “Thank you for walking away from busyness to linger in nature,” I wrote to Mary Oliver. “Thank you for finding words to say what silence teaches.” If she’d been there, I would have given her all my chew toys.

Step Six: Again, Change the Name

Once you’ve written to your positive perseveration person, repeat step three: Cross out his or her name and substitute your own. Read your own feedback, absorbing it without resistance, because once again, you were really talking to yourself.

My letter to Mary Oliver stunned me. For years I’ve chastised myself for periodically ignoring e-mails and appointments to disappear into the mountains or the African savanna. But now I saw clearly: My AWOL adventures haven’t been a waste of time! When I travel, I’m hunting and gathering messages that comfort me not only in the hubbub of life but also in the face of death. I’m no Mary Oliver, but something in me has been trying to follow her example.

What does your PPP letter tell you to love within yourself? For which of your attributes are you unconsciously grateful? Whatever you’ve written, now is the time to accept it. Embrace it as you’d want your heroes to embrace your appreciation. You really are that person.

Upon Reflection…

It’s helpful to remember that our subconscious minds continuously seek out human mirrors and hold them up to our conscious awareness. Looking deeply at our own “reflections” expands our awareness of our worst qualities (so we can correct them) and our best (so we can enhance them). Perseveration letters can transform your solitary conversations into powerful dialogues, because the person you’re talking to—you—starts to hear. And when that happens, in small but deeply significant ways, your good advice really does begin to change the world.

How to Stand Up for Yourself

I-Am-Not-A-DoormatIf Nu Nu had been bigger than a doorknob, someone would have shot him. He was like a tiny chain saw with fur, a snarling, fang-baring nightmare of a Chihuahua who viciously attacked anyone brave enough or crazy enough to go near him. Tina Madden, Nu Nu’s owner, was as saintly as he was diabolical. She never sank to Nu Nu’s level by reprimanding, much less punishing, him. She simply showered him with love and tenderness, believing that taking the high road would eventually dissolve Nu Nu’s wrath.

I’ve had clients who took a similar “high road” approach with difficult people in their lives. For example, Yvette stayed politely silent when a coworker, Fred, brazenly stole her ideas. Janae cleaned up pizza boxes and drinking glasses left by her college-age daughter, Emily, as uncomplainingly as she’d once changed Emily’s dirty diapers. And Cynthia and Rob’s romance was based on lots of give and take: Cynthia gave—back rubs, compliments, gifts—and Rob took full advantage without ever reciprocating.

All these women were as long-suffering as Tina Madden, and the people around them responded just as Nu Nu did: by exploiting the living hell out of them.

The problem is that trying to change unfair behavior with submissive niceness is like trying to smother a fire with gunpowder. It isn’t the high road; it’s the grim, well-trod path that leads from aggressive to passive, through long, horrible stretches of passive-aggressive. The real high road requires something quite different: the courage to know and follow your own truth. If anyone in your life is exploiting your courtesy and goodwill, it’s time you learned how all of this works.

Are Your Relationships on the ORC Road?

First let’s look at the dynamics of an unbalanced relationship like Nu Nu and Tina’s. Though Tina’s endless tolerance appeared to stem from a deep and abiding love, it was based more on fear: fear of anger, of conflict, of losing control, of emotional abandonment. It was the passive response to an aggressive attack—both behaviors that fall into a category I call ORC. Here, ORC stands not for those gnarly dudes who, as we all know, would destroy Middle-earth if given half a chance, but for behavior that is opaque, reactive, and closed.

By describing behavior as opaque, I mean that we hide—even from ourselves—the actual motives that drive it. For example, when Fred stole Yvette’s ideas, her silence didn’t come from inner peace but from an unacknowledged fear that speaking up would ruin her reputation as a “team player.” Janae didn’t realize that her real reason for catering to her daughter was to keep Emily from wanting to move out—and tamp down her own dread of living in an empty nest. Likewise, Cynthia was unconscious of her terror that Rob would leave her unless she constantly fulfilled his every wish.

When opaque behavior disengages us from our inner truth, we stop acting on our own desires and become purely reactive instead, focused not on what we want but on what others will think, say, or do. We never express negative feelings about the relationship—which means that it becomes, in the words of organizational behavior expert Chris Argyris, “self-sealed” against learning. Opaque, reactive, and closed: in a word, ORC.

Of course, it’s not always easy to know if you’re in ORC territory. This very day, you may perform completely ORC-ish acts without even realizing it. Luckily, there are two red flags that will always tell you when you’re on the ORC road. Red flag number one: a tendency among the people around you to become increasingly selfish, exploitative, and unfair. Red flag number two: a growing disconnect between your own feelings and your actions—directly proportional to how badly you’re being treated and how far you’ve managed to stray from your truth.

Here’s a guide to ORC signals:

Feeling: Disturbed
You easily brush aside your feelings and continue your nice, polite behavior.

Feeling: Displaced
You appear cooperative around the offender, still pushing away resistant feelings but now fussing grumpily to yourself or to others.

Feeling: Hurt
You may actually increase niceness to hide the fact that you’re feeling seriously wronged. Anger seeps out passive-aggressively—a snippy question, a slammed drawer.

Feeling: Resentful
The offender’s misdeeds begin to occupy more and more of your attention. Kvetching about her becomes a daily pastime; you begin to shoot her angry looks while claiming that absolutely nothing is wrong.

Feeling: Seething
The offender’s bad behavior becomes a central feature of your thinking. You complain constantly to others, and despite continued “niceness,” try to undermine her with passive-aggressive strategies like the silent treatment, backhanded compliments, and gossip.

Feeling: Homicidal
You daydream about thrashing the offender in a cage fight. You have knots in your stomach and can’t sleep. You’re irritable or depressed. You may occasionally lash out at loved ones in what appears to be irrational rage. Toward the offender, however, you still act “nice” and “polite.”

How to Leave the ORC Road and Find the TAO

If you see yourself anywhere on the ORC chart, don’t despair. Many people who wind up here believe the only alternative to groveling niceness is aggressive dominance. But there’s another path, one that never needs to intersect with the ORC road. I call it TAO, which is Chinese for “the way,” and also stands for transparent, authentic, and open.

This way of relating, which I teach all my clients, is based on honestly assessing what’s happening both around us and within us, expressing our truth as authentically as possible, and staying open to feedback without abandoning our own perspective. And it happens to be exactly what Tina was able to achieve with Nu Nu—thanks to dog behaviorist Cesar Millan. Tina and Nu Nu were featured in the original episode of Millan’s TV show, Dog Whisperer. (I keep a DVD of the episode to show people like Yvette, Janae, and Cynthia.) Here’s how it went down: As the episode begins, Millan learns that despite Tina’s desire to live a normal life with normal human contact, whenever anyone comes near Tina, Nu Nu does his level best to kill them. So Millan sits next to Tina, puts his arm around her shoulders, and calmly lets Nu Nu go ballistic. Tina tenses up as though she may spontaneously implode, but Millan simply holds Nu Nu so he can’t attack and waits for the fit to pass. Which it does.

Astonishingly, that’s all it takes to move from the nightmarish ORC road to the TAO of healthy relationships. Three steps: 1. Figure out what you really want to do. 2. Do it. 3. If someone pulls a Nu Nu, wait it out.

Now, if Nu Nu had been a Rottweiler, or Tony Soprano, it would have taken more than Cesar Millan to hold him while he raged. If you think moving into TAO behavior will cause someone you know to become truly dangerous, you need to take appropriate measures. But if all you have to fear is snottiness or angry backlash, you can handle it.

For example, Yvette asked for a meeting with her supervisor and her unethical coworker, Fred. She calmly described how Fred had co-opted her ideas and produced an e-mail trail to back up her claims. Fred threw a fit, accusing Yvette of being dishonest and uncooperative. Yvette stayed transparent, authentic, and open, matter-of-factly restating her point and asking him to show evidence of his position. Having no truth to turn to, Fred ran out of gas. In fact, Yvette’s behavior scared him so badly, he started stealing from other people instead.

Janae realized that while she was afraid to let her daughter leave home, she also resented Emily for not growing up. I asked her to explain exactly this to Emily. Janae did—then braced for a Nu Nu. To her surprise, Emily thought for a moment, then said, “That sounds fair, but you’ll have to remind me to clean up—I’m sort of a slob.” Later Janae jubilantly told me, “She wanted to be TAO all along!”

Cynthia’s story wasn’t such a fairy tale. When she asked Rob to be as kind and supportive toward her as she was toward him, he went into a rant about why this was impossible and irrational. She held her ground. “Well,” said Rob, “I guess we’d better call the whole thing off.” This move was meant to frighten Cynthia into obedience. Instead it showed her that Rob wasn’t the gallant prince she’d pretended he was. As she continued to be transparent, authentic, and open, Rob’s Nu Nu fits grew so wearying that Cynthia broke off the engagement herself.

Walking the High Road

Years after watching Nu Nu and Tina model ORC behavior, then move to the TAO of genuine connection, I saw another episode of Dog Whisperer in which Tina was working at Cesar Millan’s Dog Psychology Center. When a muscular pit bull began to tangle with another dog, Tina calmly stepped in, pulled away the pit bull (which nearly outweighed her), and held it gently but firmly until it exhausted itself and relaxed. Then she continued walking with the pit bull and several other dogs. As for Nu Nu, he had become as affectionate and joyful as he’d once been demonic. Dog and human walked the high road together, showing the rest of us how it’s done.

Landing in Love: How to Fall into Intimacy Without Resistance

1414578_36595743Psychologists tell us we’re born afraid of just two things. The first is loud noises. Do you recall the second? Most people guess “abandonment” or “starvation,” but neonatal dread was simpler than that: It was the fear of falling. Today we all have a much richer array of consternations, but I’ll bet falling is still on your list. Why give up the prudent concern that brought your whole genetic line into the world clutching anything your tiny fists could grab? Fear of falling is your birthright!

Perhaps that’s why most of us, at least some of the time (and some of us most of the time), are frightened by another deeply primal experience: intimacy. Allowing yourself to become emotionally close is the psychological equivalent of skidding off a cliff; hence the expression “falling in love.” This gauzy phrase usually describes a sexual connection. But love has infinite variations that can swallow the floor from under your feet at any moment. You’re securely installed in a relationship, marching through life, keeping your nasal hairs decently trimmed. Then boom! You hear a song and know that the composer has seen into your soul. Or you wake up, bleary with jet lag, in a city you’ve never seen before and feel you’ve come home. Or the wretched little mess of a kitten you just saved from drowning begins to purr in your arms. Suddenly—too late—you realize that your heart has opened like a trapdoor, and you’re tumbling into a deep, sweet abyss, thinking, ‘God, this is wonderful! God, this is terrible!’

The next time this happens, here’s a nice, dry, scientific fact to dig your toes into: The sensation you’re feeling is probably associated with decreased activity in the brain region that senses our bodies’ location in the physical world. When this zone goes quiet, the boundary between “self” and “not self” disappears. It isn’t just that we feel close to the object of our affection; perceiving ourselves as separate isn’t an option. Some being that was Other now matters to us as much as we matter to ourselves. Yet we have no control over either the love or the beloved.

The horror! The horror!

We focus attention on stories about people, from Othello and Huckleberry Finn to the lusty physicians on Grey’s Anatomy, who trip into versions of intimacy (passion, friendship, parental protectiveness) they can neither escape nor manage. These stories teach us why we both fear and long for intimacy, and why our ways of dealing with it are usually misguided. Two of these methods are so common, they’re worth a warning here.

Bad Idea #1: Guard Your Heart

There’s an old folktale about a giant who removes his own heart, locks it in a series of metal boxes, and buries the whole conglomeration. Thereafter, his enemies can stab or shoot him, but never fatally. Of course, he also loses the benefits of having a heart, such as happiness. The giant sits around like Mrs. Lincoln grimly trying to enjoy the play, until he’s so miserable he digs up his heart and stabs it himself.

This grisly parable reminds us that refusing to love is emotional suicide. Yet many of us fight like giants to guard ourselves from intimacy, boxing up our hearts in steel-hard false beliefs. “I’m unlovable” is one such lockbox. “Everyone wants to exploit me” is another. Then there’s “I shouldn’t feel that” and “I have to follow the rules,” etc. Whatever your own heart-coffins may be, notice that they’re ruining your happiness, not preserving it. As poet Mary Oliver puts it,

Listen, are you breathing just a little,
and calling it a life?…
For how long will you continue to listen to those dark shouters,
caution and prudence?
Fall in! Fall in!

If you’ve buried your heart to keep it from hurting, you’re hurting. You’re also in dire danger of using Bad Idea #2.

Bad Idea #2: Control Your Beloved

“If you don’t love me, I’ll kill myself. If you stop loving me, I’ll kill you.” Some people believe such statements are expressions of true intimacy. Actually, they’re weapons of control, which destroy real connection faster than you can say “restraining order.” Though few of us are this radically controlling, we often use myriad forms of manipulation and coercion. We can say, “Sure, whatever makes you happy,” in a tone that turns this innocuous phrase into a vicious blow. To the extent that we try to make anyone do, feel, or think anything—whether our weapon is people-pleasing, sarcasm, or a machete—we trade intimacy for microterrorism. So, if neither control nor avoidance works, what does?

Good Idea #1: Be Willing

In The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams reveals the secret of flying. Just launch yourself toward the ground, and miss.

“All it requires is simply the ability to throw yourself forward with all your weight, and the willingness not to mind that it’s going to hurt…if you fail to miss the ground. Most people fail to miss the ground, and if they are really trying properly, the likelihood is that they will fail to miss it fairly hard.”

This is the best advice I know for coping with fear of intimacy. Avoidance and control can’t keep our hearts from falling, or cushion the landing. Why not try throwing yourself forward, being willing not to mind that it’s going to hurt? Please note: “Being willing not to mind” isn’t the same as genuinely not minding. You’ll mind the risks of intimacy—count on it. Be willing anyway.

How? Simply allow your feelings—all of them—into full consciousness. Articulate your emotions. Write about them in a journal, tell them to a friend, confess them to your priest, therapist, cab driver. Feel the full extent of your love, your thirst, your passion, without holding back or grasping at anything or anyone (especially not the object of your affection). The next suggestion will show you how.

Good Idea #2: Go “Woo-hoo”

Author Melody Beattie took up skydiving and was scared senseless. Another diver told her, “When you get to the door and jump, say ‘Woo-hoo!’ You can’t have a bad time if you do.”

This phrase works as well when you’re falling emotionally as when you’re falling physically. When fear hits, when you want to grasp or hide, shout “Woo-hoo!” instead. While there is never—not ever—a sure foundation beneath our feet, the willingness to celebrate what we really feel can turn falling into flying. You don’t need an airplane to practice woo-hoo skills. For instance: I’m writing these words at 2:15 in the morning because writing, like other intimate pursuits, often occurs at night. As I type each word, I come to care about how it will be read—about you, there, reading it. Caring is scaring. It makes me want to stop right now, or spend years composing something flawlessly literate. Unfortunately, my deadline was yesterday, and Shakespeare I ain’t, so…woo-hoo!

Now it’s 2:20 a.m. Across the hall, my son, Adam, is dreaming dreams I’ll never quite understand, because his brain is different from mine. Shortly before his birth, I learned that he has Down syndrome, which put mothering him well above skydiving in my Book of Fears. I yelled a lot during Adam’s birth. Twenty-five years later, I’m still yelling “Woo-hoo!” And so far, the only consequence of that particular plunge is love.

Which takes me to my final point.

What I really panic about nowadays isn’t falling; it’s landing. But even that concern is fading because I’ve realized there are only two possible landings for someone who embraces intimacy, and both are beautiful.

The first possibility is that your beloved will love you back. Then you won’t land; you’ll just fall deeper into intimacy, together. This is how bald eagles prepare to mate—by locking talons and free-falling like rocks—which is deeply insane and makes me proud to call the eagle my country’s national bird.

The other possibility is that you’ll throw yourself forward, yell “Woo-hoo!,” and smash into rejection. Will it hurt? Indescribably. But if you still refuse to bury your broken heart, or force someone to “fix” it—if you just experience the crash landing in all its gory glory, you’ll create a miracle.

A Jewish friend told me this story: A man asks his rabbi, “Why does God write the law on our hearts? Why not in our hearts? It’s the inside of my heart that needs God.” The rabbi answered, “God never forces anything into a human heart. He writes the word on our hearts so that when our hearts break, God falls in.” Whatever you hold sacred, you’ll find that an unguarded broken heart is the ideal instrument for absorbing it.

If you fall into intimacy without resistance, despite your alarm, either you will fall into love, which is exquisite, or love will fall into you, which is more exquisite still. Do it enough, and you may just lose your fear of falling. You’ll get better at missing the ground, at keeping a crushed heart open so that love can find all the broken pieces. And the next time you feel that vertiginous sensation of the floor disappearing, even as your reflexes tell you to duck and grab, you’ll hear an even deeper instinct saying, “Fall in! Fall in!” 

Top Dog: How to Deal with a Know-it-All

776462_41885922Recently, due to several misguided decisions, I found myself having a sleepover with five friendly but ambitious dogs. The entire night was one long dominance display. No sooner had I settled each pooch onto a separate cushion than the biggest one got up, grabbed a chew toy, and stood over the others, proclaiming (in dog language): “I am Bjorn! And I am Pack Leader! For this toy is mine! And I own this toy! And the toy is my property!” and so on.

It reminded me so much of Harvard, I got a little misty.

We humans use many “toys” to claim dominant status in our own packs—cars, clothes, houses, job titles—but one of our favorites is knowledge. In our school system’s educational meritocracy, having answers means winning praise and attention. This has given rise to a certain breed of human, commonly called the know-it-all, which tends to frequent university settings. Know-it-alls can be good companions, but the breed also has many annoying behavioral problems that must be dealt with decisively if you’re going to have any peace. Before we discuss training techniques, here’s a short list of ways in which know-it-all behavior problems are often manifested.

The “Right as Might” Assault

In dog packs, being big and strong is the quickest way to dominance. In humans, sheer physical power, though useful, is often trumped by being right. Many know-it-alls have high IQs, but such low EQs (levels of emotional intelligence) that they actually think people admire them for saying things like “It’s a common misperception that, as you so quaintly phrased it, ‘You never know what’s going to happen,’ but that rationale applies mainly at a subatomic level of analysis, while in a macro setting, Laplace’s model of a mechanistically determinate universe remains a remarkably robust predictive cosmology.”

In a few paragraphs, we’ll discuss appropriate responses to such comments. But your initial response to a know-it-all assault like this one should be to remain calm and resist the urge to bite.

The “God Is in the Details” Display

Detail-oriented know-it-alls don’t sit around memorizing textbooks. Instead they correct others’ versions of events, often missing the whole point of a conversation in their obsessive focus on minutia. Their conversations frequently go something like this:

Ordinary person: So there we are at Breakfast Buffet, having waffles, and this guy comes in with a gun! A semiautomatic! And he’s waving it around—

Know-it-all: No, that’s wrong. You weren’t having waffles. I had waffles. You had the French toast.

Ordinary person: All right, whatever. Anyway, this gunman is yelling, “Where’s my wife? Where is that two-timing slut?” And then—

Know-it-all: I’m sure you didn’t have waffles, because when we got our order, you said to me, “Darlene, now I wish I’d ordered the waffles, because those are some good-looking waffles you got there.” Remember?

Ordinary person: Okay, okay. So anyway, then he starts shooting at the pie counter, and there’s pie flying everywhere, and—

Know-it-all: You’ve never had waffles since that time in Hoboken when you had the hiccup problem.

Detail-oriented know-it-alls have been known to sustain a conversation like this, with periodic interruptions, for up to 50 years. Most of their friends simply talk over them, though if you have a detail-oriented know-it-all in your immediate circle, it helps to have a choke chain available for emergencies.

The “Answer for Everything” Reflex

Some know-it-alls may be so rabidly committed to displaying fact-based dominance that they claim expertise about things they have no possibility of knowing, like this:

Ordinary person: I have this friend, Raoul, and he’s been driving me nuts, because—

Know-it-all: I know. Totally into the machismo thing.

Ordinary person: But…you’ve never met Raoul.

Know-it-all: Oh, honey, I know all about Latin men.

Ordinary person: Raoul is Swedish.

Know-it-all: I knew that.

This strain of know-it-all has answers for every question except: “How the hell do you presume to know that?”…

The “I Can Fix You” Frenzy

Another typical know-it-all behavior is to insist on solving your problems for you, even if you don’t want them solved or, in fact, see them as problems. Fixer know-it-alls will persist in making recommendations the way a Chihuahua might persist in making amorous advances to your leg. Here’s how they operate:

Know-it-all: Hey, you look a little down in the dumps. What’s wrong?

Ordinary person: I’m really all right. It’s just that I’ve been visiting my parents, and they’re getting old and sick, and it got me thinking about age and mortality and the impermanence of everything.

Know-it-all: You know, I used to worry about those things, too, until I started getting colonics. Have you tried that?

Ordinary person: Oh, I don’t think I need—

Know-it-all: You’ve got to. Hey, tell you what—I’ll call my favorite hose attendant right now. We’ll get you hooked up later this afternoon. Ha ha! Hooked up! Get it?

Ordinary person: Really, thanks but no thanks. I—

Know-it-all: And if that doesn’t work, we’ll go line dancing!

Be forewarned that courtesy will not work on a fixer know-it-all. If you plan to have a conversation with one, you should carry a spray can of mace. Which brings us to the instructional part of this article…

You can see this nerdy yearning in books like Jurassic Park or The Da Vinci Code, which are about know-it-alls who wind up in ridiculously contrived circumstances where their knowledge of dinosaur behavior or Catholic symbology actually comes in handy. Such opportunities are rare in the real world. For instance, my family cherishes the know-it-all euphoria we felt when I discovered a small but terrifying creature in our basement and my daughter correctly identified it as a Costa Rican tailless whip scorpion. (Of course, we had no clue what to do with it. We named it Vivian and placed it under 24-hour surveillance until someone thought of sucking it into the vacuum cleaner.)

How to Deal with a Know-It-All

You can begin training the person to be a calm, loyal companion by employing one or more of the following responses:

1. Fight to win.

If you’re in a feisty mood and you’re confident you can beat the know-it-all at the intellectual dominance game, you may decide to argue your rival into submission. This is what we’re trained to do in school, but I use it only as a last resort, since it tends to leave both contestants growling, angry, and bleeding from wounds to the ego. Choose another method for know-it-alls you want to remain part of your immediate pack. If you do decide to exert dominance, say something like: “Laplace? Mechanist determinism? Oh, please. Unless you plan to ignore all of postmodernism, as well as both Heisenberg and Kant, it’s incontestable that uncertainty and subjectivity are experiential absolutes. Ergo, I stand by my position: You never know what’s going to happen.”

2. Change the stakes.

If you want a know-it-all to stay in your pack, there’s a better way to deal with a dominance challenge than wading into the IQ challenge. Approach your know-it-all at the level of EQ. Know-it-alls are weak as puppies in this area, so be gentle. In a soft, nonaggressive tone, say: “Pat, I think you’re showing off your brain to get social acceptance. The thing is, that really doesn’t work. Think how you’d feel about a rich person who wouldn’t stop harping about their net worth.”

The know-it-all will respond, “Don’t you mean ‘a rich person who wouldn’t stop harping about his or her net worth’?” Say, “Pat, you’re doing it again.”

If a few such prompts have no effect on the know-it-all’s behavior, you may have to consider an appropriate shelter, such as a research institute or a Tolkien convention, where the organization helps place know-it-alls in better homes. But don’t do this without trying the next technique.

3. Put your know-it-all to work.

I’ve seen this gentle social training succeed on others and, more to the point, on me. That’s right: By breed I am a know-it-all. But ever since a kindly teacher took me aside and explained that my behavior was the social equivalent of leprosy, I’ve tried hard to overcome my genes. Sadly, I passed on many know-it-all traits to my children—even my son with Down syndrome, who, when I corrected him for skipping numbers on a kindergarten counting assignment, gave me a withering look and said, “Hello, I was counting by fives.” My kids and I are “useless factoid” know-it-alls. We rarely dress ourselves correctly, but we know all about, say, the mating rituals of penguins. It’s not that we mean harm; it’s just that we’re a working breed, like German shepherds or bulldogs. What we want most is to be of service.

Overshare Beware: How to Create Healthy Emotional Intimacy

Boris came to me at the behest of his new girlfriend, Cecily, whom I’d known for years. Since most people dislike being pushed to see any sort of adviser, I expected Boris to be reticent, if not downright hostile. How wrong I was! After a few minutes of chitchat, Boris himself raised a very personal issue. 

“I know why Cecily’s confused,” he said sheepishly. “We’ve been dating for months, and we still haven’t slept together.”

“Okay,” I said cautiously, not wanting to disrupt a delicate moment.

“You see,” Boris said, looking at the floor. “Ten years ago I had a cancer scare. My, um, prostate. It turned out to be benign, but mentally, it affected…you know.” Eyes still averted, Boris described his sexual difficulties and the vicious mockery he’d endured from his former wife. I felt terrible for Boris but also secretly pleased that he’d felt safe enough to divulge such personal information.

The next day, Cecily called to thank me. “Boris seems happier,” she said. Then her voice dropped. “You know, ten years ago…” She repeated Boris’s prostate story, including all the gory details. “I know we have a really special connection,” Cecily said, “because Boris shared that with me on our very first date.”

“Ah,” I said, developing suspicions.

Weeks later those suspicions were confirmed when Cecily called me in tears. “Boris hit on my best friend,” she sobbed. “After I introduced them, he called her and they talked for hours. He told her about his cancer scare and everything.”

I felt myself blush. How many other girlfriends, counselors, taxi drivers, and random airplane passengers had Boris seduced into intimacy with the mournful ballad of his achy-breaky reproductive apparatus? It called to mind Broadway megastar Dame Edna’s comment about her (fictional) late husband Norm: “Oh, the years I spent with that man’s prostate hanging over my head.” Boris, it seemed, whipped out his, uh, issues every chance he got. He wasn’t just a sharing person. He was an emotional slut. 

Of course, I was less upset about this than Cecily, partly because Boris wasn’t my significant other, and partly because previous experience had taught me to recognize and cope with people like him. To help you avoid falling for an emotional tramp—or, worse, acting like Boris yourself—I’ll give you the same advice I gave Cecily. 

But first, maybe I should explain what I mean by emotional sluts: They aren’t sexually promiscuous folks who also tend to be moody, like, for instance, every single character on Sex and the City. True emotional sluts are psychological wolves in sheep’s clothing. They consciously or unconsciously manipulate others with displays of openness and vulnerability. 

We all have an innate tendency to mirror the level of intimacy presented by others, so when someone confides personal information, we feel social pressure to reciprocate. This can put us in deep social water with people who might simply be enthusiastic swimmers but could also be sea monsters. Experts who study predatory criminals advise wariness when anyone shares too much information too soon. Such people may be using a tactic called forced teaming, pulling others into ill-advised intimacy and gaining information they can use to embarrass, exploit, invade, or control. For example:

  • During an ordinary water-cooler conversation, Kip’s coworker Theresa confided tragic details about her sequence of abusive boyfriends. Kip felt obligated to keep listening and offer comfort. As she confided more, he volunteered stories of his own romantic traumas to help her feel at ease. With all this talk of love, Kip soon realized that Theresa considered their relationship a romance, something he’d never intended. When he told her, as gently as possible, that he wasn’t on the market, Theresa did not react well. Kip later learned from a third party that Theresa had been regaling friends with the story of her all-time worst abuser—him.
  • Amy was 16 when her 40-year-old soccer coach told her about his depression and anxiety. Amy fell for Coach Greene like Juliet on estrogen, telling him all about her own life, including details about her friends. Their intimacy, while never physical, was so emotionally fraught that Amy’s interest in boys her own age evaporated (to this day, she dates much older men). Then a teammate informed her that Coach had not only confided in several other soccer players, the entire cheerleading squad, and a comely female bus driver but had also shared Amy’s personal disclosures with others—comments she had never meant for any ears but his. Coach Greene’s emotional sluttiness left her feeling both exposed and jilted, an adolescent heartbreak that still stings many years later.

If an emotional slut manages to hook you, consider yourself lucky if you merely devote time and attention to someone who hasn’t earned it, or reveal a few embarrassing secrets. There can be more serious fallout: You offer your heart, making the relationship far more important to you than to the emotional slut. There’s also a slim but real chance you could fall victim to a predator who’s deliberately luring you into a vulnerable position, gathering information that can be used to control or victimize you. Realizing that someone you trusted intimately sees you as someone to be manipulated is like walking full speed into a glass door: shocking, probably humiliating, and possibly quite painful. 

How To Avoid Emotional Sluts

Manipulative people often rope others into games of conversational strip poker by relying on implicit courtesy—the equivalent of “I took off my shirt, so the least you can do is peel off your socks.” Two words: Don’t play. 

You need preparation to resist this kind of peer pressure. Resolve right now that the next time someone divulges inappropriate details about her sinus-flushing compulsion or aberrant body hair, you’ll resist the impulse to feign polite interest or share something equally intimate. Instead you’ll say, “Oh.” That’s all. Then maintain silence. If possible, walk away. 

This simple approach is amazingly difficult, partly because our therapy-soaked, tabloid-reading, reality-TV-watching culture encourages emotional intimacy in many contexts. It’s easy to join in the exhibitionism, putting yourself in bad company. 

How to Recognize a Descent Into Slatternliness 

My primary care physician, a woman I’ll call Dr. Pearl, is right out of Grey’s Anatomy. Lovely, humane, and concerned not only for her patients’ physical health but for their overall well-being, she’s almost too good to be true. Sadly, I know she probably braces herself every time I visit her.

You see, before my first get-to-know-you physical with Dr. Pearl, I was instructed not to eat or drink, lest I mess up my blood tests. I also knew I’d be subjected to the most agonizing of all medical tests: the weigh-in. So perhaps I fasted longer than technically necessary, avoiding even water, which is really heavy. 

My memory of that appointment is kind of blurry, but I believe that when Dr. Pearl asked me about my stress levels, I began compulsively describing everything that ever happened to me in my entire life. Dehydration and low blood sugar turned me into a disclosure train with no brakes. Somewhere between discussing my dread of developing gas during yoga and my detailed description of my childhood hometown (which, in my defense, was rumored to boast of the world’s highest per capita consumption of both chocolate doughnuts and antidepressants), Dr. Pearl politely mentioned that therapy was an excellent place to discuss such issues. Well played, Dr. Pearl. 

Hours later, filled with chocolate doughnuts, fluids, and horror at my own behavior, I swore to make something positive come from my shameful exhibitionism. I reviewed the appointment mentally, paying special attention to the moment I knew I’d gone too far (sadly, this was very early in the conversation). In hindsight I realized it was the moment Dr. Pearl had flashed a certain micro-expression, basically the nonverbal equivalent of the word oy. 

How to Read Lips (And Eyes, and Foreheads…) 

If you’ve never heard of micro-expressions, it’s time you did. They’ve been famously studied by Paul Ekman, PhD (the real-life model for Dr. Cal Lightman of the hit show Lie to Me), who found that all humans display the range of emotions with identical facial expressions. Even when we’re trying to be inscrutable, our true feelings involuntarily flash across our faces for about a fifth of a second: a micro-expression. 

Most of us aren’t aware of other people’s micro-expressions, though we see them subconsciously. To evaluate your ability to read these expressions, take the cool Web-based test at Cio.com/article/facial-expressions-test. Not only is it fascinating, it underscores the fact that we can train ourselves to see and read micro-expressions. This, I concluded after my shameful doctor’s appointment, is a skill that can help us all avoid becoming emotional sluts. 

Try this exercise: Imagine that your grandmother is visiting (from Detroit, Bosnia, the afterlife, or wherever). She takes a prescription sleep medication that, according to the manufacturer, “can cause amnesiac sleep housekeeping in rare cases.” During the wee hours, you awaken to find Nana, stark naked, at the foot of your bed, folding your laundry.

Picture this vividly, allowing your face to do whatever it wants. Good—now, freeze. Memorize your expression. Study it in a mirror: the widened eyes, the wrinkled nose, the head pulled back like that of a startled heron. This is the reaction of a person who’s receiving Too Much Information. Remember it!

If you do this, you’ll notice far more accurately when someone flashes a warning that you’re overexposed. Even if the micro-expression is so fleeting you don’t see it, your gut will shout, “Danger! Turn back!” Promise yourself that if this happens, you’ll immediately say, “But enough about me! What about the weather we’re having?” This preparation can save you from behaving like an emotional strumpet—even in situations where you’re disoriented by the threat of, say, a weigh-in. 

Emotional intimacy is one of the greatest joys of human existence. Still, it’s best to let it develop gradually, with each party revealing more as confidence and mutual trust increase. If I sound like your grandma (before she went on that crazy sleep medication), so be it. Old-fashioned caution can preserve your reputation, dignity, and self-respect, so slap on that emotional chastity muzzle by practicing your micro-expression skills and conversational deflections until they’re practically reflexive. Then, when an emotional slut pressures you to go too far, too soon, you can save yourself for someone who deserves you more. 

How to Defend Against Emotional Muggers

1334964_21004106My client Francine’s husband had started behaving oddly. “I’ll do something ordinary, like offer to check his e-mail for him, and he’ll react as if I’ve killed a child,” she said. Another client, Selma, was a sunny optimist—except when her sister Eve called to complain about life; by the time they hung up, Selma was always exhausted and depressed. Meanwhile, my friend Pamela was getting blindsided at a public-speaking workshop. “I gave a speech that went really well,” she told me, “and then this other woman got up and spent her whole speech mocking everything I’d done wrong.”

Let’s call it emotional mugging: You’re going along minding your own business, and suddenly, when you least expect it, you’re faced with a shocking attack on your mood or peace of mind. Being emotionally mugged can be crippling, but because the damage is so often invisible, few of us are ever taught self-defense. Time to change that. You’re probably aware that the Asian martial arts, with their deft approach to handling attack, are popular practices for warding off physical muggers. Well, karate-do (“the way of the empty hand”) and bushi-do(“the way of the warrior”) have a psychological equivalent I call emo-do (pronounced “ee-moh-doh”): the way of the emotional master. 

An Ounce of Prevention… 

Like all opportunistic criminals, emotional muggers target people who wander around bad neighborhoods. The best way to become a victim is to turn your own mind into such a place—a place filled with self-hatred, unfair criticism, and gloomy predictions. This kind of setting not only attracts muggers but can leave you so emotionally tapped out that you turn to psychological crime yourself. 

By contrast, those who follow emo-do create an inner space of clean, clear self-confidence. To cultivate such an environment, you must keep three brave commitments. First, vow never to deliberately create suffering for yourself or others. (If you can’t do this, count on being mugged frequently. There’s no honor among thieves.) Second, always own your mistakes and do your best to correct them. Third, forgive yourself when your best isn’t good enough. Keeping these commitments creates deep strength that scares off most emotional muggers. And should some misguided thug ambush you anyway, emo-do will help you launch a powerful defense.

If You Are Attacked 

My former karate teacher, Jay Cool (yes! really!), used to study muggers’ patterns to help develop counterattack strategies for the Phoenix police. “There are only so many ways to assault someone,” Jay says. “Every mugger uses some version of a few basic approaches.” This is also true of emotional attackers, and knowing their strategy helps you thwart them. Here are six types of emotional mugger—and, for each, the commensurate emo-do response.

1. Puppy Kickers 

The term sounds brutal, but most of us can understand it—because most of us have been perpetrators ourselves. Picture: The cat’s sick, your husband’s away, you didn’t sleep all night, and as you rush to get your 6-year-old ready for school, she tries to tell you something about her imaginary koala using whispered pig Latin, in which she is not remotely fluent. After five minutes of unintelligible babble, you hear yourself shout, “For God’s sake, talk like a normal person!” You’ve just emotionally mugged your own offspring. It feels, as Anne Lamott writes, like bitch-slapping ET. 

I’m not saying puppy kicking is okay because it’s common. But seeing it from the mugger’s perspective helps you mount an effective defense when you’re the kickee. 

Emo-Do Defense: Start by recognizing that the mugging isn’t about you; you just happened to be standing there, wagging your tail, when someone went temporarily insane. Try puppyish responses: Trot off and find another friend, or (if the mugger is a loved one) offer kindness. Say, “You seem really stressed. Can I help?” This can actually turn puppy kicking into gratitude. 

2. Exploding Doormats 

Cora’s assistant, Angie, had been glum all day. Trying to lighten the mood, Cora said, “You should leave early—there’s traffic.” 

“Leave early?” Angie shouted. “That would mean I have to do everything in even less time!” Then she stormed out, slamming the door behind her.

Angie is an exploding doormat. She doesn’t stand up for herself until her emotions reach a critical limit—at which point she goes postal with virtually no provocation. Exploding doormats are more harmful than puppy kickers because they harbor festering hostility toward their targets. 

Emo-Do Defense: Cora’s attempt to soothe Angie’s anger by being extra nice was manipulative, so it made things worse. The next day, she switched to open, frank discussion, which is all that’s necessary to keep doormats from detonating. “You seem so angry,” Cora said. “What’s really on your mind?” When Angie admitted she felt overworked, Cora realized she’d been taking the young woman’s quiet diligence for granted. Together they came up with ways for Angie to let Cora know her limits. Conflict solved.

3. Deflators 

When Kimberly told her mother she’d been promoted, the older woman sighed. “Well,” she said, “you’re going to have to work harder to prove you’re worth it.” Kimberly’s mother is a deflator, a person who sees virtue in pessimism. With one well-placed jab, she can let the air out of any good time, and make a bad time feel even worse. 

Emo-Do Defense: Deflators almost always have a history of feeling crushed. As such, they’re simply upholding tradition. Unlike puppy kickers or exploding doormats, they rarely respond well to discussion, so don’t bother. Instead, simply and cheerfully reject their pessimism. To the prediction that she’d have to work harder, Kimberly calmly responded, “No, I won’t.” Her mother had no choice but to slouch off with her dagger.

4. Secret Keepers 

Remember Francine, whose husband blew up over ordinary behavior? She later learned that he was having not one but several online affairs. No wonder he freaked when she tried to check his messages; cheaters, addicts, and liars attack people who threaten to stumble onto their misdeeds. This kind of mugging feels crazy and surreal. If you’re questioning your sanity after a surprise argument, you may be dealing with a secret keeper.

Emo-Do Defense: A secret keeper’s mugging leaves you with an icky sense that something’s wrong. Don’t jump to conclusions, but don’t ignore your instincts. (An emo-do master never keeps secrets from herself—for example, by going into denial.) Hold firm to your reality. Ask questions. If more violent attacks ensue, revise your trust levels and watch for more evidence.

5. Cannibals 

To be happy, each of us must create meaning and joy from the raw material of everyday life. This isn’t easy, so some people become cannibals, devouring the positive energy of others. Selma’s sister Eve is an example. She made a habit of calling Selma whenever she was miserable, off-loading her misery and draining Selma’s joy.

Emo-Do Defense: Don’t feed cannibals the patient, sorrowful consolation they expect. Selma eventually redefined her responsibilities as a supportive sister and began answering Eve’s complaints by saying, “You’re so resourceful—I know you can solve that problem!” Eve gagged on this response and went off to hunt tastier snacks.

6. Dementors 

The woman who publicly shamed Pamela after her speech was the most destructive kind of emotional mugger, the equivalent of a rapist: someone who gets off on causing pain. In Harry Potter’s world, such beings are called dementors. They are endlessly unhappy, addicted to the sense of control they get from violating others. They don’t care whom they hurt, as long as they hurt someone.

Emo-Do Defense: If someone attacks with no provocation and seems intent on inflicting maximum harm, you may be dealing with a truly disturbed person. First, eat some chocolate (any Harry Potter fan can tell you that). Then distance yourself in any way you can. This wasn’t a problem for Pamela—she was easily able to avoid her attacker—but may be daunting if you’ve got a dementor in the family or at work. If you can’t remove yourself from the relationship, at least keep your emotional distance. Don’t trust a dementor with your private thoughts. 

Staying away from dementors allows them to socially self-destruct—and they always do. Though onlookers may at first be too horror-stricken to come to your rescue, most people are appalled by dementors’ behavior. This is why cruel conversationalists ultimately end up friendless, and—on a much larger scale—why evils like prejudice and discrimination have slowly but surely become less acceptable in almost every human society. 

After an Assault 

No matter how well prepared you are, an emotional mugger may still catch you before you can defend yourself. In the short run, you’ll feel violated. In the long run, you can use the experience to become a stronger emo-do practitioner.

To start, dispense with any lingering nasty energy by recognizing that it probably belongs to the mugger, not you. If the negativity won’t dissipate, there are two possibilities: Either you really did provoke the attack, or you’re operating under the misconception that you deserved it. Return immediately to basic emo-do code: Stop causing suffering for yourself by thinking you deserved victimization; correct any behaviors that might have triggered the mugging; and, finally, forgive yourself for the whole misadventure. 

The way of emo-do is rigorous—and hugely rewarding. The more you follow it, the more muggers will avoid you. Instead of a target, you’ll become a walking haven, a place where emotional criminals rarely strike—and if they do, are swiftly rendered harmless. Plan to welcome many of us to walk with you, because that’s just the kind of neighborhood where most people want to live. 

How to Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions

25Several years ago, four of my friends—Marlene, Ellie, Karla, and Chip—all resolved to get in shape and lose weight. Now, these people had never met, so the odds of their making exactly the same resolution were…actually quite predictable, since pretty much everybody puts fitness on their New Year’s resolutions list. There are rumors of humans who’ve never resolved to eat less and move more, but until scientists discover concrete evidence (hair, fibers, DNA-smeared doughnut boxes), we must assume they exist only in hallucinations of ordinary people who’ve been weakened by months and months of dieting. 

At any rate, by February all my friends had fallen off the resolution wagon and were munching their way to larger clothing sizes and a profound sense of failure. Something similar may happen to you this year, whatever your resolutions.If it does, don’t blame your weak will; blame isolation. Research shows that humans tend to do difficult things much better in teams and groups than on their own. I suggest that this year you seek a specific type of goal-oriented companionship I call the Fellowship of the Resolution. 

The Virtue of Motley Crews 

If you loved J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (or hated it but absorbed the plot because of peer pressure), you’ll recall that the Fellowship of the Ring was a team consisting of hobbits, humans, a dwarf, a wizard, and an elf. Although these species usually avoided one another, their disparities turned out to be essential for saving Middle Earth. The Fellowship met monsters only a hobbit could trick, caves only a dwarf could spelunk, spells only an elf could counter, and orcs whose strength could be overcome only by Viggo Mortensen’s flexing of his facial muscles, paralyzing the beasts with acute awareness of their inferior looks. 

When it comes to New Year’s resolutions, you, too, need a Fellowship. But it’s not enough to enlist your longtime BFFs—the buddies you’ve known forever, who think and act just like you. As Tolkien’s story suggests, the key to success is teaming up with people who are emphatically not on your wavelength. This is especially true in behavioral patterns called conative styles. 

How You Do That Thing You Do

When people talk about change, they often emphasize affective factors, which shape our feelings, and cognitive differences, which influence thinking. They overlook patterns that relate to doing. According to Kathy Kolbe, a specialist in learning strategies, conation is the aspect of human consciousness that determines how we tackle any task. She has identified four conative styles:

  • “Quick start” adherents swing directly into action, making creative discoveries—and mistakes—through trial and error.
  • “Fact finders” need information; they’re the friends who’ll research every relevant factoid about any task they’re preparing to undertake.
  • “Follow through” people naturally use methodical systems: They set up files for every receipt and alphabetize their refrigerator contents.
  • “Implementers” focus on physical objects and environments; they figure out things by building models or grabbing the appropriate tools. They respond better to bricks and mortar than castles in the air.

If necessary most of us can tap into and use all four conative styles, but we tend to favor one or two of these behaviors. Yet conatively, as in every other area of life, too much of one style can be a weakness. For instance, consider the “failure modes” of the four dieters I mentioned earlier:

  • Marlene, who favors quick-start action, leaped straight into an organic raw-food diet. Two weeks into her regimen, her hunger and disgruntlement triggered a backslide to a menu of cupcakes and beer, which Marlene maintains today.
  • Ellie, who prefers the fact-finder conative style, never actually began dieting or exercising. She’s still researching and evaluating fitness programs, using a process so detailed she’ll finish her analysis next July (at the earliest).
  • Karla, as a follow-through, has a zest for systems, so she joined a reputable weight loss program, which was perfect—except that she hated it. The weekly weigh-ins terrified her, and the prescribed food had all the epicurean appeal of bat guano. After a month, she began sleep-eating peanut butter.
  • Chip, with his love of the concrete implementer strategy, drastically cut his food intake while quadrupling his level of exercise. Back spasms soon landed him in bed, where he began inhaling polymer-based foodlike products from the minimart to ease his frustration.

They each failed because their closest friends share their conative preferences, which means they had no one to help them in the areas where they were weak. But if these four very different people linked up as a Fellowship, things might have turned out differently. Marlene’s dynamic quick-start energy could have pushed Ellie past her analysis paralysis. Ellie could have researched a weight loss system more suited to Karla’s taste. Karla’s methodical approach could have pointed Chip toward a sustainable exercise program, and away from the weekend warrior syndrome. And Chip’s enthusiasm for three-dimensional places and processes could have inspired the women to hit the gym more often. (There are many more benefits this Fellowship might have discovered, but you get the idea.) 

Forming Your Fellowship

Because I’m aware of conative styles, I never set out toward a difficult goal without a team of opposites. I know that I mostly prefer quick-start action and hands-on implementer creativity, and I feel about strict systems the way tigers feel about vegetarianism (“Are you fricking kidding me?”). So when I first started my own business, I hired my friend Yvonne, who’s high in both follow-through and fact finder, to run it. 

Yvonne and I knew from the outset that we’d butt heads. Her meticulous system maintenance makes me want to drive cactus spines into my skull, while my frequent leaps into the unknown give Yvonne nightmares. But we also knew that our differences made us a damn fine Fellowship, back when I was starting out. With me spewing ideas like the chocolate assembly line in I Love Lucy and Yvonne insisting that everything get properly packaged and inventoried, we created things neither of us could have managed on our own. 

You can achieve similar success this New Year by forming your own Fellowship of the Resolution. First, identify your own behavior style. You can do this for a moderate fee on Kathy Kolbe’s Web site (kolbe.com; $50), or you can figure it out yourself using the loose descriptions in this column (if you go the former route, you’re probably high in follow-through or fact finder, while taking the fast-and-loose approach suggests you have quick-start tendencies). Please remember that you may enjoy one or two action styles, but virtually no one is high in all four. 

Next, you want to find people who prefer action styles you avoid. Meeting people with your conative complements isn’t hard, though teaming up with them will feel a little weird. Remember, hobbits and elves and dwarfs and men were uneasy with each other, too—but just think what would have happened to Middle Earth if any of them had been omitted from the mix! We’d all be slaves in Mordor right now! 

As you assemble your Fellowship, you can once again refer to Kathy Kolbe’s Web-based evaluation (having your collaborators take the official conation test), or you can shoot from the hip. Since we now understand that I personally am a hip-shooter, I’ve assembled some guidelines for targeting people you might want in your Fellowship. This involves knowing your own conative dislikes and going directly toward them, rather than running away from them:

  • If you have trouble getting started on difficult projects, look for a quick-start companion— the person who shocks you by getting married, moving house, or adopting a pack of dogs mere hours after coming up with the idea.
  • If you absolutely hate doing research, never reading the entire recipe or instruction manual before starting to cook or assemble furniture, you need to find yourself a fact finder—the kind of person who won’t so much as wash her hair without first googling every ingredient in her shampoo.
  • If you love creative chaos and can’t stand systematic repetition, add a follow-through to your Fellowship. This will be the friend whose closets are organized by clothing style, color, date purchased, and price (adjusted regularly to account for market fluctuation).
  • If you’d rather not grapple with the actual objects involved in your resolution (reorganizing your office, getting and using a yoga mat, devising an ingenious machine that gives you a powerful electric shock each time you reach for the potato chips), you should team up with an implementer. She’ll be the one who raves about the joy of installing her own bathroom tiles or taking trapeze lessons from circus acrobats.

A general rule is that your best partner will be the person who makes you shake your head in disbelief and mutter, “I guess it takes all kinds.” Because it does. (And it may help to remember that your conative compadres will be looking at you the same way.) One more hint: Because most people are moderately or very strong in more than one conative area, your Fellowship could be formed with just one companion—if that person is strong in the one or two areas in which you are weak. 

Once you’ve got your group in place, I recommend that you take a little bit of time to discuss your opposites-attract strategy with your Fellowship. Yvonne and I work together successfully because we’ve always acknowledged our conative differences. When I hanker to move faster than Yvonne, she reminds me, “Settle down, woman! You hired me to be a follow-through!” When she yearns for a coworker who doesn’t think quite so much like a Labrador retriever, I point out that my quick-start enthusiasm gives her a whole lot of things to organize. Do the same with your Fellowship, and you’ll remind yourself that everyone benefits when all four conative styles are covered. 

This year I’m going to urge Marlene, Ellie, Karla, and Chip to join forces. Once people assemble in such unlikely Fellowships, they realize an equally unlikely result: success. Whether your resolution is to lose weight, budget better, cut back on Internet poker, or slog to Mordor carrying the Ring of Doom, finding your motley crew of opposites will help you make it all the way to your goals—and the Fellowship itself, I believe, will bring great joy. Especially if it includes Viggo Mortensen. 

How to Stay Sane This Holiday Season

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Are you looking forward to the season ahead with shivers of anticipation? Or just shivers? Here are 6 steps to save you untold aggravation, angst, time, and money by persuading you not to do the things you don’t want to do this holiday season.

List Your Holiday Traditions 

Take a few minutes to write down every holiday custom you feel you should follow. Start with family patterns, but don’t end there. Offices and friendships have their own traditions. 

Choose to Enthuse 

Looking over your list, visualize each activity. Notice how your body reacts. Do you tense or relax, feel like smiling, snarling or weeping? What creates a genuine sense of enthusiasm? True enthusiasm makes us feel divine, whether we take that as a religious reality or simply a wonderful emotion. The holy days are the best times to focus on real enthusiasm, the inner source that lightens and sanctifies our lives all year. 

Apply The Three Bs 

Once you’ve figured out which traditions you love, eliminate the ones you don’t. I suggest the Three Bs: Bag it, barter it or better it. Bagging is simple: If you don’t love to do it, and you don’t have to do it, don’t do it. To barter a task, find someone who loves doing what you hate, and who dislikes something you like; then swap services. Traditions that can’t be bagged or bartered can usually be bettered. If you’re tired of shopping but really want to choose gifts yourself, use catalogs or the Internet. 

Manage That Uneasy Feeling 

As you read over the preceding paragraphs, you may have felt resistance. This is what I call social dissonance, the conditioned reaction to breaking a group rule. It’s the primary force that keeps us obeying the demands of others. Tolerating this dissonance without reacting is the key to maintaining control of your life during the holidays and beyond. 

Be Yourself, Don’t Explain Yourself 

You don’t have to prove that your preferences are right, theirs wrong. Differences are inevitable and acceptable—attempting to persuade someone to value the same things you do just perpetuates conflict. Simply hold your ground. Kindly tell everyone that you’re observing a set of customs that work for you. 

Wait ‘Em Out 

Every group has its own form of punishment. It may be that you are one of the unlucky minority of humans whose social groups are so rigid they won’t tolerate your decisions, but this can be its own gift. You’ll be free to create and follow traditions that take you to the places where you’ll find your tribe. Far more likely, though, using the season to practice living authentically will transform your holidays without causing too much ruckus in your world. 

Yes, you may ruffle more than turkey feathers. Your loved ones may fuss and fume, but guess what? They’ll get over it. They’ll probably even like it, once they see the payoff: the joyful version of you.

Foul Play

Gould_Wild_turkeyIn 1666 a Dutch physicist noticed that two pendulums mounted on the same board always ended up swinging at the same rate. He called this “entrainment.” It affects any oscillation, including breathing, heartbeats, brain waves, and turkeys.

Yep. Turkeys.

Yesterday I decided to meditate on my front porch.  As I settled in, a large delegation of wild turkeys scurried up the road that leads to my bird feeder. They do this every morning, like commuters, so I barely noticed them. I was using the mantra, “I am infinite stillness.” As I repeated this, feeling all spaced out and blissed, I opened my eyes to see that the turkeys had stopped in front of me.

They stood absolutely, unnaturally still. Not a feather moved, not a toe, not a head. I’ve never seen turkeys behave this way. I kept meditating, and not one turkey moved AT ALL for over five minutes (I clocked it). Then I counted them (there were 21). As I counted, they all suddenly began moving again. Counting had taken me out of stillness. So I went back into meditation. All 21 turkeys lay down, limp as opium smokers, until I finished meditating. Then they resumed their usual speed-walk to the bird feeder.

It’s great, quirky, subversive fun to experiment with entrainment. When you get reeeeeaallly calm, it reeeeeeaally calms everything around you. And what most everyone wants is to feel reeeeeaally calm.

At peace. 
At one. 

You are the master of the energy you radiate. You always have a choice. Don’t fall into resonance with some random person who’s feeling lost and scared (as most humans do, most of the time). Be the peace you wish to see in the world, and watch the turkeys in your life—both literal and metaphoric—join the stillness. (Insert Thanksgiving joke of your choice here.)

The Empathy Workout

I can’t say I always enjoy cardiovascular exercise. I don’t think anyone does. Oh, I’ve seen those infomercials featuring models whose granite abs and manic smiles become even more sharply defined at the very sight of workout equipment. But as we all know, these people are from Neptune. Being an Earth-human myself, I strongly resist abandoning my customary torpor to participate in perky physical activity of any kind. Nevertheless, I do cardio pretty regularly. I do it because I know my heart was designed to handle such challenges, because once I get started, I feel that it’s doing me good, and because if I stop for very long, my health begins to atrophy.

There’s another form of cardio that works much the same way, though it affects the emotional heart rather than the one made of auricles and ventricles. This workout consists of deliberately cultivating empathy. To empathize literally means “to suffer with,” to share the pain of other beings so entirely that their agony becomes our own. I know this sounds like a terrific hobby for a masochistic moron, but hear me out.

The reason to develop a capacity for empathy, and then exercise it regularly, is that only a heart strengthened by this kind of understanding can effectively deliver the oxygen of the spirit: love. 

Emotional Cardio

Love requires connection between lover and beloved, and empathy is the quiet miracle by which this connection is forged. When you share others’ suffering, you also share their experience of receiving your gift—the gift of being accompanied into grief or anguish rather than bearing it alone. Naturally, almost involuntarily, people will love you for this. If you’re in a state of empathy, you’ll feel their love for you as your own emotion, thus coming to understand what it means to love yourself. This will make you love the other person even more, and of course you’ll receive that love even as you give it, which makes it even deeper, and…well, you can see where this is going. Become an expert at it, and soon your life will be absolutely lousy with love. 

I know one wise old man who has been working at empathy every day since becoming a meditation master early in his life. He matter-of-factly describes a state of complete empathic fitness as a “continuous emotional orgasm.” Who’s with me now? All right, then. Let’s talk about your exciting new cardio workout—but first, a crucial warning. 

Caveat Empathor

Many people, especially those of us who’ve had a little bit of therapy, fall into an emotional trap Buddhists call “idiot compassion.” At first glance, this looks like empathy, but it’s actually projection. It encourages us to condone harmful behavior by assuming that the perpetrator is acting out of pain and helplessness. 

“I know he’s just a hurting little boy inside,” says Jeanie, whose boyfriend, Hank, has just beaten the living tar out of her for the umpteenth time. “He’s so sensitive. His mama abandoned him. He even cries when he talks about it.” Because Jeanie herself would become violent only in the grip of intolerable torment, she thinks she understands Hank’s motivations—and so she excuses his behavior. Real empathy is not based on this kind of projection but on close observation. If she were a true empath, Jeanie would notice that Hank, while “so sensitive” to his own misery, never notices others’ distress. 

When Jeanie understands that no one who cares for her could act as he acts, she’ll drop the idiot compassion and get the hell out of Dodge. At that point, she’ll realize that real empathy doesn’t put us in harm’s way. It protects us. That’s just another reason to implement one of the following exercises: 

Exercise 1: Learning to Listen 

If you want to feel that you belong in the world, a family, or any relationship, you must tell your story. But if you want to see into the hearts of other beings, your first task is to hear their stories. Many people are gifted storytellers. Only the empathic are true storyhearers. 

To become one of these people, start with conversation. Once a day, ask a friend, “How are you?” in a way that says you mean it. If they give you a stock answer (“Fine”), repeat the question: “No, really. How are you?” 

You’ll soon realize that if your purpose is solely to understand, rather than to advise or protect, you can work a kind of magic: In the warmth of genuine caring, people open up like flowers. You’ll be amazed by the stories you’ll hear when you use this simple strategy with your children, your next-door neighbor, your aunt Flossie. You’ll learn things you never knew you never knew. 

Even if you’re not in the company of people, you can work to increase your storyhearing techniques. Here’s a snippet from English teacher Jane Juska’s wonderful memoir, A Round-Heeled Woman, in which she describes teaching creative writing to prisoners in San Quentin: 

Suddenly Steve, silent until now, speaks: “…when we used to have a really fine librarian here, he gave me this book. It was Les Misérables…. That book changed my life. It gave me feelings, gave me empathy…Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo.” He is wrapping up this gift and holding it close. It is his forever. 

Books, movies, songs—stories told in any artistic medium can give you an empathy workout. To grow stronger, find stories that are unfamiliar. If you read, watch, or hear only things you know well, you’re looking for validation, not an expansion of empathy. There’s nothing wrong with that, but to achieve high levels of fitness, focus once a week on the story of someone who seems utterly different from you.

Exercise 2: Reverse Engineering

Some mechanical engineers spend their time disassembling machines to see how they were originally put together. You can use a similar technique to develop empathy, by working backward from the observable effects of emotion to the emotion itself.

Think of someone you’d like to understand—your enigmatic boss, your distant mother, the romantic interest who may or may not return your affections. Remember a recent interaction you had with this person—especially one that left you baffled as to how they were really feeling. Now imitate, as closely as you can, the physical posture, facial expression, exact words, and vocal inflection they used during that encounter. Notice what emotions arise within you.

What you feel will probably be very close to whatever the other person was going through. For example, when I “reverse engineer” the behavior of people I experience as critical or aloof, I usually find myself flooded with feelings of shyness, shame, or fear. It’s a lesson that has saved me no end of worry and defensiveness.

I train life coaches to use reverse engineering in real time, by subtly matching clients’ body language, vocal tone, even breathing rate. It’s so effective that clients often think the coach must be psychic—how else could anyone “get them” so quickly and completely? Elementary, my dear Watson. The body shapes itself in response to emotion, and shaping one’s own body to match someone else’s is a quick ticket to empathy. 

Exercise 3: Shape-Shifting 

In folklore, shape-shifters are beings with the ability to become anyone or anything. As a child, I was fascinated by this concept, and used to pretend that I could instantaneously switch places with other people, animals, even inanimate objects. What if I woke up one morning in the body—and the life—of my best friend, or a bank robber, or the president? What if, like Kafka’s fictional Gregor, I suddenly became a cockroach? (You could find people who think I’ve actually done this.) My point is, what would it feel like to be them? How would I cope? What would I do next?

I still play this game, especially in public places. I recommend you try it, soon. See that strange man in the orange polyester suit putting 37 packets of sweetener into his extra-grande mochaccino with soy milk? What if—zap!—you suddenly switched bodies with him? What would it be like to wear that suit, that face, that physique? What impulse would lead to sugaring a cup of coffee like that, let alone drinking it?

I can feel this shape-shifting developing my empathy. It gives my heart a stretch, makes me entertain unfamiliar thoughts and feelings, leaves me with the sensation that I’ve completed a stomp session on an emotional StairMaster. And if I want to ramp up my workout, it’s just a short hop to some practices that work even better, and have been tested for centuries.

Exercise 4: Metta-tation 

World-class empathizers like my friend the meditation master (he of the continuous emotional orgasm) conduct a daily regimen of metta, or lovingkindness, meditation. This involves focusing all of one’s attention on a certain individual and offering loving wishes to that person with each breath you take, for several minutes at a time.

Classic metta practice starts with your own sweet self. For five minutes, with each breath, offer yourself kind thoughts (May I be happy, may I feel joy, etc.). Taking these few minutes every day can put you on the road to complete, uncritical acceptance—the foundation on which all empathy is based. (Reaching that point, admittedly, takes years for most of us incomplete and self-critical people.)

Then switch the focus of your kind thoughts onto a friend or family member. When you feel a sense of emotional union with that person, target someone you barely know. As a final, black-belt exercise, project metta thoughts onto one of your worst enemies until you can begin to feel for them. Don’t rush this process, or (God forbid) fake it. You’ll only become a saccharine pseudo-empathizer, wearing the plastic smile of a fitness model from Neptune. 

The Payoff

The thing about cardio is that once you get used to it, you can feel it making you stronger, calming you down, improving your quality of life. Regular empathy practice keeps you on the edge of your emotional fitness, but the benefits are enormous: an awareness of union that banishes loneliness, a natural ability to connect and relate to others, protection from idiot compassion, a wider, deeper life. As your empathy grows, you’ll find that it’s infinite and that through it, you transcend your isolation and find yourself at home in the universe. I promise, it’ll do your heart good.