This Holiday: Remember the Elur Nedlog!

I don’t think people talk nearly enough about the Elur Nedlog. True, I never talked about it myself until it occurred to me a couple of months ago, but that is no excuse! The Elur Nedlog is the Golden Rule spelled backwards. Where the Golden Rule says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” the Elur Nedlog says, “Don’t do unto yourself anything you wouldn’t do unto someone else.” I think the sentiment has to run both ways. That’s just math.

So especially in this season—this festive holiday fairyland strewn with its festive holiday fairylandmines—I plan to hang onto the Elur Nedlog the way your cat would hang onto you if you took it out for a nice ocean swim. Before I do any little thing unto myself, I’m going to ask if I would ever, ever do that thing unto a random other person.

I don’t mean my loved ones, here. I’m way more impatient and demanding toward my loved ones than toward strangers. No, the Elur Nedlog has to apply to everyone. Like your favorite celebrity. Like the Dalai Lama, or Malala Yousafzai, or Baby Jesus—what the heck, Jesus at any age.

Here are some things I would never ask any of these people to do, even though I customarily do them to myself each and every December:

  • Make them go to a holiday event that has a proven history of making them want to jump off a bridge.
  • Require false cheer from them even if they’re feeling sad or anxious.
  • Insist that they give all their loved ones perfect gifts at the perfect moment with the perfect presentation.
  • Hate them for eating too much.
  • Insist that they spend money they don’t really have to please people they don’t really like.
  • Demand high activity from them when they’re tired.

Just the thought of not doing any of these things to myself seems radical. Scandalous! Which sort of proves I’ve been breaking the Elur Nedlog right, left, and center. Enough, I say! I’m going to make this my first Elur Nedlog holiday ever. If I can. If I can’t, I’ll cut myself a little slack even on that. Because not to do so would be to break the Elur Nedlog yet again.

Landing in Love: Falling 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!” 

The New You: Handling Change-Back Attacks

Imagine this: You’re putting together a nifty jigsaw puzzle—say, your favorite Elvis montage painting on black velvet—when one of the pieces suddenly morphs into an entirely different shape. Aside from the unnerving quantum-mechanical implications of this event, you’ve got a problem—the surrounding pieces no longer fit. You could try to alter those pieces (a troubling prospect, since it will require distorting all the ones around them) or give up on the puzzle entirely—unless, of course, you could get the little sucker to resume its former shape and size.

This sort of situation arises in every human life. We live in social systems—families and neighborhoods, offices and nations—that call for continuous, complex interconnection. Any person who undergoes a dramatic shift creates a ripple effect, requiring change from others around her. The fact that you’re reading this suggests that you’re inclined toward personal growth. I’m guessing you’ve been this way for years, whether it’s a trait you celebrate every day or a dirty secret you ruminate over while churning butter with your Amish kinfolk. The problem, as you may have noticed, is that not everyone you know, love, or work with is overjoyed to tread the path of change along with you.

Because we are a species that fears the unknown, most people reject the continuous transformation that is human reality and try to lock others into predictable behavior. “Promise me that you’ll never change,” lovers whisper to one another, though only a model from Madame Tussauds Wax Museum could keep such an enormous promise. In short, anyone who thinks new thoughts or does new deeds is likely to garner disapproval and criticism from someone.

How to Handle a Change-Back Attack

Women who are undergoing changes are likely to experience “change back” messages from their nearest and dearest. The messages come in many forms: sabotage, cold silence, shouted insults, refusal to cooperate. But all convey just one idea: “I don’t like what you’ve done. Go back to being the way you were.” This might seem baffling in the face of positive achievements like losing weight, falling in love, or learning new ideas.

But change-back attackers aren’t really thinking about the person they’re pressuring. They’re fighting for their lives—or at least life as they know it. These people are motivated not only by their own fear of change but by the pressure of other “puzzle pieces” that surround them. The force of a change-back attack has the weight of all those relationships. Resist successfully, and you may end up affecting people you’ll never meet.

First, a basic attitude adjustment: Most people who are on the receiving end of change-back messages go into fits of guilt or defensiveness, then revert to familiar behaviors. This, of course, is exactly what the disgruntled party wants. Part of every personal evolution strategy should be a determination to greet these messages with pride and joy, as a sure sign you’re making progress. Call a friend, a therapist, a fellow self-improvement devotee, and report the good news: “Guess what? I just got six blowbacks in one conversation! I must really be making progress!” Once you’ve made this attitudinal shift, you’re ready for a systematic defense.

Begin Your Systematic Defense

Step 1: Pay respectful attention.
When someone launches a change-back attack against you, refrain from resisting or submitting; just pay attention. Remember that whether you realize it or not, your actions may be forcing this friend to either make personal alterations or give up on “fitting” with you. Noticing their fear may calm you, and this may go a long way toward calming them.

If someone comes at you with a direct, obstreperous argument, try these unexpected, attentive responses: “Tell me.” “I’m listening.” “I hear you.” “Say a little bit more on that.” Attentiveness is a mobile, fluid stance that allows you to observe and respond without sustaining much damage. As Mark Twain said about doing right, it will gratify some people and astonish the rest.

Step 2: Take time to find your truth.
So you’ve paid attention. You know that the bag of bacon cheeseburgers on the table is just evidence that your loving husband is afraid he’ll lose you. You’ve listened calmly as your angry teenager or judgmental parent lambasted you for your new achievements. Find a private moment for yourself. Now breathe and relax. Recall the chain of events that motivated your metamorphosis in the first place: the fat, the loneliness, the illumination. Honestly consider the feedback you’ve just received. Maybe it feels absolutely right; if so, reverse course. Maybe it’s partly right. Fine, alter your direction. Or maybe the complaint is just plain wrong. In that case, you must keep going, trusting that the best gift you can offer others is the resolute embrace of your own truth.

Step 3: State your position for the record.
If your change-back attacker is sober and in a reasonably receptive frame of mind, you may want to respond to her argument. Even when you’re dealing with a nasty, non-communicative person, stating your position may be a powerful step in your own development. It may not make the slightest impression on your unrelenting foes, but hearing the truth spoken in your own voice can clear your head and buoy your heart, at which point you’ll have won the battle.

Vanquish Your Change-Back Attackers

Step 4: Unconditional Love
There’s a secret weapon in the change wars, one that can fill the gaps and soften the edges of our constantly morphing identities—and I don’t mean leaving your whole social system or forcing others to conform to you at every moment in time. The answer is unconditional love, and I encourage you to use it with ruthless abandon.

You’ll know you’ve vanquished your change-back attackers when you can love them completely without agreeing with them at all. You can’t force this feeling—it will happen naturally when you’re ready—but when it strikes, express it, without acquiescing to others’ verbal jabs. Doing this cheerfully and unabashedly will confound your average saboteurs by giving them nothing to oppose.

At best, this approach will cause your adversaries to stop, ponder, and perhaps feel less scared of making their own improvements. At worst, it will render you flexible, able to fit in with many people and social systems without getting stuck in any one position. The more you claim your own destiny, the easier it will be to love unconditionally. The more you love, the more comfortably you’ll fit in with all sorts of people. Ultimately, situations that once brought on horrendous change-back attacks, that once appeared to you as utterly unworkable puzzles, may end up barely fazing you at all.

The Art of Apology: When and How to Apologize

I was a mere child when the classic tear gusher Love Story hit theaters in 1970, but I wept along with the adult audience as the dying Ali MacGraw told the darling Ryan O’Neal, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Two years later, I saw another movie, What’s Up, Doc?, in which Barbra Streisand’s character repeated the very same line to the very same actor. This time, however, O’Neal had an answer. “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard,” he said.

For me, that was a light bulb moment. I’d been swept along by the romance of Love Story, but even as I’d watched it, I’d felt an uncomfortable tickle in my brain. Young as I was (practically fetal, I swear), something was telling me that real lovers say they’re sorry quite often. Sincerely. Fervently, even. This is not because dismal feelings like shame and regret are necessary components of a relationship, but because without apology no relationship would be free of them. Everyone does things that bother or hurt others; a bit of inconvenient procrastination will do it, or a grumpy comment made in a stressful moment. When we lack the ability to say we’re sorry, minor offenses eventually accumulate enough weight to sink any relationship. But the simple act of apologizing can reestablish goodwill even when our sins are much, much graver. Of course, it must be done right. A lame, badly constructed apology can do more damage than the original offense. Fortunately, the art of effective apology is simple, and mastering it can mean a lifetime of solid, resilient relationships.

When to Apologize

I’ve heard many clients discuss and anticipate the “perfect moment” for an apology, claiming that premature contrition would just be too darn hard on the person they’ve wronged. Here’s what I think: The perfect moment to apologize is the moment you realize you’ve done something wrong.

This seems obvious when we’re contemplating somebody else’s sins, but in the harsh light of our own guilt, we often try to protect ourselves from shame or censure by waiting for the heat to blow over. We may try to postpone apologizing or avoid it altogether by lying, blaming others, making excuses or justifying our actions. The impulse to go into such a stall is a big ol’ signal. When you really don’t want to say you’re sorry, it’s almost certainly time to do so.

On the other hand, you may be one of those people who apologize when they haven’t done anything wrong. This is as false as failing to say you’re sorry when circumstances warrant it. If you frequently apologize, it’s time to stop. This kind of pseudo-apology may ease awkward conversations, but it’s a form of crying wolf—it distracts attention from real issues and weakens meaningful apologies when the time for them arrives.

How to Apologize

Apologizing is rarely comfortable or easy, so if you’re going to do it at all, make it count. Aaron Lazare, MD, a psychiatrist and dean of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, has spent years studying acts of contrition in every context, from interpersonal to international. He has found that, to be effective, most apologies need to contain the following elements:

  1.  Full acknowledgment of the offense. Start by describing exactly what you did wrong, without avoiding the worst truths. Once the facts are out, acknowledge that your behavior violated a moral code. It doesn’t matter whether you and the person you’ve hurt shares the same ethics: If you’ve broken your own rules, you’re in the wrong. Accept responsibility.
  2. An explanation. A truthful explanation is your best shot at rebuilding a strong, peaceful relationship. The core-deep explanation for your behavior is your key to changing for the better. Explanations help you and your victim understand why you misbehaved and assure both of you that the offense won’t recur. Excuses merely deflect responsibility. Leave them out of your apology.
  3. Genuine expression of remorse. Anyone who has been on the receiving end of the comment “I’m sorry you feel that way” knows the difference between sincere regret and an attempt to avoid responsibility for bad behavior. Few things are less likely to evoke forgiveness than apology without remorse.
  4.  Reparations for damage. An apology includes real repair work: not just saying “I’m sorry.” Often there will be nothing tangible to repair; hearts and relationships are broken more often than physical objects. In such cases, your efforts should focus on restoring the other person’s dignity. The question “What else do you want me to do?” can start this process. If you ask it sincerely, really listen to the answer and act on the other party’s suggestions, you’ll be honoring their feelings, perspective and experience. The knowledge that one is heard and valued has incredible healing power; it can mend even seemingly irreparable wounds. 

After Apologizing

When you really apologize, you should feel good about yourself. An effective apology is, as Lazare puts it, “an act of honesty, an act of humility, an act of commitment, an act of generosity, and an act of courage.” But there’s no guarantee that the other person involved will share your warm fuzzies. The final gallant act of apology is to release your former victim from any expectation of forgiveness. No matter how noble you have been, he will forgive—or refuse to forgive—on his own terms. That is his right.

Anne Lamott refers to forgiveness as “giving up all hope of having had a different past.” The same words apply to apologizing. An apology is the end of our struggle with history, the act by which we untangle from our past by accepting what it actually was. From this truthful place we are free to move forward, whether or not we are forgiven. Apologizing doesn’t make us perfect, but it shows our commitment to be honest about our imperfections and steadfast in our efforts to do better.

It reminds us of what Ali MacGraw’s Love Story character died too young to learn: that love means always being willing to say you’re sorry. 

Take Pride: Freedom from Shame & Humiliation

“You must learn to tolerate the humiliation of taking your child out in public. Try to ignore the stares and insensitive comments of the people around you.” 

Girl Chasing ButterflyI don’t remember where I read these words—I vaguely recall a dingy red pamphlet, given to me by a well-meaning social worker—but I know exactly when. It was February 11, 1988, three months before my son, Adam, was born, one day after an amniocentesis revealed he had Down syndrome. I’d refused what would have been a very late-term therapeutic abortion but not because the diagnosis didn’t bother me. I felt trapped in a bizarre nightmare. In 24 hours, I’d gone from daydreaming about my perfect baby to bracing myself for “stares and insensitive comments.”

My first reaction to that pamphlet was to throw up. Things went downhill from there. I already loved my unborn son, but I had no idea how to “tolerate the humiliation” of being his mother. Avoiding humiliation was practically my religion. I was a slavish overachiever, desperate to succeed, to please, to fit in. Now, it seemed, I would be obviously and publicly shamed in the all-important role of mother.

I didn’t realize that I’d just been handed the key to freedom from the humiliation—and the fear of humiliation—that had always governed me. I was about to learn that my level of shame was always under my own control, that I would endure exactly as much humiliation as I consented to feel, and that instead of tolerating this awful feeling, I could simply dispense with it. All of this is equally true for you.

Phobias, Paralysis, and Poison

In her book Fear and Other Uninvited Guests, psychologist Harriet Lerner points out that of all the forces that shape human behavior, fear of humiliation is among the most powerful. The most common fear is not of illness or accident, but public speaking; soldiers will march into certain doom rather than be branded cowards. Many clients tell me they prefer lives of quiet desperation to the possible embarrassment of trying and failing to realize their heart’s desire.

Humiliation’s power can keep people from violating basic social boundaries. But like tear gas, it has only one effect: incapacitation. Try this little experiment. Say out loud the words “I’m so ashamed of myself,” and notice how your mind and body react. You’ll probably feel enervated, paralyzed, as though you’ve donned a lead straitjacket. These sensations don’t just stop you from doing anything wrong; they stop you from doing anything, period.

To see the effect of this, consider an area of your life in which you feel frustrated and stuck: relationships, work, personal goals, maybe all of the above. Are you doing absolutely everything possible to get what you want in these areas? If not, why not? Why not demand that promotion, resist your critical mother, write your novel? If fear of humiliation is your problem, your answer will probably be something like: “If I do that, people may gossip about me/hate me/laugh at me/judge me.” Or “That’s unheard-of in my family/neighborhood/religion/company.” Or maybe, simply,?”That would make me look greedy/stupid/fat/selfish/wimpy/ wrong.”

These phrases, and any other variation on the “what people might think” theme, are shame mantras. Obeying them prevents all kinds of experiences—but not, it turns out, humiliation. In fact, the more we obey our fear of shame, the more our frame of mind guarantees we’ll feel humiliated.

Choosing Freedom

To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, no one can cause us to feel humiliation or shame without our consent. Conversely, withdrawing our consent can end shame-based pain and paralysis immediately. That’s because the real cause of humiliation isn’t being judged or attacked by others, it’s living in any way that conflicts with your real values. 

For example, there are cultures in which women are terrifically ashamed if they don’t have wooden plates in their lips or metal rings elongating their necks. You probably aren’t wearing either accessory, but this doesn’t make you feel humiliated—and probably wouldn’t even if you were to visit one of these societies—because you don’t adhere to those standards of beauty.

On the other hand, many American women feel deeply humiliated if they have more fat than a ballpoint pen, even though some cultures idealize a hefty figure. Standards of beauty are arbitrary. Body shame exists only to the extent that our physiques don’t match our own beliefs about how we should look. Change the belief “I should be ashamed” to, say, “I should be kind” and humiliation disappears, leaving us empowered rather than paralyzed.

Humiliation Elimination

Align Your Actions With Your Convictions

If your behavior violates your own moral standards, humiliation is a natural consequence. There are two strategies for avoiding this. Strategy number one is obvious: Don’t do anything you think is wrong or fail to do anything you consider morally necessary. I’m guessing you’re a well-meaning person who’s trying to follow the rules, but if you’re having persistent trouble “being good” or if your shame is triggered because of what you are rather than what you do, adopt strategy number two: Stop trying to change your behavior; instead, rethink your beliefs.

I first understood the power of this shift after my son’s diagnosis. Although I desperately feared the humiliation of having an “imperfect” child, something in me resisted giving him up. So, unable to bring my actions into line with my beliefs, I gradually brought my beliefs into line with my actions. I began questioning the assumption that people with Down Syndrome are imperfect. Like anyone else, they are perfectly themselves, as nature made them. Maybe the real defect lay in the belief that such loving and lovable people were defective.

This way of thinking felt strange to me but very right. As soon as I tried it on, I felt my humiliation begin to evaporate. I’ve since heard many clients describe this feeling after flipping a belief on its head. Many have spent years paralyzed by the thought, I feel so humiliated. There must be something wrong with me. Things begin to move the moment they try thinking, I feel so humiliated. Maybe there’s something wrong with my beliefs. (Note: Humiliation won’t disappear unless your new attitude is genuinely okay for you. Merely excusing behavior you feel in your heart to be wrong only increases shame.)

Rejecting humiliation in this way can transform you from a psychological paralytic to a powerful force for positive change. Like Huck Finn wrestling with social training that said he should be ashamed at hiding a runaway slave, then rejecting his belief in slavery, you may discover that your new truth feels “righter” than society’s preconceptions.

Open Up

Once your beliefs are congruent with your actions, the next step toward banishing humiliation is openness. Starting with a person who feels safe and nonjudgmental, raise the very conversational topics you’ve always avoided out of embarrassment. Talk, write, shout, laugh, or cry out loud about whatever humiliates you most.

If this sounds crazy, think about how Princess Diana was embraced by the public for opening up about her eating disorder, her depression, her affairs. On the other hand, public figures who lied to avoid humiliation (Pete Rose, former president Clinton) ended up being more shamed than if they’d been honest from the get-go.

Once you’ve confided in your safe person, begin broadening your circle. Discuss your taboo issue with friends, colleagues, even the world at large. Take this at your own pace, and treat yourself kindly if you get a response that formerly might have mired you in shame. Remember that you are acting as morally as you know how, and that you therefore have no reason to feel humiliated. Then talk to someone else about how awful it felt to be judged. The more open you are, the more others will support you.

Be Proud

Know this: If you are following your own moral rules, the very things you’re ashamed of are likely the things about which you can feel most proud. Say you’ve battled obesity, mental illness, addiction, or abuse: Take pride in the extraordinary courage you’ve shown by surviving and working toward health. If others make you feel ashamed for what you are—your heritage, your sense of what is true for you—you’ll find that expressing pride in those same qualities is the road to inner peace.

This works in silly situations as well as lofty ones. Remember when Rev. Jerry Falwell accused Teletubby Tinky Winky of same-sex orientation? Falwell pointed out that Tinky was purple (gay), had a triangle-shaped antenna on his head (gay), and carried a purse (gay, gay, gay). Instead of counterattacking, a number of people nominated Tinky Winky for grand marshal of the San Francisco gay pride parade, turning a potential shame fest into a jolly celebration. (Tinky Winky didn’t win the vote, but you get the point.)

I got a similar gift from the potential humiliation of having a son with an extra chromosome. Sure, strangers have recoiled, doctors and associates have bluntly told me that keeping him was stupid. Long ago I stopped feeling humiliated by such nonsense. I am proud of everything about Adam, who at 22 is one of the finest people I know. I’ve written about him, traveled the world with him, stood with him before crowds gathered to celebrate his difference. What’s sometimes hard to contain is not the humiliation but the pride and joy of taking my child out in public.

The same process can work for you. Are you ashamed about your body, your history, your loves, your longings? If you know in your heart that these things are right for you, stop trying to fix, change, expel, or squash them. Share them. Take them out in public every darn chance you get. Now say it out loud: “I’m so proud of myself.” The rush of strength and expansiveness that comes from declaring this honestly is the antidote to paralysis and the beginning of many wonderful adventures. And each time you choose that instead of shame, you really should be proud.

How to Know It’s Real Love

In a folktale that has been retold for centuries in many variations (one of which is Shakespeare’sKing Lear), an elderly king asks his three daughters how much they love him. The two older sisters deliver flowery speeches of filial adoration, but the youngest says only “I love you as meat loves salt.” The king, insulted by this homely simile, banishes the youngest daughter and divides his kingdom between the older two, who promptly kick him out on his royal heinie. He seeks refuge in the very house where his third daughter is working as a scullery maid. Recognizing her father, the daughter asks the cook to prepare his meal without salt. The king eats a few tasteless mouthfuls, then bursts into tears. “All along,” he cries, “it was my youngest daughter who really loved me!” The daughter reveals herself and all ends happily (except in King Lear, where pretty much everybody dies).

This story survived throughout Europe for a very long time because it is highly instructive: It reminds listeners that in matters of love, choosing style over substance is disastrous. It also helps us know when we’re making that mistake. Salt is unique in that its taste doesn’t cover up the food it seasons but enhances whatever flavor was there to begin with. Real love, real commitment, does the same thing. 

Each of the following five statements is the polar opposite of what most Americans see as loving commitment. But these are “meat loves salt” commitments, as necessary as they are unconventional. Only if you and your beloved can honestly say them to each other is your relationship likely to thrive.

1. I can live without you, no problem.
“I can’t live,” wails the singer, “if living is without you.” It sounds so tragically deep to say that losing your lover’s affections would make life unlivable—but have you ever been in a relationship with someone whose survival truly seemed to depend on your love? Someone who sat around waiting for you to make life bearable, who threatened to commit suicide if you ever broke up? Or have you found yourself on the grasping side of the equation, needing your partner the way you need oxygen? The emotion that fuels this kind of relationship isn’t love; it’s desperation. It can feel romantic at first, but over time it invariably fails to meet either partner’s needs.

The statement “I can’t survive without you” reflects not adult attraction but infancy, a phase when we really would have died if our caretakers hadn’t stayed close by, continuously anticipating our needs. The hunger for total nurturing usually means we’re in the middle of a psychological regression, feeling like abandoned infants who need parenting now, now, now! If this is how you feel, don’t start dating. Start therapy. Counseling can teach you how to get your needs met by the only person responsible for them: you. The “I can’t live without you” syndrome ends when we learn to care for ourselves as tenderly and attentively as a good mother. At that point, we’re ready to form stable, lasting attachments that can last a lifetime. “I can live without you” is an assurance that sets the stage for real love. 

2. My love for you will definitely change.
Most human beings seem innately averse to change. Once we’ve established some measure of comfort or stability, we want to nail it in place so that there’s no possibility of loss. It’s understandable, then, that the promise “My love for you will never change” is a hot seller. Unfortunately, this is another promise that is more likely to scuttle a relationship than shore it up.

The reason is that everything—and everyone—is constantly changing. We age, grow, learn, get sick, get well, gain weight, lose weight, find new interests, and drop old ones. And when two individuals are constantly in flux, their relationship must be fluid to survive. Many people fear that if their love is free to change, it will vanish. The opposite is true. A love that is allowed to adapt to new circumstances is virtually indestructible. Infatuation relaxes into calm companionship, then flares again as we see new things to love about each other. In times of trouble and illness, obligation may feel stronger than attraction—until one day we realize that hanging in there through troubled times has bonded us more deeply than ever before. Like running water, changing love finds its way past obstacles. Freezing it in place makes it fragile, rigid, and all too likely to shatter.

3. You’re not everything I need.
I’m a big fan of sexual monogamy, but I’m puzzled by lovers who claim that their romantic partner is the only person they need in their lives or that time together is the only activity necessary for emotional fulfillment. Humans are designed to live in groups, explore ideas, and constantly learn new skills. Trying to get all this input from one person is like trying to get a full range of vitamins by eating only ice cream. When a couple believes “We must fulfill all of each other’s needs,” each becomes exhausted by the effort to be all things to the other and neither can develop fully as an individual.

It amazes me how often my clients’ significant others feel threatened when the clients revive childhood passions or take up new hobbies. I encourage people to bring their spooked spouses to a session so we can discuss their fears. The hurt partners usually come in sounding something like this: “How come you have to spend three hours a week playing tennis (or gardening or painting)? Are you saying I’m not enough to keep you happy?” The healthiest response to such questions is “That’s right, our relationship isn’t enough to make me completely happy—and if I pretended it were, I’d stunt my soul and poison my love for you. Ever thought about what you’d like to do on your own?” Sacrificing all our individual needs doesn’t strengthen a relationship. Mutually supporting each other’s personal growth does.

4. I won’t always hold you close.
There’s a thin line between a romantic statement like “I love you so much, I want to share my life with you until death do us part” and the lunatic-fringe anthem “I love you so much that if you try to leave me, I’ll kill you.” People who say such things love others the way spiders love flies; they love to capture them, wrap them in immobilizing fetters, and drain nourishment out of them at peckish moments. This is not the kind of love you want.

The way you can tell real love from spider love is simple: Possessiveness and exploitation involve controlling the loved one, whereas true love is based on setting the beloved free to make his or her own choices. How you use the word make is also a tip-off. When you hear yourself saying “He makes me feel X” or “He made me do Y,” you’re playing the victimized, trussed-up fly. Even more telling are sentences like “I’ve got to make him see that he’s wrong” or “I’ll hide what I really think because it would make him angry.” You are not the victim but the crafty spider, withholding and using manipulation to control your mate’s feelings and actions. Either strategy means that someone is being held too close, wrapped in spider silk.

Getting out of this sticky situation is simple: Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Begin by taking responsibility for your own choices—including the choice to obey the spider man who may have you in his thrall. Then communicate your real feelings, needs, and desires to your partner, without trying to force the reaction you want. If your relationship can’t thrive in the clear light of honesty, it is better to get out of it than to sink further into manipulation and control.

5. You and I aren’t one.
Perhaps you are neither a spider nor a fly but a chameleon who morphs to match the one you love. Or you may date chameleons, choosing partners who conform to your personality. Either way, you’re not in a healthy relationship. In fact, you’re not in a relationship at all.

I used to tune in so acutely to my loved ones’ wants and needs that I literally didn’t know my own. This denial of self ultimately turned into resentment, poisoning several close relationships. Then—once burned, twice shy—I went briefly to the opposite extreme. I found myself having a lot of lackluster lunches with folks who hung on my every word and agreed with everything I said. Narcissistic I may be, but Narcissus I’m not; hanging out with a human looking-glass, no matter how flattering, left me lonely.

If you’re living by the “We are one” ideal, it’s high time you found out how terrific love for two can be. Follow your heart in a direction your partner wouldn’t go. Dare to explore your differences. Agree to disagree. If you’re accustomed to disappearing, this will allow you to see that you can be loved as you really are. If you tend to dominate, you’ll find out how interesting it is to love an actual person rather than a human mirror.

~~~~~~~

Buddha once said that just as we can know the ocean because it always tastes of salt, we can recognize enlightenment because it always tastes of freedom. There’s no essential difference between real love and enlightenment. While many people see commitment as a trap, its healthy versions actually free both lovers, bring out the flavor of their true selves, and build a love that is satisfying, lasting, and altogether delicious.

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. 

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. 

I Approve: The Value of Equality

Woman gazes in mirror.There are those rare individuals who cannot be distracted by the external markers of success—things like social rank, wealth, education level, and professional status. These individuals behave in ways that quietly but effectively elevate the lowly and humble the arrogant. How do they do it? They ignore two common misconceptions and act instead on bedrock truths about equality and individual value.

Misconception #1

Each person’s value is determined by rank on the pyramid of social success. Your worth as a person increases or decreases as you accumulate (or fail to accumulate) prizes like wealth, power or fame.

Almost all of us believe Misconception #1 at some point in our lives, and it’s no wonder: We are approval-seeking machines. From our infancy, everything we do — crying, playing, using the potty – brings either praise or reprimand from the grown-ups around us. There’s nothing wrong with this; it’s the only way to socialize children. But is also conveys the pervasive idea that our value depends on behaving in ways that others see as praiseworthy. Success-driven behaviors can undermine the very thing we think they will provide: the certainty that we are important, lovable, good enough. If you’re waiting for the one achievement that will give you this certainty, prepare to wait forever. The only way to create such inner peace is to replace Misconception #1 with the following truth.

Truth #1

Each person, including you, is infinitely precious. No success or failure can ever alter that fact.

We may give lip service to the idea that every human consciousness is equal and invaluable. But in practice we go on ranking everyone according to external measures of success, surreptitiously comparing their achievements to ours. And deep down, most of us conclude that we’re a bit (or a lot) less equal than everybody else.

It is this lurking sense of inferiority that makes us lust for success, consider ourselves pond scum, or both. Ironically, this mind-set is precisely what keeps us from acting in ways that would elicit natural validation of our true value from the world around us.

The next time you find yourself in a situation where you feel worthless, think about the most powerful hero you can imagine, and how they would react in your place. Now consider this: your hero isn’t the one coming up with this new, self-confident behavior—you are.  Whatever you see your hero do in the fantasy you’ve created is precisely what you can do in reality, once you choose to believe in your own value.

Misconception #2

People will value me to the extent that I affirm the superiority of people who rank above me in the social pyramid, and my own superiority over people who rank below me.

Success is a currency that is not accepted by the heart: You can’t buy love. Only people who are caught in the same misconception will bond with your accomplishments. Success-based relationships are parasitic, and they vanish when the fame, money and power do. To forge caring connections, you don’t need a stronger résumé; you need Truth #2.

Truth #2

People will value me to the extent that they believe I value them.

Virtually all arrogant, domineering people spent their childhoods being cruelly devalued. As adults, they are starving for validation, and they try to force people to acknowledge their significance by sucking up to the powerful and dominating the weak. This tends to create the very hostility they fear. There are much better ways to get the acceptance we crave. One of the easiest is what I call “tossing the fish”.

If you’ve ever been to Sea World, you’ve probably seen trainers reward the dolphins and seals by feeding them fish. Sea mammals will do anything for anyone who’s carrying a bucket of what they love most. They’re a lot like people that way – and you just happen to have a bottomless bucket of what humans love most: approval.

Often people treat approval as though it were a severely limited resource. They give it stingily, if at all, as though every bit of approval aimed at someone else leaves less for them. But the more we express genuine approval, the more we motivate positive behavior in those around us, the more approval we’ll receive from them. (By the way, it’s crucial to fully internalize Truth #1 before  you set out to toss fish. Otherwise your compliments and new-found interest will come across as a Machiavellian ploy.)

In order to keep Truth No. 1 at the forefront of your thoughts, there are two techniques you may find helpful. First, rather than picturing intimidating people in their underwear, try to imagine them as their “bare selves” – as all those things that worry or motivate them. That way you can offer encouragement or support, just as you would with your peers, colleagues, or subordinates.

You may also try a technique I learned from Barbara Browning, a brilliant media trainer who teaches people how to come across on television. Barbara tells her clients, “treat the interviewers as though they were guests in your home.” This is exactly opposite  of most people’s first reaction. When the cameras roll, all their mental functions cease and they just sit there drooling (I speak from experience). But when you enter the mind-set of the “gracious host or hostess,” you equalize your own perception of the intimidating person’s power versus your own. The more lowly and inferior you feel at these particular moments,  the more important it is to get out of that frame of mind and into reality. The “host/hostess” trick can help you make the transition.

It may take you several months of practicing these techniques before they come to feel natural. However we are all inexperienced travelers on this uncertain voyage through life, and we cling to the twin myths of inferiority and superiority out of fear and fear alone. To transcend that fear and connect honestly with others, priceless soul to priceless soul, is to succeed in the truest sense of the word.

Adam’s Magic Birthday Dream with Oprah