“If I just…”

I’m often surprised by how brilliantly The Onion delivers the one-two punch with humor to soften defenses and reality as the immediate and unwelcome follow up.

I read this post the other day and thought it was hysterical and simultaneously unnerving because the satirized message rings true.  (Article)

In summary, the press release announces that Bank of America’s newest credit card reward scredit cardystem operates on the existential fulfillment that comes from each purchase: the more you spend, the better you feel.

Without belaboring the fact that truth often underlies humor, the article hits on an important phenomena ubiquitous to the human experience.

It comes in the form of the if/then internal persuasion.  “If I just do this, then I’ll be happy/fulfilled/content.”  Specific examples?  “If I just get that job, then I’ll be happy.”  “If I just lose ten pounds, then I’ll be content.”  “If I just get that girl to like me, then I’ll feel fulfilled.”

It’s so seductive because of its subtle and pervasive grip on our thoughts.  We’re typically unaware of how much this phenomena is impacting our daily decision-making process.  If I’m honest, I get swept up in it far more quickly than I’d like.

Why get so hung up?  Avoidance.  Focusing on the next big thing that will herald in happiness keeps us from doing the tough but important work required to change. It also links our potential happiness with external sources, which means we don’t have to take the road less travelled.

It’s far easier for me to anticipate the external experience that’s just around the bend, ripe with possibility, than to consider being honest with myself about what I need to change.

The problem is the “If I just” phenomena, while it may contain initial promise, leaves us depressed upon attaining the dream job, anticipated relationship, financial security, etc. and realizing we’re unfulfilled.  OR we continuously strive towards unattainable goals, wasting precious time and energy on the elusive dream.

Embracing the internal work has far more promise than chasing the dream.

What’s your current “If I just…” statement?  What’s the real path to change that you’re avoiding?

We can opt for the reward card system, but there’s that nagging, little, internal voice that reminds us: if reward cards bought existential fulfillment, the rich among us would be a lot happier.

How We Remember

imageIf you were told to plan the ideal vacation with the caveat that you wouldn’t remember it afterwards, what would you plan?

This question was posed by behavioral economist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman in his TED talk on memory vs. experience.  (For the TED talk, click here.)

His thoughts relate to a phenomenon that’s humanly impossible to escape. In short, the memory of an experience is different from the experience itself.

I’ve witnessed this many times, firsthand. As I help clients process difficult memories, I see distinctive changes in their recollection of those memories over the course of counseling. Key lesson: Our remembrance of events is dynamic, not static.

Kahneman explains it this way. We have two selves. First, the “experiencing self who lives in the present”, and, second, the “remembering self who keeps score”. He refers to the latter self as the storyteller.

What defines a story? “Changes, significant moments, and endings.”

According to his view, there is a continuously streaming sequence of events that comprises a lifetime. The experiencing brain registers that sequence moment by moment. How we translate that sequence is the job of the remembering self.

That translation, or narrative, of the storytelling self is impacted by how an event

  • begins
  • ends, and
  • holds value

Consider. Psychologists pose strong objections to the use of eyewitness accounts to determine key events in criminal court cases.

Why? The experiencing self, the one with an objective view, only registers for several seconds (the determined length of a “moment”). By the time an eyewitness testifies, there isn’t an objective report of the events; there’s a story instead. Eyewitness accounts can change dramatically from one day to another, based on a variety of environmental influences.

As Kahneman says,

We don’t choose between experiences, we choose between memories of experiences.

How we choose those memories comes from that storytelling self and its current narrative.

Why does this matter? It explains our blind spots.

Maybe the tally you’re keeping of your spouse’s emotional outbursts is exaggerated, and maybe your perspective that your teenage daughter is being disrespectful is skewed.

Does this mitigate objective truth? Not at all. The greater our humility about blind spots, the more we’ll implore our communities to help clarify truth with grace and love.

So what vacation would you choose sans memory scrapbooking? This summons a deeper question.  How differently would you experience a single moment if you weren’t concerned with remembering it at all?


On the Road with Jack Kerouac

Wednesday marked Jack Kerouac’s birthday.  The prolific American novelist would have been 92 this week.

An astute observer pointed out to me that this storytelling image, featured multiple places on my website, contains an excerpt from Kerouac’s novel, On the Road.  Impressive observation.

As that recognition converged with the celebration of his birthday, I found myself reading an article about his life.  This piece of his advice emerged as practical to writing and relationships:

“Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind.”  —Heaven and Other Poems

My interpretation of it?  Our end goal in written and verbal recitation is for the emergent offering to resemble the inner dialogue as closely as possible.

Isn’t his advice, then, referencing authenticity?

How often our humanity trips us up in pursuit of internal and external conformity.

What accounts for the breakdown?  Emotion.  Strong emotion can block our ability to communicate with clarity.  Our understanding of the emotional self predicts how well our intended meaning is translated to the audience–person or page.

There are times when the strength of that emotion creates clarity rather than diminishing it.  But for those of us who can be emotionally obtuse, it muddies the waters.

Psychiatrist Dan Siegel says “Emotions can thus be seen as an integrating process that links the internal and interpersonal worlds of the human mind” (The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are).

Whether or not those emotions accurately link the internal  to the interpersonal depends on our awareness of emotional motivations. Considering those motivations before writing or conversing has several advantages:

  • inclusion of logic/reason
  • perspective
  • attunement to the audience
  • adherence to an agenda

So how do you do that?  Simply reflect on what you want to say, before the conversation, with the audience and agenda in mind.  Write it down, or mull it over, and that space will diminish some emotional reactivity, and allow for perspective.  After perspective develops, clarity can emerge.

Try it out.  Notice if there’s a burgeoning alignment between thought and speech afterwards.  Does the audience get the intended meaning?

If so, in the spirit of Jack Kerouac, you could take up writing.  And as internal dialogue meets external prose, you’ll be one step closer to authenticity.



Parenting in the Dark Zone: Part III


After laying the groundwork for limits with teens, we invariably land on this question:

How do parents find a good approach to boundaries that honor both dependence and independence, while maintaining personal sanity?

The best way to ensure you’re setting healthy boundaries is to be aware, first, of why you’re setting them.

Most parents agree their ultimate goal is to help their teen thrive.  It’s a great goal, one that often gets lost in translation.

How does one help a teen thrive?  Well, the first two parts to this post discuss a practical awareness of teen dynamics and a practical understanding of internal reactions to your teen.  Those key tenets of awareness are foundational to the cultivation of teen flourishing.

Every boundary that’s set must be weighed against the question: How is this helping my child thrive?

This intentionality requires:

A. Self-awareness: Now that you’re cognizant of the internal obstacles to boundary setting, use that awareness to assess your motivation in establishing a given rule.  Ask yourself, am I acting out of my emotions?  Are there facets of this issue that I’m missing? Is this in the best interest of my child?

B. The Support Network: We are all biased boundary setters.  You need other respected parents, mentors, friends to help evaluate your decision-making from an impartial perspective.  You need others who can challenge you by pointing out biases that are obstructing logical limits.

C. The Cease-Fire: It rarely works to communicate boundaries when we’re upset.  It’s okay to stop and take a break from talking to your teen.  Learning to set boundaries outside of the moment of activation is essential to setting those limits well.  Taking a break also gives you the opportunity to follow points A and B in real time.  You can evaluate your internal response and talk to trusted advisers.  Then you can revisit the conversation once everyone is calmer.

D.  Sense and Sensibility:  I can’t over-emphasize the fact that natural, pragmatic consequences are the best.  When it comes to teens and limits, do what makes sense.  This will help to ground you in the rational and will make it harder for your teen to argue, because, take note: pragmatic limits put the ownership back on the teen to prove themselves.  If your teen can’t follow curfew, it makes sense for that curfew to be earlier for a time until they can show they’re capable of respecting it.  This gives them the responsibility to prove that they can make good decisions with their time, which then  means they’re ready for a later curfew.  Pragmatic boundaries are ones that logically connect with the undesired behavior and, therefore, most resemble natural consequences.

This point is one of the hardest to assess and navigate.  You’ll want to reach out to your support system to accomplish this well.  And you may need to seek out professional help to figure out how you’re getting tripped up as you institute pragmatic limits.

E.  Repetitive Redundancy: If you take a college course on writing, your professor will likely preach that the path to powerful prose is revision, revision, revision.  Similarly, the path to purposeful parenting is repetition, repetition, repetition.  Maintaining consistent, strategic limits that are replicable and verbally repeatable creates important structure during the nebulous time of independent dependence.

F. Win Them Over:  When we use boundary setting as a forum (either intentionally or unintentionally) to guilt, shame, or judge teens, that’s an indicator that we’re taking their behavior personally and making the conflict about ourselves.  We desire relationships where others can challenge us but are also winsome, inviting us into community with them.  Find a way to work through the anger, resentment, and frustration that comes from their resistance so that you can invite them into relationship.  As you do that, boundary setting will become relationship building, instead, where limits naturally form with less resistance.  What parent doesn’t want that?

There’s so much more that could be said.  There are many ways the molten core of resistance can erupt in parent and teen.  These markers are a starting point to sidestepping volcanic eruptions, but to use them well requires real soul-searching and significant communication.

If you really want to benefit from this series, I’d encourage you to go through it point by point and consider how this drama plays out in your own family.  Then you could ask yourself a few, pointed questions:

–How are my triggers blocking me from good boundary setting?
–Are there patterns to when and why my teen gets activated?
–How am I contributing to that activation?
–What are practical boundaries that can accomplish the goal of helping my teen thrive?
–Who can be a resource to evaluate my approach to limits?


Finally, if all else fails in the communication department, remember this sage advice from Bill Cosby for your next time around:


“Always end the name of your child with a vowel, so that when you yell the name will carry.”


Best of wishes to you as you navigate the dark zone.  While parenting teens can be tremendously difficult, I’ve had the privilege of working with many teens and I know how awesome they really are.   I hope you find your way to a place beyond division where you can see their developing character for what it is and celebrate it.

Parenting in the Dark Zone: Part II


If you took a snapshot of the scene we would most often find between you and your teen, what would it be?

Would you be yelling at each other? Tip toeing around the room in avoidance? Or talking and laughing together?

Communicating with teens is hard.  And positive interactions seem impossible when both parent and child are perpetually reactive.

How Do Parents Get Lost in Conflict?

As I said in my previous post, when you’re parenting in the dark zone, it’s easy to lose control of your emotions and react to your teen.

Here are some of the common pitfalls of boundary setting in the dark zone:

Over-identification: For those of you who have children that are your exact replicas, it’s easy to fall into one of two traps.  Either, the child is similar, and those similarities lead to projecting your experiences on to them, OR they’re similar and those similarities create more emerging conflicts.

Think of the mother who has social anxiety; she sees her daughter’s anxiety and remembers how painful the rejection was in her own teen years, so she keeps her daughter safely at home.  Or, the father who struggles with explosive anger, and when his son lashes out, it escalates his own anger until they’re both yelling.  While either example can happen in isolation, most parents tend to move between both ends of the spectrum.

The Power Struggle: Another common pitfall comes in the form of placing ultimate value on control.  Demanding control of teens creates an eternal power struggle.  The struggle is a way for parents to assert authority to keep teens from destabilizing their own worlds.  And parenting teens can be like bracing for aftershocks as they ripple through in seismic waves.

The teen years are a nebulous zone where the fetters of dependence are still there, but the work of independence is essential and emerging.  New boundaries are called for, boundaries that reflect the inevitable and diminishing control.  Ultimately, if parents set boundaries within the framework of control, they miss valuable in-roads and vital opportunities to help their teens move towards independence productively.  There is a better framework; one that also respects the parents’ stability.

Identity Cloning: Most parents view their teens’ actions as a reflection on their identities.  Teens’ missteps become internalized as parents’ failures.  Or parents fear others’ judgment if their children misbehave.  This can lead to working harder to prevent acting out.  And the harder parents work to control, the harder teens work to resist.

It’s essential for parents to understand the forces at work within themselves that subtly influence their behavior.  It’s only in this context that healthy boundary setting can begin.

The answer to boundary setting with teens is a pragmatic one.  More on that next time…