A Day in Paris

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I spent one day in Paris over the winter holiday. The build up of anticipation left me pondering: “How does one cram all the charms of a city into the nooks and crannies of a single day?”

I’ve spent years day dreaming about the eccentricities of this particular city.
It was almost nothing like I imagined.

Not once did I hear La Vie en Rose echoing through a corner cafe. There was not one fiercely beautiful French woman pausing at the street corner to adjust her Hermes scarf. And I even saw tourists snapping pictures of La Tour Eiffel sparkling with nighttime lights, in front of police officers, with no repercussions. (Article.)

What I also saw were a thousand selfie sticks in front of Notre Dame alone. The famed lights of Paris at Christmas time. And a well-worn path across the grounds of the Louvre.

The city was even more enchanting because it didn’t meet my expectations. And the ways it differed were intriguing, poetic even: the crooked streets, the expansive architecture, the pathway of the Seine running up and down the curves of the city, the smallest shops next to the biggest cathedrals. I was mesmerized.

But the city was quiet with complacency. My visit was just a week before the Charlie Hebdo attack. A scene that transformed the city from the one I experienced on a lazy, December day to something entirely different. I’m sure Paris will never be exactly the same for its dramatic and devastating experience. And I’m sure I’ll view it through a different lens should I ever have the opportunity to go back.

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I often speak of shifts in my line of work. Shifts are the dramatic changes undergone by individuals and societies alike that can happen in tiny increments or in a single moment.

Paris groaned under the weight of a shift the day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. A shift that cut into the normal rhythms of the city and left that city dissected for quite some time. This is the type of shift that most of us are afraid of experiencing, and for good reason. Sudden change is scary.

Seeing Paris transformed overnight left me contemplating the quivering anxiety of sudden change. I understand all too well how difficult tragic change is, but I often speak with people who fear positive change as well. Examples include going off to college, moving, getting married, and switching jobs.

It would appear that our humanity produces a type of existential angst around change that is tied to our identities. It goes something like this: If I take the plunge, will I cease to exist as I am? Will this shift rob me of my identity? (If I take the plunge will it prove how unlovable, inadequate, helpless, [insert your own word] I really am?). In essence, will this dramatic change prove my worst fears about myself?

We don’t articulate it that way, of course. It gets voiced as: “I’m afraid I won’t perform well in this new role.” Or, “What if no one likes me in college?” Or, “How can I possibly handle this new responsibility as a husband?” So we avoid change to anesthetize ourselves from the pain that we fear will come with the dramatic shift.

I experienced a dramatic shift this past month. I became a mother. The landscape of my life is forever altered. And yet, I am still me. This change has challenged me in so many ways, but it hasn’t consumed me. I have to learn to be a more efficient yet sleepy version of myself, but I am still me.

It’s foreign yet familiar. It’s foreign in all the swaddled newness a baby brings. Yet familiar in that I can see my typical emotional patterns and pathways being retraced, just in heightened form. My typical stress responses get activated, and I have to work endlessly to use my internal and external resources well. What has also emerged, however, is unbridled joy–a fuller experience of love.

The irony surrounding our change-angst is that our identity development is usually more stunted by avoiding change than embracing it. Think of Howard Hughes, the famed Renaissance man and billionaire who couldn’t enjoy his wealth and success because he had a crippling fear of germs that left him confined to a lonely existence in his home. He had intellect, fame, and fortune, and yet his daily life became more horrific than any phobia he could concoct.

While our experiences are rarely that extreme, there’s a lesson, here, for all of us. Is there a life change you’ve been avoiding? What are you afraid will happen to you if you do embrace it? You’ll be a failure? You’ll miss your life of comfort? You’ll end up alone? Now, reverse that question for a moment. What might happen if you don’t embrace it? You’ll be a failure? You’ll end up alone? Consider how your paralysis might be limiting you right now. Could your avoidance of change end up being the real tragedy?

Avoiding change due to existential angst means not that we’ll escape a crisis of identity; rather, we’ll miss out on a fuller realization of who we are and what we’re capable of.

In the simple yet profound words of one master of change: “Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Oh, how immensely tragic it is when we don’t grow. We are, in essence, allowing ourselves to be handicapped, crippled in our identities. And yet, when we take the risk to grow, there may just be an unbridled joy. Could we possibly discover a fuller experience of love?

PS. This recent change in my world ushers in a formatting change for my blog. Expect shorter sound bites in variable intervals. There will still be stories, just in condensed form. Who knows what discoveries we’ll make in The Raconteer, redefined!

More Than a Candy Crush: The Life Lessons I Learned From Candy Land

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While browsing last-minute gift ideas for nieces and nephews the other day, I stumbled upon an old classic–the game of Candy Land.

Instantly I was transported to images of my 5-year-old self crouched in front of a multi-colored board lined with peppermint edges and game pieces that were as life-like as my imagination could reproduce in the ’80’s.

My friends and I spent countless summer days cross-legged and sweating over that flimsy board. There was a thickness in the summer air and an even thicker competition, as we embarked upon a magical journey through “candy cane forests and a sea of swirly twirly gumdrops” in a race to the finish. It makes me wonder if Buddy the Elf took a short cut through Candy Land en route to NYC.

During those magical, sugary hours, I was learning at more than I realized. As I reminisced this week, the thought came to me that Candy Land provides the perfect metaphor for the path to change. So I set out to see if I remembered accurately.

This iconic game comes with an important history. It was first manufactured in 1949, after having been invented a few years earlier by a woman who had polio. She used the game in children’s polio wards to provide a welcomed diversion from their illnesses and from their traumatic and elongated separations from family. There’s a fascinating article that provides an in-depth analysis of the connection between polio and Candy Land’s auspicious beginnings, and how the whimsical fantasy of a world made of candy was a great way to soothe both the frenzied hysteria and the very real anxiety that surrounded the disease.

As an aside, this article entertains the idea that the polio epidemic overwhelmingly shifted the cultural parenting tide from free range parenting to anxiety-driven hovering, and it laments how that cultural change continues to impact modern parenting styles.

The history of the game continues with multiple overhauls (e.g. the 1990’s exclusion of Plumpy); and enduring celebrity remakes from Dora the Explorer to a SpongeBob version. To date there have been 40 million copies sold, making this iconic board game a household name.

So why has this particular game withstood the test of time? Maybe it’s just the brilliant marketing to kids with a kaleidoscope of colors, delicious characters, and an edible plot line. Or, maybe not.

I wonder if the original creator knew how accurately her game predicts the path to successful change. From changing our eating habits, to planning cross country moves, to switching jobs, the path to change looks remarkably similar across the board (pun intended).

Here’s a quick sketch of the game for those who are unfamiliar. I’ll mostly be referencing the version that originated in 1985.

There is a winding path that spans the board and is divided into color blocks and locations. All locations are candy-related: plum swamps, licorice lanes, gum drop stops, etc. The players take turns picking a card that has an image of a particular color block or candy location that maps along the board. The player who picked the card moves to that spot, and then each player continues picking cards until one of the players advances far enough to reach the end: home. However, there is a catch. If you pick a card that coincides with a location that is further back on the board, you are required to retrace your steps. There are also certain places where you can get stuck (in a variety of sticky situations) and lose your turn. But in a whimsical balance, there are candy-coated shortcuts to accelerate your journey as well. So you could jump ahead of and then fall behind other players from one turn to the next.

Without opening a discussion on free will versus “Playing the hand you’ve been dealt,” let’s take a look at some of the toothsome (and gritty) truths that the Candy Land journey shares with the change process:

1–It’s non-linear. It’s not a straight forward journey. It is a forward, backward, and then sideways journey…And then backward again, with a couple steps forward, until you get knocked sideways and end up dizzy, and don’t know which direction you’re headed in.

2–Sometimes there are shortcuts…sometimes there are not. More often than not, there are not.

3–Sometimes there are obstacles…and more obstacles. Perseverance is key.

4–Stuck isn’t really stuck. Even with the obstacles, there’s a way forward. There’s always a way forward.

5–Often times there are setbacks (which are different than obstacles). In the game, there’s a looming awareness that you could end up retracing your steps at any moment. Expecting those setbacks leads to a quicker recovery time.

6–There is an end…and that end is home. The original 1949 version had each player nostalgically arriving at home, and for good reason. At the time, children with polio had to endure traumatic separations from their parents for months at a time while being treated. The reminder of home as the end goal presented comfort and hope. For us, home may be literal or metaphorical, but it’s always the place where transformation has occurred and where comfort and contentment reside.

Now that I’ve hopefully convinced you of Candy Land’s predictive validity as a formula for success, let’s talk about the best part. For those of us who are obsessed with change, and its importance, and who spend our days pondering the minutiae of it all, this game takes us right back to the basics.

Us adults over-complicate the process. Candy Land is that sweet reminder of how simple the message is: stick to the path, persevere, keep the end in mind, and eventually you’ll get there.

Who better to glean wisdom from than children? As the great Madeleine L’Engle once said: “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”

That literary pearl certainly applies here. If adults don’t get the formula for change, if they over-complicate it with a long list of defenses, why not teach it to kids instead?

I remember the rise and fall of my 5-year-old ambitions with the twists and turns of that game. Maybe at that age I was better acquainted, more familiar with, the path to change than I realized. Maybe it’s that my 5-year-old self could stoop more easily to keep her ear fixed to the ground–to pay attention. Whatever the case, I have a sneaking suspicion I was closer to wisdom at 5 than I am now.

I’m thinking of marketing my own version of Candy Land with fill-in-the-blank obstacles to help us plot our individual journeys to change. It will be complete with winding candy paths, sticky barriers, sweet short cuts, and a road that leads to “home”.

Any takers?

Musings: Waiting

Waiting

If you want to know what it means to wait, talk to an insomniac.  They’re experts on the subject.

They’ve mapped the trajectory of the sun creeping up the curtains.  They’ve watched it flood over that one crack in the wall, a timeless marker, signaling they’re free to get out of bed now.  They take comfort in the sun’s power to liberate them from the pretense of sleep.  It means they can finally get on with their day–a day that secretly started hours ago.

If you want to know the discomfort of waiting, talk to an insomniac.

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The discomfort of waiting hits our bodies with the utterance of one word: Helplessness.

Think, for a moment, about how you hate being stuck in the slow lane at the grocery store.  Why?  You can’t do anything about it.  You have no control over the pace.  You stand there all jittery with impatience, flipping through a magazine to distract yourself from what you can’t change, from the way your plans are being disrupted in real time by the treachery of an over-populated line.

Most of us are really bad at waiting, because most of us hate feeling helpless.  Okay, so “most of us” is an understatement.

Even when we’ve decided something’s worth waiting for, it’s still uncomfortable.  While we’re waiting we summon a million anxious thoughts.  We mull over the “what ifs” and play out a variety of catastrophic scenarios, often ending with death, or destruction, or man-eating alligators.

As if helplessness isn’t enough, we feel something else that’s equally dreadful: we feel unresolved.  Maybe you’re waiting for THE phone call, or to find out if your loved one made it home safely; maybe you’re anxious for those MRI results, or maybe you need your house to sell, yesterday.  What marks the capstone events that follow these waiting periods is resolution.  Our humanity is crazy in love with resolution.  Only we want good resolution, of course.

But if we live for resolution, we disrespect all the moments in between.

I’ve learned far more from waiting than doing.  But that was only when I chose to view waiting as a discipline.  A discipline is a process of cultivating self-control and focused attention around a particular theme.  A discipline has intrinsic value when it moves us towards a meaningful goal.

When we dig in, we discover a savory truth.  The truth is we’re always waiting.  We’re always anticipating and dreading something.  Embrace it.  Waiting is omnipresent.

Pregnancy is a laborious act of waiting.  But those nine months are as necessary for mom as they are for baby.  If a woman denies she’s pregnant for the first eight months, she’ll panic at the end.  Overwhelmed by the unfinished work of the pregnancy, she can’t appreciate the miraculous outcome.  And after her baby is born she’ll be confronted with a whole new and indescribably transcendent experience of waiting.  If she tries to avoid that, she’ll miss the miracles that continue to trail behind.

We dislike waiting because we feel helpless to change what’s unresolved and we’re crazy about resolution.  The answer is to embrace discipline rather than avoidance.  If we’re always waiting, we might as well honor what we’re waiting for by anticipating it with forethought and appreciation.  When we do that, we no longer feel so helpless.  When we honor the wait, resolution does eventually come and in delightfully unexpected ways.

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Even the whitewashed photograph waits.  The sun is relegated to the background, hugging a corner of the frame, poised to illuminate brick and mortar.  The bikes are idly resting on the post, an homage to the arrested development of their octagonal friend.  Evans’ sign waits to be either celebrated or torn down; the people will decide the fate of his slogan in hashtags.  Even the parking sign is waiting for a passerby to adjust it back to symmetry.

Nature waits.  Architecture waits.  People wait.

 

Write What You Know

 

–Write what you know—

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It’s probably the most common advice handed down to the novice writer, often with the cold austerity of a principal handing off a diploma.  It’s a symbolic statement and a rite of passage.

It’s communicated with a nod that suggests: “You seem like you might someday know something, so when you get to that point, write it.  In the meantime—just fumble.”

 

My question.

 

–What if you don’t know anything and never will?—

 

It’s a dewy, wide-eyed look that accompanies this question.  It’s the look of a novice, scared to death.

This is a good question.  It’s one that occurred to me twenty years ago when I first received the advice to write what I know.  It still fits.

I don’t know anything.  Sure, there are things I understand, some things I have a decent grasp of, but I don’t know anything, not really.  At least not the way advice-givers mean.

To write what you know implies expertise.  And to be an expert implies arrival.  Those who are experts have reached a destination.  The problem is that if you’ve reached your destination, you’re no longer moving.  Arrival is static.

To be in process is dynamic.  To be in process implies perpetual motion.  There are no trappings of finality to entangle us there.

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I remember times in my life when I was an expert.  The arrogance of that belief is astounding, and it came with all the immovable stubbornness that accompanies static living.  Because I believed myself to be an expert, there was no room for community; there was no room for growth.

What did I miss?  Perspective.  Alternative views were lost on me.  Views that were robust and expansive.  Views that had flesh and bones, not just thoughts and words.

I thought I was an expert on grief, which is absurd.  Anybody who has experienced grief knows that you can’t even begin to understand grief until you feel like your body has melted so far into the wood panels of your floor that you’ll have to be scraped up, bit by bit.   And at that point the industrious hand of another–one that scrapes you off the floor–is invaluable and it’s the only option.  And even then, you don’t know grief.  You’ve just begun to learn.  I’ve only begun to learn.

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Nowadays, for so many reasons, I’d rather be dynamic than static.  I’d rather be a novice than an expert.  I’d rather be dewy-eyed and eager to experience the world with curiosity, hunger, awe, and ever-so-many questions.

So, in the unlikely event that I’m asked, here’s my advice to anyone, like me, who wants to fumble at writing.

Write what you live and breathe and love and fear.  Write what you stumble upon and sit with and run away from.  Write what you don’t know but are trying to understand.

And if you don’t care about or want to write, then learn anyway.  Learn from what you live and breathe and love and fear.  Learn from what you stumble upon and sit with and run away from.  Learn from what you don’t know but are trying to understand.

Maybe then expertise will be usurped by a different and, dare I say, better goal.  Maybe then what you know will be replaced by what you desire.

 

 

Magic Ball

Magic BallIn the brick-lined inner sanctum of Camden Yards, magic was made Thursday night.  The magician’s hat descended after an unexpected sleight of hand by catcher Caleb Joseph.

Joseph is a recent addition who competed for backup catcher in spring training.  He was sent to the minors but got his big break when Wieters hit the disabled list.  Joseph was catching for Matusz, deadly against left-handers but currently facing right-hander Jose Reyes.

Picture this four-second trick.

Second 6: Reyes takes a full swing and tops the ball.

Second 7: It hugs the foul line as it bounces towards first base with Reyes running in tandem.  Joseph pops out from behind home plate.  Instead of running in a straight line to the ball (the natural path) he darts left towards the infield to get a proper angle on the ball and gain momentum to field it cleanly.  Halfway through second seven, Joseph, expertly positioned for momentum, has to make the decision to field the ball or leave it.  The instinctive response for a catcher in this position is to let the ball roll foul.  Joseph doesn’t do that.  He bypasses that inclination and fields it cleanly.

Now, there’s a first base rule that avid fans and Caleb Joseph alike are singularly focused on in the space between seconds 7 and 8.  This rule is known as interference.  Forty-five feet into the run towards first base, the single white line splits in two, and if there’s an infield, first base line play the runner has to stay between the two lines or the catcher can hit the runner for an out.  Usually, hitting a player running to a base doesn’t incur an out.  But in this case if his foot touches the infield he could obstruct the natural path of the ball and interfere with the defensive ability to throw it.

Second 8:  Reyes lands at the split.  He’s forty-five feet into the run and has reached a definitive boundary: the baseline.  This is the two, white lines he must live within until his foot lands on first base.  Since Joseph has the right angle on the ball, it won’t take long to throw.  But as Joseph scoops up the ball barehanded, Reyes passes that boundary and his right foot lands on the infield white line.  This means that Reyes’ left foot HAS to touch down in the infield.  Joseph anticipates the implications of Reyes’ right foot placement in a millisecond.   In that flash, he has to weigh four trajectory choices: 1. The natural choice: Go further inside, to the left, and throw to the first baseman 2. The long route: Go out to the right and throw to the first baseman, who is poorly positioned on the opposite side of the bag. 3. The prayer: A lob toss over the runner’s head to first base.  They don’t practice lob tosses in training, so the potential for error is high.  4. The Baseline Rule: The least instinctive option.  Hit the runner with the ball before he lands on first base.  The players’ jersey numbers are stamped in the middle of their backs.   The steadiest part of a player, while he’s running, is his back.  It’s also the widest part.   This creates the perfect target for a defensive bulls-eye.

Second 9:   Joseph opts for the Baseline Rule.  He flicks the ball and hits Reyes squarely in the back—squarely on the number 7.  The number seven is often used to symbolize perfection, completion, and fulfillment.  There was a sleight of hand Thursday.  That bulls-eye on 7 brought a sense of fulfillment, but not for Reyes.  Reyes had been duped.

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Reyes and Joseph both made split-second decisions.  The details of those decisions look like minutia: a quarter-inch foot placement, a 15 degree wrist flick, but they symbolize the difference between magic and mediocrity.

Humans are said to be creatures of habit.  Our everyday decisions can become robotic and patterned.  I wonder how often those decisions affect the broader outcomes in our lives.  Those patterned, habitual responses make the difference between success and failure.

The decision to hit the snooze button for an extra 15 minutes may leave you tired and rushed, affecting your productivity for the rest of the day.  The decision to watch TV instead of studying for the exam may leave you anxious and defeated, and ill-prepared when the exam time comes.  The decision to yell at your spouse rather than biting your tongue may mean hours of escalating arguments.  The decision to work late and miss your daughter’s soccer game may mean her getting the message that she’s not all that important.

Our productivity and relationships would benefit from baseball’s lessons.  To be aware of routine decisions and how they impact our lives is to be aware of how we shape the world around us moment by moment.

How do we create this awareness?  Close your eyes and play through a video of your own.  Observe a video of your typical day from beginning to end.  Pay attention to the routine decisions you normally take for granted.  I wonder how many decisions you make in a given four-second period that you aren’t even aware of.  Now, consider how those decisions impact your life.  What would happen if you chose to change even one of them?  What would happen if you were aware of those decisions, moment by moment, and chose the options that honored the people you love and the goals that matter?

The great thing about baseball is that it levels the playing field.  No matter how many gold gloves a guy has or what his batting average is, in any given play the backup catcher can don his magician’s hat and trick the all-star into an out.  Our little decisions do matter.  They level the playing field.  And if they level the playing field, then it’s up to you to decide whether you’ll choose magic or mediocrity.

Chicken Little’s Cave

Chicken little 2A few months ago, I shared a talk on how anxiety robs us of our freedom.

Remember Chicken Little?  That’s where this story begins.

Chicken Little is the one who was scampering about one day until an acorn fell on her head.  After being hit, she became hysterical and started yelling, “The sky is falling!” immediately mobilizing to warn her friends of the imminent danger.  The story has a variety of endings, one of which has her retreating into a cave.  In her quest for safety, she is lured there by a wily fox, and in a tragic turn of events the cave of safety is where she meets her end.

Anxiety is universally experienced.  Even when it’s covered in anger, masked by sadness, or cloaked in skepticism: We. Are. All. Anxious.

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What’s the falling sky in your world?

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What’s the cave you’re retreating to for shelter?

Think about that for a moment.  Is it food?  Work?  People?  Exercise?

Or, maybe it’s cloaked in existential terms: Achievement?  Belonging?  Success?  Independence?

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The cave is a great metaphor for three possible ways we try to manage our anxiety: 1. We hunker down in the cave to control it (unsuccessfully).  2. We flee to the cave to avoid it.  3.  We sink into the cave, feeling paralyzed and imprisoned by it.  Initiate surrender.

The problem is, when we retreat into the cave looking for safety, in our own ironic way, we end up becoming consumed by our anxiety.  It swallows us up, like the deep caverns of a cave.

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Anxiety limits our freedom in several ways:

Disrupting connection:  When we retreat to the cave, it keeps us from relationships.  We’re so preoccupied with our fears that we push away genuine connections to focus on managing those fears.  Or, we pull our favorite people into our caves and depend on them to “fix” our fears so that our demands keep us from genuinely loving them.

Flooding:  We allow those shadows to loom so large on the walls of our cave that we become self-absorbed and lose sight of everything else.  They become all-consuming.  Perspective is lost.  Our story gets dialed down to our anxieties and nothing more.

Increasing Guilt/Shame:  When anxiety is viewed as a disorder, we tend to feel guilty and ashamed of it, which only serves to increase our worry.

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Our culture sets us up to be more anxious.

 

As a culture, we pathologize anxiety.  We have the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), which has 12 anxiety-related disorders, and hundreds of variations within.  There are about 50 types of anxiety medications, not including generic forms.  There’s also a common language that we use in every day conversation about stress, worry, nerves, anxiety, and fear.

Cultural education about anxiety can be helpful, but it can also lead to over-concern about our symptoms, as abnormal and disordered.

Now, add to this cultural landscape the idolization of safety, and you have the perfect storm.

When I gave this talk, it was right after the Super Bowl, and the Hyundai Genesis commercial captured it well.  It’s the one where the dad follows his son around as a portable safety net, there to catch him any time he’s about to fall.  The commercial touts that Dad’s ability to predict and prevent accidents for his son is his “Sixth Sense”.  You can also look at any insurance commercial to find that safety and prevention is priority one.  There’s a problem with this.

Our world isn’t safe.

There are dangers all around us, and we experience pain and suffering all the time.

When culture preaches safety while we are, simultaneously experiencing danger, it increases our anxiety.  Then, when anxiety is also viewed as unsafe by our culture, it creates more anxiety.

It’s the perfect storm to leave us ducking into caves for shelter.

The good news is we don’t need safety the way we think we do.  When we huddle in our caves, we miss out on the freedom of being truly alive.

 

How do we face anxiety with courage?  Stay tuned….

 

In the meantime, consider your own falling skies, and consider the caves you retreat to.  How do they block you from the people and the things that truly matter?

 

 

When Attachment Hurts

I recently wrote an article for an adoption blog on attachment issues.  While this article was meant for those who have children with complex trauma backgrounds, the theory of attachment is applicable to all.

Our underlying view of attachments will shape the way we experience others and relate to them.  I hope you find this article useful on your journey towards greater self-awareness.  

When Attachment Hurts

The buzzword in the adoptive community is, unequivocally, attachment.  For those who have never adopted or fostered, this word may have vague associations with dusty textbooks and archaic research studies.  But for those of you who have chosen the joyous and painful journey, this word has flesh and bones to it, in the form of your child.

The historical, prevailing wisdom dissected attachment into four categories.  These categories had a variety of names, all with similar, delineative meanings: Secure/Balanced; Anxious/Enmeshed; Avoidant/Detached; and Anxious-Avoidant/Ambivalent.

From my perspective, this view of attachment anaesthetizes the true complexity of it, and by doing so, diminishes how adoptive parents experience it in real time.  It also leaves these parents with an incomplete framework for understanding the rapid-fire emotional changes they witness in their traumatized child, and it gives little insight into managing those changes.  An example?

Cheerio Confusion:

One moment your child is clinging to you at breakfast, with loving arms encircling your neck.  The next moment she screams and smashes the cereal bowl following a simple request to wipe Cheerios off the table.  That same child, who was just doting on you, is now reminding you that you’re the worst parent ever, there’s never been anyone more horrible than you, and she wants to hurt you.  You’re bewildered.  You ask yourself why this is happening when the same request the day before yielded swift compliance—a completely different response.

Does reading this bring validation, intense emotions, or your own physical reaction?  If you said yes to any of these, then chances are you’ve experienced this, first-hand.  This attachment pattern is the most confusing and troublesome for adoptive and foster families.

Now bear with me while I get theoretical.  It’s important to have a framework that demystifies this experience.

While a traditional attachment view would say that the girl in our story has an ambivalent attachment, confining her to that box misses the fact that this style is a combination of two other attachment patterns.

Rather than compartmentalizing attachment styles as  secure, insecure, enmeshed, and ambivalent, I prefer to view attachment along a spectrum.  Take a look at the picture.  Think of it as a fulcrum, where the closer you are to a secure attachment, the more balanced the scale.  When you move along the fulcrum to one side or the other, it tips.  So the middle represents an emotionally balanced connection.

AttachmentSpectrum

On one side of the spectrum is enmeshed (clingy), the opposite of this is detached (avoidant or hostile), both are equally insecure attachments.  The fourth style, ambivalent, is demonstrated at the bottom of the diagram as a patterened response of moving between one end of the fulcrum and the other—between detachment and enmeshment.  The more extreme the attachment disorder, the more likely we are to live between the two ends of the scale, rapidly pinging back and forth.  For those exhibiting an ambivalent attachment, the imbalance is dramatic and polarizing.  The point, here, is that this type of imbalance quickly creates chaos.   

Unlike a compartmentalized view of attachment, this spectrum view presumes that all of us have dynamic attachment patterns.  We all move along the spectrum and the frequency and severity of that movement depends on the amount of stress we’re under.  This means that I’m not defined by being anxious, or avoidant, or insecure in my relationships, I will move between those descriptors, along the fulcrum, depending on my level of stress.

So why does this matter to you?

The more ambivalent your child’s attachment pattern, the more easily they kick up your own stress.  How many of you feel like, during crisis moments, your internal, emotional state reflects that of your child?  How many of you feel guilty when the same angry insults they are hurling at you are rising up in your mind regarding them?  Don’t.  You’re being triggered.  Rather than judging yourself, know that you’re under tremendous stress, and the chaotic emotions you feel mirror what they’re feeling too.

The good news?  They can move from the edges of the spectrum closer to the middle.   The other good news?  So can you.

Rather than trying to move your child from one attachment “category” to another, you can think in terms of lessening the frequency and duration of their polar responses between enmeshed and detached.

If we’re aware of how these traumatized children are moving across the spectrum of attachment, we can better understand how to tailor our responses.  De-mystifying this experience is the conquered first step.

Once you understand this, the next step is to consider how to calm yourself down when their shocking responses are programmed to suck you in to their emotional vortex.  If you’re drawn in to the chaos, the likelihood of the two of you overreacting is high.

Now, let me make this very clear:  This. Is. Not. Easy.

I have tremendous respect for those who have made the decision to foster or adopt.  And working with a child who exhibits this ambivalence on a regular basis is very difficult.  So any suggestions I make or insight I offer I do with the understanding that this is painful and exhausting.

It’s for this very reason that it is essential to find a supportive community that understands adoption, to provide support and resources during crisis.

There are two traps I see parents fall into.  And the first trap initiates the second.  First, they view the attachment as overly fragile.  Because many parents have been indoctrinated with the importance of healthy attachment for their child’s healing, they often believe they have to tiptoe around the child with the utmost sensitivity, which ends up being burdensome, exhausting, and can lead to increased triggered responses on the parent’s part, as well as tension and anxiety for the child, who is attuned to your responses.

The second trap is that because of this fragile view of attachment, parents are so concerned with maintaining the connection in order to generate healing that they end up living in enmeshment while believing they’re creating a healthy attachment.

What does this look like in real time? 

Long, drawn out conversations about emotions and copious amounts of time spent trying to engage your child to facilitate the connection (the belief being that time spent correlates with attachment security).  In reality, spending too much time in emotional conversations with your child increases the likelihood that you both become stressed and you both overreact.

Parents’ hypersensitivity to their child’s emotional cues will likely increase their child’s hyper-vigilance.  And if the parents view the attachment as fragile, this will increase their sensitivity to the child’s cues.  It’s a vicious cycle.

The number one way to combat this is through awareness.  You need a clear understanding of the landscape to know how to respond.  Picture the attachment spectrum in your head; consider where you fall on that spectrum during moments when you’re most upset.  Do you tend towards anxiety? Avoidance? Or toggle between both?

Now, what do you notice about your child?  Can you pinpoint where they are on that spectrum during times when they’re upset?  What would it look like to view them as more resilient?  What would it look like to stay calm while they are in crisis?  What do you need to remember from what you’ve learned, here, to be able to do that?

For traumatized children, we can respect the nature of their attachment to us without being overwhelmed by its fragility.  Putting language to the interaction patterns with them will allow us to better understand their actions and our reactions, moment by moment.  As we begin to understand those and get perspective on the obstacles we’ll face, we open the doorway to incorporating interventions and experiencing them, and ourselves, with greater resiliency.

Buried beneath their stressed responses are the personalities of some really awesome kids, full of vibrancy, curiosity, and creativity.  And buried beneath your stressed responses, you’ll find the reflection of your former self, the pre-adoption part of you that was also more vibrant and more curious.  I bet you’re longing to see that.

Charleston: A Lesson in Adaptation

20130327-172038.jpgI’m on a mini-vacation this week in Charleston, South Carolina. It’s one of my favorite places due to the architecture and urban life juxtaposed with southern charm and relaxing beaches. The only problem is, I expected it to be much warmer. I had planned on a couple days of touring the city, followed by some beach time. When I walked out of the hotel this morning it was 45 degrees and I was layering jackets, coat, and gloves and still freezing cold. I quickly realized that I would have to shift my agenda to warmer, indoor activities. There was a period of child-like, internal struggle as I fought the idea that I wasn’t going to get what I wanted.

This experience got me to thinking about the daily struggle of managing expectations. Children have a very difficult time with transition, and when things don’t go their way or plans change, they often have meltdowns that communicate their internal protest. As adults we still experience remnants of that desire to protest. We fight the twists and turns of life that evade our carefully protected agendas. We often want to act out the way we did as children.

At times like this, it’s important to remember that adapting to change is an art form. It’s not a skill that’s readily available to most of us. It requires a good deal of effort, finesse, and presence of mind, to be able to move steadily through the unexpected transitions of life. As I calmed myself down this morning, I was able to assess the situation more clearly and evaluate solutions to my perceived “problem”. So here’s some thoughts about how to cultivate the ability to adapt to change.

First of all, the art of adaptation requires an awareness of our emotional responses to the changes that are occurring. If you notice yourself reacting to change, and are surprised by the intensity of your response, ask yourself: What am I upset about right now? What is this response in reaction to? Is this response proportionate to the situation I’m in? The more we are awakened to our emotional state, the better equipped we are to use that as a cue to understanding our reactive states. This self-awareness also acts as a gauge for when we are reacting in the first place. Reactive responses are very different from grounded, emotional responses. They are impulsive, quick, based on previous experiences, and can be destructive. They are counter-productive to adaptation.

After assessing our reactive responses, it’s important to get perspective on the situation. Reactive states exaggerate the severity of the struggle in our minds. These states are called “catastrophizing” and only serve to extend our temper tantrums. As we react, our perspective diminishes and we become further consumed with the intensity of our experience. As the situation becomes bigger and bigger in our minds, we get overwhelmed and either explode or shut down. Rather than engaging in this spiraling cycle of reaction, it’s imperative that we take a step back, and evaluate what we’re actually facing. We need to breathe deeply and ask ourselves: Will this matter to me in an hour, day, or week? Chances are, even if it does matter to us a week from now, we will have found a way to circumvent the struggle and the outburst will be diminished in our minds. At this point, we can ask others to help us gain perspective, take a break from thinking about the issue and address it later, or simply breathe and risk facing the experience that we can’t control.

Finally, as we face this challenge, it’s important to develop a well-versed curiosity. I can’t over-emphasize how adaptive curiosity is. The art of being inquisitive requires a receptivity that naturally leads to grounded responding. Be curious about what interesting opportunities could come out of your changing plans. Maybe you’ll end up in an adventure you never expected, or learn about a character trait you have that wouldn’t have shown itself under normal circumstances. Maybe you’ll meet someone new, or maybe you’ll simply be surprised at your ability to adapt. Either way, facing unexpected change fine tunes our problem solving skills and can be beneficial at an emotional and neurological level, if we allow it.

After I came to terms with my changing agenda today, I began to awaken to the possibility of new and unexpected opportunities. To get out of the cold I ducked into a little cafe with all of the southern charm I had come to Charleston for. This was an unexpected twist, a cool place I never would’ve found had I gone along with my agenda. This place became an unforgettable, little reminder of the contentment that can come with flexibility and adaptation to change.