Friday, March 15, 2013

Empathy and Encouragement

When someone is dealing with a problem, there seems to be two prevailing responses. On one hand, there's the empathy response. You come alongside and grieve. You feel the pressure and pain and help shoulder it alongside the bearer. On the other is encouragement. Phrases like "man up" or "you're better than that" point to pushing an individual out of the rut and on to bigger and badder things. It is a call to rise above the circumstances and show off awesomeness innate in the person.

These are both very, very good responses and trying to figure out which one to apply when is extremely hard.

Obviously the far extremes are pretty easy to pick out. Someone just got hit hard (breakups, job interview, failed project, missed the goal), you should probably opt for the empathy response. Grieve with them, provide support, and affirm they are still a good person. This is when cliches like retail therapy or having drinks is applicable. You sit beside and show you are there for them. You help shoulder their burden and empathize. You let them release their pain and grief.

Then there are those who seem stuck in a rut. So stuck they don't even try. So you should opt for the encouragement. Get them moving along. Get some momentum rolling. Pump them up to make them realize they can do it! Off your sorry ass and get CRANKING! The world doesn't care about your intentions, they care about actions, so go and get ACTIVE.

Those are easy.

I'm more concerned about finding the inflection point between the two.

Let's take myself as an easy example. I tend to have bouts of depression. They are mostly tied to concepts of self-worth, especially with respect to skills and achievements for my age bracket. On the downward spiral I find immense solace in certain music. Music that seems to empathize with my rage and pain. Trying to pump myself up with boisterous YOU CAN DO IT articles backfires. I wonder why I can't pull out of the spiral. I wonder why I'm not good enough and strong enough to be the badass everyone seems to think I can be.

But then there is the other side. As I hit rock bottom and start to turn around I pick up the pieces. On the upswing those same kinds of you-can-do-it articles that caused more grief start to resonate. Heck yeah I am awesome. It really is never too late to start. I have a strong skillset and can devote time to improve myself. I will make a difference. There is hope. And those self-medicating empathic items? They lose their usefulness, like a coat you throw off in warmer weather.

Trying to identify the inflection point is rough. Figuring out where you can shift to encouragement, thereby minimizing the downward slump, is extremely nuanced. Improper application of encouragement early only creates the opposite effect*. Especially when you are trying to provide that support for someone else and don't have access to their internal mindset.

Granted, you shouldn't try to cover up a proper grieving period. I was listening to a talk about break-ups and the speaker talked about how he once broke down crying and sobbing uncontrollably for several days. Why? Because even after several breakups throughout his life he had never grieved any of them, and suddenly it all welled up from inside. He became overwhelmed and had to just cry it all out. A proper grieving period is healthy for emotional healing. And providing that is something we can and should provide. Sit and listen. Don't try to correct, just empathize. Provide a safe place for them to be vulnerable and become free.

But I don't want to stand around providing only empathy and say "it's all right" all the time. That's a severe disservice to the individual. Your natural response is to stay safe and stay comfortable. But I want to see you be awesome and max out your potential. I want to max out my own potential. So sometimes you need to give a bit of a nudge, a pep talk, or even a hard kick in the nads.

Two sides of the same coin. But completely radical in their application. I'm still trying to figure out how to properly apply them to myself. And providing both to others is even harder.

* I think this is because encouragement tends to run counter to their current state of mind and view of the world. This cognitive dissonance results in uneasy bad feelings, potentially resulting in further depression or an antagonistic response. I'm sure you've experienced when you try to help someone by providing positive critiques and they just shove it all away in anger.

Friday, March 1, 2013

On My Mind: In My Mind's Eye

In my mind's eye I am a good man. I greet people with a sincere and warm smile. I am open and friendly. I answer all questions truthfully and earnestly. I take eager interest in what others have to say and think. I am an open book that people can trust. I exemplify the concept of honesty and transparency. I speak my mind, never holding back. I am authentic in all my interactions. In my mind's eye.

In my mind's eye I am a judicious person. My eyes are keen and sharp. Nothing goes unnoticed. I pick up on tells and falsehoods, winnowing out the lies and finding the core of the matter. My mind quickly navigates through a loaded question to find the core. My face reads with impassive nature as I carefully slip through smoke screens and find true weaknesses and strengths. Truth reigns in my mind, and I can see when bad deeds are done with good intention or spy false flattery from a scheming heart. In my mind's eye.

In my mind's eye I am a teacher. My glasses are perched high on my nose and my eyes sparkle with cheer. My brain overflows with connections and arcane facts. I philosophize about the abstract and the concrete; reveling in discussions and tempering ideas in trials of fire. I find joy in sharing facts and shepherding students through difficult concepts. I only view success as when they succeed. My crowning joy is their faces lighting up as they too get a taste of the joys of knowledge and making breakthroughs in understanding. In my mind's eye.

In my mind's eye I am the jester. I canter about in a mask. I jest and bring mirth to those around me. I gladly take on a farce to save the dignity of others. I lower myself into the deepest pits of silliness to make others happy. I take on insult after insult and respond with my smile. But from behind the mask I know it doesn't touch me. Behind the mask I know who I truly am, where my strengths lie, and so through the holes in the mask my eyes shine with glee at how little they can touch me. How behind all the insults and jests I stand with a straight back and a proud heart. In my mind's eye.

In my mind's eye I am a cunning tactician. A stone face belies nothing of my intent. Masterful strokes of genius burst within my skull as deft and graceful orchestrations and machinations play out before me. I see the crossroads before myself and before others. I nudge a little here, I prod a touch there, and suddenly without their knowledge all play along to my grand scheme. Like little puppets people play to the tune and script given. And should someone see through the masquerade, there is a Plan B through Z. I rig the game so all endings benefit me. And no one is the wiser. In my mind's eye.

In my mind's eye I am the rebel. I see the sturdy walls built around me to confine me. I see ceilings and chains and holding cells to guide me on the "right" way. I grasp a hammer and beat down on the classical way. I refuse to walk the beaten path. I shatter ceilings and pursue a true world with true states and true feelings. I detest the games people play or the routes prescribed, forging a different path through rubble and society's broken promises. In my mind's eye.

In my mind's eye I am a humble servant. I keep my face downcast. I scrub the lines and take orders. I gladly do what others scoff at. I eagerly scurry to my next task. I seek no recognition. That is not my place. I expect no accolades. The work is simple and coarse and badly done. I merely do the work. Silently. I quietly close my day. In my mind's eye.

In my mind's eye I lie destitute. I do not allow anyone near, although I badly bleed. I refuse the offered blanket of protection and comfort; instead shivering on the cold slab. I try to scream but words dare not escape my chattering teeth. I grasp at wisps that float in the air before mine own eyes but never capture them. My feeble attempts at crawling only grow the blisters on my hands and knees. With scorn I stare through tangled hair at those who walk upright with companions at their elbows and fine colors adorning their brows. I wonder if I were to die how many would come to the funeral. I wonder if I would make a bigger impact in death than in this miserable existence. In my mind's eye.

In my mind's eye I am a leaf on the wind. I dance playfully amongst the streams. I tumble with ease and go with the flow. I am at peace with my surroundings, letting the natural course take me where it wills. I take action with inaction, in perfect wu wei. Even as harsh current blow or tumultuous eddies form I seamlessly glide without a care taking is all in stride. But I cannot control my fate. For all my illusions of flight, I am still falling. In my mind's eye.

In my mind's eye I am an automaton. Graceful in form, elegant in nature. With abilities and faculties akin to a god. But no life courses through the wires. Only cold algorithms sucking in data and spitting out efficiency. Day in and day out a facsimile moves about looking at risks and rewards. Taking the opportune move and shying away from the disastrous risks. Thoughts arise due to pre-wired routines. Emotional responses are triggered by specific thresholds. Life rolls around me, but inside the gears click and the gyros whirl at optimum. In my mind's eye.

I open my eyes. I am standing in front of a mirror.

I see a tangle of inconsistencies. I see rough hewn edges. I see symmetry and clean lines. I see grand faith eagerly awaiting. I see meek humility hiding its face. I discern carefully laid plans. I spy wild hopes. I foresee terrible tragedy. I recognize gashes and bruises. I gaze upon powerful muscle and tendon. I evaluate form and function. I perchance at something more. I see a human.

What do you see?