Living BIG

I recall standing in the kitchen listening to my partner once again ask me to give him the benefit of the doubt. At the time I was impossibly confused by this. It seemed to me that we’d been having the same issue repeating itself over and over but never breaking out of the pattern. As I reflect back on these moments, I’ve come to realize that all along he was really wishing to “show up” a little differently than he actually did. He was asking me to believe that. The problem was that wishful thinking alone was not going to get the job done.

Neither of us possessed the tools we needed to move past this relationship obstacle and into something healthier and more productive. We were in a relationship stalemate. I grew tired and resentful of the same old behavior showing up over and over. My capacity to “believe” that he was trying his best was fading fast. I’m guessing that he interpreted my inability to “believe” as a lack of trust in him.

The definition of “benefit of the doubt” is “the state of accepting something or someone as honest or deserving of trust even though there are doubts.”

It’s pretty obvious now why this became such a conundrum. Relationships are built on trust. Trust gets forged through trial and error. Dr. Dan Siegel teaches us that “rupture and repair” is the gorilla glue for our most trusting relationships. We can only get to repair, when we accept accountability for our behaviors and make amends. That important step was missing. Instead, I’d get a sheepish grin and a plea to give him the benefit of the doubt. What I wish I knew then that I know now is that what we both needed were better relationship and life skills. We needed tools not wishful thinking and false hope.

It is not surprising that so many of us go through life with more obstacles than necessary. If we weren’t taught healthy relationship skills and given tools to help us navigate difficulties, then all we really have are armor, behavior patterns and conditioning. Is it any wonder that we can see our three year old selves reflected in some of the ways we show up when we are 30, 40 or even older?

In a recent two part Unlocking Us podcast, Brene Brown and her sister, Ashley, took a deep dive into what it means to live BIG. That conversation became an impactful pivot point for understanding the importance of giving people tools rather than the benefit of the doubt. When we are able to live BIG, we are able to be generous in our beliefs that others are really doing the best they can. The transformational distinction is that we hold boundaries and stay within our integrity.

Let that sink in.

From personal experience, I can assure you without boundaries we can fall way out of our integrity in a heartbeat. When that happens, it is almost like an out of body experience, and suddenly we are behaving in ways that are not at all who we wish to be and who we really are. Without self awareness and quality life tools, we will find ourselves on a familiar but uncomfortable emotional roller coaster. We can be awash in shame and guilt, feel threatened, defensive and embarrassed. We simply cannot make our best decisions — or amends — while we are riding this out.

Yet this is exactly how many of us are unconsciously operating in our most treasured relationships. We get upset with each other and we each go into different roles than we are hoping each other will actually show up with — an emotional vortex that only complicates a solvable issue.

Brene Brown offers living BIG as a tool we can use to help us stay true to ourselves and operate from a genuine belief that others are doing the best they can. BIG stands for Boundaries, Integrity and Generosity. Her extensive research has shown that the most compassionate people are also the most boundaried people.

If that seems a little counterintuitive, consider this. Boundaries are very clear directional signs for ourselves and our relationships. When we really know ourselves well, recognize our innate self-worth and practice self compassion, we are very clear about what is good for us and what is not. Boundaries set us up for success. We can use boundaries instead of armor. Both protect us — but boundaries are empowering and proactive. Armor is defensive and does not foster learning and growth.

Few of us learned about healthy boundaries when we were younger. Setting and holding boundaries are invaluable assets for our life skills toolkit.

Compassionate, boundaried people stay grounded in their integrity, their most authentic self. They have a natural insulation from reacting unconsciously and out of character. Boundaries act as the guardrails to keep them in alignment with their core values. It becomes so much easier to navigate hard conversations and big emotions from this more balanced and stable foundation.

In turn, this enables compassionate, boundaried people to be much more generous with their belief that others truly are doing the best they can. Boundaried people who are in alignment with their personal integrity have a greater capacity to stay out of judgment, to see others through the lens of common humanity and to tap into their reservoir of genuine empathy.

It is hard work to unlearn the patterns and behaviors that no longer serve us well, but the reward is hindsight that becomes infused with new information and provides us with wisdom we would otherwise miss.

Compassionate people have often come through some of life’s hardest adversities with an enriched regard for resilience, hope and empathy.

Those who can be generous in believing that people are doing the best they have the capacity to see both positive intent and poor skill sets: “I want to assume the most generous things I can about your thoughts, your actions and your behaviors.”

This is where generosity really shifts us in a new and more constructive way in our relationships with others. Brene offers that the prerequisite for this positive intent is boundaries.

Without boundaries, we are always waiting for something different to happen. We get tired of waiting, get resentful, angry and feel taken for granted. ”

Those people who can set boundaries for themselves are very clear about what behaviors are acceptable and what is not acceptable. Boundaries keep us out of judgment, resentment, disappointment and exhaustion. It transforms our lives, not someone else’s. This is the transformational pivot.

So often, the reality is that others are in fact doing the best they can. We rarely know another person’s story and life experiences. They may have inherited a lot of bad coping skills or dysfunctional behavioral patters. Perhaps their toolkit for life is completely empty or full of painkillers and bandaids rather than healing aids.

For the record, even those with good intentions can have poor life skills and faulty relationship tools. People pleasers, rescuers and enablers may be certain of a better pathway for others and want to rush in with blueprints and implementation strategies, but this only keeps dysfunctional patterns in play. Neither the rescuer or the rescued will truly benefit from this approach.

The reality is that we are all doing the best we can with the tools we have. All the more reason for us to be invested in developing better relationship skills and a wide array of tools for our life kit.

I often reflect on this quote about teaching a man to fish when I think about all that we are learning about personal growth, emotional literacy, neuroscience, parenting and relationship skills. Too often, we spend a boatload of time fixing problems that keep popping up over and over again, creating misunderstandings, confusion and unnecessary obstacles. We are discovering so many new and improved portals for our personal growth, mental health, personal empowerment and meaningful relationships. Each and every one of us who is working on self improvement is making an impactful difference.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

Check out both Parts 1 and 2 of the Living BIG episodes on Unlocking Us Podcast:

https://brenebrown.com/podcast/living-big-part-1-of-2/

Part 2 – https://brenebrown.com/podcast/living-big-part-2-of-2/

If you are a parent and want to discover how “discipline” is really a “teaching opportunity”, check out this incredible book by Dr. Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson: No Drama Discipline.

Spoiler alert: boundaries are a big part of the teaching/learning. Teach them young about the value of boundaries!

Nuggets of Wisdom — Lessons Learned from Children

One of my most rewarding facets of the personal growth journey is learning how we can best support our children. So many of us go into parenthood with the list of things we will do differently than our parents, but only from the perspective of how their actions and behaviors felt to us as a child. Dig a little deeper into what was going on with our parents to cause them to behave as they did and add a healthy dose of what society deemed acceptable at that time — and you will come away with a better understanding of how invaluable doing personal growth and healing work can be for generations of families.

I’m a huge fan of the dynamic work of Dr. Bruce Perry and Dr. Dan Seigel. Both these distinguished researchers offer us insights into how a child’s brain develops, the effects of trauma and neglect in the first few months of life, and the importance of relationship scaffolding for children and their caregivers. As Maya Angelou so wisely tells us “When we know better, we do better.” Understanding that a young child does not have the top down emotional and intellectual capacity to self regulate gives us a whole new insight into our expectations of a child’s behavior and what is possible in reality. The onus goes directly back to us as adults to utilize our own self-regulation, effective distraction and empathy to respond to a child in emotional distress. Imagine how the power struggle shifts, and possibly even evaporates, with this knowledge. Recognizing that some of the fidgeting can be a child’s organic way of self-soothing and calming would stop us in our tracks before we tell them one more time to stop.

When I was a young mother, I relied on Dr. Spock for parenting advice. Today I would encourage parents to read the books that Dr. Perry and Dr. Siegel have written. A companion tool for parents is the enneagram. Even if you don’t want to go to deep with the enneagram personally, a quick review of the core motivations and fears for each of the nine types provides a primer to many of the reasons we choose to armor up, dial back and bully our way through life. A little knowledge can go a long way in preventing your own child from needing to make these adjustments to feel safe, loved and to feel like they fit in.

Too often, we are so caught up in our “to do” list, personal agendas or lack of awareness, that we dismiss our child’s feelings. We don’t really mean to do this of course, but it happens. With the best of intentions, we might say “Oh honey, you shouldn’t feel that way. Look at all these things you’ve got going for you.” Wrong. Trust me, they feel exactly as they feel. And those old familiar words intended to bring comfort only bring shame and guilt to a young person already struggling with big emotions.

Get curious when you child is displaying big emotions. You can probably sense the hurricane-like storm that is swirling around in them. Sitting down together – calmly – and inviting your child to open up about their honest feelings is incredibly powerful. Responding with words like “that must be really hard” or “that must feel so painful” is so empathic and respectful. You don’t have to solve the problem or soothe the discomfort away. Just being present, listening to learn and understand, offering compassion and a hug are incredible gifts to receive when emotions are strong (whether you are a young child, a teenager or an adult). Rather than inserting our will, leaning in and holding space for young people who simply do not possess the capacity to understand, yet alone process, their emotions is a better path for parent and child.

There is no doubt that we live in a world where there are many demands on our time and attention. Technology has managed to eat up snippets of our day that accumulate into hours without us even recognizing it.

Take a look around when you are out to lunch, in a coffee shop, at the local park or grocery store. Adults everywhere are staring at their screens instead of each other, and this includes their rambunctious, adventurous toddlers.

It’s easy to see how we can miss the little “bids for connection” that children make all day — with their moms and dads, grandparents, teachers and caregivers. We may not be able to catch every one of those bids but my guess is that there is big room for improvement. Challenge yourself to pay attention to the excited little voices calling to you repeatedly, the tug on your pant leg, or the crashing of toys being dumped in the middle of the floor. It only takes a few seconds to answer that bid for connection, and the reward is huge — for both adult and child. Eye contact, a smile, an encouraging word, a hug or tap on the head are all meaningful responses to these tiny bids for connection that our children seek every single day. If we can jump to respond to the ding of a text or email, we can re-program ourselves to do the same for those who look up to us.

True confession — I came up with this one big question when my sons were teenagers. I’m not sure how it came to be, except that I do remember pondering how to make the lessons stick. Having them be part of the conversation about consequences, accountability and responsibility seemed worth a try. When my sons would balk thought-provoking question and beg for a grounding or daunting chore, I knew that I was on to something.

Now my daughter has been using this question consistently for her young children, ages 4 and 6. The other day I was delighted to discover that this poignant question is entering the third generation. My six year old granddaughter, Charlotte, was knee deep in a silent assessment of the results of a choice she had just made. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see her mom patiently watching for her next move. She turned to her mom and said boldly “Well, that was a learning experience!” Then she sighed and added, “I don’t care for learning experiences.”

My daughter looked at me and winked, both of us hiding smiles that tugged at the corners of our mouth. That’s when my daughter knelt down and made eye contact with her sweet girl and reminded her that learning experiences help us make better choices the next time. “I get it, mom”, Charlotte responded.

The reason I have come to like this question as an invaluable parenting tool, is that it not only gives a child information to draw on in the future, it plants the seeds of agency. It also opens up lots of meaningful conversation about trial and error, using good judgment, asking for help, being resourceful. My daughter is not waiting til her kids are teenagers to employ this skill, she is using it now when her children are young — when it sticks like velcro.

The other morning, Charlotte was sitting in the kitchen with her young brother as he was assembling legos. It was clear that he was struggling a bit with his design by the sounds he was making. Charlotte turned to him and sweetly asked, “How can I help you?”

I was in the laundry room and chuckled with delight to myself. She sounds just like me. I confess I loved it.

Skillfully learning how to approach others when it appears they might need help was a hard lesson for me and one that I truly only got after a few years of personal growth work. Thank you to the enneagram and Brene Brown for helping me discover that we can help too much, steamroller people, and even take away growth opportunities when we insert ourselves too much. Who taught me this lesson in the most remarkable way? None other than spunky, strong willed Charlotte. When she hit that age of “I can do it myself”, I got many chances to practice skillful approaches. Charlotte wanted –and deserved — the chance to do things for herself. Whether it was learning to ride a bike, bake cupcakes, or follow instructions for a science project, she wanted autonomy and agency. I remember telling her “I respect you Charlotte and I promise not to help.” She beamed.

What we are all learning together is that when you ask before just inserting yourself, it is a show of self-restraint and respect. Asking “how can I help you” opens up the space for someone to speak their truth — “I don’t want help. I don’t need help, I’m just frustrated. Could you hold this end for me? That would be great.”

I used to help too much. I have done this since I was a child. Always believing I needed to keep the peace, pick up the pieces, resolve the issue. These childhood patterns can lead to enabling and co-dependency in adulthood. It can also be dismissive to others, making them feel incapable or instilling a sense of neediness.

Brene Brown offers this great question for our adult relationships – “What does support look like to you right now?” Wow — isn’t that an awesome, clarifying and supportive question to ask your friend, your partner or your colleague. Rather than assuming we know what they might need or want, invite them to share honestly with you. The other caveat to this question is that it invites someone to ask us for the help they legitimately need or want – without having to feel guilty or ashamed of asking for help.

I’m including this “reframing” of what we often call triggers, because of a touching note I received from a follower recently. Her 11 year old son struggles with PTSD and she read this “reframing” to him because it felt relatable and comforting. My heart melted as I read her note to me. This is how we can help our children heal, by being aware of the hurts and traumas they have experienced and conscious of how they might show up from time to time. Our children are deeply impacted by divorce, by the loss of loved ones, by the pandemic and virtual school, by incidents at school…..the list goes on. How we show up for them when they have bad dreams or bad days, is crucial. We don’t have to be perfect, we simply have to care enough to put ourselves in their smaller shoes.

Sending love and encouragement out to all parents, grandparents,caregivers, teachers, mentors and coaches who lead with their hearts and their ears….showing our precious children that they matter.

Recommended Resources:

My prior blog posts:

Profoundly Helping The Next Generation https://inspirednewhorizons.com/2021/09/21/profoundly-helping-the-next-generation/

Older and Wiser Parenthood https://inspirednewhorizons.com/2021/07/09/older-and-wiser-parenthood/

Empathy- Essential and Endangered https://inspirednewhorizons.com/2021/06/19/empathy-essential-and-endangered/

Go to YouTube and search for conversations with Dr. Bruce Perry and Dr. Dan Siegel to listen and learn from two of the best resources on childhood development and how we as adults can make an incredible difference to the quality of their future lives by showing up in meaningful, helpful, responsive and respectful ways.