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Saturday, January 25, 2014

Asking the Right Questions Lead to Better Answers

*Published in the Sun-Times Beacon News on Monday, January 27, 2014

Last week I was asked how we can stop domestic violence from occurring.

Having worked as a detective in the Aurora Police Department’s Domestic Violence Reduction Unit for five years, the question is not new to me. It’s also not new to the dedicated staff of Mutual Ground who exists solely to serve victims of domestic violence; nor is it new to the area counseling services that specialize in anger management therapy for abusers.

It’s a great question because before we can fix it, we have to understand why it occurs in the first place.  Like most perplexities in life, the questions are so important because they can lead us to the answers.

There is one thing I know for sure.  Some people have never learned to manage conflict appropriately.  The way I resolve conflict comes largely from the way I was raised.  That’s probably true for the vast majority of us. 

Perhaps you come from a family whose method of resolving conflict is to politely smile and brush things under the rug.  This avoidance technique isn’t a very effective way of handling issues that are inevitable in any family because avoidance teaches that it’s not okay to express feelings.  Even more damaging is the issues that go unresolved when we don’t confront them. 

If your family falls on the other end of the spectrum where everything is a confrontation, you likely have some pretty volatile dinner conversations.  Homes like this are filled with screaming, rage, and
perhaps violence when there is disagreement.  In these homes, it is not uncommon to see fists flying and injuries occurring when people don’t see eye-to-eye.

The right answer is precisely between the two spectrums.

Those who learn to deal with conflict by confronting it head-on in a respectful manner are those best equipped to navigate successfully through life.  That is not to say there isn’t screaming and yelling.  Spirited discussions and hearty disagreements often mean that people are emotional and animated and that’s okay.   Families of all shapes and sizes are going to have conflict.  Sharing space and navigating the stressful journey of life will bring with it both peaks and valleys and that means we aren’t always going to be at our best.

What matters to the well-being of each person in the family is how we manage those feelings while we are experiencing them.  That means being self-aware enough to know when you need to walk away and having courage enough not to let the issue go unresolved. 

It’s not uncommon for small children to throw temper tantrums.  Many experts believe it is a result of the frustration they experience when they are not able to communicate what they want.  For toddlers, it’s understandable; for adults, not so much.

What happens as we progress through life and why is it that some people learn to temper themselves while others continue to lash out in volatility?

As we get older and can express ourselves through language, we learn what achieves the best results and what doesn’t.  For those of us who were fortunate enough to have role models that handled conflict wisely, we likely emulate that temperance.  That doesn’t mean that we don’t have moments where we lack rationale and become frustrated with others.  It simply means that healthy people learn to recognize and regulate it.  Most of us have mechanisms in place that prompt us to stand down when we feel anger festering. 

Those who have not learned to do this were likely never taught.  And that’s how domestic violence is born.  We do as we see. 

Fortunately, we can unlearn bad behaviors.  But we can only do that by first acknowledging that we need to be better.  Maybe the first question is simply, “Why am I the way I am?”  The answers might lead to more questions.  That’s never a bad thing.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

What you do in the Shadows

My daughter returned from basketball practice and told me that she tries really hard to get the coach’s attention by exerting all the power and effort she can into running her sprints and being attentive during practice.  She wants her coach to notice her.  She wants to make her coach proud.
Interestingly enough, I wrote the following in my column last week:
“We want to win for the coach.  We want to win for our boss.  We want to succeed to make others proud.  When we are lucky enough to care about someone and something bigger than us, it moves us to perform at our highest level.”
And yet my advice to her was completely contradictory.  I read somewhere that it is the sign of a true intellect to be able to hold two opposing viewpoints in one’s head.  I surmise that was written by someone who couldn’t keep their thoughts in index but I’ll subscribe to the intellect theory as justification for all of my dichotomous thoughts that are at odds with one another.
I told my daughter that motivation comes from within.  Intrinsic motivation is what inspires us to perform at our highest level (aforementioned contradiction noted).  We certainly need the guidance and tutelage of others who have the skill to teach us, but they are not responsible for making us better.  We are.  
I told her that she needs to be doing her very best on the basketball court (and off) to become a better version of herself.  When we look at ourselves as our greatest competition, we continue to exceed what we believed to be our peaks.  We are always standing on the precipice of better and often times it is our own selves who keep us from achieving better.  
Perhaps this is because we are too busy making sure someone is noticing us.
It reminded me of the soccer great, Mia Hamm.  She had already received recognition for one World Cup championship, three NCAA national championships, two All-American teams, player of the year awards, etc.  As an incoming college senior and a player on the University of North Carolina’s women’s soccer team, she had already achieved so much.
Her coach, Anson Dorrance, arrived on campus one cold morning to see a person in the distance.  As he got closer, he noticed it was a woman running full speed 25 yard sprints over and over.  That woman was Mia Hamm.
He went back to his office and he wrote the following note to give to her:
“The vision of a champion is someone drenched in sweat, at the point of exhaustion, when no one is watching.”
Champions are champions because they put in the time to do the work that needs to be done -- even when no one is asking you to do it.   Hamm went on to achieve another World Cup Championship and two Olympic gold medals (among other accolades).  She worked hard in the shadows as sheer will as her motivation.
I know it feels good when people tell us that we are doing good.  We need that in our lives because it feels good to make others proud.  But praise isn’t what takes us to the next level.  If we work in order to get noticed, we aren’t going to go as far as we can.
Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.  They just are.

Friday, January 10, 2014

People are not against you -- they are for themselves

The other day, I overhead someone say, “People aren’t against you -- they are for themselves.”  My first reaction was that the statement bore some truth.  It has been my experience that people tend to look out for their own best interest.  In law enforcement, we hear both sides of the story and each person tells a version that puts them in the most favorable light.  This doesn’t make them evil; it just means that humans are biased in favor of themselves.

 There are people who will always have their own best interest in mind no matter what the scenario.  These are the people who only give attention to those who can do something for them and disregard all others.  We all know the type.  They align themselves with perceived power and shift their alignment to the person who can maximize their gain.  Their lives are analogous to a chess board comprised of strategic plays that afford them the most momentum for advancement.  These are the people that are for themselves.

I like to think that the average human debunks this hypothesis (admittedly I have a tendency to fall on the side of idealism) but the truth is, there is evidence all around us of people putting others before themselves.

Because I tend to (over)analyze, I started to really struggle with the notion that people are for themselves and thus began an internal argument and every shred of evidence I gathered seemed to prove the contrary. 

Parenting is an easy example.  When we become parents, something shifts within us and we know we would sacrifice everything for the well-being of our children.  Good parents go without to ensure their children have what they need. We don’t do this for a potential gain.  We do it because we will do whatever it takes to make them feel loved and safe.

When the phone rings and on the other end of that line is a friend in distress, you drop everything and go.  Suddenly your schedule that was so vital and inflexible ceases to matter when compared to being needed in that moment.  

The truth is, most of what motivates us intrinsically is born from connections with others.

Think of a time when you were recognized for something big.  Whether it be an award you were given or a game you helped win.  Think of how you felt in the moment of triumph and accomplishment.  As you looked out into the audience, the first thing you did was scan to find the faces of those who mean something to you. 

That’s why acceptance speeches begin with, “I want thank (insert person here)” -- because you recognize that your achievement was not possible without the love and support of the important people in your life. 

In that moment, you are not thinking, “I am so awesome!”  You are thinking how good it feels to make those people proud and you realize you do what you do because of that.  It is that feeling to which we cling.  It is that feeling that motivates us.

Kent State pitcher hugs his mom after winning championship
We want to win for the coach.  We want to win for our boss.  We want to succeed to make others proud.  When we are lucky enough to care about someone and something bigger than us, it moves us to perform at our highest level.  The times I am at my best is when I am not giving a thought to my own interest but to someone else’s.

If most people acted only in self-interest, there wouldn’t be first responders who sacrifice their own lives for strangers.  There wouldn’t be kind people who return a wallet they’ve found or help someone in distress.  There wouldn’t be charitable agencies and volunteers that exist only to serve others. 

So yes, some people are only for themselves.  They may appear successful on the surface but they walk a lonely and isolated road because true meaning comes from connections with others.