What kind of community leader are you? – part 4, by Dr. Dominick Hankle

A top reason people cannot come together and find middle ground is the fact doing so means both groups have to compromise. Each group in the community has to say, “Okay, we’re willing to give up on trying to get everything we want in order to get something that benefits all of us.” Compromise is a trade-off in which no one gets everything they want however everyone gets something that works.

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Compromise is the very thing our nation was founded on. Thirteen individual colonies came together and through compromise, they formed themselves into a nation. They become thirteen states united in their existence. Compromise is in the American DNA and it is actually one of the great strengths of our nation. Without compromise, we fail. This has happened to us numerous times in our nation’s history. When we can no longer compromise, no one wins. Everyone loses and the nation struggles and limps along until a compromise can be reached.

Are there times when a group should refuse to make compromises? Yes, there certainly are times when compromise is unacceptable. When we’re asked to do something that is morally wrong we shouldn’t compromise. When we’re asked to stray from our values and guiding principles, we shouldn’t compromise. The problem is if you ask most people in your community or organization what their guiding principles are, they have no idea. If the people in your community or organization have no idea what their guiding principles are, then you have no leadership. One of the most important functions of leadership is to advocate on behalf of a uniting vision. The uniting vision is the rallying point from which everything the group does flows. Once there is a common uniting vision, the groundwork for compromise is made possible because what is essential to the organization’s existence is clearly outlined, and second-level priorities can be negotiated.

I’ve spent many years as a marriage therapist. In order to get a couple to understand the importance of marriage, I usually provide them with a concrete example, otherwise, their current pain and negative attitude toward one another inhibits them from seeing how their behaviors are killing their relationship. To get their attention I tell them they’re both gardeners in a garden. I remind them they’re responsible for a garden, and in particular, a special tree in the corner of that garden. One of them has the soil and fertilizer to bring to the tree and the other has the water and tools to till the soil appropriately. Each has to give up some portion of what they have in order for the tree to thrive. The tree requires them to find ways to compromise in order for it to begin to sprout leaves and eventually give them tasty wonderful fruit. Marriage works in the same way. Each partner brings with them important characteristics, dispositions, and talents that make the relationship thrive. You can’t just do what you want with your own assets, you need to share them so that the marriage, something bigger than yourself, can thrive. That’s how a marriage works. That’s also how the community works.

Each subgroup in a community has talents, gifts, ideas, concerns, assets, and a multitude of positive experiences that make them who they are and allow them to do what they do in a way that’s uniquely their own. These talents, gifts, ideas, etc can be considered their strengths and can be very useful to the larger community if shared appropriately. However, they can’t simply bring these into the community and exercise every aspect of what they like to do just because it’s something they like, are good at, or makes them feel special and unique. The husband in a marriage who has a new shovel can’t just go digging in the garden and ignore what needs to be done to the tree. He needs to use that shovel to help with the common task and quit being selfish. If two groups within a community simply try and exercise their gifts in ways they want without regard to the other group, the two never merge and become one community. Each group has to find ways to compromise if they are going to be united in something bigger than themselves. They can’t ask each other to compromise on those things that are a core aspect of who they are or something that’s morally important, but they can ask one another to compromise on secondary things.

Here is the key point to consider. If two groups within the community know what unites them and are able to exercise their individuality while preserving community unity, they will compromise in order to serve and protect the common good. People are always stronger together than apart and most groups within a community know that. However, if leadership is more focused on division rather than communicating a unifying message, no one will share their tools to make the garden beautiful. The garden will become a mess of weeds and overgrown plants. If no one in leadership steps in to advocate for a unifying message the people in the community will not work together to make something beautiful. Instead, they will use their tools to beat the crap out of one another. So ask yourself this if you are in the position of a community leader; do you want people to use their gifts and talents as tools to build something beautiful or do you want them to beat one another over the head with their shovels. What kind of community leader do you want to be?

If you like this post and want to be a part of an organization that works to heal communities check out my friends at A Race To Healing.

Antidote to Division- Building Communities

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In the last post, I discussed how giving other people psychological space and having gratitude for the diversity they bring to the community is a powerful step toward forming healthy organizations and neighborhoods. Making psychological space and appreciating diversity is the first step in forming relationships between diverse groups. If we create a common psychological space where Native Americans, Caucasians, and African Americans can understand one another we have a common psychological place where relationships can develop. However, while this diversity is a strength any community should embrace, it’s going to be difficult to develop relationships with one another if we’re not intentional about doing so regardless of how diverse we are. We don’t naturally draw together with people we perceive as different from ourselves even if we’re more than willing to be friendly towards them. Simply stated, a friendly exchange isn’t enough if we’re truly developing a vibrant interconnected community. A real community finds ways to develop intimate relationships between its members.

This ability to connect with others on an intimate level is exceptionally important for people. One of its key benefits is that it helps us develop a sense of identity. In fact, some psychological research indicates our sense of self is intimately tied to our group memberships. Along with developing an identity is the desire to affirm respect for who we are through seeking respect for the groups in which we belong. We are validated because the groups in which we are members are valued by our community. Because of this dynamic, you can see the subgroups of our community are strong and intimately tied to our very sense of identity. In short, our group memberships define us.

The process of grouping is the result of a number of psychological factors. It allows one to conserve mental energy and infer characteristics of the “things” grouped together. When one applies this benefit to categorizing people, it becomes more complex and becomes more of a liability than an asset. For example, the act of categorizing individuals into social groups often is all one needs to produce intergroup prejudice and discrimination. Human beings are not objects. When people categorize them as such, they infer characteristics that easily lead to discriminatory and prejudicial behaviors. These behaviors are more commonly known as stereotypes; cognitive shortcuts allowing individuals to justify behavior and simplify the world. The problem is that stereotypes are over generalized inferences, inaccurate, and difficult to change because they cause the one who creates them to be resistant to new information countering the stereotypical beliefs. Prejudice is an attitude that becomes difficult to contend with because it includes beliefs, emotions, and inclinations to action; core aspects of human behavior

While it sounds very cliche, the way we build intimate communities is we come to love those who are a part of the community. We find a way to love them so that they become a part of who we are. The “You and I” become the “we.” This is a unique experience of love that comes from an intentional type of interaction with one another. Mortimer Adler, a well-known philosopher writes of this love as a benevolent impulse that causes us to give to the other without concern for a fair exchange. We give without counting the cost. Love is for the benefit of the other and is expressed in goodwill. Yet for Adler, this is only the beginning of the exchange. He indicates this type of love exists for the benefit of the other and fosters a desire for the lover to also be loved. The desire to be loved then leads to the ultimate wish of love which is the “closest union” with the one who is called beloved.

There are profound ramifications this kind of love has on the effects of division and prejudice. If two groups are no longer self-interested and reach beyond themselves to embrace the other as they want to be embraced, the union that intimate communities thrive on can become a reality.

Psychological studies of prejudice and division prove we have a natural tendency to pull away from one another as an attempt to understand our universe and develop an identity. Yet this isn’t what we have to do just because we unconsciously do it.

To overcome this problem psychology provides a few answers. One of the most effective answers is to have diverse groups work toward a common goal. It has been found that prejudiced behaviors toward different groups are reduced when two diverse groups work to achieve a common goal (Watch the movie “Remember the Titans). Personalizing the “other” by having different groups interact more frequently is also helpful. This has been demonstrated in the desegregation of schools and public institutions.

While these are indeed very good approaches to developing intimate relationships within a community, the most effective, however, is to do these with a spirit of love. In a document named “Caritas in Veritate” by Pope Benedict the XVI we read the following: “Love is “divine” because it comes from God and unites us to God. Through this unifying process, it makes us a “We” which transcends our divisions and makes us one until, in the end, God is “All in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).”

Do you want to maximize the relationships in your community? Learn to love one another and work together for a common good. You may be surprised at how quickly your community transforms itself.

This post was originally published on “A Race To Healing.” If you like this material and are interested in building better communities feel free to check them out.

Shared Psychological Space and Gratitude – Building Blocks of Community

Communities are groups of people connected in some way. The connection could be as simple as living within the same geographic region or as complex as having a shared vision and mission that draws everyone together. Regardless of why people are part of a community, being so means finding a way to appreciate and make space for other people. While there are many ways to do that, I want to focus on two primary practices for developing the glue that makes communities work. The first of these is creating psychological space for the “other.”

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When we speak about the “other,” it often seems like we’ve relegated people in the community to be something less than human. That’s certainly not what I’m implying in this post. However, we often like to say that someone with a different cultural background, race, or ethnicity is “just like us.” Honestly, that’s not healthy either because it ignores crucial distinctions. Diversity is an essential strength within a community, so to overemphasize “sameness” ignores one of a community’s strengths. However, if we focus too much on individual differences, we not only profoundly divide the community into subgroups, this extreme individualism impacts the cohesiveness of the larger group. Communities need to find a balance between group cohesiveness and diversity. Extremes are never good. So by speaking of the “other,” I’m doing so from a position of respect and regard for those differences.

When we speak about creating psychological space for the “other,” we mean that we allow for that individual’s presence and their difference to reside in our minds in a positive connected way. The other is not unconnected to us but instead connected as an extension of who we are. They’re not the enemy or an appendage to our community; they’re someone we consider a part of our life. You will find this on a microcosmic scale in successful marriages and as an essential part of developing a connected community. John Gottman, a famous marriage and family researcher, tells couples they need to create psychological space for one another to thrive as a couple (which is, in a sense, a small community). Giving someone psychological space means providing them a place in your mind; your internal self. When they aren’t immediately with you, you think of them, appreciate them, are mindful of the place they have in your life, and maintain an emotional connection to them. It also means that you’re aware of what the other individual needs from you and consider them in your decisions whether they are immediately present with you or not. Psychological space is an essential aspect of a good marriage but it’s also vital for communities to develop. When you’re mindful of other people in the community and what they need from the community you’re making psychological space for them. When you care about how they contribute to the community and how the community can embrace them, you’re creating a type of collective psychological space the whole community shares. If we can’t do that for one another, we can’t gel as a community. Think of how often city planners develop a strategy and forget that their plans infringe on a particular group. New highways may go through traditionally black communities without any representation from that community. Then, when this group asks for a place at the table, they’re viewed as getting in the way of progress. If we had a shared psychological space for one another, the group would have been represented from the start.

To develop this shared psychological community space, it’s essential to have and express gratitude for one another. Are we grateful to have Native American communities as part of our broader community? Are we appreciative of the unique gifts and talents this group of people contributes to our community? This sense of gratitude is the gateway for creating a psychological space that allows the larger community to adhere together. The two or three groups of “others” find a way to become an “us” that is inclusive and grateful for its diversity. Community leaders can start creating this communal psychological space by encouraging ways for each set of community sub-groups to appreciate the diversity each group brings to the more substantial communal experience. This appreciation must include ALL groups, not a select few. We often believe by merely appreciating the least represented, we’re doing what is best, but encouraging appreciation for all groups is essential and avoids resentment that emerges from ignoring one group over another. How one shows appreciation for the different groups should be left to the communities involved. Still, I encourage those in leadership to develop this appreciation and gratitude to make the appropriate psychological space for everyone who is a part of their larger community.

In closing, let me say this: We like to force inclusion and diversity on our communities, and in doing so, we make the individual groups resentful of one another. If we encourage gratitude for the gifts each of us brings to the table, we will find that the path to including one another in our minds and hearts is much easier to travel and will undoubtedly help us make the world a better place.

Building Healthy Communities

Sometimes, when the world looks like it’s falling apart, our first impulse is to pull away from it. We feel as if we’re exiles in a world filled with people from another planet. We see people rioting, ignoring basic common sense and forgetting how to interact with one another at a most basic courteous human level. We need to appeal to the “Better angels of our human nature” as Abraham Lincoln once stated when trying to find a way for a war-torn nation to reunite.

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Our experience of exile is not unique; it can also be found in the Jewish Babylonian exile experience in the Judeo-christian bible. God asked the Jews to respond in a particular way to their exile and it’s in this Jewish response we can learn how to respond to our own contemporary situation. Remember the Jews experienced a tremendous loss of everything after their defeat by the Babylonians. Their kingdom was destroyed, and they were carted off to live in a foreign land. I bet their first impulse was not very different from our own. They most likely just wanted to pull back, become disengaged, and protect themselves. God, speaking through the prophet Jeremiah, gives them a different mandate (Jeremiah 29:4-7):

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have set you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

This is a powerful lesson to consider when reflecting on how to build healthy communities regarless if you’re religious or not. The Jewish people saw themseves as living icons of the divine presence in a fallen world. God gave them a law they believed made them a holy people set apart for God’s purposes allowing him to dwell among them in a transformative way. Through the prophet Jeremiah God tells the exiles he wants them to be set apart but exist within a foreign city as leaven and light making it a better place for everyone. God tells them, “I want you to live there, flourish there, and prosper but not simply for your own benefit, for the benefit of the city as well. By being active agents of prosperity and goodness, you too will flourish.” Basically, God is saying by being the presence of the living God these exiles will cause this foreign city to be a special place. When the city flourishes, they will be blessed, and everyone will know the God of the Jews is a powerful God. This self understanding of the ancient Jews drove them to be something transformative in the communities they ocupied. It’s this vision of being a positive force in your community that I want you to think about.

Over the next few posts I want to help you develop into a powerful icon of what is good and beneficial for your community. There is an interesting paradox surrounding the focus on service to others and volunteering in a community setting. The more we focus on service to others the less we focus on our own fears and problems. We find meaning and purpose in our service to others and this meaning and purpose gives us a huge psychological boost. Serving our community is the best thing we can do for ourselves.

So how can we become an icon of what is good and beneficial for our community? In this series of articles, I will explore the following topics: 1) Becoming other focused through gratitude 2) Maximizing relationships in your community 3) Why compromise isn’t a bad word, and 4) How we forgive one another and restore our relationships.

I look forward to engaging you in this journey. Remember, if the communities we live in don’t flourish, we can’t either. However, to fix what’s wrong in our communities really starts with one or two people willingly engaging one another and envisioning a better future. Let me help equip you to do that very thing.

(This series was originally posted on the website A Race to Healing)

Why People Ignore the Facts – How Your Mind Works

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Why is it so easy for people to ignore science?  We have a pandemic tearing its way through the world and a number of national leaders from a vast array of countries are saying things like, “There is no need to wear masks”, or “This isn’t as bad as the media is making it sound.”  Cries of fake news, lying statistics, and corrupt political parties (Of course it’s the “other” party who is corrupt) are all blamed for the current situation.  It isn’t just in the political domain that these cries of fabrication come from.  Religious individuals and faith institutions also believe they cannot gather at full capacity and sing their favorite hymns (without masks of course) because they’re being targeted by the liberal factions of society trying to keep “Jesus” out of the public sector.  Some would argue that people today have lost their minds, but I will argue quite the opposite in this post.  People haven’t lost their minds, they simply are ignoring how their minds work and succumbing to all the traps that a lack of critical thinking exhibits in these passionate and hyper-emotional times.  We don’t ignore the facts as much as use them to create a narrative we like that supports our unconscious biases.  

People have an innate need to make sense of the world.  They have to have an answer to the question “Why” and when they can’t get one they find themselves in a psychologically uncomfortable state.  When we’re confronted with unconnected and diverse facts concerning a particular situation we make sense of these facts by creating a narrative based on our innate biases and tendencies.  These biases and tendencies combined with confusing or contradictory pieces of information force us to make sense of the world based on our “gut” feelings.  However, those gut feelings can often distort the hard facts, lead us to make poor decisions, and cause us to say some pretty misguided things. By simply wording something in two different ways you can force someone to rely on their gut feeling and passionately defend a position they think very different from another only to find if they look closely, both options say the same thing.  They get so caught up in the peripheral information they ignore the facts.  We rarely use logic and critical thinking to make our decisions in these cases, we simply go with “how we feel.”  Let me give you an example.  Read the following scenarios and tell me which one you would select if you had to undergo medical treatment:

Imagine you are a patient with lung cancer.  Which of the following two options would you prefer?

  1. Surgery – Of 100 people undergoing surgery, 90 live through the post-operative period, 68 are alive at the end of the first year, and 34 are alive at the end of five years.
  2. Radiation Therapy – Of 100 people undergoing radiation therapy, all live through the treatment, 77 are alive at the end of one year, and 22 are alive at the end of five years.

When given these two options 44% of the people in a study said they would most certainly select radiation over surgery.  Yet, watch what happens when we just change the wording a little:

  1. Surgery – Of 100 people undergoing surgery, 10 die during surgery or the post-operative period, 32 die by the end of the first year, and 66 die by the end of five years.
  2. Radiation Therapy – Of 100 people undergoing radiation therapy, none die during treatment, 23 die by the end of one year, and 78 die by the end of five years.

When I change the wording in the scenarios, if you’re like most people, you will actually prefer surgery over radiation therapy because the numbers start to scare you.  In fact, after making the above changes only 18% choose radiation therapy over surgery simply because of how the option is verbally presented.  If you look closely there is no difference in the numbers.  The statistics stay the same.  The facts are the same and objectively you get the same results.  Most people see that first set of numbers (How many people live or die) and make a gut decision.  When we’re dealing with survival, we become biased and let our gut make the decision instead of using the mental resources that would allow us to focus on the facts.

It’s a simple error in thinking that causes us to say and do things that are just wrong.  I could go over a myriad of other processes our mind uses to bypass critical thinking and quickly make decisions but I don’t have the space to do so.  In psychology, we call these processes heuristics.  They help us think quickly, and for the most part, can be helpful, but can also cause us to make errors.  These factors along with the fact psychological studies demonstrate we have a “self-serving bias” where we actively seek information that already supports our opinion and ignore that which contradicts it makes for a perfect storm.  However, you can correct this if you are brave enough to do so.  Daniel Kahneman writes in his book “Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow” a simple remedy to help us think more critically:

“The way to block errors that originate in System 1 (our intuitive mind) is simple in principle: recognize the signs that you are in a cognitive minefield, slow down, and ask for reinforcement from System 2 (your rational conscious critical thinking mind).”

If you find yourself making a decision or judgment hastily, are hyper-emotional about the situation, or being a lazy thinker, stop.  Create “cognitive space” so you can think through what you need to consider.  In a world where statements can be broadcast across the globe from a keyboard in a matter of minutes, the more often we slow down and think about something before talking about it is essential.  It’s the best way to truly appreciate the facts and get past your desire to justify how you feel.  If we still care about the truth, we need to train our minds to search for it in the best way possible.

When Beliefs Become Unempowering

Most people don’t realize they have a constricted sense of their abilities simply because of the beliefs they carry around in their heads.  Beliefs are good, particularly when they accurately reflect reality, but they can work against you when they don’t.  It was once believed physiologically impossible for human beings to run a mile in four minutes.  In 1952, Roger Bannister, a British middle-distance runner and neurologist broke that limitation during the Olympics.  After that, numerous people began to break the four-minute mile that was “believed” impossible for the human body to accomplish.  Beliefs are powerful things.

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Once we believe something, even just a little bit, it becomes harder and harder to change that belief.  We frequently engage in something psychologists call “belief perseverance.”  We use belief perseverance to maintain personal congruity.  Personal congruity is simply the idea that when we say we believe something and act on those beliefs we will continue behaving and believing in such a way that our beliefs and behaviors remain consistent.  If they become inconsistent, we find ways to keep them consistent.  For example, if we believe something, we often unconsciously search for evidence supporting that belief and ignore evidence contradicting it in order to maintain consistency.  The more invested we are in a belief the less likely we are to change it.  This experience of staying with something because we’ve invested ourselves into it is referred to as the “sunk-cost theory” in psychology.  We’re less likely to move away from a belief, activity, or behavior we’ve invested in even at the cost of losing everything.  We become overinvested and delude ourselves into thinking if we just stick with it things will turn around.

Because we have this experience with beliefs its important to frequently review what we believe about ourselves, the world that surrounds us, and how the future will unfold.  Who are you, really?  Do you think you’re simply the person stuck in that job because you spent the last fifteen years doing what you do in order to scratch out a living?  Can you be something more than you believe yourself to be?  What have you made a core part of your identity?  When you make certain beliefs a core part of your identity, you immediately make them a powerful enabling force in your life or a limiting factor that keeps you from becoming the person you want to be.  When I work with clients and hear the words, “That’s just not who I am” or “I’m the kind of person who…” I pay a great deal of attention to what follows.  These comments are probably some of the most important things they will share in regard to what they believe about themselves.  Let me give you an example to help clarify my point.

I had a client that wanted to quit smoking.  It was bad for her health, caused her social grief, and kept her from feeling free as more and more smoking limitations became a part of everyday living in the United States.  When she came to see me, she described herself in the following way: “I love smoking, I have been doing it since I was thirteen.  It’s been my best friend when things are rough, and I smoke to calm my nerves when I get stressed.  Sometimes, I like a cigarette after I enjoy something like eating a good meal or after making love.  Smoking is my enjoyable vice along with a good strong cup of coffee.  I guess the best way to describe myself is that I am a smoker and that’s just how I like to live.”

That “I am” statement says it all.  How do you help someone who smokes when they identify it as who they are?  Some people break the habit more easily because they see it for what it is; an addictive behavior that through some discipline and basic behavioral psychology can be broken and overcome.  However, when someone tells you it’s what they are, they’re basically saying they believe smoking is a significant part of their identity.  A number of artists, musicians, actors, and other artistically inclined people frequently identify smoking as part of their identity.  The “tough guy” types also see smoking as part of their identity.  For both these groups smoking isn’t something they do its part of who they are.  Significant motivation is required to get people who think this way to quit smoking because in their mind you aren’t asking them to change what they do but rather who they are.  Beliefs related to identity are hard to change.

I want to share with you a way to explore your beliefs and investigate the level of limitations they’re placing on your life.  Once you have identified these beliefs you can begin to explore how to change them.  First, list several words that describe who you are and what you do.  List words like “smart”, “attractive”, “Hard working”, etc.  Then, ask yourself, “Are these words describing who I am or activities I perform?  Categorize them into groups.  Label the first group “What I can and can’t do” and the second one “Who I am.”  Then explore each of these and see how they either limit or empower something about yourself.  Many of them will do both.  When we say we’re “Hard working” we know that means we’re able to stick with something and hammer away at it until we get what we want from it.  That’s a great character trait when you need to learn a new skill but how might that trait impact your personal life?  Do you “hammer away” at people until they give you what you want?  Look at how the belief about being “intelligent” might play out in your life.  A belief like that might seem like something positive.  Yet for many people, identifying intelligence as a part of their identity means when they can’t show other people how intelligent they are, they experience a personal crisis.  When someone feels their belief about intelligence is under attack, they get anxious and fearful about making mistakes and only engage in experiences where they can demonstrate their intelligence.  More importantly, they avoid challenging and new experiences that can help them learn something new and become a better person (See Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets)!

So, if you want to start looking at changing your life, start with your beliefs.  Begin exploring what they do for you and how they impact your personal growth.  Discover what needs changed and have the courage to challenge those limiting beliefs.  Sit with a trusted friend and have them speak honestly into this self-discovery process.  An outside perspective rather than just evaluating them yourself from the inside out can be very enlightening when done with love and your best interests in mind.  We will explore some of this later, but for now, take the time to complete this “belief inventory” and see what your beliefs are doing to you.  Remember, beliefs can either be empowering or limiting, knowing the difference is a great place to start for building the life you want to create.

What is The Meaning and Purpose of YOUR Life?

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I often write about the need for people to live with meaning and purpose to be psychologically well.  Because of that people often ask me, “How do you discover what your life’s meaning and purpose is?”    I do understand It’s an elusive concept and not very easily captured when asked to tell someone what you think it is.  To speak of living with meaning and purpose can sound so abstract when we do talk about it, we feel like we’re attending a philosophy course.  Because of this abstract nature Let me see if I can give you some guidance to help you discover what your life’s meaning and purpose might be.  You may find you’re already living it in ways you never expected, or you may find it’s time to make some changes in order to live a more flourishing existence.

To get started you need to develop the habit of self-reflection.  Frequently we mistake finding meaning and purpose in life as simply discovering what you love to do.  That’s not true, although it can be something you love doing more often than not.  No one loves to do anything all the time.  In fact, when you do something meaningful, you’re often working hard, failing, and learning how to improve what it is you do to be the best at doing it!  There have been plenty of times doing what I feel is my life’s purpose is downright miserable.  Yet, when I have had to do difficult things and these things are understood in the context of my life’s purpose, they are much more tolerable than just doing something because it must be done.  What you need to spend time reflecting on is the themes and trends in your life where you flourished.  When were you doing things that not only felt like you were made to do them, but that you had a proclivity toward doing them well?

For example, in my life I have a knack for listening to people and helping them develop solutions and solve their own problems.  I am not saying I am good at solving problems, rather I seem to have an ability to listen to people, ask them questions, engage them in dialogue, and then facilitate a type of discovery that leads them to do better at whatever it is they need to do.  In my life I seem to bring a calming atmosphere to personal engagements.  I’m told I’m easy to talk with, seem to empathize and care about what people have to say, and generally show insight into other people’s problems.  When I look back on my life, I can see this theme emerging in a number of ways.

Within my family, I am told I was an easy child to be around.  As I got older, the opinion of my family members was that having me at home made the home feel full and comfortable.  When I went away to college people would come to my dorm room and share things with me they weren’t comfortable sharing with anyone else.  When it came to employment my first job continued to reflect this theme.  I became at IT consultant for several different consulting firms.  As an IT consultant I was often tasked with being the person who interacted with the customer to clarify their goals and objectives that the project we were working on needed to meet.  The team of IT engineers I worked with often said customers seem to “open up” and engage with me better than the others on our team.  Lastly, I am both an educator and therapist in my present vocation.  In these roles I find that I continue to be someone that helps other people learn, grow, and solve their own problems.  Again, I’m not a problem solver, that doesn’t seem to be my purpose in life, rather I’m one who facilitates problem solving in others.

Now, I have the benefit of looking over the past 54 years of living to talk about my life’s meaning and purpose.  Some of you reading this may be in your early twenties and don’t have as much experience to reflect upon.  That’s okay.  Self-reflect, spend time thinking about what you discover, and look for what might be a common theme in your life up to this point.  If you can start to see some meaning and purpose emerge, you’re starting to get a sense of what you are meant to do with your life.  Try finding any work that allows that purpose to emerge and be tested.  Think creatively, it doesn’t have to be directly related to what you’re discovering about yourself, but it should provide you with more experiences to reflect upon.  Who would think an IT consultant would reflect a life’s purpose of helping others solve their own problems?  People hire consultants to solve those problems for them!  Whatever it is, start finding things to do that seem to reflect that purpose and continue to evaluate it over time.  Even if you’re a little off base and haven’t nailed it down perfectly, eventually something more will emerge and your life’s meaning and purpose will continue to make itself know.

As a last point, ask people you trust and who know you well what they think about what you’ve discoverer about yourself.  People you can trust will be brutally honest and you need that feedback to stay on track. We frequently fool ourselves believing one thing about ourselves when in reality, we’re nothing like what we think.  Self-delusion is a problem easily solved by interacting with others and letting them tell you what they think about who you are and the gifts and talents you have.

So much psychological research teaches us that people who live meaningful lives and do what they believe is their purpose in life thrive and are successful.  Over the next few posts I will help you do that very thing.  For now, practice some self-reflection.  If you want, send me a note and let me help you dig a little deeper, I would love to hear from you!

Know Thyself, Quarantined Soul!

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Accurate self-awareness is a sign of good psychological well-being.  Most schools of philosophy argue for the need to “know oneself” in order to live a good and flourishing life.  Here are examples from some of the world’s greatest thinkers:

“If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.” – Sun Tzu, famous Chinees war strategist.

“The unexamined life is not worth living” – Socrates, famous Greek Philosopher

Here is one from a book I’m reading now that I just love:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” – Henry David Thoreau, American author

“I know well what I am fleeing from but not what I am in search of.” – Michel de Montaigne, French Essayist

And let’s end with a good old American Hero who understood human nature than most modern psychologists, Benjamin Franklin:

“There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.” – Benjamin Franklin

These last few months of quarantine have helped me spend some time reflecting on who I am and what matters to me.  I thought I would share them with all of you to perhaps spark a little interest in using whatever time remains in our social isolation to do the same.  Here is a little insight into the soul of Dominick Hankle.

  • I like people more than I ever thought I did.  I’m an introvert by nature, but too often people think that means I don’t enjoy being with other people.  I love being with people, but I don’t like shallow surface engagement with them.  I like deep conversations where we get to know one another at a whole different level.  I like that conversational intimacy where you get to know someone better than before you sat down over that glass of wine.  I miss seeing several people who I can have those conversations with and will treasure them more after this is over.
  • I enjoy laughing and drinking wine.  I am indeed a man of Christian persuasion and I am committed to my belief and practice of the Christian faith, but I certainly cannot claim to be a puritan.  There have been a few nights where I have been able to drink a good bottle of wine with limited friends and family and I cherish those moments.  Wine and laughter, as well as the occasional off colored joke do not make me less of a Christian, they make me more human.  I thank God for reminding me I am merely a human being in such a pleasant and unconventionally Christian way.
  • I love my family.  Certainly, this seems obvious, but a man my age often reflects on life and ponders “What might have been.”  I’ve been with the same woman for about 30 years.  We have grown up together, we have loved each other, fought with each other, and at times hated one another, but we’re still together.  Being with her is a constant in my life that I would regret losing if it were to ever happen.  I do indeed love my wife.  I’m also blessed to have all my children still living with me, and that’s good.  Sometimes the five of us are sitting together in one room just laughing and enjoying being a family and that feels good.  Quarantine has reminded me of just how much I love these people.  I’m glad we are a family.
  • I love to learn.  I’ve read many books since our quarantine and it has been a wonderful experience.  I’m learning another language and revisiting statistical analysis so I can still think critically through the myriad of data my studies in psychology throw at me.  I have discovered that my love for learning is both a blessing and a curse.  It’s a blessing because we live in a world where there is always more to learn so I have so much to explore to keep me busy.  It’s a curse, because it reminds me that I don’t necessarily fear death itself, rather I fear that I will die without studying and learning all the things I’m interested in knowing.
  • I have been reminded that life is meant to be lived intentionally.  I’ve spent many days doing a number of things that served little purpose in regard to what I have discovered my life is meant to be.  We need to reestablish our lives so that each moment the tasks we engage in serve two primary purposes.  First, the tasks must be aimed at helping us achieve and actualize our life purposes.  What we do must reflect the very thing God calls us to be.  The second purpose for what we do must be to love and serve other people.  Each time I engage in an activity I ask myself, “Does this help me be the man God created me to be and does it help me love those he has placed in my life more fully?”  With these simple questions, I can instantly evaluate whether I’m using time in a way that matters.  Relaxation itself can be either useful relaxation or a waste of precious time.  There is a difference between idleness and rest, its important we know the difference.  This time reflecting on my life has helped me learn what that difference is.

Anyway, these are just five things that I’ve learned about myself over these days of quarantine.  Make some time to sit down and ask yourself how you can use this time to be more self-aware.  Time and circumstance will come and go regardless of how you feel about it.  Perhaps times like these are meant to help us use our situation to be more than we ever imagined we could be.

When All Else Fails Sing – What we Can Learn From Italians Who Defy The Virus

Human beings need one another. Our hearts ache to connect with each other and when we can’t we do everything humanly possible to feel as if we’re connected, even if it’s for a brief moment. People need people and we’re seeing how badly we need one another more and more as we’re being asked to keep away from other people to avoid spreading this dreaded virus. While self quarantine is an important discipline, we still ache to engage our fellow human beings and it seems when we can’t do that not only do our bodies feel as if they’re under siege but our souls do as well.

This desire to connect with one another at this difficult time is being beautifully expressed in Italy. News stories around the world show videos of Italians singing to each other over their balconies as they wait out this terrible experience of self quarantine. You can watch one of these videos here. While the disease caused by this virus is bad enough, the emotional strain caused by isolation is just one more factor eating away at our human spirit. The Italians have found a way to overcome this tragedy and connect to each other through one of the most uniquely human activities one can perform. They are singing songs of hope to one another.

As I watched these videos I started to think how important it is to find ways to connect with one another during this crisis. Psychologists have done numerous studies that demonstrate the importance of human connection. Children raised in orphanages who seldom receive human touch struggle developmentally and sometimes succumb to death. Studies exploring social isolation find that the same pain centers associated with physical pain in the brain are active when an individual feels isolated and socially excluded. We need one another and when we can’t connect to each other we suffer physically, emotionally, cognitively, and socially. So the question we need to answer is how can we remain connected with other people when we’re being asked to socially disengage?

I think we need to be mindful that while many of us will be with other people because we’re quarantined with family members living in the same house there are those who live alone that won’t have that same opportunity. They may be single adults, older individuals, or people with illnesses. People who are self quarantined and living alone will feel isolated in a more profound way than those of us isolated as whole families. However, they don’t need to feel alone if we just do some simple things to stay connected to them. What can we do?

First, make phone calls to people you know who are living alone. Check in on them, ask how they’re doing, and see if there is a way you can get them anything they need. Most likely just hearing your voice will be enough to lift their spirits so they can press on another day. Phone calls are simple gestures of care that too often get pushed aside by our texting habit. During a time when people feel alone, the sound of your voice might be a better choice than the “ding” of a text.

Secondly, use Skype or some other video conferencing application to connect with those left alone. We need to see another human face, its a very important part of how we feel connected to people. Often just seeing another human being’s face gives us a sense of comfort and connectedness. Try and make that a reality through Facetime or Google Hangouts. We have the technology to connect with one another so lets try and make it happen for those who feel left alone or isolated without any option to be with people. In fact, there are numerous free video conferencing websites that a number of you can use to get people together, use them to create a virtual social gathering.

Lastly, connect with one another over social media. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, etc. all provide some sense of connection to others. I have a friend who lives about 8 hours from me. Unfortunately he isn’t able to get out much because of his health issues. However, he spends a significant amount of time on Facebook when he can’t be with other people and often he and I engage in chats as well as share pics and memes with one another to the point where it feels like we are in the same room. In fact, after a number of shares and chats we often just call one another to talk about what we’re doing on social media. Even the most minimal engagement through technology can help us feel connected to others.

Nothing can make social isolation perfect and nothing replaces face to face human interaction. Most days we lament the fact we don’t connect in person with other people and remain disconnected through social media. However, maybe social media and technology can be the one thing that helps us keep those living alone feel connected to other people. Maybe this situation will help us reignite the desire to get off the screens we hold in our hands and actually visit with one another when this virus is contained. Ultimately, if none of this works, maybe we can learn from our friends in Italy and let that primal human expression that bubbles up within us emerge from our vocal chords. Maybe, just maybe, we need to sing. When all else fails, sing to one another and let one lonely soul cry out to another through the gift of music.

Processing Pain – The Heart of Forgiving

man holding his face
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I’ve been writing a great deal about forgiveness over the past few months because I believe it’s such an important tool necessary for living a good and peaceful life. Frequently, no matter what someone comes to speak to me about as their therapist, the need to forgive someone for something seems to always come up. In fact, I use the very things we’ve been talking about as part of my daily practice so that I can be a more forgiving person.

So far, I have mentioned the importance of doing several things to be more forgiving. First, forgiveness is a choice you have to make, it’s not a feeling you have about something. Forgiveness is much like love. We can feel we love someone or something but more importantly, we can choose to love someone or something. You must choose to be a forgiving person, how you feel about that is something you work out later. We talked at length about this part of forgiveness in the post called The Choice to Experience Anger – Step 1 of the Forgiveness Process. I have also discussed how forgiving someone who hurt you means seeing them differently. Too often we see our offenders as these powerful monsters who can hurt us instead of the broken and hurt human being they actually are. Changing our view of them isn’t easy to do, so I try and help you with that part of the process in the post I called The Monster Who Hurt You – How to Start Forgiving Them. As part of forgiving our offender and seeing them in a different light, we have to start extending some level of compassion toward them or at least reduce the feelings of anger and hatred the thought of them causes us. Again, I discussed that in the post called Extending Compassion to Your Enemy – The Crucial Part of Forgiveness. I know its not easy, but is indeed part of the healing process that frees you from the past hurt they caused you. These steps are important because they help break key barriers that keep people from being more forgiving. These barriers are:

    • Our sense of justice wants us to see the other individual suffer as much as we have, but revenge seldom gives us the peace we want.
    • Too often people believe forgiveness is the same as reconciliation. You need not reconcile with the person you forgive, nor do you need to allow them to hurt you any further.
    • Sometimes people see forgiveness as a sign of weakness. Forgiveness is not weakness. It takes a great deal of strength to be a forgiving person.
    • People will avoid going through the forgiveness process because it requires you to re-experience the pain and injustice that caused you such difficulty in the first place. However, it’s important you re-experience these feelings in order to reduce their impact on you in the present.

So, if you’ve been able to work through these stages, you’re well on your way to being forgiving. What you need to do next is begin to process the pain you feel. One way I help clients do that is to ask them to make a list of the people who have hurt them. Then, list under that person each incident of interaction they’ve had with that individual that caused them pain. Most likely it wasn’t just one thing they did or said that hurt you, there are either multiple incidents or multiple aspects of what someone did that needs processed. The first step is to write it down. Then, look at each incident. Ask yourself, “why did this person do this?” “What pain or hurt in their lives caused them to act this way?” “What is it about me that makes me hurt because of what this individual has done?” “How might I evaluate this differently and in such a way that I see it as the action of a person struggling in life just like me?” Keep asking questions. If you feel hurt again, it’s okay. Think about the incident and then slowly but surely view the incident as a black and white movie. Shrink it down in your mind and visualize it as a small movie clip in black and white running on a small video screen. Notice how your body allows you to relax more and more as the image of that hurt becomes less and less real and more like a fading memory. Repeat these questions and this visualization over and over again. If you can’t visualize it, think about the dialogue. Soften the dialogue so that it becomes less and less audible and more like a bad recording from long ago. Make the voices fuzzy and difficult to hear.

Do this over and over again for the incident you decided to work on. Keep trying to understand the person who hurt you did so because they are a weak, hurting, powerless human being that found a way to avoid experiencing their weakness and powerlessness by hurting you. Let your mind transform the experience that haunts you in a way that it becomes weaker, more powerless, and more distant from you. Do this again and again until you can say with confidence you forgive the person for that one thing they’ve done to you. It may take days, weeks, months, or years, but do that over and over again until that incident is powerless and gone. Now, repeat this same process for the next incident you have on your list in relation to this person. If its one, you’re done. If you have more, keep moving through the list. Do this again and again until you process the emotions around the hurt you experience. The key to forgiving this individual is forgiving each incident you can recall that hurt you. Once you do that, you have forgiven them.

It sounds easy when you read this but it can cause a great deal of emotional trauma if the incident you’re reflecting on is exceptionally difficult. That’s why sometimes its best to do this with a good therapist. However, there are probably lighter issues that this self-reflective activity may be useful when trying to overcome emotional pain. Use it as you can and if things get tough seek out a good therapist. What is most important is to begin to let go of things that are stuck deep in your emotional self with barbed hooks and metal that just won’t let go. If you can process these feelings you can be free.

In the last post, I will share on the topic of forgiveness in this series, we will discuss how you hang on to that sense that you have forgiven someone when it feels like you never have. Often we go through this process and believe we’ve done the hard work necessary to forgive someone and something reminds us of what was done to us and it sets us off again. I want you to be able to hang on to the forgiveness you experience so look for how to maintain that forgiveness experience in our next blog post.