Updated: Sep 24, 2021
The best things in life aren’t things. Yeah, yeah…As I browse Amazon for the annual load of junk that will inevitably clutter up my house until it’s time to do it again next year. I don’t know many kids that will wake up on Christmas morning excited to show gratitude for heat, water and the socks in their stocking. Admittedly, that would be nice. (Think about the Facebook post you could conjure up if you were the lucky parent of that kid.) But let’s be real here. If you celebrate a gift-centric holiday this season, that’s not happening.
So I’ve been thinking about what I’m grateful for this year, and what I’d love to share with some of my friends and loved ones who might see the same gifts in these sentiments. Maybe if I go about offering them the right way, someone will find something ‘in it for them.’ I want my kids to feel powerful…yet humble, eternally optimistic…but practical, and perhaps selfishly on my part, I’d love for them to know and apply the principles I teach every day about the brain and the power that knowing how it works can give us in reaching our goals.
In turn, here’s my gift to you if you’re on the same page. (And if you happen to be like me and still recall the fond memories of opening that Nintendo console and Barbie Ice Cream Shoppe 30-some years ago, carry on with your Amazon shopping. I plan to do that, too.)
Share the benefits of taking responsibility. For everything.
Often, taking responsibility is associated with blaming. The rabbit hole of blame is deep, dark and most times leads straight to nowhere. (Resentment, perhaps, if you really want to talk deliverables.) If you’ve ever found yourself trying to win this game, you’ve likely experienced a complete drain of energy in the process.
When we accept responsibility for everything—and I do mean everything—something really empowering happens. All of a sudden, you have a lot more control over what happens to you. For instance, if I dwell on all the reasons I just can’t help the fact that my kids are rushing into school trying to beat the late bell every morning, then I’ve enormously narrowed my job to list-maker of excuses. (Or reasons, if you prefer.) I mean, c’mon, those landscaping trucks…
But if I take advantage of my excellent problem-solving ability, I can now take on each situation—whether I perceive it to be my fault or not—as a challenge and then work around it. (The land-scaping trucks are actually my fault. Because I’ve decided I could’ve left the house earlier…even though one of my kids couldn’t get out of bed and then threw a fit because I didn’t have what he wanted for breakfast. Every day this week. Yes, my fault. Because I can problem-solve this, you see?)
Truly, if you have someone important in your life—especially a child—who tends to look to blame when they come up short, it’s a gift to help them see the opportunity available to them when they assess how they can impact similar situations moving forward rather than remaining powerless and waiting for someone else to change.
Which relates to another great gift to consider:
Encourage someone you care about to focus on their strengths rather than shortcomings.
Our strengths are one of our biggest assets. When life gets hard or things feel unfair, the things that come incredibly natural to us and that we are good at can be some of our only options to call upon for some sense of control or influence. Admittedly, tuning out our weaknesses is easier said than done. When faced with criticism or disapproval, it’s difficult to remain strong in our own reality and convictions rather than succumb to the fear and doubt that comes with others’ opinions of us. Creating a personal narrative of our life and what happens to us allows us the gift of determining our own morals, values, and what we allow through our filter. This takes a great deal of emotional energy and strength, as well as perspective.
Thinking about America’s mental health crisis and the effort to de-stigmatize mental healthcare, I paused on an article about author Caroline Moss’s really creative effort to help people with mental health issues who may have trouble accessing care. She asked her Twitter followers to share some of the best things they learned in therapy. One of her followers responded with a piece of wisdom that sheds light on this idea of the power of filtering out criticism in such a perfect way, with one simple sentence: You don’t have to believe every thought that enters your head.
It’s true. You don’t have to allow criticism and opinions of others to determine your strengths or to divert your focus. Just because someone says it does not make it true. We’ve been using this mantra in my family for a long time.
I like to consider emotional energy to work similarly to physical energy—it’s helpful to allocate it appropriately and efficiently so we don’t run out of steam. Getting very good at renewing and replenishing it daily is critically important. So if you spend too much energy on your shortcomings and dwelling on the negative, there will be nothing left to focus on your strengths or capitalizing on them daily. Long-term term growth and thriving really won’t be an option for you. In fact, the brain will inevitably begin to change in order to make these negative responses more automatic and easier to engage. (Hooray for neuroplasticity!). Likewise, engaging in positivity repeatedly over time will make it feel more effortless and automatic.
And trust me, I get it. Sometimes life knocks us down. It’s not realistic to expect strength and stoicism in the face of everything that comes our way. Self-care isn’t necessarily friend-time and bubble baths, but rather permission to take time to regain strength, admit we aren’t operating at our best, or maybe to ask for help. Mindset is so important and studies do show that gratitude helps maintain optimism and promotes happiness. Perhaps this is the lesson that will help get your child on board with something that doesn’t feel natural in his ego-centric world.
Last on my list of hot gifts to give this year: Have that hard conversation with people you care about.
This is one that I’ve had to work on over the years. When you care about someone and they need to hear the truth—for their own sake—it’s easy to shy away to avoid upset or hurt feelings. Being direct is often confused with conflict or being unkind. Communicating with cushion to soften a perceived blow to your loved one, indirectness in an effort to be direct, and ignoring someone’s struggle for the sake of preserving a relationship can truly be denying them the gift of growth.
If you have information a friend needs in order to shift paths, give it. Don’t confuse this with your opinion, judgement, or trying to control the situation for your own comfort. People who are struggling will sometimes initiate conversation they know will elicit a particular response in an effort to alleviate their own negative feelings. Because we are compassionate and polite, we naturally respond in ways that let them off the hook, denying them the realization that some hard work may be necessary for them in order to feel happier, grow or improve.
For instance, a friend might call and say, “I feel so bad I didn’t show up the other night when I said I would.” We may naturally be inclined to respond with, “Oh that’s ok! Don’t worry about it.” If you were hurt or irritated with your friend—and especially if you felt compelled to hide your enduring resentment—consider whether it may be helpful (or not) to respond with, “I was admittedly a little hurt, but more important, it doesn’t sound like feeling guilty is comfortable for you. Maybe a call next time something like that comes up would be better for both of us.” Yes, this may be hard to digest on the other end. But saying something like this will avoid denying your friend a chance to grow. A response like this is not confrontational or hurtful (whether your friend takes it that way or not,) and is done from a place of care for your friend and the relationship.
If you’ve ever been in my office, you may have been on the other end of one of these conversations. As a therapist, I see the destructive nature being in a helping role and avoiding the hard conversation can have. Having that hard talk is a principle I value in my work especially. I’m open and honest about the fact that I’m human and don’t always do it perfectly, but I try to communicate the reason for doing it, why I wouldn’t think to go home at the end of the day without trying my best to do it well, and I try to let people know that I care about them, and that’s why I’m taking the chance that my best will lead to positive change for people I work with professionally, and for my loved ones. There are few things more rewarding than being a part of someone’s success and happiness that I care about and watching their strength emerge.
Everyone is different. Some people are ready for this type of interaction and some aren’t. Perhaps the best we can do is to make sure we aren’t causing harm and that our best intentions (rather than selfishness) are leading the way.
If you haven’t already gathered, the twist here is that these are gifts you could consider giving yourself as well. We all need to do what is best surrounding gift-giving around the holidays, but if you’re like me and value a good balance, perhaps considering finding that balance turns out to be one of your strengths. If so, run with it!