Are Humans by Nature Compassionate or Competitive?

“Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further, but cooperation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off.” –Franklin D. Roosevelt

As the parent of an ice hockey player and a lacrosse player, I have often thought about the contrast in behavior between sports and what I normally encourage in my kids.  I have always encouraged them to share, but during the game, parents are yelling for them to “Fight for the puck!”  I have taught my boys to avoid violence, but during the game, it is “Push him out of bounds!” There is a different aspect of our human nature that comes out during sports which I have become curious about.  What is it about competition that changes behavior or are we by nature, competitive?

When I think about competition I think about ‘survival of the fittest.’  Only the best team will make it to the playoffs, so it is important to take down the opponent in order to win.  This led me to Charles Darwin, but I was surprised to learn that Darwin didn’t use that term at all!  In his book The Descent of Man, Darwin argued that sympathy is what leads a species.  Charles Darwin states, “In however complex a manner this feeling may have originated, as it is one of high importance to all those animals which aid and defend one another, it will have been increased through natural selection; for those communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.”  He noted that sympathy, what we would call compassion or altruism today, is the highest moral virtue.  He predicted that our human evolution will be extending compassion to all people, animals and sentient beings.  He used as examples people who risked their own lives to save people they didn’t know.  Darwin wrote, “Looking at Man, as a Naturalist would at any other mammiferous animal, it may be concluded that he has parental, conjugal and social instincts…these instincts consist of a feeling of love or benevolence to the object in question…such active sympathy that the individual forgets itself, and aids and defends and acts for others at his own expense.” This doesn’t sound like sports at all!

Edward O. Wilson, expanded upon this in his book The Meaning of Human Existence.  Wilson states, “Within groups, selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals.”  He explained that when we are individually selfish, we try to beat out the competition within our group.  Eventually that weakens the group down to one person who is the ‘winner.’  He compared that to groups who effectively work together.  A group of people who aid and defend each other strengthens the entire group.  When a group of people who are altruists meets a group who is selfish, the group that functions as a team has an advantage.  It does go back to the saying, ‘There is no ‘I’ in team.’  We all need to work together to accomplish our goal.

While I am still working to reconcile the lack of altruism in the competition of sports teams, what I do know is that playing sports is an opportunity for my kids to work together as a team and to see the benefits of cooperation.  When they are encouraging each other on the team and working together they have a much better season.  Perhaps a sports team is a microcosm of our world.  What would happen if we all realized that the entire human race is on the same team?  By separating ourselves into small teams, whether it be by country, political affiliation, race or religion we are like the individuals that weaken a team by acting selfishly.  We are weakening ourselves by separating out and missing the opportunity for altruism towards mankind.  Maybe now is the time for us to evolve into Darwin’s ‘survival of the kindest’ idea.

Making Every Day Thanksgiving Day

“Gratitude is an opener of locked-up blessings.” – Marianne Williamson

I just love Thanksgiving.  It is a holiday focused on gratitude.  It is a day to appreciate the blessings in life and take notice of the abundance that surrounds us.  There is so much that we take for granted.  What would life be like if we lived everyday as a ‘Thanksgiving Day?’  I once heard Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist Monk, discuss the importance of gratitude.  He said to imagine the worst toothache pain you ever had.  Feel how uncomfortable it was and remember the intensity of the pain.  Now give thanks, there is no toothache today.  How easily we forget to be grateful for not having toothache pain once it is gone.  There is so much wisdom in his words.

In day to day life we get caught up in the drama, the rushing around, the responsibilities and the busyness that it is easy to forget to be grateful.  We forget that in this moment, we do have enough.  We are alive, so there is enough air to breath, food to digest and energy in our bodies.  Are we grateful for the bed that we slept in, the heat in the house or the food in the refrigerator?  Most of these things we take for granted until they aren’t there.  We take for granted that the lights will turn on when we flick the switch, but it is only when there is a power outage that we remember how grateful we are for the convenience of electricity.

Is it only when we are faced with an illness that we are grateful for our bodies?  When was the last time you were grateful to your heart for beating or your red blood cells for carrying oxygen?  What an amazing miracle our bodies are!  Albert Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”  When we look at the world as though everything is a miracle, there is gratitude in everything.  Thanksgiving does not need to be a once a year holiday.  It can be lived daily.  Thich Nhat Hanh sums up beautifully what living in gratitude can be, “Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.”

Getting Back on the Road of Life

“When your values are clear to you, making decisions becomes easier.” –Roy E. Disney

There are times in our lives when things seem to be going smooth and the journey is uneventful.  Other times the ride is rough.  What is the difference between these times?  While we can’t control much of what happens in life, we can choose how we respond to life events.  We can choose to either be in alignment with our core values and who we say we are, or we can be out of alignment.  If we say that we are compassionate and caring, yet yell and curse at the person who cut us off in traffic, we are not in alignment with our values.  I think of our values as the lines on the road of life.  If we stay within the lines, for the most part the ride is smooth.  If we start to drift off, it gets pretty bumpy.  If we continue to ignore the bumps, it isn’t long before we start crashing into things.  The longer we live out of our values, the rougher the ride is.

In order for us to be able to detect when we are off the road of life, we first need to get clear on where the road is.  This comes from identifying our core values.  What are the values that are most important to me?  I give many of my clients a homework assignment to come up with a list of at least ten core values that they hold.  We then go through the list, one by one, and rate them on a scale from 1-10 to indicate how often they live the values they say they hold.  It is interesting to begin to self-reflect and recognize how often we are off the road of our values and how difficult it is sometimes to stay on the road.  We all have an internal guidance system which warns us when we are beginning to drift off the road.  There is a feeling of being off or what I like to call the ‘yuck feeling’ when we are drifting.  It is easy for our minds to ignore that feeling and continue on.  Our minds are great at justifying why it is better to tell a little lie then to follow our value of honesty, but that is when we are drifting off the road.  Becoming aware of our values and then listening for that internal guidance system to warn us that we are drifting, can get us back on the road of life.  How would living in your values and staying on the road of life change you?

The Shame that is Hidden in Our Words

“The blow of a whip raises a welt, but a blow of the tongue crushes the bones.  Many have fallen by the edge of the sword, but not as many as have fallen because of the tongue.” –Ben Sira 28:17-18

The past couple of posts have discussed the work of Brené Brown and the research she has done on shame.  This week, we explore how shame manifests in the way we talk to others.  As I read Brené’s work, one of the things that struck me was how powerful our words are.  When we ourselves are not feeling good and are in a place of shame, an often automatic response is to shame others.  Shame is a tool to control others and is often used as a form of discipline.  Although we no longer use the ‘dunce hat’ on the child sitting in the corner as a form of punishment, many of the techniques and ways we discipline are equally as shaming.

This post is difficult for me to write, because as I start looking back at things that I said and did as both a parent and teacher, I now realize how much shaming I did, often in the name of discipline.  It is not easy for me to look back and recognize how hurtful some of the comments that I made must have been.  I remember saying things like, ‘How old are you?’ and ‘Look at how nice everyone else is sitting.’  While at the time I was attempting to get my students to behave, I now understand the magnitude of the shaming words I spoke.  When my son picked out an outfit that didn’t match and I argued with him to change into something more ‘appropriate,’ there was shame in implying that his choice of outfit was not good enough.  Over and over I can recall times when I shamed.

Increasing my awareness of the power of shame has affected the way I talk to others.  I am now much more aware of whether my words are building someone up or shaming them.  It is not easy though.  I still find myself shaming without thinking about it until later.  Being critical, judging or laughing at someone are all ways that we shame without realizing it.  They are easy traps to fall into.  Shame is a message that there is something wrong with me and I’m not lovable.  It isn’t hard for someone to get the message of shame just from the tone of my voice, the way I look at them or my body language.   We don’t even need words to shame!  Becoming aware in the moment of the interaction takes practice.  It is frightening to think about how many times I use shame without my conscious awareness of it.   What would change if we all thought about the destructive force of shame and increased our awareness of it before speaking?  Are you ready to communicate without shame?

How Do We Protect Ourselves When in Shame?

“Shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough.” –Brené Brown

In the previous post I introduced the work of Brené Brown and the distinction she makes between shame and guilt.  She identifies shame as a fundamental feeling of unworthiness or brokenness.  It is something that is wrong with us.  Guilt is recognizing that a behavior is not in alignment with our values or who we say we are.  Guilt is focused on what was done and is therefore is something that we can change.  There is an important distinction between shame and guilt in how we see ourselves and interact with the world.

Dr. Linda Hartling’s research identified three strategies of disconnection, which Brené has termed our ‘Shame Shields.’ They are Moving Away, Moving Towards, and Moving Against.

  • Moving Away is withdrawing. It is playing small and making ourselves invisible.  When someone uses the Moving Away shame shield they tend to avoid conflict and disappear whenever they feel uncomfortable.  They isolate or make themselves scarce when there is an uncomfortable situation.
  • Moving Towards is the shield of making everything perfect and pleasing others. When there is a conflict, people who use this shield will work diligently to make sure everyone else is happy, often at their own expense.
  • Moving Against is deflecting and fighting back. This person uses anger and aggression to protect themselves.  They will shame the other person in order to take the pressure off their own feelings of discomfort.

While we all use these three shields from time to time, we usually have our go-to shield.  This is the shield that immediately comes out whenever we feel threatened or vulnerable. The problem is that, as we use our shield it often begins to crack.  Our tendency is to put a larger shield up, so no one sees the crack.  Eventually these shields become so heavy that the weight is unbearable.  By recognizing our own shield, we are able to become more aware of how we are responding to situations.  That awareness is our power to make a different decision.  It takes courage to identify our shields and begin to respond differently.  It is often easier to see others’ shields then it is for us to examine our own.  That is normal, but it also falls under the shield of deflection.  While it is helpful to understand the shields others are using, it is our awareness of our own shame shields that creates the change within us.  How different would your life be without your shame shield?

The Difference Between Shame and Guilt

“Guilt is just as powerful, but its influence is positive, while shame’s is destructive. Shame erodes our courage and fuels disengagement.” –Brené Brown

Shame is a topic most people avoid.  It is uncomfortable and dark.  The truth is, we all have shame.  It is a universal emotion and research has shown that the only people who don’t feel shame are those that are pathologically unable to feel empathy.  So, if you can empathize you have shame.  While most people use the terms shame and guilt interchangeably, Brené Brown has helped me to understand that there is a significant difference between them.  This understanding has changed the way I look at situations and has made me aware my own self-talk.

Brené makes the distinction between the two in this way; shame is a label of who we are and guilt is a behavior or something that was done.  Shame is a fundamental belief that there is something wrong with us.  It is the feeling of being flawed or unworthy.  Guilt is the recognition of a behavior that is not in alignment with who I say I want to be.  When I make a mistake at work, if my self-talk is about how stupid I am or what an idiot I am, that is shame.  If my self-talk is about what a stupid mistake I made, that is guilt.  It sounds like a slight difference, ‘I am stupid,’ versus ‘I did something stupid,’ but the distinction is critical.  When we are in shame, there is something wrong with us and we have no power to change who we are.  When we did something wrong, it is the behavior that is not working.  We can change a behavior.  We can’t change who we are.  The distinction between these two is absolutely critical.

As you begin to listen to your own self-talk, take note of any shaming statements and see if you are able to shift them to focus on the behavior or situation instead.  This is a challenge, but it is important to discern which thoughts are empowering us to change and which are keeping us stuck.   For example, when I look in the mirror and tell myself that I’m fat and focus on scale numbers that keep going up, I’m in shame.  When I notice myself talking like this, I can choose to instead remind myself that I have been eating fast food and have not been exercising regularly, which have caused the scale numbers to go up.  I now have the power to make a behavior change.  I may feel guilt about the number on the scale, but recognizing that there is a behavior I can change gives me the power to do something about it.  Guilt can be a powerful motivator for change, but shame eats away at our core sense of value.

Shame is a deep topic and Brené Brown has written extensively on it.  I will share more about her research and her understanding of how shame works in the next few weeks.

How Clogged is the Filter You are Communicating Through?

“Many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our point of view.” –Obi-Wan Kenobi

Merriam Webster defines communication as, “a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior.”  It sounds so simple, yet miscommunication is one of the biggest issues with which many people struggle.  When we communicate it is not just the words that are spoken.  There is a whole other level of communication that is shared with the tone, inflection and body language of each person.  Then there are our own thoughts and opinions about the person, the situation and our beliefs about ourselves.  When we talk with another person, it is filtered through all of our own ‘stuff.’ When a co-worker I trust and respect says that I did a ‘great job’ on a project, I may appreciate the compliment, but if a co-worker I don’t trust says the exact same thing my mind may start to imagine all kinds of scenarios in which they are against me in some way.  My ‘stuff’ influences how I react to the same words.

Our minds are wonderful at deduction.  Many times, it serves us well.  We get a few clues and we are able to piece together meaning and fill in the blanks so the story makes sense.  Unfortunately, we also fill in the blanks with incorrect information from time to time.  We assume we know the intent of the other person and what they meant by what was said.  When I envision us as people, I see our ego as being a filter that surrounds us.  As we get information it passes through our ego.  When our filter is clear, we are able to objectively look at the facts of a situation.  The more clogged the filter, the more we include our own judgements and assumptions.  Miscommunication happens when we fail to explore how the debris on our ego filter may have distorted our view of the situation.  Take a step back the next time you find yourself in a situation where miscommunication is occurring.  Ask yourself what the facts of the situation are and begin to reflect on any debris that may be distorting the facts.  The more clogged the filter, the harder this will be to do, so start with little issues first.  The more we recognize our own debris, the more we are able to remove it and begin to clear our ego filters.  That will improve communication.

Are You in the Flow of Change?

“There is nothing permanent except change.” –Heraclitus

Change.  Just the word brings up various emotions for people.  Some get excited for change, but often it is met with discomfort and longing for what was.  When change comes our way what do we do?  I use the analogy of a river with my clients.  Life is like a river, constantly flowing and moving.  When we find ourselves resisting change, it is like we are on a large rock in the middle of the river.  It becomes comfortable on the rock.  We get familiar with the scenery and sounds.  While it may not be ideal, it becomes predictable.  But, after a while the river rises and begins to push us off the rock.  We may cling to the rock for a while and resist the changes, but eventually the water will rise enough to push us off.  Our natural reaction is to get back to the rock.  We swim as hard as we can, but the current of life continues to push us and no matter how hard we try, we can’t get back to the rock.  Once we give in and recognize that there is no other choice, we allow ourselves to go with the flow of the river.  Life isn’t about finding a rock we like and staying stuck there for the rest of our lives, it about building a strong canoe that can support us as we go down the river of life.  Friends we enjoy, family support, a career we love, gratitude, compassion and joy are all reinforcements on the canoe.  When we have a sturdy canoe, we know that the river may have some turbulent waters or even thorny overgrowth battering us, but it also has beautiful vistas and calm peaceful stretches.  When we focus on strengthening our canoe instead of the rock we once had, we are able to go with the flow of life.  We embrace change as a natural part of our own evolution.  All explorers know the thrill of not knowing what is ahead and going anyway.  Life is a journey, an adventure that is full of change.  So, strengthen your canoe and enjoy the ride!

How Hurricane Harvey Brought Out the Best from Within Us

“Hard times don’t create heroes. It is during the hard times when the ‘hero’ within us is revealed.” –Bob Riley

Photo Credit: David J. Phillip, AP

The news reports from Texas this week have been heartbreaking.  Hurricane Harvey has left behind devastation and despair.  But, watching the reports has also been inspiring.  People have traveled from across the country to help in any way they can.  People and businesses have made generous donations to provide resources to those in need.  There have been many stories of heroism and people who have risked their lives to help complete strangers.  It is during times like this that our true nature shines through.

When I think of us as people, I envision that we all have an authentic spark within. Religions call this the soul.  It is the part of us that is our core essence.  At this authentic place within, we are loving, caring, altruistic people.  All people have this authentic self within, but I envision it being surrounded by the ego.  The greed, fear, anger and violence that is demonstrated daily in many different ways is part of the ego.  When the ego is in control it chokes off access to our authentic self and we forget who we are.  It is like the bushel hiding the light within.  In the moments when we see people, who we call heroes, risking their lives to help others, it is a demonstration of breaking through the shell of the ego to act from the authentic self.  These heroes are able to put fear aside and help because they are in alignment with their true nature, their authentic self, their soul.  They become focused on helping and giving instead of the ego based worry.  When we see people who are acting from their authentic self, we are inspired and reminded that we can all be heroes in our own way.  They call us to shine our own authentic spark brightly.  We can all be heroes in a difficult time and no matter where you are right now, there are difficult situations that need heroes.  Fred Rogers sums this up beautifully.    Please watch:  

The Paradox of Tolerance

“Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit.” –Mahatma Gandhi

America was founded on the principles of freedom and tolerance of differing beliefs, but we seem to be at a crossroads.  How tolerant can we be to the hate and violence that seems to permeate our media. defines tolerance as, “The ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.”  The problem is that when we have tolerance of intolerance, the problem doesn’t go away and those who are intolerant become emboldened.  Karl Popper wrote the book, The Open Society and Its Enemies while in political exile during WWII.  The two-volume book was published in 1945.  The book has been called a philosophical defense of the importance of democracy.  One of the points he discusses is the paradox of tolerance.  Popper states, “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.  There is a major point here.   Can we be tolerant of intolerance?  How do we change intolerance?  Peace and acceptance of differences depends on us, as a society, coming to consensus on when to be tolerant and when to be intolerant.  To me it comes down to a simple question.  Does the intolerance cause suffering for someone else?  If the answer is yes, someone is suffering due to intolerance, then we need to be intolerant of their intolerance.  If there is no suffering, then it can be tolerated.  I can be tolerant of other’s opinions and beliefs, but if their words, actions or behaviors cause suffering to another person, that becomes intolerable and must be addressed.  Popper goes on to state, “In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.”

What would the world look like if every individual spoke out about intolerance which causes suffering?  It is time.  Our future depends on the choices we make today.  Peace can only happen when we are truly tolerant of everyone and intolerance is not tolerated.