Sidezoomers, Lineuppers and Surrounding Togetherness Pressures

I was listening to a recent Freakonomics podcast where they discussed the issue of what to do when a highway merges from two lanes to one. As Cynthia Gorney writes in her New York Times article, The Urge to Merge, this situation presents an ethical dilemma.

Do you line up in the remaining lane well before the merge or do you drive in the disappearing lane until you are required to merge?

Gorney coined the term lineuppers for the former and sidezoomers for the latter. She is a lineupper.

According to Freakonomics economist, Steven Levitt, the lineuppers are actually slowing things down for everyone. The most efficient use of the highway is for drivers to use both lanes completely and alternate merging into the remaining lane. This is called the zipper merge. This actually gets everyone to their destination sooner than politely lining up for the remaining lane.

Levitt contends that to change driver behavior, we need to change the instructions. And, in fact, I occasionally see the sign “Alternate Merge” where two lanes permanently go to one.

But until then, what will YOU do?

Will you politely line up as sidezoomers fly by you? Or will you make the most of the available asphalt real estate? If you do the former, will you seethe at the injustice and nearly kiss the bumper of the car in front of you to prevent a lowly sidezoomer from squeezing in? If you do the latter, will you zoom by without feeling guilty, knowing that you are actually doing a service for those who come after you or will you refuse to make eye-contact with a lineupper for fear that you may lose your resolve?

For most, the presence of this situation creates surrounding togetherness pressure. I certainly feel this. Even though I know that sidezooming is legal and is more efficient, I am often a lineupper because I don’t want to appear to be a jerk to people I don’t’ know. That’s surrounding togetherness pressure.

What does this have to do with being a non-anxious leader?

A non-anxious leader is comfortable with the decisions she makes and is not worried about what other people think or do.

Here are two scenarios. Feel free to choose either one.

Choose to be a lineupper. Own it. But, don’t get resentful when sidezoomers go by you. It’s their right. And when the merge comes, let a car in, knowing that they zoomed passed you because they could. You can even say to them silently, “Have a nice day.”

Or, choose to be a sidezoomer. Own it. Don’t feel guilty. But, don’t get angry if there are lineuppers who don’t want to let you in. They’ve got their own issues.

It’s your choice. And that’s the point. A non-anxious leader is able to own her position while giving others the freedom to disagree.

Finally, we can all agree that “fake-exit” guy is wrong. You know, the one who bypasses gridlocked traffic by running up the exit lane, then merges back into traffic at the last minute. That’s just wrong. Of course, if you’re that guy, feel free to disagree.

Which Do You Feed, Anxiety or Hope?

Photo by Rufus46 CC BY-SA 3.0

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside of me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Cherokee Legend, from First People

I was holding my grandson last night. He’s not even three months old. But when he’s older I will tell him this story.

The legend doesn’t mention anxiety. But I’m the anxiety guy. For me, everything comes back to whether or not something feeds anxiety or reduces it. You can’t always choose your circumstances, but you can choose which wolf you feed. One will breed anxiety. The other will breed hope.

The wolves are hungry to influence how you function in your family, work, church and the world around you. Here are some thoughts about how to feed the good wolf.

Listen without reacting.

The worst thing you can do in an anxiety-producing situation is speak. You are likely to introduce more anxiety, which creates a downward spiral. Keep your thoughts to yourself and just listen. Saying, “Thanks for sharing,” followed by phrases like, “Tell me more” or “What makes you feel this way?” is simple, shows respect and enables you to self-regulate. They feed the good wolf. Getting defensive and trying to convince the other that he or she is wrong will feed the evil wolf.

Say what you believe while giving others the freedom to disagree.

Listening doesn’t mean you have to stuff your emotions. But you need to self-regulate. The key to being a non-anxious presence is being able to say what you believe while staying emotionally connected. This is hard to do. You WILL feel anxious inside. But if you can do this calmly, even humorously, you can bring down the tension in the situation.

Here is a phrase you can practice. “Hey, I respect your opinion. I’m just saying what I believe. You don’t have to agree with me. I just feel I need to be honest because I value our relationship.”

You’ll need to practice it a lot. The higher the emotional stakes, the harder it will be to do. So if you’ve never taken an emotional stand with a parent (or fill in the blank, i.e. sibling, spouse, pastor, congregant, boss, co-worker, etc.), it will take a lot to be able to do this. And, the likely result is things will get worse before they get better. But, if you can maintain a non-anxious presence, you will feed the good wolf. For both of you.

An exception is social media.

When it comes to social media, don’t do anything. It is not a place where people can have a reasonable discussion. So, just keep your thoughts to yourself and let go of it. If you get into a “discussion (more like argument)” on social media, nobody wins. You feed the evil wolf. If you let go of what bothers you, you feed the good wolf. It might be hard at first, but it will get easier with practice.

Finally, attend to the things that matter.

Invest in your spiritual life. Here’s my post on that. Connect with your family, however it is configured. Work through the issues in your family of origin. Learn to take non-anxious, emotional stands with those who are most important to you. If you do these things, your good wolf will grow strong. You will live a life filled with hope. And the evil wolf will starve.

Trouble Managing Anxiety? Talk to Your Family

The Lord passed before Moses, and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

Exodus 34:6-7 (NRSV)

This passage is part of the second giving of the Ten Commandments. In the first, God provided two tablets and wrote on them. But, while Moses was with God on the mountain, the people got anxious when Moses was delayed. They begged Aaron to fashion a god that would be with them. Aaron collected their gold jewelry and made a golden calf, which they worshipped. The Bible describes the people as running wild. When Moses came down from the mountain he was so angry, he threw the tablets down and broke them at the foot of the mountain

The second time God tells Moses to bring his own tablets and God will write on him. It’s like when I was in school they would give me a composition book, but if I lost it, I had to buy a replacement.

What is significant about this passage is the explicit nature of God’s grace. God’s character is revealed as forgiveness, mercy, grace and steadfast love. Despite the transgression of an entire people, God will forgive and continue to love to the thousandth generation.

But there is a consequence for iniquity.

God says that the iniquity of the parents will be visited upon offspring to the third and fourth generation. I don’t believe God is promising to punish future generations. I believe God is stating a fact that the dysfunction of our families gets passed on from generation to generation.

We know this was true for the Israelites. Even when they made it to the promised land, they couldn’t stop worshiping false idols. It led to their eventual downfall as a nation. What started in the wilderness continued well beyond the third and fourth generation.

This is a bedrock principle in family systems theory.

We know that all kinds of issues get passed from generation to generation. There are very visible and destructive ones like physical, sexual, emotional and substance abuse. But just about everything about who we are comes from our family of origin. This is true about how we deal with anger and conflict, raise children, handle money, celebrate holidays and a host of other behaviors, good, bad or indifferent.

Some things that are passed on are known and celebrated. We call these traditions. Others are unspoken.

This is especially true of anxiety.

In her article, How Trauma Is Carried Across Generations: Holding the Secret History of our Ancestors, Molly S. Castelloe references the work of M. Gerald Fromm. She writes,

The transmission of trauma may be particular to a given family suffering a loss, such as the death of an infant, or it can be a shared response to societal trauma.

Maurice De Witt, a sidewalk Santa on Fifth Avenue noticed a marked change in behavior the holiday season following 9/11 when parents would not “let the hands of their children go. The kids sense that. It’s like water seeping down, and the kids can feel it… There is an anxiety, but the kids can’t make the connections.”

“This astute man was noticing a powerful double message in the parent’s action,” Fromm says. “Consciously and verbally, the message was ‘Here’s Santa. Love him.’ Unconsciously and physically, it was ‘Here’s Santa. Fear him.’ The unnamed trauma of 9/11 was communicated to the next generation by the squeeze of a hand.”

Psychic legacies are often passed on through unconscious cues or affective messages that flow between child and adult. Sometimes anxiety falls from one generation to the next through stories told.”

How do you deal with life when it makes you anxious?

My mother was born in Seattle in 1923. Her father and his brothers owned a fish-wholesaling business. They were the first non-Anglo business on the Seattle waterfront. But my grandfather sent the family back to Japan in 1933 to help the business survive the depression. Her mother came back to Seattle a few years later to be with her husband. My mom and her four siblings stayed with their Aunt in Hiroshima until 1947.

I grew up hearing my mother’s stories of life in Japan. Most of them centered around what life was like being separated from her parents while her own country, the US, and her country of origin and residence, Japan, were at war. Some of them were about the A-bomb. Her family was fortunate. Of the five children, only the youngest, Nobu, was killed in the blast. She was 15. She is front and center in the photo above. My mother is back, left.

I don’t know if the stories transmitted anxiety or not. I do know that I’m glad they were told.

If you have anxiety about a situation at work, the church or at home, the best thing you can do is talk to your family of origin.

It doesn’t have to be about your anxiety. Just ask about their life. What was hard? What was good? What do they remember? Hear their stories.

Do this with anyone who has a memory of your family’s history. Your parents. Grandparents. Aunts and uncles. Anyone who has a story to tell.

The anxiety that is transmitted from generation to generation is not inevitable. You can stop the transmission of anxiety. That starts with hearing the untold stories.

Six years ago my Aunt called me on my birthday. She doesn’t usually call. When she did, she said, “Happy Birthday! Same birthday as Nobu.”

I wanted to say, “What?! I have the same birthday as my aunt who was killed in the A-bomb and nobody told me?!”

I thanked my aunt for telling me and told her that I had never known this, using the best non-anxious response I could muster.

Then I called my mom and asked her about it. “What? Hmmm. Oh yeah, I guess you did have the same birthday. I guess I forgot about it.”

I wonder what anxiety was transmitted by not telling me. I wonder what anxiety was released when I found out. I can’t really answer it, but I feel like it’s a good thing.

It’s not really a big deal. But it is nice to know this. It binds me in a special way to my family heritage that I can’t even explain.

I wrote in a blog post a year ago about my experience going to Hiroshima with my mom, my siblings and our spouses. Again, I can’t pin down exactly how it helped me or our family, but I know it did.

So, talk to your family. Whether that’s the people who came before or those who came after. Listen to the stories. You will learn things that will communicate the truth about who you are and where you come from.

And the truth will set you free.

How to Have a Conversation with Someone Who Disagrees

Face Off by Aaron from Seattle, CCA 2.0

Few people want to have a conversation anymore. They want to rant about their own opinion, but don’t really want to hear from those who disagree. This is especially true in politics and in the church. Now, to be fair, people don’t negotiate their closely held values. Politics and religion are values-driven. But there’s a difference between being firm in your beliefs and refusing to hear those with whom you disagree.

I was at Annual Conference a few weeks ago. This is our yearly gathering of clergy and laity in our region. I happened to run into a few of my colleagues who were staffing a display booth for an association that I was pretty sure was advocating a position on an issue that was opposite mine.

I’m not going to share the issue because that is not relevant. In the family systems approach to leadership, one mantra is, “It’s process, not content.” Understanding the emotional process is the key issue. The approach is called leadership through self-differentiation, which is being able to define and articulate your own goals and values, amidst surrounding togetherness pressures, AND stay in touch emotionally. The process part of this is the ability to say what you believe, in a non-anxious way, without cutting off emotionally from the other. This is true regardless of the issue. It’s the process that matters, not the content.

The key to having a hard conversation is to be able to share what you believe while giving the other the freedom to disagree.

If people don’t negotiate their closely held values, then why would you try to convince them to change their minds?

The best way to have a hard conversation is to be straightforward. You can say, “This is what I believe, but you don’t have you to agree with me.” The fact that you will continue to respect who they are as a person, even if they don’t agree with you, is implicit in this statement. If you want, you can say it explicitly. “This is what I believe. I respect that you may not agree.”

If you are dealing with an emotionally mature person, this may be the start of a real conversation. If not, things can get anxious. When you self-differentiate, that is, say what you believe while staying in touch, a more mature person will do the same. She might say, “I see how you might think that, but I disagree. What I believe is…” You can work with that.

I had a conversation with one of the colleagues mentioned above. I consider this person to be a friend, as well as a partner in ministry. We’ve known each other a long time and we both know each other’s positions. So in this case, we didn’t start there. There was no reason for either of us to state our positions or to try to convince the other to change their opinion. But we did have a conversation. More on this later.

When you state your position, the less mature will respond by trying to define you, not themselves. “How can you say that? You are going to lead people astray with that kind of thinking. You are way off base.” These are the folks who rant on social media about how everyone who disagrees with them is ruining the world.

When you get this kind of response, it’s best to politely cut things off. If you can do it in a light-hearted way, that’s even better. “Hey, I can see we don’t agree on this, but that’s OK. I still love ya.”

But, let’s assume that you’ve gotten off to a good start. You’ve stated your position in a non-anxious, non-threatening way, and so has the other.

The best thing you can do in a hard conversation is to ask questions.

If there is common ground to be found, then the only way to get there is to stop battling and start listening. Remember, this is not about trying to convince the other person to agree with you. It’s about learning from the other. Asking questions is how you learn.

It also helps you to maintain a non-anxious presence.

Edwin Friedman, in his book Generation to Generation, says, “Asking questions is a great way to remain both non-anxious and present (p. 72).”

Here’s how I started the conversation with my colleague. I tried to keep it light, so I said, “Tell me about your association. All I have heard is rumor and innuendo.”

And we talked. We listened. We actually found some common ground. I came away from this conversation thanking God.

Real conversations about difficult issues are rare these days.

Our country is polarized. It’s easier to hang with like-minded people and criticize the other. It’s scary to think of having a conversation with someone who disagrees because it can get messy. But we’re never going to get anywhere in our country or in the church if we aren’t willing to try.

Questions for Reflection:

Who do you know that disagrees with you on an important issue?

How can you have a conversation with them?

What is stopping you?

 

Four Things You Can Do When You Are Anxious

Photo by Olu Eletu

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Matthew 6:34

Jesus says, “Do not worry.” It’s good advice. But it’s hard to follow. If you could just will yourself to do it, you would. Maybe you can.  If so, this post is not for you.

Seth Godin says anxiety is experiencing failure in advance. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Today is tough enough. Anxiety gets in the way.

The key to effective leadership is the ability to be a non-anxious presence. And the key to being a non-anxious presence is self-differentiation. This is the ability to clarify and articulate your own goals and values in the midst of surrounding togetherness pressures.

My recent posts on how to take an emotional stand went into this in depth. A big part of this is doing your own work. That is, looking at your own family of origin to understand which relationships cause you anxiety. Reworking those relationships will help you to be a non-anxious presence in other anxiety-producing situations.

But, doing your own work is a lifelong task. What can you do now? Here are four proven approaches you can try.

One: Pray

Even if you are in the midst of an anxious situation, such as getting yelled at or being put on the spot, you can pray. There is nothing wrong with pausing. This is what thoughtful people do naturally. While you’re pausing, pray.

It could be as simple as, “Lord, help me.”

Or, “Lord, help me to see this situation as you do.”

Or, “Lord, give me the words to say in this moment.”

I’m sure you can think of other helpful variations. Find what works for you.Prayer will calm you and will, indeed, help you know what to say. More importantly, it can help you to see things as God sees them. It will put things in perspective and it will help you to see the other person as a child of God. This is always a good thing.

Prayer will calm you. It will help you know what to say and do, either in the moment or as you move forward. More importantly, it can help you to see things as God sees them. It will put things in perspective and it will help you to see others as children of God. This is always a good thing.

Two: Breathe Deeply

While you are praying, start breathing deeply.

This seems basic, but it works. This Forbes article shows how deep breathing is good for the brain. It credits the western understanding of the practice to Dr. Herbert Benson’s 1970’s book, The Relaxation Response. Many have known the benefits of what Benson calls controlled breathing, but it I didn’t discover until 40 years after his book. I should have known better, since my own Japanese roots are steeped in the eastern practice of deep breathing.

The Forbes article describes controlled breathing this way:

“The basic mechanics of controlled breathing differ a bit depending on who is describing them, but they usually include three parts: (1) inhaling deeply through the nose for a count of five or so, making sure that the abdomen expands, (2) holding the breath for a moment, and (3) exhaling completely through the mouth for a count longer than the inhalation.”

Deep breathing releases a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine that increases focus and calmness, as well as decreases anxiety.

So, whether you are thinking about a difficult situation or you are faced with an anxiety-producing situation, the first thing you should do is breathe deeply. If you practice this during meditation, you’ll get good enough to do it even when someone is yelling at you.

Three: Reframe the Situation

There is no biochemical difference in your brain between anxiety and excitement. Both are considered emotional states of arousal and both are driven by the release of a hormone called norepinephrine. The only difference is one is negative and one is positive.

So, while you are breathing deeply, try a technique called Anxious Reappraisal, as cited in this article from The Atlantic. Instead of trying to calm down, tell yourself you are excited.

When you are frantically scrambling to host 25 guests at your house say, “I’m excited to have all these people over because they mean a lot to me.”

Or when you’re getting ready to go into a meeting that you know will get tense say, “I’m excited to hear what others have to tell me, even if it’s negative, so I can use it to get better at what I do.”

This seems stupid, but it works. Study after study has shown that reframing the situation from anxiety to excitement improves performance in the anxiety-producing situation.

Alison Wood Brooks, a Harvard Business School professor, is the author of several of these studies. According to The Atlantic article, “The way this works, Brooks said, is by putting people in an ‘opportunity mindset,’ with a focus on all the good things that can happen if you do well, as opposed to a  “threat mindset,” which dwells on all the consequences of performing poorly.

If, as Seth Godin says, anxiety is experiencing failure in advance, then excitement is experiencing success in advance. It’s your choice.

Four: Focus on the Present

In Matthew 6, when Jesus says “Do not worry,” the Greek word for worry is best translated anxiety. Its literal meaning is to be divided and the figurative meaning is to go to pieces or be pulled apart.

My take on this is, when you are anxious, your mind is being pulled apart. It’s trying to stay in the present, but it’s being pulled into a future that you fear. You are experiencing failure in advance.

While you’re breathing deeply and after you have told yourself you are excited. Focus on the present. Instead of stressing about something that you can do nothing about, practice mindfulness. You can focus on all the details of your current surroundings. Or you can focus on your breathing, combining two anxiety reducing practices into one. It’s hard for your mind to pulled into experiencing failure in advance when it’s firmly planted in present.

Anxiety is hard to avoid, but you can handle it more effectively. It just takes practice. Give it a try.

Questions for Reflection:

What makes you anxious?

How do you respond?

How can you use these practices to handle anxiety better?

How to Take an Emotional Stand-Part 2

Photo by andresumida CCA 2.0


In Part 1
, I shared what I have learned about taking an emotional stand. I defined taking an emotional stand as being able to say what I feel and what I believe in a non-anxious way. That post was mostly about technique: using “I” statements, not blaming, giving others the freedom to disagree and keeping anxiety in check.

This post goes deeper.

According to family systems theory, if you find it difficult to take an emotional stand, it has its roots in your family of origin. Ask yourself, is there a relationship that makes you anxious? If so, it’s very likely that if you learn to take an emotional stand in that relationship, you will be able to do it in other situations.

Here’s my story.

I encountered family systems theory in seminary when I was 30. As I reflected on my family of origin, I realized that growing up I had difficulty taking an emotional stand with my mother. My mother is an amazing woman. She wasn’t mean or demanding. She was, and is, a strong, determined woman. If she asked or told me to do something, I would just go along, even if I disagreed or didn’t want to. Kids are supposed to listen to their parents. But not every kid just goes along without saying a word.

Recall that in the last post I shared that I had trouble expressing my feelings elsewhere, as well. I avoided conflict. I stuffed my feelings. I was unable to take an emotional stand. As I looked back on my childhood, I realized that this was not just related to my inability to take an emotional stand with my mother. It was because of it.

Here is what is important. It was MY problem. Not my mother’s. It wasn’t her fault that I couldn’t take an emotional stand with her. The problem was in me.

That changed in 1991. I sensed my call to ministry in 1989 and by 1990 I had made the decision to enter the pastorate. I delayed telling my mother until it looked pretty certain that I would receive an appointment to pastor a small church while I went to seminary. I could no longer delay the inevitable.

I called my mother to tell her that I felt called to the pastoral ministry and that I would likely begin serving a church, as well as attending seminary, that year. She didn’t yell. She didn’t scream. But she WAS concerned. And I could tell that she didn’t want me to do it.

We had several conversations over the course of the following month. She asked me about my beliefs, whether it was the right financial decision and whether it was the right decision for our family. It felt like a full-court press.

If this was any other topic, I would have folded on the first conversation. Instead, I remained calm and was able to remain firm in my conviction. I believe this came from outside of me. It came from God because I was being called to ministry. It’s only because of this, that I was able to remain firm in my emotional stand.

At the end of that month of conversations, she wrote me a letter. She said that if I really believed this was the right decision, she and my dad would support me fully. She eventually made me a quilted wall hanging with the nativity. That meant the world to me.

You see, my mom is not a Christian. But she kept her word. She has been supportive in everything that I have done in ministry. She told me a few years ago that she feels closer to God because of me. I’m so grateful for my mother.

Over the years I have gotten better at taking emotional stands. I believe this is because I learned to take an emotional stand with my mom. It’s also taken a lot of work over the years understanding myself and my relationships better. But it started with the emotional stand I took in 1991.

Questions for Reflection:

In what relationship in your family of origin is it most difficult to take an emotional stand?

What would it take for you to rework it?

What’s stopping you?