Sunday, April 14, 2013

Empathy Moment

I was born with a misunderstood gift, and for a long time did not know what to do with it. It took time to see examples of its uses. Sometimes it is not used for good. Sometimes it isn't even used. Many people have it, use it and let it destroy them. It's so interesting to me when I encounter others with the gift because we are all at different places in our development of it. It makes me introspective about my journey with the gift, and how I've come to love it rather than be burdened by it. Those that have a grasp of it are using it for good, removing themselves from it, and are changing the world. It's something the world needs desperately, but because of how precarious and potentially self destructive it is, there is short supply. There are varying degrees of sensitivity to it, and varying degrees of use, and I don't believe there are many who haven't experienced it. I have this gift to a very large extent. Though for so long I didn't realize that it was a gift. I thought I was weak, broken, oversensitive and over emotional. I didn't realize that everyone didn't have it as deeply as I do.  I have since learned it, harnessed it and I struggle daily to tame its effects on my life.

The gift is empathy.  It is a superpower and a curse. It is a blessing and requires great responsibility.  It is nothing special to those who don't have it. It makes me passionate and creative. It makes me misunderstood. I always know who else has it. I watch the people around me suffer because they don't know what to do with it. I was taught how to manage my empathy inadvertently. I needed to develop thick skin to be a productive member of society, yet still hold on to my most valuable possession; the ability to feel what others feel.

The past looked like this: I felt everything. Deeply. Every word, look, criticism, thought, was personally felt. I could walk into a room and feel the energy of every person, and adversely, I can change the energy in a room with my own.  I felt connected to everything regardless of whether it was mine to connect to or not. When others were unhappy I owned those feelings, because I felt them, even when they were not mine to own. Another side of this effect is the ability to take criticism effectively. Criticism is a necessary part of growth, and a necessary part of becoming a better me, but when faced with it in the past all I could associate with was the disappointment felt by the other person in something I had done. Disappointment is the most difficult emotion for me to harbor because I have a need to please- 100% of the time.There was a time when I could not speak, write or think without considering how it will effect someone else. Even if it's just one person. It is not perfectionism, but the need to feel the other person's approval. It was not until I began to learn small lessons to handle the empathy that I was able to use my gift for good, help alter the energy in the room, and preserve my own heart.

I was once in a profession which required a set of emotional armor to make it through the day. If I was going to succeed and support my family, which I strongly desire in everything that I do, I was going to have to learn coping mechanisms for the empathy.  This profession involved a great deal of criticism, both personally and with the work that I was doing. The disappointment was overwhelming. Every time I had to feel the discontent of another coworker, client or superior, I felt torn down. For an empathetic person, that is demoralizing. But I don't hate my gift, and I don't want to be less of who I am, so I realized I need to work on embracing it.

Everything changed when I realized that I felt very strongly about one human characteristic- one that has quickly become the most important thing to me in a person that I associate with. Accountability. This word means many things in many different environments, but to me it is simple. Own yourself. Own your actions, thoughts, emotions, choices and consequences. Own the fact that you have free will and the world doesn't happen TO you. Decide to be true to yourself by accepting that you are not a victim. Bad things always occur, but in every set of circumstances is a series of choices.

The first lesson of accountability with regard to my empathy was that being offended by someone's words or actions is my choice. Just as it is the other person's choice to speak harshly, it is my choice to let it become me. I had to stop choosing to take on those feelings because they weren't mine to feel. We are human. We make mistakes. Many, many mistakes. And those mistakes will affect other people, but if we own those mistakes, we can alter the outcome.  I learned that I did not have to choose to be unhappy just because someone was unhappy with a choice I had made.  The hardest part about this lesson is that not everyone takes ownership for being offended. Someone along the way will choose to be offended by you for one reason or another, but that is not yours either. I had to practice putting up a "soul shield" which involves taking a deep breath and remembering that I have a choice to take on the burden of someone else's unhappiness. Being a person who craves approval, I always want to "right" a "wrong". It is my choice to do this in a manner that calms my heart. If I feel that I have affected someone in a way that makes ME unhappy, I will find a way to right it. But that is MY choice. I no longer do this because I feel the need to change their feelings to make myself feel better.

Just as I needed to take ownership, I needed to learn that others own themselves. Everyone has opinions, emotions and beliefs that are inherently their own. I cannot own someone's opinion. Therefore, other peoples' opinions of me are not my business. They are entitled to that. I don't need to know what they think because it is not mine.  It is an exercise to remove yourself from opinions that are shared. I feel the effect of peoples' opinions, but I do not need to become them. This is not something that comes easily to an empathetic person. Our culture uses opinions to define people, belief structures and general standards of society. It's difficult not to use common opinion to define ourselves. But those opinions are not ours to own. This skill set takes constant practice. I need to remove myself from other peoples' definitions of me constantly. I have my definition of me to own.

With years of practice, I have utilized these main coping skills in order to harness the power of empathy.  I hate negative energy. It is more difficult to be negative, and takes a lot out of me to feel it. Because I am now able to remove myself from the negative energy of others, I can hold on to the warmer emotions and project them. I don't try to heal the world, but I have become much better at diffusing a difficult situation because I no longer absorb tension, anger, frustration and sadness. I feel it, but I don't take it on.

It sounds ridiculous to say it out loud... I do sound like a self-proclaimed super hero, "absorbing/reflecting" energy, but the truth is, there just aren't words to describe what it's like. The world thinks I'm "too sensitive" and "over emotional", but I think people like me are necessary to balance the "insensitive" and "non-emotional" society we've built for ourselves. In every situation there are varying degrees of empathy because as humans, we balance out each others' gifts. People like me handle relationships when others around us cannot. People like me welcome in opinions and beliefs of everyone because we have learned that we don't own those.  People like me help keep light in dark places. And yes, I truly did try to sound like a super hero with that phrase...

I love my gift. I think it makes me feel too much all of the time. I think it makes it hard to just "have a good time". I believe that it enables me to make instant connections with people because of the unspoken transparency. I think it requires a certain skill set to tame empathy and use it for good without the price of my own emotional destruction. But I get to share an intimacy with all people because I can sense what they feel. I am sensitive to them, which makes me care. I respect that they own their feelings and opinions, but I get to share that with them. I get to project warmth and welcome in places that are cold and difficult. I create environments for people to be themselves because I do not own who they are. I struggle with it, but I continue to work at it because it makes me who I am, and I want to keep becoming a better person.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Unplanned Moment

"Life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans." -John Lennon

We weren't looking for any of it. We had a plan. It wasn't a terrific plan, but it was a plan: Move to Colorado so David's mother could help us get on our feet while he went to school. With the exception of the greatest friendships in the world, things in Illinois had begun to deteriorate. We kept trying to put band-aids over the wounds of the life we'd tried to build, but as with anything that isn't fixed at the foundation, it just crumbled. We were losing everything and had to do something about it.  We were so tired of fighting. We didn't have time for the things that were valuable to us becuase we spent so much time working uphill and nothing improved. Colorado, even though we were NOT looking to move, offered us a respite and a new start. We decided, amongst the pained protests of our loved ones, to move ahead because we love each other, and couldn't let the deterioration spread that deep.  Long story short, our journey anew began.

Within weeks, I had gotten a job, we were living with bare bones in his mother's basement, and he was registered for school.  I was not looking for anything else. We just needed to get our feet under us. I had resolved myself that I would do anything to just get solid...It's demoralizing to admit defeat. But here was our chance to prove that we have what it takes. After the recovery, of course. I wasn't looking for work, thankfully, as so many people we had left behind were, or knew people who were. Because I wasn't looking, it appeared. A month after I'd started at a job that I didn't love, but had willed myself to like, because that is how you do it when you have to, I received a call from the University of Northern Colorado, offering me the best thing to happen to us in a long time. It is here that I am finding my passions all over again. I have been inspired, moved, and educated daily. I find that I try to be here, and that I want to be ever more involved. I even went as far as hosting Evelyn's birthday party in the hall that I work in. It has opened doors that I didn't know I needed opened...

We weren't looking for our home. We're renting, which after the pain of loss that we've just experienced with the alternative, is PERFECTLY acceptable. I knew that this was the reality, and had been exploring options for relocation to Greeley, which is where I work, and where Evie goes to school, but I was not LOOKING. I mean, who wants to move around Christmas, in the winter? Well, the opportunity presented itself to me, and by happenstance, works out perfectly. It's a duplex, it's small, there are no trees. But for our purposes at the moment, it works. I am magnetically drawn to the East side of town, by the University, and coicidentally where everything else I love about Greeley is located, but because of other things that we weren't looking for presenting themselves, it works perfectly.  For the first time in my adult life, I work less than 15 minutes from my home. The sheer amount of time saved by being that close is unreal.

We weren't looking to be working on 2 different University campuses. David's amazing course of events that led him to his current occupation at Colorado State University was unexpected and very, very positive. We could never have imagined that we would be in the best financial and occupational situation that we could have hoped for. For the first time ever we had to CHOOSE how many benefits we wanted to utilize at any one time instead of praying that no one would get hurt because we didn't have health insurance. Because both of us work for higher education, we can both complete our education in whatever we choose, as we go along with jobs we already enjoy. The positions we hold are priceless. The impact that has on our lives is intangible and monumental. David is a different person with that kind of security... in truth, we both are.

We weren't looking to become heatlh-crazed. Ok... I'm still not stellar at it... and I'm not even going to pretend like I'm going to give up my appreciation for the fact that food is a gift. It's so much more than just nutrition for human beings, and I love that about our speicies. We bond over food, and I would never give that up, but I can be more aware of what I'm doing to myself. I woke up one morning and my hips hurt. I'm 33, and my hips hurt... from sleeping. It's a new mattress, a great new mattress, so it wasn't that. Nope- I'm in the worst shape of my life. A friend looked at me at work one day and said, "We should run a 5k." Now anyone who has ever known me has heard these words from me, and probably would have expected this as a response to this wonderful woman, "I don't run." But instead, I said, "OK"... What?!! Ok. I wasn't looking for a new lifestyle, but it found me anyway. That weekend I started walking, then jogging. When the snow didn't stop coming down, I decided that something more had to be done, so I took the madness indoors and became a gym rat.  I have never looked back. My body is fighting me- it has been predominantly sedentary for 33 years afterall, but I keep fighting back, with a fervor that I've never had. It's easy to be healthy out here. I'll never be a "runner" but I'm not opposed to being chased by zombies for 3 miles, or getting sprayed with colors, or any of the other fun runs out there...because for the first time, I think I can.

We weren't looking for a church. Seriously- we just wanted coffee. I suppose we had both been open to the idea, but with the constant state of flux that we've been in since June, when we moved out here, neither of us were set on seeking it out.  One day, I walked into John Galt coffee shop with my supervisor to get a cup of coffee and chat. I was immediately drawn to the art that was being displayed, the incredible coffee, and the fact that I could see myself hanging out with most of the people that were there.  Coincidentally, it was the same location that I had read about in an article outlining some of the best highlights in Greeley, Atlas Church.  I was committed to bringing David back there to experience the greatest cup of coffee that I'd had in ages... sorry Starbucks, nothing beats a true french press brew! Evelyn was at her theater class (on the East side of town) and we decided to pick up a joe while we waited. While we were there, Jeff Cook, who we didn't realize was the pastor of Atlas, struck up a conversation with Ronan (who was absorbed by Angry Birds), and we asked to see the theater part of the church. Two weeks later, we tried it out, and our souls were moved to the core. There are no words for this place.  Between the messages, aesthetics and music, we were blown away... but then, there were the PEOPLE. This super warm and welcoming group of people... and I don't just mean the pastor and his wife, Kelly, the whole place buzzed with warmth and welcome. We've met several people that I would be drawn to in any other setting as well. It's our kind of community... which is an instrumental and essential word. I chose it carefully. Community. I do not think that community and church are mutually exclusive. I believe it takes a special formula to create this integral and elusive environment. What's more, we didn't even know we needed a community...but it chose us. 

We didn't want to change the plan. I think upon every new presentation of opportunity we looked at each other and questioned if we should deviate from the plan. We changed so much for the plan. We left so much for the plan. But if I've found one thing about this journey that we're on, it's that our plans have not gotten us very far in the past, and it's time to follow God's and the universe's plan for us instead. Say yes to UNC, CSU, goofy Greeley, and an unexpected, immediate draw to this beautiful community.  I feel that we are here at a time in which the plan is being defined for us as we go, and it feels big. I've never felt this way. We still do our due dilligence to live the life of responsibility and expectation- we both go to work and give it everything, we put our kids in the schools we believe will help them grow, we are making healthy lifestyle changes, we go to bed at a decent hour (usually), we clean our home, we keep up with friends and family. But I've given up on the plan. We have big dreams that we will never give up on, but we've grown up so much since we let go, that I feel like it's now less plan, and more dreams. Life just keeps happening, even if we had other plans.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Top Ten Moment

So apparently the posting has been relegated to once a month, which is not planned or ideal, but what is possible. Actually, that's not entirely true. I've just chosen to knit the world's largest "family" blanket, as opposed to participating in literary creative expression.  Choices, right? In short, my topics have been relatively uninspired as of late, but every once in a while, a great suggestion pops up and I feel the need to run with it. The last time I looked outward for suggestions, the response included miraculous subjects such as waffles and Emilio Estevez. I did actually have a pretty good discussion going in my head about Emilio, and his whole family situation, but it didn't gain traction, so I let it go. I shouldn't have let it go.

Today's suggestion was spurred by a lighthearted conversation over lunch about good locations to work and live, which led into why those things are important to a career in Higher Education. A lovely lady in my life was chuckling at the revelation that I have a list of the top ten things that I've learned working in Higher Education over these last 6 months. Some are Higher Ed relevant, and some are just... things. That I will never forget.  I've decided to expound upon these "important" things for the benefit of posterity. I never want to forget and I feel that there is so much yet to learn that these impressionable first 6 months will pale in comparison to what is yet to come. SO, without further ado, my first top ten list of my Higher Ed career.

Number One:
There is an acronym for everything. And if there isn't, we'll make one up. It doesn't even have to make sense, could be 10 years old and obsolete, but it is still used by someone at the University. My first day on campus I was hit with no fewer than 5 of them in the first hour. I followed a lot of them as we went along, but after awhile I did have to admit that I spoke in complete words and finally just asked what all the letters stood for. Naturally, I know that the magic of acronyms is not exclusively limited to the Higher Ed world, but the prevalence they have over actual titles, phrases and organizations is mind-boggling. In fact, there are situation that create the acronym BEFORE assigning the letters meaning... and then there's a debate over what the letters should mean, because the acronym is THAT good. It's become second nature to me now. In fact, I've decided to refer to my household as an acronym because their actual names are too many letter and words. DMERB- our official household acronym.

Number Two:
There is absolutely no way to tell what a student is capable of just by looking at them. I come across some interesting... stories... in my line of work, which inadvertently conjure a mental picture of the student that could possibly be capable of such...stories... I am always wrong. I create these impressions in my head, likely born of past experience with many many people and when they approach my office for their meeting I am constantly stunned, not only by what they look like, but also by how they present themselves. I think, "YOU are the one that berated that police officer" or "you had HOW much marijuana in your room?" But you're so (small, sweet, quiet, liking of Harry Potter marathons on the weekends... fill in the blank) not what I expected. I've tried desperately to remove this automatic functionality of my brain, but alas, I find it entertaining to guess.

Number Three:
Email is obnoxious. There are so many emails in any given 10 minute period that no one could possibly keep up with all of it and remember to answer it and be productive in any other facet of their lives. The awesome group of people that I spend the most amount of time with find it to be equally as burdensome, yet we all know how necessary it is. Our institution is fond of copying everyone on everything to foster an environment of inclusion and communication, which I adore, but it means piles upon piles of emails.... we always know who's going to the bathroom, when, and which other staff members are covering for that particular 10 minute span.  This is not an uncommon practice in Higher Education, which makes us well connected, well informed and, well... always needing internet.

Number Four:
Higher Education is the only occupation I've ever been involved in where coworkers, managers and subordinates alike openly discuss where they're going "next". It's a regular practice to discuss how you aren't going to be there in a couple of months, job hunt together, and yet still do your day to day duties effectively. In fact, it is so transparent, that we all expect that our current dynamic is perpetually temporary, and yet it's very positive. However, no one takes their current position for granted because it is constantly fluid. I've never experienced anything like it. It's evolution at its finest- watching the growth of a person's career right in front of your eyes... openly and honestly.

Number Five:
Haboobs are a real thing. That is not a made up word. The first time I heard that, I thought my dear friends were messing with me. No. It's real. A Haboob is defined as is a type of intense dust storm carried on an atmospheric gravity current. Haboobs occur regularly in arid regions throughout the world. I know what you're thinking... how could this have anything to do with Higher Ed? Well, as stated in number four, the higher education employee is moderately nomadic, and thus has usually lived in other locations. I learned this term from my supervisor, who had just come from Texas, where haboobs are relatively commonplace. This is a fact I may have never learned while doing hair in Illinois. Though I suppose if Haboobs are possible, and it's possible to NAME something a haboob, anything is possible.

Number Six:
There is SO MUCH tech. So much. Everything has a cord, a gadget, an app, a website, a program, a machine or a code. The logins, networks, links and calender reminders are so plentiful that they swim in my head while I sleep.  I like technology, don't get me wrong, but it is no longer possible to function without it at the rate Higher Education utilizes tech. And, truth be told, my institution is still joining the ranks of tech savvy campuses. Just today I learned of a website that organizes a meal planning and delivery schedule (for when, say, a colleague has a baby) and an application that organizes, plans and outlines conference events. I also learned that even with as many webinars as we've done, the results of your experience are still completely dependent on the technology working properly. Of course operator errors play into that, too. Staying on top of the tech is impossible. I've never seen so many iBasicallyeverything's in one place. Did you know you could be mayor of something just by checking in there like ten times a day on Foursquare? Did you know there was Foursquare? Someone please tell me what the hell Foursquare is...

Number Seven:
I am inspired every day. I kind of want to change the world some days. Some say that wears off, but I don't see how it's possible given the constant desire to be inspired emitted by everyone around you. Being a part of Higher Education is to be among the highly educated. There are educational opportunities every day, and growth is a natural part of the career. There is no point in being involved in Higher Education if you have no interest in changing the world, even a little bit. Every program, event and opportunity is designed to promote an culture of development. Higher Education is where grand ideas begin. We focus on social justice, bettering the community both within university walls and out, making a difference in every student's life, no matter how small, and everything we do satellites the greater good. We are forming the future, and creating a very positive present. It's impossible not to be inspired... even a little bit. However, with regard to changing the world, I was given this advice: Don't discuss social justice issues and drink wine simultaneously. I say, heed this warning.

Number Eight:
There is not a true hierarchy. Sure, there are directors that make the decisions, and the leaders who guide us in the right direction, but everyone is treated as an equal colleague. If you don't feel that way, and you work in Higher Ed, you might be doing something wrong. The word Team is used interchangeably with department, group, etc. which is uncommon in many other occupations. Of course there is management, but management is approachable and respects the input that everyone has. The deep respect for every ones' lives outside of the university is also rare and wonderful. Entire meetings and committees are held to discuss the topic of recognition. That is mind blowing. If you've never worked outside of Higher Ed, trust me, it's not like this everywhere. Perhaps if it was, people would be happier with their jobs, but then again, it wouldn't be such a treat to be a part of it when you haven't been before. I mean seriously, one on ones- weekly- just to touch base with your superior/supervisee... and sometimes it involves coffee.

Number Nine:
Like acronyms, there are conferences for everything. Which are named by acronyms. They involve team building and networking and...uh... food? Well, I don't know. But there are so many conferences. I'm sure I'll attend one someday. They involve travel and recognition and...uh... food. Sounds like fun to me! I just know my colleagues usually look forward to them, so how bad could they be?

Number Ten:
There is tremendous value in levity. You absolutely have to have a good sense of humor. About yourself, and everything you are going to encounter. It's right up there with working in medicine. If you can't laugh about the darkness, it will take you with it.  I don't believe it to be possible to be successful in Higher Education without being able to lighten up. If you take yourself, or things around you, too seriously, it will swallow you whole. I work with a group of people who see so many different, sometimes tense situations in one day that they would go nuts if they weren't able to laugh. About everything. A sense of humor gives them the ability to move between student conduct and community council seamlessly and still do it again the next day. It also makes the student's experiences more positive to be surrounded by humor. I see it in everything we do. And a perk of being surrounded by highly educated professionals is that the humor has the potential to be intelligent. But it's not usually. However, I think the grumpy (and sometimes cute) cat pictures on the meeting agenda are brilliant.

I have limited my accounts of the last six months to only ten lessons learned about working in Higher Education, but I am certain there are more to come. Almost daily I think about what I could go on and on about with regard to my career experiences. For now, these are predominant and have inspired many moments of design for me.

Moment of Design Captured....

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

My year moment

Don't we start out the same way every year? By we I mean most people on January 1st. "This is going to be MY year!" "I am going to change THIS this year!" "Goodbye last year, this is going to be different!" And, in fact, it could be. It is very convenient that our calendar has set up and our society has reinforced a fresh start at the beginning of every year. The past years don't melt away with the development of that 1/1 date in order to actually give us a fresh start, however I truly believe that a fresh start would be tremendously disappointing. It's moderately romantic to feel the clarity of a new year- imagining that this time around everything will make sense, and you'll only make the best choices and it's another fresh opportunity to make your dreams come true.  I don't believe it's possible to do that without the preceding years. In order to truly measure where to go, a basis of comparison, a standard, must be made.

I love the new year. I love the hope it brings and the booknoting of past experience. My personal method when the new year comes is not to hope for new and condemn the past, but to relish the past and use it create the new. I love my past. I have started fresh, in the middle of the year, and could not have done that without the grace and love that I've developed throughout the past. This new year I embraced the "fresh start" by being thankful that I had the old.

This is going to be MY year. Like every other year has been my year. I'm going to make the choices I feel are the best at the time. I'm going to learn from my mistakes and try to be a better person than I was last year. I'm going to be healthier, smarter and more dedicated to the things I value. Each year is a gift, and as I see it, a chance to make last year's gift count. Look what I did with last year- how can I do that all again, but better? I don't mean that I would repeat every choice and action, but I would do all of the intangible and abstract again. I would love again, laugh again and dream again. This year, I'll do that better.  And more.

I am going to change THIS this year. What THIS will I choose? Anything that doesn't meet my expectations. I will treat myself with more respect. I will cook better, move better, listen to myself better. I will make choices that create a better life for myself and my family. I will spend less, eat less, complain less. My expectations of myself are to be the best me I can be and act like the person I want to become.  I will present myself in the manner for which I have become accostomed and for which I am known, but better. I will be kind because it's easier to be kind. I will treat people with the love that they deserve. I will make positive changes in every area that I am personally involved. I will hold on to the wonderful words and compliments I've received and keep them true.  The THIS that I choose to change is my gratitude. For myself, my loved ones, my choices, my life. You can NEVER be too grateful.

Goodbye last year, this  year is going to be different. Last year was difficult. So were the previous 32 years. That is life. I believe it's not worth living without a challenge. There needs to be balance. In order to appreciate the good, the bad must happen. This year is going to be different becasue it is not possible for it to be the same. Thanks to the previous 32 years.  I happily say goodbye to last year because I do not fear getting older, and I welcome experience. I love to think of the future as I embrace how I got here.  This year will be different in that it is a new gift than last year was. This year we are in a completely different part of the country, making completely different choices, with the same people and values from the previous years.  I am thankful for last year, but this year will be just as life altering. Because they all are.

If a truly "fresh start" were possible, it would be devastating. How could you be who you are? What would you have to show for life? I love who I've become, but it was only possible by never being able to start over. The blessing of baggage is that you have something with you. I love to watch my children become who they are because of who David and I are, because of their limited years of experience. David and I are who we are because of who are families and friends are, and that baggage is shaping my children. It's possible to make new choices, but a fresh start would defeat the purpose of life, which in my opinion is create experiences and leave a mark on the universe.

Everyone needs opportunity to make new choices, and the new year is a great symbol of opportunity. I just never want my year to be truly NEW.

Moment of Design Captured...