Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Princess Syndrome

I ran across Meanwhile's post about the Disney Princess Syndrome. It's not the first time I've heard of this. I remember when Beauty and the Beast came out, and an acquaintance's daughter wanted to wear her yellow Belle costume everywhere: to bed, to the mall, the playground, school; you name it. And when I was little, I remember fantasizing about being Cinderella. She had lots of talking mice for friends, and I thought that was cool. She also had a pearl necklace, and my parents had recently taken me to Sea World, which had an oyster tank, where you could choose an oyster, open it, and see if there was a pearl inside. I stood by that oyster tank as long as I could, staring at the mollusks and thinking about the time and patience it took to make pearls.

I don't know what attracts little girls to princesses. I liked the pearls, the mice, the puffy blue dress, the magic, and the idea of being significant and sought after, rather than taken for granted and shuffled off to play. I thought it took courage for Cinderella to say YES to the fairy godmother and go on an adventure. I suspected there were probably lots of girls who would pull the covers over their heads, scrunch their eyes closed and yell, "No! Go away! I'll work this out myself, in the real world, without your magic! No ratty footmen or pumpkin coaches for me!"

But I digress. Back to Meanwhile, and the sentence that caught my eye, about Mulan:

"The girl kicks ass, true, but in the original legend, she kicks ass long enough to become a general in the Chinese army, one of six top advisers to the Emperor, while in Disney's version she is found out and marries her commanding officer."

When I read that, I remembered Hillary Clinton once commenting about how she'd chosen to have a career instead of staying home and baking cookies. The comment outraged moms everywhere, who resented the Stepford implication that all moms sweetly smiled and twirled around the kitchen all day. And I wondered about Mulan. By marrying the commanding officer, she lets herself get squeezed into a subservient, traditional female role. In the original legend, however, she proves that women must act like men, play by men's rules, and meet male standards in order to be valued.

I don't find either alternative attractive. However... let's look at the language I've used: laden with interpretation and evaluations. Without my thoughts about what the actions mean:

1. Mulan marries her commanding officer.
2. Mulan becomes an advisor to the Emperor.

It's kind of scary to look at the bare, stripped-down actions, and to realize how much of my own stuff I import in order to make a value judgment about the actions.

Symbols typically associate to a single, dominant idea: Red; stop. Green; go. Fence; boundary. Egg; fertility. We react instantly to the symbol's obvious meaning. We can certainly probe symbols for layers -- most contain depth and complexity -- but exploring those meanings requires a deliberate choice to thoughtfully reflect beyond the knee-jerk assumptions.

When I impose a symbol on a human being, I think I automatically invite conflict. Sure, a person can fulfill many roles, but my own conscious attention has limits. When I hang a symbolic identity on someone -- mom, president, princess, hypnotist -- don't I flatten them out a little? Don't other parts of them become invisible? When I go to my insurance agent, do I think about whether he ate a bad egg at breakfast, if his car is low on gas, if he'll get to his daughter's music recital on time? No. All I see is his job, and I want him to get me the best rate.

Sad. Human, natural, and sad.

Also changeable. If I can notice what I'm doing and refocus my attention, I can see the person and loosen my evaluations and judgments.

So. Exercise:

1. Make a list of the different roles you play. What are the symbols people hang on you? Lover, breadwinner, shopper, board member, parent, driver. (Or maybe you want to list a few people in your life and their roles.)

2. What expectations do you have of someone in that role? What do you expect someone in that role to do or be? What expectations do others have of someone in that role?

3. Are any of these expectation ever in conflict? How do you feel when you review the lists?

4. ERASE THE ROLES. Scratch out every symbol. Get rid of those labels! Now, go through the list of expectations. Using Nonviolent Communication, look for the underlying needs. Translate the expectations into observation language using Nonviolent Communication. What actions or behaviors would express those expectations?

Do you notice a shift in your experience?

Friday, June 15, 2007

Enemy Images

One of the reasons I spend so much time teaching the Observation component in Nonviolent Communication is because labeling pervades so much of our human experience. Labels create convenient, simple-to-use, easy-to-understand channels of communication. If I know something is "cheap," or "durable," or "appropriate," I can make decisions more quickly and accurately, living my life with integrity and aligned with my purpose.

Or can I?

I think labels do help us make decisions faster and easier. They also come with a cost: They can help situations devolve into conflict. Any time we simplify the complexities of human interaction and communication, we risk setting up polarities that divide, rather than bridges to cooperate.

So when I hear about people making efforts to change situations they perceive as unjust or unfair, I always ask myself, "Are they building bridges or walls? Are they separating people into camps of good and evil, or are they seeking to connect with one another through common human experiences?"

I value justice and fairness, but I try to avoid those terms in heated discussions, because they beg the question: Justice for whom? Fair for whom? I think those are valid, legitimate questions, but yelling, "That's not fair!" typically evokes defensiveness in the listener. Few of us can keep our cool when we're accused of acting unfairly!

Another thing I've noticed is that when I ask a person to describe the unfair situation in "observation language," they often drop the "unfair" label and switch to other labels: rude, selfish, disrespectful, exploitative, etc.

When I am dealing with my own triggers, it often takes me a long time to abandon labels. It takes even longer if I try to suppress them. To get beyond the labels, I write down all the ones that come to mind. I let my label maker run wild! I celebrate the enormous range of ways I have created to call someone evil! I try to get it all out of my system... and ON PAPER.

Then - and only then - I start translating into observations, feelings, needs and requests. NVC suggests I say, "When I hear you describe [specific policy, in terms of NVC Observation], I feel distressed, because I'm imagining [the needs unmet by the policy]." Then, I can present a connecting request or an action request. That way, I can focus my energies on the actual situation and on meeting our mutual needs, rather than on diagnosing who is "bad," which will probably not move me closer to a solution with the other person.

It's easy to get stuck on labels, and to think of them as objective, dispassionate descriptions. It's easy to think an "atrocity" is pretty self-explanatory. Yet I've found that when I and others take the time to work out the observation, we begin to work toward a solution. When I and others keep holding on to our labels and defending the "rightness" of them, we have remained stuck, frustrated, and angry.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

This is Your Brain on Filters

I watched a video by Paul Scheele recently in which he quoted the following findings from some research done in 1985-86. (Unfortunately, he didn't cite the study in his presentation. *sigh*).


The rate (in BPS, or Bits Per Second) at which our sensory organs receive input:

Eyes - 10,000,000
Ears - 100,000
Skin - 1,000,000
Taste - 1,000
Smell - 100,000

Wow! Pretty amazing!

Now, let's look at how much of that information (also in BPS) reaches the conscious mind:

Eyes - 40
Ears - 30
Skin - 5
Taste - 1
Smell - 1

No, that is not a typo.

Think about this for a moment! Most of the information that's coming in bypasses the conscious mind and goes straight into the nonconscious mind! We're only consciously aware of a fraction of the information we receive about the external world! That doesn't mean we are totally unaware of that information. We simply don't consciously notice it.

This is one reason I love Nonviolent Communication and hypnosis. During the "input" phase of communication, NVC "observations" help me focus my attention on sensory input. What am I seeing and hearing? Who is present? What is happening, in what order? Bringing my focus to these things helps me slow down and notice whether my reactions to the situation are coming from what I'm actually noticing or from a habit, memory, or old interpretation of an earlier, similar event.

Hypnosis, on the other hand, goes directly to the nonconscious mind. When I allow myself to go into trance, I can invite the nonconscious mind to share the perceptions it received but withheld from the conscious mind, not wanting to bother it with a lot of irrelevant details.