Little Fish, Big Pond

I had the honor and privilege of attending a Gottman conference in Seattle, Washington this past week. This was not my first Gottman training, nor will it be my last, as I have come to have a profound respect for his research and clinical expertise! For those of you who have not been introduced to John Gottman or his wife Julie Schwartz Gottman, I will provide a brief description…

John Gottman has over 40 years of relationship research under his belt and is world renown for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction. He was most recently listed as one of the top 10 most influential therapists of the past quarter century, and has published 190 academic articles and has authored or co-authored 40 books. John Gottman PhD co-founded The Gottman Institute, with his wife Julie Schwartz Gottman PhD in a desire to share their research and clinical expertise in marital therapy. Julie Schwartz Gottman was named Washington State Psychologist of the year and is widely recognized for her work with distressed couples, abuse and trauma survivors and substance abusers along with their partners… So as you can see, their collective resume is impressive and incredibly humbling for us neophytes in the field of psychotherapy!

Coming back to my experience last week; sitting two rows from the front, where John and Julie were providing case consultation on real life cases one after the next, modeling their interventions and techniques with precision and a confident humility, the title for this blog post came to me.

There I sat surrounded by clinicians far more experienced than I, finding myself feeling rather small and inadequate. I sent a quick text to my girlfriend sharing this, and she responded with something along the lines of “just keep swimming”, a favorite line of mine from the movie “Finding Nemo”. I quickly decided that this line would be my motto for the entirely of the workshop and jumped back in, fully engaged and ready to soak up everything I could.

Little fish, Big pond. Just keep Swimming.

I have a dear friend who is embarking on a journey to community college to complete her associates degree, and my hat goes off to her for her diligence and stamina as she has been through a lot…. Scaling obstacles and fighting battles have become her specialty! While talking with her the other day, I heard her lamenting some of the same feelings and doubts that I had felt while at my Gottman conference…. “What am I doing here?” “How did I even get here?” “What if I fail?” “Is this really the right thing for me to do?” I heard myself respond to her saying, “We all have to start somewhere, and you are right where you’re supposed to be, just trust that.” Followed by some other familiar line like…

Little Fish. Big Pond. Just keep Swimming.

We’ve all heard the phrase “sink or swim”, and perhaps some of us feel more versed in this life experience than others, but as I thought more about this concept of swimming as a small fish in a large pond, I realized that this is where the weak get separated out from the strong… Sometimes we have to give it all we have simply to keep our head above water and we fear that we won’t be able to do it for much longer, but here is where will power and sheer determination come into play. One day we realize that our neck and shoulders have come out of the water and there is a tad bit less effort involved… and perhaps a little later we find ourselves actually wading through the water, possibly even enjoying the feel of the sand beneath our feet. A confident humility in knowing the effort it took to get there and strength it took to keep going.

We all have moments where we feel insignificant, lost and or out of sorts… We all have seasons where we are humbled and reminded that there is a whole world of knowledge yet to learn, and life yet to live… It’s what we choose to do with these moments and these seasons, how we choose to react that sets us apart. Do we quit swimming and start sinking? Or do we fight for dear life and kick like hell!

We are all just fish learning how to swim.

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Emotional Contagion

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Social psychologists study relationships and people interactions, and the concept of “emotional contagion” is widely used within the scientific realm to talk about the impact of internal states of one person on another…. its kind of a fancy way of saying that we are influenced by the people that we hang with, and the environment that we socialize in and live in, each and every moment. The practical application of that is somewhat overwhelming to me as it points out the Significance of the choices we make around who we hang out with and where we live/work/play etc.

If the internal state of another person, whether that be playful, fearful, happy, sad, angry, dysregulated or any number of other states of being, have emotional and long term impact on my overall wellbeing, then that seems to imply the importance of being very choosy with whom to relate, connect, partner with, work with, etc. So how do we go about making those decisions that have such long term impact?

Most of us don’t go about this process all that intentionally… unfortunately far more of us kind of just “land a job” or “meet a friend through a friend” or “go on a blind date” or “strike up a conversation at a coffee shop” or “meet at a party” and through any remote similarity or connection, we “attach”, “become friends” and “associate with” these random encountered people. Is that all bad? No, not all bad. These random associations and meet ups can turn out to be quite meaningful and purpose filled and we can find others in the world who see it similarly to how we do, and who have similar hopes or goals or desires or fears, and we can Connect with another human being in a very meaningful way, that impacts our “internal state” in a positive growth kind of way.

Unfortunately the opposite can be true as well. We can meet someone, begin to associate or hang out with, and before we realize it, they are a “friend” and someone we are seeing frequently, and without even being mindful of it, we begin to be influenced by this person or these people, and they are impacting our internal state.

Does that not scare the hell out of you?? By choosing to hang out with someone on a regular basis, you are actually allowing them to impact your internal state of being!!! Am I the only one that this is a bit disconcerting to??

A simple and not so long term impactful example would be when you see someone else taking a drink of water, and you suddenly find yourself reaching for your water cup or bottle without even thinking about it, feeling thirsty. Or seeing someone wipe their nose or brush it off, and immediately finding yourself brushing your nose to make sure nothing is there. These are subtle, yet classic examples or how we are influenced by what we see in others around us. So if we are influenced by someone simply taking a sip of water, how much more are we impacted by someone who is angry all the time and wears that in their demeanor? Or someone who is anxious or worried about everything and constantly expresses their anxiety about everything in their day to day life?

Dr. Dan Siegel, a neuropsychiatrist and well known author in the world of neuroscience and brain integration speaks of this concept in his book Mindsight in which he describes the idea of “mirror neurons” and “resonance”, in which he outlines the way in which we are impacted by one another and in fact are wired to even feel what others feel…”When we attune with others we allow our own internal state to shift, to come to resonate with the inner world of another…” he continues by noting that it is this ability to resonate with another being that allows us to connect on a deeper level and even attach to another being. “This resonance is at the heart of the important sense of “feeling felt” that emerges in close relationships.”

It’s the beauty and the beast of this emotional contagion… We can be so very positively influenced by another being and the way that they life their life and on the other hand we can be very negatively influenced by another being. Socially, emotionally, spiritually… even physically. Ever noticed how couples that have been together for many years start to almost look like each other, let alone act a lot like one another?  They have been in “training” and they have been influencing each other through mirror neurons and resonance for so many years that even their physical attributes and mannerisms start to match up. (you can read a lot more about influencing your brain and reshaping how you think and behavior in any one of Siegel’s books, which i HIGHLY recommend.)

So who is influencing your inner state of being?? Who’s inner state of being are you influencing?? These are the questions that I am asking today, and that I am challenging each of us to ask. Because there is nothing superficial about an internal state of being…

It is at the heart of who we are as people. It’s how we come to see and experience the world, it’s how we relate to the world and to each other, and how we navigate our way through life, and that is Significant! Yet so many of us take it so lightly and think so little about who we engage with or who we allow to have space inside our world…

Today I am contemplating emotional contagion and I am choosing to be intentional about who and what is influencing me, and how I am influencing those around me. I hope that you can do the same!