Drop Tart Tone

Feeling a little sour?
The Practice:
Drop tart tone.
Why?

Tone matters.

I remember times I felt frazzled or aggravated and then said something with an edge to it that just wasn’t necessary or useful. Sometimes it was the words themselves: such as absolutes like “never” or always,” or over-the-top phrases like “you’re such a flake” or “that was stupid.” More often it was the intonation in my voice, a harsh vibe or look, interrupting, or a certain intensity in my body. However I did it, the people on the receiving end usually looked like they’d just sucked a lemon. This is what I mean by tart tone.

People are more sensitive to tone than to the explicit content of spoken or written language. To paraphrase the poet Maya Angelou, people will forget what you said, but they’ll remember how you made them feel. And we are particularly reactive to negative tone, due to the negativity bias in the brain (written about in previous JOTs).

Consequently, tart tone hurts others. This is bad enough, but it also often triggers others to react in ways that harm you and others.

On the other hand, paying attention to tone puts you more in touch with yourself, because you have to be aware of what’s building inside – which also promotes mindfulness and builds up its neural substrates. Containing negative tone prompts you to open to and deal with any underlying stress, hurt, anger. It reduces the chance that the other person will avoid dealing with what you say by shifting attention to how you say it. Cleaning up your style of expression puts you in a stronger position to ask people to do the same, or to act better toward you in other ways.

As the Buddha said long ago, “Getting angry with others is like throwing hot coals with bare hands: both people get burned.” Much the same could be said about throwing tart tone. [Read more...]

Lower the Pressure

Is it truly urgent?
The Practice:
Lower the pressure.
Why?

Things come at us with so much urgency and demand these days. Phones ring, texts buzz, emails pile up, new balls have to be juggled, work days lengthen and move into evenings and weekends, traffic gets denser, financial demands feel like a knife at the neck, ads and news clamor for attention, push push push PUSH.

On top of these external pressures, we deal with internal ones as well. These include all the inner “shoulds,” “musts,” and “have-tos,” like: “I gotta get this done today or my boss’ll get mad.” Or: “I must not look bad.” Or: “I can’t leave the house with dishes in the sink.” A pushy sub-personality prods us to be better, do better, and have more. Harsh, often unfair self-criticism cracks the whip to keep us going and avoid its lash. Also, we form rigid ideas – often unconscious – of what we just have to have to be successful, look good, own the right car, etc. We develop similar kinds of insistence about how it needs to be for others or the world (e.g., how one’s children must do in school, how the country has to be run).

Whether the pressure comes from outside or inside us, it activates ancient motivational circuits that use the neurotransmitter, dopamine. In a nutshell, dopamine tracks expected results (e.g., emails finished, sales goals attained). If the result actually occurs, dopamine rises, which helps us feel relieved while other neurotransmitter systems such as natural opioids give us a sense of pleasure. But here’s the catch: on the way to that desired result, dopamine levels sink some, which brings an unpleasant sense of stress, unease, pushing, and pressure . . . and if we meet delays or roadblocks or flat-out failure, then dopamine plummets, which feels like disappointment, frustration, even despair. To avoid the pain of dopamine dropping, we drive hard toward our goals, caught up in wanting and desire.

This dopamine system – and related but more evolutionarily recent and sophisticated emotions and thoughts layered upon it – was very effective in keeping our ancestors alive in the wild. And it works well today to keep us motivated during emergencies or necessary marathons of effort, from finals week in college to long runs of advocacy on behalf of a loved one.

But even at best, there is an inherent collateral damage in being motivated by need, urgency, and pressure. [Read more...]

See Beings Not Bodies

What happens when you look at someone?
The Practice:
See beings, not bodies.
Why?

When we encounter someone, usually the mind automatically slots the person into a category: man, woman, your friend Tom, the kid next door, etc. Watch this happen in your own mind as you meet or talk with a co-worker, salesclerk, or family member.

In effect, the mind summarizes and simplifies tons of details into a single thing – a human thing to be sure, but one with an umbrella label that makes it easy to know how to act. For example: “Oh, that’s my boss (or mother-in-law, or boyfriend, or traffic cop, or waiter) . . . and now I know what to do. Good.”

This labeling process is fast, efficient, and gets to the essentials. As our ancestors evolved, rapid sorting of friend or foe was very useful. For example, if you’re a mouse, as soon as you smell something in the “cat” category, that’s all you need to know: freeze or run like crazy!

On the other hand, categorizing has lots of problems. It fixes attention on surface features of the person’s body, such as age, gender, attractiveness, or role. It leads to objectifying others (e.g., “pretty woman,” “authority figure”) rather than respecting their humanity. It tricks us into thinking that a person comprised of changing complexities is a static unified entity. It’s easier to feel threatened by someone you’ve labeled as this or that. And categorizing is the start of the slippery slope toward “us” and “them,” prejudice, and discrimination.

Flip it around, too: what’s it like for you when you can tell that another person has slotted you into some category? [Read more...]