Categories: Self-management

Acceptance as a way to another kind of hope [Today’s Kizuki 3]

by Anna
Published on: April 19, 2020
Categories: Self-management
Comments: No Comments

The most recent series of NPR’s “Invisibilia” Podcast* is coming to an end but one episode from March left such a strong impression on me personally, and as I think of the challenge of self-management during the current COVID19 crisis, that I felt compelled to put my thoughts into words.

As with each episode of Invisibilia the listener is taken on a kind of magical mystery tour of rich and varied perspectives, and the interesting twists and turns subtly reveal themselves along the way towards the conclusion.  The particular episode that prompted me to write today is titled “An Unlikely Superpower”  and touches on topics such as climate change, health and how we think about the future in an uncertain world.

At about 40 minutes into the podcast  there is an interview with an individual called Alison who talks about her philosophy on living with the health condition Parkinson’s disease:

if I pinned my hopes to a cure, I would just be waiting and it wouldn’t come and I would get resentful and disappointed and depressed and be more likely to fall off my perch quicker.. So I pin my hopes to living a life as well as I can, as good as I can  every day from one day to the next

Alison’s words and her story struck home for me because I had also been in a situation of “pinning my hopes on a cure”.  While still in my early 20s I had surgery which left me with partial facial paralysis. I have been lucky in that this hasn’t stopped me pursuing my interests in life but my facial nerve never fully recovered. I spent many years holding on to hope for a cure and that life would suddenly be better when I could look “normal” again. 

However,  it was upon reading my medical notes and set of research papers on my health condition for the umpteenth time several years ago, that I finally came to terms with the fact that a treatment wasn’t going to reveal itself any day soon and that it was highly unlikely that there was ever going to be a day when I would, in my own definition, regain a symmetrical face and look “normal” again.

Releasing my thoughts of the future from a hope and expectation on a cure or treatment brought a wave of relief and felt like I could finally let go of a heavy weight that I had been carrying . Moreover,  it helped me realise that pinning my hopes on a cure had narrowed my own vision and that when I took some time to accept a new reality, many more positives in my day-to-day life came into view again.
I had undervalued  friends, discovery, growth, experience, and achievements from the past and of the present, because I was so focused on a future conditional on a so-called cure. By accepting and releasing myself from a future dependent on a cure, I was able to better appreciate the positives and meaning of my current  life.**

As I think of so many of us working in a new normal as a result of the COVID19 crisis, it also makes me wonder how we go about balancing our hopes about the future and the meaning and joy to be found in the present. Yes, we need to take action to help each other and find ways to work in a new way and in new contexts, but we can only do this if we release ourselves from a hope that there will be a magical resolution: To borrow Alison’s words, if we pin our hopes on a time when things will return to normal, then we will “just be waiting”, rather than  living a life as well as we can, as good as we can every day from one day to the next.

Endnotes
* Invisibilia is one of many podcasts  that I enjoy from NPR and other media and news publishers. To see my current list of favourite podcasts click here
** My intent in writing this is not that we should give up on working towards or hoping for cures to health issues or solutions to world problems, but if we hold on too tightly to a hope for something to come along and “save” us, we can lose ourselves in waiting and be blinkered to the options, delights and rewards that are accessible to on a day to day basis

Temple with cherry blossom reflected in the windows

Working From Home as the “new normal”: how “emotional granularity” could help with self management. [Today’s Kizuki 1*]

Emotional granularity had caught my attention from before we had even heard of COVID19 having recently read  “How emotions are made” by Lisa Feldman Barrett and it seems particularly pertinent and timely as so many people adjust to working from home on a daily basis.  Reflecting on her Theory of Constructed Emotion and the concept of “emotional granularity”, emotional granularity “isn’t just about having a rich vocabulary. It’s about experiencing the world, and yourself, more precisely” as Feldman writes in her 2016 article from The New York Times 

Decreasing emotional granularity and a diminishing connection with self

Feldman stresses the benefits of emotional granularity on psychological and physical health. Specifically, how email and the short interactions that social media channels, such as Twitter, encourage and nudge us into using a more restricted and limited list of vocabulary over time.  Also, the extent to which there is a tendency to use more words that inflate meaning. This resonates with my thinking and seems a skill that is more important than ever as “Working From Home” demands us to develop a more highly attuned ability to self-manage.

How often have you sent a response to someone in email and, instead of responding “thank you, that response was (useful/helpful/informative/interesting), you simply wrote “perfect” or “awesome”? Really? Can a simple response to a question truly be said to be “awesome” or “perfect”?

Reading Dr Feldman’s work leads me to consider what the unintended consequences could be of this more limited and repeatedly used set of phrases. Yes, one could argue that by using similar terms or vocabulary, we are creating some connection with the reader, some way to signal we are in the same group or kinship. However, Feldman’s argument also helped me understand that we are also diminished along the way.  For instance, if our granularity in expression declines then so does our ability to be more attuned to our emotions with a finer degree of clarity (e.g. awesome/great/good/fine).  Aren’t we then also losing a connection with ourselves? Isn’t our ability to understand and translate in finer distinctions about how we are really feeling or responding to a situation also affected?

Emotional granularity in high-context cultures

Such questions may also be asked in multicultural work environments.  When, for example, the only common language is Japanese, the concept of emotional granularity and the difference between working in languages and communication in a low context culture or high context culture is stark: Japanese is a high context culture – hence in many situations what we say is not actually about how we are interpreting our feelings or thoughts about a situation, but what the situation dictates. For example, when you visit someone’s home for the first time, the expected response as you walk in the door is “ojamashimasu”** not, “hey, I like your shoes” or “wow, that’s a lot of umbrellas you’ve collected”.

Does this high-context aspect of the culture disconnect me momentarily from what I really think or feel and could this be a good thing – in the same way that being on autopilot can help us conserve energy so that we can use our thinking energy on low context situations?  Or could it be detrimental because we skim through interactions and become less aware of ourselves and others and less able to pick up on indicators. 

A few years ago I was visiting a Japanese friend with small children. I hadn’t seen my friend for almost a year and so when I visited my mind was on making sure I brought an appropriate gift for her children, and that I followed the usual protocol on arriving – especially on spending the time to say “ojamashimasu” and the usual pleasantries although I really wanted to get to the bit where i could just sit down with her and hear her news.

However, in my effort to follow the “process” dictated by the culture I barely looked at her on entering her home and it was not until several minutes later that I realized there were tears in her eyes and that something upsetting had happened that morning. Thankfully we were able to find some quiet time before the end of the visit so that she was able to share what was really going on for her.
It made me wonder if not only am I missing these important opportunities to see and sense what is really going on, but also if in some way, the more I am in these interactions, that I am dulling my senses and losing emotional granularity.

At the same time, I think about if the opposite could be true: maybe the high-context process of following the expectations felt like an extra mental load to me and depleted my energy and focus because Japanese culture and language are not my “native” culture: If I been been raised in a high context environment from a young age would the process have taken up less mental load and freed up my energy to focus on what was not being said in the ritual interaction of entering someone’s home?

There is added irony to this as I think of the Japanese phrase “reading the air” (kuuki wo yomu which refers to the finely tuned skill of being able to perceive what is not said).  Is ‘reading the air’ simply a result of the high context culture in which so many situations dictate what can or cannot be said, or is it the other way around?  Or is the focus perhaps on being able to “read the air” that allows the high context formal interactions to persist in the first place?

  • What is your experience? Do you think certain cultural contexts make it easier or more difficult to connect with what you and others are feeling?
  • And, more importantly,  whether you’re working in a high-context or low-context culture, what strategies are you experimenting with to stay attuned to your own emotional state while working from home as the “new normal”?

Sources & Endnotes
Feldman Barrett, L (2016)  : The theory of constructed emotion: an active inference account of interoception and categorization.Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Volume 12, Issue 1, January 2017, Pages 1–23. https://academic.oup.com/scan/article/12/1/1/2823712?inf_contact_key=50e37481c31399c8dfafa5200768fca0680f8914173f9191b1c0223e68310bb1
Feldman Barrett, L (3 June 2016) The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/05/opinion/sunday/are-you-in-despair-thats-good.html
Feldman Barrett, L (2018). How emotions are made: the secret life of the brain.London: Pan Books 
Feldman Barrett, L (2020). Interview with Ezra Klein: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/vox/the-ezra-klein-show/e/64657463

* “kizuki” (気付き) is a noun in Japanese which means something you notice or become aware of.
**a formal greeting which has a literal meaning of excuse me for being a bother, or getting in the way

Bunkyo-ku in April
A calm and quiet spring morning perfect for new “Kizuki” or “noticings”
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