Don’t Jump to Solutions

This is another lesson I’ve learned in my parenting adventures. I think most of the good stuff I know I’ve learned through being a mom. This one I applied several times a day when my daughter was in a tantrum phase. It involved stopping myself from trying to fix every negative emotion she had and instead to acknowledge her emotions, reflect them back to her, and make myself available to comfort her. I got out of practice with this in the past two years since she’s not had tantrums as frequently, and I’ve had to re-learn the skill to help her with her very fierce five-year-old emotions. When I remember to do it, I find that this practice helps diffuse the situation faster than trying to intervene, and it also helps her learn to identify her emotions and to learn gradually how to deal with them herself.

This is also a skill I’ve tried to use with myself and with other adults. I remember one time speaking on the phone with a friend in crisis. At one point, there was a protracted silence. I thought I ought to say something but I didn’t know what.

“I don’t know what to say,” I said.

“You don’t have to say anything!” my friend said through tears.

This phone conversation comes back to me frequently. I felt so ineffectual and powerless to help this person whom I so wanted to help. It wasn’t until several years later when I read Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication that I realized that sometimes all we need is empathy, both for celebratory situations and for crisis situations. I attended weekly empathy practice workshops facilitated by a Nonviolent Communication mediator when we lived in California, during which we practiced the active listening techniques Rosenberg introduces in his book. Every week it struck me just how powerful it is to reflect back someone’s emotions without judgment and without offering solutions.

Even in those situations when it’s appropriate to offer solutions, it’s often important to sit and reflect back the person’s emotions and let them talk through things before trying to give suggestions for action. There are often multiple layers to a problem that even the person with the problem can’t get to without talking it through. Sometimes, too, the person comes up with her or his own solutions just in the course of talking things through, which is much more empowering for them than having someone else give them solutions.

I’ve heard many times, in the context of Buddhism and meditation, “Don’t just do something; sit there.” That, basically, is what I’m trying to remind myself to do with this commandment. There is a time for brainstorming, but there is also a time to explore a situation without trying to alter it.


I’ve been thinking about this commandment all day and about what I’d like to post about it tonight. As a result, I’ve had two things running through my head all day. First is Peter Cook as the “Impressive Clergyman” from The Princess Bride (“And wuv, tru wuv, will fowow you foweva…”). Second is Van Morrison singing “Crazy Love,” which always morphs into “There’ll Be Days Like This” when I sing it. Neither of these has helped me at all in writing this post.

I get warm fuzzies when I feel love. And I feel happy and strong whether I express the love or not. Back soon after 9/11 when there was the passage of the Patriot Act and the first talk of going to war in Iraq, I started sending out loving vibes to George W. Bush. I don’t remember where I first got this idea. It may have been the Unitarian Universalist congregation of which I was a member at that time. At any rate, when I was feeling apprehensive about the happenings on the world stage and worried that our president was going to make a poor decision, I dedicated a couple of moments of each evening before bed to send peace and love and clarity to President Bush. When I mentioned this to a friend of mine, she said, “Why are you wasting your time and energy on that? I don’t want to give that guy any help at all.” But really, I wasn’t doing it for him. I was doing it for myself. I could sit and stew and worry and pick apart every little action by the administration, or I could accept that I had severely limited control over anything that was happening and just feel peace and love towards the man who held the fate of so many people in his hands. And if he happened to get some of the peace and love and clarity I was sending, then all the better; those things would likely be very helpful to him while he was trying to make such difficult decisions. I don’t think one can often go wrong feeling peace and love.

Sometimes when I’m feeling particularly misanthropic, I try to imagine every adult I encounter as the tiny little newborn they must have started out as. I’ve found it’s much easier to feel love and empathy towards someone who used to be a wee baby than it is to feel peaceful and positive things about someone who just ran to get in front of me in the checkout line. Although I don’t rule out the possibility that the “vibes” might actually be felt in some subtle way by the receiving party, I realize that this practice is unlikely to have any direct effect on the person at which the loving thoughts are directed. But if I focus on feeling loving, I feel calmer, happier, and more inclined to do good works for others I encounter as I go about my day.

Love is not always my reaction in these situations. Love isn’t even always my reaction with those I love most in my life. Too often, I notice an attitude of scarcity in myself. It causes me to hoard love for fear of running out. I remember speaking with a mom who had just given birth to her third child. My daughter was about two years old at the time, and I told this other mom that I was thinking of not having any more children because I was already overwhelmed trying to meet the needs of one child; I couldn’t imagine trying to meet the needs of two or more. “I worried about the same thing,” she told me. “My first was very needy, and I feared I wouldn’t have enough to be the kind of mom I wanted to be to more than one child at a time. But what I found was that the love just grows. It’s not just me doing the loving. The baby’s brother and sister love the baby and the baby loves his siblings, and the love just gets bigger and bigger.”

The thing I forget is that love isn’t a finite resource. It grows through feeling it and sharing it. The purpose of the Love commandment is to help remind me to step back, take a breath, and just love, secure in the knowledge that by spending love freely, I’m increasing my stores of it.

Assume Positive Intent

Of my Seven Personal Commandments, Assume Positive Intent might be the most challenging for me. I’m not proud to admit it, but I tend to go to a “they’re all out to get me” place when things aren’t going the way I want them to. I look around for someone to blame. And frequently the person I spot is my husband. As the only adults in our household, he and I are the only ones responsible for getting everything done sunup to sundown (and several hours beyond on either end). If I have too much to do, that automatically means he’s not doing as much as he ought to. I know this isn’t (necessarily) true, but that’s the first place I go when I’m feeling overwhelmed, which is way more of the time than I’d like. (But then, how much of the time would I like to feel overwhelmed?)

“Assume Positive Intent” is a phrase that I got from my compulsive reading of parenting books. I think the first place I read it might have been Becoming the Parent You Want to Be by Laura Davis and Janis Keyser (I might be wrong about this, though. I can’t check it because I loaned the book to another mom). This was the text for the Parent Education portion of the Parent-Participation Preschool that my daughter and I attended when we lived in California. The idea is basically that our children aren’t trying to drive us crazy; that’s just a side effect of them trying in whatever way they can think of to connect with us or to understand or whatever it is they’re trying to do. Assuming positive intent helps us to avoid the power struggles and negative feelings associated with thinking our kids are acting maliciously. I’ve since read similar sentiments in other books. In Jane Nelsen’s Positive Discipline series, she explains that everything children do, including the “inappropriate” behaviors, are for the purpose of meeting an unmet need. It’s our job as parents to identify the needs our children are trying to meet and help them learn to meet these needs in a more acceptable fashion.

I think assuming positive intent can be extended to all people regardless of age. Each of us is trying to make things work for us in the only ways we know how. These ways may be woefully misguided at times, but that doesn’t make the need we’re trying to meet any less valid. Of course, the extent to which we become involved in helping other adults to meet their needs is a lot more a matter of choice for us than the extent to which we’re involved in helping our children meet their needs.

I really want to assume positive intent. But I find that it takes a lot of effort. A lot of effort. In the course of writing these 3.2 paragraphs, my daughter has come out of her bedroom three times giving me reasons why she can’t fall asleep, and my husband has walked through twice making off-hand comments to me that don’t require a response but that break my concentration. I feel very annoyed when I’m interrupted while trying to think something through, and it takes a great deal of effort just to get my train of thought back on track, much less avoid thinking that my family are deliberately trying to sabotage my sanity (which thought generally leads to me acting insane).

Upon further reflection, I fear it may have been a fit of delusional optimism that led me to include Assume Positive Intent in my list of Personal Commandments. Although it’s possible that it was a fit of delusional optimism that led me to embark on a Happiness Project in the first place. The thought that I can bring more joy to my life by adding more things to my already packed schedule is a little bit out there. I’m still going to do it, though. I’m a believer in the idea that any improvement one seeks to realize requires more work in the beginning. I’m hopeful that if I put in this extra work now, I’ll feel more joy and ease as the months progress. With any luck, I’ll succeed at being ambitious but realistic in practicing my resolutions.

And there’s my daughter for the fourth time, trying to meet an unmet need an hour and a half after bedtime.

My Seven Personal Commandments

In The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin lists her Twelve Personal Commandments. Following her lead, I’ve come up with some Personal Commandments of my own. Rubin has mentioned on her blog that she thinks twelve might be too many, so I distilled mine down to seven.

I’m not really looking at these as rules so much as reminders. These are subject to change, and I’m actually kind of assuming I’ll add or subtract from this list as the years go by, should I continue to use it. This list is also specific to me (hence, “Personal” Commandments); it’s not intended as a prescription for anyone else about how to act or what things to consider important.

My Seven Personal Commandments

  1. Be My Best Self.
  2. Assume positive intent.
  3. Love.
  4. Don’t jump to solutions.
  5. Give until it feels good.
  6. Risk looking silly.
  7. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly.

I’ve got roughly a week until I begin to implement my resolutions, so I’m planning to elaborate upon one commandment a day until Sunday, when I plan to reveal my resolutions for August.

Today: Be My Best Self.

Gretchen Rubin’s first commandment is, “Be Gretchen,” to remind her to be true to her values, priorities, and preferences. I considered making, “Be Gretchen,” my first commandment, but I thought it might be better to start out trying to be myself, then perhaps I’d work on being someone else once I get the “me” part down. The phrase, “Be My Best Self,” I got from a blog post Tucker Bradford wrote about a year ago. I generally let things percolate for quite a while before I act on them, and this is no exception. Of course, I have an inkling my actions may have changed as a result of my thinking about this concept, but I’ve not made any conscious effort, as far as I can tell (which I guess would be the definition of a conscious effort).

Being My Best Self isn’t about applying some external ideal to myself. It is, in my understanding, recognizing my personal priorities, preferences, limitations, and values and applying those in each moment. Or at least in each moment that I remember and have the reserves to actually do so.

I tend to get bogged down in doing things I think I ought to do and forget to think about whether these things are supporting my personal ideals. Focusing on “oughts” rather than on Being My Best Self inevitably ends with me feeling resentful and put-upon and like everyone else is making me do all of this stuff I don’t want to do, and why don’t they just leave me alone? And since feeling resentful doesn’t make me happy, it seems like doing the thing that will help me avoid resentment would be in line with my Happiness Project.

Real life example: if I can straighten, dust, vacuum, and mop once a week in a spirit of providing a tranquil, comfortable home for my family, then I’m Being My Best Self. If I yell at the kids and nag my husband and throw things around while I’m cleaning, I’m probably Being My Best Self by just leaving the mess and taking the kids to the library instead.

Another example: living in Salt Lake City, every winter I look up at the snow-covered mountains and hear my friends discussing lift tickets and other ski-related business, and I feel a little guilty that I am not taking advantage of the Greatest Snow on Earth (as my license plates profess). But the truth is that I have absolutely no desire to strap little boards to my feet and surrender myself to gravity. Being My Best Self would involve accepting that downhill skiing (and avalanches, snow tires, chains, and insulating underwear) just isn’t my thing and not feeling bad about avoiding the mountains for the majority of the year. It would also involve not making statements to skiers implying that they’re crazy for engaging in this variety of winter sport.

Being My Best Self is different from the “Good Mom” mantra I’ve tried in the past. I’d always feel like I was falling short when I didn’t live up to the Good Mom ideal. Being My Best Self feels like something to strive towards rather than something I either am or I’m not. Good Mom is a static definition; I’m either “Good” or I’m “Awful,” and there’s not much hope in that for redemption. Being My Best Self is more versatile and leaves more room for forgiveness. If I’ve only gotten three hours of sleep and the cat just vomited on the diaper bag and my daughter is yelling from the bathroom for me to wipe her bottom while the baby is eating out of the cat dish (and then the phone rings), I might Be My Best Self in that moment by yelling back at my daughter to wipe her own butt and just letting the baby eat the kibble until I can dump the diaper bag and submerge it in hot, soapy water. Is that the same as what a Good Mom would do? I don’t know. I’m fairly certain Good Mom has no cats, or at least no cats that vomit. But it’s likely My Best Self in that moment.