Browsing the archives for the Mistakes category

Learning to Let Go

Change, family, Life as it is, Love, Mistakes, Spiritual Journey, Vulnerability

How do you stop a runaway escalation in conflict between parent and teen? After bunches of mistakes, I’d have to offer the mere wisdom of letting go.

What Our Lives Used to Be Like

Once upon a time I wanted to protect my daughter from the forces that might harm her.

Spider Lily Redux

I fought against those forces. I fought the threats – some maybe only perceived – others tragic in their reality. Threats involving cyberbullying requiring trips to the E/R. And threats that included turning over to homicide detectives the IM transcripts between my daughter and the kids who murdered her friend.

I was up to such a fight. But it wasn’t just these things I had to fight. There was my daughter’s own resistance to my protection and a constantly escalating struggle. I listened to the network communication to keep her safe. She encrypted the communications. I placed filters on the computer in the network stack. She installed her own network stack. I installed a kernel-mode rootkit to completely own the operating system. She used live CD’s to bypass the operating system I installed completely.

What Happened

I remember the day that I learned that I could not forcibly keep her safe. Her mom had convinced me to start deadbolting the house and hiding the key. This was a huge act of desperation for me – I had survived a fire in the middle of the night as a child and so knowing how to escape was always on my mind. One morning I awakened and found the deadbolt was loose – she had gotten a screwdriver and used it to remove the deadbolt so she could sneak out. As I was considering hunting down all screwdrivers and locking them into a toolchest I realized that I could not win the battle.

I could not force her to be safe.

It was a tragic moment of realization. It was the end of an illusion to which I clung. It was the end of a bunch of mistakes and the beginning of becoming teachable.

Later a counselor drove it home for me. She asked a simple question, “If your daughter decided to kill herself, what could you do to stop it?” The answer is that I couldn’t. Not that I got that right away. Like I said, I clung to that illusion that somehow I could try hard enough and through valiant effort, I could save her. But I had to admit that she was smart enough and I was too limited – unable to watch over her every moment – and that if she devoted her intelligence and creativity in that direction I could not stop her.

And in fact, probably, nobody could.

How Things Are Now

Now, almost three years later, my daughter uses the Internet without filters of any sort. The keys to leave the house at night are no longer hidden. And the responsibility to live and thrive and grow is where it should be – it’s on my daughter’s shoulders. I’d love to say that letting go made everything perfect, but it didn’t – there were still several more crises to get through and I was frightened several times about the choices my daughter made.

But things are better. And while letting go doesn’t make everything perfect, it does make it survivable for me. It makes the responsibility for her life fall onto her shoulders and not mine. It doesn’t mean that I am not interested or that I don’t love her – I do, I do! But what she hears from me now is that I love her enough to respect her decisions and the consequences she chooses.

We have boundaries, and she knows that if her behavior goes past those limits, than she cannot stay here any longer. But it’s her choice and her call – my job is just to uphold and enforce those consequences.

And our relationship is better than it has been in a long time.

Why Letting Go Works

I doubt I understand all of how this has improved my life well enough to explain it, but I will still try. I think this is one of those lessons one has to learn from their own mistakes, but maybe I can point out a different course of action if you are caught in this painful place of escalating conflict.

Imagine a tug of war with a rope between the two of us and my pulling it to the side of safety and her pulling it to the side of freedom. The closer I get the flag on the rope to my position, the harder she will pull it to her side and the more out of control she gets – the closer she gets to what she sees as freedom, the more desperate my pulling becomes. When she was younger, we started this game, and it worked because I could overpower her and drag her to my side.

But as she has gotten older, smarter and more creative, my ability to simply overpower this system is eventually lost. And as I try to continue to do so, the more she pulls against me. So I pull harder, so she pulls harder. Can you see this dynamic in our battle over controlling the Internet?

“Letting go doesn’t mean giving up, but rather accepting that there are things that cannot be.”
–Anonymous

But there is another option. The rope stays somewhere in the middle – not quite where I want it and not quite where she wants it. She’s seen the pain of winning too much freedom and so as I stop fighting her and lay my side of the rope down – so too, did she. Eventually.

Those boundaries I mentioned? She knows that if she chooses too many freedoms, she can’t live here with me and they may get her into worse places than living in my home. The rope is where it was before – the state is still that teen state of having to be between unsafe freedom and restrictive safety. But now we are not fighting to keep it there.

In fact, by refusing to fight her, she has found the fight is really between her and herself. This is the battle we all face and that our children must face and learn to win. Before, the only option for her to master was in defeating me – now she has a chance to learn self-mastery.

Free to Become Her Daddy

So letting go does work. It’s terrifying and seems completely the wrong thing to do. But try harder and then harder again was not working so it was time to try to let go. Now that she doesn’t see me as her opponent in everything, I have become free to become her father a little more and a little deeper.

I’ll take it.

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10 Tips for Parenting through Self Injury

family, Love, Mistakes, Spiritual Journey, Vulnerability

It has been a couple of months since I wrote about my teen daughter’s cutting, and what it was like to be a parent surviving through self-injury. Now I see parents arrive here at MereWisdom.org from time to time with searches that break my heart – for I typed so many of the same things trying to find answers. For these visitors, I offer the following wisdom gained from making a million mistakes in responding to my daughter’s self harm.

Victoria in a New Place
For those looking for people who are getting through this, I would point you to my daughter’s site where she wrote to share some of her story of Survival of a Self Injurer. Worthy of note and celebration in this is that she now has nine months free of self-injury, one day at a time.

Caring for Myself and Family

1 – There is nothing I can do to save her or protect her completely – The belief that if I just try harder to protect her, to limit her choices, and keep her safe to get her through this without being able to harm herself further is, in the end, a lie. I had to accept my powerlessness to stop her from harming herself before I could stop dying inside from whether she has or has not self-injured today. It’s her behavior and only she can make different choices.

2 – I did not cause it – I struggled with my own guilt for a long time. A long, long time of second guessing myself, thinking that my own faults and failures ends up, really, only another form of the false beliefs in item one, above.

3 – Her Self-Injury is not the most important thing in my life – She is more important to me than what she does. My son is equally important to me, and can’t be ignored because of constant crises in her life. Self-injury can pull a family out of a normal orbit into a tight orbit only around the self injury. This reinforces the self-injury from my experience, and it harms everyone else now out of orbit.

4 – I needed help for myself and my family and not just my daughter – It’s her behavior, but it affects all of us. More importantly as the family increasingly becomes centered on the self-injury, the more the family systems break down and require conscious rebuilding. Normal systems and family behavior that act as balancing forces for our children and ourselves become reinforcing factors for out of control behavior instead. And as we broke down, it was invisible to us. Outside help is critical.

5 – Learn to live in Daytight Compartments – The notion of “One Day at a Time” is almost a cliche in dealing with these situations, but there is some truth to the idea that just for today I can endure and do the things that I could never do for the rest of my life. For me, the idea of daytight compartments, like watertight compartments on a ship, helped me get through tough times.

Responding to Self Injury

6 – Talk about it – One of the things I did right in this was insist from day one that we would not act ashamed about it and talk freely about self-injury. It is always ok to ask if injuries need immediate treatment, for example. It’s ok to talk about feelings – from my feelings about specific events to her feelings before or after cutting. It’s also ok to talk about other things besides self-injury – there is a whole life taking place at the same time.

7 – Set Boundaries on Behavior – I mentioned above that trying to control her behavior stems from a false belief that somehow I can do it for her. This is one of the broken systems that reinforces negative behavior, rather than balancing or opposing it. Natural consequences are much better. One of the first consequences we had was that all cuts had to be examined by a medical professional within 24 hours.

8 – Build a Team – My daughter’s recovery team became her school nurse, her family doctor, her psychologist and later a psychiatrist. Each of them got a copy of the Bill of Rights for People Who Self-Harm and it made a very real difference in the level of care she received.

9 – Stay the Parent – My daughter at one point was using her self-injury as a point of leverage to take control of the family. She would threaten to cut herself to get herself out of situations, and these tools helped get us past that point. She would threaten, and I would respond that I can’t stop her if she chooses self-injury but then medical care is required, and if self-injury was a part of any behavior contract, then those consequences would happen as well.

10 – Love her enough to respect her decisions – This is the hardest one, and a recent bit of learned wisdom. I think this is because the same need I have to protect her from harm is also in play to keep her from harm by way of her consequences of her actions. This is still an ongoing struggle for me as it is a great theory until I see behavior that is likely to cause problems for yars to come or legal issues and so on. In our case, it meant loving her enough to respect decisions even when the consequences included not living at home for a while, hospitalization, school settings that took her away from music, and so on.

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Laser Ninja Robots and the French Revolution

family, Life as it is, Mistakes

As a master of making mistakes, it is important that I recognize them and learn from them. That way I can stop making that same mistake and go out and find some new error while trying to do well.

A Video Worth Watching

In this case of an error on my part, it has to do with the French Revolution and planning. Now, I don’t mean to say that I am a revolutionary or an instigator of uprisings or anything of the sort. Rather, it has to do with my son’s report for school on the French Revolution and his decision to earn extra credit through making it a video – and, to his credit, making it the sort of wonderfully funny video that only he could make.

My Mistake

My error in this was simple. My son told me that this was his decision and that he had some ideas. Like a concerned parent that has learned some wisdom, I did try to stay out of it so that it could be his own vision and humor and video to present to the class. In addition, I also demonstrated some additional learning from other mistakes by watching to make sure he was making some forward progress. That is, I noted his study on the French Revolution and even saw that he had gotten DVD’s of documentaries on the subject, after all, I had seen what happened in his test of whether teachers really read the essays turned in for a grade.

But in hindsight, that wasn’t enough. I realized this at midnight on the night before it had to be turned in, when I realized that while fully animated, he had not yet rendered the video. Knowing what sort of computer he has in his room and how ancient it is, I quickly offered to install the software on my photoediting system so that the rendering would complete that night. And he still had to assemble the final video from there.

My mistake was simple. I have spent a long time learning how to plan and execute complex projects, but I have never sat down and shared that knowledge with him. Now, I am not talking about formal project management and creating gantt charts, but rather simpler planning on how to get from here to there – once we have identified where here and there are.

What I am Learning

I am a fan of the Getting Things Done, or GTD if you prefer, system by David Allen for most of what I need to be done. And while my execution of the system is flawed and erratic, I have long since loved and used his Natural Planning Process for most of my one-man projects at work and home. I even once made this simple diagram while reading and rereading the details of the process in David Allen’s book and I keep a copy on my wall at work where I can always see it:

[Image removed due to incompatibility issues in IE]

So I met with my son and reviewed these questions – trying to help him see where we can do better next time. In discussing what “wild success” means, it became clear that the video could have been made much cooler than it already is. When translating “wild success” to “the most awesome thing you could imagine your project doing at the end”, he responded, “It could have ninja laser robots worked into it somewhere.”

So there you have it from one wiser than me. Plan your french revolution properly, and laser ninja robots might just save the day. Of course, as it is, the teacher kept a copy and shared it with every class he had that day. Imagine what would have happened, had we hit the wild success of the laser ninja robots worked into the story line as well.

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Continuous Change

Change, family, Life as it is, Mistakes, Spiritual Journey

A very long time ago, I was introduced to the idea of continuous improvement – or to use the japanese term, kaizen. Nowadays it means a lot of formal processes and is an integral part in LEAN processes and Six Sigma and such, but when I first heard it 25 years ago, I only knew it was a powerful idea about continuous improvement – and that it had possibilities in work or in one’s life.

I’d love to tell you that I embraced it, and lived it fully, and give you a field report of what its like to have lived 25 years of continuous change. But I can’t.

Circles and Neon

My problem with continuous improvement – or even slight improvement – is that it involves change. And like Monk once said, “I don’t mind change, as long as I am not there when it happens.” And when I am busy trying to not make any mistakes, or do that perfectionism thing, I become rigid and inflexible – and so I resist change. And then that continuous improvement thing just can’t breathe and dies.

But this is on my mind at the moment for a few reasons. First, I am about to experience a significant amount of change in my life as my daughter will return home soon. And secondly, I have recently come to the realization that change is an intrinsic part of improvement.

My son and I have been living together alone for most of the past year, since my daughter was hospitalized. And while it hasn’t been perfect, it has – for the most part – worked. That is, it has worked in a way that is a change from the way things did not work when last my daughter lived here. So as much joy as I feel to have my wonderful daughter back in my daily life, I also feel some fear of the unknown.

They must often change, who would be constant in happiness or wisdom.
–Confucius

Things were not working well before, and then things did work, and that move from not working to working is both a change and an improvement. This next change is coming – and it can be an improvement. (While all improvement must be a change, not all change is an improvement.)

So as I have considered this and looked at it, and given myself permission to feel the feelings as long as it doesn’t keep me from getting things done that need to happen for this to work, I thought I would share some of the ideas that I am having on the subject:

  • I am the author of my life and so I can write this next chapter – or at least outline and start it – the way I think it could go. This is a rejection to the passivity that I used to have to change, and means I have a chance to influence the change to be an improvement. Maybe even a big improvement.
  • The only place I can author this change is in my choices of what I do. I don’t get to choose for anyone else what they will do. Trust me, I’ve tried, and it doesn’t work. But my own choices, that is where the rubber meets the road.
  • Some of the changes coming may be changes I will really enjoy. Like going to the symphony with my daughter again and shooting with our cameras.
  • Some of the changes I may not enjoy. I don’t like the decions that others make sometimes. And where that conflicts with my boundaries and my responsibilities as a parent, I sometimes must choose to do things I would rather not do – or in a more basic form, I don’t want to live through some of the things I have had to live through in the past.
  • I have chosen to embrace change – to be open to its possibilities. It feels frightening – but only in that way that doing the right thing seems to stir fear up for me.

So that is where I am. I have finally come to the realization that I will never have the sort of life that gets better and better every day unless I have a life that keeps improving. And continuous improvement really just means continuous change (that we hope will be positive more times than not).

If today is going to be better than yesterday, then I need to let the day change to let that happen. (Otherwise it would be the same, you know?)

If nothing ever changed, there’d be no butterflies.
–Author Unknown

How about you and change? How do you handle it? Are you comfortable with it? What gets you through the times when lots of things all change at once?

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There Are No Wrong Notes

Life as it is, Mistakes

Before attending a Sunday performance at the Houston Symphony, I love taking my guests to have brunch first.  It gives a chance for conversation and avoids the last minute traffic rush.  There is a great jazz brunch a short walk from Jones Hall, and recently while dining with my step-mother before Handel’s Messiah, I noticed a sign I had never seen before.

In life, just like jazz, there are no wrong notes

I jotted this down in my notebook I carry as it had a profound impact on me. What if every mistake and error and screw up and all those things that eventually bring me wisdom were, in fact, part of a master’s performance that was my life?

I recently had a photoshoot with someone that expressed horror at my idea of trying something that might not work just to see if it could be done. Now, this is a person I respect and has more experience in the professional end of a photoshoot than I have, and I understand the importance of knowing one’s craft, but it seems there was something missing in such a philosophy.

I reserve the right to make mistakes. That is a fundamental premise of which i often must remind myself. For this is not my natural state. My nature is to try to avoid mistakes – the idea of making a fool of myself (when I am not trying to do so when entertaining) is frightening to me. So I have to remind myself that it is OK to make mistakes. The safer I try to stay by not making mistakes, the less I will grow and the less I can ever create with images, words or ideas.

Sax in the City

In this case, finding the sign suddenly after countless brunches at this restaurant was a very real help to me. I had just decided to change all my Christmas plans and to make a spur of the moment trip of thousands of miles by car with my son to see my daughter. In addition, I was feeling more stress and fear than usual in handling Christmas as a single father because of all of this. David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, says that the people most likely to procrastinate out of fear are the people with the imaginations to imagine all of the things that can go wrong – and I qualify in that regard. The amount of fear that i might make a mistake and ruin Christmas was a significant weight this year.

But here’s where the idea that making mistakes is ok – there are no wrong notes – helped me out. I was able to realize that I am the author of my own Christmas story, or if you prefer, the composer of my own melody. And so I promptly wrote myself a permission slip allowing me to get things wrong and that any outcome of my efforts to do right for the care of my children – and my own care as well – is acceptable and, in fact, a perfect outcome.

We had a great Christmas as a result. The kind that will be reflected on by myself and my children for years to come. And it all came from that idea that there are no wrong notes.

Or if you prefer to hear from a master, here’s a couple thoughts Miles Davis – the jazz trumpeter and composer – had to say on this idea of wrong notes:

“There are no wrong notes in jazz: only notes in the wrong places.”

“It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note – it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.”

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