What’s Needed in these Uncertain Times? Maybe More Empathy…

hands in shape of love heart

In the fourth week of the Trump Administration, with the news changing so quickly every day, we are once again reminded that we need to stay grounded. I have been staying active in my community and riding most of the tumultuous waves by practicing the mindset of Maybe. But the deportation of Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, who came to this country when she was a teenager and was taken into custody by U.S. Immigration officials during a routine check-in, shook me deeply. In addition to Maybe, I found myself needing another way to cope. I watched the live news coverage of Ms. Rayos sitting in a van with immigration officials waiting to be deported. Her two kids, husband, friends and immigrant-rights advocates tried to block the van from moving. As I sat on the couch with my two children by my side, watching the news, I could not stop crying. Immigrant-rights advocates have portrayed Ms. Rayos as a victim of President Trump’s sweeping new deportation orders. At the same time, her deportation has been viewed differently by others who have praised Trump’s immigration orders because Ms. Rayos had a felony conviction. That conviction stemmed from a 2008 work-site raid on employees at amusement parks, Ms. Rayos among them, who were working using false social security numbers.

The deportation of undocumented immigrants was not a policy originally created by the Trump administration. The Obama administration deported millions of undocumented immigrants over the last eight years. Donald Trump and his administration might be casting a wider net, deporting immigrants with no criminal records, but both administrations have supported the removal of people present in the United States illegally. In an effort to understand and process what’s been happening, I called a few friends who voted for Hilary Clinton and some who voted for Donald Trump about these immigration issues. The results have been interesting.

My friends who voted for Hilary Clinton were not totally aware that millions of people were deported during the Obama administration and all felt that Ms. Rayos should be allowed to stay in the country. My friends who voted for President Trump were under the impression that Obama did nothing to deport undocumented immigrants. Unanimously, my pro-Trump friends felt it was the right decision to deport Ms. Rayos. They believed she had committed a crime by working while using false documents and needed to leave the country. At the end of my day of conversations with both sides, I called one of my Trump-supporting friends back and asked her to watch the footage of Ms. Rayos in the van. I asked my friend to imagine she was Ms. Rayos and was about to be separated from her children and husband. I asked her how she would feel if she never got to return home again. “If you needed to make money to feed your family, would you have used fake identification to work? I asked her. My friend called me back the next day and said the footage made her cry. She could not imagine being separated from her children and losing her home. She acknowledged that she probably would have used fake work papers if she’d been in that situation. I asked her again if Ms. Rayos should be deported, she said she felt terrible for Ms. Rayos and told me it was more difficult to answer that question now than it had been before she put herself in Ms. Rayos’s place.

For those of you who are not familiar with what my friend experienced, it is called empathy. Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference. Empathy can be the gateway to a more humane and peaceful society, but for empathy to be effective in a society, we can’t just use it for the person we already sympathize with or someone whom we believe is a victim. We also must access empathy for the people we perceive to be our enemies and for those who are standing against us. Without it working both ways, empathy cannot lead us to a place of greater understanding towards all.

Does this mean you need to have as much empathy for people who support the deportation of all undocumented immigrants as you would for Ms. Rayos herself? Well, empathy is not sympathy. Understanding another’s point of view does not mean taking that person’s side. Sometimes, empathy does lead you to a softer place, an agreement or a change of mind. Other times, empathy can be quite strategic because you can understand your opposition’s mindset better. It can give you insight for better decisions and help you effectuate change with better tactics.

Empathy can be hard when we have to listen to what we don’t like, acknowledge another point of view, and try to understand a different perspective. But empathy is worth the effort. It makes us all wiser and more strategic and sometimes it even changes how we see something. For my friend who likes Trump’s immigration policies, being able to relate to Ms. Rayos as a mother, a wife, and a person who has lived in the U.S. for most of her life enabled her to view Ms. Rayos from a more humane, honest and less fear-driven place. Now I suppose it’s my turn to attempt empathy for those who would oppose a person like Ms. Rayos being in the U.S. It’s not that I have to agree with them, but as I seek to support immigrant rights, I may be more effective in my arguments if I can empathize with the other side.

Exercise for this week

In the morning when you wake up, commit to practicing empathy. At least three times during the day, place yourself in someone else’s shoes and see how it feels. Try to understand where that person is coming from. Did imagining yourself in their shoes change how you feel about them or the situation? Did it make you softer towards them? Did it make you less angry? Did it help you forgive them or better understand how to deal with them? Did it help you win an argument or be more strategic? Did it make you feel more peaceful?

After practicing this exercise for a week, I did not change my political stance toward immigration on the part of people seeking better lives. Far from it. While I did soften my judgment of voters who might feel threatened by the presence of people in this country whom they perceive as taking jobs from them, doing this exercise also propelled me to put my law degree to work. I am getting trained next week by a Catholic charity to provide pro bono legal services so I can assist immigrants at asylum workshops and an immigration court helpdesk. With empathy, I realized how scared I would feel if I was a law-abiding undocumented immigrant in New York City and I felt compelled to try and help. It is a small act but my heart is open and I am hopeful that Maybe I can help someone like Ms. Rayos in the future.

It seems like there are more rocky times ahead. As we view immigration policies and other issues facing our country, empathy will continue to be a key component to creating policies for a more humane society and at the same time keeping the United States safe for all. Empathy is not just needed from Donald Trump and his supporters, but also from everyone of every political stripe if we are to improve our society.

Continue to stay involved with issues that are important to you. Your Maybe mindset, along with some empathy, are good tools to help you forge a better relationship with uncertainty. And stay tuned–I will be back next week with more tips in a new Survival Guide for Uncertain Times.

Originally posted in Psychology Today.

A Survival Guide For Uncertain Times Week #3: Give up Positive Thinking

American optimism and positive economic sentiment in the United States of America as a national government hope metaphor as a wiper clearing the gray dark wet clouds with 3D illustration elements.

It is the end of week three of Donald Trump’s presidential term, and this week my Survival Guide will address the pitfalls of positive thinking. I have spoken to many people who didn’t vote for Donald Trump and are now struggling with his daily tweets, executive orders and Cabinet appointments. I find that many of the people I spoke to are either completely negative about Trump’s Presidency or are trying to stay positive and failing miserably.

When you are completely comfortable with uncertainty, a positive outlook comes naturally. You are not rattled by new events or tweets and can sustain faith that life will work out one way or another. It doesn’t mean you are not concerned or active in your community, you just tend not to worry so much about the future. Most people, though, have some degree of fear of the unknown, and turn either to negative or to positive thinking to help themselves feel certain, while deep down they are really afraid. The problem is that the certainty we seek doesn’t exist. The more we try to lock into any perspective, the more pain and chaos we feel.

A person feeling negativity towards the Trump administration will feel pain most of the time because they are always projecting that whatever is occurring today cannot get better or that bad things are sure to happen in the future. The person trying to maintain a positive outlook will experience a rollercoaster of emotions whenever uncertainty arises. How many times since Trump has taken office have you said, “I am going to try to be more positive about Trump’s presidency” only to fall apart when you come home and read some of his tweets about “three million illegal votes” or CNN’s “fake news”? How many times have you woken up in the morning saying, “Today I am going to try to be more positive. I believe I can make a difference. I will win the fight against the nomination of Betsy DeVos or save the EPA and advocate for the environment”? Then, as the day or week goes on, you find out that Betsy DeVos is confirmed by the Senate and then read the news about legislation being introduced to get rid of the EPA. If you fear the unknown, these turns of fate will most likely propel you into a worried, anxiety-ridden, negative state. Our fear of what these events might mean for the future overtakes our ability to stay positive.

I rode this type of emotional rollercoaster for most of my life. After decades of struggling with the pain and pressure of trying to shape my perceptions positively, one day I heard a simple Taoist story that introduced me to the idea of Maybe. The instant I heard this story, my life immediately changed. I was struck with the realization that every situation has multiple possible outcomes. Maybe something else could happen other than the thing I feared most. It totally transformed my relationship with uncertainty.

With the mindset of Maybe, we can stay positive and open because we hold onto the realization that we are not “stuck” when life throws us a curve ball. The minute we hear someone we oppose is confirmed by the Senate or there is another executive order banning immigration, we realize that we are not automatically doomed. Maybe we can manage the situation. Maybe we can file a lawsuit. Maybe the Judicial Branch will provide checks and balances. Maybe the Cabinet member that was confirmed by Congress will do some good things. Maybe we need to act. Maybe things will be tough for a while. Or Maybe everything in this moment is still okay. And yes, this also includes (as much as some people might want to resist) the idea that Maybe Donald Trump will pass some good legislation down the road.

With Maybe we realize that uncertainty guarantees us only one thing–that life will change again, offering us new possibilities. Maybe is not a passive approach to life or a naive view of what is happening in the world today. Instead, it allows you to give up the projection of fear and worry about what this moment means for the future, and lands you firmly in the present. Being present allows you to act with strength and resilience and hold hope for a better tomorrow. We should celebrate our “not knowing.” It leaves us with unlimited possibilities.

Here is a great Maybe exercise that I do when I feel fearful and unsure about the President’s actions. By the way, if you feel positively about Donald Trump’s policies, you run the same risk of being on an emotional rollercoaster ride if you struggle with uncertainty. At some point, life will throw you something unexpected. So, this exercise is good for you too!

Maybe Exercise

First, spend a few minutes thinking about the current situation that is causing you stress and worry. Write down a statement about how you feel about it.

Now ask yourself, are your worries and stressful thoughts absolute? Can you know for certain how things will turn out? If you are not certain, try to acknowledge that other possibilities exist. How does the thought that other possibilities exist make you feel?

Next, challenge your statement with the idea of Maybe. Write down the following: “Maybe my beliefs about my situation are not true; Maybe what is happening is good; Maybe what is happening is awful but I can help improve the situation; Maybe I can find a way to accept whatever I am experiencing and still be all right; Maybe, in time, I will know what to do next; Maybe I need to act; Maybe there is something in this moment for me to experience.” You can put these statements in your own words or just use the ones above. How does your situation look against the idea of Maybe? Do you feel more hopeful? Do you see that the situation can work out differently than you were fearing it would?

Write these Maybe statements down a few times each day and review them often. If you can, add more Maybe statements that challenge your stress and worry about the current situation. Keep your attention on these Maybe statements the next few days and see what happens to your fears and worries.

Maybe allows us to see that uncertainty can be the most hopeful part of our lives. It actually supports us to stay positive with a looser grasp of what the future holds.

No matter what your politics are, most often you begin to see that each situation you face has many possible outcomes. Maybe you need to march, petition, go to town meetings, run for office, or make your voice heard in some other way. Because if you don’t like what is happening today, Maybe with some time and effort things can get better tomorrow, or next year, or MAYBE in the next election.

Keep hope alive!

Originally Published in Psychology Today

A Survival Guide for Uncertain Times Week 2: Communicate

Ponte che collega le persone

“I was once asked why I don’t participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.” –Mother Teresa

A few weeks ago, I attended the New York City Women’s March. When I got home, I received a call from a friend who voted for Donald Trump.  He felt the Women’s March was divisive and portrayed those who had voted for Donald Trump as horrible people. He said he was not a horrible person simply because he voted for Donald Trump over Hilary Clinton. He told me he had seen on the news signs from the march that proclaimed, “He is not my president,” and “Dump Trump.” He heard a clip from Madonna in Washington, DC that he found violent and upsetting. I tried to express to him how wonderful the March was for me and how the people at these marches care about important issues facing the world today. But my friend could only focus on the negatives he has seen on the news.

As I lay awake in bed that night, I felt overwhelmed that my relationship with this dear old friend had become so argumentative. The next day I called him back. The first thing I said was, “Donald Trump is President of the United States.  I don’t want to discuss the election and I just want to focus on what is happening today.  Let’s talk facts.”

As the discussion continued, the things my friend said to me sounded like a string of Fox News sound bites. I probably sounded to him like a tape of MSNBC sound bites!  Again, we were getting nowhere.  My friend and I took a pause. We each agreed that we would research the following issues: refugees, the economy and education, and we would have another discussion in a few days. We also agreed we would carefully read President Trump’s Executive Orders.

I did my homework. When I spoke to my friend a few days later, it was not easy for either of us.  Yet with deep breathing, a lot of disagreement and a lot of self-control, I discovered that my friend “the Trump Supporter” is a strong believer in public education and is not supportive of Trump’s cabinet pick Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary. I agreed that we should fix infrastructure and create new manufacturing jobs and we both agreed there was no plan to do that in place to date.  He was unable to convince me of the merit of any of Trump’s Executive Orders thus far, but I am committed to keep speaking with him. I am sincerely hoping that I will have the opportunity to support some issues that Donald Trump is advocating for in the future.

In one of our conversations, I convinced my friend who voted for President Trump to write a letter to Chuck Schumer asking him to vote against the nomination of Betsy DeVos.  It might seem like a minor act to some, but it was a huge movement for us in bridging the divide on an issue we both care about.

From my experiences this week, here are some communication tips for our Age of Uncertainty:

1.    A New Tactic. Sharing views in conversation that Donald Trump “should not be president” or walking around with “Dump Trump” signs is a waste of time.  It is divisive and gives Donald Trump, his administration and supporters a distraction, allowing them to talk about how “the progressives have not accepted the election results” instead of focusing on the details of Trump’s Executive Orders.  You will never have a productive conversation with anyone who supports Donald Trump using this tactic. Divisiveness and constant chaos can only affect very limited change. We must continue to find ways to bring people into the conversation while we keep fighting for the things we believe in.

2.   Know the facts.  Most of us don’t know enough about the issues that we’re passionate about.  We might not be reciting “alternative facts” and false narratives, but most of us could do better.  How many of us knew the filibuster rules in the Senate had been changed in 2013? How many of us know how President Trump’s Executive Order banning travel from seven countries differs from President Obama’s Executive Order in 2011 regarding travel from Iraq? If you don’t know the facts, people will run circles around you. This goes for Trump supporters as well.  We all need to read real statistics, look for sources on government websites, get a copy of the constitution, and read the laws and executive orders themselves. I have created a fact book on my computer.  Every day I cut and paste pieces of articles, laws and orders into my book and cite sources.  I refer to it often and I would not hesitate to take it to a meeting or discussion. Especially if we have to argue against alternative facts or fake news, we must do our best to be educated.

3.  Improve your listening skills.  Take your turn talking with people that oppose your ideas and be willing to listen even if you don’t agree. One of my friends and I use a talking stick when we get together to make sure we don’t interrupt each other.  I also practice patience and tolerance by listening in on CSPAN to members in the House of Representatives who have opposing views to mine.  I feel myself getting uncomfortable and angry as I watch, but I breathe through it and try to stay calm. Of course, if any conversation we are part of becomes insulting, racist or offensive in any way, let us call it for what is and leave.  If you can stay with the conversation, try to calmly explain why the other person’s views are not acceptable to you.  I find that deep breathing when another person is speaking helps. Sometimes massaging my own hands keeps me from interrupting.  If you have the patience to listen, you may find you agree on some issues.

4.  Stick to Specific Issues.There are so many events, petitions and marches on specific issues.  Try to invite one of your friends who voted for Trump to participate with you. Also, allow yourself to participate in events held by people with opposite views. No one should feel alienated. It is so important that we stick to specific issues at these events and not make personal attacks. My friends and I are considering hosting our own town hall to discuss issues with diverse opinions.  I will let you know if we do it and how it goes.

Yes, there is a lot of change happening. Many of our days are filled with protests, legal actions and letter writing. But we also need to keep trying to unite people by sticking to the issues. The truth is that we have more power and influence with politicians and policymakers when we try to communicate and find consensus. The news media keeps telling us how divided we are, but most of us share many common interests.  Most of us want our families to be safe and healthy, our children to have opportunity and the air we breathe to be clean. It will be very hard to solve certain problems in areas like education, healthcare and the environment if half the country digs in its heels and we stop trying to find good solutions together.  I am not saying that we can always budge on issues that are important to us, but we must try to move the conversation away from being just “for or against” Trump. We need to continue to find support from as many people as possible to unite this country for lasting change.

I hope you took some deep breaths this week.  Keep trying to take big and small actions on issues you want to change. Everything matters.  If something doesn’t go the way you plan, embrace Maybe (read my blog from last week for the Maybe mindset) and keep trying.

I’ll be back to check in with tips for you next week!

For weekly information on how to reduce stress and worry follow me on @giftofmaybe, follow my blog or check out my book The Gift of Maybe

Originally Posted in Psychology Today

A Survivor Guide To The Trump Era: Embrace Uncertainty

PHOTOART fantastic adventure in a storm

A week before the inauguration of Donald Trump, I was on an airplane going to Florida. There was a tremendous amount of turbulence on the trip so I gripped both of my armrests tightly. As I braced myself, my body got very tense and I started feeling stressed and worried. It occurred to me after several minutes as my shoulders became tenser that it was ridiculous to hold my armrests for security—I was 30,000 feet in the air!  I released my hands and placed them in my lap. I started just to breathe deeply. I slowly became calmer as I sought to let go of my fear. The turbulence lasted for most but not all of the flight. When we landed in Florida, it was 80 degrees, sunny and very pleasant.

I imagine many people can relate. The turbulence on the plane made me uncomfortable because it triggered feelings of uncertainty about my safety. In everyday life, many of us feel emotional turbulence when life is uncertain.  We try to avoid these feelings by making careful decisions about our jobs, relationships and our kids.  Even though intellectually we know certainty does not exist, we strive for it, trying to play it safe and taking solace in our decisions. But life is filled with unexpected events, and the minute something unforeseen happens, the uncertainty of the situation can activate fear and negativity about what might happen in the future.

This is one of the reasons why Donald Trump makes so many people uncomfortable.  He brings our fear of uncertainty right in front of our noses every day.  He brings us turbulence.  Whether you like Donald Trump or not, he reminds us we have no idea what will happen tomorrow or even in the next minute.

Although I have had my moments, overall I have not felt much fear since the election of Donald Trump. I believe this is because I have spent much of the last decade of my life working on becoming comfortable with, and even comforted by the unknown.  Not knowing the future is liberating and soothing because it reminds me, for example, that if I don’t like President Trump’s tweets or the decisions that he made today, there is still a possibility that things can change tomorrow and maybe get better!  This approach to uncertainty does not make me complacent or foolish. Instead, it energizes me to take action and not be crippled by fear and worry.

Getting to this point of comfort has been a lengthy process for me. I’d love to share a bit of how I did it so Maybe you’ll get there sooner! So, in that spirit, here are a first few tips to survive this new age of uncertainty.  May you find power and strength in the days ahead.

1.  Breathe, breathe, and breathe some more. After you read something in the news or see something on television that upsets you, take a long breath in and out slowly. Repeat five times. You can never go wrong with this tactic. Deep breathing dissipates nervous energy from your mind. It slows your thoughts and allows you to see a situation more clearly, helping you become less reactive to the unexpected and more thoughtful about how you will respond.

2. Adopt a Mindset of Gratitude.  You might wonder why gratitude is the second tip in this survival guide for uncertainty, but the mindset of gratitude is a wonderful, strong platform on which to stand when the ground feels a little shaky. The truth is that sometimes we are so busy thinking about what is wrong with ourselves, Donald Trump, and the world, that we forget to look at what is right in our lives. The fact is we still have a solid place on which to stand. When we are afraid of the unknown, we become fixed on what we don’t have, what doesn’t work and what can’t change.  When we list those things for which we are grateful, we can see the things that have worked out in the past and the blessings that already exist in our lives.  So, every morning when you wake up and at night before you go to sleep, make a list of everything that is working in your life.  It could be your family, your health, your job, the Constitution, the court system or as simple as the last meal you ate. Yes, it can even be something that Donald Trump has done that you may like. Why do this? It is important for us to be completely honest about everything that is working in our lives.  I like to think that this mindset helps us ground ourselves. It stops us from “filling our cups” with only negativity every day.  Gratitude enables you to start each day with a good, solid perspective and helps you fall asleep at night.  After all, we will all need our rest for the journey ahead!

3. Separate Fearful Projections from the Moment at Hand.  Some people might argue that they live with fear and anxiety because of all the bad things Donald Trump has said and what these things may mean for the future of the country. Although Donald Trump has made dramatic executive orders in his first week in office, most of the anxiety and fear some of us feel is a projection of what these orders may mean for our future. You can argue about where these actions will lead, but until something actually happens that enforces them, you are putting your emotions ahead of future events. This creates a breeding ground for fear and worry, not a strong foundation for taking your own action. Of course, we can and must take action to protect our rights as women, minorities, citizens, and even non-citizens, but fear of what will be is just in our minds.  The idea of what we think we know is crippling; in reality, the fact that we don’t know is liberating. It means outcomes other than those we fear most are possible. So, keep asking yourself, “What is happening in this moment? What are my emotions projecting into the future?”  This practice will reduce your fear and worry. The present moment is where we are most powerful!

4. The Maybe Practice.  Use the philosophy and the practice of Maybe to put a stop to negative projections, come back to the moment, and feel hopeful.  I write my biggest fears down, like “The world is going down the tubes; we are no longer safe; and the environment will be destroyed.” Then I ask myself if I am absolutely certain these statements are true.  If I am not absolutely certain these thoughts are true, I then ask myself, “What are the other possibilities?” I then take five to ten minutes and write Maybe statements on a piece of paper.  These are statements such as, “MAYBE things will be okay,” “MAYBE things will be awful and then get better,” “MAYBE my actions can make a difference,” or “MAYBE there is still hope for something we cannot even imagine.”  I then get very specific with action steps that seem like good ideas. Examples of these are:  “Maybe I should start a political action group,” “Maybe I can help stop certain legislation from passing,” “Maybe I can sue the government” (the lawyer in me never quite rests!), or “Maybe I should go to a town hall meeting.”  This “Maybe Mind” also leaves me very open to anything that Donald Trump might do that is positive, a possibility that exists to which I remain open.  The truth is that we cannot see his entire presidency in this moment. If we stop projecting all the bad things that may happen, we will have more strength and vision to act.  And even if some bad things do happen, the idea of Maybe will give us strength to figure out what we need to do next. The future contains infinite possibilities, both good and bad. But the fact that there are good possibilities should give you hope, strength and more ability to stay in the moment. Do not let fear overtake your emotions. Until our last breath, life has Maybe.

There is nothing “Pollyanna” about finding comfort in the unknown.  Instead, doing so allows us to harness our strength and be completely honest in the moment. So stop looking for certainty and safety when there is none. Take a deep breath.  Realize life has Maybe.  And take action on issues you want to change. If something doesn’t go the way you plan, embrace Maybe and keep trying. You cannot know what the journey ahead of you will bring, and that’s a good thing right now. Should you buckle your seat belt? Absolutely. But do allow yourself to let go of those arm rests.

I’ll be back to check in with more travel tips for you next week!

For weekly information on how to reduce stress and worry follow me @giftofmaybe or check out my book The Gift of Maybe.