Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Social Allergens: The Impact of Annoying Habits

The Personal Journal section of today's Wall Street Journal had a headline that caught my attention: "I'm Sorry, I'm Allergic to You." The article highlighted the work of Dr. Michael Cunningham, a psychologist and professor at the University of Louisville, who for 15 years has been studying a phenomenon called, "Social Allergens," behaviors or habits that drive other people "nuts." These behaviors or habits can be, intentional or unintentional, personal or impersonal. All impact others in a way that causes discomfort, irritation and/or annoyance.

Dr. Cunningham describes four groupings of "social allergens." The first is "uncouth habits." When a person does something that is considered rude or breaks social norms for polite behavior, they may not be doing it intentionally and it is not personally directed at others. A person might be chewing their food loudly, getting food stains all over their shirt, or picking their nose in public. The behavior may make you feel uncomfortable, but the actor is not thinking about the others it impacts.

"Egocentric actions" are a second category of social allergens. While not necessarily intentional, the behaviors are directed at you personally. Have you ever had a friend who does not order dessert, and then, without asking your permission, helps themselves to half of yours? Or a friends who smokes their smelly cigarette so close to you that you are breathing in the smoke, whether you want to or not? Or the friend who helps themselves to your cellphone without asking your permission? Or assumes you will do something with them without asking or checking your availability?

"Norm violations" are intentional but not personal. Examples the article gives are talking during a movie, or texting while driving. Other examples include running a red light or not paying income taxes.

The fourth grouping of social allergens includes "actions that are both intentional and directed personally." Insulting another person, starting a fight by saying a provocative comment or making an insensitive comment like, "what are you doing eating ice cream when you said you wanted to lose weight?" are all examples of this fourth category. The speaker may not be aware that s/he is making you feel bad. But his/her comments/actions do make you feel bad.

People we encounter regularly in close relationships are plentiful generators of our social allergies. Just like with many physical allergies, like pollen or animal dander, repetition may trigger and exacerbate our allergic reaction. If someone does something moderately annoying once, we can just write it off as eccentric or "just the way they are." However, if a friend or colleague, or partner or boss repeatedly picks their nose, barges in on you without knocking, walks around the office with food stains on their shirt, our annoyance level, or allergy, grows more uncomfortable.

Dr Cunningham notes that at work, where our relationships are involuntary, we may experience more social allergens. We may be more tolerant or forgiving of our friends and loved ones. On the other hand, in romantic relationships, where there is initially "new relationship energy," where we put our best foot forward and see the idealized version of the other person for the first one to six months, as time passes and defenses go down, we might find ourselves increasingly annoyed by some little idiosyncrasy that we could initially just write off. The article calls this "de-romanticism." And people who once thought they loved each other can find themselves picking fights over which end of the toothpaste tube should be squeezed or how many paper towels are okay to use to clean up a spill.

How do we reel ourselves in and truly not sweat the small stuff, so that the small stuff does not blow up an imperfect, but very human relationship?

1. Learn to accept that we all have idiosyncrasies. We are all uniquely human. And we all have different habits or patterns or concepts of behavior. Letting the other person be on the small stuff, like making hospital corners on not when making a bed, or closing the refrigerator door right away after taking an item out versus leaving it open to go grab a second item, can ease tension and reduce allergic reactions.

2. Talk with the other person gently about their behavior. If someone you work with or are close to has an annoying behavior find a gentle and respectful way to talk about it. If you can tell a colleague, "I know your job involves a lot of phone calls, but when you talk on the phone it is often so loud I can hear your voice in my office. You may not be aware of how your voice travels," that is very different than accusing them of disturbing your piece or telling them they are a loud mouth and to shut up.

3. Work on your own reactions. See if you can give your colleague or loved one a little more slack. Take a few deep breaths. Don't react.

4. See if what is annoying you is actually a signal that there are deeper concerns or issues in your relationship. If you feel good about someone, their little annoying habits can more easily be brushed off. If you are harboring resentment about deeper issues, the little annoying habits are magnified. If there ARE deeper issues, address them respectfully. And if you can't do it yourselves, get counseling.

All in all, it is certainly good advice not to sweat the small stuff, and to pick your battles. We are all human. Can we learn to laugh with and at our idiosyncrasies rather than erupt in allergic reactions?

Dancing With Life: I Hope You'll Dance

"I hope you never lose your sense of wonder. You get your fill to eat but always keep that hunger. May you never take one single breath for granted. God forbid love ever leave you empty handed. I hope you feel small when you stand beside the ocean. Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens. Promise me that you'll give faith a fighting chance. And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance. I hope you dance."

--Lee Ann Womack

As a little girl, I was always moved to dance. When my family went on vacation to the Cape, if we drove by a "sock hop," I would always ask my parents to pull over so I could go inside. My parents told me I was a little girl, and that I would not be allowed inside. But I asked and asked and asked every single time we passed a "sock hop" sign for months on end. And one day, perhaps realizing I just was not going to stop asking, they let me go inside. Child or not, I jumped right in and danced. And I connected with a very deep impulse in me that has always moved me, carried me and expressed me.

I learned that dance is really a wonderful metaphor for life. And while it was a sad occasion, the funeral of a teenage boy from the Boys to Men program's father's sudden and unexpected death, that reconnected me with Lee Ann Womack's poignant song, "I Hope You Dance," I am grateful to have her words reintroduced to my heart and mind. When given the choice to sit it out or dance, I always DANCE.

Dance is like love: each moment invites you to a constant opening, to be present, to use all of your senses, to let yourself move with what moves you. Dance, like love, invites you to let go of self-judgment, judgment of others and other inhibitions, and let yourself be moved from the inside out. Dance, like love, is, in the words of Kim Anami, "a constant choice to be loving, to be kind, generous and to take the high road in everything. To see the best in those around you." And to let your spirit guide your every move.

To dance with life is to be both receptive and co-creative. By being open and receptive to all of life's currents, and to what stirs your own heart and soul, allows you to not only tap your own internal creative well, but to join forces collaboratively with other people, spirit and the flow of life moment to moment and over time. Dancing with life allows you to fully embrace possibility, and opportunity. Dancing with life allows you to integrate vision and action.

In life, just like on the dance floor, there are many moods and tempos and beats. And some are slow. Others are fast. Some are happy. Some are sad. But it is the fullness and wholeness and variety and authenticity that brings the richness of the experience home. To be fully alive, we feel everything--dark and light. Our culture tends to value "positive" experiences and devalue or even reject what gets labelled as "negative" experiences. Realistically, some experiences feel better than others. But they are all essential, valuable and life enriching experiences. Some of us prefer a Latin beat. Others like hip hop. Or rock and roll. Or jazz. Or R&B. All genres are, as Stevie Wonder so aptly wrote, "Songs in the key of life."

The price of sitting out is high. Lee Ann Womack says, "Never settle for the path of least resistance. Living might mean takin' chances but they are worth takin'. Lovin' might be a mistake but it's worth makin,' Don't let some hell bent heart leave you bitter, When you come close to selling' out reconsider." Dancing with life may not always be easy. In fact, sometimes it might be just plain hard or painful. Yet, if we can be present with hard and painful, we also have the capacity to be present will easy, and joyful. An open heart feels all there is to feel. And what more complete experience is there than to fully dance!!!