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Monday, April 18, 2005

When Humor Hurts, and When Humor Heals

For some, it's a familiar scenario. You've been sitting for hours already in the stuffy boardroom. You and other key personnel in your organization have been trying to solve a sticky corporate problem that just defies solution. Nobody seems to be seeing eye to eye. Nerves are already on edge. You've got a life of your own. So have your colleagues. When will you get out of this place?

Then, without warning, one of you says something funny. Everybody roars with laughter. (Or are they just pretending?) Now, there are two possibilities.

Could be that this was just what the doctor ordered. A sudden and powerful release of pent-up emotions. Muscles that were tensed up a moment ago are now relaxed. With renewed vigor, you get back to the business at hand. So you'll get home a little late tonight - so what?

Alternatively, the joke - or perhaps more accurately, the wisecrack - sounds awful funny for a moment, but the status quo quickly returns. The tension in your muscles, and in the air, doesn't dissipate; on the contrary it intensifies. The only one in the room who possibly feels some emotional release is the guy who made the "humorous" comment, and even with him, it doesn't last long. It's quickly replaced by a feeling of emptiness, even depression.

And of course, there could be one hapless man or woman among the audience who not only feels edgy, but positively humiliated.

Life is full of trials and tribulations. We are surrounded by aggravating people, plans that didn't work out the way we intended, situations that challenge our very sanity. We can't always change the facts, but we can change the way we view a certain situation. And to bring such positive changes about, we can surely find no more efficient catalyst than humor.

We know how humor can improve relationships, and if you're, say, a business person, it can even make a difference to your bottom line. Even the healing potential of humor is today openly acknowledged by the medical profession.

A good joke can be a spontaneous response to a certain situation. It doesn't have to be the kind that you see posted all over the Internet or printed in a book. It doesn't need to be funny enough to make people slap their sides in hysterics. If it produces a good feeling in those who hear it, it has achieved its purpose. Nothing more is required.

The problem is that many people fail to appreciate the fine but very distinct line between genuine, healthy humor and cynicism or sarcasm. That is dangerous. Many a school teacher, for example, whether innocently or maliciously, has ruined a child for life with his or her warped sense of humor.

Humor is a wonderful tool that helps to make the world a better place, but we must be careful that our personal brand is not really cynicism in disguise. A psychologist suggests these guidelines to help us distinguish between the two concepts:
May your day be filled with laughter. And above all, may you merit to spread all those positive feelings to those around you.

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Sunday, April 10, 2005

Eating Disorders - and Family Tensions

In my previous post, we discussed how some social and interpersonal problems are often blamed on "poor communication skills" or the like. Unfortunately, however, people are inclined to confuse cause and result. They fail to distinguish between the symptoms and the disease itself, the outward manifestations and the underlying causes.

Not surprising really, because we all know that uncovering root causes is seldom easy. But of course, that's no excuse for not trying. We have to begin peeling away the surface layer that may be obscuring the reality. And if necessary, keep on peeling, layer after layer, asking ourselves "Why?" with each turn of the knife.

I recently read a poignant and revealing personal testimony of a young woman who during her teenage years had fallen victim to that traumatic and mysterious condition known as anorexia. Of course, nobody had the faintest idea why a highly intelligent youth - product of an affluent, caring and popular family - would want to inflict real pain upon her own body by physically making herself smaller, by starving herself. Even placing her very life in danger.

It just doesn't make sense. Until one starts to probe deeper. And deeper.

The young woman relates that she never felt anything was lacking in her home. Her parents met all her physical needs and tried desperately to fill her emotional needs. But in a home where everybody was expected to be positive and happy all the time, where negative emotions were somehow frowned upon, she had felt, deep down in her childhood soul, invisible. No wonder that by the age of ten she was obese.

The consequences of this were not only physical. Even though she enjoyed a special relationship with her grandmother, each time granny introduced her to someone she would say, "Here's my little fat grandchild." Other family members were hardly more tactful. It all hurt her beyond words, but in a home where conflict was to be avoided like the plague, she was afraid to express her pain.

The next step, a few years later, was perhaps inevitable: "I decided that if I became little, people would have to protect me. They would have to take notice. I wanted to be noticed.." In the end, notwithstanding the terrible price she knew she was paying, our young lady was at last getting all the love, attention and concern she had always craved.

The account I read does not say, but one wonders what was going through the minds of her parents during this heartrending period of crisis. If only... If only...

If only what?

One could speculate that had the girl only managed to communicate her pain and humiliation at her family's thoughtless references to her obesity, the outcome could have been very different. Not certain, but very likely.

But what were the impediments that prevented her from doing that? Why did she have such difficulty in expressing her natural feelings and emotions?

I'll leave a full analysis to you. (And in case you've forgotten, the "comments" button is right below!)

At any rate, we see how far we some times have to probe - with a very good measure of sensitivity, tact and common sense, of course - if we genuinely have the interests of our fellow human beings at heart. And how careful we have to be not to jump to superficial conclusions.

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Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Teenage Suicides: Is Faulty Communication to Blame?

Communication breakdown is blamed for a multitude of sins in commerce, industry, government and even sporting circles. Using various news items culled from news media to illustrate her case, my colleague Helen Wilkie warns us that the symptoms should never be confused with the disease. Another site contributor, Tom Terez, makes the same point and drives it home with some very funny imaginary conversations.

What applies in business and the workplace applies in other environments, especially within the family unit.

In my last post, I wrote about difficulties some parents have in persuading their children not to smoke. It's very easy to ascribe such situations, where the older generation feels it just can't get through to the younger and the younger feels much the same way about the older, to "communication problems". That's not entirely wrong, but with every malady, physical or social, you have symptoms, and you have the underlying causes.

And we must be careful not to confuse the two.

I've seen a number of news items recently, particularly from Asian countries, about the increasing incidence of suicides by teenagers who believed they had let their parents down by performing poorly in important school examinations. Some reports specifically quoted the bereaved parents as saying that had they only known what their distraught sons or daughters were thinking, they would have taken pains to reassure them. This led local powers-that-be to propose urgent training courses for both teens and their parents in communication skills.

That's a praiseworthy objective. But are we merely talking about imparting some kind of technical skill? Why are the parties not communicating with each other? Because they don't know how? Are we sure we're not confusing cause and result?

I'll try to throw some light on these questions in my next post, by analyzing a case study relating to an emotion-driven - and sometimes fatal - disease that is sadly becoming far too common among today's youngsters.

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