Toxicity & Forgiveness

I’ve heard a lot of advice about cutting toxic people out of your life. Unfortunately, I don’t think it is that simple. Often times, these people are inextricably linked to us either through family, work, or other reasons.  In many cultural & religious traditions, it’s wrong to cut off family members & break family ties.

So if we cannot completely avoid such people, we should try to limit the power they have over us.  How?

1️⃣ Remember that most people who behave negatively are doing so out of their own pain.

So try to view them with compassion. Realize that they have their own hurt that is causing this behavior. Look at their brokenness rather than their harshness. This will decrease the power they have over you. Do not confuse compassion with sympathy or empathy. Do not become a doormat or let them abuse or hurt you. But rather shield your heart from them & think of them in a different way; view them as weak rather than strong.

2️⃣ When you interact with someone you perceive us “toxic”, realize that perhaps they are bringing out the worst in you. In that case, you benefit more by addressing what is within yourself, rather than worrying about their bad qualities.

We have certain chemistry with everyone we interact with; synergistic or antagonistic. The way our substance is touched by another person’s substance can bring about a good or bad reaction. Most of that is related to our own old wounds.

So when someone brings out negativity in you, take a moment to try to address those feelings. Don’t worry about the other person, reflect on yourself. What are you feeling & why? Try to peel back the layers & dig a little deeper. Perhaps with time you can realize what things trigger you or open your wounds. What things touch on your sensitivities and why. By doing that you can safeguard yourself & protect yourself from further hurt.

Ultimately I think forgiveness is better for us. So if we can try not to hold grudges & forgive people, it will decrease the power they have to hurt us. By forgiving & letting go, we are not doing it for them or justifying their actions, we are doing it for the healthiness of our own heart. 💓

Forgiveness.

There are times in life when people will hurt you. Often it’s the people you trust the most & have allowed yourself to be most vulnerable with.  Getting through those experiences can be very tough.  Here are things that may be helpful.

Talk it through with a trusted person.  Sometimes you need to get it off your chest & you need someone to listen & empathize or sympathize.  But other times, you need good advice on how to handle it.

In the case of the former, speak to someone you trust to not share your personal life with others.  Choose someone who will respond in a way that validates you without stirring you up further.  Otherwise, your well-meaning friend may make you feel even worse.

In the case of the latter, speak to someone who can look at the situation objectively & give you good advice.  Consider seeking professional help from a #therapist, especially if this may be an ongoing situation.

Take time to process your feelings before you confront the person that hurt you.  Write out what you wish you could say to them.  Then edit it over time.  You’ll find that as time passes & your emotions become less raw, you will be able to say things in a less confrontational way.  Often, if you spend enough time on this step, you won’t even feel the need to share those words with the other person because that process can be therapeutic.

Depending on the situation, you may need to eventually explain to the offending person why what they did was hurtful to you.  If so, make sure you’ve taken time to process your feelings, calm your emotions, & think through your approach.  If you attack them, they will go on the defensive & not really hear what you have to say.  If you want some change to come from this conversation, you will have to approach it calmly, & clearly outline how it could be handled better to be less hurtful to you.

Also check out my blogpost Overnight Hearts about the value of sleeping on things.

Have you had to interact with people you feel are toxic?  How have you managed? What are your tips on handling hurtful situations and arriving at forgiveness?

In Pursuit of Contentedness

I had a great conversation with Dr. Errin Weisman in this podcast interview about my personal pursuit of contentedness. 

Per Merriam-Webster dictionary, contented is an adjective meaning:  feeling or showing satisfaction with one’s possessions, status, or situation.  Contentedness is the noun of that feeling.

Some of us experience a mid-career ennui.  As life finally starts to settle down, the new calm can feel like a void because we are so used to working to achieve the next milestone.  Especially for those of us in medicine, we have been running for so many years from one step to the next; undergrad, MCAT, med school, USMLE, residency, board exams, fellowships, etc.  It is non-stop for 12+ years.  As that is finishing up, some may be getting married, trying to start a family, buy their first home, succeed in their job, or spend time with their young children.  But as the years post-training pass, and the high-adrenaline pace of those years fades into the distance, we may find ourselves in a lull.

Most of us have always been high-achievers and might not know how to just sit down and enjoy the temporary quietude. We don’t know how to sink into and experience contentedness.

In this podcast conversation, I share my experiences trying to fill every moment of my time, starting a non-profit and running a school, and how I deal with the challenges of time passing and embracing contentedness.

Take a listen and drop a comment or question below!

Count your blessings, literally

I recently had the pleasure of meeting a friend for lunch. We are both ophthalmologists, moms, and busy community members involved in a variety of things. But we took the time out to sit together over a meal and connect. One of the things she shared with me is that she does daily gratitudes with her kids. I loved this idea and have started doing it with my boys in the morning before school.  In order to keep it going consistently, I make it very simple. Once we get in the car, and say our usual prayers, we each name 5 things we are grateful for.  It has been interesting observing their gratitudes get deeper and more reflective. They started out with things like: my eyes, my ears, my nose, my house, my shoes, my socks.  But now they have moved on to more detailed and personal things.  We often incorporate recent events, something we see out the car window at the moment, or play off one another’s ideas (sometimes straight copying).  I love this time of the morning, and I can tell that they do too.  They never resist or whine when I remind them to do it.  Practicing gratitude is replete with benefits in mind and body, as I will discuss below, and it’s a beautiful way to start the day.

One of my favorite reflections of gratitude was when my daughter surprised us last year at her high school graduation by thanking her father and I on her graduation cap.  Her gesture opened our hearts to her with even more generosity and love than was already pouring forth.  And that’s the beauty of gratitude.  Practicing it actually makes you joyful and brings more goodness into your life.  Studies have shown that gratitude interventions appear to significantly increase happiness, well-being, and positive mood. As a Muslim, none of the recent research and enthusiasm about practicing gratitude comes as a surprise to me.  It is a part of the fabric of Islamic belief. One of the most quoted verses of the Quran is: your Lord proclaimed, ‘If you are grateful, I will surely increase you’ (14:7).

So what is it about gratitude that makes such a positive impact?

Robert Emmons, a leading scientific expert on gratitude, argues that gratitude has two key components, which he describes in a Greater Good essay, Why Gratitude Is Good.  “First, it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received.”  Second, he explains, “we recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves. … We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.”

Here are some of the interesting things I’ve learned about gratitude, all supported by results of scientifically sound studies:

  • brain areas have been identified that are likely involved in experiencing and expressing gratitude, providing further evidence for the idea that gratitude is an intrinsic component of the human experience
  • girls and women report feeling more grateful than boys and men
  • certain traits have been identified that act as barriers to gratitude; including envy, materialism, narcissism, and cynicism
  • social factors—including religion, cultural influences, and parenting styles—may influence a person’s tendency to experience gratitude
  • gratitude may be associated with many benefits for individuals, including better physical and psychological health, increased happiness and life satisfaction, and decreased materialism
  • more grateful people are happier, more satisfied with their lives, less materialistic, and less likely to suffer from burnout
  • gratitude practices can increase people’s happiness and overall positive mood
  • in one study, grateful cardiac patients reported better sleep, less fatigue, and lower levels of cellular inflammation
  • in another study, heart failure patients who kept a gratitude journal for eight weeks were more grateful and had reduced signs of inflammation afterwards
  • grateful people experience less depression and are more resilient following traumatic events
  • even in people suffering from depression or anxiety, gratitude writing (along with ongoing counseling) was shown to improve their mental health more than counseling alone
  • more grateful adolescents are more interested and satisfied with their school lives, more kind and helpful, and more socially integrated

Although what I’m doing with my boys is a quick and easy variation of gratitude practices, I can still see the benefit in it.  More elaborate gratitude practices would including counting one’s blessings through journaling, writing gratitude letters to people in your life, or incorporating gratitude affirmations into meditation. 

Do you have a daily gratitude practice? If so, what is it and how has it helped you? If not, what is holding you back from starting?  Would love to hear your thoughts!

Reference:  Greater Good Magazine

Explicit Bias: how prejudice leads to death

Today the world watched as a killer walked into a New Zealand mosque and shot people indiscriminately while streaming the massacre on Facebook Live.  A simultaneous attack was carried out at another mosque, in total killing 49 innocent worshipers from children to elderly and injuring many more. The perpetrators were fueled by the hatred, white supremacy, and extremism, rampant in our society.

This attack shook me and numerous others.  My mind immediately returned to the community trauma of the Chapel Hill murders in 2015, which to me is the pinnacle of the cross-section of implicit and explicit bias.

As mentioned in my post on implicit bias, it refers to unconscious attitudes we have about certain types of people.  The Chapel Hill victims were extraordinary people in every way, none of that protected them from their fate.  Because although some of their accomplishments and activism may have affected the implicit biases of people they interacted with, they could not change the explicit bias of their killer.  

Explicit bias is what stokes extremist groups, hate speech, and the subsequent violence.  Traditionally, people control, suppress, or hide their biases if not socially acceptable.  But in our modern era, we have seen a public shift towards the outward expression of prejudice against specific groups of people, based on ideology, religion, ethnicity, race, or other factors. 

Bias manifests at many levels.  One of the most common of which is in microaggressions; which can be the result of either implicit or explicit bias.  As implied by the name, these are small actions, that could almost go unnoticed, or seem like an innocent mistake.  They are intentional or unintentional slights towards someone of a marginalized group.  Such as misspelling a south Asian person’s name by one letter so that it says something possibly offensive.  Or moving away when a black man enters the elevator.  Or speaking slowly to a woman in hijab, as if she won’t understand. 

I have been told many times that I “speak English so well” even after explaining that I was born and raised in America.  I have had my last name spelled as Diablo countless times, which means devil in Spanish.  I have been seated in hidden away tables at restaurants.  I am often stared at in public places.  I have been mistaken for a nurse or a nun, while clearly presenting myself as the physician.  I have been cat-called walking down the street in broad daylight dressed completely modestly.  I have been told that women aren’t as good as men at math, even if they try, it’s just harder for them to catch on.  And the list goes on. 

Each time, I have responded differently; sometimes ignoring, sometimes explaining or educating, sometimes with humor or sarcasm.  Each time, I feel more exhausted than the previous. 

But I carry on.  Because behind every microaggression, there is the risk of a macro-aggression if those pervasive attitudes are not called out and corrected.  Even then, I often feel helpless because the voices of hatred are loud and ubiquitous.  When allowed to fester and spread, those rampant ideologies lead to tragedy. 

Immediately, the Tree of Life Synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh in 2018 come to mind.  And before that, the shootings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015.  When the power of hate takes root, the result is often devastating violence.

Yet, today, I am discouraged.  Today I want to retreat.  I work hard everyday, as a human on this earth, to love others and show them the compassion and concern I want shown to me. I take risks and put myself out there to break stereotypes, push back against bias, and combat hatred. Events like the four I’ve mentioned above push us so far back.  

I am processing and wondering.  What must one do to establish their humanity, their right to live, to remain alive, to not be shot, murdered, slaughtered in cold blood?  Do my daily words and actions contribute at all to making this world a more loving, safer, united, and connected place for all people to live?  How do we process, heal, and move on?

As I realized in my post on Overnight Hearts, perhaps I need to sleep on this.  Tomorrow, maybe I will be filled with hope.  Tomorrow, maybe I will feel renewed to push on, to persist.  Tomorrow, maybe I will sit with others, connect, share, and rejuvenate.  We must do those things.  We must carry on spreading the messages of justice and peace.  We must continue to recognize and address bias in all forms.  We must continue to combat hate.  We must believe victims of micro and macroaggressions and hear their stories.  

A heartfelt thank you to all those that reached out with messages of love and peace.  It is every one of you, every one of your words, every one of your hearts, that will make the difference.  I hope to join hands with you and walk that path again tomorrow.

Click here to learn about the above image of the New Zealand fern.