Friday, February 27, 2009

How about coffee? Mayonnaise? Whipped butter?

I like mustard on my fries.

It's weird, I know, but I've done it for years (originating during my years working at McDonald's in high school -- nothing turns you off to the normal fry condiment like constantly wiping stale, wet ketchup off trashcans, tables and trays). I used to like only mustard because of that acquired ketchup aversion, but now I generally mix the two whenever I eat fried potatoes in any form.

But unlike most mustard connoisseurs, I like the plain old yellow stuff -- none of that fancy schmancy deli mustard with horseradish or whatever else. Just the standard, bright yellow French's for me, thanks. It seems a pretty simple preference to me, if slightly odd.

That is, until a conversation held between myself and a waitress at the Flying Biscuit a few nights ago....

Waitress: [setting down Fried Egg Sandwich with Moon-Dusted potatoes - yum!] Can I get you anything else?
Manda: Could I have some ketchup please , and - do you have plain yellow mustard?
Waitress: I'll go check.
Manda: Thanks.
Waitress: [returning with ketchup bottle moments later] I'm sorry, we don't have mustard. But we do have balsamic vinaigrette.

Hmm.... okay.

I thought about this odd conversation later when I was working with a couple who are having trouble communicating their needs to one another and finding ways to meet those needs together (actually, most of the couples I see are struggling with that in one way or another). It must seem strange to constantly need one thing in a relationship and always get back something entirely different -- so different, in fact, that it seems almost nonsensical.

And it must be strange to be the other partner, too -- to hear that your mate needs something but have no idea how to give it to them. They want mustard, and all I can think of to offer is balsamic vinaigrette.

The waitress was earnest, apologetic, and almost seemed a little desperate when she came back to the table. It's kind of like she knew that her suggestion was not going to meet my needs in any way, but could think of no other options under the pressure of wanting to make me happy... or at least to offer me SOMETHING, even if it was salad dressing.

I guess some days we can only offer the best we can... and somehow it has to be enough.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A Lesson in Belonging

I read today that a recent study (summary here) at the University of Kentucky strongly linked aggressive behavior with social rejection. In other words, people who are rejected socially are more likely to exhibit aggressive and violent behavior toward others. Well, duh, right?

It may seem obvious, but this is apparently one of the more substantial studies available describing links to aggressive behavior. In an era when aggression seems to translate more and more often into horrifying displays of indiscriminate violence, I think this becomes an area of communal interest for all of us.

For me, this fits pretty well with how I view the world, and how I see my clients. I happen to work from a largely Adlerian perspective, which means I think that Belonging (Social Interest) is a critical part of each person's development and mental health. But before I had ever heard of Adler or thought about becoming a psychotherapist, I had an intuitive sense for how important belonging is... and I suspect that most people who survived adolescence in America can relate.

I remember in high school a teacher of mine was reading an interview with Stephen King, and his interviewer was asking about early influences on his writing, etc. I can't find the exact quote, but King said something about how acceptance by others is the most important thing any person can have. It's what everyone wants, especially teenagers. I remember thinking how cool it was that a writer I admired immensely was so in touch with the human condition -- and specifically, MY human condition. (Later on I realized it's this, more than anything else, that makes Stephen King a great writer.)

It does seem that a need for social acceptance is part of our essence. Some of us find it by seeking to please others and imitating those we admire. Others find acceptance through their uniqueness - standing out in order to fit in. We sometimes go to extremes in order to express our individuality, as well as our affiliation with particular groups... Think about the pierced and painted adolescent bodies clustered together at the food court; or the wildest displays of fanaticism at your favorite tailgate party.

Knowing how intense we can be about being part of a group, it's easy to understand how those who can't seem to fit in could feel resentful, self-loathing, and eventually... hopeless. Those feelings can lead to a sense of frustrated entitlement, and vengeful behavior against others. And as we've seen all too often in ways large and small, the consequences can be devastating.

I don't know what the answer is... But maybe just knowing how important social acceptance is will give us the opportunity to view others in a different light: to be aware that Chatty Cathy in the next cubicle really just wants to be liked; and the Know-It-All down the hall needs to feel important and accepted.

Perhaps by remembering our own challenges to fit in (pubescent and current), we can have a little more empathy for those who are still struggling. Our kindness to them might just be the small step that changes the world.