#26 Self-Restraint

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Paul McAleer: Hi. This is Designing Yourself. I’m Paul McAleer.

Whitney Hess: And this is Whitney Hess.

Paul: And, Whitney, I understand you have a little story to start out with.

Whitney: I do. So, yesterday I met up with a friend who is in town. And we got to catching up. It had been a while since we’d seen each other. And he was talking about his life and sharing a bunch of things that is going on with his family and with his work, and asked me a little bit about what was going on with my life.

And, eventually, as tends to happen in conversations, you know, we got a little deeper and a little deeper and a little deeper. I mean, that’s pretty typical, right?

Paul: Yeah.

Whitney: Well, eventually the conversation got around to a mutual friend of ours or, as more accurately put, a mutual former friend of ours who was a former friend of mine before it became a former friend of his. And, you know, I went into this hangout knowing it was possible that this person would come up in conversation because it is someone we have in common and it is someone that has come up in conversations before.

But, given the challenges I’ve had with this person, I made a commitment to myself to not go there, to not go to a negative place, not get myself upset, not say things about this other person unnecessarily because of a whole slew of reasons. And, you know, I was able to maintain that commitment to myself until the person came up in conversation brought up by my friend, not by me.

And, I had this whole inner monologue like don’t go there. Just listen. And so the first five minutes it was mostly me saying, oh, OK, yeah, uh-huh.

Paul: Sure.

Whitney: And, my self-restraint was strong because I realized my friend just needed to talk about his situation with this person and not really - it didn’t really have anything to do with me. So, I was really just there to listen. But then he started asking me, well, what happened with you guys? And I had to share in a way that I felt honored my friendship with my friend, the person I was with, and was honest, but without being unnecessarily, like, gossipy or bitchy or getting myself unnecessarily upset about something that has happened so long ago and really just needs to be in the past.

And so, I was successful at that at the beginning. But then with the more questions that my friend asked and the deeper we got into it, I just - my brain knew it was happening. But I just found that grip that I had which I kind of visualize self-restraint as like a dam, like this dam that I had erected against my verbal diarrhea just was weakening and weakening and weakening as my friend was chipping away at it, knowingly or unknowingly. But I know him well enough to know I think he was doing it knowingly. And eventually it flowed over.

And so, I was kind of, you know, proud of myself for lasting that long and disappointed at myself for giving in at all. But I didn’t go all the way. Like, I didn’t say the things about that person that I normally would have. I didn’t complain. I feel like I did it with the most compassion possible.

But in the end, in reflecting on it, you know, as I was on my way home after the whole meet-up, I felt like, gosh, is it - do I not have the capacity to just not say anything at all? Do I not have the capacity to say, you know what? This topic isn’t really beneficial for either of us. Let’s just move on to something else. Like, there was a part of me that almost wanted to cave.

And, it made me realize that even though my self-restraint might have been stronger than it has been in the past, it’s still something that is so fragile. And it’s really - I think it’s other people’s influences. But in the end I’m the one responsible for what comes out of my mouth.

So, I’m curious. I want to know, because you never talk shit about anybody. I mean, you people should know this about Paul. He never talks shit about people. He’s so - you are so kind and compassionate towards everyone. And even people you have problems with, I’ve never heard you really say bad things about them. Is that self-constraint? Is that because you’re just a nicer person than me? Is that because you just don’t have the same arguments with people that I do because I’m difficult and you’re not? What’s going on here? And why is it so hard for me to keep my mouth shut?

Paul: Yep. That’s it. Thanks for joining, everybody. That’s it. You solved it. That’s the whole thing, and that’s the end of the episode.

No. Boy, first of all, thank you so much, because that really does mean a lot. So, When you were talking about all of that, one of the things that I was starting to visualize was that dam and just that whole idea of what’s behind it and all of those emotions and things that we feel we want to say in that moment.

It made me wonder, because I know I’ve been there, if it’s really you wanting to say that or part of you or your ego or what, because I know that in my own experience that that tends to be what it is, is that when I am faced with those situations - and, trust me, I do have those situations, which I’ll talk about gladly in a moment - I find that it tends to be not coming from a place of self. It tends to be more a part of me that really wants my voice to be heard or wants the attention or just wants to look really good in a given situation. And that generally might be my ego.

Now, so I do tend to think of myself as a nice person. And I appreciate you saying so. And that is actually part of - I think that’s part of my reputation now, is that I’m pretty nice. That doesn’t mean I don’t have times when I am very mean or feel those types of things towards people because I certainly do at times.

But I also try to keep in mind the context of everything. Like, one of the things that really helped me is this whole idea of people are always trying their hardest and their best at any given time. And, yeah, they might mess up or they might do something really great. But, I essentially try to give them the benefit of the doubt first.

Now, that said, I definitely can think of times when I’ve had friends or acquaintances really kind of push my buttons and really get me feeling upset. And in those situations some of it really depended on what it was. Like, for instance, if it was somebody who wanted to, say, borrow something from me like a, I don’t know, computer or whatever, and give it back. Depending on the reputation I might want to say no because I know I might not get it back.

Or, better example - if it’s a matter of, say, one friend one time said, hey, can I borrow 40 bucks for something? Now, my nature would be to say, “What’s it for?” But it depends on the level of friendship. But also it’s a matter of just positioning that as, well, if it’s 40 bucks, then I’m just not going to see that 40 bucks again and not expect it back.

And I can think of one person in particular that I had this situation with where, you know, this person was cash-strapped, so I wanted to help her as much as possible. And it made sense to do so. And my expectation was not that I was going to get that back ever. It was just a matter of, OK, well, in this situation, yeah, I can help you with this.

But I also had to deal with the times when I knew that it was not going to go for something good and try also not to be judgy and also express that self-restraint within myself and say, well, in this situation I can’t, because if I have - you know, if I have a bill coming up or if I have something else coming up that I feel, you know, is kind of important, then it’s a balance between being selfless and also helping this person and also looking out for myself.

So, that might brand me as not nice. And I know that that happens. I know that there are people who don’t see me as nice or likeable or any of those things. And that plays into some things we’ve discussed before with regards to attention and how we want others to see us.

So, one question I have for you in return, then, is in that situation - and first of all, assuming it was an in-person situation, it was a meet-up and not something that was just over the computer or what have you, I’m curious how much of it you saw as something you were doing as part of your persona and public persona versus something that you were doing to better yourself. And I’m not saying those have to be misaligned. But I’m just curious where that falls.

Whitney: You know, it’s an awesome question, actually, because the person that I was with yesterday is someone who I consider to be a dear friend. But they’re also someone that I have a professional relationship with. And, you know, perhaps if I look back on what my intention was going into it, it was less so - you know, if I’m honest with myself, it was less so wanting to be a better person and more so not wanting it to get back to anybody because we know a lot of the same people. And we know those people in a professional context.

So, if I’m being honest with myself and answering your question directly, yeah, it was a persona thing, I guess. Like, I didn’t want to be seen as or become known as the person who complains about other people or the person who goes negative because my persona - I hate that word. I mean, I hate that word in general. I especially hate the word in relationship to user experience because it confuses the shit out of everybody. And it’s actually a very useful tool in the design process. But it’s a word that confuses everyone.

And I especially hate the word in reference to myself. But it fits in this context. I did not want to present myself - underscore on the word “present” - as a negative person who complains because I put a lot of work into my persona in general, my outward presentation, as a positive person who doesn’t complain about petty crap, because I have not always been that way.

I think I started my public whatever, social media life a long time ago, as being somebody who complained a lot. And maybe that gets attention, but it never felt good. And I didn’t feel good personally doing that. And I guess I did go through a personal transformation first that then led me to say, you know what? I don’t want my public persona to be a complaining, negative thing either. So, I want to be conscious of that and make a shift. And I have successfully.

And that has been driven by my own personal development that then allowed me to even be aware of it from a public stance. But I do think that you’re hitting on something interesting which is that I went into it yesterday wanting to maintain positivity in part for my own well-being but more so out of - and I’m like talking slowly because I’m really thinking through it - more so out of wanting to maintain a certain air, a certain way about me, with this friend of mine who knows my - who has had a lot of influence on me professionally and who may repeat what I say to someone else who I also know in a professional context.

And so, I think that that’s what prompted it. And then, as it went on, I was finding myself becoming more and more riled up and not wanting to go there for my whole self, not because of my persona - oh, wait, I’m going to do something that impacts me negatively, like, externally, but really feeling intrinsically motivated to keep quiet and not go there.

And then, once it became clear as the course of the conversation went on that the former friend of mine was now a former friend of his as well, I think there was a very base, basic, animalistic part of me that went to a, “Oh, well now we can gang up” kind of thing, like now it isn’t me complaining to you where that makes me look bad. Now you know firsthand about the negative experience with this person because you’ve had it, too. I want to feel better that this wasn’t me. This was him, the other him. You know, this was about him. This wasn’t about me.

And, it fed that. You know, being able to connect with him about our mutual disappointment in this other person was, I guess, where it went. I don’t know if that is answering your question. I think I’m working it out just as you’re asking it. But your niceness - you, as Paul - your niceness is not the Paul persona. I mean, it’s like that’s you.

If you have some persona or you’re known, either through your friend group, through your family, professionally, as a nice guy, I don’t think that’s something that you constructed by any means. I think is the result of you, Paul, the human being, being a nice guy. And maybe, you know, my persona publicly, my public presentation, was that of the person I once was. But as I the whole human being have developed over time, that public demonstration has had to evolve as well. And I’ve made a conscious effort to not hide my personal development by perpetuating this image that I’ve created of myself and wanting the two to be married.

Do you find that to be the case with you, that it’s just the result of who you actually are? Or did you say, you know, in a cutthroat industry I’m going to be the one sticking out for being nice? I feel like I know the answer to this already, but I’m curious.

Paul: So, no. I did not go in and say I’m going to construct this as part of my persona and here’s how I’m going to be perceived as nice. It was not any kind of element of my persona that I felt I really needed to make. It wasn’t a part of that. It is a part of me. My niceness and that kind of pleasantness and kindness is simply part of who I am.

And I think with a part of my development over the past - oh, goodness, this is probably more over the past 10 to 15 years - was just realizing that when I’m out in the business world and being, as my son puts it, professional guy, that niceness is actually something that I see as a trait that is a positive thing for me.

Now, that does mean that there are times when that can be a fault, when I can be too nice or too polite, say. But generally speaking I do find that that’s core to me. And I don’t know that that’s something that’s really going to change over time in a dramatic way. I would say that of course I reserve the right to change at any time. But I would be surprised if I took more of a tack towards being a grumpier, bitter person.

Now, that all said, again, there are definitely times when I can get into that same zone where it sounds like you were yesterday where when we have these parts of ourselves that really think these ways about people, we hold on to these. And I know for me, as - I don’t know if it is for you, but it is for me. That external validation is always kind of that green light for me. I look for that sometimes.

It’s like, oh, great. Now I can finally tell you what I was actually feeling about this person or, more specifically, what a part of me was feeling about this person, because now it’s not just me. The risk is gone. The risk is gone. Now I can be honest with you. I can say what I’m thinking. And, goodness, what a blowhard or what a jerk or dick or something like that, right, or jick, which I guess I just made up.

Whitney: I’m going to be using that one.

Paul: I guess it’s safe for work. So, in any case, that type of thing, though, that’s something we look for. But it seems - and this has been my experience - in that we look for that when we’re talking bad about other people or saying things that are critical of other people. But we don’t look for that nearly as much when it’s a nice thing, I don’t think.

When we see compliments or we hear them about other people, or even ourselves to some degree, I don’t see as much of that piling on. And let’s all dive in and see. You know, let’s applaud this person and give her the credit she deserves, for instance, for doing a job well done, or if she’s just a good person, for goodness’ sake, just saying that to the person and saying that person’s good.

I don’t see a lot of that piling on. That makes me kind of sad because I feel it’s just as valid. But, I’m wondering if that’s also just the circles that I run in. We do give people a slap on the back for a good job and things like that, pat on the back. But I don’t necessarily see it as a thing that we do, collectively speaking.

I wonder if that’s also a part of this, too, in that what you’re experiencing is something that’s pretty common, that we hold and harbor these ideas about people which may or may not be right. But we hold them inside. And then when somebody else kind of opens that floodgate, opens up that dam that we have, then we can say oh, great, now I can say this stuff.

Because, in my experience when I’ve had that, I feel really good afterwards. Like, I feel bad. I feel guilty for sharing that. But I also feel that part that wanted to say that feels really good for getting that out. I’m wondering if that’s your experience, too.

Whitney: Yeah. I mean, maybe. But I had made this promise to myself that I wouldn’t. So, I got upset with myself for having any trigger at all, especially the trigger of misery loves company, so to speak, like, well, because my friend was, you know, having his own issues with this other person, I wanted to commiserate. Now we could both feel that way.

And it’s not productive. It doesn’t feel good, actually, to me at all. I mean, it used to. And maybe that’s where the habit formed. But it no longer does because the truth is the reason why we’re both having problems with this person and the reason why a lot of other people have had problems with this person, too, is because the person’s going through a lot of stuff. Are they handling it well? No, because we’re not - we don’t have the compassion foot forward for them. So, obviously, you know, they’ve been handling it very poorly and really burning a lot of - I don’t want to say bridges - relationships, killing a lot of relationships in the process.

But that is the result of this person being in a lot of pain, experiencing a lot of suffering, going through tough times. And so, no, I don’t really feel good that we, you know, tore them a new one, even in private, for our own, you know, satisfaction or whatever. But, you know, you said something that actually made me think, that there is self-restraint in the extent to which we compliment people as much as when we complain about them.

And I’m reminded of a dear friend of mine who does not take kindly to being complimented in public. It sounds bizarre, and it is a little bit. But that’s how she feels. She really does not like when people are effusive about her to other people in her presence. And she is a wonderful human being. She’s one of my closest friends.

And when I’m around other people that she knows who I don’t get to be around very often, a part of me feels really passionately about wanting to share with that other person in her greatness and have that joint moment of exalting her, in a way, if putting her on a pedestal, because in her life she really isn’t. She’s a mom. She’s a wife. She’s a professional who’s got a lot of stuff on her shoulders all the time. She’s not really often, you know, put on that pedestal and praised.

And so, when I’m around a mutual friend of hers who I know also feels the same way, I want to make a love-fest out of it. And she gets so angry with me every time. And so, I’ve had to learn self-restraint in that totally other way. Just the way that - you bringing this up is making me realize it. Otherwise I don’t think I would have ever come to this conclusion on my own, that I find it just as hard to bite my tongue in those situations because there is someone who feels the same way as me.

I want to revel in that, which is perhaps the opposite of commiserate. And I want to honor her and acknowledge her and hope that she gets some joy out of it. But the reality is she doesn’t. So, I have really had to hold back. And I’ve found ways to do it so that I’m satisfied, the other person gets the opportunity to share in that acknowledgement with me, but my friend isn’t upset by it.

And either it’s when she goes to the bathroom or something like that, like seriously, or she’s walking ahead of us walking down the sidewalk, or in such a small way that she lets it pass but the mutual friend, whomever that person is, picks up what I’m putting down.

And I’m not realizing that self-restraint is very closely connected, if not actually self-regulation, where restraint feels like handcuffs to me. It’s like completely held back, prevented, not acting in that way, you know, absolutely permanently not doing the thing you’re not supposed to do, whereas self-regulation feels much softer, and it feels much more like a spectrum, whereas self-restraint feels binary - either you did it or you didn’t.

Self-regulation is like the volume dial. And you get to decide where on that dial is appropriate. And maybe what happened yesterday is that I decided where on the dial was appropriate. I spoke my mind. I didn’t completely go overboard and get really angry and start talking shit. I really didn’t. But I still expressed how I was upset about the situation. We shared a little bit about what was going on with the guy and why, you know, maybe these things were happening as compassionately as possible.

We went a little bit further than I wanted to go. But I guess I made a call in the moment that it was right, and so I dialed it up more than I thought I would. But I had it dialed back a lot more than I usually do.

And so, maybe that’s what we’re talking about here. And when you were saying that there are times when you feel comfortable or you’re now in private and it’s like, OK, now I can be really honest, maybe that’s you turning the dial up a little bit but not turning it so far that it would make you uncomfortable, make the other person uncomfortable. Go against your values. Go against who you are. I don’t know. What do you make of that? Is this a spectrum that we’re talking about here? Or is it you’re either restraining or you’re not restraining, and to be grey about it is just giving yourself leeway unnecessarily?

Paul: You know I love the grey area. And I also think that is such a wonderful visual metaphor of the dial because while you were discussing that and mentioning this, how they worked together, and being softer with the idea of self-regulation, I envisioned that as a dial, too, as an actual dial. And then next to it is self-restraint which is more of an on-off switch. As you say, it’s binary.

Now, obviously they worked together, etc. But the concept of self-restraint, to me, also feels very much like an on-off. And you either - also it sets up maybe this whole shtick to me that you either have it or you don’t. And I don’t know if that’s necessarily true. I think we really do have more of this spectrum with it in that in some situations, yes, we practice more restraint or something else with ourselves. We have more of that.

And then there are times when we have less of that. And part of that is due to - you know, it’s how we’re feeling, the people we’re with, who we’re talking about, the topic, our expertise, our naïveté. All of that stuff comes into play for that. And it’s really us guiding it, right? It’s us saying, in that moment, OK, cool. This is a time when I can be a little more free. And I don’t have to be as restrained.

And then there are other moments where we either have a feeling which we can act on or we think or analyze the situation. Or we get cues from other people that say, yes, this is in fact a time when I need to have more restraint for these reasons.

I think the important thing in any case with this is if we turn these things off, if we practice restraint to the point of suffocating ourselves, suffocating parts of ourselves, then we need to have some sort of outlet for that, right? It might be something that we do on our own. It might be writing or physical activity. I don’t know what it is, but something where we can get that energy out, because it ain’t going to go away. It doesn’t go away. It stays in you.

And it’s just having some sort of outlet for that then is to me kind of a companion piece to all of this, because in that case for you with that conversation, that outlet was that conversation. Like, it was right there. But there are other times when it may not be appropriate to talk about that, or you might need to vent with somebody about something or someone.

So, as long as you have that opportunity and keep it within the context of who you are and even - forgive me for the word - but the persona you’ve created and your intentions, then that seems to be what it looks like, kind of this more holistic thing versus just this one idea of self-restraint.

Whitney: I love it. You’ve solved it, as always.

Paul: We solved it again? Wow. Awesome. I love it.

Whitney: Well, I’m feeling a little bit better about my behavior yesterday, so thank you for that.

Paul: Oh, you're welcome.

Whitney: And, I really do think you should trademark “nice guy” because that really is you.

Paul: Well, I appreciate it. And I love the idea. But I don’t know if a nice guy would do a trademark on something like that. I don’t know.

Whitney: Ah, so true.

Paul: I don’t know. I don’t know.

Whitney: Gosh, yet more proof that I am not the nice guy.

Paul: No. You’re just a shrewd business person. I understand. All right. Thank you so much, Whitney. This was a great chat. And we’ll do it again soon.

Whitney: Always a pleasure chatting with you, Paul. Bye.

Paul: Bye.