The urge to argue

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Social commentary at the Shady Grove Metro Station in Gaithersburg, Md.

Election season brings out some of humankind’s best and worst qualities. This post is not going to be partisan in nature, I promise. I decided early on that this would not be a blog about political issues. But I do think it’s acceptable to use our current environment as a jumping off point to make larger observations about social behavior.

For example: Do you have trouble walking away from a disagreement when you believe that you are right? Do you often or always try to have the last word? Do you not understand why people don’t change or at least open their minds once they have encountered your perfectly constructed logic? If so, this post is for you!

I’m not talking about writing or other forms of communication that are designed to influence people and are directed at potentially receptive audiences. No, the subject of the moment is bickering with another person or persons when you can clearly see that no progress will be made on either side and the lobbing of insults is likely.

As a lifelong arguer, I find it difficult to conduct myself in a way that doesn’t increase my anxiousness and frustration—particularly in a heated atmosphere where others are also worked up. Despite making some progress in this area over the last decade or so, this year I have found myself on Facebook arguing in comment threads with people I don’t even know.

These debates go nowhere. They achieve nothing, as far as I can tell. But I want to win, dammit! A couple months ago, I made a pledge to myself that I would cease quarreling back and forth with people who are as committed to their positions as I am to mine. Instead, I would write well-thought out posts that might reach a wider range of people. Or, I would encourage myself to go do any kind of activity other than futile social media one-upmanship.

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A friendly doormat in St. Petersburg Beach, Fl.

After a month or so, I couldn’t resist any longer, and I broke my pledge. Immediately thereafter, I bargained with myself and came up with a revised rule: I could post in the comments but only with links to news articles. Or, I could write the responses I wanted to make, but I had to save them in my Notes and not post them. I’m trying to follow this new guideline, but it’s not easy. In fact, a complete break from social media might be in my near future.

I have a long history of arguing with my mother, my closest friends, and with significant others. An old boyfriend probably saw me at my most argumentative; one of our worst fights started because I asked him to estimate how long it would take for an aspirin I just took to start working. He refused to guess, and I was not having it—at all. Just as ridiculous, one of my worst fights with my current husband was over whether or not to replace our well-worn cookie sheets.

One of the main factors that makes stepping back (and not escalating) so challenging is that I allow myself to really lean into my anger. Because I am mad, I want to make the other person feel bad. I want to let the most spiteful, smug part of me loose and push the other person’s buttons. I want to make them feel small, and foolish, and wrong. If you’ve never felt like this, I am truly happy for you. It doesn’t feel good. You might feel satisfied for a bit, but an emptiness follows, and upon reflection you feel petty and unable to check yourself.

Meanwhile, the reasonable side of me wants to win fair and square. The frustrated lawyer inside of me dreams of mounting a persuasive argument—putting together the ideal combination of well-researched facts and moving rhetoric. Who among us arguers doesn’t want to craft that elusive statement that touches hearts and converts the most ardent of opponents?

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Poop emoji to hang on your wall, found at Blacksmith’s Garden in Frederick, Md.

In an attempt to talk myself down from self-righteous mountain, I delve into what I believe are the root causes of stubborn, useless arguing. Whether I am lashing out in anger or assembling another set of indisputable facts, I think it goes back to the shared human desires and fears that I wrote about in an earlier post.

When you look at it this way, “wining” an argument is confirmation that you are in control and worthy of respect. If you are slighted—or in the case of some of my worst arguments, the other person seems to be refusing to give you what you are asking for—this agitates the part of you that longs to be heard and validated.

I have found that the trick is to remind myself that the outcome of one argument is not going to change the amount of control I have over my life or affect whether I am a human being of value on this earth. Heck, I can even admit to myself that I do have flaws and I don’t know everything without my entire self-esteem falling apart.

Times like these are tricky for us arguers. We don’t want to silence ourselves or deny our feelings. But we must remember that we will actually feel much better if we disengage and perhaps take some time to consider the other person’s point of view.

Upcoming blog topics:

  • Destructive distractions
  • Radio writing assignment
  • Podcast dream guest appearance
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The Four Ps: A framework for balancing your life

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Figurines at Tomorrow’s Antiques in New Market, Md.

About a year ago I started building a framework for the ongoing self-development that I was craving. The Four Ps, as I came to call it, focuses on the concepts of productivity, progress, playfulness, and peacefulness. This tool is helping me evaluate the balance of these important qualities in my life, set personal goals, and measure the results.

I’m sharing it here in the hope that it can be helpful to others who may be in search of a structure to make their lives more satisfying, more efficient, less stressful, less stuck. Maybe by sharing The Four Ps, this blog post will inspire you to create your own blueprint—whatever works!

The Four Ps uses simple scales from zero to 10. The goal is NOT to make sure you are a 10 on every scale. The objective is to determine where you are now on each scale and to think about whether or not a change might be in order.

Each person who gives The Four Ps a try will measure their current state and their evolution differently. You can see my scales in the image below. The guidelines are not rigid, and there’s lots of room for your own interpretation. The Four Ps is not a series of step-by-step instructions for success. You still have to figure out what to do and how to do it.

Now, let’s get to it…

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Here are my original goals on the scales of The Four Ps.

Productivity, in shorthand, is what it means to be a grown up. Paying the bills, making sure you have clean clothes to wear, keeping your home relatively tidy, working inside or outside of the home, going to the doctor, caregiving, shopping for groceries, and so on. These are the basics that we all pretty much have to do to keep our lives humming along.

Some people do more of these things than others. A person with two jobs and three kids and a sick parent might score themselves high on this scale. Different people are comfortable with different levels of productivity in their lives. How do you feel about your productivity?

When I first sat down to evaluate where I landed on the scales, I decided that I was about a 7.5 on productivity. I work a full-time job, but it doesn’t infringe on my personal time nearly as much as my prior job. I try to keep the house clean, but by no means sparkling. I cook at home a lot and do most of the meal planning. My mother lives with us, and I take her to multiple doctors on a regular basis. I couldn’t see myself as an eight, but a seven seemed a little weak given all I was doing.

Next, I set a goal—to reduce my productivity from a 7.5 to a 6.5. I didn’t feel like a big adjustment was needed, just enough to open up some time and headspace for the other Ps. In order to reduce my productivity, I handed myself two assignments:

– Give myself permission to ease way back on yardwork. This is what caused my thumb injury, and since we live in a place where pristine lawns are not a thing, I needed to relax already on the state of our yard.

– Give myself permission to have an even less perfectly clean house. Set a baseline of cleanliness and learn to embrace mediocrity in this area.

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Kitchen tools at Great Stuff by Paul Antiques in Frederick, Md.

With The Four Ps, you give yourself a set period of time to work on your goals, and then you come back and see how you did. Do you think you moved on the scale as much as you wanted? Maybe more, maybe less? If you achieved your goal, was it enough? Perhaps you put yourself under too much pressure? What next?

I had told myself that I would revisit the scales once I launched my blog and started writing this very piece. So here I am, almost a year after I started.

On productivity, I am happy to say that I met my goal, and I feel pretty darn good about it. I can’t see much more room for tweaking in this category, so on to the next.

Progress involves learning something new, building a skill, nurturing a talent, volunteering, or other actions that could be considered more creation than consumption.

I rated myself pretty low on progress, at a three. I might have gone higher, but some things that I had done recently that might have been considered progress (like learning a new approach to cooking and eating) had turned into being pretty routine (thus moving them into the productivity column).

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Alpaca made from alpaca fiber at the Sugarloaf Alpaca Company in Adamstown, Md.

My goal was to move from a three to a five on the progress scale, and my assignments were:

– Start taking drum lessons

– Launch a blog and post at least once a week on it

– Look for small one-off challenges and take advantage of them regularly

How did I do? Well, the drum lessons fizzled out when my thumb injury flared up again. The blog is live, and I’m pleased with my commitment to it. And I’ve definitely been taking advantage of various challenges, like cooking at the Eggfest and taking a “Coaching for Creatives” e-course.

I’m giving myself a movement of 1.5 on the progress scale, a little shy of my goal of climbing two spots. In order to bring that up a bit more, I am looking for something to fill the drumming slot. Eventually, I would like to score an even higher number on progress, like a six, but it’s baby steps for now.

Playfulness is what it sounds like. It’s having fun with no greater purpose than to entertain yourself, recharge, and spend time with people whose company you enjoy—which are very important activities, after all. Some of us find it difficult to make time for recreation, while others have no problem prioritizing fun and relaxation.

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Foosball table at TBC advertising agency in Baltimore, Md.

I gave myself a seven on playfulness and decided to set a modest goal of reducing it to a six. I wanted to clear out some time on my schedule for progress and peacefulness. Just two simple assignments would help me achieve this goal:

– Watch less TV

– Drink less alcohol

I am happy to report that I have pretty much given up channel surfing—you know, where you end up watching Tiny House Hunters because there’s nothing else on, but you don’t want to get off the couch. I still watch more TV than most people, but I try to make sure it’s something I really want to watch. Otherwise, I get the heck up and do something else.

Drinking less has been an ongoing challenge that I will write much more about in a later blog post, but it’s going well and getting better.

A minus one move on the scale might not have been a big achievement, but I did it. In the future, I may choose to tweak the playfulness scale some more; but for now, I’m happy with where I’ve come to rest.

Peacefulness covers anything you do that helps you reach a state of peace with yourself and the world. It can include meditation, therapy, yoga, group support, getting in touch with nature, practicing mindfulness, sleeping well, and more. For many of us, this might be the most challenging concept, while others are way ahead on this one.

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Roosevelt Island Community Garden in N.Y.

I scored myself low, at a three. To be honest, I could even see going as low as a two, but since we have been going camping more and kayaking, I decided a three wasn’t such a stretch. My goal was to rise to a five, and my assignments were:

– Meditate and practice mindfulness regularly

– Start doing yoga regularly

– Spend more time in nature

I’m sorry to say that I did not do a very good job here. Meditating is an occasional part of my life now, but not at all regular. I got started on the yoga and then faded fast. The one thing I have been doing is taking regular walks outside and making sure to appreciate everything that is around me when I do. I’ve also gotten much better at reminding myself to “be here now” when I get anxious or fail to appreciate the moment.

Thus, I gave myself a movement of one spot up to four. In order to make my goal of stepping up to a five, I will need to get back to my assignments and complete them all this time.

Overall, I feel good. I am proud of and encouraged by the changes I have instituted. I plan to check back with myself in a couple more months and see where I’m at again. At that time, I can decide to make further tweaks, or I can simply work on maintaining a status quo. So long as I’m happy and feeling like I’m functioning at a level that works for me.

If you’ve stuck with this blog post to the bitter end, thanks for hanging in there! I hope it was interesting and you got something out of it. I would love to receive feedback from anyone who uses The Four Ps (or any customized version of it). Or, if you already have your own way of motivating yourself, I’d love to hear about it.

Bonus challenge for word geeks: Think of all the inspiring, positive (there’s one right now!) words that start with P.

Upcoming blog topics:

  • Destructive distractions
  • Radio writing assignment
  • Podcast dream guest appearance