Small Town Surprise

grooms cakeLast week I was fortunate enough to serve witness at a wedding. A gay wedding. In Oklahoma. A small town in Oklahoma. Initially I was surprised that the grooms, who live in the Dallas area, chose Oklahoma; however, one of them graduated college there and had an affinity for that area. And given the still-limited number of places where they could get married, I suppose Oklahoma is as good as any.

But I’m going to be honest about this…I was dreading it. Not because it was a gay wedding. I’m not a hypocrite. Rather, I was dreading a gay wedding in small town Durant. Should you ever need to know, it’s pronounced “doo-rant” and not “dur-unt.” I was corrected several times by the locals. The same locals I was sure meant to do us harm.

You see, I grew up in a small town. Well, I grew up outside the capital of Arkansas and then graduated high school in a town of 4,455 with only one flashing red four-way stop at that time. So I have some understanding of the small town mentality. I was quite fearful of what we might find in Durant. As we crossed the state line and entered the sleepy little town, it was very much like my adolescence all over again. Rural area. Lots of wide open spaces. Traffic crawling slowly enough to pass on a bicycle. People congregating to talk about passerby and clearly unknown cars. Felt like home, and not in the best of ways.

When we arrived at the courthouse to retrieve the license, my fears were palpable. We entered through the doorway for marriages, and there was a big, burly backwoods bubba of a guard talking to a woman who looked like a regular customer on “Breaking Bad.” They sized us up, and saw one female in our party of four. The guard asked who was getting married, and the two grooms proudly raised their hands and declared it was their big day. Without missing a beat, the guard asked if they would be using the gazebo outside facing the main street. He explained that jurors from a trial gathered there to smoke and could sometimes get unruly. And then he gave an instruction that caught me entirely off guard. He said that if anybody gave us any problems we were to immediate find him because he was our “problem solver” that day. Then he offered hearty congratulations, which was quickly followed by his conversation companion with a big smile. Needless to say, I was flummoxed.

This only continued when we went to the clerk’s office and watched them all conference in hopes of solving a computer problem and not delay the “handsome” grooms on their special day. And then, again, when I met the man who would serve as the officiant and his lovely wife, both whom I have now connected with via social media. And lastly during the ceremony itself, which was held on a particularly popular and picturesque walking bridge on the college campus. Passersby would smile and wave and apologize for intruding. Very friendly.

This was not at all what I expected. I was ready for a rumble. In my mind, I was there to witness an exchange of vows and declaration of love, but also to be there for my boys in case there was any trouble. I sure did feel foolish. mob

You see, what happened was a common psychological phenomenon known as cognitive thinking errors. We all do them, and quite frequently. It really is part of our everyday experience. Left unchecked, though, they can become quite problematic and lead to all kinds of craziness. I spent the drive home reflecting on my errors. There was mind reading, where I assumed I knew what others were thinking without having any real evidence of their thoughts. I sure was catastrophizing, or having a very firm belief that something bad or even unbearable was sure to happen. And lets not forget one of my favorites, overgeneralization. You know that one…we perceive a global pattern of negatives based on limited events. In my case, I falsely assumed that all the backwoods citizens of Durant (overgeneralization) would absolutely hate us on site (mind reading) and possibly come after us with lynches and torches while wearing white sheets (catastrophizing), or at the very least prevent the wedding through some nonviolent means (catastrophizing) because they firmly disapprove of or outright hate the LBGT population (mind reading).brain gears

I’m not alone here. You do it too. We all do it. And I promise that is not an overgeneralization. It’s back of the human experience and a natural part of our self-preservation instinct. But it sure can get out of hand and make life miserable for you and those around you. Think about someone you know who is depressed and views the entire world through a negative filter. Or the overly anxious person always waiting for doom and gloom. Two examples of what it’s like when it gets out of control.

But what about lesser variants that may be just as toxic? Look at what I did! I’m a therapist and I engaged in distorted thinking to the point I was ready to fight an imaginary angry mob. In fact, there were several times I kept looking around and over my shoulder waiting for something that never happened. To be sure, I did not let it impact my day or cast any negative light on my friends’ big day. Thank goodness for an implacable poker face. But you see my point? Even on a smaller scale thinking errors can have a big impact. It’s good to have checks and balances. That day, my friends were my checks and balances. I shared my thoughts, which were not unlike their own actually, and we were able to laugh about it and enjoy way too much fudge from a local shop on the drive out of town. Checks and balances are important. They keep us on track. They refine our perspective. Therapy is absolutely a great place for this, but never underestimate the power of what I call “social therapy” in sharing with your friends and experiencing their views as well.

Enjoying Our Lucky Friends

I stumbled across an article this week where the author had this crazy notion that the happiest people are around when things are going right for other people instead of for themselves. The underlying assumption is that we too often define friendship based on having people around us when our lives are falling apart, and commiserating with others in their own misfortune. We reach out in times of need, or boredom, or to help others. Yet when things are going great for our friends or loved ones, we are less available. Happy people, so the argument goes, spend more time with their friends celebrating others’ success and triumphs.

Hmmm…there does seem to be a certain logic to this thinking. When I apply it to my own life, I am happier when I’m surrounded by happy people; likewise, I’m far more unhappy when those around me are miserable, or when I’m avoiding people because I think they are too happy for my sanity or for their own good. The more I thought about it, the more I realized why people are who present with things go right for others are happier.

For one thing, there is a certain amount of social learning that happens in our relationships. That’s a psychobabble word that basically means we learn how to behave from watching others. If our friends are happy, and we help them celebrate those joys, we should be seeing how they accomplished this happiness and maybe it will give us guidance. Also, I think there is something to be said for “leading by example,” and if I want my friends to celebrate my success and happy moments, I need to show them how it’s done! I’m going to raise the bar here! Up the ante! No puny celebrations…because when it’s my turn I want a party to rival Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

It’s good for other people too. There is research that shows us that storytelling changes the memory of the event. When your friend tells you about a particularly great date, the memory becomes more meaningful for them. The same is true for you. When you share the details of how you won a tough court case or worked long hours to earn a promotion, or even fought the laundry monster to finally defeat your sweat stain arch nemesis, these events have even more positive meaning for you.

Probably the best reason I can think of take pleasure in the joys of others is because it makes us happier. Sure, there is an altruistic component and it’s great to be there for friends. I bet there’s even a cutesy coffee mug with that sentiment you can give your bestie. But let’s not underestimate to value to ourselves in supporting those around us. Without getting into all the science of dopamine pathways and neurotransmitters, we feel good when we are happy and those good feelings can come in waves of positivity when we share in special moments of those close to us.

Here’s a challenge for you. Take a look at your social media footprint from the past 30 days. How many of your friends’ posts about good things in their lives did you simply “like” versus comment on with words of affirmation? You don’t even have to count for me to say it was too many. I’m guilty of it too. So for the next few weeks, let’s try and make a conscious effort offer some words of affirmation to our friends’ lives to help them celebrate their joys.