The COMT and Me

I got a call from the school today, and was told that my son was complaining of a stomach ache. He didn’t have a fever but kept saying he wanted to come home. He’s had his flu vaccine, but I rushed to school anticipating any number of imminent gastrointestinal issues that would be better managed at home.

I got there, and he came out of the clinic. I noticed him try to hide a smile, but since he sometimes smiles when he’s shy and I was talking to an office staff member, I let it pass. When we got home, he proceeded to go to his toys and asked to eat the rest of his lunch. Hmmm.

I asked him how his day went.

“Did anything new happen at school? Is your belly still hurting?” I told him it was okay if his belly wasn’t hurting. I snuggled with him a bit (to soften his steely “No really, I’m sick” reserve ).

He started to cry and said he missed me. (Mmmm hmmmm.) I asked again what happened at school.

He said that he was sad because he “messed up” on his writing test, on the word “like.” He said he was taking his time and he ran out of time, and then his teacher told him he didn’t write the word the right way.

I asked him to tell me what other words he wrote on his test, and write them down for me. He wrote: “kile,” then he erased it and switched it to “like.” I just kept asking “what other words?” and he wrote: can, go, see, to, you, we, play, am. Some basic sight words taught in his Kindergarten class. He’s known how to spell them for a while now, the trick is to write them down, I guess. And he did, all within a couple of minutes.

I told him that I can’t bring him home from school if he’s not sick or if it’s not an emergency. I told him that if he’s sad because of something he’s working on at school, that’s okay, but he should try to remember that there’s not so much to be really sad about, especially since he fixed his “kile” to “like” at home and did not feel sad. He said he understood and that he’d go to school tomorrow like he normally does.

Now here’s the thing: last night over dinner with my husband (the kids had eaten earlier but were eating a bit more with us, and/or playing nearby) I described to him this fascinating story published in The New York Times yesterday about why some kids get stressed out over tests and some do not. Read it if you have the time — it’s excellent. The bottom line:

Like any kind of human behavior, our response to competitive pressure is derived from a complex set of factors — how we were raised, our skills and experience, the hormones that we marinated in as fetuses. There is also a genetic component: One particular gene, referred to as the COMT gene, could to a large degree explain why one child is more prone to be a worrier, while another may be unflappable, or in the memorable phrasing of David Goldman, a geneticist at the National Institutes of Health, more of a warrior.

We talked about how we were as teenagers. My husband? He likely holds the “worrier” variant of the COMT gene. He hated the time pressure of standardized tests, and did not do well on them when he was very young. Me? I likely hold the “warrior” variant. I LIVED to be tested. I still remember my sixth grade teacher sputtering in disbelief when he told my parents what my scores were on whatever test we took back then.

The article was so perfectly timed. I read it that afternoon, and later in the car ride home our second-grade daughter told me about a test she took in the computer lab, how she almost cried because she was running out of time. I suggested to my husband that perhaps our girl was a bit more like him, but that there are ways to help her learn to manage that stress and use it to her advantage, with:

a form of stress inoculation: You tax them without overwhelming them. “And then allow for sufficient recovery,” [Johnson] continued. Training, preparation and repetition defuse the Worrier’s curse.

Now, all the while we were talking, our son would interrupt to tell us about his toy, or his song he’d sing at the Valentine’s concert next week, things like that. But he was listening to us, too.

Is our five-year-old a Worrier or Warrior? At this point, I’m not sure. I only know he’s a Player. He played me like a fiddle.

He’ll go far. I’m sure of that, too.

on CFOs and problems

Earlier this year, a friend of mine gave me a nickname. Or title. Or mantra.

“C.F.O.” (to stand for “chill the eff out.”)

She gave it to me because I was, at the time, in a second-guessing spiral, wondering why somebody did or said something or another, and then wondering whether my response was okay, and then being sorry if my response was not in fact okay, and then wondering if everybody in general were okay… It was exhausting. But, it’s this thing I do, when I’m tired or under stress of some kind. I second-guess myself. Worse, I convince myself that every single thing I do or say has a negative, rather than neutral or positive, impact.

I convince myself that I am responsible for everything–the bad with the good–because I am in desperate need to control everything. That need grows in proportion to the stress and exhaustion I feel. It’s a vicious and silly spiral.

It’s what we do, those of us with certain predisposition. The worriers. The “fixers,” as another friend described us (the ones who have a hard time seeing a problem without attempting to solve it, no matter what the problem is). I wonder if at some point, growing up, we were rewarded for solving problems, by a parent or friend, or another important person in our lives. Maybe that reward took strong hold in our egos. Maybe it came to define us, so that we felt worthy if and when we “fixed.”

Consider my case: I felt incredibly important and loved when I was the first, upon hearing a question, to come up with the right answer. I felt incredibly valued and respected when I was the first to learn about a situation and present a way to handle it. I could see it made people happy. I started to believe I was really good at solving problems, even quite brilliant sometimes. But therein hides another vicious and silly cycle: feeling brilliant for solving problems is addictive. It can make you want to manage situations so that you can continue to feel brilliant. In other words, it can make you try to control everything and give you an overly inflated sense of responsibility. Add stress to the mix, and well, you have a CFO on your hands.

Fixers, it seems, might be setting themselves up to feel pretty powerless. I for one, think I misattributed those initial rewards, whatever they were (a smile, a look on a parent’s face?). I wasn’t important, loved, valued, or respected because I had the right answer, or because I knew how to handle it. I would have been just as important, loved, valued and respected even if I had the wrong answer, even if I didn’t know how to handle it. Because I still would have been participating, enthusiastically. That’s what earned the reward. That’s what made people happy. Being there. Trying. Caring. Listening.

I am learning this, slowly. The reason my spouse comes to me with heavy, serious work-related stress, is not because I can take away his stress. It is because I can listen and provide buoyancy, so that he can manage his stress. The reason my friend shares her work and family challenges with me is not because I can provide the answer to her challenges, but because I can give her the space to share them in the first place and process them on her own.

I am not right all the time. I cannot fix everything. I am learning this. But I’ve always known that I am empathetic, that I am curious, that I listen, enthusiastically.

I am not a Fixer, but simply a Friend.


Forward. For More. Four More.

Sometimes I need to read things that make me happy: Obama, Clinton Scored Back to Back Home Runs With Their Speeches (Robert Shrum for The Daily Beast).

…Obama could turn to the future—not with grandiose promises, but with credibility and humility.

Two days ago, as we watched the President take the stage in Charlotte, after hearing the Vice President describe the President in action, up close, my husband said, “And I think I have stress. How does he do it?”

My husband has an intimate understanding, on a corporate and not global level mind you, of near insurmountable problems, some of which he inherited, some of which happened under his watch, some of which are just dumb luck. Last night over dinner, after he described an issue at work (I say issue, but his word might likely have been “catastrophe”), I quoted the President, “We can solve these problems.”

Problems, huge, unforeseen problems — they cause an immeasurable amount of stress. But maybe the trick is to learn to expect them. Maybe it’s the shock, the “I can’t believe how fubar this is,” maybe that shock–and often subsequent anger–drive the stress. What did our President say the night he was elected just under four years ago?

The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America – I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you – we as a people will get there.

There will be setbacks and false starts. There are many who won’t agree with every decision or policy I make as President, and we know that government can’t solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face.

He knew it was fubar. He knew the path forward. As the Vice President said:

This man has courage in his soul, compassion in his heart, and steel in his spine.