Validate me, please!

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Photo by LBoatwright

Have you ever had your parking validated? Basically, in a place where you’d have to pay for parking – such as a shopping center – if you purchase a product or service therein, that store will sometimes offer to validate your parking. They stamp your parking ticket, and as you exit the garage, you no longer have to pay. In essence, you’re one of us now, so we share with you our benefit of free parking. Parking validation is a wonderful thing! On the flip side, losing your parking ticket or not having it validated can be stressful and costly.

It’s an amazingly accurate metaphor for real life. Personal validation is also a wonderful thing, the sense of belonging. It takes countless forms: people shake hands, or hold hands, hug, have meaningful conversations, get praise, get promotions – even something as seemingly insignificant as a quick “thank you” from a store clerk is a tiny affirmation: you belong.

When we are hurting, our emotional eyesight can easily become impaired. Rejection and failure are real, and they are survivable, but if our self-worth is already damaged, if we struggle with depression and negativity, setbacks such as these not only feel insurmountable – they can seem like an overwhelming condemnation of our entire person. We may be able to see the validation in the lives of others, but can no longer perceive it in our own. Losing our emotional parking ticket can leave us feeling as if we don’t even belong in our own lives. It’s a horrible place to be, and a difficult one to pull yourself out of, but it can be done.

Start by determining the source of most of your personal validation. For some, it comes from within – from their faith in a Higher Power, or from a positive self-image. For those with depressive disorders, validation is frequently sought from outside sources. We desperately want the people around us to say and do kind things which cancel out the critics in our life and in our brain.

The problem with the external approach is, although we may find somebody who validates us at first, at some point they will have a bad day or become critical. When we build our self-image on the opinions of others, that first unkind word – even if it was unintentional – can completely erase all of the previous positives in their entirety, leaving us desperate again to silence the inner critic. We begin to doubt the other person ever meant any of the nice things they said. If criticism is frequent — if a family member, friend, partner, or employer is constantly pointing out our flaws — over time we allow these to criticisms to become our truths.

Try to consider the opinions of others, whether good or bad, as “free parking” – a ticket which can be easily lost, but not a show-stopper. Remember, nobody has ever had to live in a parking garage because they lost their ticket. Likewise, you don’t have to remain lost in your own life because you’ve lost the validation of somebody else.

Spend time each day strengthening your internal validation. I mean, really give it a workout! Begin making a list of accomplishments and go back as far as you can remember. Any “A” on a school assignment, any raises or promotions, even any “thank you’s” – nothing is too small. You may be tempted to self-edit by sorting your accomplishments into buckets of “that didn’t really matter” or “it’s stupid to consider that an accomplishment.” DON’T! If you find yourself editing, recognize your brain has become wired to filter out the positives. Remind yourself the only way to fix your filter is to count every positive, no matter how small it may seem.

You can heal your brain, and you can learn to filter out unwarranted criticisms. You can get to a place in your life where, when somebody says something hurtful, you can recognize it as just a thing which was said and not a guilty verdict about who you are. It takes a lot of practice, and for many it will mean making conscious decisions throughout the day to filter out messaging which tears you down.

For every criticism you hear – whether internally or externally – remind yourself of three of your accomplishments or positive characteristics. Over time, this positive three-point counter-punch will become a habit. Your new way of thinking will allow you to be content within yourself, and to never again lose your sense of belonging.

 

 

 

Never for Nothing

This week I had a client tell me the people he used to get high with are harassing him, he’s having trouble finding work, and his relationships are falling apart.  He said, “I feel like I’m doing all this for nothing.”  Don’t we all feel like that sometimes?  No matter what goal we are working towards – saving a relationship, finding a job, losing weight – the journey can be two steps up and one step back for so long that we lose sight not only of our progress, but our purpose.

If we are honest with ourselves, it has taken us months, or even years to dig the hole we are in.  Just because today we decided to lose weight or get clean or be a better whatever, the hole will not magically fill itself in and gently ease us out.  In fact, the opposite is usually true – we are going to face resistance – from other people who aren’t ready to leave their holes, from those who don’t want to see us succeed (sadly), and from our own self-sabotaging brains.

I love watching old episodes of Dragnet, and admire the way Joe Friday handles resistance from people who complain about the police – he invites them to join the force.  When you make a decision to better yourself, you become the force.  You become a source of light, maybe weak at first but becoming stronger with each positive step you take.  Ever see a bunch of people coming out of a movie theater, shielding their eyes from the sun?  When you become the light, you may unintentionally expose the darkness in other’s lives, and they may not be ready to see it.  In most cases, this is where resistance comes from.

Resistance is never a reason to give up.

Stay focused on your progress and purpose.  Hang motivational signs and sayings where you can be reminded why you’ve chosen your goal.  It may feel as if you are only moving forward one inch at a time, but one inch at a time will still get you there.  A lifestyle change begins as a series of conscious choices, but these choices eventually become habits and will come naturally.  Let that one inch become two, then six, then a foot, then a yard, and so on.  Don’t dwell on your setbacks.  Just analyze them long enough to determine where the mistake was and how you might avoid it in the future.  Count each setback as a member of the resistance, and don’t allow them to convince you your efforts have all been for nothing.

It is NEVER for nothing, because YOU are not nothing.

Try taking a tip from the Borg (Star Trek).  Granted, they are an emotionless race and we are emotional beings, but they have an admirable singular-purpose mindset.  When you are working toward your life goals, stay on track.  If you go astray, shake the dirt off and get back on track as quickly as possible.  Be Borg-like and tell yourself,

Resistance may be brutal, but it is futile, because I WILL SUCCEED.

It is futile because you have a singular-purpose mindset.  Just keep going.  When you feel like you don’t want to do it for you, do it for the others who want to come out of their holes but don’t know where to begin.  Regardless of whether you have anybody supporting you in your own battle today, someday you may have the opportunity to join somebody else’s force and give them a hand up out of their hole.

 

The Power of Now

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Photo by Uroš Jovičić on Unsplash

Ever heard the joke “hard work and dedication pay off with time, but procrastination pays off right now”?  It implies there is some kind of reward for putting things off.  In reality, putting things off can be a source of anxiety and depression.  We find ourselves in a cycle of feeling overwhelmed by what needs doing, then feeling guilty for not doing it.

Unfortunately, our procrastination is frequently interpreted as laziness or rebellion.  We end up on the receiving end of accusations such as, “You never get anything done”, “Why can’t you ever finish what you start?”, and “If it really mattered to you” — or worse – “If I really mattered, you would have done it.”  We accept the labels of lazy, uncaring, and selfish and our already struggling self-worth plummets.

The truth is, most of the time procrastination has nothing to do with laziness or motivation.  Years ago, my sister turned me on to a website where I found helpful tips on cleaning and organization, but the concept which really got my attention was that procrastination is actually perfectionism in disguise.  How could that be?

The writer (Marla Cilly) went on to explain it is fear of failure which often prevents us from beginning a task, as well as the reason we get started and quickly become overwhelmed and give up.  Our brain tells us “if you can’t do it right the first time it isn’t worth doing”, or “you don’t have time to complete it”.  We consider the task at hand and rationalize “I don’t have time to finish this right now, but am off on Saturday, so will do this Saturday”.  We feel a flash of satisfaction at having made a plan.  Saturday comes and we rationalize, “I’ve worked hard all week and I’m exhausted.  I need and deserve a break.  This task isn’t critical, so today I will rest and I can take this task on tomorrow or even next Saturday when I feel more rested”.  Unfortunately, “feeling good” Saturday never comes, and as our list of the undone grows, so do our feelings of self-defeat.  We begin to believe the labels of lazy, unproductive, and irresponsible really do apply…and we accept them.

Some tasks can be delayed with little consequence, but if we are already prone to self-criticism, even these small acts of procrastination can lead to big emotional assaults as we tell ourselves, “I’m so useless – I can’t even do this one little thing.”  We become frustrated and confused, particularly if we are well-organized in other life areas, such as work.  We wonder, “Why can’t I be this ‘on top of things’ at home?”

The simplest answer is perhaps you feel mentally and emotionally rewarded at work in a way you do not feel rewarded at home.  Much of the time, our efforts to clean or repair things around the house go unnoticed, unappreciated, or are criticized.  This reinforces a why should I care if nobody else does mentality, which can quickly morph into why should I care about myself if nobody else does?  When this negative thinking combines with our fear-of-failure-based procrastination, it can be emotionally crippling, and it is super-fuel for depression.

Try the following steps to avoid the perfectionism-procrastination monster.

  1. Make a list of tasks. Include anything you feel needs to be done, from pick up the dirty sock to repaint the bedroom.  Use different colors (or whatever works for you) to sort tasks into two categories – those which take less than 15 minutes to complete (-15), and those which take more (+15)
  2. Select one of the (-15) tasks and do it now, then mark it ‘complete’ — use stickers, smileys, whatever – the point is to feel good about the accomplishment, no matter how trivial it may seem, and to consistently reinforce that good feeling each time you add a new sticker or checkmark
  3. Identify those (+15) tasks which are actually projects, such as those which would take a half day or more to complete
  4. Identify the steps required to complete each project. In most cases you will find many of the steps are actually (-15) tasks, which can be tackled one at a time. Sure, it may take a while to complete a project, but every step completed is not only another accomplishment, it is progress towards your bigger goals

For some of us, the temptation will be to continue tweaking our list to perfection.  The Flylady website has lots of ready-to-use lists, so if you find yourself getting bogged down in your own list-making, consider using one of theirs.  As you approach tasks on your list, note those items which consistently get skipped or saved for later, then think about your reasons for the delay.  Doing so will help you spot the perfectionism monsters hiding in your list, and allow you not only to conquer them, but to find empowerment in now.

4 Steps to Conquering Anxiety

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Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

A few years ago, I went through months of chronic and distressing anxiety.  I’d be in bed – or getting ready for bed – and a sudden wave of nausea would hit me.  This was followed by hot and cold sweats, light-headedness, and trembling.  My chest hurt and my heart would race like it was trying to escape my body.  My brain went into hyper-drive, blasting a series of run away, run away, run away messages.  A couple of times, I truly thought I might be having a heart attack, and even went to the emergency room.  When no physical cause for my symptoms was discovered, I was sent home, bewildered.  How could there be nothing wrong?  I felt not only several hundred dollars poorer, but also embarrassed and ashamed.  Quite frankly, I thought I was going nuts.  I had no idea these were panic attacks.  What I felt was physical, not mental…right?

I knew I couldn’t keep going to the ER, but also knew something was wrong.  I tried taking antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds for a while, but these left me feeling zombie-like and numb, and they didn’t actually prevent anxiety attacks.  I didn’t want to be medicated – I just wanted something that would stop these attacks in their tracks.  The doctors didn’t seem to understand (or believe) I wasn’t drug-seeking, and weren’t interested in explaining what was happening to me.  It was demoralizing and discouraging.  I decided to figure this out for myself – to find the safe equivalent of hitting myself in the head with a coconut – something to STOP the panic once it had started.

I started by tracking my symptoms and soon discovered my bouts of nausea were either caused by gastrointestinal issues or a “gut punch”.  You know the gut punch.  It’s the feeling which triggers our fight or flight response, such as when we suddenly get bad news.  Studies have shown people with anxiety have a faulty flight switch.  In other words, it flips on at random, sending panic messages from the brain to the various systems in the body, thus generating the physical sensations of a panic attack.

When the nausea would start, I’d go through a brief mental checklist to determine the source: Is this possibly food poisoning? Did I eat something which could trigger IBS / diverticulitis?  Most of the time, I was able to rule out a gastrointestinal cause for the nausea AND I was able to determine my IBS flare-ups and panic attacks followed similar — but distinctly different — patterns.  Identifying these differences was the key to feeling better.  I made some minor changes to my eating habits which GREATLY diminished my gastrointestinal issues, which in turn reduced some of my stress and meant less confusion between my physical and my mental health symptoms.

I began practicing the following thought-stopping / distraction techniques at the first signs of a panic attack:

  1. Counting backwards from 100
  2. Switching on a funny show and closing my eyes, picturing the action in my head instead of watching it on the screen. This forced me to focus on what I was hearing and helped me turn off the panic switch by activating a different area of my brain
  3. Taking long, deep breaths – three seconds to inhale, three seconds to exhale

These three techniques worked wonders for me, but it wasn’t an overnight cure.  I had to put these methods into practice and repeat them until I’d conditioned a habitual, healthy response to anxiety.  There were nights when I would have to count backwards from 100 more than once, or would lie awake listening to Bob’s Burgers for hours, but now I can honestly say I haven’t had a full-blown anxiety attack in at least two years.  I still get the gut punch on occasion, but am able to quickly calm myself and avoid those horrible heart-attack sensations.

The 4 Steps

  1. Track your symptoms
  2. Separate brain and body symptoms.  If possible, make changes to your daily habits to reduce symptoms related to medical conditions
  3. Find the patterns
  4. Use early distraction

If you are currently taking antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications, DO NOT stop taking them without your physician’s consent.  Mood disorders are complicated and many require medication to restore chemical balance in the brain.  The point of this post is NOT that you do not or should not need medication.  The point is you can attack your anxiety INSTEAD of allowing it to attack YOU!  When you learn to control your brain’s faulty fear factor, you not only minimize the physical and mental distress of a panic attack but also maximize the effectiveness of your medication.  You will start to FEEL better!

 

Fog in Your Throat?

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Photo by Rory Björkman on Unsplash

There are many behavioral symptoms of depression such as isolating, neglecting one’s personal hygiene, undereating or overeating, and more.  These symptoms are fairly easy to conceal and frequently go unnoticed by others.  One of the noticeable symptoms (and a costly one) is negative speech.  Our depressive behaviors can become habits if we aren’t careful.

Negative speech can set off a cycle of rejection and isolation.  Friends or family members may try to coax us out of our depression by pressing us to talk about our feelings, but are completely unprepared for our response.  These snap out of it people are usually well-meaning, but have no idea of the depths to which depression takes our thinking or how difficult the climb back up can be.  They simply don’t get it, and we then end up on the receiving end of comments like, “Don’t be such a downer” or “I can’t be around you when you are like this” or “Why don’t you just stop feeling sorry for yourself?”

They make it sound so simple — why don’t we stop?  As painful as these remarks may seem at the time, there is actually a clue to escaping negativity in them.  At the root of our negative speech problem is depression hovering around us like a fog, clouding both our anticipation of the future and our interpretation of the past.  People who love us say, “Count your blessings.  Look at what you’ve accomplished!”  The brain fog lies to us and whispers, “You’ve never accomplished anything and never will.”  And we believe it.

When we believe the lie, our ability to expect good things diminishes.  The happy times of our past are distorted as we inventory each and every little flaw throughout our life’s history.  The fog filters our thoughts, and the words we say reflect our foggy brain filter.  The people who care about us don’t understand our responses, and leave us to ourselves until we are “better.”  We end up feeling isolated when we desperately need connection.

Battling depression requires energy at a time when we have none.  This is why it is important to prepare for the next valley when you are on the current hilltop.  In other words, when you are feeling good, channel that momentum to push you through the next rough patch.  Begin by acknowledging your accomplishments – no matter how insignificant.

Dr. Seuss said, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”  The same can be said for accomplishments.  If you’ve been in a fog for a long time, admitting you actually DO have some accomplishments may feel a little weird, but do it anyway.  Write down everything, from “I got out of bed this morning” to “I got that promotion.”  If you find you are censoring yourself or are in a valley right now, ask for help from somebody who knows you.  BUT – and this is important: Don’t censor THEM, either.  Just write everything down in a journal or notebook and keep it handy.  Two things will happen if you do.

First, simply writing down three accomplishments each day will lift the fog.  Our thoughts generate chemical reactions in our brain, and these reactions generate physical sensations.  Some of us have brains with low activity in the positive-feeling areas, and high activity in the negative-feeling areas.  Writing down three accomplishments each day forces positive chemical reactions.  In other words, you are exercising the positive-feeling area of the brain, making it stronger and more active.

Second, if you encounter another bout of depression, you can refer back to your list of accomplishments.  It’s a reminder of what you CAN DO and have done – PROOF that you are capable of doing things, even when your brain is shrouded in fog.  You are also setting off those little positive chemical reactions in the brain every time you read your list.  Update it daily.  FILL A NOTEBOOK with accomplishments, big and small.  Use it to chase away the fog so you can see your life and yourself in a positive light.

 

Failure? You May Be Mistaken

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Do you call yourself a failure when you make a mistakeMistakes are typically made because of an error in judgment, or because we lack certain information or a particular skill.  These are valuable life lessons, bringing to light areas in our lives where we need to educate ourselves or make little self-improvements.  Unfortunately, many of us develop a habit of interpreting mistakes as something much worse — an indicator there is something wrong with us.

For people with depression or anxiety, this misinterpretation comes easily.  The depressive brain channels practically every event through a filter of negativity, painting our lives in a humdrum hue.  Mistakes seem catastrophic, and the towel is quickly thrown in.  There are some key differences between mistakes and failures, and learning to recognize them can help you reclaim lost self-esteem and avoid worsening symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Door Opened, Door Closed

Imagine your mistakes as open doors – opportunities to learn.  For instance, when we take up a new hobby or start a new job, we are likely to screw something up at least once.  This is commonly known as the learning curve, but it becomes a show-stopper for many of us.  Our brain processes the screw-up through its negativity filter and we receive an “I’m just not cut out for this” message.  In most cases, the error is nothing more than a lack of information or practice.  As we persist — we improve — and eventually those early mistakes become part of the distant past.

Now, there ARE times where we really are NOT cut out for something.  If American Idol has taught us anything, it’s that not everyone is cut out to be a rock star.  That’s not to say we shouldn’t try new things or pursue a dream, but rather, in chasing our dreams we must also be willing to see and accept reality.  Not doing so can lead to despair.  Failures – like mistakes – are also a learning tool.  Failure is a closed door – an ending to our journey down a wrong path.  Although painful, failure sometimes protects us from our own self-destructive ways by telling us, “Don’t do that again.”

This don’t do it again message is why it is so important to separate our mistakes – which are many – from true failures, which are actually quite rare.  The band Genesis did a song called “Misunderstanding” which helps to illustrate the difference.  It’s basically the story of a man who misreads the signals of a woman he is romantically interested in.  This is the mistake part.  The opportunity here (or open door) is for him to become more self-aware and communicative to ensure he is receiving other’s messages clearly and not projecting his own feelings onto them.  When he realizes she is already in a relationship, this is a door closed – a signal to move on.  In other words, he can learn from the mistake and try again — this time as a better communicator — but in another relationship.

Sometimes, as in “Misunderstanding”, our mistakes DO lead to failure.  However, the mistakes we learn from are the ones which lead to great successes.  We are going to make mistakes throughout our lifetime – lots of them.  It is in overcoming the “I’m a failure” mindset and learning to live with and learn from our mistakes that we can restore peace of mind and experience new and wonderful things.

 

Eruptors and Internalizers

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Photo by LBoatwright

Depression is frequently described as anger turned inward.  The opposite can also be true; anger is often depression turned outward.  We express anger in any number of ways, but when we don’t know how to handle our anger in a healthy, productive manner, we risk over-expressing or under-expressing ourselves, never really bringing issues which matter to light.  In both cases, there is an effort being made – whether consciously or not – to avoid dealing with something

We’ve probably all encountered somebody who is seemingly angry all the time.  They appear to erupt at the slightest thing, and we walk on eggshells in order to avoid a blast.  We may even attempt to help them get to the root of the problem.  As they swear and slam things we ask, “What are you angry about? Let’s talk about it.”  We receive a puzzling response as the angry person angrily yells, “I’M NOT ANGRY!”  Alrighty, then.

At the other end of the spectrum is the person who swallows their anger in an attempt to deny it.  Their behavior is more subtle as they wage a sort of passive-aggressive battle of neglecting little chores or errands, arguing with the target of their “non-anger” in their head, and/or frequently feeling unwell.  The truth is, they probably do feel unwell – repression is a known contributor to headaches, nausea, anxiety, and other maladies.  The truth is also this; this person is also angrily yelling “I’M NOT ANGRY!”…just not out loud.

People become eruptors or internalizers because of a perceived lack of control.  The eruptor regains control by instilling fear in others, thus enabling them to avoid – essentially — everything they want to avoid.  The internalizer regains control through omission, thinking, “You’ll get a little taste of what it would be like without me, then you’ll be sorry.”  Unfortunately, the other person is rarely sorry and even more rarely notices the internalizer is unhappy.

Anger isolates, whether it is us avoiding a volatile person or a person quietly isolating themselves to avoid becoming a volatile person.  Sadly, neither of these people has actually regained control.  They haven’t empowered themselves, but rather simply found a way to retreat to their corner without losing face.  The underlying issues are still out there, still not dealt with, and on top of them are daily fresh layers of anger and avoidance, wedging more divide in relationships and more despair to the psyche.

Some anger is healthy and warranted, but all too frequently it becomes a conditioned response for those who aren’t sure how to process or express certain emotions.  Anger provides the illusion of a “quick fix” much like drugs to an addict.  It abruptly ends an unwanted or uncomfortable conversation or situation, but wounds everyone in its path.

Angry YOU

Are you an eruptor?  An internalizer?  If so, you can learn healthier ways of dealing with your anger.  First, try tracking your angry feelings for a few weeks.  Rate them on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being “I totally flipped out!”  For each, write down the event which made you feel angry.  Next, begin listing healthier ways you could have dealt with each situation and begin putting these into practice.  For instance, many people need to unwind when they get home from work, which means this is a less-than-ideal time for serious conversations.  If someone approaches you as soon as you walk in the door, politely tell the other person, “This sounds important — give me an hour to decompress from work so I can give you my full attention.”  Then do it.  Be very present in that conversation in order to build trust and prove the value of grabbing a little downtime for yourself.  There is always a chance the other person won’t cooperate with this request, but the point is to monitor your own anger responses so that even when you are pressed, you can still conduct your side of the conversation in a productive manner.

Angry OTHERS

Living with an eruptor or internalizer can be difficult because anger frequently masks their real feelings, making honest communication difficult.  It is fruitless to try and change someone else’s behavior, particularly if they don’t actually want to change it.  Instead, you may have to change the way you process their behavior and try out different ways of communicating until you find ones which work.

Some people are not comfortable talking or even thinking about their feelings.  If you are committed to a relationship with such a person, it may be helpful to process for yourself which issues actually require their input.  For instance, if you are wanting to talk about your own feelings, you should be prepared for a bumpy ride – especially if the gist of the conversation is “you made me feel like this”.  When a person doesn’t understand their own feelings, they are equally unlikely to understand yours or how their actions played a role in the way you feel.  Your angry person may never be a great communicator, but you CAN be.  Learn to process your own anger in healthy ways to reduce your own stress levels, improve your physical health, and restore a little peace to the environment.

A Potential Problem

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Photo by L Boatwright

“James” is a Billy Joel song from the 70s.  It’s the story of childhood friends, one who fulfilled his own dreams and another who tried fulfilling everyone else’s.  Has anybody ever told you that you weren’t living up to your potential?  (Don’t you just hate that?) There are always areas in our life where we could stand a little improvement, but there is a difference between self-improvement and living up to potential.

Self-improvement is self-driven – we identify an area of improvement within ourselves and set about changing our thoughts and behaviors in order to improve in that area.  Our potential is rarely up to us, but rather is told to us by other people.  In other words, we are expected to meet somebody else’s expectations.

Very often, there is a mixed message here – one which fuels frustration and depression for many.  It starts in childhood, sometimes with comparisons such as why can’t you get good grades like your brother or you should try to be sweet like your sister.  The comparisons continue into adolescence and adulthood.  So-and-so’s kid is going to school to be a doctor — when are you going to do something with your life? or When I was your age I was already married – when are you going to settle down?  Regardless of the comparison, the implication is we are not good enough because we aren’t…well…somebody else.  The comparisons frequently come with a confusing and contradictory I love you the way you are…now please change the way you are type of message.

We learn early on to compare ourselves to others and in doing so frequently find we are falling short.  We begin to feel less than and dissatisfied, constantly pressuring ourselves to keep doing until we are good enough, then never believing we are good enough.  How then can we avoid the trap of perpetual potential?  Start by examining motives – yours and those of the people you feel are pressuring you.

You can determine your own motives by asking if the expectation you have put on yourself is truly self-driven and self-realized, or if you are simply trying to please somebody else.  If the purpose is rooted in ‘self’, then ask yourself is this something I actually wish for myself, or is it based on my own comparison of myself to somebody else?  Keep in mind, it is one thing to respect a particular quality in another person and seek to build that quality within ourselves.  However, doing so can become unhealthy when we lose sight of the area of improvement and instead begin a fruitless cycle of attempting to be more like somebody else.

Examining another person’s motives can be tricky, partially because they may not even be aware of them, or may be unwilling to admit their reasons for them.  One question worth answering is: is this something they wanted to achieve themselves?  People will often project their own unrealized hopes and dreams onto those around them in an effort to vicariously enjoy the experience they themselves missed out on.  Also, ask yourself if the other person’s expectation matches your own self-improvement goal.

Sometimes it won’t.  When that happens, you may try explaining why that particular goal doesn’t fit into your current plans.  But, let’s face it, some people cannot take “no” for an answer, especially if they think they are “helping you” into being a better whatever.  In those cases — particularly where the person keeps pressuring and pressing those depression and low self-worth buttons in your brain – you may want to consider ending the relationship.  In cases where you are stuck with the person, you might do your best to avoid the subject or quickly change it should they bring the topic up.

The bottom line is, when we try to live up to someone else’s idea of our potential, we will most likely find ourselves feeling inadequate and unfulfilled.  Identify your own idea of potential, set your own goals, and then go for them.  If somebody else’s expectations match yours, hooray!  When they don’t align, try not to sacrifice your own peace of mind by worrying about whether or not you will ever fulfill – in the words of Billy Joel – “…someone else’s dream of who you are.”

 

 

From Rumination to Resilience

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Photo by LBoatwright

Some people in this world are amazingly emotionally resilient.  They appear to bounce back from failures, criticisms, and rejections with very few psychological scars.  At the other end of the human spectrum are those who seem to absorb every hurtful word and experience, frequently ruminating over the worst moments of their lives like a bad news reel.  I have always envied the resilient ones, often finding myself at the receiving end of their well-meaning “just snap out of it” advice, and just as often wondering why I couldn’t just snap out of it.

Rumination – like resilience – lives in the brain, and most people are born predisposed to one or the other.  For some, the negative-thinking centers of the brain are stuck in “on” mode, sometimes from early childhood.  This can be caused by a combination of an overactive basal ganglia – which control’s the brain’s “idling speed” and dysfunction of the limbic system – which controls mood.  In other words, some brains get stuck in negativity and then rev up the engine on self-destructive thinking.  These people are at high risk for anxiety, stress, isolating, and other depressive disorders.

Why Do We Ruminate?

Negative thoughts are unannounced, intrusive guests.  They seem to pop up out of nowhere – little flashbacks – bits and pieces of events we wish we could forget.  All too frequently, rather than dismiss these memories as the annoying little ANT’s they are (Automatic Negative Thoughts), we dwell on them.  In some cases, we lie to ourselves, believing we are mentally revisiting the event in order to learn from it and avoid a similar disaster in the future.  In truth, we are wishing we could go back and change the past.  These flashbacks are loaded with “if onlys” – if only I had said this, if only I had walked away from it, if only I hadn’t done that.  We dwell on them out of a need to self-punish.  While it is true there are consequences for any action, self-punishment typically extends far beyond any actual consequences.  We do it because at our core something tells us we deserve whatever happened, we deserve to be unhappy, or we are undeserving of second chances or brighter days.

How Can Ruminators Become Resilient?

The key to conquering rumination lies in learning to practice emotional health, and practicing deliberate diversion.  Pay close attention to your thoughts and recognize those which are attached to negative feelings and thinking patterns.  Keep in mind there is a difference between self-disciplining and self-punishing.  Be certain your brain isn’t tricking you by disguising self-punishment as discipline.  Discipline corrects, and in order to become resilient, we must correct negative thinking patterns.  Make a list of things you can do for two minutes: listen to an uplifting song, prepare a cup of tea, take a quick walk around the outside of the house, etc.  When you find yourself dwelling on past hurts, say “no!” to yourself and implement one of your two-minute diversion tactics.

More about Emotional Health

This TED Talk about Emotional First Aid by psychologist Guy Winch is one of my favorites.  In it, he explains why we should place equal importance on our physical health and emotional health.  Just two minutes is all it takes to start overcoming this pain – two minutes to begin healing both self-inflicted and others-inflicted emotional wounds.  I hope you’ll take the time to watch it, and that you find something helpful in it: https://www.ted.com/talks/guy_winch_the_case_for_emotional_hygiene

For more on ANTs, I recommend Dr. Daniel Amen’s book Change Your Brain, Change Your Life.

Sometimes, Okay Really is Okay

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I recently had one of those “the whole universe hates me” mornings.  I was getting ready for work, and my dental partial snapped in half.  Do you remember Witch Hazel from the old Bugs Bunny cartoons?  That partial is the only thing which keeps me from looking like her when I walk out the front door each day.  I admit to having an almost desperate dependence on it, and when it broke, all the panic buttons in my brain went off.  Thankfully, the most important section of the partial – which, incidentally, contains one of my front teeth – was intact and I was able to go to work, sort of smile at people, and enjoy a liquid diet for the day.  Still, a lot of self-talk was required to pull myself out of panic mode, and I purposed to identify the root cause of my anxiety response.

I know there are women in this world who would have responded with laughter.  They would have walked into work, flashed a big toothless grin and said, “Witch Hazel’s in the house today!”  I pondered the difference between myself and such women, and I realized; it’s an abundance of joy vs. an abundance of shame.  You may already be familiar with the concept: guilt says I made a mistake, shame says I am a mistake.  Shame is the thing which makes us believe it is somehow wrong to accept our faults, even if they’re not, well, our fault.

I remember a rhyme which was drilled into my head during childhood:

Good, Better, Best

Never let it rest

Until your Good is Better and

Your Better is Best

I hate that rhyme.  On the surface, it may seem harmless enough and many of us have been on the receiving end of similar messaging by well-meaning people.  Ever been told if you try your hardest, you can’t fail or you can always do better?  These may seem like words of encouragement, but they carry a damning implication: If you are not the best, then you are not good enough.  Very often, this is the message received and stored in the depressive brain, and it can generate a multitude of anxieties.

There is nothing wrong with trying to better ourselves.  However, when we “never let it rest” we put an awful lot of pressure on ourselves, and risk losing the ability to accept a compliment.  The depressive brain has a glitch in its filter and filing system.  It will take an incoming signal like “you look great today” and deliver it as “I must not look great every day.  I NEED to look great EVERY day”.  We hear a, “wow, she’s lost weight” comment about somebody else and although we may nod in agreement on the outside, inside our brain is misfiling that message into an “I must look fat, I better lose weight, too” directive.  We run exhausting mind marathons, secretly competing against others as we try to have the better job, better house, better relationship, better figure, etc.  In other words, we never let it rest until we are the best.  The trouble with this is there will always be somebody who is better than us at something.  We will die trying to out-do others and ourselves in our perpetual quest for perfection.

So, where do shame and joy fit in?  Shame leads us to believe okay is never okay.  The person who has found joy has learned — sometimes, okay is okay.  Joy is the life-preserver of self-esteem.  Shame is the ultimate joy-stealer, constantly revealing to us the tiniest flaws in even the loveliest of things, and particularly in ourselves.  For instance, we see a flower and our first response is what a pretty flower.   Within moments, the joy-stealer snatches that thought and replaces it with something like there’s a petal missing.  What begins as occasional pessimism can quickly evolve into a chronic condition of dissatisfaction and self-loathing.  We become unable to appreciate the beauty within ourselves because we are so focused on our own missing petals.

Overcoming this mental misdirection can open the door to joy, but requires a willingness to be very self-aware in order to chase the joy-stealer from our brains.  Try making a point to remember your “up” thoughts, such as what a pretty flower.  When the “down” thought comes, such as there’s a petal missing, counter it immediately by combining both thoughts into one accepting thought.  The internal conversation might go something like this:

What a pretty flower.  There’s a petal missing.  What a pretty, flower – even with a missing petal.

Make a point of celebrating even your smallest victories.  For instance, instead of focusing on the week you didn’t exercise, think about the times you did exercise and know you can do it again.  Write them down in a journal somewhere.  Then, when negativity aims its guns at you, you can reclaim your joy by reminding yourself of your achievements.  There may always be areas where we can use some improvement, but there are also times when “giving it a rest” is the very best thing we can do for our spirit.