Eastern Colorado is a flat as a tabletop. It goes for miles and miles in every direction with only the slightest rolling adding contour to the otherwise level topography. It’s the very definition of the Great Plains.
But as you continue west along Interstate 70, an amazing feature begins to emerge from the horizon. The Front Range mountains form a 14,000-foot wall that rises just west of Denver. As far as you look to the north and south it reminds me of nothing so much as the Wall that separated the Kingdom of the North from the domain of the Wildlings in Game of Thrones.
I’ve often imagined some poor settler family, trundling across the prairie in their covered wagon. When they reach this formidable barrier Amos would reign in the horses and declare to Martha, “This looks like a good place to stop!”
That impenetrable wall is just like the one we each face when we run into a challenge that seems bigger than we currently are and scarier than we’re prepared to take on.
Right now, for example, I’m facing the challenge of having to do some old fashioned, cold calling. This is about as far outside my comfort zone as it gets. But an advisor whom I trust gave me this advice and, as much as I squirm and wriggle, he’s absolutely right that, given my goals, this is my best next step.
So what am I doing instead of diving into this vital activity? I’m procrastinating, wasting time, finding other things that are ‘more important,’ and making all manner of excuses as to why I can continue to put it off, if not avoid it altogether.
What are you facing that you’d just as soon avoid?
Maybe it’s way past time for you to confront that bad relationship. Perhaps your body is telling you to end that destructive habit once and for all. Are you overdue for taking the next big step to advance your education or career? Or have you been putting off what you know needs to be done to repair your finances?
We’ve all got those walls that appear to be insurmountable. And we are all incredibly creative when it comes to finding ways to circle around the challenge, make excuses for inaction or engage in busywork that we fool ourselves into believing is actually helping.
When we reach that impasse it’s important to recognize what’s going on. By stepping outside ourselves for a moment, we can see the inner conflict in an objective way and find ways to overcome it.
The real smackdown is happening between my ego and my soul.
My deepest inner self, that highest version of me knows what it wants to become, and is capable of becoming. It has a grand vision of the very best version of me that’s possible and it wants that for me. It also knows that I’m fully capable of being and doing whatever is necessary to achieve that grand vision.
My ego, my lower self, on the other hand, wants to protect itself. It likes things just the way they are and has no interest in stepping outside this comfortable and familiar space. It’s threatened by the actions I know I have to take if I’m to achieve the goals I’ve set for myself.
As we’re discovering through the wisdom of alternative medicines, the body has energy channels that stream through it. When the energy is flowing smoothly, our health is optimized and our lives seem effortless. When the flow of energy is blocked, which happens with inner conflict, health breaks down and our lives begin to come unglued.
When I sit in meditation and contemplate my own inner conflicts, my body will often begin to literally shake as the two forces meet each other at cross purposes because my state of mind is blocking that flow.
Going back to Colorado for a moment, those pioneers had California on their minds and weren’t about to let a little mountain range stop them. As they worked up the nerve to get closer and closer to the big, bad obstacle, they discovered hidden valleys, narrow gorges and mountain passes that were routes through to the far side. They weren’t always easy, but nor were they impossible.
The way to find ways through our own barriers is to examine our fears objectively. Take each worry and identify both the desire and the fear that are behind it by completing this sentence: “I want to _________, and I scare myself by imagining ____________.
I want to move up in the company, and I scare myself by imagining that I’ll be passed over for a promotion.
I want to let my children have happy, healthy relationships, and I scare myself by imagining that they’ll get into serious trouble if I don’t keep them closely supervised.
I want to enjoy a healthy, active lifestyle, and I scare myself by imagining that I’ll come down with some terrible disease.
I want to be my own boss, and I scare myself by imagining that I’ll go out of business and be ruined.
I want to spend the rest of my life with her, and I scare myself by imagining that she’ll turn me down if I ask her to marry me.
When we dig down and discover what’s at the real core of our fears, we often find three things. First, the likelihood of this terrible outcome occurring is actually pretty slim. Second, there are ways to minimize those risks while still going ahead with your dreams. Third, the grass truly is greener on the other side and the benefits of getting to the other side of your mountains far outweigh the risks of the journey.
So I’m settling in to make those calls, knowing that the terrible things I’ve imagined might happen a) likely won’t, b) are under my control, and c) will lead to the outcomes that I want on the far side of this mountain.
What about you?
There’s a nasty internet meme that’s been around for a while that characterizes the look on someone’s face when they’re relaxed or resting. While the label ‘Resting Bitch Face’ (RBF) has an obvious and horribly offensive sexist tilt, scientists using facial recognition technology confirm that it’s equally present regardless of gender.
The software they used compiles 500 points on the face to analyze facial expression and detect the emotions that are being communicated. The one that’s communicated most often with RBF? Contempt.
While it’s nice to have empirical confirmation, it doesn’t take a scientist to notice that the faces of just about everybody you encounter are expressing something far from happiness.
Why is everyone so miserable?
There’s no shortage of people who are quick to explain that our collective gloom is in response to the horrible world in which we live. Terrorism, climate change, raging partisanship, rising xenophobia. And now let’s throw in coronavirus just for fun!
It’s easy to conclude that anybody who isn’t miserable or frightened is either not paying attention or too dumb to realize what’s going on.
And yet there are some very smart, very attentive people who refuse to play along.
I’ve recently met a new friend, Michael Ray. He lives in Louisville and life hasn’t exactly been handed to him on a silver spoon. He suffered the death of a child, a divorce and his 21-year-old daughter, Maddie, has Down Syndrome and has been non-verbal her entire life.
It would be so easy to wallow in self-pity.
While Maddie’s never been able to speak the words, “I love you,” that doesn’t stop her from letting Michael know how she’s feeling. The smile that radiates from her face lights up everything in a way that mere words could never convey.
So Michael took his cue from her smile and started the Smile Project Louisville. Now his mission is to change attitudes and behaviors by spreading love through smiling. He says, “It's the simplicity of a smile, it doesn't cost anything."
My late Mother never seemed to get the memo either.
Despite painful and embarrassing skin problems, blindness and Parkinson’s Disease, you’d never see her without a smile on her face. That joyful expression, however, was a choice. Just as it is for all of us.
Mom decided to be happy. And so she was. She didn’t wait around hoping for happiness to arrive, she went looking for it, created it, plucked it out of thin air. And then she drank it up, delighted in it, splashed around in it and shared it with those who were lucky enough to be around her.
While there was (and always will be) plenty of ugliness around, she deliberately chose to see the joy and the beauty instead. Whether it was a bird at her feeder, a new flower blooming in her garden or the notes of some music that delighted her, she consciously chose to look for and see only those things that she wanted to see.
There are plenty who would call this refusal to face reality naïve or stubborn. But our reality is made up of what we choose to see regardless of what we’re looking at.
Take Mother Teresa for example. Here was a woman who gave up everything to spend her entire life serving the dregs of humanity in the most horrible surroundings. But I dare you to find a picture in which she’s not smiling or her eyes aren’t glowing with some mysterious inner radiance that I’d love to know more about.
Nelson Mandela’s another one who didn’t get the memo. He spent 27 years in prison and then, when he got out, worked hand-in-hand with the people who put him there to fix what was broken in his country. Instead of seeking revenge, he formed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to heal the wounds of apartheid. Just try to find a picture of him when he’s not smiling.
If you’re still not convinced, search for a photo of the Dalai Lama or Pope Francis that doesn’t just glow with happiness.
I always wonder why the pictures we see of Jesus have him looking so glum. I never got to meet Him in person but I’ve got to believe that He, just like His buddies the Buddha, Mohammed and all the other great teachers were a riot to hang out with. Laughing, joking, smiling all the time. And making those around them feel so darn good!
Imagine trying to take a selfie with the Buddha. He’d probably be laughing so hard you couldn’t hold the phone still. And I bet Jesus and Confucius would have photobombed it if they’d been close by.
They created their own realities by focusing on the joy they found around them. And that joy radiates from the faces of everyone who also finds joy in their world. It comes out through the eyes. It radiates from the smile. It positively glows through the skin.
But let’s get back to that resting face.
Our faces have no choice but to reflect what’s going on inside. Try it yourself. Think of something that makes you really happy and see if the corners of your mouth don’t start to turn up, even just a little.
So what’s going on inside you? What are you choosing as your reality? What are the emotions you’re feeling when you’re simply at rest? What will the rest of us see reflected in your eyes and on your face?
Is it contempt? Or is it contentment?
We’re spending a lot of time and energy these days focusing on what’s not working. The things we can’t do, the places we can’t go, the vaccine that hasn’t been found yet…
But in the midst of all this upheaval, quietly, in the background, some remarkable and positive changes have been happening. Few of them are making headlines. But if you know where to look you can see that maybe, just maybe, there’s a sea change occurring in the midst of all this upheaval and confusion. And it just might result in the world becoming a better place.
While it’s easy and even clichéd to say that all challenge contains the seeds of opportunity, it remains a universal truth that proves itself every time. Sure, we’re seeing anger, frustration and ugliness. But I believe that, as always, humanity is proving itself to be more resourceful, more resilient and more compassionate than we often appear to be.
Most obvious, of course, is the mind-blowing effort and sacrifice by the front-line medical workers. Their superhuman determination is the very definition of ‘above-and-beyond’ as they show up every day to work in conditions that are every bit as dangerous and stressful as a battlefield.
Then there are the scientists working to find treatments and vaccines. I can’t even imagine the pressure, the emotional roller coaster and the mental exhaustion they’re experiencing.
But aside from those specialized skills we’re watching ordinary people step forward in extraordinary ways. In the grocery stores. In the delivery vans. In the continuing availability of clean water and electricity. The folks that are keeping all these ‘systems’ operating are emerging as our new heroes.
Our day-to-day world has turned into a Masterclass in gratitude and appreciation. Have you ever, prior to this, seen anyone thanking a grocery store clerk for their service? Me neither.
In the midst of the worst public health crisis in 100 years and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, I’m seeing daily examples of reasons to be hopeful. Reasons to be optimistic. Reasons to be cheerful. Things are happening now that couldn’t have been imagined just a few months ago.
And there are bigger, much bigger changes happening as well. Fundamental changes to how we see and treat each other.
Universal Basic Income, the idea that everyone in a society should receive a minimum income, has long been suggested as a way to promote equity and streamline economic support. While it’s always been a political hot potato, suddenly it’s being implemented and has a good chance of remaining. Learn More
Prison reform and the overwhelmed justice system have moved to the front of the line as judges and sheriff’s departments, who have been advocating reform for years, are releasing thousands of detainees who were awaiting trial or close to their release dates and judges hand down more lenient sentences. Learn More
We’ve been talking about the shift to a remote digital workforce for a long time now. While there are challenges, the move saves money and energy on office space, enables a global talent pool and allows workers to find better opportunities without leaving home. As Daymond John, multi-millionaire entrepreneur and member of the Shark Tank panel writes, that future has now been expedited. Learn More
In spite of the restrictions, there’s evidence that families experiencing lockdown together are growing closer. In a survey of British families, 80% of the parents believed that their families have formed even stronger bonds because of the time they’re spending together. Board games, puzzles and – wait for it – CONVERSATION! are replacing screen time and digital isolation. Learn More
The sudden and unprecedented move to remote instruction and home schooling for students around the world is producing unexpected benefits. Competition and comparisons surrounding testing have lessened, the chaos of the overcrowded classroom is gone and many students are finding the freedom to express talents and interests that were previously suppressed. Learn More
Like the Victory Gardens of WW2, people around the world are voluntarily finding a new interest in growing their own food. Seed suppliers are seeing a rush of orders as people plant herbs and vegetables in balcony containers and backyard plots. The #quarantinegarden movement is easing demand on an over-stressed food supply system, providing a source of high quality and ultra-fresh produce and offering built-in stress relief as new and returning gardeners get their fingers in the dirt. Learn More
Our hope for the resolution of this crisis does not lie with some miracle cure or the wisdom of politicians who we had assumed would lead us.
No, our wonder drug is the hope, ingenuity, resourcefulness and compassion with which we humans are already inoculated. We only have to watch as the quiet ones who don’t make the headlines have been stepping up and showing us what’s possible.
In the midst, and as a result of this global crisis, it appears that we’re shifting to a world that includes more compassion, caring and consideration. When the old rules no longer apply and we have to think for ourselves, the true depth of our human potential begins to surface.
So many of the anxieties that we face are rooted in events and circumstances that we’ve experienced in the past. Childhood traumas, challenges as a teenager and bad relationships in our adult years can all leave emotional scars that remain for years if not a lifetime. As long as they’re allowed to hang around, these old war wounds will continue to block your growth and success.
But rather than using those hurts as excuses or justifications for the anxieties and limitations you suffer now, recognizing and purging them can liberate you to move on and continue the growth that is your intention and your right.
The first step in leaving your worries behind is to establish an accurate assessment of exactly what it is you’re anxious about and how this worry routine began. When reflecting on my own life and the worry habits that I wanted to leave behind, I discovered a number of origins and reinforcements that needed to be addressed.
For example I did not grow up with anything even approaching financial wealth. We were wealthy in many non-financial ways, but dollars were scarce. One of the ways that my parents dealt with the situation was that my mother would sew many of our clothes herself. While it was a tremendous amount of work, not to mention a tremendous talent, as an adolescent I was always conscious of and embarrassed about wearing home-made clothes instead of fancy store-bought ones like the other kids wore. This was one of the many situations that reinforced for me that money didn’t grow on trees and required constant worry.
As I turned these and other origins of fear and worry over and over in my mind, that’s all that seemed to happen – I turned them over and over in my mind. I never made progress with my thinking. I never came up with any solutions. I simply regurgitated the same mental contents of yesterday, last week, last month, last year again and again.
Painful, boring and not the least bit useful.
One day, though, I was somehow inspired to take the constantly recurring thoughts out of my brain and put them down on paper.
And that’s when everything began to change.
All of a sudden, as I reread the notes I’d made, the worries were no longer in my head, they had somehow moved outside of me. I had gained an objectivity about them that hadn’t existed when they were simply swirling around in my brain. Suddenly, my worried thoughts no longer owned me. I owned them. And now that I owned them, they were mine to do with, to control and to dispose of as I pleased.
A major success strategy in conquering your own anxieties and worries is to get them outside of you, to externalize and objectify those feelings. And one of the most effective ways of doing this is to write your feelings, and the origins of those feelings down on paper.
Susan David, Ph.D. is an award-winning Harvard Medical School psychologist and author of the #1 Wall Street Journal bestselling book, Emotional Agility. In an article for The Cut she wrote about the benefits of writing as a means to emotional processing. She cited research done by James Pennebaker, a distinguished professor at the University of Texas that showed how people who write about experiences that have been emotionally intense show improvements in both physical and mental well-being.
The process also allowed them to discover and benefit from the life lessons that are always buried deep in otherwise traumatic events. They were able to understand the experience and its consequences in a much clearer and more objective way.
I encourage you to start a personal journal.
Susan David suggests setting aside 20 minutes each day and using a notebook or a computer to write about your emotional experiences from the past week, month, or year. My personal experience is that, while it might be slower, it’s far more effective to write by hand than it is to type into a computer.
There’s something about the slower, more deliberate and kinesthetic act of writing that helps you objectify and externalize these negative emotions, which is an important part of the letting-go process. As you write, imagine the anxieties flowing out through your arm, your hand and your fingers, into the pen and onto the paper.
As you write, fully expect your self-censor to spring into action and try to shut you down or at least minimize your efforts. You’ll find your self-talk saying things such as, “This really isn’t a problem for me.” “It’s not that bad.” “I should be able to stop worrying on my own.” “What would my (mother) (husband) (rabbi) (children) say if they knew I was struggling with this?” “This is just silly! I’ve got more important things to do.” “My anxieties aren’t worth this much attention. Think about the starving children…”
Recognize these thoughts as they arise and smile as you recall that we predicted them right here. Don’t fight them, but let them gently pass through and then out of your mind. Imagine these thoughts as wisps of mist that drift into your brain and then drift right back out again. No need to pay them any attention.
The fact is that you do deserve to live a worry-free life. You are worthy of the time and attention it takes to let your anxieties melt away. You have as much right to a joyful, fear-free life as anyone and it’s time to be kind and gentle with yourself. So let all the “should’s,” “ought-to’s” and “you’re doing what’s?!” that come your way roll right off your back. This is your Me Time and you deserve it.
Don’t try to make the writing perfect, coherent or legible. The point is to let your mind flow where it will. Don’t try to justify, explain or judge yourself in any way. Just write. As you write about each anxiety and its origins, allow yourself to again feel fully the emotions that you felt way back then as you were told or witnessed or experienced something that caused you to be anxious. Feel, also, the emotions you experience every time a present-day trigger reinforces that anxiety. Let your thoughts flow into words on the paper as you freely describe your feelings.
So now it’s your turn. Pick up your pen and your journal and start writing now. When you get it out on paper it’s much harder for it to go back into your mind.
One of the hardest things in life is to think for yourself.
We all claim to be, and take pride in the independence of being, our own person. For the most part, however, the majority of our thoughts and beliefs are the result of what we’ve been trained, told and often coerced into thinking and believing.
𝗪𝗵𝗲𝗿𝗲 𝗱𝗶𝗱 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗶𝗱𝗲𝗮𝘀 𝘆𝗼𝘂 𝗯𝗲𝗹𝗶𝗲𝘃𝗲 𝗶𝗻, 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝘃𝗮𝗹𝘂𝗲𝘀 𝘆𝗼𝘂 𝗵𝗼𝗹𝗱 𝗱𝗲𝗮𝗿 𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗲 𝗳𝗿𝗼𝗺?
We were all born into and brought up in families, social circles, religions and societies that hold common beliefs, which they passed on to us. The values we hold, our preferences, our ideas about right and wrong, are generally those of our parents, our parents’ parents, our friends and the societies in which we live.
The values and beliefs that inform our lives and our decision-making include everything from whether you’re a Yankees or a Red Sox fan, to whether you prefer rock-and-roll or opera, to how you vote and your ideas about God.
Even in our rebellious youth, we didn’t really rebel. We just switched our allegiance from one group of taste- and belief-influencers to another whose opinion about us mattered more at the time.
𝗥𝗲𝗮𝗹 𝘁𝗵𝗶𝗻𝗸𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗶𝘀 𝗵𝗮𝗿𝗱 𝘄𝗼𝗿𝗸
In spite of the fact that most of our beliefs, preferences, values and anxieties have come to us second-hand, we rarely question them. Why? Because thinking for yourself requires a great deal of effort.
The normal, everyday kind of mental activity is easy. “Why did I get passed over for a raise?” “What’s for dinner?” “I’m not enjoying this date and certainly won’t be going out an another with him!”
But this isn’t really thinking. It’s simply lazily drifting down a thought river, and ending up wherever the current takes us.
Real thinking first requires that you take the time to conduct the introspection and discover what it is that you really believe. What are the values by which you make your important decisions? How do you behave when nobody’s watching?
Once you’ve isolated them, the next step is to determine the origins of these beliefs and values. Are they in your mind like a pre-programmed factory setting? Were they put there by your parents? By your teachers, your coaches or your religious leaders? Or are they there because they’re required if you’re to get along with the people you’re currently associating with?
When you’ve assembled your inventory of beliefs, you then need to question each one in turn. Based on your experience, your own unique interaction with the world and your own inner voice, does this belief make sense to you? Does it serve you as you pursue your purpose in life?
If it doesn’t, or doesn’t any longer, you’re obliged to either live a lie or change your belief. But to what?
See? Hard work.
𝗧𝗵𝗶𝗻𝗸𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗳𝗼𝗿 𝘆𝗼𝘂𝗿𝘀𝗲𝗹𝗳 𝗶𝘀𝗻’𝘁 𝗷𝘂𝘀𝘁 𝗵𝗮𝗿𝗱 𝘄𝗼𝗿𝗸. 𝗜𝘁’𝘀 𝗮𝗹𝘀𝗼 𝗿𝗶𝘀𝗸𝘆.
When you question your beliefs and decide to think for yourself you risk the good opinion of others. You risk being unfashionable, shunned or even punished. You also risk the conclusion that your parents weren’t infallible. That your religious leaders might not have all the answers. That the teachers and coaches you so admired were just following the instructions they’d been given by THEIR teachers and coaches.
Now there’s nothing wrong with holding on to the values that your parents taught you. As long as they genuinely serve the authentic you. But very few of the values we’ve incorporated into our personal ‘truth’ have been developed from our own unique experiences and thoughtful interpretations of them.
For example, as I’m writing this, an email has just popped, completely uninvited, into my inbox – “Who’s getting the most love on Pinterest right now?” If I want to be viewed as ‘in the know,’ if I want others to think of me as current (or at least current with what Pinterest deems to be of value) then I’d better shift my attention (and my priorities) away from writing this blog post.
If I jump on Twitter I’m instantly brought up to date on what’s trending now. Not what I’m interested in, but what Twitter tells me I’m supposed to be interested in. If I switch on CNN or Fox News I’m instantly brought up to date on that particular organization’s version of ‘facts’ and told what I ought to fear and what I ought to cheer. If I don’t cooperate, then, by implication, there’s something wrong with me.
𝗟𝗶𝘀𝘁𝗲𝗻𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝘁𝗼 𝘆𝗼𝘂𝗿 𝗾𝘂𝗶𝗲𝘁 𝗶𝗻𝗻𝗲𝗿 𝘃𝗼𝗶𝗰𝗲
We all possess a very quiet, but very insistent, inner voice that can always provide an accurate and reliable report on what we value and believe. But we have to learn how to hear it and decide to listen to it.
Begin by being still. Find a quiet place where the outer world can’t intrude and give yourself ten or fifteen minutes. Every day. It’ll take practice because the outer world loves nothing more than to invade and occupy your inner one too. But persist and you’ll hear it before long.
And when you do, it’s unmistakable. That voice is so soothing, so refreshing, and so truthful. It’s the real you speaking and it wants nothing more than for you to show up authentically in the world.
Yes, thinking for yourself can be risky and hard. But it’s also the most rewarding thing you can do. Because when you hand off your thinking and show up in life pretending or attempting to be someone or something else, you’ve got nothing to give. But when you show up as the authentic, genuine YOU, you’ve got more than you ever imagined.
Who are you showing up as?
Have you ever had a ride in one of those old clunker taxis that seems to be held together by duct tape and hope? A favorite trick of those drivers is to put a piece of black tape over the glowing ‘check engine’ light on the dashboard so it doesn’t shine in their eyes. I’ve yet to figure out the logic behind that tactic…
Anxiety is like a warning light on the dashboard of your life. It’s trying to tell you there’s something wrong that needs to be fixed.
During this incredibly goofy time we’re hearing endless advice about how to deal with the anxiety that so many people are suffering. But to be completely honest, I’m getting a little tired of reading and hearing the suggestions: Deep breathing, aromatherapy, long walks, meditation, enough sleep, baking banana bread…
These are all great ideas and each one will help you lead a healthier, more balanced life. (Although you might want to go easy on the banana bread.) The problem, though, is that most of them are nothing more than distractions to take your mind off your anxious thoughts for a while. None of them go deep to get at the root of your anxiety and remove it permanently.
Unlike our friendly, if self-deceiving cab driver, if I discover a problem that’s interfering with the quality of my life, I want to eliminate, not simply mask it.
Anxiety does not lie in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. They’re merely circumstances, facts, situations. There’s nothing inherently good or bad about them. They just are.
No, our anxiety lies in our responses and reactions to those circumstances. And when your mental warning light comes on, it’s trying to tell you that something needs to change.
The first step to permanently freeing yourself from worry and anxiety is to take 100 percent responsibility for absolutely everything that happens to you and in your life. This principle is fundamental to ridding yourself of worry and creating a joyful life.
Worry and anxiety are thoughts that we entertain within our minds. Those thoughts are always in response to circumstances, events and people that are external to our minds. The current boogeyman is COVID-19 but there’s always something – partisan politics, terrorism, global warming...
Because the things we worry about are always out there in the physical world, external to our minds, it’s easy to think, “If only those circumstances would change, I wouldn’t have to worry so much.” So we search for culprits, pass judgment and place blame for the circumstances in which we find ourselves. And nothing changes. As long as we invest our time, our energy and our emotions in blaming and complaining about how things are, we will never be able to stop worrying and create the lives we want to live.
As soon as you place the blame for your circumstances on someone or something, you surrender all your power. As long as you believe that someone else’s behavior is responsible for your situation and emotional state, you have handed all your ability to change things over to them. Because unless they decide to change the way they’re acting, your situation will remain exactly the same.
Now, admittedly, it could very well be that someone else’s actions or an external event resulted in your circumstances. After all, you didn’t cause COVID-19. Expecting or insisting that the circumstances change in order to please you is a fool’s game. It’s simply not going to happen.
The anxiety-producing event has happened or is happening. By assuming 100% responsibility for what happens next, you take 100% of the power to resolve the problem for yourself.
In our current situation we have very little ability to control or change the external circumstances. But we can control and change our thoughts and our emotional responses.
Victor Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist in Austria in the years leading up to WW2. As with millions of his faith, he ended up in a concentration camp in the most horrendous conditions imaginable. Conditions that make our current shelter-in-place conditions seem luxurious in comparison.
Trapped in unspeakably hideous conditions, Frankl made a decision. He decided that no one would own his spirit. As he later wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Regardless of the external circumstances, no one can tell you what to think, what to imagine or what to feel. You always have a choice. And in that fact lies your power. We’re all waiting for the medical experts to rescue us from this virus. But only you can make the choice to rescue yourself from anxiety.
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle."
Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Emotions are, well, emotional and there’s a lot of them swirling around these days. Some of them feel wonderful and we love it when they’re around. Others (like fear and anxiety) just feel like crap.
For most people, emotions are like the weather: sunny days are great but you have no control over when it decides to rain. Wouldn’t it be great if you could choose your emotional state, rather than having it dumped on you?
Turns out, you can.
We feel, experience and occasionally even become our emotions, rather than merely observing and understanding them. Which, when your emotions begin to take control of you, makes it tricky to make intelligent and beneficial choices that lead to the dreams and goals you’ve set for yourself.
The Art of War was written more than 2,500 years ago by a Chinese general named Sun Tzu. It’s long been studied and lauded for its advice on success in battle. Lately it’s been used by countless entrepreneurs and business people looking for an edge in the corporate world.
His advice to know your enemy can also be enormously valuable as we work to overcome anxiety and leave negative emotions behind. If we don’t understand how our emotions work, how can we ever possibly hope to achieve mastery over them?
Now I’m in no way suggesting that your emotions are, in some way, your ‘enemy’ and must be defeated. A life without emotion would be robotic and empty. Likewise, a life ruled exclusively by our feelings is like a cork, bobbing in the ocean, tossed around by whatever wave knocks it next. A life that takes full, conscious advantage of its rich emotional range while not becoming hostage to it is a life well-lived.
Since reason and logic are the antithesis of emotion, we can use these opposites to gain valuable insight into our emotional life as we study this enigmatic creature – ourselves.
In my workshops and signature online course, Unsubscribe from Anxiety, students are taught to imagine themselves as detached, objective scientists in a laboratory. You’re wearing a white lab coat and you’re about to conduct an academic study of this subject of yours called ‘Emotion.’ There’s a big blob of it sitting on your laboratory bench and you’re going to measure it, probe it, take its temperature, weigh it and learn everything there is to know about this mysterious creature.
Only then will you be able to decide what you want to do with it.
A good first step on the way to emotional self-knowledge is to take inventory. What are the actual emotions that we’re experiencing? On the one hand, it’s useful (if a little too easy) to simply divide emotions into two groups – ones that feel good and ones that feel bad. But we want to get a little more fine-grained than that.
In the wonderful book, ‘Ask and It is Given,’ by Abraham Hicks, there’s a useful ‘emotional scale’ that lists 22 of our most common emotions in sequence from our highest feelings to our lowest.
The further up the scale your emotion, the more that feeling can serve you. For example, if you’re feeling discouraged and angry, you’re less in control than if you’re feeling frustrated and impatient. Impatience can lead to action, which can lead to hope, positive expectation and eventually empowerment.
But even anger is a more positive and proactive feeling than insecurity or fear. Anger contains an energy that can be channeled into decisive action.
By knowing where our current emotions are on the scale, we can begin to make decisions about where we’d like to go from there. You might be feeling overwhelmed in these days of isolation and uncertainty. But when you decide to upgrade your emotion from overwhelment to impatience, things start to happen.
The truth is that you CAN decide which emotion you’d prefer to feel and then launch that one.
One of my favorite characters in the iconic Rob Reiner film, The Princess Bride, is Miracle Max, played by the great Billy Crystal. When he’s presented with the apparently dead body of our hero Westley, he says, “It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.”
And so it is with our emotions. There’s a big difference between feeling worried about the situation and feeling completely powerless. And there’s never a point in your emotional life when you’re “all dead.” No matter how much like crap you feel, no matter how frightened or threatened, you’re still slightly alive. You can step back, put on the white lab coat, and decide to move – just one step – up the emotional scale.
In these days of pandemic-induced anxiety there’s a real benefit to being precise when referring to the various flavors of fear that we’re all coping with. That kind of detached, almost scientific accuracy helps us step back from our emotions and our fears, see them objectively and deal with them in healthy and constructive ways.
We all know what joy feels like.
It feels like we’ve been wrapped in a sense of calmness and bliss that’s a world beyond the giddy pleasure of mere happiness. It’s as if we’ve been injected with a potion made from equal parts warm bath, fresh snowfall and puppies that’s now glowing from the inside, out. It’s the ultimate in mindfulness because it holds us fully in that moment in which all is right with the world.
And damn, it feels good!
Then it’s gone.
Most of us only experience joy when the circumstances around us are just right. Everyone is cooperating, the sun is shining, there’s no pandemic and the planets have aligned. But our hold on joy is tenuous. Change the circumstances, let someone say a wrong word or have the rain begin and joy runs down the drain.
Now, we’re all smart enough to know that real joy comes from the inside, out. But knowing it and living it are two different things. Despite the timeless wisdom of Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad and every other great teacher who’s ever walked the earth, the world keeps insisting that joy, happiness and serenity migrate from the outside, in.
Wear these clothes. Drive this car. Travel to this place. Be like these people. Most often, we put the responsibility for our joy in the hands of everyone else and the world around us. If and when that crowd chooses to cooperate, your day’s going to be great. If not, you’re screwed.
Reclaiming responsibility for your own joy takes practice. Just like piano lessons, the more you work at it, the better you get.
How do you practice for joy? It begins with basic brain training.
Most of our thoughts are reactive. In other words, we re-act the same thoughts and the same actions that we’ve adopted as habits. Traffic gets snarled (again) and, without giving any thought to our thoughts, we get snarly right along with it (again). Instead, we need to retrain our minds to think again, to think differently.
For example, you’ve been enjoying your regular Wednesday lunches with that old friend for years. Now the city is in lockdown and the restaurants are closed. Our habitual thought is to be disappointed, upset, even angry. Certainly not joyful. But since disappointment and anger neither feel good nor help the situation we’d be better served with different thoughts and different emotions. This is an opportunity to practice those differences. An opportunity to re-train your mind.
The moment you feel the pivot from delightful anticipation to disappointment and anger, recognize the switch in your thoughts and your feelings. Then decide to take control.
First, accept and honor the current feelings. After all, you are disappointed. But only for a moment. You don’t want to let it ruin your afternoon.
Then decide that you’d rather choose a better feeling thought. You might choose to spend a few moments re-living some of the delightful lunches you’ve shared with your friend in the past. Recall the joyful experience and re-feel the positive emotions you felt at the time. Don’t simply remember the event, allow yourself to go inside and deeply feel the friendship, the delight and the happiness you felt in the moments you were together. Then watch as your mood swings back to the bright side of the dial in response.
We all have deep mental grooves that have been worn in our thought apparatus over the decades of our lives. It’s way too easy to fall back into them without being aware.
It’s vital to begin forming new mental habits. But rather than waiting for a stressful situation, start training your brain with daily practice. When you first wake up, develop the habit of listing five things for which you’re grateful in the coming day. Alternatively, you could list five of your favorite things or five accomplishments of which you’re particularly proud. The point is, begin your day by insisting that your mind focus on things that feel good. That gets it off on the right foot. Repeat the exercise several times throughout the day.
Of course this won’t be easy at first. But neither is playing the piano. Work at it diligently, though, and it will soon be second nature.
Does it serve you to have your mood and mental state in the hands of others? Is it useful to have your emotional strings pulled by the outside world? Are you pleased to be put off your game whenever you’re thrown a curve ball? If not, you can choose to reinvent the way you think. After all, the joy belongs to you. Shouldn’t you be the one who gets to control it?
When you grant other people and outside conditions the power to annoy you whenever they want, you give up the ability to experience joy whenever you want.
You don’t need a reason or excuse to be joyful. Nor do you have to justify your joy to anyone else. You can choose to experience it any time you’d like simply because it feels good. You also don’t need to wait around, hoping for the right circumstances that will allow you to feel that emotional high.
It will take practice to overcome this habit of re-acting in tired old ways to outside events, people and circumstances. But slowly, then more quickly, you’ll get better and better at it. Eventually, you’ll be completely in charge of your own joy, which you can then call up whenever it pleases you.
For the last couple of weeks, and likely for the foreseeable weeks to come, we’re inundated with minute-by-minute updates on our current Armageddon. And right alongside we’re being given no end of advice about how to deal with the widespread anxiety that’s accompanying this pandemic.
Most of the guidance I’ve seen offered is focused on coping strategies – basically, how to distract yourself from the racing thoughts that keep you tossing in the night and fretting through the day. I’ve seen suggestions that range from guided relaxations, to cooking and baking, journaling, exercising with a YouTube video and making a photo album for grandma.
These are all delightful activities that are likely to be helpful in the moment. But like tossing a bone to distract an angry dog, they’ll only work for a little while. They won’t change the fact that anxiety has control over you. Will grandma get a new photo album every time there’s a crisis?
Anxiety is anxiety. Whether it’s over coronavirus or your dwindling followers on Instagram. And when you find the secret to permanently overcoming it you’ll be able to apply it no matter what the cause.
Begin by asking yourself if you enjoy your anxiety and whether or not it’s serving you.
If you find it pleasant and useful, there’s nothing more to be done. If, however, you think you’d be better off without it, then you’ll have to tackle the roots of the issue, not mask the symptoms by distracting yourself.
There are three fundamental principles that can make a difference for you today, in the midst of all this uproar. More importantly, they can make a difference for you every day for the rest of your life.
1. Decide that you are going to take full and complete responsibility for everything that happens in your life. While it’s easy and tempting to find culprits and complain about how bad things are, neither of these will change anything. Even if there is someone or something that’s responsible, pointing the finger won’t change your situation one whit.
You’re stuck at home, you’re running low on toilet paper and you’ve been furloughed from your job. Got it. Now, write down five ideas that occur to you immediately that could help relieve each of these situations. Here are a few suggestions to get you started: Read three new books, use wash cloths and launder them, register yourself on one of the freelance work websites. Now it’s your turn…
Doesn’t it feel empowering when you start to actually solve a problem instead of merely stressing about it?
2. If there are absolutely no good actions to take, and the choices in front of you amount to Bad, Really Bad and Awful, remember that you ALWAYS have the ability to choose your mental and emotional response.
I was making dinner the other night and discovered that I was short of an ingredient. While normally I’d dash across the street to the grocery store, this time I was tempted to whine about our current lack of mobility. I thought I was due a little pity-party until I remembered our visit, last summer, to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam. For 25 months she and her family hid in an attic, relying on the bravery of friends to keep them fed. If you haven’t read her inspiring diary, or if it’s been some time, this would be a great time to read it again.
As Viktor Frankl, another prisoner during the Holocaust, wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
3. Realize that peace is not the absence of external turmoil or discomfort. No matter where, no matter when, if you look around you’ll be able to find something with the ability to distress you: You’re lying by a babbling brook, fluffy white clouds floating overhead and warm, gentle breezes rustling the leaves. How many people do you know that would point out the mosquito?
Instead, let’s model those who, in the midst of pandemonium and panic, will always notice and take delight in the flower growing up through the cracks in the concrete.
It takes desire and it takes practice. But anyone who truly wants to can do it.
Let’s face it – life occasionally hands us a sour one. There have always been and there will always be external events that challenge our ability to remain calm, centered and at peace.
But the more you fight against, complain about or live in fear of what might be going on, the harder you push against it, the more whatever’s going on will push back. The more you protest that it’s not fair or right, the more you’ll discover that whatever’s going on is bigger and stronger than you.
When you relax and accept what’s going on for what it is, though, you regain the power to choose your response and influence your outcomes.
No, serenity is not the absence of disorder and chaos. Serenity is a choice you make regardless of what’s going on around you.
No it doesn't
We all get to choose.
That’s the essence of free will. In every moment, no matter the circumstances or the situation, we always get to choose. And even when there don’t seem to be many or any good choices, we always have the ability to choose what we think and the attitude we adopt.
This week, as we all come to grips with our new reality, I’ve noticed that people are choosing to be kinder and more considerate. In spite of the imposed separations, I see people who seem to be more willing to engage in conversation and smile. To go to an effort to consider the other one.
Maybe it’s just what I’m choosing to see. But it works for me and I like what I’m seeing
There are many excuses for choosing anxiety and unkind behavior in our current circumstances. But there are more than enough examples of people choosing to reach for – and embrace – their higher selves.
It’s possible to imagine a world without anxiety. (And I do. Regularly.) And even amidst the onslaught of coronavirus news there are plenty of demonstrations of anxiety-free thinking and behaving, if you choose to look for them
Let’s all put our minds to imagining a world in which challenge is always met with careful thought, not hysteria. Where obstacles are encountered with determined action, not selfish panic. Where we realize that we are one, global, interconnected body and the kindness you do for me is also done for yourself
What are you choosing in this moment?
There’s a big difference between taking something seriously and worrying about it. While it might seem like simple semantics, understanding and living the contrast can result in a big, positive uplift in your day-to-day life, your peace of mind and your health.
The fear-mongering headlines are everywhere these days and they’re impossible to ignore. But you have choices in the way you respond to the current coronavirus outbreak. To be clear, the situation is serious and requires serious responses. Worry and anxiety, however, are not serious responses.
Fear is a natural response to a real and present danger. You have perceived something that you interpret as an imminent threat and it demands an immediate decision about your next action. Are you going to turn-tail and run? Or are you going to stand your ground and fight back? Because of the immediacy of the threat we’re forced to quickly choose which action we’re going to take and then get on with it.
Worry and anxiety, though, arise as we respond to perceived threats that are more vague, hard to define or somewhere off in the future. Instead of taking some kind of definitive and results-oriented action, we muddle and catastrophize about what might happen to us and what, if anything, we should do.
There’s a real satisfaction in taking decisive action as it helps us feel more in control of the situation. When the appropriate action isn’t clear, it leaves us feeling helpless and out of control.
COVID-19 lies somewhere in between the two. There’s no doubt that it represents a potential threat to our personal health, to the health of loved ones and to our daily lives. But the threat to you, personally, is uncertain and the actions that we, as individuals can take are limited.
In situations like this, our habitual response is to worry and become anxious. But worry and anxiety not only contribute nothing towards a solution, they can actually make the situation worse. It’s well-proven that chronic anxiety can weaken the immune system. And this is exactly the time when we want those particular defenses to be as robust as possible.
So what is an appropriate response?
In a previous blog I talked about worry versus problem-solving.
While many confirmed worriers claim that their anxiety IS a means of problem solving, there’s a huge difference. When you’re worrying, your thoughts are going in circles. The same worry that occupied you yesterday is filling your mental windshield again today and no progress has been made. You always end up back where you started and the lack of progress can make the situation seem even more desperate.
Genuine problem-solving, on the other hand, always feels like progress. Where you are today is at least a few yards down the road from where you were yesterday. You have ideas, you try them out, measure the results and then adjust your tactics. Worry and problem solving both consume energy. But where anxiety leaves you drained and empty, problem solving leaves you feeling satisfied and accomplished.
Coronavirus, powerful as it might be, is actually pretty easy to defend against. The health experts are doing a great job of informing us how to act and I’m not going to repeat that advice here. Just take the actions they’re recommending. Make a list, check off every item as you do it. Be thorough. And then you’re done.
Once you’ve taken those actions, you can relax, have a snooze, go for a walk… If your movements are restricted, take the opportunity to give yourself a mini-vacation. Are there books you’ve been meaning to read? Is there some binge-watching you’d like to do? There are literally thousands of online courses available today and it’s impossible to catch COVID-19 over the internet.
What about the knitting, gardening, painting, writing, stamp collecting you’ve been telling yourself you’ll get to one day. You’ve likely heard it said that ‘Oneday’ isn’t a day of the week. But this may be as close to the ‘one day’ you’ve been waiting for as it gets.
The point is, you can do anything except worry. Because from that point on, any anxiety that you expend is a complete waste and only makes you feel terrible, raises your blood pressure and weakens your immune system.
I’m sure you’re familiar with that delightful little piece called “The Serenity Prayer.” Written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1930s, it truly encompasses the perfect approach to our current situation:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
There is no doubt that the coronavirus outbreak is an urgent situation that we all need to take seriously. But treating a state of affairs as serious is very different than worrying about it. Taking it seriously uncovers real actions that can contribute to a solution. Worrying about it feels awful, accomplishes nothing and makes us even more vulnerable to the threat
"Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming 'Wow! What a Ride!'" - Hunter S. Thompson
In his live seminars, Jack Canfield, co-author of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books and author of The Success Principles, has a wonderful demonstration. He holds up a $100 bill and asks if anyone in the audience would like it. Then he waits.
Many raise their hand. Some call out that they want the money. But almost no one actually comes up to the stage to get the money. On the rare occasion that someone does, he gives it to them and they sit down, $100 richer for their efforts.
Jack then points out that the person with the money did something no one else did – they took the necessary action to get the hundred dollars.
How often have you thought about stepping up and taking action, but then stopped yourself for one reason or another? When Canfield asks the audience why they didn’t just come up and take the bill, the answers are typically:
The question isn't 'what are we going to do,' the question is 'what aren't we going to do?'
— Ferris Bueller
Let’s say you live to be 85.
That’s a nice fat number. It’s certainly a number that would have the people attending your funeral console your survivors by saying, “(s)he lived a full, long life!”
Long, for sure. But full?
85 years is about 31,000 days. I’ve gone through about 24,000 of them so far and way too many were spent waiting. Waiting for conditions to be just right. Waiting for reassurance, inspiration, the right timing, the economy to improve, the kids to leave home, the rain to stop, a clear set of instructions, the alignment of the planets.
But I realize now that I wasn’t waiting. I was hiding. Avoiding action in case I made a mistake. In case I would be judged poorly.
In stark contrast, Greta Thunberg stormed out of the gate and began making a serious impact on the world at the age of 16. Nelson Mandela was a force to be reckoned with until he took sick at 85.
Okay, these two might be exceptions but it’s safe to say that most of us are in a position to make a difference from age 20 to 70. 50 years, 18,250 days. 18,250 opportunities to do something remarkable, to make a difference, to make your own, or someone else’s life better.
Your impact doesn’t have to be global – those people are rare. But the ripples that your life creates when it drops into the universal pond have the potential to positively affect so many people!
Whatever you choose to do – give it all you’ve got. No holding back. If you’re a bricklayer, lay those bricks as if each one was gold. If you’re a gardener, prune those shrubs like they’re the gardens of Versailles. No matter what you do, do it as if God Himself had asked you to.
People who are consistently successful get up and do what needs to be done. They start something. Then they learn from their mistakes, make corrections and try again. In this process they build momentum and either achieve their goals or something even better than they dreamed.
Where is the list of dreams you wrote 10 years ago? Grant yourself the permission and the courage to update it. Today.
Look back at that list of excuses that Jack Canfield’s audience offers. How many are you using to avoid action on those things you dream about? How often has part of you wanted to get on with life’s exciting adventure, but another part held you back, waiting for a better time, waiting for more instructions or concerned that someone else might judge you?
The only people who know exactly how tomorrow and the next day are going to turn out are dead. I’ve discovered that I prefer the suspense.
I want to be thoroughly used up when I die – for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ to me; it is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.
— George Bernard Shaw
I was 13 and in the 8th grade.
Numerically, I was a hip teenager but in my own mind I was a complete dweeb. The gap between the two of me was both enormous and uncomfortable.
Whenever a situation is uncomfortable, we try to do something to correct it – turn up the thermostat, turn down the volume. When you’re 13 and desperately wanting to actually be hip, you start hanging out with a different (and questionable) crowd.
Which is why I found myself standing beside Peter in the boy’s bathroom, the two of us ganging up on and bullying a much younger, much smaller kid from the 6th grade.
Sigmund Freud believed that guilt is deeply rooted in your unresolved Mommy (or Daddy) issues. But it turns out to be much simpler than that.
Whenever there is a ‘gap’ or a difference between what you believe about yourself and how you act, between what you think and what you do, it will show up as the emotion of guilt.
When I was 13 I believed that good kids (like me) don’t bully others. Yet there I was, in the boy’s bathroom of St. Francis’ School, doing my best Scut Farkus imitation. In that moment, the gap between my beliefs and my behavior was huge. As was my guilt.
Fortunately, the trend was interrupted quickly and I didn’t go on to become an enforcer for a loan shark.
30 years after the incident in the boy’s bathroom, I was working as an international marketing consultant, flying around the country and the world on a regular and frequent basis. I also had a young family at home and my beliefs and my behaviors, once again, found themselves at some distance. “A good father is at home with his family every night,” was my belief. Platinum status with Marriott was my behavior.
Both these incidents are great examples of how guilt works.
All guilt is based on the gap between your behavior - something you did, are doing or are going to do, and your beliefs about how a person like you behaves. The bigger the gap, the stronger the guilt.
Because guilt is such an uncomfortable feeling, we urgently want to make it go away. But until we understand this dynamic of the ‘guilt gap,’ making it go away is impossible.
We make the guilt go away by closing the gap. By changing our behavior or changing our beliefs about our behavior, we bring the two into alignment and the gap – the guilt – is gone.
There is no shortage of others who try to stuff guilt down our throats all the time.
When you’re feeling sucked into traps like these, you have to get quiet and figure out if the beliefs and behaviors are genuinely yours or not. It’s way too easy to adopt the beliefs and behaviors that have been trained or shamed into us and assume they’re ours.
To get past the social programming, listen carefully to your own inner voice and determine if the beliefs or behaviors that are driving you are your own. Ask yourself, “What do I believe? How do I really feel about this?”
For much of the guilt you experience, you’re likely to discover that the gap is actually between your own, authentic belief and the behavior that you’ve been pressured into. The opposite is also true, the behavior is the genuine you, but the voice that’s shouting in your head belongs to someone else.
Regardless of the origin of the guilt, the resolution is the same – we eliminate guilt by closing the gap between the belief and the behavior. We bring the two into alignment.
Now, if the event you’re feeling guilty about is in the past you can’t change the behavior. So you have to change your belief about the behavior. And we do this by using the ‘except when…’ technique.
“Good kids (like me) don’t bully others...
…except when they’re 13 years old, feeling inadequate and insecure and have an overload of testosterone pulsing through their veins for the first time.”
“A good father is at home with his family every night…
… except when his job requires travel and he compensates by working from a home office to spend as much time with his kids as possible.”
The ‘except when…’ technique is not an excuse or license to compromise your integrity. It’s a healthy way to set down guilt about events that have happened in the past and about which you can do nothing now. It’s about moving on in a healthy, constructive way.
The sense of guilt that you’ve done or are about to do something that’s not for your highest good or will be abusing someone else, can be enormously beneficial.
Think of it as an emotional and behavioral GPS system with an auto-correct feature that nudges you in the direction of aligned behavior. This kind of beneficial guilt is like a warning light on the dashboard. It’s a signal that something’s wrong and you need to take action to change a behavior, correct a mistake or adjust a belief.
Make the adjustment and the light goes out.
We all know them.
They’re the sorts who, after they’ve dropped the ball, go to great lengths to assure us it wasn’t their fault and deflect the blame to some other poor schmuck. The saddest thing about this kind of person is the utter transparency of their efforts. Usually, the fault is so obvious that their efforts to duck responsibility would be humorous if they weren’t so pitiful.
The one thing we all have in common with this poor sap is that we screw up. Regularly. And sometimes in a really big way. What separates us is what we do after we step in the doo-doo.
Who would you rather spend time with: The person who makes a mistake, then tells you why it wasn’t really a mistake, why it doesn’t matter and why it actually wasn’t their fault? Or the person who comes to you, tells you they’ve made a mistake (often before you find out on your own) and tells you what they’re going to do to fix it?
Yeah, we’d all rather hang out with that person too.
When you try to hide a problem you’ve created or deflect the blame elsewhere, the trust that others have in you disappears. But when you step up and face the music, your credibility takes a huge leap. “If she’s being honest with me about this, I’ve got to believe she’s going to be honest with me about everything.” It doesn’t feel very good in the moment, but the long-term benefits are enormous.
Sure it’s embarrassing to screw up. We all want to appear to be perfect and our egos take a big hit when we fall short of the mark. Our first instinct is to hide and hope no one notices. But then, when someone does notice, our second instinct is to make excuses or point the finger elsewhere. Every one of these actions simply digs the hole deeper, making it that much harder to climb out in the end. As much as it goes against your survival instincts, resist the temptation to duck, cover up or deflect. It makes you look like the two-year old who covers his eyes and thinks that nobody can see him.
Your friends, your family, your co-workers – they all know you’re not infallible. They know you’re going to make mistakes. And they love you anyway.
When you make that inevitable mistake, that’s the time to show what you’re really made of. Step up right away, tell the truth about what happened, then tell what you’re going to do about it. It isn’t that you screwed up. It’s about what you do after it hits the fan.
When you mess up, ‘fess up. This is a golden opportunity to truly rise into an even better you.
Mountain climbers, tightrope walkers and high steel riggers are always instructed to avoid looking down.
When you’re clinging to the side of a cliff by your fingernail or balancing on a one-inch cable above Niagara Falls, a downward glance can instantly and completely fill your mind with the horrific consequences of falling.
Now, instead of envisioning your arms raised in victory at the summit, or the adulation of the media as you reach the far side, your only thoughts involve a hideous plunge to an even more hideous death.
From this point on, every move is taken, not to achieve victory, but to avoid failure. In the world of competitive sports, you’ve shifted from playing to win, to playing not to lose.
And it never works.
Anxiety is like that. Instead of our minds focusing on joyous thoughts of successful career achievement, financial freedom and loving relationships, we lie awake in the dark, roiling with the imagined ignominy of joblessness, bankruptcy and abandonment. Try as we might, we can’t shake those ominous thoughts about the failure, loss and catastrophe that appear to be looming over our heads, about to crush us like a bug.
I’ve written before about your Reticular Activating System (your RAS). It’s a piece of your brain that’s tasked with filtering out all the noise from the world around you so you can focus on the important stuff.
What’s the ‘important stuff?’
Since there’s is no external, objective filter to tell you what’s vital and what’s trivial your RAS depends on you to let it know what’s important. But it’s not quite as simple as sending a memo.
The RAS simply takes what you think about most and assumes that it’s important to you. So it goes looking for more instances, more examples, more evidence to reinforce the ‘validity’ of what you’re thinking about. Of course, there’s no external, objective measure of ‘validity,’ either so you become a walking, thinking, self-reinforcing feedback loop.
It can be kinda fun to play with your RAS. Close your eyes, think about babies for a few moments, then walk down the street and notice the incredible number of mothers pushing strollers, dads carrying little ones, or toddlers wobbling their way around playgrounds that seem to have appeared out of nowhere. It’s not that they weren’t there before. It’s just that you’ve now programmed your RAS to filter for them and, like the search function on your laptop, it’s dutifully returning the results.
A fun little parlor game.
But your RAS has no ‘Off’ switch.
And when you’re worrying about your finances, your health, your decaying relationship or your job, it’s still on active duty. Your RAS will always – and I mean ALWAYS – take your predominant thoughts, even if they’re about something that frightens you, and go looking for information, people, news items, images, circumstances and any other evidence it can find that matches.
While your RAS is incredibly powerful at its job, it’s actually not very intelligent. While it’s really good at knowing that your predominant thought right now is, “I don’t want to get sick,” all it hears is “SICK.” So it brings back all the evidence it can find for even more ‘sick’ and fills your mind with the results.
Here’s where our mountain climbing friend knows something that we need to learn. There are two sides to every thought – the aspect of it that you want and the aspect that you don’t want.
I don’t want to fall I do want to make it to the summit
I don’t want to get sick I do want to enjoy good health
I don’t want to be lonely I do want to have love in my life
Every thought that focuses on what you don’t want is the equivalent of looking down.
Accomplished worriers spend the majority of their mental energy thinking about what they don’t want, what they hope to avoid, what they fear might happen. And the RAS dutifully goes out and finds more of it.
Most of this goes on below our level of conscious thought, so it’s important to start becoming more mindful of what’s going on in your head throughout the day. When you start paying attention you’re going to see that way too much time is spent dwelling on what you don’t want in your life.
And your always-on RAS shows you more and more of what you don’t want. Which, of course, makes you even more determined to resist the bad thing, which makes the RAS work even harder to find it and put it under your nose. And the downward spiral continues.
The good news is that your RAS is just as obedient if you focus on looking up. When your predominant thoughts are on good health, abundant prosperity, loving relationships and the life that you want to live, it will highlight more things that are going well, point out solutions to your challenges and lead things to consistently improve.
Look down regularly and your RAS will find a thousand ways to have you land at the bottom in a sorry splat. Look up, constantly picturing the summit, and it will show you the path forward every time
You know them.
They’re the ones who phone or email you regularly. And they always share the bad news.
“Have you heard the latest about the Coronavirus?!!”
“Looks like it’s going to rain again today.”
“I bet the traffic is going to be bad this morning.”
“I think that lump on my arm is growing.”
Emotions, whether good or bad, are contagious. Hang too long around the worry-monger and you’re going to find yourself stressing about the same woes. Even a short chat with a committed complainer can ruin the rest of your day.
But there are other, more subtle and more corrosive side effects, too.
The really huge price of maintaining your membership in the Complaining Club is that it gives away your power to change anything.
Members of the Complaining Club spend an inordinate amount of time finding the culprits, passing judgment and placing blame for the circumstances in which they find themselves. And nothing changes. Have you noticed how their conversations rarely change?
As long as we invest our time, our energy and our emotions in blaming and complaining about how things are, we’ll never be able to stop worrying and move on with creating the lives we want to live.
As soon as you place the blame for your circumstances on someone else, you surrender all your ability to manage and direct your own life. As long as you believe that someone else’s behavior is responsible for your situation and emotional state, you’ve handed all your ability to change things over to them. Because unless they decide to change the way they’re acting, your situation will remain exactly the same.
Now, admittedly, it could very well be that someone else’s actions resulted in your circumstances. Your company was acquired and you were downsized. Your girlfriend fell out of love with you and left. The City passed a new ordinance and you can no longer keep chickens in your backyard. Expecting them to or insisting that they change the way they behave in order to please you, though, is a fool’s game. It’s simply not going to happen.
It’s both tempting and easy to blame CNN, Facebook, the politicians or your parents for whatever is happening around you. But it does you no good at all. Because, at the end of the day, it’s you who is doing the worrying, you who is losing sleep and you who is suffering the high blood pressure. Since none of the rest of them are stepping up to bring an end to your anxiety, if it’s going to happen, it’s up to you.
The first step is to resign your membership in the Complaining Club. The other members are the people in your life who can simply walk into the room and completely drain you of energy. They bring the tension, the stress and the anxiety with them and they love to share it around.
Avoid those people who drag you down. Stay away from the ones who always bring the conversation back to what’s wrong. And in those times when you can’t avoid the worry-monger, keep the chat short and follow it immediately with an uplifting treat for yourself.
Step two is to actively seek out the ones who lift you up and make you feel alive. There are others in your life, too. They point out the beautiful blue sky and the elderly couple holding hands. They pass along the good news and the uplifting stories. They’re the ones who always leave you feeling better than you did before they came. And they’re not just Pollyanna. They bring the genuine energy, the enthusiasm, the optimism and the encouragement.
All emotions are contagious. Run from the toxic ones and seek out and breathe deeply from the uplifting ones.
Blaming or complaining about the government, the weather, the traffic, big corporations, your spouse, your kids, your parents or anyone or anything else that appears to be the source of your discomfort might feel good for a while because it takes the responsibility off your shoulders.
But therein lies the problem. When you pin the blame on a person or circumstance outside yourself, you also surrender any opportunity to make things better. Because as long as the government, the weather, big pharma or your mother continue to behave as they do, you’re stuck. By assuming 100% responsibility for what happens next, you take 100% of the power to resolve the problem for yourself.
Misery does love company, but it doesn’t have to be you
Tarik Cohen is a running back for the Chicago Bears. He’s 5’-6” tall and weighs 179 pounds, soaking wet.
Trent Brown is a lineman for the (now) Las Vegas Raiders. He’s 6’-8” tall and weighs 359 pounds.
That makes Brown 21% taller and 100% heavier than Cohen.
Yet every Sunday for the past four months, Tarik has enthusiastically grabbed the ball from Mitchell Trubisky and headed, full speed into four guys that look just like Brown, not to mention the seven others who are lined up behind, ready to pound him into the earth. And the idiot’s smiling!!
What is he thinking!?
He’s thinking the same thing that you need to be thinking when you go face-to-face with one of those boogeymen that can bring you to your knees with anxiety.
What’s your go-to worry? Money? Your health? Retirement? Relationships? We’ve all got one issue or another that can stop us in our tracks and leave us wondering how or even if we’re ever going to get past this massive barrier. And when you find yourself going toe-to-toe against your own 300-pound wall of worry, too often it’s easier to give up and decide that you can’t…
Can’t stand up and speak in front of that group.
Can’t call that girl and ask her out on a date.
Can’t tell your in-laws that you’re going to raise your child your way.
But when you surrender to ‘can’t’ you sell yourself short. You put limits on your future. You agree to be less than you know you can and want to be.
There’s a lot of “face your fears and do it anyway” advice floating around out there. But I’m not sure I buy into it. You’ll never ‘out-muscle’ your anxieties – they’ve been around too long and own the winning record between the two of you.
No, you’ll never out-muscle your worries but, like Tarik, you can outsmart them.
If you watch him play, you realize that he never willfully runs head first into a 300-pound defensive lineman. He’s familiar with the laws of physics and knows what would happen in that kind of collision.
Instead, he cuts, dodges, ducks and dives around his big, lumbering foes, daring to be caught. He relies on quickness, dexterity and speed, rather than sheer volume. You can do the same when tackling your fears.
As opponents, fears are pretty dumb. They rely entirely on just one skill – the ability to get you to fantasize about a terrible future. You may have heard that acronym for FEAR – Fantasized Events Appearing Real. But they’re so good at this one skill, that you regularly allow that purely imaginary (and highly unlikely) future to loom in your mind as your reality.
To outsmart the anxiety, identify both the desire and the fear that are behind it using the following sentence:
“I want to _________, and I scare myself by imagining ____________. The key words are “I scare myself by imagining.”
For example, your boss has asked you to give a presentation at your next Division meeting. Let’s listen in on a new kind of self-talk that can cut, dodge, duck and dive around this worry.
“I’m worried about this upcoming presentation.”
“What do I want and how am I scaring myself? In other words, what am I imagining will happen if I do?”
“I want to give a great presentation and I scare myself by imagining that I’ll mess it up and make a fool of myself in front of my peers.
(Notice how you’re going into the future and scaring yourself with a fantasy of others laughing at you.)
“Have I ever made a presentation to this group before?”
“Yes, but only once, and it was very small and inconsequential.”
“Regardless, did I mess it up and did anyone laugh at me?
“No. In fact, several of them commented that I did a really good job and that they were impressed with how confident I seemed.”
“Am I knowledgeable about the topic? Is this an opportunity to demonstrate my abilities to the boss? Is this likely to look good on my resume?”
“Yes, yes and yes!”
“Have I ever done anything before that was embarrassing?
“Of course, everyone has!”
And did I survive without permanent scarring and perhaps even grow a little?
“So, when I think about it, this is a great opportunity to stretch my comfort zone and add to my skills and experience with no discernable downside?”
“I think I’ll start working on that presentation!”
It’s very difficult to win a head-to-head, just-do-it contest against your anxieties. But you can play a totally different game by looking for the weaknesses in your opponent. Where your 6’-8” opponent has lots of muscle and mass, you’ve got brains and agility. By recognizing the flaw in anxiety’s game plan (it only works if it can manipulate your imagination), you can easily deke around them and into the open field.
When Tarik Cohen crosses the scrimmage line he knows there are eleven enormous guys, all wanting his head. Anybody else would turn tail and run. But Tarik knows something they don’t. He genuinely believes he’s the best man on the field. And he genuinely believes that his speed and agility can beat their size and weight every time.
You have something you’re anxiety doesn’t. The ability to think your way through the fantasized events that appear real.
I like to picture my comfort zone as an island surrounded by dark, mysterious waters.
I’m happy when I’m on dry land and I get more and more anxious the further I venture from shore. Like those ancient maps that put the simple label, “there be dragons” in the uncharted regions, you choose to go there at your own peril.
What does the map of your island look like?
The advice we’re given about this little piece of emotional real estate we each occupy, though, is contradictory and conflicting.
On the one hand, we’re encouraged to “stretch” it or “step outside” of it on the way to personal and professional growth. Stepping outside my comfort zone sounds both dangerous and exciting. Kind of like a scientist in Antarctica, bundling up in a survival suit to venture out from her tiny, well-insulated hut in search of evidence for the origins of the solar system.
On the other hand, when life gets stressful, we’re told to “go to our happy place,” which you can think of as the exact center of your comfort island, as far from the edges as it’s possible to get.
Diversity or Exclusivity?
I know people who live on islands that are perfectly circular, completely surrounded by a sturdy, concrete seawall. They know everything they care to know about anything and they’ve set well-defined limits on what they accept into their lives. Anything outside that perimeter is unknown, unfriendly and unwelcome.
The people I find most interesting occupy comfort islands that have bays and coves and deep indentations where the sea reaches far inland in some areas of its coastline. They also have long peninsulas that jut way out into the water in others. Some days, when the tide is high, there are low lying areas where the sea has moved in and made their island smaller. Other times some volcanic eruption or moving tectonic plate has revealed a new piece of dry land that they can now explore.
Each jutting peninsula and indented cove represents an aspect of our lives. Is your career a long peninsula, stretching way out into the sea? Or is it a sheltered beach, protected from the slightest wave? What about your finances, your health, your spiritual growth or your relationships?
Changing Emotional Landscapes
Of course your island is continually changing shape. When you were six you were afraid of the dark and the bogeyman who lived under your bed. That bay was filled in long ago. Your island grows with every accomplishment and success you achieve.
A traumatic or painful event, though, can cause an entire peninsula to sink below the waves, leaving you anxious and afraid in areas where you were once completely at ease.
We all have some aspects of our lives in which we feel comfortable stretching, extending and exploring. We also have those other elements that we carefully shelter, timid and cautious about trying anything remotely unfamiliar.
While it’s tempting to simply accept the shape of our island as it is, the more intimately you know every inch of your comfort zone, the more you get to choose what shape you’d like it to be. When you discover and map the edges, you get to decide your priorities for expansion.
Expanding Your Comfort Zone
Since all growth happens at the perimeter of our comfort zones, it’s also useful to know what that growth feels like. If the waters off the coast of Cape Relationships are deep, stepping a toe over the line will immediately feel very scary. If, however, Financial Cove is fairly shallow, testing unfamiliar waters will be gradual, allowing you to get used to the growth at a comfortable pace.
Knowing your own coastline lets you decide when and how you launch expansion projects. As much as possible, tackle the challenging ones in times when you’re feeling strong and none of your other coves or bays are under siege from bad weather.
A steadily expanding comfort zone allows you to dream more, try more and achieve more. Begin by exploring and mapping the Coast of You and then purposely set out to expand it. But always know that you can take shelter in the middle of the island when a storm blows through.
A little while back I received this message from one of our blog readers:
“After getting a degree in a subject that is fairly general and one that is proving difficult to find employment and perhaps a degree that is not a good fit, how can one NOT be worried?”
My wife and I love a good road trip. At the drop of a hat we’ll drive 500 miles for no particular reason. We’ve driven east-west across North America four times, north-south at least that many, and braved the roads in Europe numerous times, too.
Our constant companion on any trip is our Garmin GPS. We call her ‘Carmen Sandiego’ after the world-traveling character in the old video game and TV show. One of Carmen’s great gifts is her patience whenever we take a wrong turn. We giggle whenever we hear her tell us that she is “recalculating…”
While it’s a pretty time-worn cliché, life is also a journey, and one on which we regularly take wrong turns. So what should you do when you think that that last left-hander isn’t taking you where you want to go?
First of all, anyone who has been able to earn a degree – regardless of the subject – has proven themselves to be smart. A smart person wants to do smart things and worrying isn’t smart. It drains your energy, makes you sick, and since it accomplishes absolutely nothing, it merely postpones finding and acting on any real solutions.
The trouble with worry is that it consumes your entire brain with nothing left for really effective analysis and problem solving. Since there’s no brain power left to give a useful second opinion, though, worry seems to be the only option. But here are some steps that you can take.
Give yourself a day in which you ‘reschedule’ worrying. Tell yourself that you’ll get back to fretting tomorrow, but, just for today, you’re going to try something different. Your mind will try to tell you that worrying is the most urgent thing you have to do. But since it’s produced no good ideas in the last 24 hours, the next 24 can be safely devoted to something else.
On a recent trip to Italy, we found ourselves halfway down the wrong way of a crowded, one-way street in Florence. We had no choice but to back up. So that’s a good place to start.
Back up to the decision to take that degree in the first place. What led to that decision? Did it seem like the easy way at the time? Was it in response to someone else suggesting that you should? Were you pursuing what, at the time, was a genuine passion? Or was there some other reason that you decided to devote three or four years to learning those subjects? Be really honest with yourself. You’ve no doubt known why you chose that course of action all along. But we’re all really good at kidding ourselves and drowning out the real story with the one that sounds best.
I’ve had three very distinct careers so far in my life. I spent five years getting an architecture degree because, at the time, I was really interested in old buildings. But after working in that profession for about 15 years, I discovered that I wasn’t really that good at it or passionate about it.
Despite the fact that people were impressed when I told them I was an architect and the money was pretty good, I couldn’t continue on a road that wasn’t mine. It was tempting to keep going down the path I was on and took considerable effort to change. But I couldn’t look in the mirror and pretend I was being true to myself.
As you acknowledge the real reasons you pursued the degree (or married that guy, or got into that career, or…) you have to be equally honest about whether or not those reasons are still valid for you. One of the realities of travel is that, whenever you get to a new location you have a different perspective on the countryside. Having made it to the top of a hill, you can now see things you couldn’t see before. This new perspective makes it perfectly acceptable, and frequently advisable, to change your plans.
Now that you have this new knowledge and new perspective, what makes sense for you to do next? The fact that you started down this road is not always a good reason to continue. Recalculating…
Where do you want to go now? What do you want from your life now? Having lived and experienced the past five years, what is your passion now?
I’ve heard people object to the idea of going back to school, saying, “Do you know how old I would be when I finally finished that degree?” The answer is, “Exactly the same age as you’d be if you don’t go back to school, but a lot more fulfilled.”
My father, who was forced to leave school at age 16 when his father died, was a telephone repairman for 20 years. He hated every minute of it. At the age of 50 he decided he couldn’t continue. With a wife and five children, he finished his high school diploma through correspondence courses, quit his job and went to college to get his teaching degree. He then spent the last 15 years of his career with a giant smile on his face as he shared his passion for mechanics with vocational high school students. The transition was challenging for sure, but finding and being able to pursue his life’s purpose made it all worthwhile.
There are only two mistakes you can make when it comes to choosing an education (or relationship, or lifestyle, or career, or …) path. The first is to choose because you think it’s what someone else (or society, or earning opportunities, or…) wants you to do. The second is to continue down a road that you’ve discovered is the wrong one for you. To ignore the ‘recalculating…’ prompt.
So, having taken a day off from worrying, and discovered what it is that you really want now, the next steps are obvious. Not always easy, but obvious. You can tell they’re the right steps by that fluttering in your heart as you contemplate going back to school to get the degree that you REALLY want. To go find the woman you’re SUPPOSED to be with. To live the life that’s TRULY yours.
You can also tell they’re the right steps because the worrying has stopped.
P.S. I’m reminded of two road trips, one in Ireland and one in Italy, both involving wrong turns. The Irish turn led us along a rutted cow path, between two ancient stone walls and through a farmer’s field. The Italian turn landed us tangled in fresh laundry in someone’s back yard. In all our travels, these remain a couple of our most memorable moments
It’s 2:30 in the morning and you’ve been tossing around in bed for who knows how long already. You try three different sleeping positions, punch the pillow, throw the sheets off and pull them back on again but it seems that nothing is going to let you get back to sleep.
It’s not the bed that’s keeping you awake. It’s the worry that won’t let your mind calm down enough to drift off.
Anxiety and stress are some of the most common causes of chronic insomnia. It becomes a vicious circle, though, because difficulty sleeping causes you to be fatigued during the day, which can make the anxiety and stress symptoms worse, which makes it even harder to sleep…
Of course, you can always take a pill. But that only masks the problem and leaves you feeling drugged.
Fortunately, there are some very easy, very effective and completely drug-free ways to deal with those worry-filled, sleepless nights.
Step 1: Get up
That’s right, stop trying to fight your way back to sleep and simply get up and out of bed. The longer you lie there, angry that you’re being deprived of sleep while simultaneously stressing about whatever woke you up in the first place, the worse it’s going to get.
Getting up isn’t giving in to the anxiety, it’s taking control of it. As soon as you decide to act, you’ve regained the power to control what’s going on.
While you might be tempted to stress that you need your sleep and you’ll be useless the next day without it, that line of thinking only revs your anxiety engine even higher. As a dear friend of mine likes to say, “Sleep is overrated – we’ll all be sleeping permanently soon enough!”
Step 2: Get your journal and a pen
Behavioral psychologists and neuro linguistic programming practitioners use a method called ‘Pattern Interrupt’ to break out of a particular thought, behavior or situation. The process interrupts the ‘thought rut’ you’re stuck in and lets you regain control of your mind.
So in the middle of the night, when you can’t sleep, get up, find a comfy chair, turn on a soft lamp and sit down with your journal. It’s vital that your journal be one in which you write with a pen or pencil, not notes you type on your laptop or tablet. This is because the kinesthetic act of writing adds to the interruption of thought patterns that have been keeping you awake in two ways.
First, it diverts part of your thinking into the physical act of writing. When your neurons are directed at moving your arm, wrist and fingers to form letters on the page, they can’t be wrapped around what you did or failed to do in the past, ought to do in the future, or the responsibilities that you’re sure you can’t meet.
Second, the act of writing somehow lets the anxious thoughts flow out of your brain, down your arm, out through your fingers and onto the page. After you’ve spent five minutes writing, you’ll be amazed at how much more relaxed you feel.
Step 3: Celebrate
Writing about the worries and stresses that are keeping you awake is only going to wind you up tighter. So stay away from those topics by interrupting the pattern even further. Instead, write about your successes.
Start by making a list of five things you did before you were 18 that you were really proud of. Doesn’t matter how big or small they seem now, they were big to you at the time. Perhaps you caught a fly ball in little league. Or maybe you stood up in front of your sixth-grade class and read a poem you’d written. Review the various categories including sports, academics, your social life, skills you acquired and challenges you overcame. Did you ever win a ribbon in a sports event? Earn a merit badge in your Scout or Guide troop? Did you write a poem or a story? Jump off the high board at the local pool?
As you add each success to the list, close your eyes and remember how you felt at the time of that victory. Put yourself back into that feeling place for a few moments and let yourself glow with pride all over again. The challenges you overcame in those moments seemed daunting, even overwhelming in their time, but somehow you found the courage, the resources, the determination to succeed anyway.
Step 4: Act
The journal exercise alone is probably making you feel better already. If you pause for a moment and examine your feelings, you’ll likely discover that the stress and anxiety – whether about the situation or about the lack of sleep – have already been dialed way back. Take a moment to recognize that you’ve managed to interrupt the anxiety and control your mind instead of it controlling you. That, in itself, is worth celebrating.
Now, however, it’s time to turn your mind back to whatever situation was keeping you awake. Only now you’re in charge and going to do something about it. Using your journal, ask and answer the following questions.
For example, if you’re worrying about finances you could, in the next 15 minutes as you sit in your comfy chair, begin to make yourself a strict budget for the next three months. If you’re worrying about a relationship you could write a letter to the person with whom you’re at odds. (But don't send it until after you've reviewed it in the light of day.) If you’re worried about a health issue you could write the outline of a diet and exercise program for yourself.
Regardless of the situation that has you worried, concerned or anxious, there is always something that you can do, even in the middle of the night, that will help alleviate your stress. And in taking that action, you will immediately feel better. Because you did something that broke your mind out of that endless cycle. Because you took control.
Step 5: Go back to bed
If you’ve taken the previous steps you will find that your mind is much more at ease, that your body is ready for sleep and that you’ll be able to close your eyes and drift off easily. When you lay your head back on the pillow, allow your thoughts to be on the successes you’ve achieved and the obstacles you’ve overcome. Revel in the pride of accomplishment and knowledge that you’re still the same person who has achieved so much already. Let your brain be filled with the positive, proactive steps you’ve already taken and will continue to take in the morning.
These thoughts won’t last long, though, because before you know it you’ll be sleeping like a baby.
Over the last few weeks, as the year has been winding down, I’ve been thrilled by the many messages I’ve been receiving from readers like you who are looking for answers on how to rid themselves of worry, anxiety and self-doubt. Of the many questions that you’ve been posing, there are three that seem to be a common challenge for many people:
What can I do in the middle of the night when the anxiety looms so large that it won’t let me sleep?
I seem to have made a wrong decision a while ago and now I’m worried that I’ve messed up my life. How can I NOT be anxious?
How can I help someone close to me who is suffering from anxiety?
When we launched i-fearless earlier this year, we’d hoped to establish a forum and a dialogue that would help people set down this awkward, overbearing and entirely unnecessary burden. It’s clear that we’ve been successful but it’s also clear that there is plenty of room to raise the bar.
Now, at the dawn of both a new year and a new decade, and because they involve you, I want to share some intentions, resolutions and commitments that are my obvious and welcome next steps.
I resolve to:
Continue to learn everything I can, and practice everything I learn about living a worry-free life.
Provide practical, results-oriented suggestions in response to every question that every reader poses about overcoming worry, anxiety and self-doubt.
Bring you the techniques, resources, encouragement and inspiration that you need to live your own worry-free life in pursuit of your own dreams.
Provide as many options as possible for you to access this knowledge including blogs, books, podcasts, videos, courses, workshops and any other channel that we can harness.
But I’m also going to ask you to consider three resolutions of your own. I ask you to resolve to:
Believe that it is entirely possible to unplug from the fear and untangle the net of anxiety and self-doubt that keeps you from exploring your limitless human potential.
Talk to me. Let me know about the anxieties that are holding you back from the promises you’ve made to yourself so that I can share the methods that will let you take command of your life.
Share with others. We all know someone who is struggling with this ridiculous and unnecessary burden. Let them know about i-fearless. Encourage them to subscribe to the blog. Show them that there is an answer.
It sucks to be worried all the time. It sucks to be afraid of looking foolish, being rejected, being criticized or the judgment of others. Sooner or later, every one of us gets fed up with hiding under the bed and surrendering command of our lives.
In spite of the power those demons wield, it’s entirely possible to remove those roadblocks. Anyone can do it. But only if you’re willing to hit that ‘off’ switch. Only if you want to leave the drama behind and get to know the valuable, competent, courageous, remarkable human being that you are.
I invite you to let 2020 be the year you hit that ‘off’ switch.
The holidays can be one of the most stressful times of the year. But, by adopting three simple mental habits, you can dramatically reduce, if not eliminate anxiety as an unhealthy ingredient in your eggnog.
Technique #1: I scare myself by imagining…
Behind all worry and anxiety is a desire for something we want combined with a fear that an unwanted event or consequence is going to land on your head.
For example, you’re out shopping for a gift for your mother-in-law and the anxiety is running high. If your dig deep, you’re likely to discover that the problem isn’t the lack of choice, it’s the monologue in your brain that’s imagining her disapproval when she doesn’t like your gift.
Or you’re dressing for your significant-other’s company party. Your closet is full of clothes but the self-talk is all about the judgment that you imagine everyone else is going to pass on you. Too flashy. Too revealing. Too drab and boring!
While it’s not exclusive, most holiday anxiety is based on the fear of the judgment of others. We scare ourselves by imagining that other people will observe our – baking, gift-giving, attire, behavior, timeliness, whatever – and find it lacking. The far more likely truth is that the others are secretly awed by your baking, grateful for your gift and jealous of your attire.
Once you’ve identified the fear that’s behind the anxiety, though, it’s much easier to be logical, rational and even a bit humorous about it. So what if Cousin Beth, whom you haven’t seen for five years and likely won’t for another five, thinks your tie is too loud? How, exactly is that going to affect your life?
The technique is to take each worry and identify both the desire and the fear that are behind it by completing each sentence like this:
“I want to _________, and I scare myself by imagining ____________. The key words are “I scare myself by imagining.”
I want to serve a perfect holiday dinner and I scare myself by imagining that I’ll overcook the turkey and forget the pie.
I want to impress my fiancés parents and I scare myself by imagining that they won’t like my gift and encourage him to leave me.
I want to look my best for the company holiday party and I scare myself by imagining that my boss will disapprove of how I dress.
I want to keep the weight I’ve come down to this year and I scare myself by imagining that I’ll give in to peer pressure to eat and drink too much.
This process of learning to become aware of when we’re worrying and then identifying the fear that lies behind the worry, teaches us to pull the worrying habit back out of our subconscious, daily ‘normal’ and into the realm of ‘front-of-mind.’ Try a few of these mental scenarios for yourself and you might quickly feel more detached from and ready to be in control of the anxious thoughts that seem to invade and occupy your mind at this time of year.
Technique #2: Have to/Choose to
Around the holidays we all have things that we have to do. Or, rather, and more accurately, we all have things that we CHOOSE to do. As you learn to release the anxiety and worry from your life, it’s critical to recognize the difference.
Think about the holiday things that you have to do, many of which turn into sources of anxiety. Many people would say that, among other things, you have to:
Buy gifts for the people in your life
Travel to see family under very challenging conditions
Attend too many social functions
Eat and drink more than normal
Spend too much
There are plenty of people, however, who don’t buy gifts, don’t travel to see family and don’t go to parties. But, you might say, there are social pressures – especially from family – that force you to do these things. You might say, further, that while it’s true that there are people who don’t do these things, bad things – family feuds, broken relationships – happen as a result. You’re right again. But the fact remains that everyone, at all times, has a choice. And you need to be aware that, even when it feels like you are being forced into something, you still have a choice.
If you believe that there is anything at all that you absolutely, positively must do because circumstances or someone else is forcing you to, you completely surrender your power to live your own life. In every single instance, you hold and make the choice.
Let’s look at an example:
I have to go home for Christmas.
If I don't go home for Christmas, my mother will never let me hear the end of it.
If my mother comes down on me, my life will be miserable.
If I’m miserable, my friends won’t want to be with me.
Given the choice, I'd rather go home for Christmas than lose my friends.
Of course, there are also people who would rather suffer their family’s wrath than travel through winter conditions and sleep on the pullout couch. The choices you have might not be great ones, but it’s absolutely critical to understand that you always have choices.
The truth is that no one and nothing can force you to do anything. You always have the choice to comply or not, to agree or not, to act or not, to worry or not to worry. Many of us pretend we are a victim, but we are not, we always have a choice.
Technique #3: 100% for 50%
Gift-giving can be such a minefield!
Did I spend enough? Did I spend too much? Did I express the right amount of sentiment? Did I express too much?
As we said earlier, most holiday anxiety is based on the fear of the judgment of others. And it’s not just in the area of gifts. You’ve taken an action – given a gift, worn a particular dress, visited for two hours – and you are worried how the other person might interpret that action, and subsequently judge you.
Here’s a thought that I find to be enormously helpful at this time of year:
You are 100% responsible for 50% of the relationship.
That means that you are responsible for giving the gift for the right reasons, visiting with love and caring in your heart and wearing the clothes that best express the real you. If you can honestly say that you have done these things, your work is finished.
How anyone else reacts to what you’ve done is completely out of your control. And, frankly, none of your business. That half of the relationship is in their hands.
For example, you agree to visit your parents and stay for two nights. You made that decision because you, and only you, are able to assess your priorities, your schedule and your tolerance. If you have made the commitment to be there for 48 hours, make those the best parent-visiting two days anyone has ever had. Give them your full attention. Bring all the love you have for them. Engage fully with them and appreciate everything they are and have been to you.
But when it’s time to leave and the guilt about staying longer is being handed out, it’s got nothing to do with you. That’s their 50%.
Many people are only too happy to hand you the full load of the relationship. “If you don’t do these things I want you to do, it’ll be your fault that I’m unhappy.”
The classic example is the newly married couple or the young parents. Which set of parents should we see? If you accept the guilt trips that many people are more than happy to hand out, you set yourself up for a lose-lose situation.
Take 100% responsibility for your half of the relationship. Then leave the other half to them.
The holidays are on top of us and along with the pretty lights, gifts, delicious food and sense of wonder we all enjoy, come the feelings of obligation that many of us experience regarding family, friends, co-workers, charitable giving and countless other social norms.
You don’t really want to go to that neighborhood party, but…
Uncle George is so obnoxious, but…
Your budget has no room for that many gifts, but…
Another drink is the last thing you want right now, but…
You genuinely don’t want a second helping, but…
I’m sure you had no problem completing those sentences. I’m equally sure that those ‘but’s’ were based on one version or another of the expectations that are laid on us by others – most of whom claim to love us and have our best interests at heart.
Regardless of the specifics or sources of the expectations, the ‘should’s’ that dictate so much of our behavior can be a huge source of anxiety and self-doubt. The gap between your focus on a healthy lifestyle and the pressure you’re feeling to drink too much at the office party is the anxiety you feel. The bigger the gap, the greater the anxiety.
Of course, if we dive a little deeper, it’s easy to see that the tension is actually between our desire for the healthy lifestyle and our desire for the good opinion of others. What will they think of me if I don’t attend the party? What will my mother say if I cut way back on my gift buying this year? We start to question our own judgment and wonder if we’re somehow weird or stupid.
Our early training by parents, teachers, coaches and others in authority established a limiting set of beliefs and self-doubts that still get in the way of our growth today. We’ve been buried under an avalanche of “sensible’s,” “should’s,” “ought to’s” and “you’d better’s” that told us, repeatedly, that our deepest and most precious desires were somehow wrong, misguided or stupid.
The most heinous crime you can commit on yourself is to live an inauthentic life. To live a life that someone else has told you that you should. Mokokoma Mokhonoana is a mystic, philosopher, yogi, and social critic from South Africa. He writes that “plants are more courageous than almost all human beings: An orange tree would rather die than produce lemons, whereas, instead of dying, the average person would rather be someone they are not.”
So how can you control the ‘shoulding’ in your life this holiday season?
Start by being aware of when it’s happening. Set a little part of your brain aside to serve as your third-party observer and ask it to send up a flare when you find yourself being pressured to do something that’s against your better judgment or that you simply don’t want to do.
When the flare goes up, take a moment and analyze the tension. Try to dissect its exact source. Is it an old habit that’s trying to resurface? An unhealthy desire to please others? Knowing the precise source of your anxiety is a huge step towards controlling and even overcoming it.
Next, take control of the ‘should.’ Recognize it for what it is and decide how much of it you will give in to. Perhaps you’ll decide to go to the party, but only stay a short while. Or maybe you agree to a second helping of pie, but insist on a very small piece. If they force a huge piece on you, eat two bites and leave the rest. If you choose to participate in gift-giving, recognize that maintaining your own fiscal health is far more important than keeping up appearances for others. Look for creative, low-cost options or give a single gift instead of multiple.
As your confidence grows you’ll find that resisting or even ignoring the ‘shoulds’ altogether gets easier. By limiting the control that those external ‘shoulds’ hold over you, you let yourself and others know that your desires and preferences are valid and worthy of respect.
As you insist on respecting your own desires and preferences, extend the same courtesy to others. It’s surprising how often we, too, participate in the ‘shoulding’ of others, often without even realizing it. Cut the other person some slack. Let them observe (or not observe) the holidays in the way they choose.
As Thoreau wrote, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
Ya gotta love the holiday season! Regardless of whose team you play for, or how sacred or secular you choose to be, the final month of the year is all about joy. And heaven knows that we could all use a lot more joy in our lives!
But why aren’t we more joyful? It’s easy to claim that it’s hard (even foolish?) to be joyful when the world is such a dreadful place. How can anyone be joyful in the face of terrorism, climate change, raging partisanship and uncertain economies? Well, it turns out that the secret to joy is simply choosing to be joyful. And there are plenty of role models if you need some coaching.
Take Nelson Mandela. The guy spent 27 years in prison. What did he do when he got out? He worked arm-in-arm with the people who put him there to fix what was wrong with the country; his thoughts on reconciliation, not revenge. Here’s a guy who had plenty to be pissed about, but have you ever seen a picture of him when he wasn’t smiling?
How about Gandhi? He didn’t exactly have it easy either. Born into and living under an oppressive and brutal occupation by the British, he decided to turn logic on its head and fight violence, not with more violence, but with its opposite. His non-violent approach resulted in him taking a lot of flak, but it also led to Indian independence, not to mention successful civil rights movements around the world. Like Mandela, though, just try to find a photo of him where he’s not brimming with joy.
Or Mother Teresa. She hardly spent her life in the lap of luxury. In fact she spent most of it in the gutters and hell-holes of Calcutta, tending to the lowest of the low, in the most decrepit and disgusting conditions imaginable. But find a picture in which she’s not positively glowing? Can’t be done.
I never had the privilege of meeting them in person, but I bet Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammed and all those other greats were total cut-ups. Laughing all the time, joking, enjoying their friends, enjoying life. And, yes, smiling and joyful. Why don’t we ever see pictures of these guys smiling and laughing? Why do we interpret them as being so somber, solemn and serious? I think they would have been a hoot to hang out with! And in the midst of the joy, they’d teach me how to be a better, more joyful person myself.
The angel over Bethlehem was not recorded as saying, “I bring you somber news of great seriousness that should make you all dismal and subdued.” We’re told that it said, “I bring you good news of great joy.” And that message isn’t restricted to the Bible either. You’ll find it in every great, inspiring book we’ve got.
One of the holiday season’s wonderful movies is 2003’s Love Actually. Created by British screenwriter Richard Curtis, it opens with actor Hugh Grant narrating what I think is a joyful sentiment that puts it all in perspective for us.
Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love, actually, is all around.
Our flight was delayed an hour and we had to run like maniacs through the airport to make the connection.
Our internet service has been spotty lately and I had to endure high blood pressure, severe annoyance and likely additional hair loss as I dealt with the service rep on the phone.
I took my car in for some repairs last week and $600 later there’s still a leak in the cooling system.
Oh, I could go on.
But when I catch myself wallowing in the problems that plague my life, I like to stop, do a little mental pivot, and see this disaster from a different perspective.
We made the flight and, somehow, the miracle-working baggage handlers got our suitcases onto the next flight in four minutes flat! The aircraft mechanics had ensured the plane was flight-ready, the ramp crew loaded it with fuel, the pilots got us safely home and the flight attendant asked if I’d prefer red or white. Thanks, Delta!
The tech support actually fixed the problem quickly and I can again reach every corner of the globe from the lazy comfort of my couch. Thanks, Apple, Google and Xfinity!
I have a comfortable, reliable (and even slightly indulgent) car that I can drive anywhere I want in comfort and style. I have a conscientious and skilled mechanic who is more upset than me that we have to take a second look. Thanks BMW and Autobahn Service Center!
I’ve got problems all right.
I also have blessings. More than I could ever begin to count. And the blessings I enjoy so staggeringly overwhelm whatever I might label as a problem, that I’m ashamed when I catch myself complaining about anything.
To even describe them as ‘First World’ problems would give my so-called trials more weight and importance and give myself more self-indulgence than either of us deserve.
I think about the fires in California. I think about El Paso and Dayton. I think about children around the world who are hungry, thirsty, lonely and scared.
I have no problems. Only gratitude. And obligations.