In 1837, Hans Christian Anderson published what has since become a classic in children’s fairy tales, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.’
In case it’s been a while since you’ve heard it, the story tells of two crooks who arrive at the court of a vain emperor. Posing as tailors, they offer to make him a magnificent set of clothes of magical cloth that they claim is completely invisible to those who are stupid or incompetent. Thinking that he’ll be able to identify those who aren’t up to his intellectual standards, the emperor hires the con artists at great cost. While they pretend to work the emperor and his officials visit to check on the progress. They each see that the looms are empty but pretend to admire the beautiful cloth to avoid being thought of as a fool. When the tailors declare the clothes complete, they pretend to dress him and he sets off on a procession through the city. The citizens, also not wanting to appears as fools, feign admiration until a guileless child blurts out that the emperor is, indeed, naked.
There’s a term in social psychology that describes this kind of herd mentality. ‘Pluralistic ignorance’ means that everybody’s going along with an idea, not because it’s true or even makes sense, but simply because everyone else is. In other words, it’s normal, so it must be true and it must be okay.
The dictionary defines ‘normal’ as meaning usual, typical or expected. Since worry and anxiety are everywhere, everyone experiences them and no one questions them, worry and anxiety must, by definition, be normal.
But there’s a big difference between ‘normal’ and ‘useful’ or ‘desirable.’ There’s also a big difference between ‘normal’ and ‘unavoidable.’
You see, obesity is also normal. As are racial profiling, underfunded schools and potholes in the roads. But in each of these cases we recognize that we’d be better off without them and good people are working hard to make them abnormal, if not altogether extinct.
As much as they might be normal, anxiety and worry are neither desirable nor unavoidable and we’d be much better off without them.
Humans are hard-wired to respond to dangerous situations. It’s called a negativity bias and it evolved over millions of years. When we were wandering around in the same neighborhood as hungry saber tooth tigers, we were well served by a brain that made us notice, and respond to danger.
The incidents of imminent danger in our lives today, though, are incredibly rare. The saber tooth tigers are long gone so now, instead of a charging mastodon, our negativity bias alerts us to the insulting Facebook post or the (extremely remote) possibility of a bad medical diagnosis.
Where fear is a useful response to real and present danger, worry and anxiety are responses to threats that are neither immediate nor well defined. Social status, partisan politics and your finances in retirement are much more vague, distant and hard to comprehend than a fast-approaching bus. In fact most of the threats you perceive are only imagined.
Yet our bodies can’t tell the difference between a threat that is real and imminent and one that’s merely an illusion. Our systems are flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, our bodies go on high alert, muscles tighten, breathing increases, heart rate goes up and we’re ready to take on the attacking barbarians. Even if they are only imagined.
If that ‘code red’ status lasts too long, nasty things begin to happen. Too much cortisol compromises your immune system, making you more susceptible to disease. Sustained anxiety has been linked to diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, panic attacks, hyperventilation, gastrointestinal problems, depression, headaches, irritability, muscle aches and loss of sex drive.
Whether you’re worrying about money, other people’s opinions of you or that mole on your arm, sustained worry and anxiety can not only make you sick, they can kill you.
Just like the emperor, strutting butt naked down the street, we’ve all been duped into believing that we’re supposed to worry. Throughout our lives we’ve been trained and conditioned to be anxious. Our parents, teachers, coaches and the entire world around us frets, so it must be the thing to do. It’s a time- honored practice that’s been going on for so long it’s become an unconscious habit.
Since no one ever questions the wisdom or usefulness of worrying, we assume it’s both normal AND natural.
When we do question the wisdom and usefulness of worrying we discover that it’s neither wise nor useful. In fact there are four major drawbacks to anxiety: 1) It feels awful, 2) it accomplishes nothing, 3) it makes us sick, and 4) it blocks our innate human potential. Four great reasons to let it go.
While our biology may date back millions of years, our intelligence has grown exponentially. When we discover that a behavior no longer serves us we have the ability to change it. Since there are no advantages to chronic anxiety, the wise person would conclude that they’re better off without it.
To gain control over and ultimately kick the worry habit completely the first step is to become consciously aware of our anxiety. We need to observe ourselves in the act of worrying.
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.’
Once we’ve witnessed ourselves admiring the emperor’s non-existent clothes, it becomes much easier to establish a whole new, much healthier ‘normal.
Richard Bentall is a Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Sheffield in the UK. In 1992, while at Liverpool University, he published a paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics titled, ‘A proposal to classify happiness as a psychiatric disorder.’
His argument, although satirical, is that a psychiatric disorder is “a statistically abnormal psychological phenomenon that is associated with a range of cognitive abnormalities.” In other words, it ain’t normal. So it’s a disorder.
Fortunately, Bentall was being ironic. But It doesn’t take much looking around to conclude that happiness is anything but normal. Listen in on most casual conversations and the prevailing theme is blame and complain.
Of course there’s much to complain about in the world and people who are chronically happy just can’t seem to understand that. Their cognitive ability to assess how bad things are is out of whack. As Bentall wrote, “It has been shown that happy people, in comparison with people who are miserable or depressed, are impaired when retrieving negative events from long term memory.” Research has also shown that happy people have inaccurate cognitive biases, such as overestimating their control over the environment.
Bentall concludes that “the unrealism of happy people [is] surely clear evidence that such people should be regarded as psychiatrically disordered.”
The bottom line: if you’re chronically happy, you’re weird.
Well please count me among the weird kids! And I invite you to join us as we OD on serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins.
Although the word chronic simply means “continuing for a long time,” it always implies there’s something awful going on: a chronic liar, a chronic state of civil war, chronic indigestion.
So let’s embrace our weirdness and repurpose it. Let’s use it to describe a quality that you’d love to have and cultivate. A quality that, if you were experiencing it every moment of every day, life would be a constant joy ride.
Happiness comes from feeling good about yourself and your situation. Since we can’t always control the situation (can you say COVID-19?) let’s focus on feeling good about yourself. Which we call self-esteem.
Nathaniel Branden was a psychotherapist and writer known for his work in the psychology of self-esteem. He said that self-esteem is “the disposition to experience oneself as competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and as worthy of happiness.”
Did you catch that? “Worthy of happiness.”
Just like every other human being in the world, whether you believe it in this moment or not, you are worthy of happiness. But, because it’s so unusual, it takes courage to claim your joy. You’re bucking the norm, swimming upstream and telling societal norms to take a flying leap.
Which is an act of fearlessness.
It takes courage, but it also takes practice to be chronically happy. And it requires that you break the mold that we’re all rammed into. The mold that tries to convince us that the world is brutish, that people are nasty and self-centered at heart and life is nothing but hard.
Of course there’s crap in your life. Anyone who pretends there isn’t is naïve. But when your 24/7 (or even 23/6) focus is on the crap, it comes to define your life. So yes, deal with the nasty stuff. Then instantly return your focus to all the joyous aspects of your life.
Happiness is a fearless decision about focus. The psychiatrically disordered, yet chronically happy person courageously chooses to spend most of their time focusing on what’s working, what feels good, the things that are going well.
As a result, they simply feel better and more confident than those who don’t. Feeling better and more confident, they’re more able to cope and are quicker to recover when the storms hit.
You can become one of the weird kids by making a conscious decision, regardless of circumstances, to simply choose happiness. To focus on those things that make you smile. Those things that are working. The people, the events and the circumstances in your life that please you.
When was the last time you felt truly happy and joyous for an extended period of time? When was the last time you were able to maintain your happiness even as it all hit the fan?
I dare you to demand the chronic happiness of which you are worthy. Do you have the courage?
You know what you want to accomplish. But there are a million reasons why you won’t succeed, ten thousand people who got their first and hundreds of legal, financial and technical obstacles in your way.
However, there are also countless people who face the same barriers but make the decision to ignore them and succeed in realizing their dreams. Here’s how they do it:
Take 100% responsibility
The first step on the road to fearless is to take 100 percent responsibility for absolutely everything that happens in your life. When things don’t go our way, we search for culprits and blame them for our circumstances. And nothing changes. When you place blame for your problems on something or someone else, you surrender all your ability to change anything. It’s only when you assume responsibility that things start to change.
Uncover your “why”
Each of us has a reason for being, something important to accomplish. But too many of us either roll through life, bumping from one event to the next, or do what other people tell us is worthy, well-paying or impressive. Your purpose is why, in spite of your fears, you take on the difficult challenges. When you find and choose to pursue your purpose you’re too busy and too focused to spend time on pointless fears.
Set intentional goals
With your ‘why’ clearly understood, the next step is to lay out your ‘what’ in clear and measurable goals. Most people have dreams but very few set goals. Perhaps they weren’t taught how. Perhaps they fear embarrassment and ridicule if they fall short. But high achievers know that, without goals, they’re rudderless. So they set clear goals that inspire them to action and steamroller over any fears or obstacles that dare to get in the way.
Appreciate yourself and everything you have
Appreciating yourself isn’t bragging, it’s recognizing that you’re a fully capable human being. It’s fuel for the times when self-doubt wants to derail you. And while you’re appreciating yourself, appreciate the things, circumstances and advantages you enjoy too. When your mind is filled with all the things you’re grateful for, there’s no room for fear. Fill your vision with what you have instead of what you’re afraid you might lose.
Visualize your fearlessness
The biggest obstacle holding you back from success is the beliefs you have about yourself. Reinforced by years of negative self-talk, you’ve convinced yourself that you can’t achieve your dreams. When you interrupt that pattern and introduce a new self-image through visualization, you start to ‘see’ your goals as already complete. At first, you won’t believe yourself for a moment. But the internal dissonance erodes the old beliefs and the creative powers of your subconscious mind begin to find ways to achieve those goals.
Join the winner’s club
Misery loves company, but it doesn’t have to be you. Leave the complainers behind and actively seek out those who lift you up and inspire you to great things. Find the ones who leave you feeling better than before. They bring energy, enthusiasm, optimism and encouragement. All emotions are contagious. Run from the toxic ones and seek out and breathe deeply from the uplifting ones.
Expose your inner roadblocks
The only real barriers to your success are within you. When you bring those hidden fears to the surface you can decide how you want to act in spite of those self-limiting beliefs. You can choose to go forward in spite of the (often irrational) fears. Identify both the desire and the fear behind each worry by saying: “I want to _________, and I scare myself by imagining ____________. For example, “I want to be my own boss, and I scare myself by imagining that I’ll go out of business and have to declare bankruptcy.” With the fear in broad daylight, you will find a way around it.
Take immediate action
There’s an old axiom of success that says, “The universe rewards action.” People who are consistently successful start something. They fail, learn from their mistakes, make corrections and try again. They build momentum and either achieve their goals or something better. No matter what your goal there’s always something you can do, right now, that will move you toward it. And in taking that action, you’ll immediately feel empowered because you acted fearlessly, took control and moved the marker down the field.
Act as if
Actors are trained to ‘become’ the character they’re playing. In their minds and in every fiber of their being they actually ‘are’ Hamlet or Spider-Man. Your success begins in your mind. When, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, you are able to walk, talk, think, breathe and feel success, your success is guaranteed. Like acting, it takes training and practice. Actors are just big kids playing ‘pretend.’ But when you pretend long enough, the pretending becomes your reality. Just like your success.
On a journey, your destination is in your windshield, not your rearview mirror. When we spend too much time thinking about and blaming our upbringing, our education or our lousy breaks we doom ourselves to an endless looping replay of what’s gone on before. The success you’re looking for is ahead of you, not behind. Never take your eyes off it.
Fearless people aren’t different from the rest of us. They just think and behave differently. When you begin to model those thoughts and behaviors, you become fearless too
We each make hundreds of decisions every day. Most of them are small and insignificant – What will I wear today? Where will I go for lunch? Others are pretty weighty – Will I accept that new job offer in Toledo? Will I ask her to marry me?
We love to believe that, as humans, we’re smart, self-directed and rational. In order to make the best decision we gather facts, weigh the pros and cons and, with the pure logic of a spreadsheet, reach the optimum conclusion.
Ah, if it were only that simple!
The truth is that, while there’s some logic involved in the decision-making process, no one makes any decision on a purely rational basis. Every choice we make has a whole lot of touchy-feely going on. Far too often, the emotions that drive our decisions are fear, anxiety and self-doubt.
The conclusion that most people will reach on any given question will vary by the day, the economy, what they had to eat for breakfast and probably the phase of the moon. Most of us are at least vaguely aware of this unreliability, which is why we get so nervous when faced with a big decision. How do you know you’ll make the right one?
There are four keys to making fearless decisions that will leave you feeling confident:
Key #1 Recognize that you’re being influenced
Logic aside, there are three psychological influencers in every decision you make.
The first is fear. Fear of harm or loss and fear of the judgment of others.
“If I take this job and it doesn’t work out, I’ll be stranded in Toledo.” “If I invest in this new business idea I might lose all my retirement savings.” “If I go away with him for the weekend, what will my Mother say?”
Get quiet for a few moments. Ask how you’re scaring yourself. Ask the wise, inner you what it is that you’re imagining might happen as a result of this decision. Recognize the fear for what it is and know that it’s worth overcoming.
The second is the self-limiting beliefs we all hold.
“I’m not smart enough to get a Master’s degree!” “He’s way out of my league and wouldn’t ever go out with me.” “I’ve never had good money instincts, so running my own business is a terrible idea.”
The third is the pre-programmed beliefs with which we’ve all been indoctrinated. “No one from our family moves overseas.” “My high school music teacher said I couldn’t carry a tune so there’s no point in me auditioning for that play.” “Dad always wanted me to be a doctor like him, so this idea about opening a restaurant is just a silly fantasy.”
Key #2 Know that there are two sides to every decision
Every decision has two sides. One is to go after what you DO want. The other is to avoid what you DON’T want. The first is made from a place of faith, courage and growth. The other is made from a place of fear.
“I’d love to hire that energetic young intern but my boss wants me to hire someone from his alma mater and I don’t want to get on his bad side.” “I really want to go back and finish my degree but I’m afraid of what my children might think.” “This new product line could really take off, but I don’t want to take the blame if something goes wrong.”
Key #3 Trust your gut
When all the weighing and comparing is done and the analysis and logic is complete, all final decisions are made in the heart, not the head.
Don’t be afraid of trusting your instinct. If you learn to be still and filter out all the psychological influencers we’ve discussed, you’ll discover a quiet, inner voice that knows what’s best for you.
In Shakespeare’s play, Measure for Measure, he writes, “Go to your bosom; Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know.”
You’ll know when your heart has spoken. Trust it.
Key #4 Once you’ve made a decision, own it
Second-guessing is a huge enemy of growth and progress. Sure, you can go over and over the decision, reviewing the pros and cons again and again. But a year from now you’ll still be trying to make up your mind and the opportunity will have passed.
Years ago I developed a method of decision making that I call “deciding to decide.” It recognizes that I always have many options and choices. But in THIS moment, I’ve made and will live with THIS decision. When I remove the option of changing my mind I become committed to finding every possible way to make the decision work.
And, more often than not, it does.
We each have 206 bones in our bodies.
Regardless of race, color, sex, age, marital status, sexual orientation, health, language, religion, national origin, political persuasion, wealth, or any other label you care to apply, you get 206 bones.
Our biggest bone is the femur or thighbone. In the average adult male it’s about 48 centimeters or 19 inches long and can support up to thirty times the weight of an adult. Our smallest bone is the stapes, one of three tiny bones in the middle ear. It’s about five millimeters, or less than a quarter of an inch long and you could crush it with your pinkie.
Every one of those 206 bones matters a great deal and plays a vital role in holding you up and moving you about. But if you should fall down and break one of your bones, it’s suddenly going to matter a whole lot more than the others.
All the others are just fine, thank you. It’s the broken one that needs the attention right now.
In the conversation and debate about whose lives matter, it’s obvious, even “self-evident” to use the words of the Declaration of Independence, that every single life is precious. But right now, and for far too long, there are some very particular lives that are broken and in desperate need of all our attention.
Fortunately, your body is smart enough to know that there’s no benefit, and a great deal of suffering to be had, if that one bone were to remain broken. It’s a ludicrous notion to imagine the other bones deciding that they’re all better off if your left arm remained permanently fractured. Even more ridiculous is the idea of the big strong bones ganging up on the smaller, weaker ones.
If you have an injury or infection your body responds in an intelligent way. Blood rushes to the area to provide healing oxygen and nutrients. The antibodies and white blood cells immediately attack the disease. Your immune system kicks in to rid itself of the invaders and the body heals itself.
The body does not fight against itself. On the odd occasion that it does, we call that cancer and do everything in our power to remove the abnormal cells and bring the self-destructive process to an end.
If only we had the instinctive intelligence of our bodies.
We’re all familiar with the ‘fight or flight’ response to fear. It’s built into our biology and it was enormously useful when saber-tooth tigers were attacking. In today’s world, however, the occasions when we’re exposed to immediate, life-threatening danger are extremely rare.
And so we imagine and make up our fears. Fears that I will somehow be diminished, hurt or even killed by that person who is ‘other’ than me. We call it xenophobia: the irrational fear of others who are different. And behind that particular fear lies virtually all aggression, anger, violence, oppression and hate.
In the absence of saber-tooth tigers we continue to treat anything and anyone who isn’t like us as a threat. The threat isn’t real, it’s merely perceived or imagined. But because that other person looks or sounds different, is wearing different clothes or comes from the other side of an imaginary border, we convince ourselves that we’re threatened and must respond.
And so, we fight or flee.
The fight response is obvious – we’re seeing it around the globe daily. The flight response is just as obvious – you run back to your own familiar place, close and bar the door, build walls at your borders and prohibit those ‘others’ from entering.
The fear of the ‘other’ results from focusing on the differences between us. You’re not like me.
We can leave the fear behind when we recognize the similarities, the things we have in common.
Astronauts returning to Earth frequently report an experience that has come to be known as the ‘Overview Effect.’ First mentioned by Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweikart, it’s a cognitive shift in awareness that takes place while viewing the Earth from outer space.
Ian O'Neill, a science writer on space says, “From space, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide people become less important, and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this ‘pale blue dot’ becomes both obvious and imperative.”
Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell had his life completely changed by the experience. O’Neill writes that Mitchell experienced, “a profound sense of connectedness, with a feeling of bliss and timelessness. He became profoundly aware that each and every atom in the Universe was connected in some way, and on seeing Earth from space he had an understanding that all the humans, animals and systems were a part of the same thing, a synergistic whole.”
Humanity has moved on from saber-tooth tigers and our primitive fear responses are guilty of far more harm than good.
So, what if, instead of fight or flight, we adopted a third option in the face of fear? What if our first response was to pause, even for a moment, to listen? To learn. To get to know and investigate how similar we are to the ‘other.’
What if our choices were fight, flight or unite
In the summer of 2009, for about a month, I found myself homeless.
I won’t bore you with the details of how or why, but suffice to say that, during that inglorious month, I spent a great deal of time looking for the people and the circumstances responsible for my impoverished situation. Believe me, if I’d been able to find them I’d have had a few choice words for them.
But somewhere along the way, in a rare moment of introspection and clarity, it suddenly dawned on me that, through all the descending cascade of events and circumstances that led to me sleeping in my car, there had been one, and only one common denominator: Me.
I had been the only one uniquely present for and actively participating in every single decision and action that led to my less-than-exalted social and financial status. Trust me, it was a shocking and humbling realization.
It was also a massive wake-up call as I realized two things.
First, as much as I wanted to blame and complain, no one was listening. And even if they had been, they were disinclined to change their world in order to make mine better. Second, blaming and complaining were making me feel even more miserable than I already was and contributing absolutely nothing to my improving the situation.
As daunting as those two realizations were, they also left me exhilarated. Because if the situation HAD been someone else’s fault, they would be the only one with the power to change it. But when I assumed 100% responsibility for everything that had happened to me I took back the power and the control over my life.
While I was responsible for all the failures that had led to my homelessness, I was also responsible for the successes I’d enjoyed. (And there’d been plenty of those, too!) If I’d created my current circumstances, I could also un-create them and re-create the ones I preferred.
But first I had to abandon all my excuses, victim stories and reasons why I hadn’t been able to achieve the goals I’d set for myself. Instead, I decided that, like Dorothy’s ruby slippers, I’d always had the power to get it right and produce the results I wanted.
For whatever reasons – fear, needing to be right, ignorance, laziness, risk aversion – I’d simply chosen not to exercise that power. The reasons didn’t matter, they were behind me. What mattered was what I did – and to this day continue to do – next.
Since all the decisions and actions I’d taken to that point had landed me sleeping in my car, it was pretty clear that I needed to make some different decisions and take some different actions if I wanted a different outcome. As motivational speaker, entrepreneur and award-winning artist Mike Rayburn says, “If you want to do something you’ve never done before, you’re going to have to do something you’ve never done before.”
We have the choice to go back to the same decisions and actions, which will produce the same results. Or we can try something we’ve never done before which, of course, is scary.
But for every excuse I offer as to why the obstacles are too big and my goals are unreachable, there are countless people who have faced the same, or more challenging barriers, and succeeded. It is not my circumstances that limit me – it’s me. I stop myself with my limiting thoughts, my self-defeating behaviors and my excuses.
Right now, it’s very easy to blame and complain about the circumstances we find ourselves in. Whether it’s the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 or the rancorous mood the world has chosen to display, the universe has been throwing a few obstacles in our paths lately. I’d be lying if I said that all this hasn’t negatively affected my progress towards the goals I’ve set for myself.
But every minute spent listing the reasons why it’s hard, delayed or different than I’d hoped is a minute wasted.
There are three, and only three things that I can control in my life – the thoughts I think, the images I visualize and the actions I take. Those three things, when carefully chosen and controlled to serve me, will take me wherever I want to go
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