Yes, men suffer anxiety too. We’re just not supposed to talk about it.
We’re exposed 24/7 to all the horrendous things that we should be worried about – health, finances, erectile dysfunction, job security, relationships, aging, climate change, hair loss, terrorism… it’s a really long list!
But as boys growing up we’re also handed the list of things in life that we’re supposed to be responsible for: Provide for your family, protect women and children, always be strong, look and earn like Brad Pitt or Dwayne Johnson, know how to fix anything… it’s also a really long list.
But here’s the catch – ya gotta do all this while never breaking a sweat or letting on that you’re the least bit frightened. Be the strong one for everybody else. Don’t display weakness. And for heaven’s sake, don’t go asking for help.
So, guys, how’s this working out for us?
Fortunately, most men don’t resort to such extreme measures. But even the less radical methods of coping can be damaging to men and those close to them. Studies have found that about one in five men will suffer some anxiety disorder during their lifetime. But psychologists suspect that those numbers are underreported cuz we’re not supposed to talk about it.
Kinda like “jumbo shrimp” or “act naturally,” masculine anxiety almost seems like an oxymoron. But the old myth that men are, or should be, macho, testosterone-driven super-heroes has caused more violence and grief than we can imagine.
Psychologists tell us that, at the root of all these destructive behaviors, is fear. And fear shows up as anger, hate, anxiety, aggressiveness, violence and guilt. How, then, do we rid ourselves of fear, anxiety and self-doubt?
And no, the answer isn’t to just rub some dirt on it!
The real answer is a two-step process.
Step one is to embrace an enlightened, healthier and more balanced view of masculinity. Let’s call it Manhood 2.0 and decide that it should hang on to the best aspects of traditional manhood, let the toxic ones go, and add a number of vital new traits such as vulnerability and emotional intelligence.
But how do we get past the entrenched ego-response that wants to resist any threat to the strong macho image?
The secret is to use traditional masculinity to debunk traditional masculinity stereotypes.
No man wants to be duped. Which is precisely what the old machismo has been doing to us. Men love to believe themselves to be logical and rational. How can you look at the statistics I’ve referenced above and draw any kind of logical conclusion that traditional masculinity is serving us or those we love, well? The fact is that, by any yardstick, old-school manliness is failing us miserably. Traditional masculinity is a scam and no man is willing to put up with being scammed.
Step two is to make the decision to let fear go. While that sounds too easy to be true, it can be done.
Barring some form of genuine mental illness, worry and anxiety are mental choices that we make. Some external circumstance occurs and we choose to let it frighten or worry us. The proof that it’s a choice lies in the fact that plenty of other people, faced with the same circumstances, don’t become frightened or anxious. They make a different choice. We, however, have been choosing to be frightened or anxious.
To be fair, the vast majority of people are making the same choice. And the world around us reinforces that choice 24/7. We’re told that we’re supposed to worry and that anxiety is normal and natural. Because we’ve been trained and conditioned to be fearful, it has become a mental choice. We’ve been practicing this choice for so long that it’s become a habit and a belief.
Again, let’s use traditional masculinity to debunk traditional masculinity stereotypes.
Most men don’t like being told what to do. We prefer to see ourselves as independent thinkers who make our own decisions. Then why have we, and why do we continue to think in the way we’ve been instructed to think, after we’ve proven that that thought process doesn’t serve us in the least?
As with any ingrained habit, it takes time and practice to replace the fear reaction with something that’s more useful. But the point is, you can stop worrying. And when you do, your life, and the lives of those close to you, the lives of those you’re responsible for, will be infinitely better.
I am so optimistic that the world, and the majority of men in it, are gradually coming to recognize the massive flaws in traditional masculinity. Far too much anger, aggressiveness, violence and pain have come from it. Now, increasingly, conversations about vulnerability, mindfulness, emotional intelligence and other Masculinity 2.0 topics aren’t just in the media, they’re becoming part of casual conversations.
If you worry too much, or if there’s a man in your life who worries too much, please get in touch with me. I can help you make a different choice.
What if your fairy godmother came to visit, waved her wand and removed your ability to be afraid of anything?
Now before we go too far and start messing with the rules, let’s be clear – she isn’t the genie that gives you three wishes, so this is all you get. And she didn’t even ask if that’s what you actually wanted. She didn't make you rich. She didn't make you look like Dwayne Johnson or Jennifer Lopez. She didn't give you an IQ of 160. She didn't guarantee that everything you try will always work out.
She just showed up, and Wham! You’re not afraid anymore. Of anything.
What would you do?
We all have a list of things we’d love to do, “If only I weren’t afraid of…” “If only I weren’t scared to…” That’s the worst thing about anxiety and worry – they hold us back from living the lives we dream about. They put the brakes on our potential and limit what we can and do become.
One college professor asked his students to list the things they’d do, if only they weren’t afraid. Here’s a selection from the list they compiled:
Every one of these wishes is a description of someone’s dream life from which they’re being held back.
When you and I look at that list, it’s easy for us to say, “Go ahead, turn the lights out! There are no boogeymen hiding under your bed!” And yet, for that person who doesn’t have the nerve to sleep with the lights off, the fear is an insurmountable barrier.
Imagine what their lives could be like if they could make that fear go away. Imagine what your life could be like if you could make the fear go away! There are so many things that we fail to even consider, let alone try.
Where’s that fairy godmother when you need her?
The bad news is, there’s no such person. The good news is, you don’t need one. Because the truth is that, when it comes to removing your fears, you are your own fairy godmother.
Let’s reference another fictional character. I’m sure you remember when Glinda, the Good Witch of the South in the Wizard of Oz, said to Dorothy, “You’ve always had the power my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself.”
Fiction always mirrors real life. And in your own real life, you have the magic wand in your hand.
You see, anxiety is a decision we make. It isn’t some external, objective reality that can’t be changed. We’ve simply made the decision to be scared, afraid, intimidated and fearful so often, that it’s become a habit. Keep a habit long enough and it becomes a belief that rules your life, dictating what you will and won’t try, what you can and can’t do.
But for every fear that holds you and I back, there are thousands, even millions of people who decided, in the face of the same fear, to do it anyway. Sometimes unpleasant things happened. Most often, they didn’t. When, in spite of circumstances, those people keep making the decision to not be afraid, they eventually find their way to the goal they’ve been seeking.
And now they’re reaping the rewards.
We started this blog by asking a “what if..” question. So finish by asking another one.
What if you made a new, and different decision? What if you decided that you simply weren’t going to be afraid anymore? What if you decided that you’re simply going to try the things you’ve been dreaming about?
Here’s what going to go down: Some bad things might happen. They probably won’t. If they do, you’ll find a way around and through them. As you find your way around and through those obstacles, you’ll learn and grow and experience the glorious adventure that life can be.
And then you’ll reap the rewards.
Yes, there is a post-anxiety life waiting for you. And it’s worth the decision.
Yes, it really is that simple. You only need to wave your wand and make the decision that you won’t be afraid anymore.
Now what are you going to do?
I’ve set some very big, very ambitious goals for myself.
In fact, most of the goals I’ve set for myself easily fall into the category of BHAGs. You may have heard this term – BHAG. It was coined by author Jim Collins in his ground-breaking book, Built to Last, and stands for Big Hairy Audacious Goal.
A BHAG isn’t just any old goal – lose 20 pounds, clean out the garage, organize your photo library. No, a BHAG is huge and daunting. A BHAG is President Kennedy in May of 1961 declaring, “this Nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” At the time, the most optimistic scientific estimates of success gave it a fifty-fifty chance. Many experts didn’t think it was possible at all.
Given the odds, such a bold commitment was nothing short of outrageous.
Which is an appropriate word to describe the BHAG I’ve set for myself: Help 10 million people completely eliminate fear and anxiety from their lives.
Like I said, outrageous.
At this time, the most optimistic scientific estimates of success gave it zero chance. Every expert doesn’t think it possible at all. Which, of course, only adds fuel to my fire.
Setting the goal is the easy part. Achieving it is another thing altogether because BHAGs are REALLY HARD. Any BHAG worth the label is going to require a great deal of concentrated time and effort and it’s so easy to find a million reasons and ways to avoid or postpone the real work.
However, instead of calling them “reasons,” let’s call them what they are – excuses.
I have committed to posting a video-a-day on the i-fearless YouTube channel. Each one is five to seven minutes long and takes that time, plus about twice that to edit. I’m learning so many creative ways to convince myself that I simply don’t have those 25 minutes. It’s too noisy. The lighting isn’t right. My head isn’t into it right now. I’ve already got three that are ready to go, so I don’t need to think about that today…
I have committed to posting a weekly blog (just like this one) every Friday and sending it out to my growing list of email subscribers. This takes a little longer – maybe three or four hours. There are countless obstacles that get in the way of that weekly task. It can’t possibly be done in several shorter time periods – the writing won’t be good enough. I got caught up in some family to-do items and it’s not my fault that I couldn’t find time. My readers won’t even notice if I miss a week…
I have committed to building a thriving and highly engaged Facebook Group – Fearless Living and Growth Society, which requires daily postings, comments and interactions. I should also be doing Facebook Live events regularly. But the lighting isn’t right, it’s too noisy, there aren’t enough people going to participate, I’m too busy writing the blog…
I’m committed to building a strong following on social media so I can provide the inspiration, tools and resources people need to overcome their own anxieties. But that requires investing in ads with money that’s hard to come by…
I’ve committed to recruiting mental health professionals, life coaches and other wellness experts to help me teach and spread the techniques that allowed me to remove fear and anxiety from my own life. But they’re all busy, COVID-19 has made it hard to network, getting their attention takes time, resources and creativity…
In their moments, every one of these roadblocks is a legitimate obstacle to accomplishing the BHAG that I’ve set for myself. So any failure to achieve it certainly won’t be my fault. I’ll be able to point to hundreds of genuine reasons why it didn’t happen. I’m even making a list of people to blame when I have to admit defeat.
But the truth is that there are no legitimate obstacles, there are only excuses. If I choose to see them as dead-end roadblocks, I’m finished. If, instead, I choose to see them as challenges, against which I measure the kind of stuff I’m made of, they become a game to be played and won. What I lack in resources I can make up for in resourcefulness.
When I look myself in the mirror and ask why I’m allowing this BHAG to get the better of me, I’m forced to admit that sometimes I’m a little intimidated by it and sometimes I’m just feeling lazy. Neither of these conditions serve me. Neither of these conditions take me closer to achieving this audacious and, in my view, entirely worthwhile goal.
Imagine a world that is completely free of anxiety. Imagine waking up every day knowing that you are fully capable of successfully taking on any challenge that arises. Imagine sleeping like a baby every night.
That’s why this goal is worth the effort.
On September 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy spoke to a crowd in the stadium at Rice University in Houston. Regarding the BHAG he’d set for the nation he said, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”
What excuses are you using to avoid progress on your BHAG?
I always enjoy learning new things. And on the way to acquiring a new skill, one of the most effective techniques is to be able to watch someone else who has already accomplished what I’m attempting to do. On our journey from anxiety to fearlessness it’s both instructive and inspiring to see someone else demonstrate fearlessness for us.
The power of a real, live example is in our ability to point to it, see it in action. We can say, “There! See that?! That’s what living fearlessly looks like! Now I’m going to try it.” In that way we’re able to set a new standard for ourselves. Watching someone else live out the example has a reality about it that is so much more powerful than vague or hypothetical situations.
Let’s look at two examples of fearless living that aren’t the least bit vague or hypothetical. They are both extremely real and very translatable into our own efforts to move from anxiety to fearlessness.
At the recent Democratic National Convention, which was held virtually because of the pandemic, every politician, lobbyist, actor and professional speaker was completely upstaged by a 13-year-old boy from New Hampshire named Brayden Harrington.
Speaking from the safe space of his own bedroom, Brayden told how he and Presidential contender Joe Biden are “members of the same club. We s……. st…… stutt…… stutter.”
As he went to pronounce the word “stutter,” the sound got stuck and just wouldn’t come out. You could see the effort, the determination and the shear fortitude that he summoned to carry on. And in a speech that lasted less than two minutes, this young man demonstrated a courage that left those of us watching in complete awe. Witnessing him struggle with his disfluency, knowing that he was being watched by millions of people, was a masterclass in facing a very real fear and making the decision to not let it hold him back.
As his address went on, Brayden encountered additional words that challenged his uncooperative vocal patterns. But in every case, he carried on. As I put myself in his place I could feel, in the pit of my stomach, the overwhelming temptation to dive for the safety of the covers of his bed that was mere feet away. But again and again, he made the choice to confront any fears, any self-consciousness, and declare that he would not allow them to limit him.
This demonstration of courage had nothing to do with politics. The boy won’t even be able to vote for another five years. The only dog he has in the hunt is his own determination to move beyond the kind of obstacle that so many of the rest of us declare as insurmountable.
I’ve lived five times as long as Brayden so far, but he just schooled me in living fearlessly.
Chelsie Hill was born to dance. In classes at the age of three, she was competing at regional and national events when she was five. As a 17-year-old high school senior she was involved in a drunk driving accident that left her with irreversible spinal cord damage and unable to walk.
During her recovery, Chelsie made the decision that she would not let her injuries and disabilities interrupt her dreams of being a professional dancer. She moved to Los Angeles to study dance and found herself the only wheelchair dancer in the class.
In 2012 she formed the Rollettes, a wheelchair dance team that has appeared on national media including Ellen, the Today Show, the Hallmark Channel and Access Daily as well as others. The group empowers women with disabilities to live boundlessly (and fearlessly) and shifts perspectives on disability through dance.
Nor has Chelsie stopped with wheelchair dancing. She is a speaker and advocate against drunk and distracted driving. She has her own line of jeans designed specifically for women with disabilities and unique body types. And in 2017 she partnered with Tommy Hilfiger and later Amazon for release of their adaptive clothing line.
Two very different people. Two very different challenges.
In both cases it’s easy to feel and empathize with the crushing fear that these two no doubt felt. And yet they made the decision to power through it, knowing that staying on the small side of that fear would result in a life lived from a place of timidity and cowering. But to confront that fear, to understand that it exists only in our minds, and to decide that it will no longer control us, will result in a life without limits.
I like to surround myself with people who inspire and instruct me to raise my own bar. When I watch them in action, see how they respond to challenging situations. I like to have their examples to imitate.
Brayden Harrington and Chelsie Hill are just two of the countless people who can teach the rest of us what it’s like to overcome anxiety, leave apprehension in the dust behind you and live fearlessly. I, for one, want to watch very closely, take careful notes and do my best to follow the examples.
A couple of years ago I enjoyed a fascinating day in Mountain View, California, as my wife Gail and I attended the annual shareholders meeting of Tesla, the electric car company founded by billionaire entrepreneur, Elon Musk. (Full disclosure: Gail was the smart one investing in Tesla. I was just arm candy.)
The business portion of the meeting lasted no more than five minutes. The interesting part, about four hours as the multi-talented Mr. Musk told stories about the early days of Tesla, the big ideas, the failed experiments, the almost-went-bankrupt nail-biters and the incredibly successful phenomenon that continues to unfold as this still-new company rewrites the rules on personal transportation.
Turns out that Elon is a truly terribly public speaker, a reasonably talented engineer and a stunningly brilliant visionary. And there’s the key. In story after story he told us that he could see the end results in his mind’s eye. He readily admitted that, at many points he didn’t have a clue as to HOW he would actually get to that end result, but he didn’t for a moment doubt that he would.
I love reading about and speaking with successful people. And the one thing they all have in common is the ability to visualize the goal they are heading towards.
For example, I recently read a great book* by Daymond John, the entrepreneur founder of the FUBU clothing line and multimillionaire member of the team of Sharks on the popular TV reality show, Shark Tank. The book highlights both his own experience and that of a number of other successful entrepreneurs as they founded and built their companies. And in every case, the driving force was the clarity of the vision they each had for what they wanted to accomplish.
So, when you look out into your future, what do you see? Can you describe a detailed picture of where you’ll be and what you’ll be doing? What goals will you be working to achieve? Who will you be serving? Can you visualize this day three years from now?
Notice that I’m using words that all talk about vision, pictures and seeing. The reason this is so important is that it forces you to have tremendous clarity about your goals. If they’re the least bit vague or clouded, the likelihood that you’ll achieve them falls off rapidly.
So when you think about your life 36 months, 1,080 days from today, what color will the walls be? What window will you be looking out? Who will you be calling, visiting? Who will you include in your circle of influence? What will your bank statement say? How will this picture be different from the one you see today?
Like Elon Musk, you might not have a clue about how you’re going to get there. But that’s not nearly as important as knowing where you want to get to. You’ll figure it out, bit by bit, along the way.
When you drive at night, the headlights on your car illuminate only the few hundred feet in front of you. But you can drive from Seattle to Miami seeing only that much at a time. You don’t need to see the whole route, but you do need to see Miami in your mind.
Daymond John makes a great comment near the end of his book that is going to stick with me: “You can’t hit a target that you can’t see.”
What does your target look like?
* ‘The Power of Broke: How Empty Pockets, a Tight Budget, and a Hunger for Success Can Become Your Greatest Competitive Advantage
A lotta things have been changing for a lotta folks lately. And dealing with change can be extremely stressful if we don’t understand its purpose and its role in helping us evolve.
Case studies are always helpful for learning, so I’d like to offer a case study in radical change and the lessons to be taken from it. The case subject is me.
Things in my life don’t look the least bit like they did a couple of years ago. About 85% of the changes have been my idea. The other half have either been imposed on me or are unexpected and unintended consequences. All of them are pushing me so far outside my comfort zone that I’m pretty sure I don’t have one anymore. This isn’t a matter of stretching my old zone. It’s a process of smashing it to smithereens and leaving it in a pile of debris that’s disappearing into the horizon behind me.
During the past 18 months I have:
In short, with the exception of my absolutely and always perfect wife, Gail, there’s essentially nothing about my life now that is the same as it was two years ago.
As proof that you both can and should teach an old dog new tricks, here are a few things that I’ve observed as a newly-minted, Medicare-eligible upstart who set out to reinvent himself at the age when they told me I was supposed to retire.
It would be nice if we could have all the right conditions lined up, the guarantees in place, the assurances secured, the permissions granted. But I’ve learned that your parachute can’t open until after you’ve jumped out of the plane.
What about you? COVID-19 has pushed all of us to the edges and beyond of our previous comfort zones. How much of it are you desperately trying to preserve? Why? What might you become if you decided that leaving it behind might not be so scary after all?
Your time and your energy are like strawberry jam – the farther you spread them, the thinner they get. And if you’re anything like me, a thin, barely visible skim of jam on your toast just won’t cut it.
One of the most pervasive challenges I see among so many people who are would like to rid themselves of anxiety is the tendency to spread themselves too thin.
Work begins the second you check your smart phone in the morning and ends… well, it never actually ends. The kids demand your attention, you feel obliged to stay informed with the news, your social media accounts need attention, the grass needs cutting, you wanted to volunteer more this year… Oh, and when are you going to get around to meeting with that financial planner who’s going to solve all your problems with a mutual fund?
Anxiety can creep in when you feel you’ve lost control of your life. So if it seems that you’re only barely managing to stay a step ahead of the freight train that’s bearing down on you, it might be worthwhile to rethink your approach. Operating in reactive mode all the time gives you no opportunity to reflect on where you’ve been or are heading and then to prepare and carry out the plans that will take you there.
Is the solution to have more jam or less toast?
Do you know what you have in common with Oprah, Richard Branson and Elon Musk? You’re all given 24 hours in each day. Not a second more, nor a second less no matter who you are.
As for energy, have you noticed how some people seem to barely drag their butts around through the day while others have so much vitality you want to smack ‘em?
We’re all given a finite supply of time and energy. The difference is how we each make use of them. I like to watch and learn from those who have been more successful (however I choose to define that) than me. When it comes to using time and energy more effectively, I see successful people leveraging and increasing the effectiveness of the supply they’ve got. Here are some strategies I’ve found useful:
Negativity will sap your energy faster than an ironman triathlon. It takes practice to make positivity and optimism your default thoughts, but it pays huge dividends in the amount of energy you have to fuel your days. Focus on the things that are working, the things that are going well, the things you’ve done right. Make a list of all the things that have worked out for you and remind yourself that there’s far more ‘up’ in your life than ‘down.’
Take a look at the list of goals you’ve set for yourself. (You have a goals list, right?) Then ask yourself, “What’s the ONE THING I could be spending my time on that will take me to those objectives the fastest?” When you’ve identified it, set aside at least 50% of your time to devote to this task. Everything else is secondary and can wait. If you don’t have a list of goals, I suggest that preparing one is your ONE THING.
We often spend more time switching between tasks than we do working on the tasks themselves. Instead of losing 20 pounds, earning another degree, coaching little league and starting a Facebook group, pick just one. A really good job done on just one of those efforts will bring you far more benefit than a poor or half-finished job on all four. The other three will wait patiently for when you’re ready. Plus, the success you enjoy in one area will fuel you for the effort in the next.
Ask! Ask! Ask!
Too many of us try to do everything on our own. But there is information, assistance, support, money and time available, if only we would ask. The most successful people are constantly asking others for all of these. The rest of us, though, hold back from asking because we’re afraid to look needy, foolish or stupid. We’ve also convinced ourselves that we’re likely to be rejected, so why bother asking in the first place? We say ‘no’ to ourselves before anyone else has a chance to say ‘yes.’
Surround yourself with successful people
There are people in your life who can simply walk into the room and you’re completely drained of energy. They bring the tension, the stress and the anxiety with them and they love to share it around. But there are others in your life, too. They’re the ones who always leave you feeling better than you did before they came. They bring the 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.
Jim Rohn, one of the original success teachers and Tony Robbins’ mentor, liked to say that “success leaves clues.” In other words, if you hang around and observe successful people you can see what it is they do differently than the rest of us. When it comes to maximizing your finite supply of time and energy, each of these tactics will make your jam go a little farther while still retaining that sweet strawberry taste.
How often do you find yourself making a decision or taking an action based on what you believe others will think?
We worry what family, friends, co-workers – even complete strangers! will think of the clothes we wear, the way we cut or color our hair, what we choose to eat and drink, the car we drive, the house we live in, the friends we hang out with.
If you make a comment or a joke in a conversation, do you spend the next hour worrying if the others thought it was inappropriate, uninformed or unfunny? Do you second-guess yourself constantly because of what others might think?
Worrying what somebody else thinks about your hair, shoes or sense of humor can be uncomfortable and inconvenient. But things become downright debilitating when major life decisions are influenced or even dictated by the opinions of others. Choices about who you should date or marry, the school you select, the education you pursue and the career you choose will affect you for life. When choices like these are made in an attempt to please everybody else, you sentence yourself to a life of frustration and heartache.
It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to see what’s going on: We’re constantly seeking the approval of others because we don’t get enough approval from ourselves.
The psychology can run deep and have many origins. Perhaps we weren’t praised enough growing up. Maybe we were taught that our opinions didn’t matter. Possibly we’ve spent our lives with people who weren’t comfortable expressing positive emotions.
I specifically recall a boss early in my career who told us point blank that we were grown-ups and ought to know when we’d done it right. His job was to point out (in the loudest and most public way) when we’d screwed up.
All human behavior is an attempt to avoid pain and seek out pleasure. Since we’ve been trained to associate powerful negative and painful emotions to disapproval, we’l seek its opposite wherever we can find it.
The approval we’re seeking is just another term for connection, relevance and love. But we’ll never find it in a true, lasting and meaningful way while we look for it from everybody else. It’s an unwinnable game.
Why is it unwinnable? Why can’t you simply spend your life conforming to the preferences of others?
Imagine two different people, both of whom are close and important to you, both of whose approval you seek. Now imagine a situation in which the way one of them wants you to behave is the opposite of what the other wants? Who should you attempt to please?
Now imagine a situation in which what both of them want of you is incompatible with what you want of yourself? Who should you attempt to please?
It’s useful to ask yourself whether or not this need for approval by everyone else is serving you. Do you enjoy it? Would you prefer a different reaction from your emotions? The choice is yours.
No matter how it began, once you’ve recognized the problem, it’s easy to fix. It’s easy to blame your upbringing, but you can’t go back and change that. Fortunately, whatever you used to be and wherever you came from does not dictate where you go from here.
You simply need to love and approve of yourself so much that you don’t require the love and approval of others.
This isn’t narcissism or ego. It’s much-needed self-care in which your self-esteem and confidence are restored to their factory settings. Nor is it shutting yourself off from the world and not caring what others think or feel. It’s simply choosing what and who are important to you. It’s cutting the puppet strings from everyone who wants to manipulate you for their purposes. It’s learning to steer your life in the direction that you want to go.
First, take every possible opportunity to celebrate yourself. Pay attention through your days and catch yourself when you get it right. This actually happens more often than you think. When it does – maybe even multiple times every hour, take a second to pat yourself on the back for a job well done. Catch yourself winning at life and celebrate those wins.
Second, keep a victory log. Write down your successes at the end of each day. They don’t have to be earth-shaking. In fact, it’s the steady stream of simple victories that build a solid foundation of confidence and self-esteem. Write in your journal that you balanced your checkbook, remembered to call your mother, fit into jeans that are one size smaller, cleaned out your inbox or exercised for 30 minutes.
Third, practice a daily “mirror exercise.” Before going to bed stand in front of a mirror, look yourself in the eyes and spend at least three minutes appreciating yourself, out loud, for everything you’ve accomplished during the day. Appreciate your achievements, the disciplines you maintained, the temptations you resisted. Maintain eye contact with yourself through the exercise. When you’re finished, continue to look deeply into your own eyes and say, “I love you (your name).” Then stand still for a few more moments to let the love sink in. This is guaranteed to feel beyond weird at first, but I guarantee that if you stick with it for at least 10 days you’ll feel an incredible transformation in your self-esteem.
Finally, sit quietly for a few minutes once a day and ask your heart what it wants to do, how it wants to dress, what career it wants to seek. Just for a moment, filter out the opinions of anyone else and ask what you would choose if there was no one else around to judge you. Carry the answers that your heart provides around with you. Reflect on them regularly and slowly you’ll begin to really feel and understand, in the depths of your soul, that the only person’s opinion that matters is your own
There’s a scene in the 1995 James Bond film, Goldeneye, with Pierce Brosnan as the iconic British spy, in which Bond is under attack and taking cover behind a concrete pillar. A bullet hits the pillar mere inches from his face and he nonchalantly cocks his head away from the impact without so much as a flinch.
In another scene he’s driving a stolen tank while chasing the bad guys through the streets of St. Petersburg. After he smashes through yet another building, he coolly takes a moment to straighten his tie.
Although the majority of superheroes have always, and rather chauvinistically, been men, we can also count on Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Captain Marvel, Black Widow and others to save us in a jam.
But whether it’s Chris Evans as Captain America or Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, our culture has created a conception of fearlessness that is all about guts and glory. The kick ass hero who’s afraid of nothing and no one and will run into a burning building to save a kitten and then humbly deflect any adulation as they head off into the sunset.
Our heroes are impregnable. Bullets bounce off them, they never stay down and, aside from the occasional rip in their leotards, they never even get cut or scratched. Once in a while their creator will give them one small flaw, just to make the story line more interesting. But we always know who’s going to win in the end.
None of these characters could ever be real because they’re missing a key trait that makes us all human – vulnerability. To be vulnerable is to know that things might not turn out all right, but to go ahead and dive in anyway. And that is living fearlessly.
Living fearlessly isn’t about being afraid of nothing. It’s about having the courage to be crap-your-pants scared, but choosing to go ahead and try it anyway.
Why on earth would we go ahead and try it anyway? Because to stay where we are has become unbearably painful. And because the place where we might end up could be glorious.
In contrast to those action heroes who always defeat the bad guy who comes from somewhere else, our kryptonite lies inside us. We carry it around with us every day. The things we’re most afraid of aren’t out there in the world, they’re inside our heads.
They are the beliefs we hold about what we can and can’t do. Our thoughts about our limitations. The fears we carry around about what others think of us. Our fears that we don’t measure up, that we’re somehow not good enough
That’s why superheroes are so appealing. They’re everything we wish we could be so we live vicariously through them.
The fears we run from have nothing to do with aliens or evil villains. Instead, we’re afraid to say “I’m sorry” to someone we’ve hurt, to open our heart to a new love, to listen openly to a different point of view, to admit that we were wrong.
If Spider-Man ran away and hid under a rock, it would be pretty obvious. But our fears are easy to hide. You can easily go about your day without anyone ever knowing that you’re afraid to apply for that promotion and risk being turned down. It’s easy to pretend that your relationship with your kids is just fine or that you’re not really reliant on pain killers.
But you know. And in the middle of the night, those demons that have been haunting you come back to remind you of what you could be if you were willing to try.
Deciding that you’re finally going to stare those demons down is living fearlessly.
Sitting down to begin that novel you’ve had in your heart forever is living fearlessly.
Quitting that soul-crushing job without another lined up is living fearlessly.
Starting that side-hustle business before you’re ready is living fearlessly.
Walking away from that dead-end relationship is living fearlessly.
Moving alone to that new city is living fearlessly.
Sitting down to have that tough conversation is living fearlessly.
Allowing yourself to fall in love and risk getting your ass kicked by it is living fearlessly.
Only you know what living fearlessly specifically means for you.
As long as we refuse to confront those fears our lives will always be less than they could be. As long as we put the hard stuff off till Someday we’ll be looking back at what we could have been, could have done, could have had.
Action heroes never doubt that they will succeed. Jason Statham, Dwayne Johnson, Matt Damon, Daniel Craig… The characters they play aren’t actually fearless. Because they always have bigger guns, thicker armor, better aim or cooler gadgets, their outcomes are always certain. There’s nothing for them to fear.
But our outcomes don’t have those guarantees. Which, when you’re willing to risk that emotional, financial, spiritual and social uncertainty, makes you far braver than any superhero.
True fearlessness is not about kicking ass and taking names. It’s about accepting and embracing our humanness, our vulnerability and our exposure to risk. And doing the scary thing anyway.
Brené Brown is a professor, lecturer and researcher at the University of Texas who studies the concepts of courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. In her book, Daring Greatly, she describes vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” We know it as that stressful feeling that comes when we step out of our comfort zone, knowing that we may not be able to control the outcomes.
It takes tremendous courage to allow yourself to be vulnerable, to be emotionally open, to admit that you don’t know everything, that you were wrong. We all feel the fear. The difference is in how we decide to act in the face of it.
But here’s the payoff: When we do eventually face our fears – which we always will – we invariably discover that we’re made of far superior stuff than we ever imagined
If you were paying attention in 10th Grade physics, and if your memory goes back that far, you may remember a little experiment with tuning forks.
If you recall, a tuning fork is a little metal thingy that looks like a two-pronged fork. When you strike it, it vibrates, emitting a musical tone that’s unique to the size and shape of the fork. A fork that is tuned to sound the note of A, or 440 Hz, can only ever emit an A.
The experiment needed two tuning forks tuned to the same note. When the science teacher struck one of them and it began to vibrate, the other fork, located some distance away, would start to vibrate and emit its note too.
What we’re hearing is a phenomenon called sympathetic vibration or resonance. When the first fork is struck, its vibration sends energy waves outward. Because it’s tuned to the same vibrational frequency, the energy waves resonate with the second fork and it begins to vibrate as well. This is the trick behind the opera singer who can shatter a wine glass with her voice.
Now let’s move on to some advanced physics. (Stay with me, I promise that this is going somewhere!)
Since the late 1800s, and most famously by Albert Einstein, scientists have been learning about quantum physics, the structure and behavior of the tiniest particles in the universe. Among the discoveries are two remarkable notions.
First, the smaller the particles get, the less and less ‘stuff’ is actually there. In other words, what we see, touch and think of as ‘matter,’ the hard stuff of the world is, at its most fundamental level, nothing but energy. When we look at the tiniest ‘things’ through the most powerful microscopes, we discover there are no ‘things’ at all, just vibrating energy.
Second, as scientists experiment with these most minute particles, the results of those experiments actually depend on their expectations. Odd as it may seem, if a researcher expects one result, she gets it. If she expects something different, she gets that. The researcher’s thoughts and intentions truly do influence the experimental outcome.
Researchers are concluding that, like the vibrations of the tuning fork, our thoughts are actually a form of vibrational energy that go out and resonate with other thoughts. Additionally, since everything in the universe is also nothing but vibrating energy, our thoughts also resonate with things that match their frequency. This is the basis of what you’ve likely heard of as the Law of Attraction.
This concept states that, because of their vibrational nature, your thoughts have the power to attract similar thoughts and even events and circumstances that match your thoughts. In other words, if you spend all your time thinking that bad things are going to happen to you, you’re creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It’s been said that worry is using your mental energy to create a future that you don’t want. If you spend an inordinate amount of time worrying – about money, about love, about your health – it’s extremely likely that your worry is actually bringing those fears into your life. Rather than helping you find solutions, anxiety is making the problem worse.
There are two sides to every anxious thought – the aspect of it that you want and that which you don’t want.
I DO want to be slim and healthy.
I DON’T want to be overweight and sick.
While your brain might be thinking about the “I DO…” or the “I DON’T…” and assuming that those are the significant parts of those statements, your subconscious and your vibrating thoughts are focused on either “slim and healthy” or “overweight and sick.”
Try it for yourself: Close your eyes and focus on the thought, “I DON’T want to be overweight and sick.” Notice the subtle feelings that you evoke. They’re likely feelings of fear and aversion and you can’t help having images of oversized clothes, doctor visits and low energy.
Now close your eyes again and focus on the thought, “I DO want to be slim and healthy.” Again, notice how different this thought feels than the previous one. It feels uplifting, happy, lighthearted and even joyous. The images in your mind are about healthy eating, an active lifestyle and high energy.
Because the emotions you experience are the actual vibrations that your thoughts have generated, both your Reticular Activating System and the law of attraction resonate far more intensely to the feelings than they do to the conscious thoughts. And both will work to bring you closer to the thing that you spend most of your time and mental energy focusing on.
The beauty of both is also that, once we’ve learned how they work, we can use them to our advantage. Rather than using your worry and anxiety to create a future that you don’t want, why not turn it around and use your optimism and hope to create the future that you DO want?
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?
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.
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?
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
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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
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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.
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.
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
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
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.
Over the last few weeks, as the year has been winding down, I’ve been thrilled by the many messages I’ve been receiving from readers like you who are looking for answers on how to rid themselves of worry, anxiety and self-doubt. Of the many questions that you’ve been posing, there are three that seem to be a common challenge for many people:
What can I do in the middle of the night when the anxiety looms so large that it won’t let me sleep?
I seem to have made a wrong decision a while ago and now I’m worried that I’ve messed up my life. How can I NOT be anxious?
How can I help someone close to me who is suffering from anxiety?
When we launched i-fearless earlier this year, we’d hoped to establish a forum and a dialogue that would help people set down this awkward, overbearing and entirely unnecessary burden. It’s clear that we’ve been successful but it’s also clear that there is plenty of room to raise the bar.
Now, at the dawn of both a new year and a new decade, and because they involve you, I want to share some intentions, resolutions and commitments that are my obvious and welcome next steps.
I resolve to:
Continue to learn everything I can, and practice everything I learn about living a worry-free life.
Provide practical, results-oriented suggestions in response to every question that every reader poses about overcoming worry, anxiety and self-doubt.
Bring you the techniques, resources, encouragement and inspiration that you need to live your own worry-free life in pursuit of your own dreams.
Provide as many options as possible for you to access this knowledge including blogs, books, podcasts, videos, courses, workshops and any other channel that we can harness.
But I’m also going to ask you to consider three resolutions of your own. I ask you to resolve to:
Believe that it is entirely possible to unplug from the fear and untangle the net of anxiety and self-doubt that keeps you from exploring your limitless human potential.
Talk to me. Let me know about the anxieties that are holding you back from the promises you’ve made to yourself so that I can share the methods that will let you take command of your life.
Share with others. We all know someone who is struggling with this ridiculous and unnecessary burden. Let them know about i-fearless. Encourage them to subscribe to the blog. Show them that there is an answer.
It sucks to be worried all the time. It sucks to be afraid of looking foolish, being rejected, being criticized or the judgment of others. Sooner or later, every one of us gets fed up with hiding under the bed and surrendering command of our lives.
In spite of the power those demons wield, it’s entirely possible to remove those roadblocks. Anyone can do it. But only if you’re willing to hit that ‘off’ switch. Only if you want to leave the drama behind and get to know the valuable, competent, courageous, remarkable human being that you are.
I invite you to let 2020 be the year you hit that ‘off’ switch.
The holidays can be one of the most stressful times of the year. But, by adopting three simple mental habits, you can dramatically reduce, if not eliminate anxiety as an unhealthy ingredient in your eggnog.
Technique #1: I scare myself by imagining…
Behind all worry and anxiety is a desire for something we want combined with a fear that an unwanted event or consequence is going to land on your head.
For example, you’re out shopping for a gift for your mother-in-law and the anxiety is running high. If your dig deep, you’re likely to discover that the problem isn’t the lack of choice, it’s the monologue in your brain that’s imagining her disapproval when she doesn’t like your gift.
Or you’re dressing for your significant-other’s company party. Your closet is full of clothes but the self-talk is all about the judgment that you imagine everyone else is going to pass on you. Too flashy. Too revealing. Too drab and boring!
While it’s not exclusive, most holiday anxiety is based on the fear of the judgment of others. We scare ourselves by imagining that other people will observe our – baking, gift-giving, attire, behavior, timeliness, whatever – and find it lacking. The far more likely truth is that the others are secretly awed by your baking, grateful for your gift and jealous of your attire.
Once you’ve identified the fear that’s behind the anxiety, though, it’s much easier to be logical, rational and even a bit humorous about it. So what if Cousin Beth, whom you haven’t seen for five years and likely won’t for another five, thinks your tie is too loud? How, exactly is that going to affect your life?
The technique is to take each worry and identify both the desire and the fear that are behind it by completing each sentence like this:
“I want to _________, and I scare myself by imagining ____________. The key words are “I scare myself by imagining.”
I want to serve a perfect holiday dinner and I scare myself by imagining that I’ll overcook the turkey and forget the pie.
I want to impress my fiancés parents and I scare myself by imagining that they won’t like my gift and encourage him to leave me.
I want to look my best for the company holiday party and I scare myself by imagining that my boss will disapprove of how I dress.
I want to keep the weight I’ve come down to this year and I scare myself by imagining that I’ll give in to peer pressure to eat and drink too much.
This process of learning to become aware of when we’re worrying and then identifying the fear that lies behind the worry, teaches us to pull the worrying habit back out of our subconscious, daily ‘normal’ and into the realm of ‘front-of-mind.’ Try a few of these mental scenarios for yourself and you might quickly feel more detached from and ready to be in control of the anxious thoughts that seem to invade and occupy your mind at this time of year.
Technique #2: Have to/Choose to
Around the holidays we all have things that we have to do. Or, rather, and more accurately, we all have things that we CHOOSE to do. As you learn to release the anxiety and worry from your life, it’s critical to recognize the difference.
Think about the holiday things that you have to do, many of which turn into sources of anxiety. Many people would say that, among other things, you have to:
Buy gifts for the people in your life
Travel to see family under very challenging conditions
Attend too many social functions
Eat and drink more than normal
Spend too much
There are plenty of people, however, who don’t buy gifts, don’t travel to see family and don’t go to parties. But, you might say, there are social pressures – especially from family – that force you to do these things. You might say, further, that while it’s true that there are people who don’t do these things, bad things – family feuds, broken relationships – happen as a result. You’re right again. But the fact remains that everyone, at all times, has a choice. And you need to be aware that, even when it feels like you are being forced into something, you still have a choice.
If you believe that there is anything at all that you absolutely, positively must do because circumstances or someone else is forcing you to, you completely surrender your power to live your own life. In every single instance, you hold and make the choice.
Let’s look at an example:
I have to go home for Christmas.
If I don't go home for Christmas, my mother will never let me hear the end of it.
If my mother comes down on me, my life will be miserable.
If I’m miserable, my friends won’t want to be with me.
Given the choice, I'd rather go home for Christmas than lose my friends.
Of course, there are also people who would rather suffer their family’s wrath than travel through winter conditions and sleep on the pullout couch. The choices you have might not be great ones, but it’s absolutely critical to understand that you always have choices.
The truth is that no one and nothing can force you to do anything. You always have the choice to comply or not, to agree or not, to act or not, to worry or not to worry. Many of us pretend we are a victim, but we are not, we always have a choice.
Technique #3: 100% for 50%
Gift-giving can be such a minefield!
Did I spend enough? Did I spend too much? Did I express the right amount of sentiment? Did I express too much?
As we said earlier, most holiday anxiety is based on the fear of the judgment of others. And it’s not just in the area of gifts. You’ve taken an action – given a gift, worn a particular dress, visited for two hours – and you are worried how the other person might interpret that action, and subsequently judge you.
Here’s a thought that I find to be enormously helpful at this time of year:
You are 100% responsible for 50% of the relationship.
That means that you are responsible for giving the gift for the right reasons, visiting with love and caring in your heart and wearing the clothes that best express the real you. If you can honestly say that you have done these things, your work is finished.
How anyone else reacts to what you’ve done is completely out of your control. And, frankly, none of your business. That half of the relationship is in their hands.
For example, you agree to visit your parents and stay for two nights. You made that decision because you, and only you, are able to assess your priorities, your schedule and your tolerance. If you have made the commitment to be there for 48 hours, make those the best parent-visiting two days anyone has ever had. Give them your full attention. Bring all the love you have for them. Engage fully with them and appreciate everything they are and have been to you.
But when it’s time to leave and the guilt about staying longer is being handed out, it’s got nothing to do with you. That’s their 50%.
Many people are only too happy to hand you the full load of the relationship. “If you don’t do these things I want you to do, it’ll be your fault that I’m unhappy.”
The classic example is the newly married couple or the young parents. Which set of parents should we see? If you accept the guilt trips that many people are more than happy to hand out, you set yourself up for a lose-lose situation.
Take 100% responsibility for your half of the relationship. Then leave the other half to them.
The holidays are on top of us and along with the pretty lights, gifts, delicious food and sense of wonder we all enjoy, come the feelings of obligation that many of us experience regarding family, friends, co-workers, charitable giving and countless other social norms.
You don’t really want to go to that neighborhood party, but…
Uncle George is so obnoxious, but…
Your budget has no room for that many gifts, but…
Another drink is the last thing you want right now, but…
You genuinely don’t want a second helping, but…
I’m sure you had no problem completing those sentences. I’m equally sure that those ‘but’s’ were based on one version or another of the expectations that are laid on us by others – most of whom claim to love us and have our best interests at heart.
Regardless of the specifics or sources of the expectations, the ‘should’s’ that dictate so much of our behavior can be a huge source of anxiety and self-doubt. The gap between your focus on a healthy lifestyle and the pressure you’re feeling to drink too much at the office party is the anxiety you feel. The bigger the gap, the greater the anxiety.
Of course, if we dive a little deeper, it’s easy to see that the tension is actually between our desire for the healthy lifestyle and our desire for the good opinion of others. What will they think of me if I don’t attend the party? What will my mother say if I cut way back on my gift buying this year? We start to question our own judgment and wonder if we’re somehow weird or stupid.
Our early training by parents, teachers, coaches and others in authority established a limiting set of beliefs and self-doubts that still get in the way of our growth today. We’ve been buried under an avalanche of “sensible’s,” “should’s,” “ought to’s” and “you’d better’s” that told us, repeatedly, that our deepest and most precious desires were somehow wrong, misguided or stupid.
The most heinous crime you can commit on yourself is to live an inauthentic life. To live a life that someone else has told you that you should. Mokokoma Mokhonoana is a mystic, philosopher, yogi, and social critic from South Africa. He writes that “plants are more courageous than almost all human beings: An orange tree would rather die than produce lemons, whereas, instead of dying, the average person would rather be someone they are not.”
So how can you control the ‘shoulding’ in your life this holiday season?
Start by being aware of when it’s happening. Set a little part of your brain aside to serve as your third-party observer and ask it to send up a flare when you find yourself being pressured to do something that’s against your better judgment or that you simply don’t want to do.
When the flare goes up, take a moment and analyze the tension. Try to dissect its exact source. Is it an old habit that’s trying to resurface? An unhealthy desire to please others? Knowing the precise source of your anxiety is a huge step towards controlling and even overcoming it.
Next, take control of the ‘should.’ Recognize it for what it is and decide how much of it you will give in to. Perhaps you’ll decide to go to the party, but only stay a short while. Or maybe you agree to a second helping of pie, but insist on a very small piece. If they force a huge piece on you, eat two bites and leave the rest. If you choose to participate in gift-giving, recognize that maintaining your own fiscal health is far more important than keeping up appearances for others. Look for creative, low-cost options or give a single gift instead of multiple.
As your confidence grows you’ll find that resisting or even ignoring the ‘shoulds’ altogether gets easier. By limiting the control that those external ‘shoulds’ hold over you, you let yourself and others know that your desires and preferences are valid and worthy of respect.
As you insist on respecting your own desires and preferences, extend the same courtesy to others. It’s surprising how often we, too, participate in the ‘shoulding’ of others, often without even realizing it. Cut the other person some slack. Let them observe (or not observe) the holidays in the way they choose.
As Thoreau wrote, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”