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
Prison reform and the overwhelmed justice system have moved to the front of the line as judges and sheriff’s departments, who have been advocating reform for years, are releasing thousands of detainees who were awaiting trial or close to their release dates and judges hand down more lenient sentences. Learn More
We’ve been talking about the shift to a remote digital workforce for a long time now. While there are challenges, the move saves money and energy on office space, enables a global talent pool and allows workers to find better opportunities without leaving home. As Daymond John, multi-millionaire entrepreneur and member of the Shark Tank panel writes, that future has now been expedited. Learn More
In spite of the restrictions, there’s evidence that families experiencing lockdown together are growing closer. In a survey of British families, 80% of the parents believed that their families have formed even stronger bonds because of the time they’re spending together. Board games, puzzles and – wait for it – CONVERSATION! are replacing screen time and digital isolation. Learn More
The sudden and unprecedented move to remote instruction and home schooling for students around the world is producing unexpected benefits. Competition and comparisons surrounding testing have lessened, the chaos of the overcrowded classroom is gone and many students are finding the freedom to express talents and interests that were previously suppressed. Learn More
Like the Victory Gardens of WW2, people around the world are voluntarily finding a new interest in growing their own food. Seed suppliers are seeing a rush of orders as people plant herbs and vegetables in balcony containers and backyard plots. The #quarantinegarden movement is easing demand on an over-stressed food supply system, providing a source of high quality and ultra-fresh produce and offering built-in stress relief as new and returning gardeners get their fingers in the dirt. Learn More
Our hope for the resolution of this crisis does not lie with some miracle cure or the wisdom of politicians who we had assumed would lead us.
No, our wonder drug is the hope, ingenuity, resourcefulness and compassion with which we humans are already inoculated. We only have to watch as the quiet ones who don’t make the headlines have been stepping up and showing us what’s possible.
In the midst, and as a result of this global crisis, it appears that we’re shifting to a world that includes more compassion, caring and consideration. When the old rules no longer apply and we have to think for ourselves, the true depth of our human potential begins to surface.
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.”
In the same way that you can’t live your entire life without experiencing the occasional bad weather day, it’s impossible to completely avoid all fear. Fear is a natural—and useful—response to threatening situations.
Worry and anxiety, though, are completely optional and your life would be much happier, more peaceful, and more successful without them. What might a worry- and anxiety-free life feel like? A worry-free person:
It’s entirely possible for you to become that worry-free person. It requires, first, that you want to. It will require that you put in effort and break some old habits. But it won’t be as challenging or take nearly as long as you think.
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.” He also believed that, while parents, teachers, friends, and others can nurture and support your self-esteem, if it’s to be really effective, it’s primarily a do-it-yourself job.
From the point of your conception to this very moment, the world around you has been teaching you to worry and doubt yourself. Everybody else worries, so it only makes sense that you should too. There’s even a so-called joke that goes something like, “If you’re not worried, it’s because you haven’t realized how bad things are.”
We see worry all around us every day. Our common language encourages us to worry with phrases such as, “Oh, that’s worrisome!” “Mom’s worried about you.” “I’d be worried if I were you.” It’s assumed we’re supposed to worry and we don’t ever question the wisdom of it. After all, it’s a time- honored practice.
Do you remember the old story of The Emperor’s New Clothes? It’s a classic example of the kind of ‘groupthink’ that has us all believing that anxiety is simply a fact of life. It doesn’t have to be.
We also like to pass along our personal paranoias. According to The Washington Post, America’s most common fears are:
1. Public speaking
3. Bugs and Insects
6. Enclosed in small spaces
9. Zombies (really!)
A parent who has a fear of strangers, for example, is likely to insist that his or her children should avoid them and fill their young minds with all the terrible things that will happen, should they encounter a stranger. As a result, the otherwise normally balanced child grows up believing that strangers (or airplanes, or doctor’s needles, or tall buildings) are to be avoided at all costs. The fears are irrational, but the training is effective.
In addition to instilling fears and phobias, our early training by parents, teachers, coaches and others in authority established a limiting set of beliefs and self-doubts that continue to stymie our growth well into, or even throughout our adult lives. 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.
I think it’s time we all stopped shoulding all over ourselves.
Every infant knows exactly what it wants and doesn’t hesitate to ask for it. You knew the foods you liked and spit out the ones you didn’t. You knew when you wanted to sleep and when you wanted to be held. When you become mobile you saw what you wanted and headed straight for it. And that’s when the admonitions began:
- Don’t touch that!
- Keep your hands to yourself.
- Eat everything on your plate.
- You don’t really feel that way.
- You don’t really want that.
- You should be ashamed of yourself!
As you got older it morphed into…
- Stop crying. Don’t be such a baby.
- You can’t have everything you want simply because you want it.
- Money doesn’t grow on trees.
- Stop being so selfish!
- Stop doing what you are doing and come do what I want you to do!
It doesn’t take much of this before you throw up your hands and conclude that your desires, your wishes, your preferences don’t matter, so why bother? It’s a waste of emotional energy to have dreams of your own.
If you buy into this swindle, the secret to success is to figure out what everybody else wants you to do. To learn to please others and find ways to get their approval, whether it makes you feel good or not.
- You became an engineer because that’s what Dad wanted you to do
- You married that guy because everybody else was getting married
- You became a lawyer because everyone said that you’d never make a living as an artist
You became so sensible that you completely lost touch with who you really are and what you really want. And in the process, you took on one of the biggest and most common worries of all: What do other people think of me?
Take a few minutes and think back to your childhood, your youth and your adulthood. You might find it useful to journal a few of your thoughts about the origins of your own worry habits. How were you taught to worry? What were you told? What did you observe? How did some of your childhood, teenage and young adult experiences launch or reinforce any worry habits? How did any of those experiences initiate any self-doubts you might have?
Yes, we’ve been attending worry lessons our entire lives. But in all that time, no one has ever pointed out the simple truth that worry doesn’t help anything. Nothing has ever changed as a result of worrying about it. We worry because we’ve been conditioned to. A newborn has an instinctive fear of falling and loud noises. Everything else is learned and conditioned
You learned how to worry. Now it’s time to unlearn.
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 things in life that you have to do, many of which turn into sources of anxiety. Many people would say that, among other things, you have to:
There are plenty of people, however, who don’t pay their taxes, don’t take care of their children and don’t phone their mothers. But, you might say, there are institutions that will make you pay your taxes, go to school and take care of your children. And your mother might be pretty good at ‘making’ you phone her. You might say, further, that while it’s true that there are people who don’t do these things, bad things 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 we believe that there is anything at all that we absolutely, positively must do because circumstances or someone else is forcing us to, we again surrender our power. In every single instance, we hold and make the choice. Let’s look at an example:
But let’s say you don’t mind being broke…
Of course, there are also people who would rather go to jail than pay their taxes, reveal their secret information source, renounce their beliefs, etc. Although the choices you have might not be great ones, it’s absolutely critical to understand that you always have choices.
Worry and anxiety are also choices that we make. Let’s take a common example: You’re driving to work and there’s a big traffic jam. You begin to worry that you’re going to be late. That worry turns into a worry that, being late, you’ll miss the important meeting. Which turns into a worry about the boss’s opinion of you. Which turns into a worry about job security. Which turns into…
When you arrive late to work, you tell the boss, “The traffic made me late.” In blaming the traffic, you have chosen to be a victim of circumstances beyond your control. And as you sat in the traffic jam and your blood pressure went up, you chose to blame the traffic for your blood pressure too. Both these choices leave you powerless.
Let’s change things up and see if we are as much of a victim as we sometimes like to claim.
Let’s say the morning’s meeting was to announce you as the next Senior Vice President and the position came with a $50,000 bonus. It was conditional, however, on you being on time for the meeting. Do you think you could have found a way to be there on time? If the bonus was $500,000, would you have left the house at 3 am or even slept in the boardroom overnight to be sure you were there? I bet you could be pretty ingenious at overcoming obstacles if we put the stakes high enough.
Which highlights the truth that you are not a victim of the traffic, you made a choice to risk the (highly predictable) heavy traffic. It was more important for you to get up at your regular time and have your regular breakfast than it was to be at the meeting on time, so you chose sleep time and breakfast over the consequences at work. Having made that choice, it’s pointless to then worry about what the boss might think. If, on the other hand, you chose to make sure you were at the meeting on time, it’s pointless to worry about your lost sleep.
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. Victim mentality, blaming and complaining weaken our ability to make clear, conscious choices.
There’s a cute little movie from 2006 starring Queen Latifah called ‘Last Holiday’ in which she plays a shy, unassuming store clerk. She longs to be a professional chef and records her dreams of a better life in a journal labeled, "Possibilities." But rather than stepping up to her possibilities, she carefully saves her money for that rainy day, never colors outside the lines and lives a drab, unfulfilling life. When she’s diagnosed with a fatal illness and given just a few weeks to live, she liquidates her savings and embarks on her dream vacation.
As she’s contemplating the dream life that never materialized, she reflects, “Next time... we will laugh more, we'll love more; we just won't be so afraid.”
Are you deciding from a place of fear?
How many decisions do we each make every day? A few big ones, dozens of mid-sized ones and hundreds of tiny, little choices. We like to believe that we’re rational, logical humans and that we arrive at our choices and decisions with equal rationale and logic. But the truth is that virtually none of our decisions are made from logic, they’re made from a place of emotion. And far too often, the emotions that drive our decisions are fear, worry, anxiety and self-doubt.
“If I go away with him for the weekend, what will my Mother say?” “What if my boss sees that I posted that on Facebook?” “I don’t have the nerve to tell my partners that I want to start my own company.”
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.
More often than not, though, we’re completely unaware of these dynamics. It wasn’t until I was well into my 50s that I began to realize how many of my decisions had been made to avoid things I was afraid of or because of self-limiting beliefs I’d picked up along the way. I spent most of my adult years with unstable finances because I grew up believing that it was only other people who could be rich. I undervalued my services because I was afraid my customers would leave if I charged more. It took 60 years for me to finally take up painting because I doubted I would be very good at it.
What decisions have you made from fear or self-limiting beliefs? What decisions are you facing now?
Is it courage or fear?
Here’s how you can tell the real motive behind your choice. When you’re in the process of making a decision, even a little one, get quiet for a moment and try this statement: “I’m deciding in this way because…” If you finish the sentence with a list of the negative outcomes you’ll avoid, you’re deciding from a place of fear. But if you can finish the statement with a list of the benefits you and others are going to enjoy, then you’re deciding from a place of courage and possibility.
You’ve heard the old challenge, “What would you try if you knew you couldn’t fail?” That delicious little thought experiment always opens the flood gates to our dreams. A smile comes over our face, we sit up straighter and start to recite our favorite bucket list items.
How many of your decisions are made from a position of courage and confidence? How many from a place of fear?
Fear is a response to a real and present danger and it always demands a decision about your next action: Fight or Flight? 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. NOW!
Worry and anxiety, though, arise as we respond to perceived threats that are much more vague, hard to define or somewhere off in the future. Instead of taking some kind of definitive and results-oriented action, we muddle about what’s going to happen to us and what, if anything, we should do. And the muddling goes on, and on, and on.
Paralyzed by worry
For example, I live on the southeast coast of the US. Every year, as summer winds down, hurricane season winds up along with the palpable anxiety that you can almost feel in the air. The problem with hurricanes is that you can see them coming for weeks ahead. It’s a slow-motion threat that gives you way too much time to think about all the horrible things that might happen. Everyone is glued to their screens watching the path and strength predictions from the various weather monitoring agencies. Are we watching the Navy Model? The American Model? The European Model? How about a conglomeration of them all? I’ve never inquired, but I’d be willing to bet that benzos prescriptions in the southeast spike every year from June to November.
Yet hurricanes, powerful as they can be, are pretty easy to prepare for: Have an emergency kit stocked with water, canned food, batteries and the other essentials that are listed on countless websites. Know the evacuation route you’ll take, should the order be given. Move your lawn furniture into the garage. Let your loved ones know where you’re heading.
Now you can relax
That’s it. Once you’ve taken those actions, you can relax, have a snooze, read a book, go for a walk… Anything but 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, increases your heart rate, makes you sweat, tremble, feel weak and tired, gives you headaches, heart palpitations, muscle aches and can result in a loss of libido.
There’s a delightful little piece called “The Serenity Prayer.” Written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1930s, it truly encompasses the perfect approach to anxiety with action:
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.
In the case of a hurricane, I can’t do anything to stop it coming but I can update the status of my emergency kit and move the furniture off my deck. Then I can stop worrying and get on with my life.
Two intelligent choices
One of the characteristics of worry is that we evaluate options, alternatives and choices over and over, endlessly weighing this against that. Then we go back and do it all again. The paralysis of anxiety bogs us down in the ceaseless cycle of analyze, plan, compare, doubt, repeat. In the face of any perceived threat, though, you have two intelligent choices: Do something or do nothing.
Doing something – anything – provides you with the benefit of results. If you get the result you want, the problem is solved. If you get a different result, you’ll at least have feedback and you can fine tune your action as you try something else. Doing nothing, on the other hand, provides you with the benefit of leisure, rest and relaxation.
Worry accomplishes nothing
The endless analysis and mentation of the worrier, though, lies somewhere in between. It consumes tremendous energy but produces no results. And it allows no leisure, rest or relaxation. In other words, it’s the worst possible option.
Johann Wolfgang van Goethe once wrote, “Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it.” There’s also an old axiom of success that says, “The universe rewards action.”
Action produces results
When you begin to take action, all manner of things begin to happen that work in your favor. The people around you recognize that you’re serious and those who want the same things align and want to team with you. You produce results, which show and teach you things that you couldn’t possibly learn from others, reading books, watching YouTube or endlessly analyzing the situation. You start to get feedback about how your actions can be made better, more efficient and faster. When you begin to take action you unleash and harness forces that you didn’t even know existed.
Everyone who has ever lived has faced challenges that had the potential to be worrying. Why do some people seem to be more adept at getting past these challenges than others? In Stephen Covey’s classic book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the very first habit is, “Be Proactive.” In other words, don’t sit and wait in reactive mode. Do something.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the face of the Great Depression, said, “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”
“I wished to live deliberately… and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Henry David Thoreau
Everybody has a list of things they’d love to do, “If only I weren’t afraid of…” 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 become. One college professor asked his students to list the things they’d do, if only they weren’t afraid. Here’s the list they compiled. See anything that resonates with you?
If I weren't afraid, I would:
Now, what’s on that list of yours?
Whenever you head out on a journey it’s smart to take along a few supplies. Whether it’s some water on an afternoon hike or a map and some snacks on a road trip, a few basic provisions are indispensable along the way.
Many of us would like to be less fearful, less anxious, less worried and self-doubting but let’s face it, we’re not there yet. We’ll have to take a journey to get from our current place of anxiety to that land of fearlessness. What are the supplies we’ll need to get us all the way there?
Build your self-esteem
Fearlessness is built on confidence, which is built on self-esteem. And self-esteem is built when one small accomplishment is stacked on another and then another. Every time we achieve a goal, win a victory or pull off an achievement, our self-esteem grows. We feel better about ourselves and we’re more willing to take on the next challenge.
Things get sticky, though, when obstacles come along and our anxieties and self-doubts fill the windshield again. When that happens, the self-esteem disappears and it seems like we’re back to square one. That’s why it’s important to bring a knapsack full of victories, accomplishments and achievements along for this journey.
Document your successes
Start by making a list – it MUST be written – of five things you did before you were 18 that you were really proud of. Doesn’t matter how big or small they seem now, they were big to you at the time. Perhaps you caught a fly ball in little league. Or maybe you stood up in front of your sixth-grade class and read a poem you’d written. I remember, at about age 12 or 13, building a go-cart from bits and pieces of scrap metal and an old lawnmower motor that my Dad had in the garage. My today-self can see it as a rusty pile of junk, held together by bits of wire, but I’ll never forget the incredible feeling when it actually ran and I was bumping noisily around the front yard.
As you add each success to the list, close your eyes and remember how you felt at the time of that victory. Put yourself back into that feeling place for a few moments and let yourself glow all over again.
Next, make a list of five things you accomplished in college or at your very first job. Again, they don’t have to be huge in your eyes today. What matters is that they were victories to you at the time. The challenges you overcame in those moments seemed daunting, even overwhelming in their moment, but somehow you found the courage, the resources, the determination to do it anyway. Take a moment to pat yourself on the back again today for that win you scored back then.
Expanding your comfort zone
While you can repeat this exercise for as many time periods in your life as you’d like, make sure you finish up with a list of five successes you had last week. It might take some thinking because we’ve gotten into the habit of focusing on the things that haven’t or might not work out. But they’re there. Maybe it was a great meal that you cooked, a really insightful report you wrote or the way you brought a smile to someone else. Each one is a victory, an accomplishment, a win. And each time we bring these wins back into our minds, our self-esteem grows. The more our self-esteem grows, the more confident we become, the more willing to try something new and different and challenging. And every time we try and succeed at something that’s new and challenging, the closer we get to fearlessness.
When you’re facing a challenge that seems daunting, it’s too easy to forget the things you’ve already accomplished, the challenges you’ve already overcome and the bad-ass warrior that you actually are. So when you head out on the road towards fearlessness, be sure to bring along a big supply of previous victories.
Can you believe that we’re almost at the halfway point of 2019!?
In any sports event, the coach and the team always use halftime to reassess their game plan. They review their performance, assess the situation and set new intentions as they head into the second half.
And what about you? What’s your score at halftime? Have you grown? Are you thriving? Are you on your way to accomplishments, milestones and places you’ve never been before? Accomplishments, milestones and places you’ve dreamed about?
Exactly what are your intentions for the second half of 2019?
Intentions versus plans
Notice I didn’t say ‘plans.’ I said, ‘intentions.’ There’s a difference.
A plan is a set of goals that you felt obliged to create. It’s a wish list that, if the gods are smiling and the planets align, you might accomplish a portion of.
But intention is different. It’s a force of nature that embodies a focused, singular vision that generates its own energy. It’s an irresistible movement forward toward a future that fills your field of view and creates butterflies in your gut. It’s a full-color, surround-sound, 3D-extravaganza that you can feel and taste and touch. It’s an idea so clear, so intense, it marshals its own optimism, momentum and luck.
It begins as you accept the reality of today for what it is. But it doesn’t accept today as a blueprint for tomorrow. Instead, it sets today as the springboard for tomorrow and beyond. You’ve heard it before: anything the mind can conceive, it can achieve. What are you conceiving for yourself in the second half of this year?
The universe rewards action
But intention alone isn’t enough. Intention begets impatient, inspired action. Every hour. Every day. Every week. Every month is dominated by an insatiably itching to-do list that pushes you forward. You take care of the day-to-day, but you never take your eye off the bigger, farther-away target. I don’t care if you’re a CEO, a student, a stay-at-home parent or a retiree. If you haven’t set your unstoppable intention yet, what are you waiting for?
Look forward, beyond the windshield: What are you going to do this moment, this day, this week, this month to move forward toward your vision of the future?
Look back in the rear-view mirror: What progress have you made? What ground have you covered today? If you’re still surrounded by the same scenery, it’s time to get serious about your future.
Are you the dinghy floating in the ocean, tossed this way and that by fickle circumstances, convenient excuses and vague aspirations? Or are you the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, with a laser-lock on your destination and a relentless urgency to plow through any headwind and rogue wave that tries to knock you off course?
What’s your second half going to be like?
Gifts aren’t just those prettily-wrapped packages on birthdays and Christmas. They also include those tiny, every-day kindnesses that other people do for us. Whether it’s holding a door, offering a compliment or giving up a seat on the bus, the little things that we do for one another every day are small gifts that we exchange along the way.
But why do we struggle to accept the gifts we’re offered?
A couple of weeks ago I was going through the security line at an airport. The TSA guy checking our identification was wearing a nice watch. I like watches, so I complimented him on it. He shrugged and said, “It’s all I can afford.”
Since his watch was quite distinctive, I can assume that, when he was shopping for it, he wanted to get something that at least he, if not others, would admire, even if he couldn’t afford the latest Patek Philippe. And he was successful – someone else admired it. But then he brushed it off, dismissing my compliment – my small gift to him – as unwelcome.
Why is it so hard for us to accept a gift?
Why do we struggle to graciously accept a compliment or a kindness? Why do we blush and feel a little embarrassed? The armchair psychologist in me suspects that it makes us somehow feel beholden to or less-than the person offering the gift and our ego reacts. Or maybe our self-esteem is running so low that we don’t believe we deserve the compliment or the kindness.
Or perhaps we bought into all that nonsense about how it’s better to give than to receive. Think about it – for every ‘give,’ there has to be a ‘receive,’ or there couldn’t be any ‘give!’
While, giving is wonderful, it can also be seductive. Being the giver lets us be in the superior position. It lets us be the one in charge, in control. It lets us be seen as the one who has the resources to be able to give. “Look at me! I’m so wealthy and generous, I can give you this gift!” But when the tables are turned, it’s not always so easy to humbly and genuinely express gratitude and allow the other person to enjoy their generosity.
I see two opportunities for practicing fearlessness when someone offers you a gift. The first is in having the confidence to believe that you’re worthy of gifts from others. Yes, you deserve this gift! You are a person worthy of gifts, compliments, kindness and consideration! So accept it and bask in the justifiable recognition that it is.
The second is in having the humility to be grateful for what the other person has done for you. It takes a really big person to humbly and sincerely express gratitude.
Giving and receiving are like two poles of a magnet. You can’t have one without the other. So the next time someone offers you a compliment, a kindness, a courtesy… simply say, “Why, thank you very much!” and accept it for the gift that it is. Take a moment to recognize their generosity and your worthiness.
“Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it.”
Johann Wolfgang van Goethe
When I think back over my life so far, the things I’ve accomplished, the truly remarkable things of which I’m most proud, have, without fail, been those things I was most scared to do. Every one of them seemed, at the time, to be a wild and crazy idea with catastrophic consequences of failure. Every fiber of my being was telling me to run and hide under the covers, to play it safe.
But each time, something in me, perhaps that obstreperous adolescent with the twinkle in his eye and the slingshot in his back pocket who still lurks in my soul, dared me over the cliff edge. And more often than not, it worked.
Sure, I’ve had my share of times that I fell flat on my face in an ignominious heap. But each time I’ve managed to get up, dust myself off and carry on, all the wiser for my sorry splat. And the wisdom that I gained didn’t keep me from trying again. Instead, it helped me refine my leap, fine tune the risk and increase the chances of success.
Living without regret
I’ve heard countless stories of men and women who, as they near the end of their lives, say that they don’t regret any of the things they did. Much more it’s the things they failed to try that leave them wishing for another turn at bat.
Some time ago I was asked to speak to the senior managers of a company at their annual retreat. The speaker I followed was their liability insurance provider and by the time I walked into the room, there were 30 adults whimpering for their Mammas, having just heard – again – how many ways there are each day to mess up, go broke, end up in jail and otherwise ruin your life. Took me a while to breathe some life and a measure of optimism back into them!
Are you afraid of risk?
By the time we reach a certain point in life, most of us have become trained, professional, risk avoiders. We’ve been shown a thousand ways that things can fail and taught to steer a wide path around the potholes.
Those who make things happen, on the other hand, for themselves and the world, have become trained, professional, risk takers. They know that the best opportunities come wrapped in risk and they get up every morning looking for those opportunities, measuring those risks and excited about the possibilities they see hiding there.
There are two ways to play a game. You can play to win, or you can play to not lose.
Playing it safe, avoiding the risks, working to offend no one, is playing to not lose. In doing so we blend into that vast, featureless collection of could-a-been’s. Bland, easily forgotten and perhaps regretful for those things we didn’t try.
Boldness, daring and risk taking
Playing to win, on the other hand, requires boldness, daring and risk taking. The best coaches know that the best defense is a good offense and, unless there are only seconds left in the fourth quarter and they’re up by 100 points, they don’t back off.
Playing to not lose gets you second place. Playing to win gets you either first place, or dead last. Both are memorable. Both are valuable. First place wins all the marbles. Dead last pays the same as second place but comes complete with free lessons.
Don’t fear failure. Fear timidity.