Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Holiday Advice

I’m not big on advice, but what the heck, it’s my blog. So here it is. It might be fun to practice savoring during the holidays. When savoring, one experiences the specifics and detail of the present moment. Noticing all the different aspects of an experience might include sounds, smells, textures, tastes and emotions.

For instance: I’m lying on the beach. I feel the sand warm under my back. I smell the ocean and sunscreen and feel a light breeze play across my face. My hair moves slightly against my cheek and I feel my eyelashes meeting above closed eyes. Along with the surf, I can hear the occasional shriek of a gull and children off somewhere playing and calling to one another. I'm relaxed. I feel still, at east and connected.

I could go on with my observations (and wishful thinking). Notice what I didn’t include. I’m not worrying about what’s going to be waiting for me when I get back to work. I’m not wishing I was on a beach in Cannes instead of Florida. I’m not thinking I should get productive and take a walk or read. I’m not looking at my watch, checking my email or texting.

You can savor anything. We are all familiar with the idea of savoring a fine wine, cigar or other gustatory experience. Have you ever savored a success? Getting the promotion, finishing the dissertation and completing your first 5K are all opportunities for savoring. So is listening to a symphony or smelling a rose.

So my holiday advice: Find a few things (or many) to really savor and enjoy. Maybe it’s a special food someone makes at this time of year, or the giggle and smile of a particular niece, or the walk you have the time to take in the crisp winter air. Make the most of these experiences and be really present for them. If you’re used to being on the run and multitasking, it may take some practice, but I think you’ll find it well worth the effort. And it’s good for post- and pre-holiday times as well.

For more tips, see an article about the Harvard Medical School Portable Guide to Stress Relief.

A song that captures savoring and the holiday mood: Let it Snow

Monday, December 15, 2008

In Sickness and in Health - II

Does it come as a surprise that breast cancer patients with better marriages have an easier time with recovery than women in troubled marriages?

There were behavioral differences found among the women in this study. Those in better marriages had better eating habits and engaged in more physical activity. They showed less cancer-related stress, fewer symptoms and quicker recovery.

I’m not on an anti-marriage kick, I just happened to come across this study and the one I discussed in my last blog back-to-back.

Perhaps it behooves us to consider just what it is we are getting in our marriages, what we’re missing and what we might think of as important ingredients.

My tip for a better marriage (borrowing liberally from The Good Marriage by Wallerstein and Blakeslee), in addition to genuine love and affection for your partner, is to make sure you have the following:

Honesty, honesty, honesty
Shared values
Togetherness and autonomy
Mutual admiration
Work, work, work

If you don’t, you can try to get it. And of course there’s always coaching and therapy. But address problems as they come up. Like most things, a good marriage is a lot of hard work.

It’s a little corny, but check out True Love (Bing and Grace) on YouTube.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

In Sickness and in Health

Marriage has long been considered a psychologically beneficial state, with marrieds often healthier and happier. But hold on. It’s really been considered beneficial primarily for men, with women more likely to be depressed in marriage than men. This relates in part to the well accepted fact that married working women typically handle more of the housework and childrearing responsibilities, effectively giving them two jobs.

Recent work has started to question some of these findings. One group of researchers has suggested that the benefits of marriage can be shared by cohabitors (i.e., they both have built in companions and someone to share the work). But these researchers have found that the cohabitors are happier and have higher self-esteem than the marrieds. With marriage comes a loss of autonomy and difficulty pursuing personal growth goals leading to decreases in happiness and self-esteem. Cohabitors may be able to maintain more autonomy and self-direction. And the single men may even be as happy as married men.

Even cohabitors tend to decrease contact with family and friends, like marrieds. And cohabitors separate more. But now we find that a bad marriage is worse for blood pressure than singledom. We also find that divorce and loss of a spouse through death may lead to more stress than singles experience with relationship dissolution.

The biggest takeaway messages for me are about maintaining autonomy and personal goals in relationships, be they marriages or other. Retain your sense of self in a relationship. Don’t sacrifice important personal goals. Keep your friends and families close. Do the things that make you feel happy. Don’t give up who you are in order to satisfy someone else. Healthy relationships don’t demand this level of sacrifice. I think in sickness and in health just means you’ll stand by your partner.

Mood music: Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It), Beyonce; So What, Pink

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Running on Empty

I was flipping through the November Runner’s World, noticing how brilliant the advice was, not only for running, but for life.

Eat healthy (before and after your runs); you’ll go farther and recover quicker. Who shouldn’t follow this advice, even without the running?

We’re all in a hurry but you can eat healthy on the cheap. Too true. While the big mac is quick, how much money and time does it take to saut√© a piece of chicken and a few veggies?

Use strategies to achieve your goal: visualize success; use mantras to keep you going. Think about any of the challenges you face in life. Whether it’s giving a talk in public, asking someone out on a date or getting a huge project finished, visualizing the desired outcome, or the most desirable outcome (the audience applauding wildly, the datee swooning at the ask, the boss offering an immediate promotion) is useful. Using a mantra to keep you going (I'm taking deep, cleansing breaths; I can do [fill in the blank]) is also a good trick.

Set a few goals, not just the big one, so it’s okay if you don’t beat your personal best this time. You’re applying for jobs, so you set your sights high, but also apply for a few safe options; they’d be fine if they have to be. You may ask several people out, even though there’s one you think is to die for. It’s great to do better than your best on a project, but sometimes you run out of time and have to save some of that greatness for the next one.

Make it fun. Taking a buddy is the typical runner’s answer to making the trek fun. Or taking your iPod. Hmmmm. I’ve never considered listening to Dane Cook on my iPod while running. It could work. For other enterprises, humor tends to make giving talks more fun, taking breaks for fun helps get big projects completed more easily, picturing the Pinocchio nose growing, as your potential date gives the lamest excuse for why h/she can’t go out with you, eases the pain. In short, try not to take yourself so seriously.

If you’ve gotten off track (so to speak), get back into it slowly and deliberately. Doesn’t this apply to anything? Dating? Writing your next novel? Painting your house? Piano lessons?

Friends help motivate us to get out there. Of course! Enough said.

After the big race, there’s a bit of an anticlimax. What can you do to make it better? Planning a post-event party, even a tiny one with a single close friend, is a good way to cushion yourself from the letdown that can happen. Or, to really cushion it; get a massage.

And my personal favorite, why should I run? This is the question that plagues beginners reaching their first plateau, and long-time runners in a slump. You know why you run or do anything else. You’ve already listed the reasons in your head for giving the talk, asking for the date, taking on the impossible project. So go for it.

So there's no need to run on empty. Good strategies are good strategies, whether we apply them to something physical, metaphysical or psychological.

Everyone I know, everywhere I go, people need some reason to believe. Jackson Browne

Thursday, November 27, 2008

It's That Time Again

I've written about gratitude before, here, and in my newsletter. I hate to belabor it, but it is Thanksgiving in this part of the world. So here's something you may find useful. Emmons wrote about it in his book Thanks!, having borrowed it from the Buddhist meditation technique Niakan. Reflect on these three questions:

  • What have I received from ...?

  • What have I given to ...?

  • What troubles and difficulty have I caused ...?

By means of these questions we focus on the gifts we receive, those we give and those we, perhaps, have chosen not to give. This last, of course, is about being ungrateful. The idea is to focus on these questions daily for some period of time, or at greater length while considering a particular relationship. Of course, you can use them in any way that seems helpful in your life.

And thanks, again, for reading my blog.

Imagine all the people, sharing all the world...John Lennon, Imagine

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Uncommon Law

A common law marriage is one in which the partners are not legally married via the “right” kind of ceremony, but which is recognized in many jurisdictions as a legal marriage. Individuals in common law marriages may have the same legal rights as those married in the more common way.

Psychology Today reported a study in which expert chess players were more likely to use a longer but common strategy, overlooking a shorter strategy that was less common but better in certain situations. In other words, the experts tended to get in ruts.

So where am I going with this? We have many common ways of doing things in life. Sometimes the common ways get us in ruts. But sometimes we do the uncommon things, and they turn out quite fine. In doing the uncommon, we avoid falling into a rut.

People are always asking me what the “right” move is, meaning, the more common move. It’s not good to get into a relationship on the rebound, right? I shouldn’t get involved with this guy because he’s still talking to his soon-to-be ex-wife, right? I shouldn’t take my dream job because I’ve just changed jobs and it doesn’t look good to change too often, right? I’m too old to change careers, right? People don’t start running at 50, right? Divorce will hurt my kids, right? Remarriage will hurt my kids, right? Staying single will hurt my kids, right? Oops, wait a minute. Is nothing right?

In psychology, there are classic experiments that demonstrate diametrically opposed truths. Like birds of a feather flock together vs opposites attract. Out of sight, out of mind vs distance makes the heart grow fonder. We can find evidence to support any of these views. Is nothing right?

So, should you get into a relationship on the rebound, i.e., soon after you end a relationship? Common wisdom tells us not to. I think it depends. It depends on the relationship you just ended, the one you just started, and most of all, on you. What do you want? What do you need? What works for you? What doesn’t work for you?

I like reading about people who start med school in their 50s, law school in their 60s or writing in their 80s. Look at Grandma Moses. She was in her 70s when she started painting. All very uncommon.

Think about it. What have you put on the back burner? What’s something you’ve really always wanted to do. What have you thought might be fun to do, or good to do, but you didn’t do, thinking that some will think that you should not do it.

I’m here to tell you, there’s no right or wrong for many choices we make. We just have to do the best we can. Consider whether you might have to do the uncommon thing at times, to find the right path for you. And if it doesn’t work, there’s always the road not taken.

Have a listen to Fanfare for the Common Man (Aaron Copeland). Nothing common about it.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Before you pick up your Louisville Slugger

I’ve talked about anger a lot this week. It’s funny I’ve never blogged about it, since I used to do anger management groups, I’ve written about it and it’s certainly something that lots of us have difficulty with.

These are Judy’s tips for managing anger, before you have to resort to your Louisville Slugger.

Like most things, first you have to identify the problem. For example, you notice you feel like screaming, punching someone out or kicking something. It’s probably anger, right? Even noticing that you’ve been sarcastic or snippy is a pretty good indicator. Sometimes wanting to withdraw is a signal.

Then you look at the ABCs. For most emotions, an ABC analysis is helpful. A is for antecedent, B for behavior and C for consequence.

I really wanted to say something I know I’d later regret. This registered as anger when I thought about it.

What was the antecedent or trigger? What got you upset?

My friend said something I thought was unnecessarily mean.

What was the behavior, the thing you did in response to the antecedent?

I was short and left abruptly. [Let’s note here that another typical behavior is to internalize the anger, not saying anything.]

What was the consequence?

The immediate consequence was my friend was left with her mouth sort of hanging open. A subsequent consequence may be that she’s angry with me for my rudeness. Perhaps I’ll lose a friend. [Again, let’s note that in not saying anything or doing anything, you may avoid this consequence but there are other consequences. In not responding to something that hurts or angers you, you wind up feeling angry or resentful perhaps.]

As part of noting the consequences, it’s also useful to evaluate them. Is it a good outcome? How else could you have handled the situation? What would be preferable next time?

Other helpful tips:
  • Not all anger is worth acting on. Ask yourself if it will matter in two weeks, two months, etc. Or will you just forget about it and write it off as no biggie. If so, then it may be okay to do nothing.
  • To rely on an old adage, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. If you’re going to say something, say it calmly and politely. You’ll probably feel less angry, and the other person may actually be able to hear you.
  • When you practice change - for some it’s controlling their anger, for others, expressing it - it gets easier the more you do it.
  • When you’re having a bad day, self-control is not as good. Your anger management will not be as good. You might just as well wait until tomorrow to confront someone you’re angry with. It’ll probably go better

So before you pick up your Louisville Slugger, listen to Carrie Underwood, Before He Cheats, or the Bartender Song, Rehab.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Do girls just wanna have fun?

For the past few weeks I’ve been searching the internet here and there, looking for articles about fun. What I’ve found have been articles and sites for games and gaming, “how to” pieces incorporating fun (e.g, how to have fun learning), some personals (looking for fun woman), and sites making fun of various things, including psychology. Nothing on fun itself. I finally found “fun with serotonin,” on the psychology today site, although I didn’t really get the fun part of it.

So where do you go when you can’t find something? Wikipedia, of course. When you search for fun, you’re redirected to recreation. First off you see that the article can’t be edited without special approval due to “vandalism.” A small irony here, perhaps. You note at the end that you’re referred, among other things, to a site explaining recreational drugs. But the gist of it is:
Recreation or fun is the expenditure of time in a manner designed for therapeutic refreshment of one's body or mind. There’s a small section entitled “legal restrictions.” Some recreational activities are made illegal in many jurisdictions because of the perceived immorality of certain forms of "fun." Need I say more?

Then there’s Merriam-Webster on fun: what provides amusement or enjoyment; and on play: recreational activity; especially: the spontaneous activity of children.

So if we keep this in mind and focus on ourselves (after all, what’s more important?), what’s fun to us? In other words, what do you do to have fun? I’ll bet you can think of a few things. Now ask yourself, how much time do I spend, in a given day, having fun? Be selective. Even if you love your work, you can’t really count it as fun, can you? Do you need to spend more time having fun?

Why do I care about fun? I find that a lot of people don’t seem to value it much, but it appears that having more is related to being happy. It’s just something to think about. Have fun with it.

And have a listen to Girls Just Want To Have Fun (I like Cyndi Lauper’s version, although apparently Miley Cyrus’ Girls Just Wanna… is quite popular according to iTunes).

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Original Thought

In a recent NPR fundraiser, I heard that Joshua Bell has a new recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I can’t even imagine how many recording of the Four Seasons are in existence. But my next thought: If Bell can record the Four Seasons again, and people will listen to it, as they surely will, what does this say about originality in art? My clients (and I) often wonder if the thing we’re trying to create is really new, creative, original, worth doing and so forth.

Part of the problem is our gremlin, or inner critic, who tells us we’re not good enough, no matter what we do. The inner critic, of course, applies not only to artistic endeavors. It is often quite active when we consider personal decisions, make life choices and even when we decide who we’re voting for. In short, the inner critic or gremlin, is that nagging voice of reason, or perhaps unreason.

Why write about originality, the gremlin asks? Surely others have been there, done that and got the t-shirt. Heck, they’ve designed the t-shirt. And they’ve probably done it better and created a cooler t-shirt. So says my gremlin.

But I say, you can do it. We can have personal takes and creative ideas about subjects that have been done and redone. It doesn’t matter that John Updike’s new novel will have an aging theme, and that it’s been done before quite well by others. I’ll still try to read it because I like Updike and I know he’ll have something interesting to say and he’ll say it in a remarkable and completely engaging way.

We can even have original thoughts about our own original thoughts. Updike himself has written about aging before. Occasionally I read something I’ve written a year or more ago, okay, even 8 weeks ago, and see it differently. I start to have new ideas that are linked to the original, yet different. I do a new group on life balance and start with a somewhat different organizing theme and it turns out to be a totally different experience. And, stay tuned, I plan to write about life balance again from that perspective.

Granted, we’re not all Joshua Bell or John Updike. That’s not the point. We’re who we are, original by definition, and the joy and fun of it is in just doing it. Whatever “it” is.

I saw Coldplay sing Viva la Vida on SNL. They’re doing a tour by the same name. I can’t even imagine how many times they’ve done the song. It sounded new and different, and man did it look like they were having fun.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Today is not that day

I don’t generally get blog ideas from quotes, but here’s the exception:

There will be a day when you can no longer do this. Today is not that day. This was attributed to Laura Kloepper, who tells me she borrowed it from someone who borrowed it from someone…I love it.

What do you imagine “when you can no longer do this” refers to? Eating, sex, playing soccer, talking, writing, thinking? It could be anything. Kloepper uses the quote to inspire herself to run.

She was answering a question from Runners World: Why do you run? Enumerating the reasons we do things, or want to do things, is often motivating. Having the reasons or goals visible, also helps. Kloepper tapes her “mantra” to the wall.

Consider what you’re trying to accomplish in your life right now. Why are you doing it?

Dieters who are trying to bring their blood sugar or cholesterol down, look better in clothes, feel healthier and improve their race time, could have these goals in mind. Keeping an index card with the goals handy, gives you a little extra push. Posting the goals on the fridge or having reminders pop up on your computer are all ways to hold your focus on the goals.

Exercisers (or would be exercisers) who want to feel healthier, decrease stress, control weight and socialize at the gym, can use these goals to push themselves out the door.

Meditators who want to feel relaxed, be at peace, gain clarity and will world peace (why not?) sometimes need reminders to keep them focused on their practice. The beaded bracelet that reminds you to be mindful is one way.

So, today is not that day. What’s your mantra? And how will you remember it?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Can you walk and chew gum at the same time?

In case you missed it, multitasking is not all it’s cracked up to be. We think we can get more done and be more efficient when we do two or more things at once, but, as in so many things, more is not necessarily better. More shoes, more friends, more books and more money do not necessarily make us better, happier or more fulfilled. Okay, maybe money. But really, it’s quality, not quantity that matters, right? Okay, except for money.

I recall the time I was driving back from the airport, a trip I’ve made countless times, talking on my hands-free cell phone. I added about 30 minutes to the trip circling around Atlanta after missing my interstate exchange. Had I waited to make the call once I arrived, 30 minutes earlier, I would have had plenty of time to really focus on the call, and my exit.

This is something that comes up in improving life balance. The idea is to mindfully focus on what you’re doing so you get the most out of the experience and put the most into it.

I’m watching Grey’s (trying to relax), doing my nails (trying to engage in self-care), folding laundry and baking cookies (yup, having a homemaking moment). McDreamy won’t care, but my nails will probably leave a little to be desired, the cookies may not be perfect (no surprise there) , it will undoubtedly take me at least three times as long to get the laundry folded and I seriously doubt that much relaxation is occurring. So much for life balance, mindful focus and getting the most out of my experience. But if it all gets done in the hour, and the cookies aren’t burnt, it’s all good, right?

This is something that comes up in improving attention. The idea is to really try to get yourself focused on what you’re doing in order to be able to do a good job.

I’ll admit it, I do a lot of multitasking while on the phone, even when I’m not driving. But if I’m really honest about it, I know that both my conversation and the task I’m trying to combine it with, suffer as a result. I’m simply not paying enough attention to each task. I know that while kids are texting in class, they’re not hearing the teacher. I suppose that’s their plan.

Consider having a tiff with a friend on the phone, trying to pay bills on line and cooking dinner, all at the same time. You friend might rightly feel like they’re not being heard, AT&T might get the mortgage payment (surely your cell bill isn’t that high) and who knows how dinner will turn out. I know these things all seem easy, but consider that your attention isn’t really on all three things simultaneously, it shifts from one to another rapidly, missing little pieces of each.

So whether you’re trying to achieve balance or trying to concentrate, it’s worth considering limiting yourself to one thing at a time. And sure, I can walk and chew gum at the same time, but not while talking on my cell, holding an umbrella and walking the dog.

For an oldie but goodie, listen to The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy) Simon & Garfunkel for inspiration to slow down..

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Kamikaze Moves

My September newsletter is about mindset. Examples that reveal mindset abound. I recently read that Lance Armstrong came in second in a 100-mile bike race in Colorado. Instead of quitting, being a failure or dropping out, the loss apparently inspired him to return to attempt an eighth Tour de France win.

What a great example of a “growth mindset.” Carol Dweck, in Mindset. The New Psychology of Success, talks about “growth” and “fixed mindsets.” Those with the fixed mindset believe their abilities are fixed and unchanging. Their goal is to repeatedly attempt to prove themselves. Those with a growth mindset believe their abilities have the potential to grow and change. Their goal is to put energy into improving themselves.
Which are you?
Fixed…what have I done to deserve this...just call me loser…it’s not fair…


growth…what can I do to get past this…I better try harder on that next one…it is what it is, now what..

In my newsletter, I made the point that if you have a fixed mindset, you can change it. As I edited I thought, oh my, that’s a bit harsh isn’t it? It’s like telling someone that the way they think is wrong, a psychotherapy kamikaze move. What’s more likely to generate resistance and hurt feelings than telling someone they’re wrong?

Just as I was about to make a change I thought, you know what, coaching is about telling people the hard truth. Indeed, psychotherapy is about the hard truth as well, it’s just a kinder, gentler truth. And the fact is, fixed mindsets only work well until you encounter failure, which is, alas, inevitable. So the hard truth is that, unless you’re a kamikaze pilot, you’re going to be a lot more successful if you can cultivate a growth mindset.

Try to set it aside for a moment if I’ve offended you. Which mindset do you want to have?
Consider the efforts those you admire have put forth to get where they are.

Consider that you could have tried harder, worked harder and pushed harder to get something that you wanted.

Consider situations in which you throw in the towel before it’s really time.

So you’re having trouble losing weight. Are you just a victim of bad genes, or do you need to get focused and come up with a better plan?

Your job is so boring you can hardly do it every day. Is it the only job in the universe, or are you just a little scared of upsetting the status quo? How about at least looking around a little?

Think you’ll never meet mr/ms right? Are you really looking, or are you a little nervous about the possibility of rejection? It wouldn’t be the first time, right?
So consider that even though you have some fears and misgivings, it might be time to start facing the hard truth. Flying can be such fun.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Raindrops Keep Falling

I try to stay away from religion and politics in this blog. It’s difficult with everything going on today, but probably sensible. Current events not falling into one of those categories are okay and I just had to say something about Paul Newman’s death, even though everyone else in the universe has, as well. Talk about a dark day.

There are many of us who grew up in the greater New York metro area spending hour upon hour, many a rainy afternoon, with Million Dollar Movie. To us, the movie stars of the 50s and 60s were as familiar as the boy next door. And I surely loved them as much. Well in truth, probably more. Paul Newman, though, with his longevity, is almost in a class by himself. I have to put him right up there with Cary Grant. Intelligent, sexy and often mysterious, along with many others, they created images of what men were supposed to be. Woe to the men in my life. There’s a lot to measure up to there.

One of the things I love about Paul Newman is the irreverence in many of his characters. But it always came along with a heavy dose of goodness and caring about others. I can’t recall if he’s ever played a real bad guy. Okay, the NY Times tells me he did in Road to Perdition. Maybe a few more. Certainly some bad boys, but they were usually good at the core. And in life he was a humanitarian, giving back in so many ways.

I can actually remember more than a dozen movies without googling. I’ve always had heartfelt thanks for those brave souls that put themselves out there in order to entertain us. Yeah, I know a lot of them get paid an awful lot, but not all, and definitely not for as long as Newman. It’s hard to have staying power in that business. So many must be in the same situation as the rest of the country, seeing their retirement savings dwindling. But I’m digressing.

So this is a small homage to the hombre. Without resorting to google, I can say my favorite Paul Newman flick is Butch Cassidy. With gratitude I’m planning to spend some serious time reviewing the films, just to remember and honor all he gave, in my small way.

May the raindrops keep falling on your head.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Moms on the Run

Who says moms have to sit around and take care of everyone all the time?

Paula Spencer agrees. She ran away from home, i.e., took a week without the kids and hubby, on Mackinac Island. No schedules, no routines, no cars…how cool is that? See her article in the September Woman’s Day or check out her website at for more ideas. Have you ever taken a vacation from the kids and partner? It rocks.

In The Balanced Mom. Raising your kids without losing your self, Bria Simpson has a lot of useful tidbits for maintaining some equilibrium in your life. She suggests periodically taking “an extended break from it all” with a few or many days away in order to “unplug yourself from the outside world, and reconnect with yourself.” Another runaway.

What makes us (and us can include dads, husbands, partners, anyone) feel we have to stick to some routine that keeps us tied at the hip to another person, or people? It’s tough to figure out what you really want and need without allowing the wants and needs of others to always come first. Picture yourself running and feeling light and free. Where are you? Where are you going? Take a few minutes to consider this. And think about what you might need to recharge.

Getting away from it all isn’t the only answer. For true inspiration check out soccer moms turned soccer players in this article about a league in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The moms got tired of watching and decided to get out there and kick it. Talk about moms on the run.

Monday, September 15, 2008

You Are What You Think

I’m about to watch a soccer tryout and I’m wondering how these kids can be passed over, lose a game, miss a shot, or otherwise fail in the conventional sense, and still be worthwhile, wonderful, successful people.

Have you ever said the words, “I am a [bipolar, ADD, a failure, a loser, a worthless person]?

What if, instead, you said:

“I have bipolar disorder.”
“I have ADD.”
“I failed the bar exam…didn’t get into my first choice college…”
“I hate it that I’m 50 and I just got divorced.”
“My boy/girlfriend just broke up with me.”
“I didn’t get the contract I wanted…my article accepted...”

See the difference? It’s semantics, but not just that. To say I am ADD implies that ADDness is at the core of my being, the same way it is when I say I’m a woman, or I’m a psychologist. To say I have ADD implies it’s one of many things you might know about me. To say I’m a failure because I failed an exam implies that the exam performance defines me. To say I failed at something says just that; I failed at some one thing.

Why allow a momentary disappointment, or even a bigger failure, to translate into these globally negative pronouncements?

Sometimes we even allow our kids’ or partners’ shortcomings to define us. There’s the parent who feels like a terrible failure because their kid didn’t get into the best college. There’s the person who feels like a failure because their partner doesn’t make enough money for them to have the biggest house or most expensive car.

At times we use these defeatist attitudes to self-handicap. In other words, I already know I’m going to fail because I’m ADD. I couldn’t possibly get an A on this paper because I’m ADD and therefore disorganized and incapable of managing such a complex task successfully. I’ll try but, you know, I’m ADD.

Sometimes it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy. I’m bipolar, so I know that when my roommate moves out I’m going to go into a deep depression. Or, I can’t meet someone really exciting and interesting because I’m a loser and they’ll know it as soon as I open my mouth. Yeah, that attitude is going to snag some fascinating dates.

Athletes with a “growth mindset” know they can learn from their failures and misses and become better players. People with growth mindsets know they can do anything they set their minds to, regardless of their ADDish, Bipolarish or OCDish behaviors, and become better people.

So consider that even if you don't make this team, publish this paper or pass the bar exam the first time, there are plenty of other opportunities out there just waiting for someone like you to come along and grab them.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Clark Kent, Meet Superman

Ever feel like you’re pretending to be someone or something you’re not, like Superman pretending to be Clark Kent, i.e., ever feel like an impostor? I hear this a lot from new graduates at all levels, people new on their job, new parents…okay, new [fill in the blank]. It’s difficult to move from study to practice, from known to unknown.

While I don’t generally borrow whole hog from a source, I thought this APA Monitor article about impostor syndrome provided some really excellent solutions, which are as follows, with just some minor additions and deletions.

Be patient with yourself. It takes awhile to grow accustomed to new roles and situations. You will make mistakes; no one’s perfect.

Acknowledge compliments and successes. Keep a diary of them or post them visibly so you’re reminded often of things you’ve done well.

Let go of the overdoing rituals if you can. Reading too much to prep for a new job, studying too much for an exam, or rehearsing too much for a presentation or performance just reinforce your own notion that you’re not good enough. Consider keeping these things a level the average, above-average performer would find appropriate.

Embrace positive rituals. Taking calming breaths, or using positive self-talk, pump-up songs and the like, are fun, upbeat ways to ensure yourself that you are what others seem to think you are.

Celebrate your accomplishments. You’re good. Show yourself you believe it by doing something special for yourself.

So stop pretending and be yourself. Like Superman. Or was it Clark Kent pretending to be Superman?

To pump it up: Start Me Up (Rolling Stones)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Better Life Through Chemistry

I’m a little behind the times, but I set aside an article that caught my eye. The Boston Globe reported recently on a drug being developed to produce the benefits of exercise, without the exercise. This, from the same scientist that brought us the genetically engineered Mickey ,who could eat more without gaining weight, as well as running twice as far as his mouse friends.

Okay, I know some people need to exercise and lose weight and can do neither. And I’m talking about those who cannot, for various reasons actually beyond their control, not just because of general lassitude and whatever other reasons. But what about the rest of us? Let's face it…the temptation would be far too great. Or would it?

If you could have the perfect body, the perfect mind, the perfect life, through chemistry alone, would you? I’m reminded here of Woody Allen’s Sleeper.

It’s like cooking. Sometimes I’m in a hurry and open a jar of Ragu. But if I really want a good meal, I’ve got to start from scratch. Or at least from canned tomatoes. It’s not that I don’t like shortcuts. But after a point, what’s the use of so many shortcuts? If you could be hypnotized and then block out everything painful in your life, what would be left? And what if you accidentally blocked out some of the positives. Like the way Prozac keeps you from getting too low, but also keeps you from getting too high.

I guess what I’m saying here is the only better life is through work and effort. Sometimes it’s difficult. There’s pain, loss and grief. But sometime it’s easy. There’s joy, abundance and ecstasy. So go for the burn baby.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

It’s Never Too Late (or Too Soon)

I’ve really been enjoying an AARP article, 50 reasons to love being 50+. Corny title aside, the vignettes are based on personal experience or research. Here's my spin on the highlights :

You can care more: You’ve been through enough to really understand difficulties experienced by others, and they can tell. You realize that learning something new is as good (or probably better) than buying something new. Waking up reasonably healthy is something to cherish.

You can care less: You realize that what others think doesn’t really matter. You now know your mistakes really won’t matter six days, weeks, months or years from now. Who cares what my race time was [whether I had the perfect dress, whether I earned the highest score, etc] I did it!

You can do more: When you let yourself, you really can think outside the box. Research shows you’re better at detecting honesty in others. You can tell by the evidence who your real friends are. You can try new things with abandon.

You can do less: You know you don’t have to please everyone. Taking time to smell the roses is okay. Meditation is starting to make sense. Communing with the cat [dog, canary, ferret] is a good thing.

After all, life really is short. By the time you reach the big 5-0, isn’t it time to drop pretense and be yourself? Often you have to work hard to notice if you’re being true to yourself. Ask yourself the hard questions. Am I doing what I want to be doing? Is this what I want my legacy to be? How do I want to be remembered?

You can start now, even if you’ve only reached the big 2-0. And…

It's never too late to be who you might have been. - George Elliot

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Olympian Challenges

All the hoopla about the Olympics makes me ponder the Olympian challenges that face us all, and how we conquer them.

I’ve noticed that many of the articles that I scan, or that are sent to me by family and friends, from publications as varied as Women’s Day, The NY Times, The Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated, and more, frequently propose the notion that we can all do great things, Olympian things, as it were. These things, it is posited, are accomplished by means of such behaviors as perseverance, tapping into strengths, following dreams and passions, focus and problem-solving, to name a few.

We are able to attain said accomplishments according to said articles, and their sister articles that focus on taking time for oneself, by not only doing, but also not doing. Not doing covers such things as relaxation exercises, meditation, yoga, walking, jogging, reading, pondering, fishing, biking, and driving, to name just some. While, you may say, these things are really doing, they’ve not doing the thing we’re trying to accomplish.

Thus, we work, and then we take time to regroup, replenish, re-whatever, in order to continue on toward our chosen goals. As we often point out in coaching, taking even 10 minutes toward your goal, or toward your time-out from goals, is well worth the effort. Come one, how many times have you read that taking three deep breaths (in through the nose, out through the mouth, from the abdomen, not the upper chest, add a few seconds on the exhale) once a day improves health and wellness? It doesn't even take 3 minutes.

Right now, my Olympian challenge is mastering Microsoft Vista. I know I can do it. I also know it’s going to take time as well as perseverance, focus and problem-solving, among other things. But that didn’t stop me from doing 15 minutes of yoga and running 30 today.

I’ll make it to the top eventually, cause I won’t back down (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers). Sorry for you regular readers, but some songs you just have to use more than once.

20 one minute ways to beat stress got me started on this. Check it out.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Electronic Anthropomorphism

Someone actually studied how anthropomorphism toward computer terminals affected loyalty to the terminal .

How did I learn this, you ask? I was wondering if anyone studied electronic anthropomorphism.

You see, when I returned from my two weeks away from my computer, it started misbehaving. The screen would go black, or blue. It was very unresponsive at times. I started getting pretty peeved with it. I decided it was time for a replacement. Normally, I’m quite monogamous. But it had, after all, lived a full life. Five years for a laptop in daily use is about what we’d expect. Less than a marriage, but more than a fling.

There’s an interesting article, if you’re interested in this sort of thing, which attempts to explain the conditions under which we are more or less like to anthropomorphize. On the basis of the article, I might conclude that I’m lacking in adequate human relationships or that my relative novice status vis-√†-vis machines enables me to react as if the machine was intentionally willing me harm.

Now the replacement machine is almost completely functional for my purposes, I’m wondering is the Vista system is, in fact, plotting my demise. Really, it’s not bad I told a friend earlier this evening. But now, as the night wears on, I’m beginning to wonder. Multiple internet explorer screens appearing unbidden. Outlook address book that is clearly my new bad boy.

But am I going to let it get in my way? Heck no. It’s just another bounce back opportunity. I’m working, very slowly at this point, on my next newsletter which I think will be about resilience. One way to look at resilience is to think of the ability to bounce back, which I have in exceptional abundance I’m told.

You see even with this computer snafu, I’m still working on ideas that I’m sure will come in handy at some point. After all, there was R2-D2, the i-Cybie and Blade Runner’s replicant, Rachael; and was Deckard a replicant after all? Who knows, maybe I’ll write the next 2001.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Post-Vacation Crunch

I told myself, and my newsletter readers, that I was going to take it easy in July. After all, I missed the first week due to my vacation (I know, boo hoo, poor me). The post-vacation situation is that there are piles of things at work, piles of things at home, phone calls to be made to catch up, endless laundry, restocking the larder, getting the doctor appointments caught up before school starts, etc. And there are also the usual things I do and enjoy doing.

Yet, there’s a little nagging voice in my head. Why haven’t you blogged? You’ve had ideas. You’ve written them down. What’s the holdup? And what about that newsletter? When do you think you’re going to get to that? You should be working on it now. What’ve you been doing with all your time?

Then I go through the list of things I’ve been doing with my time. They all seem legit. It’s not like I’m spending long hours contemplating my navel. And what if I were? What would be wrong with that?

So now I’m telling myself that I’ll get to things when I get to them. Like right now, I had planned (notice I didn’t give it a should) to be working on something else. But the mood was right to work on this and the something else will surely wait. It’s not do or die. Not too many things are, are they?

So I’m telling the little nagging voice: Give it a rest. Things will get done in their own time. There’s no real rush. Life will go on whether I pay my bills today or three days from now. I’d rather catch up with a friend than get to that work quicker. If someone needs the work they’ll ask for it and I’ll do it. No biggie. I’m going to take three deep breaths and go to my happy place; why don’t you try to do the same you nag?

I know this self-talk strategy only works for a while and then the nagging voice needs to hear my kinder, gentler version of SHUT UP! again. But that’s fine. Some things require a great deal of repetition for mastery.

And when I’m ready to embark on a new project, I’ll put on a little Black Eyed Peas…Let’s get it started. Until then, I’m going to enjoy my post-vacation calm.

Friday, July 18, 2008

My Favorite Mistake

My most recent newsletter focused on self-forgiveness. How do we forgive ourselves for the mistakes we’ve made? The biggest reaction was about the nature of the mistakes I referenced. People were adamant about which were big and which were silly. For some, the stock market misses were the biggies. For others, market decisions paled in comparison to life choices like having kids or marrying. I included dieting choices because I work with so many people for whom these choices have the do or die feel. I know for others the career missteps are the most painful.

There’s a concept I’ve been recently taken with: inattentional blindness. It’s the notion that unless we’re specifically attending to something, we can be totally blind to it, even when it’s before our very eyes. The most amusing experiment is about the students who miss the person in the gorilla suit while attending to how many basketball passes six students make to one another in a video clip.

So, the takeaway? It’s easy to miss the obvious. What’s your favorite mistake?

And there's always Sheryl Crow's My Favorite Mistake.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Had a Great Time, Wish You Were There

Return from vacation seems like it warrants a blog entry. I'm not charmed when people dominate a conversation talking about the trip they recently took. It's like the old days when Uncle John would force everyone of all ages to watch his slides of the family trip to Miami Beach. But surely there are some good takeaways from a two-week vacation (aside from souvenirs and memories). My list, in no particular order:
  • Bring entertainment for the moments you just want to veg or are stuck on a plane or the like...did I see a lot of Sudoku books.
  • Be busy enough to be tired. After all, you came all that way, right? See it all. Do it all. You can sleep when you get home.
  • Every time you want to complain, go over your list of positive self-statements: don't sweat the small stuff; you can't control everything; nothing's perfect.
  • Try new stuff. Eat food you don't usually eat. Talk to people you wouldn't normally bother with.
  • Don't allow yourself to be consumed with what you've left behind. Forget the email. Don't call home daily.
  • Don't worry about buying things. This includes not worrying about getting the "right" gifts for everyone. And don't perseverate about souvenirs. After all, you're not going to forget you went to Venice, right?

Have as much fun as you can. Because, when you get home, it's back to the usual, whatever that may be and however much you may enjoy it. Ciao.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Separation Anxiety

I'm having separation anxiety. I don't want to leave my computer. I'm thrilled to be going on vacation. It's my first 2-week vacation in forever. But I'm not thrilled to be leaving my computer. I've left it for a weekend many times. It's a little difficult, but I manage. But 13 days. It's not so much the email. It's the access to the universe. It's the writing...I rarely write by hand anymore. Let's face it, it's bloody everything.

Sometimes when I'm working on something I don't get out of my desk chair for hours for anything. Not for a phonebook, a dictionary, the weather channel. Why get up? It's all right at my fingertips, which no longer have to do the walking. Now I just click. Soon, I'm certain, there will be virtual coffee.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining about it. I love the convenience and the speed. I've just become attached. Too attached. What we might call an unhealthy attachment.

So what do to? I'm going to consider it a growth experience. It will be my project for the trip. Let go of the technology. Be one with the non-technological universe. Just breathe through the anxiety. Use a freakin' pen to write. Talk real talk to real people instead of cybertalk to cyberpeople.

At a meeting today someone used the phrase "cybercabinet." It's a place on their accountant's website where they can store a backup of their data. What next, I wonder?

I guess I'm just white & nerdy. I'll be back in a couple of weeks and I will be relaxed. But I'm taking my iPod.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Bette Davis Eyes

From the Maybelline website:

Whether you want volume, length, curves or definition, you’ll get your best lash look with our winning formulas.
It's Maybelline folks, we're talking eyelashes here. This morning on NPR's Marketplace I heard that the Botox people are about to bring us a new pill; it's one that makes lashes thicker, longer and darker. I am not kidding.

If we're already dissatisfied with our face, hair, boobs, butts, or any other body parts, we can now add eyelashes to the list of our inadequacies.

I know for all the actualized folks out there, these things are superficial and barely worth a thought; you know, like the folks on who think that it's only the Sex and the City women that care about clothes etc. ("Do they have hobbies, aside from shopping? " As for the rest of us slobs, we're gonna have to consider whether we need some lash enhancement above and beyond mascara, along with our other enhancements and dehancements.

You can tell I think this is absurd. It does concern me though. The thought that there are a bunch of people out there, primarily women, okay, and some gay men, who are going to see the ads for this inane product and think: hmmm, what about my lashes? Do they have the volume and curves I need?

I know, let the buyer beware, but honestly.

Please, you've got to count your blessings. These include your strengths, be they Bette Davis eyes, Marie Curie brains or Anne Frank courage. Forget the pills. Stick with mascara.

Her hair is Harlowe gold,
Her lips sweet surprise
Her hands are never cold,
She's got Bette Davis eyes
(Bette Davis Eyes, Kim Carnes)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Get a Life

Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge.
-- Paul Gauguin

Reading this quote, I had to smile. Hamlet waxed poetic on the subject as well. A dish best served cold is another that comes to mind. Not being a revenge junkie, it took me quite a while to appreciate the meaning of this last one.

The positive psychologist in me considers revenge and revenge fantasies to be energy zappers. I think we all pretty much subscribe to the notion that we have a finite amount of emotional energy to expend. If we waste a lot on revenge, there’s less left for the good stuff.

Maybe as an initial coping response to a crushing blow, I can see it. It’s better than crumpling up in a ball or melting down into a puddle. Plotting and planning, not carrying out (!), sophisticated and novel revenge techniques is a one way to keep the mind facile and to keep one from dwelling in the house of pain.

But as a life’s work or continuing pastime, I’d suggest Sudoku, crossword or solitaire would be preferable. Better yet, beef up your exercise schedule, take up a new hobby, read more, talk with friends more. Work on letting go with meditation, writing, forgiveness exercises or getting closure in some other way. In short, move on. Or as my kid would say, dude, get a life.

See Seligman's REACH exercise in Authentic Happiness: Recall the hurt; Empathize with the perpetrator; be Altruistic in your forgiveness; Commit yourself publicly to forgive; Hold onto forgiveness, not anger),

Listen to: Don't let it show. Pat Benatar

Friday, May 9, 2008

Ask me no questions...

I was reading an article recently about the fear parents have when their kids ask them about the past. Do they tell them the truth about their sometimes sordid past, that they smoked marijuana at 15, when they first had sex, whether it was in or out of wedlock, or not? Do they withhold the truth? Or do they out and out lie?

In many situations, we don’t tell all. Sometimes it’s to avoid judgment, sometimes to avoid hurting someone, and at other times, it’s to manipulate for other reasons. What happens in relationships when truths are not shared, be they romantic relationships or parental ones, friendships or collegial?

What about the times we pretend we’re happy with things as they are in a relationship? No, I don’t really want to go out with the boys and play poker, smoke and get plowed. I’d much rather stay home with you and watch Titanic, honey. A small matter, but what happens when it’s something bigger? What happens when you want to climb Mount Everest, or your Mount Everest, and he doesn’t want you to?

I often hear people talking about how they’d like to …, want to …, would rather…, wish they could tell someone …, only to stop in mid-hope by the fear that someone will disapprove, cut them off, withhold affection, leave them. It’s not a pleasant prospect. And I’m not just talking about lovers. Think about all the things you haven’t told your parents, siblings, friends. Think about the things they haven’t told you.

So we have some situations here that come up often. Are we going to try to manipulate our kids by not being honest about the past, pretending to be the kind of person we’d like them to be? Or the person we wish we’d been? Are we going to keep a relationship going based on pretending to be someone who we’re not?

So here’s my bottom line. Tell the truth. Possibly the world’s foremost expert on lies, Paul Ekman, in Telling Lies, says we all lie. I can see it. When she asks if the dress looks okay on her, don’t say it makes her hips look big, tell her the color makes her eyes look greener. When your kid asks what drugs you did as a teenager, you might give him the short list. But apart from a little nip and tuck on the truth, tell it like it is. For kids, this would be in an age appropriate manner. And, like the woman and the dress, consider what the person is really asking. She doesn’t want to know if she looks fat, she wants to know if you think she looks good, if you love her even though she’s put on a few pounds. Your kids don’t want to know what drugs you did, when and with whom, they want to know if they should be using drugs or hanging with people who do. They want to know if they can make mistakes. They want to know if you’ll love them no matter what. So just show them the love...that’s all we really want, isn’t it?

If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything. Mark Twain

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Spring Vacation

I know I should have written this sooner. I have reasons. Or are they excuses? You decide.

Since my last blog I have submitted a short article about grit to an on-line newsletter for the all but dissertation student, written a new edition of my own newsletter on gratitude, taken a coaching exam and continued to do the usual professional and personal things.

I've thought about blogging, I really have. But I think I was just plain out of ideas. Things grabbed me, but it seemed like too much work to get them into even casual form.

So I've written this to give myself permission to take a break. Consider it my spring vacation. Think about giving yourself permission to take breaks when you need them. Sometimes you just have to stop doing something, or several things, to be able to replenish depleted resources.

I'll put the links in later. Maybe a picture too. But right now, I'm still in vacation mode. And I think I've made a good case for my absence.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A Measure of Madness

I’m quite sure Yann Martel was not talking about divorce in Life of Pi, when he wrote about the "measure of madness" that drives us:

But even animals that were bred in zoos and have never known the wild, that are perfectly adapted to their enclosures and feel no tension in the presence of humans, will have moments of excitement that push them to seek to escape. All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, and sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive.

But that’s exactly what occurred to me when I read it. It’s like a marriage in which the pair are quite calm and seemingly content with their enclosure, and then, in what appears to be a moment of madness, someone says “no more of this prison!”

I’m thinking of the people that come to me, talking endlessly about their relationships, yet drowning as if in quicksand, as the life is slowly sucked out of them. It’s not madness at all, just great difficulty acknowledging that something isn’t working. That the house has become a cage.

And Martel goes on, Pi is speaking now about how he comes to understand his lifeboat:

I did not grasp all these details—and many more—right away. They came to my notice with time and as a result of necessity. I would be in the direst of dire straits, facing a bleak future, when some small thing, some detail, would transform itself and appear in my mind in a new light. It would no longer be the small thing it was before, but the most important thing in the world, the thing that would save my life.

And this is precisely what happens when we make changes. We figure out things using bits and pieces that heretofore seemed inconsequential. They become important. And gradually, we know exactly what to do. It might be the divorce, it might be the new career, indeed, it might be anything.

As a life coach and psychotherapist I’m always interested in moving this process along a bit quicker, thereby decreasing discomfort and increasing happiness. I’d like people to recognize their cages for what they are, and sooner rather than later plan their exits swiftly and gracefully.

Pi’s journey is inspiring. It’s a great book. I might add, Pi has a lot of grit. And the bottom line is about the power of relationship.

Related theme: Once in a Lifetime – Talking Heads

Friday, April 11, 2008

Maladaptive Happiness

An oxymoron? A crazed psychologist’s rumination?

Not at all. It’s interesting to note that happiness experts have found that we adapt to exciting, fun new things. I use adapt here referring to the manner in which organisms adapt to their changing environments. According to happiness researcher Sonja Lyubormirsky, we do things to increase happiness, but then we adapt. The thrill wears off. Now I call that maladaptive. We’ve all experienced it:

That hot new guy you absolutely, positively had to have…now that you have him, he’s not all that anymore?

The dissertation you’ve given blood, sweat and tears to produce…by the time you get there it’s a bit ho hum and you’re wondering what next.

The promotion you’ve worked yourself to the brink of death to land, is it really all it was cracked up to be?

Lyubormirsky and colleague Ken Sheldon are now studying whether or not people can avoid that adaptation. They’re going to look at the effect of behaviors like savoring and introducing variety.

The Nine of Cups in Tarot refers to having one’s wish fulfilled or dreams come true. It’s likened to savoring a good meal, to contentment, to sensual pleasure. It’s the wish card. So instead of just taking the hot new guy for granted…well I don’t think I really have to get into the specifics of savoring and variety, do I?

I believe that the notion of celebrating achievements is a kind of savoring. Take the dissertation completion as an example. Instead of letting it drift by virtually unnoticed, celebrating is a way to enhance pleasure in the event. And not just for the few hours of the mad party you’re having, you have to keep it going for a while. I don’t mean the party, I mean the focus on the accomplishment. Maybe keeping a copy right near you in your office is a way to remind yourself of what you’ve achieved.

Variety keeps things interesting. Studying yoga is great fun and exciting to the newcomer. You have to try new poses to keep the fun in it. It’s the same with anything new, you have to find ways to make it interesting and fresh.

So let’s share a good glass of wine, or may a couple for the sake of variety, and savor the experience together.

See the Monitor on Psychology article about Lyubomirsky at

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Show Must Go On

I'll admit it from the get go, I've always loved Julie Andrews. I found her, in Terry Gross' interview on Fresh Air today, completely captivating. You can listen at:

Ms. Andrews has a most amazing speaking voice. Admittedly, I'm a sucker for accents. But I can't imagine anyone listening to her and not hearing the beauty of the voice. There's also an incredible warmth in her interactions with the interviewer.

Truly remarkable is her attitude. You can hear her acceptance and optimism as she speaks about negotiating her difficult childhood ("no wallowing" were her words). Not a child of privilege by most standards, she still talks about her childhood as relatively happy and privileged in its own way.

Then there was her surgery in 2005. After a period of denial, Ms. Andrews accepted the hard truth; she could no longer sing. She recognizes she could have gotten up to "crawl away," but instead has kept busy acting, writing and speaking. She actually said she is "extremely grateful" for her life post-surgery.

If we could all aspire to that attitude, wouldn't it be loverly?

Her attitude reminds me of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Here the idea is to learn to accept our pain, not try to get rid of it. And we can live life in a meaningful way instead of living a a life in which our primary object is to identify with our pain. Check out Steven C. Hayes' Get Out of your Mind and Into Your life for more on ACT.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Twist and Shout

Like many animals, rats put in new situations run the perimeter, presumably learning about their new environment. In fact, according to Esther M. Sternberg in The Balance Within, if you placed electrodes in their brains to map out the cells that are active during this exploration, you'd see that they matched the shape of the new environment perfectly. If they are able to learn, they learn the environment and their anxiety at the newness wears off.

Extrapolating wildly from this, you might wonder how a person, with all these pictures of their life in their head, complete with dead ends and diabolically treacherous twists and turns, ever breaks out of their maze. I'm fascinated by the people who are able to do so, and equally by those that are not.

According to Sternberg, if you're a low-stress-hormone Lewis rat, you'll explore your environment vigorously, presumably open to change. If you're a high-stress-hormone Fischer rat, you'll cringe in the corner, presumably, not so open to change. No worries; even the Fischer rat eventually learns the new environment, it just seems a lot more fraught with anxiety, if I may anthropomorphize for a moment.

Back to us, how can we adapt? Again, from the rats, it seems that once the new environment becomes more familiar, they're more comfortable.

So taking that very basic observation, one useful self-statement might be to assure oneself that it'll be okay, you'll get used to it. Whatever "it" is. The new job, the new city, the divorce, the death.

Now I'm going out on a limb to say that I'd have to guess having something familiar in a new environment would also allay some anxiety. You know how it feels when you move and unpack your stuff. It's a comfort to see the stuff, whether it's nice and almost-new or crummy and ready for the Salvation Army.

Sternberg goes on to talk about how relationships can also serve as buffers for the stress of change. Mind you, given the link between chronic stress and impaired immune function, this is all pretty critical. So we need change, we all experience lots of change, but too much prolonged change can make us sick. Like I said, life presents diabolically treacherous twists and turns. But also intriguingly engaging twists and turns.

So my recommendations: use positive self-statements (e.g., this is all going to work out), break out some comfortable objects (and light those candles, or whatever makes you feel good), rely on friends and other significants, and, when it comes to the treacherous twists and turns, put on some music and shake it up baby.

You know, Twist and Shout (The Beatles).

Saturday, March 29, 2008


I'm still taken with the idea of grit and what keeps the tough going. Have you read about these three guys who ran, yeah, ran across the Sahara. Yeah, the desert. See an article about one of them, Charlie Engle, former drug addict, now ultramarathoner:

How about the 70 or 80 year olds who regularly run the 26 plus mile kind of marathons?

It seems incredible that some people are able to do the most remarkable things by sheer force of will. After all, it doesn't take much intellect to run a marathon. I'm not sure there's even an innate ability required.

But the passion, that can't be learned. You have to love it. At the risk of repeating myself, I'd really like most of my friends and people I work with to think more seriously about the passion thing.

There are plenty of reasons to try to do things you're passionate about. You're more likely to get into a state of flow if you're doing something you love and are good at. You're more likely to be good at something you love. Or is it you're more likely to love something you're good at. Does it matter?

It's never boring when you have passion. You can be persistent and diligent, or gritty, when there's a true connection to what you're doing.

Too many of us do things because we "should," we'll make more money, it's easy, and the like. I'm not saying work has to be hard, but there's a certain satisfaction you feel about a difficult job well done that's a bit thrilling. Not like a rollercoaster thrilling, but warmly, satisfyingly ultrathrilling.

You don't have to run an ultramarathon to feel that thrill. Dig deep and find your passion, and get gritty.

See some ultragrit in Rescue Dawn or The Great Escape.

Friday, March 21, 2008


I am an old man, but in many senses a very young man. And this is what I want you to be, young, young all your life. Pablo Casals.

Good advice, especially on the day I attended a funeral. I'm thinking, Frank Sinatra, Young at Heart.

What was really inspiring about the service, was how the mourners were so into the pastor's remarks and so carried away by his positive messages. The basic idea was that this was Chapter One for the departed and the mourners alike.

I don't think you have to believe to be able to see it that way. You only had to know John a little, to know he saw it that way.

The pastor gave permission for people to be distraught, to cry and mourn. Most important, he gave them permission to move on. He pointed out, aptly, that John would have wanted it that way.

The pastor also talked about how John touched everyone he met in a special and positive way. It makes me realize again how important and meaningful it is to reach out to people in even the smallest ways. There were a lot of people there to say goodbye. There was a lot of love in that room.

You'll be missed, and remembered.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Doing Something vs Nothing

Would you believe that economists study soccer goalkeeper's responses vis-a-vis how such split-second decision making might relate to economic decisions? Well, they do (see NY Times article,

The gist is, most of us perceive, along with goalkeepers and stock market investors, that doing something is better than doing nothing. It turns out that the goalkeeper's ability to stop penalty kicks is actually better when they do nothing, i.e., stand in the middle, than when they do something, i.e., choose a side.

Now you're wondering how I'm going to apply this to something that could possibly be relevant to the usual subjects of my blog.

I'm thinking of how I've been hearing from people that they need to do something, when I'm thinking they may need to do nothing. I know, I know. I'm generally very action, change oriented. But there are situations...

Specifically, I'm thinking stay-at-home moms who decide they ought to be doing something more "meaningful." I'm thinking people in reasonably good relationships who think they ought to be in "better" relationships. I'm thinking people who aren't in relationships who think they ought to be in "a" relationship. Then there are people who think they should move someplace, retirees who think they work at something and adolescents who think they should change something (usually something scary about their physical appearance).

I'm not saying that things don't sometimes, even often, need to change. But clearly we often have difficulty just being and letting things be.

As the researchers suggest, "nothing is sometimes better than something."

Try The Beatles: Let it Be.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Plan Continuation Bias

In the study of airline safety, we know that when problems force a pilot to have to decide whether to continue or change course, something called plan continuation bias can get in the way.

Plan continuation bias is the tendency of people to continue to follow their original plan, even in the face of evidence that the circumstances have changed. Apparently, we have an unconscious bias in thinking that leads us to follow our original course of action, particularly when we are close to the end.

I'm thinking of waiting in line in the bank. Once you pick the line, you stand in it for awhile, and the longer you stand there the less you want to move. You've already invested in the line. You've put in some time. It's too late to change now.

I'm also thinking of life choices. You've been in the job for umpteen years, you've been in the relationship for as many, you've lived in the city forever, and so on.

It's just another thing that gets in the way of change.

The way we usually try to cope with cognitive biases and distortions is to:

Identify the thought: for example, I'll never find a job I'm happy with.
What's the evidence for it?: It seems like it would be really hard to find something better.
Come up with alternatives: Maybe I need to look around a little and explore options.
Change behavior accordingly: Start researching new job ops.

I think it's quite possible, likely even, that we blindly go through lots of days, relationships, habits, etc., without really considering the evidence. Do I really want this, enjoy this, need this, like this?

Consider the possibilities. After all, life is a highway (TomCochrane).

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Self-care not selfish

One of the things I notice in my clients is the way divorce allows people to settle into themselves. For years, you’ve been a “we,” a “husband” or “wife.” Now you’re just an “I,” a “father” or a “mother,” along with your other roles of child, aunt, teacher, etc. Divorce pushes the realization that we are actually alone in this thing called life.

So where am I going with this? This is supposed to be an upbeat blog, right? Positive psychology focus and all.

Well it is really awesome to be able to make choices that are specifically and totally for you. What I hear a lot from people is that they have to think first of others, then of themselves. After all, it’s selfish to think of yourself, right?

Wrong! You HAVE to think of yourself, because more than likely, no one else is going to have your best interests at the forefront. I’m not saying people don’t care about you. But let’s face it, no one cares about your well-being the way that you do.

The same people that worry about being too selfish are constantly surprised when others do not act selflessly. Look at the words we use to describe these behaviors: selfish, self-centered, self-absorbed, entitled. They’re all negative.

So here’s the deal. Step one is to think about what you need. Step two is to consider how that might affect others you care about. Step three is to decide what makes sense for you given steps one and two. I think this probably makes sense in marriage as well as in divorce. Caring about and for the self. Let’s call it self-care, not selfish.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Pills or Skills?

I stole this title from an article I read many years ago about ritalin for kids with ADHD. Last week I watched The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. As I implied in my last blog, Jesse would have been medicated today, or at least someone would have tried to medicate him. His mood swings were pronounced and deadly.

The nature-nurture debate has always fascinated me. If it’s nature, medication makes a lot of sense to me. Even with nurture, perhaps Jesse’s parents’ were abusive and he was traumatized, I can see the possibilities.

But how do we remain unique, exciting and daring if we’re in a prozac fog? I’ll add creative as well, although I certainly know a lot of creative souls who take their antidepressants religiously.

What does this have to do with life coaching and psychotherapy, anyway? Simply this: if you’re interested in change, medication sometimes reduces the motivation for change. You start to feel better, even if you’re in a bad situation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that’s necessarily bad, and clearly it’s essential for survival at times. Many of my most interesting clients take medication. But where do we draw the lines?

I recently attended a psychopharmacology workshop. A requirement, interestingly, for license renewal for psychologists in the state of Georgia. The presenter showed a few clips from Sophie’s Choice. They depicted her depression and PTSD quite well. Later I thought, you want to medicate Sophie? Styron himself relied on antidepressant medication and his book, Darkness Visible, is an awesome look at depression.

The point is that we have to consider these choices carefully. I know, like you wouldn’t. But honestly, there are a lot of unanswered questions in the medication arena. It makes me wonder about my own recommendations, the standard in psychotherapy being, well, if we don’t see any improvement in [fill in the blank based on severity] weeks, let’s discuss medication again.

Check out When do meds make the difference?" in the APA Monitor on Psychology at, Listening to Prozac, by Peter Kramer and Ritalin is not the Answer, by David Stein.

Monday, February 25, 2008

And the Oscar Goes To...

I love the movies. Of course, I had to watch the academy awards to see the rich and famous do their thing. And what’s up with our fascination with the dark side this year? Well maybe it’s not just this year. After all, the Hitchcock scenes are timeless (Cary Grant running in that field) and definitely dark.

The awards themselves are a great example of gratitude at work. Thanking people for their hard work in a public forum watched by millions. Okay, less millions than usual, but millions nevertheless.

My community has a heart of the community award given annually to several people who have provided community service par excellence. The chamber gives an award, the optimist club and so on. More gratitude.

So for those that pooh- pooh Oscar, just think of it as gratitude to those fabulous artists who make us laugh, cry, dream, and, best of all, think.


Think about this: Should Jesse James, Anton Chugurh, and Daniel Plainview all have been on meds? Did any of them have any redeeming qualities? Why did Anton get to walk away?

What about Llewelyn Moss, and Eli Sunday? Surely they had some issues. Were Llewelyn and Eli good? Bad? Both good and bad? Why were they both punished?

Who would you award Oscar to in your life? In what category would you receive your Oscar? Hint: Think about your strengths. And dream on.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Give a Little Bit

I probably give as much as the next privileged person. I give time and money to charity. Sometimes I provide psychotherapy for free or on the cheap. I am always giving away coaching for free or greatly reduced rates in order to get my certification. E-mail me at!!!

Do we do things to help others selflessly, or only out of self-interest? This latter giving away of coaching has, of course, nothing to do with altruism. It’s totally self-serving. I realized that when I came up with acts of gratitude in my last blog, there’s a fine line between altruistic acts and acts of gratitude. I tipped the woman at Subway a lot because she was all alone behind the counter, had a ton of people and was doing a great job. It was given in thanks, but somewhat altruistically, since she didn’t know. If you tip someone you’ll never see again is it gratitude or altruism? After all, you won’t get anything back. For that matter, when we thank people, aren’t we expecting something back at some point? Like money in the bank, interest will accrue and come back to us. Everything we give returns 10 fold?

Why does any of this matter?

Actually, research shows that people who are happier are more altruistic. I suspect that when you give with the anticipation of receiving something back, the happiness benefit is not as great. It makes sense, since giving with the anticipation of receiving is one of those expectations that can result in disappointment, or maybe even anticipation of disappointment. How many times have you heard…but I do everything for that kid (man, woman, parent, etc.) and I ask her to do one thing for me and she can’t be bothered…

And how crummy is it when we perceive that the lover, or friend or parent has only done things for us with the expectation that they’d get something back? If you’re expecting your offspring to care for you in your old age in return for all your care, I’m not gonna lie, I think you’re setting yourself up for a fall.

So giving from the heart is the key to feeling good about what you’ve done. There’s no disappointment. It doesn’t matter what happens next. You’ve done your good deed and can have that warm, fuzzy feeling.

It’s sappy but true. For a slightly more revved up version: Give a Little Bit – The Goo Goo Dolls

Friday, February 15, 2008

Thank You

I've been pondering gratitude for awhile now. Even some of my best friends turn up their noses at the notion that thanking someone or being grateful, can actually have a significant impact on the psyche. Now I'm thinking of the client, depressed for months, who said, very loudly, yelling I believe: "Why is everyone telling me to volunteer at the homeless shelter? Like that's going to make me less depressed!!!!!"

That complaint notwithstanding, research shows that performing acts of kindness, counting one's blessings, keeping a weekly gratitude log, and the like, do improve our sense of well-being. I suppose part of it is about merely thinking in terms of gratitude. To come up with five acts of kindness in one day as was the method in one study, you'd have to start spending quite a bit of time considering how to actually do that. All that time would then be spent in positive thinking.

I'll be at the soccer fields most of the weekend. Offer someone a bottle of water. Tell the team manager she's doing a great job. Thank the coach for his efforts...okay, especially if we lose. Let someone in line at the restroom. Thank my friends for coming to watch. Alright, not too difficult.

At the office? Thank the secretary for sorting my mail. Thank someone for getting in touch with me. Buy a box of chocolate for the office (always a winner) for no particular occasion. Give my colleague a late birthday card. Thank a colleague for referring a client.

Okay, not so difficult. But you do have to take the time. And sometimes it's going to take a little more thought. What if you stay home alone all day? Send a thank you email? Why not.

Thanks for reading my blog.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Blocked or not?

Whenever I send out a newsletter, my blog gets blocked. It's like I've completed a thought and I'm done. I've talked about giving myself (or yourself) a break in this context before. Yet I've been starting so many blogs in my mind: one on lying (is it okay to tell little white lies?), another on women's mag tips (do people really sew buttons on the ends of draw strings to keep them from getting lost in the garment; does anyone care?), yet another on whether multi-tasking and mindfulness are mutually exclusive (can you run, listen to music and be mindful?).

So what's the point of this meandering monologue? I'm trying to change my pattern and push ahead even though there's a cacophony of ideas in my head instead of one clear thought. As I tell blocked writers: just write something... anything. You can always go back later and perfect it.

Not that this blog is perfect. Okay, no need to laugh. But it's become important to my newsletter production, my thinking about positive psychology and allied topics and my ultimate writing goals. What, you my goal not to produce a better newsletter? I'm still thinking about that self-help book. Maybe my newsletters will feed into that goal.

While I collect ideas for blogging and writing, I'm also collecting ideas for my novel. Yes, of course, another frustrated novelist.

But seriously, this is the first time I've publicly admitted that I'm planning a novel. Public commitment is an important step in relapse prevention. It's also an important step in getting things done.

Like the novel which unfolds for the writer, much as it does for the reader, this blog turns out to be about moving ahead with my commitment to write regularly. Yup, even if I don't necessarily have anything particularly profound to say. But the commitment idea is profound.

Prochaska and DiClementi, in an article in 1982, identified stages of change: precontemplation (do I want to make the change), contemplation (I'm thinking about it seriously), determination (I'm gonna do it baby), action (requires no explanation) and maintenance (maintaining the change). After that comes relapse (also requires no explanation, but just in case, not maintaining the change). Like most stage models, you can bounce back and forth, sometimes skipping a step and sometimes regressing two. Commitment is the place between determination and action. Maybe it's between action and maintenance. Maybe it is maintenance. Clearly, commitment is all over the place.

I don't always write as regularly as I'd like. But I'm committed to making it happen. Whatever your goal, you can be too. Meandering around in my head is All You Need is Love..."There's nothing you can do that can't be done."

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Runner up for the Miss America Contest

I have clients, friends, acquaintances, who would consider second place (even in the Miss America contest) to be synonymous with failure. What’s wrong with this picture?

While it’s great to achieve excellence, wonderful to push oneself to the limit and undoubtedly a fantastic high to scale Everest (pun intended), every day is not going to be a first place, A+, make-it-to-the-top kind of day.

It’s also important to enjoy modest successes when they come and be proud of the A-minus, especially when you know in your heart-of-hearts you didn’t really study enough for the A.

There’s a fine line between being driven, and being so driven you drive yourself and everyone around you mad. As in most things, it’s good if you can find some kind of balance. A happy medium.

So mom, you’re saying I don’t have to get As? I can hear it already. We have to figure out for ourselves how hard we can push so that it feels right, and how hard is too hard. Stretch, but not so hard you snap. As my yoga teacher says, balance ease with effort.

I can see how it’s all connected to flow, using personal strengths (the subject of my upcoming newsletter: to sign up go to and happiness. Try to undertake endeavors that feel good, capitalize on your strengths and push yourself a little further...and enjoy the journey.

And yes, it’s totally awesome to come in second. After all, you have to be Miss some-state-or-other to even get in. And I have to imagine that that trip down the runway is amazing (no pun intended).

Listen to: Celebration, Kool & The Gang; Vogue, Madonna

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Like a Moth to a Flame

Theme of the week: getting burned in the doomed-from-the-start-relationship. Bad boys are the men women are attracted to (or women men are attracted to, and the rest of the possible combinations of the two sexes) who are toxic, trouble, and a whole bunch of other things that lead to pain, problems and heartache. Occasionally heartburn as well (see that book/film by Nora Ephram/ Mike Nichols, for a good example).

These babies are also fun, charming, sexy, exciting, etc. Bad Boys happens to be the name of a bail bond site (“because your momma wants you home” being the tagline)…what does that tell you? I have a friend who refers to problem stocks as bad boys (or dogs, equally fitting).

How did your bad boy/girl make you feel? Perhaps like you were a fun, charming, sexy, exciting person. Maybe you felt lucky to have landed such a catch. Were you basking in their glory? Feeling more interesting and desirable yourself?

Seriously, being involved with exciting people makes us feel better about ourselves…for a minute. The honeymoon period is generally fantastic. Trips, gifts and expensive dinners (okay, adjust down for age and income to movie-dates, cute trinkets and paying for your dinner at Red Lobster). We’re digging that attention, the high of someone so attractive being attracted to us, and the envy (or presumed envy) of onlookers. It’s only later that your friends admit they were concerned from the get-go. Nobody likes to burst your bubble. And even if they do, of course you don’t believe them. They’re just jealous, right?

As usual, we have to give up the momentary high for the long-term, lasting pleasure. There are fun, charming, sexy and exciting people who didn’t unceremoniously dump their last love for you, don’t have a reputation for being players and aren’t just interested in the best, new thing as long as it’s new. And a novel idea, try singledom for a while. It can be a really great way to figure out who you are, what you really want in a relationship and how to stay away from the flame, even though it does burn so bright.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Time Travel Paradox

Whenever I feel regret, I consider the time travel paradox. I'm reminded of my favorite Star Trek episode, "City on the Edge of Forever" in which Spock and Kirk travel back to the great depression after McCoy has unwittingly changed history. The "Terminator" films also share this theme in which the Terminator is sent back in time to kill John Connor who leads the fight against the machines.

In short, if we go back and change one thing in our histories, all other events that follow must invariably change as well. Although the physics may be arguable, logically, if I didn't,among other things, marry, divorce and move around as I have, I wouldn't have my wonderful child, sweetheart and work.

My clients know this immediately when they say they regret their marriages...but I wouldn't give up Jane, Dick or Spot for anything, they say. How true.

So how do you get rid of the regrets? It's similar to forgiveness which has been widely studied (see Seligman's book "Authentic Happiness" about which I am lately on a kick). The process I suggest is to consider the event in question (a relationship, a decision, etc). Think about the feelings, positive and negative. Consider the reasons you made the choice. There were probably a lot of good reasons. There were probably also a lot of things you didn't know (a la, if I knew then what I know now...). Work toward forgiving yourself because you need to give this gift to yourself in order to move on and be happy. Practice, practice, practice.

For inspiration try: Everyday is a Winding Road - Sheryl Crow or Good Riddance - Green Day