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Blog Short #162: The Pros and Cons of Sarcasm

Photo by Vasilisa_k, Courtesy of iStock Photo

Sarcasm permeates our culture and is a regular part of everyday conversations and interchanges. Comedy, in particular, uses sarcasm liberally.

I was reminded of this recently while watching an episode of Seinfeld and laughing at some of the sarcastic comments that are a regular part of Jerry’s responses to George, Elaine, and Kramer. It’s hilarious in that context, but sarcasm also has a dark side and can be deadly to our relationships with each other, especially intimate ones.

When is sarcasm okay to use, and under what circumstances, and when not?

Let’s start with a definition.

What is Sarcasm?

Here are three definitions:

“Sarcasm is a form of communication intended to convey the opposite of what is literally said” (Golden, 2022).

“Sarcasm is an indirect form of speech intentionally used to produce a particular dramatic effect on the listener” (McDonald, 1999).

“Sarcasm refers to the use of words that mean the opposite of what you really want to say, especially in order to insult someone, or to show irritation, or just to be funny” (Merriam-Webster).

So what can we take from these?

  1. Sarcasm is indirect and requires the receiver to decode it.
  2. It’s potent and has a dramatic effect.
  3. Someone can use it to insult, show irritation, or be amusing.

However you cut it, sarcasm likely has an emotional impact, and it’s not always a good one.

Let’s review the positive and negative aspects of sarcasm, and then I’ll give you some guidelines for considering when and if to use it.

The Positives

There are two emotions most associated with sarcasm: these are anger and humor. We’ll get to anger in the next section, but let’s start with humor, which is more often associated with the positive side of sarcasm.

1. Create Intimacy

When done without malice to tease affectionately or deliver inside jokes, sarcasm can create intimacy and bond us together. Good friends, romantic partners, close family members, and even work colleagues sometimes use sarcasm to build camaraderie. Inside jokes are especially common for people who feel closely connected.

2. Relieve Tension

A second positive effect is using sarcasm to relieve tension and stress during trying situations. A humorous, sarcastic remark delivered during a difficult time can ease anxiety and provide comic relief.

3. Increase Creativity

Third, sarcasm used in the workplace between people who trust each other has been shown by research to increase creativity. That’s because sarcasm requires more thinking outside the box. If you have to come up with creative word choices and phrases, it primes your brain to be open to more inventive solutions to problems.

4. Give a Backhanded Compliment

The last positive is that sometimes sarcasm is used to offer backhanded compliments. For example, if your friend who put on a dinner party frets that no one liked what she cooked, you could say, “Yeah, it looks like it was awful! There’s not a bite left! Everyone scarfed it down! Pretty sure they hated it!”

You would probably make everyone laugh, including the cook, but it has a little bite. Would it have been better to say, “It was great! Everyone obviously loved it because there’s not a morsel left. You did a great job, as usual!?” Which would feel better? Most likely, this second one.

The Negatives

Now for the negatives.

Sarcasm is damaging when used to criticize or deliver a passive-aggressive expression of frustration, annoyance, anger, envy, or contempt. In any of those circumstances, it can:

  • Create tension
  • Undermine trust
  • Divide and distance
  • Betray
  • Build resentment

When the person delivering sarcasm aims at the receiver’s vulnerable or soft spots, they risk hurting the other person, even if they shrug it off and laugh. This is especially true when the feeling behind the sarcastic remark smacks of hostility or anger. The aggression comes through.

It’s even worse when the person delivering the message denies their aggression by saying, “I was only kidding.” Now we’re moving into gaslighting.

The questions are:

  1. What’s the rationale for delivering a sarcastic remark if there’s the possibility that it could hurt the receiver or create confusion?
  2. Why not be direct about what’s bothering you without insulting or attacking someone?

Showing Contempt

Sarcasm used with aggression turns into contempt. You’re asserting your superiority over the other person. You might as well just come out and say, “I’m better than you!”

Research has shown contempt to be one of the most destructive devices in the breakup of marriages (John Gottman). It’s damaging to any relationship.

A Few More Considerations

Before we get to guidelines, there are a few more bits of information regarding gender differences in using sarcasm that are good to know.

Research has validated that men are more prone to using sarcasm than women. I would guess this is partly due to men’s upbringing to be more stoic and less directly expressive when verbalizing feelings. That has changed significantly over the last fifty years, yet it’s still a part of male socialization.

Engaging in sarcasm is a vehicle of male bonding to some degree, making it more acceptable. However, it still can have the same negative impact on men, although they may not show it or verbalize it. Women are less sarcastic overall but more so when talking to men than to other women.

Lastly, countries that value individualism, like the US and other Western cultures, use more sarcasm than countries that value collectivism. That doesn’t mean that aggression is different in those countries, but rather that it’s expressed through other mechanisms.

Now, let’s look at guidelines for use.

When and When Not to Use Sarcasm

Use sarcasm only when it’s appreciated equally by the giver and receiver.

Obviously, this means that before you make a sarcastic remark, ask yourself if the person you’re speaking to will find it as humorous as you do, if that’s your intent, or if they’ll appreciate the meaning behind it. If not, don’t do it.

Be extremely careful with using sarcasm to poke fun at someone’s soft spots or vulnerabilities.

It’s better to avoid doing this at all. Why take a chance?

Never use sarcasm when you’re angry, annoyed, frustrated, or feeling any hostile intent whatsoever.

Sarcasm can only make things worse and prevent you from resolving any issues that need attention. It will push the other person further away and build resentment. If you have a problem with someone, approach it directly. Say what you mean and consider the other person’s reactions, feelings, and possible responses before proceeding.

Avoid being contemptuous or disrespectful in any way, especially when using sarcasm.

Contempt is destructive. Verbalizing honest thoughts and feelings about an issue is fine, but doing it sideways with contempt will bring nothing but more destruction.

If you’re unsure, ask yourself:

“Might I hurt this person’s feelings by saying (whatever it is)?”

That will usually clear it up quickly for you.

Last Thing

It is fun sometimes to think up sarcastic remarks because it’s creative, and you can feel clever when you come up with a good one. I’ve done this many times myself. However, it’s not so brilliant when you truly consider how somebody will receive it and make them feel. Sometimes it’s just hurtful.

In dealing with couples in marriage counseling, I’ve noted that those who use a lot of sarcasm and, ultimately, contempt don’t last. The accrued negativity destroys the relationship over time.

The bottom line is to think hard before making a sarcastic remark to be sure you don’t hurt someone in the process.

That’s all for today.

Hope you have a great week!

All my best,



Blasko, D., Kazmerski, V. & Dawood, S. (2021). Saying what you don’t mean: A cross-cultural study of perceptions of sarcasm. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, 75(2), 114-119. DOI:10.1037/cep0000258

Dauphin, P. V.  Sarcasm in relationships. University of Pennsylvania.

Golden, B. (2022, Feb. 17). Key facts about sarcasm that can improve your relationships. Psychology Today.

Lisitsa, E. The four horsemen: Criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. The Gottman Institute.

McDonald, S. (1999). Exploring the process of inference generation in sarcasm: A review of normal and clinical studies. Brain and Language 68(3), 486-506. DOI: 10.1006/brln.1999.2124

Pederson, N. (2018, Dec. 5). Sarcasm: A clever way to destroy marriages. Medium.

Rockwell, P. & Theriot, E. M. (2001). Culture, gender, and gender mix in encoders of sarcasm: A self-assessment analysis. Communication Research Reports, 18(1), 44-52. DOI:10.1080/08824090109384781

Blog Short #161: How to Train Your Mind to See Silver Linings

Photo by Leonsbox, Courtesy of iStock Photo

We’re approaching Thanksgiving, so I thought I would focus on something more fitting this week. The idea of “silver linings” popped up in my mind because I’ve been thinking about some of mine lately and being grateful for them.

I won’t go into those, but I have some ideas for you about the value of silver linings, how to train your mind to notice them, and how best to access them.

Let’s dive in.

Where Silver Linings Live

I’ll start with an idea I’ve always resisted yet admitted to be true because of the evidence, both personally and otherwise. It’s this:

People seem to learn more, gain more insight, and feel more compelled to change when they suffer.

That’s an awful thought, isn’t it? You might argue that’s not always the case, and it isn’t, but it is more often than not. Friction, interruptions, obstacles, loss, and disappointments bring things to your attention that might not otherwise surface. They force you to look at things differently and then work to resolve the issues that arise from them.

Sometimes, the outcome is very positive and lifts you to a better level or place, and sometimes, you’re left with regrets or sadness, and sometimes the longer-term effects of trauma.

Even so, you might eventually find silver linings – some small (or large) insight that provides more meaning, opens up opportunities, or gives you peace.

Better yet, you can tune your mind toward noticing silver linings when they’re there. Here are some strategies to help you do this.

Habits that Help You Notice Silver Linings

1. Cultivate gratitude.

Gratitude isn’t just something you feel when you appreciate an experience or someone’s kindness toward you. It’s a mindset, and you can cultivate it. By doing so, you notice all kinds of things going on around you that you’re grateful for and appreciate but usually fly under your radar.

We’re so busy and distracted that we often don’t notice small graces and gifts or take the time to appreciate them. By making a conscious, concerted effort to take notice, you can greatly increase your sense of gratitude, allowing you to see the world in a more balanced way.

Humans operate with a negativity bias, so we naturally throw our attention that way, which colors our perceptions. Practicing gratitude helps counteract that.

Keeping a gratitude journal is the best practice for creating an appreciative mindset. It doesn’t have to be anything time-consuming or elaborate. Simply write – digitally or by hand – at least three things you’re grateful for daily.

If possible, I’d suggest doing this first thing in the morning because it sets your outlook before diving into the day. I’ve done this daily for more than eleven years now. I write ten things every morning with coffee before I get going. I’m always amazed at how such a small thing can shift my mood. It works.

Making it a habit also attunes you to noticing positive happenings in your environment and primes your mind toward recognizing silver linings when they occur.

2. Watch the stories you tell yourself.

We’re storytellers and, as such, create an ongoing narrative of our experiences – past, present, and future. These narratives tell the stories of our lives but are biased because we formulate them through the lens of our emotions, thoughts, values, beliefs, and reactions. They’re based on our interpretations of our experiences and embellished to fit in with our personal views of reality.

Our stories have power! They affect how we see and perceive every aspect of our lives.

You might miss those silver linings if your interpretations consistently lean toward the negative. We tend to hang on to what’s familiar, even if it’s not good for us. Silver linings usually challenge that kind of familiarity.

To change that, you need to carefully watch those narratives and do your best to interpret them more equitably.

That doesn’t mean being a Pollyanna, but giving equal time to the positive aspects of things as much as you do the negative. It makes life much easier.

3. Be aware of your information consumption.

You must be aware of your consumption of negativity from the media, toxic people, and toxic situations. We’ve just been talking about stories you tell yourself, but these are the stories other people are telling that you take in.

Just as our personal stories get skewed by our biases, stories from other sources often contain faulty information yet impact how you see the world and yourself in it.

This is particularly true with the prominent place social media has taken in our daily lives and its focus on sensationalism. Between email, social media, and the news, we get an ear and eye full that can clog us up emotionally and leave us feeling dazed and helpless.

Then there’s the ongoing chatter and influence from toxic interactions and relationships.

All of this will obliterate your view of silver linings, gratitude, and any sense of peace. Make sure you choose who and what you listen to to avoid teetering on the edge of doom.

Five More Things

Here’s a quick list of five more things you can do:

  1. Cultivate mindful optimism.
  2. Practice compassion for yourself and others.
  3. Watch out for catastrophizing and what-ifs.
  4. Do small things that bring you joy.
  5. See obstacles as challenges and embrace working on them rather than resisting them.

How should you access silver linings?

That may seem like a strange question– you access them when they come to you, right? Not always.

When you’re struggling with something or reacting negatively to an experience, there are usually people around you who, in the name of helping, try to distract you from your suffering. They say things like “Look on the bright side,” or “At least you didn’t get fired,” or “You’ll feel better in no time.”

These kinds of comments are usually intended to help and soothe you, but more often than not, they invalidate your natural reactions to adverse events.

Silver linings are not meant to blot out your natural responses to hurtful experiences that cause you to suffer.

You must go through those emotions until you can digest them and decide what to do. Don’t rush them. Allowing yourself to feel something all the way through helps you find those silver linings when you’re ready.

If you incur a physical injury, you can’t hurry up the healing process. You might do some things that help, like physical therapy or medication, but you still have to go through the healing process. And as you do that, you might learn something that leads to a lifestyle change to help prevent the same injury again.

I’m not saying you can’t tell yourself to look on the bright side or notice the “at leasts.” Just make sure you’re not suppressing your emotions because that’ll come back to bite you.

Learning to be patient with overcoming obstacles is more important than getting over them. That patience is the open door to the silver linings and your insights about them.

You can prime yourself to see them using the exercises we went over, but don’t rush them by trying to suppress your natural reactions to things that cause you to suffer.

A Quick Summary

Here’s our three takeaways:

  1. Cultivate regular practices that balance out your positivity and negativity so that you’re open to silver linings.
  2. Be patient with experiences that cause upheaval, suffering, or create obstacles. Allow yourself to work through your thoughts and feelings about them over time.
  3. Let silver linings come to you naturally as you work through adverse situations. Don’t rush them.

That’s all for today.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

All my best,


Blog Short #160: A 3-Step Process for Resolving High-Stake Conflicts

When you have a conflict with someone, especially someone you’re close to or know well, emotions can run high, and talking things out isn’t always successful. These are the types of conversations that have the potential to escalate quickly and create a stubborn rift that’s hard to mend.

One of the things people often do that makes these situations even more challenging is expecting to resolve them in one conversation. That applies additional pressure and sets the scene for a negative outcome, hurt feelings, and words you can’t take back.

A better approach is to solve the issue over time using some carefully crafted steps, which is what we’re going over today.

Let’s start by reviewing the type of problems that are more likely to need this multi-step approach.

Issues That Flame the Fire

Problems that are challenging to resolve and potentially flame the fire quickly are as follows:

1. They have a backstory.

The problem has come up before, and likely more than several times, and attempts to resolve it have ended in a stalemate. Sometimes, you put it away for a while or decide to let it go, but the issue remains. Sooner or later, it surfaces again and builds until there’s another attempt to resolve it, but you fail.

2. The emotional stakes are high.

The issue is saturated with strong feelings so that when the disagreement goes unresolved, bad feelings linger, negatively affecting the relationship and building resentment.

Even if the issue goes underground for a while, the negative emotional repercussions affect how each person feels toward the other. Sometimes, those feelings get shoved into other areas of the relationship or show up as ongoing bickering over more minor things. If the pattern continues long-term, it can erode the relationship.

3. The challenge involves differences in style, temperament, or emphasis.

Sticky problems can arise because of differences in personality characteristics and approaches.

An example might be a person who’s at home with emotions and likes to express them versus someone who’s more reserved and approaches things from a place of rationality and logic. Or maybe someone who likes things organized and planned out versus someone who flies by the seat of his pants and is spontaneous.

In both cases, the approaches clash and can leave both people scratching their heads and frustrated.

What do you do?

Sometimes, you can talk something through in one sitting and be successful, but if the problem falls into any of the above categories, it’s best to work on it over several conversations.

Here’s a blueprint for how to do that.

The First Conversation

The first conversation’s purpose is to understand where each person is, what they want, and how they think and feel about the issue. It’s not about solving the problem.

The trick is to do this without getting into an argument or exacerbating negative feelings between each other. Following these steps will help.

  1. Make it a rule at the outset that each person will get to talk without interruption until they signal that they’ve finished.
  2. One person takes the lead and lays out their version of the issue, how it affects them, and what they need to feel resolved about it. While this person talks, the other person should listen with openness and ask questions to clarify but suspend evaluating or responding to what they’re hearing. The goal is only to fully understand how that person views the situation and what they want or need.
  3. Next, swap places and go through the same process for the other person.
  4. Now, see if together you can write a clear statement defining the issue and what each person needs to feel that it’s resolved.

It’s important to make sure you don’t slip into problem-solving during this step. Also, avoid making any judgments about each other’s point of view. Your only goal is to understand where each of you stand.

Now Take a Break

A break can be for a few hours, a day, several days, or more. If it’s a highly contentious problem, more time is better. During the break, do these two things:

1. Look at the situation through the other person’s lens.

Even if you disagree, you can still imagine the other person’s mental processes and how they’ve come to their conclusions based on what they think and feel about the issue.

This step is often the hardest because it’s rare that we take the time to try to see something we have a substantial stake in from the other person’s point of view.

However, doing so is necessary and aids in finding a solution.

2. Get clear on what you both want or need.

Write this out with specifics for each person. This is key to resolving the problem.

The Second Conversation

The second conversation aims to bridge the emotional gap between the two of you so that you feel like a team working toward a solution instead of opponents.

To do this, go through this exercise:

Each of you should review out loud what you think the other person needs or wants, along with what they think and how they feel about the situation.

Doing this creates empathy for each other and ensures you understand where each of you is coming from. If you haven’t already, you need to connect and get on the same side.

Take a Second Break

During this break, your assignment is to generate ideas to lead to a win-win. Both of you should do this individually.

Using the insights you’ve gained from looking through the other person’s lens and using what you know about them, what would they need to feel satisfied with the outcome?

Now, think about yourself; what will work for you while also accommodating the other person? What’s a win-win you can both be happy with?

These solutions may not come up quickly and might take several rounds of thinking and considering different options. Still, the exercise will help you move toward a resolution.

The Third Conversation

Now it’s time to problem-solve. You can begin laying out the ideas and strategies you’ve each generated on your own and see how they sit.

Negotiate something that works for both of you and feels like a win-win rather than a win-lose.

An Important Benefit

In addition to resolving a complex issue with a win-win, using this 3-step process will also help you preserve the relationship.

When you’re angry, helpless, or feeling attacked, you’re much more likely to unleash your emotions with damaging words. It’s not unusual for people to dish out ultimatums, make threats, or attack the other person when they’re furious or outraged.

If you can hang in during an argument without doing any of those things and maintain your regard for the other person, you might go ahead with it. Even so, there is value in dividing the conversation into the steps we’ve gone over and resolving it over time.

The mission is to not only solve the problem, but maintain respect and feel positive toward each other when you get to the end of the process. When you don’t, you have a lot more to repair when it’s all over than just the initial problem.

The more you engage in personal attacks, the less likely the relationships will remain intact.

So, next time you have a burning issue to work out with someone, try this approach and see if it helps. By the way, this process works at the office as well as at home.

That’s all for today.

Have a great week!

All my best,


Blog Short #159: Why Self-Awareness is Important and How to Boost It

Photo by Sean Anthony Eddy, Courtesy of iStock Photo

You hear about self-awareness and the importance of it all the time, and it is important. But it’s helpful to know why it’s of value and what you gain from making it a habit.

Today, I’ll give you a quick sketch of what it is, a little about the theory behind it, and how you can use it to increase your well-being.

What is Self-Awareness?

My favorite definition of self-awareness comes from ​Courtney E. Ackerman, MA​, who writes for Positive Psychology. She states:

Self-awareness is the ability to see yourself clearly and objectively through reflection and introspection.

The whole notion of self-awareness assumes that we’re more than our thoughts. We’re the observer and the one who experiences. In other words, we can stand outside ourselves and watch and evaluate what we’re thinking, feeling, and doing.

The Purpose of Self-Awareness

By being able to observe and evaluate yourself, you’re able to see if your thoughts, feelings, and behavior align with your standards and values.

This means that self-awareness lets you know when you’re not operating or acting according to what you believe is right and what you value.

When you see a discrepancy between those two, you can make corrections and change your behavior accordingly.

Self-awareness is an exceptional capacity we have that other animals don’t have. However, there are degrees of it, meaning some people are highly self-aware and take advantage of this ability, and some fall on the other end of the continuum and have little self-awareness. They cruise through each day, acting and reacting without observing or evaluating their behavior, thoughts, and emotions.

That can be very problematic because it means you have little control or insight into your life and how you live it.

Here’s a list of benefits that you get when you’re self-aware but miss out on when you’re not.

The Benefits

This list is not exhaustive, but it captures the most critical capacities we need to evolve and thrive as human beings. All of these are enhanced and made possible by being self-aware.

  • Develop and maintain your conscience
  • Be able to empathize with others
  • Learn from history and avoid making the same mistakes over and over
  • Monitor, direct, and control your behavior
  • Create, plan, and reach goals
  • Engage in and sustain healthy relationships
  • Understand social cues
  • Take proper care of your body and health
  • Manage your emotions and moods
  • Find meaning that sustains you
  • Make well-thought-out decisions
  • Work with groups collaboratively
  • Increase emotional intelligence

Now, let’s look at how you can increase your self-awareness.

Practices to Enhance Self-Awareness

1. Meditation

I put this at the top of the list because the very act of meditation is an exercise in self-awareness. Regardless of the type of meditation you do, you’ll be involved in the practice of watching yourself. You might be watching your breath or a repetitive mantra, observing your body sensations or other stimuli, or visualizing an image. You’ll be actively involved in becoming more self-aware.

People who meditate regularly eventually become more aligned with the one watching than the one experiencing, and the results are greater calm, peace, emotional stability, acceptance, and compassion.

2. Mindfulness

Mindfulness is both a type of meditation and an exercise that you can use at any time. It entails noticing your thoughts, feelings, or sensory sensations as they arise without reacting to them. You’re like a curious bystander watching from the sidelines. The reward is that you get some space to choose whether or not to respond and how to do so.

If you’re angry, you can step back and observe yourself having that feeling, which allows you to think about how you want to react. It’s a little like a director freezing a scene temporarily while filming a movie to think about where he wants it to go before continuing.

Mindfulness practices allow you to become the writer, director, and actor simultaneously.

3. Journaling

Journaling has long been used to process thoughts and feelings. It’s a method of getting more clarification and insight that you can use to make better decisions. When you put thoughts and feelings in writing, you crystalize them in a way that gives you a clearer picture of them.

If you’ve ever needed reading glasses, it works a little like that. When you read without them, the words are blurred and run together, but when you put them on or you hold the book far enough back so you can focus, everything is clear and concise. You know exactly what you’re looking at.

Journaling is a great and easy way to get that kind of mental clarity.

4. Listening

We talk a lot. We like to express ourselves. But listening is an indispensable method of becoming both self-aware and other-aware. When you listen, you learn and gain insight. By listening, I mean listening to:

  1. Someone else speak or to conversations that are going on around you
  2. Your own thoughts and body sensations
  3. Sounds in the environment you wouldn’t necessarily hear unless you purposefully tune in, like birds singing or a car whizzing down the road

To truly listen, you have to be quiet and attentive. You have to remove distractions like tech devices or screens of any kind. When you stop, get quiet, and listen, you hear things that typically fly under your radar. You gain insights and a broader perspective, so you have more information.

The more you listen to both your inner self and outer environment, the more you know. And knowledge is power.

5. Talking therapy

Therapy is, or should be, about increasing self-awareness and gaining insight into how you see the world, yourself, and others. Some therapies focus on particular problems, such as anxiety or depression, which is fine, but self-awareness is always a key part of the work.

Talking with someone you’re very close to and trust is also a good avenue for increasing your self-awareness. You get feedback and different perspectives, as well as validation.

All these activities are helpful, and you don’t have to do them all. Choose one and try it for a while to see what you learn about yourself that you didn’t know. It’s an ongoing process, and the more you do it, the more you know.

The Right Mindset

You can become too self-aware. That happens when you get perfectionistic in your pursuit of knowing every minuscule thought or feeling that pops up, or you become overly self-conscious. You’re watching yourself with a judging eye and likely not measuring up.

Self-awareness is valuable when used without judgment. That doesn’t mean without evaluation, but without assigning good/bad appraisals to yourself.

The idea is to watch anything that arises in your mind or that you feel and evaluate how it fits your values and standards. It’s a process of being curious and learning, not being obsessive.

As soon as you begin to censor or punish yourself, you lose that open awareness and close it down. Then, you might start repressing, suppressing, and denying what you don’t want to see. That’s the opposite of self-awareness.

This experience I’ve had might help a little.

When I first started meditating years ago, and even now, I was horrified at times by the thoughts that popped up in my mind during meditation. Meditation loosens your subconscious and knocks down the dam holding all that stuff back.

Over time, it became easier to watch the flood come and go without reacting while also gaining insight into myself.

That’s the whole point.

To become self-aware is to become more compassionate – with yourself and with others.

It’s hard to be a human being, isn’t it? Yes, but knowing yourself is far better than not knowing. Again, knowledge is power.

I’ll close on that note today.

Have a fabulous week!!!

All my best,


Blog Short #158: The Dangers of Gaslighting

Photo by MangoStar_Studio, Courtesy of iStock Photo

Gaslighting is, at best, upsetting and, at worst, damaging if you’re on the receiving end of it often or regularly. Under those circumstances, you can feel like you’re losing your mind because you can’t get a grip on reality.

Today, I’m taking you through the processes and tools a gaslighter uses, as well as the effects and some strategies you can use to deal with it.

We’ll begin with a definition.

What is Gaslighting?

It’s a type of emotional abuse that makes you question the validity of your thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and memories. Gaslighting challenges your sense of reality, leaving you confused and unsure of yourself. You might feel a bit crazy and frequently second-guess yourself.

In short, gaslighting is a tool used by someone who seeks to gain power and control.

It’s a type of manipulation, but it’s more insidious and damaging to its victims than mild manipulation. We’re all guilty of manipulation occasionally, but the gaslighter aims to consistently erode your confidence, sense of self, and relationships with others. It’s disorienting, isolating, and creates dependency.

The Gaslighter’s Methods


Lying is the primary tool used by someone who gaslights. Sometimes, it shows up as denial.

“I never said that. You make things up in your head!”

Or they might counterattack when you catch them in a lie.

“Why would I do that? Are you nuts? You always look for the worst in me.”

Even though you remember what transpired, their denial is so vehement that you question what you know and shy away from confrontation. They rewrite history, and in their version, they’re always the good guy.

They embellish, distort, and create alternative narratives that make your head swim.


Gaslighters use projection to shift blame for their infractions to avoid the consequences of their behavior.

Let’s say you’re distressed because they didn’t show up for an important appointment you scheduled at their request. They respond by twisting the facts so that you’re to blame. You didn’t remind them, or they told you they couldn’t come on that day, but you forgot.

Gaslighters are great at twisting facts into narratives where they’re the victim. Sometimes, the blame is blatant:

“If you didn’t treat me this way, I wouldn’t get so angry! You’re the reason I have a temper.”


The gaslighter plays down your feelings as exaggerated or misplaced.

“You’re being too sensitive.” Or “It’s not a big deal. Why do you always blow things out of proportion?”

They belittle and chastise you for not attending to their feelings, which are always more important than yours.


Gaslighters are pros at distracting away from issues to avoid dealing with them. You ask about something they did, and they change the subject abruptly, often by engaging you in an argument or sometimes the opposite – being overly sweet and concerned. Both approaches catch you off guard and shift your attention away from the subject.


This one’s less direct but can be very damaging.

While acting abusively to you in private, in public, gaslighters present themselves with charm and wit.

Behind your back, they talk about your problems:

You seem distraught lately, confused, unable to make decisions, depressed, and overly anxious. You’re having mental health problems and seem unable to function well.

They may go so far as to enlist others, like family members, to assist in validating the lies they’re telling.

You may feel confused, depressed, and anxious and have difficulty making decisions, but it’s because of the chronic emotional twisting you’re experiencing from chronic gaslighting.

Who gaslights?

Gaslighting occurs most often in close, intimate relationships. Romantic relationships are prominent arenas, but also close friends, family members, and even co-workers. Unfortunately, gaslighting is often a tool used in cases of child abuse.

Serial gaslighters often have Narcissistic, Borderline, or Sociopathic Personality Disorders.

Effects on the Victim

The effects are varied from person to person, but the following list covers the most prominent effects.

  • Doubting the validity of your feelings and perceptions
  • Questioning your judgment and view of what’s real
  • Feeling confused, isolated, and powerless
  • Lacking confidence and trust in yourself
  • Thinking you’re overly sensitive and reactive
  • Feeling inadequate
  • Apologizing often and profusely
  • Worrying that others are disappointed in you
  • Feeling mentally ill and pondering what’s wrong with you
  • Having difficulty making decisions
  • Experiencing increased mood disturbances and anxiety

Chronic gaslighting creates trauma that assaults your very sense of self and confidence.

How to Handle It

Let’s start with two strategies that counteract the gaslighter’s intent to confuse and isolate you.

1. Question their motivation.

When you think of all the behaviors we’ve just described that characterize gaslighting, the obvious question is, “What motivates them?”

If you ask yourself this question for each incident, you’ll always come up with the same answer: The gaslighter is seeking to hide from their negative behavior, self-image, or inadequacy, and the method used is to make you question yourself.

The gaslighter’s deceptive behavior is never motivated by concern for you. There’s no love, consideration, or caring behind it. They seek to hide, control, isolate, and make you feel dependent upon them.

If you see this, you’ll know that you can’t believe the lies, denials, and twists of reality they dish up because the motivation is to challenge your sanity. The intent is to undermine you and exert control.

2. Stay connected to the outside world.

Successful gaslighting requires that you become isolated. That way, there’s no input except from the gaslighter.

Do the opposite. Stay in touch with other people you trust, who know and love you, respect you, and will support you. These can be family members, friends, and professionals. Input from this circle of people helps validate what you see and know, and counteracts the effects of gaslighting on your perceptual abilities.

If you’re intimately involved with the gaslighter, the effects are more potent, so you need more outside support to counteract that.

3. A third strategy is to “opt out.”

Not all people who gaslight do it chronically or regularly. Any of us might occasionally use it without malintent in order to defend ourselves against something we don’t want to look at or own up to.

In those cases, it’s a defensive maneuver, but if we see we’re harming someone, eventually, our conscience takes over, and we recognize what we’re doing and stop it.

When gaslighting is chronic and used knowingly to deceive and control, you might decide to opt out of the relationship because you see no prospects for permanent change.

When you do that, the gaslighter may change their tune long enough to get you back and then return to their usual behavior.

4. Other strategies you can use are:

  1. Set boundaries and stick to them. Lay out your expectations and deal-breakers explicitly, and then follow up.
  2. Keep a journal that documents your experiences, along with texts, emails, or any written information you can use to remind yourself of what happened in various situations so that when your memory is challenged, you can verify your perceptions.
  3. In work situations, make sure your interactions with the gaslighter are all documented in writing.
  4. Seek therapy if you can’t sort out what’s happening.
  5. Keep up with your self-care like sleep, eating well, meditation, exercise, and any relaxation tools or activities you use.
  6. Also, it’s important to maintain your interests, work, goals, and social contacts. Isolation is your enemy in this circumstance.

Last Thing

Whether or not you find yourself involved with someone who fits the description of a gaslighter, it’s always important to note when someone’s dishonest and distorts reality consistently. A single out-of-character incident is something you can work with, but any chronic display of those behaviors is problematic and something to take note of.

That’s all for today!

As always, I hope you have a great week!

All my best,


Blog Short #157: How to Deal with People Who Take Things Personally

Photo by nicoletaionescu, Courtesy of iStock Photo

What do you do when you need to let someone know their behavior is causing you distress, but you know they’ll take it so personally that they’ll either defend, get angry, break down in tears, or totally dismiss what you say? It’s like walking in a minefield.

There are some strategies you might try that are effective, but it helps first to know why someone might react this way because what avenue you decide to take will depend on knowing the cause of the problem.

Let’s start with a quick outline of why people personalize.

The Need to Protect

In all cases, personalizing signals a need to protect against a perceived assault, even when there’s no intent to assault or criticize. That signal usually leads to a fight-or-flight response. Here are some common underlying causes.

The Narcissist

The narcissistic person has a strong need to protect his sense of self, which is tenuous at best. Because there’s no solidity to his identity, he operates with a pseudo-self, which is easily dismantled and which he must protect at all costs.

Any hint of criticism is an attack on the whole self.

So, if you comment on his behavior in any way, it means you’re dissing his entire personality.

If you’ve ever been in a relationship with someone like this, you’ve likely experienced this phenomenon. You point out a behavior you don’t like – something like “I wish you’d put your clothes away after you take them off,” – and they react with an angry counterattack that has nothing to do with the issue you brought up, or they generalize that you attack them all the time about everything, or they begin rewriting history and go off on a tangent that’s so confusing and blown up, you can’t return to the issue.

They can’t take in what you’ve said and won’t.

The Highly Sensitive

This person is highly sensitive to criticism, not because they’re narcissistic, but because their feelings are easily hurt, and they experience intense guilt when they do something “wrong.”

There are several reasons this could occur.

  1. It could be part of this person’s natural temperament. They were born with greater sensitivity to stimuli than others.
  2. They’re perfectionistic and feel shame when they make a mistake. Anything less than perfection means they’re not worthy.
  3. They equate criticism with abandonment. When someone’s mad at them, they feel a loss.

The Traumatized

Someone with background trauma can have triggers that cause them to overact in particular situations.

For example, if you experienced abuse growing up, you’re more likely to be hypervigilant and watchful for signs you could be hurt or attacked. You might react to small things defensively or shut down when you sense displeasure.

Heavily traumatized people have difficulty separating current situations from past experiences and can respond to you as though you’re trying to hurt them.

Their perceptions become distorted.

The Avoider

Denial runs through all of the typologies we’re discussing, but it’s particularly prevalent among people who avoid dealing with issues.

These folks lack self-awareness. They typically avoid when possible, defend when they can’t, and often deny what’s right in front of them.

They refuse to consider information contrary to their view, rarely take responsibility for their behavior, and avoid talking about it when someone brings it to their attention.

They can appear to be narcissistic, as we’ve described above, and may be, but not always. They can present as very quiet, calm, and unaffected.

They brush it off, and the feeling is that the shop’s closed and locked up. No entry.

Other Possibilities

In addition to the above, someone might be more prone to personalize when they’re:

  • Stressed
  • Overly tired
  • Feeling unwell or sick
  • Struggling with something else you have no awareness of

Under any of those circumstances, someone who normally doesn’t personalize might feel particularly vulnerable and become more sensitive or defensive. Most everyone’s experienced that.

Now, let’s look at some strategies you can use.

The Strategies

1. Preface what you want to say with a disclaimer.

Let the person know you want to talk about a single behavior, but you’re not saying you don’t think highly of them or feel any ill will towards them. In other words, this isn’t an attack. For the narcissist in particular, this is especially important. You want to emphasize that you’re struggling with a specific behavior and are not indicting their whole person.

Depending on how well you know this person, you can preface what you have to say with positive attributes you appreciate. That buffers the complaint some and creates more receptivity. You don’t need to be fake or overdo it, but setting up the buffer first can help.

It’s also imperative to make your complaints with “I” statements. Never start with “you.” Remember that the person you’re talking to is likely extra sensitive to criticism.

2. Normalize mistakes and errors, especially for the highly sensitive person.

Their problem is not so much one of denial but rather beating themselves up for even the smallest of infractions. Remind them that you make mistakes all the time, as we all do, and that’s just part of being human.

Focus on why you wanted to bring up the issue and how you hope doing so will make things better for both of you. Let them know you expect them to do the same when something bothers them.

3. Set boundaries when the reaction is either over the top or underwhelming.

When dealing with the avoider, the reaction is often underwhelming because although they don’t present as though they’re personalizing what you say, they’re blowing you off because they need to disown any responsibility for your concern.

It’s an underhanded and unconscious method of personalizing, but it’s so inaccessible that you often can’t deal with it directly.

Let them know they’re stonewalling you and that it’s not okay.

You can also set boundaries with the narcissist who’s likely to deal with a perceived threat with revenge, a counterattack, or angry denial.

You don’t need to accept abusive behavior, and you might eventually get a better response by refusing to participate.

You might even bring the person around because they can’t stand the feeling of loss, either of you or their self-esteem.

Basic Guidelines to Follow

  • Use “I” messages which we’ve already established
  • Describe behaviors only
  • Don’t label, diagnose, or negatively characterize the person
  • Avoid getting baited into a battle of wills or exchange of personal attacks
  • Make your boundaries clear regardless of receptivity on the other person’s part

You always want to engage in the most successful interchange possible, leaving both parties feeling good about the conversation. However, that’s not always possible. Both people need to want that.

Your role is to ensure your behavior is above reproach and that you’re sensitive to the other person without being dragged down into conduct you disapprove of. That’s not always easy, and it’s better to opt out than get pulled in.

What about you?

It’s also good to know when you personalize and for what reasons. We all have triggers, and when you know what yours are, you can be more aware of when you distort perceptions, especially when it comes to perceived criticism. I think that’s hard for most people.

An excellent personal goal is to get good at hearing constructive criticism without overreacting, and using it to improve yourself.

That’s an accomplishment!

That’s all for today.

Hope you have a great week!

All my best,


Blog Short #156: 8 Ways to Challenge Helplessness

Photo by simpson33, Courtesy of iStock Photo

One of the most challenging emotions to deal with is helplessness. By definition, it removes your sense of control. You feel like you’re floating in limbo and trapped in repetitive ruminations. It’s exhausting and emotionally debilitating.

There’s usually not a quick solution to relieving helplessness, but there are things you can do to upend it, or at least put a chink in it and get yourself moving again. Here are eight things to try.

1. Do a thorough assessment.

As best you can, identify what’s causing you to feel helpless.

Sometimes, this is easy because the cause is specific and concrete, like working on a document on your computer, and your screen freezes before you can save it. You feel helpless because you don’t know what to do. In a situation like this, you can Google the problem, get some direction, and take steps to relieve your helplessness.

Less specifically, you might feel stuck in a never-ending pattern of having too much on your plate, and you’re worn out, emotionally spent, can’t sleep even though you’re exhausted, and you see no way out.

A situation like this isn’t so easily tackled or fixed because you don’t see steps you can take to change it.

An even more challenging situation is being stuck in a horrible job or an abusive relationship and feeling helpless to get out because you’re afraid of the consequences. Maybe you need the income and don’t think you have the skills for a better job. Or you’re afraid of leaving your abusive partner because you’ll have to share custody of the kids, and you don’t want that.

These are complex situations with multiple factors to consider that leave you in a perpetual state of spiraling.

Start with a thorough assessment of what’s feeding your helpless feelings. Write it down. All of it, and get clear on the problem (or problems). List everything you can think of that pertains to the situation.

2. Focus on what you can do.

Ask yourself what actions you can take to begin unraveling the situation. Often, helplessness looms because you see the solution as a single option. More likely, there are many small directions you can start with that won’t solve the whole problem but will give you a sense of control and momentum.

For example, you could consider learning a new skill if you don’t like your current job. It could be small in scale but achievable in a short amount of time. That wouldn’t change your job situation, but it would open a door in your mind to begin moving outward. After learning that skill, learn another. Then, you could look at jobs and see how your new skills might apply.

Start with any small action that changes the current state of things, even if it doesn’t solve your immediate problem. When you do that, you’re moving again, and doors eventually open. Possibilities come to light.

3. Get help.

There are three ways to approach this:

  1. Talk over your situation with someone you trust who can help you sort through and brainstorm options.
  2. Seek professional help that pertains to your problem.
  3. Actively gather information on your own that can help you resolve the issue.

Any of these will stimulate action and help you break up your paralysis.

4. Challenge your thoughts and patterns.

You can exacerbate helplessness with repetitive thoughts of powerlessness. Sometimes, you tell yourself you have no power when, in fact, you do. Either the hill seems too hard to climb, or you’ve become accustomed to living in a state of unhappiness and feeling stuck, or you’ve caved to someone else’s definition of how things should be.

In all these cases, you’ve decided where you are is the only place you can be.

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “learned helplessness.”

Learned helplessness happens when you repeatedly struggle with the same situation and fail to resolve it so that when an opportunity to overcome it presents itself, you don’t take it.

It’s like being locked in a room, and every day, you work at breaking the lock until you eventually don’t try anymore, even when someone unlocks the door for you from the outside.

Whether that fits you or not, it’s always good to look at the assumptions around your feelings of helplessness and challenge them to see how you might contribute to them or distort the facts.

It’s not that you aren’t experiencing genuine feelings of helplessness, but you may have closed the door to possibilities and opportunities to make real change.

5. Accept there are things you can’t change.

Things happen daily that we have no power to change, like fluctuating world situations. Focusing on them relentlessly can lead to depressive helplessness that’s paralyzing.

That’s not to say you can’t contribute to solving a problem or contribute to a cause you care about. You can, and doing what you can individually is helpful and adds up the more people who do so.

What isn’t good is to become so preoccupied with the daily onslaught of negativity that you can’t function. Choose what you can do and do it, and don’t be sideswiped by what you can’t.

Remain present while keeping an eye toward the future, but without living in it.

6. Take an inventory of your strengths and assets.

When you feel helpless, you can quickly spread that feeling into unworthiness.

If that’s happening, review what you have to offer.

  • What are you good at?
  • What can you handle or have handled in the past?
  • Where have you succeeded or contributed?
  • How did you do that?

When you’re feeling low, it’s easy to forget all your successes and brush them aside, but by reviewing them, you might recall strategies you’ve used in the past to overcome situations that you can use again now. You can reshape them to fit the current situation and raise your confidence at the same time.

Doing so will help lift your mood and restore your sense of worth, which is part of the battle.

7. Take care of yourself.

Helplessness is draining, both emotionally and physically. It’s a circular trap. It’s much easier to feel helpless when you’re exhausted, and when you feel chronically powerless, you get exhausted.

Even when you can’t come up with solutions, take care of yourself. And especially when that’s the case. Most of us regress when we feel helpless and eat worse, become couch potatoes, mindlessly scroll through social media, binge-watch TV, stop exercising, and sometimes indulge in more damaging activities like drinking, overspending, and (you fill in the blank.)

Keeping yourself as healthy as possible when you’re under stress is crucial. You know that, so do what you can that fits into your schedule without overtaxing you.

8. Set up accountability.

If you feel paralyzed, it’s a good idea to set up an outside structure you can’t get out of. This could be a life coach, accountability partner, a job if you don’t have one, joining a support group, an exercise buddy, or anything where you have to answer to someone else. Don’t feel bad about needing that. Just set it up, and you’ll find it easier to break up the paralysis and overwhelm.

Final Thoughts

No matter the situation, helplessness is temporary, whether it extends over time or just a few days. You won’t remain there unless you take it on as part of your existence. There’s a choice involved, always. See where you can take action. That’s the primary key, and once you do, you’re on the way to changing where you are, no matter how small a change the first steps are.

That’s all for today.

Hope you have a great week!

All my best,


Blog Short #155: Is Your Superego a Friend or Foe?

Photo by Nastassia Samal, Courtesy of iStock Photo

Is your superego pounding you to death? I’m assuming here that you know what a superego is. You may know if you’ve had a psychology course or read up on it, but you may just know it as the voice in your head that tells you when you’re headed in the wrong direction.

This week, I’m describing the superego’s functions and talking about what it means to have a harsh superego and what you can do to soften it and make it more useful.

What is the Superego?

The superego is the part of your personality that keeps track of the rules, values, and beliefs you’ve internalized growing up. Your parents have the greatest impact on how your superego develops and operates, but you also draw from your community and the social norms that are part of your culture.

There are two aspects of the superego. These are your “conscience” and your “ego-ideal.” Let’s start with the ego ideal.

1. The Ego-Ideal

Most of us have an ego ideal, although you may not be aware of yours or haven’t labeled it that way.

It’s your image of the perfect person – the model you wish to emulate or become. It’s what and who you aspire to, including the values you hold dear and rules and standards for how you should behave.

Sometimes, your ego ideal is a real person you admire because you respect their values and how they conduct themselves.

Your ego ideal may be a composite of various people who express the personality characteristics you find worthy. You may want to be empathetic like your mom, have moral strength like your grandfather, or stand up for what you believe like your father.

You might emulate a public figure who you feel is principled and lives a moral life.

It’s your ideal of the person you strive to be.

2. Your Conscience

The other aspect of your superego is your conscience.

Your conscience is the rule-keeper that guides your actions and behaviors in keeping with your ego ideal.

It’s that voice that says “uh-uh” when you’re vacillating toward behavior that strays away from those rules and values. It suppresses desires that lead to socially unacceptable, immoral, or harmful conduct.

Your conscience is responsible for the guilt you feel when you deviate from principles you’ve established as part of your ego ideal.

It’s the voice in your head that objects when you have the impulse to say something mean to someone, or steal some pens from the office supply cabinet and take them home, or tell a white lie to avoid looking bad.

It’s there to ensure that what you do aligns with your ideals and values.

What happens when your superego is overly harsh?

Your superego is necessary and helpful because it keeps you on the right path to develop and thrive. However, when it’s overly harsh, it obstructs your development and holds you back.

An easy way to think of a harsh superego is to picture a loud, stern authority figure (could be a parent, coach, or boss) yelling at you with an angry, distorted expression and jabbing at you in the air with a pointed finger.

Just think of a super-critical, unfeeling person who chastises you relentlessly, always pointing out your deficits.

Your superego can be like that, only it’s inside you and coming from you. It’s your voice telling you everything that’s wrong with you – you’re lazy, a failure, uncaring, unsuccessful, unlovable, stupid, and any other horrible attributes you might assign to yourself. It lands on you with a thud when you make a mistake and won’t let up even after you’ve corrected it.

The Other Side of the Coin

Having a harsh superego can also make you harsh with other people.

You might have unrealistic expectations of others or chronic judgmental thoughts and interpretations of their behavior. You might not display it outwardly, but internally, that voice in your head is dishing out the same harsh commentary on other people’s behavior as yours.

If someone complains regularly about what’s wrong with other people and focuses excessively on their “poor” behavior, most likely, they apply that same harsh judgment to themselves, even if not verbalized or conscious.

In other words, if you’re harsh with yourself, you’re likely the same when it comes to other people, even if you don’t think so or don’t recognize it. That makes sense because your superego is an equal-opportunity taskmaster.

What makes for a healthy Superego?

I always think of the superego as the parent in my head.

Using that image helps a little bit to formulate what a healthy superego is. Just imagine what a good parent would do to help you strengthen your conscience, define your values, and conduct yourself accordingly.

How does a parent help a child develop those aspects of his personality?

Very simply, by using both compassion and discipline together.

Imagine a parent who’s caring, accepting, and offers unconditional love while also establishing rules, teaching values, and applying limits to behavior that isn’t acceptable. This parent expects mistakes and teaches children how to repair and improve without attacking their sense of worth.

A good superego works like that.

The voice is friendly and on your side, yet holds you accountable for living up to your values, conscience, and moral standards. It’s compassionate when you struggle or falter.

When you treat yourself this way, you treat others the same. You can acknowledge a lack of values and harmful behavior without attacking and with a sense of compassion.

That doesn’t mean you excuse abusive, unconscionable behavior. Not at all. But it isn’t accompanied by hatred and a desire for revenge. Instead, you set limits on yourself and others when necessary.

So, how do you cultivate a healthy superego?

1. Step One

The first step is to examine your superego, and you can do this best by watching your thoughts and perceptions of yourself.

  • How harsh are you?
  • How effectively do you use that voice to improve without demolishing your self-worth?
  • Are you both compassionate and firm with yourself?

2. Step Two

Examine your ego ideal.

  • What are the characteristics?
  • What values?
  • What principles?
  • Who do you aspire to be, and what does that look like?

Write it out. When you write it, you’ll get more clear on it.

3. Step Three

Now ask, how solid is my conscience?

  • What’s your sense of right and wrong?
  • How clear is it?
  • And does your behavior align with the rules and values that your conscience upholds?
  • How far or how often do you stray, and how do you react when you do?
  • Do you make amends and change behaviors, or do you justify?

If your superego is very harsh, you might justify to escape the guilt that descends upon you when you make a mistake. Conversely, you might attack someone else for the same behavior, yet you don’t recognize that discrepancy.

Neither of those approaches will help you. Work toward being compassionate with yourself while also being honest about what you need to work on. Set boundaries for yourself on behavior that’s unacceptable, and repair mistakes as they occur. But when you struggle or fall, get back up and do better without beating yourself up.

Just keep in mind that being overly harsh will make things worse, not better.

That’s all for today.

Have a great week!

All my best,


P.S. If you want to know more about how to be your own best parent, read this article.

Blog Short #154: An Easy Strategy to Bypass Resistance and Get Stuff Done

Photo by Devenorr, Courtesy of iStock Photo

I have all kinds of little tricks to outwit my resistance to working on goals, especially researching and writing. So, I’m always looking for new things to try, and this week, I found one I want to pass on to you. You might already use it, but if not, you might like to try it.

I got it from Jon Acuff in his new book All It Takes is a Goal. I have to say I wasn’t thrilled about reading another book about goals because goals aren’t the problem for me, but doing the work consistently is. But I like Jon Acuff and have read all his books, so why not? And the book was great!

The strategy’s simple. I’ve been using it for a couple of weeks and am surprised at how well it works. So, let’s start with a description.

The “15-Minute Strategy”

Can you guess by the title what it is? Probably so.

In short, it’s using any 15-minute (or more) stretch of time that presents itself to you over the day.

For example, if you’re baking something in the oven, snatch 15 minutes while waiting for it to be done and do something productive. It could be writing, doing a couple of Yoga stretches, lifting a few weights, or reading a chapter in a book. It could be anything!

What about while sitting at the mechanic’s waiting for your oil to be changed?

Or hanging out after dinner before getting into your nightly routine.

Or waiting for a meeting to start.

Use just 15 minutes to do something that moves you toward your goals.

Most of us are pretty good at multi-tasking already and use those extra minutes to do other household chores, but likely, you also use them to check social media or watch YouTube.

By using short pockets of time like this to do something focused on one of your goals, you’ll move yourself closer to it.

Jon Acuff said he wrote his new book in fifteen-, thirty-, and sixty-minute segments. The whole thing! That’s rather amazing!

Why This Works

This strategy works because it doesn’t alert your resistance radar. When you know you’re only going to spend fifteen minutes on something, you don’t have much resistance to doing it. It’s so short you’ll barely notice the time, and even if the task is something you usually procrastinate on, you won’t mind working at it when you put limitations on the time you’ll spend doing it.

That’s the first reason it works. The second is that it gets you started. You don’t finish, but you begin. And starting almost always creates momentum. It gets you over that hump of dread and generates a little energy. You might say to yourself, “That wasn’t so bad. I don’t mind doing that again.” And likely you will because of the restrictions around the time.

What often happens is that once you’ve started, you don’t want to quit and spend more time on the task than you’d intended to. Even so, you don’t have to! It’s that escape door that makes this work.

A third reason it works is that even if you’re very busy, there are always those strange pockets of time when you’re waiting for something.  Waiting for a meeting to start or waiting for another person to arrive and or get ready to go. You might be sitting in your car waiting for someone you’re picking up, and you could listen to a podcast or a book on tape.

I’m not saying you should be busy every moment and not have downtime. Absolutely, you need downtime! We all do and should schedule it to be sure we get it.

But there is a certain amount of wasted or waiting time that you could use for goal-related tasks and feel better for it.

It Adds Up

Let’s do some calculations.

If you completed five 15-minute sessions weekly, that would amount to 75 minutes per week. If you did that for 52 weeks, that would add up to 3,900 minutes, which, when divided by 60, comes out to 65. That means you would have completed 65 hours of work just doing that small amount every week. If you double that, you have 130 hours.

That might not seem like all that much, but this is time you normally wouldn’t be aware of because you waste it. It’s time that can bring you closer to your goals and increase your momentum.

In the examples Jon Acuff provided in his book, some people used 20-minute segments and some 30. Still, many stuck to fifteen and did a fair amount of them as they found more and more opportunities every day they’d never noticed were available.

One woman finished her online degree by listening to audio from a video or her textbooks being read aloud while waiting in the car rider pickup line for her kids at school.

Another made use of microwave time to exercise.

And another used waiting time for Zoom meetings to start to work on small tasks.

These are great examples, and when you begin using this strategy, you find all kinds of little pockets of time to do your work and get better at scaling what things will fit nicely in these spaces. It’s fun to see what you can do!

What can you do in fifteen minutes?

I’ve already given you some ideas based on the examples, but here’s a longer list to provide you with more ideas. You can add your own to it.

  • Lift weights, do pushups, or run-in-place
  • Writing or editing of any kind – blog, article, book, journal
  • Compose an important email
  • Organize your to-do list
  • Enter data
  • Listen to a short podcast
  • Watch a school or job-related video
  • Read
  • Make an important phone call
  • Post work-related material on social media
  • Record a short lesson if you’re teaching or creating courses
  • Brainstorm ideas to solve a problem
  • Meditate
  • Review your expenses for the week
  • Fill in your calendar
  • Clean off your desk
  • Walk outside to clear your head
  • Work on any project you have going
  • Clean off your desktop
  • Organize your Dropbox
  • Schedule appointments
  • Conduct a short meeting
  • Study or practice a new skill
  • Update your resume
  • Work on a job application
  • Clean out your email box

This list is not exhaustive, and some of these activities might take longer than 15 minutes, but you could still start something and finish it later if that’s the case. You can do many of them successfully in fifteen minutes or stretch them out to within thirty minutes.

It doesn’t matter what you choose, but rather to make use of wasted time on something that will move you toward your goals and that you might resist doing if you think you need to do it for a long time.

You already know that it’s helpful to break big tasks down into smaller ones to reduce getting overwhelmed, but using small time segments breaks it all down even more.

Using time as a measure instead of task completion is immediately soothing because you see the beginning and end and can imagine getting through that quickly.

Time segments also help you get quite good at knowing exactly how much time various tasks will take or how much you can get done on a specific task in a particular time frame.

For example, I know generally how many words I can write in fifteen minutes. Having that kind of information at your fingertips makes you much more efficient.

That wraps it up for today.

Next week, we’ll return to something more psychologically oriented, but for today, I wanted to share my new find, and I hope you’ll try it and find it helpful.

Have a great week!

All my best,


Acuff, J. (2023). All It Takes Is a Goal: The 3-Step Plan to Ditch Regret and Tap Into Your Massive Potential. Baker Books.

Blog Short #153: How to Deal With Regret

Photo by fizkes, Courtesy of iStock Photo

Everyone experiences regret even if they say they don’t. You might believe that everything you’ve experienced has gotten you to where you are today and that you wouldn’t have done anything differently, yet you’ve still experienced moments of regret along the way.

To have no regrets would mean having no conscience or being perfect and above making errors. We’ve all done something or not done something that we regret.

Regret is a teacher and keeps you on track. It’s valuable. It “clarifies” and “instructs, and when used correctly, can lift you (Pink, 2022).

Today, we’re going through Daniel Pink’s four “core regrets,” as outlined in his book The Power of Regret, along with a quick sketch of the strategies he offers to deal with them. (See note below).

Regret is Built into Our Cognitive Structure

We have regrets because of our ability to “dip back into the past, rewrite history, and imagine” what would have been better (Pink, 2022). By comparing where we are with where we could have been if only we’d acted differently, we can construct a future we could have had in our minds. Pink calls this “counterfactual thinking.”

He also points out that we blame ourselves 95% of the time for our regrets based on faulty decisions.

How Regrets Can Help Us

Pink points to three benefits you can take advantage of when you have a regret.

  1. Improve decisions. Regrets make you rethink your behavior and decisions. They slow you down and require more research and consideration about what you’re doing and the direction you’re taking. Although regret feels negative, the benefits are positive.
  2. Boost performance. When you have to think about alternative scenarios – what might have been – you widen your vision. You consider new ideas and possibilities. You stretch yourself, develop creative strategies and solutions, and forge new pathways. Your performance improves as a result.
  3. Deepen meaning. Comparing your “if onlys” to what could have been adds more poignancy to your experiences and supplies meaning. You can come up with silver linings, which Pink calls “at leasts.”

Regrets are broader than failures. They’re part of a process of being and doing and provide guidance along the way. They can come from either actions or inactions.

Pink categorizes them into “four core types.” You’ll recognize all of them.

The Four Core Regrets

1. Foundation Regrets

Foundation regrets are about “failure to be responsible, conscientious, or prudent.”

These regrets are about basic life stability: home, job, money, and health. Think of it as your personal infrastructure. When you overspend, indulge in unhealthy habits, procrastinate, or fail to fulfill your responsibilities, the foundation underneath you wobbles. And if you continue, it can develop cracks and fissures that make life unsafe or untenable.

Foundation regrets come from ignoring how current habits and behavior will negatively impact your future well-being.

2. Boldness Regrets

Boldness regrets are about the “opportunities you didn’t take.”

These are regrets of inaction. You didn’t take that trip to Europe, open that business, or ask that girl to go out. These are the regrets of what might have been if only you’d been brave enough to take the risk.

3. Moral Regrets

Moral regrets are about doing something that rubs up against your values and conscience.

This category is harder to define because of the variability of what people consider right or wrong. Much of what we agree upon comes from Judeo-Christian ethics outlined most succinctly by the Ten Commandments, but even there, interpretations vary.

Pink outlines five generally regretted actions which are:

  1. Causing harm
  2. Cheating
  3. Disloyalty
  4. Subversion
  5. Desecration

Moral regrets are about “doing the right thing.”

4. Connection Regrets

Connection regrets are about failure to attend to the people who give your life meaning and purpose.

These are partners, spouses, parents, children, siblings, friends, and colleagues. You have regrets either about a relationship that’s no longer intact or one that’s fractured and in danger of disintegration. Pink calls them “closed-door” or “open-door” relationships.

Connections regrets are the largest of the four categories.

The Strategies

Undo it.

This strategy asks the question, “What can I do to make amends or repair?” Several weeks ago, we covered how to apologize. Sincere apologies are a mainstay of this strategy.

You can apply this strategy to someone else or to yourself. When applied to you, you’re usually working on foundation issues – habits devoted to keeping up with things and taking care of yourself. When applied to someone else, it may be either a moral or connection regret.

At Least it.

At Leasts look for the upside of regret. Pink provides three questions to ask yourself to use this strategy:

  1. “How could the decision I now regret have turned out worse?”
  2. “What is one silver lining in this regret?”
  3. “How would I complete the following sentence? “At least . . .”

An example of an “at least” statement is: “I regret my first marriage, but at least I got my children, for which I am forever grateful.”


Studies have shown that telling someone else about regrets is relieving.

Regrets take an unspoken toll on you and lead to chronic rumination. They’re taxing emotionally and physically and can drain you of energy.

Even writing them out or speaking them into a recorder is helpful.

By doing any of these, you relive the situation, followed by feelings of relief. Plus, putting something into words or writing it forces you to crystallize and integrate your thoughts so you can see them objectively.

If you’re not comfortable telling someone, use writing or recording. Pink suggests writing for 15 minutes three consecutive days or talking into a voice recorder for 15 minutes three successive days.


Gaining some distance from the regret allows you to see it without beating yourself up. You “zoom out” and act as an observer detached from the situation. There are three ways to do this:

  1. Act as a “fly-on-the-wall,” and listen to yourself telling someone else what you regret.
  2. Go five or ten years out (or longer) and imagine how you would feel about the regret at that point.
  3. Use third-person words like “she, him, or they” when describing the regret rather than first-person words like “I, me, or my.” You could also refer to yourself as “you,” which gives you some distance.


Self-compassion is an alternative to self-criticism. It’s been studied extensively by psychologist Kristin Neff. Taking from her research, Pink describes it like this:

Rather than belittling or berating ourselves during moments of frustration and failure, we’re better off extending ourselves the same warmth and understanding we’d offer another person. Self-compassion begins by replacing searing judgment with basic kindness. It doesn’t ignore our screwups or neglect our weaknesses. It simply recognizes that “being imperfect, making mistakes, and encountering life difficulties is part of the shared human experience.” (Neff, 2007).

The biggest worry people have about self-compassion is that they think it’s permissive and complacent and encourages people to ignore their responsibility, but this isn’t accurate. It keeps us from ripping ourselves to shreds while also turning our attention toward making amends, finding solutions, and being responsible.

Beating ourselves up keeps us immobile because it entraps us in a circle of shame rather than allowing us to accept our mistake, neutralize it, and take action.

Anticipating Regrets

We’ve been talking about regrets for things that have already occurred. You can also use the information you’ve learned today to prevent regrets by taking action now.

You can change the way you treat people, decide to take calculated risks when opportunities arise, look at your daily behavior and habits related to foundation responsibilities, and value your relationships by showing more appreciation and gratitude for the people in your life who inspire you, provide meaning, and give you purpose.

And, if you like this subject, read Daniel Pink’s book! It provides a whole different way of looking at regrets. It’s therapeutic!

That’s all for today.

Have a great week!

All my best,


A quick note: Daniel Pink and associates conducted a survey in 2021 called the American Regret Project that polled 4,489 people about their regrets, which is cited throughout his book. The survey is ongoing today. You can take the survey ​here​.


Neff, K. (2011). Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. HarperCollins, Kindle Edition.

Neff, K. D., Kirkpatrick, K. L., &  Rude, S. S. (2007). Self-compassion and adaptive psychological functioning. Journal of Research in Personality 41(1), 139–54.

Pink, D. H. (2022).  The Power of Regret: How Looing Back Moves Us Forward. Riverhead Books.

Zeelenberg, M., & Pieters, R. (2007). A theory of regret regulation 1.0. Journal of Consumer Psychology 17(1),  3–18.

Zhang, J. W., & Chen, S. (2016). Self-compassion promotes personal improvement from regret experiences via acceptance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 42(2), 244–58. DOI: 10.1177/0146167215623271