Skip to main content

Blog Short #177: Why Do You Remember Something Differently Than Someone Else?

Photo by milorad kravic, Courtesy of iStock Photo

Imagine you’re conversing with a good friend, or maybe your partner or family member, and talking about an event you both experienced. As you speak, your memories of what happened, what was said, and how it felt are different.

You remember some things the same way, but you each recall particular parts of the event differently. Maybe one of you recalls something the other doesn’t remember at all.

Why does this happen?

You probably have some ideas but don’t know how variable and distorted your memories can be. It’s rather impressive!

It’s all related to how memories are formed and retrieved over time and what they mean to you. Other factors are also involved, which we’ll go over today.

It helps to have this information because it will change how you look at past experiences. You’ll understand why your memories can be significantly different than someone else’s and how they can become distorted.

Let’s start with how memories are made.

The 4-Step Process of Memory Formation

Four steps must successfully occur to form a memory and make it stick: encoding, consolidation, storage, and retrieval.

All of these are facilitated by your hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with learning and memory. Let’s go through them briefly.

  1. Encoding is the identification and capturing of what’s happening. It includes recognizing all the sensory information, such as sight, sounds, and smells, as well as the emotions, meanings, and perceptions you assign to what’s happening. Your brain then translates all of this information into “neurological language.”
  2. In the consolidation phase, the hippocampus connects all the encoded neurological information into a “single pattern” of neural associations. In other words, a unique neurological network representing the memory is created and it’s a stable pattern.
  3. Storage occurs once the consolidation process is complete. The memory is maintained over time and stored in your brain, where it can be retrieved.
  4. Retrieval means what it says. You can now recall the memory by activating the neural pattern established during consolidation. And you can revisit it as often as you like.

That all sounds great, right? So what’s the problem?

The problem is that many opportunities exist for distortions to occur along the way. Let’s begin with how memories are stored.

Why Your Memories Might Not Be Accurate or Complete

If you’re like me, you imagine that your memories are stored in your brain in a single location, something like your hard drive on your computer. Or maybe like a huge file room with many files and file cabinets labeled by year.

That, however, is not how it works.

The neural pattern formed when you make a memory is distributed among the different parts of your brain that were involved in creating it (visual, hearing, smells, etc.).

To consolidate the memory, the hippocampus “repeatedly activates the parts of the brain to be remembered until those parts become a stable connected pattern of activity, essentially wired together” (Genova, 2021).

In other words, the memory is not in one place with all the other memories. It’s spread across the areas of the brain that were active and contributed to the memory when it was formed, such as the visual cortex, audio cortex, etc.

It’s a neural network of associations, and when you recall the memory, your brain activates the same associations and connections as a single unit.

Secondly, every time you recall a memory, you edit it based on your current state of mind, circumstances, new things you’ve learned, or values you’ve acquired or changed.

The new memory needs to fit in with your life as it is now, so there are revisions.

Most importantly, once you edit the memory, you replace the old memory with the revised version and can no longer access the original memory. It’s the same as editing a document on your computer and saving it. The old document is gone and replaced with the edited version.

Think of that game where someone whispers something in the ear of the person sitting next to them, then that person whispers it to the next person, and so on until you get around the circle. The final statement that the last person reveals is usually very different from the original statement.

Our memories probably don’t get that distorted, but we do change them with each revision, increasing the chances of distortion.

The Power of Attention

Other factors play a role. The most prominent is “paying attention.”

Not all things that happen become memories. Only those things you pay attention to have a chance of moving to the consolidation phase.

You start with what’s called “working memory.” Working memory is what you can hold in your mind for 15 to 30 seconds, after which time it’s gone unless you signal to the hippocampus that you want to save it in your long-term memory. You can hold only 7 to 9 things, plus or minus, at any time.

Paying attention is the prime mover that facilitates the shift from working memory to long-term memory. What you focus on or pay attention to sticks, and what you don’t goes away.

Have you ever gotten up from one room to go get something in another room, and when you got there, you couldn’t remember what you came for? You didn’t focus long enough on your original thought to keep it in memory, so when you arrived in the other room, it was gone.

This same thing happens when trying to recall more mundane things, such as what you need at the grocery store, that phone call you need to make, or anything that doesn’t have a little more energy to it. The brain likes novelty, surprises, and energy.


Another significant factor in memory-making is the impact of emotion.

Experiences that create strong emotions are more memorable because they stimulate the amygdala, the area of the brain involved in fight, flight, or freeze. Strong emotions get and maintain your attention. They’re sticky.

But here’s the catch: emotions also narrow what you remember. For example, let’s say you have an argument with your partner. What you each take away from that conversation will likely be different. You’ll both recall different parts of the conversation and maybe even different words in some circumstances.

What sticks in your mind is what was most emotionally impactful to you.

Omissions, revisions, and skewed evaluations are due to your emotions at the time. Additionally, every time you recall the conversation, you continue to edit as you try to validate your point of view in your mind.

Sometimes, people rewrite history and add information that wasn’t part of the original conversation. Have you had this experience? It makes things very messy!


Meaning is another very essential factor in memory formation.

When you experience something impactful, you apply meaning to it. To do that, you might draw from previous experiences, or maybe something someone else said or something you recently saw, like a movie or a book you read. Meaning is multi-faceted and open to a lot more interpretation than simply paying attention.

Meaning supplies some of the major differences you might have with someone else when recalling experiences or conversations. This goes for positive as well as negative experiences.

For example, you and your partner might fondly watch your daughter play softball while sitting in the stands at her school but remember parts of it differently because of other memories that are stimulated while watching.

You might reminisce about playing a sport when you were in school or feel the sunshine on your back and be reminded of playing outside with friends in your neighborhood. Your partner may remember his Dad coaching him loudly from the stands as he was playing third base and how that embarrassed him.

Memories can cue other memories that change your experience of the current situation. They supply more meaning, sometimes good and sometimes bad.

What does all this mean?

It means that it’s wise to recognize that your memories can be distorted or partially true, especially over time. Memories not recalled over long periods may fade away as the neural network holding them disbands from lack of use.

So, question them as you recall them. They aren’t videos of what happened. Sometimes, they’re more like impressionistic paintings.

However, you can do some things to improve your memory, which is the subject of next week’s blog. I think you’ll find it helpful.

That’s all for today!

Have a great week!

All my best,



Genova, L. (2021). The Science of Remembering and the Art of Forgetting. Harmony.
Gupta, S. (2021). Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age. Simon & Schuster.

Blog Short #176: Truly Confident People Are Humble

Photo by Ridofranz, Courtesy of iStock Photo

When you think about being confident, is humility part of the equation? Maybe so, but often not.

Confidence feels strong, assured, assertive, self-reliant, secure, capable, and bold. Humility is associated with modesty, meekness, quietness, unpretentiousness, and self-effacement. Some might see it as the opposite of confidence.

We don’t usually associate humility with confidence, but true confidence is informed by humility. Without humility, confidence teeters on the edge of narcissism.

So why would you want to think about this?

Because almost everyone would like to feel confident. There are benefits:

  1. Confident people are attractive and get a lot of social and professional mileage from their self-presentation. They’re admired, sought after, and more likely to succeed.
  2. Feeling confident also makes it easier to interact socially, perform well, and not worry so much about how others perceive you.

In other words, being confident helps you in most facets of your life.

Today, let’s look at how humility plays a role in being confident and what you can do to increase them both.

Confidence versus Narcissism

To understand how humility is a part of confidence, it would help to differentiate confidence from narcissism because they’re often interchanged and confused with each other.

Narcissistic people generally present themselves as very confident – sometimes ultra-confident – especially up front. They can be charismatic, engaging, and exude power.

The same can apply to someone who’s confident yet not narcissistic, but there’s a difference in how they see themselves and others.

A narcissistic person:

  • Sees himself as the center of the world. In other words, his approach to interactions and deeds is ego-centric.
  • He regards others as a means of acquiring admiration, attention, and validation of his superior worth.
  • He feels himself to be above the standard rules of behavior. He can do what he wants without censure because, after all, he knows more than anyone else.

A truly confident person minus the narcissism:

  • Sees himself as part of the world. He recognizes that he has a place with everyone else and feels a kinship with his fellow man. He belongs.
  • He regards others with empathy, respect, and worth. He doesn’t see others as a means to inflate and maintain his ego. Although he believes in his abilities and strengths, he also welcomes and appreciates the talents and assets of others.
  • He embraces behavioral practices that contribute to the good of others while also validating and affirming their contributions.

More to the point, a narcissist gains value for himself by setting himself above others, whereas a confident person values both himself and others as equals and knows that he can learn from people who know more than he does. He welcomes those opportunities. He has no need to one-up or assert superiority.

A confident person is a team player, whereas a narcissist stands apart and above.

Here’s where humility comes in.

Characteristics of Humility

Too often, people view humility as weak.

Picture a person who’s easily taken advantage of, won’t speak up, stoops over a little, stands in the back of the room, caves to other’s demands regularly, has low self-esteem, and is unsure of himself.

That’s an exaggerated characterization, but it captures most of the misperceptions people have about humility.

Being humble doesn’t mean having a low opinion of yourself. On the contrary, you affirm your personal assets but without arrogance.

Humility is a character strength, not a weakness.

Dr. Anna Katharina Schaffner cites the core characteristics of humility defined by researchers as follows:

  1. Accurate self-perception
  2. Modest self-portrayal
  3. Other-oriented relational stance

Being humble means that you seek to know yourself, warts and all. You accurately perceive and acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses without either pride or self-condemnation. You’re open to making mistakes, recognizing them, and improving upon them.

Secondly, you present yourself without boasting, gloating, or attention-seeking behavior. Humility, like confidence, means being comfortable in your own skin. You don’t have something to prove or a need to stand out. Your self-esteem is intact but not inflated.

Third, you value others. Your energy isn’t consumed by self-focus, but you extend yourself to others through empathy, affirmation, respect, kindness, and a willingness to work together. You appreciate the struggles of being human, which allows you to feel belonging and compassion.

Last, you operate with a growth mindset (Dweck). You take up challenges from a place of interest and curiosity rather than a need to prove yourself. Mistakes are welcome because they provide opportunities to learn and grow. You see yourself as a student of life that never graduates but continues to evolve.

Now, let’s put it all together.

How to Increase Your Confidence

To increase your confidence, you must gauge whether you need more humility, less narcissism, or both. Using the definitions above, you probably have some idea of where you are.

By the way, we all have some narcissism, so don’t be afraid to acknowledge that. It’s normal and part of ego development. You just want to be aware and keep it in check.

Focusing on increasing humility will help you do that if you think you need work in that area.

Here are some quick exercises you can do to help you work on creating healthy confidence.

1. Make a thorough list of your strengths and weaknesses.

These can be psychological, emotional, intellectual, or practical. If you don’t know where to start, use this list of character strengths and virtues Positive Psychology offers (download it here).

You don’t have to measure yourself precisely by each of these, but use them as a guide to think more specifically about yourself.

2. Evaluate your self-talk.

What messages do you regularly repeat to yourself about your worth, value, and performance? Are you overly critical? Do you beat yourself up when you make mistakes? Conversely, do you overinflate your values and see yourself as better or above others?

This exercise will help discern your level of self-esteem and the degree to which you use narcissism.

Something to keep in mind is that the flip side of narcissism is chronic self-condemnation. Both keep you from developing true confidence.

3. Next, evaluate how you see yourself in the world.

For example, you might have decided that human beings are horrible, and you want nothing to do with membership in that club. Or you feel you’re not as good as everyone else and never will be. Those are the extremes on the continuum. Where do you fit in?

Use these questions as a guide:

  • How do you relate to others? Are you kind, empathetic, and respectful? That doesn’t mean you spend time with toxic people, but how do you generally comport yourself?
  • Next, how do you feel when interacting with others? Are you comparing yourself or feeling inadequate? Maybe envious? Or are you unsure and uncomfortable? If you’re highly introverted, you may always feel uneasy with new people, but there’s a difference between that feeling and seeing yourself as less than or unworthy. Take some time to think this one out carefully.

4. Last, identify your mindset.

Do you operate with a growth mindset or a fixed mindset?

Are you open to learning new things or hearing new information, or do you think you know more than most people? Do you see mistakes as challenges that offer you growth or as reflections of your failures?

I’ve attached a description of these two mindsets based on Carol Dweck’s research. Look at the list for more details.

Last Note

If you go through these exercises, you’ll get a good idea of where your level of confidence lies and gain more self-awareness about other things, such as your inner voice, view of the world, emotional accessibility, etc.

It’s good to take an objective personal inventory occasionally to become more deliberate with your personal growth and well-being.

That’s all for today!

Have a great week!

All my best,


Blog Short #175: 10 Things You Can Do to Get Out of a Funk

Photo by Prostock-Studio, Courtesy of iStock Photo

Some days, you wake up and automatically know you’re in a funk. You know it before you open your eyes. You roll out of bed slowly, sit up, and sigh. It’s not going to be a good day.

Even after a huge cup of coffee, a hot shower, and a bite to eat, you still aren’t feeling it. Sigh . . . 😳

What to do?

This kind of mood is different than simply having the blahs. It’s got a very negative tinge to it. It’s not neutral. And, it’s uncomfortable and very persistent. You try to think your way out of it, but that doesn’t help. You just become more frustrated.

The good news is that you can do some things to help shift your mood.

1. Check your negative consumption for the day.

The first thing to do is reduce negative static that will only worsen your mood. For today, avoid watching the news, stay away from negative gossip or conversations at work, avoid chronic complainers, and put your negative thoughts away.

If you can’t do that last one successfully, allow yourself 15 minutes (no more than 30) to write down all your complaints and worries, then put them out of sight. Let go of them for the time being. You can return to them when you feel more positive and have the energy to tackle them.

2. Write a gratitude list.

In contrast to your complaint list, write at least three things you’re grateful for, and more if you can.

The more you turn your mind toward noticing what’s going right, the more things you’ll come up with. Doing this balances out your natural negativity bias, which we all have to some degree.

It’s not that you should ignore things that are going wrong, but you have to give at least equal time (if not more) to things that are going right, and by doing that, you’ll feel better. Not to mention, your overall perceptions will be closer to reality.

If you like this exercise, do it every day. Doing it first thing in the morning is best because it sets the tone for the rest of your day.

3. Tackle something you’ve been avoiding.

You know that thing (or things) that have been sitting on the edge of your mind, intruding on your peace and beckoning to be heard? That thing you’ve been putting off doing?

Do it, or at least do one if you have a list of them. Choose one you can complete today without much energy output and get it over with. Then rejoice that you finally got it done! If it’s on a list, cross it off with relish! That will help your mood immensely.

4. Do something for someone else.

Anything and everything counts. Smiling at people you encounter during the day counts. Acts of kindness, listening, and empathizing count. Doing some small thing to help counts. If you’re a parent, all those things you do in a day for your kids count or for your partner.

You likely don’t notice how many things you do or give yourself any credit for them. But they’re all important, and all make someone else’s way easier. They’re of value, as are you.

5. Breathe

At least three times today, do one round of square breathing.

Exhale slowly and fully to a count of four through your mouth. Inhale to a count of four through your nose. Hold it for a count of four, then exhale again through your mouth to a count of four.

Do it several times if you can.

An alternative is to sit quietly and watch your breath for five minutes (or more if you can). Don’t control your breathing; just watch your breath go in and out. When you notice that you’ve gone off into a thought train, qently bring your attention back to your breath without strain.

Both of these exercises will help you reset. These exercises are particularly effective when you find yourself ruminating or overthinking.

6. Watch your self-talk.

What are the stories or narratives you’re telling yourself today?

Types of narratives that will bring down your mood include:

  1. Negative characterizations of yourself. Outlining your faults, deficiencies, and inadequacies. Reviewing your failures with heavy censure. In short, telling yourself all the ways you’re unworthy.
  2. Reviewing all the things that are going wrong and feel impossible to correct. Likely, you’re inflating and exaggerating these situations.
  3. Listing all the things you can’t change, including people with whom you have close relationships.

Self-talk has significant power to influence your mood and impact your incentive (or lack thereof) to take actions that will improve your life.

Make self-talk your friend and partner. It should encourage, support, open channels for creative thinking, energize, and move you forward. It’s your life coach!

To make that happen, be mindful of the negative thought loops you engage in repetitively. When you notice one, stop, reset, and correct the distorted thought pattern you’re absorbed in.

7. List your accomplishments.

Review your accomplishments over the last week, last month, last six months. Write down everything you can think of that you’ve done successfully. When you finish, choose one thing you can do today.

If you’re tired and can’t access your creativity or emotions easily, do something that doesn’t require much of you. Clean out a drawer, mop a floor, make a grocery list, pop a load of clothes in the washer, cook something simple, or perform some office chore that requires minimal thinking or energy.

8. Read or watch something uplifting.

Read a book – fiction or nonfiction, whichever you prefer. You could also read an inspirational blog or article. Choose something that will leave you feeling good. Or you could watch a favorite movie or TV show that makes you laugh or feel inspired.

Whatever you decide, make sure it moves you in a positive direction, not a negative one.

9. Make a date with a friend to do something.

Reach out to someone – a friend, your partner, or a family member – and plan something together. Go out to lunch or dinner, meet for coffee, or go over for a visit.

Being around other people can distract you from your mood enough that it dissipates. It’s like getting a jump start.

10. Accept that it’s a “red light day.”

​Red light days​ are those days when, no matter what you try, you can’t get yourself going or shift your mood. These days feel regressive, and they are. But sometimes this happens because you need them. You’re tired, burned out, and out of sorts.

When this happens, you might be better off to give in. Do the minimum of what you must do, but otherwise, indulge in some self-care. Watch a movie you like, do crossword puzzles, take a hot bath, eat a healthy meal, or whatever you want to do that feels comforting (as long as it’s not also destructive). Exercise is always a good option – outside, if possible.

When you let yourself have a day like this, you’ll feel much better the next day and get back on track. You can’t go full speed all the time!

Last Note

Being in a funk is unavoidable. No one can have all good days. It’s not possible. But so-called bad days have value. Sometimes, the value is that they allow you to slow down and think about what you’re feeling and doing instead of moving along at lightning speed on your daily treadmill.

When they visit you, look for that value. It might be nothing more than taking some time to rest, but days like this can leave you feeling agitated. So, being deliberate about what you do with them can make a difference in what you learn from them.

That’s all for today!

Have a great week!

All my best,


Blog Short #174: How to Use Radical Acceptance

Photo by Liderina, Courtesy of iStock Photo

It’s natural to seek out peace, comfort, and pleasurable experiences. We welcome these things with open arms. They feel good! It’s also natural to repel pain and discomfort and resist the events and situations that bring on those feelings. They’re stressful!

The fact is, you will have both throughout your life. Sometimes, painful experiences feel like boulders coming at you; other times, they’re just small rocks or a little debris.

But regardless of the magnitude of problems coming your way, they will come. It’s the nature of life, and when you can accept and work with them, they provide opportunities to learn and evolve.

When you try to avoid them, they get bigger and come back at you with greater force. You’ve heard the phrase, “What you resist persists?” It’s a shortened form of the original quote from Carl Jung, which is,

What you resist not only persists, but will
grow in size.

That being the case, it’s in your best interest to develop methods of dealing with problems straight up rather than resisting them.

​Marsha Linehan​ developed a specific practice aimed at this issue as part of a therapeutic strategy called ​DBT​ (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy.) This practice is “radical acceptance,” which we’re discussing today.

What It Is

Radical acceptance is the practice of fully accepting situations that come at you and are outside of your control.

That doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, but you accept them without judgment as they are. In other words, what’s happened has happened. “It is what it is.”

When you resist, you inflate the situation by piling on negative thoughts and feelings about it. If something is painful or stressful, you make it worse by entertaining thoughts like:

  • Why is this happening to me?
  • It’s not fair.
  • Things shouldn’t be this way.
  • I don’t believe this is happening.
  • It’s one awful thing after another.
  • I can’t deal with this.

There are many more variations of these thoughts and interpretations you can drag out and focus on indefinitely. But regardless of what you think, the situation is still there, and you still have to deal with it.

By accepting the situation as it is and recognizing that it’s not going away and you can’t bypass it, you’re free to figure out how you want to handle it. And because you’re not spending your energy resisting it, you have a better chance of resolving it and moving on.

Radical acceptance is a method of ​distress tolerance​. You’re building your capacity to handle stressful situations objectively and effectively.

What It’s Not

Radical acceptance isn’t about suppressing your emotions.

When something stressful happens, like the loss of a significant relationship or your job, you feel pain. Acceptance doesn’t mean pretending you don’t feel that pain, but rather, you accept that what’s happened is out of your control while allowing yourself to feel it.

Suppression of emotions, just like resistance, worsens things and keeps you stuck longer than necessary to recover or find solutions.

Radical acceptance also doesn’t mean ignoring feelings of grief that may take longer to process. It takes time, maybe a lot of time, but part of grieving is coming to terms with the reality of your loss.

Appropriate Situations for Using Radical Acceptance

Situations where radical acceptance is useful are:

  • Experiencing a loss of any kind – death of a loved one, ending a relationship, losing your home or job
  • Unexpected changes or events that cause distress
  • Feeling stuck or being unable to move on from an adverse event
  • Past trauma or abuse that’s impeding your current life
  • Rumination and overthinking problems without taking action to resolve them
  • Anger management
  • Dealing with avoidance

When Not to Use Radical Acceptance

Situations where radical acceptance is not helpful and can be detrimental are:

  • Abusive or dangerous relationships
  • Being taken advantage of, disrespected, or harassed
  • Needing to set a boundary or stand up for yourself
  • A bad workplace environment
  • An assault on your ethics or values

Radical acceptance doesn’t mean accepting harmful or abusive behavior. But it can mean seeing and acknowledging that such behaviors are occurring and need to be confronted.

How to Use Radical Acceptance

Dr. Linehan provides ten steps for using radical acceptance.

  1. Observe that you’re resisting the reality of the situation. You could examine what’s triggering you or notice your resistant thoughts, like, “Why is this happening to me?”
  2. Remind yourself that you can’t change the situation. It is as it is. Say it to yourself.
  3. Recognize that you have no control over what’s happened. There are causes for this situation, and you can’t go backward.
  4. Think about what you would do if you’d already accepted the situation, and then do those things as though you had accepted it. What are the behaviors you would engage in?
  5. Imagine how things would be if you had accepted what happened. What does that look like?
  6. Use any techniques that will help you accept the reality and apply them. Possibilities are breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, journaling, mindfulness, or meditation.
  7. Allow yourself to feel your emotions of sadness, anxiety, anger, or frustration without using them destructively.
  8. Notice reactions in your body as you let your emotions arise, such as shallow breathing, tension, or pain.
  9. Acknowledge that life can be worthwhile even when there is pain.
  10. Commit to practicing radical acceptance when you feel yourself resisting again.

Some of these steps may seem redundant, especially if the situation doesn’t involve grieving or a significant life change. However, they’re all helpful, and going through them is worthwhile.

Sometimes situations are less involved, yet you still resist them and waste time and emotional energy not accepting them.

Examples might be: Having a flat tire on the way to work, oversleeping and missing a meeting, driving behind a slow driver when you’re late for an appointment, dropping your breakfast on your kitchen floor and making a mess, etc.

All of these situations can bring on emotional resistance and make dealing with them much harder than it has to be.

It’s helpful to take that breath, accept what’s happened, let your emotions cool, and get your mind in a rational thinking mode so you can resolve the problem or let go of the situation if you can’t fix it.

Use the steps as you need to, depending on how great your resistance is and how life-changing or serious the situation will affect you. The goal is to avoid piling on additional pain that’s unnecessary and gets in your way.

The Paradox

The paradox of radical acceptance is that once you fully accept the reality of what’s happening, you’re freed up to use your resources to more readily solve the problem.

Acceptance reduces the emotional noise that’s distracting you from using your thinking and imagination to find solutions.

The second paradox is that the more you use radical acceptance, which is directly dealing with your distress, the more tolerant you are of stress in general.

As you practice radical acceptance and solve problems, you train your mind to bypass resistance so that with each new stressful occurrence, your negative reactions are shorter and easier to overcome.

You’re building your mental “anti-stress muscle.”

Try this approach with small things that aren’t too stressful for starters, and then move on to bigger things. Unless, of course, you like to dive in the deep end right away!

That’s all for today!

Have a great weekend.

All my best,


Blog Short #173: How to Maintain Closeness in a Relationship

Photo by kali9, Courtesy of iStock Photo

Relationships that thrive do so in part because the people involved develop deep levels of emotional intimacy and closeness with each other as the relationship evolves.

We like to think that closeness will naturally build as an outgrowth of love and commitment, and it does to an extent, but some other key components are necessary.

Today, we’ll review six essential practices that help develop closeness and intimacy and ultimately create an unbreakable bond.

I’ll start with the practices and then give you some strategies to facilitate them.

A quick note: Before we start, it’s important to note that all these practices work best when both partners participate and use them. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try them on your own, but you’ll be more successful if you both agree to work on them together.

1. Prioritize the relationship.

When you first get together with someone, it’s easy to prioritize the relationship because it’s new, and both partners want to give their full attention to each other.

However, as we all know, over time, other things intrude and demand attention, pulling each person’s attention elsewhere. Work, kids, finances, homemaking, etc., are all activities that demand time and attention on everyone’s part.

Relationships easily take a back seat to these demands unless a couple makes a concerted effort to carve out time and attention for their relationship.

2. Recognize and accept you both will change and evolve.

How you both were when you first met and became involved will change as time passes. Interests, values, beliefs, expectations, and goals shift. Your 25-year-old self may look quite different from your 45-year-old self.

That doesn’t mean you don’t have a core self that runs through the variations as you age, but it’s tweaked and refined by experiences, growth, and new insights.

Not only are you evolving individually but also as a couple, which requires staying abreast of individual developments and incorporating them into the growth of your relationship.

People who grow apart don’t do that. They neglect to ensure that individual growth and shifts align with relationship growth. It’s like a tree whose branches sprout in different directions while the trunk slowly rots until it eventually falls.

3. You must communicate.

Communicating involves both listening and talking and couples who are close do a lot of both. They share their deepest thoughts, concerns, emotions, desires, values, and beliefs with each other.

This is an ongoing process, something that happens so regularly that it’s part of your everyday contact. You become each other’s best friend, whom you tell everything and whom you trust and confide in.

Most importantly, the better each person becomes at listening with interest and acceptance, the stronger the connection.

It takes practice. It’s not something that necessarily comes easily, especially in the earlier years of a relationship.

You must talk a lot, listen more, and allow each other to open up and unfold. It takes consistent attention and work. Over time, as you both reveal more and more of who you are and feel accepted and loved, trust builds, and intimacy grows.

4. Face problems.

Close couples don’t avoid problems. They face them and work at them until they overcome them.

However, they don’t expect magic! They know that some issues take longer to resolve, and even when there’s no apparent solution, they have faith that they can find one.

In addition, they listen intently to what their partner needs and wants from them, and both do their best to meet those needs.

Also, close couples don’t compete with each other. They’re not happy when one person’s right and the other’s wrong. They want to find solutions in both partners’ best interests and work towards win-wins. Neither of them wants to win at the other’s expense.

5. Actively show appreciation.

Showing genuine appreciation for each other and the relationship is as important, if not more so, than solving problems. There needs to be as much or more focus on what’s going right and on each person’s contributions than on what’s going wrong.

A couple who spends most of their time hovering over every minor issue that arises at the expense of relaxed, positive interaction will eventually burn out.

Verbalizing appreciation for each other often deepens closeness and builds stability. It’s like having a substantial savings account to cover recessions or, more accurately, relationship regressions.

6. Stay committed.

Most people think of commitment as staying in a relationship no matter what, but there’s more to it. It means commitment to:

  • Working at and prioritizing the relationship.
  • Avoiding deception or betrayal.
  • Honoring each other’s confidentiality.
  • Treating each other with respect.
  • Upholding agreed-upon expectations and boundaries.

Now for the strategies.

The Strategies

1. The Weekly Meetup

Once a week, set aside an hour or more, if you need it, to check in and go over any relationship issues that need attention. Some people don’t like this formality, but when you do it regularly, you can rely on knowing you’ll have a chance to talk about anything that’s on your mind or needs attention.

To make this work, it helps to set up some rules. Here are some you can start with and adapt to your particular needs.

  1. Each person gets equal time and can say whatever’s on their mind without interruption. Listening is the most critical skill here.
  2. Every problem doesn’t need to be resolved in one sitting. You can bring something up, and both think about it over the next week and revisit it.
  3. Talk about at least one (or more) positive things that are going well between you. You might have each person say at least one thing they appreciate about the other each week.
  4. Make arguing off-limits. Use this time to find out what you’re both thinking and feeling and what, if anything, needs work. Approach hot issues over time rather than in one sitting.

2. Make a “Like” List

At least once a month, make a list of everything you appreciate and like about your partner.

We have an automatic negativity bias, which keeps us focused on things that irritate and annoy us. By making this list, you’ll give equal time to remembering those things that initially attracted you and that you still appreciate.

3. Outlaw Contempt

Contempt is the destroyer of any relationship. If it’s a regular practice, you can count on the relationship ending, whether you do that legally or not.

Contempt includes personal attacks, insults, stinging sarcasm, scorn, and hatefulness. It also includes talking about each other to friends or family members in a contemptuous or overly critical way.

Maintain kindness toward your partner even when talking about them to someone else. And don’t divulge information about your partner that would upset them if they knew you were doing it.

4. Daily check-in

Check in with your partner every day. You might think you do this already, and maybe you do, but the quality of it is the issue. Checking in means not just asking how your day was, but also how you’re doing emotionally. What’s going on internally?

5. Use Humor

People who laugh together are closer. Humor connects us with ease. Close couples usually have quite a few inside jokes. They look at each other across a room and know what the other one’s thinking, especially when it’s something they both find humorous.

6. Spend Quality Time with Each Other at Least Once a Week

Make a date either out of the house or stay in, but focus on time together. This is different than the time used to approach relationship issues. This is relaxed quality time.

Spend time talking and being with each other, not just watching TV. It’s OK to watch TV together, but don’t do that in lieu of talking. Make sure you’re connecting, not just sitting in the same room.

Now put it all together.

In a sentence . . .

Be kind, attentive, loyal, show appreciation, face problems, talk, listen, and prioritize.

There you go!

That’s all for today.

Have a great week!

All my best,


Blog Short #172: Coping with the “Blahs”

Photo by RomarioIen, Courtesy of iStock Photo

Ever had the “blahs”? Who hasn’t? Sometimes, it lasts just a day or two, and then you get your mojo back and feel more engaged. But sometimes, it can last longer – enough to interrupt your daily functioning. You might continue to go through the motions, but you’re not feeling it.

This blah state of mind has become common enough that it now has a more formal name: languishing.

Languishing is that feeling of being stalled in neutral. You’re not happy, yet not exactly depressed. You feel stuck and maybe somewhat numb.

The American Psychological Association defines it as:

The condition of absence of mental health, characterized by ennui, apathy, listlessness, and loss of interest in life.

It’s like a gray day where everything feels colorless and dulled. Empty.

Isn’t That Depression?

Languishing is on the cusp of depression but not quite there. When you’re depressed, you also have feelings of sadness and hopelessness.

Languishing is more like no feeling. There isn’t sadness. You might feel blue, but not really sad. You’re not happy or sad. Just blah.

Studies have shown, however, that people who experience languishing over extended periods, or more often, are more likely to experience or develop depression than people who are flourishing (Keyes, 2002).

Symptoms of languishing are:

  • Lack of joy or happiness
  • Difficulty concentrating and focusing
  • Disinterest in normally pleasurable activities
  • Lack of motivation
  • Dulled emotions
  • Boredom
  • Feeling emotionally detached
  • Fatigue and burnout
  • Feeling stagnated
  • Feeling unsettled or mildly agitated but not anxious


The causes of languishing are both mental and physical. They often overlap, and it’s sometimes hard to distinguish exactly what the problem is, but the following list covers most of them.

Stress and Burnout

Stress, especially chronic stress, can lead to burnout. Burnout is feeling depleted, exhausted, detached, and often cynical. It can lead to languishing as well as depression, depending on the situation and person.

One study looked at the effects of high work stress among 200 postdoctoral fellows and found that 58% of them were experiencing languishing. The general percentage of people languishing is 12%, based on a landmark study by Corey Keyes.

You may have had similar results yourself when chronically stressed. Many people do.

Social Isolation

We are relational beings and need interaction with other people. If you’ve ever had periods of social isolation, you may have experienced languishing after too much time alone. Many people had that experience while staying at home during the COVID-19 shutdown.

The other issue is that when you’re languishing, you often don’t feel like being around anyone.

The longer you stay isolated, the harder it is to break out of it. Your world becomes smaller, and you don’t have the energy or desire to do anything about it. The tendency is to cocoon.

Feeling Stuck

You can become defeated when there’s a wide gap between your daily activities and your sense of purpose.

If your job or work doesn’t match your values and personal goals, and you feel stuck to change those circumstances, you can become emotionally deflated. Likewise, being stuck in a toxic relationship can do the same.

Values and purpose generate energy, drive, and motivation. Without the means to express them, your drive takes a hit and diminishes, leaving you feeling flat and numb.

To flourish, you need to feel that what you do is in sync with what you value.

Physiological Issues

There are four items in this group to watch out for. They’re as follows:

  1. Poor diet. Eating a less-than-nutritious diet long enough, especially one filled with sugar, empty carbs, saturated fat, and junk food, will negatively affect your mood. When languishing, you’re more likely to eat less healthily or not eat enough. Either way, you’ll feel worse.
  2. Sleep deprivation. A night or two without enough sleep probably won’t give you the blahs, but continued sleep deprivation can have serious effects like brain fog, muted mood, and apathy.
  3. Hormonal changes. Hormones can change someone’s mood even if everything is going well. Women are more likely to experience this as a result of menstruation or menopause.
  4. Viruses. I included this one because of some of the new research about the effects of COVID-19 on depression. One study reported that survivors of COVID-19 were 46% more likely to have been diagnosed with neuropsychiatric disorders one year later. These include depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance, brain fog, and opioid use disorder. In other words, both depression and languishing have a physiological component associated with COVID-19. I had the same experience with the Epstein-Barr virus. My symptoms lasted for some years.

What to Do

The two most obvious strategies are a healthy diet and regular sleep habits.

I’ll leave the type of diet up to you, but suffice it to say that it should include lots of fresh veggies and fruits, low saturated fat, and whole food instead of instant packaged or junk food. Do your homework and figure out what’s best for you.

Other strategies are as follows.

1. Spend time in nature.

You might think this sounds nice, but really? Is it all that helpful? Research says it is. In every article I read about languishing and how to combat it, this strategy was included, so I went to the research, and sure enough, I found some interesting studies.

The general findings are that time spent in “green spaces” reduces stress, depression, and anxiety while restoring the ability to direct attention and increase focus.

One study found that spending at least 120 minutes in nature weekly is associated with good health and well-being.

2. Exercise.

Exercise is one of those activities that benefits everything from lowering stress levels to mood stabilization, cardiovascular functioning, brain activity, and creativity. It also helps break through the blahs.

Try walking outside in nature (if you can). If you live in a city, it’s harder to do that. See if you can find a park or quiet neighborhood with trees and foliage. Walking three times a week will make a difference in your mood and outlook.

3. Change your environment.

If you work at home, go to a coffee shop. If you spend much time in your office, change its appearance. Maybe paint the walls a new color and rearrange the furniture. If you sit in your house a lot, do the same.

Changing the environment has an immediate effect that you can capitalize on. It gets you started and energizes you at the same time.

4. Start journaling.

Journaling is a good practice if you ruminate about the same things repeatedly or can’t get in touch with your emotions.

Writing your thoughts down gives you an objective view of what’s happening internally. It helps you see things from a mindfulness point of view. You catch your distorted thoughts.

It also helps you access feelings under the surface that are troubling you.

Languishing sometimes feels like being disconnected from yourself. Writing helps bridge that gap and reconnect you, stimulating some energy.

5. Plan something in the near future that excites you.

Having something to look forward to helps bring you out of your neutral haze. It provides a point of focus and ups your activity level. It can be motivating.

6. Connect with people.

Connect with a friend or family member, or attend a group activity where you’ll be around people. When you have the blahs, re-engaging with people can feel daunting.

Make it easy. Start with a text, make a plan, and show up. Invite someone over if you can’t make yourself leave the house, but if you can, leave the house.

Feeling Stuck?

Feeling stuck may take more doing than the strategies we just went through. They will help, but being stuck often relates to feeling out of sync with what’s important to you.

If that’s your situation, I have five articles that may help depending on where you’re at. I’ve listed them below. Hopefully, you’ll find something that will provide a spark and set you in a new direction to change your situation.

That’s all for today!

Have a great week!

All my best,


Articles to read:

​What to Do When You Feel Stuck​
​7 Natural Ways to Increase Your Dopamine​
How Do You Find Your Passion?​
​How to Deal with Rumination and Overthinking​
​A 4-Step Process to Set and Maintain Goals​


Gloria, C. T. & Steinhardt, M. A. (2013, August). Flourishing, languishing, and depressed postdoctoral fellows: Differences in stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms. Journal of Postdoctoral Affairs, 3(1).

Keyes, C. L. M. (2002). The mental health continuum: From languishing to flourishing in life. Article in Journal of Health and Social Research, 43(2), 207-222.

Pearson, D. G. & Craig, T. (2014, Oct 21). The great outdoors? Exploring the mental health benefits of natural environments. Frontiers in Psychology, Vol.5.

Shetty, P. A., Ayari, L., Madry, J., Betts, C., Robinson, D. M., & Kirmani, B. F. (2023, Aug 21). The relationship between COVID-19 and the development of depression: Implications on mental health. Neuroscience Insights, Vol. 18, 1-8.

Wadman, M. (2022, February). Lasting impact of infection extends to the brain. Science 375(6582).

White, M. P., Alcock, I., Grellier, J., & Wheeler, B. W. (2019, June). Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. Scientific Reports 9(1), 7730. DOI:10.1038/s41598-019-44097-3

VandenBos, G. R. (Ed.). (2007). APA Dictionary of Psychology. American Psychological Association.

Blog Short #171: Breaking Free: Confronting Avoidance Coping Head-On

Photo by Say-Cheese, Courtesy of iStock Photo

You’ve heard the expression, “Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.” Usually, that means, “Don’t exaggerate some small problem into something much bigger than it is.”

But that’s exactly what happens when you avoid dealing with something that needs your attention and won’t go away.

It grows and gets bigger until you can’t ignore it. Sometimes, it spreads like weeds in a vegetable garden that multiply and eventually choke your plants.

Ignoring issues that require your attention is called “avoidance coping,” which is today’s subject.

What is Avoidance Coping?

According to the American Psychological Association, avoidance coping is:

Any strategy for managing a stressful situation in which a person does not address the problem directly but instead disengages from the situation and averts attention from it. In other words, the individual turns away from the processing of threatening information.

In a few words, you avoid attending to, thinking about, feeling, or doing something you find difficult or might make you anxious.

What Happens When You Use It?

You get immediate relief when you avoid something that might be emotionally taxing. You don’t make that phone call, don’t attend a social event where you don’t know anyone, close your computer and avoid a work task, or put off a difficult conversation.

In all those cases, you breathe a sigh of relief because you don’t have to deal with them right now.

But you know what happens next, right? The situation comes back around again and again until you do pay attention, only now, it’s harder. The problem has snowballed, and you’re in deep.

A 10-year study found that avoidance coping created more life stressors four years down the road and was correlated with depression ten years down the road.

That’s a conservative view. You might feel more stress and depression earlier than that.

Avoidance takes an emotional toll. Although you put something away thinking you’ll return to it later, it hangs out in your subconscious and uses up emotional energy. Even if you aren’t thinking about it every day, it keeps surfacing like a wisdom tooth that wants to come out. It’s painful.

If what you’re avoiding involves anyone else, you might also create frustration and conflict in your relationships because you’ve dropped the ball.

Why People Use Avoidance Coping

We’ve already established that avoidance is a means of sidestepping anxiety, stress, and pain. But here are some more specific reasons you might use avoidance coping:

  • Avoid uncomfortable feelings
  • Avoid conflict or having people mad at you
  • Sidestep tasks that require too much energy or you don’t know how to do
  • Fear of failure
  • Fear of negative feedback
  • Avoid feeling guilty
  • Social anxiety
  • Avoid emotional triggers from past experiences
  • Fear of rejection
  • Put off decisions that have significant consequences

These are just some. There are many reasons you might use avoidance that are more specific to the situation at hand, but this gives you an overall picture.

How to Turn It Around

The opposite of avoidance coping is called approach coping, although I like Elizabeth Scott’s label better: she calls it active coping. Instead of avoiding, you take action to deal with the stressor. That’s a bit obvious, but your actions will vary depending on the situation.

Here’s what you can try.

1. Recognize when you’re doing it.

This task isn’t as easy as it might seem because if you’re in the habit of avoiding things or certain types of situations, you do it automatically. For example, if you have difficulty dealing with painful or negative feelings, you might automatically suppress them.

The goal in this first step is to get better at observing yourself and noticing when you avoid something – small or large – and how you do that. What shape does it take? Are you avoiding people, work, emotions as we’ve just talked about, decision-making, conflicts, setting boundaries?

Take an inventory. Keep a log or journal, and start writing your observations down. Review them at the end of the day. You don’t have to take action yet. Right now, you just want to know when and how you’re avoiding.

2. Take baby steps.

What’s something easy you can correct? Choose a small thing you can take action on to get done that you’ve avoided.

It could be something you’re in the habit of avoiding, and by changing that trajectory once, you can get better at it every time until you’ve switched your automation from avoidance to doing.

Keep taking things off your avoidance list and working at them. You’ll gain some traction with the small successes, so you feel more confident approaching complex situations. You’ll also get in the habit of dividing things into steps when required so you don’t feel overwhelmed.

3. Improve problem-solving and communication skills.

Improving your skills at problem-solving and communicating will go a long way in helping you shift from avoidance coping to active coping.

Problem-solving skills that help include:

  1. Identifying the issues at stake
  2. Breaking them into smaller components
  3. Prioritizing them in terms of what should be dealt with first
  4. Setting up the tasks to get to the goal
  5. Executing them

When you lack these skills, you get overwhelmed by complex problems or situations. Get some training, read up, or talk to someone who can mentor you. It’ll make a world of difference.

Communication skills are necessary for healthy relationships, conflict resolution, setting boundaries, and social interaction. Even something as simple as calling to set up an appointment or schedule a service requires clear communication.

You can learn better communication in many ways: courses, books, practicing with people you know well and are at ease with, and public speaking groups like Toastmasters.

Start small by working on expressing yourself more clearly in non-stressful situations and work your way up.

4. Tackle triggers and fears.

Do a thorough review of your emotional triggers. These likely are rooted in your history. List them. By doing this, you’ll become aware of when they’re surfacing and causing you to avoid situations you need to confront.

Part of this process is learning to distinguish between what once was and what currently is. Although a situation may be reminiscent of a past experience, it’s not the same, and you are not the same as you were when it happened.

You have choices and the authority to handle them differently now. To use that authority, you’ll need to correct any distorted thoughts and perceptions you have in the present.

If your triggers feel overwhelming or deep-seated, get some help sorting them out.

Fears are often entwined with triggers, and you address them simultaneously. But fears can also stand independently and are not necessarily rooted in your history. For example, if you’re shy or lacking in confidence, you may resist speaking up in meetings at work or setting boundaries.

There’s a great book called Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. You’ll appreciate this book if you have fears you’d like to overcome or are holding you back.

5. Play out your current avoidance into the future.

Look down the road a month, year, or five years. What will that look like, and what will you regret?

Doing this makes you look at the snowball effect of avoiding something, which might help you take some action to prevent it.

One Last Thing

Keep in mind that part of dealing with any psychological issue takes time and patience.

It also helps to keep yourself mentally and emotionally fit by regularly practicing stress reduction exercises like meditation, exercise, adequate sleep, relaxation techniques, and controlled breathing routines (square breathing). All those things add to your resilience and make it easier for you to handle challenging situations.

That’s all for today!

Have a great week!

All my best,



Holahan, C. J,. Moos, R. H., Holahan, C. K., Brennan, P. L., Schutte, K. K. (2005, August). Stress generation, avoidance coping, and depressive symptoms: A 10-year model. Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, 73(4), 658-66. doi: 10.1037/0022-006X.73.4.658

Scott, E. (2024, Jan 12). Avoidance Coping and Why It Creates Additional Stress. Very Well Mind.

VandenBos, G. R. (Ed.). (2007). APA Dictionary of Psychology. American Psychological Association.

Blog Short #170: You’re Not Your Diagnosis: The Perils of Using Labels

Photo by StockRocket, Courtesy of iStock Photo

If you’ve ever gone to a therapist or psychiatrist or undergone psychological testing, you’ve been given a mental health diagnosis. It’s written somewhere in someone’s notes, on an insurance form, or in a treatment summary.

You likely know what it is, and although it can be helpful to identify and name issues so you know what to work on, it’s not beneficial to become them.

You cross a fine line when you make the jump from seeing your diagnosis as who you are rather than as a descriptive label of issues you need to deal with.

Most of the time, it’s a subtle and unconscious process, but not always.

Sometimes, people wear their diagnosis as a sort of badge.

It becomes part of your identity – a descriptor you use to think about yourself. If you talk about it enough, your family and friends also use it as a descriptor of who you are.

Think about it: How many times have you heard someone say, “I’m bipolar,” “I’m ADHD,” or “I’m a depressive.”

In all cases, the “I” is equated with the disorder.

But, if you have a medical problem, you don’t usually equate your sense of “I” with it. You say, “I have COVID,” or “I have a heart murmur.” You don’t say, “I am COVID” or “I am a heart murmur.”

It’s a semantic difference, but the underlying belief that goes along with it is not semantic. It’s defining, and that’s a problem – a big one.

Diagnoses are indicators of things that are amiss, but they aren’t and shouldn’t be life sentences. And too often, they are.

Narrowing Yourself Down

When you label yourself as a diagnosis, you narrow your sense of self down to the symptoms and descriptions associated with that particular diagnosis.

What happens from there is that you begin looking for those symptoms in your daily interactions and activities, and when you see one of them, you say, “Aha! Yep, I am bipolar.”

Then maybe you get online and start reading more about it. You talk to your friends, family, or partner about it, and they affirm it. They feed it back to you. They might list the symptoms they’ve seen or use it to describe their worries about you or, worse, affirm why you’re so challenging to deal with or failing at something or other.

A diagnosis can become a brand that’s been tattooed on your identity that everyone can see. When that happens, you shrink. You fit yourself into a nicely defined box that you feel locked into.

I am exaggerating a little. It isn’t always that dramatic, but I’ve seen many cases where it is. I’ve had new clients who begin their sessions by telling me what their diagnosis is and then go on from there to back it up with a description of their symptoms.

You are more than your symptoms and much more than your diagnosis.

You’re struggling with something, and maybe that something is pervasive right now, and maybe your symptoms fit into an established diagnostic category, but that doesn’t mean that’s all of who you are. It’s what you’re dealing with that’s currently affecting your functioning.

Isolation or Join the Club

A second problem with carrying a diagnosis is that it can leave you feeling isolated from other people. You’re different. You have problems other people don’t have.

“Why can’t I just be normal?” you ask.

Matt Haig describes this very well in The Comfort Book. He says about his depression:

The trouble was that I had a very binary view of things. I thought you were either well or ill, sane or insane, and once I was diagnosed with depression, I felt I had been exiled to a new land, like Napoleon, and that there would be no escape back to the world I had known.

One way that people sometimes deal with feeling different because of their “diagnosis” is to seek out others with the same diagnosis.

Talking to another person who’s been diagnosed with ADHD feels helpful. You can commiserate about the issues you both struggle with and what you’ve done to try and deal with them. That’s not a bad thing – you might learn something new you can use. But again, it can be narrowing.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t seek out others who struggle with similar problems. Group therapy is based on the concept of sharing experiences and ideas to help each other overcome specific struggles, and it is often very helpful. But watch those labels. Make sure that your “diagnostic club” isn’t the only club you belong to.

Should we stop using mental health diagnoses?

Some may say yes, but I think they’re helpful if used correctly.

Let’s start with understanding what a mental health diagnosis is and how it’s meant to help.

A diagnosis describes a set of symptoms found through research to repeatedly appear together to produce specific emotional, cognitive, and behavioral struggles.

That means that people who experience similar emotional states like ongoing depression likely have similar symptoms.

It’s helpful because it gives both therapist and client a starting point to work from and a way to talk about what’s happening. However, no two people are exactly alike. Each person’s experiences, environments, histories, perceptions, and interactions with their emotions are unique.

A good therapist sees the person first and the symptoms second. They don’t hold someone to a singular diagnosis or assume it’s a forever situation. It’s a guide that can be very helpful if used correctly.

Shades and Grades

The other important thing to remember about diagnosing and labeling, in general, is that there are always shades and grades of them.

For example, the diagnosis “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” might include people with mild narcissistic trends as well as those that display extreme behaviors such as lack of conscience, sadism, and profuse lying. There’s a scale like a continuum when talking about any specific diagnosis. So, throwing it around carelessly is damaging.

In fact, one of the reasons the Enneagram is so popular is that it outlines both strengths and weaknesses of nine personality types. Many of the weaknesses listed are identical to symptoms of common mental health diagnoses. However, diagnoses are not used.

When working on mental health issues, you must take note of your strengths – STRONG NOTE – and use them to help overcome your distress.

Give them at least equal time, if not more, because they will help you change the landscape of your personality and ability to resolve problems.

That doesn’t mean that if someone is exhibiting serious symptoms like those that accompany psychosis or mania, we should act like they aren’t there. They are. They’re real and need treatment. However, we should recognize and use every possible strength to aid treatment.

For most people, mental health diagnoses are related to mood disturbances, anxiety, and some personality disorders. But even the term “personality disorder” can make someone feel like they’ve been branded for life, and the brand is permanent.

The Bottom Line

When thinking about mental health issues, the bottom line is to look directly at how well or not you’re functioning in the primary areas of your life – relationships, work, mood, health, stress load, etc., and then decide where work is needed.

Part of that assessment should always include a list of your strengths, successes, and areas of high functioning so you can tap into them to help resolve problems.

If you seek out therapy, which I always think is helpful even if you don’t have burning issues and you just want to increase your self-awareness, make sure your therapist is on the same page with you. Don’t let a diagnosis become the defining label of who you are.

That’s all for today!

Have a great week!

All my best,


Blog Short #169: How to Use Everyday Encounters to Increase Your Emotional Intelliegence

Photo by julief514, Courtesy of iStock Photo

Think back to an interaction you had with someone that upset you. Perhaps a conversation that immediately put you on the defensive. Maybe someone criticized you, or a colleague disagreed with you in a condescending way. Or your boss questioned your motives, intimating that you were somehow being dishonest.

There you were, forcefully gripping your emotional sword and shield, ready to do battle! You might have lashed back out or remained quiet while seething inwardly.

Either way, you spent most of the rest of the day rehashing it with counterattacks in your mind, trying to find some way to discount the input and let go of the hit to your self-esteem.

We have many such experiences in life. Sometimes, we defend as I just described, yet other times, we take it in and attack ourselves. You can do both simultaneously, but in either case, you miss an opportunity for growth, which is today’s subject.

Every encounter you have, whether negative or positive, provides an opportunity to learn something of value.

You can learn more about yourself, about someone else, and about human nature in general. You can get better at regulating your emotions under stressful circumstances. And you can reduce your sense of isolation and feel that you belong.

There’s something to gain in all cases, even if the experience was uncomfortable or painful.

Before I get into how you can use these types of encounters to your benefit, let me quickly review four skills associated with emotional intelligence because we’ll use these in our approach.

Definition of Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence, or EQ, is “the ability to recognize, interpret, and regulate your own emotions, and understand those of other people” (Cherry).

Five skills are usually associated with EQ, but today, we’ll focus on four.

1. Self-Awareness

Briefly, self-awareness is concerned with your capacity to recognize, identify, and understand your emotions and moods. It also includes increased awareness of how your behavior and emotions affect those around you.

2. Self-Regulation

Self-regulation is associated with how you manage your emotions. It’s about expressing your emotions effectively and appropriately, especially when dealing with conflicts or trying situations.

That doesn’t mean you should suppress emotions, but rather allow them to surface and accept them so you can work with them.

You can see how the more self-aware you are, the more success you’ll have in regulating your emotions. And, the more likely you are to be able to adapt to change, be flexible, and be responsible.

3. Empathy

A natural outgrowth of being self-aware and comfortable with your emotions is the ability to understand the feelings of others more easily.

You can see things from the other person’s perspective and understand their thoughts and feelings. You can connect and show compassion.

By the way, you can also empathize with yourself. Empathy provides insights into both your and other’s behavior.

4. Social Skills

Finally, emotional intelligence includes social skills that allow you to communicate and interact in ways that build rapport and make meaningful connections with others. Active listening, showing interest, openness to new ideas, tolerance, and respect are all part of this skill set.

How to Apply Emotional Intelligence Skills to Encounters

Now, back to our original task:

  1. How can you use these four emotional intelligence skills to help you learn from encounters with others?
  2. How can you turn these encounters, even the negative ones, into experiences that broaden and sharpen those skills for your benefit?

Your goal is to take challenging encounters (as well as good ones) and use them to:

  • Become more self-aware
  • Increase your ability to empathize
  • Grow your understanding of human nature and why people behave as they do
  • Hone your skills in communicating and interacting

Each encounter becomes a learning experience.

If you can create that mindset and keep it up front when you find yourself in difficult situations where the interactions are stressful, you can respond in a way that leans into the encounter rather than defending.

That doesn’t mean you won’t feel defensive or uncomfortable when attacked, criticized, demeaned, dismissed, ignored, or any other negative outcome. You likely will.

But when you take the time to digest the encounter – when you’re going back over it in your mind – ask yourself the right questions to help you use it. Try these:

1. Is there any lesson I can take away from this experience?

Maybe you need to change a behavior or your approach to someone. You might need to become more flexible or prepare better for a situation. What can you take away and use in the future?

2. What might be going on with that person that led to their behavior?

This is an opportunity to increase empathy. Is this someone who’s struggling in some way or is under stress? Was their behavior a projection?

You have to be careful with this one because it’s easy to get into a judgment mode. Stay in an observational mode if you can.

For example, instead of just writing someone off angrily as a narcissist, you might observe that this person takes most everything personally and easily defends against perceived criticism. That might explain the quick attack when you didn’t agree with something he said.

Observe as much as possible without condemnation.

3. Although the delivery was horrible, was there any truth in what was said you can make use of?

Is there any truth to what you heard you might use to increase your self-awareness? Someone can give you exaggerated and hurtful feedback, but when you think objectively about it, you can sift out whether there are any kernels of truth you could use.

4. Are there specific issues I haven’t addressed that keep coming up? What should I do about them?

Is the encounter repetitive? Do you keep having this same experience? If so, you’re being nudged to address it. You might need to set boundaries with someone, change a behavior, or reassess a relationship.

Life throws us the same experiences over and over until we pay attention to the issues involved and resolve them.

The Upside

The whole purpose of viewing encounters this way is to keep your attention on your issues, thereby increasing your emotional intelligence and, as a result, your happiness.

It’s human nature to focus outward. We all do it. It’s much easier to point out dysfunctional behavior or harsh emotions in someone else than in ourselves.

If we look inward, we have to deal with our weaknesses and feelings of self-recrimination, which messes with our self-esteem.

However, an emotionally intelligent person accepts that they have lots of things that need working on all the time and can see that without self-judgment. They don’t beat themselves up. They work on improvements.

See yourself as a work in progress that’s never finished. You’re a human lab for growth and development, which means there are always blemishes and wrong turns that require corrections. It’s humbling, but that’s a good thing.

What about positive encounters?

Positive encounters are a blessing. Fortunately, many encounters inspire and touch you emotionally in ways that restore your faith in human nature and yourself.

Yet, there are always those that test you.

The point is that every encounter has something to teach you, and if you’re looking for it, you’ll find what that is and make use of it.

If you’re not looking, you might miss an important lesson and opportunity for growth.

That’s all for today.

I hope you have a great week, as always!

All my best,


Blog Short #168: Keeping Your Cool: Strategies to Reign in Overreactions

Photo by Andrii Iemelyanenko, Courtesy of iStock Photo

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
~ Viktor Frankl

I’m starting with that quote because it reflects what we’re talking about today: Finding that little space between your emotional reactions and responses so you have more control over how you respond.

When you utilize that space effectively, your responses will:

  1. Align with your values.
  2. Maintain your integrity.
  3. Express who you want to be.
  4. Facilitate effective communication.

There are four steps involved in the process of transforming your knee-jerk reactions into controlled, purposeful responses. Let’s go through them, and I’ll give you some methods to use to accomplish each.

First Step: Create space between your reaction and response.

This step is sometimes the hardest because when you’re emotionally triggered, your cognition closes down, and your emotions take over. It can happen in seconds, and it’s as though your entire focus narrows down to the feelings you’re having. You react fast and automatically without the benefit of first evaluating the situation.

This process is enabled by the older part of your brain – the amygdala – that controls fight or flight responses to any perceived danger. In these instances, the amygdala bypasses your prefrontal cortex, which is your thinking brain, and acts without rational considerations. It’s what happens when you “see red.”

So, finding that interim space takes some effort. Here are several things you can try.

1. Create a self-talk statement you’ll use anytime you feel reactive.

It’ll eventually become automated if you have the same statement ready and get used to employing it. You’ll slip at first, but with practice, your statement will arise in your mind the moment you feel triggered, thereby creating that space.

It can be simple, like, “Take a moment” or “Breathe!”

Whatever you choose, be consistent with it.

2. Remove yourself immediately from the environment.

It takes your brain at least 20 minutes to regain its equilibrium when you’re overwhelmed or triggered. Taking that time brings your thinking brain back on board so you can be deliberate about how you want to respond.

3. Use square breathing.

Take a deep breath to a count of four, hold it for a count of four, and exhale to a count of four. Do the whole routine four times. This quick remedy will interrupt the emotional reactivity that’s taken hold.

You can do all three of these things together or separately, depending on how strong your reactions are.

Second Step: Become self-aware.

Self-awareness is an exercise in mindfulness. The goal is to create distance between your feelings and your sense of self.

To do this, use an exercise called “affective labeling.”

It’s pretty easy. Begin labeling your feelings. Say what you’re feeling either mentally or out loud. For example, “I’m feeling red hot, overwhelmed, furious, immobilized, shocked, afraid” or whatever emotions are most prominent.

The process of mentally labeling your feelings gives you some distance from them while increasing the activity of your prefrontal cortex (thinking brain).

As you do that, you become self-aware of your thoughts and feelings, giving you a sense of control. It’s very grounding.

Third Step: Evaluate and plan your response.

Once you’ve successfully reached a level of emotional equilibrium that allows you to think and take control of your reactivity, you can begin to evaluate the situation and calmly plan how you’d like to respond.

You’ll be able to ensure your response is clear and direct yet delivered in a way that aligns with who you want to be and what you value.

You may have a very pointed response, but it’s more likely to be heard and taken seriously because you’ve thought it through.

When you’re reactive, you say things you often wish you could take back, or you can become so volatile that the only response from the other person is to fight back or defend.

When you think through what you want to get across, you can respond in a way that facilitates a real conversation rather than a back-and-forth attack and defense.

Fourth Step: Take action.

Now that you’re calm, clear, and thoughtful, you can respond or take whatever action you’ve chosen as the best option.

During this last step, it’s crucial to maintain your emotional equilibrium, so it’s a good idea to think ahead of what you will do if the response from the other person isn’t what you hoped for. Have a plan in place for those possibilities.

Things to Remember for Effective Communication

I’ve mentioned these things before in other blogs, but it’s always good to remember them when discussing effective communication. These basic rules keep everyone’s emotional equilibrium in place and allow a free flow of ideas and conversation.

1. Use “I” statements always when expressing your feelings and thoughts.

When you start a statement with “You,” you set the stage for an automatic defense from the other person.

Instead of,

“You hurt me when you yelled at me,”


“When you yell at me, I feel hurt and get angry. It’s hard for me to hear you under those circumstances.”

The second isn’t so accusatory. It creates some space in the conversation.

2. Take responsibility for your feelings.

Even though your emotions might be stimulated by what someone else says or does, you’re still responsible for them. That’s hard to swallow sometimes, but keeping it in mind will go a long way to resolve conflicts.

In the above scenario, you identified the stimulus that led to your emotions, which was the other person’s yelling. Still, you took responsibility for your feelings in reaction to the stimulus. That’s a critical difference that, although subtle, keeps defensiveness in check.

3. Ask questions.

When you’re overwhelmed or emotionally reactive to what the other person is saying or doing, ask questions.

This might seem counterintuitive, but doing it gives you time to get yourself under control while shifting the focus back to the other person.

Ask how they’re feeling, how they came to their conclusions or any question that seems curious and exploratory.

By doing that, you’re showing interest while opening up the space between you. Be a curious detective. As you do that, the emotional intensity will come down on both sides.

Keep This in Mind

Something that’s saved me many times in heated conversations is this truth:

Just because someone says something doesn’t make it true.

Of course, you know that, but you likely forget it when you feel attacked or criticized. Our knee-jerk response is to defend.

But if you ask questions instead and make the other person think about what they’re saying, then at least you have the opportunity to evaluate what part of what they say could be true and what isn’t. You can always ask for time to think it over.

That’s the other thing that’s saved me on occasion. I’ll say,

“I’m not sure I agree with anything you’ve said, but I’d like some time to think about it. Then, we can revisit it.”

You never have to resolve something quickly. Time is an asset when resolving conflicts. Take the time you need, and allow the other person the same courtesy. Things are usually much clearer when you allow the emotional dust to settle.

That’s all for today.

Have a great week!

All my best,