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

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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

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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

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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

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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

Blog Short #152: The Compound Effects of Habits

Photo by ITTIGallery, Courtesy of Shutterstock

Have you had the experience of something sneaking up on you before you realized you were in trouble?

Maybe you’ve used your credit cards liberally but didn’t realize the balance was climbing.

Or you got in the habit of putting off tasks at work and instead spent hours on social media, ostensibly for breaks, but you did it so much that your work declined, and you were fired.

Or you ignored your partner without really noticing and spent most of your time with friends or on other pursuits, and then one day, your partner left you.

There’s a process underlying these experiences outside the apparent denial. It’s called compounding, and it’s dangerous, especially when applied negatively. The good news is that it’s awesome when used positively!

Let’s take a look at how you can make use of it.

What is Compounding?

Compounding is a process whereby something increases exponentially over time.

You know the word from banking. When you put money in a savings account, the interest is compounded so that each month, you get interest on the original amount you put in plus the interest you accrued the following month. Over time, you’re accumulating greater and greater interest each month because it “compounds.”

This same process holds true for habits or any repeated pattern of behavior or activity. Whatever you do regularly or habitually has compounding effects over time.

If you’re doing something positive like exercising daily, your fitness level will improve faster and faster as you stay with it.

But, if you spend most of your day sitting and never exercise, you’re doing damage physically and neurologically that you may not feel daily, but that will catch up with you at some point when you find yourself with health problems that are hard to turn around.

Compounding happens in all spheres of our lives automatically. You can’t control it, but you can take advantage of it if you’re aware of your actions and behavior.

Before we get to strategies, there’s one more thing to keep in mind, and that’s a specific effect of compounding.

Gradually and Suddenly

You’ve heard of success stories where people say they’ve labored for years to get to where they wanted to go, but when they arrived, it happened quickly and suddenly.

An example would be an author who writes multiple books with a slow build of followers, and then suddenly, he catches on, and people are clamoring for his books. He’s in demand for interviews, and money’s flowing in.

When you see this from the outside, you think he’s had instant success, but that’s not true. It took years of work to reach this place in his career. You only saw the explosive part.

Compounding is behind that kind of leap. There’s a tipping point where compounded effort multiplies on a larger scale and bumps you up suddenly. There’s an informative book about this phenomenon called “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell, which you might enjoy reading.

Daniel Pink refers to this process as “gradually and suddenly” in his book The Power of Regret. When the compounding reaches a particular point, the results appear like a “tornado.” If you’re using it for good, you’re happy and gratified, but if applied to harmful habits, you feel regret when the reality hits you.

In those cases, the results can be catastrophic because of the compounding effect. It’s as though the singular bad habit spreads throughout your life at greater and greater speed, similar to how a disease replicates. We’ve all just been through COVID, so we know what that’s like.

In terms of habits that compound, I like James Clear’s description best because it helps us get serious about what the effects could be. He says:

If you want to predict where you’ll end up in life, all you have to do is follow the curve of tiny gains or tiny losses, and see how your daily choices will compound ten or twenty years down the line. Time magnifies the margin between success and failure. It will multiply whatever you feed it. Good habits make time your ally. Bad habits make time your enemy.

Now, let’s look at how you can use compounding to your advantage.

Strategies and Process

1. Become aware.

The first step is to see where you are. This step is pivotal because everything else rests on it, so don’t leave it out. Take an inventory of your habits, especially those that affect your relationships, health, productivity/work, and finances. Add any other areas that you feel are essential to you.

Write out the most influential habits you have under each category. Include positives and negatives, and be honest to get an accurate picture.

This task might take some time, but it’s worth doing because habits are so automatic that you often don’t see how embedded they are in your daily life or how much they influence your behavior.

2. Imagine compounding effects.

Look over each habit and imagine possible effects five, ten, or twenty years out. This part is meaningful because it will make you look at the reality of what you could face in your future if you don’t make changes now.

For good habits, you can feel excited about the possible outcomes you’ll experience, which will help you stay on track and continue those habits. But for the bad ones, you need to make changes.

The purpose of this exercise is to get real about where you’re going and to prevent situations you can control now that you won’t be able to control later because you waited too long to take action.

3. Set up new habits.

Make a list of the habits that need changing and prioritize them. What needs to change first?

You can’t change everything at once and shouldn’t try. If you do it that way, you’ll fold and do nothing, so just start with one thing. You know this already, but we tend to start big and fall flat.

Habits take time to change and instill. Some strategies that help with that are as follows:

  1. Make small improvements. James Clear advises a “1% better every day” approach. Using that approach helps prevent falling off when you don’t succeed quickly or hit a lull, which you surely will. If you improve even slightly every day, you’ll eventually get those compound effects that will move you along swiftly.
  2. Make it visible. Write it, schedule it, put it on a bulletin board in the kitchen – make it so visible you can’t ignore it. I like big, bold signs in the house that I have to see because embedded habits are sneaky and stay just under your awareness radar. You need constant mental reminders to keep you steady.
  3. Track progress. You WILL FAIL if you don’t track your progress. Remember that habits are ingrained in the neuron paths in your brain and are automated. They have a power of their own. You have to combat that by keeping yourself tuned in to what’s happening, and tracking is the way to do that. Weekly, check in with yourself. Better yet, get an accountability partner, so you have to check in. Reviewing your progress, or lack of, weekly lets you know how you’re doing and will keep you going.

If you use these strategies and stick with them, you can overcome any bad habit and create a positive one in its place, especially since you know the effects will compound faster over time.

Good Habits

Good habits are easy to keep going for the most part, but keep an eye on them and make sure you don’t drop the ball. The hardest thing about dealing with good habits is waiting for results. If you’re working toward a goal, you can become impatient and give up when you don’t see progress.

Keep in mind that compounding works slowly at first and builds over time, so waiting is part of the process. Keep going, and eventually, you’ll feel the rewards.

That’s all for today!

Have a great week!

All my best,



Clear, J. (2018). Atomic Habits. Avery.
Gladwell, M. (2000). The Tipping Point. Little, Brown.
Pink, D. (2022). The Power of Regret. Riverhead Books.

Blog Short #151: How to Change Someone

Photo by shironosov, Courtesy of iStock Photo

Who in your life do you want to change? Most of us have someone. Either it’s someone you love who, if only would use their talents, discipline themselves more, read that book, or take your fabulous advice, would be so much happier and successful. Or maybe you’re tied to someone who drags you down because they won’t give up their destructive behaviors or recognize the harm they’re causing.

How do you change someone? The answer is, you can’t. No one can change someone else. But, you can offer help, support, and inspiration that lead to change.

Today, we’ll go through how you can approach this.

1. Start with acceptance.

The first thing is to accept where that person is right now, which isn’t always easy. Here’s a way to look at it that will help you:

We know that we’re all equal in terms of our humanity and right to be, but where we differentiate is in our levels of maturity. Everyone is in their own stage of development and evolution, and recognizing this helps you appreciate and accept where someone is.

If you consider your current developmental track, you’ll recognize that some people are more evolved than you, and some are less evolved. Some people seem to be devolving and going backward. Others appear to be stationary and stuck.

A wise person accepts those differences without judgment. That doesn’t mean you ignore them or pretend not to see them, but you understand the reality of what is.

By doing that, you’ll give up your anxious push to coerce or manipulate them to make the changes you think should be made.

2. Define your intent/need.

Next, define why you’re concerned about this person.

  • How does it impact you?
  • Why do you want them to change?

If it’s someone you care about or love, you likely want to help them succeed, feel better, make progress, reach their potential, or whatever it may be. But you also want to feel less anxious, depressed, or worried about this person’s future and the mess they’re making right now.

That’s all normal. You can’t care about someone without having those feelings. The question is, what behaviors are you engaging in to minimize your anxiety?

Are you taking over someone’s responsibilities for them, criticizing and cajoling them, comparing them to others who are more developed or successful?

How are you handling those feelings?

If you’re doing anything I just mentioned, you’re not helping. You’re making it worse.

Get clear on what your motives are, what your feelings are, and how your behavior is impacting the situation. Once you’re clear on that, you can begin to help.

3. Become an ally.

If someone wants help or is open to receiving it, become their ally. You can’t help someone if you’re working against them. You need to collaborate.

Instead of diving in with advice, ask questions. Allow the person to talk and listen carefully. People who feel stuck generally like to be heard. They want to talk. They may want to outline their excuses, blame circumstances, voice self-recriminations, and list all the reasons why they “can’t.”

Counteracting any of these thoughts won’t help. But when you ask good questions, you help them see more clearly where they’re at and where they’re in denial.

Ask them to expand on what they say or ask how they’ve come to their conclusions or how they wish for things to be. Help them think and examine their thoughts and attitudes that keep them stuck without telling them where they’re wrong. Be curious rather than directive. Suspend judgment.

For example, if they say, “I can’t handle another thing,” you could ask, “What might another thing be, and what about that feels overwhelming?”

Your job is to help them begin to analyze their thoughts and dig a little. When that happens, they start taking some control of where they are, and that’s the first step to making some change. By posing curious questions, you’re subtly challenging their distorted beliefs. But you’re doing that as an ally and collaborator.

4. Inspire.

Lead by example. Relate experiences you’ve had that are similar and that you’ve struggled to overcome, with a focus on how you did that. Don’t do it in a monologue fashion, but when asked or when you think it could be helpful. The person you’re trying to help may think you’ve always had it together and haven’t ever been stuck the way they are. If you have experiences and stories that could help dispel those beliefs, it could be a source of inspiration and hope.

Be careful with this one. You only want to share what and how much you think is relevant to the person’s situation and struggle – no more.

You can also inspire someone by modeling the behavior that would be helpful. This is especially effective in relationships where you have lots of contact.

Research has shown that we take on the habits and characteristics of the people we spend the most time with. We’re imitators due to “mirror neurons” in the brain. (You can read about how these work here.) Simply being around someone with effective habits and attitudes can inspire us to make changes.

5. Set boundaries.

You can be the ally who listens, helps with the thinking process, and empathizes with feelings of being overwhelmed, but you must allow the person to do the work because if they don’t, it won’t help and won’t stick. They’ll feel more incompetent even when you’ve provided some immediate relief. They’ll slide right back down to where they were, only now with more self-recrimination because they’ve disappointed you or whoever was helping.

Your goal is to help increase the desire and need to change. It has to come from within, not from the outside. You might be able to point out some directions they can take, but the drive has to come from them.

They need to know their “why” and what they want and feel some urgency to make that happen. You can help support that process but not do it for them.

In some cases, you can help by spending more time with them and inviting them to work alongside you or participate in activities with you. For example, if your friend wants to lose weight but can’t seem to get off the couch or stop eating mounds of junk food, invite them to walk with you several times a week. This kind of support can be pivotal in helping someone make a change because it’s done without judgment or expectation, and it provides a jump-start.

What if their habits are too destructive?

In situations where the person you wish to change is involved in habits or behaviors that are dangerous, such as extensive substance abuse, emotional abuse, illegal activities, or self-harm, you need to set boundaries.

You might need to move away from this person, end a relationship, or, in the case of someone on the brink of violence toward self or others, get immediate help. You can’t help someone whose problems are of this magnitude alone.

A Thought to Remember

Keep in mind in all of your efforts that your role is to help someone want to help themselves by becoming inspired, talking through issues, and answering new questions to get clear on a direction to take. Feeling less isolated is also invaluable.

The other thought is that helping someone change requires patience and an understanding that regardless of what you offer, the ball’s always in their court. They have to do the work. True change can only come that way.

That’s all for today.

Have a great week, as always!

All my best,


Blog Short #150: Why You Gotta Get Your Sleep!

Photo by studiovin, Courtesy of Shutterstock

Did you know that when you sleep at night, especially during deep sleep, your brain activates a system that rinses it out and removes toxic substances that build up and hamper your cognition and mood? It does. Literally. But only when you sleep.

This nightly cleaning crew is called the glymphatic system, and today, I’m going to explain what it is and how it works and offer some strategies you can use to keep it working optimally.

This subject is a little off the beaten path of most of my blogs, but it is related to your mental health. Here’s how:

When your glymphatic system can’t do its nightly job, accumulated brain trash interferes with the balance of neurotransmitters in your brain that are related to mood. In other words, sleep deprivation, especially over time, is a causative factor of chronic anxiety and depression.

It also reduces your ability to think and, on a long-term basis, contributes to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Let’s start with what the glymphatic system is and how it works.

The Definition and Description

Interestingly, knowledge of the glymphatic system, how it works, and what it does is relatively new. Maiken Medergaard and her colleagues discovered it during a landmark study conducted in 2012 at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Before the study, scientists knew that the body has a method of removing waste through the lymphatic system to keep our organs and bodily systems healthy and running smoothly. What they didn’t know was how the brain removes waste.

They found that the brain has its own plumbing system that piggybacks on blood vessels in the brain and, using the pulsating force of the blood vessels, pumps CSF (cerebrospinal fluid) through brain tissue, extracting toxins and washing it out like a dishwasher. It sends the waste back through the body, releasing it through the lymphatic system with all the other bodily waste.

The “glymphatic system” gets its name from the specific cells that manage it, which are called “glial cells.” This is what differentiates it from the body’s lymphatic system.

What exactly is brain trash?

Brain trash consists of toxic proteins such as beta amyloids, tau proteins, and Lewy bodies. You wouldn’t know what these are – I didn’t – but generally, they’re abnormally shaped or misfolded proteins that create neurodegeneration or cell death. Alzheimer’s is linked to a buildup of these proteins.

The glymphatic system goes into high gear removing those proteins when you sleep, and isn’t working much when you’re awake. Not only that, it works best during non-REM deep sleep.

If you’ve ever monitored your sleep at night with a Fitbit or other sleep-monitoring device, you know how much or how little deep sleep you’re getting. If you don’t sleep enough, you’re certainly not getting sufficient to facilitate the work of your glymphatic system, which means you’ve got trash hanging out in your brain, causing problems.

Imagine it like this:

You go for weeks without emptying the trash in your house. It begins to overflow all over the floor and into the carpet and infiltrates the air. Soon, you have hoards of bugs that are setting up colonies on their new feeding ground. Before you know it, germs are multiplying at a fast rate and making you sick.

When you don’t sleep enough, you have the same situation in your brain, which affects your energy, state of mind, mood, ability to think, capacity to handle stress, and who knows what else. There is such a thing as sleep-deprivation psychosis accompanied by full-on hallucinations. And over more extended periods, you run greater risks of developing neurogenerative diseases.

Here’s one more thing to keep in mind, and then we’ll move away from the negatives to some strategies you can use to offset these issues.

As you age, your glymphatic system doesn’t cleanse your brain as effectively, and you may have more buildup of protein waste that accumulates and causes trouble. But there is something you can do about that.

Let’s get to the strategies.

The Strategies


You know this already, but how well do you know it? Sleep means at least 7 hours and preferably more. Optimally, go to sleep before 11 PM and get up after 8 hours (at 7 AM). If you need to shift that around because of your work schedule, still opt for at least 7.5 hours. This is true even if you work night shifts.

Sleep in a cool room, preferably, and sleep on your right side for as much of the night as possible. These factors have been shown to help the glymphatic system work more optimally.

Avoid heavy meals or snacks before bed, and turn off your blue light screens long before bedtime.


Exercise is key to maintaining regular glymphatic activity as you age. This isn’t surprising because exercise also significantly affects the production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. Just as exercise helps keep your mood steady, it assists the work of rinsing your brain nightly and keeping your mind working smoothly.

Exercise has been shown through multiple research studies to have a very significant impact on the prevention of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. That makes sense because it assists your glymphatic system in keeping your brain free of amyloid deposits that clog and destroy brain cells.

The best exercise for getting these results is aerobic exercise. It doesn’t have to be a lot or overly strenuous, but regularity is essential. Yoga is also good because of its calming effects and flexibility of the body, both of which aid sleep.


Some researchers recommend magnesium supplements or, if not, foods high in magnesium. For a list of those, click here.

If you decide to take a supplement, it’s a good idea to research first and make sure you’re not taking too much and are using a reputable brand. Magnesium L-Threonate is recommended for assisting with glymphatic activity, but I would check with your physician or a registered dietician before trying it.

Take your Omega-3s

You can get these from cold-water fish like Salmon, or if you’re eating a plant-based diet, you can take algae oil supplements. The DHA in omega-3s helps reduce beta-amyloid generation, thereby aiding the work of the glymphatic system. It also assists with speeding up the rinsing process.

Keep Your Immune System in Good Shape

Your glymphatic system works alongside your immune system. Sleep and exercise are essential for both systems, but don’t neglect your diet. In my 45+ years of providing psychotherapy, I’m always impressed by how many people don’t consider the impact of their diet on their mood, anxiety levels, and overall well-being.

Bad diet is like breathing bad air. If you breathe in smog, tar, and toxic gases all day, you’ll become ill. You’ll overtax your immune system, free radicals will run free (pun intended), and inflammation will revel in its expansion.

Bad food does the same, only you don’t notice it as much. You think you don’t feel well for other reasons and discount the impact of food. We all do it, so I’m not preaching. I’m just saying that it plays a very significant role in how you feel and experience your day to day. If you’ve been on a good, healthy, clean diet for some time, you know immediately the difference when you deviate just a little.

Be your body’s best friend and eat right while also getting enough sleep and exercising.

Exercise or Sleep?

If you have to choose between enough sleep and exercise, opt for sleep. Sleep must come first. You can work toward getting exercise into your routine when possible but don’t forego sleep. You need your nightly brainwashing. And if you have that, finding solutions for exercise or any other problem will be easier.

That’s all for today.

All my best,



Christensen, J., Yamakawa, G. R., Shultz, S. R.  Mychasiuk, R. (2021, March). Is the glymphatic system the missing link between sleep impairments and neurological disorders? Examining the implications and uncertainties. Progress in Neurobiology, Volume 198, 101917.

Cohen, S. (2023, Aug. 21). The glymphatic system – Your brain’s nighttime janitorial staff. Suzy Cohen.

Gupta, S. (2021). Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age. Simon & Schuster.

Hablitz, L. M., & Nedergaard, M. (2021, Sept. 15). The glymphatic system: A novel component of fundamental neurobiology. Journal of Neuroscience, 41(37), 7690-7711.

Jessen, N. A., Munk, A. S., Lundgaard, .I &  Nedergaard, M. (2015, December). The glymphatic system: A beginner’s guide. Neurochemical Research,40(12), 2583-99.

Michaud, M. (2019, Feb. 27). Not all sleep is equal when it comes to cleaning the brain. University of Rochester Medical Center.

Reddy, O. C. & Van Der Werf, Y. D. (2020, November). The sleeping brain: Harnessing the power of the glymphatic system through lifestyle choices. Brain Sciences, 10(11), 868. DOI:10.3390/brainsci10110868

URMC Communications (2012, Aug. 15). Scientists discover previously unknown cleansing system in brain. University of Rochester Medical Center.

Blog Short #149: How to Apologize the Right Way

Photo by Evgeniia Primavera, Courtesy of Shutterstock

Saying you’re sorry for something you’ve done that caused a problem or pain for someone else is healing for both you and the other person.

It’s also humbling in a good way and reminds us we’re not perfect while highlighting empathy and genuine concern for how we affect each other.

Heartfelt apologies make us better people and foster good connections between us, which is good for our survival and helps us thrive.

Today, I’m going over the steps for making an effective apology that helps repair and move on from mistakes.

Quick note: We’re only referring to situations where you feel you’ve done something to apologize for.

Let’s dive in.

Four Main Components of an Apology

In general, most writers and researchers include the following elements/steps for effective apologies:

  1. Saying you’re sorry and expressing your remorse for what you did
  2. Taking responsibility for it
  3. Making amends or reparations
  4. Vowing that it won’t happen again

All of these are necessary elements, but I like the 6-step stratagem offered by Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy in their book Sorry, Sorry, Sorry. It includes all those elements but spells them out a little more so it’s easier to remember. I’ll review them briefly, but if you want to know more, read the book. It’s excellent!

The 6-Step Strategy

Step 1: Say you’re sorry.

Say the actual words, “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.”

Saying things like “I regret that you were hurt” or “It wasn’t my intention to distress you” are vague and subtly questions whether you did anything wrong. Saying “I’m sorry” means you’re owning the mistake and taking responsibility for it.

Make it simple and direct, and use “I” statements. Avoid making “you” statements.

Step 2: Be specific about what you’re apologizing for.

Name what you did; the specific act or behavior that caused the harm and for which you’re sorry.

Let’s say you show up late for dinner at a restaurant, and your partner has to wait an extra 15 minutes. You rush in and say,

“I’m sorry you had to wait for me!”

That sounds okay, right? But it’s focusing on what happened to the other person instead of what you did. A better statement would be,

“I’m sorry I didn’t get myself here on time and left you waiting.”

The second statement is more powerful because it focuses on exactly what you did that you’re apologizing for. “You had to wait” is easier to say than “I made you have to wait,” but the difference is significant. By emphasizing your behavior, you’re taking responsibility.

Step 3: Show you understand the impact of what you did.

Now that you’ve made it clear you know what you did that’s upsetting to the other person, make sure you state the impact of it.

“I’m late and made you wait, and I’m sure it might have been uncomfortable sitting here alone. You probably felt unimportant or forgotten.”

Sometimes, it’s best to let them tell you how they feel and how they were impacted by what you did before apologizing. This is especially true when the incident is serious or has more significant consequences.

In those cases, invite them to tell you how they were affected and listen attentively. Mirror back what you hear with empathy and show your remorse.

However, make sure the attention stays on the person who was hurt. Don’t get so wrapped up in expressing your remorse that the conversation shifts more to your feelings, and the person offended ends up soothing you.

Step 4: Explain if necessary.

Sometimes, people want an explanation, and it helps to provide one.

For example, if you were late for dinner because you had a flat tire and had to change it before proceeding, that explanation would help soothe any ruffled feelings because it makes sense and couldn’t be helped.

The trick is to not use explanations as excuses. If instead of the flat tire, you were late because you didn’t start getting ready to leave the house soon enough, saying something like “I lost track of time” becomes an excuse and cancels out the apology. You’re saying, “I’m sorry but . . . .” which isn’t being sorry.

Give explanations when they’ll help, but always own up to your responsibility and don’t make excuses.

“I didn’t start getting ready soon enough, but that’s no excuse, and by doing that, I left you sitting here alone waiting for me. I’m very sorry I put you in that position.”

Step 5: Say why it won’t happen again.

Continuing our scenario, you could add to that last statement,

“It won’t happen again. I’ll add an extra 30 minutes to my schedule for getting ready because I know I tend to estimate on the light side. That way, I’ll always be ready on time.”

What changes are you making that will change the outcomes? Spell them out, and be sure you can follow through.

Step 6: Make amends.

What can you do to repair the damage?

Maybe promising not to repeat the behavior and holding up to that is enough. In other cases, it might be something more specific, like if you broke something, you could replace it. If you regularly lose your temper with your partner, you could schedule an appointment for counseling to work on anger issues. For our guy who was late to dinner, he could set up another dinner date and make it memorable (and show up on time.)

The most important thing to do is to change the behavior that caused the problem initially.

Saying you’re sorry is useless if you don’t do something to prevent it from happening again.

What’s the best method for apologizing?

There are many ways to do it: face-to-face, by text or email, or by writing a letter. The method will depend on:

  • The seriousness of the offense
  • The complexity of the issue and the need for a longer and more detailed apology
  • Your comfort with making the apology
  • How you think the other person might respond

If you aren’t good with words and need to review what you want to say before delivering it, you may prefer writing or emailing. A written letter can be very effective for a more heartfelt apology.

Email is helpful when you need emotional space to express your true feelings and thoughts.

A text is fine for something that isn’t serious but not for something with more extensive repercussions.

Face-to-face is best for intimate relationships but may be difficult when you think the offended person won’t be receptive to what you have to say.

Choose what you think will be most effective for the situation.

The Timing

Not all apologies should be made right away. For more serious infractions, or when the issue is complex, take the time to think it through before apologizing.

Get clear on what you think you did that you need to apologize for, and distinguish between your part and the other person’s part if the situation involved mistakes on both sides. By doing that, your apology will be more effective.

It also helps to allow the other person time to think over the situation before talking about it.

Avoid trapping the other person.

Don’t apologize in a space where the other person can’t walk away if they want to, like in a car while driving or in an enclosed area where you’re blocking the entryway.

Give people the space and option to move away.

Sometimes, people need time before responding or can’t accept your apology. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make it. You should because it’s the right thing to do, and you need to make amends. However, if it’s not accepted, you’ll at least know you did your best, and you can make peace with that. Or try again later.

That’s all for today.

Have a great week!

All my best,



Frantz, C. & Bennigson, C. (2005). Better late than early: The influence of timing on apology effectiveness. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 41. 201-207.

Ingall, M. & McCarthy, S. (2023). Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case for Good Apologies. Gallery Books.

Scher, S. J. & Darley, J. M. (1997).  How effective are the things people say to apologize? Effects of the realization of the apology speech act. Faculty Research and Creative Activity. 26.

Schumann, K., & Dweck, C. S. (2014). Who accepts responsibility for their transgressions? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin40(12), 1598–1610.

Blog Short #148: How to Deal With People Who Like to Pick Fights

Photo by suteishi, Courtesy of iStockPhoto

There are many reasons someone might pick a fight, some serious and some not so serious. Either way, if you’re on the receiving end, it helps to have some clue about why it’s happening so you have a better feel for how to handle it.

Let’s start by listing why someone might pick a fight, and then I’ll give you some strategies.

Common Causes

Having a Bad Day

Most everyone has had this experience. You’re having a bad day or maybe in a mood and feeling irritable. You pick a fight, sometimes over nothing, to discharge your negative emotions.

You’ve heard the expression, “Misery loves company?” Picking a fight spreads the bad feelings around, although it doesn’t usually give you any real relief.

Built-up Anger Over Unresolved Problems

When you’ve had the same conversations over and over about an issue without resolving it, you build up anger and resentment. At some point, you get triggered by something else, and your anger comes to a head. You pick a fight out of the blue with the person involved in the issue.

In this case, you’re expressing frustration with an ongoing situation but not directly addressing it. By picking a fight, you project your anger into less significant situations and express it without tackling the real problem.

More Serious Causes

Can’t Contain Your Own Emotions

Some people literally can’t contain their emotions, especially negative ones. By “contain,” I mean feeling and holding them while working them through.

The discomfort of that process is too great, so the feelings boomerang back out as soon as they’re felt. You need to discharge them quickly, and the easiest way to do this is to make someone else feel them for you.

It’s like a game of hot potato – you feel something too hot to handle and quickly throw it to someone else.

This is an unconscious process and happens almost automatically. It’s different than just having a bad day. It’s a regular pattern of dealing with difficult emotions.

People who do this often have a history of painful experiences and unresolved issues that find their way into current relationships. They tend to pick fights everywhere – at home, work, with friends, etc.

Need to Create Distance

Another reason someone habitually picks fights is the need for emotional distance. We all occasionally need time alone, but we usually just ask for it. The person who uses fighting to get it is working on a deeper issue.

Here’s how it works:

You’re getting along great with your partner (or a friend or family member). You feel close and appreciative of the relationship. Suddenly, your partner inexplicably picks a fight, sometimes over nothing, and initiates a conflict that escalates and ends in a standoff. The standoff continues until they feel too much distance and pull you back in.

The whole pattern repeats often.

People who engage in this pattern regularly likely have early attachment issues. If the attachment style is insecure, the person isn’t comfortable with either closeness or distance and swings back and forth between them. As soon as they get too close, they feel anxious and threatened, so they create space. Yet when they feel the distance, they feel separation anxiety and move back in to close the gap.

This pattern is normal during specific developmental periods like toddlerhood and early adolescence but should resolve before adulthood. When it’s not, it becomes a personality characteristic that requires some treatment to overcome.

Define Oneself

The next reason people pick fights is to define themselves. These folks didn’t successfully develop a solid sense of self during childhood and adolescence, and as adults need to define and redefine who they are.

They do this by defining who they’re not. By disagreeing, picking fights, arguing, being a devil’s advocate, dismissing, or projecting, they’re creating boundaries  (like outlines) around themselves, which gives them a sense of who they are. Their “I” becomes “not like you.”

Narcissists do this more subtly with one-upping, disagreeing with everything you say, becoming aloof, being smug, or saying things that provoke you and make you angry, and then watching you calmly with a superior attitude. The message you get is,

“What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you control yourself? I’m calm. I’m in control. I’m more mature than you are.”

They’re defining themselves as better, but underneath all that bravado, they feel like nothing. They’ve created a pseudo-self to cover up the fact they don’t have a real sense of self.

Get Attention

The last reason is to get attention. If someone’s not getting the attention they need or want, starting a conflict will get it, even if it’s negative attention.

Children do this a lot. If they haven’t had enough time with their parents, or their parents seem emotionally inaccessible for too long, they do something provocative to get a rise and bring the attention back to them. In this case, they’ve projected their anger so the parent feels it and reacts. It’s not good attention, but it’s better than nothing.

Adults can use this same behavior when they need attention. Instead of discussing it with the person involved, they project it. They may begin picking at the other person by micro-managing, nagging, or being overtly hostile to get a rise. It does the job.

The Strategies

1. Provide space.

For the first scenario – having a bad day – allow some space. If you know the person well and they’re generally reasonable, you can make an empathetic comment or ask a question like,

“Are you really upset with me or maybe just having a bad day? Is there anything I can do to help?”

If you don’t think that will be well-received, give them space and time alone.

2. Go for the feeling.

Listen and focus on how the person feels. Say something like,

“I see you’re upset. Tell me what’s bothering you, and I’ll listen. ”

Use the four-part strategy we reviewed last week – Listen, Clarify, Verify, and Identify.

For the person who can’t contain their emotions, being able to share the feelings can help diffuse them, although not always. If you’re rebuffed, and they continue to bait you, they aren’t willing to confront their emotions.

3. Opt out.

Someone who needs to fight for any of the above reasons and won’t respond to empathetic concern is telling you there’s nothing you can do to improve things. In this case, opt out. Don’t respond.

Leave the area if you can or refuse to respond, and don’t feel guilty about it. For the person who needs distance, give it to them.

4. Set a boundary.

This one’s similar to opting out but not quite as extreme. You can say,

“I’m willing to hear what’s on your mind, but I’m not willing to fight. Let me know when you’re ready to do that.

A caveat here: Sometimes, you can participate in a heated disagreement with someone without leaving or backing out. That’s not, however, the case with people who make a habit of fighting. You have to consider the purpose. Is this person genuinely interested in working through a problem, or are they simply projecting their bad feelings into you to solve other issues they won’t deal with?

5. Try therapy.

If you’re unsure of exactly what’s going on, and your attempts to resolve it fail, see a therapist alone or with the person you’re having the problem with. Often a therapist can see things you don’t and help clarify what’s happening, which is very helpful.

With all of these strategies, your goal is to avoid being used or abused to deal with someone’s misplaced emotions, yet when possible, to help diffuse or redirect them.

That’s all for today.

Have a great week!

All my best,