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Blog Short #174: How to Use Radical Acceptance


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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,

Barbara

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


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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,

Barbara

Blog Short #172: Coping with the “Blahs”


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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

Causes

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,

Barbara

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​


FOOTNOTES:

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). https://research.utexas.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/2016/01/Flourishing-Languishing-and-Depressed-Postdoctoral-Fellows_Gloria-Steinhardt-2013.pdf

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. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3090197?origin=JSTOR-pdf

Pearson, D. G. & Craig, T. (2014, Oct 21). The great outdoors? Exploring the mental health benefits of natural environments. Frontiers in Psychology, Vol.5. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01178

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. https://doi.org/10.1177/26331055231191513

Wadman, M. (2022, February). Lasting impact of infection extends to the brain. Science 375(6582). https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.ada1334

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. https://dictionary.apa.org/languishing

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


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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,

Barbara


FOOTNOTES:

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. https://www.verywellmind.com/avoidance-coping-and-stress-4137836

VandenBos, G. R. (Ed.). (2007). APA Dictionary of Psychology. American Psychological Association. https://dictionary.apa.org/avoidance-coping

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,

Barbara

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,

Barbara

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,”

say,

“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,

Barbara

Blog Short #167: 6 Ways to Outfox Distractions


Photo by SeventyFour, Courtesy of iStock Photo

Distraction is a growing problem. Nothing new. It’s always been around, but with tech taking over our cultural landscape and online access to everything, we’re more distracted than ever.

How do you fight that when you need to focus and get things done?

Today, we’ll go over the most used and effective strategies so you can pick and choose which ones will work for you.

First, let’s get a quick understanding of what happens in your brain when you get distracted.

Two Things Instead of One

When something interrupts your focus involuntarily or because you’re attempting to do two things at once, your brain has to shift. This entails two tasks:

  1. Goal shifting: Deciding to turn your attention from one thing to another.
  2. Rule activation: Changing from the previous task’s rules to the rules for the new task.

Although these shifts happen in microseconds, they still require time and energy, slowing you down.

If you’re working on something on your computer and a Facebook notification comes up in the corner of your screen, you shift your attention and lose track of your focus on your work task. It then takes time to shift back.

If the interruption is longer or requires extended attention, the time lost in making the switch is only part of the problem.

According to a study conducted by ​Gloria Mark, Professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine,

It can take on average 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to the original task after a significant interruption.

Sometimes, you can’t avoid distractions, but by using some simple strategies, you can keep them in check. Here are six of them.

1. Set up the right environment.

There are two parts to this strategy, which James Clear outlines clearly in his book Atomic Habits. These are:

  1. Remove sources of possible friction.
  2. Prime your environment to make things easy.

Avoid friction.

To avoid friction, you must remove any obstacles that might interfere with your focus before starting your work.

  • Put your phone where you can’t see it and silence it.
  • Turn off notifications so nothing can hop up on your screen.
  • Let people know who typically might call you or drop by your office that you don’t want to be interrupted, and close your door.
  • Tell people you won’t access email for the next three (or how many you need) hours.

If you’re at home, you can do similar things. However, if being at home is a distraction because you notice all the house things that need doing, then go somewhere you won’t see them.

In short, remove anything and everything you think might be distracting so you won’t be tempted to deviate from your chosen task.

That’s the “removing friction” part.

Prime your environment.

Priming your environment means setting it up before you start to make your process as easy as possible.

  • Clean off your desk.
  • Have all your supplies readily accessible.
  • If you want coffee, have it ready.
  • Have your favorite pen, paper, computer screen, or whatever you need set up and available.

That will help you avoid getting up and down to get something, looking for something you need, or being uncomfortable and having to go get that pillow to put behind your back.

Get all of that ready upfront.

2. Table emotional issues.

If something’s bothering you and taking up emotional space in your head, write it down. You can do this in journal style or list style.

As you write it down, remind yourself of three things:

  1. You can’t resolve the problem right now.
  2. You will return to it later (you can specify a time) and work on it.
  3. You won’t lose track of it by turning your focus away from it right now and engaging fully in your work. You might even find that new solutions pop up more easily later by leaving it for now.

3. Time-block.

Time-blocking is a great way to focus your mind on any task because it counteracts your resistance.

When you decide to work with complete focus for a specific amount of time, you know the endpoint.

When you decide to complete a task, you don’t know the endpoint because you don’t know how long it will take you.

You might find yourself dreading the process, which often leads to procrastinating, allowing more interruptions, and not fully engaging.

Decide to work for 30 minutes (or any time you choose), and let yourself stop when the time ends. If you get fully engaged when your time’s up, you might take a break and dive into a second-time block. It works!

You can also set an artificial deadline for yourself within a time block. I’ve done this with writing. I decide to write a thousand words in 20 minutes, which helps me let go of my internal critic and write as fast as I can. I call this “ugly writing,” and it works!

4. Do your hardest tasks first.

The best and most famous treatise on this idea comes from Brian Tracy in his book Eat That Frog. If you’ve never read it, get it and do so. It’s short and easy to read and provides all the details on how and why doing your difficult tasks first works.

Four quick ideas about this are:

  1. Your willpower decreases over the day, so doing your hard work first thing is more likely to get it done.
  2. Instead of hanging over your head all day, doing that hard thing early in the day relieves you and frees up your emotional energy for other things.
  3. Doing hard things first consistently sets up a habit that reduces friction.
  4. You get an immediate sense of accomplishment that stays with you all day.

5. Plan the work week ahead.

There’s an art to this to make it work well. Try these things:

  • Set three goals to accomplish for the week ahead. You can set more if you like, but it’s best not to overdo it. Make them specific and measurable.
  • Calendar all the tasks you need to do in time slots to complete those goals.
  • Create each day’s to-do list the night before. It should sync with your calendar.

You don’t want to get up in the morning and ask yourself what you need to do that day. You should know already and be ready to dive in once your day begins.

Be sure to set aside a specific time each day to answer phone calls and emails, check social media, or create posts. That way, you know you’ll get to it, but without it interfering with your focused work.

I find it helpful to put everything on my calendar, including house chores, errand time, etc. That way, I don’t waste time figuring out what to do and when.

6. Build concentration with exercise, meditation, sleep, and a good diet.

Focusing is a muscle. You can improve it with practice and keeping your brain in good shape.

Meditation is a practice of focusing your mind. Doing it regularly naturally increases your ability to attend for greater and greater amounts of time. It also helps you harness your unruly desire to indulge in mindless activity. It’s an excellent antidote to chronic anxiety and stress.

Sleep? Need I say more? You must get at least 7 hours a night. Some people do fine with that, and others need 8. My sweet spot is 7 1/2. Know yours and make sure you get it. Your brain gets cluttered with “brain trash” over the day and needs deep sleep to wash it out. Read more about that here.

Exercise and a good diet, especially together, keep your brain sharp and your mood steady. They also enhance your overall energy. Exercise, in particular, is a great stress reliever. You don’t have to do much. Just make it regular.

Last Thing

Distractibility is less when you’re engaged in something you love that naturally interests you. You’ll be less inclined to let your attention shift under those circumstances.

Still, it’s good to be prepared. For more mundane tasks or those you don’t have an interest in, it’s paramount that you set yourself up ahead of time for success.

Hopefully, these strategies we’ve gone over today will help!

That’s all for today.

Have a great week!

All my best,

Barbara


FOOTNOTES

Buetti, S. & Lleras, A. (2016). Distractibility is a function of engagement, not task difficulty: Evidence from a new oculomotor capture paradigm. Journal of Experimental Psychology, General, 145(10), 1382-1405. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000213

Clear, J. (2018). Atomic Habits. Avery.

Cherry, K. (2023). How Multitasking Affects Productivity and Brain Health. Very Well Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/multitasking-2795003

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

Mark, G., Gonzalez, V. M., & Harris, J. (2005). No task left behind? Examining the nature of fragmented work. University of California, Irvine. https://ics.uci.edu/~gmark/CHI2005.pdf

Pattison, K. (2008). Worker, Interrupted: The Cost of Task Switching. Fast Company. https://www.fastcompany.com/944128/worker-interrupted-cost-task-switching

Tracy, B. (2017). Eat That Frog! (3rd Ed.). Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Blog Short #166: Set Yourself Up for Next Year by Doing This

It’s that time of year again when you’re starting to formulate plans for the next twelve months. New Year’s is about a week away, which gives you some time to think about what you want to accomplish.

But, to do that successfully, it helps first to take an inventory of where you are right now because you can’t know where you want to go until you’re clear on where you’re starting from.

Here’s the process that’s helped me clarify my goals each year. Hopefully, you’ll find it helpful, too.

I’ll lay this out in steps, and I suggest that with each step, you write out answers to the questions I’m going to pose. Writing always crystallizes things.

Step 1: Identify your meaning.

We all know how to create to-do lists, but how often do you stand back and ask yourself what gives your life meaning? What’s your sense of purpose?

You may have multiple purposes, but there’s usually one singular overriding meaning or sense of purpose in your life that embraces the others and guides all you do or pursue.

If you’re unsure about this, it’s worth spending some time identifying it.

Do this exercise:

Write down every purpose or meaning (small or large) you have or align yourself with. Don’t narrow down yet. Keep writing until you’ve exhausted all the possibilities.

Once you have the list, begin narrowing it until you can identify and write out the overriding purpose or meaning you associate with your life in a sentence or two.

Too often, people don’t ask the question, “Why am I here?”

It’s an important question, and without trying to answer it, you move through life willy-nilly without having any control over its trajectory. By applying some real thought to this question, you’ll find direction and meaning that energizes and guides your actions.

Step 2: Review your current life status against your overall meaning and purpose.

Now that you’ve identified your life’s meaning and purpose, the next question is,

“Does my current life reflect what’s most important to me?”

Do your activities, relationships, involvements, behavior, goals, and endeavors align with what you’ve identified in the step above as your meaning and purpose?

You’ll likely have both yeses and nos to that question because we’re always a work in progress. So don’t lament that you aren’t working toward what gives you meaning in some areas, but look at it and see where you would like to make some changes.

These two questions will help you figure that out.

  1. What’s working against your purpose and meaning?
  2. What are the obstacles that are keeping you from moving toward what you find most important?

These can be big things like bad relationships or a job that sucks the life out of you, or little things like wasting time on social media every day.

Again, write out the answers to these questions thoughtfully and without censoring until you have clarity.

Use Categories to Organize Your Thoughts

If you’d like to get more specific about reviewing your current life and planning for next year, you might find it helpful to put things in categories so they’re easier to sift through.

Here are the areas I use to clarify where I’m at and if I’m on track with my overall meaning and purpose.

  • Self-Awareness
  • Responsibility
  • Empathy & Connection
  • Self-Discipline
  • Communication
  • Boundary-Setting
  • Physicality
  • Spirituality

Some people use other areas. These are from Tony Robbins.

  • Contribution & Spirituality
  • Finances
  • Career & Mission
  • Time
  • Relationships
  • Emotions & Meaning
  • Physical Body

There are others you can use that are easy to find if you just Google “7 areas of life.”

The ones I use focus more on habits and capacities that enable me to fulfill the meaning and purposes I’ve identified as most important.

The other schematics divide things into specific areas of your life, which you can examine to decide where you need the most change.

Either are helpful and will get you to where you need to go to evaluate the directions you want to take.

This step is the most time-consuming one, but it lays the groundwork for the next step if you take the time to do it thoroughly.

Step 3: Using the areas you’ve decided to examine, write out these two things under each category.

  1. What am I doing right now that’s aligned with my purpose and goals? In other words, what’s already going well, and what habits and strategies am I using that I want to keep?
  2. What needs improvement? What activities or trends are not aligned with my purpose or goals? What’s detracting from them?

You can move to the next step when you’re clear on this.

Step 4: Create new goals.

Now that you have a clearer sense of your purpose that provides meaning for you and have reviewed where you are right now in terms of living that purpose, you’re ready to make new goals.

Using the information you uncovered and wrote down, develop a list of goals you’d like to pursue.

Write them all down.

That doesn’t mean you’ll tackle them all right away. You won’t. But it’s good to have them defined.

The thing about goals is that they generally shift over time because circumstances change, or after you’ve completed one goal, you may decide the next one’s not necessary or not taking you in the right direction.

It doesn’t matter right now whether the goals are absolutely what you will pursue. But having goals helps you take action, so write them down.

Next, prune them.

Get down to several goals. As you do this, make sure that they’re:

  1. Specific
  2. Measurable
  3. Achievable
  4. Relevant
  5. Time-Bound

These are called SMART goals. I’ve referred to these in other articles because I like this handy guide for making goals. You can read more here.

Your overall task is to come up with a few very doable and concrete goals that fall within your criteria of importance and meaning and then set them up in time.

You need to break your goals into actions week to week. If you want to get a new job this year, write down every action step you need to take to make that happen and place it on your weekly calendar.

For instance, you might need to redo your resume, revise your LinkedIn profile, get more training in a new area or take courses, talk to a recruiter, and fill out applications. Break down your list into the smallest components or actions possible.

I personally don’t schedule out more than a month ahead and stick to no more than three action goals per week.

Do what works best for you, but make sure that you track your progress weekly. If you don’t do that, it’s easy to fall off and abandon all your good intentions. For information on how to do that, read this article.

Staying on Track

Using this process will certainly get you going, but as you know, the more challenging part is sustaining your effort ​once your motivation starts to wane.

I’ve mentioned weekly tracking, which you should do, but it also helps to repeat the above process at least twice a year and at least monthly measure your activities against your purpose. By doing that, you keep your big picture in mind, which helps drive your smaller actions and steadies your motivation.

Last, I have two suggestions:

  1. Read ​Atomic Habits by James Clear if you haven’t already.
  2. Consider an accountability partner.

Both will help you create the right system to stay on track.

That’s all for today!

Have a great week, and Happy New Year!

All my best,

Barbara

Blog Short #165: How to Deal With a Troublemaker


Photo by Khosrork, Courtesy of iStock Photo

When you read that title, did someone come to mind? My guess is yes because there’s no shortage of troublemakers. Why is that? And how do you handle them?

That’s today’s subject.

Let’s start by describing the tools troublemakers use and why they do it. Knowing the tools helps you decide what your approach should be.

The Troublemaker’s Toolbox

Divide and Conquer

“Divide and conquer” is the most insidious of the tools because it happens under the radar before you recognize it’s happening. It occurs when someone pits people against each other to create discord.

Let’s use an office situation as an example.

The troublemaker spreads gossip and untruths from one person to the next until everyone’s upset, disgruntled, and pointing fingers at each other for things they think have been said about them. You go to a staff meeting, and the tension is palpable, but it’s all based on rumors or exaggerations of conversations taken out of context.

Troublemakers love a juicy piece of gossip they can spread, inflate, and use to manipulate or cause chaos.

The motive for dividing and conquering is usually to manipulate to get something. The troublemaker might be jealous of someone or something, want more attention, or use it to compete. An example might be seeking a promotion by making your competition look bad so you look better.

The Strategies:

1. Check information before reacting.

When something seems amiss, or you have an inkling that what you’re observing or hearing doesn’t add up, seek more information to get the whole picture. Check out the validity of what the troublemaker tells you. Dividing and conquering only works when information is hidden, exaggerated, and faulty.

2. Consider the motive.

Ask yourself what this person might have to gain by their behavior. What’s their motive? Who does it hurt?

3. Refuse to play.

If you suspect the motives are not good, refuse to play. Direct their complaints back to the people they’re complaining about, and don’t join in by listening. Move secrets out into the open. Divide and conquer can only work if everyone participates.

Spread Negativity

Another method of causing trouble is chronically complaining and spreading negativity within a group. In this case, the troublemaker is not necessarily pitting people against each other but coming up with reasons why nothing will work or is going well.

Someone has a good idea, and the troublemaker shuts it down. Then, another idea is offered, and the same occurs. And on it goes. Sooner or later, everyone’s irritable and feeling defeated.

Usually, this kind of troublemaking is more visible, so it’s easier to stop.

In families, however, it can create a lot of bickering and hurt feelings as the negativity spreads to everyone and becomes a feedback loop that intensifies the gloom. It’s a case of “yes but” and “misery loves company.”

The Strategies:

1. Call them out.

Make an observation about the behavior.

“I’m noticing that you’ve objected to every idea someone’s offered. Why is that?”

Sometimes, that will stop the deluge. When it doesn’t, you can say,

“You have the right to your opinions and input, but our purpose here is to find solutions, not just shut down suggestions. If you have something to offer that’s constructive, that would be helpful.”

You can word it however you like, but make it clear that chronic complaints or negative responses aren’t helpful.

2. Say how the behavior is affecting you.

Let the person know that the extent of complaining or negatively is distressing you and you’re uncomfortable with it. By doing that, you check it, and most people will stop or at least minimize it.

Under the Table Criticism

In this case, the troublemaker launches somewhat concealed criticisms that don’t match the delivery. They make minor objections with a smile.

The mother-in-law says to her daughter-in-law,

“Dear, don’t you think it would be best if kids had a bath before dinner?”or “Why don’t you put some garlic in your gravy, dear, to give it a little more flavor.”

These are critical shots taken at the other person but couched in flowery language. Sometimes, the criticisms are not so veiled. But either way, the motive is to make the other person feel inadequate and usually unappreciated. The underlying motive is often jealousy.

The Strategies:

You have two choices with this one.

1. Let it roll off you.

That works if you clearly understand these comments come from the other person’s issues and you don’t take them personally even though they’re directed at you. Sometimes, you can use humor to offset them.

2. Set a boundary.

Start by letting the person know they’re hurting you with these comments. That usually puts a stop to it. They’ll likely deny that that was their intent, but it will not matter if it halts the behavior.

If they tell you you’re being too sensitive, you can say,

“Whether you think I’m being sensitive or not, I don’t appreciate the comments and ask you to stop.”

You could also decide not to respond to the “sensitivity” characterization. You’ve already made it clear you don’t like the comments. You don’t need the last word. Sometimes, saying less is more effective.

Entitlement and Neediness

Being needy is not necessarily a tool to cause trouble, but it has the same effect. This person wants a lot of attention and demands it.

The methods used vary from being dramatic, demanding to have their way, needing extra favors and courtesies, being entitled, ignoring the rules, and rolling over other people’s desires and needs.

Being around someone who displays these behaviors is exhausting!

Think of that one family member who comes to visit and needs all kinds of extras. They’re oblivious to the work the host is doing and think nothing of asking for more.

They incite the kids to act out by ignoring rules the parents have set down and made clear.

They interrupt, take over conversations, and need special provisions.

The Strategies:

There’s only one to use in this case:

Set boundaries!

  • Be clear and direct about what’s okay and what’s not.
  • Set rules around behaviors you don’t like and stick to them.
  • Don’t give in to unnecessary demands.

You can do this while still being kind. But by all means, don’t give in. This person will push if there’s even the slightest opening to get what they want.

Not My Fault

“I’m not to blame” is the underlying premise in this case, and the tool the troublemaker uses is projection. These folks:

  • Create problems or messy situations and blame it on someone else.
  • Complain about or accuse other people of doing the very things they do.
  • Blame other people as the cause of their misbehavior.

Using projection to sidestep their poor behavior, these troublemakers stir other people up. They create conflict, mistrust, and anger.

The Strategies:

1. Set boundaries.

Again, you can try setting boundaries by calling out the behavior. If the person has a conscience, they may listen or stop using the same excuses and projections.

2. Don’t react.

Don’t take in the projections. If you don’t accept them, they lose their power.

The tricky thing about projection is that it isn’t always easy to see, and people who use it generally won’t acknowledge it. Often, they believe their projections, so you have no leverage to talk about them. But you don’t have to accept or defend against them.

3. Avoid the person.

Reduce time spent with this person, or avoid them altogether if possible.

Two Shortcuts

In all cases of troublemaking, keeping your reactivity in check will help. Troublemakers like to stir the pot. They thrive off conflict, negativity, and chaos. When you don’t participate, it deflates them and interrupts their process.

Secondly, always look to motive when you’re not sure what’s going on. That’ll help you determine how to proceed.

That’s all for today!

I wish you Happy Holidays!

All my best,

Barbara