Riding the Waves

I thought, when I sat down to write today, that it would be nice to share some uplifting thoughts with you.  Something to encourage you and brighten your day.  Something to reassure you that, despite the unprecedented series of upheavals we seem to be witnessing around us, all is well.  But when I sat down, that seemed like a tall order.  Hmmm.  What can I share?

Well, I had a chance to walk through some awe-inspiring autumn scenery this week, and there was one moment when, immersed in nature’s splendor, I felt truly lucky just to be alive.  Think of all the events that had to happen just the way they did in order for you to be here.  What are the odds?  They must be incalculable.  Think of all the things that had to happen just for the planet itself to be here.  Yet here it is, and here we are.  Even if we have no idea what “here” really is or how we got here, or what life is all about.

I heard a lot of stories this week about things that were happening in my friends’ lives.  About their jobs, their families, their relationships.  I heard about the things that are worrying them.  Computer problems, financial problems, health problems, social problems, political problems.  And then there’s the behavior of the planet itself: the fires, floods, earthquakes, winds.  Oh my.  Whatever reality is, it seems we believe is just isn’t what it’s supposed to be.   Didn’t it used to be a lot simpler?  More certain?  Isn’t it supposed to work more smoothly than this?  And when, oh when, will it just settle down!

Maybe it won’t.  Maybe chaos is the new normal.  What if it is?  What are we to do?

A poster I saw back in the 60’s had some sage advice.  Those were chaotic times, too.  The poster showed this old bearded guy in a wet, blowing toga riding a surf board atop a huge wave, his arms spread wide, his face beaming with a smile.  The caption said, “You can’t stop the waves.  But you can learn to surf.”

You can still find joy, and peace, and contentment even when reality is heaving like a storm-tossed sea.  Part of learning to do that involves a willingness to embrace what is without wanting it to be something different:  This is my life, right now.  This is the experience life is giving me.  This is life’s gift to me, it’s present.  I can do with it what I will.  I can treat it as an adventure.  I can treat it as a challenge.  I can see it as a mirror of who I am.  I can choose who I will be in it.  I can choose to let it in, to let it enlarge me.  Or I can choose to push it out and make me small.  I can see it as a chance to use my strengths, or I can blame it as a showcase of my weaknesses and vulnerabilities.  Perhaps I can find comfort in it, or give comfort to others.  I can use it to create, or to destroy.  It’s all up to me.  Because it’s mine.  It’s my life, right now.

And that’s the bottom line.  Regardless of the reality we’re in, regardless of its unpredictable shifts and changes, we’re here.  Alive.  And that, in and of itself, is remarkable and wondrous.  May you celebrate your being, and learn to surf the waves.


When Sadness Strikes

When Sadness Strikes

One of the most helpful things I’ve learned from my studies in positive psychology is how to deal with sadness.  And this week, with its non-stop pictures of the devastation that Hurricane Harvey caused , has certainly provided me with an immense opportunity to practice.

The number one thing I know about dealing with sadness is not to fight it.  That holds true with a lot of painful emotions, by the way.  You let yourself tune right into the feeling, to be as fully aware of it as you can.  Where do you feel it in your body?  What’s it weight?  Does it have a shape?  A color?  Just feel it and accept its validity.  Ask it what it has to say to you, then listen for an answer.

My sadness was heavy and dark, a cloud-like thing wrapping around my heart.  It went beyond sadness, I realized.  It was sorrow, and grief, and anger that such suffering could befall so many.  It held a sense of helplessness because there was little I could to alleviate such a vast problem.

But as I sat with it, accepting it, listening to it, I realized it also contained compassion and love.  And as the week went on, the stories of the countless heroes who stepped out to rescue and serve the affected began to emerge.  And my cloud of emotion took on a wave of soaring pride in my fellow humans, who came from everywhere to do whatever they could do.  And then there was hope, as people started saying that every sense of division disappeared.  In the face of disaster, everyone was simply a human being.

It was mid-week before my attention broadened to encompass an awareness of the horrendous fires sweeping the western states.  And then I learned that another hurricane, even larger and more powerful, is threatening to sweep the east coast next week.

I thought about something Dr. Jordan Peterson said:  “Life is suffering.  The best you can do is pick it up and carry it with as much dignity as you can muster.”   To me that means staying present and attending to the work at hand, doing that work to the best of my ability—whatever the situation.

And then there’s Tara Brach’s admonition:  “This is suffering.  Everybody suffers.  May I be kind.”  Amen to that.  May we all be kind.

Listen, every September I inform my dear subscribers that it’s National Preparedness Month and I nag about taking time to ensure that you have adequate food and water on hand to get you by for a week, at the very least.  Have batteries on hand, and medications you and your family members may need.  Have a battery-powered or wind-up emergency radio.  Do that!  Especially if you live anywhere on the east coast.  Make yourself a little go-bag of things to take with you in case you suddenly have to evacuate.  Don’t let the gas tank in your car fall below half-full.  And here’s a good tip I read this week:  Take photos of important papers, like birth certificates, insurance information, deeds, important family contact information and such and put them on a thumb drive in your purse, go-bag, or wallet.

Consider yourself advised.  Consider attending to preparation today—because, really, you never know when tomorrow may be too late.

Meanwhile, cover those impacted by life’s tragedies with your compassionate thoughts and prayers.  Be kind—to yourself and to others.  Be present.   Then attend to the work at hand, with all the dignity and grace you can muster.


How to Power Up Your Self-Control

Boost Self ControlAlmost all of us want to change some part of our lives.  Yet less than half of us who want to make a change actually succeed.  And the number one thing we blame for our failure is our own lack of willpower.

If a study of rankings on the VIA Character Strengths Survey is any indication, most people rank low in the self-control department.   If you’re short on willpower, you’ll be happy to know that recent research has revealed a host of strategies on how to power up your self-control.

Advice on boosting willpower falls into three basic categories.  First, it addresses the best ways to structure your goals.  Secondly, it deals with good strategies for building your self-control.  And third, it provides counsel on how to cope with temptation.

Willpower-Friendly Goals

When a goal is well-structured, it takes less willpower to reach it.  What makes a willpower-friendly goal?  Three things:

  • First, it’s short range rather than far off into the future.  If the change you’re hoping to make is a big one, or one that will involve many steps over a long period of time, break it down into smaller parts.  This is kaizen, or the baby-step method, put into practice.  It helps build your willpower by requiring less of it at a time, and the little successes that you achieve along the way bolster your confidence in your ability to stick with your plan.
  • Secondly, willpower-friendly goals are more about learning or getting better at something than about achieving an end.   As you change your patterns, you are actually building new neural pathways in your brain.  It’s learning how to be the change you’re working to make.  Understanding this helps you stick with the process rather than thinking that you’re making a do or die effort.   And it lets you view your setbacks as valuable learning experiences.
  •  And finally, willpower-friendly goals are about something you’re working to add to your life instead of something you’re working to eliminate.

That doesn’t mean you can’t set a goal to stop smoking or to lose weight.  It just means that you’ll find it easier if you think about those desired results a little differently.   Instead of saying “I’m going to stop smoking,” for example, try thinking about your desired result as learning to live smoke-free.   Instead of losing weight, what you’re aiming for is to learn to live a more active, healthier lifestyle.

Strategies for Stronger Self-Control

Know Your Whys.  Once your goal is set, take some time to explore the reasons why you want to achieve it.  Why does it matter to you?  How is it going to make your life easier or happier or more meaningful?  How will you feel once you have achieved it?   When you’re in touch with the real reasons for wanting it, you can review them in moments when your self-control is at a low point to give yourself a boost.

Create Realistic Optimism. Expect to achieve your goal; be optimistic about it.  But be realistic, too.  Look ahead at the possible obstacles you’ll face and imagine yourself toughing it out as you overcome them.   People who are aware that challenges await them are more likely to overcome them than people who expect smooth sailing.  So know in advance that you will face some rough patches on your path and make up your mind that you will make it through them.

Rest and Rebuild. We know now that willpower comes in limited daily quantities.   It’s sort of like drawing water from a well.  After you have used what’s available, you need to rest and let it replenish.   That’s important to know so that you can plan for low periods as your day goes on or when you have used a lot of energy accomplishing tasks that required mental or physical exertion.

Mind Your Glucose Levels.  We also know that you can extend the amount of willpower available to you by maintaining good levels of glucose in your body.   Glucose fuels your brain and is used up by acts of self-control.    Nibbling on protein and complex carbs throughout the day will help keep your glucose levels stabile.  But in a pinch, you can give yourself an emergency boost by drinking a few ounces of fruit juice.

 Cheat.  You “cheat” a little simply by refusing to believe that you have used up your day’s supply!  Some research shows that people who didn’t believe that willpower comes in limited daily quantities were able to keep going toward a goal longer than people who did believe it.

Practice.  Like a muscle, self-control is strengthened through exercise.  Studies show that “if you do anything that requires self-regulation, then that makes it easier for you to have self-regulation in everything.”

Dealing with Temptation

Nobody succeeds in resisting temptation all the time, but you can increase your odds of success in a lot of ways.   If you do give in, try to accept that you’re still mastering your goal.   Acknowledging your temporary weakness and accepting it is much kinder – and helpful – than beating yourself up about it.  When you put yourself down, you increase your stress levels, further undermining the self-control that you’re trying to build.  Instead, comfort yourself by remembering times that you have been successful at things in the past.  Look at your strengths and skills and talents and remind yourself that you have a lot going for you.

Plan in Advance

The best way to deal with temptation is by avoiding it in the first place.  Do what you can to clear your environment of anything that might trigger it.  If you want to learn to eat healthier, rid your cupboards of sugary, fatty snacks and replace them with healthy nibbles.  If you want to be smoke-free, get rid of your ashtrays.

Create positive reminders of what you want to accomplish.  Develop affirmations.  Keep a book of inspirational quotes handy.  Make a vision board.  Set out pictures that remind you of your goal.

Come up with some rewards you can give yourself when you succeed in resisting temptation – and give them when you do.  Do the same with little punishments you can give yourself when you fail.  Sometimes realizing that you’ll have to do a dreaded household chore, for example, is enough to get you to stand strong.

Try the “Wanting What I Want to Want” method.  Ask yourself how you can make yourself want what you want even more, and then follow your own ideas.  For example, if you want to exercise more, maybe you would find it more attractive if you could recruit a friend to go to the gym with you or accompany you on a walk.

Prepare yourself for inevitable temptations by developing an “if-then” plan. “If I’m tempted to . . . then I will . . .”   When you have some strategies prepared for meeting temptation, you’ll already know what to do.  You won’t have to use energy thinking something up while temptation is staring you in the face.

Emergency Strategies

Here are some of the things you might put on your “then” list:

  • Remind yourself giving in now will only make giving in easier next time.   On the other hand, overcoming the temptation will be easier next time if you can overcome it now.
  • Replace the temptation with something that will provide you with similar satisfaction.  Have a piece of fruit instead of ice cream.  Go for a brisk, oxygenating walk instead of reaching for a smoke.
  • Distance yourself from the temptation.  Remove yourself from the environment, or discard the tempting item.  Or remove yourself from it in time by telling yourself that you can have or do the tempting thing in 10 minutes if you still want it then – and in that 10 minutes do your if-then process.  ( Telling yourself that you can have it in the future if you still want it is a sneaky way of calming your cravings down.  They feel heard, so to speak, so they stop shouting so loudly.)
  • Drink a couple ounces of fruit juice.  The glucose it provides will give your self-control a boost.
  • Remind yourself of your reasons for wanting your goal.  Studies show that thinking more abstractly is a powerful way to boost your self-control.  Thinking about your “why” is a great way to do that.   If your reasons escape you, try solving a few simple math problems instead.
  • Affirm yourself.  Remind yourself about the things that please you about yourself, such as a skill or talent,  or about the things that you value.  That might be a close friendship or the way you enjoy your family or a pet, or anything that you hold dear.
  • Take a nap, or meditate.  Both will help replenish your day’s supply of willpower.

Above all, keep trying.  You can succeed.  And every effort makes you stronger.

If you want support as you work toward making the changes that you would like to see in your life, let’s talk.  As a life enhancement coach, I can provide you with motivating encouragement, clarity, helpful strategies, and the power of accountability to help you reach your goals.  Sign up for a complementary session today and let’s get you on the road to new possibilities.

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If you enjoyed this article please pass it on.  This is one in a continuing series of articles on positive psychology’s 24 character strengths.  To find the others, go to our Article Index and scroll down to, “Strengths, Individual.”

You might also enjoy:

What You Don’t Know About Self-Control

How to Make Your Optimism Soar

Perseverance: Power Key to Success


Ironic Rebound: When Good Intentions Go Bad

Milk and cookiesIt’s the second week of your new diet, and you’re about to walk into the grocery store to grab the makings for a great salad and that roasted chicken and mushroom dish that’s on your menu for tonight.  You’re filled with good intentions.  It’s been a tough day at work with demanding clients and a crabby boss, and you’re tired.  But you’ll just run in, grab what you need and get out.

As you enter the store, the fragrance of freshly baked bread greets you, smelling like heaven.   You realize you skipped lunch and hear your tummy rumbling.  But you’ve made up your mind: No junk food!  Just the things I need for my diet, and nothing more.

A pretty store clerk smiles at you and offers you a tiny sample of the cheese that’s on sale, accompanied by one small cracker.  You’re really famished, so you take it, thinking it will tide you over until you get home and keep you from temptation as you shop.

You know what happens, right?  You’re doomed.  Before you even brush the cracker crumbs from the corner of your mouth, you spot the buy-one-get-one sale on cookies and toss a couple packages in the cart—for the kids’ lunches, you say.

As you go deeper into the store, your brain starts screaming at you  “fresh donuts in the bakery,”  “chips on sale in aisle three,” “special on gooey chocolate treats.”  And by the time you check out, you’ve successfully rationalized about two bags of off-limits goodies.

You feel so guilty about buying them, that you soothe yourself with half a dozen cookies on the way home.

What happened?  Are you hopelessly weak?   Totally lacking in will-power?

No.   The deck was just stacked against you.

When Good Intentions Go Bad

A lot of negative elements were at play in the scenario above—and we’ll look at some of them in depth over the next couple of articles here.  But right now, let’s focus on the one called “Ironic Rebound,” a key factor that’s at play when good intentions go bad.

Ironic Rebound is what happens when you tell yourself you won’t do something.  You won’t think about chocolate; you won’t get lost playing computer games or spending time on Twitter; you won’t lose your temper when a driver cuts you off in traffic; you won’t buy any more lottery tickets.  You’re determined.  But before you know it, you’re doing exactly the thing you swore you wouldn’t do.  Ironically, it bounces back at you like a boomerang.

Why Ironic Rebound Happens

Here’s the way Stanford University instructor Dr. Kelly McGonigal explains it in her book, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.

When you tell yourself not to do something, the message goes to two different parts of your brain.  The first part plays the role of The Operator.  This is the one that takes note of your goals and works to keep you on track.  It’s a hard worker.  But it only has so much energy and that energy gets depleted as the day wears on.  It has a lot of things to pay attention to.

It had to remember to be polite to your clients even when they were complaining, for example, and not to cuss out your boss.  It had to keep your mind on that report you had to get done, even when it meant missing lunch.  It had to remember that you couldn’t overspend at the grocery store and that you need to get to the kids’ school meeting after dinner.

The other part plays the role of The Monitor.  It watches out for threats and dangers—to the things you’re trying to avoid.  And McGonigal says it’s like the Energizer Bunny.  It just keeps going and going and going.

So by the time you got to the grocery store, your Operator was pretty well used up.  But the Monitor was still going strong.  It’s who was calling your attention to the cookies and chips and chocolate in every aisle.  It was letting you know these dangers were right there, right around the corner.  As an academic article on ironic rebound at Psychlopedia, once the Operator is distracted or worn out, we’re more sensitive to the voice of the monitor.

To make matters worse, McGonigal says, we’re hard wired to give priority attention to thoughts that repeat themselves. We assume they’re urgent, or true.  The suppressed thoughts take on more importance.

How to Fight Back

What are we supposed to do, then, if telling ourselves what not to do or think or feel is going to make the unwanted thought come back even stronger?

Well, it turns out we can help ourselves resist temptation in a lot of ways.

Practice Mindfulness

One of the most powerful things you can do to build your resistance to unwanted thoughts is to learn to practice mindfulness.  Spending as little as ten minutes a day relaxing and paying attention to your breath.  Just sit easily with your eyes closed and focus on your breathing.  When you notice that thoughts have distracted you, easily and gently let the thoughts go and return your attention to your breath.

After a bit of consistent practice, you’ll begin to get the knack of letting go of a thought.  You’ll start to recognize thoughts as nothing more than the brain’s processing, something it does on automatic pilot.  Then, when the Energizer Bunny pops in to tempt you with another round of that computer game or a dish of ice cream, you can recognize that the temptation is nothing more than a thought.

We can’t control the thoughts or emotions that flow into our awareness, but we can control our responses to them.

Exercise Self-Compassion

Remind yourself that your negative thought or feeling is common to a lot of people.  You aren’t alone in the struggle; it’s a natural part of being human.  Remind yourself that it’s okay to feel tempted. Temptation itself doesn’t make you weak or bad.

Self-compassion, says Dr. Kristen Neff, means accepting with sympathy and kindness that none of us can always be or get exactly what we want.  When we exercise self-compassion, it empowers us to do whatever we need to do to improve our situation.

Remember Your Strengths

Positivity broadens your view so you’re not as tightly focused on the rebounding thought.  Look around and ask yourself what’s good in your environment right now.  Feeling good about yourself curbs the effects of ironic rebound, too.   When you need to ignore an unwanted impulse, remind yourself of your positive attributes, personal strengths, or past accomplishments.

Befriend It

As psychologist Carl Jung said, “What we resist persists.”  Instead of trying to wrestle with the unwanted thought or impulse or to violently push it away, take time to recognize and accept it.   “Oh, there’s that thought again.”

All it wants is your attention.    Some people find it helpful to give the unwanted thought or emotion a pet name:  “There’s Angry Andy,” or “Traumatic Trudy,”  or “Ravenous Rachel.”   Then actually say “Hello” to it and ask it if you can sit with it for awhile.  Imagine it sitting in a chair across from you

You may even want to try asking it if it has a message for you, or if there’s something it wants you to know.  Then just acknowledge whatever it tells you.  Don’t argue with it, or try to reason with it or change it.  Just thank it for telling you its concerns and sit there with it.

This will do two things.  First, it will give you a little distance from the impulse; it will put some space around it.  Secondly, it will take away some of its insistence.

Surf the Mood

In her audio program, The Neuroscience of Change: A Compassion-Based Program for Personal Transformation, McGonigal explains how tempting urges tend to leap at us with great strength and urgency—especially if they’re about an ingrained habit or addiction.  And we mistakenly think the discomfort of their urgency will last forever if we don’t respond to them immediately.

But like everything else, disturbing thoughts or impulses have a lifespan.  They come, maybe they increase a little in intensity, and then they fade away.   So if you can just accept them and sit with them for a while, they’ll fade away of their own accord.

Try focusing on your breathing while you allow yourself to sit with them.

McGonigal also suggests picturing the thought or feeling as a cloud floating in the sky and dissolving as you watch it.

Visualize Your Goal

Remember why you wanted to suppress the unwanted thought or emotion in the first place. What do you want instead?  What was your positive intention?  Why is it important to you?  See if you can vividly imagine how your life will be different, better, more satisfying or more joyful once you achieve your goal.

If you’re sitting in conversation with the intruding thought or urge, you can even tell it the story of what you want, letting it know that you appreciate that it is trying to take care of other needs for you, and that you just want it to understand why you can’t take action on its suggestion now.

Spending time visualizing your goals for five minutes a day will bolster your Operator, too, and help it be clear about your real priorities.

Keep Practicing

According to an article at www.spring.org.uk, practice helps.  It’s becomes easier to suppress emotions or thoughts about a particular topic the more we do it.  So keep on keeping on.  Change always takes effort.  But you’re worth it.