How to Get Your Cool Back

I lost it yesterday.  After several days of heavy gray skies, the afternoon sun broke through and the clouds blew away.  I was driving north at the time, heading home from a friend’s house, and my spirits soared as I gazed at the stretch of blue sky.

Then I turned west and saw that, above the clouds, planes had been busily laying down their trails.  They aren’t contrails, you know.  Exhaust doesn’t stop and start.  And it doesn’t continue across the entire sky, from horizon to horizon, spreading broadly.  These spreading white and charcoal strips were the product of “stratospheric aerosol injection.”  And the aerosols, I had learned, held all sorts of toxins that are harmful to every living thing on the earth.  Nanoparticles of aluminum, barium, strontium, lithium and more are falling daily now from the skies, and all of us are breathing them.

Normally, like pretty much everybody else, I ignore them.  There’s nothing I can do about them anyway.  Why let them detract from an otherwise beautiful day?  But I’d recently been exposed to more information about them, and yesterday the sight of them triggered me big-time.

At first I was mad.  Then my mood crashed into a combination of profound sadness and helplessness.  I wanted my sky back.  The one I knew as a kid.  The one where skies were a clear and vibrant blue and where clouds were puffy and looked like heaps of whipped cream.  Not skies that were dropping poisons on us all, night and day, killing off animals and plants, sickening my fellow human beings.

To make it worse, I ran across an article this week that theorized we’d been spraying so heavily for so many years now that we might create even bigger problems if we stopped.

So here I was, bummed out mightily about a problem over which I have absolutely no control.  And some of me realized that was downright stupid.   I couldn’t impact the problem in the skies, but I did have a say about my state of mind.

That’s the first step toward regaining your equilibrium when you’re upset:  Recognize that you’re upset.  Admit that it doesn’t feel good at all.  Then, you take the second step: Deciding to feel better.

You might think I’m going to tell you to think positive thoughts.  A lot of people think that’s what positive living is all about.  But it’s not.  And that’s not what I’m going to tell you.

The next thing you do, after you become consciously aware that you’re upset, is to let yourself feel your emotions.  Feel the weight and texture and color of them.  Notice where they are in your body:  In your throat? Gut?  Shoulders?  Chest?  Recognize them as a valid part of you, as an aspect of your experience of being human.  Then send them some acceptance.  Be generous to them and compassionate.  Around the world, right this very moment, thousands of other people are feeling very much the same thing.  Maybe not for the same reasons.  But they’re feeling the same way.  Send a little wave of compassion to them, too.

Then, just breathe.  Take a nice, slow breath and let it out.  Then another, and another.  And you’ll begin to notice how the feeling softens and begins to dissolve.  All it wanted was your acknowledgement and acceptance.

That’s what I do.  It’s a beautiful technique, and it leaves you feeling larger somehow, big enough to hold even the suffering of life.  And the suffering, once acknowledged, finds its place and eases, freeing you to notice some of the other things you’re capable of experiencing.  Like peace, and sometimes—actually pretty often—a kind of openness and joy.


When Your World Crashes Down

Let’s talk about beliefs today—the ones that are so deep it doesn’t even occur to us to question them—and about what happens when they turn out to be wrong.

We all have them.   We build them in order to have the world make sense to us so we can navigate through it with some sense of security and make reasonable decisions about how to reach our goals.  If we didn’t have a set of core beliefs, the world would seem overwhelming and unpredictable.  We’d be lost in a frightening and incomprehensible chaos.

We aren’t born with beliefs.  We acquire them through a kind of social osmosis from our families, teachers, cultures, media and peers.  And while they have deep roots, they’re also somewhat fluid, changing with our experiences in the world.

Still, they’re so much a part of us, that we identify with them.  We prefer to be with people whose beliefs are in harmony with our own.  We tend to be judgmental of those whose beliefs contradict our own, labeling them, at best, as misinformed.  Depending how different their beliefs are from our own, we may even think those who hold them are stupid, evil, or demonic.  When someone questions or attacks one of our beliefs, we tend to take it personally and rise to defend ourselves as if our beliefs were who we are.

But they’re not.  We’re the “I” that does the believing.  The beliefs themselves are simply ideas that we have adopted as good descriptions of the way reality is and how it works, or should.

That’s important to keep in mind.  You don’t disappear when your beliefs change.  You simply operate from a new perspective.

I wanted to bring this up this week because my personal reading of current events leads me to suspect that in the very near future many of us will find ourselves stunned by what will unfold.  I think we’re entering a very dangerous time.  Many of us may find firmly held beliefs destroyed.  If you’re one of them, remember you are not your beliefs.  You’re simply a human being who is getting a new perspective.

You may feel shaken, disillusioned, or even betrayed.  That’s because we identify so closely with our interpretations of the world.  When a belief is shattered, it’s as if a part of ourselves has been destroyed.  We can go through the whole range of stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and, finally, acceptance.  That’s okay.  Let it be.  Just know that you’ll come through it and adapt to the changed reality in which you find yourself.  We are, after all, resilient and creative beings.

At one time or another, most of us find ourselves in a situation that challenges our beliefs.  It could be a crisis of religious faith, or discovering that a close friend or a partner has betrayed you.  An accident or natural catastrophe could wipe out a home or business you assumed would always be there.  You could suddenly lose a loved one you expected to have in your life forever.  Your career could suddenly be upended.  Life is an uncertain place.  We believe it’s one way, and it turns out to be something else altogether.

You know that quote collection I told you about?  Well, I have a couple that apply here.  The Dalai Lama says, “Open your arms to change, but don’t let go of your values.”  Know what really matters to you and find a way to translate that into your changed world.  Who do you want to be in the face of this new reality?  Let that vision guide you.

Author Edward Abbey says, “Better a cruel truth than a comfortable delusion.”  Finding out first hand why they say “Ignorance is bliss” may not be pleasant.  But, be honest with yourself, wouldn’t you rather know the truth than live in a lie?

Truth, sometimes, is bitter medicine to swallow.  But it’s the elixir that frees us to see past the walls of illusion into a broader, more light-filled world.


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