Perfection isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

I’ve been thinking a lot about perfectionism recently. That’s because everywhere I look, I see it in action.

I see thousands of young people desperately striving to compile the “perfect” résumé so they can get into the “perfect” college and eventually get the “perfect” job. I see parents searching for the “perfect” child-rearing methods because they’re terrified of screwing up their kids. I see families spending large amounts of time and money on decorating the “perfect” house, because Pinterest has convinced them that’s how everyone lives. I see professionals in all industries running themselves ragged because they’ve been told that the “perfect” employee never stops leaning in. Most of all, I see a nation of people making themselves unhappy as they try to fix various aspects of themselves, their careers, and their lives.

Trust me, I understand—the first three and a half decades of my life were filled with perfectionism. I told myself that I was working toward better things, greater achievements, and my best self in general, but in truth, I was pushing myself to the brink mentally and sometimes physically. My thoughts were always fixated on how I had fallen short in the past or on what I needed to do in the future. I rarely, if ever, enjoyed the present moment. And there is no doubt in my mind that this perfectionism-driven anxiety was a major contributor to the breakdown I eventually suffered at age 36.

Unfortunately, as I’ve learned through personal experience, our efforts to achieve perfection usually have the opposite effect from what we intend: They contribute to our unhappiness. In general, here are some ways in which perfectionism tends to harm us:

  • It causes a lack of balance. When you are driven to achieve perfection in a certain area, that quest will often come to dominate your thoughts, actions, and intentions. You may neglect other important parts of your life, such as your relationships, health, or career, as you work toward doing or being the best in that one area. An out-of-balance life is inherently unsustainable.
  • It breeds self-destructive habits. The human body and mind were designed to achieve great things, but not to be perfect. When we try to push ourselves beyond nature’s limits, we end up hurting ourselves. The self-destructive habits that perfectionism causes can be mental (e.g., a tendency to obsess about every little mistake), physical (e.g., ignoring your body’s need for fuel and rest as you work on a project), and/or emotional (e.g., constantly feeling unworthy or guilty). Furthermore, perfectionism can drive some people to cope in unhealthy ways. Drinking, gambling, doing drugs, and more can temporarily assuage the negative feelings that result from “not being good enough.”
  • It lowers your self-esteem. It’s simple: We are all fallible. But when a perfectionist inevitably makes a mistake, she doesn’t see the error as a part of being human; she sees it as a personal shortcoming. She’s never satisfied with herself or her accomplishments; instead, she usually feels like a failure. Plus, she’s constantly comparing herself to others whom she believes are “better” than her. Unfortunately, chronic low self-esteem becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you believe you can or can’t do something, you’ll almost certainly be right. 
  • It causes you to live in fear. Trust me on this one: While a perfectionist’s life may look enviable from the outside, that person is not experiencing the good life because he feels he is only as good as his last star performance. He is constantly afraid: of failure, of criticism, of making a bad impression, of deadlines, of other people’s judgment, and much more.
  • It reduces opportunity and alienates people. The definition of perfectionism is expecting things to be a certain way and not accepting anything less—qualities that don’t exactly foster community and collaboration. Say, for instance, that someone is a perfectionist at work. Chances are, he won’t be able to effectively work with his colleagues because their contributions will never be exactly right or good enough to meet his high standards.

This person might nag his coworkers and tell them where they’ve gone wrong, or he might keep his mouth shut, then go behind them to make “corrections” on group projects. Either way, he will be seen as judgmental, overly competitive, and/or nitpicky. His insistence on doing things a particular way will eventually cause him to be isolated and ignored because he will be seen as difficult and frustrating to work with.

  • It contributes to anxiety and depression. When you “train” your brain to be consistently worried, stressed, and down on yourself, those unhealthy states of mind become your norm…and they’re known as anxiety and depression.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try to do and be your best, or to reach your full potential. You should. But I also think that each and every one of us needs to honestly assess our lives to make sure that we haven’t crossed the line from “wanting our best lives” to demanding the impossible from ourselves and others so we have “a perfect life.” That line, thin as it may appear, separates your ability to be happy from constant dissatisfaction, stress, and frustration.

In my next blog post, I will share some tactics that have helped me to overcome my own perfectionistic tendencies and that will enable you to do the same.

If you enjoyed this blog, please share it with your friends!

To subscribe, click here.

Mental Health Stigma: Fast Facts and How to Help

Since May is Mental Health Month, I decided to write about what I see as the biggest issue facing people who struggle with mental health issues today: stigma.

It’s true that we’re learning more every year about mental health issues and how to treat them. And well-known personalities including Larry King, George Stephanopoulos, Brooke Shields, Terry Bradshaw, J.K. Rowling, and Sheryl Crow (to name just a few) have opened up about their own experiences with illnesses like anxiety and depression, and have urged that this topic be brought further into the light.

However, there’s still a definite stigma attached to mental health—one that usually isn’t present with more “physical” illnesses like cancer or diabetes. And that stigma has been hurting many, many Americans for decades. Thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds aren’t getting the help they need and are living lives overshadowed by fear, anxiety, sadness, low self-esteem, and much more. (And in extreme cases, they’re even committing suicide.) With one in four adults suffering from a diagnosable mental disorder each year, the importance of addressing, reducing, and eventually erasing mental health stigma shouldn’t be ignored.

Here, I’d like to share my thoughts on why people don’t get help and what can be done to lift the stigma.

Why people don’t get help:

  • I think I’m alone. Because it isn’t common for people who are being treated for issues like depression and anxiety to “go public” with their stories, sufferers often mistakenly believe that they are one of only a small group of people who have felt this way.
  • I don’t want to be judged. It’s no surprise that people would want to avoid attracting hurtful labels, including: crazy, lunatic, nut job, wacko, psycho, etc. Our society’s tendency to describe sufferers of mental illnesses in negative terms like these is extremely destructive because it creates shame where there should be none.
  • I don’t want to admit that something is wrong. Trust me, it’s incredibly hard to admit to yourself—let alone others—that you aren’t in control and that you can’t “handle” things on your own. Making this admission can be a huge blow to your pride and self-esteem.
  • I honestly don’t realize that I need help. Diseases like depression and anxiety don’t just pop up overnight. Often, they are the result of months, years, or even decades of stress and negative circumstances. For instance, if someone has a high-pressure job, he or she might write off mounting anxiety as “normal.” People often don’t realize that the scale has tipped from “normal” to “needing help.”
  • I just don’t feel up to it. Unfortunately, the very nature of mental health disorders can often make it difficult for sufferers to reach out for the help they need. For instance, since depression affects your energy levels, patients might literally not have the will to call the doctor, make an appointment, and go.
  • I don’t want to take medication. Many people are either fearful of taking medication or too proud to do so (e.g., “I can handle this on my own.”). Alternatively, many prospective patients may be reluctant to take medication because of other health implications, such as a desire to avoid negative side effects. Furthermore, many young people especially are resistant to medication because they don’t want to be teased, labeled, or bullied by their peers. (I’m sure the same thing happens among some groups of adults, too.)

What we can do to lift the stigma:

  • If you have a success story, share it! It is one of my greatest hopes that more people who have experienced issues like depression and anxiety will become less reluctant—even eager!—to share their stories. In a perfect world, I envision our society congratulating and honoring people who have battled and conquered these mental illnesses, just as we currently (and rightly!) celebrate those who have survived cancer. If there’s one thing I have learned from sharing my own story with others, it’s that there are so many other people “like me”—people who have felt absolutely sick, miserable, and hopeless due to depression and anxiety, have gotten the help they needed, and have gone on to live successful and happy lives. I believe that if more people talked about their success stories, the truth about mental health issues would quickly come to the forefront, and the stigma would begin to recede. Most importantly, all of these “success stories” could serve as a vital source of hope to those who might currently feel hopeless.
  • Learn the truth about mental illness. If you don’t have personal experience with mental health issues like depression and anxiety, learn more about them. Make sure that you, personally, are not buying into myths such as “if you’re feeling depressed, you should be able to tough it out.” Also, familiarize yourself with the signs and symptoms so that you will understand how these diseases affect the body, and so that you’ll be more likely to recognize them in yourself and in your loved ones.
  • Be supportive and nonjudgmental of others. If someone in your life is suffering from a mental health issue, do everything you can to be helpful. Let the other person know that you’re on his or her side and that you want to help. Depending on the relationship, you might offer physical help—such as running errands or cooking meals on a bad day, or accompanying the person to medical appointments—or emotional support. At the very least, always strive to be sympathetic and reassuring. Remember, no one chooses to be depressed or anxious.
  • Turn the conversation in a positive direction. In some ways, this step is the most important of all. Whenever you have the opportunity, turn the conversation about mental illness in a positive direction. When appropriate, correct misconceptions about these issues. Always do your best to share truthful information. And even if it’s uncomfortable, I urge you not to shy away from this topic. As long as people don’t talk about it, the stigma won’t go away.
  • Get help if you need it. Yes, this can be incredibly scary. But I promise, you are not alone. And you can experience a positive future no matter how you are feeling right now. For your own sake, as well as for your friends and family, don’t let fears of being seen as “weak” or “sick” hold you back. I promise, addressing this illness is one of the healthiest things you can possibly do for yourself. And please, please—if you’re having suicidal thoughts, reach out as soon as possible. You can call hotlines like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for immediate help.
  • Don’t forget your medication. …when it comes to destigmatizing mental illness, that is! Anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications are essential tools for recovery in most cases. Yes, it’s true that some individuals overuse and abuse them, but the same thing can be said of any medication. Make sure to never, ever belittle a particular drug or those who take it. In my opinion, doing so is every bit as insensitive and judgmental as making fun of or criticizing someone with cancer or heart disease for taking the required and/or recommended medications.

I truly do believe that it’s possible for people who are suffering from anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and many more illnesses to feel comfortable sharing their stories and getting the help they need. But that will happen only through a grassroots movement. So please, make an effort to learn the truth about mental health issues so that you’re part of the stigma solution instead of the problem.

Put Fear in Its Place

I was saddened to hear of the recent passing of Susan Jeffers, who was a pioneer in the self-help movement. Her book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway was first published in 1987, and has since become a classic. Over the past few days I’ve found myself thinking a lot about fear, and how it has played a role in my own life.

Now, don’t get me wrong: Fear is an incredibly important survival mechanism. Fear is often what saves us from harming ourselves and helps us to keep our loved ones safe. However, fear becomes a problem when you allow it to take over your life. Being overly fearful of something (or being fearful of nearly everything) can be indicative of a bigger issue, and is something that needs to be addressed.

As someone who suffered from depression and anxiety, I spent a large part of my life consumed by fear in various forms. I was afraid of being away from home as a child. (I drank paint at summer camp, remember?!) I was afraid of rejection. I was afraid of failure. I was afraid of not being liked.

As I look back, I realize now that I created most of those fears myself, and I can see that they had a crippling effect on my life. In hindsight, I’m also struck by the fact that I wasn’t all that afraid of any of the “big things” like death or disease or tragedy. Instead, the majority of my fears were self-created, and that, I think, is the problem that most of us are facing today.

I’ve said it a million times, but it bears repeating—we are our own worst critics. We focus on our mistakes rather than relishing in our accomplishments. We cut ourselves down and beat ourselves up. And when you feel small and weak, it’s much easier for fear to creep in and take over.

So how can you make sure that your fears aren’t holding you back from the life you are supposed to be living? Try a few of these tips to keep your fear in check.

Build yourself up. The most important thing for you to do is to make sure you aren’t your own worst enemy when it comes to living a life of fear. If you aren’t actively building yourself up and focusing on your positive attributes, then you won’t be confident and strong in the face of your fears. Start TODAY by making a list of the things you are good at. Also, try to stop yourself from focusing on the one thing that went wrong. Instead, allow yourself to feel great about the many things you did right, and about the wonderful person you are.

Put it in writing. Our anxieties can often seem bigger and scarier the longer we allow them to float around in our heads. So sit down and write out the things that you are afraid of. As you do, consider each one. Where does this fear come from? Is it internal or is it from an outside source? Think about possible solutions for each fear. Are you in a position to neutralize or lessen any of them? You’ll probably find that putting your fears in writing can make many of them seem less overwhelming and more manageable. (Plus, many people find that there’s something very therapeutic about putting pen to paper in general!)

Think about the worst-case scenario. For most of us, the fears that are the most consuming are the ones that are based in the unknown. When a situation has an unknown outcome, fear of what might happen can stop us from moving forward. But in many of these “what if” scenarios, our fears are mostly unfounded, and there is a good chance that the outcome will actually be good.

For example, you might be afraid to change careers, or to ask your boss for a raise, because you don’t know what the outcome may be. Allowing yourself to think through all the possible scenarios can help you to alleviate the “unknown” part of your fear. Ask yourself, What is the worst thing that could possibly happen? Then think through what the ramifications of that worst-case scenario would be. Mentally preparing in this way (instead of focusing in on the “what if”) will alleviate a lot of your fear and enable you to move forward.

Create an action plan. You can tackle and conquer many of your fears by thinking about them on a real-world level. Once you have identified the worst-case scenario for each one (as described above), ask yourself how you might feasibly handle each situation. Often, developing an action plan to deal with potential negative consequences will help you to feel more empowered and confident. Write out what you would do in each case, but also think through what steps you might be able to take now to prevent the worst-case scenarios from happening.

Talk to someone. The longer you internalize your fears, the more they will grow, fester, and drag you down. Whether it’s your spouse, a trusted friend, or even a qualified professional (like a therapist), talking to someone about your fears can be an important step in moving forward. Not only will it be a relief to have your fear off your chest and out in the open, having a sounding board to talk through your fears can also give you ideas as to how you might work through them. That outside perspective can give you invaluable advice, comfort, and support.

Don’t let fear keep you from living the life you were intended to live. The world is full of excitement and opportunity, and it can be yours for the taking if you’ll allow yourself to go for it. Let the legacy you’ll leave behind motivate you to move forward today.

 

 

Treating the Dorm Room Blues

Time really does fly. It seems like back-to-school just happened, but somehow, we’re already staring fall break in the face! Realizing how far we are into the school year has caused me to think about a topic that’s really close to my heart: the often-difficult time young people can have adjusting to college. If you’re a longtime follower of my blog, you may remember the posts I wrote last September regarding depression and anxiety on college campuses. This year, I’d like to share my thoughts on homesickness.

I think that many parents probably feel a huge sense of relief when their child gets into college. Years and years of hard work (your child’s and your own) have finally paid off. She’ll be having the time of her life, you think to yourself multiple times a day. Or, I just know he’ll fit in and do well—he was made for that school. Then you get the call: “Mom, Dad, I miss you. I’m homesick. I don’t think I like it here as much as I thought I would.” Now you’re shocked, bewildered, and maybe even a little disappointed. College (not to mention paying for it) has been the ultimate goal for years—what’s going wrong?

Actually, homesickness is more common than you might think. According to the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute, 65 percent of all college freshmen suffer from homesickness and the condition often continues into subsequent academic years. And now that the initial adjustment period of moving in, attending new classes, and making friends has ended, homesickness is starting to hit many students full force. At this point in the semester, many young people are reaching the I’ve-never-been-away-from-home-this-long milestone, and they’re missing their old surroundings, routines, and support systems.

I’ve been there. As you may already know, I struggled with homesickness and separation anxiety throughout my childhood and into college. In fact, as a college freshman, I didn’t hesitate to drive 45 minutes to my home on a near-nightly basis. To this day, sticking it out and graduating from college in spite of the difficulties I had in adapting remains one of my proudest accomplishments. And while I don’t want to needlessly alarm parents, I also know from experience that if not addressed, homesickness can lead to more serious issues such as anxiety and depression.

If your child calls home expressing feelings of homesickness, it’s important to know how to address the situation. Here are some of my tips:

*Don’t downplay your child’s worries. “Don’t worry,” you might instinctively want to say. “You’ll get used to your dorm and your classes, and I know you’ll make friends quickly.” Squelch that impulse. If your child calls home and says that she is worried or misses aspects of her “old” life, always talk to her about what could be causing her feelings. Is she under a lot of academic pressure? Does she like her classes? Does she have problems with her roommate? Remember that adjusting to college is different for everyone: Some may take days; some may take months. If your student does not seem to be adjusting at all and has been homesick for weeks, it might be good to suggest that she look for resources through the counseling and wellness department at her school.

*But don’t rush to school to pick up your child, either. If your child seems to be experiencing a normal level of homesickness (i.e., not depressed or experiencing dangerous levels of anxiety), then it won’t help him if you rush to his rescue. You can help in small doses from home, of course—just don’t drop all of your weekend plans to make a last-minute collegiate road trip or immediately start researching local colleges for a transfer. Learning to rely more fully on oneself without a parent in the next room is something that we all have to do sooner or later. And if your child goes through these growing pains now, he’ll be setting himself up for more success in the future.

*You can help take the edge off by making a few plans together. In an unfamiliar new environment, it can be difficult for your student to accurately picture what next semester, next month, or even next week might look like—and that uncertainty might be feeding her feelings of homesickness. In this instance, simply making plans to see you or to visit home in the near future might be just the remedy the doctor ordered, as long as the discussion is confident and encouraging. Also, take advantage of technology like Skype and set (and keep) a weekly date. However, do not make a pick-up bargain (if you start to feel homesick or if it doesn’t go away, we will come get you). Kids can end up using this as a crutch—after all, what incentive do they have to proactively build a fulfilling college life for themselves if they know Mom and Dad are on the way?

*Help them to re-create the security they feel at home at school. Part of the insecurity that new students feel when they are living on their own for the first time stems from the loss of the routine and comforts they were used to at home. For example, figuring out simple tasks like laundry and grocery shopping can be daunting when you’ve always had your parents’ help. If you suspect that this issue is impacting your child’s happiness at college, send a pre-emptive email or care package full of advice and guidance. For example, you might include a sample schedule for laundry and instructions on how to wash darks vs. whites. Or if your child cooks for himself, talk about what grocery staples he should have on hand and perhaps send him recipes for a few of his favorite homecooked dishes (with shopping list included!).

*Realize that you and your child aren’t locked in. Yes, you have paid a deposit, moved your child into her dorm, and maybe even started to tackle those daunting tuition payments. While this does signify a big commitment, it’s important to realize that your child is not locked into remaining at her current college. And if her homesickness doesn’t abate despite your best efforts, she shouldn’t stay there long-term. Some students, like me, may not be able to find a healthy balance far away from home. In this case, know that transferring to a school that’s closer to home is an option, and may be the best possible alternative. I’ll be honest: I think that attending a university only 45 minutes away from my parents’ house might have saved my life. I’m not sure how well I would—or wouldn’t—have coped with my anxiety had they not been so close and so continually supportive.

While anyone who has been to college knows that it isn’t one big never-ending party (nor would most parents want it to be!), it should still be a positive, fulfilling, and growth-inspiring period in your child’s life. If your child’s happiness seems to be compromised at any point by homesickness, be ready to listen and educate yourself on what you can do to alleviate the pressure. It is my hope that together you and your child will be able to achieve the amazing college experience both of you have been hoping for.

 

 

 

How Parents Can Dial Down the Pressure This School Year

In my last post, I talked about how our competitive, achievement-oriented culture is causing many young people to be overstressed, overscheduled, and burned out. This week, I want to discuss several ways in which parents can help make sure that the heat on the pressure cooker isn’t turned up damagingly high.

*First, realize you are doing damage. Even though it’s not what we parents intend, our high expectations put the most pressure of all on our children. A student who feels a few minutes’ chagrin at a teacher’s disappointment might beat herself up for days if Mom and Dad aren’t satisfied with her performance. Teens might act like they couldn’t care less about their parents, but the truth is that they do want to please us. In fact, some kids are experiencing symptoms ranging from stomachaches to severe depression due to the day-to-day stress they encounter at school and at home. So if, for instance, your daughter comes home with four As and one B, don’t ask, “What happened? Why did you get the B in this course?” Instead, focus on how great the As are. You’re still letting your child know that top marks are the goal—but you’re doing it in a much healthier and celebratory way than by being immediately disappointed over the one grade that was lacking.

*Accept that not all kids are the same. Resist the natural tendency to compare your own children to each other, to their classmates, and to your friends’ children. Never forget that kids develop at different rates, and that they also have different talents and abilities. No two children are ever going to be alike, and that’s a good thing! Our world needs variety and uniqueness. And trust me—your kids will be happy adults only if they too learn to love and be okay with themselves as they are and for who they are. So, I’m sorry if you wanted your son to follow in his older brother’s footsteps and be a straight-A student as well as a star athlete. If he is not so good at school and prefers the arts, you’d better love him for that just as well. Ultimately, the most important thing you can do to help your children is to love them for who they are.

*Be willing to let some things go. All parents struggle with striking a balance between holding their kids accountable and letting them get away with too much. Especially in today’s culture, it’s easy to err on the side of expecting too much, so take time to evaluate what expectations are actually realistic and what achievements are really important. For example, come to terms with the fact that your teen may never quite get up on time or make her bed before school. And realize that neither of those things is likely to ruin her life. Instead of getting caught up in making sure that every box is checked all of the time, try to keep the big picture in mind. Everyone will be much less stressed if you can resist the urge to micro-manage each and every task. So instead of fixating on little things that weren’t completed perfectly, focus on your children’s successes!

*Teach kids to be easier on themselves. In any given middle or high school, chances are that a majority of students tend to focus much more of their time brooding over the test they bombed than celebrating the one they aced. And as a result of magnifying what they perceive as failures, these young people reinforce in their minds just how “subpar” they think they are. If you suspect that your child has a tendency to beat himself up, help him to refocus the way he looks at life. Specifically, try to direct his attention to all of the things he does well instead of allowing him to fixate on his few slip-ups and shortcomings. The best way to teach this is to model such behavior. I think that everyone—not just young people—can benefit from showing ourselves more compassion and love. The bottom line is we’re all human—and thus fallible. So instead of demanding perfection from ourselves in every situation, we need to learn to cut ourselves a lot more slack.

*Discourage overscheduling. Between school, soccer practice, dance class, church, friends, family, community service, and more, it’s easy for kids to become overextended. In fact, many driven teens have trouble remembering the last weeknight (or weekend!) during which they had a significant amount of free time. It’s not unusual for young people to crack under the pressure of what can be sixteen (or more)-hour days, and parents often don’t recognize the strain until their children become physically affected. Outside of what’s required of them in school, encourage your kids to focus on activities that bring them the most joy. In the long run, developing their skills in a few things they’re good at will help them much more than trying to do a little of everything and burning out on all of it. If you see your teen starting to become overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to say no to the next time commitment request he or she makes.

*Get help if it is needed. You had your “bad” subjects in school, and chances are your child will too. If she is really giving this subject or class her all but is still too far below the mark, search for ways to get academic help. A tutor is certainly a good idea if you can find one who is affordable and qualified. You might also ask your child’s teacher if she can spend a little extra time with her or recommend someone who could give out-of-school help. Getting your child the help she needs can make a world of difference in her performance and boost her confidence. Even with a parent’s support, what a child perceives as a failure can have a big impact on her self-esteem.

*Promote exercise. This is extremely important! If your child is already involved in a sport or athletic activity, great! It will help him feel more relaxed and stronger, it will improve his sleep, and it’s also a great natural anti-depressant. If physical activity isn’t a big part of your teen’s life, encourage him to find a way to be active that he enjoys. As I have written in previous blogs, exercise is the single most important thing your child, you, or anyone else can do to become less stressed and happier right now. It’s a fantastic energizer, and it actually opens you up to future change by invigorating your mind and body. You might even consider making physical activity a family event! Go for a hike in the mountains, for a swim at the YMCA, or just go for a walk around the neighborhood. You’ll all benefit from the quality time together as well.

Whenever I’m faced with the difficult parental task of setting guidelines and expectations, a question I now ask myself is, What kind of future am I encouraging my son, Josh, to build for himself? It’s helpful for me to remember that even if my son does succeed at the highest level, go to a top college, earn all As, and make millions of dollars, he might not be happy. Instead, he might be overwhelmed by stress and experience a breakdown, as I did. That’s certainly not a future I want for Josh, and I’m sure you feel the same way about your children.

So throughout this school year and into the future, always remember that the ability to cultivate happiness and balance is one of the best possible ways to set your child up for success. Yes, performance and doing one’s best are important—but not at the price of your child’s well-being.

The Case for Meditation

Recently I was invited to speak at Deepak Chopra’s “Seduction of Spirit: Pathway to Happiness” retreat in Chicago, Illinois. Obviously, I was completely blown away by this incredible invitation from a true spiritual master. And soon, I also began to think about the retreat in more depth. Did I just want to give my speech…or did I want to attend the weeklong retreat and immerse myself in meditation and yoga for the first time—finally—at 47 years old?

I eventually decided to attend the whole retreat, but I’ll admit, I went in with some trepidation. Could a consummate extrovert like me take a whole week of inner reflection? My mind typically runs at a mile a minute; would I have the discipline necessary to truly meditate? I was also nervous simply because I had always thought effective meditation required “perfect” technique, and I didn’t want to fail and waste my time.

As it turns out, my apprehensions were for nothing. What I learned about meditation is turning out to be a true game-changer for me. Here is what I learned:

  • Meditation can actually spark positive changes in your brain’s biochemistry. (Previously, I’d thought that exercise and antidepressants were the only two things that could accomplish this!) Not only can meditation make you more mindful and content; it can also help you deal more effectively with stress, lower your blood pressure, and boost your immune system—and much more!
  • If you hold a certain intention in your mind and meditate on it, you’ll be more likely to attract that thing into your life. Some attribute this phenomenon to the Law of Attraction; others believe you’re simply more able to recognize opportunities when they crop up because you’ve been thinking about your ultimate goal so much. Personally, I have started meditating on reaching as many people with my message as possible.
  • You do not have to be a “perfect meditator” to still reap its benefits. In fact, it’s not about how well you meditate for 30 minutes; it’s about how that meditation impacts the other 23.5 hours of the day! As I mentioned before, meditation—even when it’s not perfect—puts you in a different place and allows you to handle conflict better, be more relaxed, live in the present, experience less stress, etc. As I once heard someone say, “It doesn’t change things for you; it changes you for things.”
  • Meditation gives your mind the “room” it needs to “stretch,” so to speak. I have always found that when I’m exercising I tend to find the answers I’m looking for, and I also have some of my greatest ideas. Meditation has the same effect. Because I’m not running errands, talking to people, and completing tasks left and right, my stream of conscious thoughts slow downs and I can consider more weighty subjects.
  • Meditation drives home how very simple things can be incredibly powerful, such as the exercise we did at the retreat: picking someone we’d never met before and simply staring into his or her eyes for 30 seconds nonstop while sending out messages of forgiveness, love, peace, and healing. Believe me, the nonverbal connections you develop in just 30 seconds are crazy-powerful. Try it sometime! Our eyes truly are our windows to the soul.

If you would like to learn more about meditation and perhaps even give it a try yourself, I truly believe that you won’t find a better teacher than Deepak Chopra. I suggest starting with his free 21-Day Meditation Challenge, which is available four times a year, and can be found here. Check to see when the next Challenge begins and mark your calendar. And remember, meditation is NOT about perfection; it’s about improving your attitude and well-being.

Men, Let’s Talk about Depression.

For men especially, depression is something that’s uncomfortable to talk about. Unfortunately, our society tends to believe that “real” men shouldn’t get depressed. Men are supposed to be tough, the thinking goes, and not let their emotions “get the better of them.”

Please understand: If that’s how you tend to think about depression, you’re making a dangerous mistake. The truth is, over six million men are affected by depression each year in the U.S. alone, but many don’t seek treatment because they don’t want to be seen as weak or defective. Believe me, I understand. It took a complete nervous breakdown at the age of 36 for me to directly address the feelings of anxiety, unhappiness, and stress that I had been dealing with for much of my life.

Now, I have gotten the medical help I needed for some time leading up to my breakdown. I’ve also revised my outlook on my life in general and on my mental health in particular. Because of my experiences, I believe that it is vitally important for men to educate themselves about depression so that they can recognize its symptoms and be prepared to seek help if necessary. Above all, I want all men in America to understand that depression is not and never has been something you can overcome through willpower—it is a medical illness. This week, please read these seven facts about depression as it relates to men and share them with the men you love.

*Depression is more prevalent than ever. Increasing numbers of Americans are being diagnosed with depression—and that includes men. Studies show that each generation is more likely to become depressed than the one that came before it—and more likely to become so at an earlier age, too. Not surprisingly, antidepressant use in our country continues to grow. Since my breakdown, I’ve learned that you can be prone to depression because of your genetics, but also due to life circumstances. I’ve thought for years that the way we live and work in America is unhealthy. And I know that the recent economic downturn, and the fact that it caused a lot of people to lose their savings and jobs, hasn’t helped our outlooks and mental health.

*Men experience different symptoms from women. This is a “biggie”! Because most people don’t realize that depression manifests differently between the sexes, many men fail to even suspect the true nature of what is bothering them. According to my friend Dr. Howard Rankin (who is a clinical psychologist), women are likely to internalize their negative feelings and blame themselves for their problems, while men more commonly act out on their emotions. Depression manifests itself differently in men because their emotional circuits and brains are designed differently. So instead of getting tearful, a man who is depressed might become irritable, hostile, and fatigued. Like I did, he might dive into his work or a hobby until he literally can’t carry on. He’s also likely to blame other people or other circumstances for his problems, rather than admit that he is experiencing troubling symptoms.

*There’s a connection between depression and stress. Stress is so prevalent that we tend to ignore it and write it off as normal, despite the fact that we’ve all heard the statistics about how chronic stress can cause high blood pressure, heart disease, and other health problems. But did you know that long-term stress can also increase your risk of becoming depressed? While depression can be related to genetics, it can also be caused by long-term stress—especially if you’re not handling it well. When you’re constantly worn down, anxious, and unhappy, you’re essentially training your brain to be that way—and eventually, your brain’s biochemistry becomes locked into this pattern. While I’m no doctor, my personal experience has been that exercise is the best way to alleviate stress—and by extension help stave off depression—because it naturally releases endorphins and manages your mood.

*Depression can damage your physical health. Depression is a disorder that’s rooted in the brain, but it can affect your body, too. Depression is accompanied by a loss of energy. It can also cause muscle pain, joint pain, digestive problems, headaches, reduced sex drive, and more—and it’s easy to see how those symptoms can disrupt your life. Consider the following statement from Dr. Rankin:

“If you’re depressed, it’s very possible that you’ll feel exhausted and in pain all of the time. It’s actually not uncommon for patients to be misdiagnosed at first because they and their doctors think that the unpleasant symptoms have another cause. That’s why it’s very important to understand that depression isn’t just ‘in your head,’ and to be completely open with your doctor.”

*Depression can also hurt your family. Don’t make the mistake of believing that depression affects only you. If you’re lacking energy or if you’re anxious, irritable, or in pain, your family will notice. And their daily lives—in fact, their basic well-being—will be impacted, too. Your spouse and children might feel that they have to walk on eggshells around you, for example, and might become anxious themselves because they can’t ease your burden. You won’t be able to give them the attention, support, and love that you used to, either. In hindsight, one of the worst things about my depression and breakdown was that I simply couldn’t be the dad and husband I wanted to be. Please, if you’re reluctant to get help for your own sake, do it for the people you love. And remember that if your kids see you moping around every day, they will be much more likely to grow up the same way, thinking that an unhappy life is simply the norm. That’s not something any father wants to leave as a legacy for his children…and then for their children after them as well.

*Depression is not a cause for stigma. This is something I’m VERY adamant about: Depression is not something to be ashamed of. While clinical depression is very different from a disease like cancer, they have one major thing in common: No one chooses to suffer from either, and no one can power through these ailments unaided. Yes, I do understand why men feel it is their job as the head of the household to ignore their depression and just continue on. But doing so can ruin your life and even lead to suicide. I’m very glad to see that our society’s view of depression is finally changing, albeit much too slowly for my liking. I’m passionate about bringing the reality of depression into the public conversation, and I’m not the only one. Well-known figures including Terry Bradshaw, George Stephanopoulos, and Mike Wallace, to name a few, have also opened up about their own struggles with this illness in order to raise awareness and dispel myths.

*Depression is treatable. Many people suffer from debilitating depression for months or even years, and if you’re one of them, you may believe that a “normal” life is—and always will be—beyond your grasp. Depression is treatable, though—and with a combination of counseling and medication, most people are able to completely regain their quality of life. Once you and your doctor do find the combination of medication and/or counseling that works for you, I promise you’ll be astounded by the results. It’s possible that just one pill a day can make you feel like a whole new man again! When my doctor and I found a medication that restored my brain chemistry, I felt like my old self in just six weeks’ time.

If you think that you (or a man you love) might be suffering from depression—or even heading toward it—please, please talk with a medical professional. Being aware of your mental health is just as important as being aware of your physical health. Above all, remember that getting help for depression is not—let me repeat that, is not—a cause for shame or stigma. In fact, it’s the best thing you can do for your health, your family, and your future.

 

 

Positivity Glasses: Your Most Important Accessory

Guess what? I made some mistakes this week. I made some decisions that weren’t the smartest, did some things I probably shouldn’t have, and forgot to do other tasks I probably ought to have taken care of. And I’m sure that you have made mistakes this week too.

A decade ago, before my breakdown, those mistakes would have been a HUGE problem for me. I would have spent days beating myself up for each supposed screw-up. I would have thought things like, Todd, you’re such a moron! How could you have made a mistake like that?

To say the least, thoughts like that—especially when they happen frequently—aren’t exactly good for you. They lower your self-worth, and they rob you of your peace of mind and happiness. Even worse, they can doom you to future failure, because when you think less of yourself, you are much less effective. (Remember, our thoughts heavily influence our reality!) Also, studies show that enough negative thinking can actually cause you to get ill more often. And the really sad thing is, most of us do 100 things right for every one thing we do wrong…but we focus only on that one wrong thing.

If you have read my book, you might remember me talking about negativity and positivity glasses. (There is even a picture of a pair of glasses on the front cover of my book!) It seems to me that many people wear what I call “negativity glasses.” It’s like they have prescriptions covering their eyes that allow them to see only the negative things in their lives; for example, all that they could have done better and all of the things they feel they really messed up and handled poorly.

If you think you’re looking at life through negativity glasses, please try to throw them out and put on positivity glasses instead. Be easier on yourself and focus more on those 100 things you’ve done right. For example, give yourself a mental high-five for answering all of the emails in your inbox. Allow yourself to bask in the compliment your boss just paid you. Really savor the smiles on your family’s faces when eating the gourmet dinner you just cooked for them. These things will help you to realize that you have a lot of good, useful, and valuable things to offer the world.

In my own quest for happiness, I have found it very helpful to remember how I would help the people I love if they had made the mistake I just did. For example, I ask myself, What would I say to my wife if she had made this same mistake? The answer is always simple: I would tell her how much I love her and how great she is, and I’d also help her to feel better about herself by reminding her of her many more past success stories. I definitely wouldn’t want her to feel any more heartache or sadness about it or to miss out on all the blessings life has to offer because she couldn’t let it go.

It’s not always easy, but you must try to extend this same love, kindness, and forgiveness to yourself too. Remember: We are all human, and thus fallible, and so all of us will make mistakes. The fact is, if you focus on the one mistake you make and tell yourself how awful you are while ignoring the thousands of things you do right, you are literally setting your life up so you can’t win and can only be miserable and unhappy. What a shame it is that so many of us live this way in America. Please make 2012 the year you change if you are one of these many.

Say No to (Needless) Stress

“Stress is a killer.” Yes, we all say it, but how many of us really believe it? If you’re like most Americans, you probably just accept stress as an inevitable part of life. Stress, the thinking goes, is the price we pay for our jobs, houses, cars, and relatively comfortable lives. To some extent, that’s true. After all, no success, job, or family has ever been—or ever will be—stress-free. And you certainly can’t control big-time stressors like the economy or a parent’s degenerative illness.

That being said, it’s also true that most of us are paying a much higher “stress price” than we have to, and this lifestyle is incredibly unhealthy. Stress prevents you from enjoying your current blessings, and it can also trigger long-term effects including high blood pressure, insomnia, depression, and anxiety. Now, you may think I’m crazy when I say that it’s in your power to reduce the amount of stress in your life, but it’s true! (And it’s also imperative that you do so for the sake of your health, happiness, and future.) In this post, I’d like to share two stress-reducing strategies that have worked for me.

Strategy number one is as simple as changing the way you think about something that’s causing you anxiety. For example, when I was first starting out as a leader in my family’s company, I was literally making myself sick over several types of emergencies that I had to deal with: store managers quitting without giving notice, store break-ins, and employees stealing from our company. Thanks to the Tony Robbins tapes I’ve blogged about before, though, I learned that I could reframe how I thought about these problems. Instead of treating them as five-alarm, code-blue emergencies I shouldn’t have to deal with, I chose to see them as part of my job description.

That change of perspective made a huge difference in how I reacted to and managed these situations, and the same can be true for you. By retraining yourself to act differently in difficult situations, you can drastically improve your quality of life. Whenever you don’t have the power to change a stressful situation, try to view it as a challenge instead of as a hardship. Come up with a game plan for how you’d like to react and visualize yourself doing so until this more positive behavior becomes second nature.

Another way to reduce the amount of overall stress in your life is to identify the two or three things that cause you the most grief on a consistent basis and do something about them. Actually, I’ve found that these “problem spots” are often deceptively small. We don’t realize how big of a difference the so-called little things can make in our overall contentment levels, so we allow them to continue being thorns in our sides.

In my book, I use the example of a clean house when I talk about taking control of your everyday stressors, because I think it’s something a lot of people can relate to (and if not, something of similar magnitude probably bugs you). Let’s say that whenever your house isn’t vacuumed, swept, and put away, you feel stressed, so you spend a large chunk of your after-work hours straightening and scrubbing. It doesn’t end there, though, because you now feel bad about not spending the time with your family, and that type of guilt eats at you for days. Here are the stress-reducing suggestions I give in my book to help you break free of this hypothetical cycle:

  1. Hire a housekeeper. It may not be as expensive as you think. In fact, you could pay the housekeeper with the “guilt money” you’ve been spending on buying “stuff” for your children to make up for the time you don’t spend with them.
  2. Get family members to share the load. Why is all the housekeeping your job, anyway? You may need to have a frank discussion with your spouse and kids about dividing up the chores so you’ll all have more time to spend together.
  3. Rethink your need for super-cleanliness. Which is more important: getting the floor mopped three times a week or spending the time relaxing with your spouse or reading to your child? You may well decide you can overlook a little dirt!

Obviously, this is just one example among thousands of things that might cause you to feel stress rather than serenity. (And yes, it’s true that you’ll never be able to make your life totally stress-free.) But hopefully you can see that with a little thought and motivation, you can make changes that will drastically impact your happiness, and by extension, that of the people you care about.

 

 

 

 

 

When Do You Live?: The Importance of Being Present in 2012

In just a few short days, we will all be ringing in a brand new year. And across America, people will be making New Year’s resolutions aimed at improving their lives. That’s why I wanted to make my own suggestion as to how you can make 2012 the best year yet. As you’ll see, my recommended resolution doesn’t have to do with weight or money or exercise or any of the “usual suspects”—but I think it can still make a profound impact on how happy and fulfilled you are.

First, let me tell you about a TV segment I saw several years ago. An elderly woman was being interviewed because she had recently celebrated her 100th birthday. One of the questions the interviewer asked was, “What is the most important lesson you’ve learned during all of your years?” After a little thought, the woman replied that as she looked back over her life, she realized that she had spent a large amount of her time on earth worrying about things that never actually ended up happening. She said that she now regretted all of those hours she had spent in anxious—and ultimately useless—thought, and she told viewers to be careful not to fall into the same trap.

As I watched that interview, I realized that I had spent much of my own life doing exactly what the 100-year-old woman said not to (and I figured that she knew what she was talking about). Just like her, I had spent what probably added up to years of my life wondering about frightening what-ifs and worrying about bad things that might come to pass in the future. On top of that, I also tended to replay my mistakes in my mind and beat myself up for them, over and over and over again.

In other words, I had spent a lot of my life not living in the present moment. I was so fixated on the past and concerned about the future that I wasn’t enjoying all of the blessings and wonderful people who were already around me. Now that is a real tragedy. So, please join me in resolving to make 2012 the year we all really live more in the present.

Here are three relatively simple steps to help you keep this resolution from January to December…and beyond!:

1. Let go of the past. In my experience, this is the most difficult of the three steps to accomplish. That’s because in order to stop dwelling on things that have already happened, you have to forgive yourself and others for insults, mistakes, and wrongs that you’ve been holding on to. I could write an entire book on the subject of forgiveness (other people already have!), but it’s important to realize that by allowing anger and resentment of this kind to reside in you, you are essentially welcoming toxic thoughts, harmful stress, and even physical illness. When you experience true forgiveness, though, you are preserving your health and literally freeing your thoughts from negative bonds.

2. Think ahead (realistically). Whenever you find yourself worrying about what might happen in the future, confront that worry head-on. First, determine how likely it is that your doomsday scenario will actually happen at all. In most cases, it will be a relatively small possibility. Next, think through all the implications of this possible event if it did happen. You’ll probably have to admit that it would not kill you or destroy your life forever, and you might also see that there would be a remedy within your reach even if it were not that desirable. Now that you’ve mentally dealt with this worry, you can stop dwelling on it.

 

3. Be aware. Lastly, simply make an effort to experience now. Notice and appreciate what is going on around you and use all of your senses. Also, try to be aware of when your thoughts start “living” unhealthily in the past or in the future, and then make a conscious effort to come back to the present. This will take time and effort, so don’t be discouraged if you find yourself falling back on your old mental habits more than you’d like. In fact, just be happy for now that you noticed your mind negatively focusing on the past or future. As time goes by, you’ll notice that your emotional and mental states are increasingly positive and present as you spend more and more time in the here and now.

Ultimately, I don’t want to look back on my life with regrets like that elderly woman in the interview—and I bet you don’t either. I truly believe that by living more fully in the present, we can all live the wonderful lives we were meant to live! And 2012 is the perfect time to start.