The Perfectionism Antidote

In my last blog post, I discussed perfectionism (which, in my opinion, is becoming increasingly prevalent in our society) and why it’s so harmful. I also shared that for much of my life, I was the “poster child” for perfectionism. Yes, my desire to avoid mistakes, mediocrity, and certainly failure pushed me to achieve great things…but they also contributed to a life of stress and anxiety. As a perfectionist, I was never comfortable with where I was, and I certainly didn’t love myself. I was always worried about the future, because I felt that I was only as good as my next accomplishment.

Finally, after experiencing my breakdown, I admitted to myself that my perfectionist tendencies were doing much more harm than good. Over the past decade, I have made an effort to leave this type of unhealthy ambition behind, and to develop a more balanced outlook regarding what I expect from myself.

Working to overcome my perfectionist tendencies has been one of the most liberating things I have ever done for myself. I promise, when you successfully shed the belief that everything in your life has to be just so—or else!—you will feel a weight lifting from your shoulders, too. You will take more risks, have more fun, live in the moment more often, connect with others more effectively, and most of all, experience a ton more relaxation and happiness. I promise! That said, here are a few things you can do to overcome perfectionism:

  • Learn to recognize the signs. In order to change any habit, you must first be able to identify when it’s manifesting. Take a few minutes to list what you actually do and feel when your quest for perfection kicks into high gear. Are you zoom-focused on something in particular? Do you feel anxious and stressed? Does a certain thought play over and over again in your mind like a continuous mental loop? Do you start to ignore other areas of your life? Knowing what the “symptoms” are will help you to consciously recognize when perfectionism is taking over.
  • Ask, “How much is this helping?” I know from experience that perfectionists tend to get bogged down in the details. In more recent years, I have also learned that those nitty-gritty things don’t always matter as much as you think they do. When you notice yourself beginning to obsess, ask yourself, “How much is this helping?” For example, is it worth spending several more hours tweaking a small part of a report to your boss, or would that time be better spent on another project? Often, running this type of cost-benefit analysis in your mind will give you the clarity you need to let go and move on.
  • See goals as guidelines. When perfectionists set goals for themselves, they tend to see any other result as a failure—even if it’s still very positive. Remember, life is unpredictable, and people—as well as what they want for themselves—can and should change as they move forward. That’s why it’s much more helpful to see goals as guidelines instead of harsh, inflexible benchmarks. Use your goals to motivate, inspire, and direct your progress, not as standards by which to negatively judge your achievements and progress. If you do encounter difficulty after difficulty in your pursuit of a goal, try not to see those incidents as reasons why you are failing to measure up. Instead, use them to assess your overall direction and development. Do these challenges reveal skills and abilities you would like to develop further…or are they telling you that you’re driving yourself down a path that isn’t right for you? When the latter option is the answer, don’t force yourself to continue moving in an unhealthy direction.
  • Celebrate successes. When I look back at my career as a student and young professional, I see many, many successes. However, what I don’t see is my younger self celebrating those victories. Instead, I immediately focused my attention on the next challenge and began to worry about the mistakes I might make in the future. I wish I had learned earlier in life how important it is to acknowledge your own accomplishments and reward yourself for them—it raises self-esteem, boosts morale, and reaffirms how capable and valuable you really are.
  • Focus on your strengths. Perfectionists tend to obsess over the areas in which they fall short. However, experience has taught me that you’ll be much happier as well as more effective if you focus your efforts on the areas in which you excel. Plus, when you’re more frequently doing things that you’re good at and that you enjoy, you’ll be able to look at the inevitable mistakes that you will make with a healthier perspective.
  • Get rid of all-or-nothing thinking. Have you ever worked on a project or task that was mostly a success? If you’re a perfectionist, the answer is “no,” because anything that’s not a free-and-clear win is a loss. The problem is, this kind of thinking robs you of so much happiness and fulfillment. The next time you think you have failed, take a second look at what happened. You might even ask a friend or family member to discuss the event or project with you. Try to identify things you did well, progress you made, and lessons you learned—all of which are positive! No, you don’t have to ignore what went wrong, but at the same time, don’t ignore what went right, too!
  • See life as all for one, not one versus all. As I mentioned in my last post, perfectionists have a tendency to isolate themselves from other people. Some compare themselves to others in a negative way and voluntarily withdraw; others are overly competitive in their quest to be the best. If you see yourself taking either one of these routes, make a conscious effort to connect instead. Rather than trying to outdo your coworker, for instance, realize that you’re on the same team and collaborate with each other. (Chances are, you’ll achieve more when you combine your respective talents and abilities!) Or, when you catch yourself listing all of the ways in which you don’t measure up to your running buddy, switch gears. Find out what has helped her to succeed and ask if she’ll help you to improve.

Ultimately, I believe that the best way to overcome perfectionism long-term is to learn how to love and accept yourself simply as you are and for who you are (which, in my opinion, is the very definition of happiness!). The more you value and accept yourself for the unique person you truly are, the less you’ll be driven to draw your self-worth from other areas.

I urge you to practice treating yourself with the same kindness you would show to a beloved friend or family member when you fail to live up to your own expectations. Remember that you are human—which means that you are fallible—so you will always make at least one mistake a day. And that’s okay!

 

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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.

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Masks: The Other Side of the Coin

Two weeks ago I wrote about the “masks” we so often wear in our daily lives—an appropriate topic to post about on the day before Halloween, I thought! Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote:

As many people go through life, for a variety of reasons, they feel compelled to “be” someone they’re not. Are you one of them? You might wear a mask all the time, or only in certain situations. You might be trying to please others, to make them believe a certain thing, or to keep a secret. You may be using your mask as a defense mechanism. You might even be trying to prevent yourself from having to face the truth…

…As I eventually learned the hard way, there are consequences to wearing a mask. Masks prevent you from living fully and authentically. They limit your potential and rob you of joy while compounding your feelings of inadequacy, helplessness, unworthiness, and more.

As far as they go, I did—and still do—stand by those words. Living an inauthentic, out-of-balance life in which you deny yourself self-love (and perhaps don’t live by your values) is a mistake.

However, after that post went live I received an email from a friend that caused me to think about masks in a different, more positive light. Essentially, this friend reminded me that sometimes masks can help us become happier, healthier, less dysfunctional people. And you know what? She is exactly right!

Have you ever been in this situation? You’ve identified something that isn’t working in your life (perhaps it’s a negative mask that you’ve been wearing), but you aren’t sure what to do next. You may not think you have the tools or the ability to move forward and make a change.

For example, maybe you’d like to be more assertive at work, but you consistently lose your nerve when it’s time to speak up in meetings. Maybe you’ve ended a relationship and want to move on, but can’t seem to find the motivation to add events to your empty social calendar. Or this year, you’d like to be more welcoming and engaging at your extended family’s holiday party…but how, exactly, do you stop dwelling on your bitter, judgmental feelings about half the people in the room?

In any of these situations, you can—as my friend suggested—put on a positive mask. You can “try on” positive new habits and attitudes. They may not feel natural at first, but you’ll be surprised by how quickly they become habit. Here’s what I mean:

  • As a young leader in my family’s company, I often felt through-the-roof stress and tended to handle my anxiety poorly when a crisis cropped up. Sometimes, I even felt physically sick. (In fact, my father told me that if I couldn’t learn to manage my anxiety in a healthier way, he might have to transition me to a different role.) So I put on a mask. Even though I didn’t feel calm when a manager quit with no notice, for instance, I reminded myself that handling instances like this was part of my job description and challenged myself to act with competence. Before long, I learned that I could handle what my job threw at me, and my “mask” of capability soon became reality.
  • Later in my career, I worked with a lot of salespeople. Many of them were naturally outgoing individuals, but some weren’t. I challenged these more reserved salespeople to think of and imitate their favorite comedians while talking to potential customers. When these salespeople put on their “comedian” masks, their sales numbers usually shot up!
  • After going through a difficult time, a friend was stuck in a rut. Tired of feeling like a victim, she decided to “copy” a vivacious acquaintance. In time, my friend found that acting more open and friendly made her feel much happier—and brought a lot of exciting opportunities into her life! Now, she says, what was once a mask has become second nature.

So, friends: Continue to be vigilant about recognizing and moving away from masks that are holding you back and keeping you from living an authentic life. But don’t be afraid to try on new masks that have the potential to make you a happier, healthier, more vibrant individual.

Remember, you may not be able to control what happens to you, but you can control how you think and react. Making a conscious choice to change those things—even if it doesn’t feel comfortable or natural at first—is the best way I know to become more resilient, capable, and happy.

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Curing the End-of-Summer Blues

In most areas of the country, the school year will start soon. The red, white, and blue celebrations of the Fourth of July are over a month behind us. Most swimming pools close on Labor Day. What’s my point? Simply this: While the calendar says that summer lasts through September 21st, for all practical intents and purposes, it’s already more than halfway over.

At this point in the season, many people start feeling small flutterings of anxiety. They’re dismayed when they anticipate darker days and colder temperatures. They dread the quickened pace that usually accompanies autumn. (Goodbye, vacations and lazy summer days!) And the thought of the fast-approaching back-to-school hullabaloo is enough to make most parents want to lock themselves in a closet.

I certainly understand the bittersweet feelings that accompany the last weeks of summer, but what a shame it is that we allow anxiety and dread to suck the enjoyment out of this time of year! Maybe one of these scenarios sounds familiar:

  • You obsessively count the number of weekends left until Labor Day. “Only four more relaxing Saturdays spent basking by the pool!”
  • When you’re not making a mental list of new school clothes and supplies you’ll need to buy for your kids (and tallying up how much all of it will cost), you worry about how hectic your family’s schedule will be once school, soccer practice, karate, Girl Scouts, and piano lessons start up once more.
  • Whenever you look at a calendar, you bemoan the fact that you won’t have another vacation until Thanksgiving.

One of the most important things I’ve learned in my quest to find happiness is the importance of living in the present, and I think that’s especially important to remind ourselves of as we head further into August. I urge you to make the choice to engage fully with each day and get the most out of what remains of summer 2013. Here are some suggestions:

  • Instead of allowing everyone to flop in front of the TV on the weekends, round up the kids and go for a hike.
  • Focus on how nice the warm sun and cool water feel on your skin the next time you’re at the pool.
  • Invite the neighbors over and fire up the grill.
  • After the kids are in bed, take a few glasses of wine out on the porch and watch the stars come out with your spouse.
  • Grab some extra change the next time you hear an ice cream truck coming down your street and indulge in a sweet treat.
  • Instead of rushing through the grocery store, plan ahead and spend a Saturday morning at a local farmer’s market with your family.

You get my drift! The point is to enjoy the moment and savor all of the good things that summer still has to offer, instead of spending your time ruminating on what you aren’t looking forward to this fall.

In a very important way, spending the last few weeks of summer in a state of dread is representative of how many of us live our lives. We miss out on so many potentially happy moments and ignore so many blessings because we’re constantly focused on negative aspects of the future. If you recognize this tendency in yourself, I encourage you to read my blog post on the importance of living in the present from December 2011. In it, I talk about this topic in a little more detail and offer some advice to help you stop worrying about the future and ruminating on the past.

For now, here’s a quick and easy tactic you can use as summer draws to a close…and throughout the year: Whenever you find yourself dreading something that’s going to happen, pause a moment and identify one thing in the here and now for which you’re thankful. Tapping into the power of gratitude will refocus your attention and brighten your mood.

Here’s to a wonderful end to the summer!

 

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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.

How Not to Expect the Worst: Part Two

In my last blog post I shared six strategies to help you stop expecting the worst in every situation. I won’t rehash why fixating on negative possibilities is bad for you (look back at my March 6, 2013, post if you want to review), but what I will do is share my final six tips to help you let go of some of your worries.

Yes, I have spent quite a bit of time writing about the topic of expecting the worst. That’s because kicking this habit and rewiring your brain to live more fully in the present is so important! Trust me, friends, what you allow yourself to think about and fixate on plays a tremendous role in determining your quality of life.

I hope you’ll add the following tactics to your building-a-happier-life toolkit:

*Trust the master plan. No, the universe is not out to get you. In fact, things usually have a way of working out. Often, though, it’s impossible to see the “master plan” until you’re viewing it through the lens of hindsight. The next time you find yourself focusing on a future fear, stop and remind yourself that you’re not omniscient. You don’t know for sure how a dreaded event will ultimately impact your life. For instance, maybe the pay cut that has you so worried will force your family to cut out extraneous luxuries and activities, ultimately bringing you all closer together.

When I look back on all of the twists and turns my own life has taken, I see that many of my fears were never validated…and the ones that did come to pass often ended up being positive turning points that helped me to move in a better direction. And often, the opposite is true as well: The things we expect to be wonderful can turn out to be unhealthy and debilitating. Just think of the stereotypical ambitious businessman who is thrilled to start a high-paying and high-powered job, only to look back in ten years and realize that his workaholism has cost him his family and friends.

My point is, realizing that you can’t predict how something will ultimately impact your life—that all you can do is make the best decision possible with the information you have now—really takes the pressure off. In all situations, especially when you’re worried and expecting the worst, I encourage you to use this Susan Jeffers affirmation: “It’s all happening perfectly.” It really is!

*Stop being so unkind to yourself. Beating yourself up, dwelling on how inept you think you are, and engaging in negative self-talk are all unhealthy behaviors in general. What’s more, they encourage you to view the future through a worst-case-scenario lens. For example, if you don’t get the promotion you had hoped for, you might think to yourself, I’m so stupid and incapable. I’m never going to move up in this company because I don’t deserve to. Nothing ever works out well for me. Then, you’ll probably go on to list all of your past failures in order to prove your own point.

If this is how you tend to think, I can’t stress how important it is that you stop. Remember, we are all human, and we will all make mistakes from time to time. In the future, realize that this is just one promotion that you didn’t get at one particular time. That doesn’t mean you won’t be chosen the next time a spot opens up. Don’t generalize your failures, and don’t let your disappointment bleed into the future. Instead, make a point of celebrating your successes and reminding yourself of all the things you do well.

*Try giving others the benefit of the doubt. Do you find yourself assuming the worst about other people when it comes to their attitudes and actions, especially toward you? Say, for example, that your spouse is unusually quiet because she has a mild headache and is preoccupied with a work problem. However, you didn’t ask her what was wrong when you both got home for the evening—you “read her mind” and decided that she wasn’t talkative because she was mad at you. As a result, you have needlessly spent the whole night in a state of anxiety.

Unless you actually work for the Psychic Friends Network, remind yourself that you aren’t a mind reader the next time you find yourself assuming the worst about someone else’s thoughts or motivations. Most of the time your guesses will be incorrect and will only be an upsetting waste of your time. Instead, have a conversation with the person in question. If that isn’t possible, put yourself in his or her shoes and list reasons why you might behave in a similar way. Unless you’re mean-spirited, cruel, and selfish, you’ll probably realize that the other individual isn’t out to get you after all.

*Live in the moment… Seriously, take time to smell the roses! While it might be cliché, this old adage is fundamentally solid advice. To put it simply, when you’re engaged in the here and now, you’re focused on a reality that you can control, and you’re in a position to notice and appreciate all of the blessings around you. But if you’re fretting about what might come to pass, you don’t have enough bandwidth left to enjoy other aspects of your life. You’re exacerbating your anxiety and unhappiness by choosing to dwell on things you can’t change or control.

I used to spend a majority of my time worrying about what might happen in the future, which did nothing for my peace of mind or self-esteem. But now that I’m making a conscious effort to live in the present, I’m actually enjoying all of the great things in my life instead of letting them pass me by unnoticed. Plus, I’m a lot more productive now that all of the mental space that used to be occupied with worries has been freed up!

It may sound simple, but the following exercise has really helped me. Whenever you catch yourself worrying about the future, stop what you’re doing and close your eyes. Concentrate on breathing in and out for a few moments. Then, open your eyes and use all of your senses to anchor you to the present moment. Look out the window and enjoy the view. Smell the scent that’s coming from an air freshener or a candle. Pet your dog and notice the soft feel of her fur. Then, consciously shift your attention to solving a problem or completing a task that you do have control over. Often, that’s all it takes to break out of a debilitating mental rut!

*…but take a mental trip to the future when you find yourself dreading the worst. When we’re expecting the worst, we tend to wear mental blinders. All we can see is the thing we’re dreading. As far as we’re concerned, the world ends with that event or outcome. But…does it really? Take a step back and look again. The truth is, even when things don’t go our way, life goes on. That’s why it’s so helpful to take a mental trip to the future when you’re dreading the worst.

Try this exercise: Imagine that your worst expectations come true. Now, fast-forward six months, a year, or even five or ten years in your mind. Is that dreaded event still impacting your life? Has it made you permanently unhappy, restricted your options, or blown your bank account? In most instances, the answer will be no. In fact, in six months or a year, the thing you fear probably won’t even be on your radar anymore. (And if it is, figure out what you can do now to prevent it or minimize its impact.) “Traveling to the future” is a great tool for putting negative expectations into context…and more importantly, out of your mind!

*Write it out. Our anxieties can often seem bigger and scarier the longer we allow them to float around in our heads. The remedy? Sit down and write out the things that you are afraid of. As you do, consider each one. Where does this worry come from? Is it internal or is it from an outside source? Is it likely to happen? How will it impact me if it does?

Sometimes the simple act of putting pen to paper can help you to break the vicious cycle of mental worrying. It helps me to make the things I dread seem less overwhelming and more manageable. I recommend recording your fears in a format you can revisit, such as a journal or saved computer document. Once the crisis has passed (or failed to happen), look back at what you wrote and compare your expectations to what actually occurred. This will help you to hone an increasingly balanced perspective as you move into the future.

If there’s one thing my quest to find happiness has taught me, it’s that things really do have a way of working out. It can be hard to accept that truth and choose to let go of your worrying, especially if it’s a long-standing habit. But I promise, when you learn to manage your mind by taking the focus off your fears and by being more productive in the present moment, your life will be so much healthier and happier.

How Not to Expect the Worst: Part One

In my last post, I talked about a problem that plagues a whole lot of us: constantly expecting the worst. Instead of feeling hopeful, optimistic, or even neutral about the future, we assume that bad things are going to happen.

  • Your husband has been coming home late from work all week? He’s having an affair with a coworker!
  • Your family is preparing for a move? You just know that half of your dishes are going to get broken…and the movers will probably scratch up your antique pie safe, too.
  • Your boss is putting together a “dream team” to woo a big client? She’ll pick your showboating coworker, even though you’re better qualified.

Enough examples—you know what I’m talking about. And if you read my last post, you also know that expecting the worst is detrimental to your emotional, mental, and even physical health. Here are six ways to help yourself break this bad habit:

*Acknowledge how busy people are. When you don’t see results or receive a response from someone else in (what you think should be) a timely manner, it’s easy to get upset and jump to the worst possible conclusion. He doesn’t want to work with me. She isn’t interested in going out on another date. I didn’t get the job. And so on and so forth. But wait a second. Maybe the current radio silence doesn’t mean “no”—it might simply mean that the other person is busy.

The next time you’re waiting on a response and find yourself worrying, think through your own schedule and remind yourself how busy you often are. In this day and age, almost everybody is overscheduled and overstressed. Maybe the other person hasn’t had time to decide, your suggestion dropped off their immediate radar, or they haven’t read your email yet. No news doesn’t necessarily mean bad news—it just may mean the other person has a lot to do!

*Stay busy yourself. You can’t always control how long you have to wait on an outcome, or even what that outcome is. But you can control how you wait. As I see it, you can torture yourself by dwelling on negative possibilities…or you can distract yourself by staying focused on and engaged in other things. Preferably, occupy yourself with tasks that use your strengths and that will bolster your positive attitude and self-esteem. Whatever you do, don’t torture yourself by sitting by the phone or computer while you fret! Watching the metaphorical pot won’t make it boil any faster. All you’re accomplishing is worsening your own mood and mental state.

*Take a dose of muscle medicine…or meditate! Have you ever heard of “a runner’s high”? It’s a real feeling—and it can help you to stop expecting the worst. That’s because exercise releases endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Endorphins also decrease the amount of stress hormones—like cortisol—in your body. In fact, various studies have shown that exercise can be just as effective as taking prescription antidepressant medications…without the potential side effects. In other words, pumping iron or going on a run can literally melt away some of your apprehension.

If you’re familiar with my message, you know that I’m a longtime proponent of exercise because it makes you feel more powerful, relaxes you, and enables you to sleep better, all of which can help you to worry less. I always head to the gym whenever I can’t shake a particular worry. After my workout, I feel much more at peace, and sometimes, my unconscious mind even “solves” my problem by coming up with a new idea or a more balanced perspective while my body has been occupied with vigorous activity. If you don’t have an hour or so to devote to concentrated exercise, simply get outside and walk around the block a few times—it can still effectively change your mood.

I also recommend meditating when you’re fixated on a negative possibility. You might be surprised to learn that meditation can actually spark positive changes in your brain’s biochemistry. I used to think exercise and antidepressants were the only two things that could accomplish this! I can tell you from recent personal experience that meditation can help you deal more effectively with stress, lower your blood pressure, help you to feel content, and make you more mindful in the present moment…all of which are helpful tools when it comes to not worrying so much about the future.

*Take steps toward a solution. When you find yourself expecting a particular negative event (however likely or unlikely it might be), ask yourself if there is anything you can do to prepare for or even prevent it. In many cases, you’ll be able to take concrete steps toward a solution. Not only will you be keeping yourself busy, you’ll also be moving from helplessness to empowerment.

To use a work analogy, imagine that you’ve heard rumors that your company will be downsizing. Your worst expectation is that you’ll be laid off. Instead of fretting every day about losing your job, take steps to make yourself more valuable. Ask for feedback from your boss and incorporate her suggestions into your work. Always go the extra mile. Help your colleagues to succeed and improve. Take continuing education classes, if possible. All of these actions will distract you from worrying, and hopefully, they’ll highlight to your supervisors just how essential you are. And if you are laid off, you’ll have made yourself into a more valuable candidate for another organization to hire.

*Phone a friend. This “lifeline” can really help! The next time you catch yourself ruminating on just how bad things are going to get, pick up the phone and call someone you trust: your spouse or a friend, for example. Specifically, ask this person to help you think of several alternative outcomes (which, by definition, can’t be as bad as the worst-case scenario you were envisioning). A more neutral third party will have more perspective and will probably find it much easier to come up with not-as-bad, and even good, alternatives to help you stop thinking in extremes.

When you expect the worst, you’re essentially discounting thousands of other possibilities that could occur. In other words, you’re mentally thinking in black and white. But the truth is, life is made up of many shades of color. Asking a friend to help you see more of those shades will talk you down from the emotional ledge you’re standing on and will help to break you out of your mental rut.

*Retrain yourself to look for the positive. Numerous positive thinking masters and even scientists agree: The things you think about and center your attention on shape the way you experience life. In other words, if your focus is on all of the horrible, negative, crippling things that might happen to you in the future, you’ll be calling more of them into your life. How? You’re engaging in self-sabotage. Your fears will hold you back, and your low self-esteem will prevent you from developing yourself and taking risks. At the very least, you’ll be so fixated on the worst possibilities that you might miss positive opportunities that are right under your nose.

Some people call this the law of attraction. But whatever you want to call it, I know from experience that if you train yourself to look for the positive, you’ll attract more positive things into your life. You’ll be happier, friendlier, kinder, and more optimistic…and that will bring better people and better opportunities into your orbit.

One of the best ways I’ve found to help myself focus more on the positive is by developing an attitude of gratitude. (Again, if you’re familiar with me, this advice won’t come as a surprise!) When you’re actively being thankful for things in your life, it’s harder to let yourself spiral downward into negativity and have a doomsday mindset about what’s to come. Every evening, I look back on my day and identify several things I am thankful for. If something bad or disappointing happened that day—or if I’m worried about something in the future—I challenge myself to find the silver lining. For example, if I didn’t get a speaking engagement I was hoping for, I remind myself that I won’t have to spend that evening or weekend away from my family.

Without a doubt, these six tools have helped me to retrain my brain to look for the positive when I consider the future. This week, if you find yourself dwelling on a doomsday scenario—no matter how large or small it may be—try to employ one of these tactics to help yourself let go of your bad expectations and refocus yourself on the here and now. And stay tuned—to close out this topic, I’m going to share my last six how-not-to-expect-the-worst tips in my next post!

Not-So-Great Expectations

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of Hell, a hell of Heaven.”

—John Milton

Have you ever noticed that people often expect things to go badly? Without any conscious prompting, our minds automatically jump to and fixate on the worst possible scenarios. Consider the following two examples and see if either of them sounds familiar:

  • It’s 2 p.m., and your boss still hasn’t responded to the report you sent him this morning. As you check your email obsessively, you conclude that you haven’t received any feedback because the report is terrible and your boss can’t use it. (What really happened: Your boss’s noon call ran unexpectedly long and he hasn’t had a chance to finish reading the report—but he’s pleased so far!)
  • Your spouse has seemed distant the past few days, is being secretive, and is evading your questions. You’re consumed by the thought that he is involved with someone else and is thinking of leaving you. (What really happened: Your fifteenth anniversary is only a month away, and your spouse is trying to plan a surprise getaway without alerting you.)

Recently, something similar happened to me. Working to collaborate with a well-respected professional, I put together a packet of my materials, mailed it, and waited for a response that I expected to be forthcoming in a day or two. By the time nine days had passed with no response, I was completely convinced that this individual was thoroughly unimpressed with my work and had absolutely no desire to be associated with me. This assumption caused me a ton of distress and anxiety, and prevented me from truly enjoying a weekend spent with my family.

Imagine my (very pleasant!) surprise when I received word that my negative conclusion had been incorrect: This person was excited about the materials I had sent and would love to work with me. His recent schedule had simply been packed, and he hadn’t had a chance to immediately look at what I had sent—hence the delayed response. I immediately realized how shortsighted and unhealthy my reaction had been. I resolved anew not to allow myself to waste time I can never get back by wrongly assuming the worst!

The fact is, we all do this sometimes. We all put ourselves through large amounts of stress, anxiety, and mental anguish because we dwell on negative possibilities that aren’t actually happening! It’s a case of an overactive imagination being used for ill, not good. We would save ourselves a lot of suffering if we could stop our minds from dwelling on the most horrible “what ifs” we can come up with.

Clearly, when we expect the worst, we don’t do ourselves any favors. So why do we persist in this unhelpful mental habit? For one thing, I think, expecting the worst is a way to cushion ourselves emotionally—we’re trying to soften the blow if things go wrong. Think of the popular saying, If you expect the worst, you’ll never be disappointed.

Expecting the worst can also be a symptom of a generally pessimistic, glass half-empty attitude. And some people expect the worst because it often happens to them. They’re caught in a self-fulfilling prophecy cycle of negativity—they don’t even try to make positive outcomes happen anymore.

Before I started my happiness journey, I used to be a master of dwelling on what could go wrong, how I might screw up, and how circumstances could conspire against me. (And, as the story I shared above shows, I still find myself getting caught in this mental trap from time to time, as we all do!) If you’re familiar with my story, you know that I paid a high price for my negative mental habits: a complete lack of peace, an inability to enjoy the present moment, high levels of stress and anxiety, difficulty experiencing quality rest, and more. Constantly expecting the worst can also take a toll on your relationships, your ability to trust and collaborate with others, and even your physical health.

When it comes to thinking about the future, positive thinking is definitely the better and healthier path. Over the years, I have learned a number of tactics that can help you to stop fixating on the worst possibilities your brain can come up with.

As with all major life changes, this shift in thinking will take time. And as my recent experience with anxiously waiting on a response shows, it’s something you’ll need to continuously work on. (When you do slip up and allow a negative outlook to take over, don’t beat yourself up—nobody is perfect! Instead, look for the lesson.) But I promise you, when you make a genuine effort to conquer the suspicion, fear, and worries that are driving you to expect the worst, you’ll become noticeably happier.

In the coming weeks, I will share my tactics to help you stop expecting the worst, including the lesson I learned when I jumped to conclusions after not hearing back from the person with whom I wanted to collaborate. Stay tuned!

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.