- Expect change. Strive to live life on life’s terms, not your own. That means not throwing an emotional tantrum when you’re thrown a curve ball. Nothing lasts forever; when we expect it to, we greatly increase our opportunities for suffering. Don’t’ make disappointments a bigger deal than they actually are. (Therapists sometimes call this “catastrophizing.”) Take a deep breath. Relax. Follow travel guru Rick Steves’ advice: “If you’re traveling and you don’t get what you want, then change what you want.” Good counsel, even if you’re at home.
- Lovingkindness begins at home. Watch your stress level and take healthy action if you find yourself spinning out of control. If you’re facing a difficult situation ask yourself how you would talk to your best friend if he or she was in this situation. Can you be patient with yourself? Can you talk supportively to yourself, acknowledging progress even when efforts fail, or encouraging yourself rather than engaging in self-criticism?
- How do you make a difference in the world? Life isn’t all about us. When you engage your friends, support colleagues and coworkers, join advocacy or volunteer groups, you break down patterns of isolation and helplessness. You help make things better.
- Don’t wait too long to get help. Many people spend months or longer contemplating help for emotional or relational problems before reaching out to talk to a therapist or counselor. Sometimes that allows problems to fester and worsen; almost always it means unnecessary suffering instead of working to make things better. If I can be of help, please contact me.
Most of us probably have a mix of feelings. There is a sense of reflection over the past year – our accomplishments, disappointments, the changes the old year brought our way. We’re curious about what comes next. Perhaps we feel a sense of hope. Perhaps that hope is tempered by a sense of inertia in our lives, an awareness of how difficult it can be to truly create change.
If your life feels really off-track you may find yourself ready for the New Year to truly turn things upside down. Many of us long for something different – evolution rather than revolution. With the passage of each year I have become more interested in the question “What does it take to have a good life?” Is my life moving in a direction that works for me, or are course corrections needed? Here are some suggestions:
- Take care of the basics: health, relationships, financial well-being. New Years’ resolutions to lose weight and work out more are often exercises in futility, particularly if these changes come from a place of perfectionism. Instead, why not think of one or two changes you can make that would improve your physical health? If you smoke, that’s the place to start; smoke less, or stop all together. Drink too much? How about cutting the amount you consume in half? Take the stairs. Walk more. The goal isn’t necessarily muscles. If you haven’t had a physical or a dental exam in years, go ahead and schedule one. The goal is to take care of your body so you can live longer and healthier.
- Physical health is another place to set realistic goals. Still smoking? The single best way to improve your health is to stop. With this and other goals, be mindful that perfectionism is your enemy. If you can’t stop smoking, start by at least cutting back. Similarly, adding a bit of physical exercise may be a more realistic goal for some people than getting all buff by springtime. Think of little changes you can make that will increase your well-being, and focus on implementing those rather than being overwhelmed by the changes you may feel you need to make. And remember that exercise is good for emotional fitness as well as your physical health.
- If you’re in a committed relationship, what are one or two things you could do that would strengthen it? You might try acknowledging and appreciating your partner more frequently. Or give up hoping your partner will learn to read your mind and instead ask for what you want. Look at whether you have habits – particularly around work or the ways you use technology – that might be getting in the way. Make your partner more of a priority.
- Money doesn’t buy happiness, but taking care of your financial life certainly can reduce the level of stress you live with day in, day out. Think about getting rich slowly. A realistic plan to reduce your debt, increase your savings and save for retirement will help bring you peace of mind. The key word is realistic; unless you suddenly inherit a lot of money or find yourself in a new job that pays you much more money, increasing your financial health takes time and patience.
- Watch what you say when you’re talking to yourself. We all hear voices, and the loudest of those voices often belongs to our internal critic. The critic is relentless and never gives you a break. “Why bother? This won’t work,” “You’ll always be fat and broke,” “He doesn’t really love you.” I’ve written in more detail about this elsewhere. If you find yourself hearing these voices, try asking the voice a few questions: “Am I sure?” “How do I know that’s true?” are good places to start. A good therapist will help you learn how your mind works and how to maintain your emotional health through mindfulness.
Why do conditions like depression and anxiety – and troubled relationships, often – cause us such intense suffering? We find ourselves feeling trapped and helpless, unable to pull ourselves out a spiral that feels miserable and beyond our power to change.
A recent article suggests that it is the obsessive focus on ourselves that leads to the suffering caused by many psychological problems. We not only suffer – we keep ourselves focused on our suffering until we are quite literally lost in our thoughts and beyond the reach of the outside world. It really becomes a sort of negative narcissism, doesn’t it?
What to do? The key is to break the obsessive self-focus; to pay attention to the outside world. We can do this by noticing the world around us (particularly people) and choosing to pay attention. Our minds will wander back to our ruminations. That’s OK; notice, forgive yourself and return your attention to the world outside yourself.
Buddhist practice offers us a particular way of doing this called mettta meditation, the practice of extending loving-kindness to those around us. How to do this? A great place to start is this blog from a gay man who recommends meditation where we are, when we are – using the example of spending time in a sleazy bar. Notice those around you, starting with those in your field of vision. Open your heart. Wish them well:
- May you be happy.
- May you be healed.
- May you be safe.
Moving our focus from our own fears, judgments, addictions to consciously sending awareness, concern and love to others has the paradoxical effect of freeing us from our own suffering.
A great companion to meditation – particularly for those who really want to liberate themselves from psychological dysfunction – is action. It may seem counter-intuitive to reach out to help others when what we most intensely desire is for someone to see and reach out to us, when we feel we have no energy to spare. Check this out:
To say this is kind of simple is not to say that this is easy (especially getting started). A key component is cultivating compassion and loving-kindness for ourselves, and too often we torture and abuse ourselves instead. If the focus is only on loving others and we fail to include ourselves among those deserving of compassion, this just becomes an exercise in codependency. But nurturing ourselves cannot really be separated from concern for others.Read More
I work with many individuals struggling with depression; I’ve never met anyone excited about taking anti-depressants. Most of us don’t like the idea of adding a pill to our daily routine, despite the ads that tout them as miracle cures. They often have side effects, including sexual ones (though modern prescribing practice can often minimize them). And for many people, the idea of taking medication instead of addressing the issues causing their life problems just doesn’t feel right.
A recent article on The Atlantic’s website (For Depression, Prescribing Exercise Before Medication) explores exercise as a first option in improving depression. Noting that 25% of all Americans are affected by depression, the article describes one man’s struggle this way:
Joel Ginsberg was a sophomore at a college in Dallas when the social anxiety he had felt throughout his life morphed into an all-consuming hopelessness. He struggled to get out of bed, and even the simplest tasks felt herculean.
“The world lost its color,” he told me. “Nothing interested me; I didn’t have any motivation. There was a lot of self-doubt.”
He thought getting some exercise might help, but it was hard to motivate himself to go to the campus gym.
“So what I did is break it down into mini-steps,” he said. “I would think about just getting to the gym, rather than going for 30 minutes. Once I was at the gym, I would say, ‘I’m just going to get on the treadmill for five minutes.’”
“The world lost its color,” he told me. “Nothing interested me.”
Eventually, he found himself reading novels for long stretches at a time while pedaling away on a stationary bike. Soon, his gym visits became daily. If he skipped one day, his mood would plummet the next.
“It was kind of like a boost,” he said, recalling how exercise helped him break out of his inertia. “It was a shift in mindset that kind of got me over the hump.”
Easing depression is a challenge – doing the things that will make you feel better are made more difficult by the depression itself. That’s especially true with exercise, which requires consistent effort to produce change. Effective living sometimes requires us to act differently than we feel, and exercise-to-manage-depression is a prime example. The article goes on to recommend 3 to 5 sessions of aerobic exercise each week, which requires commitment.
Medication helps many people suffering from depression, but effective management often requires a combination of psychotherapy and lifestyle changes. Life is too short to live under the wet-blanket of unhappiness when alternatives exist.Read More
According to Joe.My.God., this short film has played in 50 film festivals. I thought it perfectly captured a bit of the experience of coming out as an adolescent. It brought back lots of memories, even for those of us who grew up Protestant!