Category: Personal Growth

Good Enough

Good Enough

I once had a colleague named Bethany who, unbeknownst to her, had a profound impact on my life. She was constantly on the go at the therapy clinic where we both treated clients. Not only did she see patients, but she would help manage the daily operations of the agency, supervised interns, provided Spanish translation for other therapists in their sessions, and (most impressively) always had her paperwork done on time. As if that wasn’t enough, this dizzyingly productive woman was also somehow able to sustain a happy marriage and remain highly involved in the lives of her three children—the youngest of which was born with special needs. She always found ways to eat healthy, stay fit, and was unflinchingly pleasant to interact with. In short, if you looked at her birth certificate, you’ll notice the correct pronunciation of her middle name is “Overachiever.”

I recall one afternoon I was eating lunch in the staff kitchen when Bethany, per usual, flew in like the breeze to assemble her salad. She said hello and made small talk, always taking the time to chat and be congenial with everyone despite her perpetually hurried demeanor. It was impossible not to envy her seemingly innate capacity for being, delicately put, on top of her shit, and in that moment I felt compelled to ask her how she does it. How she was capable of getting so much done, pushing forward, finding balance, and not drowning in a sea of overwhelming responsibilities. She chuckled at the question, assured me that behind the scenes she had plenty of her own emotional struggles, and offered a poignant reply that has stuck with me ever since. She said, “It’s hard to say, but I guess you learn to live with things being good enough.” 

Over the years since working with Bethany I have given the idea of “good enough” a lot of thought, both as it relates to myself and the people I treat in therapy—specifically those struggling with chronic emotional distress (CED for short). Through my work I began to see how the good enough philosophy could help these individuals that were crumbling under the weight of their intense emotional cycles. They would describe frequent debilitating episodes impeding their ability to live their lives; episodes fuelled by all manner of problematic coping behaviors like: non-stop worry, toxic self criticism, comparison bias, and chronic shame.    

For those of us living with CED, existing in a virtually unrelenting state of “not being okay” becomes the norm as we wrestle with the daily, sometimes hourly, guessing game of which emotions will be triggered, how badly, and for how long. The collateral damage that results from the need to constantly put out these emotional fires is often extensive. The biggest casualty by far being time. People spend so much time dealing with their internal challenges that their external interests—maintaining friendships, achieving goals, connecting with family—suffer from severe neglect. 

After enduring years of life in chronic turmoil, it’s impossible not to envy those who appear to be above it all—just as I did with Bethany. However, she quickly reminded me that assuming anyone has it all figured out is a fallacy, and that she struggles just like the rest of us. This fact initially bothered me because I grew more envious that she too experienced regular emotional challenges, but had found the secret to beating it—and I hadn’t. But later, during one of those rare moments of mental clarity, I came to a comforting realization: she actually hadn’t beaten it, she merely learned to manage it. Bethany’s emotional challenges never ceased to be a fixture in her life, she just taught herself to function in spite of them. 

So how was she able to do it? Was it through some new breathing technique or life-hack? Did she learn to cope with feeling overwhelmed, doubtful, even angry or depressed through sheer tyranny of will? In truth, none of the above. She simply made a choice. Bethany made a conscious decision to adopt a more useful perspective on life: live with good enough—a mantra that served her well because she reinforced it every day. Its power was in the permission it gave her to stop chasing the illusion of perfect, blissful happiness and to embrace what is. Ironically, this idea actually allowed her to find happiness. 

Perhaps this was possible because Bethany’s philosophy of good enough focuses on valuing stability over achieving happiness. Such a notion is vital to people struggling with chronic emotional distress because of our common belief that those who aren’t emotionally afflicted are living happier lives. We envy the apparent absence of emotional pain, and call it happiness. Yet, working from this assumption consistently leaves us feeling broken and inept, like happiness was something they taught in school and we were all somehow sick that day. It never quite feels achievable. Therefore, I would argue that what the CED afflicted are truly after is a degree of control. In essence, emotional stability—embodied by the confidence of knowing that whatever stressors may come, we can handle it well enough that we don’t completely fall apart. Developing this ability to trust ourselves allows us to push through episodes of emotional distress such that we can live our lives proactively rather than reactively. And it is unquestionably this constant battle with our own emotional reactivity that exhausts and consumes us. 

To begin trusting ourselves to appropriately handle our mood states, we must first examine our perspective when we are struggling “in the moment.” In the midst of heightened emotional distress, our body systems flood with stress hormones, our minds clutter themselves with anxious, rageful, and depressive thoughts, and we become acutely aware that we are “not okay.” Self preservation instincts alert us that we must find a way to be okay and bring our systems back to normal functioning quickly. We often heed these internal warnings with urgency and without question, however this cycle feeds our sense of instability and lack of self control. What we consistently don’t realize is that we can partially ignore our internal cues to fix ourselves and find ways to be okay when we’re not okay. The good enough perspective, in moments of acute distress, means accepting our current emotional discomfort rather than scrambling to erase it. Our emotions, however painful, are not inherently lethal, they cannot claim us—though they often feel as if they can. We have to encode the idea that we can endure them. 

Building stability when we are not necessarily in moments of distress is primarily a matter of embracing and accepting our limitations rather than catering to personal expectations. It boils down to the level of kindness and patience we show ourselves. When we fail to meet an internalized expectation, whether we are aware we hold ourselves to this standard or not, we get angry, often depressed, and we punish our shortcomings in unspeakable ways. Our intention here is not masochism, but an effort to teach ourselves the consequences of failure. Consider the implications of this system of self-correction. If we were to mentor a child in the same manner, and inflict shame every time she failed to meet an expectation, that child would only know fear and self doubt whenever posed with a challenge. The result would likely be that she avoids risk out of fear of failure, while simultaneously shaming herself for being cowardly. However, if we were to approach the child with patience, understanding, and compassion when a mistake is made, she would be far less likely to fear taking risks, and would emotionally rebound more quickly. 

So why do we reserve these appropriate levels of empathy only for others and not ourselves? If only there was a philosophy that could change our perspective…    

Good enough teaches us to turn this much needed compassion inward by exercising understanding and allowing us to establish internal boundaries. Without a firm set of internal boundaries—standards for compassionately managing self-imposed expectations—those battling CED can easily fall victim to rampant self-criticism and the resultant emotional despair. With strong internal boundaries we can learn to set limits on our inner critic and identify how much self examination is useful toward personal growth, and when it exceeds these limits and moves into the realm of being toxic or shaming. These boundaries also help us to feel confident in how much effort is “good enough” without succumbing to crippling doubt. We can use them to define what success means to us instead of yielding the definition to the approval of others. And perhaps most importantly, we can begin embracing our messy parts and incorporating them into our own unique self concept rather than trying to achieve an impossible social standard of perfection. 

Interestingly, even after a rousing pep-talk about self love, setting boundaries, and embracing limitations, people consistently lament and reject the parts of themselves they consider undesirable: lack of passion, heightened emotionality, physical disabilities, cognitive challenges, etc…It’s not my goal to attempt to put a positive spin on these aspects of humanity. Some things serve no hidden purpose but to torment us. Unfortunately, we tend to highlight these obstacles as the qualities that define our value and our identity. We often pity ourselves or curse fate for marking us as “damaged.” Good enough helps us to shift this imbalance. With it our focus can move away from our flaws and toward what we can achieve despite our flaws. I strongly believe that this is the power Bethany discovered for herself. She cultivated resistance to being preoccupied with her own shortcomings, refused to let them define her capabilities, and the result was transcendent and inspiring. 

Today I try to live by Bethany’s philosophy of good enough and to pass it on whenever I can. It has helped me to embrace my own flaws and to re-write my perspective on life. Getting through moments of chronic emotional distress can still pose a challenge, but as I come closer to that hallowed stability, finding happiness becomes gradually easier. And should others choose to give this philosophy a legitimate try I believe they won’t be disappointed. For those struggling to find their own answers, and tired of battling themselves, I offer this bit of advice: Don’t waste your time fighting against what’s within you, find a way to harness it, because what’s within you IS you, and it’s undoubtedly good enough.

Avoiding Avoidance

Avoiding Avoidance

We all know this feeling very well. There’s something important we have to do. It often literally needs to get done, but we don’t do it. We put it off—and find increasingly creative ways to rationalize avoiding what’s necessary. It happens all the time. Preparing that presentation for work, writing that 12-page term paper for class, having that awkward conversation about boundaries with your in-laws, asking for that raise you deserve. We even avoid asking for help when we know we need it the most. 

Procrastination is often the fun, trendy way to describe this behavior. It sums up the idea of avoidance nicely, but personally, I’m not a fan. I think that term: procrastination has grown heavily stigmatized in our culture, conjuring images of lazy, indulgent, apathetic, unambitious people. In my opinion this couldn’t be farther from the truth. While those prone to avoid often revert to habits of indifference, indulgence, and sloth-like behavior, these are actually the byproducts of the real reason we avoid. This is an important distinction to make. Too often we pass harsh judgment on ourselves for avoiding responsibilities, a nasty habit which compounds the issue and ends up reinforcing the cycle of avoidance. In this article I aim to shed light on why we avoid, how we avoid, and most importantly, what we can do about it. 

You’re Not Lazy, You’re Anxious

I’m a writer. That is to say, I write when I can. Which, in turn, is how I rationalize not writing when I don’t feel motivated. I could write far more often, but I don’t. I creatively avoid and have gotten quite good at it. And I recently figured out why.

Whenever I would sit down to write, my first reaction was always a visceral one. My head would begin to throb at the base of my skull, I would grow tired, feel bored—and all this would happen within the first two minutes! Suddenly, I become irritable and my mind wanders as my eyes surveyed the room, taking in all the distractions. Clearly I wouldn’t have the best mindset to do some creative writing. Realizing that I could hardly expect myself to be productive in such a state, I would resolve to get up and go do something else for a bit until I felt inspired to write. Some of my greatest hits included: cleaning the apartment, hitting the gym, gaming, walking my dogs, basically anything that felt fun, productive, or distracted me from the frustration that accompanied my “literary constipation.” I would even resort to throwing my own personal pity parties, because nothing gives you license to avoid quite like suffering. 

After clearing my head via one of the aforementioned “mental laxatives,” I often felt better, and would take another crack at writing. But when I sat back down and opened my computer, my headache, irritation, and distractibility were waiting for me. Such avoidance has been a pattern of mine for many years. It has led to self-loathing, anger, bouts of depression, conflict with family over the realities of being a writer, and heaps of anxiety. I would tell myself that I’m lazy, that I don’t wantthis badly enough to be a writer, that I’m not cut out for this type of work. And every little bit of me believed it. 

It was all a lie…Here is what I learned.

For me, when I sat down to write, the first thing that would happen—even before the headaches—was a flood of instantaneous anxious thoughts (called automatic thoughts in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). These insidious little buggers would infect my mind, triggering anxiety, convincing my brain that certain motivation-sapping ideas were true. I’m not smart enough to be a writer. I’m a hack. I’m pretending. This piece has to be ground-breaking. Everything is riding on it. Then cue the headache, frustration, and subsequent avoidance. This routine happened with such regularity that the very act of writing, something I truly enjoy, quickly became strongly associated with anxiety. 

Odds are that if you are avoiding something, it’s because the idea of confronting that task brings you significant anxiety—even if you aren’t aware of it. You don’t have to feel afraid of something in order for anxiety to be the reason you avoid it. This is a common misconception. Often times we are not afraid of the activity itself, but rather we are afraid of the anxiety or stress we anticipate feeling when doing it. Prolonged avoidance inflates the stressor into something we believe we cannot cope with, and as a result we develop complex means of adaptation. In fact, we get so good at sidestepping these crushing emotions that we even find forms of avoidance that don’t feel like avoidance. 

For instance, are you prone toward self-sabotage? Do you make decisions that tend to torpedo your ability to tackle something you’re avoiding? When it becomes a pattern, you just might be craftily avoidant. Sometimes we lean on excuses—I stayed out late last night, so I need to cancel that uncomfortable brunch with my mom that I’ve known about all week.Other times we trick ourselves into believing we are avoidant for one reason, when really it’s about something else entirely. A common example is when we avoid trying because we tell ourselves we are afraid of failing, when we are actually more afraid of succeeding. After experiencing enough consistent failures in our lives we refuse to try because we believe history will repeat itself. Yet, if we take a close enough look at those former attempts, there is likely a trail of self-sabotaging behavior at strategic points along the way. Why? Because we know what it feels like to fail. It’s terrible and disappointing, but it’s familiar. What we don’t know is what it’s like to really succeed. And that unknown feeling scares us to death. Our anxiety mounts as we doubt our ability to handle success and fear we won’t be able to maintain higher expectations of ourselves. So in an effort to avoid the discomfort of the unknown, we unconsciously ensure failure through sabotage.  

It bears mentioning that there are other factors to rule-out when considering whether or not we are genuinely avoiding responsibilities. Exhaustion after a long day at work, or a huge fight with a significant other can easily deny us the energy and motivation to carry out necessary tasks. However, these factors do not constitute avoidant behavior because they are largely circumstantial. If you are unable to make progress on a personal project because you come home chronically fatigued from work, you’re not necessarily being avoidant. More likely, you have prioritized work over the project and need to rearrange your schedule to accommodate both. Simply put, avoidance doesn’t mean shirking your duties simply because you don’t “feel like it.” Truly avoidant tendencies are those which occur even under ideal conditions, and are representative of a larger inner conflict between intention and execution. 

Here is an example:

David is a Junior in high school. He has a history test tomorrow that he’s known about for several weeks. Though he actually likes history class, David hasn’t studied for his exam until tonight. Instead, night after night, he avoids studying and opts to play Fortnite or something, much to his parents’ chagrin. If you ask David, he doesn’t like studying because it’s boring, annoying, and he would rather be doing anything else. 

As a client of mine, I learned that David has anxiety that he hides extremely well. On the surface he is a popular, sociable, athletic kid with a great sense of humor. But underneath all that good stuff, David is extremely insecure. Certain aspects of school make him feel stupid. Studying overwhelms and frustrates him. Whenever he tries to prep for an exam he doesn’t know where to start and when to end. He gets confused about what information will be on the test, feeling the sudden panic to memorize everything in case there is a question about something he forgot. In his mind, he can’t ask his parents for help because that’s lame and he doesn’t want to invite a lecture about procrastination. He can’t ask his friends for help because he’s convinced they care about school even less than he does. Pretty soon David’s brain is so flooded with racing thoughts, doubts, and “what if’s” that he’s not even absorbing what he’s reading. His mental energy is so tapped-out that fatigue and frustration settle in. Thankfully, here comes Captain Avoidance ready to rescue David from academic torture:

CAPTAIN AVOIDANCE: David, my good man, I do say this feeling sucks! I’m sure you would love to escape it. 

DAVIDYeah, but the test is tomorrow and it’s worth a big chunk of my grade.

CAPTAIN AVOIDANCEIndeed, however you clearly can’t handle this much frustration right now. I suggest a video game break followed by a lengthy YouTube session. Surely that will recharge your batteries! And you will still have some time before bed when you can finish studying. 

DAVID: Sounds good to me. 

As you can imagine, David never gets to studying. He bombs the history exam in spectacular fashion, along with a bunch of others that semester. What follows is the typical adult reaction. Teachers meet with his parents, David gets labelled as “unmotivated,” video games get blamed, David gets grounded and a fun lecture about responsibility, which causes him to get pissed and act out. Then he winds up in my office. 

What we can glean from David’s struggle with avoidance is a better understanding of how powerful our emotions can be, and just how difficult it can be to sit with them. Research shows that the human brain registers emotional pain in nearly the same way it does physical pain. This makes it hard for us to fight our baser instincts to avoid. As children, most of us have that joyous experience of touching a hot stove for the first time. We learn pretty quickly to steer clear of the coils when they’re glowing red. But by that same token, when we experience loss for the first time, or rejection, or embarrassment, it only makes sense to do what we can to avoid those hot emotional stoves too. This is why avoidance is so common. We have to unlearn a fundamental, biological survival instinct—avoid what hurts. 

Compound Interest

When we adopt a pattern of avoidance, an interesting process occurs. Our efforts to eliminate frustration and anxiety by avoiding what’s necessary causes us to experience—you guessed it—frustration and anxiety. Think about it. Let’s say you didn’t file your tax return this year because taxes are beyond complicated, math isn’t your strong suit, and there is little margin for error in calculating what you owe. Anxiety drops like a sledgehammer, and so begins the avoidance. Little short-term vacations to take your mind off the mental turmoil that occurs every time you even contemplate tackling your 1040 (whatever that is). But the feeling never goes away. The anxiety lingers in the back of your mind constantly. You find yourself both exhausted as more and more distractions are needed to block the discomfort, and irritable as they gradually lose their effectiveness. Eventually, the awareness of just how avoidant you have become is apparent, and shame pays you a visit. Fun thoughts like: What is wrong with me? and Why can’t I get it together?become increasingly frequent. 

Before long, our avoidance and anxiety become a cycle that compounds upon itself. We avoid a task because it brings us stress and anxiety, but then we stress about how much we avoid, so we need to avoid the stress of being stressed about avoiding, and so on…The cycle becomes self sustaining, and increasingly difficult to break. 

One simple truth I have discovered is that the longer we avoid something, the harder it is to confront. The more we avoid, the more we are telling ourselves that we can’t handle dealing with our problems. And, like anything else, the more we tell ourselves something, the more we tend to believe it. Since thought patterns and perception of the world formulate human self-concept, we come to take ownership of our destructive habits and identify as an avoider. Now that we have established the pattern of dodging responsibility as a fundamental part of who we are, avoidant behavior feels (on an unconscious level) like we are being true to ourselves. Conversely, efforts we make to actually break the cycle of avoidance registers as false, uncomfortable, and therefore wrong. 

Okay, We Get it. So Now What?

Breaking a long-term pattern of avoidance is a lot like trying to quit smoking. It’s going to suck, you’re probably going to feel off your game, and you’re really, REALLY going to want to reach for your crutch. I tell you this not to scare you off or make you believe overcoming avoidant behavior is impossible, but to help create a mental framework for the task ahead. Allow me to explain. 

If you’re anything like me, you have been avoiding stressful challenges for the better part of your life. Of course, this may not always be the case. There are probably times when you embraced adversity head-on, but the BIG challenges, the ones that emerge from our deepest insecurities, often remain unaddressed and avoided. Unlearning a behavior that has become so ingrained it feels natural is like training your brain to see the sky as purple. It’s going to take a lot of convincing and constant reminders. 

Here are the three key concepts to affecting real and lasting change when it comes to avoidance.

  • Reason
  • Action
  • Reaction

Reason

Why do you want to do this? What makes learning to overcome avoidance so important to you? Why subject yourself to all the hellish behavioral rigor I cryptically mentioned earlier? “Why” is the essence of motivation and therefore the reason we endeavor to do anything. Simply put, we need a good enough reason to fight for something. Otherwise we will almost certainly lose momentum along the way when it gets hard.

Imagine deciding to quit smoking, or to lose 50 lbs. without a meaningful reason to do so. It may be easy at first because the personal challenge is new and exciting—I’m taking control of my life! But when the shine wears off, there is little to stop us from lighting up or speed-dialing Dominos. But if someone chose to stop smoking because she got winded two minutes into a hike with her spouse, or a man chose to lose weight to stave off diabetes and live longer to see his daughter graduate college, then that person stands a far better chance of succeeding. 

Finding the whyin something we strive for is that all-important first step toward lasting change. The why becomes a mantra we tell ourselves when we want to give up. It refocuses our efforts toward the mission at hand, filling us with renewed purpose. Coming up with a good enough why will make it possible to endure what comes next. 

Action

Lean into the fear. Do the thing you’re avoiding most. Don’t worry, we will deal with your emotional resistance when it comes up. You may be asking yourself: Why not psych myself up first to get in the right headspace to THEN take action? Well I’ll tell you. Because there is too great a chance that during the “psych-up” process you will find and rationalize a reason NOT to take action toward the thing you’re avoiding. Remember, we’ve gotten very adept at finding loopholes through which we can avoid what’s necessary. 

We cannot risk taking action by spending too much time in our heads. In addition to weaseling our way out of dealing with our problems, who needs the added pressure of hyping up the changes we plan to make? In these moments we tend to set unrealistic expectations for ourselves—Okay, I’m REALLY gonna do it this time. I’ve spent my whole life avoiding, but starting today I avoid no longer! That is a tall order to fill, compadre! And if you’re already a person prone to self disappointment, you’re setting the stage for major motivational damage. What happens when (not if) it becomes more challenging than you anticipated? All that magical motivational fairy dust that inspired you to work through your avoidance falls off like cheap glitter. That’s when old habits creep back in, telling yourself—Well this didn’t work—and resuming avoiding. 

Instead, make yourself take action and start on your objective to get the ball rolling. If it’s taxes you’re avoiding, sit down with your documents and start looking them over. If you’re avoiding writing, bust out your laptop and start typing. If you’re afraid to talk to that pretty girl at school, just go up and start making conversation. Now, it’s entirely possible that while considering the “action” step of this process, you might feel woefully unprepared for the task ahead. Trust me, keep reading… 

At this point the mission is not about success, it’s about trying. If you succeed and somehow commit to filing your taxes, writing that book, or getting her phone number, then a HUGE CONGRATS! But all of that is just a bonus. For those who chronically avoid, it’s unbelievably important to see ourselves trying in spite of our resistance. We have to know we are capable. That we can work through our anxiety and frustration is the evidence we need to trust in our ability to confront our problems.

Reaction

The final and most challenging part of learning to avoid avoidance is managing that ingrained emotional reaction we have when tasked with engaging triggering responsibilities. To navigate our way through, the best weapon we can arm ourselves with is learning to respond to how we react. 

By virtue of the word itself, to “react” to something is to provide an instantaneous action to an introduced catalyst. In plain English, when we react to a stressor we are giving a quick, knee-jerk reply that comes from a place of emotion and is usually out of our immediate control. No matter what we do, we cannot help our instinctive reaction to something. What we can influence is our response after the initial reaction. But to do so, we need to develop an inner voice that serves as our coach. I know this part may sound cheesy, but hey, you’ve read this far. What do you have to lose? 

Our “response coach” is both compassionate and represents logical thinking. It tethers our feet to the ground, challenges irrational beliefs, and keeps us from reverting back to avoidant behaviors. It tasks us with really understanding why we are avoiding something, rather than encouraging us to flee. A fitting name for the coach is will power. Allow me to introduce you to your new best friend, Mr. William Power. At first he may seem to be locked in a constant battle with his nemesis, Captain Avoidance, but with enough practice he will begin to prevail with greater ease. Why? Because remember that will power fights for a good reason.  

Here is an example to help illustrate whatever the hell I’m talking about:

Let’s say I’m trying to write the very article you’re reading right now. I haven’t made much progress and have been avoiding it because every time I open my laptop I have all those fun resistance symptoms I mentioned earlier. 

Today I sit down to write and the same thing happens. My reaction is one of discomfort and unwanted emotions. I’m doubting if the article will make sense, and if anyone will even read it—let alone find it helpful. Instinctively I go to get up from my seat (at the insistence of Captain Avoidance), but instead I sit back down. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Power just entered the building…

WILL POWER: It’s okay that you want to avoid this. Who wouldn’t? It stresses you out and makes you feel insecure. 

CAPTAIN AVOIDANCE: Exactly. That’s why you’re going to go clean your apartment for the next hour, because you feel like a loser and need to do SOMETHING to make yourself feel productive. 

WILL POWER: While cleaning the apartment does make you feel better, it’s not essential or time sensitive. It’s avoidant. And because it feels productive, cleaning is an easily justifiable distraction. 

CAPTAIN AVOIDANCE: Can-it, Bill! You don’t understand what this feels like. I can’t stand it!

WILL POWER: I’m willing to bet you CAN stand this. It’s just a feeling, just an unwanted emotion. Emotions are temporary. Don’t run away from it. You can take it, sit with it. The anxiety you feel is convincing you that you can’t write this article, that you’re not disciplined or smart enough. Prove it wrong.

CAPTAIN AVOIDANCE: Ugh! This is too frustrating. It’s not even worth it. I’m so exhausted all the time. I don’t even want to write anymore.

WILL POWER: Remember why you’re doing this. Remember why writing is so important to you. Important enough to push through all this uncertainty and grief. Writing means something to you. It gives you purpose. 

And…scene. 

Believe it or not, that campy Afterschool Special you just read was the reason I was able to finish this article. Whether you, dear reader, think it’s any good or not is completely irrelevant. No offense. I care that you find this information useful, but I couldn’t let that be a factor I held onto during this process or else I would second guess myself every step of the way. And we all know that such anxiety is just food for Captain Avoidance to wolf down.

The Takeaway

It’s funny. People are always looking for a complex way of solving their problems. Something groundbreaking that they’ve never thought of before. A novel idea that will open up their minds to say: Ah-ha! Finally, an answer! But I’ve learned that the simplest changes are often the most effective. People tend to overlook them because they’re hard. Avoidance is no different. Learning to work through avoiding what’s necessary is a master class in confronting our deepest insecurities. Yet it doesn’t take a graduate degree to know what you have to do. 

Find a reason to fight through avoidance to stay motivated when things get tough. Take action to get things moving and to show yourself you didn’t hesitate. Manage your avoidant reaction with a compassionate, but honest response that encourages (rather than shames) you into pushing forward. That’s it. Go give it a shot. 

Note from the Author-

Thanks for taking the time to read this article. If you have any further questions or want to provide feedback, feel free to email me at tgershensonmft@gmail.com.


How to Make the Holidays Less Depressing

How to Make the Holidays Less Depressing

There are very few times of year (aside from Election Day) that are as polarizing among American people as the holidays. Some find it to be a magical time full of cheer, togetherness, and gifts galore. Others liken the holidays to a patch of bad, unpaved road—just white knuckling their way through until it passes. Generally, people’s attitudes toward the holidays are closely linked to the highs or lows they experience going into the season. Finances, family issues, work, friends…it all factors in to the holly jolly calculus to shape what we think of the holidays. Those who struggle with the season of giving are not alone, and can always use a little extra support to make it through. So, regardless of your holiday perception, here are a few quick tips to make it more emotionally manageable.

Have vs. Have Not

Accompanying the holiday season is the inevitable onslaught of commercials for gifts and things we are enticed to want. Clever advertising and marketing campaigns are designed to sell us the image of the lifestyle we are encouraged to strive for, rather than the one we actually have; mainly because companies want people to buy their products. It’s easy to fall victim to seasonal tunnel vision, focusing on the things we don’t have in our lives versus what’s right in front of us. This trend also goes beyond mere consumerism. The holidays paint pictures of having the ideal family that’s loving, giving, never fights without resolving their differences and always comes out stronger in the end. If you don’t believe me, turn on the Hallmark Channel at any hour, day or night, during the month of December. 

Sure, focusing on what we lack helps us to establish goals, but if it goes unchecked it can quickly lead to a sense of inadequacy that exacerbates sadness and anger. Most of our lives right now are probably far from perfect, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t valuable things in them worth our attention. These don’t have to be items of monetary value (although they can be if that’s your thing). A loyal friend, a loving spouse, physical/mental health, a good job, a passion project—these can all be things we hold dear. Find your blessings where you can and count them.

The Connection Between Body and Mood

In the winter, many of us instinctively act like bears. We pack on the pounds and want to find a nice warm place to relax and wait out the cold. During the holidays this instinct goes into overdrive with the addition of cookies, stuffing, heavy meats, candy canes, gingerbread, egg nog, potato latkes, fruit cake…you get the idea. Suddenly our pants don’t fit and it’s WAY too cold outside to go for a run.

The problem with treating your body like a playground rather than a temple (other than a potential coronary) is that it wreacks havoc on your mood. Sugar crashes, food comas, and cabin fever with family members work in concert to cause us to become irritable, impatient, antisocial, tired, and not to mention purveyors of the worst digestive gas imaginable. To combat this holiday trend, be mindful of what you eat. Have a few indulgences, but keep it in moderation and balance it with something green and leafy besides the Christmas tree. Also, try working in some light exercise here and there to burn a few calories and blow off steam. If you’re in a cold weather state, some small workouts at home can do the trick (pushups, sit-ups, lunges, squats). Also, don’t underestimate the magic of the great outdoors. So bundle up and go for a walk in the winter wonderland to help clear your head.

Take Family in Small Bites

As a grown adult, you’ve likely become accustomed to functioning independently and handling the daily responsibilities that come with it (probably). Well, now that you’re spending the holidays with the family that raised you, it’s time to forget all that! Get ready for family dynamics to come rushing back with a vengeance. For some, this may not be a bad thing. For others, it conjures memories of parents reminding you how to perform even the simplest of tasks, sibling rivalries, relatives second guessing your career choices, and who can leave out passive aggressive in-laws? Family has a way of unwittingly stripping us of how much we’ve grown, which leads us to feel resentful and ultimately dampens our mood.

For those headed home for the holidays that expect to spend time with family (especially family they don’t see very often) it’s best to break up the exposure into chunks to prevent overload. Try keeping certain interactions brief if there is a high probability of conflict. Avoid hot-button discussion topics. The common temptation is to tell off insensitive family members, but that will often make you look like the crazy one—especially if open, respectful communication in your family is still on the wish list. Instead, try taking five. Go for a walk, take a nap, read a book, or check in with a friend and swap war stories about his family feud. 

Develop A Holiday Routine 

Some people thrive on routine. Their world makes sense when things follow a well-polished schedule that incorporates work, family, friends, and self care. Unfortunately, the holiday season excels at throwing order into upheaval. Special events, odd work hours, family gatherings, the kids are out of school and MUST be entertained…it can be a real mess. A far departure from our daily routine can easily cause us to feel disorganized and depressed, particularly when you consider that self-care is generally the first casualty. 

A way to boost morale and maintain some semblance of order to the holidays is to create a flexible structure. Craft a holiday routine that includes elements of your normal regimen, but can also accommodate special circumstances and X-factors. Make a go-to list of a couple fun activities for the kids that are readily available. Tack on extra time to scheduled outings and events to account for transition time (which always takes family f-o-r-e-v-e-r for some reason). Don’t be afraid to recruit family members to help manage obligations so you can get some work done or grab some restorative down time.

What the Holidays Mean to You

Many people find the holidays to be particularly challenging emotionally because of what they represent. If we lost a loved one, for example, the holidays can be a cruel reminder of how life used to be at this time of year. Loneliness during the holiday season is common among people who are struggling with loss in any form: a breakup, a divorce, the passing of a close friend or relative. Combine that heartache with ubiquitous messages about togetherness and good cheer and it can drive anyone to Scrooge-town.

If there is a universal truth to be said about depression, it’s that it feeds off isolation. When we feel sad we instinctively want to be alone to deal with our problems privately—and to avoid the guilt that comes with having someone worry about us. This is a healthy, and normal part of the process required to work through our thoughts and feelings. However, it’s important to regulate our isolation, and balance it with support from friends, family, and whomever else we can turn to that we trust. The reason we need others is simple. If we are in a hopeless mindset, sitting alone with no one else to offer us perspective or contrary ideas, we can easily fall into the vortex of negativistic thinking. Sadness fuels anger, which gives rise to resentment, and all the while we feel that no one else “gets it” as we recede further from the rest of humanity. In short, one way to help alleviate depression is to starve it of isolation.

Manage Expectations and Challenge Perceptions 

Fact: our perspective dictates our reality. How we view the holidays will ultimately determine how we experience them. If we cringe in anticipation of family get-togethers laced with superficial conversations in which we must relay to relatives our “life stats” for the year, we stand little chance of enjoying ourselves. Yet, if we alter our perspective and manage expectations, suddenly the dynamic can be different.

Using the “family get-together” example, let’s first identify expectations. If the chronic, surface level “stop-n-chat” bothers us, it may be that we are unhappy being peppered with shallow questions, or wish our families had more meaningful conversations. Perhaps we are holding family to a standard of closeness that is unrealistic for them. If we adapt our expectations to accept family as they are, we are far less likely to be disappointed.

With regard to perspective, if we go into a situation convinced we will have a bad time, we most certainly will. The mind is keen on highlighting evidence to confirm a belief we hold, while quickly dismissing contradictory information. It’s called confirmation bias. A potential way to shift perspective in this situation is to focus outwardly, rather than inward. Maybe you cannot stand holiday family dinners, but you know it makes your parents happy that everyone is together. So putting up with family might help you to feel good that you are doing right by others.

A Final Thought

No matter what the holidays have in store for you, good or bad, be kind to yourself. Too often our frustration with the season gets driven inward as we silently rebuke ourselves for being a grinch that watches others seem perfectly happy. It’s okay that the holidays are hard for some of us. It comes with the territory. But if this truly is the season of giving, first give yourself some love, then things might not seem so depressing after all.


Healing Without Therapy

Healing Without Therapy

The Power of SELF-CARE

While it may sound like a no-brainer, we frequently overlook “taking better care of ourselves” as an integral part of our mental health. At any age, nourishing the mind, body, and soul is some of the best medicine out there. Luckily, there is much we can do in our own spare time to achieve better self-care in each of these three categories. Therapy is not necessarily the first answer. After all, the purpose of therapy is not to foster dependency on a professional to solve our problems, but to empower us with the tools necessary to heal ourselves. Keep in mind that no two people are alike, so finding the right combination of self-care habits for you and your schedule is important for effectively  mending emotional wounds, reducing stress, and improving over-all quality of life. Below are some basic ideas to help get you started.

BODY

When contemplating how well we care for ourselves, the way we treat our bodies must be at the top of the list. Why? Because if our physical health is compromised everything else becomes affected. Think about it. How often do we become impatient and irritable when we’re hungry or have a headache? The wellness of our mind is so directly linked to our body that the standard of care in therapy demands ruling out physical symptoms that might be contributing to emotional issues before even considering a mental health diagnosis. Here are key ways to care for your body.

Regular Exercise

For children/adolescents many reputable sources recommend 60 mins of physical exercise every day. Most of which should be moderate-intensity aerobic activity (e.g. running, jumping, biking, team sports). Growing bodies also need an additional 60 mins of muscle/bone strengthening activity three times per week (e.g. climbing, gymnastics, sports, and playing on the playground). Exercise is crucial in child physical and mental development and should be strongly encouraged. If you’re a parent struggling to motivate your child to be physically active, try being a little creative. Make exercise or outdoor play a game, and/or something you and your child do together.

For adults, sources recommend 20-30 mins of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise daily (e.g. hiking, long walks, biking), muscle-training activities twice per week (e.g. weight lifting, sports, yoga), and 75 mins of higher intensity cardiovascular exercise weekly (e.g. running, swimming, stair-climbing). But let’s be realistic, life often impedes our attempts at a consistent exercise schedule, especially if we work a demanding job or have children. It may feel like we don’t have time in our day to commit to even 30 minutes of brisk walking, but here is the unavoidable truth: we have to make time. It may not pay the bills, but self-care is just as vital a part of our day as clocking in at work. If our bodies aren’t well maintained, everything else suffers.

Ways to Be More Active:

AEROBIC ACTIVITIES  (high cardio-intensive)

Running/Jogging, Spinning, Biking, Stair-climbing, Boxing/Kickboxing, Swimming, Surfing, Soccer, Basketball, Hockey, Tennis, Cardio classes, Challenging Hikes

DAILY ACTIVITIES  (low-moderate cardio intensity)

Long Walks, Light Hiking, Stretching, Playing with a pet, Go to the park, Light exercise

MUSCLE ACTIVITIES  (targets large muscle groups)

Weight-lifting, Rock climbing, Yoga, Pilates, Surfing, Stair-climbing, Jungle gym, Boxing/Kickboxing, Cross-fit, Rowing, Gymnastics

A Word on Proper Diet and Sleep

As I am a Marriage and Family Therapist and not a nutritionist, dietician, or sleep specialist, I cannot tell you what to eat or how to sleep to be healthy. These factors depend heavily on age, lifestyle, personal physical health, and resource limitations. However, a properly balanced diet and consistent sleep patterns are not only essential to sustaining physical energy throughout the day, but to how well the mind works. If you are curious about appropriate diet and eating habits, please consult your doctor or a licensed dietician. For information about proper sleep hygiene, contact your doctor or a sleep study specialist.

MIND

Mental Stimulation

Higher brain function, or executive functioning, involves the complex thought processes we use countless times every day. Think of it like a muscle that needs regular exercise. Relying on routine daily activities to stay mentally sharp is like using the same weight in the same direction every time you work out in order to get into shape. Your mind, like your body, is an adapting machine that will quickly adjust to the amount of effort it needs to generate to get the job done.  However, the brain, like skeletal muscles, needs to be regularly challenged in order to strengthen and grow. Stimulating the mind helps to build new neural pathways, allowing us to think faster, more clearly, and make better choices.

Mind Workouts

Puzzles, Strategy games, Reading, Start a personal project, Exercise, Plan a trip, Join a hobby club, Visit an “escape room,” Write, Be crafty, Drawing/Art, Come up with jokes, Play sports

Mental Relaxation

Few of us need to be reminded that relaxing is an important component of a healthy mind. Yet the reason many people neglect relaxation is similar to those who neglect exercise—it gets de-prioritized due to a busy lifestyle. Arguably, those who live fast-paced, stress-laiden existences have the greatest need for “pencilling-in” down time. This is especially true of parents where the risk of burnout is high. Feeling burned out is when a demanding, repetitive obligation causes irritability and exhaustion that shrinks our patience and increases emotional reactivity. Taking time for ourselves to slow down can help curb burnout significantly.

Ways to Relax

Listen to music, Go for a walk, Visit nature, Watch a funny movie, Laugh, Light exercise, Read a book for pleasure, Play a game, Meditate, Deep breathing, Find a quiet space, Catch up with friends. In essence: DO WHAT MAKES YOU HAPPY (so long as it’s safe).

SOUL

Last, but certainly not least, is the care we take to nurture our own spirit. The human soul is our essence, our persona, that which makes each and every one of us unique. As with any priceless artifact, it needs regular care and attention to remain intact. Feeding the soul is a challenging concept to categorize as it varies so widely from person to person. However, the best advice I could possibly give is to connect with whatever makes your heart feel full. Here are some broad areas where you might begin to look…

Spirituality

Whether or not you identify with a specific religion or faith, connecting with a ‘higher power’ can be a wonderful source of strength, inspiration, and comfort. People frequently turn to some version of spirituality in their darkest hours, praying to whomever or whatever may be out there listening for support and guidance. To be clear, by faith I’m not referring solely to organized religion, but to anything that can be classified as ‘greater than ourselves.’ Here are some ways to connect with the spiritual world:

Visit your place of worship. Visit someone else’s place of worship. Speak to a spiritual elder or authority. Re-invest yourself in your faith. Contemplate your personal religious or spiritual beliefs. Read religious texts. Explore new faiths. Find something uplifting to believe in.

Humanity

The old saying goes, “There are but two guarantees in life: death and taxes.” However, I would propose a third certainty—that people need people. As human beings we are biologically driven to be social and rarely survive, let alone thrive, outside of a community of support. Ironically, when we are at our most vulnerable (depressed, anxious, etc…) we tend to isolate ourselves from others, effectively cutting ourselves off from those very people who can help us feel safe and cared for. Reconnecting with others can be powerful medicine to shepherd us through difficult times. There are countless ways to do so, but here are a  few ideas:

Call an old friend. Make a new friend. Help someone in need. Random acts of kindness. Volunteer for community service. Visit with family. Visit with a neighbor. Join a community. Strike up a conversation. Ask someone you trust for help. Resolve conflict with a friend or family member. Tell someone how much they mean to you.