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Category Archives: Psychology

How to Predict the Future

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If you’re psychic, this blog post does not apply to you, because you already know how to predict the future. For the rest of us, there are a range of options for predicting the future, each with their pros and cons. In this blog post, I will review the primary strategies so that you can be more informed and mindful about employing whichever one you choose.

  1. Worst-case scenario. This is the most common strategy I see in therapy. It involves things like predicting you will fail your test, and then your class, and then college altogether, and then you’ll end up flipping burgers at McDonald’s. People who use this strategy are not delusional; they know they are picking the worst-case scenario. Their argument is that if things go poorly they will be mentally prepared, and if things go well they will be pleasantly surprised. The problem with this strategy is that it causes unnecessary stress, since the worst-case scenario is not likely to happen. And, if you’re trying to practice self-care, your goal is to eliminate unnecessary stress. Plus, even if the worst-case scenario does happen, you can prepare for it then, just as well as you can prepare for it now, and save some energy.
  2. Optimism. In this strategy, people assume that things will turn out in their favor, even in cases when this might be statistically unlikely. In fact, even if your optimism is not based in reality, there is research to suggest that it is still effective in creating positive outcomes and feelings of happiness. One recommendation for how to capitalize on the benefits of optimism is to write your goals down as though you have already accomplished them. (I’m trying this out for myself and have started writing I’ve lost 10 lbs. every day to see if it works. I’ll let you know.) The downside to this strategy is that, from a mindfulness perspective on happiness, we do not need to rely on any particular outcome to be happy. Well-being can be created by learning to be fully present in this moment, whatever it looks like. Assuming that things will turn out the way we want them to, on the other hand, makes our happiness dependent on a favorable outcome.
  3. No expectations. This strategy is best illustrated in the expression “expect nothing but be prepared for everything,” which presumably came from an ancient samurai warrior, according to Jerry Lynch in The Way of the Champion. With this mindset, you do not assume that you will win, but you expect that you will do your best, regardless of the result, because doing your best is all you can control. And you expect that, whatever happens, you will learn more about yourself and become a better person because of it. This strategy is more consistent with a mindfulness approach because it does not assume that we have more control than we actually do. It also does not assume that a negative outcome is necessarily a bad thing. The biggest drawback to this strategy is that it forces us to live with the anxiety of not knowing what will happen. Our fear of uncertainty is so great that imaging ourselves failing out of school and flipping burgers at McDonald’s seems less anxiety-provoking than the ambiguity of the unknown.

It’s probably obvious what my bias is. I encourage my clients to have no expectations. When making predictions about the future, I encourage them to substitute their negative predictions with the mantra “I don’t know what will happen,” and reassure them that whatever happens, they can have faith that they will be able to figure out a solution when the time comes.

How to Tell if You’re Lazy

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I have clients tell me that they’re lazy all the time. Even though they are all high achieving, perfectionistic, over-scheduled students who work more hours in a day than I do. And I work a pretty full day myself. Why is that, you may ask? That doesn’t make any sense. Because that’s how mental illness is; it doesn’t make any sense.

Usually when people beat themselves up for being lazy it’s a telltale sign that they’re probably depressed. A better word for laziness would be something like fatigue. When people are depressed they have no energy, no motivation. Nothing is enjoyable. Getting out of bed is too much effort. But it can’t be depression. That’s just an excuse. I don’t have real problems. I’m just being lazy.

Sometimes being paralyzed with fear can feel like laziness. Because fight or flight aren’t the only possibilities in the face of fear. Sometimes you freeze, like a deer in headlights. This is usually what happens when students have a paper due the next day but they have been staring at a blank screen on their computer for hours without typing a single word.

We do need a certain amount of anxiety to be motivated to do anything, but it doesn’t take much to go from the kind of anxiety that motivates you to the kind of anxiety that paralyzes you. Especially when you try to motivate yourself by saying you suck, you’re disappointing everyone, you’re going to flunk out of school and end up homeless. Not exactly a pep talk. And yet, this is the kind of stuff we say to ourselves all the time.

The ironic thing is, when I was looking for a meme on laziness, I discovered that people who really are lazy don’t feel bad about it. They’re out there looking for hacks to make the most out of their laziness–trying to figure out how to make it seem like they do yoga, or what comfortable clothes they can buy to lounge around in. There’s no shame about it at all. In fact, many of the memes are about wearing their laziness on their shirts like a badge of honor. Literally. Like this one:

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And this one:

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In case you were too lazy to read the whole blog post, I’ll summarize it for you.

Here are 5 signs that you are not really lazy:

  1. Your therapist tells you that you are depressed.
  2. Your therapist tells you that you are anxious.
  3. You think you’re a loser and a terrible person.
  4. You worry about homelessness.
  5. You feel a strong affinity to deer in headlights.

And here are signs that you might actually be lazy:

  1. You’re a cat.
  2. You own one of those t-shirts.
  3. You have a Pinterest board about hacks for lazy people.
  4. You don’t read them because you’re too lazy.
  5. Being lazy doesn’t really bother you.

And if you were too lazy to read those signs, then here is the one-sentence moral of this story:

If you’re beating yourself up about being lazy, then you probably aren’t.

50 Shades of Blue

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When I was in grad school, clinical depression was described as this discrete period that occurred in episodes with a clear beginning and ending. It was even called the common cold of mental illness. Like you would know when you had caught it, and then you’d get better and be in remission. If you had a genetic predisposition, you could be at risk of recurring depressive episodes, potentially for life.

You could also have this more chronic but less severe form of depression called dysthymia. Sometimes you could be unfortunate enough to have dysthymia and major depression at the same time. Double depression, it was called. As though you could have carefully measured doses of depression, and double depression has 2 cups of symptoms instead of 1. Which is strange, because you can’t have double of any other mental disorder.

Now that I’m a practicing psychologist, I know that the diagnostic categories are not as neat and clean as they were made out to be. As a person who has been depressed for most of my life, I can say that major depression feels distinct, but it is not always clear when I am depression-free vs having dysthymia. There are times when I didn’t think I was depressed in the moment, but when I look back, it’s clear that I was.

Often we tell clients who are on meds that they can begin tapering off once they are in a period of stability. Over the summer, perhaps. Or some time after they have gotten settled in their new job. Maybe the problem for me is that there is never a period of stability. Never some time when there isn’t some family crisis. When there isn’t some problem that I’m dealing with. If anything, I would say there have been episodes of stability that have broken up the more chronic feeling of being depressed.

I don’t to want give the impression that I’m always miserable, because I’m not. Like I said, sometimes I don’t even realize I’m depressed. Sometimes it only lasts a few hours or a few days. And it doesn’t feel the same every time. So at least there’s some variety to it.

Every now and then I get upset about how unfair it all seems. The depression. The anxiety. The family craziness. The stress that comes with thinking I need to save the world. But life isn’t fair, right? And I am blessed and fortunate in other ways. If I had to choose my suffering, at this point I’d choose mental illness, because at least it’s familiar to me. I know what to expect. I know how to manage it.

And the meds do help. So does therapy, self-care, mindfulness, and self-compassion. I think depression has made me wiser. It has made me a better therapist. I’ve learned to accept the ebbs and flows of my mood, and of life in general, without beating myself as much, because I’m doing the best that I can.

This week is finals week. We are all willing ourselves to make it to the break, exhausted from the semester. Despite taking my meds, talking to my therapist, and practicing self-care, mindfulness, and self-compassion, I’ve still had bad days. But I’m determined to get that Perfect Attendance award, so I’ve made it to work when I’m supposed to be here.

Today I would call my mood cornflower. Which is a pretty shade of blue.

Everything Ebbs and Flows

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One of the many things that’s helpful about having a blog that I’ve kept up for almost 5 years is that I see how much repetition there is in my life. I guess that shouldn’t be surprising. That’s the reason why therapy doesn’t work in a day. Even if you can identify in that first session what the client needs to do, it takes a lot of repetition to change your mindset and your behavior. And yet, every time I reread an old blog post, I’m like, what the heck? I was doing the exact same thing 4 years ago?

Yesterday I published an old post I had written about my guilt over my sleep cycle on my FB page (which I encourage you to follow, if you aren’t already doing so). In this post my therapist had given me permission to stop obsessing about not being able to regulate my sleep cycle over the break and said that, when I needed to wake up early, I would be able to do it. Which was helpful in forgiving myself for what I perceived as my sleep sins.

And yet, guess what I did this summer? I obsessed about not being able to regulate my sleep cycle. I thought about it nonstop. Tried different strategies, all to no avail. No matter what I do, my sleep cycle naturally gravitates to its night owl pattern– falling asleep around 3-4 am, waking up in the afternoon. My brain is like a manic vampire–I cannot shut it up at night, and it cannot stand the light.

But now I’ve started work and, although I’m not sleeping any earlier, I wake up when I’m supposed to. I’m sleep-deprived, but responsible. So I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s OK if I can’t change my sleep cycle. That when I have to wake up early, I will. The same conclusion I came to on July 27, 2014. The same conclusion that I’ve probably come to after every break.

Sometimes I still get caught up in thinking that if I were more disciplined, more of an adult, perhaps I could get this sleep thing under control. Perhaps I could be more like a normal person. But yesterday, in a presentation that I gave on resilience, I used the following quote from Paul Gilbert, author of “The Compassionate Mind:”

So much of what we are has, in a way, little to do with personal choice. Therefore it makes little sense to blame ourselves for some of our feelings, motives, desires or abilities or lack of them, or for how things turned out.

So I have stopped berating myself (in the moment) and repeat my self-compassion mantra. You’re doing the best that you can. Am I, though? Yes. You really are. You always do. (I have to go through the whole dialogue every time. Obsessive, I know, but I can’t help that, either.)

I also repeat my mindfulness mantra to remind myself that the cyclical nature of my sleep problems is just how it is. Everything ebbs and flows. Everything comes and goes. No matter how hard I try, how disciplined I am, it will always be like this–semesters filled with sleep-deprivation punctuated with periods of night owl syndrome over the breaks. This is the ebb and flow of my life.

So I’m trying to accept it, just as it is.

Nothing Compares 2 U

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Want to feel better about yourself? Here is a piece of advice that doesn’t require money, self-help books, therapy, dieting, exercise, or youth-enhancing products. Stop comparing yourself. To others, to your former self, to your ideal self. There’s nothing about comparison that will ever make you feel better. Even when you win, you lose.

In my post on What Compassion is Not, I talk about how comparison is not compassionate. Have you ever tried to cheer yourself or someone else up by telling them that there are people who are suffering worse than you? People in war-torn countries? People who are poor, hungry, and sick? Sure you have. This is one of our go-to strategies for making people feel better. But did it?

I know I have used this strategy, and it always makes me feel like crap. And when I’m depressed, it makes me feel even more depressed and worthless. Because what’s my problem? I don’t even have a good reason to be depressed. Yet here I am, unable to function like a normal human being.

Or have you ever felt good about yourself because of an accomplishment–lost a little weight, got a raise, did a good deed–only to find out that someone else has done the same thing, only better? How quickly self-praise turned into self-criticism? Maybe if I had the discipline that she does, I could have lost more weight. Why didn’t I stay after work more often, like my colleagues? I must be selfish for not giving more.

Or how about berating yourself because you are not like your former self? I used to be in better shape! I used to be able to play 3 and a half hour singles matches in 90+ degree heat! Now I feel like I’m going to pass out in the heat while playing doubles if I have to hit more than 3 shots. And throw up after long rallies. I’m old! My body is falling apart! This sucks!

(Although to be honest, I don’t miss singles at all. I just didn’t know any better back then.)

Perhaps the worst comparison of all is failing to live up to the version of yourself that you think you should be. That put-together, in control, polished, successful part of yourself that is always telling you that you suck. What I usually call the Inner Critic, but it can go by different names.

Sometimes in therapy I ask clients to personify this ideal self. And then I ask them how they feel about this “person.” They don’t like them. They’re mean and judgmental. They’re a little afraid of her. They wouldn’t want him as a friend. Isn’t that ironic, that the “perfect” version of ourselves that we so desperately want to be isn’t even someone that we like?

Let’s say that occasionally you’re fortunate enough to hit your target goal. You got straight A’s. Make a six-figure salary. Lost 20 lbs. You’re feeling a bit superior to all of those less-fortunate scrubs who don’t have what it takes to do what you have just done. Even in these cases, enjoyment is fleeting. Because even if you don’t meet someone who has done a better job–even if you “won”–you have to stay on top. You can’t slow down now. So you can never relax and just feel good about being you.

Given our comparison-obsessed culture, what are we supposed to aim for, exactly, if we aren’t trying to be better than someone else? It’s hard to come up with something that isn’t about trying to be better. We don’t even have the vocabulary for it.

I’ve written about my struggles with trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do if I’m not trying to be good. Because being good is a kind of comparison. Most of the time we end up measuring how much better we are than other people (e.g., it’s not that he’s a terrible person; he’s just worse than I am).

So now, rather than trying to focus on being good, I try to focus on being loving–to myself and to others. I try to practice compassion. One of the advantages of practicing compassion is that it’s inherently nonjudgmental, non-evaluative. You can’t do a good or bad job. You can’t succeed or fail at it. You can’t get an A in compassion. (Because if you could, I’d totally try.) You just practice and accept whatever happens.

It’s hard to give up comparisons completely, so I will end by saying that, of all the strategies that I’ve tried to make myself feel better, compassion is the clear winner.

How to Get What You Want

Here’s a fact that will save you a lot of self-criticism, and help you to understand why people do things that don’t make sense: we are not as rational as we think. That might not seem comforting in a culture where it’s important to be reasonable, stoic, self-sufficient, and in control, but it’s true.

Let me illustrate how illogical we can be. I’m going to give you some examples of how people try to get what they want from others. But let me first say that, if you are relying on others to get what you want, you have already given up some control, because we have far less control over other people than we do over ourselves. And I don’t know about you, but I can barely get myself to do what I want.

Nevertheless, we still try to get what we want by getting other people to change their behavior. We want bullies to stop bullying. We want our kids to come home at curfew. We want our partners to stop leaving wet towels on the floor.

Even in these cases, we often try to change other people’s behavior in ways that aren’t very effective. Maybe they work sometimes, but even when they do, they hurt the relationship.

Usually these strategies involve punishment–guilt trips, shaming the person, passive-aggressive comments, withholding love, the silent treatment. If you’ve never taken an intro psychology course, it may come as a shock to hear that punishment is not an effective way to change people’s behavior, given how often we use it. Rather than lecturing you about the principles of behavior theory, I’ll just give you a few examples to prove my point.

Let’s use bullying as an example. It took me 2 seconds to find this quote about bullying:

Bullying is not a reflection of the victim’s character, but rather a sign of the bully’s lack of character.” 

The message is: bullies are bad people. Don’t be a bad person. Have you ever tried getting someone to stop doing something by telling them to stop being a bad person?

Of course you have. We all have. And I’m guessing what happened is the person got defensive and you had this big argument and you didn’t get what you wanted. Or if you did, it probably resulted in them resenting you more, liking you less. So even if the person stopped leaving their towels on the floor, they pick them up begrudgingly, and it remains a thing between the two of you.

Let’s imagine we try something other than shaming bullies out of their behavior. Perhaps we could try practicing compassion. We could try to understand why this person hurts other people.

Or I can just tell you why. People hurt other people because they are hurting. So if you want to make people stop hurting other people, you have to address their pain, rather than add to it. Asking questions, trying to understand, listening to what they say, and expressing empathy for their pain goes a long way in changing people’s behavior. Yes, that takes longer than telling someone they’re a bad person, but this is how you get what you want. This is how you get a bully to be kind. With kindness.

Another strategy for getting what you want is to use positive reinforcement. The easiest way to use positive reinforcement is to praise someone when they do the thing you want. I’m sure you’ve used this with children, and it is amazing how effectively and immediately it works. Wow, Jane! You are a fast runner! So Jane runs around like a maniac for the next 5 minutes, demonstrating how fast she is. People want praise, so we will keep doing the things that make people praise us.

I encourage you to try out what I’ve just said about punishment and positive reinforcement. See for yourself if it works. And if you do try out your own personal psychological experiment, I’d love to hear about the results.

 

In Transition

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If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, perhaps you remember my inner infant–that part of me that gets anxious for apparently no reason but has no words to tell me what she’s upset about. I am still like a new parent who is getting to know their child for the first time. It is a very slow, painstaking process. But I came to a realization last week that has been helpful in being more compassionate towards this anxious baby, who I will call Amygdala for scientific reasons that are too technical to get into, but if you’re interested, you can check out this article.

Every morning when I’m getting ready to leave for work, Amygdala gets anxious and I have to say my standard mantra to her: It’s OK. Everything’s going to be OK. You’re fine. Everything’s going to be fine. And when I’m frustrated, I add although I have no idea what you’re anxious about!  Which is not very compassionate, and therefore not very effective in soothing her.

For some reason, last week I realized that Amygdala gets anxious when I am in transition–from sleep to wakefulness, getting dressed, getting into the car, getting out of the car, leaving work, going to play tennis. I imagined what it would be like for a baby during these times, and I could see why Amygdala would be anxious.

For example, when I am spending the night in a different place for the first time, I will often wake up and have a split second where I don’t recognize my surroundings and not remember where I am. Then I’ll be like, oh yeah. I’m at districts. But babies don’t have very good memories, because their brains aren’t fully formed. So for them, every time they wake up, they probably don’t recognize their room. Or they could have been moved to a different room while they were sleeping. And they’re probably like, where the hell am I?! (If it were a baby that cursed, that is.) What am I doing here? Where is that person who is supposed to be taking care of me?!

Or like how when my niece was younger she never wanted to go to dance class, even though she loves dancing and always enjoys it once she’s there. I never understood why kids do that, since I’m not a parent. But I do know what it feels like to be all content doing whatever you’re doing and then having to get up, change clothes, drive somewhere, and see people, even if it’s to do something I love, like play tennis. It’s hard to overcome the inertia of doing nothing. So I can see why that might be upsetting.

But since I’ve realized this, I’ve figured out something more compassionate to say. Whenever Amygdala cries because I am in transition, I tell her that it’s OK, she’s just anxious because we’re doing something different, but once we get there, everything will be fine. And it usually is.

So maybe I’m becoming a better parent after all.

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I found this while I was looking for quotes on transitions. My inner infant has no idea what it means but she thinks it’s funny.