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Moving Beyond Post-Apocalyptic Strategies for Motivation

Brene Brown

When I’m teaching clients how to practice self-compassion, I tell them that they cannot rely on using fear and shame to motivate themselves. And I should know, because I do it all the time.

If you read my blog, then you know I often say things like, other people have spouses and children and are still able to go to the grocery store and make dinner. So what the hell is your problem? This has the effect of making me feel like crap, but it doesn’t do much to make me get off the couch, even if I am hungry.

With my clients, I’ll use examples like, why do you keep watching episodes of The Walking Dead? Get in there and work on that paper! Do you want to fail? Because that’s exactly what is going to happen!

The problem with fear-based motivation is that, even when it works, which is usually a few hours before the paper is due, you still won’t feel good about yourself. Because your inner critic will say, well, if you had started the paper earlier, you would have done a much better job. 

So my brother is still anxious and depressed. His primary motivational strategy to get himself to go to work is the zombie apocalypse. How do you think you’re going to save your family when the world is ending when you can’t even log in? It worked for a while, but you can only motivate yourself with fear for so long.

What people don’t realize when they create a crisis to motivate themselves is that we don’t always fight. Sometimes we take flight or freeze. And once we’ve shut down, no amount of fear can make us act. So we get stuck in this vicious cycle of shame in which we avoid everyone and everything.

Fortunately, a recent episode of The Walking Dead echoed these same sentiments, which added to my credibility. Since I don’t watch it, I’ll quote his epiphany:

Even Rick Grimes has had to take a break from berserk mode on the show. He became a man of peace for an entire season when he realized how misguided his young son had become; someone who was too quick to resort to violence & unwilling to give diplomacy a chance. It served a lesson relatable to life—if even our heroes during the zombie apocalypse cannot remain in crisis mode, then it certainly can’t be a winning formula for us during normal times. My problem is I’ve motivated myself through such extreme emotions—anger, resentment, fear—for so long, that I’m left with no clue as to how I can jump-start my resolve right now.

So what do we do if we’re not going to motivate ourselves with fear? We motivate ourselves with love. So obvious when we think about how we motivate the people we care about, but it rarely occurs to us to do so with ourselves.

Unless you’re some enlightened being like the Dalai Lama or Pope Francis. I’m sure they motivate themselves with love.

This morning was the first day that I did not want to get out of bed. It’s that time of year when it happens, shortly after daylight savings time ends. So I tried to practice what I preach and thought about how I could make it easier to get up and get ready. I played my favorite song. Turned up the heat. Talked to myself in a loving way. And today it worked.

Maybe it won’t always work. It’s a long time until spring, after all. But even when being loving doesn’t get me out of bed, it still uses up a lot less energy than berating myself.

On the Road to Enlightenment

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I didn’t realize how many posts I’ve written about Pope Francis until I looked them up just now, in preparation for this one. In one of those posts, I said that I thought Pope Francis was an enlightened human being. And that it was only fitting that as one enlightened being, Nelson Mandela, leaves this world, God would send us another one to restore balance in the universe.

Last week I was astounded by the reception that Pope Francis got in the United States. Apparently, he was, too. He even coined a term to describe his reception in New York: stralimitata–beyond all limits. He was like a rock star, attracting people of all religious and political affiliations. People cried when they saw him–even if it was just on TV.

He was the most popular topic on Facebook and a refreshing change from all the negative posts that I usually try to ignore. Anyone who can make people post about predominantly positive things on Facebook for an entire week has to be enlightened.

I think the most moving thing to me–and Boehner, apparently–is when Pope Francis asked people to pray for him. And, being ever respectful of their religious beliefs, if they couldn’t pray for him, he asked them to send him good wishes. I mean, how awesome is that? The Pope needs us as much as we need him. What a novel idea in a world where leaders seem more interested in proving how powerful they are than in showing their vulnerabilities.

The closest I have come to being in the presence of that kind of compassion was when I went to this conference and listened to the psychologist Peter Levine talk about healing trauma. He didn’t say he practiced compassion, although the techniques he describes for learning to identify the physiological signs of trauma are clearly mindfulness-based.

But when you watched him work, you could hear the compassion in his voice and see it in how closely he paid attention to his clients. It was a palpable, tangible thing that you could feel in the room. I was so struck by his presence that I went to his second talk just so I could sit in the audience and listen to him. The world felt like a safer place when he was around.

In Buddhism, enlightenment is something that anyone can achieve, hypothetically speaking. That seems difficult to imagine in practice, though. Plus it seems like a lot of work. And a lot of pressure. I’m sure my Inner Critic would try its hardest to sabotage my efforts every step of the way. But then again, I guess that’s why you practice self-compassion.

I like the idea that we all have the power to create a palpable, tangible force in the universe. I know how I have felt when I have been in the presence of compassion. And I know that practicing compassion has changed me for the better–both in terms of how I feel about myself and in how I interact with others. So I will keep up my practice and see where it takes me.

Just An Ordinary Day

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Sometimes I think God tries to help me wake up with text messages. And by having to pee every hour after 6 a.m.

Even though I keep my phone on vibrate at night, I still wake up when I get a text. Am I that light of a sleeper that I can hear the buzz? Am I so happy to get a message that I can sense it in my sleep?

Whatever the reason, for me, the typical pattern in the morning is to wake up, check my phone, go to the bathroom, and go back to sleep. Repeat every hour until I finally get out of bed. Which is usually several hours later.

Even in this state between sleep and wakefulness, my inner critic is hard at work. Right before I look at my phone, it says no one gives a crap about you. Which kind of hurts my feelings. I guess it’s trying to be helpful by mentally preparing me for the disappointment of not seeing a message. As I have mentioned in several blog posts, not having anyone to check in with in the morning is one of the hardest parts of being single.

Yesterday, however, I woke up to several texts. (Take that, inner critic!) One of them was from a friend who asked me if I had gotten the paper. For people who keep up with the news on a daily basis, their first association would probably be to the newspaper. But since I am not one of those people, I had no idea what she was talking about.

Like my inner critic, my anxiety was also wide awake and coming up with catastrophic situations that this mysterious paper might be referring to. Did I mess something up? Was there a 9/11 type attack going on? Was there some kind of tennis emergency?

Luckily, she was referring to an editorial about a former NFL player who struggled with bipolar disorder but did not know it until much later in life. Whew! I mean, I felt bad that the guy had to suffer, and I was glad that he was making the public aware of the importance of funding for mental health issues, but I was also glad that the world wasn’t coming to an end.

Even in this half-asleep/half-awake state, it made me think about how much we take for granted that ordinariness can be a good thing. When something bad happens, we are acutely aware of how in a moment’s notice, our lives can be turned upside down. An illness. An accident. An affair.

I’m not trying to be morbid or anything. In fact, I was genuinely happy that, in that moment, my life was exactly the same as it had been when I had gone to bed. Ordinarily I would have felt bad about waking up at noon, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s really not that big of a deal. It was par for the course. Just an ordinary day.

Thank God for ordinary days.

What Goes Up…

Remember how I was still riding the high from my trip to Europe in my last post? Well it’s gone now. Now it’s back to boredom, sadness, anxiety, and loneliness. Interspersed with tennis and dinner with friends, thank goodness. But still. It was nice to be free from random anxiety attacks. From my drill sergeant making up chores for me to do to make my existence seem worthwhile. From figuring out what to do on days when I was not going to have any human interaction.

I guess that’s one of the disadvantages of experiencing something so wonderful: its extraordinariness is only possible when juxtaposed next to the ordinariness of your every day life.

This weekend I had no evening plans so I decided to watch “Still Alice.” I don’t know what I was thinking. I knew it was going to be depressing. Maybe my inner critic made me watch it as a way to shame me out of my sadness: At least you don’t have Early Onset Alzheimer’s, so stop moping around! And I have to say, it was effective in putting my pain in perspective.

The whole time I watched, I was bracing myself for the agony of watching Alice’s cognitive decline. And it was painful, but it was also beautiful, in a way. I was moved by how courageous and mindful Alice was about the process of losing her memory. How determined she was to stay connected to the person she was and to the people she loved.

There is a scene where Alice gives a speech at an Alzheimer’s conference about her personal experience with the disease. She tells the audience that even though she may forget this experience tomorrow, she treasures it in this moment, because speaking in front of them allows her to feel like her old ambitious self: an expert in linguistics who was fascinated with communication.

My other favorite scene is when Alice explains to her daughter why she wears a butterfly necklace. As a child she was distraught when she found out that butterflies had such a short life. Her mother reassured her that although their lives are short, butterflies have a beautiful life.

Alice’s mother and sister died in a car accident. Alice also has a short but beautiful life. She was intelligent and successful, with a great job and a loving family. In one moment, we can be on top of the world, celebrating how great our lives are. In the next moment, everything can change.

It made me think about how all of the wonderful things in our lives are gifts, and no gift lasts forever. And we don’t know when the expiration date is. The most we can do is to fully enjoy them and appreciate them while we have them.

At some level, I think I hoped that practicing mindfulness would somehow protect me from pain, like some kind of psychological talisman. But it doesn’t. Saying good-bye to vacations, to memories, and to aspects of my identity that I hold dear still terrifies me, despite my attempts to blog, meditate, and be in the moment.

But I practice mindfulness anyway, because being fully present allows me to extract all of the joy out of every experience that I possibly can. I guess that’s the most that any of us can hope for.

Photo courtesy of Allison Gentry Szuba

Why I Love Sports

So I’m sick again. Which really sucks. I thought there was some unspoken rule that you can only get sick once per season. That if you spent a week of your Christmas break in quarantine with nothing to do but watch bowl games and knit until you develop carpel tunnel syndrome, you paid your dues to the virus gods. Apparently I was mistaken.

Since it’s just me and my inner critic, I spend a lot of time trying to alleviate my guilt about having to cancel all my therapy appointments and being unproductive. It’s not my fault. I have to put myself first. At least I don’t have a terminal illness. Life isn’t about being productive. At least I get to watch tennis and basketball.

In an effort to obsess about something more positive, and as a tribute to March Madness, I thought I’d share my top reasons for why I love sports.

1. Athletes are the best reality TV celebrities. I have much more admiration for Roger Federer for his athleticism, his demeanor on and off the court, his love of the game, and the way he handles his celebrity status than I do for Kim Kardashian. Who somehow is able to obtain sponsorships and ample media coverage despite having no talent that I’m aware of.

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2. Bonding time with my friends and family.  My brothers drive several hours to come to Charlottesville to watch UVA football games, and we’re not even good. Last weekend my friends came with me to the ACC tournament to cheer UVA on. Even though we lost, we had great conversations, ate a lot of junk food, and have a good picture to show for it.

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3. Rivalries. Ordinarily I am all about compassion and accepting differences, but sports is the one place where I allow myself to villanize Virginia Tech. It’s almost as much fun to watch them lose as it is to watch UVA win. And when we play each other, I have a chance to witness both of these things at the same time. Tech may have won in football, but UVA beat them twice in basketball. So take that, Hokies!

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4. Sometimes I win. When I started playing tennis again 15 years ago, I wanted to find out what I could accomplish if I gave it my all. But I had pretty modest expectations. I didn’t think it was possible to actually win tennis tournaments. I didn’t even know it was possible to compete as a team. And I definitely never imagined that I would be on teams that would advance to districts. For someone who doesn’t consider herself an athlete, that’s pretty darn good!

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5. Sometimes you hit the lottery. Last year, when no one was paying attention, UVA won the ACC regular season and tournament championships. And we got the #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. This year, although sports analysts acknowledge that UVA could win it all, no one has chosen them in their bracket. But that’s OK. It may be a long shot, but that’s why we watch sports: there’s nothing like the thrill of victory that’s against all odds.

So Go Hoos!

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Faking Good

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Did you know that some personality tests are sophisticated enough to detect when a person might be faking bad or faking good? When I took one in grad school, the computer report said that I could either be faking bad, or that I’m just really hard on myself. Talk about sophistication! My Inner Critic was detected right away.

In general, I think people are more likely to fake good than fake bad. I am no exception. Most people can’t tell when I’m upset. Even when I tell people I’m upset, they don’t believe me because I’ll be smiling–like when I bought my mattress. So even when I’m trying to be honest, my face is still faking good.

Facebook is the perfect example of millions of people faking good every hour of every day. Even though I know from experience that things are often not what they seem, I still feel like my life pales in comparison to my friends with their happy spouses who declare their undying love for each other on their anniversary. Or their children who are winning sports competitions and getting good grades and saying funny things. Or their vacations to exotic places while I’m stuck at home because of the snow.

But then again, sometimes I’ll scroll through my pictures and wonder if people feel the same way about me. All of the happy pictures with my family. Pictures at sporting events, tennis tournaments, and karaoke parties with my friends. Pictures of my latest knitting project or the jewelry I just made.

Even if we want to be more honest on social media, it’s hard to do because it’s so visually oriented. Like, it never occurred to me to take a picture when I was getting my divorce papers notarized. Or to take a selfie of me lying on the couch, too depressed to do anything. I guess I could have taken a picture of that time I shattered my microwave door and had to sweep up hundreds of shards of glass, but I was too busy being pissed off.

The most honest posts I’ve seen are the ones where people say how they still miss a loved one on their birthday. I have not yet lost someone close to me, and the thought of doing so fills me with fear. And now I know that the sadness stays with you for the rest of your life. It exists right alongside of those happy family posts. But at least it makes the picture of their life seem more realistic, and therefore more relatable.

If you scroll through my wall, amidst the posts of family and friends, sports and crafts, you’ll see my blog posts. Verbal snapshots of my obsessiveness in action. Guilt and shame over failed relationships. Evidence of how difficult it is for me to be kind to myself. To believe that I deserve to be loved. That I’m worthwhile. This is my attempt to be honest through social media. My tribute to the complexities of real life.

But not everyone has a blog. So if you have ideas for how to stop faking good on social media, I’d love to hear them. It could be the beginning of a campaign. Like the one to stop bullying. We can work on the catchy phrase later.

Learning to Put Myself First

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It seems that for some people the idea of compassion entails a complete disregard for or even a sacrifice of their own interests. This is not the case. In fact, you first of all have to have a wish to be happy yourself – if you don’t love yourself like that, how can you love others? – Dalai Lama

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Last Sunday a friend of mine was talking about how her priest was retiring because of compassion fatigue. That witnessing the suffering of his parishioners all those years had depleted him, and he had nothing left to give.

In the post What Compassion is Not, I talked about the misconceptions that lead some people to believe that compassion enables people to be lazy, unproductive members of society. But there are also misconceptions about compassion that can lead to burnout. Here are some of the ones I’ve written about in my blog.

1. Date your enemies. When Jesus said to love your enemies, I took this a bit too far. Yes, I do try to put myself in the other person’s shoes. To recognize that we are all capable of good and evil. But I also thought it meant that if I didn’t want to date someone because of race, SES, mental illness, red flags, etc., then I was judging them, and judgment is bad. So I should try to overcome my prejudice and go out with the person, anyway.

This has lead to disastrous consequences in my personal life. It would have been kinder to both of us if I had just acknowledged that we were not compatible from the start.

2. Love your neighbor more than yourself. I know that the quote is actually to love your neighbor as yourself, but somewhere along the line, I came to believe that my needs were less important than others. If I could help someone, I should, whether it hurts me or not.

Blogging has been the best reminder to put my needs first. Since I’m always preaching self-care, it would be hypocritical not to take care of myself. Plus, since I have made blogging a priority, before I take on a new task, I ask myself how many blog posts it will cost me. And even if it costs me one post, I won’t do it.

3. Practice compassion perfectly. Technically, evaluation should not be a part of compassion at all, but tell that to my Inner Critic.

In my last relationship, I hated the guy for a year after we broke up, and I felt terrible about this. Despite my best efforts, I could not make myself let go of my anger. But when you are practicing compassion, you must have compassion for yourself first. So I would tell myself that this is where I am at the moment. Not yet ready to let go of my anger toward this person who hurt me. And that’s OK. When I’m ready, it will happen.

And it did.

If you are interested in learning more about how to practice compassion, I recommend Jack Kornfield’s compassion meditation. It is one of my favorites.

Mantras

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It is in our faults and failings, not in our virtues, that we touch each other, and find sympathy. It is in our follies that we are one.

– Jerome K. Jerome

Last semester I had a client who was talking about how a close friend seemed to be taking an interest in her, but she wouldn’t let herself believe it. Even though she wanted to believe that someone could find her attractive and desirable. Part of that whole undeserving thing I talked about in a previous post.

Lately I’ve been trying to help clients come up with mantras to counteract their inner critics. In this case, her inner critic kept saying, “Why me?” Why would he like me? What do I have to offer?  To which I replied, “Why not you?”

So this became her mantra. And I liked it so much, it has become one of mine, as well. Along with other mantras that I have come up with to counter my inner critic.  Here are a few of them:

1. Why not me?  This mantra now replaces the oft-repeated “Who do you think you are?” To think that you can find the one decent guy who is not in a relationship. To think that you can find an agent. A publisher. Readers. To think that you can improve your rating in tennis.

Other people do it. It’s not beyond the realm of possibilities. Might as well tell myself this instead and see what happens.

2. Everything’s going to be OK.  This may sound overly Pollyanish to some, but for me it is a source of comfort. After all, this is what we say to babies and children to calm them down. And as you know, I am a new parent, just beginning to learn how to soothe my inner infant.

3. I’m doing the best that I can.  This is to counteract my inner critic’s relentless evaluation that I suck. I can’t function without sleep like “normal” people. I can’t make it through a semester without crashing and burning unless I vigilantly focus on taking care of myself. My blog isn’t widely read. I can’t cook. I throw up when I play tennis. I don’t make enough money.

But I really am trying. And I’m trying to be OK with effort rather than results.

4. The purpose of life isn’t to be productive.  I was sick for my entire vacation this week. Five days in my house doing nothing but watching bowl games and knitting. No steps. No meals with friends. No tennis. No New Year’s celebrations.

My drill sergeant has tried to bully me into being productive, admittedly with some success. But for the most part, I’ve been able to tell myself that my only task at the moment is to get better. To rest. To care for myself. Regardless of what other people do when they’re sick. My life is worthwhile, whether I get my laundry done or not.

5. I’m just like everyone else. No better, no worse. I’m still a recovering perfectionist, but recovery is progressing quite nicely. Through blogging I have found that the kindness I receive in sharing my perceived flaws means as much to me as the compliments I get from my perceived successes.

So what’s your mantra? If you don’t have any, feel free to borrow mine if they help!

Psychological Energy Conservation, Part 2

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Despite the psychological energy conservation plan I came up with several months ago, I’m still struggling with the crash and burn problem.

I spent another weekend feeling exhausted and ended up canceling the plans I had been looking forward to. I no longer allow my inner critic to torment me by telling me that I’m just being lazy, because why would I be too lazy to go to a costume party and play tennis? Still, it’s frustrating to spend the entire weekend lying around the house watching TV.

To make matters worse, as soon as I have a little bit of energy, I try to do too much, because I feel like I’ve wasted so much time. And guess what happens? I burn out again, and the cycle repeats itself.

It helps that I have a blog where I have made public declarations about how I’m going to be more proactive about conserving my energy. And I have made some improvements. I am better at setting limits in my relationships. I try to go to bed earlier. I eat more mindfully. But there are other areas where I am still in denial. These include:

1. Hosting. I hosted a Halloween party that I obsessed about for weeks because I have a small place and I never cook and I had to do everything by myself since I’m single. Then my parents came up on Friday and we had another karaoke night, when ordinarily I would be spending the evening unwinding. For some reason, I didn’t think that trading rest for karaoke would affect my energy level.

2. Tennis. In my mind, tennis should not be tiring because it’s fun. In the summer I played 4-5 times a week, but now that I’m working, I only have the energy to play about 3 times a week, which my inner critic does not want to accept. But my body is like, too bad! That’s all I’m doing!

3. Football games. My brothers and I have season tickets, and this year they have been able to come to more games, so I really look forward to going. But it’s an all day affair that ends up affecting my entire weekend, because I don’t have much time to get anything done. Which means I’m really tired the following week. Again, this came as a surprise to me, even though it makes perfect sense.

4. Blogging. I know that blogging takes up energy, but once again, my inner critic is like, why should you be tired? You’re just sitting there typing and reading blogs. How hard can that be? You should be able to write 3 posts a week. But lately two posts a week is all I’ve been able to manage. Otherwise it starts to feel like a job rather than a hobby.

So I guess the lesson is that, while it’s important to have things to look forward to, fun things are tiring, too. Which is probably obvious to all of you, but it is somewhat of an epiphany for me. Guess I need to factor that into my energy conservation plan.

Self-Disclosure, Part 2

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Therapists are in that category of people who aren’t supposed to be real–right along with teachers, priests, and parents. They shouldn’t be at UVA football games talking smack with Tech fans. They’re not supposed to have divorces. Plural. (Usually one is acceptable.)  And they certainly aren’t supposed to struggle with anxiety and depression. Even my niece was surprised to learn that psychologists who treat depression can be depressed, and she’s only 8.

Freud is mostly to blame for this. He thought psychoanalysts should be a blank screen onto which patients projected all of their repressed sexual and aggressive urges while he sat behind them smoking cigars and snorting cocaine. And even though I wasn’t trained as a psychoanalyst, in grad school they discouraged us from using self-disclosure and from crying in session. (I really have a problem with that last one. I can’t help it. Sometimes I’m really moved by what clients say.)

But even Freud and my grad school supervisors did not say I should be a blank screen in all areas of my life. I guess it just felt safer to do so because I am terrified of judgment and criticism. That’s why I want to be perfect. That’s how my inner critic is able to manipulate me. That’s why I have developed such good empathy skills: if I can tell that the other person is upset with me, I can change my behavior before they have a chance to say anything.

I started this blog as a way to test out Brene Brown‘s claim that having the courage to share our vulnerabilities with others leads to engagement and meaningful connection. Some posts are still scary to share, but those seem to be the ones that people are the most thankful for because it makes them realize that they are not alone in their struggles. And it has made people who I don’t know very well feel closer to me. There’s this positive energy between us now when we interact. Sometimes they share their own vulnerabilities, which further strengthens our relationship. It really is a nicer way to be in the world.

After almost a year of blogging, I am finally taking the plunge by telling students about my blog. This is the one place where I have been reluctant to share my vulnerabilities because it could potentially undermine my credibility. But it will also serve as evidence that the people who they perceive as having their lives together are dealing with the same issues they deal with. Normalizing their experience, as therapists say.

But normalizing our experience takes practice. We need to be reminded over and over again. We need to repeat it to ourselves with every thought, feeling, and action that makes us worry that we’re crazy. And while everyone doesn’t need to blog about it, it certainly helps me to accept myself as is. So self-disclosure is as much a gift to myself as it is to anyone else who enjoys reading my blog.