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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.

Live Like You Were Dying…Without Obsessing About Death

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I went on my second vacation for the summer–the one where I get to spend time with my niece, Sadie. For the most part, it was a nice break from the demons of depression, anxiety, boredom, and loneliness. But there were some moments of existential angst. And at the weirdest times, too.

Like on the water ride Escape from Pompeii at Busch Gardens. If you haven’t been to Busch Gardens, I’m sure you’ve been on a similar ride with perhaps a different name in some other amusement park. It’s the one that is really short and primarily focuses on one drop where you get drenched at the bottom. There’s even a viewing area where people can get soaked without actually having to get on the ride.

While there were many educational moments on the trip, this was not meant to be one of them. There was no history of Pompeii description anywhere that you could read as you stood in line or anything. And yet, while we were in the section of the ride where they make you feel like they’re going to set you on fire, I couldn’t help but imagine what it must have been like to be going about your day, buying groceries or whatever, completely unaware of the fact that you and your entire city were about to be destroyed.

Hopefully they didn’t suffer for very long. I imagine death must have come pretty quickly. And while people who prepare for the apocalypse hope to be one of the few survivors, I think I’d rather not be. Because there would be more suffering involved in surviving the annihilation of civilization than there would be in immediate death.

At one point in the ride this fake statue almost falls on your head. I thought how terrible it must be to have all of these buildings and statues that you spent years creating get destroyed in however long it takes a volcano to erupt and wipe out civilization. If you survived and had a chance to reflect on it, I’m sure that would be devastating. So maybe it’s good that they didn’t.

This section of the ride only took about a minute, by the way. Literally. You wouldn’t think that would be enough time to reflect on death and destruction and surviving the apocalypse, but it was for me.

And then we went down the drop and got soaked.

And then we got on the ride again.

I’m a big proponent of the idea that we should live like every day is our last. That we savor every moment, pursue every goal, and spend time with the people we love as often as we can. But since I have an anxiety disorder, I also obsess about death and bodily harm. And things that aren’t necessarily dangerous but terrify me nonetheless. Like closed spaces. I almost had an anxiety attack on a flight simulator on this same trip for that reason.

Incidentally, while we were on another water ride, these two girls who couldn’t be more than 12 casually related this story of how they were stuck in the part of the Pompeii ride where they make you feel like they’re going to set you on fire for 30 minutes. And they couldn’t turn off the fire for 15 minutes. No big deal! Totally freaked me out.

Anyway, like I was saying, I have a hard time finding a balance between living like I were dying without actually obsessing about the dying part. For now, my primary strategy is to do what I learned in the self-compassion retreat. I tell myself not to think about that right now, because it causes me suffering. And I don’t want to do anything that causes myself unnecessary suffering.

And in that moment, it worked.

Until we went to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and I found out that some fossils of two dinosaurs fighting were preserved because flash floods in the desert buried them on the spot.

Journaling, Part 2

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There is this space that exists between the relationship that you’re in and the one you dream of. The land of if only. If only he would call more. Compliment me. Say I love you. Put me first. Then everything would be perfect.

I lived in that space for a long time. But it required a lot of denial and distortion. Like a really extreme version of tunnel vision. If I looked at the relationship through one eye and squinted so that everything was sort of blurry, it would faintly resemble something that might give me what I needed.

Until I opened my eyes again.

I often say that the thing I miss the most about being in a relationship is having someone to share my day with. Someone to witness my life–even the mundane things. But recently, when I thought back on my previous relationships, I realized that I actually haven’t had someone to listen to me in a long time, even when I was in a relationship.

At the time I was angry with them for not wanting to listen, but after the relationship ended I was angry with myself for not seeing what was there–or not there–all along.

I so enjoyed reading old journal entries last month when I was feeling down that I’ve been writing every day since then. Not only does it help in the moment, but it provides my future self with ample entertainment.

At first journaling felt like a lame substitute for talking to another person. But now I look forward to it. It has become my favorite nighttime ritual. I keep a running tally throughout the day of the things I want to talk about, just like I did when I was in a relationship.

And there are lots of advantages to writing about my day rather than telling someone about it. Like:

If I want to talk about a dream where I ordered a burger at some diner and they wouldn’t let me add anything other than cheese because that would be too fancy, I can retell every insignificant detail of the dream without boring myself.

Or if I want to talk about every random association I had about this story I heard on the radio about this guy in China who jumped in the river on his wedding day when he saw his bride-to-be for the first time, I can do so without seeming obsessive. (Was he trying to kill himself? Did he still marry her after he got out of the water? Were his parents pissed off? That must have made the bride feel like crap.)

Or if I want to talk about how I cried in session yesterday because I felt my client’s pain, I can do so without worrying about violating confidentiality. And without judging myself for getting so emotional.

Or if I write about the exact same problem for the hundredth time, even though I’ve written about it for pages and pages, I can give myself permission to do so. For as many times and as many pages as I need to, until I no longer feel the need to talk about it.

And when I need to practice self-compassion without being judged or criticized, I can give myself permission to list every single thing that is hurting me in that moment and respond to myself by affirming that this is pain. This is suffering. And I am sorry that you are suffering.

And at some point in the future, when I have forgotten the details of each day, I will delight in rereading these entries–even the sad ones. Because they capture my experience in the moment so perfectly. Because they help me put my life in perspective. Because I’m interested in what that person has to say. She fascinates me. She reminds me a lot of myself.

So now I no longer worry about when I will meet someone who will take pleasure in hearing about all the mundane details of my life. Because I can give myself exactly what I need right now, in this moment.

Empathy vs. Compassion

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I figured that after an entire week of meditating on self-compassion I would be this transformed, kind, loving person to myself. But now I realize that what I learned was just the beginning of a practice that will take a lifetime. I guess that shouldn’t be surprising, but it’s hard to give up on the hope that something will be a quick fix. Especially if it involves pain and suffering.

I’ve written a lot of posts about how I struggle with having too much empathy. I feel other people’s pain as though it were my own–and in addition to my own. Sometimes that’s just too much pain to take, and I end up crashing and burning.

And then I beat myself up for not being able to handle my life. Because other people have spouses and children they have to care for and they still work and go to the grocery store and cook dinner. I, on the other hand, just fall asleep on the couch, tired and hungry, because it’s too much effort to go across the street and get food.

Or I’ll choose a relationship where the person is in pain and feel compelled to help them. And they won’t be able to help me, because when you’re in pain, you’re not really in a position to focus on anyone else. But then I’ll be like, why aren’t you helping me? This relationship sucks! And then we break up.

One of the things I learned in the meditation retreat is there is no such thing as compassion fatigue. There is empathy fatigue, which I described above, but compassion, like love, can expand to encompass all of the people we wish to send it to. In mathematical terms, the formula is:

compassion = empathy + love

I have always wondered why I felt the need to help people who I didn’t even really like. Who I had grown to hate, in some cases. It was tiring and confusing, so I would also berate myself for doing something so hurtful to myself. Which isn’t very compassionate.

Now, instead of exhausting myself from trying to get rid of the other person’s pain and then beating myself up for trying to do something that isn’t even possible, here are some things I can do:

1. I can say, that person is in pain. I will send them compassion.

2. I feel their pain, so I will send compassion to myself, too.

3. Actually, I think I need to focus exclusively on me, so I’m just going to keep sending myself compassion.

4. I feel selfish and guilty for not doing more, but I can have compassion for myself and accept that I have limited resources.

5. I’m mad at that person for asking me for more than what I’m able to give, but I can have compassion for my anger and honor my need to focus on my own well-being.

6. I’m mad at myself because even though I just said I was going to focus on me, I gave the person what they wanted, anyway. But I can have compassion for myself for being human and therefore imperfect.

And I have to say, so far it’s going pretty well. In this moment, at least. But that’s all I need to focus on.

If There Were a Prize for Most Likely to Obsess Over Nothing, I Would Totally Win

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Next week I am going to a week-long meditation retreat on self-compassion in California, and I am freaking out about it. I didn’t realize the meditation part would be such a prominent component of the training until after I signed up. After I found out that they recommend that I pack a zafu meditation pillow–which I had to buy–and a yoga mat. And that I need yoga-type clothing.

I do meditate every day, but more of the 5 minute variety before I go to bed. Not the sit-on-the-floor-on-a-zafu-pillow-and-meditate-for-a week kind of meditation.

I am anxious about the typical things that would make someone not choose a meditation retreat, like not being able to get on my phone, iPad, or computer. And flying. And what impact the severe drought in California will have on my trip.

But I am also obsessing about seemingly insignificant and therefore maddening things like, will I be able to sleep if I can’t recline my bed because of my stupid GERD? Would a zafu pillow, a yoga mat, a GERD pillow, and yoga-type clothing all fit into my suitcase? I could bring a gigantic suitcase, but would they think I’m high maintenance?

Do I even have yoga-type clothing? If I wear tennis stuff, would that be weird? Do I need long-sleeve shirts? What will the temperature be? Because sometimes even when it’s hot outside it can be cold inside because of the air conditioning. Although maybe they don’t crank up the air conditioner at a meditation retreat, even when it’s hot. If it is hot.

The list goes on, but you get the idea.

Intellectually, I know people who have chosen to go on a self-compassion retreat probably aren’t going to be judging me for my luggage or for wearing the wrong thing, but I can’t stop obsessing, nonetheless. Which is why I signed up for this retreat.

But I realized something last night that helped me to accept my obsessiveness. I was watching this biography on one of the up-and-coming tennis players, and I noticed that all of the great athletes were super competitive and full of energy even when they were kids. Their parents had to get them involved in something at all times so they wouldn’t explode.

Obsessing is the mental equivalent of a hyperactive child. Sometimes I do it because I’m anxious, but sometimes it’s just because I need something to think about. Even if it’s just what I’m going to have for dinner tomorrow. Or what order I should do my errands in. Or how many inches I should take off when I get my hair cut. There’s all this energy in my brain, and the only way to burn it off is to obsess.

So maybe if I could channel my obsessing into something useful, like those hyperactive kids who became world-class athletes did, I could become famous, too. Maybe I could use my powers for good instead of evil. Well, not evil. But something more productive. So I wrote this blog post to see if that would help. Although I’m pretty sure I’m just going to obsess about the stats after I publish it.

If anyone has ideas about useful ways to channel my obsessive energy, I am open to suggestions.

It Matters to Me

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Last week in our body image support group, every single client prefaced an anecdote about something that upset them with a disclaimer about how it’s not that big of a deal. This thing that bothered them enough to bring it up. Not important at all, in the grand scheme of things.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Trivialize our feelings? I do it all the time, but it’s more noticeable when other people do it because it sounds so mean.

For example, if I tell my opponents before a tennis match not to be alarmed if I throw up, I feel like I’m just trying to get attention. Because I secretly enjoy telling them about my GERD/asthma/allergies and listing all the drugs I take for each of these conditions. And if they make some comment about what a trooper I am for continuing to play, I feel guilty. Am I misleading them into thinking that I am strong? Maybe I’m exaggerating how bad it is.

I get it that this is a defense mechanism. I am going to beat you to the punch. I am going to say upfront that I know this thing I am about to tell you is trivial so that you can’t hurt me by not caring about it. I am going to shame myself out of being upset to try to make the feeling go away. I am going to compare my pain to other people who are suffering more than I am so that I will feel guilty and stop complaining. I’m going to repeat to myself how stupid it is to be upset every day, hundreds of times a day, until the pain goes away.

Except it doesn’t make the pain go away. So we just end up invalidating our feelings hundreds of times a day, every day. Or, if you’re successful in being able to cut yourself off from your feelings, then you end up invalidating other people’s feelings, too. Which is why they preface all of their comments to you with a disclaimer about how what they are about to tell you is not that big of a deal.

Even though I am now aware of the harm I am doing to myself with these comments, it is effortful and time-consuming to come up with something nicer to say. Which is a bit disconcerting, that being kind to myself would be so difficult.

It was even more difficult for those clients, who did not even realize they were invalidating their feelings until I brought it to their attention. They sat in silence for a few minutes, straining their brains to come up with something they could say to themselves that would be more compassionate.

Which is exactly why we need to practice.

That’s why I help clients come up with mantras in advance to counteract their inner demons; it saves time and energy. So if you are in need of something to say, here’s one you can use: it matters to me, and that’s all that matters.

The Gift of Compassion

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Last week I gave a presentation at work on self-compassion, which was perfect timing. I had just posted my story about depression a few days before and was still reeling from all the thoughts and feelings that had exploded inside me as a result.

Blogging is truly a pay it forward kind of gift. I blog to help other people, but as I said in that post, it has turned out to be the best gift I have given myself. I’ve never had so many people thank me for talking about me. It was as though I had expressed compassion for their suffering when all I did was tell my story. When people thank me and tell me their own stories, every comment is another gift to me. So I received a lot of gifts last week, and I thank you if you were one of the gift givers.

One reader in particular, Abby Gardiner (AKA Stress Bubbles) said that she was sorry that I had suffered so much. I was taken aback. Until then, I was happy with the post because I thought it was a thorough and honest account of my depression, which I had never shared. And I was happy that I was in a place where I could accept my depression rather than feel ashamed about it. But I had not thought of it as a story of someone who had struggled with depression most of her life and whose shame kept her from seeking help.

I felt like Neo at the end of the Matrix when he broke open the code and everything suddenly made sense. I saw how impossible it was not to get depressed given my genes. My family members who are always in crisis. My tendency to choose people who need help because I had always played the helping role in my family. How little help I was able to receive from my family and my partners because of their own problems. And from anyone else because I never said how badly I was hurting. How I had cared about functioning more than myself. I had to get good grades. Get a Ph.D. Teach classes and see clients and rescue everyone I met.

Because she expressed compassion for me, I was able to have compassion for myself. Now, when I think about my story, it feels as though something is pressing against my heart. Perhaps the way it feels to someone whose heart has been jump started with a defibrillator. A bit painful and disorienting, I imagine, but you’re alive. What a powerful gift it is, compassion.

Since then, I make a point of thanking anyone who has shown me compassion. And I make it a point to have compassion for myself–even for the small things. Like having to spend a thousand dollars on a water heater. Or having a cold. Or having to cancel tennis when I was looking forward to it all week.

Because, if I’m being compassionate, then all the small things really aren’t small at all.