Self-Acceptance: As You Are and As You May Be

Your mindful awareness of yourself will reveal many things: thoughts, feelings, images, urges, memories, plans, values, beliefs, nightmares and daydreams. They are all waiting for you just behind your eyes. In working to accept our mental world we are really practicing acceptance of the self. This is a skill that can only be honed over long spans of time.

Our challenge is to be who we are, letting go of any childish fantasy of becoming someone else, as if we could just swap masks with another at a masquerade. No, we are only given one role to play upon this stage. We can live inauthentically, or we can fully commit to the life we have been dealt.

Try, now, to accept yourself exactly as you are. As a thought experiment, consider what it would mean if there was no more hope of improvement. No way to lose 10 pounds. No new skills. No promotion. No fashion make-over. No new high score. Just you. As if you were, essentially, the person that you were going to be for all your remaining days. Could you embrace being that person? Is this life you have currently good-enough?

Difficult? This thought experiment brings us to a paradox: Self-acceptance must be unconditional, and yet, it is nearly impossible to conceive of the self as not changing. As long as we are ourselves, we will have some capacity to change and grow. In other words, awareness of the self also includes awareness of the power of the self to change. Acceptance of the self requires us to reckon with how we will use this power.

This paradox, as we will soon see, is the twisting force that creates the bend in the spiral path.

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The Observing Self

You are not your thoughts and you are not your emotions. You are the being that experiences thoughts and emotions. But much of these experiences are passive—they just seem to happen. And anything that just happens—that you are not in control of—is not you. You are the being that makes choices, that sets goals, and that acts. These actions are the work of the true self.

Spend a few moments just letting your thoughts come and go. Just sit quietly and let what happens happen. There is no need to direct. No need to produce any particular kind of mental state. This is not about being empty, or calm, or at peace. It’s just about being open and willing to experience what is there. If it helps, try to adopt a stance of curiosity towards your thoughts. Avoid judging the thoughts as good or bad, interesting or dull. They are just thoughts, and there are plenty more where they came from.

This may seem simple, but it will not always be so. Our thoughts have a way of overwhelming us especially when we are in the throes of anger or anxiety. At such times, we may feel virtually certain of things that later will seem trivial or ridiculous. In every case, we will benefit from creating distance between our observing mind and the thoughts we are having. When we lose that distance, we can seem to become defined by our thoughts and emotions. This will always be a reduction in what we are, and we are no better off for the loss.

This state in which our self and that which we are experiencing seem to merge, is the state we wish to avoid. We can strive not to lose the distance between the observer and the observed. So as you go through your day today, continually reflect on what originates from your true self, and what does not. Explore your experiences. Reflect on what you think and feel. But in doing so do not get lost in this abyss. Thoughts and feelings are not necessarily treasures to be discovered. They may be fool’s gold. It is our actions, decisions, strategies, goals, projects, and chosen values that we should cherish above all the other products of our mind.

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Read more about Mindfulness here. 

Trail Guide: Taking Stock

Every journey has a starting point. For us, our starting point is often home. Home. Such a simple word. “Home”  will be our metaphor—a stand in for acceptance of where we are in our process of change.

Home is where we make our start. Maybe you like where you live. Maybe you are content there. Maybe not. But before you can change, you have to know where you will be setting out from. When you look at a map is not your first instinct to find where you are? Therefore, the first part of any journey is to be where you are. Not just to be there, but to be there with curiosity and acceptance. We cannot accept any journey without such acceptance of where we will make our start. We do not have to love that starting point. We do not have to even like it at all. But we must acknowledge where we are.

Let’s take stock of that place now. Look around you. Just notice. Avoid the temptation to judge. It comes so easily, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t have to. You can learn to see things differently. Learn to notice the small seemingly insignificant details of ordinary life. Here are some questions that might help you with this process.

What do you hear right now?
What do you see that is blue? Or red?
Or Green?
Where is the source of light coming from?
How is light shaped or created in your space?
How does light cast its shadows?
How does the light change the color of your surroundings?
How does light fall on you?
How does your world smell? What objects are in reach?
Pick one up or lay your hand upon it. How does it feel? Is it rough? Smooth? Heavy? Think about where this object came from. How was it made?
Was it made by human beings?
Was it made by an artist? A craftsman?
Forged through time and nature? How did it come to be here?

Your world is complex it’s full or rich details and lush textures. The world is enough to hold your attention if you wish to lavish your attention on it.

And now let us peel this metaphor back. How much more complex are you than your surroundings? You’ll find layers of thoughts, feelings, sensations, postures, urges, memories, dreams, values, regrets, and fears. These layers flow backward into time. You are the font of experience. Your first challenge is to let your experience unfold and just be aware of it. Accept the thoughts as they come. Notice the feelings. Again apply your curiosity and accept what you find there. Resist the temptation to judge. Resist the tendency to be like a gardener pulling weeds or an editor correcting text. Just take a few more moments and accept whatever comes without condemnation or praise. Just let it be.

Next>>

 

Morning Meditation

 

Today I am thinking about how to respond to failures. What can we do when we find ourselves looking back at something we did and that we disapprove of?  If we apply the dichotomy of control (accepting what we cannot change and only consider our actual options) this seems to be a pretty easy question. After all, we can no more change what we did yesterday than we can change the fact that a meteor wiped out the dinosaurs. But that’s not how it feels.  It feels like our past failings are a special category of event, one we are charged to carry around for the rest of our lives.  I would argue that these memories are only significant in two ways: one, we may be able to make reparations, and, two, we may be able to learn something about ourselves that will be useful in guiding our behavior in the future.  Once you have considered these two aspects, it would seem the only logical thing is to let it go. This is generally referred to as “forgiving yourself.” I see self-forgiveness as involving a sober acknowledgement of what you have done, a recognition therefore of what you are capable of doing (i.e. you are a flawed human), a comparison between this behavior and your values, a recognition that you have in this instance not lived according to your values, and a recommitment to how you want to live going forward.

What do you think?  How do you respond to your own failings?

 

Gratitude Journaling

Here is another excerpt from The Invisible Toolbox: Coping Skills for Everyday Resilience–a book I wrote to catalogue the my helpful techniques for responding to depression, anger, anxiety and unwanted urges.

Gratitude Journaling

Effectiveness: 2017-07-30 03.21.28 pm

Difficulty: Easy

Use In Response To: Depression, Anger, or Urges

Basic Idea: Regularly reflect on those aspects of your life that you are grateful for.

Description: Life can be like a treadmill sometimes—the more you accomplish, the more there is left to accomplish. The more you get, the more you want. For example, let’s say you have a functioning car but you would like a new car. While you are in the state of wanting the new car, you believe the new car will make you happy (“And it has heated seats!”). And when you get it, it does make you happy…for a short time. But as you come to get used to having the car, you can’t imagine how you once got by without it (or how your backside ever went without being toasted like a bagel). So instead of it being a positive thing that brings you happiness, you become accustomed to it and it no longer produces the pleasure it once did. If this pattern continues, your life might come to consist of going from one short-lived pleasure to another, with you never being more than momentarily satisfied.

The antidote to this problem is gratitude—wanting what you’ve already got. This is accomplished by thinking about the good things you have and, more importantly, the people you love but with the understanding that you are very fortunate to have these blessings in your life at all. Reflect on how their presence is so much better than their absence. Other things you might want to think about are the physical comforts of your home and conveniences, cherished possessions, means of transportation, access to clean water, your health, etc.

To use this as a coping skill, you would combat negative thoughts and emotions by forcing yourself to think about what you are most grateful for right in that moment. You can also do this as a regular practice by writing down three things that you are grateful for in a journal each night before you go to sleep.

Try it now: Think about your life and identify the three things or people that you are most grateful for.

Variations On Gratitude Journaling:

  1. What three things that happened today are you most grateful for?
  2. What three people outside your family are you most grateful to have in your life?
  3. What three events that occurred within your lifetime are you most grateful for?
  4. Who are the people that you are most grateful to have met?
  5. What three possessions are you most grateful for?
  6. What three experiences are you most grateful to have had?
  7. What three places are you most grateful to have visited?
  8. What are the three characteristics of yourself that you are most grateful for?
  9. What three books (or movies) are you most grateful to have experienced?
  10. What three challenges are you most grateful to have faced?

For more Coping Skills check out my free eBook here.

People suck sometimes. Accept them anyway.

The Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (Part 6)

Humans by their very nature are fallible, imperfect creatures, capable of inflicting great pain on one another. And yet they are worthy of our compassion. We can, with a little practice, develop a mindset of unconditional acceptance of others. While their behaviors may be flawed, we can still distinguish between a person’s actions and their being. Accept that others have as much right to their existence as you have to yours (and vice versa). Accept that humans—all humans—are entitled to live with dignity.

You might be asking, why? Why are all people entitled to dignity? What is dignity based on? One approach would be to consider that dignity as arising out of a person’s unique humanity. Another approach would be to consider humans as deserving of dignity simply because they have the capacity to be rational. You might see it as being an intrinsic gift of their supernatural creator. Alternatively, you can decide that dignity comes from the potential that each person has to live a life of meaning and purpose. Finally, maybe we are worthy of dignity just because we are thinking, conscious beings—tiny pieces of the universe that have woken up and can know themselves.

Seeing others as having dignity is sometimes difficult because we are often dissuaded from doing so by our tendency to evaluate their worth. We have a nasty habit of seeing others as either good and deserving or foul and deplorable. On a daily basis, we are inundated with messages about how we can improve our status and seem better than other people by collecting possessions and accomplishments—as if all of this will be added up on some end-of-life score card. But deep down we know that these things do not mean we are truly better. The whole enterprise of rating the worth of the self or others, at best, is so difficult and complex task that it is near impossible and, at worst, an affront to human dignity. Consider simply declining to rate any person as a whole but instead to grant them dignity by default.

In a Nutshell: We can respect the dignity of all people, accepting them as they are, simply because of their unique humanity.

The Fine Print:

Unconditional acceptance does not mean unconditional approval. You will certainly not approve of all human behavior. But accepting others unconditionally means that you acknowledge and respect them as individuals. You are still going to disapprove of much of their behavior. Sometimes that disapproval will be quite strong. Accepting another person doesn’t mean not condemning their actions when they are immoral. It doesn’t mean being a doormat. It doesn’t mean staying in a relationship when you are being mistreated. And it doesn’t mean not subjecting others to the law of the land. But it does mean acknowledging that they are free, capable of making their own choices.

How to Use This Idea:

You can use this idea by reflecting on the dignity, potential and good characteristics of even the most difficult people in your life. When you see someone struggling, imagine what it would be like to be in their shoes, and offer what help you can. When others disappoint you, don’t damn them. You can criticize their behavior, but avoid labeling them or calling them demeaning names (even in your own head). And don’t forget this applies to yourself as much as anyone else. Avoid labeling yourself, even if you disapprove of your own behavior. At every opportunity work towards accepting yourself as you are and others as they are.

What This Will Help You Gain:

This idea will help you gain compassion. Your connections with others will flourish when you see them as having dignity and when you respect their individuality. Love grows when we can embrace the other for who they are. On a broader scale, this idea will help you strengthen connections in your family, friendships, and community. When you apply this idea to yourself it will help you gain self-acceptance, which is an important protective factor in warding off unhealthy emotions.

What This Will Help You Avoid:

This idea will help you avoid two things, alienation, and depression. Alienation results when we lose the ability to recognize our connections with other people because we are too focused on our differences. Without having compassion and respecting the dignity of others, we will wither in isolation—humans need to be connected to a community. Depression often results when we don’t grant ourselves the same dignity—when we make global evaluations of ourselves and put conditions on what we must be.

The Source of this Idea:

Many philosophies and religions advocate some form of love towards your neighbor, and the idea of hating the sin but loving the sinner is certainly a very old notion. But this particular conceptualization comes from Albert Ellis’s writings relating to Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. Ellis advocated the idea that placing conditions on our self-acceptance brought us misery, and any external justification for our worth would be fragile, temporary, and ultimately futile. He advocated a position of “USA” (Unconditional Self Acceptance) and UOA (Unconditional Other Acceptance).

Next: Whenever it seems others must change. Accept that they don’t.

The Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (So Far)

Idea #11: You Can Do Good Work or Seek Perfection, But You Can’t Do Both

Idea #10: Your Path Will Not Be Easy. But Ease is Not Required.

Idea #9: Emotions are not your guide. Without reason they will lead you astray

Idea #8: You are not your thoughts. You are not your feelings.

Idea #7: Whenever it seems that others must change, accept that they don’t.

Idea #6: People Suck Sometimes. Accept Them Anyway.

Idea #5: Others will not approve. Carry on without approval.

Idea #4: The world is unjust. Live there anyway.

Idea#3: To live is to confront adversity. But to be alive is to have limitless resilience. 

Idea#2: Life is risky. Live anyway.

Idea#1: Be curious. Learn what you can, but hold lightly to your truths.

 

Others Will Not Approve. Carry On Without Approval.

The Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (Part 5)

The approval of our peers is something we have a natural tendency to desire.  And our society seems to continually reinforce the message that the most important thing in the world is to elevate your status and thereby to win the begrudging respect of others. The problem is that since we cannot control how others view us, to see approval as something we MUST have will lead to misery. More than that, it is simply not possible to make everyone happy. Every goal that you complete in your life will carry the risk of making someone, somewhere unhappy with you.

Living to please others, or living to win admiration, is not the path to a satisfying life. It is, rather a way to feel perpetually uneasy with your standing. After all, if you must be admired by others to attain your worth, your worth will always depend on their whims. This is hardly the stable ground to build your identity upon.

You were not put on this earth to win universal admiration. You can live well even if others do not approve of you. In fact, in order to live the best life you can—in order to be true to your values and sincerely pursue your goals, it may be necessary to lose the approval of some people. But rejection doesn’t kill us—particularly if we are being rejected for something we believe in.

One particularly damaging arrangement is to believe that not only do you require admiration but that you require a specific person to admire (need, desire, love) you.  How much collective heartache do humans experience the world over from the belief that one specific person’s love is their unique opportunity for happiness?

In a Nutshell: It’s just not true that it is mandatory to be admired. Some people are not going to like you, and they don’t even need a good reason for it. And while it is natural and often sensible to prefer to be liked and admired, it is never mandatory. Your worth as a person is not based on the views others take of you.

HOW TO USE THIS IDEA:

When you find yourself smarting from some real (or imagined) rejection, say to yourself, “I’m disappointed. I would have preferred others to approve of me…but this is not a catastrophe. I can live with this rejection. I do not NEED approval. My worth is not tied to what other people think of me.”

THE FINE PRINT:

Now this doesn’t mean that you should purposefully behave in a way that others will find despicable. This isn’t an excuse to be a hermit, a miscreant, an internet troll, or a recluse. It is healthy to have friends and loving relationships. It is also healthy to be respectful of others, even when you are not doing what they would wish you to do. But if living according to your values results in others rejecting you, or if there is nothing you could have done to win their admiration, then you should accept that they do not HAVE TO admire you (even though you would have preferred that they did), that you do not NEED admiration, and that you will be OK without it (even if it is disappointing).

WHAT THIS WILL HELP YOU AVOID:

Leaving behind the notion that others must approve of you will go a long way to reducing social anxiety and the paralysis that comes with it. Needing approval limits our ability to interact with others (or to be our authentic self in their presence).

WHAT THIS IDEA WILL HELP YOU GAIN:

Needing approval leads to stagnation—particularly because not everyone values the things you do. Not everyone will approve of you reaching your goals. So achieving self-assuredness will help you gain a sense of meaning in your life because it will allow you to live according to your own values—not the values of others.

THE SOURCE OF THIS IDEA: 

In Stoic Philosophy the admiration of others, even the love of your spouse is seen as a “Preferred Indifferent” meaning that it is something we are right to prefer. But it is not innately a good (or necessary) thing because only those things that are up to us, can be good. Because we cannot control what others think of us, it is not required for our virtue. This idea is echoed in the psychotherapy of REBT created by Albert Ellis who cited the irrational belief that we must be loved as a source of much human misery.

Next: People Suck Sometimes. Accept them Anyway.

The Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (So Far)

Idea #11: You Can Do Good Work or Seek Perfection, But You Can’t Do Both

Idea #10: Your Path Will Not Be Easy. But Ease is Not Required.

Idea #9: Emotions are not your guide. Without reason they will lead you astray

Idea #8: You are not your thoughts. You are not your feelings.

Idea #7: Whenever it seems that other’s must change, accept that they don’t.

Idea #6: People Suck Sometimes. Accept Them Anyway.

Idea #5: Others will not approve. Carry on without approval.

Idea #4: The world is unjust. Live there anyway.

Idea#3: To live is to confront adversity. But to be alive is to have limitless resilience. 

Idea#2: Life is risky. Live anyway.

Idea#1: Be curious. Learn what you can, but hold lightly to your truths.

Your Path Will Not Be Easy. But Ease Is Not Required.

Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (Part 10)

Everything worth doing is worth putting effort into. We know this. But despite this awareness, there is often a lingering childishness in us, demanding that our path should be easy, that we should not have to work hard, and that we should never be uncomfortable. But a life lived according to your values will never be completely comfortable. Learning to tolerate the discomfort of effort is an important part of achieving your goals and fulfilling your potential.

The good news is that the more you put effort into your goals, the easier putting in effort becomes. It’s as if when we use effort to do good work, we get a discount on any future effort we put forth. For example, if you imagine a day where you have been very lazy, haven’t gotten off the couch and haven’t done anything difficult at all, how hard would it then be to do a chore like cook a meal, wash some dishes or do a load of laundry? You certainly could do it, but it would be difficult. In comparison to your lazy day, it would seem to be a high-effort task. Now imagine a day where you have been very productive and have already done several difficult things. How much effort would it take to put on that same load of laundry? Hardly any at all. That is the nature of effort. The extent to which effort is unpleasant varies greatly. But one sure way to make effort much more unpleasant and “expensive” is to tell yourself that you can’t tolerate it, or worse, that you shouldn’t have to.

In a Nutshell:

Life will present us with no shortage of situations where we will be uncomfortable, particularly when we are working towards our goals—and especially when those goals involve not giving in to harmful urges. But being uncomfortable does not harm us. We can put in the effort. We can accomplish our goals and live according to our values despite discomfort.

How to Use This Idea:

Be on the lookout for thoughts that tell you that you shouldn’t be uncomfortable, that something is too hard (when you know it’s not), and that you can’t put in the effort to do something important. Whenever you find these thoughts, question them and push back against them. Say to yourself, “Ok. This will make me uncomfortable. This is difficult.” But then ask yourself, “Why am I doing this? What is my goal? How important is that goal to me?” Remind yourself that you can tolerate being uncomfortable. Being uncomfortable is not going to harm you.

The Fine Print:

Please don’t take this as an instruction to work hard just for the sake of working hard. The point is to do what is important to you—to get something worthwhile out of your efforts. Don’t be cruel with yourself. Don’t expect yourself to put in Herculean efforts. If you can, routinely put in a modest amount of effort. Don’t feel like you need to always take the more difficult road just because it is difficult. Shortcuts are not always bad ideas if they really do bring you to the same place. Don’t treat being uncomfortable as a goal unto itself. When you tolerate discomfort you should know what purpose it serves.

What This Will Help You Avoid:

This idea will help you avoid stagnation—especially the stagnation that comes from not working on your goals. If you can only do what comes easily, you will rarely achieve anything. If you rule out any course of action that requires effort or discomfort you will probably rule out the best option you have. And if you give into every urge that surfaces (because resisting it is uncomfortable) your life will very quickly become a downward spiral of misery.

What This Will Help You Gain:

Discipline. Whether we are doing our job, eating right, exercising, acting morally, or accomplishing your goals, discipline will be required. We build discipline only by deciding to do difficult, uncomfortable things even though it would be easier (in the short term) not to do them. We need to remind ourselves that these acts will serve us well, in the long run, acknowledge the discomfort, and do them anyway.

The Source of this Idea:

This post is a synthesis of many ideas. The discussion of self-discipline is inspired by Stoic philosophy. Albert Ellis’s (REBT-related) concept of Frustration Intolerance has certainly contributed to my thinking. And the experimental psychology concept of Learned Industriousness, Associated with Robert Eisenberger (and which my dissertation dealt with) is relevant as well.

Next: You Can Do Good Work Or Seek Perfection. But You Can’t Do Both

The Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (So Far)

Idea #11: You Can Do Good Work or Seek Perfection, But You Can’t Do Both

Idea #10: Your Path Will Not Be Easy. But Ease is Not Required.

Idea #9: Emotions are not your guide. Without reason they will lead you astray

Idea #8: You are not your thoughts. You are not your feelings.

Idea #7: Whenever it seems that other’s must change, accept that they don’t.

Idea #6: People Suck Sometimes. Accept Them Anyway.

Idea #5: Others will not approve. Carry on without approval.

Idea #4: The world is unjust. Live there anyway.

Idea#3: To live is to confront adversity. But to be alive is to have limitless resilience. 

Idea#2: Life is risky. Live anyway.

Idea#1: Be curious. Learn what you can, but hold lightly to your truths.

Grounding

Here is an excerpt from my book on Coping Skills.  Grounding is one of the easiest coping skills to use.  In as little as 30 seconds you can completely change the way you are thinking. Grounding is like Control-Alt-Delete for your mind.  Give it a try!

Effectiveness: 2017-07-19 10.44.03 pm

Difficulty: Easy

Use In Response To: Anger, Anxiety, or Urges.

 

Basic Idea: Pay more attention to the information coming from your five senses so as to distract yourself from unwanted thoughts and negative emotions.

Description: A person who is upset will often be focused on their thoughts and emotions. It is as if our focus can either be tuned out toward the external world or inward to the internal world. When we experience anxiety, anger, or negative self-talk, our focus is locked onto the inner world, and to the extent that we are focused on those things, we are less focused on the real world around us.

Grounding is a way to bring your attention back to reality, so called because it “grounds” you to where you really are. If we can bring our focus to the world around us, we will be less affected by the negative thoughts and emotions occurring in our minds. One way to accomplish Grounding is with a game called the “5-4-3-2-1 Game.” Here is how it works:

  1. Notice five things that you can see from where you are at the moment. You can pick any five things, or you can use criteria such as looking for the five most interesting things, the five most colorful things, or the five things that you wouldn’t notice if you weren’t paying very close attention to the world. Notice that while you are scanning for these things, you are far less likely to be distracted by other thoughts.
  2. Notice four things that you hear. This might not come easily, but that is the point. If you can’t hear four things immediately you might need to be patient or strain a bit to notice them.
  3. Notice three things that you feel with your skin. The obvious choices are to touch the chair you’re sitting in, the surface of a table, or the fabric of your clothing. Feel free to be creative. For example, what does the inside of your sock feel like to your foot? How does the back of your shirt feel against your neck? Notice that these sensations were there all along, but you weren’t paying attention to them.
  4. Smell two nearby objects (you might need to bring the objects to your nose).
  5. Taste a little bit of food or drink; for example, take a sip of water or bite into an apple. Alternatively, if there is nothing immediately available to taste, take one deep breath. Breathe out and notice the relief you feel.

To learn more easy to use Coping Skills, check out the Invisible Toolbox.

Emotions Are Not Your Guide. Without Reason They Will Lead You Astray.

Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (Part 9)

Buried within many self-help and spiritual writings is a curious and subtle message: Your emotions should be a source of wisdom. We should do what our heart tells us, follow our gut, and not over-think things. But emotions can lead people astray in very dangerous ways. Anger can lead to our destroying what we love. Fear can lead to avoidance of meaningful parts of life. Seeking euphoric joy can lead to the slavery of substance abuse. Depression can lead to a downward spiral of withdrawal and inactivity.

Biology tells us that emotions are an ancient system based on brain structures that we share with many other creatures—even reptiles. I don’t know about you, but I would not be content with the wisdom of an alligator. Humans have the capacity for more because we are capable of developing reason. The wise person may take their emotions into account, but emotions themselves are not a source of wisdom.

Emotions and thoughts are not as separate as we might think. Our thoughts shape and alter our emotions. When our thoughts are not reasonable—when they are overly demanding, illogical, and underestimate our resilience they will distort our emotions, sometimes twisting a healthy emotional response into something that feels overwhelming and seems grotesque. But once you accept that through your beliefs (or what you are telling yourself at any given moment) you can change the nature of what you feel, then something amazing happens. Your emotions can change. Unhealthy, destructive emotions can transform into the helpful, insightful, wise variety. This tells us something very important: We are largely responsible for how we feel.

This is the exact opposite message that we so often receive from others. We are often encouraged to believe that other people and other situations cause our emotions:

  • Someone disrespecting me=anger.
  • Winning the lottery=happiness.
  • The world is dangerous=anxiety.

If true, these “equations” would place our emotions out of our control. Reason tells us otherwise.  By changing the way we think we can help ourselves focus on what is under our control, and how we can be more effective.

In a Nutshell:

Emotions, by themselves, are not a source of wisdom. Because our beliefs shape our emotions, emotions can become unhealthy when the beliefs related to them are not shaped by reason. Fortunately, we can learn to apply reason to our thoughts, and in doing so, we can gain limited control over our emotional world.

How to Use This Idea:

When you are feeling a strong negative emotion, ask yourself, “What are I telling myself here?” Try to determine what the belief is that is driving the emotion.  Then ask yourself, what would the healthy version of this emotion be? Then try to identify what you could tell yourself instead that would lead to the healthier emotion. Here is a hint: the 12 helpful thinking styles in this series are examples of the kind of thinking that helps. I know all of this is far easier said than done, but this essentially is what learning about cognitive therapy (particularly Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy) will help you do.

The Fine Print:

This idea does not mean that you should banish all emotions from your life. Emotions are necessary, and the lack of emotions doesn’t actually turn humans into super problem solvers (people who cannot experience emotions due to neurological deficits have significant difficulties in multiple areas of life). And while reasonable thoughts can change your emotions from the unhealthy variety to the healthy kind, healthy emotions are not always pleasant. Sometimes the “right” thing to feel is downright unpleasant. You will never have total control over your emotions. Some emotional reactions that are non-negotiable. But healthy emotions can be a source of insight. Healthy emotions might push us in the right direction. For example, concern might alert us to a risk we need to consider. Sadness might prompt us to accept a loss. Frustration can cue us in to our need to evaluate what we can change in a disadvantageous situation.

What This Will Help You Avoid:

This idea will help you avoid the extremes of unhealthy emotions including unhealthy anger, depression, envy, and anxiety.

What This Will Help You Gain:

Wisdom. Wisdom is the ability to solve  solve practical problems. Wisdom is diminished by excessive, unhealthy emotions.  Under the sway of such passions problem solving is impossible and we resort to crude, primitive, ineffective strategies. But when we can use reason to temper our emotions, effective solutions become easier to identify.

The Source of this Idea:

This idea draws heavily on Rational Emotive Behavior therapy (and in particular on the theory’s distinction between healthy and unhealthy emotions). This idea is also present in ancient Stoic philosophy in which the concept of the “passions” is analogous to what I have been referring to as unhealthy negative emotions.  This conceptualization also reflects from Marsha Linehan’s concept (in Dialectical Behavior Therapy) of the “wisemind”, which is a type of thinking that combines the “emotion mind” and “reason mind.”

Next: Your Path Will Not Be Easy. But Ease is Not Required. 

 

The Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (So Far)

Idea #11: You Can Do Good Work or Seek Perfection, But You Can’t Do Both

Idea #10: Your Path Will Not Be Easy. But Ease is Not Required.

Idea #9: Emotions are not your guide. Without reason they will lead you astray

Idea #8: You are not your thoughts. You are not your feelings.

Idea #7: Whenever it seems that other’s must change, accept that they don’t.

Idea #6: People Suck Sometimes. Accept Them Anyway.

Idea #5: Others will not approve. Carry on without approval.

Idea #4: The world is unjust. Live there anyway.

Idea#3: To live is to confront adversity. But to be alive is to have limitless resilience. 

Idea#2: Life is risky. Live anyway.

Idea#1: Be curious. Learn what you can, but hold lightly to your truths.

On Happiness

Happiness is an elusive goal. Our minds, simply put, did not evolve to be happy and at peace. Instead, they are worry machines, the by-product of thousands of years worth of survival of the most neurotic.
Happiness has many different meanings, so we should probably settle on one. Happiness does not mean non-stop joy and everlasting bliss. This is not a fairytale. By happiness, I mean a life of contentedness, and tranquility—what the ancient Greeks called Ataraxia. Happiness is the quality of a life lived in such a way that it is largely free of unhealthy negative emotions. Unhealthy negative emotions are rage, depression, anxiety and their like—the ones we associate with problems in mental health. The opposite of these are the healthy emotions—joy, sadness, grief, regret, frustration, concern. I know that might seem counter-intuitive but it is necessary to accept—the good life includes its share of sadness, disappointment, frustration, and grief. There is simply no way to lead a life absent of these (short of being hooked up to a perpetual euphoria machine that would over-stimulate your brain’s pleasure circuit until you starved to death). Anyone who is offering you a life a free of the full spectrum of emotions is either deceived or a charlatan trying to swindle you (and probably both).

So how do you do find this elusive state of unperturbed happiness? In short, you change the beliefs that that are creating the unhealthy negative emotions, replacing them with rational, healthy beliefs. Irrational beliefs are inflexible, dogmatic beliefs that get in the way of you living according to your values and reaching your goals.

Through the posts on this blog, I will walk you through many of the concepts required to do this. But you do not have to learn this from me. The way has been thoroughly explored. The best way to learn to remove unhealthy negative beliefs is to study a system of thought that has this as its aim.

The method that is most in line with what I will be posting is Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. This school of psychotherapy, created by Albert Ellis, is the original form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (Often referred to as CBT). This is a method for recognizing your irrational beliefs and replacing them with healthy beliefs. REBT suggests a number of healthy beliefs which will lead to improved happiness.

An alternate source of healthy, rational beliefs can come from ancient wisdom such as Stoic Philosophy (which is a was a major influence for Albert Ellis). In addition to Stoicism, Buddhism could be seen as another source of positive philosophical ideas. Both of these philosophies deal with mindfully behaving in positive, virtuous ways while accepting the things that are beyond your control.

The central idea of all of this is summed up in the words of a crippled Roman slave turned renowned philosopher. His name was Epictetus and his philosophy might be best summarized by his quote, “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.”

This simple quote tells us that we can change our view of the world to be in line with happiness. And if that is true, then we are responsible for our own happiness—no one else. And that also means that no one can take it away from us.

Whenever It Seems That Others Must Change, Accept That They Don’t.

Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (Part 7)

Humans naturally pay attention to what the people around them do and judging what they see quickly follows. Our minds promptly tell us what others should and must do—how they absolutely need to change.

This, inevitably, leads to problems because others are free to do as they wish. They simply don’t have to comply with our demands. People can choose to do what we see as poor behavior, mistakes, and even immoral and illegal acts. Of course, this behavior can carry steep consequences, but even so, this does not mean that they must not have chosen it.

People generally do what they believe to be the right thing for them. From their point of view, their behavior is acceptable—and while we may not agree with their “logic”, it is a losing battle to insist that they should see the world the way we see it.

Another way to phrase this is to accept that there are no absolute “should’s” or rules that people must live by. People are not trains on tracks that must go where they have been compelled to go. Even if you believe in a religious doctrine that includes strict laws of behavior, people still have the option not follow them.

Often, in our anger, we might wish to punish people ourselves for their not behaving as we dictate—as if we are angry gods who can smite and damn the wayward mortals. But this arrogance will, in the end, cost us much, and change others little.

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The only sensible solution is acceptance of the other—to allow them to be who they are, even if we disapprove of what they are doing. Acceptance will end the little war your mind is waging in a futile attempt to change what cannot be changed.

How to Use This Idea:

When you are angry at (or hurt by, or disappointed in…) someone, evaluate your thoughts and beliefs about the person. What are you demanding to be different about them? Whatever it is, let it go. Accept that they are who they are and that they do not have to change. Once you accept that, dealing with them will be far easier. You will be more effective doing so because you have already made your peace with the fact that they may not change.

The Fine Print:

This does not mean that you shouldn’t seek to influence others for the better when you can. There are some circumstances when we are able to have a powerful influence on others. Particularly when we are in positions of leadership and authority (such as a being a parent, teacher, boss, governor, prison warden, or emperor). But even in these cases, you would be better of accepting that others have free will.

Also, I do not mean to imply that acceptance of others is an easy task. This is not an immediate process. Acceptance always takes practice to become aware of your thoughts, noticing your demands, and gently reminding yourself of what is and what is not up to you.

What This Will Help You Avoid:

Anger. This idea will help you avoid the futility of trying to change what you cannot and the bitter resentment that follows. that will come with anger. If you allow yourself to damn others and insist that they be different than they are, you are the one who will suffer. The anger will eat away at you and you will find that others are less and less motivated to seek out a connection with you. This, in turn, could lead to even more anger, and a downward spiral can begin.

What This Will Help You Gain:

Tranquility. Acceptance of others will help you find peace of mind. Nothing is more disturbing than demanding that someone else or some aspect of the world be different. Allowing it to be as it is will preserve your energy for those things that you can change.

The Source of this Idea:

This idea comes pretty much straight out of Albert Ellis’s writings relating to Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. Ellis discussed two irrational beliefs that result in much human suffering: Demandingness or the belief that the world and the people in it must be what we decide that they should or must be, and the idea that Conditional ratings of the Self (and Others) lead to disturbed emotions.

Next: You Are Not Your Thoughts. You Are Not Your Feelings.

The Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (So Far)

Idea #11: You Can Do Good Work or Seek Perfection, But You Can’t Do Both

Idea #10: Your Path Will Not Be Easy. But Ease is Not Required.

Idea #9: Emotions are not your guide. Without reason they will lead you astray

Idea #8: You are not your thoughts. You are not your feelings.

Idea #7: Whenever it seems that other’s must change, accept that they don’t.

Idea #6: People Suck Sometimes. Accept Them Anyway.

Idea #5: Others will not approve. Carry on without approval.

Idea #4: The world is unjust. Live there anyway.

Idea#3: To live is to confront adversity. But to be alive is to have limitless resilience. 

Idea#2: Life is risky. Live anyway.

Idea#1: Be curious. Learn what you can, but hold lightly to your truths.