Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Steps to Take

So last week I wrote about myself, and it felt pretty good to do so.  It also seemed like a lot of people had similar experiences because I received numerous comments in person and online to that effect.  So that felt good also.

But the catch here is that although I described my experience in general terms, and said "it's getting better," I didn't really elaborate on specifics.  Anybody who has ever had a counselor or a therapist knows that when you have emotional issues or irrational biases that you've been nursing since childhood, they don't go away just by saying, "hey, I have this problem."

The reason is pretty simple; it's not enough to know facts about your emotions.  You must believe those facts strongly enough to turn them into new emotions.  And you don't do that just by reading a blog post that makes you feel good, you do it by.

One of my favorite books about happiness is "59 Seconds," by Richard Wiseman, precisely because it asks a simple question: "what concrete steps can we take to make ourselves happier?"  What experiences can we forge for ourselves that will take these distant facts about happiness and self-worth and turn them into real experiences?  Ideally, you pick steps and decisions that have been tested and demonstrated to actually work.  And even though I don't think all the material in the book is guaranteed to work, some of it is definitely useful (particularly gratitude exercises), and this question helped me keep focus when trying to improve my own mental state.

If a soccer coach said, "you need ball control," but didn't give you drills and exercises to improve your ball control, you would question his ability as a coach.  If you math teacher says, "you must learn how logarithms work," but then doesn't give you examples and doesn't show you how to use them, you would know they weren't a very good teacher.  Likewise, if somebody tells you, "hey you should be more compassionate towards yourself," but doesn't teach you ways to transform that "idea" into action, experience, and positive emotion, you should find somebody who gives better advice.

This is typically where you might find somebody who says, "well it's different for everybody.  You can't make people happy and you can't force people to change the way they think."  Sure, yes, okay, but that's no excuse not to put the advice out there.  There were things I did--not just words I heard or articles I read, but specific steps I took--that worked for me, and things that didn't.

So enough warm-up.  These are the things that I actively focused on, the exercises and rituals and practices that I used--and continue to use--to give myself more strength and stability in my emotional life.  Next to the name of the thing is the skill that it has been teaching me.

Metta Meditation -- Self-Compassion

The first and most important one--the one you must pick if you only pick a single one from this list--is called Metta meditation.  I read about it in a book called "The Charisma Myth" by Olivia Fox Cabane, which is another very interesting read.  The exercise doesn't take long long, but it has huge positive consequences.  I would say that of everything I have ever done to improve my energy levels, my self-esteem, my motivation, and my resilience in the face of failure, this is the single most important and successful one.  When I am tired, down on myself, feeling stressed or pressured, I spend a couple minutes doing this exercise.  The few minutes I would take in between sets at Kings of Cali 2, for instance, were actually devoted to briefly running through this mental exercise.  This is the way I structured mine; anything in quotes is taken from Cabane's book.  Otherwise, I'm paraphrasing.

Here's how it goes:

1) Start by taking three deep breaths.  Imagine all the clean air rushing up to the top of your head, and then exhale in a rush, blowing out all stress and negative feeling.

2) Stop for a moment and think about something good that you have done.  It can be anything, from making somebody smile by holding the door for them, to driving a few minutes out of my way to give a friend a ride, to stopping before I post something angry online and reconsider what I wrote.  Personally, I try to think of a time where I have put forth genuine effort, and I compliment myself for trying my hardest, or for putting forth effort when I would have rather flaked or quit.

3) From the book: "Now think of one being, whether present or past, mythical or actual--Jesus, Buddha, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama--who could have great affection for you."

4) "Picture this being in your mind.  Imagine their warmth, their kindness, and compassion.  See it in their eyes and face.  Feel their warmth radiating toward you, enveloping you.  See yourself through their eyes with warmth, kindness, and compassion.  Feel them giving you complete forgiveness for everything your inner critic says is wrong.  You are completely and absolutely forgiven.  You have a clean slate."

5) Say the following to yourself: "With all your imperfections, you are perfect.  For this phase of growth, you are perfect.  You are fully approved of just the way you are, at this stage of development, right now."

Why this works:

The goal of this exercise is to improve your self-compassion.  Not your self-esteem or your self-confidence, but your self-compassion.  The difference between self-compassion and self-esteem is pretty simple; if self-esteem is the strength of the animal that you're riding, then self-compassion is your ability to get back on it when you fall off.  It's the ability to forgive yourself, to acknowledge that you will make mistakes (sometimes big, goofy mistakes) and that you're still a worthwhile person even when you do it.  It's kind of ironic that you improve self-compassion by visualizing someone else showing it to you, but that's how we function most of the time.

Another distinction should be made here, which is that self-compassion is not the same as self-pity.  Self-pity involves looking at yourself and saying, "you suck.  You made a mistake and it's dumb.  How pathetic, how pitiful, how inferior you are.  How sad it is to be you.  I pity you."  Self-compassion is looking at yourself and saying, "obviously you make mistakes.  You're human.  What has happened to you is unfortunate.  But like all other humans, you now have a chance to move forward and improve, to do it better and move on.  You are a worthwhile human being as you are, and you have the capacity to become even better in the future."

When I do this exercise, I sit up straight somewhere comfortable, and I take a few deep breaths.  Then I try to congratulate myself for times when I put forth great effort, or when I refused to let a bad situation get me down.  I give myself credit for the things I have been trying to do.  Then, I visualize Mr. Fred Rogers telling me that he likes me just the way I am.  I tell myself, "I know you are trying your hardest to improve.  And you're not there yet, but you're moving forward with all your effort.  At this phase of growth, you are perfect as you are."

(Another analogy I use for myself is this: when I get in my car with the intent of driving somewhere that's five hours away, I don't get upset that I'm not there after one hour.  Likewise, in the process of self-improvement and learning, I have started far away from my destination, and not being there right away is not a sign that I'm driving in the wrong direction)

The immediate result is that I end up feeling more motivated and energetic, and I also feel a deep sense of okay-ness.  It isn't exactly blissful joy, but I feel rejuvenated and ready to tackle my problems and goals with renewed vigor.  It also tells me that even if I do make mistakes like the rest of humanity does, I'm still a worthwhile and valuable member of their club, and with that fixed firmly in mind, I'm free to try my hardest without reservation.

Self-compassion is, as far as I can tell, the best way to neutralize fears, hangups, and the sources of stress that keep you from fully investing yourself in things.

Stillness Practice -- Impulse Awareness and Control

The exercise here is simple.  Pick a time of day when you have even five minutes to yourself.  Five minutes before you go out to get drinks, five minutes after you shower before you go to work or school.  Five minutes whenever.  You have it, trust me.

1) Sit down on the floor, or on the edge of your bed and set a timer for 5 minutes.  Use a phone or stopwatch or something.

2) Take some deep breaths, settle in, get comfy (but not too comfy).

3) Pick a simple sitting pose that you can hold for five minutes.  My posture is sitting on the edge of my bed, with my hands folded together and the fingers interlaced.  I lean forward with elbows on my knees.

4) Start the timer and assume your pose.

5) Don't move until five minutes have passed.  At all.  This includes itches, aches in your hands and feet.  Don't rustle from side to side.  Don't sweep your hair..  Don't lick your lips, don't yawn or swallow.  Breath, blink, and that's it.

Why this works:

What is the point?  One of the biggest challenges in our life is that we make decisions we are not aware of.  And this is fine, if those decisions are things like "check your mirrors for people about to rear-end your car," or "brush your teeth before bedtime."  In this case, we normally move and shuffle and scratch and adjust ourselves frequently without thinking about it.  The goal of this exercise is, for a scheduled period of time, to focus entirely on our impulses to move and get comfortable, and to push them away.

As I've mentioned elsewhere on the blog, our goal in life is not to avoid negative emotions and impulses, but to handle them with grace and control.  There are days when you must work, but you really don't want to.  So rather than say, "I won't work because I don't feel like it," you must stop and say, "I am aware that I don't feel like it, but my choice is to work anyhow."  And, personally, I derive a tremendous benefit from just spending 5 minutes keenly aware of my impulses to shift and move, and intentionally, consciously resisting them.  It sends me a message that my behavior is under my control, and my impulses are just suggestions, not the arbiters of my behavior, and I feel charged and in control as I go about my day.

When you sit there with a simple instruction like "sit still," you can't help but notice your impulses to move.  And as you become aware of your impulses, you also practice the ability to control them.  This feeling of control and security (for me, at least) spills over when I need my willpower for other things.

Effective Rest -- Compartmentalizing

One of the biggest problems I've had in the past is that I filled my rest time with mentally draining activities.  My father, one of the most effective and hard workers I know, during some of his free time, seems to completely switch himself off.  He will spend it in an armchair looking at nothing, or sometimes he will have the TV on (though later if you asked him what he watched, he barely remembers).  And this is because, just as your body must rest after running or lifting weights, your brain needs time to rest.  It needs honest recuperation from its work.  If you spend your rest thinking about all this other work you need to do or should do, or you go and practice something else that's really hard (while worrying about what you "should" be doing with your time), then you aren't resting.  You are actively engaging your mind with stress, and possibly frustration and guilt (which are remarkably unrestful emotions).

The answer is to compartmentalize your time.  When you work, work fully and unabashedly.  When you rest, rest completely.  Don't use your rest time to sit around talking with your friends about how stressful and tiring work is, because then all you're doing is activating the parts of your brain associated with work.  You recall all the problems and difficulties, you tell your brain "no, we can't rest, we're still working."  And that's where that feeling of "oh no not again" comes from when you wake up and have to go back.

And browsing Facebook, playing video games, paying attention to what's on TV, all that does is engage your brain constantly with more facts to keep up with.  You give it more questions of, "is this relevant information, should I discard this, that cat is posed hilariously but the caption kind of sucks," and then for some *strange and unimaginable reason,* you feel like you haven't rested at all.

But the brain is not so easy to switch off.  As long as it feels like something needs to be done, it will try to keep tabs on it.  But if you genuinely believe work time is over, then your brain will say, "okay, new environment, new rules."

1) Schedule your stopping time, and stop at it.  Period.  When work is over, work is over.  Still have something you need to get done?  That's fine, you will do it tomorrow.  Could you have worked harder, and guilt is setting in?  Well, use that guilt as fuel tomorrow.  No thinking about it now.  Work is over.  If you have something that must be done (your final piece of work on a project of some kind, perhaps), then stop when that thing is done, and don't schedule a time.  But schedule a clear stopping point, whether it's a specific action, or a specific time.  Do not keep pushing.  If you feel a strange compulsion to keep working, celebrate your desire to

Why would this help?  One of the biggest drains on mental resources while we're not working is, very simply, the guilt that we're not working.  But with a scheduled stopping time in place, you can safely say to yourself, "I worked the amount I was supposed to."  Clearly demarcate the boundary between work and not-work.  Don't let them blur.  Don't permit yourself to do mentally draining activities during your rest time.

2) When you stop working, don't evaluate how much work you got done, but how hard you worked.  The harder you worked, the more you celebrate and congratulate yourself.  I've mentioned time and again how much more valuable it is to celebrate a good process (hard work and honest attempts at improvement) than a good result.  A big part of this is because results aren't always under your control, but the process that you choose to use is.  If you're picking a genuinely good process and working hard at it, then good results are likely to come.  Reward yourself for a good process, and actively say, "I am proud that I worked hard today."  Again, destroy residual guilt you feel for not being busier.  If you are genuinely working hard and you aren't allotting yourself enough time to get things done, then you can easily say, "okay, I'll add another thirty minutes," or "I'll add another hour of work."

3) It works backwards.  When you work, permit no leisure related activities.  If possible, disable your internet and turn off your phone.  Your work time is your work time.  It is valuable.  It is the time of day that you produce and earn.  If you're a student, it's when you learn.  So schedule a stopping time for your rest as well.

Again, one of my problems has always been constantly worrying that I'm not achieving enough with my time.  Since I started designating specific times for work and achievement, and specific times for rest, I have simultaneously been more productive (and more rested) than ever.  The simple act of scheduling your starting and stopping points.

Does this seem like laziness?  It might.  But consider holidays.  Consider Sabbaths.  Even among the most hardcore, do-or-die religions out there, there are days of rest where you are forbidden from working.  I imagine this served a purpose beyond acknowledging the power of their respective deities, but it also kept people from running themselves into the ground.  Study after study shows that the most successful people have clearly designated the time they will rest.  They get good sleep, and they don't appear to be busy 100% of the time.


In short, the three biggest tools for me to feel better and be more active and productive have been:

1) Self-compassion -- being ready to forgive myself and acknowledge my value even when being imperfect.
2) Keener impulse awareness -- having a more active eye on what I want and why I want it.
3) Compartmentalizing my time -- Having clear stopping points, resting well.

If I had to pick the one that had the most dramatic and important improvement on myself, it's definitely #1.  Meditating on my value and giving myself the equivalent of a big mental hug jumpstarts me, it frees me from many of the biases and hangups that have bothered me since I was little.  And most importantly, it has given me strength when my other exercises and ideas aren't panning out.  If I screw up something, I don't just say, "wow, guess I was garbage after all."  I feel a surge of compassion for myself, followed by a renewed drive to work harder.

#2, however, was also very important to me, because I came to realize that my goal is not "avoid all negative emotion," but "understand, spot, and channel negative emotion before it turns to negative action."  I wanted something simple and something harmless that would let me briefly feel a shock of self-discipline that would carry over and help me resist other temptations, and this stillness exercise worked amazingly.

And #3 is important, because while it is very fruitful and very useful to learn to act in the event that you don't feel motivated and you don't feel energetic and you don't feel very happy (#2, at its finest), that is not a reason for you to deprive yourself of energy and motivation for the sake of busy-ness.  It makes you miserable and there's evidence that it even makes you less productive in the long run.  So if in the very short-term you must deprive yourself of rest to get something done, then so be it; if you have more long-term control, always opt for an efficient, compartmentalized rest/work cycle.  A failure to do so makes you feel like you're working intensely hard yet getting nothing done; without compartmentalizing, this is actually true, because your brain never stops working even when you stop producing.

The last point is that these exercises and strategies did not magically solve my problems immediately.  They give me short boosts.  I still fail.  I still get down on myself.  I still overreact.  I'm still not at my full capacity for productivity and happiness.  But it's getting better, and I return to my efforts even when I fall off the wagon.  That is why I think it will stick when other things have failed; I've targeted a root problem (my conditional and flimsy sense of self-worth), I frequently use an effective strategy to fix it, and as a result I'm improving more than ever before.

Thanks for reading.  See you next week!


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