How we talk to ourselves matters. That’s not just self-help fluff— it really, really does.

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Communication matters. 

How you communicate to others matters. 

How you communicate to yourself very much matters. 

We’re communicating all the time, both to ourselves and to others. We don’t even need to be talking. Our expressions, our body language, the background noise going on in our heads, our choices. They all communicate to us and to the people around us who we are, what we’re all about, what’s important to us, what reality is all about to us. 

The problem is, the vast majority of our communication, we don’t think all that much about. 

Sure, we think about some aspects of our communication, especially to others. We agonize over how to word emails and rehearse how to say certain things to certain people. Many of us spend an awful lot of time thinking, maybe even obsessing, about the impression we’re making on others. 

Many of us spend more time than we’d like to admit crafting social media posts. 

But that communication that we pay so much attention to is rarely the communication that is most important. 

Most people pay precious little attention to the communication that happens inside our heads— to ourselves, from ourselves. 

Which is a shame, because it’s that communication— the communication that is received, processed, and invested in by an audience of one— that overwhelmingly has the greatest impact on our lives. 

What comprises the communication that happens inside our heads? The communication that we transmit from ourselves, to ourselves? 

When events happen in our lives, from the mundane to the profound, we are tasked with deciding what those events mean. 

We have to figure out what the events of our lives imply, and how we’re expected to respond. This can only happen with dialogue within our own noggins. 

Think of your internal communication as a constant stream of questions and answers going back and forth within your own head— and the vast majority of this back-and-forth happens outside of our awareness. 

“What does this mean? How should I respond? What is needed here? What are the implications of this? What do I need relative to this?” 

Our brains are essentially designed as question asking-and-answering machines. It’s literally how we think: we ask and answer questions of ourselves, all day every day. We communicate with ourselves all day, every day, whether we know it or not. 

Where does our brain get its answers from, then? 

Our brain searches for answers to the never-ending stream of questions in the past. 

Our brain searches for answers in our beliefs. 

Our brain searches for answers by consulting what it believes to be true about others who share our values systems or backgrounds. 

All of which is to say: if we’ve been hurt by trauma in our pasts; if our beliefs are distorted by depression or anxiety; if we have an over-reliance on the thoughts and opinions and judgements of others…the answers that our brains furnish us won’t be the highest quality. 

The answers our brains give us to these important questions will be tainted, contaminated, an distorted by the biases, inaccuracies, and pathologies of the material our brains consult in order to communicate answers to our questions. 

Do you begin to see why it’s so important that we take conscious control of how we talk to ourselves— and how we talk back? 

Almost every form of empirically validated psychotherapy, from cognitive therapy to psychoanalysis, depends heavily on us becoming aware of our internal communication and learning to direct it in ways that are congruent with our health, goals, and values. 

One of the few relatively original contributions I’ve made to the art and science of therapy is a method of internal communication among dissociative self-states in people who have been badly traumatized. My method hinges on acknowledging, honoring, and working with parts of ourselves that have been alienated and that “hold” various feelings and memories. Only later did I realize that this is a very necessary skill for everyone to develop, regardless of their trauma history. 

It’s really, really hard to build a quality life without quality internal communication. 

The good news is: becoming aware of how we talk to ourselves is a skill that is very learnable. 

As with most communication, getting better at internal communication starts with listening. 

I know, easier said than done. 

But super, super important to do. 

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Start with what you can manage. I mean it.

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Focus on the interval of time you can wrap your brain around. 

Many people get overwhelmed in therapy or personal development because they think of it as a process of dramatically transforming their entire life— forming new attitudes and habits that they’ll have to maintain from here on out, for years. And years. And years. 

When you tell your brain that the way it’s been conditioned to respond and function has to dramatically, fundamentally change, and it’s going to have to function in a new and unfamiliar way, and it’s going to have to keep up that pattern for years…and years…and years…your brain is very likely going to freak out. 

It’s not that your brain doesn’t want a better life for you. It’s that your brain is a realist. 

Your brain knows that sweeping changes are hard to maintain for long periods of time. And your brain is right: making a huge change and expecting that change to stick for the long haul, especially when we’re inexperienced with the change, is a tall order. 

Imagining staying sober when your primary coping mechanism has been a habit or substance is overwhelming enough. People in recovery often have trouble imagining staying sober for another minute, let alone years into the future. The same holds true for anyone trying to make changes in well-established, over conditioned behavioral patterns. 

Imagining keeping those uncomfortable changes up over a long period can be a discouraging, depressing thing. 

The good news is, there’s no real reason to imaging keeping those changes up over the long haul. 

There’s no reason to imagine NEVER having your substance again. 

There’s no reason to imagine NEVER engaging in your self-defeating behavior again. 

All you need to think about is however long you can think about. 

Can you realistically imagine not taking a drink for the next ten seconds? Then start there. 

Can you realistically imagine using your day planner to plan out the next three hours? Then start there. 

Can you realistically imagine exercising for ten minutes? Start there. 

Can you realistically imagine going twenty minutes without cutting yourself? Then start there. 

Can you realistically imagine going thirty minutes without killing yourself? Then start there. 

Whatever interval of time seems realistic for you— even if it’s a period of seconds to minutes— then start there. Then when the next interval comes around, deal with that interval then. 

Whereas your brain might balk at making certain changes “for the rest of your life,” it’ll usually make a deal with you to try something out for a specific, relatively shorter, manageable period of time. 

Part of the skill of internal communication is learning how to deal with your brain when it’s developed certain habits and dependencies as a way to cope. Your brain didn’t evolve addictions and self-defeating habits just for the hell of it or to make you miserable. It developed those patterns to defend against uncomfortable feelings and memories. So when you ask it to give up those coping patterns, it gets scared and defensive…and you need to deal with that reality. 

Asking a scared, defensive brain to give up its security blankets indefinitely is usually a recipe for frustration and relapse. 

On the other hand, asking a scared, defensive brain to tentatively try out some new patterns— with compassion and empathy for what that brain is going through— is a more realistic, more doable approach. 

Using specific time windows in which to experiment with new behaviors can often open the door to forming new habits in a way that is less overwhelming and more productive than trying to induce “shock and awe” in our nervous systems by making too many changes or incredibly dramatic changes all at once. 

It’s odd, how often people think they need to make dramatic changes all at once. Our addictions, emotions, and habits didn’t develop all at once; it’s unreasonable to expect them to change all at once. 

Recovery is a process of finding what works, minute by minute, and progressively making the kind of little changes we can realistically live with. 

We need to trust that the little changes will all add up to significant changes over time. 

And the best way to ensure that the little changes “stick” and add up to bigger changes is to make the changes little enough that we can imagine wrapping our brains around them without flipping out. 

Just focus on the interval you can realistically imagine. 

Let the next one take care of itself. 

 

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Unpopular opinion: “Hard work” is overrated.

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You’ve heard it said that “hard work pays off.” I tend to agree with this— generally. 

The thing is, there are lots of ways to work “hard.” And not all of them “pay off.” 

Not all of them can possibly pay off, when you think about it, insofar as there are plenty of people in the world who are working equally hard, but at cross purposes. If “hard work” was all that was needed to succeed, everyone would. And we know that’s not the case. 

“Working hard” is often very helpful on our personal development journeys. I consider diligent effort to be a tool, one of many that we have to learn and use wisely. 

That is to say: if you’re going to work hard, make sure you’re working smart. 

If you’re going to work hard, make sure you’re achieving results. 

If you’re going to work hard, make sure you’re heading in the right direction. 

The engine of a car can work plenty hard if it’s revved up to a hundred miles an hour— but all that hard work won’t do it much good if it’s pointed in the wrong direction. 

And why would a car be heading a hundred miles an hour in the wrong direction? Often, because its driver didn’t consult a map, and hasn’t been paying enough attention to the landmarks they’re passing to know that they’re lost. 

We tend to glorify “hard work” in our culture. We consider the willingness to work hard a marker of good moral character. We tend to trust people who are hard workers more than people we don’t consider hard workers— they often strike us as more honest and virtuous than those we consider slackers. 

There’s an extent to which the willingness to work hard is certainly admirable, insofar as it’s not easy. 

But the fact is, people who are using “hard work” are simply utilizing one tool from their tool box that they happen to be good at using. 

What good is using the tool of “hard work” if we’re not also using the tool of “sensitivity to results?” 

What good is using the tool of “hard work” if we’re not also using the tool of “willingness to adjust?” 

People who are convinced that “hard work” is the key to the kingdom of results in and of itself are often faced with a harsh reality with their work is met with less success than they’d prefer. 

Often when people’s “hard work” doesn’t pay off, they get angry. They feel that because they used the tool of “hard work,” then they “deserve” a certain result. 

Unfortunately, life has a tendency not to care about what we “deserve.” 

Life rewards those who develop their skills and use their tools judiciously. 

(Life also has an annoying tendency to disproportionately reward those who are in the right place at the right time— but that falls squarely under the heading of “things we can’t control.”)

My point with all of this is, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that “hard work” is all you need in order to succeed. It’s a tool without which it tends to be more difficult to succeed— but it is one tool among a handful of important tools. 

Just like any tool, it’s important to know when and how to utilize the tool of “hard work.” 

If you use the tool of “hard work” in times and places when it’s not the tool that is called for, it’s very easy to burn yourself out. 

If you fail to use the tool of “hard work” in times and places when it IS the tool that’s called for, you’re going to get out-hustled. 

Tools can be tricky things to manage. They can make, say, building a house a lot easier— in fact, it’s hard to build a house WITHOUT using tools. 
But they can also smash your thumbs if you’re not using them mindfully. 

There are a lot of people out there who like to shame people for their supposed aversion to “hard work.” In their model of the world, the main reason why people aren’t succeeding is because they’re simply not working hard enough (this is connected to what I mentioned earlier, about “hard work” being connected to virtue in many peoples’ minds). 

I’m gong to suggest a different hypothesis: if you’re not succeeding at the level you prefer, your lack of “hard work” MAY be contributing. 

But it may also be your lack of another skill or tool as well. 

Think of “hard work” as a tool. Nothing more, nothing less. 

When you need the right tool for the right job, you definitely need to be able to pull it out of your toolbox. 

But make sure you’re stacking that toolbox with an array of tools for an array of purposes— and, even more important, make sure you’re developing enough understanding of and experience with your tools in order to be able to use them well. 

 

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“What works for most people” may not be the same as “what works for you.”

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The project of personal development entails paying attention to two variables: “what works for most people,” and “what works for me.” 

You’re doing yourself a disservice by disregarding either of these variables. 

However, most personal growth gurus and teachers focus almost exclusively on one or the other. 

It’s odd. You’d think if they were so cosmic, they’d know we really do need both. 

Why do we need both? 

“What works for most people” is important to pay attention to because human beings tend to have things in common. 

We tend to have the same types of nervous systems, generally speaking. We tend to have things in common when it comes to how we respond to reward and punishment. Our brains almost all run on basically the same neurotransmitters. Our bodies almost all require fundamentally similar nutrition and rest to function. 

“What works for most people,” when it comes to emotional and psychological development, is laid out in the reams and reams and reams of psychological and behavioral research my field has amassed in the last several centuries. 

It’s an imperfect body of work, the psychological research, I’ll give you that. But the fact is research psychologists have conducted enough studies and replicated enough results that we really do know a lot more than you might think about “what works for most people.” 

Why would you ignore that, the way many self-help teachers like to? 

Granted, the research is often not sexy; it often doesn’t lend itself to the, uh, creative sensibilities of a subset of people who prefer more metaphysical explanations for why humans do what we do; and it often confirms things that we already know. 

But ignoring the psychological research— “what works for most people”— sets us up to somehow believe that we are fundamentally different from the vast majority of our fellow humans…and I assure you, no matter how alone or special or alien you feel, you’re not that different from your fellow humans. 

“What works for me,” however, is important to pay attention to for a different reason: because no matter how similar you might be to your fellow human beings, your mileage is absolutely going to vary when it comes to how helpful any given tool will be. 

You have a history of associations, experiences, rewards and punishments that are unlike anybody else in the history of humanity. 

No one besides you occupies the highly individualized world you’ve built in your brain and mind. 

While you may be similar to your fellow human beings in that you respond to the same forces of reinforcement and punishment— and again, I assure you, that is the case— you have an unquestionably unique matrix of meaning that determines what you, specifically, find reinforcing and punishing. 

Why would you want to ignore that, the way many professional therapists do? 

Granted, professional therapy often falls into the trap of assuming that because humans are fundamentally similar, they must all then be the SAME, and because we’re “scientists,” we need to assume everybody is the SAME, unless we have empirical evidence to the contrary. 

Failure to take into account both extremes— “what works for most people” and “what works for me” — accounts for many, many therapeutic and personal development failures. 

On your own journey, one skill that is imperative to develop is the willingness and ability to flip back and forth, as needed, between considering “what works for most people” and “what works for me.” 

We need to be willing to take either approach when trying to understand an emotion or behavior. 

We need to be willing to take either approach when trying to create a useful plan of action. 

We need to deeply accept that we are both part of the human species and also a unique organism that has never existed before we, personally, were born. 

The skill of “flexibility of perception and approach” is a game changer. 

It allows us to both take advantage of the collective wisdom of the behavioral science paradigm— and also the years of data you have collected over the course of a lifetime of being YOU. 

If you’ve been reading me for any length of time, you know I don’t believe in ignoring any valid set of data. 

Be a scientist. Use all the available data. And be smart enough to know when to take a macro-approach…and when to reel it in to the population of “you.” 

 

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It probably doesn’t matter what you “deserve.”

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I don’t think you “deserve” a good life. 

I don’t think you “deserve” a bad life, either. 

I don’t think you have a “birthright” to happiness, nor do I think your “birthright” is misery. 

Whether you think you, or anyone else, “deserves” happiness or has a “birthright” of success…those questions are emphatically above my pay grade. Philosophers, theologians, and other people much smarter than I am have been thinking deeply about those questions for centuries. 

What I do know is the practical, day to day mechanics of constructing a better life. 

And it’s my experience that when we get overly preoccupied by what we “deserve” as our “birthright”…our heads aren’t in the place we need them to be in order to create a better life in the real world. 

When an elite athlete goes out onto the playing field thinking that they “deserve” a victory because they’re simply a “better” competitor than their opponent…then they’re not focused on the sequences and skills they need to be focused on in order to win. 

When a political candidate assumes their victory is assured because they “deserve” it, being much more qualified and intelligent than their opponent…then they’re often not focused on the strategies and efforts they’re going to need to turn out their voters and persuade the electorate. 

Life, as it turns out, doesn’t seem to care what we think we “deserve.” 

It doesn’t care what we think our “birthright” is. 

Focusing on what we “deserve,” far more often than not, pumps us up with a sense of entitlement that distracts us from the real world mechanics of how do we live our values and pursue our goals TODAY. 

Understand: I’m not saying your birthright ISN’T greatness. 

I’m not saying that humans don’t “deserve” to be happy, in the abstract. 

What I am saying, though, is that it matters where our head is, day to day.  It matters where our focus is. 

Where I want your focus, day to day, is how you’re going to make today work. 

Today. This day. 

Not the rest of the week, month, or year. Not the rest of your life. 

What are your goals and values that you’re going to act on TODAY? 

What are the practical, down to earth, doable ways you’re going to act on those goals and values, TODAY? 

That’s where I want your head. Not in a philosophical reverie about how you “deserve” to be lauded or punished. 

The fact is, for many reasons, we simply don’t get what we think we “deserve,” for better or worse. 

I’ve been in professional and personal relationships where I was certain I “deserved” better treatment than I was getting. I was thoroughly convinced, in fact, that I had “earned” the right to be treated better than I was being treated. 

Guess how much it mattered, what I thought I “deserved?” 

Eventually we come to the realization that it simply doesn’t matter what we think we “deserve.” What matters is what we’re willing to do, today, to live our values and nudge toward our goals. 

If my work with patients and clients can be summed up succinctly, it would be in the statement “Get your head out of the clouds, and focus on the mechanics of how to make TODAY work.” 

The fact is, whether we are right or wrong about what we think we “deserve,” what our “birthright” is, we still have to identify strategies and skills to make it through this twenty four hours. 

No “birthright” is going to use your skills for you.

No level of “deservingness” is gong to free you from the necessity of being clear about who you are and what you’re working toward, today, here in the real world. 

Acknowledge what you think you “deserve,” if you must. 

But then go out and handle THIS day, THIS day right in front of you, one minute, one problem, one skill, one task, one goal at a time. 

 

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Go out and win one for the Doc.

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Our metaphors matter. They direct our focus. 

One of the reasons I so often speak in terms of training and coaching is because it’s a metaphor I find useful in directing the focus of my “athletes.” 

It’s my experience that many patients and clients find therapy and personal development daunting because it’s as if they’re being asked to develop a skillset that will handle EVERY PROBLEM THEY ENCOUNTER FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES. Or they’re being asked to FIGURE OUT THE WHOLE “LIFE” THING. Or they’re trying to FIX THEIR LIFE. 

I mean…woof. Who wouldn’t be intimidated if that’s how you’re approaching the task of therapy or personal development? 

I point them in a different direction— instead of trying to tackle this big, overwhelming thing of FIGURING OUT LIFE, I encourage them to think of our work together as a coaching relationship. 

They’re an athlete, I’m their coach. 

Their life goals are the “score” of the “game” they’re playing. 

In order for the “game” to make sense, the scoring system has to be specific and make sense. It would make no sense to send an athlete out on the field with no idea how to score points, would it? 

This is why, in their work with me, my patients are asked to get very specific about their goals, and about the little goals that lead up to their goals— if we’re going to “train” properly, an “athlete” needs to know how to score and what tasks are required to get them past the goal line. 

The metaphor of me and my patients as “coach” and “athletes” also extends to the idea of “training.” 

Being successful at a sport involves a lot of practice. Practice requires getting clear and specific about what abilities and skills the athlete needs to develop in order to win at their sport (i.e., achieve the life goals the patient has come into therapy to work on). 

The idea of “training” speaks to developing a schedule and a disciplined routine whereby the athlete practices their skills every day, with the intention of sharpening those skills enough that they’ll score more points, more goals, more takedowns, more wins. 

This is exactly what needs to happen when we’re in therapy or working to improve our lives— daily work on the skills we need in order to move toward our goals. 

Sports involve victories and losses, just like life. 

The thing is, when we’re defeated in life, we tend to get discouraged and depressed…whereas when an athlete loses in a professional sport, yes, they may be disappointed, but they also realize that losing is as much a part of competition as winning, and they use that loss to go back and refine their training regimen. 

See? Metaphors matter. 

(And I’m not even a sports guy!) 

What are some of your metaphors? What are the lenses through which you’ve been looking at your life? 

Our metaphors shape our reactions to and interpretations of success and failure. They inform our judgment about what should come next. They feed our belief systems about whether the challenge we’re facing is conquerable or not. 

As a metaphorical “coach” for my “athletes,” I’m not in a position of knowing and seeing everything, any more than a professional coach can know or see everything that might impact an athlete’s performance on the field. 

Therapists, for some reason, aren’t that great at admitting they have blind spots.

But if my patients think of me as a “coach,” it becomes far less troublesome to admit that, of course I have blind spots— and just like any good coach of any good athlete, I’m in the position of adjusting and refining my own viewpoints and skills and understanding of the game, in order to better serve my “athletes.” 

Take your metaphors seriously. 

Ask yourself whether your metaphors serve you well, or burden you. 

Ask yourself if there are metaphors that might realign how you see the world and your place in it. 

And then…go out and win one for the Doc. 

 

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Suck it up, Buttercup.

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“Suck it up” is an expression that gets both over- and under-used. 

Most of the time I’ve seen it used, it’s been in a shaming, negative sense. It seems “suck it up” is often deployed as kind of a verbal or emotional weapon against someone somebody thinks isn’t trying as hard as they should. 

People toss out “suck it up” to shame or humiliate both other people and themselves. 

Do you realize how often we tell ourselves to “suck it up” and push through a difficulty? 

It’s as if we’re telling ourselves that our feelings and reactions in the moment don’t matter— we “should” be “tough” enough to “stick it out.” 

Look at that mess of a sentence. “Should.” Tough.” “Stick it out.” 

None of those expressions contains an actual strategy. 

None of those expressions speak to actual tools. 

None of those “tough guy” expressions provide any kind of guidance as to HOW one is actually expected to “suck it up.” 

I, myself, don’t believe the obstacles most people face are attitudinal. 

I don’t believe the problem with most people is that they’re not “sucking it up” or being as “tough” as they “should” be. 

I believe most people who are stuck or afraid or struggling lack an actual path, actual tools, actual strategies. 

It’s my experience that if you provide a motivated individual with clear goals (both final goals and intermediate goals) with the tools he or she needs, then the “suck it up” part often takes care of itself. 

And that is actually where I feel the expression “suck it up” might be underused— in the goal-setting and strategizing portion of the game. 

A lot of people don’t like to set goals, create plans, or plot strategy.

They fantasize that if they just have the right attitude, or if they’re just “tough enough,” or if they just make a decision to get through a situation “no matter what,” that’ll be enough. 

If they DO get around to setting goals, making plans, and plotting strategies, that sometimes brings their attention to the less-than-stimulating intermediate goals they have to go through to GET to their final goals…and they often don’t like thinking about those intermediate goals, because they’re boring, frustrating, or require more attention to detail than the big-picture goals. 

I get it. Daydreaming about big goals is way more fun than strategizing to achieve little goals. 

Suck it up. Strategizing, intermediate goal-setting, and time management are necessary, not optional, parts of this whole life development process. 

Suck it up. If you really want to do the things you value, if you really want the level of emotional and physical and lifestyle freedom you envision, you ‘re going to have to do a few things you’d prefer not to do— like intermediate goal-setting, planning, and strategizing. 

“Suck it up” isn’t a magical talisman that can carry us through any given situation on the momentum of attitude or determination alone. But it IS the only way to confront the reality that some aspects of this process won’t be immediately stimulating or gratifying. 

The expression or concept of “suck it up” doesn’t have to be shaming or humiliating, by the way. It can, in fact, be your best friend, if you let it be. 

“Suck it up” presupposes you DO have the knowledge and skills necessary to do the hard things. 

“Suck it up” implies you can get through the unpleasant part of this process, so you can move on the parts of the project that are more fun and interesting and rewarding. 

You can either use “suck it up” as a way to pretend that there is some sort of sweeping attitudinal factor that will make all the difference in the world— which is nonsense and counterproductive— or you can use “suck it up” as a practical bit of self-talk to get you through the practical tasks needed to move forward. 

Don’t beat yourself over the head with “suck it up” 

Use the expression just as you’d use any other tool in your repertoire— intelligently, self-supportively, compassionately, and consistently. 

Suck it up and set some goals. 

Suck it up and manage your time. 

Suck it up and strategize around your strengths and weaknesses, your stronger tools and your weaker ones. 

Suck it up and have some compassion for yourself, even when you don’t feel like it. 

Suck it up and be fair to yourself. 

You can do it. 

 

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