Cancer IS a traumatic stressor. So?

We all know— or most of us can infer, anyway— that being diagnosed with and treated for cancer is, by definition, stressful. 

Many of us, myself included, have had the sad experience of watching a family member or friend struggle with cancer over the course of years. 

There are many people who make significant headway in their battle with cancer; there are people whose cancer goes into remission and people who are declared cancer free at various times along the way; and, conversely, there are people for whom the disease progresses unexpectedly quickly and tragically. 

I don’t need to tell anyone who has struggled with cancer, either personally or in their sphere, how stressful it is, simply on a physical level. 

What I wish was more widely understood, however, is that being diagnosed with and treated for cancer, particularly over the longer term, is a trauma of the kind that produces post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

While of course many people acknowledge how stressful cancer can be in the abstract, it seems I rarely see cancer (or other chronic, unpredictable, serious diseases) explicitly identified as the precipitator of traumatic stress. 

I assure you: cancer is a traumatic stressor…and it is helpful for those whose lives are touched by cancer to think of it as a form of trauma. 

What does that mean? 


That means that, whatever physical symptoms and side effects caused by cancer and cancer treatment…there is GOING to be an emotional impact as well, both for cancer patients and those close to them. 

The depression that many cancer patients experience is not simply sadness at receiving a potentially serious diagnosis— it is a very prominent trauma symptom, described by almost everybody who is exposed to traumatic stress. 

The anxiety that many cancer patients experience is not just uncertainty regarding their personal future or their health outcome— it, too, is a very prominent symptom of post traumatic stress, so much so that PTSD has historically been considered primarily an anxiety disorder. 

When you’ve been exposed to traumatic stress, you will often find yourself vulnerable to “triggers”— things in the environment that touch off an emotional response that might seem outsized in the actual moment, but the intensity of which is related to its relevance to your past and ongoing trauma. 

While it may be predictable for cancer patients to experience ups and downs in mood, energy, and motivation, it’s important to realize that that’s not JUST about their physical prognosis or symptoms— trauma itself has the effect of throwing off our ability to regulate our mood and direct our focus. 

Why is any of this important? 

Because when you’re facing a serious health situation like cancer, you need to have as developed an understanding as possible what you’re up against. 

And as intimidating and exhausting as trauma responses are…we know things about how trauma works. 

We know things about how trauma can be managed and, eventually, healed. 

We know, for example, that the depression that comes with traumatic stress may not be as responsive as you’d expect to standard antidepressants and cognitive behavioral therapy…but that psychotherapy focused first on emotional regulation (i.e., managing your emotional ups and downs, rather than improving your mood) can start to make headway with trauma-based depression. 

We know that the anxiety that comes with trauma disorders can be resistant to over-intellectualized assurances of safety (i.e., reminding yourself that you are “safe”)…but that using visualization and your senses to create a FELT sense of safety that touches your right brain and activates your parasympathetic nervous system can be effective. 

We know that one of the most common trauma responses is to “dissociate” from moments of pain and feeling overwhelmed, and that it doesn’t work to try to “force” ourselves to be present…but that if we learn to recognize when we’re dissociating, and use simple grounding and centering exercises, we can learn to both be present and handle those feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. 

All I want to do with this blog entry is raise your awareness to the fact that, if you are right now dealing with cancer in your life, you are, by definition, taking on a trauma. 

There is no shame in responding to trauma like human beings respond to trauma…though trauma is really good at making us FEEL ashamed of our responses. 

Please take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with what is known about PTSD and complex PTSD. 

Please include coping with traumatic stress among your priorities as you continue to deal with cancer going forward. 

And when you are triggered— as many people are during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, for example— remember that what you’re experiencing is not mysterious or evidence that you are broken. 

You’re going through a trauma, and your nervous system is recognizing it. 

Give yourself the tools to effectively handle this aspect of what’s happening to you. 

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Coping skills and tools are not optional.

One of the reasons it’s so important to develop strong coping skills is because when we are busy investing all of our energy in just emotionally surviving, we have no energy left to be who we are. 

We can lose ourselves in our struggle to just keep our head above water. 

When we are anxious; when we’re depressed; when we are coping with trauma; when we’re fighting off addiction…all of that takes effort. 

Anyone who has been depressed knows how much effort it takes just to get up in the morning, let alone leave the house and go to work or deal with children or pets. 

Anyone who has been chronically anxious knows how much effort it takes just to be out in public without freaking out or melting down. 

Anyone who has struggled with the intrusive memories or runaway emotions associated with trauma knows how exhausting it is to focus on ANYTHING else when we’re triggered. 

Anyone who has struggled with addictive cravings knows how virtually impossible it can be to yank our attention away from our substance or behavior of choice when ALL we want is to give in to it. 

In addition to the suffering that we go through enduring these struggles, we’re faced with a very practical challenge of energy management. 

How on earth are we expected to devote energy and attention to those things that make us, us, when we’re exhausting all of our focus and energy just trying to survive and exist in the world? 

This is why we need to focus first, and most, on developing effective coping skills. 

Our first job in recovery is working on strategies and tactics that will allow us to get through the day without being exhausted and depleted (or, any more exhausted and depleted than we need to be, anyway). 

The idea with coping skills is not to “heal” or “process” anything. 

The idea is to manage what we’re feeling and experiencing. 

To modulate emotion so we’re not overwhelmed. 

To rein in impulses so we don’t behave self-destructively and create all new problems we didn’t have before. 

A lot of us don’t want to focus on coping skills. We want to get right to the heart of our emotional problems— to “process” our trauma, or otherwise heal our emotional wounds. 

I can’t express how any times I’ve witnessed people try to skip over the development of coping skills…and then, when they try to do the emotionally intensive healing work of therapy, fall into destructive patterns and have very little idea how to manage them. 

Developing coping skills is not optional. It is an essential part of the healing process. 

Using coping skills is not optional. We have to bring them out every single day. We don’t get days off. 

Even if we don’t “feel” like using our skills. Even if we’re tired of bringing out our tools. Even if we’re sick of thinking about strategies. 

The thing is: developing strong, effective coping skills pays off in the end. 

If you go slow and develop effective coping skills, it is less likely you’ll lose ground in treatment due to symptomatic relapses or impulsive behavioral decisions. 

Developing and regularly using coping skills can make the difference between healing being a years-long or decades-long process. 

When we get so good at using our tools and skills that we don’t fight it, we just whip them out when necessary— that’s when we star to have energy to be ourselves again. 

That’s when we start being ready for the deeper work. 

The collection of tools and skills that will work for me, will be different than those that will work for you— and that’s okay. 

There’s no rule that says you have to benefit from every coping skill equally, or that your toolbox needs to look the same as anyone else’s. 

What your toolbox needs to do is work for you— and you have to be willing to use it. 

Unless you’re cool throwing all your energy at coping with overwhelming feelings and impulses every time they hit as if you’re facing them for the first time. 

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What my addiction whispers.

My addiction is like a ghost. 

It’s there, but I can’t see it. I can’t touch it. 

But I can hear it. 

It’s always just behind me, whispering in my ear. 

Sometimes it whispers so quietly that I forget that it’s there, and I think my addiction is me, just “normal” thoughts I’m thinking. 

But it’s not. It’s its own thing. 

“Wouldn’t it feel better if you were high? 

“You don’t have to feel this way. Pop a couple pills, and you’d feel so much better.” 

“No one needs to know.” 

“You’re never going to feel good on your own again. You know that, right?” 

“You’ve damaged your brain and nervous system too much. You’ve wrecked any ability you ever had to feel good naturally. You NEED to pop pills now to feel good. There’s no use denying it.” 

“You’ve lost any ability you might have once had to navigate the world without pills. Maybe you once had a chance to develop into a strong, independent person; but that ship has sailed long ago. At this point you need all the help you can get.” 

My addiction doesn’t seem to tire. It doesn’t sleep. It doesn’t take breaks or vacations. 

When things go well, it’s there. 

When things go not-so-well, it’s there. 

Literally all it does is come up with arguments for why I should use. 

And it knows all my buttons. 

It knows what I care about; it knows what I’m afraid of; it knows what memories and regrets are virtually impossible for me to think of without pain. 

My addiction is patient. 

And it is cruel. 

My addiction finds ways to blame me and confuse me. Things that couldn’t have possibly been my fault, my addiction finds ways to convince me were my fault. 

And in standing up against my addiction, I am always alone. 

People may want to help; people may love me; people may want me to succeed. 

But they’re not in my head. They’re not there behind me in the middle of the night. 

My addiction is. 

And nobody understands what that’s like. Not really. Even if they want to. 

My father was one of the smartest, most willful, most intimidating, most memorable people I’ve ever known— and he couldn’t stand up to his own addictions. 

I’m not half the man my father was. 

“What chance do you think you have?”, my addiction whispers to me right now, as I write this. 

“Do you think writing about it’s going to help?” 

“Nobody’s going to save you. You may hold out for a night, or a week, or a year, or a couple years. But I am more patient than you are. I will always be here.” 

“For you to win, you have to be strong and lucky every night. I only have to win once— and then you have to start all over.” 

I’ve lain in bed, my breathing sufficiently slowed by overdosing of opiates, that I’ve realistically wondered if I would wake up if I fell asleep. 

My opiate usage has resulted in constant, high pitched ringing in my ears that may never go away. 

My nervous system has never fully recovered from the chills and sweats that occur when you stop long term opiate overuse. Nobody can give me an answer about whether these symptoms will eventually go away. 

“Wouldn’t it be easier just to use, and feel a little better for the rest of your life? After all, you’re going to die at some point, and all this effort will have been for nothing. You’ll have given up using for what, to be able to say you quit using? Is it worth it?” 

I’ve learned not to argue with my addiction. 

For as much talking as it does, it’s not interested in a conversation. 

It’s not interested in my comfort. 

It’s not interested in anything other than getting me to use. 

I wish I’d never felt the warm rush of pleasure and comfort that I first felt when using opiates. 

The memory of that feeling has become a thing that has haunted me on the brightest day and in my darkest nights. 

And maybe it’ll win someday. 

But not today. 

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Panic and Progress.

It’s really important to remember that having symptoms doesn’t mean we’re not making progress— and that making progress doesn’t mean we’ll never have symptoms. 

This morning, I had a panic attack. 

I’m a pretty self-aware person. My skillset and toolbox for handling emotional and behavioral reactions and struggles is pretty extensive. My job is literally teaching people how to do this. 

I’m also someone with a history of having been abused and bullied, and who has struggled with depression, anxiety, and addiction. 

This morning, I wasn’t in particular danger— what had happened was, I had unwittingly gotten entangled in a situation that vey suddenly triggered intense fears and memories. 

My nervous system responded as human nervous systems respond when it detects a threat— particularly when the threat feels familiar. 

I’ve worked with people who get enormously frustrated when they experience symptoms like panic attacks. 

They assume that if they’re freaking out, despite there being no “actual” danger, all the work they’ve done must not matter— because they’re having a moment where they’re struggling. 

It doesn’t work like that. 

There is nothing we can do, no progress we can make, that will GUARANTEE that we’ll never have symptoms again. 

What our work on ourselves is supposed to do, however, is better equip us to handle triggers when they do come along. 

In my own situation this morning, I realized fairly quickly what was going on— and while it was still unpleasant and inconvenient, it didn’t lead down the self-destructive rabbit hole it might have years ago. 

There WAS a time when, confronted with the anxiety I experienced this morning, I would have done essentially ANYTHING to escape from that state— including things that were not safe or healthy. 

The way anxiety and panic attacks work is that they hit you seemingly out of nowhere— and in your rush to feel “in control” again, you frequently swing to an extreme that, paradoxically, creates even more problems or a bigger crisis. 

However, when we’ve taken the time to work on ourselves, put words to our struggles, and assemble a coping toolbox and skillset, we don’t have to swing to that compensatory extreme. 

We can realize what’s going on, and return to baseline— relatively faster, and without having damaged our life, health, or relationships in a rush to change how we feel. 

All of which is to say: it IS worth it to continue working on your coping skills. 

It IS worth it to keep working on your emotional expression and regulation skills. 

The goal is NOT to banish anxiety, or even panic, from your life forever— but to furnish you with the tools and skills to realize what’s going on, not ruin your own life by trying desperately to escape those feelings by any means necessary. 

Do I wish I could be free of anxiety forever? Sure, if that’s an option, I suppose. 

Is the fact that, as a trauma survivor and recovering addict, I will probably never have a day that is ENTIRELY without anxiety, a bummer? Yes. Yes, it is a bummer. 

But I will tell you that it is much less of a bummer than it was before I had sufficient tools and skills. 

It is much less of a bummer than it was before I had done work to gain psychological insight into what triggers me. 

And if I have to endure these symptoms and struggles as the price I have to pay in order to do this work that I find so rewarding and fulfilling? It’s worth it. 

I wish I hadn’t had a panic attack this morning. I wish the trigger to which I was reacting didn’t mess with my head like it does. 

But I did have a panic attack, and that trigger does mess with me. 

I’m not thrilled— but I accept the necessity to keep working on that issue…and my responsibility to help my body and brain feel safe, day by day. 

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Procrastination: How to stop kicking your own butt.

We procrastinate because we associate pain with a task. 

That really is where procrastination begins and ends. 

There are different kinds of pain we associate with tasks— and moving past procrastination requires us to get curious about how we are associating pain to the task we’re putting off. 

Sometimes the pain is something abstract. We think a task will be boring. 

Sometimes the pain is acute. We think the task will actually hurt, either physically or emotionally. 

Sometimes the pain is in the meaning we associate to a task. We put it off because of what we think it will MEAN if we go ahead and do it. 

In the past, I’ve very frequently procrastinated doing paperwork— and the stumbling block in my own head has largely been that problem of “meaning.” 

There is a part of me that associates doing paperwork not only with boredom— but with coercion. 

Very often when I “have” to do paperwork, it FEELS like I’m being MADE to do something I wouldn’t otherwise do— something I don’t find gratifying, something I’m doing only because somebody else is MAKING me. 

Consequently, I find excuse after excuse to put the paperwork off. 

It’s my brain’s way of declaring independence— of proving that I don’t HAVE to do anything I don’t want to do. 

Of course, there are things that we more or less HAVE to do— at least, if we want our lives to function smoothly. 

I can’t be a psychologist and avoid paperwork. 

The key to getting around this mental block— the equation “paperwork equals coercion”— is to remind myself that the truth is, no, I don’t actually HAVE to do paperwork. 

I only HAVE to do it if I want to keep being a psychologist. 

I can go ahead and have my feeling of complete freedom and independence— IF I’m willing to sacrifice my identity and career as a psychologist. 

You might say, that doesn’t sound like much of a choice— and I agree with you, it’s not much of a choice. But the REASON it’s not much of a choice is because I value my identity and career as a psychologist…thus I CHOOSE to do things, like paperwork, that I might not otherwise be enthusiastic about doing. 

I’ve thus reframed paperwork from a thing I’m being FORCED to do, to a thing that I CHOOSE to do…because there’s something I care about involved. 

This is the basic roadmap to dealing with procrastination. 

We have to shift the MEANING of what we supposedly HAVE to do, to something we are CHOOSING to do…because there is something we value on the line. 

I’ll be the first to concede that this mental process is much easier described than done. 

Especially when we’ve grown up in over controlled environments— such as high control families with demanding, unpredictable parents— we can get very touchy when it comes to issues of control and freedom later in life. 

Many people really will kick their own butts “proving” they don’t HAVE to do anything: abide by deadlines, do paperwork, pay taxes, follow rules. 

But the price of “proving” our freedom and independence is often damaged careers and relationships. 

Life doesn’t have to be such a dramatic tug of war. 

Get curious about what the “pain” is you’re associating to the thing you’re putting off. 

Then start a dialogue with yourself about whether there might be other ways to view it. 

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Careful to not lose yourself.

Over time, stress and trauma distort our very sense of self. 

You know that feeling of, “I don’t know who I am anymore?” That’s what I’m talking about.

That happens because we’ve had to divert so much focus and energy toward survival and basic coping over a long period, that we’ve not had the opportunity to focus on or develop ourselves. 

The things that we need to do to feel secure and confident in our identity, or to grow as a person, are virtually impossible when every waking hour of our day is occupied with our attempts to survive under stress. 

This very often happens when were’ living in a stressful situation day after day. 

It’s common when people are dealing with a prolonged illness. 

It’s common when people are in a situation where they are being abused by a partner, but are unable to leave the relationship. 

It happens when people are in an exploitative relationship with a cult or other high control group, which they are unable to leave without consequence. 

It even happens when people are immersed in a highly stressful work environment or working multiple jobs at once— and unable to walk away because they need the financial security. 

In each of these situations, people feel forced to remain in the stressful situation— and the demands of the situation leave little or no room for developing themselves as an individual, independent from their interaction with the stressful circumstance. 

Over time, people slowly start to realize that they don’t recognize themselves anymore. 

It becomes difficult to remember the last time they took time for themselves. 

They can’t remember what they used to enjoy. 

When you’re living in a chronic, high-stress, high-demand situation that you’re unable to leave, symptoms of depression start to creep in over time…but you’re often too “busy” handling your daily load that you literally don’t notice. 

Then, one day, something happens that makes the entire situation grind to a halt. 

Sometimes the depression actually breaks through to your awareness, and you become aware of how miserable you are…and have been. 

What’s more, though, you have this weird feeling that you can’t quite remember who you are and what you’re all about. 

Some people describe literally not recognizing  themselves in the mirror. 

Managing stress and avoiding high control situations when we can is about more than general health or wellness. 

If we don’t want to literally lose our very personalities in the stress and trauma, we NEED to cultivate self-awareness and the assertiveness to set limits with people and institutions. 

Even in situations, such as a chronic illness, where you can’t walk away from your chronic stressor, we need to cultivate the kind of self-awareness that will allow us to understand what’s happening, when it is happening. 

The truth is, we NEED to take time to remember who we are. 

We NEED to take time to grow and heal as individuals. 

We NEED to carve out an identity and life for ourselves separate from what we do or what our current situation demands of us. 

Remembering who we are, and giving ourselves time and oxygen to grow and heal, isn’t optional— especially when we are under chronic stress and at risk for complex trauma. 

The good news is, taking care of ourselves can be a day by day project, to which we attend with simple, straightforward actions. 

Remembering and saving ourselves is not complex. 

But it does need to be done on purpose. 

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Coping with the unfairness of the world.

Effectively coping with the fact that life isn’t fair depends on our ability to accept the fact. 

We are absolutely going to have things happen to us that are not fair. 

We are going to experience consequences we do not deserve. 

We are going to experience pain we could not prevent, and which we shouldn’t have to endure. 

We are going to have people say things about us that are inaccurate. 

We are going to have people assume they know what we’re thinking and what motivates us, when they don’t. 

We are going to have people respond to us not as we are…but as we exist in their heads. 

These aren’t hypotheticals. They are GOING to happen. Many of them have probably already happened to you. 

When we are treated unfairly, we often feel very powerless. 

We can feel incredibly angry at the basic lack of fairness we are experiencing. 

We can feel sad and hopeless at the lack of justice that we’re experiencing. 

We can feel incredulous at the untruths that some people are willing to spread, and other people are willing to believe. 

All of these emotional reactions can sometimes come together and almost seem to paralyze us. 

In order to continue functioning DESPITE all of these potential emotional reactions, we have to be both straightforward and patient with ourselves. 

We have to be clear about the fact that we may not get what we deserve. 

We have to be clear about the fact that other people may think erroneous things about us indefinitely. Maybe they never will actually change their minds. 

We have to be clear about the fact that, even if we KNOW and are COMPLETELY CONFIDENT about the truth, that many people will never hear or accept that truth…despite our best attempts to get it out there. 

Does the fact that life is not fair, that we are being treated unfairly, that we are being forced in to positions we SHOULDN’T be forced into, mean that we can’t be effective in any way? 

It does not mean that. 

The truth is, even in the face of massive injustice, we CAN be effective. 

Even if our voice is not being heard by some people…it is being heard by other people. 

Even if we cannot directly right the wrongs that are being inflicted upon us…our efforts to work toward justice do have meaning. They do have consequence. 

We need to keep speaking our truth. 

We need to keep working toward justice— even in a broken, imperfect system and world. 

We need to do what we can to give attention and comfort to others who might feel that their voices “don’t matter” in the face of massive injustice. 

We need to continue to live our mission as best we can…even if there are people and organizations out there specifically devoted to thwarting our mission and purpose. 

We need to work toward institutional and cultural change…which will only happen as people have experiences that change their perspective, change their minds, and open their hearts. 

We can help people do all of that…even if just in small ways. 

Do not let unfairness knock you off of your game. 

The world IS unfair— that’s why it needs you. 

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The real cost and toll of trauma.

Trauma has a way of making us hate ourselves. 

It can make us hate our bodies. 

It can make us hate our personalities. 

Particularly when we’ve been abused over and over again, especially in relationships, we often wind up blaming ourselves for what we’ve been through, sometimes harshly. 

This is what trauma does. It messes with our ability to perceive and respond to reality. 

Healing, then, is about being able to see reality clearly again— and respond to reality effectively. 

Something a lot of people fail to understand is that pain that we experience over and over again, over a long period of time, causes us to erect walls around us. 

it causes us to push people away. 

It causes us to withdraw into ourselves. 

And the thing is: that’s not weird. Of COURSE pain makes us withdraw. 

When you touch a hot stove, your first impulse is to draw your hand back. To withdraw. To get as far away from that pain as possible. 

But what if you’re not able to get away from that pain? 

Your brain handles inescapable pain by distorting reality itself. 

By dissociating and depersonalizing. 

Is it any wonder that trauma survivors often don’t recognize the person in the mirror as themselves? 

Many times they’ve had to deal with years and years of pain being the central fact of their existence. 

The kind of mental backflips your brain has to do to deal with constant, unremitting pain and fear result in a fracturing of reality. 

We consequently wind up unsure of and anxious about everything. 

We don’t think we can trust our senses to tell us the truth. 

We don’t think we can trust our brains to tell us the truth. 

And that person in the mirror? How do I even know that’s what I look like? 

This is a phenomenon described by people who have experienced all kinds of trauma, from abuse to addiction: when the look in the mirror, they don’t recognize— and often hate— the stranger looking back at them. 

Healing from this kind of trauma involves recognizing it for what it is. 

It involves being willing to relearn how to deal with the world— even though stepping away from our defense mechanisms can be horribly anxiety provoking. 

If we’re going to heal, we need to accept that our body and brain did everything they could to handle the pain and trauma we had to endure. 

We have to accept that we’ve done nothing to deserve our own hatred. 

Even if we’ve pushed people away; even if we’ve sabotaged ourselves; even if we’ve developed psychological defenses that create more problems than they solve. 

Sometimes the hardest part of recovering from trauma is acknowledging its full scope. 

It’s not easy to admit the many ways trauma has wrecked us. 

It’s very saddening to acknowledge how badly trauma can damage our relationship with ourselves. 

What happened to you wasn’t your fault. How your brain and body responded to it wasn’t your choice. 

Forgive yourself for your reactions and responses during times of pain, confusion, and stress.

Get on your own side. 

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What the hell is “happiness” in the real world?

One of the real game changers in my own healing journey was realizing that I couldn’t leave the question of “what does it mean to be happy, anyway?” up to chance. 

For years, I didn’t do a lot of serious thinking about what it meant to be happy. 

I knew that there were things that felt good and that didn’t feel good. 

I knew there were experiences I liked, and those I didn’t like. 

I knew that there were people and relationships that made it easy to feel good…and there were definitely people and experiences that made it really easy to feel terrible. 

But, really, I viewed myself as more or less at the mercy of the universe. 

I didn’t think of happiness as a thing that had identifiable building blocks. 

I mostly thought of happiness as the right set of external circumstances. 

I figured I’d be “happy” when just the right combination of things happened “to” me. 

i figured I’d be happy when I got the right girlfriend. 

Or when I had the right level of financial security. 

Or when I had the right degree or job. 

After all, that’s pretty much what the culture tells us about “success,” isn’t it? That people who “succeed’ have “won” life by getting the right career, the right romantic partner, the right level of control over their time…right? 

Surely, people are happy because they have the “right” stuff happen TO them…right? 

That’s what I thought. 

So I chased things. I mostly chased experiences and people. 

Much of my life was spent trying effortfully to have sexual and relationship experiences that I figured would surely make me happy. 

Then I added chasing “better living through chemistry”— my father’s euphemism for drugs— to the list. 

I was always trying to come up with the right combination of things to experience and feel that would result in that elusive condition: happiness. 

You can probably guess how successful all that was. 

As long as I expected happiness to happen “to” me, i was going to come up short. 

Sex feels nice. Drug highs feel nice. I still enjoy both— though I’m at a point of self-awareness that I realize I need to tailor my appetite for both if I’m to survive my 40’s, let alone be “happy.” 

We have to STOP thinking of happiness as something that will happen “to” us or as something that various experiences will “give” to us. 

We have to START thinking of happiness as something we can potentially experience even if NONE of the things we THINK will make us happy, will make us happy. 

I think everyone’s mileage for what makes them “happy” will vary. What results in happiness for me will not necessarily result in happiness for you. 

But I am confident that what you and I share in common, is the fact that lasting happiness will not result from even the perfect combination of external “stuff.” 

Even if did— stuff can go away. Stuff can be taken away. 

I’m not interested in “happiness” that can be yanked away on a moment’s notice. That’s a recipe for anxiety, maybe even paranoia.

I want happiness that I am responsible for and capable of generating myself. 

I want happiness that is the result of me having chosen my values, and living my values. 

I want happiness that is created by my approach to the world. 

I want happiness that I could hypothetically create even if all that external “stuff” went away. 

Yeah. Tall order, I know. 

But the moral of the story is: don’t count on stuff or experiences to make ya happy. 

They may feel good. 

But that minute after they stop feeling good is worse than not having them in the first place. 

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We are NOT stuck with our old beliefs.

It doesn’t matter what we are TOLD by other people— it’s how we are TREATED by them, that we remember. 

We’ve all had the experience of being told “I love you” by somebody…then having been treated by them in an unloving way. 

Many of us have had the experience of being assured that our opinion is important to someone…and then had that someone behave as if our opinion was not at all important. 

During childhood, many of us had the experience of being told that we were “special”…and then being treated as if we were expendable. 

We often form fundamental beliefs about ourselves based on how we are treated, and how other people behave toward us— especially when we’re young. 

If we are neglected, we may come to believe that we don’t matter. 

If we are abused, we may come to believe we are responsible for the pain in our lives. 

If we are berated, we may come to believe that we are stupid or bad. 

How we are treated growing up also informs our beliefs about the world and other people. 

If we are bullied when we’re young, we may form the belief that other people are mean, and we can’t trust them. 

If we are taken advantage of, we may form the belief that the world is not predictable or safe. 

If we are expected to do things in school that we aren’t equipped to handle because of a learning disability, we may form the belief that the world is overwhelming and confusing— and we can’t keep up with it. 

None of this is about “blaming” our past for our current limiting beliefs. 

It’s about being realistic about where those beliefs come from— so we can be realistic about changing them now. 

We have certain beliefs that FEEL like they are the rock solid truth. 

We have certain beliefs that FEEL like we acquired them out of nowhere— we’ve just always believed them. 

We have certain beliefs that FEEL like we couldn’t change them, even if we really wanted to (and sometimes we really, really DO want to)!

We need to realize that our beliefs are most often our brain’s best attempts to make sense of the things that have happened to us. 

That’s it. 

It’s our brain trying to make logical sense of a life and a world that— let’s be real— often doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. 

You probably have beliefs that are holding you back and causing you pain. Most of us do. I know I do. 

Once we accept that our beliefs aren’t rock solid, set in stone, or infallibly accurate, though— then we can get to work on realistically changing them. 

I’m not a big fan of psychotherapy that spends lots and lots of time chipping away at the past. 

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with looking at and talking about the past in therapy— it’s often important and necessary in order to heal. 

I just think that we need to spend at least as much time looking ahead— creating our present and our future— as we do rehashing the past. 

We are not who we were. 

We are who we choose to become. 

We can choose which beliefs serve us, and which beliefs don’t. 

We can choose which beliefs reflect who we are and the life we’re trying to create. 

We don’t need to defend our old BS (Belief Systems) if they are not serving us. 

Giving up old beliefs takes the courage to poke holes in our old belief systems, and being willing to experiment with unfamiliar beliefs that may not feel as “real” as our old, well-worn beliefs. 

But you have courage. 

And I know you really want to move on. 

So let’s do it. 

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