Your past is not your future. Full stop.

The past is data. No more; no less.

The past cannot predict the future.

I know, it may SEEM as if the past can predict the future sometimes. Many behavioral scientists are even fond of repeating the statement that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.

(The research on this question is actually not nearly that straightforward, as it turns out. I find that this is something a subset of people tend to say in order to sound smart. And— who knew?— there is no shortage of people, even in the behavioral sciences, who really, really want to sound smart.)

The past can highlight patterns.

It can help us understand why we made choices we did or experienced feelings we felt.

The past can provide us with both positive and negative examples of our motivations, needs, and coping skills.

But the past is simply not an unfailing guide to what will happen next.

Why is it important to be super clear on this?

Because there really is a subset of people who will look at the past— at either their failures OR their successes— and assume they “know” what’s coming next.

Imagining that the past perfectly predicts the future can lead many people into hopelessness or complacence.

Because you’ve failed in the past does not mean you will continue to fail in the future.

Because you’ve succeeded in the past does not necessarily mean you’ll continue to succeed in the future.

Life turns on a dime.

History is full of examples of people who confidently thought they “knew” what was coming next— only to be completely shocked by what life was ACTUALLY about to throw at them.

Life, as John Lennon once reminded us in song, is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

Everybody reading this has experienced this at least once or twice.

We need to remember that, no matter what has happened in the past, this is a new day.

We do carry baggage from the past— but that baggage is less important than the choices we make right here, right now, today.

You don’t have to live out old programming.

You don’t have to live out an old script.

No matter how many times a pattern has played out in your life, it can be interrupted.

The fact that the past is not necessarily the future is very much the good news.

It means we can literally become someone different if we don’t like who we’ve been.

It means we always have the opportunity to start over.

It means that we don’t need to be defined by our failures or losses.

It means we don’t even have to be held prisoner by our successes if we don’t want to.

Resist the temptation to assume the past is nothing but a preview of coming attractions.

It’s data. No more; no less.

But also remember: data is only as useful as what we do with it.

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Self compassion is the key to self discipline.

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I strongly believe that in order to develop real self-discipline, self-discipline that is useful to us in the everyday world, we need to behave toward ourself with radical, unrelenting self-compassion. 

I believe the self-discipline is the core skill that supports essentially any other skill you want to develop. 

Self-discipline is the ability to place your focus where it needs to be, when it needs to be there; and to get yourself to do what you need to do, when you need to do it. 

In my mind, the second half of that equation— the ability to get yourself to do what you need to do, when you need to do it— follows from the first half of the equation, the ability to place your focus where it needs to be, when it needs to be there. 

Intentional, voluntary behavioral self-discipline only ever follows mental and emotional self-discipline, in other words. 

It all begins and ends in our heads. 

And that’s why radical, unrelenting self-compassion is key in getting ourselves to do ANYTHING— but especially things we don’t, for whatever reason, feel like doing. 

Self-discipline can be thought of as the art and skill of persuading yourself to do what you want yourself to do. 

When it comes to persuasion, there are only two basic types— cooperation and coercion. 

And one thing we know about behavior change in the long term, is that coercion simply doesn’t work. 

If the goal is long term change, bullying doesn’t work. 

If the goal is long term change, threats don’t work. 

If the goal is long term change, coercive shame doesn’t work. 

If the goal is long term change, deception doesn’t work— at least, it doesn’t work after the first time someone figures out they’ve been lied to. 

In the end, if we are to persuade ourselves to do things we’re not naturally inclined to do or enthusiastic about doing, we need to give up the fantasy that we can just repeatedly strong arm ourselves. 

Those tactics don’t work out in the world— they don’t work in employment settings, they don’t work in politics, they don’t work in relationships— and they fail equally miserably inside your own head. 

We are only ever really persuaded by someone who we believe understands and empathizes with us. 

“Compassion” means “to suffer with.” 

To feel compassion for someone is to feel their pain. 

If we don’t empathize with our own pain…why would we want to do anything that we tell ourselves to do? 

If we bully or strong-arm ourselves into making a change, why on earth would we stick with it for the long term? 

Trying to change our behavior in the absence of self compassion is asking ourselves to captivate to a cruel, chaotic relationship with ourselves…and that only leads to depression, anxiety, and internally-directed hate. 

Such tactics will eventually make us so miserable that we will simply quit playing along, because who can be bothered? 

Self-compassion is the key to getting ourselves to take action. 

Acknowledging your own pain and needs is essential if you want to build real motivation within yourself— however slowly. 

There is a reason why politicians have realized that they need to say things on the campaign trial like “I feel your pain”— because it’s been shown, time and time again, that it’s virtually impossible to motivate behavior unless someone is willing to suffer with someone else. 

Be willing to suffer with yourself. 

Be willing to acknowledge, empathize with, and express your own pain. 

Commit to honest persuasion with yourself— not coercion. 

 

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Death doesn’t end relationships. It changes them.

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When someone we love dies, our relationship with them doesn’t end. 

It changes. 

At least, from our end it changes. We don’t really know what happens on their end. 

(Lots of philosophical and spiritual traditions have very different thoughts on this subject.)

The thing is, many of us are tempted to think that, just because someone has died, our relationship with them has ended— which leaves us kind of stuck with a certain “version” of our relationship with them that (we think) can’t evolve. 

It’s true that when someone dies, we can’t create new experiences with them like we did in the past. 

We can’t have conversations with them like we did in the past. 

The straightforward way we relate to someone in life is, after they die, replaced with a more complicated, more private, more emotional way of relating to them that happens mostly inside our heads and hearts. 

But we’re still relating to them. 

We’re relating to their memory— to our idea of who they were, and who we were with them. 

Our relationships with friends and family members who have passed away sometimes remain some of the defining relationships in our lives. 

They’re still with us. 

I’m not talking about in a spiritual sense, although there are spiritual and metaphysical traditions that absolutely believe that someone’s essence absolutely lives on and stays with that person’s loved ones after they die. 

I’m talking psychoemotionally: our relationship with someone simply doesn’t cease when they cease to physically be here, any more than our emotional relationship with someone gets put on pause when they’re not physically in the room with us. 

Even though someone has died, we still need to manage our relationship with them. 

We still need to acknowledge and manage our thoughts and feelings about them. 

We still need to manage what their memory triggers in us. 

This task is complicated, no doubt about it, given that they’re not physically here to take an active role in this process. 

They’re not here to help us out. 

But that doesn’t mean we can act as if their memory is frozen in time and space for us, never to evolve or draw us in again. 

In our emotional lives, they’re very much alive, and we need to deal with HOW they live in in our memory. 

You are not crazy for struggling to relate to someone’s memory. 

You’re not crazy for struggling to manage difficult feelings about someone who has died. 

You’re not crazy for struggling for finding this whole thing complicated. 

Give yourself time and give yourself space. 

Let your body and brain do what your body and brain need to do to grieve.

Let complicated and mixed feelings be complicated and mixed. 

Let anger exist alongside fondness. 

Let sadness exist alongside laughter. 

Maybe you’ll need to cry; maybe you’ll need to tell a story; maybe you’ll need to punch a pillow; maybe you’ll need ice cream. 

Be there for what you need. 

 

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Grief and loss mess with us.

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Loss messes with us. 

Grief messes with us. 

No matter if we saw it coming. 

No matter how philosophical we are about how finite life and relationships are. 

No matter how smart we are, how tough we are, or how far we’ve come: grief and loss are rough on us humans with brains and hearts. 

Everyone struggles with grief and loss. Some may show it more visibly than others, but there hasn’t been a human being in the history of the world who has dealt with loss cheerfully and effortlessly.

One of the reasons why loss and grief mess with us so much is because they reset the equation of our lives. 

As we go about our lives, we kind of get used to what the deal is. What the parameters are of this existence of ours. 

We figure out the rules. We figure out the patterns. 

We may do it imperfectly sometimes, and sometimes the rules don’t seem to apply and the patterns don’t seem to hold— but, in the big picture, a large part of what our brains do every day is process information in the context of what it knows to be true about how the world works. 

Loss turns all of that on its head. 

When someone we love dies, it’s really, really hard to wrap our brains around the fact that we are never, ever going to have a conversation with them again— at least, a conversation like the ones we’ve had with them in the past. 

Especially if it’s a person who we’ve known well, over time. 

Our brains kind of get used to the idea that, while relationships may change and people may change, we’ll always have another chance to talk to that person. 

To share in their journey and their experience. 

To think of that opportunity being irretrievably lost kind of breaks our brains. 

Though most of us would describe it as breaking our hearts. 

To cope with loss is to deal with the fragility of being human. 

To grieve is to be reminded of how much we can hurt— even if we think we’ve been too hardened or scarred by life to feel much of anything. 

When we experience loss, many well-meaning people will try to list the “good” things about loss. 

They want us to hurt less. They care about us. And they often don’t know what else to say. 

But those reactions don’t really penetrate to the core of us, at least when a loss is fresh. 

The experiences of loss and grief are among the only truly universal experiences. 

They remind us that, no matter how alienated and alone we might feel at times, there are some things that truly bind all of humanity together. 

Loss doesn’t just stir up sadness in us. It can stir up fear. It can stir up anger. It can trigger a feeling that we are very lost in our own journeys— and an urgency to find our way back to the “right” path, while there’s still time. 

All of that is normal. 

Grieving takes the time it takes. 

It can’t be rushed, it can’t be disrespected, it can’t be manipulated, it can’t be dissociated forever. 

Letting yourself grieve is letting yourself be human. 

It’s letting yourself be just like the rest of us. 

We’ve got you. 

 

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Three on-the-ground skills for managing flashbacks.

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Flashbacks are entirely about our brain getting worried that Here and Now is actually Back There and Back Then. 

What happens is, your brain gets triggered by something. You’re exposed to something sensory— a sight, a smell, a sound— or a situation that your brain knows full well is associated with something traumatic you went through. 

“HEY!” your brain says. “I KNOW THIS (sight/smell/sound/whatever)! IT’S ASSOCIATED WITH BACK THERE AND BACK THEN…AND BACK THERE AND BACK THEN WAS DANGEROUS!!” 

Your brain’s trying to do a good thing here. It’s trying to keep you safe. That’s kind of its most important goal: to keep you alive and away from pain and danger. 

So your brain, having sensed the presence of a trigger it associates with Back There and Back Then, really, really wants you to pay attention to what it has to say— right here, right now. 

Your brain really, really wants you to know that “BASED ON MY CALCULATIONS, WE MAY BE IN DANGER!” 

So what it does is what anybody does when it wants you to pay attention to it right away: it barges in and demands your attention. 

This is why flashbacks feel so abrupt and intrusive: because your brain is literally interrupting whatever else is going on with you in that moment, to try to get you to pay attention to it. 

The thing is, your brain isn’t always great at using its words. It can’t just SAY to you, “Hey, I’m sensing the presence of something I strongly associate with danger— can we just stop and make sure we’re not Back There and Back Then, please?” 

The brain’s often not quite that articulate. Plus, in fairness, it’s triggered and kind of panicky. 

So instead of using words, the brain uses pictures. 

Big, immersive, intrusive pictures. 

That’s why, when you’re triggered, a flashback seems so all consuming, as if you were plucked from your seat in the movie theater and thrust into the movie itself. 

Your brain is literally doing everything it can to arrest your attention and remind you of why we want to avoid anything associated with Back There and Back Then. 

It’s essentially saying to you: “HEY, REMEMBER THIS? REMEMBER HOW SCARY AND OVERWHELMING IT WAS? THIS IS WHY WE WANT TO AVOID THIS THING, YOU KNOW?” 

Again: it’s important to remember that your brain is trying to help here. It really is. 

So what are the specific skills necessary to get out of a flashback once it’s been triggered? 

Your mileage may vary, but for most people it’s a combination of grounding, emotional focus shift, and self talk. 

Grounding is using your senses to reestablish contact with the present moment. What this does is reorient you to time and place, so you’re not swept away in the movie your brain is trying to stick you in the middle of. 

The easiest way to get grounded is to make sure your feet are on the floor; make sure your eyes are open; and then look around you, identifying three things you can see, three things you can hear, and three things you can physically feel. 

Emotional focus shift is a skill wherein you use an emotionally-charged tool to introduce a competing emotion to the fear and panic that your brain is experiencing. Your nervous system has trouble processing two completely different emotional states at once, so you’re trying to stoke an emotion— even a little bit— that can compete for bandwidth in your brain with the fear and panic. 

This can be accomplished by listening to a song (I have my patients create emergency playlists for just this kind of thing); reciting song lyrics; reciting or reading quotes that are meaningful to you; looking at pictures of your kids; or quickly accessing an emotionally charged memory (like your wedding, your graduation, your Confirmation, or another occasion that evokes a strong emotional response). 

Self talk is exactly what it sounds like. You’re trying to reassure your brain that you are not Back There, Back Then. Your brain literally needs to be convinced, in order to let go of the flashback. 

What this looks like on a practical level is you building the case that you are not Back There, Back Then. It may sound strange, but you start at the beginning, and calmly, patiently explain to yourself how you know you are Here and Now. 

You observe what’s different between Here and Now and Back There, Back Then. You remind yourself of who is in your life now, that wasn’t then. You remind yourself of the year. You remind yourself of where you physically are. You can even go so far as to reference specific pieces of clothing or jewelry you have on now, that you didn’t even own then. 

Grounding, emotional focus shift, and self-talk are three on the ground skills to manage flashbacks. 

Lowering your vulnerability to flashbacks is the work of longer term therapy. It can’t be rushed, and it requires you to develop multiple skills and interrupt multiple patterns. 

But for starters: try those three skills and their associated tools. 

Trying to use any skill is better than surrendering to using no skills. 

 

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Let’s talk self-esteem and narcissism.

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When we believe one thing, but we’re acting like we believe something else— our self esteem suffers. 

It’s a particular problem when we believe one thing, but we’re forced, by circumstance, to do things that are not consistent with what we believe. 

It’s usually not our fault. 

Usually we’re being bullied, or threatened, or deceived into behaving the way someone ELSE wants us to behave— but not in accordance to what we truly believe. 

Our self esteem is sensitive to contradiction. It’s sensitive to whether we’re walking our talk— or whether we’re talking a good game, but not following through. 

Normal people with the potential to be psychologically healthy struggle with a phenomenon called “cognitive dissonance” when our walk doesn’t match our talk. 

We’re aware that something’s not right when we’re being inconsistent with what we believe. It nags at us. It makes us anxious. 

And, over time, if we consistently fail our own standards and don’t follow through on what we say we’re all about, our self esteem suffers. 

It’s just hard to have healthy self-esteem when we’re all over the place with our beliefs and our behavior. 

There is a subset of humans who AREN’T bothered by the disconnect between what they say and what they do, however. It’s questionable whether these people even experience cognitive dissonance like the rest of us. 

Those people are called narcissists. 

Narcissists tend to consider it okay to not behave consistently with what they say they value— because they don’t believe the “rules” apply to them. 

They think of themselves as “special.” Everybody else might have to walk their talk and behave consistently with their own values— but not them. 

It’s not that narcissists are “bad people.” I’m not a fan of slapping moral labels like that on to people because of how they process information and the world around them. 

(And, when we’re talking about narcissism, that’s what we’re talking about: narcissists truly experience the world in a way that convinces them they are the center of it.)

But it is important to remember that narcissists don’t feel the obligation to live up to their stated values the way the rest of us do. 

Whether or not we think of them as inherently “good” or “bad” people— it objectively makes them harder to trust. Because a narcissist doesn’t feel an obligation to the truth like the rest of us do. 

The reason why lie detectors work is because most of us get anxious when we knowingly tell a lie. That anxiety ripples through our bodies and is often detectable in biometric markers like our blood pressure, heart rate, and galvanic skin response, even if behaviorally we can remain more or less stoic. 

One of the reasons why lie detectors aren’t considered reliable forensic evidence, however, is because narcissists and sociopaths don’t feel that anxiety like the rest of us. They consider it perfectly fine to say what they need to say to elicit a certain response from the people around them. 

Why does any of this matter? 

Because, when we’re building our self esteem, we need to acknowledge the important role of consistency. 

We need to be consistent with who we say we are and what we say we believe if we’re going to build health self esteem. 

We need to walk our talk. 

We need to be true to ourselves, if we expect to like, respect, and— yes— esteem ourselves. 

It also matters because there are people around us who are not wired like us. 

We don’t need to judge them— at least, not on the basis of their neuropsychological wiring alone. 

But we do need to be careful when trying to relate to them. 

Stay true to yourself— and keep your eyes open. 

 

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The lies depression tells.

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Depression lies to you. 

When you’re depressed, you see the world through a filter. And that filter doesn’t let a lot of light in. 

That filter makes things seem true that are not. 

Depression has an array of lies it tries to tell you. 

“You are worthless.” 

It’s a lie. You may FEEL worthless; but our worth is not determined by how we feel. 

Many people have faulty ideas for what makes someone “worthy” in the first place. They believe that accomplishment or the love of others makes someone “worthy.” If that was true, then rich and famous people would be somehow more “worthy” than non rich and famous people— but that’s obviously not true. 

“Nobody loves you.” 

It’s a lie. Your depression is not keeping track of who loves you and who does not. 

It wants you to believe that nobody loves you, because it knows you are insecure about your lovability (possibly because of your beliefs about what makes someone worthy— see above). 

“You don’t matter.” 

It’s a lie. Your depression does not get to determine whether your life, your feelings, or your behavior matters to anyone else. 

I assure you, you matter to someone. I can also assure you that when you’re depressed, you have a tremendously difficult time believing you matter. But that doesn’t make it true. 

“Things will never get better.” 

It’s a lie. Your depression doesn’t know if things will get better. 

You cannot tell the future, and your depression ABSOLUTELY cannot tell the future. 

“Everybody hates me.” 

It’s a lie. Just like your depression cannot tell the future, your depression cannot read others’ minds. 

Your depression wants you to THINK that other people dislike or hate you, because it knows that is a tremendously effective way to keep you depressed. 

You may start to notice a pattern here: your depression is making this up as it goes along. 

There’s no truth to any of it. 

But your depression is very, very good at making you THINK there’s truth to it. It knows you’re in a vulnerable spot, and it knows it doesn’t have to work very hard to make its lies seem very plausible to you when you’re in that spot. 

Depression is a bully. 

Depression is a coward. 

Depression is a liar. 

Depression comes disguised as a familiar old blanket, that may be a little coarse, but c’mon, at least it’s a known quantity, right? 

Depression comes disguised as a friend, a friend who really knows you well, a friend who knows the TRUTH about you, a friend who will tell it to you straight. 

It is none of those things. 

Depression doesn’t know you. 

All it knows about you are your vulnerabilities and your insecurities. Which it wishes to exploit. 

Friends don’t do that. Bullies do that. Abusers do that. 

Don’t let depression lie to you. 

 

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