Don’t try to sacrifice stability for speed.

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In recovery from PTSD, depression, addiction, or anxiety, the idea is not to revolutionize your life overnight. 

It’s not to finally find THE ANSWER that you can immediately use to overhaul how you think, feel, and behave all at once. 

(That answer doesn’t exist, anyway. At least, not outside the minds of Internet marketers.) 

The idea is definitely not to comprehensively address every problem, in every area of your life, all at the same time. 

I know, I know. There are definitely gurus out there promoting systems and techniques they say can do all of the above. 

The self-help world has kind of a “go big or go home” ethos that drives it— and that’s definitely appealing to a lot of people, who have struggled for a long time to make their lives work. 

I don’t blame them. I’d want that comprehensive, near-magical answer, too…if it existed.

I definitely don’t have that perfect system, technique, or philosophy for you. 

What I want is for your recovery to be real. 

I want it to exist in the real world— not the fantasy, wish fulfillment world. 

I want you to have the most realistic chance of actually changing your life, in the long term, that you can possibly have. 

And that’s why my mantra isn’t “go big or go home.” 

My mantra is, “if you want to go fast, go slow.” 

Often times, when we take too much of a running leap at recovery, we end up biting off more than we can chew. 

We sacrifice stability for speed— which leads to neither. 

We get our hopes up and set our goals sky high…then, when we get overwhelmed, we get discouraged by the whole process of recovery and life improvement, and we end up going down a rabbit hole of avoidance and self-soothing that can really stall out our values and goals. 

How can we avoid this? 

In recovery, it’s super important that we don’t try to change too many things at once, or change anything too much at once. 

We want to think and move in increments. 

We don’t want to leap forward. We want to nudge forward. 

You know all of those inspirational memes about how you need to get outside of your comfort zone? That’s true, to an extent…but what those memes neglect to tell you is that you don’t want to leap too far out of your comfort zone at any one time. 

You want to take baby steps out of your comfort zone. 

A lot of people struggle with this idea, because they really, really want to radically change their lives right NOW. 

They’re sick and tired of being sick and tired. They feel they’ve waited enough. 

Believe me, I totally get it. I’ve been there. I know what that feels like, and I hear what they’re saying. 

But something I’ve learned, over years of work on myself AND training and experience as a psychologist, is that trying to sacrifice stability for speed just doesn’t work. 

If you try to shake things up too much, you’ll lose your balance. It’s not a matter of “if;” it’s a matter of “when.”

And when that does happen, you’re likely going to be left in the position of feeling frustrated and silly for having thought you could make that quantum leap forward without consequence…so much so that you might be tempted to give up on moving forward at all. 

I know taking baby steps is not the most inspiring thing in the world. 

I know that systems and teachers offering quantum leaps forward are flashier and sexier. 

But you want to know what’s REALLY flashy and sexy? 

Devising a real-world plan for recovery that ACTUALLY works, because it’s stable and sustainable. 

Try that on. See how it fits— over time. 

There is no rewind. There is only the next decision.

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It’s on me to move past old resentments. 

It’s not on the people who were in my life to make amends. 

It’s not on past situations to heal themselves. 

If I want to move past feelings of shame, anger, and resentment— feelings that kick my butt today, that distract me from my current plans and needs and resources— I need to take responsibility for it. 

Understand: the fact that it is my responsibility doesn’t mean it’s easy. 

It doesn’t mean I shouldn’t give myself time and space to be as angry as I need to be. 

As sad as I need to be. 

Even as depressed as I need to be— over those past situations in particular. 

I experienced losses. 

I experienced betrayals. 

I experienced unfair treatment by people I thought were my friends and colleagues. 

And, don’t get me wrong— I contributed to the deterioration of some of those relationships, too. 

It usually takes two to tango, and in this case, it certainly did. I own my part of those professional relationships that went wrong— even those parts that are embarrassing and frustrating to me. Even those parts that make me look less than kind and less than professional. 

There are parts of me that feel I am owed apologies. 

The thing is: those apologies are almost certainly not forthcoming. 

I can wait forever— they’re not going to come. 

I can hold up my entire life and career waiting for those apologies. 

i can hold up my entire life and career fixating on the past. Resenting people. Mourning situations and opportunities. 

I could very easily do that. 

But that is not consistent with my mission statement. 

That is not consistent with my values. 

And it’s sure as hell not consistent with my goals. 

If I’m going to move on, it’s on me to manage my focus. 

It’s on me to manage my energy. 

It’s on me to be realistic and proactive about what I need to do to create the life I’m committed to creating— which has nothing to do with people who may or may not owe me an apology from past situations that I can do nothing about now. 

There is no rewind button on life. 

I wish there was. There isn’t. 

No amount of anger, no amount of regret, no amount of resentment, no amount of fixation will allow me to go back and un-make certain decisions. 

To go back and say something different. To go back and make other choices. 

All I can do is what I can do— move forward. 

Remind myself— consistently and relentlessly— about the life I am committed to living today. 

About the goals and values that demand my attention today. 

About the people who depend on me today. 

Today— that’s what I can affect. 

Not yesterday. Not five or ten years ago. 

We can never have a better past. 

The future, one day, one decision at a time…that’s what we have. 

That’s what I have. 

That’s what we need to embrace. 

Don’t let the word “addiction” freak you out.

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A lot of people use the word “addiction” to describe their pattern of compulsive, self-defeating behavior. And for a lot of people, that description is apt. 

The behaviors that people characterize as “addictions” can range from substance use, to destructive eating patterns, to self-harm. 

You also often hear people colloquially use the word “addiction” to characterize things that they like, and have trouble regulating because they like it so much. You hear people say they’re “addicted” to sugar, or coffee, or TV shows. 

Something that gets misunderstood about the word “addiction” is that addiction DESCRIBES a pattern of thinking and behaving. As a label for behavior patterns, it can be very helpful. 

“Addiction” tends to be less helpful, however, in trying to EXPLAIN those patterns of behavior. 

And I can tell you from my experience as a therapist, the concept of “addiction” can be downright counterproductive when it comes to trying to formulate plans of action about what to DO about a pattern of behavior…to the point where it can get twisted around and unintentionally enable some of those patterns. 

Is it helpful to characterize your difficulty managing a behavior as an “addiction?” 

For some people, sure, it’s helpful. 

Especially if we struggle with shame and blame when it comes to our self-defeating behaviors, acknowledging that some things in the world— even things as commonplace as sugar or TV or social media— can be “addicting” can go a long way toward reminding ourselves that we are not flawed or morally impaired if we have trouble managing those behaviors. 

Make no mistake: there are absolutely individuals and organizations out there that have devoted literally millions of dollars toward making their products as “addictive” as possible. 

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the way we get “hooked” on certain foods and manipulated into certain habits is incredibly hard for any normal person to resist. 

There has been a ton of neuropsychological research in recent decades that has confirmed that our brains simply have not evolved to cope with all of the forces out there that have conspired to make pleasure seeking our top priority in life. 

That is to say: it’s easy to get “addicted” to sources of pleasure. And addictions such as food, sugar, and social media are absolutely as real and as troublesome as any other kind of addiction. 

The thing is: because our behavior fits the definition of “addiction” doesn’t mean that an “addiction,” in and of itself, is an unconquerable foe. 

“Addiction” isn’t even a thing independent of the behavior it describes. You don’t crave sugar because you’re “addicted” to it— the word “addiction” just describes how intensely and how often you crave it. 

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’ve solved a problem by slapping the word “addiction” on to a pattern of behavior. 

The problem is not the addiction. 

The problem is our relationship with pleasure. 

It’s a problem that we have to thoroughly understand and address if we want to change our behavior. 

Why am I even writing about this? 

Because I’ve seen too many people call themselves “addicts,” and then kind of throw up their hands, figuring that because they have this thing called “addiction” they cannot manage their relationship with things that make them feel good. 

It’s not true. That’s a lie that your Beast tells you. 

“You’re an addict, you can’t control it, so you’re gong to do the thing…so why not just do the thing?” 

Understand: that’s not to say overcoming “addiction” patterns is easy. It’s anything but. 

That’s not to say we just need “willpower” or to “get over it.” 

That’s not to say that people who are accurately described as “addicts” don’t suffer greatly from patterns that are hard to understand and even harder to cope with. 

The point I’m making here is that we need to be very, very careful about the ideas that we reinforce when we use words like “addiction.” 

“Addiction” describes something. It does not explain it. 

And because your patterns are those of “addiction” doesn’t mean that they cannot be changed. 

“Addiction” is not some monster that will always win. 

Remember that even if you have an “addiction,” your shot at recovery is as good as anyone’s…unless you let the word freak you out and mentally defeat you. 

Keep “addiction” in perspective. 

You can still win. 

I don’t treat trauma. I treat people.

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Your recovery program needs to be tailed to you. There is no “one size fits all approach.” 

I used to be the unit psychologist and primary therapist for an inpatient psychiatric unit that specialized in the treatment of complex trauma and dissociative disorders. Most of our patients were adults who had been abused or otherwise traumatized as children, and who were now having difficulty functioning in their everyday lives. 

In that job, I learned— often the hard way— that if recovery is to succeed, it needs to start with each patient’s strengths, values, and goals. 

And no two patients are going to be exactly the same when it comes to strengths, values, and goals. 

Unfortunately, I see many, many programs— and individual therapists— who want to start out from the exact opposite approach. 

They label themselves “trauma therapists,” and they tend to start out— with the best of intentions— from models of trauma treatment, instead of with individual patients. 

It’s one of my central disagreements with the trauma treatment field in general that we need to start out from the phenomenology of trauma (i.e., what “trauma” in broad, general strokes looks like and does to the brain). 

I disagree with this premise because its’ my observation and experience that “trauma” rarely affects any two people the same. 

We can understand “trauma” all day long, in the abstract…but none of it does us much good if we don’t understand the person who has been traumatized. 

Recovery is not about treating trauma. 

Recovery is about treating, healing, rediscovering, and rebuilding people. 

Real life people. People who are mothers, fathers, sons, siblings. 

People who own cats and dogs, who like rock concerts and classical sonatas. 

I would once have said I am a trauma therapist. I don’t say that anymore— but not because I don’t work with patients who have been traumatized. 

I now say I am a therapist who treats people who have been traumatized. 

I don’t treat trauma. I treat people. 

And I am so, so over programs and therapists that seem to think their specialty is “trauma.” 

Why does any of this matter to you? 

Because the way many clinical systems are structured right now tends to overemphasize diagnosis and pathology. 

By their very nature they want to categorize people by what’s “wrong” with them. 

Don’t get me wrong, on a practical level, I understand why this is. If you’re an insurance company or a hospital, you have to have some way of organizing and prioritizing the way you deliver services. 

But on the level of therapists and patients, this emphasis on diagnosis and prognosis can be crippling. 

People are not their pathology. 

You are not your diagnosis. 

You are a human with experiences, goals, values, needs— and strengths. 

Not to mention the toughness and resilience that got you this far. 

When you are creating your individual recovery plan, whether you are doing it on your own or with the collaboration of a mental health care professional, don’t start with the phenomenology of trauma. 

Start with you. 

Start with who you are and what kind of life you want to create. 

Start with what you are good at, what you’ve succeeded at in the past. 

Don’t start by asking what’s gone wrong— start by asking how you’ve survived so far. Ask yourself HOW you’ve gotten this far. 

Start from a position of individuality and strengths. 

Then head in the direction of solutions. 

Taking charge of your internal landscape.

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We create our internal space by how we talk to ourselves. 

We create it by how we focus, in those moments when we can choose our focus. 

We create our internal environment by what we visualize. 

We create our internal environment by the beliefs and assumptions that we repeat and reinforce for ourselves, again and again and again. 

By “internal space,” I’m speaking specifically of the environment inside our heads. We all have an internal landscape. Every one of us. 

For some of us, that internal landscape is chaotic. It’s full of scary, anxiety-provoking, pressure-inducing images and statements and assumptions and beliefs. 

Some of us aren’t terribly aware of our internal landscape. It’s there— believe me, it’s there— but we’re not very mindful of it because we’ve never really thought to look inside. 

Why is it important that we purposefully shape our internal landscape? 

Because our internal space— the world that exists in our own minds— will influence how you perceive and interpret what happens to you in the real world “out there.” 

Your internal space will impact how much bandwidth you have available for good decision making. 

Your internal environment will even determine what kinds of symptoms you’ll have to deal with today— which, in turn, is directly going to impact how easy or difficult it’s going to be to constructively deal with the world and your responsibilities today. 

When our internal landscape is chaotic and scary, we just don’t have a lot to offer the world. 

We don’t have the energy or focus to deal with our goals out there in the world, because we’re too busy managing the chaos and fear within. 

We won’t take risks out there in the real world, because inside our own heads we have lots and lots of reference points for risks not paying off. 

We’ll shrink from life, because the world inside our heads will demand that we protect ourselves. 

That’s the bad news. 

The good news is: we don’t have to live with the internal space we inherited from our upbringing, our environment, or trauma that has happened to us. 

We can mold our internal landscape. 

We can shape it. 

We can condition what we allow into it, what we accept to be true in it, and how we experience it. 

How? It’s not easy…but it is pretty straightforward. 

At its most basic level, our internal environment represents one thing: our programming. 

Many of us have been programmed for chaos and anxiety by our past. 

We’ve been exposed, again and again and again, to images, words, ideas, and feelings that can do nothing but stoke uncomfortable, upsetting, and counterproductive internal space. 

This programming didn’t happen overnight. It happened over the course of years, usually decades. 

What this implies is that we won’t be able to counter program it overnight. 

But we can counter program it. 

We counter program ourselves the same way we were programmed in the first place…by feeding ourselves new words. New images. New thoughts. 

We condition ourselves into new beliefs, the same way we were conditioned in our old beliefs: we decide what our new belief is, and we reinforce that belief, with reason after reason and experience after experience that supports the belief. 

Mind you: none of this is supposed to be easy. (If you were gearing up to comment “easier said than done,” I’ll save you the trouble: what I’m describing is ASSUREDLY easier said than done.) 

But if you’re interested in real world, real time, profound change, this is what we’re looking at: taking charge of your internal environment via new programming. 

It may not be easy. 

It may not always be fun or interesting. 

But it is so, so, so worth it. 

Shame: a lousy, lazy motivational strategy.

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Self-cruelty and shame aren’t just mean things to inflict upon yourself. 

As it turns out, they are also incredibly lousy motivational strategies. 

As catalysts or determinants of behavior, self-cruelty and shame never, ever work in the long term (even if they APPEAR to work in the short-term). 

Every single time I post about the subjects of self-cruelty and shame, I get pushback from people who claim that shame, in particular, actually IS an effective motivational strategy. 

Some people claim that what’s wrong with the world today is that not enough people experience shame. 

They claim that shame is the primary driving force that prevents a large number of people from doing bad or immoral things that they might otherwise do. 

In fact, there’s a growing segment of our culture that is really into shaming as a behavior modifier. We regularly see public shaming employed on social media as a tool to get people to change what they think, feel, and do…often with brutal (if frequently chaotic) results. 

That’s the sneaky thing about shame: in the short term, it can LOOK like it’s working. 

Human beings do respond to pressure. At first. For a minute. 

In behavioral psychology, we call this strategy “negative reinforcement:” attempting to influence behavior by introducing a painful stimulus (i.e., the shaming) and promising that we’ll remove the painful stimulus once the behavior is changed.

 (“Negative,” in this case, refers to the removal of something.)

The thing is, while the prospect of shame can certainly make a human being jump…the question I always come back to, is shame the kind of tool that can KEEP a human jumping consistently? 

Or even more importantly: is shame the kind of tool that can make a human WANT to jump, even if the prospect of ongoing shaming is removed? 

Not so much. 

If there’s something we’ve learned from countless studies of abused and neglected children, it’s that human beings who are habitually shamed psychologically and emotionally burn out. 

They go numb. They switch off. 

It’s a psychological defense against trauma called “dissociation.” And it’s way, way more widespread than you think it is. 

When we learn to dissociate as children, as a defense against a constant barrage of shame…we do not learn how to constructively cope with difficult emotions or situations. 

We learn to avoid, instead of problem-solve. 

We learn to react, instead of authentically respond. 

And, perhaps most importantly: children who dissociate tend to grow up to be adults who dissociate. 

That’s what shame, utilized over and over and over again as a tool of behavior modification, does to people. 

That is to say, shame doesn’t REALLY change behavior. Not in any meaningful sense. It just makes a person less able to effectively cope with reality, with stress, with conflict, and with life. 

We do not truly change when we are shamed. 

We change when we experience a shift in values. 

We change when we have more and better skills and tools to change. 

We change when we have the proper mentorship and support to change. 

People who want to use shame as a behavior modifier tend to want to do so because it’s easy. It doesn’t take a whole lot of creativity or energy. 

It’s an incredibly lazy strategy. 

And, like most lazy strategies, ultimately ineffective. 

If you’ve gotten in the habit of trying to change your own, or anybody else’s behavior, via shame— perhaps because that’s what you saw modeled growing up— push the pause button when you notice yourself doing it. 

Stop. 

Breathe. 

Think. 

Am I really changing anything with this? 

Or am I just crippling this person’s coping style going forward in life? 

If you can think to ask the question…the answer really will be apparent. 

 

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“Success” and “worthiness” are not related.

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You are worth more than what you’ve accomplished. 

That goes whether you’ve accomplished a lot or a little— or whether your accomplishments have been recognized by others, or if they’re the kinds of accomplishments that few or no other people even know about. 

You’re STILL worth more than those accomplishments. 

We have a tendency in our culture to be very preoccupied with external measures of success. 

And don’t get me wrong, I love external measures of success. External measures of success  are often a sign that things are going right in someone’s life, and for that reason I celebrate them as much as anyone else. 

It’s great that you’re making the money you’re making. 

It’s great that your body looks and feels the way you want it to look and feel. 

It’s great you were able to finish that race, to climb that mountain, to hike that trail. 

It’s great that you got that promotion or that your business is doing well. 

Success is certainly preferable to lack of success in a lot of ways.

The thing is, we tend to confuse “success” with “personal worth.” 

They’re not the same. They’re not even particularly related. 

Success is often determined by our ability to develop and use specific skills. Yes, there’s a lot of luck involved too, and sometimes privilege comes into play, but in the best of all worlds, success often represents the fact that we’ve been able to figure out what we need to do and when we need to do it in order to conquer a specific set of goals and objectives in a specific domain. 

That’s certainly worth celebrating. 

But don’t think that success is what gives you, or anyone else, worth as a person. 

Similarly, don’t think lack of success deprives you, or anyone else, of worth as a person. 

Many people make this mistake every day…and the emotional costs are staggering. 

They get it in their heads that because they are not as successful as they’d prefer, in domains that are important to them…they must be worthless. 

They’ve been told boneheaded stuff by life coaches to the tune of, “your results are a reflection of you.” 

They’ve seen how the culture— and, often even those close to them— worship and respect success, and they leap to the conclusion that since they are not as outwardly successful as others, they have no shot at being admired or respected. 

Why? 

A lot of it has to do with confusion about the concept of “worth.” 

Not many people have been taught a lot about what makes someone “worthy.” 

Worthy of what? Love, attention, kindness, resources. Worthy to take up space and breathe air and exist. 

No amount of success can “make” someone worthy. 

No lack of success can deprive a person of worth. 

It is not the case that only “worthwhile” people succeed. Lucky people often succeed, talented people often succeed, hard working people often succeed, privileged people often succeed, random people often succeed. 

And often they don’t, too. 

But success is not a litmus test of “worth.” 

For worth to be real, it has to be based something fundamental to who someone is. And success, as any successful (or once successful) person can tell you, comes and goes, sometimes overnight. 

Your worth is not determined by your success. 

Your worth is not impacted by your success. 

Your worth transcends success, failure, feelings, relationships, and calamities. 

It even transcends your own perception of your worth. 

The trick is coming to truly accept that— and to accept the need to let go of the false success/worth connection in our heads. 

 

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