What “attitude” can– and can’t– do.

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Let’s be crystal clear: “attitude” is not a magic wand. 

Despite what some motivational memes on the Internet may imply, “attitude” will not automatically overcome physical or logistical limitations. 

Despite our attitude, we all only have twenty four hours in a day; we all have a finite amount of physical energy; most of us have a finite amount of financial resources at any given time. 

It annoys me when attitude is presented as a cure-all for limits. It just isn’t true. 

In addition to being simply untrue, implying that attitude in itself is enough to overcome any limitations opens the door to some particularly unhelpful thoughts and beliefs— notably, that if we happen to find ourselves constrained by limits at the moment, it’s merely our attitude that s holding us back. 

Trust me: there are real things holding you back, aside from attitude. 

Falling into the trap of believing it’s all attitude-over-matter is often a route to blaming and shaming ourselves in ways that are robustly unhelpful. 

None of this means that attitude doesn’t matter, however. Quite the opposite. 

Attitude is a tool. It’s just like any other tool we have at our disposal to cope with challenges, solve problems, nudge toward our goals, and live our values: it’s useful when it’s the right tool for the job…and even though it’s not the right tool for EVERY job, knowing how and when to use the tool of attitude is part of successful personal growth. 

Attitude can’t solve every problem you have. 

But consciously choosing our attitude can have a tremendous impact on how quickly and elegantly we do solve our problems. 

Thinking of attitude as a tool has several important implications, chief among them that attitude is a choice. 

Many people aren’t used to thinking of attitude as a choice. They kind of think of attitude as the cumulative sum of their thoughts, feelings, and impressions about a particular subject, something that is arrived at passively. And for many people, this is the case— because they haven’t been taught to think of attitude as something they can have all that much control over. 

Our attitude toward something is not the same as our gut-level reaction to it. 

We might have a gut-level reaction to something that varies from positive and welcoming to negative and rejecting. But that’s just our reaction. 

Our attitude is how we deal with our reaction— how we then DECIDE how to think about and RESPOND to the presence of something in our lives. 

For example: we can have a REACTION to, say, a coworker that is resoundingly negative. They may irritate us, and we may be annoyed that we have to spend time around them and energy dealing with them. 

However, even if that’s our initial reaction, we can choose a productive attitude toward having to deal with that coworker every day. We can choose to selectively emphasize, in our own minds, their positive (or, maybe, just their less annoying) traits. We can shift our focus to the aspects of our job that don’t require heavy interactions with that coworker. We can decide that we are going to approach going to work every day with an attitude of relatively positive expectation, selectively emphasizing in our minds the interactions that went well (or, at least, that were less painful than others). 

Understand: our attitude toward this coworker doesn’t solve the problem of having to go to work every day and deal with them. Limits are real, and attitude doesn’t immediately transcend them. 

However, it is absolutely true that managing our expectations and focus and approach to the situation— our attitude— can dramatically impact how painful and inconvenient we find the task of going into work and having to deal with this person. 

Attitude isn’t everything, but it matters. 

Why do so many people want us to believe that “attitude is everything,” then? 

Some people really enjoy the fantasy of being able to alter everything about their world with a simple shift of perspective. 

For that matter, some people have experienced how powerful a shift in perspective— a tool cognitive therapists call “reframing”— can be, and they might get a little carried away with exactly HOW powerful a tool it can be. 

Remember, attitude is a tool. It’s just like self-talk, grounding, containment, reframing, goal-setting, and time management. 

All of those are incredibly important tools— but none of them, on their own, will solve every problem that we have. 

Develop your tools. Use our tools. 

But also remember that tools are only as good as their appropriateness to the job at hand. 

 

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A messy day doesn’t equal a messy life.

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Your journey is probably going to be messy. 

We don’t really like thinking about the potential messiness of our journeys. We want to think that, once we decide to push the “reset” button and improve our lives, get sober, or get into recovery from trauma, the journey is going to be a path of ever-improving days and weeks and months. 

We like to imagine that as long as we’re on the upswing, each day is going to be better than the last. 

If only that were true. 

It’s true that once we make the decision to get into recovery, we’re going to end up having way more good days than bad, at least in the big picture. That’s the basic point, the reason to get into recovery in the first place. 

But it’s simply not the case that we’re going to like every day, or that we’re going to like ourselves, our reactions, and our behavior every day. 

Even in the midst of dramatic upswings in our quality of life, we’re going to have days that feel lousy. 

We’re going to have times when we feel embarrassed and awkward. 

We’re going to have days when we wonder if all, or any, of our efforts are even working. 

No matter how much better we’re getting, no matter how many good decisions we’re making, no matter how many bad influences we’re avoiding, we’re simply going to have days when the journey is just messy. 

So why bother getting into recovery at all? 

Because messy days do not equate to a messy life. 

What does equate to a messy life is a life in which we are not making any attempt to control our process or outcome; a life in which we have simply surrendered to the things that have happened to us in the past; a life in which we have decided we have no hope to achieve or goals or live our values. 

Messy days are an acceptable price to pay for the larger benefit of being able to live a life on our terms, not the terms of a substance or a past abuser or dysregulated brain chemistry. 

The trick is to remember that there is a difference between the big picture and our day to day experience. 

An example of this phenomenon is physical exercise and diet. 

Day to day, it’s easier and more pleasurable to eat an uncontrolled amount of whatever we feel like eating at the moment. Restricting what we eat, when we eat, and how we eat is a pain the neck. It can lead to inconvenience, irritation, and even awkwardness (such as when we attempt to reconcile a healthy eating pattern with our social obligations). 

Similarly, day to day, making yourself do more physical exercise than is necessary in the course of a day, getting out of breath, getting sweaty, paying to join a gym, taking the time to go to a gym…it’s all a pain. 

The day to day experience of living a healthy lifestyle can be a hassle. It can be a bummer. Messy. 

In the big picture, though, NOT monitoring one’s diet and REFUSING to get the kind of physical exercise we need can lead to much bigger and more pervasive problems than the messiness of day to day experience. 

Physical exercise and mindfulness of dietary habits can help protect our health, our mood, our ability to live and perform. In the big picture, physical exercise and mindfulness of diet is obviously the more adaptive and self-nurturing way to live…even if it causes messiness in ur day to day experience. 

Making that distinction— between the big picture and the day to day— is crucial. 

The good news is, handling it when we have a messy day to day experience is easier than we might think. 

Again, taking the example of physical exercise and diet, learning to cope with the fact that we don’t get to eat whatever we want, whenever we want to, is just a matter of learning to control our focus. No more, no less. 

Learning to tolerate the discomfort that comes with a physical workout is a matter of controlling our focus. No more, no less. 

Controlling our focus is a learnable skill. 

And our motivation to learn and practice it comes from radically accepting that some days are just gong to be messy…and putting up with the messy day to day is absolutely worth it in the big picture. 

 

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Closeness and loneliness and connection are, well…complicated.

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Maybe you’re tough to be close to. That happens. 

It especially happens when we’ve had experiences in our lives that have programmed us with beliefs about what it means to be close to other people. 

Many of us, for whatever reason, grow up with programming about closeness to other people that discourages us from being close to them, or even attempting to be close to them. 

Some of us have come to believe that allowing ourselves to be close to other people only opens ourselves up for the pain of mockery and eventual betrayal. 

Some of us have developed the belief that truly “strong” people need to live a lonely, isolated existence, like “leaders” and “geniuses” are sometimes reputed to. 

Still others have simply had so many painful, traumatic experiences in their lives that they feel the have to live lonely, isolated lives simply to function. 

Whatever the reason, a large subset of people find themselves in adulthood having developed a variety of psychological and behavioral defenses against human closeness that they then have very mixed feelings about. 

On the one hand, these defenses can keep us feeling “safe,” at least relatively. Keeping other people at arm’s length lets us in some ways feel like we’re more in charge of our lives, our environments, our schedule, and our energy. It helps us feel more in control in some ways. 

On the other hand, however, most people also experience an innate, hard-wired drive to connect with others. The continued frustration of this drive can leave people feeling lonely and lost, and lead some people to assume that they’re somehow defective or damaged because they struggle to make and keep close connections. 

To be very clear: it’s normal to both crave and kind of fear making connections with other people. We don’t need to beat ourselves up for either impulse. 

Both the craving for close connection and anxiety about close connections are experienced by most people at various times in their lives. Neither makes someone “needy” or “defective.” 

There isn’t, actually, any “right” or objectively “healthy” level of human connectedness. 

The level of connection to other human beings that is right for you, may not be right for someone else. Your mileage regarding how much close connection you need or want in your life will absolutely vary when compared to others. 

Coming to peace and finding balance with our need for and fear of connectedness starts, as with most important concepts in personal development, with radical self-acceptance and self-compassion. 

We need to radically accept that we have exactly the craving for connectedness, and exactly the level of anxiety about connectedness, as we have. We need to steadfastly refuse to pathologize what we experience as natural impulses. 

Then we need to ask ourselves, with compassion and a commitment to self-acceptance and self-support: “What do I need, and how do I respect and honor my needs when it comes to connection with others?” 

It may be the case that you need and crave a greater degree of connectedness. 

It may be the case that you need and crave a greater degree of autonomy or space. 

When we’ve become clear about our needs— when we’ve objectively evaluated what we need and want, with compassion, self-acceptance, and a steadfast refusal to judge ourselves harshly— we need to ask ourselves, on a practical level: “What problems do I need to solve in order to get my needs met?” 

Framing our obstacles to getting our needs met as problems to be solved— and problems that CAN be solved— opens us up to entirely new dimensions of possibility. 

Anxiety about talking to new people (or even NOT-new people!) is a problem to be solved. No more, no less. 

Anxiety about allowing others to get too close or too enmeshed with us is a problem to be solved. No more, no less. 

We know how to go about solving the problem of anxiety.

We know how to go about solving the problems presented by complicated boundaries. 

And— because it wouldn’t be a  Dr. Glenn Doyle blog without sounding like a broken record in this respect— most problem-solving in these domains comes back to developing and practicing basic skills: self-acceptance, self-talk, reality testing, and time and resource management. Self-care. 

Be real with yourself about your own relationship with the very idea of connection. 

Be real with yourself about the obstacles that exist, both inside and outside yourself, to experiencing the level of connectedness you’d prefer. 

Be honest and compassionate with yourself— at all times. 

You deserve honesty and compassion at all times…especially from yourself. 

 

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You know it’s gonna be all right.

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It’s not wrong or foolish or naive’ to want to change the world. Lord knows there’s a lot out there that could use changing. 

Many people can encounter a problem, however, when they get so wrapped up in changing the world that they deemphasize the necessity to invest in and change themselves, in order to live their values and achieve their goals. 

There is a distortion cognitive therapists often encounter called “dichotomous thinking.” It occurs when people come to believe that they must function with a black and white worldview, in which no gray area exists. 

It’s a worldview that is very zero-sum— in order for one thing to be true, all other things must be false. 

Black and white thinking is really good at contributing to depression and anxiety. It very frequently leads people to think that if they’re not a complete success, they must be a total failure. People who think in black and white terms often assume that if they’re not completely in control of a situation or a problem, that must mean that situation or problem is completely out of control. 

It’s a miserable way to live. 

Black and white thinking also tends to encourage people to view societal change and personal change as a zero sum game. 

If it is partially society’s fault that I’m experiencing difficulty, their thinking goes, then I am powerless to attempt to change my life on my own. 

This is a false choice. 

Even in the midst of changing society for the better— efforts that most often need to be big-picture and long-term— we still have opportunities to effectively work on changing ourselves, adapting to situations, developing our skillsets, clarifying and living our values. 

Because society needs to be changed doesn’t mean that WE don’t need to change. 

No matter how passionately we believe in the necessity of changing society, and no matter how onerous we imagine our own responsibility to change the world is, we STILL have to make the time and effort to manage our own lives and resources in ways that allow us to live our values and achieve our goals. 

How do we find this balance? 

First thing’s first: we have to avoid the feelings of hopelessness and being overwhelmed that can happen when we contemplate how screwed up the world is in many respects. 

I know, I know. The world has its problems right now. Politically; culturally; socially; spiritually. 

No matter what one’s political viewpoints or religious affiliations or socioeconomic class, it’s increasingly obvious that there is a lot of work to do out there in the world. 

And there is no doubt that many people take very seriously their responsibly to be part of the solutions, not part of the problems. 

But avoiding feeling overwhelmed involves getting very realistic about the roles that we, as individuals can play in solving the world’s problems. 

We can do what we can do. 

Some of us can do more than others for various reasons. Some of us are more limited in what we can do. 

But wherever we are, whoever we are, we need to be aware of and accept those limits, or else we run a very real danger of becoming needlessly burned out. 

As we do the work we need to do to radically accept the limits of our power and responsibility in changing the world, we also need to remember that we are of absolutely no use to the social, political, or spiritual causes dear to our hearts if we aren’t also working on and taking care of ourselves every day. 

I know, I know. Social movements and political revolutions have a long history of glorifying sacrifice and selflessness. The narrative out there is that “the cause” is more important that any individual’s life. 

I would respectfully disagree. Just as we have a responsibility to the larger causes that we care about, we have serious and real responsibilities toward ourselves and the life we have been given stewardship of. 

Remember, even in the midst of his chaotic song “Revolution,” John Lennon repeatedly assured us, “You know it’s gonna be all right.” 

It will be all right…but we need to take our own needs and quality of life as seriously as anybody else’s for whom we fight politically, socially, culturally, or spiritually. 

You don’t need to choose between making the world a better place and taking care of yourself with compassion and realism. 

Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. 

 

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Feeling powerless is not the same as being powerless.

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There are lots of things that can feel out of our control. 

Memories that turn into flashbacks. Anger that blossoms into rage. Depression that spirals into despair. Tiredness that sinks into fatigue. 

When we start investigating ways we can possibly keep these things from ruining our lives, we often come up against a brick wall when we realize that so much feels so out of our control. 

It can feel overwhelming when we come up against this wall. It often makes us want to give up the project of personal growth or therapy altogether, and just retreat back into a cloistered existence where the main objective is to get through the day hurting as little as possible. 

If you’ve experienced this, you’re not alone. Many people find themselves confronted with the wall of how out-of-control our emotional and physical existences seem to be. 

Therein lies one of the great paradoxes of personal growth and therapy: in order to have any hope of mastering the knowledge and skills necessary to get our lives back on track, we need to learn to deal with that feeling of powerlessness. 

We need to accept that, at least for a minute, we are going to feel powerless, and maybe a little hopeless and alone. 

But there’s also something we need to accept in this process that seems even more difficult for many people to accept: the fact that because we FEEL powerless doesn’t mean we ARE powerless. 

Because it FEELS like our memories, our anger, our depression, and our fatigue are beyond our control, that doesn’t mean they truly ARE. 

It may be true that we don’t YET have the tools we need in order to change our lives…but that doesn’t mean those tools don’t exist. 

Many people resist embracing these truths. 

For some people, accepting that they can develop knowledge and skills that will eventually put them in charge of their emotional lives feels tantamount to blaming themselves for not ALREADY having that knowledge and those skills. If those skills exist, they reason, it’s my fault for not already having them— thus my misery is on me. 

This is what cognitive therapists call a “personalization distortion.” 

Why on earth would it fall on you to have already mastered skills you didn’t even know existed? 

That’s like blaming a child who hasn’t yet learned to read, for not knowing how to read. I.e., the fact that a kid doesn’t yet know how to read doesn’t mean they can’t learn to read…and it would be silly to expect them to know how to read without instruction and practice. 

Believe it or not, the various skills that we need in order to grow as a person and/or recover from emotional difficulties aren’t “common knowledge.” 

We are not, as children, taught particularly strong emotional regulation skills. 

(Many of us, as children, were taught and rewarded for OVER-regulation of our emotions…but that’s not the same thing.) 

Accepting the fact that there are things we can do to feel and function better is NOT the same as blaming ourselves for currently being miserable. 

Nor is it a legitimate pathway to blaming anybody else for their misery, although there is definitely a subset of people who love trying to blame vulnerable people for their own unhappiness. 

The fact that tools exist to help us live more livable lives is useless to us unless we happen to have also come across the resources that teach us those skills and show us how to use them in the real world. And the fact is, many people who do end up connecting with those resources often end up doing so by chance. 

They happen to stumble across the right blog. 

They happen to get hooked up with the right therapist at the right time. 

They happen to read the right book which happened to be on the shelf that happened to be at eye level. 

Don’t fall into the trap of believing that your difficulties have to be either beyond your ability to deal with them, or else it’s somehow your fault that you’re not yet dealing with them in an optimal way. That’s a false choice. 

Instead, err on the side of assuming that every problem you’re facing may have a solution. 

If you haven’t found the solution to the problems facing you yet, err on the side of assuming that you simply haven’t stumbled across the right resources at the right time— and keep looking. 

It’s okay to feel intimidated when you look at the array of stressors crowding in on you. It’s normal. ANYBODY would be intimidated to be facing such adversarial forces. 

But don’t assume that those feelings— being intimidated, even being discouraged or feeling momentarily hopeless— actually mean that you cannot learn the skills and use the tools that truly are out there to improve your life. 

Feeling powerless is not the same as being powerless. 

Repeat this as necessary. 

 

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Be willing to choose the “you” you need to be today.

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If you insist on clinging to the metaphor of yourself as a warrior, don’t be surprised when your entire life feels like a war. 

Maybe that’s okay to you. Maybe, for that matter, the reason you chose to self-identify as a “warrior” in the first place was because life ALREADY felt like a war, and you needed to adapt to your circumstances. 

Branding yourself a “warrior” is certainly preferable to branding yourself a perpetual victim of your circumstances. It’s proactive, and carries with it overtones of fearlessness and passion. 

What we need to remember when we’re choosing which metaphors we embrace for ourselves and our lives is, life requires a great deal of flexibility. 

Metaphors that are useful in one context sometimes don’t translate well to other circumstances. 

You may have to be a “warrior” when functioning at work or when confronting aspects of your past in therapy. But to take that metaphor of self-identification into your intimate relationships may be asking for a level of tumult that you don’t need or want in your close connections. 

“Warriors” primarily problem-solve by fighting. They use their training and passion to identify and nullify threats. 

You probably wouldn’t want to be in a relationship with someone whose primary mission in life was to seek out and deal with threats or was most comfortable on the attack. 

Be a “warrior” in those times and places when it pays to be one. But remember that the “warrior” side of you is, in fact, only one aspect of the complex human being you are— and you are free to connect with and bring out other aspects of yourself as needed. 

What other aspects of you are there? 

Who are you beyond the tough exterior you’ve had to develop in order to survive life so far? 

What aspects of yourself might you have forgotten about in your struggle to make it through? 

Who is in there besides the proud, passionate “warrior?” 

Is there a lover inside of you, who values romance, sensuality, and passion? 

Is there a priest, monk, or hermit, who values contemplation and who holds wisdom? 

Is there a nurturer or caretaker inside of you, who creates meaning from the role he or she is able to play in making life more livable for those close to him or her? 

The fact of the matter is, there are multiple versions of us inside us all. 

When we grow up struggling with traumatic or dysfunctional relationships, emotional difficulties like depression or anxiety, or physical limitations such as disability or illness, we tend to kind of phase out multiple “layers” of who we are and focus on the tough, proactive “selves” inside of us. Pushing aside the vulnerable versions of ourselves for the tough, proactive versions is a defense mechanism we use to increase the odds that we’ll survive day to day. 

The thing is, though, we can get kind of “stuck” in those tough, proactive versions of ourselves after awhile and forget that there are many layers to who we are. Many layers that require acknowledgement if we are to feel whole.

As far as I’m concerned, the process of healing is in large part about becoming flexible and intentional about the metaphors and images we all use to construct our reality. 

Trauma, depression, and anxiety have a way of convincing us we have to live life reactively— that all we have to work with is what life or our experiences handed us. Often negative thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and images. 

It’s my view that, yes, we have to react and respond to those negative things. But we can also proactively use our own images, metaphors, and narratives to construct a different reality. 

You may need your “warrior self” to endure a subset of your memories. You may even need your “warrior self” to endure a subset of your current relationships and circumstances. I’m not in any way suggesting you leave your “warrior self” aside. 

I’m saying that flexibility in toggling between our various “selves” is a skill that can be cultivated and used judiciously and intentionally. 

Be your “warrior self” when you need to. 

But be willing and able to be your “lover self” when you want to. 

Be willing and able to access your inner priest, monk, or Jedi, as your life and relationship needs warrant. 

Healing is about learning to use the vast array of images, voices, and identities available to you at any given time as a function of your magnificent mind. 

Be the “you” you choose to be— based on your real needs in the real world. 

 

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Handling relapses and setbacks.

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Our success will largely be determined by how we handle relapses and setbacks. 

Yes, yes, I know. The “positive thinking” paradigm insists that we shouldn’t even acknowledge the POSSIBILITY of relapse or setbacks, because to acknowledge them is to devote energy to them and make them more likely. 

Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s a place for positive thinking in personal development. But let me assure you: if you don’t have a strategy in place for handling relapse and setbacks BEFORE they occur, you’re going to be at their mercy once they invariably DO occur. 

The fact of the matter is, relapse and setbacks really aren’t that big a deal. 

But they FEEL like a big deal, and that’s one of the reasons why they tend to be so deadly. 

Anything that FEELS like a big deal can knock us off our game plan and make us waste valuable time getting back in the driver’s seat. 

Relapse and setbacks are among the most common things to happen to anybody who is in recovery or trying to improve their lives. Anything that happens as commonly as relapse and setbacks CAN’T be that big of a deal, because if they really were such a big deal, no one would ever succeed after them. 

Why do we let relapse and setbacks get to us so much? 

Because most of us have some very well-worn conditioning in our heads about what relapse and setbacks MEAN. 

Many of us think relapse and setbacks MEAN we can’t eventually succeed. 

Many think relapse and setbacks MEAN that we’re going to lose way more ground in our project than is actually probable. 

Many addicts in particular think relapse MEANS that they’re simply not wired for sobriety; the fact that they were unable to stay clean means they’ll never be truly clean. (This train of thought is unfortunately encouraged by some peoples’ rigid interpretation of the Twelve Step tradition, which emphasizes and publicly celebrates “clean time” in very specific terms of days, months, and years.)

We live in a culture that values the ability to get things right, preferably the first time. We worship competence and expertise. If someone screws up or if things don’t go as planned, we consider this a mark of diminished competence or expertise. 

That is, our brains get conditioned to associate relapse and setbacks with failure. 

And Lord knows we have a cultural phobia of failure. 

I’m certainly not gong to try to sell you on the idea that relapse and setbacks are fun or desirable. They’re often not. If we can avoid relapsing and experiencing setbacks, of course we should. The GOAL of doing anything is to get it “right.” 

But the fact that things don’t go as planned most often means that, well, things didn’t go as planned. 

It doesn’t mean they won’t go as planned in the big picture. 

It certainly doesn’t mean you’re “wired” to fail at your project. 

It doesn’t mean anything beyond what it means in the very short-term, specific context in which it occurred. 

Taking as an example relapse: most relapses happen not because of “big picture” variables, but due to combinations of little, daily, micro-variables. Usually a particularly stressful situation combined with unusually easy access to one’s substance of choice. When those variables find themselves in the same room together, it’s an easy recipe for relapse. 

No more, no less. 

What tools do we need in order to handle relapse and setbacks such that they are kept in their proper perspective? 

The tool of self-talk is your first line of defense. 

Self-talk bolstered by self-compassion, realistic expectations of yourself and others, and consistent but supportive personal accountability is the beginning of making yourself emotionally bulletproof. 

Notice what you say to yourself when you relapse or experience a setback. 

Notice if you’re talking to yourself in black and white terms. 

Notice if you’re talking to yourself in overgeneralized terms, assuming that this situation truly represents ALL situations you might face. 

I can’t say it enough: it matters what we say to ourselves. 

Relapse isn’t the end of the world. Setbacks are not the end of the world. 

Don’t let anyone convince you you need to be afraid of either. 

 

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