Using our skills and tools is an EVERY DAY task. You’re not the exception.

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Most of the stuff we have to do to get better, we have to do— or at least do some version of— every day in order to stay better. 

I know, I know. “Every day” sounds like a lot. 

“Every day” sounds like a lot to so many people, in fact, that it causes a subset of people to kind of want to give up doing the stuff that got them better. They figure that anything you have to do “every day” is simply too much of a hassle. 

Well over half of the symptomatic relapses I see in my practice happen because people who have used certain skills and tools in order to get better, have for one reason or another quit doing them every day. They may have made those skills and tools into habits for either a little while or a long while…but in the end, the story is the same: they quit doing the stuff. 

I hear you. Having to do something “every day” sounds like a drag. 

But the simple fact of the matter is that most everything that makes your body and mind function better— most everything that makes you feel better— in the long run really does have to happen every day. 

Every day your body needs good nutrition. 

Every day your body needs physical exercise. 

Every day your body needs hydration. 

If you want to minimize the chances you’ll get cavities and suffer from tooth decay, every day your teeth need to be brushed. 

And yes: if you have a history of depression and you want to keep from being depressed, every day it’s probably necessary to stop, listen to your thinking patterns, and identify and combat distorted thinking. 

If you have a history of dissociation, every day it’s necessary to use grounding skills to make sure you’re oriented to place, time, and person. 

If you have a history of anxiety, every day it’s necessary to take time to relax your body, corral and talk back to anxiety-provoking thoughts, and use self-soothing tools and techniques. 

The good news is, once you make these things habitual, having to use these skills and tools feels less like a burden. 

The better news is, there are ways you can make using these skills and tools every day easier. You can use a planner. You can use a checklist. You can make a “game” out of it. You can even engage the support of a group or online accountability partner. 

The key to it all: keeping in mind the benefit of what you’re doing, rather than focusing on the burden. 

If someone is frustrated by having to use their psychological survival tools and skills every day, it’s almost always because they’re focused on the cost of using them instead of the benefit. 

What is the cost? 

You lose a little time, maybe. 

It’s inconvenient, maybe. A bit of a hassle, maybe. 

Sometimes using psychological survival tools and skills brings up unpleasant thoughts and feelings that we THINK we can avoid by simply “stuffing” them down— the “out of sight, out of mind” technique (that almost NEVER works, by the way). 

But what might be the benefit of using the skills and tools? 

The benefit of using psychological survival tools is that you will have a much, much decreased chance of slipping into depression. 

You’ll have a much, mush decreased chance of losing hours, days, or weeks to dissociation. 

Your anxiety level is much, much less likely to become unbearable. 

Why can’t we always see these benefits in the moment, though? Why are the COSTS of using psychological survival skills often so much easier to focus on rather than the BENEFITS? 

For most people, the answer to this is pretty simple: they don’t like to think of themselves as someone who needs to use “survival skills” every day in order to just get by. 

That’s right: good, old fashioned denial. 

Most of the people I work with are not stupid. They know full well the benefits to using their tools and skills far, far outweigh any costs of using them. 

They just struggle with facing the reality of how much they need them. 

It’s a drag that you need these skills, let alone every day. I hear that, and I don’t disagree. 

But it’s a drag that exists. It’s a drag that IS. We need to acknowledge and deeply accept what IS, if we’re ever going to have a chance to change it. 

Accept the fact that you need certain skills and tools. Accept that you need to use them every day. 

Don’t let denial trick you into thinking you’re beyond using basic skills. 

No good comes of that. 

 

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Talk and listen to yourself– ALL parts of yourself.

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I am forever telling my patients and clients: talk to yourself, and listen to yourself. 

The catch? Your “self” is not one, unified entity. 

No one’s “self” is one, unified entity, that listens with one mind or speaks with one voice. 

The fact is, most of us have many parts that comprise our “selves.” And we need to talk to each part of us and listen to each part of us in specific ways. 

We do this through a skill called “internal communication.” I developed my version of it while working primarily with patients who were diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder (the clinical syndrome formerly known as “multiple personality disorder”). 

Over time, I realized that it’s not just patients who had Dissociative Identity Disorder that need to pay attention to all the different parts of themselves when they internally communicate. 

The fact is, we’re all kind of shattered. 

We all have conflicting parts of ourselves and voices inside. 

We all need to learn about and pay attention to the various parts of ourselves. 

We all need to learn the skill of talking to ourselves and listening to ourselves in specific ways; and we all have to develop the patience and discipline to utilize our internal communication skills, often every day. 

If we communicate only with a few parts of ourselves that we like or approve of, and neglect those parts of ourselves that we dislike or are ashamed of…then those neglected, unseen, unheard parts of us become the parts of us that are most likely to unexpectedly rear up and kick our asses. 

Do you ever wonder why you self-sabotage? 

There are lots of reasons why people self-sabotage, ranging from ineffective planning to fear of success to disordered attention. But a very common reason people self sabotage is: they haven’t paid sufficient attention to certain parts of themselves, and those parts are trying to be heard…in the only way they know how. 

Think about it: it’s not the parts of yourself that you are comfortable with and proud of that cause you problems. 

It’s the parts of you that you try to keep hidden, that cause you shame and fear, that most often pop up right when you’re on the verge of a breakthrough or success to crash the party. 

Why do they do that? 

They do that because they’ve been neglected, “stuffed” down, in the hope that if they’re just kind of shoved in the closet or under the bed, they’ll go away on their own. 

Spoiler alert: they won’t. 

They won’t go away on their own because they have important things to say. 

They “hold” important parts of your experience. 

Just because they’re not attractive or convenient or pleasant to think about doesn’t mean they don’t need things from you. 

If you expect to live your life in a conscious, goal-oriented, integrated way, you need to pay attention to those neglected parts of yourself. 

The bad memories. The shameful impulses. The “young,” immature you that lives hidden behind the “adult,” supposedly more mature you that you show the world. 

All parts of us need to be acknowledged with compassion and acceptance. 

Some people don’t want to look at or deal with the parts of themselves that they find unacceptable because they think that acknowledging those parts with compassion and acceptance makes it more likely that they’ll do things that those parts want them to do, but which are incompatible with their adult identity. 

For example, some people think that if they acknowledge the “angry” parts themselves, it’ll make them more likely to lash out in anger. 

Or they think if they acknowledge the sexual parts of themselves, they’re more likely to act out sexually. 

Actually, the exact opposite is true: if you DON’T acknowledge those parts of yourself, THAT makes those parts more likely to come roaring up when you least expect them and try to yank control of your life away. 

It’s the “pink elephant” rule. Right now, try, really hard, to NOT think about a pink elephant. 

What are you thinking about? 

That’s right. A pink elephant. 

So try NOT to think about how angry or sexual you are. 

Same principle. 

The good news is, we can learn to communicate among all the parts of ourselves. We can learn to take care of the parts of ourselves that need care. We can learn to acknowledge the feelings of angry, hurt parts of ourselves without acting out. We can develop a relationship with all parts of ourselves that is constructive and non-toxic. 

But it takes practice. 

And willingness. 

And courage. 

 

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We don’t know what’s going to happen next. (No, really. We don’t.)

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Many people get miserable because they feel certain they “know” whats’ coming next. 

They figure, I’ve experienced hard times, maybe going back years. 

I’ve had my heart broken. 

I’ve had people push me away. 

I’ve had people let me down. 

I’ve been denied access to experiences that make me feel happy and at peace. 

And now, looking at my life, I can only assume that what’s to come is more of the same. 

They assume, in other words, that their past is necessarily a “preview of coming attractions” for their future. That because they’ve experienced very little but frustration in their lives, that there’s nothing but frustration to look forward to. 

This is an example of what psychologists call “learned helplessness.” It’s a phenomenon whereby people come to believe that their circumstances aren’t likely to change, and what’s more they’re powerless to change them, largely because of how they’ve been conditioned by their past experiences. 

The thing is: we truly don’t know what’s next. 

I know, I know. It FEELS like we know what’s next, because we know what we’ve experienced. 

But the simple truth is, feelings aren’t facts. There are many times when we FEEL something is correct, when we’re stone cold CERTAIN we know something is right, because it FEELS so right…but it turns out to be wrong. (Assuming something is valid simply based on the evidence of it feeling right or true is a thinking error cognitive behavioral therapists call “emotional reasoning.)

We don’t know what’s next. Life turns on a dime.

Breakthroughs happen. Deaths happen. 

We meet people we didn’t expect to meet. We stumble across books we didn’t know existed. 

We read a blog entry or see a meme on social media that blows our mind or reframes our lives in ways we couldn’t have anticipated. 

Life consistently finds ways to surprise us— especially when we least expect it. 

The certainty that we know what’s next is, like emotional reasoning, a thinking error identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as “fortune telling.” The research suggests that it’s an error, or cognitive distortion, that significantly— and needlessly— contributes to many cases of clinical depression. 

Mind you, none of that is to say that our assumptions about what might happen next in our lives are completely invalid. 

We’re not dumb. We know that, for example, one of the best predictor of our future behavior is, in fact, our past behavior. 

We also know that the law of physics that states that a body in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force is also true of life in general. Momentum tends to carry us in the same direction in our lives…unless something intercedes to change the direction we’re headed. 

If nothing changes, in other words, nothing changes. 

That’s largely true. 

What I might add to this equation, however, is that we’re often unaware of the “outside forces” that are lurking just on the periphery of our awareness…ready and able to change our lives dramatically when they make their appearance. 

We just never know when that might be. 

We can, however, be ready for those “outside forces” to come into our lives and do their thing when it’s time. 

We can keep our minds and hearts open to the possibility that our lives CAN be changed. 

We can keep our minds and hearts open to the possibility that our future CAN be different from the past. 

We can keep our eyes out for that thing that COULD come in and change how we see the world and our role in it. 

We may not be able to force the thing that might change our lives…but we can be open to it. 

When we’re open to change agents, it can be surprising how quickly they tend to make their appearance. 

I know. I hear you. It’s hard to keep an open mind and an open heart when you’ve been hurt so much, so often, for so long. 

Make no mistake: staying open to change is one of the most courageous things a human being can do. 

Be courageous. 

Be open. 

Because you just don’t know what’s next. 

 

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The tools that get you better, keep you better.

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One of the mistakes people make in their recovery is believing they don’t need to have a plan. 

Sometimes, this happens when people are doing well. They think they finally have this depression thing licked, or they think they’re really in control of this PTSD thing, or they think this anxiety thing isn’t as big a deal as they once thought. So they kind of get it in their head that they can just go about their day as if depression, or PTSD, or anxiety wasn’t part of the equation. 

Then, when depressive thinking starts worming its way into their everyday thoughts; or when they start reacting to PTSD triggers; or when they find themselves getting anxious out there in the world, they’re either surprised, upset, or both. 

This happens to a lot of people. It’s not a small subset of people in recovery who struggle with this.

Ironically, it has a tendency to happen when things are going well for a person in recovery. 

You need a plan to handle your triggers, to keep your symptoms at bay, and to keep moving forward in your recovery. 

No matter how well things are going at the moment; no matter how confident you may feel that you’ve weathered the worst of your struggle; no matter how boring or redundant it might feel to be formulating day to day recovery plans when you’ve already been in recovery for so long you could recite what your therapist might say word for word from memory. You STILL need a plan. 

Much of the same stuff that got you OUT of the deepest, darkest parts of your struggle is the stuff that you need to do to STAY out of those deep, dark places. 

If you’re recovering from depression, and primarily using cognitive therapy techniques to reality test your thinking, you need to CONTINUE using those techniques EVEN AFTER you start to feel better. It’s by challenging your distorted thinking day after day after day that you stay OUT of the pit you’d fallen into. 

If you’re recovering from PTSD or a dissociative disorder, and you’re using grounding techniques and internal communications manage your symptoms, you need to CONTINUE using those techniques EVEN AFTER you’re past the point of every day being a struggle to stay alive. It’s by staying present and managing your relationship with the various parts of yourself that you’re able to create and experience a full life in the here and now rather than getting sucked back into the past. 

If you’re recovering from anxiety and using cognitive therapy and relaxation techniques to manage your psychological and physical reactivity, you need to CONTINUE using those tools on a regular basis EVEN AFTER you get to the point where you’re not blindsided by panic every day. It’s by making those tools a part of your daily life that you can truly begin turning your attention to creating a life that isn’t defined by a looming sense of dread. 

Why do so many people feel the need to quit using the tools that made their recovery possible when they get to a certain point of success in recovery? 

There are several reasons, but one of the big ones is denial. 

A lot of people simply don’t like to think of themselves as someone who needs to utilize special tools and skills to make every day livable. 

People who are depressed have often been told the reason they are depressed is because they are weak-willed. 

People who have PTSD have often been led to believe that they are somehow responsible for having experienced trauma. 

People who have anxiety are often told that they simply make too big a deal of things. 

Once therapy starts working and people start feeling sort of normal again, it’s really easy to slip into denial about how necessary it is to think of themselves as someone who really does need to utilize a specific skillset to live well. 

Because they never wanted to be “sick” in the first place, they get into denial about what it takes to not be “sick.” 

Plus, they’re feeling pretty good at the moment, so, they figure, why not just consign all that “mental illness” nonsense to the past, and just go on living like nothing ever happened? 

So they stop using the stuff that got them over the “hump” in their recovery. 

It’s not surprising, then, that their symptom return, often with a vengeance. 

I know, from firsthand experience, that it’s often demoralizing to accept every day that you have a particular set of struggles you have to endure in order to live well. I often struggle with admitting that my ADHD is as much of a problem as it is, and that I have to use specific strategies in order to not let it ruin my life. 

I get it. 

But the fact is, we really have to surrender ourselves to the reality that we need what we need. 

We need to use the tools that will keep us out of the dark. 

We need to KEEP using the tools that keep ups out of the dark. 

Because the alternative really, really sucks. 

 

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The zen of “shoulding” all over ourselves (and others).

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Giving up certain fantasies about how the world works is hard. 

We like to think we’ll always be treated fairly. 

We like to think we’ll always be rewarded in proportion to the effort we put forth. 

We like to think if we haven’t done anything wrong, we’ll be immune to criticism or punishment. 

We like to think if our intensions are good, things will work out in the end. 

Unfortunately, these are largely just that: fantasies. 

Accepting that these are fantasies can be torturous to us adults who really do want to believe in a sense of justice and proportionality in the world. I’m one of those people— I like the idea of cosmic justice making everything come out more or less even or right. 

I’ve had to struggle with accepting that these are fantasies as much as anyone. 

There’s a technique of psychotherapy called Rational Emotive Therapy that theorizes that many of the emotional disturbances we face have to do with faulty belief systems. Chief among those faulty belief systems are strong beliefs that contain the word “should.” The famous psychologist Albert Ellis referred to it as “shoulding all over ourselves.” 

“Should”-centered beliefs suggest that the world SHOULD be a certain way— and if the world ISN’T the way we belief it SHOULD be, it’s basically UNBEARABLE. 

As it turns out, thinking and believing this way are pretty much superhighways to everyday depression and lack of motivation. 

The world simply doesn’t care about our “shoulds.” 

How do we learn to live with this fact? 

First thing’s first: we have to accept that, even though our “shoulds” are largely the stuff of fantasy, that doesn’t mean they’re worthless. 

When we say the world “should” be a certain way, what we’re really doing is making a statement of value. We’re communicating to ourselves and others what we find good and important. 

Even if there is no existential guarantee that the world will BE the way we envision it, our visions of a good world matter. 

We need to accept that, even though the world doesn’t care about our “shoulds,” that doesn’t mean WE shouldn’t care. 

To the contrary: the fact that there is no guarantee that the world will be as we think it SHOULD be, is all the more reason to gear up and work toward making the world more closely resemble what we think it SHOULD look like. 

Make no mistake: there are people out there with competing visions. 

Their “shoulds” are as important to them as our “shoulds” are to us. 

We see this clash of visions play out every year in elections. Competing versions of “shoulds”— that is, competing systems of value— vie for the hearts, minds, and votes of the populace. 

“Shoulds” can be motivating, inspirational, even. 

So why do they so often lead to depression and misery? 

Because we get insistent. 

We get it into our heads that our “shoulds” deserve to be MUSTS, not only for us, but for everyone around us. 

When we come up against “should” thinking, and when “should” thinking makes us as unhappy as it frequently does— when we start “shoulding all over ourselves,” to quote Dr. Ellis— we can fight back by asking one potent, simple question: “Why?” 

“People SHOULD have the same political beliefs as I do.” Why? 

“Because my political beliefs are more compassionate and logical then theirs.” Okay, but people have varying visions of what “compassion” looks like and what “logic” implies. 

“Well, people SHOULD accept MY vision!” Why? 

What it eventually comes down to is, we function better when we’re able to detach a bit from our “shoulds.” 

Not to become less passionate about them, mind you. But to keep our INSISTENCE that our shoulds be their shoulds as well in check. 

There is no reason why others SHOULD accept our vision of reality or morality. 

We have the opportunity— maybe even the obligation— to change their minds, to help them see our vision. 

But in the end, we function better when we’re reining in our insistence that WE be able to control others minds and behavior. 

It’d be NICE, maybe. But there’s no reason others MUST believe as we do and behave as we’d prefer. 

There’s no need to should all over ourselves.

Or others.

 

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Sorry, there’s no such thing as “willpower.”

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There are lots of misconceptions out there about how we can realistically change and manage our lives. One of the biggest is that such a thing as “willpower” exists. 

Some people call it “willpower.” Others call it “grit.” 

They refer to this as if it’s a character trait that somehow makes success more likely. Presumably, if you have enough “willpower” or “grit,” you can push through difficulties, whereas people with less of these magic commodities will tap out of tough challenges. 

It’s a fun fantasy, that there’s a magic commodity that makes success more likely. 

Unfortunately, psychology put that fantasy to rest a long time ago. 

“Willpower,” “grit,” and other associated concepts are things that psychology refers to as “reified” concepts. What that means is, they’re descriptions of behavior that have been mistakenly imagined to be things in and of themselves. 

Put simply: those who refer to “willpower” or “grit” will point to certain behaviors as evidence that they have this quality.

However, when asked why certain people demonstrate these behaviors, the explanation becomes circular: because they have “willpower” and “grit.” 

Okay, sure, but how do you know they have willpower and grit? Because they behave that way. 

All right, but why do they behave that way? Because they have willpower and grit. Keep up. 

The concepts of “willpower” and “grit” do not EXPLAIN anything. Anybody who says any differently doesn’t understand psychology— and, more to the point, is probably trying to either make you feel inferior because of your lack of those qualities, and/or sell you a product or service they say will increase those qualities in you. 

Don’t fall for it. 

Instead, get real about what concepts like “willower” and “grit” DESCRIBE, rather than looking to these made up concepts to EXPLAIN anything. 

What do they describe? 

They describe the behavior of persistence. 

How do we develop the behavior of persistence? It’s not by pretending it is attributable to a magic thing called “willpower.” 

We develop persistence by learning to control our focus and focus on our goals. Those are skills, not magic. Those are learnable and able to be practiced. 

We realistically assess what stands in the way of us controlling our focus. We learn the habits of thinking and focusing that have distracted us and discouraged us from following through on our goals. We learn how to identify the distortions in our current and past patterns of thinking. We learn how to talk back to those thoughts in such a way as we stay on task and follow through. 

And, what do you know: we’ve learned the behavior of persistence, all without appeal to a magic, imaginary concept like “willpower.” 

What else do concepts like “willpower” and “grit” imply? 

They imply durability. The ability to come through challenges and struggles and continue to move forward. 

How do we learn this behavior? Again, no appealing to magic words like “willpower” or “grit.” Those don’t exist. 

We learn durability by learning how to recover from stress, by learning how to rest and recharge, by learning how to direct our focus in such a way that we don’t exhaust ourselves in any one task. 

Those are learnable skills. Those are skills that can be developed and practiced. 

There’s nothing magic (or, frankly, particularly heroic) about it. It’s a matter of training and skill development, which happen one day at a time. 

I see so many examples of this magical thinking out there. People want to think there’s a magic bullet, a personal quality they can just get more of and fix their lives. 

I’d say I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings in this respect, but that’s not true: I LOVE putting the lie to that kind of nonsense. 

Because the truth is: there is no magic out there. 

There are behaviors and skills that make building our ideal lives and achieving our goals more likely. 

No more, no less. 

Leave the snake oil salespeople to their magic “willpower” and “grit.” 

Stay tuned in to the real world with me. 

 

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You are more than your feeling states.

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When are we “allowed” to feel angry, or even disappointed, with someone? 

It seems like a straightforward question, with a straightforward answer: of course we’re allowed to be angry or disappointed with someone whenever we are, you know, angry or disappointed with someone. 

But for many people, it’s not that simple. 

Many of us have been taught to attach significant feelings of guilt to getting angry with someone. 

Others have been taught that we don’t have the right to feel disappointed in others, given that our own behavior is rarely perfect. 

This then leads us to a place where we’re undeniably FEELING certain things, most often “negative” feelings, about our fellow human beings; but we’re also experiencing what Dr. Albert Ellis called “secondary disturbances” ABOUT those feelings we’re having. 

That is, we’re feeling bad about feeling bad. 

It can turn into a vicious cycle. 

What often happens next is a tug-of-war with ourselves, one that can wear on our self-esteem. After all, it’s hard to convince yourself that your feelings and judgments have value— a conviction that is a core component of self-esteem— if we’re constantly second-guessing and feeling bad about those feelings and judgments. 

Let’s be clear: you absolutely have the right to feel what you feel, when you feel it. 

It’s good we have that right, because you’re GOING to feel, whenever you feel it, regardless of whether you have a “right” to or not. Feelings are emotional reactions that flare up from the limbic system in our brains; they’re not considered responses that come out of reasoned decision making. 

So why do so many of us have so many mixed-to-negative feelings about experiencing “bad” feelings? 

There are mainly two reasons. 

One reason is that many of us have been bombarded for years with messages about what it means to be a “good” person. 

We’re often told, directly or indirectly, that being a “good” person is the sum total of not only our behaviors— but our thoughts and feelings as well. 

This leads to a distorted expectation that, if we’re to be as virtuous as our parents and religions and culture desire us to be, we shouldn’t only DO good things…we have to automatically, instinctively think and feel good things, too. 

Talk about a ridiculous, unfounded expectation. 

I’ll ruin the suspense: “good” people think and feel “bad” things. In fact, if Sigmund Freud— who got a lot more right than he got wrong in his work— is to be believed, “good” people think “bad” thoughts an awful lot. 

The difference between a “good” and “bad” person is not in how they feel or think— much of that is hard-wired into our neurobiology, especially the “feeling” part. 

What makes a person “good” or “ethical” is how they respond to those thoughts and feelings. How they BEHAVE. 

The second reason many people experience secondary disturbances about feeling bad is, the culture has overblown the link between feeling and behaving. 

Many of us grow up thinking that if they THINK something or FEEL something, the BEHAVIOR that flows from those thoughts and feelings is instantaneous and unavoidable. 

This is categorically untrue. 

We can think and feel a LOT of things…but not act on them. 

Nowhere is this more evident than in addiction treatment. 

Addicts spend a lot of time obsessively thinking they want something, and experiencing feelings that would make having that thing really, really nice…but when addicts are in recovery, they break the connection between those thoughts and feelings, and the behavior of picking up their substance of choice. 

Thinking “bad” thoughts does NOT lead to “bad” behavior. 

It CAN, however…if we don’t clearly understand that while our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors do INFLUENCE each other all the time…they don’t DETERMINE each other. 

We have free will when it comes to behavior. It is influenced, but not governed, by our thoughts and feelings. 

It may not feel like it all the time, but it’s true. 

When we start to get used to the fact that we can have judgmental or angry thoughts and feelings about someone, but not hate them; not want to hurt them; indeed, we can want the best for someone with whom we’re angry or disappointed, even help them…then we start to relax about our “bad” thoughts and feelings. 

Be angry. Be disappointed. Feel whatever you feel, whenever you feel it. 

You are more than your feeling states. 

 

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