Problems and obstacles, or strengths and solutions?

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The last thing most of us need is a lecture about the stuff we’re doing wrong. 

Which is what makes it so frustrating that lectures about what we’re doing wrong are what the world seems to consistently want to give us…even people and organizations the mission of which is to support us and help us improve our lives. 

For some reason, people and organizations seem to think they’re doing us a favor by pointing out what we’re doing wrong. As if we’re not acutely aware of what we’re doing that’s kicking our own butts. 

This even permeates the self-help and personal empowerment community. It seems I see multiple posts or videos a week basically devoted to exposing the flaws, skill deficits, and misconceptions of the very audience who is watching and reading and otherwise consuming this material. 

Trust me: most of the time, we know our weaknesses. We don’t need someone pointing them out to us. 

What’s more, we don’t particularly need somebody— “expert” or otherwise— talking down to us, as if what we really just needed was a stern lecture to straighten up and fly right. 

I try to take a different approach to therapy, coaching and personal empowerment. I like to start with what someone is doing RIGHT. 

I like to start with what’s WORKING in someone’s current approach. 

I like to start with what HAS worked in the past. 

There is nobody— I mean it, nobody— so far down the rabbit hole that NOTHING in their current approach to the world is working well. 

Hell, if somebody is SURVIVING at all…that means they’re doing SOMETHING right. 

I like to start there. In my view, there’s a huge difference between identifying and building strengths on the one hand, versus obsessing about and shaming weaknesses on the other. 

In psychotherapy, this approach is called the “solution focused” approach. As the name implies, it focuses far more on identifying and enacting constructive solutions rather than zeroing in on problems and weaknesses. 

Why is it important to focus on building and problem solving, as opposed to highlighting weaknesses and problems themselves? 

Because what we focus on tends to expand, at least in our minds. 

If we are reminded every single day of our shortcomings, we will become hyper aware of the ways in which we don’t measure up to either a real or imagined standard. 

If we are reminded every single day of the ways in which our lives are not working, we will becoming conditioned to identify MORE ways in which our lives are not working. 

If we are reminded every single day of the ways in which we have failed and floundered, those failings and floundering will seem more real or important than our other attributes and experiences…even though they only constitute a subset of who we are and what we’ve been through. 

What you focus on becomes more important in your mind’s eye. 

By your focus, you are telling your brain and body what is most important. 

By your focus, you are essentially giving your brain and body a command to produce and emphasize more of “this.” 

Understand, there is no guarantee that focusing on solutions will, in fact, produce solutions. There are plenty of problems and challenges that are complex and vexing, and it’s not as if solving those problems and overcoming those challenges are easy. (If they were easy, they wouldn’t be problems and challenges in the first place.) 

Focusing on strengths and solutions isn’t a guarantee— but it is a way to influence the odds. 

I like the odds of finding a solution if we are FOCUSED on strengths and solutions a lot more than if we are focused on problems and obstacles. 

All we can do is influence the odds that we will overcome a challenge. 

All we can do, by definition, is what we can do. We have exactly the strengths and resources and advantages that we have. 

If we have any chance of maximizing and using those strengths and resources and advantages, we need to condition our mind to recognize, embrace, and emphasize them. 

Focus on where you want to go. Focus on where you want to be. Focus on what you want. 

Focus matters. 

And chances are you’re a lot stronger and more resourceful than you’ve been led to believe. 

 

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Why basic is important.

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Something we need to remember every day is that “basic skills” aren’t considered “basic” because they are easy, simple, or unimportant. 

“Basic skills” are “basic” because they are fundamental. They are skills we need to use every single day. They are the building blocks for any of the more advanced work we want to do in therapy or recovery. 

Effective treatment for trauma— and most other conditions, really— involves there stages: basic skill building and tool-gathering; processing; and life reintegration. Of these, the most important— and often the most difficult and prolonged— stage is the first one: basic skill building and tool gathering. 

Many people in therapy get frustrated when they discover that there is so much emphasis on stage one work. 

They figure they’ve come to therapy to process traumatic memories and shake free of the hold trauma has had over them. It’s a drag to think you’re going to get into treatment to immediately break free of the chains of post traumatic symptomatology, and then be presented with a bunch of work on coping skills and strategies that only seem peripherally related to the trauma processing work you thought you were there to do. 

The thing is: no processing of any kind can occur if you don’t first develop the skills and tools required to handle the feelings and sensations that processing work is inevitably going to stir up. 

Processing work— both trauma processing and any other kind of emotional processing, such as grief work— necessarily entails digging into memories and meanings that are difficult to handle. Sometimes those memories and feelings are so difficult to handle that they’ve been cut off almost entirely from our conscious, present mind, a psychological defense called dissociation. 

If you want to dig into memories, meanings, and feelings that are so difficult, so painful, so threatening that the brain (and sometimes even the body) has found it necessary to dissociate from them, you’re going to need to go in with some skills and tools. 

If you don’t go in with the requisite skills and tools, your brain will literally shut down. You won’t be present enough to do the work. You could go through the motions, but the motions won’t have any meaning or power. 

Without sufficient stage one work— and without continually revisiting the skills and tools developed in stage one work— you’ll be basically sleepwalking through treatment. 

And you’ll have pretty much the same therapeutic results as someone who is sleepwalking through treatment. 

Basic skills and tools are your shields and weapons of choice when you head into battle. And as any successful warrior will tell you: you want to pick those weapons and shields carefully…and know how to use them them very well BEFORE you set foot on the battlefield. 

(I know, I know, I’ve written about how I’m not so much a fan of the “warrior” and “war” metaphors when it comes to describing the therapy and recovery processes, but this time I think it’s more or less applicable. Cut me some slack, here.)

Why do so many people get so frustrated with basic skills? 

It happens all the time with all sorts of patients and clients. They want to recover, but they want to leap right to the processing stage, skipping over what they view to be the drudgery of stage one work. 

(I believe this is one of the reasons why trauma processing therapies such as EMDR and EFT have become so popular in recent decades— they speak directly to processing trauma, instead of developing the on-the-ground strategies and skills necessary to deal with symptoms.)

People don’t like to think of their treatment as a drawn out process in which they’ll have to continually cope with painful symptoms. 

People don’t like to think about recovery as the kind of project where they have to develop psychoemotional “fitness” in order to survive and thrive. 

It’s not their fault. It’s not that anybody is being lazy. 

It’s just that, if you’re given a choice between an approach that says, okay, you need to get in shape over a longer period of time, learn how to use exercise equipment, eat right, endure some pain and discomfort and probably experience some setbacks on the one hand…or an approach that says, you know what, how about we just zap those memories and feelings right now, don’t worry so much about all that “exercise” and “diet” and “conditioning” stuff on the other hand…which would you choose? 

Unfortunately, I’m here to tell you: there are no shortcuts. 

I’m here to tell you: getting emotionally fit isn’t that different from getting physically fit. 

Even with breakthroughs in research and technology, there remain no substitutes for the tools of time and discipline and consistency. 

The need for stage one work isn’t going anywhere. 

Fundamentals will remain fundamental. 

I strongly encourage my patients and clients to embrace the grind of stage one work— for the more we embrace the grind now, the faster and easier stages two and three are going to go. 

Conditioning work pays off…even if it’s a drag in the moment. 

 

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Processing grief and trauma 101.

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Grieving isn’t fun, and it’s not supposed to be fun. 

However, it’s not necessarily supposed to be torture, either. 

Grieving is a form of what we call “emotional processing.” We hear that word, “processing,” a lot in psychology, especially regarding the treatment of trauma. “Processing” traumatic memories is something that is considered an important part of recovery from trauma— even though it’s often ambiguous what “processing” is supposed to mean in this context. 

All processing is, is coming to terms with what an event means. 

Traumatic events are traumatic because they disrupt what are called our “systems of meaning” or “schemas”— basically our ideas or beliefs about how the world works and how we are to function in the world. What makes an event “traumatic” is when it is so negatively impactful that it shatters our sense of what the hell the world is about and what the hell our role in the world is. 

When traumatic events happen, they make us question how we can possibly move forward, because we don’t have any real sense of what anything means anymore or what we’re all about anymore. 

Losses are traumatic events in the sense that they, too, disrupt our systems of meaning. When we get used to the presence of a person or situation in our life, and suddenly that person or situation is gone, it’s possible for our worlds to kind of shatter— everything we thought we knew about how the world worked and what we’re supposed to do on a daily basis can go out the window in one fell swoop. 

Thus, we need to process. We need to figure out what things mean now. We need to figure out how the world works going forward. We need to figure out what our place in the world is now. 

Neither traumatic memories nor painful losses will leave us alone UNTIL we process the memories and feelings associated with them. Unprocessed memories and feelings will continue to be walls we run into, again and again, as we try to move forward with our lives. 

Run into a wall enough times, and you’ll begin to believe you can’t move forward with your life. 

Many people avoid processing work, including grieving, because they think it’s going to be too hard. They think it’s going to feel bad, so bad they can’t take it. They figure that as painful as avoiding this work is, it’ll be even MORE painful to confront it. 

The thing about processing work is, while it doesn’t necessarily feel good…it can feel satisfying. 

It can finally make you feel RIGHT with the world after a trauma or a loss. 

It’s not just torture— any more than any process associated with growing up or moving forward is torture. 

It’s worth the risk. 

What happens after we process feelings and memories associated with a trauma or a loss? Does the world become a completely different, more pleasant place to be? Are all the symptoms and problems associated with that trauma or loss suddenly gone. 

Nope. 

One of the myths of trauma treatment in particular is, once you’ve processed a traumatic event and the thoughts, feelings, and memories that go with it, you’ll never need to deal with post traumatic symptoms again. That’s not true. 

It’s true that those post traumatic symptoms have usually cropped up as a way for your body and brain to handle the feelings and memories that have resulted from a trauma…but processing those feelings and memories don’t magically take away those symptoms. 

Rather, those symptoms go away gradually as you learn— and, more importantly, consistently USE— coping tools and skills. (In well-structured trauma work, these skills are learned as part of “stage one work,” before any processing of trauma is even on the table.)

Processing is important— but it’s not the only part of therapy that matters. 

The other two stages of therapy— building coping tools, skills, and resources on the one hand; and constructing a life worth living going forward on the other— are equally important. 

This is why no therapist is ever going to ask you to come in and just “dump” all your trauma or loss in the first few sessions. 

Good therapy focuses first on building tools and skills to help you deal with what trauma processing is going to stir up (and the symptoms the trauma itself probably already HAS stirred up)— and then it focuses on where you go from here, so you have a compelling “why” fueling your efforts as you process the trauma. 

Don’t avoid emotional processing, whether it’s in the form of grieving or processing trauma material. 

That stuff’s not going away. 

Neglecting it won’t help. 

Pretending it doesn’t exist won’t help. 

Wishing it would just go away won’t help. 

But what will help is approaching it with respect, caution, and intelligence, with the professional and personal support necessary to reinforce the fact that you’re not alone. 

It’s not easy. 

But it’s so, so worth it. 

 

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Building a life worth living after trauma.

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It’s not enough to figure out how to get our symptoms under control. 

We also have to develop a life that’s worth living once our symptoms ARE under control. 

I know, I know. It’s kind of overwhelming to just have the project of controlling our symptoms on our plate. To think about anything more than just getting a flashback to end or body memories to stop or depression to abate kid of blows our mind…let alone to think about the project of creating a life of meaning and hope. 

The thing is: in order to do something, we need a compelling “why.” 

In order to do something hard, we need a PARTICULARLY compelling “why.” 

I’ve worked with a lot of suicidal people. And by far the most frustrating part of that work happens when you get baited into a discussion of why should they bother preserving a life that they perceive at that moment to be filled with heartache, disappointment, and pain? 

I realized early on doing that work that it wasn’t enough just to teach people how to control symptomatology. 

There needs to be a life on the other side of that controlled symptomatology that’s worth jumping back into. 

I, personally, got into psychology because, as a very depressed teenager, I got interested in self-help books. Self-help philosophies spoke to me at that time— and they still do— because they don’t just concern themselves with containing painful symptoms. Self-help, from its roots in the “positive thinking” and “self-actualization” movements, has always been about creating a life you love. 

I don’t consider a therapy plan complete unless it includes a path from where somebody is in their life, to a place where they want to be. 

Therapy must be more about the alleviation of misery. 

Therapy and personal growth must necessarily be about creating something more fun, more pleasurable, and more meaningful than someone was experiencing before. 

Pleasure and fun and meaning are not luxuries. They are necessities. 

They are literally lifesavers. 

If you’ve been reading me for any length of time you know that nary a week goes by when I don’t go on and on about values and goals. Some people ask me about why this is— after all, what do values and goals have to do with how you contain a flashback or stop nightmares in their tracks? 

Values and goals provide the “why.” 

Values and goals provide the fuel we need on what can be a pretty exhausting journey out of misery. 

Using skills and tools to manage symptomatology is often not easy. It’s often exhausting and frustrating and inconvenient. Using coping strategies often require us to step out of our comfort zones and push at the limits of our physical and emotional energy. 

We’re not going to embark upon that project unless we have a powerful “why.” 

Why would we bother inviting such hassle into our lives if we don’t have something on the other side of that that we’re actually excited about? 

Treatment for trauma disorders incorporates three stages. In stage one, basic coping skills and tools are taught and developed, that help manage symptomatology as the other two stages progress. in stage two, painful and traumatic memories are processed and scrambled, so they lose their power to derail our functioning. And in stage three, we come to terms with how our suffering has damaged our lives, and create a new routine going forward— we get on with our lives. 

I think, as patients hack away at stages one and two, stage three needs to always be on our minds. It’s the getting on with our lives that can and will provide the motivation we need to develop the stage one skills and use those skills as we do the scary, tiring work of stage two. 

Sometimes, creating a compelling future requires us to play “what if.” 

It requires us to fantasize a little, to imagine a little. 

It requires us to put aside our hopelessness for just a minute, and take suicide or otherwise quitting off the table for a period of time. 

Yes, imagining a life worth living can seem overwhelming at first. It can stir up regrets and it can invite anger about how our life has gone so perilously off the rails. 

But if you can— just for a bit— turn your attention to what that life worth living might look like…the game changes. 

You’re no longer fighting to preserve a life that only holds pain. 

Your fighting to begin a new life— one that you, not your trauma or your symptoms or your past— is in control of. 

Take that risk. 

 

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Why memories hang on like they do.

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Bad memories have the hold they do on us because they’re entwined with our limbic system. 

They contain information that our brains consider vital to the fight-or-flight response. Our brains pay more attention to some memories than others, because they (our brains) figure that if we’re to avoid danger, we need to pay attention to the stuff encoded in those memories. 

Normally, memories fade. No matter how hard we try to hold on to most memories, they become hazy over time. The details get fuzzy. 

The reason why certain memories don’t fade is because our brains are trying to keep us safe. Our brains figure that if we forget the details of those memories— if we let them become hazy, like normal memories tend to become— then we might also forget the warning signals that those memories have stored up in them. 

As with all post traumatic symptoms, memory symptoms are just our brains trying to do us a solid. They’re trying to keep us safe, to protect us. 

They think if we keep those memories at the top of mind— if we don’t let them fade— then we can have all that valuable information about what situations are dangerous and should be avoided right at our fingertips. 

The problem is, our brains aren’t great at discriminating the parts of a memory that are and aren’t valuable for that purpose. 

In trying to keep us safe by keeping those traumatic memories easily accessible, our brains try to keep EVERY LITTLE DETAIL as vivid as possible. 

Then, in a further attempt to be helpful, our brains make us hypervigilant to the sensory details of those memories, which is why these sensory cues become “triggers” to flashbacks. 

All a flashback is, is an intense, immersive memory that usually gets triggered by something in the environment that our brain associates with a threat. It’s as if our brain detects something it associates with a bad memory, and tries to get your attention to the tune of, “HEY, REMEMBER THAT BAD THING? IF YOU DON’T HERE’S AN IMMERSIVE, BLOW BY BLOW ACCOUNT OF THAT THING! REMEMBER?!?” 

One of the goals of therapy is to put bad and traumatic memories back into the ballpark of normal memories— where they can be allowed to fade and get hazy. 

This can be done…but first of all we need to convince our brains that they no longer need to hang on to those memories. We have to develop confidence that we have the skills and tools to function safely in the here and now. We have to become certain that we can, and will, recognize threats and act appropriately— not overreact or underreact. 

In other words, we have to learn to use our damn skills. 

The skill most important to getting out of flashback is called grounding. 

All grounding means is to reestablish firm contact with the present moment. The present time, our present surroundings, our present context. 

One of the reasons why flashbacks are so terrifying is because they are immersive. Since traumatic memories don’t fade like non-traumatic memories, when we reexperience those memories, they’re much more vivid than normal memories. It’s not uncommon for people to lose touch with where and when they are when they’re in the grip of a flashback— in that moment, they truly think they’re “back there, back then” when the danger was very real and present. 

Grounding skills are any skills that allow you to reestablish touch with the present moment. 

Grounding is about giving yourself assurance and evidence that you are in the here-and-now, not the there-and-then. 

Open your eyes. (If you close your eyes during a flashback, you’re just providing a blank movie screen on which the memory can play.)

Look around. 

Identify three objects you see. 

Identify three colors you see. 

Ask yourself what the date and time is— and in the process of doing so, ask yourself how you would KNOW what the date and time is. 

Orient yourself. 

It seems like a simple set of skills, and it is. The reason it’s not easy to remember grounding skills in the moment is because your fight/flight/freeze system has been activated, and you’re typically in a panic. The point of getting grounded is to rein that panic reaction in by convincing your brain that you are not, currently, in the kind of danger that you were back then. 

Every intervention for treating trauma has its roots in convincing our brains that we’re safe in the present moment. 

It is unreasonable to expect your brain to give up post traumatic symptoms unless you can make a convincing case that you are, in fact, safe in the present moment. 

The good news is, you can regain control of your life from flashbacks. 

If you work with your brain, not against it. 

 

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Every problem has a solution…maybe?

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I choose to believe every problem has a solution. 

I’m not saying YOU should believe it. I’m not even saying it’s right. 

I’m saying that’s something I CHOOSE to believe, because it’s a belief that helps empower me day to day. It makes more options available to me. It helps manage my mood. 

Our beliefs can do that— they can impact everything from how hard we’re willing and able to work, to how long we’ll persist in something, to what resources we’re willing to access. 

Because I’ve chosen to believe that every problem has a solution, it means I’m often willing to try many approaches and access many resources before I even think about giving up. 

And when I do think about “giving up,” it’s rarely in terms of “this is hopeless, I’m just not going to try anymore.” It’s usually in terms of, “I’m not getting anywhere with my current energy level and tools; I’m going to beat a tactical retreat here, press the reset button, and maybe attack this from a different perspective later.” 

It may or may not be true that every problem has a solution— but that’s hardly the point. 

If I went into challenges thinking “look, there are just some problems without solutions,” my brain would be predisposed toward looking for proof that the problem in front of me was one of those unsolvable problems. 

My brain would be wired to overlook potential solutions, because our brains always want to confirm what they already believe. 

I know for a fact that my belief that every problem has a solution has led me to work harder to solve problems that I otherwise would have probably given up on. 

I also know that my belief that every problem has a solution has led me to access more and different resources than I would have otherwise in the quest to find solutions to particularly difficult problems. 

Whether it is objectively true that every problem has a solution isn’t the point. I can’t actually prove that every problem has a solution; nor can anyone else prove that there are problems that don’t have solutions. The best anyone can ever do is maybe prove that a particular problem doesn’t seem solvable with the resources we currently have available…which is very different from saying, “this problem can’t be solved.” 

Our beliefs are important because they frame the discussion and direct our focus. 

Do your beliefs work for you, or against you? 

Some people raise objections to this idea, because they point out that they just can’t arbitrarily change beliefs because some beliefs might happen to be more productive. 

My response to this is, then fake it. 

Act is if you believe something differently, just for a moment. Try it out. 

For example: if you don’t happen to believe every problem has a solution…what would it be like if you just PRETENDED you believed that for a minute? 

You don’t have to completely buy in. 

You just have to BEHAVE— for a minute— as if you do buy in. 

In this example, if you behaved AS IF you believe every problem has a solution…chances are you’d work longer and harder to solve certain problems you might otherwise have given up on. 

Where’s the downside to that? 

If you act AS IF certain things were true, even if you don’t believe them to be…you actually don’t lose much of anything. 

If you don’t truly believe you can stay sober, but you act AS IF you believe you can stay sober…what have you lost? Chances are this “fake” belief will only lead you to staying sober longer than you otherwise would. (People who don’t believe they can stay sober are, all too often, just waiting for the stressor or opportunity to use that’s going to lead them back down the rabbit hole.) 

If you don’t truly believe you can recover from PTSD, but you act AS IF you can recover from PTSD…what have you lost? You’ll go to therapy and do the therapy assignments. (People who don’t believe they can truly recover have little incentive to go to therapy or do the assignments…because why bother, if they don’t believe they can succeed?) 

It’s easier to play “act as if” with some believes than others, certainly. I’m not saying that every belief is easy or simple to just “try on.” 

But take a look at your worldview. Do you have beliefs that are disabling to your level of motivation? 

Try chucking them to the curb…just in theory. Just act as if. 

Try out a different set of lenses. 

See how the world looks. 

See what you’re willing to do. 

See what you might have missed. 

You have nothing to lose. 

 

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Don’t let others’ pessimism get under your skin.

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A particularly difficult aspect of personal growth involves learning to deal constructively with other peoples’ reflexive pessimism. 

For some reason, whenever we get excited about or interested in something, there seems to be a reflex on the part of people in our lives to say, “that won’t work,” “that’s silly,” “you’re ill-suited to that,” or something similar. 

Their hearts may well be in the right place. They may be just trying to save us from having discouraging or frustrating or painful experiences. I don’t for a minute think that most of the people who immediately discourage us from pursuing something new are just trying to bring us down (though some are, I suppose). 

I think those people just don’t realize what a bummer it is to us when their very first instinct is to shoot down something we found interesting or exciting or intriguing…especially when it’s hard to find things interesting or exciting or intriguing in our lives. 

Some people are just not great at diplomatically holding their tongues. And, in fairness, this is probably something that afflicts all of us from time to time.

We’ve ALL been reflexively negative or pessimistic at times. It doesn’t make us— or the people in your life who are reflexively negative or pessimistic— bad or uncaring people. 

What it does mean, though, is that we have to develop the skill of keeping others’ opinions in perspective. 

We have to develop the tool of holding to our own vision, even when we’re getting negative feedback from the environment. 

We have to develop the ability to make our own value judgments about the advisability (or not!) of anything that might be on our radar screen…instead of being pressured to give up on ideas or projects simply because someone else might think they’re stupid or unrealistic. 

Developing and holding to our own vision and perspective is an integral part of self-esteem…and it’s a skillset that can be learned. 

Why is developing and holding to our own vision so important to self-esteem? 

Because, at its core, the concept of self-esteem is all about a feeling of personal agency (the conviction that you can get stuff done) and personal respect (the conviction that your self, your values, and your goals are worthy and important). 

It’s tough to feel personal agency if we’re constantly giving up on our ideas, plans, goals, or dreams just because someone else gave us static about them. 

It’s tough to feel self-respect when we’re constantly prioritizing someone else’s opinions or perceptions over our own. 

None of this means, by the way, that our own perspective is always right. Lord knows, we’re going to get impractical, not-so-advisable ideas and plans in our heads from time to time. I’m not at all saying that your “gut” feeling that something is right or a good idea is always correct. 

Nor am I saying that you should never seek or accept feedback, including (especially!) negative feedback from others. Seeking others’ perspectives is an important aspect of reality testing that we need to use if we’re going to create a realistic life plan for ourselves— for the simple reason that we don’t know everything and we can’t see everything clearly from our own, limited perspective. 

Others’ feedback and perception is, in fact, valuable. 

The problem arises when we become so reactive to others’ negative feedback that we give up on ideas or abandon goals or dreams just because they gave us some crap about it. 

Good ideas sometimes get crap. 

Bad ideas are sometimes greeted with enthusiasm from friends and contacts. 

The thing we need to keep in mind is: others’ perspectives are tools we can use to reality-test our ideas and plans…but they’re not the ONLY tools we can or should use. 

We also need to remember that others’ perspectives are derived not only from their unique viewpoints, but their own biases, experiences, and priorities…which may not echo or be congruent with our values, experiences, or priorities. 

After awhile, it becomes easy to abandon goals and plans if we immediately get flak from other people about them. No one likes being told their idea is a bad idea. No one likes being made to feel silly for being excited or enthusiastic for an idea that somebody else thinks is dumb. 

You can abandon ideas or plans if you want. 

But don’t abandon them simply because you got some reflexive negative feedback about them. 

Take that feedback into consideration…but then return to your own priorities, values, and goals. 

Make YOUR values system your guiding compass for making decisions…not your desire to please or look cool to others. 

Your self-esteem will thank you for it. 

 

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