It’s about taking “realistic responsibility,” not “total responsibility.”

We hear a lot in our culture about “taking responsibility.” 

There seem to be a LOT of people who feel that the main problem MOST people have is that they take insufficient responsibility for their lives. 

We very frequently see self-help gurus enthusiastically encourage us to TAKE FULL RESPONSIBILITY for EVERYTHING IN OUR LIVES!

Those who strongly believe in the Law of Attraction— the belief that we “attract” circumstances into our lives that correspond with our current “vibration”— like to assert that “there are no accidents:” that everything that is in our lives, we “asked” for, based on the vibration of the thoughts we “choose.” 

And Lord knows we don’t want to be one of those people who refuse to “take responsibility” for their lives by blaming and complaining. 

We get beaten over the head with this message daily. Inspirational quotes about how we have to “take our power back” and “go all in” reinforce the message: if your life isn’t working, it’s likely because you haven’t “taken enough responsibility” for changing the situation. 

I’ll never deny that personal responsibility is important. 

“Responsibility,” by definition, means “able to respond”— “response” “ability.” 

I’m a therapist specifically BECAUSE I think there are things we can do to change our lives. We’re not helpless or hopeless. There ARE things we can do to feel happier and behave more effectively. 

But: we have to be realistic about the limits of “responsibility.” 

There are things that happen TO us that limit our ability to respond— our ability to BE response-able. 

It is my experience that many people who struggle with anxiety or depression don’t struggle with taking personal responsibility for their lives— in fact, quite the opposite: they take responsibility for EVERYTHING that happens. 

If a thing has gone wrong anywhere in the world, they’ll find a way it was their fault. 

If a person doesn’t like them or approve of them, they’ll ABSOLUTELY consider it their fault. 

If life hasn’t worked out the way it was “supposed” to, they’ll assume it was their fault. 

It’s my experience that most people who are struggling tend to OVERestimate how “responsible” they are, or should be, for the things that happen out there in the world…which then puts them in the position of feeling guilty about things over which they have no realistic control. 

We need to be realistic about what we are and are not responsible for— otherwise we will find ourselves overwhelmed by depression, anxiety, and frustration. 

Cognitive therapists describe thought distortions that they call “personalization” and “mind reading,” in which people both assume negative events are about them and they assume other people are thinking negatively about them. 

We can’t POSSIBLY take responsibility for EVERY negative event that happens in our lives, and we can’t possibly know what other people are thinking. 

Being realistic and adult in how we take responsibility for our lives DOESN’T mean we “take responsibly” for EVERYTHING. 

Why? Because you don’t run the universe. You are not all powerful. You don’t control everything that happens to you, you don’t chose every result, there are certain variables that are out of your control. 

That’s not “blaming” or “complaining.” That’s acknowledging reality. 

There’s an extent to which the “take total responsibly” crowd seems to be fantasizing. They really, REALLY want it to be the case that you CAN “take responsibility for everything” in your life, because it absolutely TERRIFIES them that they might NOT be totally in charge of their fate. 

I’ll tell you right now: you’re NOT totally in charge of your fate. No one is. 

And that’s okay. 

We don’t need to be. 

Instead of taking “total” responsibility for what happens in our lives, I say take REALISTIC responsibility.

Be real about the fact that you might not control the temperature outside, but you can control whether you wear a scarf. 

You can’t control whether you had trauma happen to you, but you can control whether you’re working on it and using your skills day to day. 

You can’t control the economy, but you can make a personal budget. 

There’s a reason why the 12 step traditions emphasize the Serenity Prayer: because, in addition to the courage to change the things we can change, we very much need the serenity to accept what we can’t change…and the wisdom to know the difference. 

The self-help gurus haven’t figured that distinction out yet. 

Subscribe to the Doc’s free email newsletter!

Sometimes getting better means we lose things, too.

One of the reasons why we sometimes struggle to change our lives in significant ways is because we’re anxious about that life AFTER that change will look like. 

After all, even if we’ve struggled with certain problems, such as depression or anxiety or addiction, for so long, we do have at least SOME situations or relationships in our life that are comfortable. 

What if we make a big change in our life— and suddenly the few things that we actually LIKE in our life are suddenly gone? 

I used to work in a trauma treatment program that had inpatient and outpatient groups. 

Something we saw happen over and over again was, people would find themselves in our groups, and maybe for the first time realize that they weren’t alone in what they were going through. 

Trauma has a way of making you feel like you’re completely alone— that you’re the only person in the history of the world who could possibly be struggling this much with your past. 

When people would enter our program, they’d meet other people who were struggling in many of the same ways they were struggling— and they’d find themselves in an environment where, for the first time, other people understood and empathized with what they were going through. 

They’d make friends in the group— friends who actually kind of “got” what their own life experience was like, and who were suffering and struggling in many of the same ways. 

To finally connect with somebody like that, after year of feeling alone and like a freak, can be pretty profound. 

Our program became a safe place— physically and emotionally— for survivors to come and be with each other. 

It was a beautiful thing. 

Then…we’d see something else happen. 

As people worked the program, they tended to get better. Their symptoms tended to diminish; their functionality would improve. 

Eventually, they’d improve to the point where the right thing to do was to cut back their time at the program, as they returned to their work and home lives. 

And suddenly…things would get complicated. 

The transition back to everyday life would turn out to be a time where a flare up of symptoms or a decline in functionality would happen. 

There are lots of reasons for why times of transition can be triggering and difficult for survivors, but one of the reasons turned out to be: if they got better, to the point where it was time to cut down or end their time at the program, patients would actually experience that as a loss. 

It was a loss of a space that had become comfortable and safe; loss of a certain amount of structure that had been designed with trauma survivors in mind; and loss of daily contact with people who had become their friends. 

That is to say: the “reward” for getting better was to actually lose things they liked and valued. 

This is a paradox that exists in recovery: as we get better, we actually do have to leave certain things behind…even if we like those things. 

It’s particularly rough when the things we have to leave behind have been things that have been there for us during rough times. 

As we recover from addiction, we have to leave behind certain people and activities that we may like— but which aren’t healthy for us. 

As we recover from trauma and regain our autonomy and functionality, we have to leave behind some of the resources that supported us early in our recovery— because we’re beyond the point where they’re useful for our continued growth. 

These losses can feel unfair to us. Why SHOULDN’T we get to hang on to certain people, places, or situations, for as long as we want? Why does getting better mean we have to leave certain people, places, or situations, behind? 

For the same reason we can’t leave training wheels on the bicycle, or just keep reading children’s books for the rest of our lives. 

Those people, places, and situations helped us, sometimes enormously, when we needed them to help us. 

They were sources of support and comfort.

And they’ve served their purpose. 

Life doesn’t stand still, even if we want it to. Rivers flow; planets revolve; glaciers melt.

We can acknowledge and mourn our losses— even those losses that are occasioned by our progress and successes. 

And then, with gratitude and a little sadness…we can move on.  

Subscribe to the Doc’s free email newsletter!

Maybe the cavalry isn’t coming.

The reason I encourage people to focus on the environment inside their heads first, rather than the external support that may help improve their life situation, is because we simply cannot control if or when that external support arrives. 

I agree that external support and resources makes healing and recovery enormously easier. 

i agree that it’s really hard to heal WITHOUT external support and resources. 

I wish we lived in a world in which external support and resources were more available to people who need them. 

But we have to deal with the world as it is— and in this world, the arrival of external support and resources is an uncertain thing. 

As helpful as it would undeniably be, we simply can’t put our eggs in the basket of someone or something coming along to help us out by giving us something we don’t already have. 

It’s not that I have any delusional ideas about how it’s somehow “better” to attempt to pull ourselves up “by the bootstraps.” 

I just think we have to deal with the world as it is, not as it should be. 

I WISH we could count on support arriving when we needed it. 

I WISH we could count on backup. 

I WISH we could count on external support and resources being extended in a timely fashion, with no catch. 

But we can’t. 

And even if we could, a lot of people in pain would struggle to reach out and struggle to accept what was being offered, for a number of reasons. 

This doesn’t mean I don’t think we should, as a society, work on making support and resources more available to people who are struggling. Of course we should. 

But that “should” doesn’t help people who are reading this and struggling right now. 

It’s really important that our recovery be realistic. 

If we’re going to heal and recover, we need to look at life and ourselves as they are— not as we wish they were. 

I encourage people to focus on skills, tools, and strategies because that’s the side of the equation we CAN influence. 

There are dozens and dozens of variables that we CAN’T influence very much…but the degree to which we develop skills, seek out tools, and use them as part of intentional strategies is something we CAN influence. 

Recovery needs to be about restoring power and agency to us, even if that power and agency isn’t always perfect. 

People who are struggling have usually felt powerless for a long time. 

They’ve often felt blamed and shamed for things that have been outside of their influence. 

It’s my experience that, as long as we focus on something external as the main or only thing that can turn our situation around, we continue to feel powerless. 

The truth is, successful recovery involves a great deal of effort on our part…as well as support from unexpected sources, luck, and dozens of little triumphs and little setbacks every day. 

When I say “use your damn skills,” please don’t hear that as a suggestion that you HAVEN’T been using your skills. 

Please hear it as a reminder to focus in on what you can do, not what you can’t. 

Please hear it as a reminder that you are not limited to waiting for the cavalry to arrive. 

Please hear it as a reminder that you have autonomy and agency— power— right here, right now. 

Because you do. Really. 

And I believe in you. 

Subscribe to the Doc’s free email newsletter!

Abandonment isn’t just being left on the side of the road.

“Abandonment” isn’t just being literally left on the side of the road. 

Nor is it an overdramatized way of referring to not getting what we want or need. 

The truth is, we often don’t get what we want or need, and we find a way to survive. It’s not necessarily “traumatic” to be let down (though of course it can be, depending on the context). 

When I refer to “abandonment,” I’m very specifically referring to situations in which we depend on someone for something essential, and we’ve been reasonably assured that they’d be there with that essential thing…and they’re not. 

Abandonment isn’t just about deprivation or disappointment. It’s about betrayal. 

It’s about someone not living up to commitments that they made, or that it’s reasonably their responsibility to keep. 

It’s not abandonment to just not get a thing we want or need— abandonment is about getting the rug pulled out from under us, and being forced to improvise in a situation that may be overwhelming.

Not all abandonment is necessarily life threatening— though sometimes it is. 

Not all abandonment is necessarily due to premeditation or negligence— though sometimes it is. 

Abandonment is defined by the experience of the abandoned— not the intention of the abandoner. 

It may not be the case that someone sat down and thought to themselves, “You know what? I’m totally going to abandon this person to whom I made a commitment, just whiff on my responsibility to them.” 

In fact, part of what makes abandonment painful is that it underscores how thoroughly unimportant we are to people who should, by rights, think and care about us. 

Abandonment hurts because it drills into us the message the we are not important. We’re not worthy. We’re disposable. 

The truth is, there are many reasons why we might be emotionally or even physically abandoned— and they all have to do with the abandoner. 

Even if an abandoner’s thought process explicitly involves dislike or contempt for the abandoned, it is STILL the behavior of the abandoner that defines the experience. 

We can’t “make” someone abandon us. 

If we are abandoned, it is never a consequence of what we are or aren’t, how desirable or worthy we are or aren’t, how attractive or interesting or smart we are or aren’t. 

If it is someone else’s responsibility to be there for us, if they have a commitment to be there for us, it’s up to them to figure out how to life up to that responsibility, to fulfill that commitment. 

We can only be responsible for our commitments— not anybody else’s. 

Abandonment isn’t just physical. It can be emotional or spiritual— and it’s very commonly financial. 

It doesn’t particularly matter if it was someone’s intention to abandon us or not. The experience of abandonment isn’t necessarily impacted or negated if we’re able to say to ourselves, “Well, they didn’t MEAN to make us feel that way.” 

Especially when we’re young, abandonment hits at the core of our self-concept. 

Abandonment, especially repeated abandonment, can seriously chip away at our self-esteem. 

When others aren’t there for us, especially important people in our lives, it’s hard for us to learn to be there for ourselves. 

One of the most important life skills we’ll ever develop is having our own back. Refusing to abandon ourselves.

We learn to take care of ourselves by being taken care of. 

When we’re not taken care of, we often assume we must not be worthy of care. 

We come to expect disappointment. To expect abandonment. 

The good news is, we can learn to be there for ourselves. We can learn to have our own back. 

The experience of abandonment early in life doesn’t have to define the rest of our life. 

But it certainly gives us a hill to climb when it comes to forming stable, realistic self-esteem. 

It wasn’t your fault if you were abandoned. 

Be there for yourself now. 

Subscribe to the Doc’s free email newsletter!

Getting back to what matters.

Part of what kicks our butt about depression, anxiety, trauma, and addiction is, they kill our desire to go out into the world and explore. 

Dealing with emotional and behavioral struggles is exhausting. 

When we’ve spent all day, every day, trying to manage them— or stay alive in spite of them— we don’t have much time and focus for anything else. 

This is one of the reasons why a core symptom of depression is “loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy”…because who has the energy or focus to do fun or enjoyable stuff when you’ve spent all day fighting back against demons in your head? 

In the case of addiction, very often the behavior or substance of choice actually makes the place of things you used to enjoy— your “fix” often becomes your main, or only, source of “feel good.” 

Anxiety is constantly asking you to make a choice: do this thing that might be healthy or even enjoyable for you, but have to deal with an exhausting whirlwind of physical and emotional sensations…or avoid putting yourself out there, in exchange for RELATIVE peace and calm inside of you. 

For a lot of people, it’s not much of a choice, because doing the thing is so exhausting. 

Trauma is kind of like the “greatest hits” album of depression, anxiety, and addiction, with bonus tracks devoted to dissociation. 

(Worst greatest hits album ever.) 

So when depression, anxiety, addiction, and/or trauma is on our plate…our plate doesn’t really have room for much else. 

Much of the research and theory on human attachment discusses how babies— and, subsequently, adults— use their people and objects of attachment as kind of a “safe base” from which to explore the world. 

When we’re securely attached, we have confidence that our person will be there for us when we’re scared or in danger. 

We can explore the world, knowing that we have a “safe base” to come back to. We’re not out there alone. Someone has our back. 

Babies do this physically— you can watch them crawl out and explore their environment, play with toys, interact…but when they get sacred or uncertain they crawl back to their caregivers, looking for a shot of reassurance. 

Adults have a way of doing this too. We latch on to certain people, institutions, or identities as our “safe base” from which to explore and take risks…and when scary or threatening stuff happens out there in the world, we come back to our “safe base” for reassurance and affirmation. 

Depression, anxiety, trauma, and addiction screw this whole thing up, because they sap our strength and hijack our focus. 

Life is about exploring. It’s about taking risks and connecting with things and people we like and discovering new stuff that scratches us where we itch. 

It’s about getting scared and getting tired and coming back to those places of safety and affirmation where we can get recharged, and then go explore some more. 

Depression, anxiety, trauma, and addiction throw up roadblocks to all of that. 

They try to steal way our adventurous spirit. 

They try to extinguish our curiosity. 

They try to make us forget that we ever HAD hope of getting our itches scratched. 

This puts our task in fighting our emotional and behavioral struggles in pretty clear focus: we need to find ways to manage and contain their impact on our lives, so we can get back to exploring and experiencing life. 

So we can get back to what matters. 

So we can get back to who we REALLY are. 

And, as it turns out: we can. 

Subscribe to the Doc’s free email newsletter!

Your Secret Weapon.

Your imagination– your capacity for visualization and fantasy– is your secret weapon.

 I want you fantasizing all the time— but I don’t want you living in a fantasy world. 

I don’t want you checked out of reality. 

I want here very grounded in the here and now, insofar as that’s the only way to safely, productively deal with the challenges life throws our way. 

But I do want you using your imagination every day— every hour of every day. 

I do want you imagining what your mentors and supporters might tell you in any given situation. 

I want you “hearing” their voices. I want you “feeling” their presence. 

One of the biggest battles many of us face every day is feeling like we’re utterly alone. 

Many of us grew up feeling like nobody understood us— or wanted to. 

Many of us grew up feeling like nobody supported us— or wanted to. 

Maybe we weren’t worthy of understanding or support, we figured. 

After all, if we were likable or worthy, we wouldn’t even have to ASK for that understanding or support, right? It would just appear, like it does in Disney movies. 

The fairy godmothers would just show up, because we were special. 

But the fact that no such fairy godmothers did show up for us messed with our heads…and many of us became acutely aware of how lonely the world actually was. 

For me, what helped with that loneliness was fantasy— and the fantasies that were most often helpful were those fantasies in which I WAS liked, in which I WAS supported, in which I WAS worthy of understanding. 

I’d literally fantasize about having friends— and not the complicated friendships that real life offered, either, where you had to be cool and funny enough to be worth someone’s time. 

There was always this performative aspect to friendship that I could never quite wrap my head around— the feeling that, if I wasn’t entertaining enough, that people would go find friends funnier than me. 

But in my fantasy world, those friends and supporters weren’t judgmental. They weren’t expecting entertainment. 

They were just there for me. 

They liked me just as I was— even as they wanted me to get better. 

Fast forward to adulthood, when we’re told that we should live in reality— that imagination is for kids. 

Is imagination really “just for kids?” 

Because I can tell you: I work with adults every single day whose imaginations are as vivid and active as any school kid’s…and whose imaginations are either working for them or against them (sometimes both). 

As kids, we use our imagination to take the sharp edges off of life. 

As adults, we’re instructed that it’s uncool to use our imagination in vivid, active ways— that being “realistic” means to deprive ourselves of a tool that is literally designed to help us make it through the day. 

How are you supposed to utilize stuff your therapist tells you if you’re unwilling to remember and imagine them telling it to you? 

How are you supposed to utilize the safety of your therapist’s office or a twelve step meeting, if you’re not allowed to remember and fantasize what it’s like being in that space?

How are you supposed to utilize powerful words spoken by characters in novels or movies, unless those characters and stories vividly live and thrive in your imagination? 

Again: using your imagination as an adult isn’t about checking out of reality, or confusing your fantasy with the reality of the world. 

It’s about using our capacity to visualize, to “see” and “hear” people who aren’t actually here or may not actually exist, to help you feel more centered, more purposeful, more resourceful…more able to deal with life on life’s terms. 

You can even hear my voice in your head. If you read my stuff, you know very well the kinds of things I say. 

Carry me with you in your imagination. 

You don’t have to go it alone. 

Subscribe to the Doc’s free email newsletter!

We couldn’t do what we couldn’t do.

There’s sometimes a temptation to look back on things that happened when we were kids, and judge our behavior based on what we are capable of now. 

We look back and tell ourselves that we “should” have escaped. 

We look back and tell ourselves that we “should” have set boundaries. 

We look back and tell ourselves we “should” have sought help. 

We look back and tell ourselves that we “should” have said no. 

Sometimes we look back at situations and we are disgusted by the priorities of the person we were once upon a time. 

And we say to ourselves, “It’s no excuse that I was a child at the time…I SHOULD have known better, and I SHOULD have done better.” 

For man people this even extends to their adult lives: they judge what they “should” have done five or ten or twenty years ago, based on the knowledge, skills, resources, and perspectives they have now. 

All of which can result in feeling angry and guilty…almost as if we NEED to punish our current self, for the failings of our past self. 

(After all, if we DON’T punish ourselves now, that means that our past self will GET AWAY WITH IT, and that’s not fair, right?)

It’s all enormously unfair…and enormously unhelpful. 

The “me” who looks back at the “me” of decades past is not objective. 

I don’t know what I was or was not capable of back them. 

Sure, there’s stuff I wish I would have done…but there’s no guarantee that I would have been able to do that stuff at the time. 

As I write this, I’m a 43 year old with three degrees in psychology. Am I expecting the “me” of my first ten or twelve years to know or be able to do the things that the “me” of today can do? 

Of course not. 

If we didn’t do something “back then,” it’s usually for a pretty simple reason: we couldn’t. 

If we were being abused and we didn’t stop it, it’s usually because didn’t even register “stopping it” as an option— or something that we “should” want to do, let alone be able to do. 

We only had the resources we had available to us then. We didn’t have the resources we now have. 

We didn’t have the size, the intellectual development, the therapy, the coping skills, the supports, or the simple life perspective that we have now. 

When we’re kids, the needs, wants, and reactions of the adults around us really seem like the only thing that matters. 

We don’t know that we’re going to live multiple decades, and we’re going to meet a lot of adults who are going to have a lot of reactions. 

When we’re kids, we really think that the approval and acceptance of a handful of certain people really is all we need or want in the world. 

We don’t know that, over the course of our lives, there are going to be LOTS of people who accept AND reject us…and we’ll survive. 

When we’re kids, we really think that that adult has “chosen” us for a “secret” relationship because we’re “special.” 

We don’t know that this “secret’ relationship that we’re being told to never, ever tell anyone about, will eventually harm our capacity for intimacy, our willingness to trust, or our very sense of self. 

I often tell people that we have nothing to “forgive” ourselves for if we were abused, and I mean that. “Forgiveness” is for people who have done something wrong, and we didn’t. 

So it’s not a matter of “forgiving” anything…it’s a matter of ACCEPTING that we were who we were. 

We could only do what we could do…and we couldn’t do what we couldn’t do. 

And that’s okay. 

You’re okay. 

Subscribe to the Doc’s free email newsletter!

It’s not ALL about 2020.

You’re allowed to be upset, depressed, or otherwise feel negatively about things that have nothing to do with the current world situation, presidential administration, or year. 

Yes, this year has been difficult for a lot of people, for a lot of reasons. 

There has been a lot of material circulating that normalizes feeling bad, given the circumstances— which can be helpful for a lot of people. 

As tough as this year has been, it’s useful to know you’re not the only one struggling— that maybe struggling at a time in history such as this is fairly normal. 

I’m glad so many people have found their voices this year and have been able to put words to what it’s like for them to struggle. I’m glad people have been able to connect and support each other through this time. 

That said, I can’t help but think about a not-small set of people who are feeling lousy…and whose lousy feelings, while possibly exacerbated by the difficulties of this year, aren’t necessarily “caused” by this tough year. 

There are people out there who, every time they see a “didn’t 2020 suck?” post, quietly reject that, sure, 2020 may have sucked…but I was unhappy BEFORE 2020. 

There are people out there who are aware that they were struggling with things that, while perhaps exacerbated by the world situation, they’d been struggling with for awhile. 

There’s no denying that this year has presented some once-in-a-generation stressors for a lot of people. 

But traumatic stress, depression, and anxiety have been around for much longer than this last year. 

I get a little leery when people seem to chalk up so much of their unhappiness this last year to the pandemic, political contests, or social conflicts. 

I think it’s useful to acknowledge and really understand how events out in the world impact our lives. 

But I really DON’T want people assuming that external factors completely account for what they’re feeling and experiencing. 

People who are struggling with the symptoms of complex trauma before 2020, are often still struggling with it— and dealing with issues and symptoms they’d be dealing with whether or not 2020 had played out the way it did. 

People who have been struggling with addiction, sometimes for years, are still faced with the basic equation they’d be faced with in any year: figuring out ways to get through the day without picking up. 

You’re not weird if there are things you’re struggling with that have nothing to do with 2020. 

There were, and are, things that are on your radar screen that can’t be summed up in a pithy meme about how hard this year has been for everybody. 

Yes, this year has been tough for a lot of people, for a lot of unexpected reasons…but that doesn’t take away from how tough you, specifically, have had it, for reasons largely unrelated to what’s going on out there. 

It’s really important we stay aware of the how complex our struggles can be. 

I’ll be as glad as anybody to leave some of the cultural conflicts of 2020 in the rear view mirror— but let’s also keep our expectations in check. 

The basic framework of our struggles may not change all that much just because the calendar year flips. 

You’re not uniquely “broken” or “bad” if you have struggles that are largely unrelated to how difficult this year has been for everyone. 

Whatever year it is, whatever is going on out there in the world, your task remains largely the same: investigating and identifying what’s messing with your life, and being realistic and consistent about making changes. 

Mourn or celebrate the passing of this year however you need to. 

But keep coming back to what matters. 

Subscribe to the Doc’s free email newsletter to keep up with the blogs and Facebook posts!

Acknowledging your pain is not “wallowing” in it.

Acknowledging your pain, and how much your pain has affected you, is not “wallowing” in it. 

Lots of people don’t want to acknowledge their pain, because they’ve been told that it’s unhelpful to “wallow” in it. 

I can’t help but notice that most of them have been told this by people who don’t seem to want to hear or know about their pain at all. 

There are some people for whom coping with pain is what they do most during the day. 

That’s not because they’ve made a decision that their life is going to revolve around pain— it’s just the situation in which they’ve found themselves. 

When something is intruding upon your experience all day, every day, yes, you have a tendency to talk about it a lot. 

But when others invoke the term “wallowing,” there’s an accusatory vibe to it. As if someone is unnecessarily focusing on their pain for some secondary benefit— attention, sympathy, or something. 

I haven’t ever met a person who was depressed, anxious, traumatized, or addicted, who would’t absolutely LOVE to NOT “wallow” in their pain. 

I’ve never met someone who was suffering, who wouldn’t rather be doing or feeling anything else. 

I think people get the idea that some survivors are “wallowing” in their pain for a few reasons. 

(When I say “survivor,” I’m not just referring to people who have survived trauma— I’m referring to survivors of the bleak experiences of depression, anxiety, and addiction, as well…all of which can absolutely be life threatening conditions.) 

I think some people are overwhelmed by the very idea that survivors are in as much pain as they are. 

When survivors describe and discuss the kind of pain they’re in, often all day, every day, it freaks out people who cannot imagine living with that kind of pain. 

So, they get it in their heads that the person MUST be exaggerating. 

They must be “wallowing” in their pain. This must be a CHOICE. 

After all, it can’t be an accurate description of how someone is REALLY feeling and existing…can it? 

They don’t want to imagine that kind of pain…so they conclude it’s not real, it’s a product of the survivor “choosing” to “wallow” in it instead of “move past it.” 

Alternatively, I think there’s a subset of people who truly believe in “mind over matter”— who think that most pain, but especially psychological pain, can be overcome through the momentum of positive thinking. 

To these people, to acknowledge ANY significant source of pain is not good, because even giving that pain attention will exacerbate it. 

For these people, even acknowledging pain constitutes “wallowing” in it. 

Let me be clear: there are lots more people who DON’T talk about their pain, than who do. 

A big reason they don’t is because the world frequently shames us for acknowledging our pain. It tells us we’re “wallowing” in a “victim mindset.” 

But it’s very difficult to overcome pain you don’t acknowledge. 

In order to really deal with pain, we have to acknowledge and accept that it is exactly as bad as it is. That it effects us exactly as much as it does. 

Every time a survivor gets hit with, “stop wallowing in your pain,” it makes recovery a little bit harder. 

Acknowledging your pain, and exactly how it has impacted you, is not “wallowing” in it. 

It is a necessary step to effectively healing it. 

Subscribe to the Doc’s free email newsletter to get caught up on all the blogs and Facebook posts!

We can’t “earn” love– and that’s the good news.

The idea that we have to “earn” love is hard to shake. 

After all, we grow up learning that “nothing costs nothing.” 

We’re told that to expect something without earning it is “entitled.” 

We come to believe that the only reason why anyone gets anything in the world is because they have “earned” it…or, alternatively, figured out a way to fraudulently get it. 

People don’t just GIVE us valuable things, right? 

They either have to exchange those valuable things for something else of value…or else those valuable things must be stolen or conned out of the person. 

Over and over again this equation is reinforced. 

We are absolutely drowned in the idea that everything we get in life is either an achievement or a mistake. 

We earn money that allows us to buy the things we want and need. 

We earn status that makes it more likely that certain people will like us or want to be around us. 

We earn educational and professional credentials that make it more likely we’ll get opportunities we desire. 

Why WOULDN’T it be the case that love— or even basic dignity— is something the must also “earn?” 

The idea of “love” as something we can’t “earn” kind of breaks our brain. 

This thing called “love,” you mean it’s freely given? No strings attached? 

What kind of nonsense is THAT? EVERYTHING has strings attached, right? 

And yet, love defies everything we know about how things of value are “earned” and “exchanged.” 

We can’t “earn” love. It’s not an achievement. We don’t love our children, our pets, or our lovers because they’ve “tried hard enough.” 

This drives us NUTS. We don’t understand this. It makes us maddeningly insecure. 

If we can’t “earn” love, then that means love isn’t something we can KEEP by working hard and performing well. 

If love isn’t an achievement, how do we KEEP love? If it’s freely given, doesn’t that mean it can be freely taken away too? 


We don’t like THAT at all. So, out of anxiety, we retreat back to our idea of love as achievement— something we can predictably manipulate and manage, like our work performance or our physical condition. 

But everybody reading this has had the experience of someone we want to love us, not loving us…even though we did everything “right.” 

As I write this, there is a Siamese cat within my arm’s reach that I love overwhelmingly. 

She didn’t do anything to earn that love. She doesn’t know want “earn” means. She just is what she is…and I love her. 

She can’t do anything to LOSE my love. 

I’m not going to wake up one morning and decide, yo know what, my little Siamese cat isn’t checking all the boxes these days, it’s time to cut my losses here. 

There are psychologists, like Nathaniel Branden, who have tried to outline definitive theories of love, and some of those theories are very smart—but love remains kind of a mystery. 

We do know one thing, though: love is not “earned” or “achieved.” If we’re not loved, it’s not because we’re not sufficiently “deserving.” 

You “deserve” love exactly as much as my Siamese cat does. 

Do not withhold love from yourself because you feel you haven’t “earned” it. 

Love isn’t a prize or a reward or a bargaining chip. 

Many people reading this have been hurt because people in their lives have dangled the prospect of love in front of them, like something they could “earn” if they “try” hard enough. 

In this case, “trying hard enough” usually means “doing what that person wants.” 

Don’t bite. It’s not real. 

Love yourself even if you haven’t “earned” it— because I assure you, you haven’t. 

Because you can’t. Because love doesn’t work that way. 

And that’s the good news. 

Subscribe to the Doc’s free email newsletter!