Coping with the unfairness of the world.

Effectively coping with the fact that life isn’t fair depends on our ability to accept the fact. 

We are absolutely going to have things happen to us that are not fair. 

We are going to experience consequences we do not deserve. 

We are going to experience pain we could not prevent, and which we shouldn’t have to endure. 

We are going to have people say things about us that are inaccurate. 

We are going to have people assume they know what we’re thinking and what motivates us, when they don’t. 

We are going to have people respond to us not as we are…but as we exist in their heads. 

These aren’t hypotheticals. They are GOING to happen. Many of them have probably already happened to you. 

When we are treated unfairly, we often feel very powerless. 

We can feel incredibly angry at the basic lack of fairness we are experiencing. 

We can feel sad and hopeless at the lack of justice that we’re experiencing. 

We can feel incredulous at the untruths that some people are willing to spread, and other people are willing to believe. 

All of these emotional reactions can sometimes come together and almost seem to paralyze us. 

In order to continue functioning DESPITE all of these potential emotional reactions, we have to be both straightforward and patient with ourselves. 

We have to be clear about the fact that we may not get what we deserve. 

We have to be clear about the fact that other people may think erroneous things about us indefinitely. Maybe they never will actually change their minds. 

We have to be clear about the fact that, even if we KNOW and are COMPLETELY CONFIDENT about the truth, that many people will never hear or accept that truth…despite our best attempts to get it out there. 

Does the fact that life is not fair, that we are being treated unfairly, that we are being forced in to positions we SHOULDN’T be forced into, mean that we can’t be effective in any way? 

It does not mean that. 

The truth is, even in the face of massive injustice, we CAN be effective. 

Even if our voice is not being heard by some people…it is being heard by other people. 

Even if we cannot directly right the wrongs that are being inflicted upon us…our efforts to work toward justice do have meaning. They do have consequence. 

We need to keep speaking our truth. 

We need to keep working toward justice— even in a broken, imperfect system and world. 

We need to do what we can to give attention and comfort to others who might feel that their voices “don’t matter” in the face of massive injustice. 

We need to continue to live our mission as best we can…even if there are people and organizations out there specifically devoted to thwarting our mission and purpose. 

We need to work toward institutional and cultural change…which will only happen as people have experiences that change their perspective, change their minds, and open their hearts. 

We can help people do all of that…even if just in small ways. 

Do not let unfairness knock you off of your game. 

The world IS unfair— that’s why it needs you. 

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The real cost and toll of trauma.

Trauma has a way of making us hate ourselves. 

It can make us hate our bodies. 

It can make us hate our personalities. 

Particularly when we’ve been abused over and over again, especially in relationships, we often wind up blaming ourselves for what we’ve been through, sometimes harshly. 

This is what trauma does. It messes with our ability to perceive and respond to reality. 

Healing, then, is about being able to see reality clearly again— and respond to reality effectively. 

Something a lot of people fail to understand is that pain that we experience over and over again, over a long period of time, causes us to erect walls around us. 

it causes us to push people away. 

It causes us to withdraw into ourselves. 

And the thing is: that’s not weird. Of COURSE pain makes us withdraw. 

When you touch a hot stove, your first impulse is to draw your hand back. To withdraw. To get as far away from that pain as possible. 

But what if you’re not able to get away from that pain? 

Your brain handles inescapable pain by distorting reality itself. 

By dissociating and depersonalizing. 

Is it any wonder that trauma survivors often don’t recognize the person in the mirror as themselves? 

Many times they’ve had to deal with years and years of pain being the central fact of their existence. 

The kind of mental backflips your brain has to do to deal with constant, unremitting pain and fear result in a fracturing of reality. 

We consequently wind up unsure of and anxious about everything. 

We don’t think we can trust our senses to tell us the truth. 

We don’t think we can trust our brains to tell us the truth. 

And that person in the mirror? How do I even know that’s what I look like? 

This is a phenomenon described by people who have experienced all kinds of trauma, from abuse to addiction: when the look in the mirror, they don’t recognize— and often hate— the stranger looking back at them. 

Healing from this kind of trauma involves recognizing it for what it is. 

It involves being willing to relearn how to deal with the world— even though stepping away from our defense mechanisms can be horribly anxiety provoking. 

If we’re going to heal, we need to accept that our body and brain did everything they could to handle the pain and trauma we had to endure. 

We have to accept that we’ve done nothing to deserve our own hatred. 

Even if we’ve pushed people away; even if we’ve sabotaged ourselves; even if we’ve developed psychological defenses that create more problems than they solve. 

Sometimes the hardest part of recovering from trauma is acknowledging its full scope. 

It’s not easy to admit the many ways trauma has wrecked us. 

It’s very saddening to acknowledge how badly trauma can damage our relationship with ourselves. 

What happened to you wasn’t your fault. How your brain and body responded to it wasn’t your choice. 

Forgive yourself for your reactions and responses during times of pain, confusion, and stress.

Get on your own side. 

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What the hell is “happiness” in the real world?

One of the real game changers in my own healing journey was realizing that I couldn’t leave the question of “what does it mean to be happy, anyway?” up to chance. 

For years, I didn’t do a lot of serious thinking about what it meant to be happy. 

I knew that there were things that felt good and that didn’t feel good. 

I knew there were experiences I liked, and those I didn’t like. 

I knew that there were people and relationships that made it easy to feel good…and there were definitely people and experiences that made it really easy to feel terrible. 

But, really, I viewed myself as more or less at the mercy of the universe. 

I didn’t think of happiness as a thing that had identifiable building blocks. 

I mostly thought of happiness as the right set of external circumstances. 

I figured I’d be “happy” when just the right combination of things happened “to” me. 

i figured I’d be happy when I got the right girlfriend. 

Or when I had the right level of financial security. 

Or when I had the right degree or job. 

After all, that’s pretty much what the culture tells us about “success,” isn’t it? That people who “succeed’ have “won” life by getting the right career, the right romantic partner, the right level of control over their time…right? 

Surely, people are happy because they have the “right” stuff happen TO them…right? 

That’s what I thought. 

So I chased things. I mostly chased experiences and people. 

Much of my life was spent trying effortfully to have sexual and relationship experiences that I figured would surely make me happy. 

Then I added chasing “better living through chemistry”— my father’s euphemism for drugs— to the list. 

I was always trying to come up with the right combination of things to experience and feel that would result in that elusive condition: happiness. 

You can probably guess how successful all that was. 

As long as I expected happiness to happen “to” me, i was going to come up short. 

Sex feels nice. Drug highs feel nice. I still enjoy both— though I’m at a point of self-awareness that I realize I need to tailor my appetite for both if I’m to survive my 40’s, let alone be “happy.” 

We have to STOP thinking of happiness as something that will happen “to” us or as something that various experiences will “give” to us. 

We have to START thinking of happiness as something we can potentially experience even if NONE of the things we THINK will make us happy, will make us happy. 

I think everyone’s mileage for what makes them “happy” will vary. What results in happiness for me will not necessarily result in happiness for you. 

But I am confident that what you and I share in common, is the fact that lasting happiness will not result from even the perfect combination of external “stuff.” 

Even if did— stuff can go away. Stuff can be taken away. 

I’m not interested in “happiness” that can be yanked away on a moment’s notice. That’s a recipe for anxiety, maybe even paranoia.

I want happiness that I am responsible for and capable of generating myself. 

I want happiness that is the result of me having chosen my values, and living my values. 

I want happiness that is created by my approach to the world. 

I want happiness that I could hypothetically create even if all that external “stuff” went away. 

Yeah. Tall order, I know. 

But the moral of the story is: don’t count on stuff or experiences to make ya happy. 

They may feel good. 

But that minute after they stop feeling good is worse than not having them in the first place. 

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We are NOT stuck with our old beliefs.

It doesn’t matter what we are TOLD by other people— it’s how we are TREATED by them, that we remember. 

We’ve all had the experience of being told “I love you” by somebody…then having been treated by them in an unloving way. 

Many of us have had the experience of being assured that our opinion is important to someone…and then had that someone behave as if our opinion was not at all important. 

During childhood, many of us had the experience of being told that we were “special”…and then being treated as if we were expendable. 

We often form fundamental beliefs about ourselves based on how we are treated, and how other people behave toward us— especially when we’re young. 

If we are neglected, we may come to believe that we don’t matter. 

If we are abused, we may come to believe we are responsible for the pain in our lives. 

If we are berated, we may come to believe that we are stupid or bad. 

How we are treated growing up also informs our beliefs about the world and other people. 

If we are bullied when we’re young, we may form the belief that other people are mean, and we can’t trust them. 

If we are taken advantage of, we may form the belief that the world is not predictable or safe. 

If we are expected to do things in school that we aren’t equipped to handle because of a learning disability, we may form the belief that the world is overwhelming and confusing— and we can’t keep up with it. 

None of this is about “blaming” our past for our current limiting beliefs. 

It’s about being realistic about where those beliefs come from— so we can be realistic about changing them now. 

We have certain beliefs that FEEL like they are the rock solid truth. 

We have certain beliefs that FEEL like we acquired them out of nowhere— we’ve just always believed them. 

We have certain beliefs that FEEL like we couldn’t change them, even if we really wanted to (and sometimes we really, really DO want to)!

We need to realize that our beliefs are most often our brain’s best attempts to make sense of the things that have happened to us. 

That’s it. 

It’s our brain trying to make logical sense of a life and a world that— let’s be real— often doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. 

You probably have beliefs that are holding you back and causing you pain. Most of us do. I know I do. 

Once we accept that our beliefs aren’t rock solid, set in stone, or infallibly accurate, though— then we can get to work on realistically changing them. 

I’m not a big fan of psychotherapy that spends lots and lots of time chipping away at the past. 

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with looking at and talking about the past in therapy— it’s often important and necessary in order to heal. 

I just think that we need to spend at least as much time looking ahead— creating our present and our future— as we do rehashing the past. 

We are not who we were. 

We are who we choose to become. 

We can choose which beliefs serve us, and which beliefs don’t. 

We can choose which beliefs reflect who we are and the life we’re trying to create. 

We don’t need to defend our old BS (Belief Systems) if they are not serving us. 

Giving up old beliefs takes the courage to poke holes in our old belief systems, and being willing to experiment with unfamiliar beliefs that may not feel as “real” as our old, well-worn beliefs. 

But you have courage. 

And I know you really want to move on. 

So let’s do it. 

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Memory is imperfect– but trauma is very real.

Of course, memory is imperfect. 

Of course, it is an interpretation of events, not an exact record of them. 

Of course, what we remember is shaped by our subsequent experiences. 

Of course, what we remember is shaped by our preexisting beliefs (not to mention the beliefs we develop after the fact). 

All that is true. Research into memory tells us that it is potentially malleable and faulty. 

Research also tells us it is alarmingly easy for people with influence over us to implant “false” memories. 

However: the fact that memory is imperfect does NOT mean that the only reason you’re hurt by your memories of the past is because you have “selected” a “disempowering” interpretation of events. 

People have used the fact that memory is imperfect for decades to try to persuade victims of trauma and abuse that their recollections are unreliable. 

Victims have subsequently come to believe that what they endured “must not have happened.” 

They’ve come to believe they are “crazy” or “making things up.” 

Predators have used the defense that “memory is unreliable” when trying to convince others, including legal authorities, that their victims should not be believed. 

I’ve worked with hundreds of trauma survivors, and one of their most common struggles is trusting themselves that they experienced what they experienced. 

I’ll be the first to tell you: memory is imperfect. What you experienced may not have gone down exactly as you think it went down. 

But I’ll also tell you this: the idea that people who struggle with post traumatic symptoms are “making up” their recollections or symptoms for attention is absolute nonsense. 

Believe me: no one wants the kind of attention you tend to get for having trauma symptoms. 

No WANTS the the abuse, neglect, or trauma they remember to be true. 

Therapy is not a process of discovering what’s true. I hate when people get into therapy and think that they’re on a fact-finding mission.

It’s not that you don’t or can’t discover truth in therapy; it’s that therapy isn’t the kind of tool that is well-suited for that. 

Therapy is about healing. It’s about restoring functioning. It’s about picking up the pieces of a life that’s been shattered. 

There are those who will tell you that the reason you’re suffering is because you are “interpreting” your life experience in a way that is “disempowring.”

They’ll blame you, in other words, for your suffering. 

That’s not fair and it’s not accurate. 

We know things about how trauma impacts people— and even on a neurobiological level, it’s more complicated than “this person has been choosing a disempowering interpretation of their life story.” 

Trauma is more than you having “chosen” a “faulty interpretation” of the past. 

Healing is about more than just choosing a “different interpretation” of what happened. 

Trauma impacts our psychology AND our biology. It leaves its mark in every cell of our body. 

Healing trauma takes time, patience, compassion, and support— and the courage to admit to ourselves that our wound was not superficial, and healing will not happen overnight. 

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Easy does it: backsliding is normal.

We can get seriously down on ourselves when we backslide in our recovery. 

Backsliding or relapsing happens to everyone. 

I don’t just mean “most” people. I mean it happens to EVERYONE. 

Nobody’s recovery is linear. Nobody just improves, and improves, and improves, with no stumbles along the way. 

Some relapses are more significant than others— but we ALL struggle in recovery sooner or later. 

It’s not a matter of intelligence. 

It’s not a matter of how good our therapist is. 

It’s not a matter of how effective the therapy is. 

It’s just the way these things work. 

The name of the game isn’t completely preventing relapse or backsliding— because you can’t COMPLETELY prevent it. 

The name of the game is doing everything we can to minimize the impact of a relapse on our lives. 

We can’t completely prevent relapse. 

We can, however, identify our triggers. 

We can create a safety plan for WHEN we get triggered (not “if”— “when”). 

We can create an impulse scale— that is, a chart that explicitly lays out what signs and symptoms to look for as evidence that we’re getting ramped up, as well as coping skills and strategies appropriate to each level of increasing danger. 

We can create a Triangle of Safety— that is, a triangular chart listing strategies and resources that we can realistically utilize at every point along the way if we find ourselves struggling, which culminates in reaching out for emergency assistance if we need it. 

Everybody needs to build safety planning into their recovery plan. 

The thing is, virtually nobody wants to think about it. 

Nobody thinks THEY are going to be the one that needs to make safety planning part of their recovery plan. 

Everybody wants to think that their recovery is going to go smoothly. 

Even the smoothest, most successful recovery plan requires safety planning as part of the mix. 

The important thing, in addition to having a safety plan, is to not get all up in our heads about NEEDING a safety plan. 

Almost every single trauma survivor I’ve ever worked with has been harsh with themselves when they’ve struggled along the way. 

If we beat ourselves up when we struggle, all we’re doing is reinforcing old messages that it’s somehow “bad” to struggle. 

It is not “bad” to struggle. 

It is perfectly normal and predictable to struggle— especially when we’re trying to make headway against things like complex trauma or addiction or chronic depression and anxiety. 

We have to deal with the fact that struggle is part of the process. Relapse and backsliding are part of the process. 

It happens to everyone. It happens to people with years of recovery time. It happens to people who are smart and strong and resourceful and supported. 

Don’t let it get in your head. 

If your’e reading this, and you’re struggling in your own recovery: what you’re experiencing isn’t evidence that you should quit trying. 

Work with your therapist to have a safety plan. 

Load that safety plan up with practical, usable strategies and resources. 

Nothing is too small to put on a potential safety plan. Put ANYTHING that might help on there. 

And whatever you do: make peace with the fact that at some point you WILL have to use your safety plan. 

Acknowledge your need for it; use it as you need to; move on. 

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It’s not about what you know. It’s about what you do.

Nothing I ever learned in the course of my own therapy and recovery made as much difference as getting in the groove of doing certain things, every day— no matter if I felt like doing them or not. 

When you get into therapy and recovery, you’ll learn all sorts of interesting things. 

You’ll learn things about how perceptions and thoughts feed emotions. You’ll learn how emotions inform behavior. 

You’ll learn how behavior then boomerangs around and influences perceptions and thoughts— how what we think, feel, and do becomes a complex, dynamic tug of war. 

It’s all fascinating, and learning about it can be useful. 

But, in my own experience, nothing that I LEARNED was the difference that made the difference. 

For me, the difference was in what I got used to DOING. 

Even before I went to grad school, I knew a lot about human emotion and behavior. 

Since getting into the self-help literature as a teenager, I’ve read literally hundreds of books about how the mind and the brain and the nervous system all work. 

During the time I’d dropped out of school in my early 20’s, when I was desperately depressed, intermittently suicidal, and desperately addicted to various substances and risky behaviors, I could have STILL had a very high level conversation with you about human psychology and behavior. 

It’s not about what you know. 

It’s about what you do with what you know. 

In my case, the difference was made when I started EVERY SINGLE DAY checking in with myself— with my emotions, my goals, my main problems— and forming and following a daily plan. 

I realized that if I did not take time EVERY morning and EVERY night to review my strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (otherwise known as a SWOT analysis), and if I didn’t manage my time every day (down to the hour), I would absolutely slip back into depression and desperation. 

It’s now years later, and those daily check ins and that daily planning are STILL the difference that makes the difference. 

I have made the mistake of assuming that, because I’m now a psychologist, because I have my own businesses, because I’ve been stable for years and have enough of a grasp of various recovery issues that OTHER people even listen to what I have to say, that I can slack off on the daily check ins and rituals. 

And I’ve paid for that mistake. Multiple times. 

Why am I telling you any of this? 

Because I want to move you away from this idea that anyone has “magic words” that you’ll hear that will turn everything around at some point. 

Again: learning stuff is awesome. The more you learn about how your brain and body work, the better. 

But none of it matters unless you’re DOING something different. 

There’s nothing that can take the place of daily routines, rituals, and check-ins. 

Insight won’t replace them. Intelligence won’t replace them. Toughness and character will not replace them. 

Routines, rituals, and check ins— especially daily goal setting— will make the difference between someone who knows a lot, but who is still stuck and unhappy and at risk…versus someone who has learned a lot, and is every day applying that learning to their daily life. 

I WISH there were magic words I had for you. 

But the magic isn’t over here. 

The magic is in you. 

It’s in your behavior. 

It’s in your daily, repeated behavior— your habits. 

That’s how your new life is sculpted in the real world. 

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You can’t control everything in your head. But that doesn’t mean you can’t control anything.


You can’t control everything in your head. 

Your perceptions and reactions and responses are the result of a complex interplay between your neurochemistry, what’s happening around you, your conditioning, your genetics, and dozens of other factors that we don’t even know about. 

We can’t possibly control for ALL of the factors that contribute to why you think what you think and feel what you feel and do what you do. 

But that doesn’t mean we can’t control ANY of those factors. 

It’s because we can’t control EVERYTHING that goes into our perceptions and reactions and behaviors, that we really have to take steps to control the factors that we can. 

What CAN we control when it comes to our perceptions, reactions, and behaviors? 

We can control how we talk to ourselves. 

We can control what we purposefully visualize. 

We can control a certain amount of the media content we expose ourselves to, and the amount of certain types of media that we consume. 

Whether we talk to ourselves in a supportive, reasonable tone or not, matters. 

Nobody functions well when they’re being yelled at or shamed or mocked. 

Yet, that’s how many of us try to deal with ourselves— often because that’s how others spoke to us growing up. 

When you’ve been mocked and scorned for much of your life, it’s easy to internalize that way of relating to yourself. 

What we intentionally visualize or imagine, matters. 

Sometimes pictures pop into our head automatically (especially when we’re struggling with post traumatic flashbacks). 

But there are at least some times when we have a choice about what to picture in our heads— and we will have a reaction to what we choose to visualize. 

Visualizing a cuddly house cat is different from visualizing a hungry, angry lion. 

It makes a difference whether we spend our days consuming media depictions of violence and despair— wither fictional or not. 

“It’s just TV,” you might tell yourself…but hour after hour after hour of watching violence adds up in our heads. 

Our brains cheerfully feed back to us what we feed them. 

If you struggle with really negative, unpleasant, upsetting, violent thoughts and feelings, I’m NOT saying that you “cause” them by what you say to yourself, what you visualize, and what you watch and listen to. 

What I AM saying is that what we say to ourselves, what we visualize, and what we watch and listen to can powerfully reinforce negative, upsetting, frightening thing in our heads…so we have to be vigilant. 

I don’t believe in blaming people for what they feel. In my experience, it’s just not that simple. I don’t think people “choose” to be scared or sad or angry. 

I just think we owe it to ourselves to give ourselves every possible chance to effect how we feel by keeping track of what we say to ourselves, what we visualize, and what we watch and listen to. 

We can’t control everything. 

But that doesn’t mean we can’t control anything. 


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The thought that sabotaged me for years.

A wall I frequently ran up against in my own recovery was called “nobody cares.” 

I vividly remember running into this wall in a big way. 

I had been in therapy for several years, and had gotten to the point where I was no longer miserable all day, every day— and, importantly, I’d gotten to the point where suicide was off the table as an option for me. 

I’d made some important progress…but I was still very unhappy. 

Just because I’d progressed from “miserable” and “suicidal” to “less miserable” and “not suicidal,” I still felt pretty lousy most of the time. 

I was in a therapy session with my therapist, and I remember thinking, for whatever reason: “he’s phoning it in.” 

That is: I felt that, when I was REALLY miserable and at possible risk of killing myself, I’d been getting a LOT of his attention and energy. 

Now that I was a relatively “lower maintenance” patient, however, I felt that I was somehow getting less of my therapist’s attention and effort. 

“He doesn’t care if I’m happy,” the voice inside my head told me. “He just cares that you’re not going to kill yourself and open him up to liability.” 

This opened up a spiral inside me: “Nobody really cares if you’re HAPPY,” I heard inside my head.

“They just don’t want you to be a pain in the ass. Sure, they don’t want you to kill yourself, and they don’t want you to be so unhappy that you’re bitching about it all the time; but beyond that, you could exist in this state of not-suicidal-but-still-pretty-unhappy indefinitely, and no one would care.” 

If you’ve been in cognitive therapy for depression yourself, you can see the many distortions and assumptions in my thinking at that time. 

But, as is usually the case when we’re depressed and our thinking is distorted, it didn’t seem to ME at the time that there was anything off. 

I truly thought— truly felt— that nobody cared if I was happy. 

That thought— “nobody cares”— would crop up again and again in my thinking, even as I continued to get better. 

Years later, during my graduate training in psychology and after earning my doctoral degree, I worked in the private practice of my mentor in the trauma treatment field. 

She had done many things to help advance my career, including taking me on for multiple externships and being on my dissertation committee. 

Yet every time I interacted with her, there was still that thought in the back of my mind: “she doesn’t really care if you’re happy or successful. She just wants you to make her practice money.” 

By this time, I actually had training and experience as a therapist, and I knew what I was dealing with: distorted thinking that was tied back to the fact that, when I was growing up, the people who SHOULD have cared whether I was happy and healthy, didn’t. 

Because I didn’t get what I needed back then, I internalized and projected that thought— “nobody cares if I’m happy or healthy, even if they SHOULD care”— onto almost every important person in my life. 

For years, I had a pervasive sense that the people who “should” care about my happiness— therapists, supervisors, mentors, girlfriends— didn’t. 

It didn’t matter what these people actually did or said; my (distorted) belief that they “didn’t care” had nothing to do with them, specifically. 

It was a belief that I’d formed a long time ago, that I was projecting into current time— and then I was unconsciously, unintentionally behaving in such a way as to make my distorted belief seem to be confirmed (most notably, I repeatedly sabotaged relationships, so that when the other person decided to end it, the voice in my head would say, “SEE! They never REALLY cared about you…or else why would they have abandoned you”). 

Why am I telling you any of this? 

Because we very often get our butts kicked by beliefs that we carry forward from the past.

That belief that “nobody cares” would cost me dearly in many ways. 

It would lead to addictive relapses and sabotaged relationships and therapy setbacks. 

If we’re not vigilant about taking a step back, observing our own patterns, and getting curious and realistic about what we’re saying to ourselves and where it’s all coming from…we really will sabotage the most important relationships in our lives and blow the progress we’e worked so hard to make. 

It’s happened to me, multiple times. It’s not about intelligence. 

Very smart, very self-aware people believe distorted things based on what happened to them in the past. 

Eventually, I had to accept two things: 

One: I could not read anybody’s mind. I did not know what my therapist or my ex-mentor or my romantic partners were thinking. I was guessing and imagining worst case scenarios based on my past. 

And two: EVEN IF my therapist, ex-mentor, girlfriends, or WHOMEVER DIDN’t actually care…that STILL didn’t mean that NOBODY cared. 

I had to accept that even if NOBODY cared about my progress…I needed to care. 

I couldn’t just be in this because somebody ELSE cared. 

Nowadays, “nobody cares” is STILL a trigger thought for me…but I can recognize it for the distortion that it is. 

That’s my trauma and my addiction trying to get its claws into me, using a trigger that they know works. 

Not today. 

Not ever again. 

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Why “shouldn’t” sucks.

When we tell ourselves, “I shouldn’t do” something, we’re almost immediately on a trajectory toward doing that thing. 

The human brain just doesn’t seem to respond well to “shouldn’t.” 

For some of us, saying “shouldn’t” promptly triggers the thought, “you can’t tell me what to do”…even if it’s US who is telling us we “shouldn’t” do that thing. 

For other people, saying “shouldn’t” triggers memories of being controlled against our will…and we immediately either panic or push back against those memories and feelings. 

For still others, the word “shouldn’t” conjures up feelings of shame and inadequacy, as if we’re being admonished for wanting to do something we “shouldn’t” want to do, or wouldn’t want to do if we were just “better” people. 

As a rule, behavior changes that are made primarily out of shame just don’t stick. 

We tend to rebel against them sooner or later. 

So there are al of these well-established reasons why using the word “shouldn’t” doesn’t tend to work well to create or reinforce behavior change…and yet, our culture tries to use that word to change and manage our behavior ALL THE TIME.

We’re told we “shouldn’t” use certain words. 

We’re told we “shouldn’t” even WANT to do certain things (anybody who has ever struggled to give up smoking or an additive substance can attest to the intense social pressure that tries to shame them for being an addict). 

The over-use of “shoudln’t” isn’t limited to the culture, either. 

We tell ourselves we “shouldn’t” do things all the time. 

We tell ourselves we shouldn’t eat certain foods in certain amounts, we shoudln’t spend so much time on the internet, we shouldn’t spend that money, we shouldn’t date (or even be attracted to) that person. 

It’s not hard to see where all these “shouldn’t”’s gets us. 

If “shouldn’t” doesn’t work to manage our behavior, then, what CAN we tell ourselves that MIGHT help? 

I like to get away from the very idea of “should” and “shouldn’t” thinking…and instead nudge toward what I call “could” or “possibly” thinking. 

When you’re struggling with a behavior that is in conflict with a goal of yours, and you’re tempted to pull out the word “shouldn’t”…take a step back. 

Look at the situation, and ask yourself: if I DIDN”T do this thing that I think I “shouldn’t” do…what might my alternatives be? 

If I don’t want to smoke, instead of beating myself up with the statement that “I shouldn’t smoke”— which will actually INCREASE my chances of lighting up— can I think of something ELSE I can do right here, right now, that might serve the same purpose as smoking? 

If I don’t want to use my drug of choice right now, instead of beating myself up with the statement that “I shouldn’t use”…can I think of something ELSE I can do in this moment to feel good and relive tension? 

If I don’t want to overeat right now, instead of beating myself up with the statement “I shouldn’t eat that thing in that amount”…is there something ELSE I can do in this moment? 

It’s a subtle shift…but it can make all the difference in the world.

Our brains don’t do well with negative thinking— that is, telling them what NOT to do. 

“Don’t think of a pink elephant.” See? 

We’re just not wired to think in terms of “don’t do that” or “don’t want that.” 

We’re better, however, at thinking in terms of “try doing this instead.” 

Instead of smoking, take ten deep, slow breaths. 

Instead of spending, think about enjoying some of the purchases you’ve ALREADY made. 

Mind you: many of the alternatives you come up with WILL be imperfect. 

They may not be as objectively “successful” as the behavior that you’re looking to avoid…but I will take trying to shift over to a replacement behavior over beating yourself over the head with “I shouldn’t do this,” and trying to white-knuckle your way trough it, every single time. 

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