Let yourself have good days and bad days…AND strategies.

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You’re going to have good days, and you’re going to have bad days. 

I know, I know. This seems obvious. So why even say it? 

Because bad days— or even bad moments— have a way of endangering peoples’ recovery efforts in a unique, and sometimes heartbreaking, way. 

Our brains are smart. Our brains, generally speaking, want to lead us away from pain and toward gratification. (Granted, sometimes they get their wires crossed and associate gratification with various types of pain, but the general principle still holds: all things being equal, our brains want to nudge us toward things we like, and away from things we don’t like.) 

The problem with our brains is NOT that they are not smart. The problem with our brains is that they can be reactive as hell. 

When pain occurs, our brains are NOT big on sitting around, processing it, analyzing it. 

Rather, our brains have a tendency to be like, “WHAT THE HELL IS THAT AND HOW CAN WE GET THE HELL AWAY FROM IT AND MAKE SURE IT NEVER HAPPENS AGAIN?!?” 

This is the context our brains generally bring to moments of pain, despair, or hopelessness. 

This is also the context our brains bring to symptomatic or behavioral relapses. They want the pain to end and they want to maximize the odds the pain will never recur. 

In the process of getting out of pain and trying to ensure that pain will not recur, our brains leap to some…hasty conclusions. 

They like to propose permanent solutions to temporary problems. Temporary problems, such as having a bad moment or a bad day. 

They’re trying to protect us, God bless those brains of ours. In fact, they’ve been wired by eons of evolution to try to get us the hell away from pain in as quick and permanent manner as possible. 

Which is why we often need to take the time and trouble to recondition our brains to think— really think— when confronted with certain types of pain, to not be quite as reactive as they might otherwise be wired to be. 

A bad day doesn’t equal a bad life. 

A bad moment doesn’t equal a bad day. 

A relapse doesn’t equal “I will never recover and trying to recover is pointless.” 

How, then, can we keep our brains from being all “SCREW IT ALL AHHHH” when we have moments of pain or failure? 

The answer is both simple and yet not terribly easy: we have to plan for the 100%, absolutely certain eventuality that we are going to have a bad day, we’re going to experience pain, we’re going to at least partially relapse at some point; we need a strategy for what, exactly, we’re going to do when those bad moments happen; and we need to rehearse this strategy, again and again and again, until we start to develop confidence that it is a plan that can and will work when the time comes to employ it. 

Sounds easy, right? 

Not so much. 

We are not good at planning for failure. We like to plan for success. 

When we even THINK about planning for failure, our brains very often ask us, “Uh, if it’s a realistic possibility that we’ll fail, why are we even bothering to do any of this ‘recovery’ stuff at all?” 

(If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice this is EXACTLY the kind of thing our brain does, as described earlier in this blog post— when it gets even a WHIFF of pain, its very first impulse is to say “SCREW IT!”)

Planning for relapse or a bad moment or a bad day doesn’t have to be overly complicated— but it does need to be through and it does need to be realistic. It needs to involve coping skills you know you’ve developed, skills that very specifically draw your focus away from the pain or failure of the moment and place your focus in a more productive, less painful place. 

Then we need to rehearse it. 

We need to visualize ourselves successfully using our backup plan to get back on track from a momentary derailment of our recovery efforts. 

(Notice, again, your brain pushing back at that idea— “HE’S TELLING US TO VISUALIZE FAILURE?! WE ARE NOT OKAY WITH THAT!” I’m telling you, your brain’s inclination to push back against pain and failure is strong and well-conditioned.)

The good news is, mental conditioning works. 

The good news is, as you mentally rehearse yourself using your skills to dig out of a hole, the more likely you’ll be to be able to dig out of any hole you happen to fall into. 

The good news is, our brains can be made less reactive…but we need to be consistent and patient with them as we work on reconditioning them. 

But the good news about THAT is: you can, in fact, do this. 

 

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Guilt is a rope that wears thin.

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Someone a lot smarter than me once observed that “guilt is a rope that wears thin.” 

She was referring to guilt as a means of control. As you may have noticed, there is a large subset of people who often make effortful attempts to control other people through guilt. 

“You SHOULD do this.” 

“If you were a decent person, you WOULD do this.” 

“What’s wrong with you that you’re wither UNWILLING or UNABLE to do this?” 

Guilt is often brandished as a weapon of behavioral control for one main reason: it very frequently works. 

We WANT to be good people. 

We WANT to be seen by others as good people. To be KNOWN as good people. 

There’s nothing wrong with wanting the approval of others, moral and otherwise. I prefer it when other people think I’m a good person, and it bothers me when people question whether I’m a good person. 

We are all susceptible to manipulation via guilt. It’s a very human vulnerability. 

But what happens when we become a psychological slave to guilt? 

What happens when we become so susceptible to manipulation via guilt, that our guilt becomes an overwhelming emotion that flattens us most of the day, every day? 

When we allow our lives and behavior to be controlled by guilt, as opposed to simply influenced by it, we begin to lose ourselves. Our self-esteem begins to crumble under the weight of judgments and demands that we didn’t choose. 

How can we keep guilt from stealing our emotional lives? 

There’s only one real way: by developing and reinforcing a moral code and ethical compass of our own, and learning to rely on it…even at the risk of disappointing (or even angering) others. 

What does it mean to develop our own moral code? 

It means thinking, deeply, about issues of right and wrong…from our own point of view. 

We can take into consideration the moral codes advocated by our religion or spiritual path. We can take into consideration cultural norms and values. We can take into consideration things we were taught and experiences we had as we grew up. 

But in the end, our moral code needs to be ours. It needs to be carefully thought through and chosen freely by us. 

This is harder than it might sound. 

We’re strongly conditioned to take on other peoples’ ideas of “goodness” and “morality.” (It’s this conditioning, actually, that holds society together— if humans didn’t experience at least a certain amount of this pressure, agreeing to things like common laws would be terribly problematic at best.) 

I’m not at all saying your moral code needs to be significantly different than the morality of the people around you, or society at large. 

I AM saying that, whatever your moral code and ethical compass end up entailing…they have to be thoughtfully considered and purposefully, consciously accepted by you. 

It is in this conscious, purposeful thinking through and acceptance of a moral code that you can free yourself from the emotional slavery of guilt-driven manipulation. 

Why? Because when you’ve thoughtfully, intentionally developed and accepted your own moral code, others’ attempts to guilt you for not accepting theirs fall on deaf ears. When others try to manipulate you, your legitimate response will be: “Thank you for your input, but I’ve already thought this issue through, and I am confident in my thoughts and feelings on the subject.” 

Understand: it will still be hard, at times, to bear the disappointment of other people. 

Other people, as a rule, don’t really like it when we develop the tools to not fall for their tactics of manipulation. 

Be prepared for their scorn. 

But also be open to the idea that by developing a clear, firm, stable sense of who you are and what you believe, you will be less and less impacted by their scorn. 

Guilt is a rope that does indeed wear thin. 

And as it turns out, you have the tools to snip it. 

 

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Focus on your focus.

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Focus is everything. 

No, focus can’t change metaphysical reality. You can’t build a building just by imagining a building springing up before your eyes. 

You can’t lose weight by just imagining it. 

You can’t manifest a new car by visualization only, sorry to say. 

(Not that I’ve tried, or anything.) 

I don’t mean “focus is everything in that it actively creates outward reality. I mean focus is everything in that our focus almost exclusively creates and reinforces our emotional and psychological reality. 

What do I mean by “focus?” 

I mean the things we pay attention to. More specifically, I mean the patterns of things we pay attention to. 

I mean the premises and beliefs we accept as true, and the premises and beliefs we reject as unconditionally false. 

I mean everything we let past our “filters” into our brains for processing and action. 

The thing about our brains is, they are in fact super smart, but they are also constantly getting bombarded with information from our sensory organs. Our entire nervous systems are continually throwing things at our brains for possible processing and action. If our brains were to take into account EVERYTHING that gets thrown at them, we’d be paralyzed, because our brains would need basically an infinite amount of time to process everything and decide if it’s worth acting upon. 

So our brains take shortcuts. 

Our brains make decisions about what is worth focusing on, and what isn’t. (Psychologists call these shortcuts “heuristics” and “schemas.”)

The shortcuts our brains habitual make in deciding what sensory information is worth processing and acting upon— that is, our patterns of habitual focus— basically create our internal reality. 

We need to pay attention to our focus. 

We need to realize that we can actively influence our focus— bring our focus into alignment with our goals and values. 

We need to realize that we are ALWAYS getting a filtered version of reality…and we need to become aware of the way our habitual patterns of focus filter, and occasionally distort, reality. 

In fact, one of the most popular (and effective, according to the research) techniques of psychotherapy is cognitive behavioral therapy…the main premise of which is that people who experience emotional difficulties usually have distorted patterns of focus. The main work in CBT is in adjusting our focus so that we don’t unnecessarily perseverate on distorted, negative thoughts and beliefs. 

You don’t need to be in therapy in order to ask productive questions about your focus. 

All you need to do is to dial up your self-awareness. 

Most people have trouble accepting that they only get a filtered version of reality. Because they’ve been looking through the same “lens’ for so long, they tend to think that reality just is what it is, and they’re simply observing it. 

Not true. 

Reality is what it is, but we’re all focusing on it from particular vantage points. 

Our interpretations of events will vary wildly from person to person and culture to culture based upon our patterns of focus. 

Are your patterns of focus serving you? 

Are your patterns of focus consistent with who you want to be and the life and the world you’re trying to create? 

Are your patterns of focus consistent with the things you’re trying to feel? 

It’s not a matter of adjusting your beliefs and attitudes so that you’re somehow avoiding or evading reality. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: it’s about taking an objective look at how your habitual patterns of looking at things are interpreting the events of reality as they transpire. 

Just become open to the idea that your focus matters. 

Become open to the idea that there is more than one perspective on reality. 

Be open to the idea that you can change the way you think, feel, and behave by changing your focus…which is NOT the same as evading or avoiding reality. 

Pay attention to your attention. 

It might be easier than you think. 

 

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Compromise…intelligently.

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“Compromise” is not a dirty word. 

I know, I know. You’ve seen internet memes that say otherwise. In fact, I just saw one attributed to one of my favorite pop culture personalties, the late Steve Jobs. “Don’t compromise,” the internet picture quote direly warned. 

It’s a curious instruction, “don’t compromise.” Largely because not to compromise is to shut yourself off from a great deal of progress. 

Don’t get me wrong, I get the gist of the meme. What I understand it to be saying is that too often we under-prioritize our true values and over-prioritize the values of others. We let others pressure and bully us into doing things we don’t want to do or accepting standards that are not ours. I understand the “don’t compromise” quote to be a statement affirming your right to hold and fight for your own vision and standards. Fair enough. 

But it’s also important to understand that realistically making progress, let alone achieving success, in the real world involves a great deal of compromise. 

If we want to be fit, we’re going to need to compromise on our taste buds’ insistence that everything we eat tastes amazing. 

For that matter, if we want to be fit, we’re going to need to compromise on our bodies’ desire to sleep in instead of hitting the gym. 

If we want to be balanced and emotionally healthy, we’re going to need to compromise on the conditioned desire many of us have to beat ourselves up. 

If we’re going to succeed professionally, often we need to compromise on our preference to not work long hours or tolerate the absence of immediate recognition and gratification. 

Compromise is not the enemy.

Compromise is a tool. And like any tool, it needs to be employed intelligently, mindfully, and in the service of your goals and values. 

The truth is, we often have to compromise just as a fact of daily life. 

The reason for this isn’t any conspiracy against you, personally. It’s actually quite mundane. We live in a world of billions of people. Not everybody in that world can get exactly what they want, exactly when they want it— so we have to compromise with each other. 

Can you imagine a world in which everybody was committed to never compromising with anyone else? If everyone refused to meet anybody else halfway? 

In such a world, the only method of achieving anything would e coercion. Force would be the only way to get anything done. 

If I, as a therapist, took a “I don’t compromise” attitude into my work, I would never have to work to meet a patient where they happened to be at that moment. And as any successful therapist can tell you, a great deal of our work is in meeting the patient where they are just them— verbally, emotionally, motivationally. 

If teachers took a “don’t compromise” attitude into their work, they would be impervious to feedback from parents and students— and to the growth and innovation that adjusting to that feedback requires. 

Even Steve Jobs, to whom the “don’t compromise” quote in the meme, was attributed (slightly out of context, I assume— having read an awful lot about Steve Jobs, I somehow doubt he’d utter something as ridiculously black and white as that), compromised quite a bit in his business career. He had Apple working on the iPad before the iPhone, but they couldn’t get the user interface quite right, so he went ahead with the iPhone first— and Apple proceeded to revolutionize the way we interact with technology. Even the software centerpiece of Apple computers, the OSX operating system, was a compromise: it was designed for hardware his team at the neXt company had designed, but which turned out to be unaffordable in the marketplace. So Jobs scrapped the pricey hardware, kept the software, and it went on to become the operating system on which the best computers in the world run. 

Compromise is not a weakness…if it is done intelligently, mindfully, and in the service of one’s goals and values. 

Do not fall into black and white thinking about this issue. 

(If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know I’m not a fan of thinking in black and white about any issues.)

The trick, as always, is to keep your eyes open and your focus on your goals and values. 

There are lots and lots of quotes that sound good— like “don’t compromise”— but which turn out to be terrible ideas if they’re adhered to blindly and inflexibly. 

Choose your tools wisely— and use the right tool for the right job. 

Don’t compromise about being flexible and mindful, in other words. 

 

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Choose your identity with care.

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How you self-identify— the identity you assume and affirm and reinforce for yourself— matters. 

Our identity impacts our beliefs; our perceptions; our behaviors; and our motivation. 

Our identity will define what we are and aren’t willing to do to achieve our goals and values. For that matter, our identity will go a long way toward defining our goals and values. 

When you think about yourself, who and what do you consider most important? 

Are you a parent? A child? 

A warrior? A survivor? 

An alcoholic? An addict? 

An alcoholic or addict in recovery? 

Are you what you do for a living? 

Are you what you do for a hobby? A runner, a reenactor, an actor, a martial artist? 

The truth is, we all have many dimensions on which we could identify ourselves. We’re rarely just one thing. We have many different identities, of varying importance to us. 

We get to choose which of those identities define us more than the others. Which means we need to be fully cognizant of how the identities we choose to emphasize impact our day to day thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. 

For example, I’ve worked with many people who consider themselves “survivors” and “warriors.” They’ve chosen to take important aspects of their identity from the armor they’ve had to develop in order to survive traumatic life situations. 

Being a “survivor” or a “warrior” can be a powerful identity when the tasks in front of you are survival and combat. 

But what about those times when survival and combat aren’t the most important tasks in front of you? 

The truth is, as powerful as it can be to affirm and reinforce certain identities that have been useful to us on our journey, it’s also powerful and important be able to be flexible and shift our identities when it serves us. 

We may not want to take our self-identities of “warrior” and “survivor” into intimate relationships, such as romantic bonds or therapy relationships, for example. It’s no fun to feel like you’re going into combat with your relationship partner or therapist. 

Similarly, admitting one’s status as an alcoholic or addict can be powerful in a setting such as Twelve Step meeting or psychotherapy group. Affirming that everyone in the room has had similar experience and challenges can forge bonds between group members that are indescribable to anyone who has not felt such a bond. 

However, to indefinitely hold on to one’s identity as an alcoholic or addict in every situation can be counterproductive— especially when the opportunity to use comes along. There have been times when some people have figured it’s useless to even TRY not to use when it’s right there in front of them, because, hey, they’re an addict, and what addicts do is use. 

Identifying yourself with your profession can be powerful. Very few people would be reading these words right now if I didn’t identify myself strongly with my professional role as a psychologist. I’m proud of the credentials I’ve earned and I’m grateful for the things those credentials give me the opportunity to do. 

However, if I took my identity as a psychologist into my intimate relationships, I imagine I would drive my friends, lovers, and employees bananas. No one wants to feel as if every relationship in their life is a full on psychotherapy session. 

What I want you to remember is that identity has power. When we shift identity— for example, from “victim” to “survivor” we shift the entire universe of meanings we carry around in our heads and hearts. 

But what I also want you to appreciate is that identity can, and should, be flexible. We need to cultivate the skill of choosing what aspects of ourselves serve us best in certain settings— and be willing to shift between those aspects of ourselves as necessary. 

Only you get to define who you are and what you’re all about. 

Others will try— but you can, and should, deny them that privilege. 

Choose your identities wisely. And joyfully. And purposefully. 

 

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What REALLY motivates us? Like really?

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Don’t overcomplicate this stuff, guys. We do what we do primarily for two reasons: to gain reward or avoid punishment. 

There are therapists and self-help gurus out there who are going to try to convince you it’s more complicated than that. There’s one guy in particular who goes around claiming that “95% of what motivates us is driven by the unconscious mind” (the buffoon of whom I’m thinking even claims that psychology “PROVES” this to be true). 

First off, that’s not true, and it’s definitely not true that psychology “proves” any such thing. No two psychological theorists can really agree on what, exactly, the unconscious mind is or what it holds, thus it’s improbable that the field can definitely “prove” what goes on in there.

But more to the point: theories that grandly claim that we are motivated primarily by factors outside our awareness or control are simply wrong. Behavioral psychology put such theories to rest years ago by empirically demonstrating, over and over again, that humans behave in expectation of reward, or in fear of punishment. 

What does this mean for you? 

It’s good news, actually. 

When you’re repeatedly engaged in a behavior that is painful; that is self-defeating; that is, at first glance, inexplicable, keep in mind: the ONLY reason I’m engaging in this behavior is because, somehow, some way, my brain thinks it’s going to lead away from punishment or toward reinforcement. IF that were true…what might the “payoff” of this behavior be? 

When you’re procrastinating, keep in mind: the ONLY reason I’m avoiding this thing is because somehow, some way, my brain thinks that it will lead me TOWARD punishment or AWAY from reinforcement. IF that were true…what punishment might my brain be trying to protect me from? 

Behavior makes sense…when we view it through the lenses of reinforcement and punishment. 

It’s true that we’re sometimes not aware of exactly HOW our brain is doing the math on the reinforcement and punishment equation. Sometimes it’s not obvious how our brains figure that one behavior, which seems self-defeating, will lead us to pleasure or away from pain; and other times it’s not obvious how our brains figure that another behavior, which seems like something we “should” do but which we just can’t get ourselves to do, will lead us toward pain and away from pleasure. 

But because something isn’t obvious doesn’t make it “unconscious.” 

In my experience, most people who cling to the idea of major parts of our motivation residing in the “unconscious” usually have a product to sell you, that claims to make the unconscious conscious. 

For a tidy fee, there are MANY people who will happily claim to be able to dig into your “unconscious mind” and come up with what REALLY motivates you. 

But what if such a purchase wasn’t even necessary? 

What if you could figure out what motivates you by learning to ask a few fairly straightforward questions and develop maybe 10% more self-awareness than you currently have? 

Maybe I’m wrong, I suppose. Maybe there are these masses of emotional gunk in our unconscious minds that motivate us to do what we do. Maybe we do need complicated, expensive techniques and esoteric theories to figure it all out. 

That just hasn’t been my experience as a therapist. 

Most people procrastinate because they fear the pain (i.e., the punishment) that they think a behavior will entail. No more, no less. 

Most people who smoke cigarettes do so because they associate it with pleasure (i.e., reinforcement)…not to mention they associate quitting with pain (i.e., punishment). It really is that simple. 

Most people who know they need to end a bad relationship do so because the pain of staying in the relationship isn’t as bad as they imagine the pain of getting out of the relationship would be. 

Most people who overeat associate eating with more pleasure than pain. And the pain that overeating causes them tends to be less immediate and less important to them in the moment than the pleasure. 

Pain and pleasure. Reinforcement and punishment. Behavioral psychology. That’s really all we’re about. No need to overcomplicate it; no need to jump through esoteric hoops; no need to pay somebody thousands of dollars to dig around in your noggin. 

Therapy can help you develop the kind of self awareness you need to figure out HOW, exactly, your behaviors are setting you up for pain or trying to invite pleasure. Sometimes THAT task requires brutal self honesty…which, there’s no doubt about it, some people avoid because confronting certain facts can be painful. 

It’s really up to you. Figure out how to use reinforcement and punishment…or accept the fact that reinforcement and punishment will keep using you. 

And probably abusing you, too. 

 

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What those motivational memes DON’T tell you.

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Just because something is challenging, doesn’t mean it’s growth-enhancing. 

There’s this delusion many people interested in psychology, motivation, and self-help sometimes fall into, that holds that if something is challenging or outside our comfort zone, then that’s a good indication that that thing is growth-enhancing or healthy. 

You see it in quotes like “if it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you,” and/or “outside of your comfort zone is where the magic happens.” 

It’s true that growth-enhancing experiences do often challenge us. It’s also true that there is value to evaluating to what extent our comfort zone hold us back from seeing and being more. 

That said: hardship for the sake of hardship isn’t growth. 

Jumping out of our comfort zone jut for the sake of being uncomfortable isn’t growth. 

I know, I know, you’ve heard me talk about values and goals and again. I’m a broken record on this subject. But this is one broken record that you’ll want to keep on repeat until it sinks in: the extent to which any experience, challenging or not, comfortable or not, is valuable to us is the extent to which it is explicitly linked to our values and goals. 

There are PLENTY of experiences that are challenging that aren’t valuable to us, because they have nothing to do with our values or goals. 

There are PLENTY of experiences that will take us way, way outside our comfort zones, but they aren’t valuable to us, because they have nothing to do with our values and goals. 

Why does this matter? Because we only have so much time, energy, and focus in a day. 

There are infinite numbers of ways we can budget and spend or invest that time, energy and focus; but if we just run around chasing challenging or uncomfortable experiences simply because a motivational meme on the internet told us to, we’re very likely to burn out. 

Absolutely, challenge yourself. Absolutely, step out of your comfort zone. But do so for well-defined reasons— reasons that clearly link back to your values and goals. 

Our values and goals are who we are. 

They define whether we’re wasting our resources, or investing our resources. 

It’s virtually impossible to have high self-esteem, let alone to feel good about ourselves on a day to day basis, if we’re not connecting our daily behavior to our values and goals. 

Conversely, it’s almost impossible to have low self-esteem if we’re going to great lengths to explicitly, consciously link our daily focus and behavior to our values and goals. 

Being clear on our values and goals is more than an an abstract, big picture kind of concern. 

Being clear about our values and goals— and devoting time and thought to how we can chase them down in everyday life— has a direct and profound impact on our daily mood and emotional functioning. 

Why do some people neglect their values and goals every day? 

For one, some people get intimidated. Asking them to be clear about their values and goals, let alone to chase them down on a daily basis, is asking them to truly live with integrity and self-esteem. Some people aren’t quite ready for that. 

It sounds ridiculous to say, but many people have been conditioned to believe that they don’t “deserve” the opportunity to chase down their values and goals every day. 

They’ve been conditioned to believe that their values and goals “don’t count” as much as other peoples’. 

They’ve been taught that it’s selfish to spend the day pursuing their own values and goals as opposed to helping OTHER people achieve their own values and goals. 

Think about that for a second: is there anything that, by definition, makes someone ELSE’S values and goals more important or valid than yours? 

No. 

But in a world in which people have learned that “selfish” is the worst thing to be, they automatically assign their own priorities less weight than other peoples. 

Let me set the record straight: pursuing YOUR values and goals, and helping other people pursue THEIR values and goals, is not a zero sum game. I do it every day as a therapist. 

Moreover, if you’re living a life that affords you plenty of opportunities to pursue your own values and goals, your mood will be better, your self-esteem will be higher…both of which will render you even MORE useful to other people.

You can’t help somebody else if you’re suffering yourself. 

It’s not a bad thing to seek out challenge. Challenging experience do often change us. 

It’s not a bad thing to be real about the limits of your comfort zone. Your comfort zone absolutely prevents you from taking certain risks that could be growth-enhancing. 

But challenge and discomfort aren’t ends unto themselves. 

Use them in conjunction with the two most important tools you have for self-actualization: values and goals. 

 

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