Our gut instincts are sometimes…well, wrong.

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Sometimes, your gut instinct is wrong. 

I know, I know— many of us have been told, in meme after meme after meme, to “always” trust our gut instinct. 

We’ve been told that “our gut instinct never lies.” 

I wish that was true. 

But, as it turns out, our gut instinct is as susceptible to manipulation, distortion, and trauma as our rational brains are. 

I understand why so many people, especially as they enter recovery, are so hell bent on embracing and validating their gut instincts. 

For many people, it’s a process of reclamation. Many people, especially when they’ve been abused over the course of time, have been gaslit into believing that their gut instincts are always wrong. Understanding that this isn’t the case— that sometimes their gut accurately understands things that their brains aren’t quite ready to accept— can be an empowering experience for them. 

Other people have had the experience of relying on their rational brains too much and ignoring their gut instincts— only realizing too late that their brains can introduce doubt and confusion in situations where gut level decisiveness might be more useful. 

So, I get it. There are definitely good reasons to embrace our gut instinct, and to pay it its due. 

The problem is when people come to OVER-rely on their gut instinct. 

The problem is when people come to think that their gut instinct is “never wrong.” 

The problem is when people lose sight of the fact that their gut instinct is not supposed to be the ONLY tool they rely on for decision-making. 

Our gut instinct is supposed to be A tool to help us evaluate the world. Not THE ONLY tool. 

It’s important for us to remember what happens to our bodies and brains when we’ve been traumatized over the course of time. 

Trauma has a way of shaping our worldview. 

Especially trauma that occurs over time, and in the context of close relationships. 

We come to see the world through a kind of post traumatic lens…and that lens isn’t just limited to our rational brains or decision-making. 

Trauma messes with our gut, too. 

Trauma specifically has a way of mangling what psychologists call our “schemas”— our interlocking systems of belief about the world, ourselves, and the future. 

Our schemas inform everything we think, feel, and do. They’re like the basic structure of the reality we perceive and act on in our heads. 

When trauma has damaged our schemas— i.e., when it has convinced us that we’re no good, that the world is always dangerous, that other people are never to be trusted, that the future holds nothing for us— that damage isn’t just limited to what we consciously think. 

That damage also extends to our unconscious beliefs and attitudes— those things that inform our “gut instinct.” 

When you have a gut feeling about something or someone, it is informed by your schemas…and if you’ve been traumatized or abused, your schemas are likely at least somewhat distorted. 

Understand: none of this is to say that we should never trust or believe our gut instincts. 

To the contrary, our gut instincts often have valuable information for us. 

But that information needs to be understood and acted upon in conjunction with input from other sources— such as our rational, thinking brains, our senses, and reality-testing from other people whom we trust. 

Our guts are not designed to be the only way we make decisions. 

That’s how we get impulsive, emotionally-driven decisions. 

Respect your gut. Listen to your gut. Value your gut. 

But also respect and value its role in your overall collection of decision-making tools. 

 

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Focusing on the past reinforces it.

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We can’t leave the past behind by focusing on it. 

I know, I know. It’s tempting. 

We WANT to revisit our past, for a variety of reasons. 

Sometimes our brains even MAKE us revisit the past against our will, in flashbacks, dreams, or intrusive memories. 

The ways we try to revisit the past are almost endless. We think about it. We reread old texts and emails. We physically go to places we once lived or worked. We contact people who were once in our lives. 

We replay old interactions with people in our heads, again and again and again…as if we can somehow alter the sequence of events. 

We cannot alter the sequence of events that actually played out. 

We can never have a better or a different past. 

Accepting this is essential to building a life that we actually value and enjoy living in the present and future…and it’s also incredibly difficult. 

Revisiting the past can be similar to an addiction or a compulsion. 

We find ourselves drawn to it like an addict is drawn to their substance or behavior of choice. 

We find our brains running that pattern, and we may not even consciously know why. 

You’re not crazy if you do this. 

Almost everybody does this. 

And it almost always leads to pain. 

How can we let the past go? 

We need to start by reminding ourselves, again and again and again— as many times as it takes— that focusing on the past is never going to change it. 

When we find ourselves drawn down that path, either voluntarily or involuntarily, we have to be prepared with a new, different pattern of focus to switch to. 

We need to practice switching to that new pattern of focus BEFORE we have to in the heat of the moment. 

We need to get good at shifting our focus— developing the skills of flexibility and perseverance in switching our focus. 

I know, I know. That’s not an appealing answer. I, too, wish there was a way that we could revisit the past and “process” all of its traumatic overtones, such that we simply can’t feel it anymore. 

I, too, wish we could just forget it and be done with it. 

But we cannot. 

It doesn’t matter HOW we revisit the past in our minds. 

It doesn’t matter WHY we revisit the past. 

It doesn’t matter how determined or confident we feel in approaching the past. 

Immersing ourselves in the past is simply never going to be a strategy for moving on. 

Revisiting the past reinforces it. it strengthens old feelings, old associations, old meanings. 

When we revisit the past, we train ourselves to revisit the past. 

Train yourself to shift your focus to the future. 

To your goals and values now. 

To what makes you tick now. 

Resist the temptation to try to “fix” the past by revisiting it, in your head or otherwise. 

You can no more “fix” the past by revisiting it than an alcoholic can “fix” their addiction by hanging out in a liquor store. 

When in doubt: focus forward. 

Also when not in doubt. 

 

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Your past self is not the enemy.

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You coped— you SURVIVED— as best you knew how. 

At any given time in your life, you did the best you could with the resources you had. 

You only had the tools you had. 

You only had the energy you had. 

You only had the modeling you had. 

You did what you had to do to survive— to get through whatever you had to get through, to end up exactly where you are, reading these words. 

There’s no shame in surviving. 

Many people look back on whatever they had to do to survive, and they feel shame. 

They hold themselves to standards of decision-making and behavior that would only be reasonable if they’d had access to greater or other resources than they did. 

How many times have we looked back, with the benefit of hindsight, and bitterly told ourselves what we “should” have said or done? 

Hindsight is 20/20, because in utilizing it we have the resources of time and perspective that we didn’t have then. 

We can all formulate a perfect plan in hindsight because we have maturity and tools we didn’t have in that moment. 

It’s unfair to drag ourselves for not using tools we didn’t have. 

There is a subset of people out there who will make you feel like the main problem in your life is that you have been wrong more than you have been right.

They’ll try to make you feel that your poor decision making or weak moral character might be the problem. 

In short, they’ll try to blame YOU for your life not working. 

Don’t get me wrong: our lives are definitely shaped by the quality of decisions we make.

But we’re only capable of making as good decisions as we can in any given moment. 

Put another way: you probably make better life decisions now than when you were a teenager. 

Why? It’s not because you were necessarily a terrible or incompetent person as a teenager. It’s because adult you has tools that teenage you lacked. 

Don’t beat yourself up for lacking resources at certain points in your life. It’s not your fault. 

We can’t help that we didn’t have certain tools and skills at certain points in our lives. 

We can’t go back and hand ourselves those tools and skills, as much as we’d like to. 

All we can do from this point, is what we can do: make sure we use the tools and skills we have NOW, to create a life from here on out. 

Some of the things you had to do to survive may have been a bummer. 

You can be legitimately and emphatically sad about the ways you had to get your needs met. 

Many of us should have had better guidance, better mentoring, better coaching, and better parenting growing up…but we didn’t. 

Many of us should have been loved more. But we weren’t. 

None of it is our fault. 

And we truly need to be careful and vigilant about not blaming ourselves. 

Self-blame doesn’t solve the problem. 

Self-blame doesn’t ease the pain. 

And self-blame isn’t reality. 

Ease up on yourself. 

Forgive yourself. 

When you feel yourself getting sucked into the vortex of blaming yourself for what you had to do to survive in the past, remember: past you is not the enemy. 

Eyes front, with compassion. 

And do the next right thing. 

Adults DON’T neglect “Plan B.”

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You want to really ruin your life? Just screw it up beyond recognition or repair? 

Then neglect the importance and necessity of having a “Plan B.”

Lacking a fallback plan is also a surefire recipe for inconveniencing and even harming other people, who will have to clean up your mess if and when your “Plan A” doesn’t work out. 

I am sick to DEATH of personal growth teachers who tell you to “rip up Plan B.” 

Just yesterday I read on one such “teacher’s” page whole paragraphs about how if you have the temerity to have a backup plan, it simply communicates to the universe that you don’t have sufficient faith in your primary plan. 

His argument was that any energy you devote to a backup plan siphons focus away from your primary plan, thus lessening that plan’s chances of success. 

He concluded by exhorting his audience to go ALL IN on “Plan A,” and to leave fallback planning for those losers who don’t believe in the power of their dreams. 

Are you kidding me? 

Look, I’m all in favor of chasing after your “Plan A” with purpose and passion. I believe we can accomplish things that astonish even ourselves when we buckle down and focus our creative energies on goals we care about. 

The thing is, there are dozens of ways “Plan A” can go wrong that have nothing to do with our focus or passion. 

When you leave yourself with no exit strategy, you’re very arrogantly assuming that there are no variables in the world that impact your results other than your own will and skill. 

I assure you: there are such variables. 

Many such variables. 

Having an exit strategy— a “Plan B”— is not to declare that you lack confidence or faith in your abilities, or that you doubt the efficacy of your plan. 

What constructing a good “Plan B” actually means is that you are realistic and responsible. 

As John Lennon put it, “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” 

Something that I very often talk with my patients and clients about is, how do we pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off when something doesn’t go as planned? 

When you get hit with a shot you didn’t see coming? 

When an accident happens? 

When a variable pops up that you didn’t even know was a thing, let alone a thing that could derail your “Plan A?” 

Very often people are tempted to think that when “Plan A” goes awry, they’re just screwed— they won’t achieve their goal, and the only reasonable response is to curl up and surrender. 

That’s not really the case…UNLESS you’ve arrogantly decided to not construct a realistic, responsible “Plan B.” 

By neglecting “Plan B,” you’re basically setting other people up to clean up your mess. 

Medical insurance is an example of a responsible “Plan B.” Nobody expects to get sick or injured. Nobody wants it. Nobody asks for it. “Plan A” is to remain healthy and functional. But we know that in the real world, illness and accidents happen. We need to have a reasonable “Plan B” for when— not “if”— they do. 

Car insurance is an example of a responsible “Plan B.” Nobody expects to get into a car accident. Nobody wants it. Nobody asks for it. “Plan A” is to stay on your side of the road and trust others to stay on their side of the road. But we know that in the real world, car accidents happen. Roads get icy. Judgement gets impaired. We need to have a reasonable “Plan B’ for when— not “if”— those things happen. 

Vaccinations are a “Plan B.” “Plan A” is to just avoid communicable disease. But we know in the real world…

Locks on our doors are a “Plan B.” “Plan A” is to just trust others to not invade our personal space or take our stuff. But we know in the real world…

I could go on…but you get my point. 

Neglecting “Plan B” is an immature, arrogant, stupid thing to do.

Devise a “Plan B.” Make it sound, responsible, and realistic. Tuck it in your back pocket, and be clear about how to access it if and when you need to. 

Then return your attention to “Plan A,” and work like hell to make it happen. 

About those self-help promises of “taking back” control of your life…

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By far, what creates the most stress for most of the people with whom I work is the perception that they are not in control of their lives. 

They feel that what they think is determined for them by their past. 

The what they feel is determined by what has happened to them and how other people treat them. 

That how they spend their time in the course of the day is determined by other people, from bosses to family members. 

Often times they even feel that the way their physical body feels is out of their control— that the very cells of their bodies are at the mercy of chronic illness and injury. 

Research has firmly established the connection between the feeling that our lives are out of control on the one hand, and anxiety and depression on the other hand. It’s a phenomenon called “learned helplessness”…and it can really cripple people emotionally once it sets in. 

A subset of people get into self-help and personal development because they want to feel more in control of their lives. A popular self-help mantra is “take your power back!” 

The thing is, “taking your power back” isn’t quite as easy or straightforward as some self-help gurus might like you to believe. 

Don’t get me wrong: I do believe that we can be far more in control of our life experience than we think. A lot of the feelings of our lives being out of control are actually the result of us not being clear about our goals and values, and not having or using the right tools and skills to manage our time and our energy. 

But it’s also ABSOLUTELY the case that certain domains of our live are at least partially, and sometimes wholly, out of our control. 

Good therapy— and, by extension, good self-help or personal development— isn’t just about teaching you to “take your power back.” 

It’s also about acquiring and using the skills and tools necessary to deal with it when “taking our power back” isn’t necessarily an option. 

Most people in the real world really do need to sacrifice at least some of their time and energy working jobs for paychecks. 

Most people in the real world really do need to deal with the fact that, as they age, their bodies don’t physically respond like they used to. 

Most people in the real world absolutely have to deal, sooner or later, with the fact that they will lose people, pets, and situations that they truly love…and those losses will be out of their control. 

No amount of personal empowerment is going to give you complete control over your life. 

I assure you: there are absolutely things that you cannot control, no matter how empowered, confident, healthy, or focused you are. 

Which is EXACTLY why it’s so important to get realistic about that subset of things you CAN control. 

Things like belief systems. 

Attitude. 

Willingness to wait. 

Willingness to learn. 

Willingness to be imperfect when you’re first learning a skill. 

Willingness to seek out tools. 

Willingness to consider failure a learning experience, and try again. 

Emotional self-care— as exemplified by being kind and respectful to yourself. 

There are more domains we CAN control, but you might have noticed about those I’ve already listed that they tend to take place INSIDE your head. 

That’s where we really DO have control. 

We can condition our thoughts. 

We can learn to observe our patterns of thinking and believing without judgment— and get curious about them. 

We can learn to keep track of the thoughts and beliefs that work for us or against us…and we can commit to reinforcing those patterns of thought and belief that make us stronger, kinder, and more confident and competent. 

THOSE are the things we can control. They require no metaphysical backflips, no understanding of quantum physics…and certainly no thousand-dollar workshops with a self-help guru. 

Get real about what you can and can’t control. 

It’s one of the kindest things you can do for yourself. 

Don’t try to sacrifice stability for speed.

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In recovery from PTSD, depression, addiction, or anxiety, the idea is not to revolutionize your life overnight. 

It’s not to finally find THE ANSWER that you can immediately use to overhaul how you think, feel, and behave all at once. 

(That answer doesn’t exist, anyway. At least, not outside the minds of Internet marketers.) 

The idea is definitely not to comprehensively address every problem, in every area of your life, all at the same time. 

I know, I know. There are definitely gurus out there promoting systems and techniques they say can do all of the above. 

The self-help world has kind of a “go big or go home” ethos that drives it— and that’s definitely appealing to a lot of people, who have struggled for a long time to make their lives work. 

I don’t blame them. I’d want that comprehensive, near-magical answer, too…if it existed.

I definitely don’t have that perfect system, technique, or philosophy for you. 

What I want is for your recovery to be real. 

I want it to exist in the real world— not the fantasy, wish fulfillment world. 

I want you to have the most realistic chance of actually changing your life, in the long term, that you can possibly have. 

And that’s why my mantra isn’t “go big or go home.” 

My mantra is, “if you want to go fast, go slow.” 

Often times, when we take too much of a running leap at recovery, we end up biting off more than we can chew. 

We sacrifice stability for speed— which leads to neither. 

We get our hopes up and set our goals sky high…then, when we get overwhelmed, we get discouraged by the whole process of recovery and life improvement, and we end up going down a rabbit hole of avoidance and self-soothing that can really stall out our values and goals. 

How can we avoid this? 

In recovery, it’s super important that we don’t try to change too many things at once, or change anything too much at once. 

We want to think and move in increments. 

We don’t want to leap forward. We want to nudge forward. 

You know all of those inspirational memes about how you need to get outside of your comfort zone? That’s true, to an extent…but what those memes neglect to tell you is that you don’t want to leap too far out of your comfort zone at any one time. 

You want to take baby steps out of your comfort zone. 

A lot of people struggle with this idea, because they really, really want to radically change their lives right NOW. 

They’re sick and tired of being sick and tired. They feel they’ve waited enough. 

Believe me, I totally get it. I’ve been there. I know what that feels like, and I hear what they’re saying. 

But something I’ve learned, over years of work on myself AND training and experience as a psychologist, is that trying to sacrifice stability for speed just doesn’t work. 

If you try to shake things up too much, you’ll lose your balance. It’s not a matter of “if;” it’s a matter of “when.”

And when that does happen, you’re likely going to be left in the position of feeling frustrated and silly for having thought you could make that quantum leap forward without consequence…so much so that you might be tempted to give up on moving forward at all. 

I know taking baby steps is not the most inspiring thing in the world. 

I know that systems and teachers offering quantum leaps forward are flashier and sexier. 

But you want to know what’s REALLY flashy and sexy? 

Devising a real-world plan for recovery that ACTUALLY works, because it’s stable and sustainable. 

Try that on. See how it fits— over time. 

There is no rewind. There is only the next decision.

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It’s on me to move past old resentments. 

It’s not on the people who were in my life to make amends. 

It’s not on past situations to heal themselves. 

If I want to move past feelings of shame, anger, and resentment— feelings that kick my butt today, that distract me from my current plans and needs and resources— I need to take responsibility for it. 

Understand: the fact that it is my responsibility doesn’t mean it’s easy. 

It doesn’t mean I shouldn’t give myself time and space to be as angry as I need to be. 

As sad as I need to be. 

Even as depressed as I need to be— over those past situations in particular. 

I experienced losses. 

I experienced betrayals. 

I experienced unfair treatment by people I thought were my friends and colleagues. 

And, don’t get me wrong— I contributed to the deterioration of some of those relationships, too. 

It usually takes two to tango, and in this case, it certainly did. I own my part of those professional relationships that went wrong— even those parts that are embarrassing and frustrating to me. Even those parts that make me look less than kind and less than professional. 

There are parts of me that feel I am owed apologies. 

The thing is: those apologies are almost certainly not forthcoming. 

I can wait forever— they’re not going to come. 

I can hold up my entire life and career waiting for those apologies. 

i can hold up my entire life and career fixating on the past. Resenting people. Mourning situations and opportunities. 

I could very easily do that. 

But that is not consistent with my mission statement. 

That is not consistent with my values. 

And it’s sure as hell not consistent with my goals. 

If I’m going to move on, it’s on me to manage my focus. 

It’s on me to manage my energy. 

It’s on me to be realistic and proactive about what I need to do to create the life I’m committed to creating— which has nothing to do with people who may or may not owe me an apology from past situations that I can do nothing about now. 

There is no rewind button on life. 

I wish there was. There isn’t. 

No amount of anger, no amount of regret, no amount of resentment, no amount of fixation will allow me to go back and un-make certain decisions. 

To go back and say something different. To go back and make other choices. 

All I can do is what I can do— move forward. 

Remind myself— consistently and relentlessly— about the life I am committed to living today. 

About the goals and values that demand my attention today. 

About the people who depend on me today. 

Today— that’s what I can affect. 

Not yesterday. Not five or ten years ago. 

We can never have a better past. 

The future, one day, one decision at a time…that’s what we have. 

That’s what I have. 

That’s what we need to embrace.