Goals are everyday tools. Really.

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Goals are about more than just you living your best life. 

(Though, make no mistake, having goals and plans ARE, in fact, really important to you living said best life.) 

Goals, and the plans we make to achieve them, give structure and purpose to our everyday lives that is essential for us to feel good on a daily basis. 

Many people drastically underestimate the importance of goals and plans to feeling good. 

Humans have a hard time consistently feeling good if we’re not purposefully engaged in forward motion. 

It doesn’t have to be a magnificent obsession or huge life goal— in fact, most goals aren’t. 

But having daily goals and working toward them just tends to make people happier. 

It lends structure and purpose to the day that a lot of people need when they’re feeling anxious or depressed. 

When your entire emotional world is chaos thanks to intrusive PTSD symptomatology, daily goals give you something else to think about and help you stay grounded in the here and now (instead of the there-and-then). 

A lot of people shy away from goal setting, because it’s often associated only with career goals. 

They hear “goals,” and they immediately think of someone strategizing to get a promotion or become the “best” at what they do. 

Those certainly are goals (though, in my experience, many people who set those goals struggle a little with the “plan” part of the equation— they like the idea of the destination, but the journey itself kind of intimidates them). 

But the goals I’m talking about here usually aren’t that ambitious. 

I tell my people to always set goals in terms of what they want to feel, instead of what they want to achieve. 

After all, the only reason we EVER want to achieve ANYTHING, is because we think that achievement will help us FEEL a certain kind of way. 

The on-the-ground goals that we visualize are kind of psychological stand-ins for those feeling states we’re chasing. 

We stand a much better chance of feeling the things we want to feel, if we get explicit about the fact that it’s the feeling we’re chasing— not the goal itself. 

So often, the subject of goals stirs up peoples’ feelings of doubt and inferiority about themselves. 

We tend to associate “goals” with hyper-ambitious, super-aggressive, “Type A” personalities. 

Believe me: we all need goals. 

Even more than that: we all HAVE goals, whether we’re conscious and explicit about them or not. 

At the very least, almost all humans share an overarching goal of moving away from what feels bad and moving toward what feels good. 

(Yes, sometimes it gets complicated— some people experience “feeling bad” as a specific kind of “feeling good’— but I’m talking about the broad strokes here.) 

Every action we take has purpose— it’s an attempt to nudge away from pain or closer to pleasure. 

We may think we’ve opted out of the “goals” equation by just not thinking about it, but that’s not true. We are all goal-pursuing animals. 

Why not take advantage of the fact that setting goals and working toward them actually feels good? 

Get less intense with your goals. Less ambitious. Ease up on the throttle. 

You’ll discover that less overwhelming, more realistically achievable goals can actually be enormously motivating. 

And you’ll discover that everyday goal-setting can be a REALLY useful tool in that toolbox of coping skills you’re assembling. 

 

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You can’t soothe anyone else until you learn to soothe yourself.

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Not lashing out when you’re overwhelmed— when you most want to lash out— is one of the hardest skills for anyone, of any age, to learn. 

It’s also one of the most important. Especially for adults. 

Kids get talked to a lot about emotional regulation. Visit any preschool or elementary school on any given day, and I assure you you’ll see plenty of teachers working hard to get their students to “use their words” and coaching them on the importance of not behaving destructively when they’re upset. 

As adults, though, it’s kind of assumed that we’ve either been taught how to do all of that, or we’ve figured it out since we were kids. 

In fact, when someone tells you to “be an adult” about something, what they’re usually referring to is getting a handle on your intense emotions before you act out. 

The thing is, if you haven’t noticed: there are PLENTY of adults who still struggle with emotional regulation. 

It may not be our fault…but it’s definitely our problem. 

The adults around us may have tried their best to teach us how to manage our feelings (or, maybe they didn’t)…but the fact is, there are a LOT of people who arrive in adulthood without an adequate toolbox for handling negative or overwhelming feelings. 

One of the reasons why Dialectical Behavior Therapy became overwhelmingly popular in the early 2000’s was because it was one of the few therapy modalities that focused strongly not even on changing feelings and behaviors, like most therapies do— but simply on not acting impulsively when we’re feeling bad. 

The vast majority of adults I’ve ever met struggle with emotional regulation. 

Emotional regulation doesn’t have to do with intelligence, it doesn’t have to do with maturity, it doesn’t have to do with morality or character. 

It’s a set of skills and tools— and they have to be practiced and refined and experimented with over time. 

That means we have to be willing to be bad at them for a minute. 

It also means we have to be able to admit to ourselves in the first place that we may not be as “adult” as we like to think we are, or as “adult” as the world thinks we should be. 

None of that is as easy as it sounds. 

Most of the resistance we experience to developing coping skills is admitting the need for them in the first place. 

We’re are in full blown LOVE with the fantasy that we are “adult” or “tough” enough on our own to get by without having to do something as lame as practice coping skills. 

Yet that’s exactly the fantasy we need to kick to the curb if we’re going to learn and practice emotional regulation. 

There is no shame in admitting you’re not great at handling strong feelings. 

In fact, it’s kind of the only way you can get started at getting better. 

It’s natural to want to skip right past the “handling feelings” problem to the “changing feelings” possibility— but the only way you access that possibility is by handling that problem. 

You can’t calm anyone else down— including any children you happen to be dealing with— if you can’t calm yourself down. 

It’s a tough set of skills to develop, no question. Don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t. 

But it’s very, very necessary. 

 

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You like what you like. And that’s cool.

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I’m not a huge fan of shaming people for what they like. 

People like what they like. They’re into what they’re into. 

It may not be what somebody else thinks we “should” be into…but different people have different likes, dislikes, passions, interests, and temperaments. 

Some people like to shame others for having hobbies and interests they don’t consider “intellectual” enough. 

Some people like to shame others for preferring visual entertainment like TV or movies instead of reading books. 

Some people shame other people for getting their information from documentary movies instead of, say, scholarly articles or lengthy books. 

Everywhere you turn, people are giving other people a hard time for what they find entertaining or informative. 

Maybe you’ve had the experience of someone giving you a hard time for your hobbies, interests, or sources of entertainment or information. 

Maybe you’ve even gone so far as to hide the things you’re into or what you like from the people around you, specifically so you wouldn’t get made fun of. 

Isn’t that a bummer when we feel we have to do that? 

Not only is it a bummer, in fact, it chips away at our self-esteem. 

When the people around us give us a hard time for who we are and what we like, especially over a long period of time, doubt and shame start to creep into our minds. 

We start to wonder— could they possibly be right? 

Do I like dumb, or lowest common denominator entertainment? 

Is there something wrong with me because I watch TV instead of reading books? 

Those seeds of doubt and shame start out small…but as we keep hiding who we are and what we like from the world, those seeds begin to take root. And they grow. 

Let’s be clear: there is nothing wrong with you for liking popular entertainment. 

You’re not “dumb” for preferring to watch TV or see a movie instead of reading a book (in fact, this has nothing to do with intelligence per se— it has everything to do with our attention span and learning style. Some of us are visual learners rather than verbal learners. That’s really all it comes down to). 

And if you’re getting your information from documentaries,  I say good for you for even going out of your way to learn something, and for finding something that can teach you something. I say ANY attempt to learn ANYTHING is excellent— and I dislike when people try to shame others because it’s not THEIR preferred way of learning. 

We seriously need to lay off the judgment. 

People are just out there trying to live their lives. 

They like what they like. What brings them joy and gets them to think is what it is. 

I’ve known PLENTY of people I don’t consider terribly bright who absolutely LOVED to read. 

I’ve known PLENTY of incredibly smart people who really love movies (some pretty “dumb” movies, in fact). 

Not everything has to be some sort of demonstration of intellect or depth. 

Ease up. 

When you find yourself bothered by the shade thrown at you by people who seem to be very concerned with whether you’re “challenging” yourself enough with your entertainment or information choices, consciously redirect your thoughts. 

Remind yourself that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to entertainment, information, or edification. 

Cut yourself some slack— and let yourself enjoy what you enjoy. 

If others can’t see why you derive joy from  it, let that be their problem. 

 

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Your past is not your future. Full stop.

The past is data. No more; no less.

The past cannot predict the future.

I know, it may SEEM as if the past can predict the future sometimes. Many behavioral scientists are even fond of repeating the statement that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.

(The research on this question is actually not nearly that straightforward, as it turns out. I find that this is something a subset of people tend to say in order to sound smart. And— who knew?— there is no shortage of people, even in the behavioral sciences, who really, really want to sound smart.)

The past can highlight patterns.

It can help us understand why we made choices we did or experienced feelings we felt.

The past can provide us with both positive and negative examples of our motivations, needs, and coping skills.

But the past is simply not an unfailing guide to what will happen next.

Why is it important to be super clear on this?

Because there really is a subset of people who will look at the past— at either their failures OR their successes— and assume they “know” what’s coming next.

Imagining that the past perfectly predicts the future can lead many people into hopelessness or complacence.

Because you’ve failed in the past does not mean you will continue to fail in the future.

Because you’ve succeeded in the past does not necessarily mean you’ll continue to succeed in the future.

Life turns on a dime.

History is full of examples of people who confidently thought they “knew” what was coming next— only to be completely shocked by what life was ACTUALLY about to throw at them.

Life, as John Lennon once reminded us in song, is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

Everybody reading this has experienced this at least once or twice.

We need to remember that, no matter what has happened in the past, this is a new day.

We do carry baggage from the past— but that baggage is less important than the choices we make right here, right now, today.

You don’t have to live out old programming.

You don’t have to live out an old script.

No matter how many times a pattern has played out in your life, it can be interrupted.

The fact that the past is not necessarily the future is very much the good news.

It means we can literally become someone different if we don’t like who we’ve been.

It means we always have the opportunity to start over.

It means that we don’t need to be defined by our failures or losses.

It means we don’t even have to be held prisoner by our successes if we don’t want to.

Resist the temptation to assume the past is nothing but a preview of coming attractions.

It’s data. No more; no less.

But also remember: data is only as useful as what we do with it.

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Self compassion is the key to self discipline.

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I strongly believe that in order to develop real self-discipline, self-discipline that is useful to us in the everyday world, we need to behave toward ourself with radical, unrelenting self-compassion. 

I believe the self-discipline is the core skill that supports essentially any other skill you want to develop. 

Self-discipline is the ability to place your focus where it needs to be, when it needs to be there; and to get yourself to do what you need to do, when you need to do it. 

In my mind, the second half of that equation— the ability to get yourself to do what you need to do, when you need to do it— follows from the first half of the equation, the ability to place your focus where it needs to be, when it needs to be there. 

Intentional, voluntary behavioral self-discipline only ever follows mental and emotional self-discipline, in other words. 

It all begins and ends in our heads. 

And that’s why radical, unrelenting self-compassion is key in getting ourselves to do ANYTHING— but especially things we don’t, for whatever reason, feel like doing. 

Self-discipline can be thought of as the art and skill of persuading yourself to do what you want yourself to do. 

When it comes to persuasion, there are only two basic types— cooperation and coercion. 

And one thing we know about behavior change in the long term, is that coercion simply doesn’t work. 

If the goal is long term change, bullying doesn’t work. 

If the goal is long term change, threats don’t work. 

If the goal is long term change, coercive shame doesn’t work. 

If the goal is long term change, deception doesn’t work— at least, it doesn’t work after the first time someone figures out they’ve been lied to. 

In the end, if we are to persuade ourselves to do things we’re not naturally inclined to do or enthusiastic about doing, we need to give up the fantasy that we can just repeatedly strong arm ourselves. 

Those tactics don’t work out in the world— they don’t work in employment settings, they don’t work in politics, they don’t work in relationships— and they fail equally miserably inside your own head. 

We are only ever really persuaded by someone who we believe understands and empathizes with us. 

“Compassion” means “to suffer with.” 

To feel compassion for someone is to feel their pain. 

If we don’t empathize with our own pain…why would we want to do anything that we tell ourselves to do? 

If we bully or strong-arm ourselves into making a change, why on earth would we stick with it for the long term? 

Trying to change our behavior in the absence of self compassion is asking ourselves to captivate to a cruel, chaotic relationship with ourselves…and that only leads to depression, anxiety, and internally-directed hate. 

Such tactics will eventually make us so miserable that we will simply quit playing along, because who can be bothered? 

Self-compassion is the key to getting ourselves to take action. 

Acknowledging your own pain and needs is essential if you want to build real motivation within yourself— however slowly. 

There is a reason why politicians have realized that they need to say things on the campaign trial like “I feel your pain”— because it’s been shown, time and time again, that it’s virtually impossible to motivate behavior unless someone is willing to suffer with someone else. 

Be willing to suffer with yourself. 

Be willing to acknowledge, empathize with, and express your own pain. 

Commit to honest persuasion with yourself— not coercion. 

 

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Death doesn’t end relationships. It changes them.

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When someone we love dies, our relationship with them doesn’t end. 

It changes. 

At least, from our end it changes. We don’t really know what happens on their end. 

(Lots of philosophical and spiritual traditions have very different thoughts on this subject.)

The thing is, many of us are tempted to think that, just because someone has died, our relationship with them has ended— which leaves us kind of stuck with a certain “version” of our relationship with them that (we think) can’t evolve. 

It’s true that when someone dies, we can’t create new experiences with them like we did in the past. 

We can’t have conversations with them like we did in the past. 

The straightforward way we relate to someone in life is, after they die, replaced with a more complicated, more private, more emotional way of relating to them that happens mostly inside our heads and hearts. 

But we’re still relating to them. 

We’re relating to their memory— to our idea of who they were, and who we were with them. 

Our relationships with friends and family members who have passed away sometimes remain some of the defining relationships in our lives. 

They’re still with us. 

I’m not talking about in a spiritual sense, although there are spiritual and metaphysical traditions that absolutely believe that someone’s essence absolutely lives on and stays with that person’s loved ones after they die. 

I’m talking psychoemotionally: our relationship with someone simply doesn’t cease when they cease to physically be here, any more than our emotional relationship with someone gets put on pause when they’re not physically in the room with us. 

Even though someone has died, we still need to manage our relationship with them. 

We still need to acknowledge and manage our thoughts and feelings about them. 

We still need to manage what their memory triggers in us. 

This task is complicated, no doubt about it, given that they’re not physically here to take an active role in this process. 

They’re not here to help us out. 

But that doesn’t mean we can act as if their memory is frozen in time and space for us, never to evolve or draw us in again. 

In our emotional lives, they’re very much alive, and we need to deal with HOW they live in in our memory. 

You are not crazy for struggling to relate to someone’s memory. 

You’re not crazy for struggling to manage difficult feelings about someone who has died. 

You’re not crazy for struggling for finding this whole thing complicated. 

Give yourself time and give yourself space. 

Let your body and brain do what your body and brain need to do to grieve.

Let complicated and mixed feelings be complicated and mixed. 

Let anger exist alongside fondness. 

Let sadness exist alongside laughter. 

Maybe you’ll need to cry; maybe you’ll need to tell a story; maybe you’ll need to punch a pillow; maybe you’ll need ice cream. 

Be there for what you need. 

 

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Grief and loss mess with us.

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Loss messes with us. 

Grief messes with us. 

No matter if we saw it coming. 

No matter how philosophical we are about how finite life and relationships are. 

No matter how smart we are, how tough we are, or how far we’ve come: grief and loss are rough on us humans with brains and hearts. 

Everyone struggles with grief and loss. Some may show it more visibly than others, but there hasn’t been a human being in the history of the world who has dealt with loss cheerfully and effortlessly.

One of the reasons why loss and grief mess with us so much is because they reset the equation of our lives. 

As we go about our lives, we kind of get used to what the deal is. What the parameters are of this existence of ours. 

We figure out the rules. We figure out the patterns. 

We may do it imperfectly sometimes, and sometimes the rules don’t seem to apply and the patterns don’t seem to hold— but, in the big picture, a large part of what our brains do every day is process information in the context of what it knows to be true about how the world works. 

Loss turns all of that on its head. 

When someone we love dies, it’s really, really hard to wrap our brains around the fact that we are never, ever going to have a conversation with them again— at least, a conversation like the ones we’ve had with them in the past. 

Especially if it’s a person who we’ve known well, over time. 

Our brains kind of get used to the idea that, while relationships may change and people may change, we’ll always have another chance to talk to that person. 

To share in their journey and their experience. 

To think of that opportunity being irretrievably lost kind of breaks our brains. 

Though most of us would describe it as breaking our hearts. 

To cope with loss is to deal with the fragility of being human. 

To grieve is to be reminded of how much we can hurt— even if we think we’ve been too hardened or scarred by life to feel much of anything. 

When we experience loss, many well-meaning people will try to list the “good” things about loss. 

They want us to hurt less. They care about us. And they often don’t know what else to say. 

But those reactions don’t really penetrate to the core of us, at least when a loss is fresh. 

The experiences of loss and grief are among the only truly universal experiences. 

They remind us that, no matter how alienated and alone we might feel at times, there are some things that truly bind all of humanity together. 

Loss doesn’t just stir up sadness in us. It can stir up fear. It can stir up anger. It can trigger a feeling that we are very lost in our own journeys— and an urgency to find our way back to the “right” path, while there’s still time. 

All of that is normal. 

Grieving takes the time it takes. 

It can’t be rushed, it can’t be disrespected, it can’t be manipulated, it can’t be dissociated forever. 

Letting yourself grieve is letting yourself be human. 

It’s letting yourself be just like the rest of us. 

We’ve got you. 

 

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